Saturday, November 8, 2014

The book

Just in case you think I'm blowing smoke, that I'm the master of the empty gesture, I want to show you something. I really am writing a book. I wrote one non-fiction book but never was able to get it published and it now feels stale to me. This newer unfinished book is fiction, but I've been stalled for a long time because I can't figure out the voice and structure. The current working concept is that it is a connected series of short stories similar to Olive Kitteridge. (If only I could write a book worthy of being compared to Olive Kitteridge.) Instead of being connected by a single character, it is connected by a place, specifically a town called Breezy Point on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. There is a real town called Breezy Point that I knew in my childhood, but here I'm just using the name of the town and fictionalizing details. It takes place in the late 1950s and much of it is written from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old girl. But there are other voices too, and that's where I'm making myself cray-cray, trying to sort it all out and unify the pieces. The working first chapter is in the voice of the 12-year-old girl (obviously my alter ego because I write in her voice all the time). Current draft is over 100 pages, so it's a start but needs so much more work. But here is the draft of chapter 1 of the book, working title, Breezy. I used to call it Believe but I think Breezy may work better. Some of the chapters are much more serious, haunting than this, not all attempts at my version of humor. And much of this has been inspired by real life. You can't make up this stuff.

            “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” That was my mother talking. It was sometime in the spring, 1959, I was 12 years old, and I had just been hit by a bread truck. I was innocently riding my bike home from my hula lesson when the Strosneider’s bread truck came barreling around the corner, hit my bike, and sent me flying about 10 feet through the air, clear over the prickle bush hedge, and onto the lawn. The guy driving the bread truck didn’t even stop. My bike was a mangled pretzel by the side of the road. I was stunned, scraped and bruised, but I managed to get up in one piece. Mama just stood there by the front door, holding two bags of groceries from the A&P, shaking her head, saying, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie.”

            I suppose that little story could give you the wrong impression about a couple of things. First of all, my mama was never a mean person—she just believed in self-reliance. I never would have expected her to drop those groceries and come running to see if the bread truck had killed me. She had faith in my powers of resilience; she just knew that I’d bounce back, that I was stronger than any bread truck.

            The second wrong impression you might get from the story of my collision with the bread truck is that my name is Ralph. Not so. My name is Marie Antoinette Zimmerman, but my mama rarely called me by my given name. I often wondered whether it was a bad omen to have been named after a woman who was beheaded. Perhaps, because when my mama called me Marie Antoinette I knew it meant trouble. Actually she never called me by any girl’s name and she rarely called me the same name twice. But somehow I always knew she was talking to me when she called me Wilbur, or Thurgood, or Gus, or any of the thousands of boy names she used. There was just something in the tone of her voice that I knew she meant me. Everyone in Breezy knew she meant me too.

            Breezy is the town where I grew up. Actually, you won’t find it on any map listed as Breezy. Its official name is Breezy Point. It’s in Calvert County, Maryland, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The houses in Breezy have little in common except they are all rather squished into the town, some on the shore, others high up on the hill, or back in the pine trees. Most of them were built by the people who live in them. And some of the builders were more skilled than others.  [MORE DETAILS ABOUT THE TOWN]

My mother was named Mary Magdalena Zimmerman, but everyone called her Maggie. She was more than a little eccentric—in some ways like a rabid butterfly, flitting around, changing to suit her whims, but in other ways she was as immutable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

One of her most obvious whims was her hair obsession. On alternate weeks, she changed her hair color. It could be magenta, burnt umber, platinum, or a combination or any of the above. These were never colors known in nature. She had an entire collection of falls and wiglets and little chignons that she attached to her hair with no regard for trying to match the color of the fake hair to her hair color du jour. Once she cut tresses out of one of her hairpieces and glued them to her scalp with industrial strength glue. She thought it looked great for the first day and she believed she was on to something, that she had discovered a great new beauty tip and she began brewing a plan to market her discovery. Then the glued-in pieces started falling out along with large chunks of her natural hair. She didn’t miss a beat though and didn’t fret about the big bald spots on her skull. It gave her an opportunity to get some new hair pieces until her hair grew back. And it gave her a chance to be philosophical, to impart a little of her wisdom to me, saying, “What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, Grover. What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”

Mama was totally into the glamour business in general, which accounted for her career choice. She sold Avon for 35 years and eventually worked her way up to regional manager. People in Breezy used to say, “Ding dong” almost any time they saw her. She loved Avon and her customers loved her.

Then there was her redecorating obsession. But the redecoration whim was limited to the living room. The dining room never changed; it was wallpapered with lords and ladies dancing the minuet and cluttered with stacks of boxes of Avon products, a gallery of paint-by-number oil paintings, portraits of saints, and Mama’s extensive collection of Queen Elizabeth coronation china. Nothing in the dining room ever got moved. But the living room got painted once a month, whether it needed it or not. Mama bought the paint at yard sales, liberated it from the neighbors’ trash, or borrowed it from her sister Eloise. I don’t know how she intended to return the borrowed paint once it had been applied to the walls. She often mixed paint to create her own “special blend” of colors that could not be replicated. On more than one occasion she mixed in hair color to make the living room match her. Mercifully, these colors could not be replicated. Mama’s plan was to make the living room her little oasis of elegance. Accessories included cherub lamps and American eagles and ashtrays with swan wings. There were framed photographs in the living room but she bought the picture frames with photos already in them, never photos of anyone we knew. Mama called me Marie Antoinette once when she overheard me telling Barbie Grant that the handsome young man in one of the framed photos was my cousin Pierre from France and that he was going to send me a French poodle and a box of chocolate-covered cherries for my birthday. Although Mama’s own interpretation of truth could be a little wobbly at times, she held me to a higher standard.

Although the dining room furniture was threadbare and held together with duct tape, Mama was constantly redoing the living room furniture. She made window swags and pillows and reupholstered chairs with fabric she got dirt-cheap from her best friend Darla who was the manager of Jo-Ann’s Fabrics. (Darla also was into competitive ballroom dancing so she always wore high heels because she said she had to keep her feet in training. Darla was married to Vince, a telephone repairman. Vince was a competitive body builder, he shaved his chest, and used Mantan because he wanted to look like a bronze god. Once Vince was doing some telephone repair work in a house when no one was home. Seems it was a hot day and Vince decided to take a shower. Imagine the surprise when the lady of the house came home and found the telephone man in her shower. Vince got fired and began selling World Book encyclopedias. He couldn’t read that well himself but the ladies liked him.)

And there was like a revolving door of pets coming into and out of our house. Mama’s friend Blanche was the pusher, keeping Mama supplied like some sort of dope fiend who was a sucker for a furry or feathered face. Blanche worked at the county animal shelter and Mama was always willing to take in another cat, dog, bird, or miscellaneous pet. But the animals usually didn’t stay for more than a week or two. When the new pet seemed to be AWOL and I asked her where it was she always said, “Guess it must have run away. You know that God created all the wild animals according to their kinds, Louie, and He saw that it was good. Yes, He saw that it was good.” Seems most of them ran away because they objected to being house-broken. One time Blanche sent from the shelter a lovely yellow and green parakeet. I named it Chiffon, but pronounced it “Chee-phon” with a heavy French accent. I didn’t know any French but I thought it might be the French translation of the word chiffon. I might be right—I never looked it up. The bird stayed for about a month but it got mites and gave them to me. Soon after the mites appeared, Chiffon just up and disappeared too. When I asked Mama where the bird was, she said, “Guess it must have run away.”

“If it left, it probably flew away,” I muttered. “And when it flew away it took its cage with it.” The sarcasm was lost on her.

Just before Easter one year, Mama came home from the feed store with a baby duck. I named it Elmer. Elmer had the run of the house, waddling free, quacking and pooping. Apparently it’s difficult to house train a duck. I tried. I tried to shampoo him too, but he would have none of it. As if the duck poop wasn’t enough of an issue, Elmer developed a serious limp. Mama decided that the duck was terminally ill and the humane thing to do would be to put him out of his misery. So she turned the gas on in the oven without lighting it and put Elmer in the oven. As we were getting asphyxiated on the gas fumes, Mama kept checking the oven, expecting to see the poor little duckling’s limp body. Every time she opened the oven door, he just quacked and looked at her. Fearing we all would die in a house-leveling explosion, she finally turned off the gas and took him out of the oven. Elmer was fine. Actually, he was cured—he stopped limping and eventually he went to live with the other ducks in the pond at Gate of Heaven cemetery. For all I know, he’s still there, quacking and pooping.

So there were the things in our household that were always changing, like Mama’s hair, and our home décor, and passing parade of animal shelter refugees. Then there were the things about Mama that were immutable.

For example, she had these little food obsessions. Every day, without variation she ate exactly the same thing for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was two of the big shredded wheat biscuits, warm milk, one teaspoon of sugar. Lunch was a sliced hard-boiled egg with mustard on Wonder Bread. There were slight variations for dinner because I made dinner—pancakes on Sunday, spaghetti on Monday, tuna noodle casserole on Tuesday, hamburger surprise on Wednesday, scrambled eggs on Thursday, and fish sticks on Friday. On Saturday we went out to Lula’s for hamburgers. On the first Sunday of every month we had cream chipped beef on toast and peas—it was a crazy way to celebrate.

Bugs—Mama was obsessed with bugs, especially flying bugs. She was convinced that mosquitoes were responsible for all manner of illness including chicken pox, tuberculosis, polio, leprosy, acne, and diarrhea. She sprayed me with insect repellant every time I left the house. She’d check the outside thermometer—if the temperature was above 20 degrees F, I’d get sprayed. To this day, the smell of insect repellant and wet paint reminds me of home.

Mama never wavered from Catholicism either. She had memorized both the Baltimore Catechism #1 and the Baltimore Catechism #2 and could point out the fine points of all the differences between the two. She did novenas and First Fridays and knew the patron saints of everything, even obscure things—like St. Lucy the patron saint of electrical contractors. (She said special prayers to St. Lucy every time Bert Wojcik came to fix the fuse box—she didn’t quite trust Bert on his own merits.) And she went to confession every Saturday afternoon at Immaculate Conception Church, whether she needed it or not. She didn’t have many sinful habits. She didn’t exceed the speed limit, or curse, or drink alcohol. (Once Doc Betz, the druggist, told her to try a little glass of wine to help her sleep. So she poured herself a shot glass of wine, climbed into bed, drank the wine, and immediately lay down.) I think she went to confession in lieu of going to therapy. Father Mahoney could have set his watch every Saturday when Maggie Zimmerman appeared on the other side of the confessional screen. The only thing she probably had to confess was that she lied so frequently about the disappearance of the pets.

But here’s the ultimate proof that Mama’s tenacity never stopped at the border. When I was 12, Mama had been married to Daddy for 20 years. But it had been 10 years since Daddy walked out of the house to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned. No word from him, no explanation, simply gone. Mama still considered herself married. Occasionally I’d get up the nerve to ask her about him. She’d say something like, “Well, I’m not sure where he is, but I do believe he’ll be home by Thanksgiving. He just loves a good turkey.”

She baked him a birthday cake every year on his birthday. (On one of Daddy’s no-show birthdays we had a new dog. It was a big, black dog who drooled and smelled bad. The dog ate most of Daddy’s birthday cake. The following day the dog “ran away.” Mama said the dog favored Daddy and just wanted to be with him.) And every year she bought my missing father an anniversary card, signed it “with all my love, Maggie” and put it on the living room mantle. The cards were always those really mushy cards with poems about how their love had grown over the years.

And my father the disciplinarian, though absent in fact, was ever-present in her mind. When I misbehaved, she would say, “When your father gets home, you’ll have your day of reckoning, Homer, you’ll have your day of reckoning.” Wherever he was, he was perhaps more powerful in his absence than if he had been there.

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