Winter rain and wind howled heavily about the stone house, a house that for two centuries had sat stolidly on a hill above the ancient river below. Molly had moved here twenty-five years ago, married then, but she still felt herself to be passing through.
How could it be otherwise? In a house cluttered with the memories of the comings and goings of many families. On this piece of earth so stained with blood from a ‘civil’ war that had raged relentlessly up and down the hillside and encamped in the meadow outside her bedroom window. In such a place, you did not construct and mold from a position of power—landscaping, redecorating, as if to say My Mark Has Been Made. You were simply allowed to visit something so old and fused with history that your mark was a hic-cough, from chug-a-lugging at the July 4th Party while the banjo player laughed and the guests clapped from their hay bale seats. Or a forsythia blossom, brave and bright in April yellow but easily tossed to death by a breeze. They had enjoyed those parties. They had loved setting out that forsythia, had counted its blooming their first harbinger of spring along the rutty dirt lane leading to their home. /p>
Molly rose from the sofa to stir the fire, with George Washington staring stoically from above the mantel. Her thoughts were mangled and unavailable for comfort. It was the week she had been laid-off from her job. A sobering event in youth, a terrifying one for a woman of a certain age. It put her in mind of the past, of course, a re-tracing of the paths chosen arbitrarily or with great calculation that nevertheless led to this evening alone. She was disconsolate and void of a means of escape.
A drawer, a cluttered drawer! Molly told herself that if she couldn’t unclutter a mind, she could clear a drawer. Though a pitiful weapon against the powerful vacuum created by the hole in her identity, it was something. The Black Hole would recede and her plummet into it would be aborted.
She moved to the monstrous junk drawer in what had once been her great-grandmother’s wooden washstand. It was not a lovely, antique heirloom piece, simply what might charitably be called "rustic," but it mattered as a rather clunky keepsake, and it had won a prime piece of real estate in the stone living room. The room was large so this cabinet with its heavy, deep drawer and hinged door beneath sat largely unnoticed along the east wall, which it shared with a massive book case and a baby grand piano. When you sat with your back against the arm of the sofa, however, propped with pillows and looking up at a video or down at a cross-word, it was to the washstand that tired eyes traveled for respite. Thus it was that Molly came on this particular night to dump the contents of the drawer before her on the floor, and the night she found what she would come to call, "Sarah’s Video."
The drawer had caught a lot through the years because it was both handy and obscure, and it offered all comers, no matter how absurd, the promise of Someday—candles for a dinner party, candles for aroma, snub candles for
emergencies. There were unviewed videos, broken flashlights but-maybe-they-just-need-batteries, guitar picks, puzzle pieces, incense, campaign buttons, dried-up herbal bags, and memorabilia: whittled mountain toys, paper weights, and coasters.
And ashtrays —which were supposed to have all been trotted in to the final Quit Smoking session and tossed with ceremony, but Molly’s penchant for nostalgia and her attachment to tokens would not allow this. There was the stolen faux-pewter ashtray swiped, guiltily, from the Watergate Hotel, a splurge for their tenth wedding anniversary, and one from the World’s Fair. She assembled all ashtrays and stacked them awkwardly in a corner of the sofa, undecided as to what should go and what should stay, as always. Life was simply Stuff to be sorted.
It was the same with the souvenir coffee cups crowding the kitchen cabinet. She cherished the one from the Outer Banks. It was her first trip alone after the divorce and she channeled Scarlett O’Hara in a midnight moment. That breezy August night, trembling with trepidation, she had left the rental cottage and insomnia behind to cross the hard-packed sand and reach the ocean. She walked straight into its dark whisperings, raised her fist and stood firm as wave after wave slapped against her knees: "As God is my witness, I will survive this!" At Sam’s Shell Shop the next day she purchased a victory cup, sea gulls wafting around a lighthouse.
Years later on trips, even when she’d survived the après-divorce years and gained a good career, Molly never fell far from the modest rural tree from which she budded, and continued to buy only inexpensive souvenirs. She could still hear her mother’s Scotch-Irish voice: Wasting your money on junk! But that same mother, with her dirt-poor upbringing, had filled Molly’s toy boxes and closets with all she never possessed.
After her mother’s death, Molly had unearthed in the attic, beneath heaps of cheap old clothes, department store boxes filled with smartly-cuffed jackets and pastel blouses with silky ties, tailored suits and sequined evening wraps--never-seen, never given a life beyond the delicate folding into white tissue paper, the creases in the clothes now as permanent as tree rings, revealing their age. The other clothes, that Molly could not recognize from any stage of her or her mother’s life, were collected from the lives of others--at the Salvation Army, in public dumps--after sanity slipped away from this lady who had come to know about silver pickle forks and band-box fashion, but whose frugal instincts would finally leave her old and lost on narrow paths through ceiling-high clutter, a final capitulation in a life-long struggle against the raggedly poor, shamed child she had been. In the end, her mother could no longer throw anything out (dumpsters were brought in for milk cartons and jars, mildewed sewing patterns and bolts of cloth, rotted food).
Mounds of greeting cards, rubber-banded together, were marked "Sort"—the promise of Someday. And there was the copy of the invitation to a presidential inaugural ball that Molly had sent along. She liked to imagine that it had been lovingly wrapped in the tin foil, though her mother never mentioned receiving it, or the copies of speeches Molly wrote or photos with the famous that she thought her mother would prize: "That’s my daughter, you know."
Now Molly had to walk zigzag through the drawer debris she’d spread out on her living room floor. She had sorted candles and political buttons into piles, thrown away puzzle and game pieces (some things never get put back together), and she was now ready to review the stack of odd videos, those not worthy of designated storage: First Aid for Your Cat, Twenty Days to Thinner Thighs…and Sarah.
An unfamiliar hand had written on the dusty case: Sarah; Trinity Belles Lawn Concert, 1987. Molly was intrigued, and now in the privacy of her own living room she would invade the life of Sarah, with no idea who she was or how her video came to settle in this old house.
The show began with eight proper young women belting out, "Way Down South In Birmingham." There were ‘boo-bops’ for background. Their harmonies were sweet. It was a blue-sky day and the shaky hand holding the video camera managed to frame the coeds in their navy-blue skirts with v-neck sweaters over white blouses. The Belles were a semblance of a straight line, but varying heights and hairdos and skin hues prevented a look of cohesion. And these gals were each and all about their individual fidgets and head tilts, but with the sidewalk as their stage and a gothic grey building their backdrop, they had come to sing! Before each number they performed the ritual embarrassed moves of a home-spun video, demurring and giggling. As one soloist stood front and center at the microphone, she gave in to the embarrassment and covered her face with her hands. But glory beckoned, Molly noted, and suddenly up came the head and out came the song, "It Had To Be You." She was dark and Asian with the light American smile of youth on the threshold of The Dream.
Some others I’ve seen, might never be mean, might never be cross or try to be boss, but they wouldn’t do. Her voice was pure, high, and the emotion due Johnny Mercer’s song she produced with all the sincerity of longing and pain available to a 20-something-year-old. Molly decided she was Sarah
For nobody else gives me a thrill, for all your faults, I love you still. Slight praise, Molly thought.
It was a slate-grey September day when she bumped into him, literally, on the crowded street in the big city that had lured her. They laughed. Small world, etc. The year before, some 500 miles from where they now stood, she had been the college reporter assigned to interview him and write the story for the student newspaper about Peace Corps recruiting on campus. It had to be him. The wedding gown train, rice and honeymoon, and Viet Nam. Inner-city living and rent strikes, boycotting lettuce, tutoring kids, and feeding peace marchers. The Age of Aquarius. And then law school was done. And then "settling down" seemed to call to him--if not Molly--as did an historic stone house in the woods an hour from the city. Croquet on the lawn, rafting trips, book groups, and consulting work. And one February night, just after Valentine’s Day, he looked up from a bowl of chili and told her he was leaving. And he did. Molly’s best friend once commented that Molly had a great talent for reading-between the lines—but that she failed to read the lines.
Suitors arrived—bearing comforting promises of another Someday, bearing baggage from war days, or a divorce, or from passing their prime. Some were sent away, some left in a variety of huffs. One day Molly noticed that what she had titled, "a short lull," had lengthened into years.
"Geez, the last one coming to knock on the door should be marked with a luminous X!" She had laughed, her friends laughed, and then they sat drinking their wine quietly, for all stories of marriages, loves great and unintelligible, loves flawed tragically or knotted with tedium, had been shared before.
Lollipop, lollipop, oh lolly lollipop. Lollipop, lollipop, oh lolly lollipop. Two other Belles, tidy brunettes in crisp shorts and blouses, walked into camera range to be introduced. The camera lost its way and zoomed down to 20 flat-shoed feet on cracked cement. An unseen audience had applauded and cheered each song. Molly wished the camera would falter over its way; she might recognize someone at the gathering. Given the enthusiasm of the invisible spectators, she judged them to be friends and family of the Belles enjoying a good-bye performance before graduation. For old-times sake. For the memory to hold.
Molly leaned forward and spoke to the video: Which of you is Sarah?!
"Shower the people you love with love. Show them the way you feel. Things
are gonna work out fine if you only will."
Molly was shouting now: And how’s that working out for you, Sarah? Fine?! I mean, the whole show-them, love thing? What did you become?
Trinity. Trinity. Our Hearts Are Loving You.
Molly stopped the video to go nuke pop-corn as she composed promos in her head: See Sarah and her friends caught and filmed in one particular merry May. Do you dare know the outcome? A deceptively simple film that begs questions and offers gleanings of tomorrows-to-come. Did the enigmatic Sarah have eggs for breakfast that day? Did she have to iron that cotton skirt hurriedly, or was it kept at the ready in case an impromptu Belles Concert broke out? What happened two hours after the Concert, after two decades?
Her dog and three cats had followed her into the cold kitchen. She shivered as she flipped off the tops of cans for them and served up herself a fine bowl of pop-corn for dinner. She wondered if one day she would bother to cook well, and live out that unfulfilled dream of a dinner party. The handsome invitation would read: You’re invited to a formal dinner party. Appropriate dinner candles that have been seasoned for years in the drawer of the antique washstand of your hostesses’ great grandmother will be on display. They were only recently unearthed.
Molly called her pets the Four-Pawed Gang. She watched them eat eagerly from dishes strewn about the kitchen floor because she had grown heavy and couldn’t take the eleven steps to reach the hallway and the proper pet bowls. She should have stayed with Sarah, she thought. Good company. With the Belles she was beginning to feel better. Here in her kitchen were dirty dishes, unpacked grocery bags on the counter and bills on the table. Lapping carnivore tongues broke the silence. Only that. Molly leaned against the sink, closed her eyes and envisioned her ample supply of e-mail addresses, phone numbers. She couldn’t move. Within these stone walls she need not dazzle or tap dance or prove, or Be. She had opted for this aloneness, for its safety. She was so tired.
Back at the video, Molly saw that the girls had re-arranged the chorus line. Choreographed moves ensued.
Tonight you’re mine, completely…But will you love me, tomorrow!
A turn to the left, then to the right,. They shook their twenty-something shoulders, giddy with the daring of it. They cocked their heads coyly. Tonight’s the night …completely!
The innocence of the performance was more vivid with the attempt at provocativeness. They were all dear. Not one face bore a slight resemblance to anyone she’d known, living or dead. No one. She searched memory banks for any conversation that began: "I’ve made copies of this video for Sarah’s parents. You remember little Sarah, don’t you?" Or, "Here’s an old video I got at the flea market—you can tape over it." Nothing.
I love coffee, I love tea…cuppa, cuppa cuppa. A full-figured blond stepped forward to solo in deep alto. So send me a slug from that wonderful mug! She did it with bravado and the audience cheered. Molly decided that this must be Sarah. Her face was luminous in sunlight, and her head tilted rhythmically with each "cuppa." She was endlessly smiling but then, they all were.
Coffee, always coffee. Molly decided that she only worked all these years for the camaraderie of the coffee pot. Who’s making coffee, Should I throw this coffee out, Did anyone bring in sugar? Her first job, she made coffee. The bus dropped
her off near the White House and she had a two-block walk to the do-gooder office on the 12th floor in sight of Lafayette Park, assistant to the assistant to the writers. She had died and gone to heaven. Coffee pots in news rooms, coffee pots in non-profit headquarters, coffee pots in congressional offices would follow.
The Belles sailed into the next song: Dream, when you’re feeling blue, Dream, That’s the thing to do....Dream. And they might come true.
Each singer had wiped the smile off her face, Molly noted, and adapted the distant look of, say, a dreamer. Or of a poet transfixed on a point in the sky while others around her clattered and chattered eye-to-eye in the Paris café. Or of a young woman recalling all that she had endured and survived, as a college co-ed, for God’s sake! Molly pictured scars on young hearts beneath starched blouses, unaware of the massive wounds to follow. Wounds that sunlight and starched blouses could not suture.
Just watch the smoke rings rise in the air, You’ll find your share, Of memories there, So dream when the day is thru….Things never are as bad as they seem, So dream, dream, dream.
The harmony was taut, bordering on poignant. Molly suddenly missed smoking.
And then, abruptly, the video stopped, and Molly held her breath as she stared at the dark television screen. Only seconds passed before Molly yelled aloud: Wait! Don’t go! Who are you, Sarah?!
She was finishing the last of her popcorn when tulips bloomed on screen and a voice explained, "Here are the tulips. Aren’t they beautiful? This is the red-roof building. This is the pond. There’s the Chapel where we’ll graduate if it doesn’t rain. I hope it doesn’t rain. Here are the tulips again!"
And, before Molly could take in the tulips as nourishment, darkness fell again across the Belles, and Molly faced a mute, empty screen.
She would wait out this disruption. This time Molly amused herself separating round souvenir coasters from square ones, confident that she was in the presence of a video documentary, one that would surely require someone saying, The End. Surely they would not leave her hanging, alone, with only darkness as a conclusion.
When the video popped back to life, the chorus line of singers had broken. Belles were careening randomly about the lawn, tossing fresh hair, tossing familiar shouts—"We’re going to dinner!....See you back at the room!" Their unlined faces turned fully to Next! The two that Molly had selected as Sarah had paused to talk.
Molly called out to them all: Where are you going to dinner? What are you talking about? What shampoo do you use?
The camera moved to a close-up of two new faces. An impromptu interview was being staged. These two non-Belles sported pony tails and calculated casual attire, and they were gleeful. They could have been Belles, Molly thought.
"O.K. I’m cool, and she’s gay." Or did she say, this is Gaye. Well, G. was holding heavy books and a lightweight Cosmopolitan magazine, Molly noted.
"And here we have a Cosmo Woman."
"No, someone gave it to me on the Metro!"
"And what else do you have there?"
G. picked up a gallon jug of Almaden from somewhere behind her.
"Oh, this is wine—but don’t ever buy this wine. Wait and buy the wine I will be importing from Tuscany!"
"Can you believe this gal? So young and her own business already. How old are you?"
G. answered brightly that she was 22. She added that she was going to have a home in Florence, in Los Angeles, and in New York.
"And she’s going to marry Roger!" Static.
Well, guess that answered the gay/Gaye question, Molly mused. She leaned towed the screen and said quietly: Where did you go? Abruptly, the video responded with a voice announcing, "We’re in Claire’s room now. Tell us about it, Claire!"
Paul McCartney was singing. Love doesn’t come in a minute. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Molly asked nicely of the unseen Claire: Did love come? At age 42 are you going to your son’s graduation or to Club Med?
Claire informed Molly: "Here are the photographs of my friends; here’s the view from my window (the camera reeled recklessly between the pond and a distant chapel). Here is my closet, and here’s my poster from Australia!
Static. And then, "This is the outside of my dorm. The End!"
Molly stared at the burbling static for a moment before the remote silenced it. She wondered if Claire had visited Australia again, if Gaye was under the Tuscan sun, if Sarah was somewhere still singing and still wondering what ever happened to her Belles video.
The logs were all but consumed—Ah, the smoldering embers remain, Molly noticed. She smiled, at her own memory of a college campus in spring, chance meetings arriving on time, desultory days when dreams slumbered, frosty mornings running for a train, an interview, a trip. Scarlet O’Hara at the Outer Banks, a ball gown, sorting and selecting assorted roads offered up to her over the decades since she’d travelled from youth.
She poked and prodded at the fire, and tossed in wadded balls of yesterday’s newspaper--cheating, she always thought--before layering on the last of the wood she’d gathered in before the storm hit.
She felt her breath expanding beneath a shrinking ache in her chest. Her journey was unfinished. No rush. She’d make a nice salad and eat before the fire. It would warm her. She’d read a book. There would be time tomorrow to clean the kitchen. There would be time to decide on coffee cups, get a new job. There would be time to plan the dinner party, with candles. She wished she could send Sarah an invitation.