Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
Winnie took a cab to Laura’s town house. Laura met her on the porch. They hugged and Winnie gave her a box of Stutz candies.
“You shouldn’t have,” said Laura. “I’ll get even fatter.”
Laura always nursed a belly that looked like she was a couple of months pregnant.
“I’ll put the coffee on,” said Laura, as she opened the door and led her friend inside.
The place was immaculate, done all in white, with shiny white tiles in the kitchen and windows looking onto a small back yard with a swing set and slide beside a couple of small maple trees. Everything was frosted with snow and glistened under the noonday sun.
“Laura,” said Winnie. “Amy’s in college. What’s with the swing sets?”
“You know me, Win. Bobby and I don’t like change.”
Winnie shook her head as her friend put the tea kettle onto the all-white stove with one of those tops that was a smooth single panel, easy to clean.
The two old friends stood in the middle of the kitchen. They once lived in the infamous Village Green Apartments, built on a flood plain. Fortunately they had moved out before the tragedy. A tragedy waiting to happen, caused by greedy developers who built on a known flood plain. Laura and
Winnie knew the four people who were killed. Murdered might be a better word. They died not by drowning. But by something much worse. The water had risen quickly, like it always did, up to “A” Building – the old people’s building. But instead of receding and settling back into the tributary of the Pennypack Creek, it rose higher and higher, all the way up to the second floor of the building, where Angie and her son, Rudy, were waiting to be rescued.
The sound was heard for miles around. An explosion in the basement of “A” Building. The gas dryer had exploded and blew away six tenants.
Over the years, Laura and Winnie kept in touch by phone or met for shopping dates. Winnie knew every detail of Laura’s life and on New Year’s Day, when she had off from work at the factory, she took a cab over to the Parkview Town Houses.
The tea kettle began its high whistle and Laura poured the water through her clear-glass Chemex coffee maker.
“You and your perfect cups of coffee,” Winnie laughed.
“I know you want a tour of the house,” said Laura. She patted her belly, a habit Winnie remembered from the apartments.
“That husband of mine. At the gym. He practically sleeps there.”
As they walked, Laura gave a slow narration of her husband’s habits. He was either at the gym or at work. He had started his own computer company and did very well.
“You know what my husband did?” Laura asked Winnie.
Winnie laughed. “Can’t wait to hear.”
“He gave everyone a huge bonus – all one hundred fifty employees – and also took them out for dinner.”
“Let me guess where they went,” said Winnie, who seemed to pick up gossip as easily as picking up a piece of chocolate.
“Damn, Winnie. How did you know?”
Winnie begged off, saying they’d sit down and talk after the house tour.
The living room was a show place. It had that unlived-in look. Like looking in a store window. The carpet was eggshell white and most of the furniture, including two white sofas that looked so delicious you wanted to sink your teeth into them, was a pristine white. Yellow accents such as a tall yellow and turquoise vase on the carpet lent an air of sophistication to the room. Neither Laura nor Bobby O’Riley was sophisticated.
Photographs of Amy hung above the sofa. A beautiful child, if a bit pudgy like her mom, she had a broad smile when she lived in the apartments. As she inched toward high school graduation – and, yes, there she was in her cap and gown – her face looked less full. A third photo, taken in a lavender prom gown, as she stood between Bobby and Laura, showed a poised young woman on the edge of a brave new life.
Winnie learned that Bobby had taken his daughter under his wing and introduced her around the gym.
“She was always Daddy’s girl and the two of them would gallivant off to the fitness center, what a damn bore, where he taught her to ride all those godawful machines.”
Winnie laughed. “She turned out to be a beautiful girl, don’t you think?”
“More beautiful than I am,” said Laura. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when you and me go shopping at Marshall’s, try on clothes in those tiny fitting rooms and I have to look at myself in the mirror.”
She shook her head and fluffed up her dark brown hair.
From the living room they walked up the carpeted stairs to the second floor.
“The home of a movie star,” laughed Winnie, as she followed her friend.
Three bedrooms appeared at the top of the stairs.
Amy’s room was childlike. Her stuffed animals – a white unicorn with a lifelike horn emerging from its forehead, Kermit the Frog, and a baby giraffe with huge button eyes – lay on the pillows of her bed. One window, in the shape of a huge half circle, looked over the front of Parkview, at the cars asleep in their parking spots on this enforced day of rest, New Year’s Day.
“Does she come home much?”
“Barely,” said Laura. “She has so many friends now that she’s at Penn. It’s a tough school to get into, you know.”
Winnie didn’t wonder that she rarely came home. Bobby and Laura were constantly fighting, voices raised, fists pounding tables. Once, Laura told her over the phone, that Bobby had punched a hole in the kitchen wall, apologized, and had it plastered over before anyone saw it.
“And, here’s Bobby’s room,” she said, leading Winnie into the master bedroom.
“Oh, he has his own room now, does he?”
It was filled with mirrors, a huge walk-in closet and a bathroom on the right.
Laura opened up two closet doors. Immediately a bright light went on revealing Bobby’s wardrobe. Winnie went over and fingered a red silk robe.
“Wonder where he got this?”
“Oh, he goes downtown to some fancy shops to buy his stuff.”
She led Winnie into the bathroom.
Winnie saw the sunken pink Jacuzzi with water jets all around and seats for the bathers.
“Me and Johnny, when we were going together,” said Winnie, “stayed in a fancy hotel downtown and had a great time in the Jacuzzi, if you know what I mean.”
Laura laughed. “Bobby and I have the same old problem.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Winnie. No need to say it: no sex.
Returning to the kitchen they sat back down at the glass table. Laura poured more coffee and warmed it in the microwave above the stove.
A red amaryllis, sitting atop the table, had just bloomed and sent its tall red spikes into the air.
“You do have a way with interior design,” said Winnie. “Your apartment looked nothing like this.”
Laura laughed. “We paid for a designer to come out. She still does. And she brought me this plant.”
“One of the reasons I never visited before, hon, was because I was afraid to tell you something about your husband.”
“My husband? Bobby? I can’t imagine what that would be.” She quickly thought of the first thing that pops into a woman’s head: an affair. But quickly dismissed the thought.
Winnie cleared her throat and placed her hand on Laura’s.
“Bobby is gay,” said Winnie.
There was total silence.
Laura got up and took the coffees out of the microwave, then sat back down in silence.
She took a sip and sat stiff as a cardboard box.
She looked down and then she stared at her friend.
“Winnie, how do you know?”
“Laura, everyone knows except you.”
Winnie mentioned the lack of sex. “Men are horny. They love sex. Look at my Johnny and my Carl. They don’t even mind sleeping with a cripple.” She laughed.
“How many times did you do it?” asked Winnie.
Laura paused only a moment.
“Once on our honeymoon. Or almost. He got sick, so we never finished.”
“Go on,” said Winnie.
“Well, there was that other time ….”
“Yes, when you told him you wanted a child,” finished Winnie.
Laura scratched her forehead, trying to comprehend what she had been in denial about for nineteen years.
“Tom Abado and his restaurant?” said Winnie. “Bet that’s his boyfriend.”
“Winnie, how could you?” said Laura, standing up and walking around the kitchen.
“If he is gay, Winnie, do you think Amy knows?”
“Probably. She’s a smart girl. But she loves her daddy. And always will. People are liberal nowadays about things like that.”
They heard the sound of a car pulling into the garage. Laura looked at her watch, then looked at Winnie.
They heard Bobby’s feet running up the basement stairs. He burst inside, panting, and saw the two of them seated at the table.
“Honey!” he said, his voice rising. “Why didn’t you tell me you were having company?”
Bobby took off his jacket and hung it on a hook in the hallway. He was an average-sized man with firm muscled arms that showed through his blue short-sleeve shirt. His hair was dyed black but looked natural.
“Bobby,” said Laura. “You remember Winnie from the apartments.”
“Winnie! My God, I didn’t recognize you. How ya doing?” He went over and hugged her.
Winnie was a pretty woman with dyed blond hair. As a polio victim, one leg was shorter than the other, but it never stopped her from meeting men or becoming a supervisor at the factory. She wore a brace under her blue jeans and had a specially-made shoe with an elevated sole, her “polio shoes,” as she called them.
Winnie smiled. “I finally decided to visit your beautiful home. Oh, it’s lovely, Bobby. Just lovely. Like in a magazine. I’m so happy for you.”
“Where are you living now?” he asked.
“I couldn’t escape Hatboro, like you both did. I live on the seventh floor of The Garner House, right across from the train station.”
Winnie talked about her job at the jewelry factory, wearing special thermal suits and goggles when she melted down gold nuggets to make jewelry.
“They gave me a nice bonus since I been there thirty years.”
She pulled out a blue-rimmed iPhone from her pocketbook.
The phone began to vibrate and they all laughed. “It’s probably my Dawnie,” she said, referring to her grown daughter.
“Guess I better be going.”
Bobby volunteered to drive her home.
“No, no, I’ll take the cab,” she insisted.
“Not while you’re in my house,” said Bobby and helped her on with her coat.
Laura heard the clop clop clop of her friend’s awkward-looking shoe as she walked down the basement steps and into the garage, where a ride home in a black BMW sports car awaited her.
So, thought Laura, it must be true. “I must get used to this. What an embarrassment. Everyone knows but me.” Her festering resentment toward her husband began to grow and as the days passed, she felt uncomfortable living “with a fag in my house,” as she told Winnie over the phone.
But how could she divorce him? She couldn’t possibly live on her own. She hadn’t worked a day of her married life. She had waitressed as a teenager at the Willow Inn. Every time she drove by, she was reminded how afraid she was to work outside the home, and how, yes, “pathetic” and “frightened” she was. What if anything happened to Bobby? She’d have to go out and find a job.
One evening she was trying to fall asleep in her room. Where was that husband of hers? When she heard him walking up the stairs, she came out of her room, wearing a see-through white nightgown.
“Where the hell have you been?” she yelled.
“Business,” he said sleepily.
“Business! Yeah, with your gay friends! I never dreamed I’d marry a faggot. A fucking faggot!”
Bobby, head down, slunk into his room, saying nothing. He closed the door and she heard him lock it.
“Oh!” she screamed as she went back into her room. She turned on the television. And flipped through the channels. In bright vibrant colors she watched a program about farmers. They strode through the landscape filled with purpose and wore odd clothing. Aha! They were the Amish. As she watched, she forgot about her recent discovery about Bobby and totally focused on the program. How good it was that everyone in the family, even the little children, worked, and the man – a manly man! – was the head of the family.
While Amy was growing up, they had taken many a trip to the Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia. It was a high cavernous building replete with everything you would want: cut flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, and delicious meals from several Amish families. She remembered the juicy chickens and fresh cranberry sauce, piled in Styrofoam plates, along with black-eyed peas and cornbread.
Laura decided to act quickly before she lost her nerve.
From the basement, she pulled out a suitcase on wheels and dragged it upstairs and into her bedroom. An elevator would have been nice, she thought. She was out of breath when she got to her room and placed the suitcase on her yellow bedspread. Into it she put sweet-smelling clean clothes, pants, bras, underwear, and an old bathing suit for good measure. She packed a few towels and washcloths and took the suitcase downstairs to the kitchen. She would leave in the morning.
She wrote a note, which she left on the table after Bobby drove off to work.
“Bobby, I’m going away for a while. I’ll be fine. Will get in touch in a few weeks.” She signed it “Laura.” Forget the word “love.”
She drove out of the garage in her own BMW sedan, a sturdy gray color. She punched in an address into the GPS on the dashboard and listened to the deep sound of a baritone male voice as she left Parkview Homes behind. She wondered if she would ever return.
She was a woman who would not look back. She was afraid to. Hands firmly on the wheel, the roads were fine, the snow had all melted.
“Turn left at Meetinghouse Road,” said the male voice. She paid strict attention as if her life depended on it. After a while, the voice stated, “Merge right onto Route 30.”
Route 30 seemed to turn into another country, another lifetime, another century. After an hour, she found herself behind one of those famous black Amish buggies. The wheels of the buggy were huge. She lowered the window so she could hear the clopping of the horse’s hooves. The driver motioned to her to pass him and so she did, craning her neck to see what the man inside looked like.
There he was, with a long scraggy black beard and a top hat like Abraham Lincoln’s. Her heart quickened. Certainly watching that program was a sign from God that she belonged here.
She drove along the road. There wasn’t much traffic. Which shop should she pull into? Three of them on her right had quilts hanging outside the stores. My goodness, she thought. Maybe I can learn to quilt. She was more excited than on Amy’s high school graduation day. Had her whole life been a pretense, she wondered. Waiting, just waiting, for this sacred day?
She pulled her BMW into the gravel driveway of the third quilt shop. The moment she walked in, she heard a strange language – neither French nor Italian but something like German – spoken by a few people in the store. When she walked in and the bells jingled on the door, a slender young woman greeted her. She wore a calf-length blue dress and the traditional bonnet on the back of her head.
“Make yourself to home,” she said. “Look around. I am here to answer any questions you may have about our products.”
Laura looked at shelves filled with all sorts of jam and honey, sticks of candy like licorice and mint, small wooden toys and stained glass designs of cardinals and bluebirds.
She fingered some quilts, large and small, and lifted up some exquisite pot holders. “Great gifts,” she thought, but then remembered she was not going back. She remembered her suitcase in the back of her BMW. The Amish did not drive cars. She must be prepared to give up her car.
She felt certain she could do it. To live like an Amish. To have a purpose. A reason to rise out of bed in the morning.
More people leave the Amish community than join. Conversion is rare. She would soon learn this. But the Amish were big-hearted people and welcomed newcomers into their fold, like Naomi her gentile daughter-in-law, Ruth.
Laura became a boarder in the household of Jared and Rachel Stolzfus. They lived on a farm with their four children. Laura’s BMW sat in the driveway like a spaceship just landed on earth. She slept in the attic, where various pieces of broken furniture were stored, along with bags of fabric waiting to be fashioned into dresses and pants and long socks. It was chilly in the attic, but several patchwork quilts warmed her body. She kept the window open a crack so she could hear the comings and goings of everyone outside.
A small candle sat on her bedside table until she was ready to snuff it out for the night.
It was only at night that she had a moment to think. And it was only a moment, since she was so utterly exhausted. Sometimes she would massage her sore feet and ankles. At home in the condo, she would watch television before bed. Despite the strange languages, clothing, and people, she felt utterly comfortable. Perhaps even like she belonged.
“Don’t be impulsive,” she reminded herself. “I’ve got to give it time.”
She slept well and could hardly believe how quickly morning had come.
“Time to rise, Sister Laura!” called one of the children from the stairs.
Laura dressed in her new Amish attire. She looked down at her new costume, for so it seemed at the time, and smoothed it out. No mirrors were to be found in Amish homes. Perhaps, she thought, she might look upon herself in the side view mirror of her car.
No, she decided. That would be dishonest. This was her new life. Only honesty would prevail.
Mother Rachel told her she would learn to milk a cow. “You must wash your hands very thoroughly,” she said. “And then Rebecca will walk you to the barn.”
The soap in the kitchen was home-made. It was a cake of gray soap in the shape of a star. It felt good and pure on her hands, with her pink nail polish, that would soon flake off.
Four huge cows were pawing the ground when they entered the barn. The last time Laura had seen a real cow was at a petting zoo. How strong was the smell, she thought, as their feet crunched on soft hay and earth. Rebecca was a fair-haired child, a miniature adult, who patiently taught Laura where to place the metal bucket and how to squeeze each teat to draw out the milk, which landed in the bucket. The sound of the milk was like a gentle rain spritzing on a tin roof.
She sat on the little stool and, as she milked each cow, feeling an unaccustomed sense of peace sweep through her entire body. Her eyes began to tear up and flowed down her cheeks.
Other chores included walking to the school house to pick up the four children after school. The two-storey wooden structure had a tower on the top with a bell inside.
“Dong! Dong! Dong!”
How loud and musical it was, she thought, as she approached. She stood to one side as kids from kindergarten through eighth grade came scrambling down the steps. They were like children everywhere. Like her Amy, when she’d come home to mom at the apartments.
She gathered Rebecca and Daniel, Ben and Abby, into her outstretched arms.
“What’s your name again?” asked little blue-eyed Abby.
“Sister Laura. Can you say that?”
“I can!” shouted Daniel and Ben in unison.
A chorus of “Sister Laura” and “Thithter Lauras” greeted her.
Laura helped set the table, with shiny pewter spoons, forks and knives, upon a pink tablecloth.
Again she remarked to herself what artists her new people were.
They all settled down in the large kitchen. Mother pulled up the shades as darkness was beginning to fall and they had no electric lights. She lit a family of candles all along the high shelves. Everything had been thought of. Even placement for the candles.
Father Jared, in his chest-length graying beard, gave the blessing. His voice was breathy and musical. “We ask our Heavenly Father, the Lord Jesus, to bless us all and to allow Laura to learn our simple ways and decide if she wants to live among the plain people.”
“Amen,” everyone, including the children said in unison.
“How was your day, dear,” asked Mother Rachel. Laura realized how lonely she had been at home. There wasn’t a soul to talk to at the table or even during the day.
“I am liking my time here very much,” she said, after swallowing a large forkful of meat loaf. “Rebecca has been so helpful to me. I would like to taste some of the milk we gathered.”
“Tomorrow morning, dear, you will have nice creamy milk in your hot oatmeal,” said Mother Rachel. Laura watched everyone digging into the meat loaf, the best she had ever tasted, including her own, and the green beans with butter melting slowly on top, black-eyed peas, and mashed potatoes with butter.
For dessert, Rachel brought out a hot apple pie.
Laura patted her belly.
When they finished dinner, the children asked if they might be excused, and Laura helped with the dishes. The water had been heating up at the wood-burning stove and was ready to transfer into the large wooden bucket. Soap flakes were poured in. Dipping her hands inside, Laura felt the smooth feel of the sudsy water and again her eyes teared up.
After the dishes were cleaned, dried and put away, the family yawned and repaired around the fire in the living room. Laura didn’t even consider her own “designer” living room as she sat in a comfortable wooden rocking chair on cushions with colorful blue and white starburst patterns. What a love of art these people have, she thought once again.
Father Jared brought out the family Bible, a well-worn book with faded edges.
“My man, Daniel,” asked his Father Jared. “What would you like to hear me read, son?”
“That’s eathy,” he lisped. “The thalm of King David, pweese,” he said.
“The Lord is my Shepherd” was duly broadcast to the little family under the setting sun. When he finished, Rachel told Laura she had a gift for her.
In her long green dress, Rachel walked over to a shelf in the living room and picked up a small object Laura couldn’t recognize. In fact, it looked a little like a small furry brown rabbit.
“Stockings!” cried Laura, feeling them. “Woolen stockings.”
“Yes indeed,” said Rachel. “I wove them this morning just for you.”
“Just for you!” echoed little Abby, five years old.
When Laura went up to the attic that night, she stroked the woolen stockings after she climbed into bed. She held them against her cheeks and then rubbed them across her mouth. They smelled like wool and wood smoke and apple pie.
She pulled them onto her very tired feet, first the left and then the right. They clung to her legs as if they loved her and never wanted to leave her.
“There’s so much to do here,” she thought. “I cannot wait to learn to knit woolen stockings. I’ll send a couple pair to Winnie, of course, and maybe even Bobby. Yes, I know Bobby would like them. He’s quite the fashion plate.”