This is the second of three posts where unsuspecting guests help to build a short story.
A fire you had to put out this week? Let’s see… a lot had to be done before we left … trying to remember … routine things … had to squeeze in a visit to my parents, make arrangements for the animals, store the tools and machinery…
Where do you go for peace? Anyplace I can be alone. I like to walk in the woods, but you can be alone in the city, too, if you can get away from your distractions
Favorite relative? That’s not fair. I feel differently about them all. Both parents were only children. I do miss my grandparents.
Best gift or surprise you’ve given? I’m a horrible gift buyer. Not for lack of trying, but for trying too hard. I’m very self analytical. You want to give a really good gift, but everything you look at doesn’t measure up. Paralyzed by wanting the gift to be perfect. Agonize for weeks, until it’s the last minute and you’re at the drug store buying something awful.
A food you won’t eat? Tripe, headcheese, entrails, chitlins
A city you’re curious about? Berlin or cities in Argentina
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Game warden
Something you have that’s broken? My house has been broken forever. It’s consumed our lives for 30 years. It’s a 100-year-old wooden Victorian.
Describe your favorite boss/mentor. One of my high school teachers. Our friendship continued until he died. He was the first person to make me realize that the world was bigger than where you live. Things can be provincial in a small town. He talked in thoughts and concepts, so I was able to grow up thinking beyond the limits of my peers, my town, and even myself. He made things accessible. Music, for instance, was not reserved for those refined people. He also showed me how not to take things too seriously.
What is preventing this character from having peace of mind? She wants history; she wants to know where she comes from. People who don’t know their history don’t know who they are. Even a difficult history is a history. A map has so much detail, but if you don’t know where you are on that map, it means nothing.
Okay! Here’s the middle:
Corinne turned on to Wicker Street but nothing happened. All four pick-up trucks were at rest in front of the Crane’s house on the corner and the football game blinked through their curtain sheers with silhouettes of the Crane men, all brothers and sons. Next door, the lopsided head on the Parkers’ snowman was sure to slide to the ground any day now. Windows of the first duplex were lit upstairs and dark downstairs. The second duplex had its windows lit in the reverse way. Corinne lived at the end of the block. Usually a sense of calm eased over her when she drove this short block, but nothing stirred in her tonight.
She rented the attic loft of a 100-year-old Victorian, freshly painted in a palette of rose and teal. It reminded her of a dollhouse now. The owners, Paulette and Doug were its congenial life-size doll owners. They’d owned the house for nearly eight years before finally fixing up the attic for a renter. Everything in the house was broken when they’d bought, they’d told her, and they constantly patching and replacing things. “This house will consume us for the next 30 years,” Doug had said. Paulette had laughed, nodding beside him. Doug taught composition at the local junior college, turning down opportunities to teach at the university and Paulette was a DNR permits manager who’d wanted to be a game warden when she grew up. They were in their early forties, energetic, eclectic, the type of people who talked in concepts and ideas, defying the typical provincial limits of small town living and thinking. After nearly an hour sipping tea with them in their electric doll house anchoring the end of a dead end street, Corinne had canceled her viewing for a swank studio apartment on the east end of town. She’d fallen head over heels for this rickety house its warm and lively owners.
Outside, there was usually a tarp or a ladder or a contractor. Inside, there were towers of paint cans, swatches of fabric, power tools, bottles of wine, hand spun candy, homemade hog headcheese, every beat of music and laughter. There was always plenty of laughter in this old house that refused to crumble away.
Doug was grading papers in the dining room and Paulette was folded laundry in the next room, screaming at the football players on TV. Doug chuckled to himself, shaking his head at his wife’s antics. When he noticed Corinne, he gave her a warm smile.
“How’d it go?” he asked, laying down his ink pen.
“Talking to Aunt Vanda is a like going to the oracle,” she said. “I feel good, almost.”
Doug raised his eyebrows. “Almost?”
Corinne unbuttoned her coat and leaned against a chair back. “You know how some advice can sound great until you realize how hard it’s going to be?”
Doug smiled, leaning back in his seat. “That’s how you know it’s good advice. What did she say?”
Corinne sat down, bunching her coat into her lap. She’d replayed Vanda’s words in her head for the entire drive from the Inn. She liked the sound of it every time, but it thickened a knot of terror inside her.
Doug snapped his head like he’d been smacked on both cheeks. “Argentina? What’s that about?”
“That’s the only thing I know about my birth parents,” Corinne said. “My birth certificate lists my father’s name as Unknown, but that he’s from Argentina.”
Over the course of many meals at this table, Corinne had shared her entire life history with Paulette and Doug. Corinne rarely shared her tragic tale, that her mother’s family had driven two counties to deliver Corinne and then abandon her at the hospital, that her youth was filled with neglect anxiety and abuse as a foster child, that she was no longer able to ignore her history of anguish and pretend that only the future mattered. Her packaged answer had always been to say that her parents had been only children, and when they passed on she was all she had left. The spirit of this old house, however, insisted on her truth.
“So, you’re going to Argentina to find your father?” Doug asked.
“Oh, God, no,” Corinne said, pulling slim fingers through her short red curls. “I could care less about him. My mother either. Aunt Vanda’s idea was to just to go and explore. Feel what it’s like. See where I come from.”
Doug gave a slow nod and a slow smile. “I kinda like that idea,” he said. “I get the ‘great but scary’ part, too. Are you thinking about it?”
“Well, I’ve never been anywhere,” Corinne said. “Why not go big and go international?”
They laughed and fell into an awkward silence.
“But?” Doug asked, spinning his ink pen atop a stack of ungraded papers.
“But,” Corinne said with a sigh. “I don’t know if a South American adventure will make me feel less alone. I’ve survived 27 years, and now all of a sudden I want roots? I don’t understand why it’s consuming so much of me. I tried walking in the woods to clear the distracting thought, but nothing works! I’d hate to blow my savings just to come home with a bag of crappy souvenirs and no more peace of mind.”
“Peace of mind is a process, girlie,” sang Paulette as she passed the dining room with the laundry basket.
Doug held up his hands, gesturing toward Paulette and her passing wisdom.
“As usual, my better half has said it best,” he said. “No, you probably won’t come back with all of your questions answered and all your heartaches cured. But you’ll get to see, first hand, the culture and land that made the generations of people who made you. That’s still going to be powerful.”
Corinne had her legs outstretched, absently knocking her feet together while she listened to Doug describe a memorable trip his family took to Berlin in high school. He came home swelled with an unexpected pride for a heritage he’d never paid much attention to.
“I didn’t know you were German,” Corinne said.
Doug smiled. “But I know that I am,” he said with a wink.
“Get one of the natives to help you buy our gifts,” Paulette said, her voice floating past them again on her way back to the football game on TV. “You know how you get paralyzed by trying to find something perfect. I don’t want crappy South American souvenirs, as you put it. Ask for directions and help with your shopping!”
Corinne folded herself with laughter. She loved that she could add the chime of her voice to the merriment of this house. She loved that Aunt Vanda’s idea had taken root. Corinne would have a lot to do before she could leave. But, for sure now, she would leave.
Read Parts 1 & 3 here: