Lifelines

Novel Excerpts by Linda Stein

Lifelines
Synopsis

Laurie lives a full life in Boston, Massachusetts but yearns to be immersed in nature. She searches for and finds her dream home in the woods of western Massachusetts. Her rocky transition from city to rural living is balanced by the nurturance of the natural world. Yet her idyllic solitude at times turns into isolation. Over time new friendships challenge Laurie to reassess how she approaches relationships, and a new job reveals a tragic yet inspiring history of her new small town.

Laurie arrived at work fifteen minutes early on her first day of work.

"We don't want to overwork you on your first day," Dan said. "C'mon across the street, I'll buy you a cup of coffee."

Charlie's Coffee Shop was packed with men between the ages of about twenty and sixty. Most were dressed in overalls or other worn work clothes. Peppered among them were a few suits and ties. Most of the men were white; a handful were black or Hispanic. Laurie was the only female customer. The other three women in the room were waitresses. Amid the smoke and raucous chatter, Laurie heard someone address Dan.

"Hey, Dan! Who’s your new friend? Don’t be selfish, now!”

Dan replied with a jestful sternness. "This is Laurie, my new co-worker. And y'all better treat her with the respect she deserves or you'll answer to me!"

Ordinarily Laurie resented such paternalism, but she was admittedly thankful for it right now in this alien territory. A few men turned and surveyed her. She wished she had worn something looser than her brown sweater. One of the men bowed gallantly to her, holding this chauvinist posture until another man hit him hard on the back. Laurie flinched. The gentleman turned and came within an inch of slugging the other man in the stomach. They then put their arms around each other’s shoulders and turned toward the counter, forgetting all about her, which put her at ease until someone else greeted her.

"Welcome, miss. I hope we'll be seeing a lot of each other. Sure is a pleasant sight!"

"Hey, man! Stop your jiving, Simon. A pretty lady like that is sure to have an old man at home," another joined in.

Laurie tried as best she could to deflect these comments. She smiled demurely at the gaping eyes, hoping her niceness would bore them. What a different reception they would have received from her in Boston, letting them know what jerks they were.

Dan had become engrossed in conversation, and for now at least the men were too preoccupied with whatever bonded them to bother her. She lost some of her guardedness and gave into her curiosity. Just what they shared she couldn't put her finger on. But there was something in the thick, smoky air being tossed around the room rather aggressively, as if it was too hot to embrace for any length of time. She realized it was a similar quality that women shared, though more veiled. Most men were much too terrified of their tenderness for each other to share it directly.

Dan pushed his way toward her through the crowd. "Well, I guess we better get back. Helen doesn't like to be alone when all the morning deliveries come in." Laurie followed him out.

"See ya, Dan. Hey! You'll have to introduce me to your new girlfriend. I'll be in at lunch time," a voice trailed behind them.

As they crossed the street, Dan asked, "So what do you think of your clientele?"

Trying to sound positive but barely feeling resigned, she said, "I suppose I'll get used to them. "

Dan laughed. "They're harmless, really. Just loud barkers."

When they re-entered the store, the dairy delivery had already arrived. Helen was checking off the items on the invoice with the delivery man. "Four cases of skim, five regular, right. Two cottage cheese, two sour, right."

"Sorry, Helen," Dan apologized. "Charlie's was a mad house. Haven't been in there this late in the morning in a long time. I brought you back a coffee and a muffin."

"It's not busy yet,” Helen replied. “One of us should show Laurie the register. Morning, Laurie."

"Good morning, Helen "

"Why don't you do it, Helen. You can eat your muffin while you show her." Dan smiled warmly at his wife.

Helen acted as if she didn't hear him, but the corners of her mouth briefly turned upward before she handed Dan the checklist and turned towards the counter.

"Any trouble getting over here this morning?" Helen asked as she unwrapped her breakfast.

"No, it took about fifteen minutes,” Laurie replied. “And it was delightful! I'd much prefer the drive over here than city rush hour traffic any day. I took Palmer Road instead of Route 3. Takes a few minutes longer but it’s so beautiful, with the waterfall and all the farms. I saw a couple of horses running through a field. Sure is a great way to start the day."

"I haven’t been on Palmer Road for quite a while. Certainly is more scenic. I remember when that was the only way out here, before they built Route 3. It was a dirt road for the longest time."

Helen took bites of her muffin between explanations of the cash register system. Laurie didn't find it very difficult, as she'd done it before, and Helen was impressed as Laurie whizzed through the first two customers.

"That was really good, Laurie. I can see there'll be no problem here. I'll be in back at the dairy case if you have any questions. Oh, if you have some free time, you can price these counter items and stock them. The price should be on the box in magic marker. And when you're finished with that, give a yell. And you should bring a book or two with you to work. Sometimes you'll go stir crazy sitting here all day. Do you have any with you?"

"Well, no, I don't. "

"I'll get you some magazines. And feel free to take a piece of fruit or something else if you get hungry."

"Thanks, Helen," she said with relief. She could just be herself here and that was just fine. At least that's the way it felt so far. And she'd have time to read! At her other cashiering jobs in the city, she and the other cashiers had to just sit there like mannequins, their minds wasting away beneath fluorescent lights and gaudy advertisements. Supposedly, the sight of a cashier reading gave a bad image of the store, a look of slothfulness to customers. So said one of her wormy little managers. She never understood his analysis. She had reasoned just the opposite, actually: that reading would reflect employees’ intelligence. Standing or sitting there like an inanimate display made her feel lethargic. The management was worried, she guessed, that the women would pay more attention to their reading than to their boring jobs, and that they would slack off. They were never given anything else to do in their idle moments but to look pretty.

The morning passed quickly and uneventfully. Laurie glanced through some of the magazines Helen had given her and found nothing in them that interested her. They were the traditional women's magazines, new entities during her mother’s generation. How different from the women’s media Laurie was used to. Maybe someday she'd share some of her feminist magazines with Helen. Through the glass in the aged wooden door, she watched people pass by on the street. She also discreetly yet meticulously observed everyone who came into the store. Mostly young women and children came in to shop, or elderly women and men. Everyone was friendly, except sometimes the younger women didn't have time to say hello while they tried to calm down an excited child or two. As she rung up their Sugar Pops or Frosted Flakes, she considered telling them casually that she had heard that sugar causes hyperactivity. But who was she to proselytize? Raising children was still such a delicate, personal area, especially for women who derived much of their self-worth from mothering.

In the middle of a boring article on interior decorating, she realized that the store had gradually become filled with voices and activity. Two men, one black and one white, approached the counter, laughing loudly.

"And then the motherfucker said, 'And furthermore, I want you to be here promptly at seven tomorrow morning.' I'll tell you, if I had said what I was really thinking, I'd be out of a job now."

"What did you say?" the other man asked.

"I said, 'I'll try, Mr. Holt, I'll try.' " The two men burst into laughter again. Laurie couldn't help chuckling, too. She recognized the men from her morning visit to Charlie's. Somehow she didn't feel so uncomfortable around them now.

"Seven! Let's see him get there by then even one day a week! Oh, hey! How ya doing, miss? I forgot you were going to be here, and I saw you only a few hours ago. How's your first day going?"

"Fine. Sounds like you're having a rough one, though."

"Yeah, well, nothing new. It'll be over in three hours "

Laurie smiled sympathetically as she rung up his items. She was slow as she familiarized herself with the prices. A line had formed behind him, and she. was getting nervous.

"You're doing fine, Laurie. Just ask about anything you don't know." Dan was beside her, bagging the groceries. With him there to tell her prices, things went much more smoothly, and she relaxed a little.

Later that week, on Saturday, Laurie rolled over in bed and caught a glimpse of the clock as she reached for the glass of water on her night table. Nine­ thirty! She looked out the window. The drenched trees and muddy earth absorbed the sky's grayness. The forest no longer emanated alluring hues but seemed to have turned its richness inward. She had overslept. Usually she was out in the garden by eight. The darkness of the morning had deceived her. She turned over and began falling asleep again. Her body felt heavy, her mind groggy. She didn't want to get up. But she should. Just fifteen more minutes...

When she next looked at the clock it was eleven. She sat up abruptly and stretched. Placing her feet onto the chilly, wide, pine floorboards, she cynically asked herself once again why she was in such a hurry. For what? To garden? Who cared? No one but herself. As she brushed her teeth, she continued feeling depressed and irritable. Maybe it was something she had dreamed. She tried to remember as she drank her coffee, but her mind was blank and just as groggy as before.

Once outside, the sweet air and pungent earth helped lift her spirits and clear her mind. She had an urge to make mud pies like she did as a child. But she couldn't do such things; she was an adult. If anyone happened to see her, they'd think she was crazy. She checked the mailbox and was surprised to find something in it. A letter from Joyce. Her stomach tightened with the dull ache of missing her friend. Joyce said she was doing fine, she wasn’t going to let the pressures of law school put the rest of her life on hold. The anti-racism group was still meeting, and they were getting into some heavy self-confessions. Claire was fine. Nothing much else new. Still no love life. Joyce missed Laurie, she said, hoped to see her soon. Why hadn't she heard from her? Laurie knew full well why. Each time she allowed herself to think about her people in Boston, the roots she was severing by being here in Three Rivers, her serenity and security were shaken enough to make her want to keep her mind focused elsewhere than her old home, until the haunting doubts left her alone.

She rolled the wheelbarrow over to the garden and poured the manure and water mixture onto the tomato plants. Her movements felt hollow. Maybe she was getting sick.

The vapidness followed her in for lunch. She turned on the radio. Sounds filled her usual morning stillness. She couldn't hear the bird calls over the music, but somehow this morning she preferred the human voices and undulating saxophone to the birds' mournful cries. She sighed and went out the back door. Maybe a swim would jar her out of this foul mood. But it was too chilly for a swim. She returned to her bedroom.

Not wanting to spend the day inside the house with this morose mood, she grabbed a jacket from the hook and headed towards the woods. There was one area she hadn't explored yet, to the right of her usual path, with thick brush crowding a vaguely discernable path. But it looked as if the path cleared a few yards beyond that. She headed into the thicket, using her pocket knife sparingly. Briars stuck to her pants and jacket and into her skin in a few places. She pulled them out, but as soon as she moved forward more would attach themselves to her.

She thought of turning back, but she was already so far in that she might as well go forward. The autumn air was damp, a biting wind rushed through her. The ground was becoming increasingly soggy; she must be reaching the edge of the marsh. Ahead she saw only more of the same thick, overgrown terrain and worried she might get lost. She quickened her pace and walked in a half circle to the left to try and skirt the swamp. She could see the road now and wondered what people would think if they saw her here wandering around in a bog. Maybe a hunter would mistake her for a big buck in her brown jacket and pants. How stupid to have worn them.

Half an hour later, suddenly she found herself in open space and on dry ground. She was surprised at this abrupt change of landscape. Distant mountains lured her to the other end of the field. She looked out on a huge expanse of wilderness, with not a human-made object in sight: no buildings or cars or roads. Gently sloping mounds covered with rocks, moss, and hundreds of tiny purple flowers were below the knoll she stood on. Beyond that were two more meadows, then mountains. She stood still, not wanting her humanness to disturb this elemental harmony. Her breathing slowed, her mind emptied. She watched and listened to the strong wind sweep through the trees and the grasses as tall as her. After a while it felt as if even the watching and listening ceased. She was just there. It was as if nature had opened her doors, allowing Laurie's soul to commune with the other spirits here. Each moment she felt more a part of this world, not outside it. Sun, rain, warmth, cold: this world stood firm yet also swayed with instinctive pliancy. Without judgment these living things grew and hibernated and unfolded again when the time was right. Somehow they knew. She turned her head slightly and noticed a low bush. Both its branches and leaves were crimson. Some were still shiny and wet from last night's rain. Others were half-brittle and turning brown, presaging the coming winter. She had much to learn. There was an aura of patience here, of salubrious solitude, and confirmation that life continues to burgeon even among the debris of dissolution. Time is altered among these elements, not the same clock by which humans attempt to structure their chaotic lives. Under the red bush a branch, long dead—or merely transformed from its original form—was now patiently becoming earth again, dissolving into the soil among pine needles. Soon it would nourish new stems that would carry on decades from now.

She feared losing this stillness, this fullness. And with this reaction, this clinging, she knew she was already removing herself from this world. It was time to leave. Her body now shivered from the damp wind and ached from being quiescent for so long. She turned toward the direction she had come, felt disoriented, and then logic returned. She would head into the tamer woods instead of going through all that underbrush and marsh. She felt sad as the exquisite quietude inside her receded and her human complexity returned. But if such a centering was to remain with her, it must flow through her actions and feelings as well as her stillness. Right now she believed there was little else more important than learning how to live with such equanimity.

She walked slowly through the woods, in no hurry to do anything in particular or arrive anywhere. These woods had grown used to her these past three months. The squirrels still dashed off when she approached, but it seemed as if they did so more out of habit than fear like they used to. After a while, some of the trees became familiar, telling her she's almost home. She felt as if she could walk this part of the path and find her way back with her eyes closed and decided to give it a try. At first, she was uncannily successful, as if she were using some other sense. She could still "see" where the trees were, though not visually, and avoid their protruding roots. But as soon as she began taking pleasure in this ability, she almost tripped over a root. The old ego gets in the way again, she thought.

Finally she reached the river. She had grown used to the cold air by now and sat down on the river bank. Across the way and up the other steep bank her little home looked shabby but durable. That dwelling had survived through many a storm. It had provided shelter to at least one happy boy, poor as he had been. It had witnessed at least two deaths. And still it stood. Its wood needed staining and the roof still needed work. But it continued to serve as a wonderful nest for a fledgling searching for sustenance.

About the Author

Linda Stein

Linda Stein is a professional science writer. She was also co-editor and co-author of a 450-page history book that received first prize from the New England Museum Association. Linda has participated in writing workshops at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the Crazyhorse Writers Conference, among others. In addition to her novel, Lifelines, Linda has written a short story collection and a memoir.