I mentioned in a comment recently that I have an array of unfinished projects that never cease to whisper accusations of neglect at me. One of them is a novel that I started some twenty or twenty-five years ago. There are a number of reasons why it’s languished for most of that time, and for all of the past ten or more of those years: workaday responsibilities and distractions, an almost ADD-like inability to concentrate, procrastination, plain old laziness. And then there’s the more fundamental problem that I’m not a natural storyteller. I’ve had from the beginning the broad outline of my plot but have had trouble with the details. I originally intended for it to be a quasi-detective story, which was one reason the plot was difficult: you need a pretty well-engineered mechanism for that.
Some weeks ago I had an email conversation with a friend who’s trying to find a publisher for a novel she’s written, which caused me to locate and read the fragments of mine. I thought it had potential. I told her I’d send her some samples, but have, as usual, found it hard to organize that project. So I spent the time which ordinarily goes into writing my Sunday journal in doing so. The vignette which follows is brief enough to post. So, Vicki, here it is.
The time is the late 1970s. The place is Atlanta, approximately. The narrator is a thirty-ish ex-musician and current Ph.D student (history) who’s been asked by a hospitalized friend to track down an old girlfriend.
I located the building at a little after eleven, and when I had stopped the car the street was silent. The neighborhood was shabby but could have been worse. The old house sat square in its small high yard, having been built on a mild slope which had been cut away for sidewalk and street. A brick wall, eighteen inches or so high, kept the yard from spilling out into the street but would not, to judge by the way it sagged outward, continue to do so for many more years. The house was like most of those in the neighborhood, tall and blocky and needing care. At the windows were torn screens and sagging air conditioners. While I sat there, putting off the task, wondering whether it was too early to wake up a bunch of hippies on a Sunday morning, a Led Zeppelin song came crashing into the street. After thirty seconds of that I figured no one within a couple of hundred feet could still be sleeping, so I got out of the car. As I stepped onto the sidewalk the music stopped abruptly, leaving the tail of someone’s fury in the air—fucking bastard—and with that for my trumpet call I marched up the two steps to the front walk, up three steps to the porch. I found the name on a mailbox and opened the front door.
The front hall breathed of an old sadness, with its dark wooden floor and wallpaper of a decorous, abstract, and empty pattern, long faded, having had little enough life in it to begin with—a pattern too mechanical to do anything but lock the mind into itself, suggesting or recalling nothing. It held, permanently, the mood of a lonely Sunday without festivity. Beer cans and other debris were scattered around, much of it looking as if it had been there for a while.
A staircase on my left ran up toward the rear of the house. I climbed, noticing how sturdy the banister had remained, sliding my hand along it and taking my time, having no wish to meet the woman I was seeking and half-hoping Darlene’s trail would end here.
When I stood at the door of 207 I could hear running water and the sound of a television. When I knocked, there was a tattoo of light feet moving away from the door, and in a moment the sound of the water stopped. The footsteps returned, more slowly, and there was movement on the other side of the door. A kid, I thought, figuring that I was now being examined through the peephole in the door. Kids home alone, with instructions not to answer the door. I tried very hard not to stare into the peephole, and looked everywhere else, feeling like the mischievous character in an old comedy, feigning innocence, hands in pockets, eyes wandering. At last I turned around and looked over the balustrade down into the foyer.
The door opened behind me. Turning, I saw the face of a woman with wet hair looking past the chain.
“Gina goddamn well better not have sent you over here this time of morning.”
“I don’t know Gina,” I said. “I’m looking for somebody who used to live here. Last I know she was in 205. Darlene Jeffrey. Did you know her?”
She paused. “Yeah. Don’t know where she is now, though. What do you want with her?”
I told her who I was and why I was looking for Darlene.
“Wheeler’s a shit,” she said, “but I guess you can come in. Not that I can help you much.”
She opened the door and we looked at each other. Her dark wet hair, parted in the middle, fell past a face that was somewhat pretty but hardened, not so much by her expression, it seemed, as by something in the bone, as if she had been put together by a builder whose work was solid but lacking in grace and finish. She wore a dark blue tank top and jeans, filling them with a body that was rounded but trim.
At a distance of ten feet or so behind her, in a frayed-looking robe of pink terrycloth, stood a little girl of eight or ten with long dark hair which I took as proof that the woman was her mother. Windows on the east side of the room let in the clean September light, but the one slightly open window didn’t let in enough fresh air to defeat the cigarette smoke and the close greasy smell of bad housekeeping. To the right, opposite the windows, were a kitchen and what I supposed must be a bedroom—all I could see was a floor littered with clothing. Beside the kitchen door, a crumpled grocery bag full of garbage seemed in immediate danger of toppling because of the heavy gallon-sized wine jug which had been imprudently added to what had already been a full load.
She gestured toward a battered-looking green couch which filled the space in front of the windows. At one end of the couch was a table upon which sat a small color television. I recognized the program: Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power.” I sat down on the other end.
“She’d rather have cartoons,” said the woman, “but she’ll watch anything.” She nodded in response to the little girl’s look, and the girl jumped up on the other end of the couch without looking at me, drawing herself up as if to keep as far away from me as possible.
“She doesn’t like guys,” said the woman.
I waited to see if she would explain the remark. She didn’t. Over the little girl’s shoulder I watched as the eye of the camera drifted across a choir in sky-blue robes. The girl was humming softly, her face almost against the screen. The camera panned to the bright windows of Reverend Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral.
“She asked me once if that was heaven,” said the woman. “You remember that, Glad?” The little girl didn’t answer.
“Pretty boring heaven, it looks to me,” I said.
“You might not think so if you’d seen some of the stuff she’s seen,” said the mother, her eyes on the television, or on the little girl, but her vision far away, and again offered no explanation. Though the way was open for me to inquire, I didn’t.
“This is kind of distracting,” I said, “for all concerned. What if we talk in there, where we won’t bother her?” I pointed to the kitchen. The woman gave me a suspicious look, then shrugged. “Whatever.” As she stepped into the kitchen, the little girl spoke, without looking around.
“Do you want me to turn it up?”
“No, honey, that’s ok.”
“Is ‘Glad’ short for something?” I asked.
“Galadriel,” she said. “You know, from the trilogy.”
The position of the wine bottle in the garbage bag was as precarious as it looked, for the whole thing toppled to the floor when I brushed it as I entered the kitchen, scattering eggshells, paper, banana skins, and tuna cans over the floor. It seemed to break the ice; she laughed and began to talk while I cleaned up the mess. She offered me a cup of coffee but with so many apologies for its age that she convinced me to decline it. She poured herself one and lit a cigarette.
“Darlene and I were actually pretty good friends,” she began. “She thought I was real mature and experienced, which I guess is true—at least the ‘experienced’ part.” She grunted. “I tried to kind of look out for her. Not that she listened much. I guess nobody likes advice unless it’s what they want to hear. She wanted to be free and have a good time, but I kept telling her to get serious. Look, I told her, if you’re going to be on your own you got to take care of yourself, because nobody else is going to. Hang on to your money, go to secretarial school or something. And don’t ever give a guy nothing. I told her it was going to get real old, waiting tables just so you can hang out in clubs on your day off. But she was just a kid, you know? She’d agree with everything I said, sweet as could be, then turn around and do just the opposite.”
The kitchen table reminded me of my childhood: it was an old one with a 1950s look, red marble-like formica and heavy round chrome legs, though the chrome was pocked and rusted in places. The table was covered with more dishes than the two of them could have used for one meal. I sat down in front of a half-full bowl of wet Cheerios.