• robinstratton23

1. In Love With Spring: My Novel Online

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Welcome to the blog in which I post chapters from my novel In Love With Spring. Since I was a kid, I've loved the quintessential coming-of-age story Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. One day I got thinking, What if the sisters had lived in the 1980s instead of the 1880s? What would be the same, and what would be different? The theme of young women learning about life and love is timeless, but instead of a Civil War, ball gowns, and matching gloves, there'd be divorce, big hair, and MTV. At first I thought I would stick pretty tightly to the original plot, but to my surprise, the girls started making their own decisions (as teenagers will) and after a while. I had no choice but to just sit back and watch them grow up...

CHAPTER ONE
Dad left the same day that John Lennon was assassinated, and for the rest of her life, Jules would connect the two events in her mind, where they lived as a single moment that changed everything; made life harsh, sad, lonely. In the two weeks since, Mom had maintained a steadfast position of grace and composure that Jules admired but could not rise to. And didn’t even try.
Now, looking up from her book, a ponderous biography of Dostoyevsky, she announced irritably to her three sisters, “I can’t concentrate with the TV so loud.”
Mandy blew on newly-polished nails, and then admired them from a distance, her fingers fanned like the plumage of a peacock. “Turn it off, if you want.”
“No, wait,” Allie said. It was an old episode of The Brady Bunch, the one where Bobby kisses a neighborhood girl, only to discover that she may have infected him with the mumps, jeopardizing plans for a swell Brady camping trip. “Let’s see if they get to go.”
“They do,” Lisbeth told her. “Turns out to be a false alarm.” Seated at the piano, she absently picked out the melody of the Brady theme: It’s the story... of a lovely lady... then said, “If Mom gets married again, to a man who has four sons, we can be the April Bunch.”
Eleven-year old Allie put down her sketch pad and scrunched up close to Mandy. “He should’ve at least waited until after Christmas.”
“What difference would that make?” Jules closed her book. “He’d still go, and then you’d whine about how he left before New Years... or Valentine’s Day... or Groundhog Day.”
“Shut up.”
“You shut up.”
“Cut it out, you guys,” Mandy said.
“Just because you’re the oldest doesn’t mean you can boss us around,” Jules grumbled, but Mandy was right. Jules and Allie could say Shut up a zillion times and it wouldn’t bring Dad back. Mrs. Brady, in bed with Mr. Brady, teasingly rated his goodnight kiss a 6. A shampoo commercial came on, and Jules tried to go back to her book.
“Wonder if he ever thinks about us?” Allie sighed.
“I’m sure he does.” Lisbeth sounded wiser than her fourteen years. “You don’t bring up four daughters and then just walk out and never think about them.”
“You do if you’re an asshole,” Jules said.
Shut up,” Mandy snapped.
“I have an idea,” Lisbeth said. “Let’s go shopping tomorrow. We’ll spend the money he sent us.”
Allie brightened. “I already know what I’m getting–a new paint set, one of those great big ones with every color you can think of And some canvases.”
“The 1981 edition of The Writer’s Market just came out,” Jules said. “I need it to look up names and addresses of publishers to send my stories to.” For a moment, she indulged in her favorite fantasy, the one that featured her as a famous novelist. Since the summer she’d been working on Elliot, the story of a brilliant little boy who grows up to become a socially-inept adult−it was based on the true-life story of William James Sidis, the Boston prodigy who was first lionized by the media, then destroyed by their scorn.
Mandy said, “After I graduate, I’ll be going out on job interviews, and I’ll need some new clothes.”
“And I’m going to buy some new records,” Lisbeth said. “Genesis has a new one out−Duke. I heard some of it on the radio. It sounded great! I might like Phil Collins’ voice even better than Peter Gabriel’s.”
“Really?” Jules was surprised by her sister’s change of allegiance. When Peter Gabriel left Genesis, Lisbeth had reacted as if there’d been a death in the family. “I thought you said they’d never be good again.”
“I was wrong.” Movement outside the window caught Lisbeth’s eye, and from her post at the piano, she was first to see the 1975 moss-green Chevy Nova pull into the driveway. “Mom’s home!”
Mandy stood and dispatched orders: “Lissie, put on water for tea, she’ll be cold. Jules, help her with the groceries. Allie, turn off the TV,” and when Mom arrived at the door, she was greeted by four sweetly-smiling faces. Jules took both bags from her, and Mandy helped her off with her coat and hung it in the closet. The baby of the family, Allie tucked her head into Mom’s embrace.
“Tea, Mom?”
“Yes, Lisbeth, please.” Mom kissed Allie’s hair–blonde, like Dad’s, while she and the other girls were varying shades of brunette–and asked what they’d been doing all day. Accustomed to their clamoring, she listened to all four accounts at once while shedding her boots, then went into her room to change.
Dinner was always a hectic interlude. Jules, a strict vegetarian for reasons no one completely understood (she claimed to have been one in her past life) wouldn’t touch meat. Mandy’s rebellion was directed at fat, and she never ate anything that required butter except on special occasions. Exorbitantly-fussy Allie maintained that everything besides chicken, French fries, hamburgers, spaghetti, and corn, was gross. Only easy-going Lisbeth was content to eat whatever was most convenient.
“Dad called today,” Mom said, sipping her diet Tab.
“He did? What did he say? Is he coming home?” The girls all stopped eating, regarding Mom with urgent, hopeful eyes.
She couldn’t look at them. “Girls, no... of course not.” Did they blame her? The morning she woke up and saw him sitting in the chair by the window she asked if he was okay and he told her he couldn’t live with her anymore. It isn’t that I don’t love you and the girls, he said. She didn’t go to him. She didn’t even sit up. She just lay there with the sleep still in her eyes, trying to figure out why they were no longer the perfect couple all their friends teased but admired. When had the affection been replaced with squabbling, sarcasm, hurtful remarks? His drinking... beer bottles hidden in the trash bin in the garage, God, so many beer bottles. And the pot smoking. How many times had she come home from work and found him stoned on the couch? Probably the girls couldn’t tell, but she could... the taste of it on his tongue when he tried to kiss her. She couldn’t even remember the last time they’d had sex. I was hoping that leaving my job was the answer, he went on, but it wasn’t. And all the interviews I’ve gone on feel like the same shit, all the same shit. I can’t piss my life away doing something I hate. She asked, What do you want to do? and he said, That’s the problem. I have no idea. An aimless, unhappy man obsessed with what he didn’t have, instead of what he did. She’d told him this. She’d told him several times.
Now, she tried to shut off the memory as she served Lisbeth some string beans. “He just... called.”
“Oh,” said Mandy. “How is he?”
Mom scooped out more string beans. “Fine. He sent his love. He said he’ll miss you all on Christmas day.”
Jules watched the string beans land on her plate with a plop. “What about every other day?”
When Mom didn’t answer, Lisbeth asked, “Where is he?”
"California. He said he couldn’t take another New England winter.”
“Is he going to live there?”
“He’s not sure.”
Allie shook her head when the spoon of string beans came close. “What’s he doing?”
Going through a stupid mid-life crisis, probably has a beard and a motorcycle and a hot young babe. “Looking for work.” The string beans hovered, then landed on Mandy’s plate. “He’s gotten a couple of job offers, but he hasn’t accepted anything yet. He wants to be sure he likes it out there before he commits to anything.”
“Oh.”
“He said everyone is looking for engineers. The job market is great. He said he’s been looking in a place called, um... Silicon Valley?”
Jules pictured a place full of women with silicone breast implants, and frowned. Am I the only one who’s mad? Allie looked as if she was about to cry. Mandy’s face was listless as she mixed the string beans with her rice.
But Lisbeth nodded charitably. “Dad’ll never have trouble getting a job. He’s got charisma.”
“Charisma,” Mom affirmed ruefully.
“Lot of good that does us,” Jules said.
Mom searched her mind for something else to talk about but couldn’t come up with anything. “Who wants more string beans?”
“Don’t talk about him like that,” Allie objected.
“Like what?”
“Like how you’re talking about him.”
“All I said was–”
“Girls.” Mom sounded weary. “Dad wasn’t happy here. He’ll always love us. But he–”
“We know, Mom,” Lisbeth said. “We just miss him. And we want what’s best for him.” She smiled. “Remember the day he quit his job? How psyched he was?”
“He came home shouting I quit! I quit!” Jules’ reminder was unnecessary. They could all picture the scene–Dad’s glowing face, his arm around Mom, the light in his eyes which, in retrospect, had been a little unnerving.
“I remember how shocked I was that he took the company’s paper shredder.” Mom’s laugh was almost real. “I said What are we going to do with a paper shredder? and he said he didn’t know, he had just grabbed it.” It still sat where he’d put it, taking up space on her sewing table.
They all thought, That was the last time everything was okay, and for a few minutes no one could think of anything cheerful to say.
Then Mom said, “Adrian’s son stopped by the office today. He had this thing called a Sony Walkman. They’re the latest craze–a cassette player the size of a wallet, with headphones. I’d love to have one for work. I could listen to music as loud as I wanted and not bother anyone.”
Mom’s amazing, Jules thought. This has to be killing her, but she’s sitting there like everything is just fine. How could Dad walk out on her?
***
After dinner, Mandy started filling up the sink while her sisters brought dishes into the kitchen. Jules stood by wielding a towel, and Lisbeth and Allie wrapped up and put away leftovers. Mom watched them with emotion so intense it brought pain; she hadn’t told them that Dad had suggested they begin the horrible process of contacting lawyers and deciding who got what.
“Mom, go into the living room and relax. Put on the TV,” Lisbeth’s gentle voice broke through her gloom. “We’ll finish up in here.”
“Okay.” I shouldn’t have let him go. I should have been a better wife. Then he wouldn’t have left.
"So go, already,” Lisbeth said.
“Okay.”
They watched her walk out, and as soon as they heard the TV come on, Jules said, “I was thinking,” and at the same time Lisbeth said, “We should buy Mom a Sony Walkman for Christmas!”
“Let’s!” Mandy pulled on rubber gloves so she wouldn’t get dishwater hands. “She’ll love it. And I already have a couple of dresses that will be okay for job interviews.”
“The library has the new edition of The Writer’s Market. I can look at it there.”
Allie sighed. “And I guess I can just draw with my colored pencils.”
***
On Christmas morning Jules spent a few minutes luxuriating in the peace of her mute alarm clock. She allowed herself the poignant memory of Christmases past, of the family gathered around the tree, tearing open presents, trying on new clothes, playing with new games, flipping through new books. If only they’d known last Christmas that it would never be like that again! Unwillingly, she recalled the look on Mom’s face as Dad set his suitcase near the door. Allie’s tears. Her own unrestrained anger. Running out of the house, she’d missed the final Goodbye.
“Merry Christmas, Jules.” Mandy, in the bed across the room, sounded sad.
“Merry Christmas.”
They lay on their backs without moving. It seemed cruel, to have to go through the motions of celebrating a holiday, on top of everything else. Jules shut her eyes. Why do people make such a big deal of Christmas, anyway? I never will again.
“We have to be okay,” Mandy said, “for Mom and the girls.”
“I know.”
“It’ll get a lot easier after this.”
“I know.”
“Just give it time.”
“I know, I know!” Irritated by the unexpected lecture, Jules snapped back the covers and sat up. Mandy watched solemnly, her dark thick hair framing her face on the pillow.
“Merry Christmas.” Allie, in her favorite flannel nightie with the pink roses around the neck, stood in the doorway gazing forlornly at Mandy.
“Merry Christmas, Sweetie, come here.” Mandy lifted her covers and Allie dove in, giggling.
“Ho ho ho!” Lisbeth joined them. Jules felt some of her pain slide away at the sight of her sisters. She got out of bed and hugged Lissie. “Ho ho ho, yourself!”
After quick stops in the bathroom, they all went into the living room. Mom’s present and card had been placed at the base of the tree a few nights before, and while the girls slept, a few more packages had appeared. Jules stopped to inspect one that looked like a book, fingering the tag that said To Jules, from Santa with a pleasure that was still childlike. Allie asked if she could open hers right away, but Mandy suggested she go wake Mom. Lisbeth went to make tea. Jules, plugging in the tree lights, was suddenly filled with warmth. Who needed Dad? They had each other.
“Merry Christmas!” Mom was led out by a beaming Allie.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!” Mandy handed her the package. “From all of us.”
“We pooled our money,” Allie explained.
Mom dropped into the chair that used to be Dad’s. “Girls, you shouldn’t have! That money was supposed to be for–”
“Open it,” Jules said.
“Okay.” With a smile, Mom tore away the wrapping paper. Her eyes opened wide. “A Walkman!”
Sensible Mandy had thought to buy batteries, which were promptly installed, and Lisbeth was standing by with Rubber Soul. When Mom put on the headphones, inserted the tape, and pressed Play, the girls laughed as she sang with off-key gusto.
***
Later that afternoon Mom called Dad to tell him what their daughters had done, and he started to cry.
“I’m sitting here all alone,” he said tearfully. “I’m sitting here in California, and it’s Christmas and it’s hot and...I’m lonely and I’m drinking...and I’m getting drunk and...and I miss being there with everyone. I miss you...I miss us.”
Does he expect me to feel sorry for him? Mom looked at her watch: 4:15. That meant it was 1:15 where he was. For the first time she allowed herself to consider the possibility that she had not done anything wrong, that it was him. That he was weak, and selfish, and had abandoned his family. Exactly what her friends at work had told her. In fact, he’d said it, too. But she hadn’t believed it. Until now.
“Well,” she said finally, “I was going to put the girls on, but if you’re drunk, I’ll just have them call you next week.” Hanging up, she felt sort of powerful, but guilty too, because he was alone and she had the girls. Not my fault, not my fault, she told herself firmly.
© 2019 by Robin Stratton