All right folks, tonight I feel brave enough to post my first, (very much rough) chapter of my possible, someday (maybe not) book. I have debated back and forth over how I want to do this, but I figure if I don’t start putting stuff out there, it will never happen.
One evening, not so long ago, when tempted to despair over the general crappiness of my writing and my complete ignorance of how to actually put something like this together, I came across an article that helped me a lot. In short it gave two pieces of advice, first- “Just get your basic story down on paper. Don’t worry about perfecting it yet- just get it down and fix the details later. Everyone’s first draft is going to suck. I don’t care who you are- it will. So get the first draft down. It will be terrible, but it will be editable. ” (this was enormously encouraging to me) And second- “Get yourself a group of people who will be willing to read and critique your work, and then be willing to listen to them!” This second one is incredibly hard for me, first because I don’t like being criticized and second, even if I could find such a group, it’s hard for me to get away from home very often. So I am turning to you, internet. Be kind, won’t you?
A few more disclaimers. This story is definitely based on my life with my sisters, but it is also definitely fictional. It might be hard for you folks who are acquainted with us to distance yourself from the girls that you know. It’s been hard for me too! But for reasons of plot (and several other reasons) I have cut the number of girls in the story down to four, (no offense dear sisters!) and my aim is to create four new characters based on a mix of traits and characteristics found in myself, my sisters and even some friends, real and imaginary. So try not to wonder who did what in real life. A lot of this is completely made up anyway. But enough. Here goes nothing.
I’m writing this sitting in the corner of the breakfast nook in our tiny kitchen. It’s not the most comfortable place for writing in the house, but I like to keep my literary attempts casual and above board. I have found that when I try to hide myself away and write stealthily, one of my sisters is bound to come poking their head over my shoulder to sneak a peak or else whisk the notebook right out of my lap. They know this annoys me to no end, which I finally came to realize is why they do it. So now I feign indifference and they leave me alone for the most part.
On days when I am particularly full of myself, I like to pretend I am Jane Austen, who apparently always wrote in plain sight and then discretely covered her paper with some mundane letter whenever anyone entered the room. My current ‘mundane letter’ is a grocery list, which mom asked me to compile. So far, it reads- Milk.
Even with all my precautions, I still dread anyone reading a story of mine that is half-finished. Of course, I don’t know if I would ever let anyone read a story of mine that is fully finished, because I have yet to finish one. I sometimes think my writing career will be one endless first chapter after another, always waiting for the second.
My friend Em told me that maybe I am trying too hard, and that I should just describe what life throws at me, without worrying about inventing plots and characters and such. It seemed like good advice. She was also of the opinion that it wouldn’t exactly be cheating to take inspiration from a book I knew well- as a kind of jumping off place, and to help me find my own voice.
So I thought about the literature I love most. Pride and Prejudice of course topped the list, followed closely by anything else Jane Austen. Little Women has had a strong influence, as well as Anne of Green Gables. Then of course, there is the inimitable Jane Eyre. Can you tell I’m a girl yet?
Dreaming big, my first attempt was in Elizabeth Bennet style. I quickly despaired of that. I mean, who do I think I am? From there I moved on to Jo March who seemed a little more accessible. But no. Every sentence felt forced and stiff and corny. I find I don’t do sentimental very well. So after those two feeble attempts, I grew despondent. I had hoped I could I identify with at least one of those two characters. After all, they are both, like me, the second sister in a family full of girls. Lizzie, Jo and I also share the happy privilege of playing second fiddle to a strikingly beautiful older sister. Even so, I still wasn’t feeling a connection. Inspiration ebbed low.
I gave up for a while, until the other day, when I was rearranging my books and found a battered paperback wedged behind the second shelf. It was a copy of one of my favorites, a book I hadn’t thought about for years (it has been a long time since I cleaned out my bookshelves)- Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle”. Lo and behold, here was another story about sisters, written from the perspective of a second, less attractive daughter. Apparently this is a popular plot device that seems to work well.
“So,” I thought to myself, “Why not join the club?” And even if I can never hope to match Smith’s poignant wit and unparalleled descriptive powers, and though we don’t live anywhere half so romantic as a castle, I thought I might be able to tackle a book from a journalistic perspective. So pardon me as I shamelessly borrow her style. After all, every artist needs inspiration.
As for getting past the first chapter, I’m feeling more optimistic than usual because, as Em said, life is about to throw something at us. That something, if it happens, is sure to be disastrous. And if it’s true that every artist needs inspiration, than it is equally true that every good story needs a disaster or two.
I suppose I could set the scene properly. I am sitting in the corner of the breakfast nook as I already said and outside, I can see the sun shining over a particularly gorgeous landscape of pine and madrona trees and glimpses of sparkling blue water. I love where I live, and normally such a breezy August evening would have me out enjoying the end of summer sunshine. Instead I am in here, watching my older sister Brittany picking disconsolately at a chip in the old formica tabletop. If life is about to throw something at us, we are waiting here patiently to catch it.
By we, I mean my three sisters and I. Britt, destroyer of formica tabletops, is seventeen, and the oldest. She has a beautifully sweet face, with round cheeks and an enviable dimple, but underneath all of that there is such a strength in her appearance that people always think twice before opposing her; including her sisters. Sometimes I’m amazed at how much she looks like my mother, with her long dark hair and eyes to match.
Perhaps my amazement is the greater because I look nothing like my mother, or my father for that matter, who is also dark. I have blond, stringy hair, a crooked-ish nose and a pointed chin. The only feature I have working for me is a pair of rather interesting eyes that are sometimes blue, sometimes green, and sometimes seem to have no color at all. However, having unique eyes can be a nuisance, since they always seem to draw attention and that attention has not been consistently positive. Unasked-for commentary runs the gamut from ‘stunning’ and ‘gorgeous’ to ‘ghostly’ and ‘dead looking’. Or this observation- a personal favorite which was given to me by a girl at my old school- “Girl! You got witches eyes!”
I might have forgotten that long ago comment if said classmate had liked me a little better. But seeing as she rather disliked me, she made up a little chant to go with her friendly description, adding to it another word that rhymes nicely with ‘witches’. It was, apparently, pretty amusing, and it caught on. Let’s just say it became my theme song for that very unpleasant year. But I don’t let the past bother me, obviously. And now I am way off track. Back to my sisters if you please.
Although I am nowhere near as strong as Britt, I am taller than her by a few inches. I missed being Irish twins with her by a mere seven days, which means, or course, that I am sixteen. I might as well get our ages overwith, since we run straight down the ladder.
Samantha, or Sam, as she prefers to be called, is fifteen, and Becca fourteen. We sometimes wonder why my mother had a baby every year for four years and then broke the habit cold turkey, but we have never asked. Maybe she was tired of girls.
Sam has a different look as well- with a head of copious, curly black hair that makes me jealous most of the time, unless it is first thing in the morning. She managed to inherit a pair of blue eyes as well, (we think they come from Grandpa Price) but they aren’t half so interesting (or terrifying, whichever you prefer) as mine. Sam loves to read like I love to write and right now I can tell she would rather be lost in her latest series than sitting across from me on this worn vinyl bench.
Becca is my father, in miniature. And I do mean miniature. Despite her fourteen years, she is a tiny little creature, with dark hair and pale brown eyes- the picture of delicacy and gentleness. You would never guess from her meek outer shell that inside there dwells a not-so-subtle wit and the temper of a volcano.
I would go on, but no doubt their characters (and mine) will become clearer in time if I can keep this thing going. All this time that I have been distracting myself by describing my sisters, they have been discussing the problem at hand.
Britt has been wishing that mom would come home so we could go shopping, instead of sitting around waiting for the end of the world to come. I silently agreed with her as I scribbled, since waiting for the end of the world is a seriously depressing business.
But Sam responded reasonably, if not cheerfully, that even if we went shopping, we would probably have to take it all back. She then added, in a tone that was bound to get under Britt’s skin, (who is fond of looking presentable) that she didn’t care a bit whether we got new clothes for school this year or not, just so long as we didn’t have to move.
This pronouncement upset Becca, whose skinny legs began swinging in an agitated manner from the edge of the countertop where she was perched. The thought of moving had never occurred to her. She naturally wanted to know how we could lose a house that was already bought and paid for.
It’s a good question. We have been living in the house ever since Grandpa and Grandma Price died and left it to us. I was only five at the time, so it is really the only house I remember. They had built the house some forty years earlier, and had chosen, as it’s location, a deserted stretch of clifftop that overlooked the waters of the Puget Sound and had a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, with <em>The Mountain</em> framed almost dead center in the living room window.
Property with such a view had cost them a pretty penny, so they had contented themselves with building a modest home- just big enough for the four of them- grandma and grandpa, my father, and my father’s younger sister Aunt Lucy. This meant, of course, that it was a good deal too small for the six of us when we inherited it. But it is cute and charming and full of sweet memories. We’ve never considered selling it, even for a moment.
Through the years, the spectacular scenery has drawn more and more people to the area until the deserted clifftop has become a thriving, though smallish city. And every year the property taxes have increased to such an extent that dad’s paycheck barely covers them. So a few years ago, mom had to go back to work part time to pay for groceries and such. Sometimes dad jokes that he wishes the glorious, volcanic mountain would finally just blow its top so we could all save a few bucks.
Charming as the house is, it is also in desperate need of repair. And compared with all the big, beautiful, new homes that have sprung up around it, it’s a wonder the snooty new neighborhood association hasn’t kicked us out long ago. We have been trying to set aside money for repairs for years now, starting with a new roof, but there always seems to be something else to pay for. It doesn’t help that dad and mom have dedicated themselves to keeping us in the excellent private school that our church started a few years back. That costs us as much as a mortgage and then some.
My parents have always been open with us about money matters, and we have always been glad to sacrifice in what little ways we can, since dad’s job has never been what could be called lucrative. But yesterday we were informed that dad was at the top of the list of cutbacks at his restaurant.
Despite his managing there for 15 years, the powers that be are looking for someone younger and more energetic. I can never understand why the movers and shakers of this world never seem to remember that being younger with more energy also means being immature with zero experience. At any rate, it will be their loss if they really let him go. But I keep telling myself I don’t believe they really will, and I’m just going to keep writing until we know the worst.
I find that writing in the present helps me to feel one step removed from what’s going on in front of me. The last five minutes have been spent by Sam and Britt arguing back and forth about the likelihood of losing the house, with Becca looking on like a spectator at a tennis match. But I always feel like I need to protect her from the dark side of life, so I put down my pen and interrupted with a comforting word or two.
“Becca, I’m pretty sure we won’t lose the house,” I said, “ You know mom and dad have always managed before.” This seemed to cheer her up considerably. Then, feeling I should be honest, I added,
“But I’m betting we will have to say goodbye to private school this year.” Becca’s hopeful face dimmed a bit as I said this, but Britt positively bristled. Apparently that thought hadn’t crossed her mind, for she burst out in protest.
“What are you talking about?” she almost yelled. “School starts again in just a couple of weeks! We have to go back! Remember, I was voted student body president at the end of last year? I can’t just walk out on that. And where would we go? Public School?” Her voice dropped to a whisper at these last two words, as if saying them would make going back to the school where the girls who loved to chant, a reality. I shuddered.
“Mom and Dad will think of something,” Becca said loyally, calming her big sister down in her turn. I could see in her eyes how desperately she hoped this was true. She had been looking forward to attending the school since her oldest sister had started there four years earlier, and particularly coveted the real musical education it offered. (She and I both play the piano, and although I have achieved a certain level of proficiency by dint of ceaseless struggle, she is one of those annoying people with innate abilities)
Anyway, I should have gone and hugged somebody at this juncture, since we were obviously all on edge and needing support, but I’ve never been very good at expressing myself that way. I’ll make you a batch of cookies any day, and even throw in some extra chocolate chips if you’re feeling really down, but don’t ask me for a comforting cuddle. Instead, I watched Becca hop off the counter and wedge herself into the breakfast nook with us. She laid her head on Britt’s shoulder and sighed. Sam merely nibbled one of her abundant curls and said nothing. A silence descended gradually, like the sun outside the white shuttered windows.
It’s dark now, but no one has made a move to make any dinner. I’m hungry enough to get up and start something, but it seems callous of me under the circumstances. We are sitting here still, waiting for a familiar sound that we have never dreaded before- the sound of dad returning from work. We almost always know when he is coming, even from several blocks away, by the tell tale rattle of the muffler on his car. Years ago, we christened his decrepit vehicle the <em>Toyota Corroda,</em> and have been expecting it to die ever since. But it refuses. Well, maybe today it has decided to give up the ghost. It would be fitting.
No, wait, someone’s at the front door. Oh dear, it’s not dad, it’’s mom. Now why is she coming home early and wherefore the fake smile that fools no one?
I’m finishing this chapter sitting in the living room window seat. I have nothing to cover my writing with if anyone should prove too nosy- no decoy shopping lists or letters to Grandma Clark. Everyone is too glum to care what I am doing. I figured I might as well finish the chapter, even though the ending is unhappy, as you might have guessed. No last minute reprieve was given us. Dad lost his job. What a stupid phrase that is- losing a job. It sounds like he got out of bed this morning and just couldn’t find it.
At any rate, mom left work early after she got his phone call. She said she wanted to be here to greet him when he got home, but I am sure she also wanted to give us a few minutes to adjust to the idea, and teach us how to put on a good, reassuring smile.
When she first entered the kitchen, it looked as if she was thinking about how to let us down gently, but Sam hates beating around the bush, so she up and asked her point blank what had happened. There was a moment of silent devastation, but once the worst was known, mom squared her shoulders and got to work. That’s always mom’s way of dealing with difficult things, and I must say I haven’t found a better one. But perhaps writing will do just as well if I get any good at it.
Getting to work meant briskly asking if anyone had thought of something to do with the chicken. We all stared a little guiltily at the defrosted poultry sitting neglected in the sink. Britt mumbled something about not being hungry, but this was the cue I was waiting for. I have yet to find the catastrophe that will make me lose my appetite, and I was pretty ravenous by this point. I hopped up and suggested we make dad’s favorite chicken dish. Without waiting for an answer, I filled a pot with water and turned on the stove.
Soon I was sliding diced chicken into a skillet of browning butter. Oh, there is just something about the rich, savory smell of browned butter that speaks to me. I took a deep sniff. My sisters think I’m weird, the way food comforts me, but I just tell them that I come by it naturally. Having a dad in the restaurant business will do that to you.
“Better go easy on the butter,” Becca said morosely, suddenly appearing at my elbow to stir a pot of boiling pasta. She always stirs things when it’s time to do dinner chores, whether things need stirring or not. I think she thinks it makes her look busy. “Who knows when we will be able to afford it again? Looks like it’s back to margarine.”
“Rebecca,” Sam replied with a touch of motherly scolding in her voice. She set down the stack of plates she had been carrying to the table and turned around, wearing the expression on her face that we all knew meant she was about to get a little preachy. She is apt to do so when things get difficult.
But Becca headed her off with a pious folding of the hands and an impish gleam in her eye. “For I tell you,” she quoted glibly, “do not worry about tomorrow, what you will eat or drink, or how much butter you will have. For tomorrow’s butter supply will worry about itself.”
We all laughed, even Sam. All in all, the evening was an interesting study in coping mechanisms. As we waited for dad, trying not to picture him cleaning out his desk and saying goodbye to beloved co-workers, we each turned to the thing that helped us most. Mom was busy straightening the living room, compulsively dusting and scolding us for leaving all of our junk around again. Becca took refuge in her humor, Sam in her books, I in my cooking and Britt- well Britt was sitting silent on the couch, looking as if making up her mind to do something desperate.
Before long, we could hear the Corroda in the distance. “There’s dad,” Becca declared unnecessarily, sitting up straighter on the piano bench where she had been plunking out a melancholy little tune. “Is it just me, or does his car sound sadder than usual?”
“Come on girls, let’s do our best to be cheerful,” mom replied, ignoring this last question.
None of us quite knew what to do as we heard the car door slam and his footsteps approach. When he entered, we were all standing there in a pitiful attempt at nonchalance, as if formally lining up to greet him at the end of the day were a normal occurrence.
His eyes took in the scene- the unusual silence, the sympathetic looks on all our faces- but before he could say a word, there suddenly burst forth from the piano the woeful sounds of Frederic Chopin’s most lugubrious funeral march. Becca had decided to break the awkward tension of the room in her usual way. And as usual, mom gasped and protested, while the rest of us silently asked ourselves where she got her nerve and wondered if she had gone too far. Dad hesitated a moment between disapproval and amusement, and then, to our infinite relief, tipped back his head and roared with laughter.
Unorthodox as her ice-breaking methods often are, they are usually effective. So instead of hedging the subject and pretending all was fine, we all laughingly headed to the kitchen, squeezed around the too-small table, ate our brown-buttery chicken and discussed our precarious future openly.
“What I want to know is, what are we going to do about school?” Britt asked after we had discussed possible job options for dad. “It’s my senior year and I don’t think I can stand the thought of changing schools now.”
“I wouldn’t mind leaving school so much if I could just homeschool,” suggested Sam with brightening eyes at the prospect of how much more time she could devote to reading.
“Someone would have to oversee your schooling if we did that,” mom reminded her, “and I am sure I wouldn’t have the time. I am going to need to ask Dr. Johnson if I can increase my hours at the office.”
“Mom,” Sam retorted, the familiar stubborn expression descending, “I think you could trust me to stay at home and be responsible for my own work.”
“But, wait,” Becca protested before her mother could reply, “Is there really no way for us to go to school this year? I thought maybe…” But her voice caught in her throat and we could all see the swelling tears wobbling in the corners of her big brown eyes.
“Well, there is one thing we can do,” dad said hurriedly, almost knocking over his glass in his eagerness to wipe the disappointed look off of her face. He never can stand seeing any of us sad, particularly Becca. “But it wouldn’t be an easy fix. I talked to Dave today.”
Sidenote- Dave is one of dad’s oldest friends, but we girls know him as the principal of our school, Mr. Templin. We have been close with the Templins as long as I can remember, and his daughter Em, whom I have mentioned already, is my best friend. End sidenote.
“I called him because (deep sigh) I had to stop him from cashing that first month’s tuition check we just sent in. But he was so unwilling to see you girls go that he made me a deal- (dramatic pause) If you are willing to take it. I’ll have to leave the decision up to you, since I am not sure what kind of schedule I am going to have and don’t know how much help I can be. And keep in mind, it would probably only be temporary until I can get my feet under me again”
We all turned to him, including mom, waiting to see what kind of deal our principal possibly could have offered. But dad was reticent to continue. He took a hasty bite of chicken and chewed it as long as was feasible.
“What is it dad?” Sam finally asked. “It can’t be that bad if Mr. Templin is asking us to do it.”
He swallowed, took a deep breath and went on.
“Well girls, he told me that the school is in need of a new janitor. Or four new janitors as the case may be.”