The Trump administration has banned the Center for Disease Control (the CDC) from using seven words and phrases in documents that will be used to put together the 2018-19 budget. This ban is concerning to those of us who feel that word-choice is an important tool in communication. I’m no vocabularic prodigy, but I do like to feel useful and thus, I give you the list of banned words accompanied by alternative phraseology, which the CDC may like to use as they go forward.
Banned Word Number One: FETUS
Possible Alternative: The clump of cells which result from an egg that has been fertilized by a sperm which, once carried to term, becomes a healthy infant if the mother has had easy access to prenatal care except bye-bye to the Affordable Care Act–because rich people need tax cuts–but probably mostly because Obama thought it up and then when Obama made fun of Trump’s hairpiece at the journalist’s dinner, Trump went home and sat on his golden toilet and decided, well hell yes I’m going to take Vlad’s offer after all–and become president of New York and Florida and whatever those other states are and then I’m going to undo everything that Obama did because he made fun of my hairpiece which then (Trump muses,) I actually had to appoint the wig-maker to the Supreme Court or else he–the wig-maker-dude-now-Supreme-Court-Justice–said he was going to tell on me for collusion;–not to mention bye-bye to the research dollars in case we haven’t heard the end of Zika–because rich people need tax cuts–and I almost forgot: bye-bye to services that could help these clumps of cells once they actually achieve personhood– such as Pre-K for all; maternity leave; healthy school lunches, a hike in the minimum wage because you try raising a kid on what Walmart’s paying you–plus, what about us ladies and the havoc that constant childbirth plays on our bodies, which it ain’t nothing to laugh at, I’m telling you, and I’ve only had a couple of childbirths—and which compels me to ask this—how come the life of that clump of cells is more important than the life of the person within whom that clump of cells resides? —which reminds me that birth-control under Obamacare used to be oh so easy, I remember those days, not that I needed birth control by that time but I have a couple of daughters as well as there are other people who have daughters, which like, can’t we care about other people, please? plus which, easy access to birth control did in fact reduce the teen pregnancy rate in my state of North Carolina like a way lot but try to tell that to some shmoe in Congress with a brown suit and a nasty past who thinks he’s above the law.
Banned Word Number Two: VULNERABLE
Possible Alternative: the quality of being at the mercy of something, like say, if you live in a low-lying place and then a hurricane comes and destroys your home and your livelihood—except Republicans would say, gah, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and get your own damn golden toilet and keep your grubby hands off my golden toilet; or, say, you were born prematurely or unhealthy because your mother had health problems when she was pregnant but not enough pre-natal care because adios Obamacare—because rich people need tax cuts—and plus, there’s no paid maternity leave in this country which, I had to go back to work six weeks after my first was born but a lot of people by which of course I mean women don’t have the fanfuckingtastic luxury of six whole weeks (I had to take sick leave in order to get paid) and thus, because of not enough pre-natal care, you are more susceptible to infection and disease but oh well, adios Obamacare; or, say, your skin is of a darker hue than 99% or maybe it was even 100% of the happy intern kids in that Paul Ryan selfie taken at the Republican National Convention which oh my god, really Paul Ryan? did it not even cross your mind to be even slightly abashed by the lack of variousness in that picture? my point being that brown people obviously a) aren’t welcome and/or b) don’t feel welcome in your party because you guys choose not to see discrimination when it’s in front of your actual faces and thus, if you can’t see what’s there, there’s no way for you to grock the connection between the little black girl who was the only one in my whole elementary school when it was integrated because Principal Vincent was a cold hard racist, and how she cried every day in the bathroom, and the fact that her treatment might in fact have actually made an actual difference in what she went on to be or, for that matter, had the opportunity to go on to be.
Banned Word: ENTITLEMENT
Possible Alternative: I’m actually a little fuzzy on this one which reminds me that my friend Martha Scarborough and I are going to make a podcast called Two White Ladies Speculating so I’m just speculating that this particular word has been banned in order to retrain people that– just because they pay a whole bunch of money into something for, like, their whole lives–doesn’t mean that the government should actually cough it up when they (the people) actually need it because if they (the people) did have access to this thing that they feel they deserve, then, well, it might jeopardize the rich people’s tax cuts, which is sort of ironic, because in my opinion and I believe the opinion of many of my fellow dems, if the mony that we payed to the government was actually being used for things like say, health care for all! or free tuition! or maternity leave, like in every other civilized country in the damn world, then well hell yes, take it, take the money, but noooooooo, are the monies we pay to the government going to free school lunches or veterans’ benefits or are those monies going to, say it with me, tax cuts for rich people.
Banned Word: DIVERSITY
Possible Alternative: multivariety, which I kinda like, due to it sounds sort of Shakespearian.
Banned Words (two of ‘em): EVIDENCE-BASED and SCIENCE-BASED
Possible Alternative: Give me a minute in order to subdue the feeling of dis-ease that makes me want to throw something.
Just another minute.
So, water freezes at 32 degrees and we know this because we have, with our eyes, seen this phenomenon, just as we know, because we have tools that help us to see teeny weeny things that we can’t actually see without the help of these tools that there are things called germs which can cause bad things to happen unless you wash your hands before, say, voting no on bills to fund research because, after all, the button you have to push to vote might be dirty because of when you handled that snake in church yesterday, and also, the world is not flat, guinea worm is a problem, and global warming is gonna get you whether or not you say the actual words, because that’s the thing about facts: they do not care about you and your cachet as senators or your dollars as rich people, nope, not even a tiny little bit.
Banned Word: TRANSGENDER
Possible Alternative: a person who is not hurting you.
In which Mrs. Tell opines on the lost cause of equity; boasts about her cherry cordial; remembers her youth; suffers an epiphany.
We expected Miss Maria back by now, but she has wrote that she’ll visit Miss Juliet in London before she returns here to Longmeadow. I am glad that she ain’t in a rush for home, for she needed a holiday which talking to crowds in fancy halls ain’t my idea of it, but I then I ain’t high born. Perhaps she’ll find a little fun in London. I recall that when she and Mr. Charles was first married, they used to enjoy the theater which there ain’t none of that here at Longmeadow so maybe she’s missed it. Maybe she’ll watch Miss Julie sing which we hear she’s very popular.
I am grateful to Mr. Somerday for fixing things the way he did. First, he pushed Miss Maria to go, for he saw her misery around that gypsy and that she needed some new air. And he was as good as his word and has helped Miss Alta plenty on her rounds. Also, he told Miss Maria that Miss Alta’s doing splendid at her task of minding Longmeadow.
“I wrote that Alta is doing a masterful job,” he told me. “I bespoke her praises quite ardently and told Mrs. Pendergrast that she ought not to hurry home.”
He sort of twinked at me when he said it, if you take my meaning, and I twinked back. We didn’t say the words but I think we was both thinking the same thing: that it’s good for Miss Maria and Miss Alta both. Miss Maria gets a holiday; Miss Alta has a chance to come out of her shell, some.
“Mr. Somerday,” said I, “Would you like a sip of cherry cordial? I made it last summer and it ought to be right just about now.”
I fetched him a glass and watched while he drank it. He smiled which it’s the best cordial I have ever tasted if I do say so. We all like Mr. Somerday for he is a sunny person and polite.
And indeed, there he is, is regular as sunrise, ready for rounds with Miss Alta each day. This very morning, he climbed into the trap without a word of asking, just as natural as milk.
I had business at the sweet shop with Mrs. Miller which that woman will complain about a bent pin if you let her, so Miss Alta said I might ride along.
“We shall go to the workshops today, if you please, Mr. Somerday,” said Miss Alta when Mr. Somerday climbed up. “As it rains, we’ll be less likely to disrupt a group of visitors.”
He smiled at her and took the reins.
The shops make a neat little row: the cabinet makers and the straw-plaiters, the glassblower and the weavers, the sweet shop with its shelves of jellies and compotes, which that last is where Mrs. Miller works. But today them shops lack bustle. It’s too bad, too. July ought to be bringing daily tourists handling bonnets and jars of jam, but this rain which it’s been raining for days now, keeps ‘em all away.
Miss Alta chose the plaiting shop first. I went with, for I had a parcel to give to Sarah Ruth. She is my niece which her father was brother to my David. That was Dan Tell, and he moved him and his wife and eight of his children out of Longmeadow and down to Bristol, for he was in business and wished to live in a port city. Sarah Ruth stayed back, which I expect she didn’t want to live her life looking after them kids. It was good of Dan to let her stay here when he likely needed her there. But he’s a loving pa to his kids, though he has so many it’s right wonderful he can keep them straight. Sarah Ruth lives in a little house near Longmeadow Village with four other unmarried girls and Mrs. Couch looks after them, which she is kindly enough and a good cook too.
“Good morning!” said Miss Alta when we walked in.
“Good morning, Miss Alta,” the girls said together. They nodded at Mr. Somerday, who greeted each of them by name. Sarah Ruth stood up to kiss me on my cheek.
There were three of them at work—Sarah Ruth, and also Louisa and Kitty. They’re comely girls, even Sarah Ruth who is a little plump. Miss Maria likes to give them tourists their money’s worth: if them girls were big-nosed or grey toothed, they’d more likely be jam cookers or baby tenders than here in this shop to be viewed by all. Similar to Arum House: them good looking young men, all them roses, that swing on the branch of the oak. Sometimes Longmeadow seems like a giant pantomime, but for the players being real people.
To be truthful, I will say that this idea of Longmeadow as a great stage don’t come from my own head, but from Miss Juliet’s.
“I wonder,” I heard her say to Miss Maria during breakfast once, “why you are so adamant that the gypsies stay when they are universally unwanted. Perhaps you like them for their rough picturesqueness? Maybe you think that any performance without a dark foil cannot be much fun.”
Miss Maria just shook her head and sighed at Miss Juliet, as I recall.
Them plaiting girls sit on their little platform
behind the half wall that separates them from what ought to have been the tourists but today was only Miss Alta and Mr. Somerday and me. Their work tables are set close to big windows which let light in and fresh air too. Mr. Charles, bless his soul, placed a deal of value in fresh air. In this weather, though, the windows were closed and the lamps turned up.
“You are all alone,” said Miss Alta.
“Yes,” said Louisa. “The rain keeps them away.”
“No one even just to watch us,” said Kitty. “Not a soul.”
“It may yet clear,” said Mr. Somerday.
The girls nodded politely and went back to their plaiting.
I was about to leave on my errand when I heard Miss Alta say, “I have always wondered how you do it. Could you teach me, do you think?”
Now I was born plaiting as is most lasses in these parts but I have yet to see a piece of straw in the fingers of a high born girl, which I was curious to see how she’d do at it so I lingered.
Sarah Ruth said, “Ah then, Miss Alta, You must have nothing better to do, I suppose, if you want to learn such a thing as this. But come around and we’ll show you. Louisa’s the best at it, oh now, Lou, don’t be coy. She can do seventeen strands, she’s that good.”
“She’s a right marvel,” said Kitty. “This here English Wave is hers. No one else can do nothing near as good as this.”
“I didn’t realize this was yours in particular, Louisa,” said Miss Alta. “Why, it really is ornate, isn’t it.”
“Very fancy,” said I. “Not everyone can do that.”
“Thank you, Miss,” said Louisa to Miss Alta.
“And anyway,” said Kitty, “how could you of known it was hers—that pattern–for they’re all on the shelves lumped together with no way to tell who made what.”
“It’s all right, Miss,” said Louisa, throwing a look at Kitty, “We know we’re not meant to stand apart from one another. And Kitty and Sarah Ruth here, why, their stuff’s as lovely as can be too. Now, would you like to try it yourself?”
“Shall I?” Miss Alta said to Mr. Somerday.
“And why not?” he smiled. “Your fingers are certainly slender enough for fine work such as these ladies do.”
“Ladies!” giggled Kitty, while the other two smiled and blushed.
They showed Miss Alta how to sit for the task. “Now first,” said Louisa, “look here.” She held out her hands, palms up. “See the ends of my fingers?” she said.
“Oh my,” said Miss Alta, “They look…”
All three laughed again. “Much like cow hide?” said Louisa. “Go ahead, Miss Alta, if you don’t mind. Feel Kitty’s and then mine.”
“And mine,” said Sarah Ruth.
Miss Alta felt their fingers. “Well, yes,” she said, “you are right. They feel much like Bodger’s leash.”
The girls looked at each other and laughed when she said it which made Miss Alta blush as bright as a raspberry.
“I’m sorry!” she said. “That was very rude.”
“Not at all,” said Mr. Somerday, looking at the girls. “You took no offense?”
“No, no offense,” said Sarah Ruth, “and we offered, didn’t we. But they’re something, ain’t they, these fingers of ourn. My mam, who plaited for ever so long, used to tell us that work changes a body– and this is what she meant by it. Her own fingers was so rough from the years of it that she used to say she couldn’t feel her own baby’s cheek.”
“That’s right,” I said, “that’s exactly it.”
“Let me see how to do it,” said Miss Alta.
“Are you sure, Miss?” said Sarah Ruth. “For you’ll be bleeding afore you’ve even begun.”
“Let her try on that miscolored rye, there,” said Kitty. “Beggin’ your pardon, Miss. For we must keep the pretty stuff back.”
“Of course,” said Miss Alta. “That’s wise.”
“Very wise,” agreed Mr. Somerday.
“Hold it this way,” said Louisa. “You must hold seven strands at once, do you see?”
“Yes,” said Miss Alta, “but they’re quite stiff! My word! How do you make them do as you wish!”
“We wet ‘em, is what,” said Sarah Ruth. “See the vat there?”
“Your fingers is so white!” said Kitty absently.
“Kitty!” said Louisa.
“Oh, Miss,” said Kitty, alarmed. “I’m sure I didn’t mean anything. I’m sure I didn’t.”
“I know, Kitty,” said Miss Alta. “Just show me how to bend this without breaking it. I cannot see how to do it at all.”
“Here, Miss,” said Sarah Ruth, “here’s a rhyme we say to help us learn when we’re little: over one, under two….”
“….pull it tight, and that will do,” Louisa and Kitty and I finished for her, which I have knowed that rhyme all my life.
“Same old song,” I said, and the girls smiled.
They helped Miss Alta for a quarter of an hour. Mr. Somerday watched, throwing compliments at her for trying. Finally her fingers were about as pricked as she could bear.
“I must stop,” she said, “but thank you for showing me.”
“Well now you know,” said Louisa, smiling.
“It ain’t easy to do is it?” said Kitty. “Now you know, for you’ve tried it yourself.”
I looked hard at Kitty to see if she was whinging, for Miss Maria don’t stand for whinging here at Longmeadow.
“No, indeed,” said Miss Alta. “It obviously takes a great deal of skill.”
“Indeed,” said Mr. Somerday, “I have heard visitors say that your shop is the jewel of Longmeadow for the quality of the work you do. It’s a favorite.”
I saw Miss Alta look at him but as usual, I couldn’t tell nothing from her expression. Lord, that girl keeps it in. It may be that she had the same question in her mind as did I.
Which was that I wondered if Mr. Somerday had spoke a little out of turn, which he didn’t mean to do it. But here at Longmeadow, we try not to talk about which shop is favorite or which jam turned out best or whose chickens lay the biggest eggs. I might know my cherry cordial is ten miles better than Mrs. Johnston’s, but I know better than to say it out loud. One, it ain’t polite to Lord things over. Two, it don’t make for a peaceful feeling betwixt us all.
But Kitty ain’t known for her brains. When she heard what Mr. Somerday said about their shop being a jewel, she turned to the other girls and said “Haven’t I told you it was so?” which it looked like they had often discussed this very thing. I noticed: Louisa bit her lip and sneaked a look at Sarah Ruth which it seemed like she had come upon a snarl in her plaiting.
I might have reminded Kitty that we’re all for one and one for all, like Miss Maria says, but Miss Alta said very quick, “Mrs. Tell, did you say you had an errand? Mr. Somerday and I will visit Ben’s shop while you’re occupied and wait in the trap for you if you like.” So Kitty got away scot free which she was lucky this time.
In truth, I took Kitty’s meaning clear enough. It ain’t nothing but pure human nature to hold yourself next to your neighbor, to see who’s done better. Everyone does it, no matter if we should or shouldn’t. When the county holds a fair-day, Mrs. Johnston don’t sleep a wink for her careful icing of her Longmeadow White Cake for which she has took top prizes. The younger children show lambs, and the older, hogs, and they are praised and made much of for any honors they get. Miss Maria don’t attend the fairs but I describe the award ceremonies to her if she asks.
“Lord,” I said to her just two week ago, “you should have seen Mrs. Miller when that gooseberry jam took first place. Twas as if she was Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar, looking this a’way and that a’way for people to notice her, and smiling as broad as pie. I was standing right next to her and, as I am a Christian woman and was feeling charitable just then, I did not bother to say to her that that jam was a cooperating effort, no I didn’t, and you’ll forgive me, Miss Maria, ‘cause it would have broke her heart right in two to have it pointed out to her. So I let it lay.”
Such pridefulness worries Miss Maria. Trying to best your neighbor just don’t fly at such a place as Longmeadow where the first idea is of equalness. Mr. Charles and Miss Maria tried from the beginning to lead us away from contests where a winner meant losers. Mr. Charles would have liked to ban the county fairs entire which even he could see that them Longmeadows would rise up in revolution if he did, so he gave up the idea.
And so, Mr. Charles and Miss Maria put a stop to races and contests, and instead said us sermons on hoops for the children and dancing and singing for adults. At our fetes we play Blind Man’s Bluff, but not croquet; we don’t have no contests of strength, but instead the young men chase a greased pig which can be done best when all work together toward the common goal.
But I understand the plaiting girls. They do not care to be unknown. They’d like a little credit. They’re just girls and they wish for special treatment. Likely that’s true of all them who work the shops and farms of Longmeadow, from the great ones to the small.
Today was too bright a day for Miss Alta to leave the house; I believe she spent her time back with them creepy things she likes so much and then in her mother’s office adding figures. At teatime, the doorbell rang and there stood Mr. Somerday, which he might as well walk in without ringing, for he’s come for tea every day since he landed at Longmeadow, more or less. I brought him into the parlor and went to tell her. I found her in the morning room now that the sun was in the west, sitting in a window-seat reading one of her Red Indian books.
I made Lil bring the tea. This was a point of disagreement between Miss Maria and Mr. Charles for a time, whether it was proper to have a girl to serve the tea. Mr. Charles said no, no one should serve no one else here at Longmeadow. “God gave me two legs in order that I can fetch my own tea when I want it,” he said. Miss Maria said, yes dear, but what of our guests; they can hardly be expected… They compromised. (I’ll tell you, I believe Grady was mouthing ‘compromise’ before he’d reached six.) Mr. Charles finally put it this way, “All right then, when we have guests, we will have servers who then may learn how to do it, so that if they’d like to explore the world on their own, they’ll have that small skill. Though,” he added, “I have no doubt that they will find, after having lived at Longmeadow, that the real world is not all it ought to be.”
“Yes, dear,” I remember Miss Maria smiling (which smiling was easy for her, for she had won her case to be served, of course) “and then we will welcome them back to us with open arms.”
That made Mr. Charles feel better for he loved to think that if any of us left, it wouldn’t be long before we returned to his fold, hat in hand, shaking our heads at what we’d seen outside of Longmeadow.
I had myself a cup and a chat with Mrs. Johnston back in the kitchen and then made a round of the house, which passed me right by the parlor, where Miss Alta and Mr. Somerday sat together as they drank their tea.
“Oh no, Alta,” I heard Mr. Somerday say through the doorway, “I am sure you are quite wrong. I am certain that…what did you call her?”
“Whistling Bird,” said Miss Alta.
“…Whistling Bird did what she did for love. I am sure that she was loved fully by her husband and he by her, though he was white, and she red. Her devotion illustrates it, does it not? Why else would she have died for him, as she did?”
I recognized the story. Often of a evening Miss Alta will read aloud from one of her Wild West books, and if I am about, I will listen. I remembered this one: when this Whistling Bird (what sort of name is that, for the dear Lord’s sake) was but a young girl, she was taken from her tribe by a white man who was out hunting and came upon her in the wood and was besmitten. He married her though how Christian that wedding was, I cannot tell you. Some years later, her own people robbed her back to them, but by that time she loved him, so she starved herself to death when they would not let her return to him who she thought of as her husband.
Miss Alta spoke next. “I cannot say whether indeed she loved him or not, Mr. Somerday. It may be that she didn’t. It may be that her devotion was borne of duty and nothing more.”
I was surprised to hear Miss Alta say such. When she read the story to Miss Juliet, both young ladies sighed about the lovey part of it. Once, I catched eyes with Miss Maria about it and we both smiled like we was having a secret together. Young girls will believe in violets and roses, and who’s to tell ‘em they oughtn’t?
“Alta, you are a cynic!” I heard Mr. Somerday say. “I wouldn’t have thought it of you!”
I listened but she did not answer for a moment. And then she did.
“Well,” she said, “I suppose I wonder about them, Mr. Somerday. It seems to me that when first they laid eyes on one another, they must each have felt a shock, as one feels when presented with something unfamiliar and perhaps bizarre. He must have seemed feeble to her; she must have seemed coarse to him. It seems more likely that they felt antipathy rather than attraction. And then, you see, to have had to overcome such….disgust?”
“But Alta, they surely found each other’s trueness through their actions. And in this way became beautiful to each other. All depends on the beholder, you know. In their case, love seems to have surrounded them like a flowering vine, blocking out any weeds of distaste at such a small a thing as a difference of feature.”
“So,” said Miss Alta quite slow, “it does not seem impossible to you, Mr. Somerday, to love someone who is so apart from you that they seem, perhaps, as if they were of an entirely different species?”
“Not at all, Alta. Not for me anyhow. I believe I could grow to love any pure heart, no matter her country, her language, her dress, her color.”
And then, as I listened, I saw what it was I’d missed. I don’t miss much, but I’d missed this.
My local NPR station which is all I ever listen to—except I’m trying to listen to country music some in order to expand my horizons but so far, all I like is the ladies of country, but maybe give me some time—anyhow, my NPR station gives away vacations at its yearly pledge drives. I lust after one of those trips. They begin with a trip to Paris and then someone wins and you hear them scream, “you’re kidding,” to the guy who tells them they won. And then comes the Rome trip and then London–so they always play the London Calling song—and I always hope that they’ll call me. And then comes Australia and I shrug.
Maybe my lack of enthusiasm about Australia lies in the fact that Captain Kangaroo kind of creeped me out when I was a kid.
Or, maybe it’s because I come from a long line of Eastern Europeans whose favorite vegetables were those of the root variety because that’s what grows where it’s cold. While my people may have sprung from the desert, they mostly ended up in the snowy fields of more northern lands– where we hung out for a couple of millennia—and which is why all our festive foods seem to be based on those that are grown underground where they’re protected from the frost. Anyhoo, with me, anyway, the temperature of our new homeland took and held fast. Some like it hot but I ain’t one of ‘em. My last name—or my dad’s—though of course it’s mine, too—translates to “a person from a cold village.” Which reminds me of how the Icelanders have taken a giant step into the future with their “dottir” and “son” surnames which why can’t we do that?
Also, I once saw a House Hunters International Extreme Something or Other Edition episode which showed a lovely young couple—he an Ozzie (which I just read is another way to say Aussie), she a Dane—who moved to some hellhole in the middle of the outback or the never never or whatever it is so that he could get a mining job and
since it’s always like 400 degrees there, the only way humans can survive is to live in caves underground which they build and then line with cement. Which, I don’t know about you, but I kinda like a window? I saw that episode like three years ago and I still think about that young rather waifish Danish woman and hope she was stronger than she looked on tv.
So maybe my apathy towards Australia is based entirely on climate. Could be.
But let me say this: I thought to myself, well gosh, Australia is a whole big continent and maybe they have all kinds of weather and what I think I know isn’t exactly what is fact? So I looked it up and in fact, the climate of the whole landmass seems to gravitate between quite warm and hellish. So now I feel all self-righteous.
Now: because my imagination is worn out like an old shoe, I tend to incline towards themes—because themes make life easier to digest– so this past week I had myself a little Australia fest. They banned plastic bags. They banned guns. What’s not to like? Not that Australia needs me and my approval. But hell, why not give it a chance, I said to myself.
My festival was comprised of a novel and a movie and in fact, I had a pretty good time. Of Killers and Thieves (which is sort of a lame title but oh well), is by a young man named Paul Howarth and is due in February of 2018 which is any moment now unless President Dumbass puts us into the middle of a nuclear nightmare which, like, seriously? Is there no one to stand up and say, “President Dumbass, have you no decency, sir?” And by no one I mean no Republican who actually plans to stay in office?
To continue. Mr. Howarth’s novel which is his first, is a big-time page turner but it’s also damn good and maybe even important. Talk about Black Lives Matter. Lord, God.
Here’s a question. Which of the following is worse?
kidnapping a bunch of people from their homes so they can do all the work you don’t want to have to pay someone to do which oh my god, of COURSE, the Civil War was about State’s Rghts. THE STATES’ RIGHTS TO KEEP BLACK PEOPLE ENSLAVED, THAT IS.
(And another thing: if, say, I was German and every day as I walked to my college classes I had to pass a statue of Goebbels? Well hell, yes, I’d be pissed. And hurt. And resentful. And then, when I grew up and became, say, an orthopedic surgeon, I’d have to be careful to treat my German patients just as carefully as I did my non-German patients because I was still pissed, all those years later, that they hadn’t taken down the DAMN STATUE OF SILENT SAM I MEAN GOEBBELS when they had the fucking chance.) (That this is a stretched comparison hasn’t escaped my eagle-eye but I’m guessing it’s not so out of shape that you don’t take the point.)
(In fact, I myself would be a crappy surgeon due to I panic, but my point is that certainly you’d like to think you always rise above the idiocy of others and turn the other cheek and be noble, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, but even orthopedic surgeons are just humans, and if one of them left her scalpel in somebody’s leg by mistake due to a lifetime of being pissed off, well, you see where I’m going. Which is the big fat stupid human cycle of who hurt who first.)
2) you invade a landmass and then go about trying to exterminate all the indigenous people which, hey, doesn’t that sound sort of familiar?
Answer: both are worse.
Anyhow, Of Killers and Thieves is about a white family scraping by in the Australia of 1880. Brutality and horror and violence abound like kangaroos hop. Which, like, can you call it gratuitous if it’s all absolutely true? Me, I have nothing against violence in a novel, nothing at all.
For example, The Orphan Master’s Son made me want to throw up and still does when I recall certain particular scenes, but I think it’s one of the best novels of the last five years. One time, Adam Johnson who is the author of The Orphan Master’s Son came into the bookstore in which I bide some time and I told him that his book made me want to throw up and he said, “thanks,” and I said, “you’re welcome.” It was a pleasant exchange.
Speaking of North Korea which is what Orphan Master is about: the president of these United States is, as I write this, embarking on a tour of Asia with Melania, bless her heart. At the Women’s March, the best sign I saw said, “Free Melania.” Anyhow, like many Americans, I feel this uncomfortable sensation in the back of my throat—sort of like the marriage of a nervous giggle and a gag reflex—at the speculation of what Our National Embarrassment might say or do in front of the good people of Japan, say, or China. Maybe he’ll say, “What, rice again?” or “I bet she has a nice little figure under that hanbok,” or maybe, “Yes this chicken is okay, but not as good as P. F. Chang’s.”
But back to Australia. I raced my way through Of Killers and Thieves and enjoyed it very much in the same way that you enjoy pulling a splinter out from underneath your fingernail. I recommend it heartily. It’s about race, is what it’s about, and while it reads in some parts like a wish rather than a reality, in the end it doesn’t leave you so hopeless that you want to go live in a cave lined with cement.
So the next part of my Australia-fest was a movie. I watched Australia, the big epic blockbuster-that-totally-busted by Baz Luhrmann, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. It pretty much sucks but it has its good points, one of which is that it’s really long, which I like a long movie. It’s like that old joke about how awful the restaurant was: the food is terrible and the portions are tiny.
Anyhoo, the Kidman Jackman (see, in Iceland, there’s be “woman” somewhere around there) did what it could to keep the movie above water but it pretty much drowned under the weight of its efforts to be sweeping. But there is a cute kid actor. And horses. And lots of Australian scenery and, if you like the simplicity of cardboard characters and good vs. evil, it has a nice satisfying end. Just don’t ask too much of it and you’ll be okay.
The best part is the narration which is by the cute kid actor and is in the parlance of the blackfella (not my word). An interesting part of Australia is certainly the treatment of the Aboriginals which we used to call them Aborigines. Which reminds me: yeah, you go ahead and say “Se-vee-yah” for Seville and you go ahead and say “Buddha Pesht” for Budapest but howcum you’re not saying “Par-ee” for Paris, hm? But, I’m aware that there are linguistic chic-nesses just as there are in literature which, for example, Steinbeck is outre but he might come back.
Anyhow, often, movies and novels tend to treat the Aboriginals like happy peasants at one with their universe (Australia for sure does it, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert does it, Of Killers and Thieves does it to a much lesser extent, but it’s not entirely absent even there). Which is how the more innocent among us view the Native American tribes we endeavored so hard to destroy—as happy natives—when they killed each other plenty, just as much as we’ve all murdered our neighbors, and since the dawn of man. My point is that there’s probably not that many happy peaceful native tribes on this good earth anyway because why? Because everyone is just a person and people when stressed– which when are we not– are just assholes.
My great loss of innocence re: the dearth of the simple happy peasant occurred over years but epiphanied one day in the shower (don’t ask me why) when I realized that the sweet rose-covered cottages of the English countryside were a) probably not rose-covered and b) probably packed with a widow and her children eating clay from their yard for lack of anything better.
And if you think about it, those happy English peasants, if they stole a loaf of bread? Or poached? They were probably either hanged or, if they were lucky, packed up on a boat and sent off to Australia. Like Pip’s sponsor in Great Expectations, remember?
Life’s a big circle, ain’t it. For better and worse.
Next theme: could be the Ozarks, cuz I’m reading Winter’s Bone which wasn’t that a great movie?
Mr. Somerday accompanies me on my rounds. We ride side by side on grey days, and on the sunny ones, I seek the shelter of the trap while he reins his horse alongside me. I’ve always felt proud of Longmeadow, both for its ancient lineage and its modern ideas. But Mr. Somerday’s enthusiasm helps me to see the place with new eyes.
He is enthusiastic about all of Longmeadow: he admires the land itself; he admires the people who work it; he admires Grady for his patience; he admires the turn of Ben Mangum’s lathe; he admires the high ideals of the place and the straw-plaiting girls’ skill equally. As well as much else. He waxes eloquent on my parents’ work and speaks about them with high regard.
“Really, Alta, it’s wonderful, Longmeadow is. I have looked a bit into other places that make similar claims and there’s no comparison.”
“Yes,” I called to him from within the trap. We were on our way to Arum House for a look-see. “I agree. My father wished not to repeat the mistakes of others, he said.”
Mr. Somerday nodded. “And from what I’ve read, failures are plentiful. Places like Longmeadow usually don’t last. I have read that it is hard to make a go of them.”
Look at how the sun dapples his white shirt as he rides along. If I had the skill, I’d like to paint a portrait of that shirt.
“Oh! Yes, Father used to call it a labor of love. He and my mother spoke about it at supper very often: how it is, for example that one may wish to improve a person who may prefer to remain…”
“Yes. One reason for Longmeadow’s success may be its mildness. Some of the communities were quite extreme,” I told him. “Oneida, for example.” Immediately, I regretted my words. I felt myself blush fiercely from my seat inside the trap. I hoped Mr. Somerday would not ask me to elaborate.
I had my information on Oneida from a treatise in Father’s locked desk which I had opened without permission. Lord, some of those images may never leave me.
“And the Shakers,” said Mr. Somerday.
“Mmm,” I said. I wished I had not opened this Pandora’s box.
“Why did they shake, do you imagine?” he inquired seriously.
I said nothing.
“Alta,” he said more loudly, “why do you suppose they shook?”
I think I sighed. “I imagine…I believe it had to do with…”
Mr. Somerday did not take the hint.
“With what? I am having trouble hearing you. Suppose I climb in beside you and Rudo can trot behind? This topic is quite interesting.”
“They shook to rid themselves of their animal urges!” I yelped out as quickly as I could.
He looked surprised—had I shocked him yet again?– and then he laughed loudly.
“Alta!” he said, “You are quite a girl. You do a fellow good!”
I was glad he thought so.
I have rarely visited Arum House. Mostly, I do not care to meet the ladies. On the rare occasions that one or another of them is invited to take supper at the manor, they treat me as if I am diseased; as if I am quite radical for wishing to dine at my own table and should, out of politeness, dine underneath it instead. At first, Mother urged me to ignore their rudeness, but she has lately relented and, upon the ladies’ infrequent visits, has allowed me to take my meal in the kitchen where I feel more comfortable.
“They’re ghastly,” said Juliet at breakfast once, the morning after one of them had come to supper. “And always all the same. Vastly overdressed and vastly underburdened with the sense God gave to a cat.”
“They are spoiled and bored and therefore mean,” said Mother. “I sometimes think about closing Arum House altogether.”
“Why not do it?” I asked.
“Did you know,” Mother told us, “that the Widows & Orphans is supported almost entirely by the revenues from Arum House? That’s one reason.”
“A valid reason,” I said.
“Another reason is the caliber of guest,” said Juliet. “You can say it, Mama, though it sounds coarse. She wants Longmeadow,” Juliet said to me, “to be talked about at an earl’s table as well as at a dyer’s. Maybe even more.”
Mother looked at Juliet. “Not more, no. But as much. Longmeadow will thrive best if it can appeal to all.”
“Mama,” Juliet had said, “you must take care not to sound too much like a clerk at Harrod’s.”
Mother drew herself up but then suddenly seemed to deflate. “Yes,” she said, sighing. “There are so many things I do for Longmeadow that I never expected to do in my life. Sometimes I feel confused by what I am about.”
Juliet relented. “I’m sorry, Mama,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Mother patted Juliet’s hand.
“Mother,” I said, “it seems strange that Father conceived of such an idea as Arum House in the first place. A holiday place for ladies? Whatever gave him the notion?”
“Oh my,” Mother replied, consulting the little timepiece at her bosom, “is it as late as that? Well, there are things to see to. I’ll see the both of you later at tea.” And she had gone off to her office.
Arum House was as charming to look at as ever. I’d forgotten its prettiness—all those roses. I could just see Mike on the roof, hammer in hand. He tipped his cap to me as Mr. Somerday helped me down from the trap.
As I tied on my sun hat, a plump lady emerged from the house and walked languidly over to the swing, trailing a parasol. I watched as the lady shielded her eyes from the sun with a mitted hand and looked at us, at the landscape, up at Mike on the roof.
I nodded at the lady who appeared not to notice.
I turned back to Mr. Somerday. “The woods here are especially lovely. I should like to walk a bit before we say our hellos inside, but we must seek shade, if you don’t mind.”
“Let’s go this way,” said Mr. Somerday taking my arm. “We’ll have an old-fashioned tromp, shall we?”
Mrs. Grey walked out of the house to greet us—tea? cold water?—and I told her we’d be back in a bit for some refreshment. Off we went. The sun was high and hot but my hat brim, made especially wide for my by the girls in the strawshop, protected me quite well. I’m a good walker.
“Do not dawdle, Mr. Somerday,” I said to him as he stopped here to peer at a fern, there, at a moss. “I will outpace you and lose you and you will worry that you have lost me when in fact I will be back at the trap awaiting you with impatience. Do come along.”
“Coming, coming,” he said, pretending to pant with exertion. In fact, he is quite lean and in no danger of losing breath. It was a great pleasure to be with him in the wood.
“What do you hear from your sister?” he said as we walked.
“She is quite thrilled with herself,” I reported. “She writes that she attends any numbers of parties. She’s become a salon favorite and is asked often to perform. I told her that I expect she’s become very artistic and that when I see her next, she’ll be swathed in veils of red and gold and have taken to kohling her eyes and I shan’t recognize her at all.”
“Well,” said Mr. Somerday, holding a briar away from my skirt as we walked along, “I understand that the urge to ornament one’s person is quite universal, but for my own part, I much prefer what is natural. Watch now, I’m letting go of this briar. Like you, Alta. Unadorned, natural, hair like Titania’s; why, you’re perfect just as you are.”
For a moment, I could not catch my breath.
“Well in that case,” I made myself answer, “you would not, I think, care overmuch for Olive Oatman.”
“Olive Oatman. She was captured by the Yavapai Indians of the Arizona territory. They tattooed her chin to show that she was their slave. She was later rescued but the tattoo remained, of course.”
“My God,” said Mr. Somerday. “Poor girl.”
“Well,” I said, “but think of the adventure. And she came out of it all right.”
‘But for the tattoo,” he said.
My heart was still beating hard from his compliment. I had never received one from a man before except for Father. The artists, Mother’s friends, and those visitors who came to supper—they might laugh at my jokes or nod at my comments. They might tell me that they were pleased to see me looking well. They might smile and even kiss my hand, but never had one of them told me that I possessed hair like Titania’s.
We walked on. My eyes are bad but my hearing, quite good. “What was that?” I said low. We both stopped. It had occurred to me, and must have to him as well, that the last time we were in each other’s company in such a landscape, the stag lay dead.
Mr. Somerday whispered, “I think it came from over there,” and sprinted in the wrong direction. I stood where I was until I heard the sound again. One more step and then I saw: the plump lady from Arum House, her back against a tree, her bustle quite flattened behind her. The man in her embrace—it was Mike– had his face pressed to her wide-open bodice as he moved up and down. I heard her moan: that was the sound. I could see the lady’s white skin—not as white as my own of course—shining in the sunlight.
I backed away as quietly as I could and then I ran—in the direction of the house and of Mr. Somerday, whom I wished both to see and not see, at once.
Lord knows Miss Alta’s sharp. Talk to her once, and you’ll know it too. Miss Maria was wise to pass her on some responsibilities, even for just the few weeks as she’ll be gone. It’s good for a young person to have a task set before them, even if they’re a young lady. This is something Mr. Charles said and he was right.
Better too much to do than too little–too little and a person can run amuck. If you was to ask me I’d tell you that’s half the problem with them ladies at Arum House. They ought to come to Longmeadow for the fresh air but instead they come bored and looking to adventure.
Miss Alta takes her new duties quite serious. Each and every morning she bids me good-bye and tells me where she’s off to, just as her mother does when she goes out. This way, if Grady needs a decision, or anyone else does, he can know where to find her fast, through me.
“Grady,” said I, “You find Miss Alta and ask her some small thing even if it’s summat you could do yourself with your eyes half-open. It won’t hurt to make her feel a bit of her own importance, especially…” He understood what I was about, which I will tell you: Miss Alta must be brave to go out even though she wears that veil. We’re used to her but some of us stare nonetheless. But Grady’s a good boy and he does what I tell him. He told me about it later.
“I said, ‘Miss Alta, there’s a late calf due tonight. The farmer must decide whether to keep it or butcher it.’”
“And what did she say to that?” said I, thinking that if it was Miss Juliet, she’d have said oh, do let it live.
Grady grinned. “She had a pretty answer, to be sure,” said he. “She said, ‘Well, Grady, what do you advise?’ and I said, ‘Well, I think we could sell a good piece of veal for a pretty penny as well as the goldbeaters need some gut, if you don’t mind the term Miss Alta.’”
I smiled back at him, for in truth it was a bit funny to say ‘gut’ to a young lady but what else might you call it when that’s the only word for it?
Grady’s mouth twitched. “She said, ‘Better to sell the dogie Grady, if you think it’s best.’”
“What’s she mean by dogie?”
“She said that’s what the cowboys in America call calves is dogies.”
I was glad to see Grady grin. He hadn’t much, since the murder.
Things is nice and quiet what with Miss Maria gone away and Miss Juliet, both. I have been troubled in my mind about Miss Juliet for some time: she’s a young lady who likes to have her own way and her own say more than’s good for her. It’s time she was married or engaged to be, at least. Take my Nan: a whole year younger than Miss Julie and happy as a little pearl in a oyster.
Yes, if you was to ask me, I’d say that Miss Juliet needs a nice match made for her. And she’s a girl who might have right many a suitor. Her line is pure aristocratic, her expectations large and she’s a beauty when she ain’t looking at you like she’d like to bite you or laugh at you, one.
Trouble is when you’re a girl in the countryside like Miss Juliet is, you must depend upon your mother to help you in that regard. You must have London seasons and make calls. I have a cousin who cooks in a big house near Devon and can speak of little else than her young mistresses when she visits, which she has done twice. She describes how her mistress schemes every day about who she can marry her two daughters off to.
“Every other weekend, a house party,” grumbled my cousin, “with more roasts and puddings and pluckings than Christmas dinner. Mistress says it’s so young men can come to hunt though the truth is what she hopes for is for them to bag one of them young ladies.”
“Is they plain, then, that it’s so hard to marry them off?” I asked.
“Certainly not,” said my cousin, glaring, which I was glad to see because I like loyalty, “they’re both very pretty, indeed. But all the high-born young men want Americans these days—Americans with their fortunes. A English girl don’t hardly stand a chance.”
Now this ain’t a problem for Miss Juliet. Her fortune’s as fine as any American’s,
I daresay. What she don’t have is a mother who has the time or the inclination to look around. Perhaps now that Miss Julie’s in London, she’ll land someone on her own. We can hope for it.
It’s different for Miss Alta, of course.
I recall back when Mr. Charles was alive, back when he was making his changes to Longmeadow, a family called the Faniels came to visit from America, with their two yellow-haired boys. I think of ‘em often, for I blame Arum House on them. I know I ought not to and yet I do. I ought not to blame them for it, for they was trying to get out of something very like, back in America. They’d tried it and hadn’t liked it and Mr. Faniel had wrote a article about it which Mr. Henry read and then invited the whole family of them to come to England and visit. So, see, the Faniels was rushing away from sin and yet still I blame them for it. And I can’t help but think of them when I think of Arum House. Mrs. Johnston’s that way with Bodger, for she was bit by a big dog when she was but a girl. “But, Ellen,” I say, “Bodger won’t hurt you.” She knows it but she’ll avoid him if she can.
When I think of Miss Alta and her prospects, I think of them two Faniel boys, both tow-headed and freckle-faced, sitting in my kitchen eating at my table next to Miss Juliet and Miss Alta when they were but young theirselves. I had give ‘em all bread and butter, I recall, and I noticed that them boys had thanked me very nice when I gave them their slices.
“What sort of name is Verdy?” said Miss Alta to the younger one as the four of them sat at table together.
“Name of a Greek god,” said Verdy, munching. “Vertumnus, god of vegetables and stuff.”
“Vegetables!” said Miss Juliet.
“What’s yours from?” said Miss Alta to the older boy they called Ero.
“His is a god too,” said Verdy. “Eros.”
“Oh!” said Miss Alta.
I turned to see the boy shrug and redden some, which I thought must be that name or else he’d spilled something.
“Miss Juliet, Miss Alta,” said I very quick, “have you finished? Take the young gentlemen to play if you have.”
“She called us young gentlemen!” crowed Verdy.
“And what should I call you?” I said, turning and smiling, for he was a lovely child after all.
“They’re just boys,” said Miss Juliet, brushing crumbs. “Come along. There’s a swing out here.” She and the younger boy ran out the door.
“Are you coming too?” said Ero to Miss Alta as they stood.
“No,” said Miss Alta. “I prefer to stay inside.”
She didn’t, but I could see: she’d never say it was the sun.
The boy shrugged and turned.
“Perhaps Mr. Ero would like to see the library?” said I.
Miss Alta looked at him. I read that look. She wanted him to choose her and what she could offer. Her hope for it was in her face.
“Why would I?” said Mr. Ero, stepping from behind the table. “Which way’s the swing?” and he was gone.
If I could have, I’d have put my handprint on that boy’s cheek quick enough for rudeness. I looked at Miss Alta to shake my head over it, but when she looked back at me, her face was as flat as glass. I think she see’d her life stretched in front of her just then and I will admit to you: I did not know how to comfort that girl who wouldn’t never have even such simple things as others have. But she didn’t want my pity, it was clear. She turned away and left the kitchen.
Yesterday, I carried some broth down to Longmeadow Village for old Miss Cripps who is ailing. Miss Maria had asked me to visit her so I did it. I’ll tell you what I understood: Miss Maria did not like to ask Miss Alta to do it. Why, you may ask? Because Miss Cripps is right ancient and as Miss Maria says it, “her superstitions get the best of her.” What that means is that Miss Cripps might not be past saying something to hurt Miss Alta’s feelings. And it’s true enough: some of them old ones still talk about faeries and hexes. They might refuse to open the door for Miss Alta if she was to show up on their doorstep, broth or no broth. I almost told Miss Maria to let Miss Cripps find her own soup, but I held my tongue for she’s infirm in a way I’m grateful I ain’t.
We age differently from each other. For some of us, it’s our skeletons that go first. Or perhaps our money, which is also a drag. Or we get weirdly conservative where we were once liberal. Or maybe we get all religion-ey. Or our hearing gets wonky and/or the strength of the reading glasses we need climbs into the mists of uncharted territory. If we live long enough, we’re affected in a myriad of different ways including but not limited to the above. In the end, it’s all moot of course. While you’re still around though, it’s a little demoralizing to have to accept the waning after the waxing’s gone and done with.
I regret the multivariety of my losses—of course I do—but there’s one loss in particular at which I impotently curl my lip in especial displeasure: the slow demise of my organizational skills.
My organizational skills used to be not bad, not bad at all. I was blessed with some memory, some speed, some obsessive-compulsion, all in the right amounts, with a healthy dash of fascism thrown in to round the whole thing out.
In my glory days I could organize a book event for 1500 customers. I could put together a two-week trip for four people who were limited to one carry-on a piece. I could throw a parade. (In other words, I was a mom. If you are a mom, or if you know one, the above examples will appear familiar. I’m just saying: I could do them.)
But then I waned. And now, my once mighty organizational skills are, let us say, crap.
Below lies a sad story. To be honest, some of it—even much of it!—wasn’t exactly my fault. You’ll see, if you read it. But it’s my poor lost competencies that set the stage, so to speak, upon which the actors forget their lines, trip over the carpet, get the hiccoughs during the dramatic parts, and eventually burn down the theatre. (Melodramatic, much?)
A Sad Story
Ever since the election of President Dumbass (my affectionate nickname; you can use it too if you like), I—like so many others—have been feeling doleful and melancholy and anxious and empty and woebegone and splenetic and mordant and flummoxed and confounded. Sure, I got some of it out of my system by abusing Facebook with my constant belligerence but it wasn’t enough. I learned to use Twitter—for the overflow—but that didn’t quite cut it either. My little dribs and drabs of volunteer work weren’t enough to make me feel like I was making a difference in this Insane New World. I became further depressed. Boo hoo, etc.
And then I heard about an opportunity. A friend of mine volunteered for a particular organization and loved the experience. And then I read this big-ass article in the NYT about the organization and I said: this is it! This is what I want to do. Sure I’ll keep blasting belligerent posts and phone-banking and doing my drips and drabs of volunteer work but THIS (the thing my friend did and that the NYT covered) sounded just right.
The charitable organization in question is awesome: it goes to underserved populations around the country and sets up free volunteer-driven vision, dental, and medical clinics.
The clinics last for a couple of days. The people get help right then and there. You need glasses? You’re gonna walk away with glasses. You need teeth pulled? You’re gonna walk away lighter.
I researched the organization online and immediately chose a clinic at which to volunteer. I would go to Tennessee in early October. I’m not a nurse or a doc; I’m just a civilian, but they indicated that there would be a place for me to help. I could register people. I could park cars. I could carry water from point A to point B. Barkis was willing. I signed up.
Several days later, I received a confirmation email from the organization. They wanted me! Sure, come on and help us! Just be sure to wear close-toed shoes! Here, they said, is your slot.
My slot was not what I thought I’d signed up for. I thought I’d signed up for a medical clinic in a sort of remote mountain town in Tennessee. What I’d been assigned was a slot for a week later at a vision clinic in Atlanta.
Now. There is absolutely no question in my mind that I was given the wrong slot because I SIGNED UP FOR THE WRONG SLOT ONLINE. No question at all.
It’s part of the loss of my skills. I recognized it immediately because I’ve done that sort of thing before and kind of a lot. Once—at the beginning of the lessening of my skills—I made a plane reservation for my husband that had him arriving at his destination at 3:00 in the morning after a 163 hour layover at a different airport, all because I wasn’t careful. Once—again, as my competence had begun its downhill scooch—I made a gorgeous pie for a potluck that was for not that Sunday but the next, and was thus forced to eat the whole thing myself in penitence. I mean: my husand and I were walking down the street with the pie in hand before I recalled myself to myself and said, “let’s turn around.”
It doesn’t help that I use an old-fashioned (which is to say, paper) Moleskine appointment book which is “European” so that the week begins on Monday, not on Sunday, like in the more/less civilized parts of the world (depending on how you look at it) and thus I rarely know whether the appointment I find scrawled upon the pages is on this coming Thursday or is actually on Wednesday or, perhaps, Friday, and thus I have to “confirm” by which I mean find out, or, in some cases, just actually show up in person on all the possible dates so as not to be rude or get slammed with a missed-appointment charge.
I feel bad about saying this but: I don’t like Atlanta. I can’t even say why. It’s hot, but here, in the Year With No Winter, where in the South isn’t? To me, Atlanta has all the charm of a larger Charlotte, which is to say, not all that much. So I was a little angry at myself for having made the error.
But why, after all, had I embarked on this mission? Oh yeah: to be of use! So, I sucked it up, changed my calendar, revised my work leave from what it had been when I thought I was going to Tennessee which my boss was very nice about, and make a reservation in a hotel in Atlanta.
Now: my husband and I recently bought a shitty mountain house which, while it’s infested with stink bugs, is not without its charms. From there, in Franklin, NC, the drive to Atlanta would be only 2.5 hours, not the 6 that it would be from our primary residence in Carrboro, NC. But, because I am a wimp and could sleep til 100 o’clock if you let me, and because the report time was 8:15 in the am, I decided to go up to our mountain house, drive down to Atlanta on the night before the clinic, and spend the couple of nights in a hotel. Using one of those online booking sites, I found a cheap enough place with only a couple of one-star reviews that referred to roaches, and I was good to go.
In Carrboro, I threw a bunch of random junk into the car—including a chair I found on the side of the road and 5 12-packs of Harris Teeter brand seltzer which I bought because I fear that they’re discontinuing the store brand because maybe LeCroix got mad at HT for the competition due to the HT brand is much cheaper and just as good, but anyhow this is all speculation—about the discontinuance, I mean–so don’t let it worry you too much– drove to Franklin, battled with the stinkbugs, cursed climate change which I blame for the 87 degree heat in the middle of October 2700 feet up, felt lucky that we have another shitty house (that’s two of ‘em).
On the day I was to leave for Atlanta, I was stricken with a vague memory of how once, a long time ago, I’d been an organized human. And so I picked up my cellular telephone which I sort of know how it works but not really, and I called the hotel to confirm my reservation. #feelingrighteous
I spelled my name– which you know that’s not easy with a name such as mine–four or five times for the increasingly impatient clerk—and who could blame her—which was made quadruply more difficult by the fact that when I’d say, “E-I-S-as-in-Sam,” she’d invariably say, “mmm-hmmm over the “S-as-in-Sam part” and then say back to me, “F?” No, I’d say, “S-as-in-Sam,” but not before her mmm-hmmm obliterated my words causing us, yet again, to have to start over.
Could you try my husband’s name, I said sweetly? At which point we had to go over the same thing again—N-as-in-naked (Naked, Erica? Really? Naked?) and then she said “Did you say M?” and I said no, N-as-in…and then I was paralyzed with not being able to think of a single word or name that began with N until she offered Nancy which was awesome.
Not that it helped. Still nothing.
And I was being really nice the whole time. I was not being a “I’d like to speak to the manager” type because why? BECAUSE I WONDERED WHETHER THIS WAS MAYBE MY FAULT. (Because of the waning of the skills, aforementioned, see.)
So then she transferred me to her supervisor who was an extremely tough cookie and told me that I’d made a reservation for LAST WEEK and that I’d already been charged for a no-show which, in point of fact, is exactly the same amount as the room itself. And in fact, I’d seen the charge when I was competently looking at my bank statement but it hadn’t take the time to wonder why I had already been charged. God, I am so so naïve. But then again, I’m only SIXTY YEARS OLD so why should I know stuff?
Woe is me, I said to Tough Cookie, I’m sure I didn’t make a mistake like that (WAS I? WAS I REALLY?) and is there anything that can be done? I can do nothing for you, said the Tough Cookie (not unlike what Rooster Cogburn says to Chaney (I’m pretty sure it was Chaney, but don’t quote me) after Mattie shoots him and before she falls into the snake hole) except that Tough Cookie used a slightly less formal construction.
She—(the TC)—asked whether I had made the reservation on Expedia or something, which I admitted to having done. She suggested that well then I ought to call Expedia to see if I could, at least, get the same online rate that I’d landed before which, at this point, cuz I was pretty sure I was going to have to eat the no-show fee, I was eager to get. The online fee, I mean. Because the not-online fee was twice again as expensive. Well, I quipped, no good deed goes unpunished, to which the tough cookie failed to make a response of any sort.
So I called Expedia. After a sort of alarming message that said, “your wait time is less than ten minutes,” I was connected with a lovely young Filapina, I’m pretty sure, whose English was good but due to my waning hearing skills, I had to ask her to repeat lots of words lots of times.
She and I had a conversation that lasted at least half an hour, during which we were abruptly cut off and she actually called me right back yay Expedia. She could absolutely not find my reservation—the wrong one or the right one. She told me several times during the hour and a half of our phone call, that her computer was rebooting and that the system was slow. We went through the whole story multiple times and she couldn’t find anything. I was baffled, she was baffled, but we were in it together, a united force against the perfidious System.
Finally, after 27 hours of the phone call had elapsed, she had me hold (for the 34th time) while she called the hotel to query re my weirdly missing reservations.
When she came back onto the phone, she informed me politely that I hadn’t gone through Expedia. I’d made my reservations through Booking.com.
I considered just hanging up (in chagrin. And shame. And humiliation.) But instead I thanked her with all the grotesquery of a Uriah Heep. And then I sighed and called Booking.com.
Through Booking.com, I ascertained that yes, I’d made the wrong reservation and that no, of course they couldn’t give me a break on the no-show (which one really would have to have a great deal of hubris to have expected so I didn’t even ask. I just sorta said, “I guess I just have to deal with the no-show fee,” to which she replied, “yeah,”). With her help—like she was glued to me—I made a new reservation for not that very night (because it was too late to even start out by then because of my decades on the phone) but for the night betwixt the two clinic days.
I figured I’d just get up early the next morning and drive like hell.
I woke at 4, gasped at myself in the mirror, hurled some random stuff into the car including the pair of jeans that I had bought expressly for this clinic because I figured I should have some jeans just in order to be an appropriate citizen of the world so
I bought some, though I’m usually too hot to wear jeans even in the winter and also it was supposed to be in the UPPER EIGHTIES IN ATLANTA IN THE MIDDLE OF OCTOBER DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE which, if you didn’t know, the president thinks is fake news.
I drove blearily, listening to an eccentric mélange of NPR, country music, and Christian rock (the last from a station called Radio HIM) all playing over each other because the mountains bounces sound waves around.
I hit Atlanta at around 7, just in time for rush hour. At one point, I made the slightest little driving error and I HEARD the guy yelling at me from INSIDE the cab of his truck which made me, not angry—because it was ALL MY FAULT—AS USUAL—but sad because of a) the passing of my aforementioned skills, b) I’d given the guy something to yell about so early in the morning thereby starting him off on the wrong foot especially since he probably already had a hangover from the night before when he’d no doubt been hurling full cans of beer at bicyclists and intentionally running over turtles in the road, and c) it was a little scary.
And finally: there I was. Peachtree Elementary School or something. Correct address. Correct place. I was early but not too early. It was already getting toasty so I decided to walk in with my shorts on even though I’m old and have weird wrinkly leg-skin but I figured I had time to change if I seemed inappropriate.
I took a breath before I entered and reminded myself –as I often must, in varietal circumstances–that I am no longer a manager which I was for a long time, a very very long time, even though it has occurred to me that I wasn’t cut out for it which means I lived a 30 year lie, but whatever. But my point is that it’s a hard habit to break—the managing habit– and thus, often, I have to remind myself to just keep my head down and do the work and tamp down any hubris and be humble and walk with God (if s/he’s a thing). These clinic people didn’t need my advice; they just needed my muscle. I’m glad, I said to myself, that I have a little muscle (albeit flabby) left to help them.
So I was buzzed into the school (because the NRA=Public Enemy #1 and thus we have to be buzzed into elementary schools now). I approached the sweetly smiling elementary-school-ey receptionist and said, I’m here for the Vision Clinic.
The nice receptionist looked blank.
I intoned the name of the volunteer organization through which I had signed up.
She looked blanker and a little alarmed.
I thought to myself ERICA OH MY FUCKING GOD DID YOU JUST DRIVE FOR 198 HOURS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT BECAUSE YOU MADE YET ANOTHER ERROR? YOU ARE AN IDIOT AND NEED TO WALK OFF INTO THE WOODS AND DIE QUIETLY.
The nice lady receptionist loud-speakered someone who showed up promptly and displayed similar expressions of blankdom and alarm when apprised of the situation.
Second Lady called a Third Lady.
Meanwhile, I searched my phone. I’m not very good at it. Also, I often forget my email passwords. In fact, I was just informed that I have to change my password which they don’t know—they do not know—the turmoil into which those words throw me. Or they wouldn’t make me do it. If they knew, they wouldn’t make me.
By some marvelous chance, I found what I was looking for! I found the cache of emails from the volunteer organization. AND I HAD EVERY DETAIL CORRECT! I was in the right place! At the right time! (According to the emails.)
And as I held my phone aloft, begging First, Second, and Third Ladies to tell me that I wasn’t insane, I had a nagging thought. OH HELL IN A HANDBASKET, I thought. WHAT IF I MISSED A CANCELLATION EMAIL?
WOULDN’T THAT BE JUST LIKE ME?
And then, a miracle occurred. In walked a nice older gentleman wearing scrubs. I brightened. Are you, I asked, are you here for the vision clinic? He nodded. Yep, he said. I’m a triage nurse, he said, and I’ve come from Alabama. Banjos weren’t mentioned, if you must know. (Alabama, by the way, is FURTHER from Atlanta, than is Franklin, NC, from whence I hailed.) Nope, he said calmly, when he understood the problem, nope, I didn’t get a cancellation email. They screwed up.
Just seeing him….I can’t tell you how happy it made me. I mean, intellectually, I knew (now, I knew) that the clinic was cancelled. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get my second deposit back from the hotel and would thus be charged as a no-show–again. I knew that I would use the teensy elementary school fixtures in the bathroom and then get back on the road and drive for another 4000 hours to get back to Franklin. And worst of all, I would have to forego the pleasure of being useful.
And yet. Seeing the dude in the scrubs? What a huge ding-donging relief. My skills might be on the wane, but he was proof that there was something left, even if it’s only a remnant of my previous glory.
Then, Ladies One and Two—who wondered, surely, how many more volunteers would have to be buzzed in for naught—called some dude who was connected somehow to something, and who rushed over from someplace that appeared to be the corporate sponsor of this particular –very obviously cancelled–clinic. He sat with us and made a bunch of excuses for stuff and was very conciliatory which maybe he was the culprit? It doesn’t matter. It’s all in the name of charity, so how mad can anyone really be?
Me? I’m going to sign up again with the same worthy volunteer institution because my urge to be useful is still at a high ebb. And I really really appreciate the work they do. Though I haven’t actually seen it. But whatevs. I’m signing up again.
I got back in the car. I chose to avoid highways on my drive back to Franklin and thus passed some crazy-ass junk shops and salvage places and the like. I bought myself a consolation prize which you can see represented below.
All’s well that ends with a metal buzzard. And, after all, mistakes happen. (I’m an expert, so I know.)
in which Alta receives a parcel and, as well, a little recognition, for a change
I had a parcel from London. Juliet found, in some dusty bookshop, a small store of pamphlets which she purchased, tied with a string, and mailed. Dear girl. She knows me so well. I settled down on the small sofa in my bedroom and unpacked it.
You asked me to look for beetle books for you but they make my head itch and so I’m afraid I can’t oblige.
In the meantime, maybe these will do for something to read. I certainly haven’t read them, but from a glance at the drawings within, I judge there’s enough gore to suit you. I say, you are an odd girl. But then so am I. By the by, I bought these under cover of “posting a letter;” if Cousin Jemimah had seen what it was I was buying, there’d have been smelling salts to pay. As it was, when the bookseller peered at me, I said as innocently as I could, “Oh, these aren’t for me, no indeed. They’re for my little sister!
The pamphlets were of a style familiar to me– penny dreadfuls: tales of danger, over-stimulating, full of prurient images.
Mr. Foyle, my favorite of the London booksellers, with whom I have a standing order, sends them when he finds them and I consume them like raspberries. I will admit: I’m a little embarrassed by my propensity for the dreadfuls; they are purple, and absolutely unwholesome, and I ought to know better. Everything about them is coarse, from the paper to the prose. They’re meant for little boys; adventure stories full of cliffs and ponies and flaming arrows. I dug in.
Soon I found myself on the edge of my little sofa, Juliet’s pamphlets around my feet, my nose an inch from a most marvelous story called Calamity Jane at Death Notch. Of course I’d heard of Calamity Jane but I hadn’t read much about her before. And here was everything I never knew I wanted! With engravings! When have I been so thrilled?
“Darling Julie,” I murmured as I turned the flimsy pages.
Calamity Jane was most shocking. Her trousers, the way her hat sat on the back of her head, those adventures! I sat upright—as if I was astride—and raced straight through the material. Through Calamity Jane Rescues City Slickers from Wild Indians! Through Calamity Jane Rides 90 Miles with Vital Dispatch! Through Calamity Jane Rescues Colonel From Certain Death!
When I finished, I took a great breath. I expect I’m like a million others who find excitement between two paper covers rather than on the back of a pony. It came to me suddenly that I missed the stag. The idea of him, so unbound, roaming where he would, was an idea I had loved. He crashed through the undergrowth in the same way I would like to crash but cannot. Though white, he was ready, while here sit I, pinned like one of my beetles by my infirmity. Juliet is like the stag. Or he was like her. She crashes all she wants, while I sit by the window.
I sighed, shrugged, packed up the pamphlets and carried them to my collection room. “There,” I said putting them away, “you deserve your own cabinet, Miss Calamity.”
Mother’s office is at the other end of the house. I entered and seated myself at my own trim desk. By contrast, Mother’s desk is a constant tumult; unfinished articles, sketches of farm machinery, invitations to lectures, lists of goods needed to run the farms, the workshops, the school.
I often assist Mother with more mundane bookkeeping aspects of Longmeadow: how many pots of jam sold, how many chairs sold, how many bales produced. I had just taken up a stack of invoices to sort when Mother walked in. She kissed me and went to her desk to work. Only a moment passed before she put down her pen. I looked up.
“My great fear is that I will somehow undermine all your father achieved,” she said as if we had been in the midst of discussion. Her expression was dark. “I wasted so much of his time, you see, by questioning his ideas and his methods, for he had first to convince me of their legitimacy.”
Mother has been low since the gypsy’s death. While I mourn the stag, Mother takes the death of the man harder. She pities the gypsy band for their loss, she worries for the patience of the townsfolk, she considers the murder a blemish on Longmeadow’s reputation. Her low spirits have permeated her conversation. I can tell: if it weren’t for her corset, she would slump in her chair.
“Your father needed my help,” Mother continued, “but in the beginning, I was reluctant to see his views. I will forever feel,” she said, “that if I had been quicker to come to his understanding, he would have been…he would have felt shored up by me, do you see? But I delayed.” She sighed “I have tried to make up for it since his death, but it is hard to be a woman alone doing the work of a man, especially of one whom she loved as I loved him.”
I recalled; immediately after Father’s death, Mother had taken to her bed. Longmeadow might have fallen apart but for Mrs. Tell and Grady. The two of them made the rounds, remedied the problems, assured the people, while Mother mourned and Juliet and I tried to comfort her. I remember the darkened room, the sour sheets.
And then one day, after a month, Mother rose, straightened her back and went downstairs to breakfast. Her sense of duty seemed to flood back to her; that very day, she ventured into Father’s office and within an hour had called for Grady to help her understand the plans for an upgrade to the drains on the south lawn.
The gypsy’s murder seemed to shake her confidence anew. I understood it: her need to speculate aloud about the murder. Who was the culprit? Was he still at large in Longmeadow? Was Longmeadow in danger? Was there something that she, as leader, might have done to prevent the crime?
I felt that a little distraction was in order.
As if I had just that moment laid my hands on it, I held a newspaper aloft. “Have you seen this?” I asked. “It’s a letter to the Times from Mrs. Pankhurst about the workhouses.”
“The workhouses? Let me see it. Oh, how marvelous.” Mother took the paper and commenced to read the letter aloud.
I’d already read it myself, of course, but I feigned interest nonetheless; in fact, I was proud to have provided so successful a distraction. I heard Juliet’s voice in my head and almost chuckled at its exactness: ‘any other topic of conversation will do,’ drawled the phantom Juliet. ‘The price of grain. New spelling primers at the school. Even the vote. Anything, as long as it’s not that gypsy.’
Later that evening, as I sat in my bedroom reading, the door opened and in walked Mother holding a sheaf of papers, her hair partly fallen from its upsweep.
“Alta,” said Mother, waving the papers, “I must consult with you, my darling. I think I ought to go out onto the circuit again.”
When Father was alive, my parents had often traveled together around Britain—for a week or two at a time, perhaps—on lecture tours. They spoke to rooms of people about Longmeadow and the ideas of equality and shared labor that go into the place. They were extremely popular—Charles, so blonde and intelligent; Maria, so dark and impassioned, such a stirring oratress. Even these years after Father’s death, my mother’s celebrity status had remained intact and she still receives plenty of invitations to speak. Once when Juliet and I were much younger and into the second week of one of our parents’ tours, Juliet had said, “Perhaps they will never come back and you and I will become orphan-queens. I’d laughed, but later that same day, Juliet rode her pony up the front steps of the house and into the parlor and around. Mrs. Tell was so angry at the mud and the breakage that I could not bear it and fled to my room and my books. Juliet had shown no remorse, and had rather, in response to Mrs. Tell’s scolding, ridden round and round the great gravel drive in the front of the manor, grimacing and holding a tasseled table runner aloft like a flag.
“Really,” Mother had said upon her return when she heard of Juliet’s escapade, “Such a fuss! And after all, if your father and I were typical, we might simply hire a governess and then leave you for months while we wintered on the continent.”
“Yes,” said Father, “but we have our work, which is here, and thus we will always return.”
“To Longmeadow,” Juliet had said to me when we were alone together, “Not to us.”
I thought Juliet unfair; our parents never were away for terribly long, after all. They always left the circuit sooner than they wished to, for their responsibilities. Indeed, this habit they had of leaving before they’d worn through their welcome, called forth a constant admiration from their audiences who felt lucky to have caught them before they disappeared back into their small utopia.
Now, Mother’s expression was ardent. I was a little surprised at how things had turned.
“The circuit?” I said. “I am surprised!”
Mother sank into the chair before the fireplace. “Honestly,” she said, “I’ve been so upset by the murder, as you know… and that’s a large part of it, of why I wish to go out again. I feel I need a bit of…I suppose I need a bit of air.” Her face changed suddenly. “Oh, Alta, darling, you know you could come with me. Do you know? You could do it, I am sure. You would enjoy seeing some of the world….” But she tapered off. I know that she knew that I would not go. But I am glad she asked.
“And it will make you feel better, then?” I said.
“Yes, I think it will. I think that if I face the incident–openly and honestly– then it will shine a good light on the place. It’s easier for people to trust in something if they feel a bit of vulnerability from it. Mr. Somerday suggested that perhaps I should even open my lectures with the incident, but I don’t know that I shall go that far.”
“Mr. Somerday?” I said.
“Why yes,” Mother said, rising from the chair, “even before the incident, he was eager that I go on tour. He urges me to do it. He is so enthusiastic about Longmeadow, you know. He is a little in love with the place, I think.”
He wishes Mother to go. He must know that I will stay. There is my heartbeat. My, how it pounds.
“I feel sure that people will welcome me though I am without your father. I shall work hard to spread our message. I feel that this is the right thing, do you not as well?”
“If it’s what you wish,” I said, standing, “And if you think you won’t worry about Longmeadow while you’re gone.”
“My love,” said Mother, hugging me. “I shall know that my lovely girl is here, at Longmeadow, continuing our important work. I plan to be two weeks, three at the most. I shall travel north to Cambridge and then circle around to Oxford and then London to see Juliet with some smaller stops between. If you will not accompany me, Alta, then you shall act in my stead here at Longmeadow. You will take over my daily rounds for me. Grady will be at your side as well as Mrs. Tell. And Alta, one more thing—Mr. Somerday is very easy to talk to, my dear. Avail yourself of his ear. And I shall write to you every day.”
I hugged her back. I was glad to see her mother’s energy renewed. I was glad to see the familiar zeal for mission. I was gratified to be trusted with Longmeadow’s work; I swear, I thought, my eyesight improves by the second as I look around and see the tasks ahead of me. And, because I aim always for honesty, I will admit it: the prospect of a daily ride with Mr. Somerday was not unpleasant.