Let’s start in the middle. That’s the easiest way. Well, easiest on the mind and the nerves.
There’s no onus to start in the right place. No decision to second guess. We’re not making the best start, we’re just starting. And no matter where we start, we’ll get something done.
So where is the middle? The kitchen?
It was a pokey little house that looked like it had been shoved into the back corner of the lot belonging to a much nicer house. It was stuffed into the trees between the back, maintenance driveway and a swaying fence covered with wild grape vine.
A person who knew a bit about house construction, or who took the time to notice, would know that the house had not been built all together, but had accreted in pieces. There was an original two rooms, which were now the kitchen and living room, running roughly north-south, with a front door and small porch to the east. The back door and porch had been surrounded by a bedroom that had been tacked on behind the main room and a bathroom had been added behind the kitchen, either taking advantage of the location of the pipes or adding them at the time.
Additional, lighter-walled rooms had been added to the west and the north, making a bedroom that you had to walk through a bedroom to get to and a dining area, with walls full of mullioned windows. From the change in building styles between the rooms it was easy to guess that years had passed between each addition. But unless a person knew a bit of construction history, it was impossible to guess which had gone up when, beyond knowing that the outer bedroom must have been later than the inner.
No. Not the kitchen. The desk.
Sheila pulled a folding chair out from behind a sofa. She walked with it, as if it were a cane, to the wall between the living room and the kitchen. There, between a narrow bookcase full of books and splaying papers and a wide bookcase with jumbled books and boxes, was what looked to Barbara like a hutch.
It had spindle legs on the bottom, a glass-fronted display on the top, and an odd, sloping belly in the middle. The belly had a key hole near the top. Sheila set up the chair in front of it and used the key to pull down the front, making a desktop. Barbara saw slots and pigeon holes and drawers in the back and stacks of papers, pens, and oddments in the middle and front. It was a good thing, she thought, that the front folded up, or Aunt Sheila would never have any writing area. A mental pause. Reassess. Get her parents complaints out of her head. It was perfectly possible to stack things on the desk-flap and just leave it open all the time. Aunt Sheila may be a pack rat, but then, she may not. Her health wasn’t good, after all, and she was living alone.
I’ve always wished that the I could situate the filing cabinet next to the desk and be happy with the room.
Under the quilt over there in the corner. Bobby’s kids used to never be able to leave those drawers alone, if they could see them. Then they’d get their fingers pinched. It was nerve-wracking waiting for it to happen, so I covered it.
Have you ever wondered how to go about wracking a nerve?
Nope. Barbara seemed, to her aunt, to be a serious, quiet fifteen-year-old. She wasn’t used to quiet in a child that didn’t mean withdrawal from abuse or mental slowness. She was feeling her way with Barbara.
She reached to the side and pulled a dictionary off of a shelf, red and abridged, but hard-bound.
Wrack – ruin or destruction – from Old English misery and vengeance – also wreckage, the remains of something destroyed. And here I’d always assumed that wracking something meant pulling it.
From rack, maybe. You know, with an R. I mean, you might have been thinking of both together since they sound alike.
That’s very perceptive. And probably true.
Sheila put the dictionary back in it’s place. Barbara noticed that it slid in next to a thesaurus, a word game dictionary, a book called The Roots of English and one called Techniques of the Selling Writer. Barbara leaned over some of the titles. She guessed that about five of them were on fighting procrastination. More were on getting the most out of your life. Three were on cleaning. She smiled. It wasn’t the first time she had smiled since she came to the house, but it was the first smile that Sheila had witnessed.
Yes, she said. Reading about it is easier than doing something about it.
You need a computer. Then you could read about it, you know, indefinitely. If you wanted.
I’ve had a computer or two. They’re out in the shed. I think Peter called the most contemporary one a little Mac box.
Oh, those are so cute. When I see one, I just want to make something out of it. But I don’t know what.
Peter was thinking an aquarium. Neither of us have the time or the equipment for it, or it would have been converted by now. Just as well. Neither of us has the space. Me because I have not yet learned to live a life of simplicity and he because his wife has very definite ideas about decorating. He’d never slip it past the color charts, let alone the style criteria.
She has color charts? That sounds serious. Barbara deflated a bit.
Yes. I’d like to think I wouldn’t stand for it, but given my . . . well, let’s just say I have a habit of going along. I’m working on being more definite. Having more backbone. I’m sure there’s a book with backbone in the title in there somewhere. It’s the going thing, being assertive. I missed that, you know, growing up.
As in didn’t get, not as in pining over. Young ladies were supposed to be pleasing and supportive. And not have careers. There was a lot that was inferred from the not having careers thing. Being mobile. Deferring. Not that women didn’t speak up, just that they were called nags when they did. Nag, nag, nag. You could berate a woman with that.
Hmmph. And yet you can buy a bumper sticker that says: You say BITCH like it was a bad thing. I wonder what that means. I’m sure someone could write a thesis on it.
Someone probably has.
Sheila had been stacking papers from the desk onto the floor.
Could you pull those papers out from between the books? I’ll feel better if I get them sorted enough to be able to pay the bills. I always worry that I’ll miss a bill. Not that I never have. Missed a bill, I mean. I know that the world won’t end. But it was one of the things that my father used to monolog on, so I don’t think I’ll ever shake being a little nervous about it. Especially if other things are behind.
Well, said Barbara, handing over a stack of papers, I’m here to help with the behind thing.
Really, dear. They, well, dropped you in so quickly that I was never sure what they told you. And no telling, of course, what you’d agreed to. I wouldn’t blame you if you resented being shipped off.
No. It’s just. I was thinking. It is going to be a big job. And you said something about packets.
Were you thinking of homeschooling, dear? I could set that up, if you like. But I think that we should talk through the ramifications. Um, that is. . .
Sheila looked over at Barbara, feeling her way. Barbara smiled.
Ramifications. Branchings. Like fractals. At least, I think of fractals when I think of branching. Like lightning.
Barbara had slumped just enough to let her hair fall forward, around her face. She spoke through it about the lightning.
She peeked out at her aunt. Her aunt was smiling.
Fractals. I bought a few books about that, back when it was first a hot topic. Also a few on chaos. Never really got through them. They may still be around. I may also have given them to the library. I’ve got more shelves in both of the bedrooms, but there’s only so much space, here.
Well, I’m going to be sorting and writing checks, which you can’t help with. If you’d like to be a help, those books could use a dusting. The shelves, too. When I do it, I pull them off, dust them, stack them up and then oil the shelves. At least on that case, I do. The other one is particle board. I’m not feeling spry enough to tackle it, yet.
Sure, said Barbara, as she ducked out. The things are all under the kitchen sink, right?
Yes. Any cleaning supplies that aren’t there are under the bathroom sink. Unless you’re really used to cleaning you might want to read the Speed Cleaning books.
Not that I’m trying to push.
Barbara bounced back in with five or six formerly white wash cloths and a bottle of furniture oil. She began pulling off books. Sheila turned to her papers. A minute later she hauled herself up.
I’m going to get a bigger wastebasket. It always amazes me how much I throw away whenever I actually get to going through things. I mean, I kept these things for a reason, to start with.
Her voice trailed away.
Sometimes I think I’m doing obeisance to possibilities or ideas. Like I have to age thoughts or leave them sitting around long enough that I don’t think I’ll forget them. Then I can throw the papers out. Not that that works, of course.
It leaves you with too much clutter?
No, I still forget. Do you know that one researcher, using herself as a test subject, calculated that every year you forget 30% of your memory. She was printing out daily occurrences on three by five cards and reviewing them randomly. So I guess the 30% includes things that barely made it into long-tem memory anyway.
Yes. There’s long-term and short-term. Short-term doesn’t cause any permanent changes to the brain. And it’s volatile. You can generally store seven things in short term memory. If you try to put in the eighth without clumping, something will fall out.
Batching. It’s not an accident that a phone number is seven digits long. If you add in the area code, it’s longer, but people remember their area codes as a batch. 209 is one thing. 916 is another. That’s Sacramento.
209 is here?
Yes. And if you’re familiar with the local exchanges, you could perceive the first three numbers of the phone number as a batch, as well. So then, when you remembered a phone number, you’d remember batch – batch – four digits.
And if it was a familiar exchange, it would be easier to remember?
Exactly. And you’d want to write it down if you needed it later, because you’d forget it if you didn’t keep rehearsing it. Use it or loose it counts for getting things from short-term memory to long term memory.
Just like weight lifting.
Did you ever lift weights?
Once. I was trying out for the tennis team.
Did you make it?
No. Connie did.
That’s your sister?
Yes. Older. She’s going to college. Mom is upset because she’s gone to one far enough away that Dad’s letting her live on campus. And they signed up late enough that all the dorms were filled, so she’s in off campus apartments. There’s still a dining hall, but Mom seems to think there won’t be enough guards or something.
Or something. So. Homeschooling?
Barbara’s head dropped again.
Yes. I don’t make friends easily. And most of school is boring. It seems like all I’m doing is sitting and waiting.
Her hands kept busy. Sheila borrowed a cloth and began pulling things out of the desk and dusting under them.
Is there anything in particular that you want to learn? I mean, homeschooling is a chance to do things at your own pace. Less waiting for other folks. It’s also a chance to go forward and do more.
There was silence for a space.
I’ll have to think about that. I mean. A computer would be a good thing to have to learn with. I mean. You know about the internet, right?
It’s been awhile since I’ve been online. But I know the basics. There’s lots of porn, but it doesn’t pop up.
Barbara blushed. I don’t think there’s that much porn.
Try doing a search with the keyword goddess and see what happens.
Well, you don’t have to click on it.
I’m not saying that I want to learn to do websites or program or anything. But a computer is helpful just to use. You could pay your bills online.
Barbara pulled a folded sheet from a book.
What is Fossils Without Dinosaurs?
Oh. That’s a book I haven’t written. Or a series of books I haven’t written. I mean, if I’m not writing, it may as well be a series, right?
Definitely. A series sounds much cooler. Which fossils aren’t dinosaurs.
Most of them. There are fossil algae and fossil sponges. There’s everything that came before dinosaurs and everything that came after. And even while dinosaurs lived, they didn’t represent all species. There were still ferns and trees being fossilized. There were still fish and insects. There were mammals or the precursors of mammals. Most fossils weren’t dinosaurs.
Then why do we think of dinosaurs when we think of fossils?
That’s a brain question. That’s a human thought question. Sort of like why does your Mother think there aren’t enough guards or something. I’d suspect that there aren’t any guards in the dorms.
There are RA’s.
Yes, but they’re students and they have their own work to do. And a lot of them don’t care about the kind of thing that your mother’s worried about, anyway.
Maybe I could work on the fossil book. It sounds interesting. It might make a good website, too, but I’m not sure I could do that.
We can get a computer tonight, if I have a good day. What kind of connection will we need? I’ve heard sneery things said about AOL. And speaking of good days, I’ll be right back.
Cable, Barbara called, as her aunt headed for the bathroom. We should get cable.
Barbara was expecting quiet until her aunt got back. She was shocked to hear her call.
We have a cable hookup. It’s just not on, currently. I’ll phone in a minute and see what they need to set it up.
Can I look?
There was a flush and then water running.
Sure. It comes in the wall by the filing cabinet.
Barbara left the books. She heard the bathroom door creak open. It was an odd door. It was an odd bathroom. Cramped. Shiny tiled walls to shoulder height. Painted concrete floor. Throw rugs. The shower was completely concrete with the paint peeled away from waist height down. There were mildew stains. The shower head and faucets came out on the end of pipes and were dull and caked with calcium. There was a steel pipe across the doorway into the shower and a new curtain hung there, bunched because it was for a tub-length opening.
The cupboards in the bathroom, like the cupboards in the kitchen had been painted and repainted so much that they were almost springy to the touch. In the kitchen, they were yellow. In the bathroom, they were brown, which didn’t match the pink and maroon tiles at all, to Barbara’s mind. She deliberately didn’t think about the shower.
She thought about the door. It was metal and yet rounded and almost droopy-feeling. There was an odd-shaped metal latch that turned into a slot to lock the door. It was situated up too far for a child to reach. There was no door knob, only a looped metal handle. The door didn’t quite fit the door jamb, or it slumped out of line, or something. You had to grab the handle and pull up and to the side to get it to shut.
The cable hook-up was something to think about besides the door. It was black co-ax, not the blue cat cable that a computer would need. And there wasn’t any space to fit a desk or table for a computer near the cable. Not unless you blocked the front door.
There was a scraping sound to herald the bathroom door’s opening. The towels in the bathroom were hung up high. Barbara had never seen mended towels before, or ones worn so thin. She had also never seen such thin metal rods. They looked old and maybe like something to put up in the garage.
Aunt Sheila shuffled back in. She wore a beige cotton robe-thing over a droopy cotton skirt and top. The skirt came nearly to her ankles and together with the top it looked like night clothes. Or like she had been sleeping in it. Her feet were in floppy old navy vans over puffy lavender socks.
There isn’t any cable for computers coming in. Is there any more on the outside? Thinner blue cables?
Nope. What you see is what comes up to the house. So you don’t think we’ll need DSL?
Barbara was a little surprised.
You know what DSL is?
Roughly. I know that how fast it is depends on how close you are to something. And you’re supposed to cost compare with the cable. I don’t know if I have the energy for that.
I could do it. Barbara curled on herself. Fiddle-fern, Sheila thought. She’s going to be tall.
At least, I think I could do it.
There’s someone I should ask about it. He does computers. He says pick your software first and then the computer to handle it.
That usually matters more with games and graphics programs. Like if you’re going to be editing videos and stuff.
Well, I think I need to ask him, just to keep him in the loop. Like I would never buy a car without talking to Bobby. He’s a mechanic and he does some of my stuff for free. So I defer to his judgment. I figure, even if I’m just getting the kind of car that he likes to work on, that’s still a good reason for narrowing the choice. Especially since there are so many cars out there.
In fact, if we want to catch him tonight. . . Sheila stopped, brow wrinkled. Barbara waited. Still. Looking down. This was the only room with carpet and it didn’t feel like it had much backing. In the morning, cold came up through it.
I think I can manage it. We’d probably better go now, though. He’s at a little place that closes early.
It’s only two.
Oh. Early as that. Well, we’d better go before we get further into this. A hand waved at the room in general without the arm moving much. It always gets worse before it gets better.
She frowned at the desk for a moment, then shook her head, almost in a shiver. She pulled out a steno pad and pushed a cheap Bic © through it.
Will you need to call a cab?
No. Natalie is up at the house. Let me call and then I’ll get changed. I need pockets.
Barbara went back to the shelf while Sheila went into the kitchen to phone. Barbara had never seen a phone tethered to the wall like this. It looked like it was made of an old kind of plastic. It was aqua and huge and the headset was plugged into it by a curly wire that always twisted itself up into a knot.
Barbara speculated for a moment, then started to flip through the books that she had already dusted, holding them up to let gravity work for her. About half of them had inclusions that fell out. They didn’t look like bookmarks. She collected them in a pile on the desk corner.
They stacked up: “Moral Minds by Marc Hauser”, “So would a nut that tastes like a different nut be called a Pastichio?”, “Fairy Nuff”. That one had a doodle of a paunchy guy in a janitor’s overall, smoking a cigar and hanging from a ridiculously small set of humming wings. She stopped and re-read the last one:
Q: How many pulp writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: The history of the light bulb is a long and interesting tale, beginning in 1879 in the quiet town of Menlo Park, New Jersey, and continuing on to the present day. . . .
She was still puzzling over it when Sheila came back in.
What’s a pulp writer?
A flip to show the slip.
Oh, that. In that case, a pulp writer is a writer writing for a pulp magazine. That is, one written on cheap paper and paying by the word.
Ah, I get it.
Yes. Sometimes I think that my main reason for learning things is so I’ll get the joke. You never really laugh at anything that someone has to explain to you.
There was a sound of tires on gravel.
That will be Natalie. She’ll let herself in. I’ll run and change. No don’t open that door. No one ever uses it. The lemon tree blocks most of it.
Oh, so would you mind if we put a desk or something up against it?
To be near the wire? That’s a good idea. Let me get my jeans.