© 2019 by Robin Stratton
  • robinstratton23

20. In Love With Spring: My Novel Online

Updated: Jul 28, 2019


“Most of us,” began Professor Griggs, Jules’ writing teacher, “draw on personal experience for our stories. We can’t help it.  We love telling people about ourselves. Admit it… we think we’re fascinating. Don’t we?” His grin invited acknowledgement; Jules and the other students chuckled. “That’s why writers are either exhilarating company, or the most tedious of companions. Basically, all we want to do is talk about ourselves. What we like, what we do, where we went, what happened when we got there.” He moved a stack of papers and sat on his desk. “A good storyteller can captivate an audience. A bad storyteller… run for your lives!” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “It’s like when someone tells you about a dream they had… I was… somewhere… I was doing… I’m not sure what I was doing, but… there was someone there, I don’t know who it was… and then suddenly.. something happened… but I can’t remember…


Everyone could relate. Discussion broke out, in which Professor Griggs participated briefly, then halted by clapping his hands to regain their attention.


“Of course the other side of the coin is too many details. Every time my brother in law tells a story, he has to tell me where it happened: I was on Boylston Street… near the convenience store… you know the one? Not the one that’s a drug store, it’s connected to a gas station… it’s across the street from another gas station… I feel like I want to shake him. Just tell me the damn story!” Professor Griggs made a gesture as if he was strangling someone. The class laughed again. 


“My sister,” announced the kid sitting next to Jules, “can’t tell a story without giving me all the details about what everyone was wearing.”


Professor Griggs laughed and shook his head again. “So which is worse? Not enough, or too much?”


While the class pondered, he slid off the desk and on the chalk board drew a horizontal line. Above it he wrote Too Much!!! and below it he wrote Not Enough!!! “Your assignment is to write a piece of fiction based on an experience you’ve had. It can be a short story or a poem or a song or anything. But be aware as you write: do you need more details to make the scene come alive? Or are you cramming in so many details that your story is buried?” He tapped his diagram with the chalk. “It’s a fine line.”


Jules tried to come up with something as she headed back to the dorm. She was reminded of all those times she’d walked home from school on the first day with an assignment to write about what she’d done over summer vacation. When she was little she’d describe trips to the beach or visits to relatives. In junior high her summers were defined by what books she had read, and she’d pass in a book report of ten or twelve novels. But last summer she’d been too busy working at the vitamin factory to read much. What a nightmare that place had been, with the smoking, the catty gossiping, the spiteful remarks, and the idiotic girls who never read anything but the TV Guide and the labels on their shampoo bottles.


She veered away from the dorm and headed for the reservoir. It was her favorite place to write. A factory, she thought. Something about working in a factory…


What she handed in a week later was a full-length play, along with a concise synopsis:


Temporary Sanity

Act I — int: a factory

The main character, Kimmie, is temping for the day. The other characters, sitting at the assembly table with her, pass the time trading critical remarks about anyone who isn’t there to defend herself. When Brenda goes to the ladies room, they speculate that she might be a lesbian. Jan has to go to the supply room and they shake their heads in disapproval at her endless list of boyfriends. Chubby Ellen is first to dash for the catering truck for a snack during break, and they laugh at her lumbering gait. In Pat’s absence, her “best friend” Gretchen reveals that Pat is pregnant, and they wonder how any man could make love a woman who’s as fat as Pat. As soon as Gretchen leaves to talk to the boss, Mr. Morgan, Pat tells te others that Gretchen’s husband is having an affair, and they say it’s no wonder, because Gretchen is so ugly. After lunch when the whole group is present, Kimmie cheerfully congratulates Pat on her pregnancy. Furious, Pat turns on Gretchen, knowing the news came from her. Gretchen apologizes and says it just slipped out. Kimmie then offers sympathy to Gretchen, who gets mad at pat. Everyone is angry with Kimmie, especially when she makes matters worse by repeating everything she’s heard that day. A girl fight breaks out. Mr. Morgan intervenes and sends them all to his office, which is located to the right of the assembly table where they’ve been working. The women, waiting for him to join them in the office, continue to bicker. All of a sudden an earthquake shakes the factory and all the lights go out.


Intermission


Act. II — int: Mr. Morgan’s office

A heavy beam is leaning against the office door, preventing escape. The table where all the women were seated has been completely crushed by debris — obviously, if they had been sitting there they would have all been killed. United by their brush with death, and coaxed by Kimmie into introspection, their conversation takes on a serious tone. Pat admits that she considered having an abortion, and Brenda surprised them by saying her mother almost did too; meaning she would not have been born. They console Gretchen and encourage her to give the marriage a second chance. Everyone has something to confess — the reason Jan sleeps around is because she’s insecure. Brenda isn’t a lesbian, she’s just shy. Ellen desperate to lose her virginity. Everyone comforts everyone else, and with Kimmie’s guidance, they discover the true meaning of friendship. Finally rescuers make their way through all the debris and remove the beam and everyone is rescued. Gretchen tells Maude, the personnel director, that Kimmie’s work is excellent and she should be hired permanently. Puzzled, Maude says she didn’t call for a temp. When they look for Kimmie, she has disappeared.



When Professor Griggs returned the play to Jules, he said he enjoyed the story, and appreciated the dialogue, which he found “completely authentic.” And his comment on the last page was good enough to repeat to the family when she came home for Christmas break: By representing each of the major players as a social “fault”—the fat one, the skinny one, the old one, the sleazy one, etc., when really it was their identical personalities that were ugly—you have illustrated your theme perfectly!


Lisbeth was first on the phone Christmas morning, and her sisters, examining their new acquisitions, listened to her merry conversation with pleasure. Mandy was next, but spoke so softly that no one heard a word. As Jules was reaching for the phone to call Simon, it rang, and Dad was on the other end. He wanted to talk to all his girls, and one by one they thanked him for his presents, which had arrived earlier in the week. By the time Jules got through to Simon it was almost noon.


“Did he absolutely love what you gave him?” she asked. Simon’s “Song for Grandfather” had taken months to compose, delayed over and over by his inability to capture the love he felt until Jules helped out with the lyrics. The final taping had only been completed a few days earlier.


“He’s listening to it right now, for about the tenth time,” Simon reported gleefully. 


Jules thought back to the Christmas two years ago, when she and Simon met—how sad he’d been then! and felt warm all over when she hung up.


“Who wants tea?” Lisbeth called.


Everyone did. Within a few minutes they were all seated at the kitchen table waiting for the water to boil.


“Another year on its way out,” Jules said, hoping they’d forgive the cliché.


“And another year on its way in.” Lisbeth distributed everyone’s favorite mug: Sigmund Freud for Jules, flowers for Mom, kittens for Mandy, Starry Night for Allie, and her own favorite, a scowling Beethoven.


“Nineteen eighty-two went by so fast,” Allie said. “We’re all another year older.”


“Another year wiser.” Mandy smiled as she thought, I can’t believe I’m not a virgin anymore!


“But it was a good year, wasn’t it?” Mom inquired anxiously. “I mean, we’re doing okay, aren’t we?”


“Better than okay,” Lisbeth assured her, and Jules added, “We’re doing great.


“Because you know, sometimes I worry.”


“About what?”


“Oh about a lot of things. About raising all you girls without a father. About not having enough money to buy you things.”


“We still have a father,” Mandy reminded her. “And things aren’t important to us.”


Mom sighed. “You’ve all grown up so much this year. I see such changes in all of you.”


“In you, too,” Jules said. “You’re really getting yourself back on track. Not so depressed about being divorced.”


“Finally. I know how hard it was on you girls, but you all went on with your lives. I wasted a year eating crap and watching TV.” She shuddered. “When Dad walked out, I felt like I’d done something wrong. Like I hadn’t been a good enough wife. Not pretty enough. Not colorful and creative like your dad. Not sexy enough. I felt so old and ugly. But then I realized that your father and I just weren’t meant to be together. It was no one’s fault. Which meant I had to forgive him for leaving. So… well, I’m still working on that.”


“I kept wondering if I could have done something different, to make him stay,” Mandy said, staring wistfully into her mug.


“I kept thinking that, too,” Allie said. “I kept thinking he left because he didn’t love us anymore.” To Mom she added, “I mean, even though you kept saying he did, sometimes I wasn’t sure.”


“I was just pissed,” Jules said.


“I tried to be mad, too,” Lisbeth said, “I thought it would feel better than being sad. But I never blamed him, because I knew he wasn’t happy. Allie, do you remember when he used to sit on my bed at night?”


“Kind of… well, not really.”


“You were probably already asleep.”


“What did you guys talk about?” Mom asked.


“About all the places he wanted to visit. That he’d always wanted to travel, but before he knew what was happening, he had a wife, and then a kid, and then four kids. He used to say he wished he’d spent more time growing up before he settled down. He said he didn’t even know who he was.”


“Who he was,” Mom repeated. “I used to hear that, too. He was such a hippie—he always talked about going places. I was the one who couldn’t wait to move out of my parents’ house and start having babies. I guess I really held him back, and he probably resented that for years.”


“No no,” Lisbeth shook her head. “He was grateful for all of us. But he used to say… ” She paused, hoping no one’s feelings would be hurt. “He used to say he didn’t feel like he belonged. He was in a house full of girls, and no one really understood him.”


The others were silent, imagining for the first time his feeling of isolation.


“Poor Dad,” Allie said after a minute. “I never thought about what it must be like for him.”


“He said someone was always using the bathroom, and that he had no one to watch Bruins with. He said none of us were going in little league. We were all Girl Scouts. He couldn’t relate.”


“Just for the record,” Jules put in, “I was never a Girl Scout.”


“He never said any of this to me,” Mom said. “I should have realized that he was so−”


“Don’t take any of this the wrong way,” Lisbeth spoke firmly. “Dad never regretted marrying you or having us. Never ever ever. But he had this… deep inner need… to go out and see the world. I used to listen to him talk and think that he sounded like a kid.”


“He probably meant me, I was always in the bathroom,” Mandy said.


The others chorused, “I’m sure he didn’t mean you,” but Jules’ voice was louder: “What do you mean was?” and they all laughed.


“Come on,” Mandy said. “I’m much better.” She shook her head. “I was so bad, wasn’t I? Some mornings it seemed like I was in there for hours. I went crazy if my makeup wasn’t perfect.”


“How come you’re not like that anymore?” asked Allie.


“I think it’s because I know Tim loves me no matter what I look like. In fact, I think if I ever showed up for a date without any makeup he wouldn’t even notice.” She beamed. “It’s liberating… not being a slave to all of that.”


“Most excellent.” Jules poured herself more tea and added sugar. “I’ve changed since I went away. I think I’ve gotten more independent.”


“Yeah, right,” Lisbeth said, lifting Jules’ mug to reveal a puddle of tea incurred during the stirring process. With a sponge, she wiped it up. “Must be wonderful to be so independent!” 


“Big change in you, too, Lissie,” Jules said.


“I know. I’m not shy like I used to be. Being in Simon’s band was so scary at first, but now I can’t imagine not being in it. And being with Kevin helped a lot. I’m so glad I wasn’t afraid to fall in love.” 


“Getting sick was the best thing that ever happened to you,” Jules said. “As weird as that sounds!” Then she turned to the youngest April girl. “Okay, Allie, your turn. How have you changed over the past year?”


“Well… ” Allie fingered the aesthetically-exaggerated strokes of Van Gogh’s night sky, and her serious tone took them by surprise. “You guys have no idea how hard it’s been for me, growing up in your shadows.”


“What do you mean?”


“Oh come on. You guys were always so perfect. Mandy had perfect manners. Lisbeth was perfectly sweet and helpful. Jules, you were perfectly brilliant and you never cared what anyone thought of you. I was like the black sheep.” When the others protested, she said, “No, I was. I was selfish and spoiled. Jules, remember when I shredded your story? Oh my God, who does something like that?”


Jules flipped her hand. “You did me a favor. That story stunk.”


“It did not stink!” Lisbeth said.


“Anyway,” Allie concluded humbly, “I think this year I outgrew always having to have my own way.”


“That is huge,” Jules said. She raised her mug and the others did too. Allie reminded them that it had been a year since she got her period, and Mom confessed that soon after she’d begun to menstruate her period was late, and she was convinced she was pregnant, even though she’d never even held hands with a boy. Lisbeth made another pot of tea. Eventually Simon and his grandfather showed up, then Tim and then Kevin, and they ordered Chinese food for lunch. Lisbeth sat at her DX-7 and they sang every Christmas carol they knew.


After all the girls had gone out—Mandy with Tim, Lisbeth with Kevin, and Jules and Allie with Simon—Mom got into bed and thought about how it was the first time in two years that she actually felt happy.



Jules enjoyed the semester break. Accustomed to staying up all night studying or hanging out with her college friends, sometimes she’d get to bed just in time to hear Mandy’s alarm go off. After a little practice, Allie and Lisbeth adjusted their hours to accommodate hers, and the three of them passed most nights watching TV, eating M&Ms, and playing game after game of UNO. Simon and Kevin came over most nights, and they’d all laugh so loud that Mom bought ear plugs for herself and Mandy.


On Friday, Tim joined them. Mandy, excited about staying up late with them all, was devastated to learn that this David Letterman she’d been hearing about was only on Monday through Thursday.


Jules and Allie accompanied Lisbeth to Simon’s house for practice. Chicken Slax continued to concentrate on familiar songs, rehearsing the hippest material from Steely Dan, The Police, Elvis Costello, Pretenders, and Cheap Trick, but they were also working on some original songs. Jules said about ten times that she couldn’t get over how much better they sounded. And that she was glad they didn’t do any Springsteen, because she’d heard enough of him to last a lifetime!


Mr. Perry’s jade green blazer appeared at Mandy’s desk. “I have to talk to you.”


“Okay. What… ?”


“In my office.”


Dismayed, Mandy rose and followed him in. He shut the door and indicated that she should sit. She did, and watched him pace.


“Mandy,” he began.


“Yes?”


He didn’t answer. It was infuriating, watching him. He was biting his lip and staring into space, his hands clasped behind his back. So dramatic. Finally he sighed. But still didn’t speak. Mandy couldn’t look at him for one more second, so she looked at her nails. Chipped already? This cheap polish is crap. I should buy the more expensive stuff, maybe it’ll last longer.


“Mandy!”


“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Perry—what did you say?”


“I said that you haven’t been turning out the required amount of work.”


She was so surprised that she couldn’t even answer.


“The other girls say you spend too much time talking on the phone,” he went on. “They say you come in late and leave early. They say you’ve been getting them to do your work for you.”


“That’s not true!” She shook her head so hard that her dangly earrings tapped her cheeks. “I don’t do any of those things! I almost never get personal calls… and you see me come in! You know I’m here on time every single day! And I never ever leave early!”


“I’m sorry, Mandy, but I can’t allow this to go on.”


Her hands were fists. “I can’t believe they told you I get them to do my work for me! Mr. Perry, I swear to God, if my hair was on fire I couldn’t get a glass of water from them!”


“Mandy, it’s your word against theirs. There are three of them, and they’ve been here longer. Who do you think I should believe?”


She stood. “You should believe your conscience.”


He was startled. “What?”


“You turned this into a work issue. You’re mad that I won’t have sex with you. So you made up this story about me not doing my work.”


“No!” It hadn’t occurred to him that she wouldn’t apologize and beg for a second chance. “Let’s just settle down… ”


“You should be ashamed of yourself!”


“Please, lower your voice.” His eyes darted to the door. “Maybe the girls exaggerated. Let’s just forget this ever happened… ”


“I’m going to forget this job ever happened! I quit!”


His mouth dropped open. She turned to go, but when he said, “Come on, Mandy, don’t be so hasty… ” she spun back, incredulous. “Hasty? I should have done this months ago! The first time you tried to get cute with me, I should have left! But I didn’t want to hurt your feelings! God!”


She opened the door in time to see her co-workers retreating. Listening in! Storming past them to her desk, she gathered up her paperwork and tossed it all into the air; letters and memos and envelopes and receipts went everywhere.


“What the hell?” Florence sputtered.


“Congratulations,” Mandy said. “You won! I’m leaving!” 



“Good for you!” Allie said an hour later, and Jules said, “You’re free!” 


“I know!”


“So… now what?” asked Lisbeth.


Mandy grinned. “Now I get to watch Letterman with you guys!”

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