CHAPTER 2 (Part II)Nora had a thing about always commandeering whatever vehicle she found herself in, which was fine; Marlee had no particular love for the road. The problem was that Nora was a compulsively safe driver. She never had a speeding ticket in her entire driving career, and it wasn't simply because she'd never been caught.
At least it was Nora's car they were using, and therefore Nora's gas they were wasting while she waited at every stop light and always waited for a protected turn.
It wasn't all bad: Nora's car was a '96. It had a CD player and four tires, which was all Marlee cared about.
The purple Bryant's sign lurked over Marlee's head as she stopped at the passenger side. Nora unlocked the doors with a click of her key, and looked at Marlee. “So what'd your uncle have to say for himself?”
“I guess my grandma had a present for me before she died. Uncle Ray's going to deliver it tonight, around eight.” Marlee opened her door and climbed in.
Nora opened her own door and piled in. “What about our party?”
“We can still have our party. He'll just be over a few minutes anyway. Besides, it might be a cool present.”
Nora started the car. It spat and groaned to life. “Is it a 32 inch plasma TV?”
“I'm gonna go out on a limb and say no to that one.”
“Then it ain't cool.” Nora playfully slapped the steering wheel. “You're gonna drive me to drinking, you know that, right?”
Marlee reached into the back and pulled the bottle of wine from the bag. “You better do some drinking, because I'm not drinking all this myself.”
“OK, if I have to. But when are you going to win the lottery, anyway? You promised me you'd win it already.”
“No. I said I'd win the Powerball, not the lottery.”
Nora laughed, shifted the car into “D” and drove out of the parking lot.
Marlee grinned. “Actually, my dad won the lottery once.”
“Holy shit. Didn't spend it all in one place, did he?”
“I don't know. Ask the exotic dancers if he did.”
Nora sucked in a breath. “Damn. Sounds like my ex. When we lived together, he'd always leech some cash off me and go hire some strippers and hang with his boys.” Nora shook her head. “So stupid.”
Marlee crossed her legs. “Yeah. Men always spend money stupidly.” She put the booze back and hooked a few loose strands of hair back around her ears. “Like, for instance, I won a poetry contest once, when I was in high school. I won $20. Guess what my dad did with that money?”
“No. Actually, he bought some JD. And then when I got my Christmas money from Uncle Ray that year, he bought a gun, because he was doing his Chicago business trips at the time and he said it was dangerous.”
“Where's he work again?”
“Pollock & Laughlin Electronics.”
“Ah. Money well spent, then?”
“He must've thought so. He still has that gun in his desk at work.”
“And the JD?”
“He pissed that away a long time ago.”
Nora drove in silence for a minute before getting one of those wry looks on her lips. The stop light ahead turned red, and she slowed down. Once they were stopped – perfectly behind the line – she leaned in close to Marlee's face. “Don't you wish you were like those TV families? Like a Brady?”
Marlee rolled her eyes. “Nora, Nora, Nora.”
Dinner consisted of a quick trip through Neil's Deli on Park Street. Big and toasted sandwiches were Neil's specialty, although he sold pizzas, salads, and bread bowls.
Neil himself worked nights, and he was polite as could be. He was sixty but looked almost twice that. Though it took a while for him to make the sandwiches, the quality was excellent.
Hanging dome lights illuminated the eating area, casting beautiful reflections and deep shadows like disco balls. Marlee and Nora ordered their food, and then sat down to wait, depositing their purses by their feet.
Nora twiddled her fingers comically. “So. Ray didn't say anything at all about the gift at the funeral?”
“No.” Marlee shifted her weight and crossed her legs. “He probably didn't want anyone else to feel shorted.”
“Why you, though? Did your dad get anything?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Damn. That's harsh.”
“Well, I used to stay with Grandma while she was sick. I helped take care of her.”
Marlee hesitated. She wasn't sure how much of this she wanted to tell. Butterflies raced through her stomach. “No. It's kind of complicated. Uncle Ray took over for the last few weeks.”
“Didn't you stick with him?”
“Ray wanted to take over. He said he needed some private time with her. And once I started not seeing her, it was really hard to make myself go back.”
“I can understand that. Pretty depressing.”
“But that doesn't answer my question,” Nora added. “About your dad.”
Marlee wrinkled her nose and tried to blow off the answer. “Dad didn't get along with Grandma Janice, ever since she left her husband.”
“Still.” Nora shook her head. “She should've left him something. He's her son.”
“Well, maybe he is getting something. Why would Ray tell us if he got anything? That's a personal thing, between Grandma and my Dad.”
“Yeah, but I'm nosy, Marlee.”
That did get a laugh out of Marlee, and a genuine one at that. Nora's job complete, she relaxed and waited for their food. They exchanged small talk until the sandwiches arrived. Nora drove Marlee home, and they popped open their bottle of Perri's and drowned out the events of the day.
Marlee scrolled through her poems on her word processor as she finished her sandwich. “I've got fourteen poems so far.”
Nora topped off Marlee's glass with the wine. “That's cool. Just sixteen to go, right?”
“Yeah.” Marlee sighed. It took her a year and a half just to get fourteen done, and that only covered about thirty pages.
Nora had read a few, but by and large the poems had gone unread, which was the way she liked it. She'd read up on submitting poems, and found the whole process too scary to actually follow through with. Her mother wrote poetry now and then as well, and Marlee had read a few of the rejection letters. They weren't all friendly.
She figured that, when she had about one hundred pages, she'd go with a vanity publisher. Though she was at thirty pages at the moment, she could stretch it to about sixty if she double-spaced, increased the font size and doctored the page margins.
Nora drank some Perri's and closed her eyes. She sloshed it around in her mouth and savored the taste, and looked ridiculous in the process. Nora the Wine Taster. “Maybe you should try shopping just a couple poems to a few places. You know, get a feel for what's your best stuff.”
Marlee relaxed in her her chair. “I don't know. I'd just like to get it out there. I'd like to have it in my hands. If it gets in anyone else's, well, I don't really care too much about that.”
“So you're just going to sit on all your writing?” Nora brandished her wine glass and sat as daintily as her round bottom would allow. “Might be the greatest poetry ever written, but nobody's ever gonna know if you don't do something with it.”
“I'll be publishing it. I already said I would.”
“Yeah, but you don't even have a website. How's anybody supposed to know it's out?”
Marlee tongued the inside of her cheek. “What's it matter? I don't understand what you're all worked up about.”
“I'm not worked up about anything.”
“You're fighting me. Trying to make me feel like I'm selling myself short.”
“All I'm trying to say is I'd like to see you excited about your own writing.”
“I am. Trust me.”
“Then you need to at least smile when you talk about it.”
Marlee shook her head. “No. I just want the book for myself. What I need is a vacation.” Marlee tapped her chin and stared at the screen, putting her elbows on the computer desk. “I'd like to go out to Rock Cut Park again. Do some rowing out on Pierce Lake.”
“Hell yeah. In the rowboat or the kayak?”
“Rowboat.” For a minute, Marlee could just imagine Pierce Lake: how the water slopped against the sides of the boat, the smell of open water, the cool lakefront air. Rock Cut was to the northeast, a good thirty minute drive from here. It'd been years since she'd last been there.
Someone knocked on the front door. Marlee looked at her watch. 7:59...8:00.
Damn but Uncle Ray was punctual.
Nora opened the door for Uncle Ray, who had changed into jeans and a t-shirt, a far cry from the black and white he'd worn at the funeral. One hand he kept behind his back; the other he offered for Nora to shake.
The informality didn't fit Ray at all. He was a corporate man, he was a church supporter. He was handsome in suits. When he dressed down, he looked distressingly normal.
No matter; the look in his eyes was the same. Nora took his hand and beamed. “Good to meet you,” Ray said. “I'm Marlee's uncle.”
Nora nodded, and by the red in her cheeks it was obvious she was falling for Ray, the same way everyone did. “Great to finally meet you. Marlee's told me a lot about you.”
“Not a whole lot to tell. But, I do come bearing gifts.” Ray's smile broadened, and when Marlee stepped closer, he revealed what he held behind his back: a small present, wrapped in gold and silver wrapping paper and tied with black string and a bow. “One gift, actually.” He handed it to Marlee. “My mother wanted you to have this.”
Marlee accepted the gift and looked at all four sides of the box, poking and prodding at the paper. “Feels pretty hefty. What is it?”
“Open it. Find out.” Uncle Ray put his hand on the small of her back and urged her gently to the couch. She followed his lead and sat down, the package on her lap.
Now that she had time to look closer, she noticed little black lightning bolts decorating the box. The wrapping paper was taped up haphazardly, which was so Janice; she never understood how to wrap a present properly. Marlee ripped open the paper and peered inside.
It was a Bergner's gift box. Marlee tried to hide her disappointment, just in case Grandma Janice was watching from Heaven.
“Aww,” Nora said. “Some clothes for you. Your grandma's nice.”
Marlee shook her head. “Not clothes. It's too heavy.”
Uncle Ray looked at Marlee. “Look inside.”
Marlee wasn't sure what to expect, but Ray was starting to make the waiting unbearable. What could Janice have possibly left her that was so important?
Inside the box was a thick leatherbound book with the word “CLAY” engraved on the front. She could smell the age of the book's pages without even opening it. The leather was mottled and cold to the touch. One corner was darkened by a coffee stain.
“Wow.” Marlee stared at the book. Nora scooted a little closer.
Ray sat down beside Marlee, who barely noticed. He ran a finger over the cover. “Clay is your grandma's maiden name.”
“So what is this?” Marlee didn't even want to touch the book; she was too afraid of breaking it.
“It's genealogy,” Ray said. “Look inside. This book traces back your grandma's family all the way back to the 1800's.”
Nora pointed to the corner of the box. “Look.” Marlee saw a card, half tucked under the book's cover.
Marlee picked up the book, careful not to let the leather make her fingers slip. The longer she looked at the book, the more ancient she figured it was. She put the box down and sat the book on her lap, frowning at the dust on her pants.
The cover of the book was stiff and dry enough that she bet she could crack off a piece if she turned the page carelessly. The leather itself was so crudely made that there was greater weight in the middle, such that the book bent when she opened it.
The pages within were yellow and spotted with dust, age and an occasional streak of mold.
The card inside was in perfect condition. There were no flashy graphics on the front or back; just scrawled handwriting on a folded sheet of paper. Marlee read the words aloud so that Ray and Nora could hear.
This book is my final present to you and will be given to you when I'm gone. I know it doesn't look like much. Truly special things never do.
Our entire family is recorded here since before the Civil War. I continued the book after Cecilia Clay, my grandmother, gave it to me many years ago. I pass it on to you. Keep it in the family, and remember me.
Death is an unavoidable part of life, but don't let it take away those you love. If you lose someone that you want to remember, write them in, and at least through these pages you can visit them anytime.
“Wow,” Nora repeated. “That's pretty cool. So I wonder if the first few pages were actually written in the 1800's?”
Uncle Ray nodded. “The pages are protected and have been for many, many years.” He watched the book with as much fascination as Marlee and Nora, and shook his head and whistled. “Ancient hands scribbled on those pages.”
The paper inside was laminated, crinkled so badly it looked like it was covered with brown spiderwebs. Marlee was no expert on book decomposition, but she'd read about how exposure to air can cause a book to decompose faster than usual and how certain papers can develop acid stains in time. Keeping a book in a special box was supposed to help by giving it better support. To her, the book was in superb condition.
“Damn,” Nora breathed. “Think of all the people who've looked at this page over the years.”
“Isn't that amazing?” Uncle Ray leaned forward. “We're all connected now, in some way, just by looking at this book.”
Marlee had to look close, but she made out the faded ink on the paper: it was a simple drawing of a young woman. There was no shading or wrinkle or any kind of detail at all. A few words were written below the picture:
EVE MARIA WILLIAMS –
EVER MY LOVE
1831 – 1855
“Oh my God.” Marlee couldn't take her eyes off the picture. “That's so beautiful.”
“What?” Nora looked over her shoulder. “Why'd someone draw that?”
“Think about it, Nora.” Marlee looked at Nora. “It's 1855, or whenever. There's no photos, there's no videos, there's no nothing. So how do you remember people?”
Nora raised an eyebrow. “What if you can't draw?”
Uncle Ray raised an eyebrow and patted his knees. “Then you get someone who can. And you draw a picture so you can always remember her.”
Marlee looked at the picture again, and shook her head slowly, exhaling gentle air. “Oh my God.”
Nora sighed. “Wish I had a man like that.”
“Don't we all?” Marlee thumbed through a few more pages and caught snippets of each.
Uncle Ray talked while she browsed. “That woman's Eve Maria Williams, the love of Jonathan Clay's life. They were married for five years before she died of fever, and he didn't want to forget her. That's how this book got its start. He passed the book on to Cecilia Clay, his daughter, who passed it on to my mother.”
“So Grandma Janice wrote in all the relatives she knew?” Marlee continued flipping through the book.
“Not all. She got in as many as she could.” Ray probed his cheek with his tongue. “She . . . became obsessed with it toward the end. Her every waking moment was wrapped up in this book.”
Nora dragged in a chair from the kitchen and sat opposite Ray. “Obsessed? Like how?”
“She slipped into dementia a few weeks before she died,” Ray said, his voice lowering. He sighed. “She seemed to think that she really could speak with the dead. She got so wrapped up in her own head that no one could get through anymore. She died a few days later.”
Marlee looked down and bit her tongue just hard enough to keep herself from crying. She'd visited Janice quite a few times before the poor woman had died, and she had seemed perfectly sane – not the least bit crazy.
It was sad anyway. Janice had been such a good woman, and she'd had a good life despite all the trouble she'd had with Dad. “Jesus,” Marlee muttered. “I feel so sorry for her.”
“Well, I suppose that when your body starts to go and the only diversion you have is this book of memories . . . ” Ray took a deep breath and stood. “Anyway. What I'm trying to say is I suppose it'd be better to get lost in the past than to face death.”
Nora shrugged. “I think I'd rather just say goodbye to everyone I love.”
“Understandable,” Ray said. “But what do you do when most of the people you want to say goodbye to are dead?”
Nora thought about this for a moment. “Well, it's all in your head, so I think Janice had the right idea. I mean, even if it's crazy, who cares, you're going to go anyway, so why not? Why not try this out, and at least make peace with those people in your own head before you go.”
Marlee shrugged. “I think I'd rather be sane.”
“I'd rather be happy than sane,” Nora said.
“Yeah, but if you're stuck in your own head, you may as well be dead already, because you're not even communicating with the outside world at all. You're gone.”
“But you're going to die anyway,” Nora repeated.
Marlee ignored Nora's last comment and started looking through the book, so Nora stopped talking and spied over her shoulder.
Ray cleared his throat. The two women looked up, and he flashed a big smile. “It's about time I get back home. But you two can look at that book. It's interesting to know your history.”
Marlee put the book back in the box. “Thanks for bringing that over, Uncle Ray.”
“I'm not the one to thank.” Uncle Ray smiled. “Your grandma. She made me promise to bring it.” He eyed Marlee. “Actually, she wanted to give it to you before the fact, but we couldn't reach you. She went the next day.”
Marlee couldn't keep his gaze. Ray laughed softly and took her hand. “Don't worry about it. We all make mistakes. My mother is in a better place now.”
“Thanks,” Marlee managed. Before he could leave, she had one last question. “So my parents are in here and everything?”
“That's right.” Ray stretched and knuckled his back. “With as much detail as my mother could remember. From your mom's poem collections to your dad's Chicago business trips.”
Marlee nodded. “I remember when he worked in Chicago. Didn't miss him much, to tell you the truth.”
Ray wasn't sure how to answer that, so he looked at Marlee, then at Nora, then back again. “Well, if you ever have any questions about the book, call me. I'm as close to an expert as there is, now that my mother's gone.”
Marlee nodded. “I will. Don't be a stranger.”
“I won't,” Ray said with a wink. “Take it easy, girls. Have a great night.”
Nora led him to the door. “You too.”
“This is weird.” Marlee shook her head and put the top on the box and picked it up.
“What're you doin'? I wanna see more.”
Marlee shrugged. “It just feels weird.” She brought the box to her bedroom and sat it on her bed. “It's all relatives. It's my family.”
“It's kinda creepy, if that's what you mean,” Nora agreed. “It's a big long list of dead folks.” She folded her arms. “Well, if I don't get to look at more dead people, then I'm going to get another drink.”
Marlee laughed, but she didn't feel much of the humor. “Count me in. The funeral practically killed me today.”
Nora shook her head. “Your sense of humor is getting worse every day, honey.”
“I didn't mean to make that pun actually.”
Marlee followed Nora into the kitchen, where both women topped off their glasses. They returned to the living room and put the TV on for some background noise. Marlee sat on the floor next to Janice's book. Nora chose the couch.
“So what do you think?” Marlee nodded at the book.
Nora sipped at her wine. “I think it's really cool. I always liked your grandma, even though I only saw her . . . two times, I guess. But she was nice. And the book, now that's really interesting.” She cocked her head thoughtfully. “Poor lady must not've had many friends though.”
“Yeah.” Marlee drained half of her glass and coughed it down. “Spending so much time on this. Trying to remember.”
“Remembering's hard. You never think of it like that, but it really is.” Nora gestured to her head with her glass. “It's like my first dog, right? I know his name was Dexter. I know he was a German Shepherd. One of his ears always hung limp. Those are facts, so I can use my imagination and picture that. I can imagine some generic German Shepherd with a screwy ear. But I can't honestly remember what he looked like anymore. I cried for about a week after he died. Loved that dog to pieces.”
Marlee thought about what Nora said, and agreed after a moment. “How rough that must've been for Janice. Being so old, having everyone she's ever loved die. She probably couldn't remember much anymore without putting it in a book. And attaching a photo.”
“Visual cues,” Nora added. “That's the hot scientific way to put it.”
“But she did it to herself,” Marlee said. “She never went out. Never made more friends, never fell in love again. Why?”
Nora had no answer.
Their conversation fizzled after that, and they ended up drinking wine to the noise of the TV. Marlee's thoughts returned to Janice every so often, and the morbid aspects of her book. A panic attack welled up inside of her at the thought of getting old, of having her entire life behind her.
After a couple hours of sitcom reruns, Nora got up from the couch and walked by Marlee, patting her shoulder on the way through. “I'm going to bed. Take care, OK, sister? Get some rest.”
Nora went to her room and Marlee carefully placed the book back in its box and padded into her own bedroom.
When Marlee heard Nora's door shut and lock, she sat on her bed, staring at the box. At her family. Her dead family.
She was still interested, though. She glanced at the clock. It wasn't quite eleven yet; there was time for a little closer look, without Nora peering over her shoulder.
Marlee opened the box again and pulled the book beside her. She got up and closed her door, then returned to her place on the bed.
She thumbed through the book. The drawings became portraits, which then became black and white photographs that finally sprouted color. She skipped to the end. There were a few blank pages, no doubt for adding in more relatives.
She stopped at the last written entry.
JANICE LYNETTE JORDAN
“Oh my God.”
Janice must have written her own entry into the book. Uncle Ray had said she went mad at the end and became obsessed with the book, so maybe there was some truth to that. Why else would she write her own entry into the book, rather than assuming Marlee or anyone else would do it for her?
Maybe Janice thought that the book was the only guaranteed afterlife: living on in the dreams and memories of others. And, by extension, the only afterlife that allowed her to be forever surrounded by the family she loved, if only on handwritten pages.
Janice's entry included a little photo of her cooking in her old house, back when she still had color in her hair and the wrinkles had just started setting in. There were a few facts written on the opposite page. They described her dark hair and her flashy eyes, her nose and even had a mention of her curvy hips. “SEPARATED FROM SAM JORDAN”, another section stated. Below that, Marlee saw a list of children: Marlee's father -- Thomas Jordan -- and his brother, Raymond.
She skipped around in the book. Sure enough, Janice had her way: Mom, Dad, and Uncle Ray were all in here, their lives written in the past tense. And now she was supposed to fill in the blanks, take the lives from birth to death, none more or less important than anyone else listed in its pages. That thought disturbed her more than anything else. In the grand scheme of things, no single person mattered. That felt like a bombshell to her. Of course, she'd always known it, deep down; but she spent most days happily ignoring that fact.
Marlee checked through the book again. This time, she was searching for her own name, and Shawnee. She flipped through the pages one time, then a second, and finally a third before deciding that she wasn't in this book yet. It bothered her a little; why would Janice write everyone else in here, even Dad, but not put her in as well?
She imagined her own page. She knew what picture she would use, and what she would write. That page would, in time, become the only evidence on this Earth that proved she had ever been here.
Maybe looking at this before bed had been a bad idea. Marlee closed the book and put it back in the box, replaced the lid and pushed it under her bed, with her old suitcases from when she first moved in Nora's apartment.
Even tired as she was, sleeping wasn't going to be easy tonight, that was for sure. She laid back in her bed and stared at the ceiling.
What a horrible day. Marlee took a deep breath.
She didn't feel like getting up to turn the light off, so she just closed her eyes. Just relax, she told her muscles. It took a while but eventually they started to loosen; she groaned and rolled over.
She slept fully clothed.
* * * * * *
Thank you for reading part two of chapter two of my novel, "One More Day", available for Amazon Kindle for $4.99! Check back next Friday for chapter three -- things are about to get REAL interesting! ;-)