Monday, November 28, 2016

"ALL WRITERS ARE BUMS, I MURMURED. MAY I BE COUNTED AMONG YOU ONE DAY." (PATTI SMITH)

Prologue

You've heard people say their lives changed overnight, right? They woke up and heard the lottery numbers and knew they were millionaires. They fell in love at first sight. 

More often, the change is bad because one day everything is fine, and the next? 

It is all fucked up. 

I read once that Marie Antoinette's hair turned white overnight in jail while she awaited the loss of her head. 

What people don't think about is that the overnight device is a saying. Nothing but a cliché. It hardly ever takes that long: eight hours, twelve hours, or however you define overnight, for a life to be transformed. Most of the time, it happens in one or two seconds.

I bet Marie's hair betrayed her during a few seconds of a nightmare when she saw the guillotine's blade slice through her own milky neck.

How many seconds does it take to purchase that lottery ticket or to decide to stop someplace for ice cream? These decisions may be part of a change that's a long time in the making, but when the hair whitening attacks, it happens in a flash. 

And the flash of the blade in the sunlight can be so bright it nearly blinds you. 

Chapter One

Clue

The yellow piece of paper on the windshield of Aggie's black minivan stood out like a beacon in the dusky evening light as she left the urgent care center. She waddled along with a purse and diaper bag slung behind her right shoulder, Ruth Ann perched on her right hip, and a still sobbing Elliot hanging on for dear life to her left hand.

She shook free of El's sweaty grasp so she could pull the paper out from under the wiper and unfold it. "ASSHOLE" it said, printed neatly in red letters on a scrap torn from a legal pad.

"Mom!" Elliot pawed at her, as Ruth Ann's head drooped onto Aggie's shoulder. Aggie stood rooted to the asphalt next to the car so she could check out the area. What had she done now?

White painted lines of parking spaces, empty now, spread out across the parking lot like whitecaps on the ocean. White, white, white, except around her car, where she now saw yellow lines. Two yellow lines on each side of the van and an arrow underneath it that marked the route to exit the lot. The only route between the parking spaces.

Drivers must have woven around her van for hours before the lot cleared out. Tire tracks in the mud provided evidence that they ran her blockade by driving off the asphalt and into the landscaped border along the sidewalk. Flowers and juvenile trees had been flattened.

Aggie pictured the line of vehicles and hated herself. The waiting cars stretched for miles. An imaginary driver, his face contorted in righteous indignation, jumped out of his expensive car with a legal pad in his left hand and a red pen in his right. Angry lawyer. Furious lawyer. Late for an appointment and it was her fault. He held the pen in the air, a sword that dripped bloody ink, chose the perfect word, wrote it, and jammed the note in place.

Then sedans, sports cars, and pickup trucks careened around the sidewalk as pedestrians dragged their children out of the way. Jam-packed cars held drivers and passengers drawn as cartoons. "ASSHOLE" filled every balloon above their mouths because they all knew what she was.

"I am an asshole."

The words played as though they were a stuck record in her mind and fixed themselves to the tune of a children's song about being a pizza.

IIIIIIIII am an assss-hoooole.

She wanted to laugh at her song, but she forgot her pleasure as soon as it struck because being an asshole wasn't funny at all. Then she wished she could bawl along with El, but someone had to be in charge, and that someone was Aggie. Aggie alone.

She had rushed to the urgent care center to have a cut on Elliot's chin seen to and parked in a hurry. She thought the yellow lines marked a parking spot. They sat in a dingy waiting room most of the afternoon and into suppertime before an arrogant doctor looked at El for two seconds and informed a nurse, who then told Aggie, that the cut didn't need stitches. A butterfly bandage would do. She could have put that on herself and never left home, but if she'd been wrong, there would have been hell to pay. She'd never hear the end of it from John.

When her husband did see the cut, he would probably complain that the doctor had been wrong, the cut needed stitches. Nobody, especially Aggie, did anything right in John's hallowed opinion. The sound of his voice criticizing her for going to the wrong doctor replaced the "asshole" song playing in her mind.

But then her own angry voice took over. Dr. High-and-Mighty was never around to take care of his own kids. He'd throw a fit if Aggie bothered him at work, so she had to go to the nearest urgent care center and wait for hours until somebody looked at this damn kid who fell off his bike every two seconds.

She guessed that had been her license plate announced over the loudspeaker. The whining voice had demanded over and over, "Vehicle number hrrm-hrrm-hrrm must be moved immediately."

She hadn't been able to hear anything over Elliot whining that his chin hurt and Ruth Ann begging to have a story read to her.

"Don't touch those books. They've covered in filth from sick people," she'd told Ruth Ann.

By the time Elliot gave up complaining and Ruth Ann fell asleep, the announcements had stopped. All the patients had been treated and gone home, the center was about to close, and it no longer mattered where her mini-van was parked.

Elliot grabbed Aggie's arm and pulled on it so she remembered she stood in a parking lot staring at an ugly word. She crumpled the yellow paper and flung it toward the arrow under her car.

"Mom, you're littering," Elliot accused her in a whine.

"Just get in the damn car," she barked back. "A storm's coming. We need to go home before it gets any darker. I don't know how I'll find my way as it is."

Thunder boomed as the children crawled into the mini-van. "Sop it! Sop it!" Ruth Ann screamed as Elliot (her toddlerese for "stop it") when he stuck his butt in her face as he slid past her on the seat.

At eight years old, Elliot already knew how to torture Ruth Ann––and Aggie. He sneered, satisfied with Ruth Ann's screams. Aggie wanted to lean over to smack him as she buckled Ruth Ann into her car seat, but she didn't dare. John didn't allow her to spank the children, or punish them in any other way, because he claimed it would destroy their spirits. Elliot's wonderfully free spirit was a punishment for Ruth Ann and for Aggie. She had no options for dealing with his obnoxious behavior.

And there would be hell to pay when Elliot told his dad that she'd said to get in the damn car. Cursing wasn't allowed, either.

She also knew Elliot moved as slowly as he could, the way he always did because it irritated her and she couldn't do anything about it, couldn't give him a time out or take away his TV privileges the way other moms did with their children.

She used the back of her hand to wipe the sweat from her forehead and turned away so she could say what she pleased. "I hate this fucking town. Maryland is hotter than hell."

Here she was in a strange town after years in cool, green Seattle because John had a new job, Big Chief Medical Director, at a hospital in Western Maryland. The hospital was about forty miles from the Central Maryland suburb of Columbia where John had bought a house. He had a long commute, but he refused to lived in Haven with the "local yokels."

In fact, John rarely visited the home he had selected without consulting Aggie. Six weeks after their move, John already spent most nights at the hospital because he claimed he was overworked and too tired to drive home. Aggie wondered why the locals didn't bother him enough to make him come home at night. And funny, he never sounded tired when he called to say he wouldn't be home. Sometimes Aggie heard a woman laugh in the background. He claimed it was the nurses fooling around at their station, but the sound––the same laugh, one laugh from the same person, every time––frightened Aggie.

No time to think about it now. With Elliot seat belted in at last, Aggie started the car and headed for the street. At least I'm already in the exit lane, she thought wryly. She had called for directions before they left home and had found the center without too much trouble, but getting home would be another story. She could never retrace her steps. It infuriated John, but it just didn't work out in her mind.

Right or left out of the lot? With no one waiting behind her, she had time to stop and think. She decided it had to be right. She could see the traffic light where they had turned to get to the medical center.

But when she pulled into the left turn lane at the light, she didn't know if she was supposed to be there. Maybe she belonged in the right turn lane. Which way home?

Aggie felt the headache that had started on the way there spread from the top of her head to her forehead and face. Out of habit to try to ease the pain, she ran her hands through her short, curly gray hair, and pushed hard against her scalp.

A sign pointing left said it was the way to D.C. Aggie feared getting sucked out onto the beltway. She had been on it with John in the driver's seat and had closed her eyes to the traffic wooshing around them, too fast for her to bear.

She decided to turn right. Aggie put on the right-turn blinker and twisted the wheel, waiting to see if the driver of a small, dark car pulling up behind her would allow her to get in the right lane. It was getting dark and hard to see, difficult to judge what others in this strange territory might do.

This person surprised her by waiting while she moved into the right lane and then out onto the highway as the light turned green. At the same time, the storm began in earnest. Rain poured down in sheets as lightning lit the sky.

Nothing looked familiar. Aggie, terrified, could barely see, and other drivers zipped and zoomed around her. One truck pulled up behind her. The driver flashed his lights. She knew he meant "get the hell out of my way," but where would she go?

Then, the brightly lit sign of the Hilton invited her into its parking lot and offered a familiar escape. They had stayed in the hotel for a few days before their furniture arrived from Seattle in the moving van.

They could wait out the storm in the lot. Or maybe they could dash into the coffee shop and have supper. Aggie knew she looked horrible. She had been down on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when Elliot dashed in with blood dripping from his chin onto the white carpet John had selected ("Oh, Lord, I'll be up half the night cleaning up this mess," she said at the sight of him). The droopy sweat pants she wore made her large butt look extra large. But she was starving after their long afternoon, and the kids had to be hungry, too. The desire to eat and get out of the storm overcame her dread of displaying her derriere in public. 

20 comments:

  1. Is there something mentally wrong with Aggie? I mean between the parking lot debacle and not knowing the direction home and the panic she displayed over mundane decisions and the inability to handle a very minor crisis, she seems like there's something very very wrong with her. She even plaigarized Denis Leary's song, "Asshole." https://youtu.be/UrgpZ0fUixs
    It was a good story. I got so hung up on her screwing up the parking spot, though, it made it hard to root for Aggie. I mean, how do you screw that up? I don't care how frazzled you are by needing to take a child to the hospital, who mistakes an exit for a parking spot? That colored the rest of my reading. Which was enjoyable. I hope you share more.

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    1. Nope, her version isn't the same as Denis Leary's. Haven't you ever heard "I ammmm a pizza"? She sings her asshole song to that tune. Something is wrong with Aggie, and I can tell you who mistook an exit for a parking space. I DID IT! I saw lines and I parked, you pickle man. Have you not ever made a mistake? Give the story time. You might end up on her side.

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  2. This is excellent! I can't wait to read more... More, please!

    Michele at Angels Bark

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    1. Thanks, Michele. There will be more. Oh, yes, there will be more.

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  3. Ha. I have trouble trying to figure out which lane I need to get into when leaving a parking lot, too. Those lanes can be confusing!

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    1. God bless you, Chrys. Aggie and I aren't alone.

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  4. If I could title this, I would call it "Why I don't have kids." Kidding aside, though, this was a very engaging read. Poor Aggie. I wonder if things are going to get better for her.

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    1. If things can get better for me, then they can get better for Aggie. It takes time.

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  5. Is this at least "semi" autobiographical? If so, I can see why Dr. X & you split up!!

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    1. Oh, yes. I'm the one who parked between the lines and didn't know it was an exit. The funny part is that I was at the medical center for an eye exam.

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  6. I'm hooked! This is a a terrific character study, Janie. Looking forward to the next installment.

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    1. Thank you, Debbie, and thanks for the tweet.

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  7. Replies
    1. Jo-Anne, you have to be one of the nicest people in Australia, if not in the whole world. I can say I have an international readership because of you.

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  8. So few parking areas around here are paved. Now I'll be paranoid when going to The Big City. They'll know I'm a bumpkin by the way I park.

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    1. I've lived in a very large city for seven years. I probably reveal my bumpkinship every day. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger, but not as strong as the gas of the dog sitting next to me.

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  9. Poor Aggie!! Her life is miserable. I think her MIA husband needs to clean the blood off the white carpet. It was his choice after all.

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    1. Her husband is too important to clean up the blood.

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