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

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Flowers at Her Feet: An Excerpt

This is the first Foxhill novel in my contemporary Southern romance series set in a fictional historic district of Nashville.  All these novels deal with ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances whose wholesome values are counter to the degraded common culture of today.

Chapter 1
  “Property values are increasing all the time.”  The agent gave a proud sweep of her arm over the surrounding residential area in a possessive way as if she’d sold every house there.  “You’re fortunate to have inherited this place.”
            I gave a doubtful but still interested glance at the neighborhood.  Some houses had been obviously renovated but others, like mine, had not.  “Transitional,” some termed the area, sometimes “historical,” a little better.  My own house was three-storied, rambling, uneven-roofed. 
            “Queen Anne, Victorian, of course,” said Janice Thompson of Thompson Realty, which prided itself on its ubiquitous presence in the Foxhill neighborhood.   Janice (pronounced Ja-neese) was a gnome-like person with a large head of black curls and heavy squat legs.  She wore expensive clothes and drove an Escalade.  I seemed to tower over her though I was only a little over medium height and wore low stacked heels. Janice walked and gestured with supreme confidence, and I watched her admiringly.  Lately, I felt either too tall, too thin, too pale, or too awkward in my movements.  But to be fair to myself I had some good points–nice legs, for example; and my eyes, called “luminous” by poetically-inclined friends, were a light blue-gray framed by dark lashes and had routinely caused comments.  At this time in my life, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling I had misplaced my true self.  Inheriting this house provided me with an opportunity–either to find myself or become further mired in mistakes and more self-doubt.
            “You could sell it and make some money,” Janice continued at my silence.  “I could get a buyer for it within a week.  There aren’t too many areas like this left in Nashville.  It’s ripe for development.  Yuppies are snapping up houses like yours as soon as they come on the market.”
            “I don’t know.  I think I’d like to live here.  Keep the rooms rented since I wouldn’t need all that space.”  Did I want to do that?  I guess so.  I heard myself saying so.  An old house, lots of work, responsibilities.  This was the moment of truth.  Oh, I could have put off making any decision for a while, but for what?  I needed to take the plunge now, while I could still talk myself into it.  Adventure, romance—my life could stand a bit of both.  True, the house didn’t look too promising for either, but it had to be better than my present circumstances.  Then too, I tended to take in things at a glance and go with my impression.  Quite simply, I liked the house.
            “Right.  A little sprucing up inside and out, you could get a good clientele.”
            “A great deal of sprucing up,” I murmured.  The green trim looked dingy, the paint worn off in spots.  Shutters hung askew with rusty hinges.  Did the front porch sag a little?  I tilted my head and decided no.  The stone steps, once an impressive entry feature, were listing to the right.  I didn’t like that.  Much to be done.  But it was a lovely old place.
            “A lick of paint, a little elbow grease and you’ll have a lovely home or multiple dwelling,”     
            “It seems to be occupied now.”  A curtain moved at an upstairs window tucked in a gable.  I saw a small face and bright eyes observing us.   “My understanding was that after my aunt died, the place was to be vacated.”
            “Well, no.  Some had paid up for a couple of months.  They all seemed so attached to the place we just let them ride along until your aunt’s will was probated.  The rent money’s in an escrow account, of course.  You’ll have a head start on money for repairs or maintenance.”  She gave me a knowing look.  “You seem to have made up your mind.”
            I shrugged.  “I’d like to try Nashville for a change.  Except for my college years, I’ve always lived in a podunk town, more recently as the town librarian.”  I faltered a bit as I admitted this suddenly dull-sounding existence, but I continued gamely, “After all, I’m twenty-seven years old.  It’s time to make a move, don’t you think?  This house is my ticket.”  I’d be twenty-eight in September, the consummate Virgo.  I considered my more obvious characteristics.  Along with a tendency toward soft-heartedness, I was cool, precise, orderly, compulsively neat–and alone.  Surely there must be more to life, I told myself, than what I had been doing–reading the gloomy Romantic poets as my entertainment.
            “Will you be getting a job besides being a landlady?”
            I looked around as if I might see a job opportunity behind a tree.  “I hope so.  I’ll have to have work.  I doubt that I could make it solely as a landlady.”
            “There’s a branch of the city library within two blocks of here.  They might take you on part time at least.”
            “Yes.”  Janice probably thought my librarian background suited me to a T.  And she was right.  What else was I qualified for?  It was a dispiriting thought.  We climbed the steep flight of limestone steps from the sidewalk to the house.   They were slightly hollowed from years of use.  “Is everything done, so the house is legally mine, I mean?”
            Janice nodded emphatically.  “The attorney for the estate had contacted us to take care of matters.  We have some papers for you to sign and then it’s yours officially.”  She gave me a sidelong glance.  “You’re sure you don’t want to sell?  You could get a really good price.  Start all over with a nice bank account, or a nice new house with little upkeep.”  She wanted this baby.
            “I should do that if I were to be practical.  But I’d like to see how it goes first here.”  Firm, in charge.  But it wasn’t just Janice that I was hoping to convince.  Now stepping into a new venture, I had to overcome that feeling of resistance that assailed me with threats of failure.
            We both turned at the sound of thudding footsteps and saw a jogger approaching below us on the brick sidewalk.  He ran in a forward lurch style and had the haggard, desperate look of someone being chased.  I hated running, myself.  All that jiggling and thumping.  It had to do things to one’s body beyond repair.  I liked to walk though.  And this neighborhood promised some pleasant excursions.  I could imagine myself strolling–at a brisk pace, of course–on the newly re-paved brick sidewalks among the tall trees.  It was partly because of the quaintness of the area that I made up my mind so quickly.  The place had charm and a kind of peace. But, of course, I knew nothing about it.
            I turned back to the house and stepped onto the porch, a wide empty space covering half the front.  I remembered this place vaguely as a hazy childhood event.  I’d visited my aunt only once.  Then she and my father had some unfortunate falling out.  I knew the trouble between my father and his older sister had to do with their father’s estate many years ago.  They’d had different mothers and complications arose that caused hurt and recriminations.   And even after Daddy died, Mother never encouraged visits because of his sister’s unforgiving attitude.  Amazing that Aunt Mary remembered me in her will.  How lucky I was!
            “You’re very lucky to get this place,” said Janice the mind reader.  “See how there’s renovation going on around here?  There’s a homeowner’s group for the neighborhood.  The Foxhill Association.  They have a yearly tour of homes or other activities open to the public.”
            “Is it safe then?  I didn’t think much of the neighborhoods closer in to town.”
            “Perfectly safe in the immediate vicinity.  Neighborhood Watch, that sort of thing.”  She kicked aside some leaves with her pointed toe and opened the front door.  We walked into a large reception hall–high ceiling, a settee with frayed upholstery and a small table on rickety-looking legs.  A stairway on the right and a closed door on the left.  Janice unlocked the door to the left.  “As you can see, it’s very private for you.  The renters have to come into this hall or use the back stairway.  They park their cars either on the street or in that large turnaround by the garage.”
            “Where are the other doors?”
            “Another outside door is on the side of the drive.  It leads to the basement and from that hallway to your kitchen.”
            The front room had furniture everywhere.  I was trying to sort things out when Janice brushed by me and went into the next room.  “Dining room, big bay window, and back there the kitchen, breakfast nook overlooking the garden.  Might want some new appliances, wall paper.”
            I could only peek into the spacious kitchen before Janice was ushering me down a long hallway toward the rear.  “Three bedrooms.  The one nearest the dining room was originally a back parlor, but it would work well as a den.  Double glass door–nice, huh?”
            “Very nice.  I like it.”  The original features of the house were interesting, but my general impression was of clutter and heavy, dark pieces of furniture.  I can’t stand clutter.  I’d have to take stock of the furniture later. 
            We moved back to the front room.  I looked at the ceiling.  “When can I see what’s upstairs and who lives there?”        
            “Anytime.  There are three efficiencies–living room and bedroom combined with a tiny kitchen.  They share the bath, a big bathroom.  Each apartment has an air conditioner and radiant heat.  There’s an apartment on the third floor, the attic,  that has its own bath.  It’s unoccupied.”
            “Do you know the renters?”
            “Not really.  I’ve seen their names on checks and talked to one on the phone, but we didn’t actually meet.  All women, though.”
            “Then I should see about getting acquainted right away.”
            “No hurry.  As I said, they’re paid up until the end of the month.  If you want to evict anyone, you’ll have to give them a month’s notice anyway.”
            I held out my hand like a real person of business.  “Thanks so much for the tour, Janice.  I guess I can take it from here.”
            “Remember the papers.  You’ll need to come to the office to sign.”
            “I’ll be there this afternoon.”
            “Are you going to move in right away?”
            “Not until I get my affairs settled.  Maybe two weeks.  But I should talk to my renters and find out if everything is satisfactory.”  My renters!
            “Paige Crowell’s been my contact.  Works at one of the banks; I forget which.  A widow.  Seems very responsible.”
            “Thank you again.”  I held the door for the agent and watched her totter down the steps in her high heels to her car parked at the curb.
            Lilies and pinks were clustered around a large oak in the small front lawn and other scraggly flowers were rearing their heads next to the steps.  Overgrown bridal wreath and forsythia were under the parlor windows and the corner of the house.  Some needed to be taken out, others trimmed.  I walked over to a driveway with broken pavement and followed it to the back.    On the side of the house, wooden stairs went to a new-looking door between the first and second stories, obviously the interior stairs landing, and then proceeded up to the attic entrance on the third floor.  Beyond the stairs an interesting feature stood out–a round two-story turret, which was my breakfast nook.  I wasn’t surprised by this architectural wonder, finding from preliminary research on the American Queen Anne style that a turret as well as front facing gables and a porch of some kind were practically de rigueur.
            I’d parked my own car at the curb, but I saw a three-car garage at the rear of the property.  One of the bays presumably held my aunt’s old Chevy–part of my inheritance, so the lawyer had said.  An unpainted wooden fence shielded the alley from the garden.  More trees–maple and oak–and a rusting, ornate wrought iron bench.  Attached to the garage, a crudely built potting shed with a window.  I looked in and saw a gas powered mower and assorted tools and pots.  I strolled back to the front entrance.
            What have I let myself in for?  I’d lived in my parents’ house since a broken engagement had brought me back to Tarryton.  It had seemed a good thing temporarily; I’d planned to strike out on my own as soon as I got myself together.  Within a few months my father died from a heart attack, and I’d gotten an offer to step in as head librarian at the town library.  Not a wonderful position, but Mother had seemed to need me.   We were not a very prolific family with my father having only the one sibling and my mother having no brothers or sisters at all.  I was an only child myself, so I took the path of least resistance and stayed close to home.  But now, fate had led me to the big city and responsibilities, more than I maybe really wanted.

Chapter 2

            A man came out of the house next door carrying a large plastic garbage bag and gave me a quick look.  I smiled and greeted him with a cheery wave.
            “Are you the new owner?” he asked, walking toward the driveway where I stood.  Our houses were very close; not more than fifteen feet separated my driveway from his house.
            “Yes, I am.  I just inherited this place from my aunt.  I’m Tessa Claiborne.”
            He put down his sack and came closer.  “Aubrey Slinker.  So you’re Miss Claiborne’s kin.  She said she had a niece she hadn’t seen for years.”  He took my outstretched hand and held it weakly.  He was my height with thinning mouse-colored hair and a strangely unlined face, though I guessed his age to be between forty and fifty.  He seemed only able to give me darting glances from his pale eyes.
            “I wish I’d known her better.”  How many times would I have to acknowledge the strained relationship?  “But here I am, ready to get acquainted with the house and everything else.”
            “We’re glad to have you in the neighborhood.  Marianne and I hoped someone nice would take over.”  He bent his head questioningly.  “You do plan to live here and not sell it?”
            “I plan to live here, yes.   I’m going to be moving from Tarryton in a couple of weeks.”
            Just then a large grey-striped cat emerged from a corner of Slinker’s house and sidled up to me.  It rubbed against my leg and started its motor.      
            “Come here, Marianne.  Don’t bother the lady.”  Aubrey reached toward the cat, but it slipped out of his grasp and bounded off toward my house.  “She doesn’t mind well.”
            Marianne!  I’d almost asked him about his wife.  “Most cats don’t.” 
            “I better get my garbage out.  Trash pickup today.  See you around, Miss Claiborne.” 
            I watched him plow through his rather weedy back yard in his khaki shorts toward the alley.  Probably a good enough neighbor.  Quiet, to himself.  I wasn’t very impressed with his house, I must say.  It was smaller than mine, a twenties frame bungalow.  It could stand a coat of paint, and the enclosed front porch was heaped above the windows with stacks of boxes and furniture.  The bushes needed to be trimmed worse than my own.  I wondered if he’d lived there long.  He didn’t seem to fit Janice’s picture of a yuppie dying to renovate.
            In the front entry hall, a commotion on the stairs made me pause.  An older woman was thumping her way down with a cane in one hand, grasping the rail closely with the other.  She had a shiny black pocketbook over her arm.  When she spotted me she smiled and called out gaily, “Wait till I get down there.  I’m coming on a dead run.”
            This surely wasn’t Paige Crowell, the banker and widow?
            “You must be Miss Claiborne,” the woman said as she got closer.  “I’m Mignonette Morrison.  Ridiculous name, isn’t it.  My mother had a thing for the French.  Everyone calls me Mimi.  I hope you will, too.”
            “Call me Tessa.  I guess you must be renting one of the apartments upstairs.”
            “Yes, and I’m getting too old for it.  These stairs and my bad hip don’t go together.  But I don’t go out much anyway.  Most of my friends are either dead or in worse shape than I am.”
            “Won’t you come in?”  I invited, opening the door to the living room.
            “I don’t mind.  I’ve got a cab coming in a few minutes to take me to my weekly bridge game.  Ha!  We haven’t played a serious game for years.  I came down early in hopes I’d see you.”
            “I’m glad you did.  I planned to visit everyone who lives here right away to see if you need anything.”
            “Honey, what I need you can’t give me.”  She positioned herself in front of a velvet plush Victorian chair and lowered herself heavily onto it with a small gasp.
            Mimi had pretty snow white hair carefully waved.  Her face was round and delicately powdered and rouged.  She had a sharp little nose in the middle to match her sharp eyes.  A white owl.  Her dress looked expensive and quite elegant–flowered silk, I thought, but she wore black orthopedic tie-ups on her feet.
             “So what do you think of the place?” she asked, looking around the room.  “Some nice stuff, some junk.  I expect you can tell the difference.  Mary couldn’t, or wouldn’t.  Kept everything.  I told her to clean out before her relatives had to, but she was too stubborn.”
            I agreed I’d have to make some changes.  “Have you lived here long, Mimi?”
            “About twelve years, since my husband died.  I have two daughters, but one lives in Knoxville, the other Lexington.  I didn’t want to take care of my house any longer or move away to a strange place.  Luckily, I found this grand old house.  It reminds me of my childhood in Atlanta.  I’ll tell you about it sometime.  Well, here I landed and here I stayed–and here I hope to stay until I pop off or my daughters cart me off.”  She gave me a breathless look.  “Are you planning on making any major changes?”
            “Not really.  As far as you’re concerned, no.  I haven’t thought about it much yet.  I do want to change the furnishings some and fix up things outside and in.”
            “Good.  You’d better rent the third floor to a man–young and strong.  It’ll save you some time and money in the long run.” 
            I burst out laughing.  “Thanks for the tip.  I’ll keep that in mind.  I’m eager to meet the others who live here.”
            Mimi nodded.  “Paige won’t be back until the end of next week.  She’s on a trip to Cancun with friends.  Poor Paige.”
            “I hear she’s a widow.  Recent?”
            “Not really.  He died about a year ago.  But six months later, she discovered he’d had a mistress for ten or so years before he died.  Paige found evidence among his things, in old check stubs, photos, cards, that sort of thing.  The rat hadn’t even bothered to throw the stuff away when he knew he was dying.  She’s been trying to pull herself together ever since.”
            “She moved here about then?”
            “Needed to get away from the house of memories.”
            “Who’s the other renter?”
            “Hallie Goldfarb.”  Mimi wagged her head a bit as she spoke the name.
            “What’s the matter?”
            “Oh, nothing.  She’s something of a pill, though good hearted.  She’s what we used to call a spinster, a school teacher.  How cliché, huh?  In her fifties.   Jewish.  Expect you’d call her an ideal renter if you don’t mind her brusque and busybody style.” 
            “I see.”  Mimi seemed to be tarred by the same brush as Hallie Goldfarb, but I liked her anyway.  “And she’s been here long?”
            “Oh my, yes.  Since before I came.  She practically adopted Mary.   You can thank her for encouraging your aunt to have the downstairs centrally heated and air conditioned.  Don’t think she was hoping to cash in on any inheritance either.  She genuinely believes she can help with all her advice.”
            The sound of a horn alerted the old woman and drove her painfully to her feet.  “End of gossip.  I like company, so come up anytime and have tea and petit fours with me.   Tea’s good for my heart, but I need an excuse to eat cake.”
            I showed her out and saw her into the cab that had parked on the driveway near the door.  I waved in answer to Mimi’s own cheerful goodbye.  She was sharpish but amusing.  I was glad I’d met her first and got the low-down on the other roomers. 
            I now had the time to carefully check out the downstairs rooms.  I thought of the rooms in houses something like the Dewey Decimal System.  Certain things belonged in their appropriate surroundings.  You’d never catch me with a bed pillow on a sofa, even temporarily, or a TV in the bedroom, for that matter.  The dining room was a medium-sized room with a delightful country Hepplewhite drop leaf table and six Hitchcock chairs.  A graceful caned settee was against one wall and across from it was a small plain sideboard of cherry with a tarnished silver tea set and dusty crystal candelabra.  I’d get to sorting out all that later, but for now, that room could stay intact.
            The bedrooms were fully–quite fully–furnished.  The large one nearest the living room, the original second parlor, must have been Aunt Mary’s bedroom.  It contained, besides a couple of dead plants in unmatched china jardinieres, a double bed, a large highboy, several occasional tables, and a boudoir chair in flowered chintz.  The furniture was reproduction Sheraton mahogany.  Not bad.  I might use it for myself in the back bedroom, the largest.  The middle bedroom was a catchall for unused household items, but I would turn that into my guest room.
            The kitchen last.  The stove was a green enameled monster; it must have come with the house when my aunt moved in thirty-some years ago.  I supposed I could cook meals on it for the entire household.  But it had been well tended–probably not used much in Aunt Mary’s latter years.  A toaster oven on the counter seemed to have borne the brunt of it.  The refrigerator was newer.  It had been emptied but not cleaned.  It gave off a sour smell.  Bleach and scrubbing, definitely.  The breakfast nook was fairly spacious, being in the round turret room.  The nook could be a very attractive and sunny space after I changed out the Formica table and chairs and got new curtains.
            The cupboards still had foodstuffs.  Most of that could go.  Dishes, a set of breakfast Spode was behind glass cupboards.  Nice.  A keeper.  I saw odd cups and chipped plates that had probably been for Aunt Mary’s everyday use.  In a bottom cupboard were pots and pans and skillets from the Eisenhower era.  The kitchen was a showcase for an old woman giving up a number of things–entertaining, decisions, taste. 
            I sat down at the table and took out a notebook from my bag.  A list.  I always felt more comfortable with a list in my hand.  I needed to make this place my own.