On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Friday, March 14, 2014

Of Burning Cressets: A Short Story

Shakespeare’s Henry the IV
       Though Marcia Blazek and I attended elementary school together, our education diverged, and I didn’t run across her again until years later, after which she popped up in my life in unexpected ways.  I knew a little about her schooling since both our mothers volunteered at a local historic home and shared stories about their girls, but she was pretty much an unknown quantity to me.  Every so often, Mother would mention something Mrs. Blazek told her about Marcia’s goings-on, such as her enrollment at a fine girls academy in Nashville, a 30-minute trip from our suburban town made daily with her father’s cooperation.  He was, as I recall, an insurance salesman.  I also heard that she attended an Ivy League college for women, her mother suggesting a wealthy aunt on her father’s side helping out with the fees.  My mother thought Mrs. Blazek pretentious and rather absurd.
             I remembered Marcia as a big, bouncing girl of immense vitality, who put off others rather than attracting them.  When I met up with her years later, she was an imposing woman, unmarried and playing a role she had written for herself.
            My husband and I were on our honeymoon touring Scotland in a car and had made our first stopover at St. Andrews where we had engaged a room at a bed-and-breakfast on a quiet crescent.  Wanting to pick up some snacks for afternoon tea, I had walked the few blocks to Tesco’s and was mulling over the choices, when I heard a loud American voice nearby.  I turned with interest and saw a large woman in her mid- to late-twenties with ash blonde hair, smartly dressed in a white shirt tucked neatly into a pleated plaid skirt.  She was vociferously making a case for a certain canned entre with a humble-looking woman who was desperately nodding agreement.  When the latter turned to go, I stepped up to the blonde and asked, “Are you American, by any chance?” knowing the answer and pleased to come upon a countrywoman.
            “I am, but I’m slipping year by year back to my U.K roots.  And you’re visiting here?”  She gave me a close look.  “You look very familiar.”
            I agreed she reminded me of someone, too, and eventually in comparing notes, we established our connection.
            “Well,” Marcia said, enthusiastically, “this is wonderful!  Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, you know, and I’m having my annual Fourth party at my flat.  Just a fun thing for a few Brits and Scots I’ve known for years.  Please say you’ll come.”
            I said I’d check with my husband if he hadn’t anything else planned and let her know when I returned to the B and B.  We exchanged phone numbers, and then she said, “By the way, I’m known as Alden here, not Marcia.”
            I raised my eyebrows questioningly, but she didn’t explain further, and I watched her stride off to the check-out counter with a swing of her skirt.
            “What does she do here?” Jake asked, agreeing to go to “Alden’s” party.  “Isn’t she a little old to be a student?”
            “I know from what Mother said years ago that she spent her junior year abroad at St. Andrews, but I hadn’t heard what she’s done since.  Maybe she works here.  I’ve forgotten if I ever knew what her major was.”
            “Why Alden,” my husband persisted, “instead of Marcia?”
            “It’s historic Americana, you dolt.  Probably an old family name.  I remember Mrs. Blazek was terribly interested in her ancestry.  You know, John Alden, the Mayflower?”
            We both laughed, as if we were abashed at anyone quite so silly as to rename herself in the interests an auspicious pedigree. 

            The few friends turned out to be four—three women of various ages and conditions, all Scots, all of whom worked at St. Andrews University in one office or another, and a man about our own age, Geoffrey Meredith, handsome and rather lanky, who was lounging sleepily on half of the sofa in the tiny apartment.  He wagged his head in a friendly fashion at Marcia’s introduction as being from Hampshire, but didn’t rise or offer to shake hands.
            “Are you a grad student?” I asked him, sitting down on a basket chair nearby.
            “I’m entered this fall for the MEP master’s program, yeah.”
            “I’d hoped to get into that myself,” Marcia said, standing before us like Persephone, holding a vase of flowers, dressed in a kind of sweeping caftan in earth tones.  “But I hadn’t the prerequisites.  It would have been lovely to get a business degree to go with my Art History.”
            “What will you be doing then?” Jake asked her, accepting a glass of wine from Jane, one of her women friends.  We had brought a couple of bottles as a token offering to the party.
            “I’m desperately trying to get a permanent job here,” Marcia said with a shrug, folding her frame onto a small footstool.  “If I can’t manage that within the next two months, I won’t get my visa renewed and it’s back to the U.S.”
            “We don’t want to lose our Alden,” said Elizabeth, the oldest of the women.
            Jane also piped up. “She’s the most charming and generous hostess.  She simply must get a job here.”  A discussion ensued about job possibilities at the university, which seemed a hopeless pursuit, along with Marcia’s multiple applications to historic sites and museums in both Scotland and England.
            “So you believe employers would choose you over a native?” Jake asked innocently.  I knew he thought her qualifications must have been superb.
            Marcia flushed at that, and said, “I’m hoping my education at St. Andrews, which is at the doctoral level, might influence their decision.”
            “Times are hard,” Geoffrey commented, sipping his wine.  “When can we eat?  I’m starving.”
            Marcia jumped up.  “We’ll be ready in a thrice.  Just my usual hot dogs.  I hope you all don’t mind eating on trays.  My kitchen table is for two.  But I have a couple of tray tables.  Alicia,” she said to the youngest of the women, “would you get them from that closet, please?”
            When the evening was finally over, sans fireworks (“not recommended in town,” Marcia admitted), and after saying goodbye to the three women, I asked Marcia if I could help with the cleanup.  It seemed strange her friends had left her in the lurch.
            “No, the char is coming tomorrow morning and she’ll do for me.  I’m off again making the rounds to inquire about work.  That’s my main occupation now.”
            “Of course,” I said, surprised to hear she had a cleaner for this one-bedroom place.   The great aunt’s generosity, I supposed.  “Thanks for your hospitality, and good luck on your job search.  If you end up back in the Nashville area, we’ll have to get together.”
            She gave a shout of ironic laughter, “No offense, but if I end up there, I’ll simply jump in a hole and you won’t be able to find me.”
            “Wherever you can get work makes life bearable,” Jake said with an encouraging smile, but Marcia didn’t reply. 
            Geoffrey finally stood up and stretched, giving us a wave and a “ta ta.”     
            “I wonder what role the Adonis plays in that menage,” I said as we walked back to our room.
            Jake laughed.  “Surely he just stops in for her cooking.”
            “The food was good, true.  Excellent potato salad and a nice facsimile of Boston baked beans.  I suppose he gets a free meal pretty frequently. I wonder if that’s all he gets?”
             “What do you think?” my husband said with a shrug.  “I expect she puts up with a whole lot of mooching and that’s all.”
            “I think her greatest trial is living with the name Blazek,” I said.  “It doesn’t seem to fit her adopted persona, not to mention ‘Alden’.  I remember Mother saying that Mrs. Blazek insisted her husband’s ancestry was Prussian.”
            “I don’t think so,” Jake countered.  “Though why anyone would object to Polish roots, I can’t imagine.”
            “Because the name bespeaks a latter day arrival in America, that’s why.”
            “Ah, I see.”
            That evening was the last I saw of Marcia or even heard about her for several years.
            Three years later, two friends and I were at a concert featuring a violinist of note, and during intermission, I left them to find a drinking fountain.  Just as I turned into the vestibule, I almost ran into a tall young woman in a calf-length green silk dress accented with a long rope of pearls.  Each of us gaped at the other in surprise.
            “Marcia!” I said.  “I mean, Alden.  How are you?”  We embraced briefly as one does in the South as a friendly greeting.
            “I’m fine!” she exploded in her usual enthusiastic fashion.  “It’s lovely to see you!”
            “Have you ended up in Nashville after all?” I asked.
            She shrugged elaborately.  “I’m not officially in Nashville, rather our old home town, living at Mother’s.  She’s a martyr to her arthritis, and since Daddy died, it’s helpful for me to be nearby.”  She turned to a slight woman beside her, whom I had almost overlooked beside Marcia’s dominating presence.  “This is my boss, Andrea Marins,” she said after introducing me.
            The woman, painfully thin yet attractive with a slightly oriental cast to her features, extended her hand and we acknowledged each other in a friendly fashion.
            “Where are you working?” I asked Marcia, remembering her major area of historic preservation.
            “Well, that’s the thing,” she said with a little moue.  “I’m at Children’s Services, the county office.”
            “How interesting.”
            “Alden is so efficient, I don’t know what I’d do without her,” Andrea offered.
            “What exactly do you do?”  I admit I was curious.
            Instead of answering directly, she said, “My father’s family always believed one should have both a profession and a trade.  I’m now working at my trade; I am a pretty good typist and secretary.”
            I smiled at the sensible-sounding explanation—very old country, I thought.  After a few more friendly words, we parted with the usual assurances that we’d have to get together sometime when I was in town at my mother’s.        
            It was five years later to the month that her name arose.  Always, I’d thought about calling her when I was at Mother’s, but my busy life seemed to get in the way of promoting further our very tenuous acquaintance.  I had picked up my mother and taken her to lunch when as we were leaving the restaurant, she said, “Did I tell you Marcia Blazek’s mother died?”
            “No, you didn’t.  Recently?”
            “Yes, last week, of cancer.  I’m going to the service Saturday.  She was something of a pill, but she meant well.”
            “What a damning thing to say,” I said with a little laugh.  “I felt the same about Marcia— some of her ways are a bit hard to swallow, but basically she’s a good person.”
            “You know Marcia lives in Nashville now?”
            “So she’s still in the area,” I murmured.  “When I saw her a few years ago, she was in town just to help out her mother.  Oddly enough, in St. Andrews, she said she’d rather die than live in Nashville.”
            “Oh,” Mother scoffed, “that must have been an exaggeration.  She’s married, I read in her mother’s obituary.”
            I remembered Marcia wending her way through life: the unpopular elementary student, her posh education, and then her reincarnation in Scotland, all apparently leading to this outcome.   “I’m glad she found someone.  She was certainly friendly to us on our honeymoon.  I’m sure I mentioned that to you.”
            “Did you?” Mother climbed into the car and fastened the seat belt.  “I don’t recall.  I haven’t seen Mrs. Blazek for many years myself since both of us had retired from all that volunteer work.”  She turned to me.  “Why don’t you come with me to the memorial service?  I think she’s to be cremated, and I’m sure Marcia would appreciate your being there.”
            “I might.  Did Marcia ever get on with her art history—you know, a position at some historic site?”  I wondered about the numerous homes and museums in the Nashville area and if her Scottish education had finally come into play.
            “I don’t know.  She has a couple of children, also according to the obituary.”
            “That’s nice.   Yes, I’ll be glad to go with you.”  And we made arrangements to meet on Saturday.  “I’ll have flowers sent from all of us,” I added.
            The funeral home parking lot was full by the time we arrived a half-hour before the service for the visitation.  “I guess Mrs. Blazek was well known in the community.”
            “She had belonged to many organizations—DAR, Daughters of the Confederacy, a couple of historic home associations, to mention a few.”
            Just inside the vestibule, a funereal conga line had formed, shifting and swaying unrhythmically as it progressed toward the family who were receiving condolences.  Was there a brother?  I’d forgotten if I ever knew.
            Then we reached Marcia herself at the head of the mourners, a conductress in black, shaking hands, receiving embraces, handing people off to a tall, light-haired man beside her.  Brother?  Husband?
            “Hello—er, Alden,” I said. “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.” I leaned into her broad bulk to give her a sympathetic hug.
            “Thank you,” she said, warmly, kissing my cheek.  “It wasn’t unexpected, but it still is hard to lose one’s mother.”  Then she added in a whisper.  “I’m back to Marcia, now.”
            I nodded and moved on as she introduced me to her brother Mark, who lived in Indianapolis.  His petite wife, also dressed in black, stood next to him and beyond her were two teenage girls, their daughters.  I explained to her my long-time connection with Marcia.
            “I haven’t met Marcia’s husband and children yet,” I said.
            “The children are rather young so he has them in a side room where he can listen to the ceremony.  You’ll meet him at the reception later.  I hope you’ll join us.  Marcia has spent so many years out of state and abroad, she’s lost touch with many of her old friends.”
            “Yes, of course, we’d be happy to join you.”  I doubted that Marcia’s friendships from her old academy had amounted to much.  She had come into their midst from the wrong side of Nashville.  And most teenage girls were not impressed with ancestral claims.  I was a little surprised to be counted among Marcia’s “old friends” but we did have a few connections from the past.  I mentioned the invitation to Mother, who was pleased.
            “How nice,” she said.  “I think it’s very kind of them to ask us.”
            The service itself was rather brief, conducted by a minister from Mrs. Blazek’s church, I gathered from what he said.  Short eulogies from friends of Mrs. Blazek’s as well as family members extolled the deceased’s many virtues and accomplishments.  We sang a hymn to an electronic accompaniment, and before filing out we listened to Clair de Lune by Debussy, mentioned as one of Mrs. Blazek’s favorite pieces, performed on the piano by a young woman.  It was rather touching
            The reception gave me an opportunity to observe the Blazek family in toto.  Several cousins were presented to us by the sister-in-law.  And then, Marcia came up to me with a short dark man in tow.  “This is my husband, Giorgio.”  She went on to introduce my mother and me as old friends from the community. 
            “Yes,” I said, shaking his hand.  “And Marcia graciously invited us to a party at her place in St. Andrews when we visited Scotland on our honeymoon.  I’m sorry my husband couldn’t be here, but he’s babysitting our son.”
            “I know how that is,” Giorgio said with a smile.  He was very good looking and seemed to dote on his wife, whose towering presence didn’t diminish his own persona.
            “Did you meet at St. Andrews?” I asked. 
            They looked at one another and smiled.  Giorgio took Marcia’s hand.  “I work for the State in computer services, and Marcia’s office had a problem with their system. I was able to help them, and got to know this lovely lady.  It didn’t take me long to ask her out.”
            “And after that,” Marcia added with a proud tilt of her head, “well, you can see the result.”
            “Was that when you went back to being Marcia?” I asked, interested in the transformation.
            “It was!” she replied as if I’d unlocked a puzzle.  “It occurred to me my name was of Latin origin, and through my research it appears I have—though it’s difficult to prove—a connection to a Roman senator.  I’m currently delving into Giorgio’s genealogy.”
            Later, as Mother and I drove home, I asked her, “Did you know about Marcia’s marriage and who her husband is?”
            “Well, yes, I did.  I heard through the grapevine his parents had come from Italy many years ago.  Giorgio was born here.  I always wondered what Mrs. Blazek thought, but he seems a nice fellow, doesn’t he?”