“A novel must begin again and again.”
She sat on her hands and stared at her toes. When she was a baby her fingernails delighted her because they were hard and smooth and unlike anything else on her body. Then one day she’d looked down at her foot, planted on a next step up, and seen with both horror and delight that she had fingernails on her toes. What else might her body do?
A whole lot of lots of things, it turns out. Her latest was to jump on the back of a guy’s old motorcycle and hang on to him through three states, straight to a Trailer Park & Camp Site, of which he is the Manager, then move in with him and spend the next few weeks hanging out in his RV and making smoochy love. At the end of which time, he told her, very politely, that he was moving on. Translation: moving on to shag any female to wag, sag, drag or zigzag herself into the park. The RV was out. So now she’s bunking in with Annie in a camper half the size of the RV and working two 5-hour shifts a day at the Eats half of a Recreation and Eats place that Annie runs. She should have known. On the back of the leather jacket she was clinging to over all those miles it said, “If you can read this, the bitch fell off.”
She addressed her attention to her toes again. Just a short while ago she finished a book by John Irving where, after the end of the novel, he has written a short Afterward on the role of first sentences in good storytelling. He ends by saying a really good story contains many stories. So, you don’t write just one first sentence, but you must write several, because a good story - or book - must begin again and again. When she read that, suddenly, like a telescope previously reversed and now righted, she saw her life full size and clearly. And knew that life too must begin again and again.
If you’re looking - right end of the telescope to your eye - you can see it. If you’re viewing life from the wrong end of the telescope you can’t, because you never see life close and clearly so you never realize life can - does - must - begin again and again. Instead, you think it plays mean tricks on you, that’s all. Or that it’s flat and barren and boring as old linoleum. Or, worst of all, you don’t think. You just survive. Doing hard time at the wrong end of your telescope. Which had been her way. Had been how she was doing it.
At which point her conscience gave her a dope slap. Her conscience. Oh, yeah, well, see, at age 8 she had watched the video of the old 1940 animated film, Pinocchio, and had fallen in love with Jiminy Cricket. But when she announced it, told her parents that she had a conscience, named Jiminy, her beautiful Italian Romani papà said the cricket’s rightful name was the talking cricket or il grillo parlante, and was from an Italian children’s book, Le Avventure di Pinocchi, which he then read aloud, translating from the Italian as he went and breaking in on himself again and again to plead that she learn from these tales of the wooden marionette who gets into bad scrapes all the time, who even get his papa put in jail, because he keeps making ill-considered choices, even though the talking cricket tells him to get over himself, saying, "you are a puppet, and what's worse is that you have a head of wood,” but the Italian Pinocchi gets pissy and throws a hammer that kills the cricket so it only comes back as a ghost, still nagging, telling his buds, a crow and an owl, that Pinocchi is "...a disobedient rascal, who will cause his poor father to die heartbroken!". When her father finished the book, he knelt and held her hands and asked her please, not to cause her poor father to die heartbroken.
Which was lovely and caring and all that, only he fell over dead from a heart attack the next year, leaving her tied to a 26 year old mother who was the epitome of bad or ill-considered choices, and in whose wake she trailed for another 6 years until at age 15 she ran away, preferring to get into her own scrapes instead of living her mother’s ongoing soap opera. So you see, the matter of a conscience has weight for her. Even if her version is a small brown cricket with no name. Who’d dope slapped her, saying to be mindful - a beginning in your life is born out of your past. Oh hell, she’d thought. That again. And was rather sharply rebuked for it. Okay. Okay, she thought now. Quick review. Getting shut of her present was the thing.
She thought first of her father. Her father had been good at many things, quick fingered pocket theft among them, but he was always employed. Janitor, handy man, grounds man. She thought he only occasionally indulged himself with the darker arts. Happy to part a fool and his money. He had been her wonderful papà. A glorious Italian umou. A Romany, long separated from a gypsy way of life. A glorious, glorious man and she blessed his memory.
She thought of her mother. A feckless but clever and shrewd woman. Her telescope was most certainly reversed, her beginnings always repeats of the past. Did her mother work? She busked. Performed. Sang, danced, did spontaneous mime wherever she happened to be. Was very beautiful. Artful. Alway an upturned hat holding a few coins affixed to her waist. People gave. And if sometimes, someone took, she simply smiled and bowed. Her mother was quite skilled at survival.
As for herself? Well, she’d never been beaten, molested, abused. Neglected? Benign neglect, yeah, which is really an oxymoron, because - well, just look at it. So, yes. Well. After her papà’s death, she was with her mother, of course. Her mother, who had had a kind of native intelligence that always secured their physical safety. They traveled the back roads, ever on the move. They lived on the edge, a place her mother would frequently leave for a quickie romance of a night or three, but never without first placing a crumpled bill in her daughter’s hand, wrapping her daughter’s fingers tightly around it, and telling her daughter it would hold her over.
She, said daughter, never left the spot where her mother left her, at least not for long, staying right there until her mother returned, when she’d return to her the crumpled bill. She was developing her own considerable skills in surviving. There were tricks to it. People throw away the most incredible things. Town dumps don’t only house rats.
School being out of the question, she read whatever was available, eating up fact and fiction with equal appetite. Once on her own, libraries, malls, those huge stores with warehoused merchandise to sell cheap and museums were among her favorite places to wander, look, sit, read, have wash ups, scavenge, take naps, and sneak safe overnights. She was good at hiding in plain sight.
When she’d gotten a little older, she became quite fond of law firms with their many floors and many offices, with restful waiting areas where, clean and neatly dressed, she could often sit for long stretches, reading the magazines, saying variously that she was waiting for a mother/father/sister/brother/aunt -- never uncle - for some reason “uncle” raised silent alarms -- and be left alone, even sometimes offered tea or coffee or a soda to drink. She mastered the art of appearing to wave with great relief at someone just out of sight and would then take her leave, politely, offering a quiet thank you along with a small royal bob of the head.
Her first job was with a late night cleaning crew for one of those office complexes that had found her asleep on a deep delectable leather couch in a lawyer’s office. A kind woman who didn’t speak a word of English but recognized what she saw took her home and gave her a place where she could sleep. After that, she worked with the crew, who paid her a few dollars out of their pockets for jobs they hated or were too lazy to do. She was a good worker. She would spend her days in bookstores and libraries, mostly, and her nights in the law firms and accountancies they cleaned.
She sighed and leaned back. Ancient history. Getting by on your nerve and your smarts. She was good at it. In time she began waitressing -- where she could eat, thank god -- renting single rooms in cheap fleabags. Finally she moved on to nanny work. After spending most of a spring and summer in the parks where nannies took their charges and she could eavesdrop and learn. Her first reference was from another nanny. She got along with kids. She should. She certainly understood what made them tick. And as a nanny she could live in, make fairly good money, study books from libraries, have a room of her own. And food!
Enough of that. Of the past. Okay, so how did she get here? Fifteen years later? The same age now as her mother has been when last she’d seen her. Thirty-eight, still a wandering nomad, still beautiful, grown older but no wiser in romance, headed for Bimini she’d said, lavishly kissing goodbye to her daughter. A real goodbye it had been, apparently, as she’d never laid eyes on her mother again nor ever again heard her odd slightly husky yet nasal voice. Disappeared. Like fog over water after the sun is out. She could only wish her mother soft landings and sweet dreams, wherever she might be.
But, again. Herself. How’d she end up here? Ill-considered choices, she thought ruefully, picturing again her papà and silently apologizing to him. -- She was going to have to get ready to go back to work. She worked every opening from 5:00-10:30 AM, had time to get back to Annie’s, clean up, do dishes, run a mop around, start a laundry, maybe take a shower and shampoo, change her clothes and head back for the 5:00-10:30 PM shift. Some life.
The door to the camper rattled under a sudden knocking that startled her so that she sloshed her coffee all over the front of her tee shirt. Hell, she thought as another sharp rapping made the door rattle and her hands shake as she tried to pull the wet fabric away from her skin. She yelled that she was coming, damn it, and, passing a hand helplessly over her messy hair, took the few short steps to the door. Whipping it open she had to dodge a fist already in a mid-knock, aborted by her action.
Shit, she said and glared at the short bizarrely mustachioed man who stood there looking, she guessed, as belligerently at her as she was looking at him but she couldn’t really tell because he wore a spaghetti western black Stetson with silver cording, its brim hiding most of his face.
He addressed her before she could gather herself to speak. He was half-yelling. Asking what the hell did it mean, where the hell had she been, yelling about how he had been waiting all this time in the field, how he had four good men ready to hold the ropes until lift-off, that she was now a full hour late, costing him their wages as well as his own peace of mind and no doubt an extra-large chunk of his already greatly diminished trust in the female of the species.
She was studying him as he spouted and sputtered. There was something familiar. He had been at the take out window several times lately. He’d walked up each time. And each time she’d told him it was against rules. It wasn’t safe. There were cars. He’d said he could jump if need be. He was so small she’d thought him a child at first. He’d kidded with her, joked and laughed about how he should have come over in his hot air balloon, saying he’d take her up if only she’d serve him at the take out window. She’d said sure, but he’d not only have to take her up, but up, up and away, and he’d said that was easy enough, it would be more interesting than just going up and coming back down, like an elevator, always in the same place. They’d joshed about floating away from it all.
He smacked the side of the camper and she jumped. Okay she said. All right. Sorry. So very sorry.And then thought and why not? What a great way to view life. From up in a hot air balloon. On her way to who knows where. Leaving all this behind. If there were ever opportunity knocking, this was it. Silently she checked with her conscience, but the talking cricket wasn’t talking. Ah well, she thought. Maybe another ill-considered choice, maybe life lived looking from the right end of the telescope, maybe a scrape, maybe not. But, life begins again and again and again. So...
Once inside the basket, she thought it a bit crazy as they were slightly canted over, atilt, as it were, and that it was a rather a small one, glad now her companion was so diminutive, then wondering if that were really a good thing, and asking herself what she was doing, why was she standing in a basket with a burner at its center and propane tanks billeted along the sides with a wildly colored canopy limply half-lying, half-hanging off to one side, with four men out there hanging onto what’d he called them? -- Service ropes? - Support ropes? There was one called a crown rope, she was sure -- and wondered if this really was a balloon, and if so, did it ever catch fire, and then had to reach to grab for something as the basket began straightening up, sending her scuttling a bit before she could stand upright again, becoming aware of her companion, who was still speaking from beneath his hat, now saying things like, oh, young lady, it’s all right, and, look, girly, it really will be fine, and, there’s no need to sniff, nothing’s burning, and it’s all safe, I’ve been doing this a long time, and there, there and all really fine until she realized she’d quit listening long ago, engaged in watching the crew of strong young men tugging back on the ropes to help steady the balloon - no, he’d said it was the envelope - and really? - an envelope? - whatever it was, it was going from listing to more and more upright as it slowly filled with heated gases, and she only came back to listening when she heard his voice saying, rather testily, something about how after all she should know that it’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings.
She shot him a look and asked if that was his personal tag line, to which he replied yes, it was, and what, pray tell, was hers, and so, thinking about John Irving’s sentence - which was really why she was standing here, her tote bag and backpack jammed in behind her backside - she told him, saying life, like a good novel, has many stories and must begin again and again and again -- and found that just saying it out loud, to someone else, tingled -- and in response, he’d tilted his head way back, raising his bushy eyebrows to where she could see his eyes clearly for the first time and noted, with a slight twitch in her stomach, that he looked just like Marty Feldman, having a tiny face that narrowed to a pointed chin and one large, rather protuberant eye way off to one side while the other stared directly at her, so she swallowed hard and said it was really a combination of her own thoughts mixed with something an author had written and she’d read and he smiled up at her - a truly weird but truly engaging smile -- and said that he liked it, and liked beginnings as well, that in fact he liked beginnings a great deal, and then asked was she in this to really go up, up, and away, and she said that’s why her life was packed in two bags and why she was standing in this basket with him and he interrupted, saying it was a gondola, really, not a basket, but she didn’t listen because she was still talking, saying she hoped it was not an ill-considered choice, and he’d said well, he could guarantee her one thing and that was that the fat lady wasn’t going to sing as she’d run away with the tattooed man. And she said if that was his idea of a joke he should know, but he’d broken in, saying, nope, it wasn’t, that they’d run off, he knew, he was there, they were planning on going to sea. -- In a beautiful boat, he added, only the odd thing was that the tattooed man had had the boat painted - green - and not a nice sea-like green but a bright sort of a fresh pea-green. Which is when she jumped him, saying, nhhh-uhhhn, she knew that one, that was Edward Lear’s nonsense poem about the owl and the pussy cat. And he said, yes, he knew. And so did they. Know the poem. But that ever since they’d fallen in love, she’d called him her wise old owl and he, he’d called her - well - and she said, yup, she got it, she loved him and he loved her, so there’d be no fat lady singing, and he said, correct.
And then the balloon - uh, envelope - gave a very strong lurch, rearing upright, high above them, and as her stomach lurched once in response, the odd little man signaled to the guys on the ground and they began running towards them, the ropes slackening as they neared. And then she didn’t know what they did or where the ropes went or how, because now the fully inflated envelope was rising and so was the basket - uh, gondola - it was rising, they all were rising, and now, now the wind was taking them, and the earth was receding beneath them, and everything on the ground looked distant and was tiny, like something seen through the wrong end of a telescope, and she knew, was certain, that it was a new beginning -- and then abruptly wondered, what about when she had to pee?
© Copyright 2016 Wilbur. All rights reserved.