This short story came out of a writing exercise at a writing conference in Zurich, before the Geneva Writer's Group started doing their conferences. The session was led by Jake Lamar http://www.jakelamar.com/ and he told us to write about the same person from different points of view...I deliberately didn't include Karen's point of view. I let all the other characters tell her story.
It won Honorable Mention Negative Capability Fiction Contest in 1997.
Anna, Karen's mother
Look at her sitting there, Miss-Butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth. And look at her father eat it up. We don't hear a word, not one single word from her for weeks and then she breezes in. Comes up behind me as I'm washing dishes. Gives me a big kiss. Bold as brass tacks. There are phones to warn a body, I told her that. And what did she do? All she did was laugh.
Does she come alone? No, drags a friend, so I didn't have a chance to make things clean and nice. What does she say for herself? Says Marie cares more for people then clean and nice. Mocks me, she does. My own daughter.
And just where were you, I ask. Paris she says. Painting on sidewalks. Is she joking? Is that anything for a forty-year old woman to be doing? At least we didn't get an operator asking, "Will you accept a collect call from Karen?" How many times have I heard that? Of course, I always say yes. What if she were hurt or in real trouble? You never know. There's so much danger in the world.
She should settle down. Haven't I been saying that for years? No one listens. Not one whit.
Poor Larry is talking to her just like he use to when they were in high school. She should never have married him. He still lights up when he sees her even if he has married again. Even her father, who thinks Karen tinkles liquid gold, never blamed poor Larry for the divorce.
When I asked her wasn't she ashamed to be the first divorced person in our family, she just looked at me like she couldn't understand the question. I don't care if everyone gets a divorce these days. I believe in commitments. She refused to cook, clean. All she wanted to do was paint. She said anyone smart enough to run a store was smart enough to wash his own jockey shorts. And her father just sat there nodding his head. Humph. He can't even put his underwear in the hamper. Leaves it on the floor wherever he undresses.
And what about Sandy? She needs a mother, although Lord knows Jeanne is good with the child. Poor Larry was really lucky to find Jeanne. They give my granddaughter the stability Karen never could. Karen may be my daughter and I love her, God knows, but she has been a disappointment from the day when she refused my to put on her pink ruffled dress. What was she? Two? Three?
Sam, Karen's father
It's great having her home. Who'd have thought a little girl from Rockport, Maine would have had the courage to go to Europe all by herself ...well Marie was with her...but two women on their own…
I'd never tell her, but I'd be scared to death. Mama and I did take that tour a couple of years back...a tour....nothing where we had to find stuff on our own. Good thing we did. Even with that ten-week French course at the adult education center...I didn't understand one word the Frenchies said. Nice looking young guide did it all...thank goodness. Mama...claimed she couldn't understand her accent ...jealous. Mama's always jealous...even resents Karen and Nancy....imagine...jealous of her own daughter and sister.
I knew right away we'd a tomboy on our hands...real dare devil she was. The time the fire department came to get her out of the tree... she was so angry. Said she'd have come down when she was good and ready...just wasn't ready then.
Sandy and Larry are here... Nice guy, Larry...never right for Karen. Yet when you see 'em all yacking together, you'd never know he had a wife waiting for him in the car. Boy will he get it, when he gets out there.
Jeanne, the second wife
What's keeping Larry? All he had to do was drop off Sandy, but no, he insisted on saying hello to his ex-in-laws. He sees them when they come into the store, he doesn't need to stop now. I know he really wanted to see what She looked like after being in Paris. I wish she'd just go away and never come back.
At least when she was away I had Sandy and Larry to myself. It use to take me days to get Sandy back to normal after she went to New York to visit her mother. She filled the child's head full of dreams but couldn't send her back with clean clothes. Probably thinks of me as nothing more than a laundress.
And she could have shown some appreciation for my picking up the shards of her life. Took me weeks to get that house clean after she walked out. Of course, if I hadn't Larry would never have thought of me as his wife. Made myself indispensable. He was so grateful everytime I cooked a meal. Spaghetti, lamb roast, pork pie. He really packed it away. Blueberry pie did it.
I had such a crush on him when we were in high school. But it was only her he was interested in. He hasn't forgotten her, but I'm the one who will be there for him, not her. Maybe I should go in and see what's keeping him. No, I'll wait. Won't give her the satisfaction.
Sandy, her daughter
Jeanne almost talked Dad into making me stay home tonight, but I won. She thinks Mum is a bad influence. I think Mum's a trip.
I hope Mum lets me go back to her loft in New York soon. It's neato, no furniture, and I can drop my clothes where I want. No prissy stuff anywhere. Last time I was there we got Chinese food from around the corner and ate it right out of the cartons with chopsticks. We sat on the floor, picnic-style. I'd like to live with Mom, but no way José. If I ever even thought of mentioning it, it would be explosion city. Dad and Jeanne would accuse me of being ungrateful. Anyway, I'm not sure Mum really wants me there fulltime. She gets so involved in her painting. Maybe when I graduate from high school, next year I can go to college in New York, stay with Mum and Marie.
Sometimes I think Dad still loves Mum a bit. He never looks at Jeanne like he's looking at Mum now, but if they're together too long they fight. Lots of times it's about me. I wonder if I hadn't been born if they'd have gotten a divorce. Mum says yes. The divorce is not my fault, she says and if I doubted it I should look at how they both live and see if the two life styles are compatible.
Larry, her ex-husband
Karen sure looks good. Paris must have agreed with her. Maybe a little too thin. She always ate like a pig and never put on a pound. No boobs still.
I'll never tell her, but she was right to leave. We never spoke the same language.
Jeanne is better for me. Loves to fritter around the house. If only Sandy wouldn't fight her so much. I suppose that's normal, stepmother and all. Too bad Jeanne wouldn't come in and say hello. She's always jealous of Karen. Thinks one never forgets their first love. She's right, but that doesn't mean you compound a mistake.
I need someone to help me in the store, run my house, keep Sandy in line not someone who always is in front of a canvas.
Hells bells, sometimes I'd come in at ten at night, dog tired, and find the breakfast dishes still in the sink, the baby fed from a can, and Karen would still be painting. Don't know if she's any good or not. Never did understand that stuff.
Something about Karen, is you are either enchanted by her or turned off. Her Dad, me and her Aunt Nancy were always in the first group.
Nancy, her aunt
I'm so proud of her. I know I made my sister mad the way I could get Karen to do things that she couldn't. Anna always confronted her head on. Me, I never let it get to that stage.
I remember when she was eight. Anna wanted her to wear that yellow dress to someone's birthday. I forget whose, now. They say the memory is the first to go. Ha Ha. What a tantrum that kid pulled. When she calmed down I looked at her and said, "You don't have to go, but the cake will be chocolate" or something like that. You could have ridden a bike around that lower lip. Then I added, "You can stay home. It's your choice." She got dressed real quick.
I drove her to the party. On the way she saw a snake at the side of the road. Loved snakes. Read everything she could on 'em.
"Stop, stop, Auntie Nancy," she cried.
I did. She hopped out and picked it up and was about to take it into the car. Now Anna would have made a big scene. I used a little psychology. "Can you imagine," I said, "The screams of all those sissy girls if you walked in with a snake." The snake flicked its tongue.
Her face lit up like a Christmas Tree. "Yeah," she said. Then she looked at me. "Not a good idea, hun?"
"Put it back and we'll stop after the party." Of course the snake was long gone when we stopped two hours later. Karen found it funny my walking through the woods calling, "Here snakey, snakey, snakey," like I called the cat. Boy, was Anna mad not only that were we late, but Karen's dress was torn and filthy from tramping through the woods.
That Marie seems like a nice girl. Helped set the table, chipped in without being asked. Polite. I wonder if... probably not... not that it matters.
Marie, her friend
I wish Karen would tell her parents about us. She never will. She says she's on her mother's shit list often enough without that. My mother loves Karen, says she opens the world to me, and she has.
God, Paris was wonderful. So was Provence. Six months. We both did some good work.
The Newbury Street gallery will take my work, and she's got a show in two months in Soho. It's finally coming together for us.
She complains a lot about her family, especially her mother, but I noticed she wanted to come up here and see everyone just a couple of weeks after we got back. She makes up such crazy stories to shock them. Painting on the sidewalk. My God.
I thought she was kidding when she told me that her family had baked beans and brown bread every Saturday night. But that's what we're eating. Her mother must be a little pleased we're here. Karen says the cole slaw is a special treat, and I never saw anyone throw an apple pie together so fast. Smells good.
Karen said she'd scratch her chin when she's ready to leave. She'll need to talk a lot. Glad we booked into a motel. It will be easier than staying here. I'll just sit here and wait.