Stealing with Care: An Exercise in Borrowing

Once again, I’ve borrowed an exercise from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich.  The book instructed me to take this first line from “Love is Not a Pie,” by Amy Bloom, and use it to start my own story: “In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I started to think about calling off the wedding.”  I used a variant on the first line, and kicked off this beginning to a possibly future story.  As always, enjoy!

In the middle of the speech at my mother’s lovely and boring fund-raiser, I started to think about her impending funeral.  My mother looks as if she’s just about to turn fifty, but she’s actually over sixty-five.  No health problems as of yet (same as my father), but when someone reaches their sixties, thoughts start dwelling on death.  You start planning for things, like where you’ll be buried and how you’ll cover the funeral expenses from beyond the grave.  You downsize, you start getting rid of things, giving your nostalgic possessions to loved ones and throwing away or donating the shit you don’t care about.  It seemed to me, after twenty-seven years of life, that dying had to be an utterly time consuming and mundane business.

My mother looked radiant as she explained how the money raised at this even would be used to provide schools with more books, better equipment, and more nutritious school lunches.  She’s always been big on public education.  She was a teacher before I was born, the principal of what would be my high school during my elementary years, and the super-attendant of the district through my junior high and high school days.  Aside from taking too long to call snow days, she was fairly decent at this last job.  When I went to college out-of-state, I discovered I’d had a better education than some of my peers who’d attended private schools.  Mom had high expectations of everyone, from her co-workers, principals, teachers, and all the way down to her kindergarteners.  She had the highest expectations of herself.

She retired from super-attending last spring, after fourteen years of service.  But she still couldn’t stop trying to make the schools of our small community better in some way.  While I don’t doubt that Mom actually cares about education, I also feel she put all of this energy into it after “the loss” of my father.  Dad is just fine—but when I was eight, he confessed to be gay.  This was crushing to my mother, who was devoted to becoming an ideal wife and mother.  She took the energy she’d used for the “wife” part, and threw that into education.  She and my dad still talk, though more often than not I act as the messenger between them.  He still lives out in LA (with his boyfriend of fifteen years) where I used to visit during the summers.  Dad teaches literature at UCLA, where Jeff (his boyfriend) teaches political science.  Mom has more-or-less recovered from “the loss” of him.  I think she misses having a partner, though.

I left Iowa to study literature (and teaching—Mom’s insistence) in San Antonio.  After graduating, I taught high school English for a few years in Dallas.  I moved to Austin after that, where I got my M.A. at UT.  I’m now an adjunct at Washington University in Saint Louis, and have avoided needing to teach high school by doing freelance writing.

Mom calls me up to Iowa every now-and-then to talk with students or members of the school board about my experiences, usually for events like this.  This is the first time in awhile that I haven’t had to talk at these things.  I’m not sure why mom wanted me here.

I was sitting at one of the many empty tables after the speech, wearily eating my second piece of cake and realizing just how may people weren’t eating.  Mom sat down with me when my mouth was full.  “So.  What do you think, Adeline?”

I gave her a thumbs-up as I chewed and swallowed.

“That’s good.  I always get so nervous in front of people . . . and you speak so well yourself . . .”

“No, it was great, mom.”  I hadn’t really been listening.  I was too busy looking at my mother wondering if she’d drawn up her will, or what plans she’d made for her burial.  I thought of her going through all that paper work at our old dining-room table, wearing one of her cotton nightgowns with her face smelling of rejuvenation cream.  Mom couldn’t tell what was on my mind.  “One of your old friends is here,” she said.

“Oh?  Who?”

“Erica Bracken-Meyer.”

“Nice.”  Erica was never my friend; she was one of those impossibly nice people who have time for everyone and everything.  She was the leader of the high school volunteer group (which I went to once), and attended various other clubs and did several other activities; including writing club, where I got to envy her prose.

“Do you want to go say ‘hi’?”

Not really.  “I wouldn’t want to bother her . . .”

“You wouldn’t bother her . . . come on.  Let’s say ‘hi.’”

I decided to go with it, seeing as my other option was to eat cake as the fund-raiser leper.  I left the rest of my cake and followed Mom across the lobby with a sick feeling in my gut.

The lobby belonged to Zinsser Auditorium, the largest theatre our town had to offer.  It was neutral territory, so the two high schools wouldn’t have to feel like anyone was picking favorites; and it was high class, so the rich people didn’t have to feel uncomfortable.  There was too much red carpet and 90’s modern architecture in Zinsser for my liking.

Erica was lovely as ever; her auburn hair was done up in a bun, with one tendril hanging to outline her pale neck, and her physique indicated that she still ran.  My hair was still flat and mousy-brown, and I still needed to lose ten pounds.  Mom wanted me to be an over-achiever like Erica—that’s why I always resented her seeming perfection.

Mom quickly reunited us, before fluttering to some other group of people.  I looked over my former shadow-caster.  “So,” she said, “what do you do?”

I told her about my job as an adjunct at Wash U, mentioned the freelance work, and waited for her to tell me of her exploits as soon as she finished showing genuine interest.

When I asked what she’d been up to, she said “oh, well, I did ‘Teach for America’ after college.  I just finished up that, so now I’m just looking for a job.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Oh, I don’t know . . . I’m thinking I’ll try for a masters in Biology . . . maybe get a graduate degree . . . Right now, I’m living at home.”

“That’s cool.  What do you want to research?”

I let Erica tell me about science I was no where close to understanding, and nodded and “oh”ed at the appropriate times.  The rich people starting flocking to us upon hearing something different in the conversation, and started asking her questions.  Occasionally they interrupted her with vague comments like “My nephew studies biology in high school.”  We were almost to the point where Erica was talking to them, not me, when someone said “Aren’t you Louise’s girl?”  My mother’s name is, in fact, Louise.  “Your mother is delightful.”

“Yes,” I said.  “She certainly is.  Could you excuse me for a moment?”

I decided I was leaving the party, and I sought out my mother to tell her goodbye.

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