I am writing a story—I don't know how long it will be or anything else about what form it will take—but since several of you had asked to read more of my fiction if I wrote more, here is some to get you started. Your comments on it are both welcome and much appreciated.
On the back of the letter from Max’s mother to Joanna he’d written the following in Slovene:
verjamejo v veliko | precéj
Pravkar sem se spomnite, in pozabi, enostavno
ampak se vedno nisem prebolela njene potovalke ...
Max sat down his gaiwan and it made a soft clatter on the coffee-table’s rigid sheet of green-glass. As jade in color as it was, its own reflection became lost in the glass of the table-top, almost looking like a round imperfection or as if someone had held a witch’s ball under the table, instead of placing something atop it. I looked at it a moment, and turned on the fan by the window. This July seemed warmer than most in Providence and with no air conditioning in the apartment, we had borrowed from the landlady’s mother an old fan of heavy construction, all metal—seemingly from another century moreso than just another decade. With no music on the stereo and no lights turned on except the one in the hall, the fan was the only thing drawing power in the small parlor-room where we were seated. Soon, it would be dark enough though to merit another lamp on, but not quite yet.
”How should I finish my letter to her?”, Max asked. I could not tell at first that he was even writing but when I looked again, he had yes, a sheet of paper on the slim hardback book he held and on the far end of that same coffee-table he’d put down a silver pen.
”What have you said so far?”, I returned.
”To Lisa? That we miss her and we are happy she found a new boyfriend—the doctor she told you about yesterday.”
”That’s not much of a letter . . . but I don’t know, really, what more to say. Maybe ask her more about this man, the doctor?”
”True, I will ask . . . how they met, and what sort of doctor he is, if he’s at a hospital there, or whatever. You said she was downright giddy over him, so she will be delighted—let’s hope—with questions about him. And it’s easier . . . ”
”Yeah. Than to talk about the funeral or anything else.”
”Yeah. She’ll write a letter back I hope: she’s good to answer letters with letters instead of emails or Facebook and she always uses those cute little notecards that are so small they prevent her from writing much, so if she answers even two questions about the boyfriend, the doctor, she’ll have used up all her space—and nothing further then about funerals!”
”Exactly. I know all we need to know: it will be back in Valdosta, at Stevens' Funeral Home I think. We can’t go, I mean, we could but . . . yeah. I don’t think we’ll go, will we?”
”No. No. I won’t. Lisa is back in Augusta now, so what is the point? If we care, it’s for her sake, and we’d be better off flying down there instead sometime to see her.”
But he cannot of course write that, he can’t write:
”dear Lisa, it is good to hear you’ve met a man you’re so enchanted with, and hope he brings you comfort at such a difficult time. I do not know what more to say: We were never too close with your brother, really, anyways, we tried but how often did either of us even see him? The last time was at that one party in Savannah, and he was drunk and with a boy I knew but didn’t wish to associate with anymore on the side-porch, so it was really quite easy to avoid them both and stay in the house, in the kitchen, or Debbie’s room upstairs. Only when Kristine left the party and we walked her out did we unexpectedly have to cross the side-porch as she’d parked out on that side, back in Park Lane so she was really behind the house. It was awkward, mainly because Kristine had to speak to your brother and the other boy as we went out—had she not, neither would have noticed us. All I said to him was how funny Debbie had painted so much of the house yellow: bright sunshine yellow. I could see the kitchen, but really, the living room, that small studio, Ryan’s room, and her own room and bath were all that color. It was a bit much. He thought so too.
So tell me more about this new boyfriend! He sounds perfect for you! As you told Mike, ’so many doctors in your family—and so many writers in his—you will fit in fine, both of you, when you meet the extended families’. That’s cute. We would both love to come visit and meet him sometime. I am sorry we will not make the funeral, but I know Joanna’s sending flowers and we’d like to contribute something with that—I know Bryce wasn’t big on flowers and the family probably set up a fund in his memory or something, but it makes Joanna feel better, you know, I am sure this hit her very hard just like the rest . . . the rest of your—of Bryce’s—family.”
Now that I read it and think it over, Max actually could write that. In so many words, it is the most honest thing to say and might even be the kindest, too.
Joanna deserves some explanation: while the rest of the unfortunate tale you can discern sooner or later by what I tell you now and what else will transpire, she needs to be explained. Joanna is an example of how no good deed goes unpunished, though she wasn’t always exactly a person of good deeds. She was about five years older than me, so I knew of her in school, because she was into everything. When I was in chorus, there was a picture of her on the teacher’s desk because she’d won some award at State and it was the only time we’d won anything there at all. My soccer coach also remembered her from when he used to coach girls’ soccer too before Mrs. Baker came on for that. Then, I encountered her in college my junior year because she was finishing her own graduate work there and I ran into her in the library. She wasn’t very polite, and that surprised me, because people always made her out to be this very wonderful, very sweet, very accomplished, type of person. She only struck me as churlish: I asked he a couple questions about her doctoral studies in religion and she was very patronizing and also very short with me, as if she didn’t wish to speak at all. Not very Christian of her, I thought.
Being Baptist, when Joanna completed her doctorate, she was still—being female—perfectly unfit for service as a minister in her church, so she at first planned to teach religion but then somehow wound up in social work. I am unsure what she did, but I understand she was something of an outcast with them because she spoke so openly of her faith and she lacked the training to be a social worker but, having a doctorate from the leading univesity in the state, expected everyone to very much respect her. I only encountered her again because she was asked to speak at SCAD about Churrigueresque church architecture—a topic which I am still unsure how she became an expert on, but her PowerPoint was very pretty in any case. I was impressed that she’d taken such comprehensive photos of all these Spanish churches in the short time she was in Spain, but Michelle McWilliams thought she’d seen the same photos on some website a Spanish architect had so who knows. Certainly, I am not suggesting Joanna did anything untoward though, especially not considering what I am about to tell you about her, and her absolute and endless kindness.
Joanna left her efforts in social work—at least in a formal capacity—and opened an antique shop in Savannah. Much as she had with Spanish baroque architecture, she somehow became an instant expert on colonial-period furnishing of the American South and seemed to do pretty well in her new vocation. Of course, she was the type of person that wealthy Savannahians gravitated towards, anyways: outgoing, pretty, well-educated, conservative, and religous. I doubt she had any trouble there making friends with the people she wanted and needed to befriend, but it was someone whom she probably didn’t wish to befriend and maybe shouldn’t have befriended who brings her to our attention now. Lisa’s younger brother, Bryce, was kicked out of his parents’ home for . . . well, there is no easy way around this, I suppose: for setting it afire. Somehow, he made his way from Tifton to Savannah and encountered a student who worked part-time in Joanna’s store and who convinced Joanna to hire Bryce, too. Since Bryce had no place to stay, Joanna did not do what most people might have—which would be to allow him to stay with the student who first brought him to her attention, as that person himself had even suggested—but instead she put Bryce up in an apartment she’d just finished renovating as the first foray into an effort to set up a rental apartment business aimed towards SCAD students.
At first, Bryce appeared to work out fine: he was very interested in architectural history and antiques and Joanna would sit in a coffeehouse late at night with him and tutor him in the field—which we’ve established she somehow had become expert on herself—and soon he had a small black notebook filled with terms such as gadroon and porte cochère which he studied with dedication, despite never having been nearly as strong a student in school as his sister, Lisa. Perhaps, if she in fact knew of his past and the fire, Joanna was doing this to make Bryce appreciate that buildings have value beyond their ability to burn. The irony is, Bryce truly didn’t mean to burn down his home this time around, but somehow accomplished this horrible deed anyways.
The story of exactly how this happened is complex, but what you most need to know is it was in the winter—and an especially cold winter—and also the apartment had no washer and dryer. It was splendid otherwise, beautiful in fact, but as there was no easy place to seat the washer and dryer and Joanna planned later to tear through a wall and convert a hall closet into a shared laundry room for Bryce’s apartment and a larger one next door she was still renovating. Bryce resorted to doing his wash in the bathroom sink and then hanging the clothes up to dry on a drying rack in the small living-room. As it was so cold, he’d complained to Joanna who promptly bought him three space-heaters. Why three, I cannot say. Perhaps because she was a religous soul, but really I do not know. He needed one for his bedroom, okay, that’s fine. And perhaps one for the living-room, too, but the third was not necessary, yet—because a third was provided—it went in the kitchen which was through the living-room away from the bedroom and around a corner, too. Away from sight.
Apparently—at least this is what Lisa says Bryce said of it—he couldn’t fit all the wash on the drying rack in the living-room, so he hung some on hangers and hung the hangers from where-ever he could—literally by hook or crook—in the kicthen. I imagine tees hanging from their hangers off door-pulls for the cupboard and such, and he placed that third space-heater on the floor below, and turned it on. Somehow, a sweater fell in the night, right on the space-heater, and started a fire. As that sweater was by then obviously dry if it caught afire, so were some shirts still hanging up in the kitchen at this point, and the fire spread to them and thus quickly engulfed the kitchen whole—between the amount of clothes hung up in there and the old wood of the place, it was bound to happen. The space-heater—ineffective as they often are at actually providing much heat—was apparently quite effective in drying things out before it also became effective in starting a fire.
The details of the fire are vast, and I will retell that story soon enough. However, I would like first to explain how Max and I became involved in all this. It was due to another letter, and this one was from Max’s mom to Joanna. (Yes, they also knew each other. Everyone knows each other.) The same letter Max later came to own and write on the verso in Slovene. His mother wrote:
How terrible and sad it is what happened, that a home you worked to provide someone out of kindness was lost in a careless fire. Ira and I feel horrible for you and know how very hard you must have worked to renovate that building. I know Bryce’s parents and some of his story, and I realize that what happened appears a most unfortunate of accidents. His family is but thankful for your kindness to their son, yet in so little of a position to do much perhaps, and I feel as a long-time family friend of both your families, I should offer what little I can. While there is little Ira or I can do, I suppose, my youngest son, Max, whom I believe you’ve met, lives in Savannah and I would ask you to call on him if there is in the least anything he can do to be of help.
For many people, such a letter in a time of distress would be taken as a note of sympathy and a token offer to help in a place where little real help could be provided. Max’s mother even more or less said that, in so many words: neither she nor her husband could really do much. So due to his unfortunate location, she offers instead Max. Most people would write back in sincere thanks for the offer and concern, but take no further action on it. This is not exactly what Joanna did though:
”My Dear Barbara,
Thank you so very much for your considerate note of the seventh. Yes, this trial has been hard to endure as I put a lot of work into that building—I bought the entire building in poor repair and did most of the renovations that did not require a speciality contractor myself. I had never done these things before and had to learn as I went, but it was even more rewarding because of that.
When I met young Bryce, I felt Christ move in my heart to help this young person. If I could give him a job part-time in my shop, then in Christian spirit, how could I not? If I could put a roof over his head, how could I leave him outside? It was not his fault that the building burned—it was to burn, it was obviously the will of the Lord. Why would Christ test me with such a thing? Why would He seemingly not reward me instead for doing His work? I cannot say, but I know where my heart and mind both rest, and they rest with Christ. He works—even when it is not so apparent—in our lives, everyday, and always for good.
Thank you for offering Max’s help. I know this is not happenstance, but instead evidence of Christ working in our lives. How else could I know your family and how else could you be in a place to help me now? And look: you also know Bryce’s own family! Barbara, I know we’re of different faiths, but I know still that we serve the same God, and I hope you’ll reflect on how He has moved in our lives in this event. I will call Max and ask if he can perhaps come by and help with removing things from the building, now that the fire department says I can do so without bothering their investigation.
yours in Christ,
Joanna West Callen, M.Div. Ph.D.”
And that was exactly how Max and I became involved in this whole affair.
”Do you ever wonder what would have happened if your mom never wrote to Joanna?”, I ask him.
”Not really.”, Max replies from the sofa, picking the silver pen back up to finish his letter to Lisa. ”She’s like an evil but not too powerful character in Lord of the Rings, you know, she just keeps showing up at bad times. Literally, bad times. Times bad for her and then everyone else.”
part of a new short story in progress
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