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23 August 2012 @ 04:40 pm
juvenile effort  

The topic this week at "Oh Get a Grip" (www.ohgetagrip.blogspot.com) is autobiographical writing. It's my turn to post, so I'll discuss my own attempts to write artfully about Real Life  or write realistically about wildly imaginary events: a risk either way.

The following is probably the first actual short story I ever wrote. I was 16 when I wrote the original version, but I added a few words (not many, actually) when I was 50. I only changed the names of the characters and my family relationship with the draft dodger, "John." (Thank the goddess he was not really my cousin, only the son of some friends of my parents.) 



There's something melodramatic about a moving day: furniture hangs suspended between big, sweaty movers and my parents screech tensely at each other like married birds.  Boxes held together with Mama's saved string clog strategic doorways.  My little sisters fight; the movers grunt; my father shouts with a cigarette between his lips; and I listen.  But instead of moving all at once, we had been shifting boxes to the new house for several weeks.  It was like living in a war zone during a short cease-fire.

The summer of 1967 would later be described as the Summer of Love, but it hardly seemed that way to me at the time.  My cousin John arrived from Chicago as a draft-dodger when we were gradually moving from one end of Regina, Saskatchewan, to the other, when we needed him least.  When I got home from school, I saw his black suitcase on the floor.  Male voices in the living room were talking in the loud, urgent way my relatives do when they get together, having so much to say that they leap from topic to topic and back again.  Mama was shouting into the phone:  "He just arrived this morning."  I breathed quietly several times, and went in.

There he was, flung carelessly on the sofa.  He seemed wrapped in the warmth of June, while we were still recovering from our first winter in Canada.  The seams of John's pants were strained beyond endurance, and he looked as though he would have grinned lewdly if he'd known I was thinking about them, cousin or not.  We exchanged cliches.

"Did you come all by yourself?" I asked, watching him staring at the front of my sweater.  He had a way of staring in a drawl.  Obviously I didn’t need to inform him that I had become a young woman of sixteen since he had seen me last.

"I'm a big boy now."  It was the same sexy, sleepy voice I remembered from last time.  It was perfect in its way.  He never stuttered and always looked you in the eyes when he spoke.

"Did you have a good trip?"  I felt duty-bound as a hostess, tied obscenely to him like Joan of Arc tied to the stake.

"Sit down and I'll tell you about it," he purred, stretching.  My father began to talk.  I walked out of the room, my pleated plaid skirt flapping militarily about my knees like a bagpiper's kilt.

I felt uncomfortable in my girdle and stockings.  Picking up a nearby brush, I sat at the kitchen table to brush my hair.  This is a thing I always do to relieve tension, just as my father swears.  We can't always be couth.  The longer my hair grows, the more justified I feel in brushing it, and the older my father is, the louder he swears.  He swears and I brush; and often the importance of a situation can be measured by the intensity with which we do it.

I ate a cookie and went upstairs, my stockings rasping against each other.  They were a pair I had bought for 59 cents in Woolworth's and they were like steel wool.  I remembered thinking there should have been a warning on the package, like, "Caution:  the metal in this product subject to melting at high temperatures."  The mesh pattern stood out in ridges on my legs.  I was girdled, strapped in, pushed up, squeezed to an acceptable shape.  I longed to run naked through a fountain.

I went to the public library.  I always enjoy libraries; in the civilized quiet, I can read or think whatever I want to, without distractions.  Sometimes I even have imaginary love affairs there, but with a sensitive young man, not with ape-men or incestuously with my cousin John.  Leaving the library, I went to the record departments of several downtown stores, and then walked home.

For the next few days, I spent my afternoons out shopping or reading alone, reluctantly coming back to our half-empty house for supper.  John often left too.  One day Mama told me he had met a girl somewhere, and that she was taking him out in her car.  I was interested, and somehow embarrassed when he galloped down the stairs in a different shirt.  There was a honk from the street, the slamming of a door, and he was off.

"How would you like a story tonight?" I asked my little sisters, who were squirming in their seats.  Unlike some children, they have a passion for home-made stories and home-made cookies.  At ages ten and seven, they still seemed too young to know what was and was not hip.  We withdrew to the overstuffed purple armchair.

"Tell us a true-life one!" shrieked Laurie.  Her ordinary voice is a piercing shriek.  When she's excited, it rises higher until it almost passes out of human hearing range.

"Certainly," I intoned.

"What's the name of this story?  Make it spooky."

"How Uncle Cedric Died Sitting Up."


"Ssh," I began, and told them about our uncle who was known for his violent temper throughout Texas, and owned a cattle ranch.  It seems he and a neighbor engaged in cock-fighting, and staged a fight between their favorite roosters, each man betting heavily that his would win.  During the fight, Uncle sat down on rock because of the hot sun.  After several hours, the other man's chicken was the only one left alive.  Laughing, the neighbor approached our uncle with his hand outstretched for the bet money, but for once, Uncle Cedric was silent.  He was dead of a heart attack at 48, sitting bolt upright.

"Why did he die?" whispered Anna.

"Because it made him so mad to lose," I answered.

"Ooh.  Is that really a true story?" Laurie demanded in a surprisingly low voice.

"Well, we did have an Uncle Cedric who died."  Mama was calling them to bed.

The next morning, John slept until noon.  The phone rang at 8:00 and when I answered it, a feminine voice asked for John.  It asked for him patiently at 9:00, 10:00, and 11:00, and at 12:00 I took the liberty of waking him up.  "John," I murmured, shaking him.

He awoke beautifully like a kitten, and tossed the blond hair out of his eyes.  "Telephone," I said shyly.  His arms reached out in a long stretch, one of them coiling snakewise around my hips.  I backed away.  He dropped the arm, stood up and strolled toward the telephone in his pajamas.  I was grateful he didn't sleep in the nude.

That afternoon, Laurie was with a friend and it was the first day of summer vacation, so I took Anna for a walk past our new house.  At age seven, she had the look of an angel in an old-fashioned Christmas card.  Sometimes when I was alone with her, in my role as junior mother, Anna showed me a kind of sweetness that seemed to go with the face she had inherited from our unknown ancestors. 

The house was severely dignified with leaded windows, standing in the shade of neighborhood trees.  The doors were locked of course, but we went into the back yard for a minute of silent worship.  "Don't you like this house better than the one we're living in?" I asked, trying to reconcile her to moving, which comes easiest to children.  She said she did, and that she had to use the bathroom.

Two days after that, I met John's girl.  He had just stalked out of the house, and I was brushing my hair at the kitchen table.  Mama and I had been washing the dishes, but Mama was currently in the bathroom.  At first I thought I heard branches tapping together in the wind, but the taps became too regular to be natural.  I opened the two doors leading to the back porch.  Outside the screen door, a thin short-haired girl in a colorless sweater and jeans stood fluttering her hands at the dog.  "Is John here?" she asked, looking up.

"Oh, I'm not sure.  Come in while I see."  I opened the screen door and she slid through, scraping off the dog like a clod of mud.  I could forget the dog for weeks at a time; he was Laurie's and I rarely went near his sharp claws.  He was too aggressive for my taste.

To get to our back door, a visitor had to go down the lane, spring through the gate, and wrestle with the dog all across our yard, running an obstacle course of sheets and underwear.  "Why did you come to the back door?" I asked curiously.

"Oh, I just have this thing about back doors.  I always use them."  She looked wary, peering sideways out of dark eyes like Laurie's but not as clear.

I walked into the living room, calling "John!" just to let her know I was doing my best to help.  I thought of offering her a cup of tea, since the pot was still warm from supper.  For me, this would have been unusual.  My father overflows with hospitality, but Mama and I think there can be too much of a good thing.

Mama came down the stairs, saying that John was out.  "I think I know where he is," the girl smiled doubtfully, sidling back through the two doors, out of sight.  In a moment, the screen door slammed and we could hear the dog yipping and leaping.

"Let's get these dishes done," stated Mama.  I laid down my brush and picked up a dish towel.

Anna came in and looked at me, her loose brown hair like a veil around her shoulders.  She flicked her eyelashes coyly.  "Tell us a story," she begged in her smallest voice.

"The one about How Uncle Cedric Died Sitting Up," shrieked Laurie from somewhere in the house.  Her voice has such carrying power at any distance that I couldn't tell where it was coming from.

"She has to help me," Mama said.  "Did I tell you John is leaving in the morning?"

When he came home at 10:30, I was waiting.  "Your girlfriend was here looking for you," I remarked.  "Did she find you?"

"No," he sighed, collapsing onto the sofa with an air of satisfied exhaustion.  I felt rebellious.

"Did you have an agreement to meet her tonight?"

"No," he groaned, his fair head lolling on the top of the sofa.  He looked up at me like a lap-dog.  For practice, I thought.

"Didn't you even tell her you're leaving?"  He grinned at my interest.

"No," he murmured soothingly.  I was getting bored with this routine.

"Why not?"  I looked at him with no hostility or attraction.

"Because," he breathed, "it isn't real . . "  I knew he'd been engaged to someone, and perhaps still was.

"No," I agreed.  "I guess not."  I thought that maybe no relationship is absolutely real, but surely that was no excuse.  Fairness is artificial, I thought, but it is necessary.  Left to themselves, people would murder each other for fun, instead of in organized groups, for a purpose.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt as though a curse had been lifted from the house.  I ran into the guest room in my nightgown to find him gone.  I knew it was our moving day.  As I went downstairs for breakfast, my sisters were already fighting in the kitchen, insulting each other at the tops of their lungs in a tangle of hair and flailing arms.  Boxes squatted in doorways like khaki-clothed guards.  My father sat in grey sweat-pants and a grey smog of cigarette smoke while Mama moiled in the basement with knotty lengths of saved string.  Cereal boxes, sugar, soup cans, greasy leftovers, copper-bottomed pots, black skillets and dull pans covered the kitchen table.  "The movers will be here any minute!" came Mama's despairing wail from the depths.

All day we moved.  When the movers were hoisting my bureau off the floor, one of them grunted that it was heavier than the others.

"She keeps rocks in it," Mama assured them.  It was true.  For an instant I felt guilty about not taking out the rocks.  But I went on packing boxes, and soon forgot about it.

John was on a bus to a bigger city, and we were in the station wagon, going to our new house.  Laurie and Anna sat sullenly in the back, facing each other among boxes like opposing queens on a chessboard.

Our house received us like a Victorian British explorer drinking tea in the middle of the jungle.  The movers tramped up and down, through bizarre furniture groupings.  The dog struggled and barked in Laurie's arms; Anna drifted disconsolately through the rooms; I carried boxes.  Outside, the trees whispered "Ssh!  Ssh!" in tolerant concern.

At 8:00 we went to dinner in a Chinese restaurant.  I was so tired that I spilled something on my old jacket in two places, and so hungry that I ate until my stomach bulged.  Anna and Laurie rearranged the noodles on their plates, and ate nothing.  My fortune in the fortune cookie was, "You learn from the mistakes of others.

When we came home to our dark house, Laurie and Anna followed me to my room.  A mattress was standing against the wall, and we huddled our backs into it.  It was a chilly night for June, so I spread what looked like a left-behind horse blanket over us.  "Tell us a story," yelled Laurie in a whisper.  I was afraid she might want the dog to hear it too.  Her skinny ten-year-old legs stuck out beyond the blanket, covered with goose pimples.

"The one about Uncle Cedric who died because of the rooster fight," added Anna, putting her arms around me.  "Only tell us more."  Her pigtails hung mournfully into my lap like streams of rain.  So I opened my mouth and began to tell the story.  It's a blatantly untrue anecdote about a person I never knew, and this time it was a rerun.  As we shivered together in the dark, I wondered whether it had redeeming social significance, or even a moral.  I decided that it suited us, regardless.


Current Location: office at school
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"
(Deleted comment)
lizardlezjean_roberta on September 1st, 2012 06:59 am (UTC)
Thank you!