20. In Love With Spring: My Novel Online
Updated: Jan 29
"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 said, “So which is worse? Not enough, or too much?”
While the class pondered, he slid off the desk and, on the chalkboard, 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:
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 the 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 for blabbing about her husband’s affair. 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.
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 over eats because she was sexually abused by her uncle when she was a kid. 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 went 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!
“Who wants tea?” Lisbeth asked, and without waiting for an answer, put on a kettle and distributed everyone’s favorite mug: Sigmund Freud for Jules, flowers for Mom, kittens for Mandy, Van Gogh’s Starry Night for Allie, and her own favorite, a scowling Beethoven.
“Nineteen eighty-two went by so fast,” Allie said.
“But it was a good year, wasn’t it?” Mom inquired anxiously. “I mean, we’re doing okay, aren’t we? Because you know, sometimes I worry.”
“About what?” Jules asked.
“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.”
“I never blamed him,” Lisbeth said, “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 said. “He was grateful for all of us. But 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 didn’t tell me any of this,” Mom said. “I should have realized that he was so—”
“Dad never regretted marrying you or having us,” Lisbeth spoke firmly. “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.”
“A kid pushing happiness away with both hands,” Jules said.
Mr. Perry’s jade green blazer appeared at Mandy’s desk. “I have to talk to you.”
“In my office.”
Dismayed, Mandy rose and followed him in. He shut the door and indicated that she should sit. “Mandy,” he began.
He didn’t answer. It was infuriating, watching him: pacing, biting his lip and staring into space, his hands clasped behind his back. Mandy couldn’t stand the sight of him for one more second, so she looked at her nails. Polish is chipped already! I should stop buying this cheap stuff.
“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 we need to talk about what to do so you can keep your job.”
Her hands were fists. “I can’t believe they told you I get them to do my work for me! Mr. Perry, if my hair was on fire, I couldn’t get a glass of water from them!”
“Well, maybe they didn’t exactly say the thing about them doing your work. But it does seem like you get a lot of personal calls…”
“Oh my god.” She stood. “You’re mad that I won’t have sex with you. So you made up this story about me not doing my work.”
“What? No! 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!”
“Mandy, wait. Don’t be so hasty…”
“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! What an idiot!”
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.
Mandy wanted to shout at them; tell them how horrible they were. Instead, she thought about Tim and sex and how she had so much life ahead of her, and she felt young and happy and pretty. So she didn‘t say a word, she just grabbed her coat and her purse and walked out.