Chapter Two Excerpt

“Mom, Jim’s offered me a job.” I stood with the phone up to my ear as I looked out the beveled glass window of our front door, watching our elderly neighbor as she watered her lawn across the street.  

Silence.

“Mom?”  Only in the last few months had I been telling my mother anything that would upset her in the least.

Dorothy had given me strict instructions about that after Mom’s two heart attacks. “Your mother won’t tell you, but I will. She gets upset when you kids casually toss out the problems you’re having. Don’t do that anymore. Her health is too fragile.”

Dear ole Dorothy. She was my mother’s business partner, live-in companion, and reason for much speculation in our little town.

“Mom?” I said again. “Did you hear me?”

My mother’s voice was quiet. ”Yes, I heard you. Your brother has decided to steal you away from me.”

Oh, dear God. “He’s not stealing us away. He needs us and we need him.” 

“I need you, too. Have you thought of that?”

Walking into the front parlor, I sat down on the Victorian settee. ”Mom, you know our business is in trouble and you also know Jim’s going to get sick.”

“You two can bounce back, I’m sure of that. You can find a job as a psychotherapist again, and Ray can finish up his degree. As for your brother, I’ve been reading about these new drugs they’re exploring. The researchers say it’s only a matter of time.”

I thought of my brother John. There had been no miracle drugs to save his life. “I hope those come soon.”

“Me too…but I don’t suppose we can count on that, can we?

“I don’t think so.”

“I’m sure your brother has offered you a good amount of money to lure you away like this, hasn’t he?”

“Yes, he has.” 

“No doubt Ray’s excited about the possibility.” 

“Yes, he is.” 

She paused for just a moment, clearly resisting the urge to take a dig at Ray, then said, “Okay, give me the details.” She was a money person, through and through, with a love for the stock market as well as Blackjack. I could just see her turning on her desk-top calculator as we spoke.

“A hundred and fifteen thousand a year, plus a housing allowance, health insurance, and the spare Jaguar to drive.”

“And where would the girls go to school?”

“In the Beverly Hills public schools.”

“What about the business?”

“I’ll get Jim’s half when he dies in exchange for protecting his interests and being there for him while he’s sick.”

“He doesn’t have any more symptoms, does he?”

“No. He says he’s feeling better than ever and so is Dave.  That’s why they want us to come now.”

I definitely heard the hum of her calculator as she plugged in numbers.

“It’s an attractive offer,” she finally said. “I can understand why you two would want to take it.”

I leaned back and closed my eyes. Thank you, Jesus. Maybe she was going to be supportive of this choice after all.   

“When would you go?”    

“Two months. We think it’ll take that long to wrap up enough details to leave.”

“And Cody, what about him?”

“Jim said he’s excited to have family nearby.”

“Of course he is. Your brother has never, not once, misjudged someone’s character.”

“At least Barney’s long gone.”

“Well, that’s the relief of the century. Why is it your brother had such great taste when he was dating women but only picks complete losers when it comes to men?”

“It could be argued that Cody’s a successful model.”

“With the aid of copious amounts of your brother’s money.”

“But he does work every day.”

“Now that’s a high bar.”

“Dave isn’t too bad.”

“For a polished version of a New Jersey dockworker who’s never read a book in his life.”

“But he has helped Jim build a successful business…”

“Which brings us back to where we started.”

“Yes.”

Mom sighed. “This is a lot to absorb. Maybe we should say good-bye for now and talk again tomorrow?”

Dread hovered. It was a lot to absorb. Maybe I had made too quick a decision.  Maybe we should take more time to consider. “Okay, Mom, you’re right. Let’s talk again tomorrow.”

***

I walked into the sitting room, sat down on the Queen Anne sofa and traced my finger over a swirl in the burgundy upholstery. The ceiling fan whirred overhead and light filtered in through the lace curtains on the windows. I loved this room with its twelve-foot ceiling and dark green wallpaper. On the far wall stood the Victorian side table Ray had brought back for me on one of the New England buying trips when I’d been too pregnant to go. My throat went dry. 

We had so many memories here. Rachael was born in our bedroom upstairs just a little over two years before. Born on a sleeping bag on the floor with a midwife in attendance. Sarah and Liz had grown up here. How could I leave a home I thought I might live in until I died?

The phone rang.  It was Dorothy.

“How could you? Did you think for a second what this might do to your mother?” 

I steeled myself for the onslaught. “Sounds like you’re upset.”

“Upset? Your mother is in her bedroom with angina and has already had to take nitroglycerin. Do you think there’s any reason I should be concerned?”

“She’s having heart pains?” 

“This is what always happens. She acts like she’s fine, but she’s not.”

“What’s she doing now?”   

“She’s resting.” Dorothy’s voice went soft for a moment, then back to stone hard. “So you’re leaving me with the sole care of your mother? Do you think that’s fair?”

Didn’t people who were partners expect to take care of each other when they got old and sick? I was surprised that was the tack she was taking. 

Dorothy didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she lambasted me with arguments on why it was ridiculous for us to consider this move and then ended by saying, “Let me just say I think this is the most selfish thing I’ve seen you do so far. I hope you’re happy.” She hung up before I could say another word.

So far? I wasn’t aware that I had done anything that merited that level of criticism, but, then again, I was very familiar with Dorothy’s temper. Between her and my mother, they had ten kids, collectively, or rather nine now that John was gone. My brothers, with their tendency for too much drinking and experimenting with drugs, had not made Dorothy’s or Mom’s life very easy. Periodically, I felt as if I got thrown into the Leatherwood “bad behavior” pot even though Ray and I had stopped drinking almost immediately after we got married. We were the teetotalers in the family, hellbent on stopping the substance abuse merry-go-round that seemed to come with both of our family names. We wanted to break that self-destructive cycle for ourselves, but, most especially for our kids. 

The back door opened and slammed shut and in walked Sarah, her short blonde hair still wet from swim team practice, followed by Liz, dark hair up in pigtails. “Hey, Mom,” they said in unison as they came over to hug me. Ray followed, carrying Rachael. 

“Hey,” my heart was still thumping hard. I looked over at Ray.  “I talked to Mom.”

“Finally got the nerve up, eh?  What’d the ole bat say?”

“She’s at home with heart pains at the moment.”  

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No. Dorothy just called and ripped me up one side and down the other.”

“I guess your mom will be in the emergency room before this is over?” 

“Probably…”

“Mama,” Sarah said, “is Grandma Helen going to be okay?”

I looked over at my green-eyed oldest daughter. “Yes, honey. Grandma has already taken medication. She gets these pains every once in a while and then they go away.” I hoped that was the case, at least. Mother was capable of being a good deal more dramatic than having palpitations in her bedroom.

“How about you?” Ray said as he came up and put his arms around me. “Are you and your mother going to need to share a hospital room before this is over?”

I lay my head against his chest. “It’s possible.”

***

Mother called early the next morning.    

“Len, I’ve thought about it all night and have decided you and Ray have to do this.”

I was surprised her voice sounded so strong. “But what if…”

“No. There are times in a couple’s life when they have to grab opportunities that present themselves. Your dad and I did that when we decided to buy the new sale barn. We had to sell our farm to make it happen, but we knew we had to seize the moment or else our competitors were going to drive us out of business.”

The Leatherwood Livestock Commission Company. The sale barn that my Dad built into one of the most successful livestock businesses in North Texas. 

“I understand that, but your health isn’t that good and Jim is…”

Mother cut me off.  “I’ll be fine.  It’ll do Jim good to have you, Ray and the girls so near.”

“But, I’m worried about you. I’m not sure this is a good time…”

“Len, stop right now. I know Dorothy called you. I’m telling you, I’m fine. I absolutely want you to go.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay, then.”

“Okay. Now get off the phone. You have a lot of work to do.”

***

The minute we decided to leave Texas, our lives took on the look of one of those ‘feel-good’ movies where everything is shot with a soft focus lens: the heat was less oppressive, the mosquitoes fewer, and the Baptists more liberal.

I dreaded going to St. Stephan’s Episcopal church that last Sunday before we left.  The congregation knew we were moving and had been quick to tell us in the preceding weeks just how much they would miss us.  And, of course, my mother would be there.    

I walked into the old stone church five minutes before the service and saw Mom sitting in her usual front pew all alone.  She looked so small and old, her snowy hair contrasting sharply with the dark green suit she wore. 

Settling in next to her, I leaned over and kissed her cheek. 

Instead of looking at me, Mother smiled at Ray and the children then picked up her prayer book and began thumbing through the pages. 

I felt a wave of hurt followed by indignation.  I wasn’t even gone yet and she was already pushing me away. 

The organ struck up the chords of a familiar hymn and memories of Sunday Masses, potluck suppers, my father’s funeral, and John’s memorial service washed over me as I watched the acolytes and the priest process to the altar, the smell of pungent incense filling the church.

               I bind unto myself today

            The strong name of the Trinity…

Mother stood, staring at her hymnal, tears flowing down her cheeks.    

I put my arm around her shoulder and my cheek against hers.  Our hot tears mixed as we cried – for our leaving, for John’s untimely death, for Jim’s uncertain future.

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Chapter One Excerpt 2

After taking Rachael downstairs to play with her sisters, Ray and I returned to our bedroom to discuss the pros and cons of uprooting our family of five.

“I love LA,” I said, “but we can’t do this. You know how high-strung Jim is.”

“What?” Ray reached over and poked my ribs. “You’re not making fun of him, are you?”

We laughed.  On our recent trip, my brother had gotten upset with me one evening when I teased him about acting like a prima donna.  In true Jim fashion, he’d stormed out of the room and wouldn’t come back until I’d apologized. “My point exactly,” I said. “He was bad enough before he and Dave started doing all that bodybuilding. Now with the steroids, you never know when he might snap.”

“So you’re saying you think rotting in this Southern Baptist hellhole is the best option?”

 “No. I’m just pointing out that Jim is capable of getting mad at me over nothing and then where will we be?”

“Where are we going to be otherwise?”

This was a valid point. We’d approached several other restaurant chains with decor ideas and had even gotten far enough to make a few presentations at their corporate headquarters, but nothing had come of it. “Maybe we could start setting up again at Canton and Fair Park and go to Brimfield as dealers rather than buyers. We did it once, we could do it again.”

“We did it in the ’80’s when the economy was booming and people were still interested in buying antiques. At this point, I’m not certain we would make our booth rent.”

“But, what about Mom?” Tears stung my eyes.

Ray gave me an exasperated look. “We can’t just sit around here waiting for the old bat to die. That could be twenty years from now. We will have starved to death by then.”

“Don’t call her an old bat!”

“Okay, okay… Your beloved mother will understand if we go.  After all, she knows your brother needs you.”

I felt the truth in those words. Jim had taken care of our brother John when he was dying. Despite whatever screwed up problems we had in our family, there was one thing that the Leatherwoods all accepted. Family was family was family.  We took care of our own.

It appeared to be my turn up at the plate since there was no way Mom would be able to do it.  She and Jim could hardly stand each other for the few hours a year they allotted to visit. Ray was right. Mom would understand because she knew that Jim needed me…us.

“But LA is a terrible place to raise kids with all those gangs and drugs and…”

“I guess you’d rather keep the girls here so they can get pregnant at fifteen? Yeah, that’s nice and safe.”

I stared out at the dusky blue Texas sky. What had seemed like a great plan while in LA, now didn’t seem so great.

Ray came over to where I stood and wrapped his arms around me.  I could smell the lemony scent of his cologne. “Do you still want to be stuck in this one-horse town five years from now?”

“No.”

“And how about living near the ocean like you’ve always wanted?  Wouldn’t that be better?”

“Yes,” I said, “but…”

“If Jim goes nuts, then do you know what we’ll do?”

“No.”

“We’ll gather up the kids and come right back here.”

“But wouldn’t we need to put the house on the market?”  

“If the money Jim just promised is real, we can finish our renovation first.”

That thought made me happy. I liked the idea of the house actually getting finished.

“So, that’ll give us some time to see if it’s going to work out or not. Okay?” Ray stroked my cheek.

“Okay.”

“Really okay?”

“Yes, really okay.”

Ray grinned. “Yes!  We’re going to California!” He twirled me around in a circle.

I knew this was exactly what we’d been hoping for – this chance at a brand new life – but I felt a sense of dread edging out any excitement.  “Do you mind if I wait until tomorrow to tell Mom?”

Ray gave me another twirl. “I don’t care if you wait until the day after tomorrow!”

***

Later that evening, I went outside and sat in one of the lawn chairs in the backyard. Fireflies lit up the dark night.  The air smelled sweet with honeysuckle. 

My second brother was making preparations for his untimely death. Calmly and with forethought, getting all of his affairs in order so that he wouldn’t be caught unaware. Arranging for family to be near, figuring out how his business might provide a legacy for someone besides himself, probably arranging for his funeral service. 

Jim and Dave were too young for this, along with three of our closest antique dealer friends who were fighting the same battle. Sickness and dying had become so commonplace it had turned us all numb. How else could we be sitting having such a calm conversation about such tragic circumstances?

We’d cried ourselves dry over John and the others.

My chest felt heavy.  An exciting opportunity for Ray and me foreshadowed dark times ahead for Jim and Dave.  As much as I wanted to believe the experimental drugs that were getting media attention might eventually work, so far I hadn’t seen much reason to hope they’d come soon enough.

Besides, how easy was it to shift from dying back to living?

balance scale

Chapter One Excerpt

April, 1994

That day Jim called I was sorting through boxes in the upstairs foyer of our fifteen-room Victorian, trying to make sense out of the clutter in my life.

My two-year-old daughter, Rachael, played beside me as I separated out the jumble of unrelated objects: an Architectural Digest, a deflated teething ring, trim pieces from the oak mirror in the upstairs bathroom, Edison Montessori school papers that needed to be signed, an art deco lamp base that should’ve gone out to the workshop, not brought upstairs. Damn it, Ray. Why couldn’t you be one of those husbands who put things back where they belonged instead of raking everything on a tabletop into one big box?

I looked around that large room at the top of the stairs: the watermarks on the already ugly 1950s maroon and gray wallpaper; the drawers stacked on top of a Mission oak partner’s desk awaiting drawer runner repairs; the arched 10-foot stained-glass window rescued from a condemned church, perfect except for three empty panes. My life was that room: fix me, finish me, do what you said you would do. The very house seemed to groan for that same attention – complete this renovation you promised me so long ago. I’m falling into decay here.

We’d returned from a trip to California the week before, and here we were back in Sherman, Texas, sixty miles north of Dallas, ten miles from Oklahoma. I was forty-years-old and twenty-five miles from where I’d grown up. This was not the life I’d had in mind.

Rachael toddled over and tugged at my blouse. I settled back against one of the boxes and let her crawl into my arms. I was moving into seven full years of breastfeeding if I added up the time for Sarah, Elizabeth and now Rachael.

Every part of my life had settled into that same kind of counting. Thirteen years married; twelve years in the antique business; eight years renovating this house; three daughters; one brother already dead from AIDS; a second with long-standing HIV; and exactly five minutes before my life would change forever.

The phone rang…

***

“Hey, Len, it’s Jim.”

“Hey.” I’d been hoping for this call since returning from Los Angeles.

“Move out here and work for me. Let me change your life.”

My brother was not known for his humility. “Uh, well…”

“Don’t be worried about anything. Dave and I have it all figured out. You guys can live in our condo out here. It’s all redone and beautiful and the girls can go to school in Beverly Hills and Ray can manage your business long distance until he gets something going out here.”

My heart started to pound. Beverly Hills? Was that even possible? “But…”

“No buts.  We both know you two need to get out of that hick town.”  

Ha! Well, that part was true. I didn’t know how we were going to make a living now that our work with Brinker International was almost over. We’d been the primary vendors of antique decor for the Chili’s restaurant chain for the past twelve years but they had now saturated their market, nationally and internationally. We had to figure out another way to make money. Not to mention, find a few liberal friends since our three buying trips a year to New England would soon be over too, and our closest friends all lived in the Northeast. “I’d have to know that Dave is okay with everything.”

“What are you talking about? Dave practically came up with this whole idea himself.  We’ve been talking about nothing else all day.”

Dave Federico was co-owner of Leatherwood Laser Surgery Center.  He was also Jim’s former lover; before they figured out they were better at business than romance.  

I looked out the window into our backyard.  The red and yellow tulips I’d planted last year contrasted sharply with the spring green of the new Bermuda grass.   

Ray walked into the room followed by eight-year-old Elizabeth and eleven-year-old Sarah who’d just arrived home from school. I waved at the girls who waved back, then disappeared out the door.  Ray came in and sat down on the bed.  I covered the phone with my hand.  “Jim’s offering me a job.”

“Great!”   

Rachael toddled over and crawled into his lap.  

“I need somebody out here I can trust, Len,” Jim said.  “Dave needs somebody too. You know it’s just a matter of time until we both get sick.”

I held my breath. This was the crux of the conversation – We don’t know how long we’re going to last.  Come and help us for the time we have left. In exchange, we’ll give you part of this little empire we’ve built. Please, Len, we’re family. We need you.

Dave was next on the line. “Honey, I could really use the support.”  He lowered his voice. “Cody is even worse than I told you when you were here.”

The illustrious Cody Cavendish – Jim’s new boyfriend – the one who Jim described as an Adonis. The one he planned to “marry” in an unofficial ceremony in the summer.

Jim got back on the phone. “Talk to Ray about it and let me know.  I hope I can hear from you in the next day or two at the latest.”

To be continued…

tulips

A Decision, Finally.

I have made the decision to pull my fiction manuscript out of the desk drawer where it’s been hiding for several years now and shift it back to the memoir it was originally meant to be.  I have already begun the process of changing the names back to the “real” ones and removing anything that isn’t 100% true, at least from my perspective, and it feels good.

I worked on this book several years ago under the guidance of my writing mentor, John Rechy. John is a well-known and wonderful writer who in several of his books has taken his real life and written about it lyrically and with great clarity. These now-famous books were marketed as fiction because John’s logic is that memory is faulty as well as subjective, thereby making true “memoir” nearly impossible to render.  Alas, while I respect that view, my decision to shift my book toward a more fictionalized world has created a manuscript that is, for me, emotionally dissatisfying.  And while I am aware that fiction often sells better than memoir (unless you’re very famous), I know that my book, as it is currently written, holds neither the lyricism nor the clarity to capture the attention of the serious reading public. That leaves me with nothing to lose to pursue my original vision, which was to chronicle this sometimes challenging/painful/growth-inspiring time of my life.

So, with that all said, I will most likely be posting segments of this book on my blog in order to give myself a way to work on it in the evenings during the time that I normally have allotted for writing my blog pieces.  I don’t know if I’ll do this every day or only occasionally, but whatever the case, I will be doing it some.

I am excited about this decision, and, believe me, I have not been excited about this book in a very long time.  I will do my best to tell this story as authentically as I can, given my skill level. What skills I lack, hopefully, I’ll make up for in good-hearted effort.

This is the story of when Ray, our three daughters and I moved from rural Texas to Beverly Hills in 1994 to help my brother Jim as he faced his battle with AIDS.

I will begin tomorrow night.

And now, I believe I’ll head to bed after a day that has held a few challenges…

We’ll talk again tomorrow.

stack of pages

Night with Grandbabies

I am lying here in bed with a sleeping baby boy by my side. Luna is in the next room with grandpa and the dogs. Normally we would all just sleep in our big California King but daughter Sarah worries about babies and dogs. Apparently she has seen some worrisome things in the emergency room during her rotations and we honor her concerns.

I am feeling lucky that my little bed partner has gone to sleep fairly easily. Apparently at home he is known as a night owl. Here, we hit the sack fairly early and Nico seems to accept that is our approach.

Luna barely makes it through the bedtime stories before she is out. Grandpa usually falls asleep too. Right now the house is totally calm. I am barely able to keep my eyes open. I guess the condition is catching. Of course, it may just me thinking about how early we will be getting up tomorrow.

I will check back in then.

Until then, take good care.

Celebration

We celebrated Sarah’s completion of her medical residency with all the family tonight st Sarah and Gregorio’s house. Sarah is officially “off” for a short bit of time before starting her new job. She and Gregorio actually went to a movie today. The first one in a very long time.

We ate, laughed and just enjoyed our time together. Tomorrow night, Ray and I have the pleasure of a visit from our grandkids. Can’t wait.

Settled now in bed. Ready for a good night’s sleep.

Sleep well, my friends. Life is made up of special moments, big and small. I have had a few of those over the past couple of days. I hope you have too.

I will check back in tomorrow.

I expect we’ll be going for a walk tomorrow that looks a lot like this.

Today is Sarah’s Real Last Day of Residency

It’s been quite a journey, Dr. Sarah Pacheco Beaty, and now your residency is finally over.  Here are a few photos of you from your White Coat ceremony to the day of the “official” ending of your residency.  Plus, the first photo of you and Gregorio and one of the most recent ones of the sweet family you two have created.

Congratulations, honey.  I am so proud of you!

Wow.  Now you can actually sleep a little, read a newspaper or two and catch up on all those televisions shows from the past decade.

Welcome to “normal” life.  Did I say you can sleep a little?

Love you, sweetheart.

Hooray.

Flash Fiction, Memoir and Essay

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