The whir of the fan establishes the season — summer in Kansas City. I lean forward to peer around the second monitor to see what the sky says about the chances of rain. This morning I had to walk the dog down to the yard on her leash. The bent gate had blown open in last night’s storm. My sleep had not been interrupted by the crash of thunder but by the text alert telling me to beware. Funny old world; technology warns me of the very weather raging outside my window while I lie in an oblivious coma.
Someone told me yesterday that I was brave. I don’t feel particularly courageous, though I understand that I might seem foolhardy and eager for adventure. I’m pushing the boundaries of what might be expected. Never quite fitting the suit that I’ve tried to wear, I’m shedding that skin and wandering naked for a while, looking for a new wardrobe or at least a comfortable cloak.
I’ve tried changing wardrobes before now without making much difference in how the world perceives me. Every role I’ve played for six decades seems to have been written for another actor. Casting directors let me walk onto the stage and try the lines before their weary voices summon the next hopeful. I stumble away, clutching the pages of the script from which I’ve been reading. Let me try again! I can do that voice! But the hand gives a careless wave. I’m no longer wanted. I don’t look the part. I have no star power. I’m not what they thought I would be.
For some reason I think of a boss that I had at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri so many years ago. I recall her face but cannot recall her name. She and I had our work space in an empty unused expanse of the old building which housed the LSEMo offices at the time. Velma? Was that her name?
What do I remember? Smooth cheeks the color of cinnamon, with straight black hair hanging on either side of a round expanse. Black, maybe; maybe Indian? It’s a blur, a smudge caused by the sands of time falling across the images.
My insides quivered whenever she approached me. A few months earlier, I had come crawling back to St. Louis from a disastrous relocation to Boston. Huddled against the window of my mother’s car, my brother Kevin in the driver’s seat and my few belongings crammed behind us, I had gazed on the Arch like a long-lost daughter. I wanted to leap from the moving vehicle and baptize myself in the muddy Mississippi. I had come home.
Come January, I found myself ensconced in an old studio on Russell Blvd., stacks of grad school books on an old desk crammed in the crawl space actually meant for a Murphy bed. I let misgivings creep from their cobwebs and settle beside me. Velma — was that really her name? — mistrusted my enthusiasm and chastised my initiative. I went for Sunday supper and sat at my mother’s table making lists of my defenses. I called the LSEMo lobbyist who used half my hours and begged her to intervene. My mother sat listening, waiting for me to ask her opinion.
On Saturday nights, I would sit in the bars of the Central West End, watching the men play darts. The same guys came to Kean Drug where I had my other job, selling money orders and make-up from the north end while Art Perry filled prescriptions and raised his eyebrows across the way. Heads up, he would say, when he came across to check that everyone had a task at hand. I’d feel the blush spread across my face and hastily close my notebook, moving to straighten stock as though that had been my intention all along. He saw through that ploy but let me be. He’d done grad school once himself.
I’d sit in class and think about Velma. She nagged me without relent. I didn’t do my time sheet right. I divided my time unequally between the two units who had use of me. I forgot to straighten my desk at the end of the day. I didn’t understand the limits of my position.
Nothing I did pleased Velma. Maybe she had a different name? The contours of her face retreat behind the veil of time along with everything else about her. But let’s say that I remember; let’s pretend her name really was Velma.
I asked my mother, finally, whether she would read the letter that I had written to Velma. I’ve always been better at expressing myself on paper. My mother held the stack of pages but kept her eyes on my face. This is your supervisor, right? she asked. I nodded. She set the letter aside. Heat rose from my belly to my face but I sat rigid, waiting for the lecture.
Look, you’re my daughter, and I love you, she said. The sweet touch of her words eased the hot swell of my cheeks. But you just need to accept what this woman wants you to do. It’s a part-time job. You aren’t going to change her mind. Just smile; just nod; just tell her to give you instructions and then follow them.
I wanted to protest but I knew that her advice would serve me. I reached one finger to touch the sprawled handwriting of my long missive to Velma. I felt the outrage which I had poured into the pages. But the anger faded. What remained can only be described as sorrow. Velma found me wanting. Concede the point. Take the paycheck. You’ll never be enough but at least you’ll have groceries. Her approval should not be needed as well.
I went to work the next day and told Velma that I understood her complaints. I asked for her guidance. I sat at my desk and struggled to figure out what expression to summon to my face. For the next two years, I went through the motions of accepting the limits which Velma dictated. But my burden eased when she herself left the job and I got recast as assigned to the lobbyist who had shown me so much compassion.
For the last forty years, I’ve drifted through life playing bit part after bit part with little enthusiasm. The displeasure of my companions unsettled me. I judged myself wanting and therefore, how could they do otherwise? Or did their condemnation trigger mine? Velma’s face finally faded from the forefront but her disdain lingered.
Still, I find myself at the turn of belief, with six decades behind and a long empty road ahead of me. Every task that I’ve undertaken marches through the book of accounts. Some has been written in the deep red ink of judgment. But here and there, a paragraph of beautiful calligraphy in the soft black ink of victory spans a few inches of parchment. Smudges attest to my struggles. The pages bear the marks of many reviews with the ink still damp: words blurred, corners turned.
But the book has not been filled. I still have room for passages of my own creation.
I have a trial on Monday so despite the weariness which grips my shoulders, I’m off to work in a few hours. I’ll leave a load of clothes churning in the washer/dryer unit. I’ve had to lash the gate shut with the dog’s leash, since it doesn’t stay locked on its own anymore. A suitcase sits on a chair in the dining room, still half-packed from my trip to Atlanta. The rest of its contents spill across the dining room table, where they’ll remain for another few days. It can’t be helped.
I’m making my way from regret to rebirth. No one has yet chosen me fora grand leading role. But I still appear for the casting calls. I have not yet surrendered to failure.