This is still very much a work in constant progress...
I had hoped that the living room littered with beer bottles and leftover cocktail glasses full of cigarette butts would dissuade my parents from leaving me for the summer. I guess I underestimated their need to get rid of me. It was a room made for parties and there had obviously been one recently. There were bottles of varying degrees of emptiness on every flat surface. Still, even my 12-year-old self knew it was a beautiful room. I watched my mother look around like someone searching for comfort in the known. She had spent a few weeks every summer here as a kid, so I imagined she was checking to make sure it was the same, but what did I know? My dad just stared at the starburst clock over the bar. Nothing registered to him but time, and it was late. The drive from California had been long and quiet.
My great-grandfather's fourth wife, Eliza, the widow of the amazing William Keller - writer extraordinaire - sized me up over a cigarette. She had that wrinkled pucker only chronic smokers can have after decades of puffing, but she still had a look about her that made you realize she was once gorgeous, although her makeup was currently smeared and there were almost two inches of grey roots peeking above a very faded red color job. I wondered if she was drunk right now. I'd read William's biographies. All of his wives were alcoholics. I'm sure there was a correlation to being married to someone so arrogant and weird.
"There's plenty to do around here with Bill gone. So, if you feel like you need to dump her somewhere, this is as good a place as any, I guess," she said when she finally put the inch-long ash out in an empty vodka bottle on her coffee table. My mom had the decency to look a bit shocked, but my dad kept glancing at the clock above my head. I stared at him, imagining what the girlfriend my mom had discovered looked like. Pretty, if he was willing to overlook the fact that he was leaving me with this scary woman I'd only met once in my almost-13-years of life. At that moment, I hated him.
"It's not that we're dumping her!" my mom said, "I thought maybe you could use the help…"
"Oh, yeah, that," Eliza waved it off. "Whatever you need to tell yourself, or Danielle, in order to feel better."
I fell in love with her at that moment, although I was sure her words were the product of the many bottles of liquor surrounding us on shelves. I admired the fact that she could say whatever was on her mind. It made me wish I were in my sixties. Or drunk.
I looked directly at my mom, trying on Eliza's bravado, "I'm fine. You two should leave now. It's obvious Dad has somewhere to be."
My mom looked at her hands, but it was very clear that Dad missed my words completely. They got up to leave, and I didn't even give him a hug. I was sure he'd get plenty from his girlfriend, why waste my time on him? Mom squeezed me and tried not to cry.
"I'll come get you as soon as my book is done, okay?" She rubbed my hair like I was still a kid. I nodded, looking at her without tears.
“I love you.”
“Love you, too,” I nodded, trying to stay dry-eyed as they walked out the door.
As soon as they left, Eliza turned back to me. "You hungry? I'm famished. Your parents stressed me out with all that bullshit." I followed her into the kitchen, which was surprisingly clean. I wondered if she had a housekeeper or something. I was that odd 12-year-old who liked things hyper clean, so the kitchen was reassuring. My bags were still by the front door. This was all I'd seen of the house I was going to spend my summer living in and I was hoping the bathrooms matched the kitchen and not the living room.
"Yeah. They're pretty dumb right now."
She made some gurgling coughing sound that I realized was laughter, and said, "Yeah. People are always stupid when they're breaking up. "
She opened up the fridge and pulled out a pizza box, "This is from last night. It's sausage. How do you feel about that?"
I shrugged and took a slice. "Did they tell you they're breaking up?"
"No, but isn't it obvious to you?" She handed me a plate and a glass of milk. Pointing at a stool by the counter. I sat, nodding as I bit into the pizza. Two black labs suddenly appeared and Eliza let them eat sausage from her palm. One sniffed my butt as the other rubbed its nose against my crotch which made Eliza shoo them from the kitchen. They left out of a door I hadn’t noticed earlier.
"When Bill and I broke up, nobody knew. We went on pretending because he was famous. I think that's what eventually healed us. You know what they say: Fake it until you make it. One night we were at a party. I was flirting with another man, thinking about the future, you know? When we got home, he yelled at me and threw things. Then he stayed the night in my room. Something he hadn't done in months." I knew she meant they had sex, but I tried to look cool about it.
"My dad doesn't want to pretend, even for me. He's a selfish bastard," I said, borrowing the words I heard my mom's friends use the night my dad left. I waited to see if Eliza would be shocked by my rough language. She wasn't. Instead, she poured a drink from a bottle out of the freezer.
"Men are always selfish, and they're always bastards." She raised her glass to the sky and drank it down like water. I raised my milk glass and said, "I'll keep that in mind."
She gurgled a laugh again. I almost laughed myself, but something inside hurt too much.
So I wandered around the house, giving myself a tour and picking up as I went along. It was a giant farm house that had been updated in the '50s into something amazing - bigger rooms, more windows, furniture that even I knew was expensive. And, luckily, it was very clean. Looking out one window, I saw the start of a beautiful garden. It reminded me of the summer before, when my family went to France. I think my mom had already been desperate last year, knowing my dad was wandering off. Everywhere we went, she took too many pictures and smiled and laughed too much. She always wore red, my dad's favorite color, and curled her hair. It obviously had not worked.
One room was filled with books and a dusty typewriter. I made myself at home. There were tons of notebooks that were day-to-day notes of William's - Had a croissant, but it was terrible. So boring. I looked through the bookshelves and found a couple that looked good. When I opened the first one, The Disenchanted, I saw a bunch of scribbles on the pages. I couldn't believe that a novelist like William Keller would damage books like that. I ruffled through the pages – all of them had pencil markings. All of them.
I started to read.
Life is so dull right now. Everyone is boring and the talk is all the same. I left the States hoping to find something to capture my attention, but it seems the entire world has fallen into a routine of nothingness. Even the food has no flavor.
I drink to keep my sanity.
The children are noisy and I am tired of being married to Ruth. I once found her beautiful and exciting, but staring at her today I felt nothing but a sense of disdain. I can't even hate her; that would involve some sort of passion, and I have none for her. She might as well be the maid. She tried, bless her simple little heart, always wearing the earrings I got her when we first were engaged and that perfume. When she suggested sending the kids back to stay with her mother, I felt something close to fear. At least they distract her while I explore the local scenery…
I drove for miles last night with the headlights turned off, but the full moon kept me from dying. It is not my time as of yet. When will this end??? It's tiring. I have to stop this. As soon as the kids are less of a burden to her, I will leave. I feel I owe her that much.
I try to write, but no words appear on the page. I need a Muse. I need a woman to fill me with desire, so that the words will pour out again. I need someone to touch and caress without one ear listening for the sounds of children. I just need. I fucked a prostitute, but it was nothing but a different skin to touch. I need someone to dazzle me…
At twelve, some of what I read was beyond me, and I was shocked that a married man would have sex with a hooker. How could I understand that relationships sometimes just didn't work out? I was struggling to figure out why my dad would do this to me and my mom. Trying to liken it to William Keller's margin notes was confusing me more. I wasn't noisy. Mom wrote and illustrated picture books – hardly a profession that created anxiety in our home. She was always available to bake cookies and help with homework. She was beautiful, too, all my friends said so, and, well, the sex thing made me feel weird, but my parents used to go on weekend trips without me, so I knew I wasn't the problem there.
So why did he find someone else?
I decided that discovering these notes was going to make sense out of the weirdness that was happening back home. There are no coincidences, right? Maybe my great-grandfather was reaching out to me in some supernatural way, trying to help me understand my father so I could hate him a little bit less. Or maybe so I would hate him more. The idea didn't upset me. I started to organize my summer reading schedule. I grabbed a dusty sheet of paper from the stack next to the typewriter and found a pencil in the top drawer of the desk.
The problem with the margin notes was the lack of dates. The newer notes were obvious because his writing got shakier and shakier and the copyrights more recent, but I could only guess at the older entries. The journals helped me create a better timeline, although they were written as though he knew someone would be reading, so they were just there to check events. I sat with the stack of fake diaries next me, browsing quickly through their paranoid-ly generic pages (nothing subtle about his intention to fill them with nonsense) until I found mention of a newly-read book. I would then search the shelves for a copy, knowing that’s where he had felt free to share his real thoughts. I started making a list and shelving them in some sort of order.
He didn't worry about Eliza - She is not a reader, unless you count the endless stream of gossip magazines that show up every Thursday in our mailbox.
William spent time with Hemingway - what a bastard - and argued with Dorothy Parker - dirty, nasty drunk who smells like dog shit - and I couldn't wait to read more about them than the quick bits that were scribbled on the inside covers of their books. My mom has two degrees in literature. I started reading at three. My great-grandfather’s contemporaries are a big deal to her, knowing his view on them made me feel like I knew even more than she did. William was our family treasure, the reason why she had an easier time starting her writing career. I was figuring this out more and more the older I got.
To say William was eccentric and unbalanced would be understatement – something he hated as a writer. He was a bold man and his writing reflected it. He was quoted as saying, “Subtlety is the crack in American culture. We use it to hide what we’re really feeling, hoping someone will read through it and understand what we really want. No one will. Subtlety is pure horse shit.” I used that quote in an essay I had to write for my seventh-grade English class, and my teacher had mixed emotions about it, but I still love it. It seemed so perfect, looking back at that time, since my parents' marriage seemed built on subtle hints of wants and needs.
"I thought you'd find your way here," Eliza opened the door, making me jump. "I never came in here while he was alive and I have no desire to clean it up now, so if you want to work on it, you can. Feel free to box up anything you want."
She didn't even pick up a book, just stared at me sitting there with the pile of notes.
"You finding anything good in those journals?"
I picked one up and read from it, thankful of the mundane scribble, "Saw Ted at the store. Listened to him prattle about nothing interesting. Ate tuna fish at lunch. Ruth added pickle. Made it almost edible. Cleaned out the shed. Almost time to rake."
Eliza shook her head. "Hard to imagine he wrote some of the greatest literature known to man, huh? Well, I was thinking we could head into town and get some lunch, if you want."
I put down the book, wishing I could say no - that I'd be happy to stay here until my mom came to get me. "Sure. That sounds great."
"They have milkshakes at the Soda Shoppe."
"I need some hair of the dog and some lipstick, then we'll head out."
"What's hair of the dog?"
"Oh, girly, I have much to teach you this summer!" She laughed, less phlegmy than last night, and I followed her down the stairs into the kitchen. “Hair of the dog is what we drinkers do after a fantastic night to relieve the pain the following morning.”
I must have looked at her oddly, because she laughed again, poured some tomato juice into a glass and then opened the freezer where she grabbed ice cubes and a bottle of vodka. “Follow me,” she said, leading me back to the living room where she grabbed olives from a cabinet. She held the jar out to me and I took a couple, then she poured some of the liquid from the jar into her glass.
After a drink that seemed to last forever, the dogs came running in and she said, “Well, let’s head out, shall we?”
I just walked behind her, wishing I were anyplace else. The dogs were hyper and drooling and I was regretting wishing Eliza was awake. I wondered if my mom would come get me if I guilt-tripped her enough.
We wandered out the kitchen door, passed the garden, and into a giant red barn. One end already had open doors. There were three cars and a pickup in there. Eliza pointed to a convertible with only two seats. “No, boys! No!” she yelled at the dogs, making them go lay down as I sat in the front seat of the smallest car I’d ever seen. “Well? Whaddya think?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t know cars came this small. Or this yellow.” The car was almost fluorescent.
“Isn’t it fabulous?” she said as she turned the key. “I have always loved cars.” As she shot us out of the open side, dirt spewed from behind us. My stomach jumped and I grabbed the dash, hoping not to vomit.
“This is the summer you learn how to drive, Dani!”
I didn’t remind her that I was only 12. I was too busy trying not to cry again. How could this be my life? How could my parents leave me with someone that was so unbalanced? I didn't deserve this.
Town wasn’t very far. Honestly, we could have walked. I said so, too.
“You’re right, but convertibles are more fun and we’re picking up some groceries, too.”
“First we get you a chocolate milkshake and some overly salted French fries. You need to meet Ruthie.”
The Soda Shoppe was a tiny diner set in a strip mall made to look old-fashioned. Or maybe it was really old. Either way, we seemed to be in the center of town and it was still pretty quiet. I wasn’t impressed with the outside much, but when we walked in I decided it was going to be my summer hangout. It smelled like heaven to a 12-year-old girl. Donuts were frying, ice cream was everywhere, candy lined the walls in the cleanest jars I’d ever seen, and everything was spotless and white. A woman that looked my mom’s age walked over and hugged Eliza, “I thought you were giving up sugar!”
“I’m not here for me! This is Bill’s great-granddaughter, Danielle. She’s here for a chocolate shake and we both want fries.”
“I’m pretty sure we can do that. Have a seat anywhere,” she said while walking away. She glanced back once over her shoulder to wink and say, “It’s nice to meet you, Dani.” I liked her. We sat at a small round table with three chairs.
“She seems nice.”
“Ruthie’s the best person I know, and I know a lot of people. Did you know that Bill’s first wife was also named Ruth? It used to make me wonder if he thought of her every time we saw Ruthie. Crazy, huh? The mind…anyway. Ruthie was a bartender for a long time, but it got hard when she gave up drinking.” There was an odd pause and Eliza picked at a fingernail to fill it. Her nails were a bright orange-red and were obviously fake. “We used to be drinking buddies. Now I come visit her here so that I can still know her. It was our compromise. That and she wouldn’t try to get Bill and me into AA. She never tried, but I know people in recovery – they always want to bring you into the fold. I can’t stand that churchy stuff. You’re not religious, are you?”
“No. I mean, I went to vacation bible school one summer with a friend. It was all Jesus and lambs. At least, that’s all I remember.”
She laughed. “Yeah. That’s about all I remember, too.” She picked at her fingernail again. Later that summer, I would realize that it was something she did when she didn’t have a drink or a cigarette in her hand. “One more thing that I remember from my church days: Have patience with all things, but first of all, yourself. St. Francis de Sales. My parents tried to make me a Catholic. It didn’t really stick, but it did get me a beautiful wedding to my first husband and a lot of money.”
“Well, I used to be quite the looker, and there was a boy at mass every Sunday that really liked that about me. His dad had died, but his mother liked my parents, so we ended up married. He died a couple of years later and left me a lot of money.”
“Were you sad?”
She looked me in the eyes and said, “Not really. He wasn’t that nice.”
Ruthie showed up just then, carrying a silver tray with our order. “The fries are HOT, so don’t get crazy with them. Here’s your shake, Dani. And some ketchup, or would you rather have ranch dressing?” I was already squirting ketchup on to one corner of my basket and shook my head. Eliza answered for me.
“This is fine, Ruthie. Can you sit for a bit?”
Ruthie sunk into the other chair and stole a fry from Eliza’s basket. “So, Dani, how long will you be staying?”
I looked at Eliza, “I’m not really sure.”
“Her parents are having some troubles and thought my craziness would distract her. She’s going through Bill’s books for me. And then I’m going to teach her how to drive.”
Ruthie laughed and took another fry. “Is that so you can have another chauffeur?”
Eliza laughed as Ruthie went on, “Eliza is the one that got Bill to start collecting cars, but the ones she loves the most are always two-seaters. He always grumbled that she liked drying her hair in the wind but hated to drive. And she always told him that she was paying him to be her driver anyway and that he should just shut up.” Eliza laughed, but I saw something funny in her eyes. Like there was more to the story.
I watched as they reminisced some more. The best thing about being a kid was that adults often think you’ve tuned them out. The best thing about being a preteen girl is that you learn quickly when the conversations are important. I kept eating those fries and drinking that milkshake as I learned more and more.
"Remember that year Bill talked me into the truck? Said it would be a better choice for winter and then I went ahead and slid it into that ditch the first weekend. There was no way I was ever going to drive that thing again. The way the backend wagged like a dog's tail when I hit that ice...Still can't believe that's the car Bill insisted on teaching your mom in, Dani. Allyson was always too soft to and nice to tell people no. You should've seen her! I doubt she was any taller than you are right now. He would start out all nice and patient and then yell at her. She probably never got over that."
They drifted into some boring discussion about an upcoming parade and the cars they were going to use. I could only think about how my mom was still too nice and soft. She went along with everyone's wishes. My dad would get so tense about things like dinner, and my mom would tell him whatever he wanted was fine with her. I'd see his jaw get tight and he would sometimes say, "A sandwich is fine. I have to finish up some work anyway." I never got why he could get so mad about her wanting him to be happy. What's so bad about being easy-going? It was just more proof that my dad was a jerk. My mother didn't deserve that.
“Oh, Dani, I hope I see a lot more of you,” Ruthie smiled as she got up to greet new customers. “It’s a quick walk and an even quicker bike ride.”
“I’ll be down as much as possible.”
It felt safe there. The smells were familiar, like some universal scent of childhood.
"What do you think?"
"She's great. I love it here. The fries are perfect."
"They really are. It wasn't here when your mom was a kid. There was a little counter at Woolworth's that she loved. We'd go there for lunch a few times a week. She'd have whatever Bill was having, didn't matter what it was, either. He loved making her try the oddest combinations. We would laugh later, because there was just no way she was ever going to tell him that she hated anything. He used to say, 'Ally is a good egg. She'd eat a shoe horn, if I suggested it, just to make me feel good about my choices.' She's pretty damned pleasant, your mother. It's too bad men don't like that more."
"What do you mean?"
She swiped a fry through my pool of ketchup and took her time eating it. "A lot of us were raised to make men happy, but the way we were taught was all wrong. Men don't give a shit whether or not you can cook them a good pot roast on a Sunday night. In fact, I swear Bill thought fighting was foreplay. He hated his first marriage, because it was boring. Every day the same routine. Bill had a restless heart, you know. He needed someone to keep him guessing, or he would create some drama to entertain himself. My first husband used to hit me and tell me that I sounded like his mom. I started hitting back until he left for the war. He died in a car accident while home from the Navy – he wasn’t some sort of hero, like our home town tried to make him - and I never missed him one day. I'll bet Bill's ex-wives didn't miss him, either. He was such an ass, but it worked for us, because I wasn't about to shine some fucking man's shoes for him, you know?"
I didn't. I had no idea what foreplay was and I still didn't get why being nice was boring to men. Eliza finished up the fries and waved at Ruthie to let her know we were leaving. As we walked out, I asked, "What's foreplay?" as we walked past a young couple, and they burst out laughing. Eliza laughed with them and said, "I'll tell you later."