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All My Belongings
By Cynthia Ruchti
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Cynthia Ruchti
All rights reserved.
The coffee tasted like burnt marshmallows. The charred bits. Jayne set the vending machine cup on the corner of her advisor's desk.
Patricia smiled over half-glasses. "Don't blame you." She nodded toward her oversized thermal tankard. "I bring my own from home."
"I'm surprised you wanted to see me today, Jayne. Aren't they—?"
"Yes." She directed her line of sight through Patricia Connor's office window, over the tops of the century-old oaks and maples lining the campus, toward the courthouse in the center of town.
"And you didn't want to be there?" The woman removed her glasses as if they interfered with her understanding.
Oh, I'm there. I've been there every agonizing moment. Several little shards of me are embedded in the hardwood floor in the courtroom. What's left of me wants an answer from you. "I need to find out if I can reenter the program where I left off."
Patricia leaned back in her nondescript office chair. "And you have to know today?"
Her advisor's head shook so slightly, Jayne assumed the movement originated in the nervous bounce of the woman's knee, not her neck. "We've had ... concerns."
"My grades were good."
"It's not that. Most nontraditional students are committed enough to pull decent grades."
Twenty-seven and nontraditional. In every way. Jayne leaned forward and added, "And work two jobs while doing it." She wouldn't look out the window again. Her future lay here, in this decision. "If you're worried about the financial aspect ..."
"Aren't you? Word is, you're tapped out with what your family's gone through."
She'd shelved the word family a year and a half ago, the day she found out her father's middle name was Reprehensible. Bertram Reprehensible Dennagee. Her mother didn't think she could endure the pain one more day. Her father made sure she didn't.
According to the charges against him, it wasn't the first time.
Thanks to Jayne's discovery, though, and her call to the police, it was the first time he'd been caught.
Her eyes burned behind her eyelids. She could feel her sinuses swelling.
She repositioned herself in the chair, dropping her shoulders from where they'd crept up near her ears, straightening her spine, breathing two seconds in, two seconds out. "I'll find a way. I need to finish the nursing program. Get on with my life. What's left of it."
Behind her a voice leaned into the room. "Did you hear? Guilty on all charges. They got him!"
Patricia's face blanched and pinched. Her eyes made arrows toward where Jayne sat.
The voice faded as it backed into the hall. The expletive a whisper, it still rattled the window, the bookcases, Jayne's ribs.
Lips pressed together, Jayne waited for her advisor to say something. And for her throat muscles to unclench.
Jayne let the hollow words bounce around the room for a moment. "About the verdict? Not unexpected."
"Have you thought about trying another school of nursing? Someplace a little farther away from—"
From her father's reputation? How far was that?
* * *
I.C.E. In Case of Emergency. Geneva Larkin's name and code showed on her cell phone screen. Jayne hadn't turned the key in the ignition yet, twenty minutes after leaving Patricia's office. Perfectly safe to use her cell phone even though she was behind the wheel. Safe. If it had been anyone but Geneva—the mentor who'd kept her tethered to reality since Jayne was ten years old and for all practical purposes orphaned—she wouldn't have thought so.
She punched the talk button. Deep breath. "Hello?"
"Where are you?"
"Depths of despair. Where are you?"
Geneva's smile registered through the phone. "Whatever you do, maintain that sense of humor, Jayne. Don't know how you can, but it's going to keep you upright. That and the God of the Universe who holds you in the palm of His—"
"I couldn't go to the courthouse."
"I'm there now. The reporters are going nuts looking for you."
Jayne slid her hand down the side of the seat and flicked the lever to move her farther from the constraints of the steering wheel. "I don't think I can go back to my apartment.
They'll be waiting for me."
"It's what they do."
"'So, Ms. Dennegee, how does it feel to know your father's headed for prison because of you?' 'Fine. Thanks for asking.'"
"He's going to prison because of his own sins, Jayne, not yours."
"Is that what you tell all the snitches?"
"You did the right thing. You did the only thing you could do. What kind of guilt would you bear right now if you hadn't turned him in?"
The temperature in the car peaked somewhere between preheat and broil. Jayne reached across the seat to roll down the passenger side window of her aging, no-frills Cavalier. Cross ventilation proved a false hope on a corn-ripening day in Iowa. "He's my daddy."
The word she'd vowed not to use again.
"Hon"—Geneva cleared her throat—"sometimes the bravest thing we can do is let the guilt go."
"Don't hold your breath."
"Don't hold yours."
"It's not automatic anymore." Jayne rested her forehead on the steering wheel. If it left a mark, so be it. She'd been branded by her father's "community service" projects. What was one more deformity?
"Jayne, let me come get you. Where are you now?"
"Parking Lot B at the university."
"What are you doing there? Oh."
"The appointment with my faculty advisor was a scene you'll find amusing. Imagine hearing the final verdict from the TA who bops in with the good news, not knowing the convict's daughter is sitting in the room."
Geneva's pause communicated a paragraph of concern. "When do you start?"
"School? Never. Not here anyway. It would cause the administration 'discomfort' to deal with the press. What Dad did with his pharmacy degree isn't going to make it into the college recruitment brochure. Thanks to him, my name would apparently poison the student roster. Can you imagine roll call? 'Davis? Denmark? Dennagee?' Then gasps followed by silence."
"How can they have any complaint about you? This isn't your doing."
No. It's my undoing. "Have you ever walked through a barn and then noticed that your clothes and hair smelled like manure, even if you hadn't touched any?"
"I always said drama was your gift. Don't know why you chose nursing rather than the theater. But we can rehash that later. Let me pick you up. We'll go out to the lake. Give the press a chance to lose interest in you."
"The diner is expecting me for the four-to-midnight shift."
Geneva's sigh could have moved a Richter needle well beyond six point five. "Call. In.
Sick. Good grief. Of all days, this would be the day to call in sick."
"Can't do that."
"Then call in 'done'."
"Geneva! Aren't you the one who always preached responsibility?"
"At this point, I don't think you can afford to stay at a place that shrivels your soul."
"I did for most of my childhood."
* * *
"You aren't afraid the neighbors will ostracize you because of your association with me?" Jayne took the iced tea Geneva offered and settled back into the slope of the lime green Adirondack chair on the cottage's narrow deck.
Geneva's age showed when she lowered herself into a raspberry-colored chair with the same odd-to-get-into, comfortable-when-in, odd-to-exit slope. "Most are weekenders. We keep to ourselves."
"I haven't been out here for a while. I think I was fifteen the last time. The summer before Mom's illness had a name. After that, fun wiggled its way out of our family dictionary." She sipped her tea. The cold soothed her tense, raw throat.
"It shouldn't have happened that way."
"ALS is a consuming disease. All ... consuming."
Geneva's tea glass landed on the arm of her chair with a pronounced thunk. "No disease justifies neglecting a child." She swatted at a sun-drunk fly. "It's as if they forgot you existed except as a caregiver."
Jayne could see the burning ember of the sun on the inside of her eyelids. Fading. Fading. "Sometimes parents give you away, but they make you stay."
She opened her eyes to find the source of the low, chugging rumble. A pontoon boat a few dozen feet offshore crossed their field of vision. An elderly couple and a golden retriever. No fishing poles. No hurry. No real destination, it appeared. They waved. Jayne waved back as if her life were no more complicated than theirs.
A phone buzzed. Geneva's. The woman glanced at the screen then held the phone facedown on her thigh. "Work can wait."
"Don't mind me. I'll rehearse my 'It's the first day of the rest of my life' self-talk. Go ahead. Take the call."
Geneva rose from the chair, phone in hand, then into action. "Hey, Jeff. What's up?" She retreated into the cottage. With the windows open, the building offered no privacy. Jayne heard every word. "Our counteroffer did not include the seller's help with closing costs. Where'd they get that idea?"
Jayne listened as the woman morphed from friend and confidante to savvy businesswoman. Real estate suited her. More a people-to-home matchmaker than salesperson, she played the part well. So much to admire about that woman.
A familiar guilt-like claw gripped Jayne's stomach and squeezed. She'd had no choice. Turning her father in had nothing to do with her resentment over his pathological obsession with her mom's illness, with the way they both emotionally checked out of her life and replaced their daughter with a disease. Nothing. It was her civic duty to report what she'd witnessed.
Her mom's desperate cries—No, no, no!—silenced by his knee on her chest while atrophied limbs flailed against the syringe needle. Her mother must have known it was a lethal dose. The look of terror on her face—
The screen door squeaked open, then bounced twice before settling into place.
"How about a snack? And it doesn't matter that you think you're not hungry." Geneva spoke as if the sentences were all one word.
Jayne caught a whiff of the ever-recognizable bacon. "Bacon is a snack now?"
"Don't tell my internist. And not merely bacon. I'm making BLATs. The A stands for avocado in our BLTs. Okay with you?"
What kind of hideous creature am I? The thought of a BLAT derails my guilt trip.
Her father had no doubt already heard the piercing clang of metal on metal when the cell door closed behind him. And she—noble woman that she was—pushed the scene aside at the mention of bacon.CHAPTER 2
There's a breeze here." Jayne put down her forkful of potato salad and extended her arms to catch the updraft.
With a toile-patterned paper napkin that matched the paper plates on the patio table in front of them, Geneva wiped a tomato seed from her chin. "Often is."
"No breeze in town. I noticed."
Jayne left her arms extended and leaned into the wind but remained rooted to her chair. No soaring today.
"Where are you?"
She lowered her arms and resumed eating. "You ask that a lot lately."
"This time, I mean. Where were you mentally just now, when you closed your eyes and let yourself enjoy the moment? Don't answer, 'Here.' That's too obvious."
Geneva always had made her think.
"Floating above all this, I guess."
"And in your mind's eye, where did you land?"
Jayne crunched a baby carrot and chewed it while she thought. She swallowed every tiny bit before responding. "I haven't been cleared for landing."
Geneva crossed her arms over her chest and tucked her fists under her chin. Head down. The posture of contemplation. Or was it a new prayer posture? She lifted her head and rested her hands on the surface of the patio table. "You can stay here for a while, if you'd like."
"I appreciate that. I can't go back to my apartment yet."
"I mean, longer-term. The cottage isn't winterized, but—"
"Long commute to work."
"Even if calling in 'done' hadn't been frowned upon by the diner establishment, I doubt I'll find a job of any consequence within a three-state radius. Who'd hire me? I betrayed my own father. I've only finished a third of nursing school and that took me four times as long as it should have because of taking care of Mom. And the Dennagee name isn't exactly a foot in the door, if you know what I mean."
"That will fade."
"Things like this don't fade. They ferment."
Geneva tugged a lettuce leaf from her sandwich and ate it. "Lots of great food depends on the fermentation process."
"Was that supposed to make me feel better?"
"You're welcome to stay here until the snow flies, or until you find a job elsewhere.
How far are you willing to go?"
Jayne's ankle itched. A mosquito. She scratched at it, knowing full well it would only make it worse. "How far would you want to run from a reputation like my father's?"
Across the lake, a lawn mower roared to life. How well sound carried on water.
"I have brownies in the freezer," Geneva said.
"Let's try to sneak into town tomorrow to gather your belongings."
Jayne could search every corner of her apartment—or her life for the last many years—and not find a crumb that matched the definition of belongings.
Longings trump belongings any day.
* * *
Living simply had been more from necessity than choice. She'd understood her parents' need to pour money into a litany of treatment options and pain reducers. She'd understood why they couldn't help her with college costs, or high school graduation costs, or the cost of shoes and jeans and jackets. They'd downsized how many times? It was the way they'd budgeted their affection for her—Scrooge-stingy with their love—that created the sense of living on the edge of emotional bankruptcy.
Except for the influence of a handful of people like Geneva. Then only a couple of people. When forced to quit college mid-semester after her mother's ALS took an even more prominent center-stage role, Jayne saw her world shrink to the dimensions of whatever part-time jobs she could slip between the hours she spent caregiving.
Her dad started staying later than the pharmacy was open, then rushed in and pushed Jayne aside as if no one could care for his wife like he could. How had Jayne become an annoyance when she'd started out as a product of their honeymoon?
Geneva tapped her on the shoulder, stirring Jayne from the dark hallways of memory. "Do you want to keep this?" She held a lamp with three graduated amber glass globes that reminded Jayne of a see-through snowman made from dirty snow.
"Belongs to the landlord. None of the furniture is mine. Not much of the décor."
"Good. I was beginning to worry about your lack of taste." Geneva smiled in the dim light.
So far, her "must save" items clattered against one another in the bottom of a box. What was the name of that movie with the office guy who fought the world to hold onto his red stapler? Even Jayne's stapler belonged to the landlord. The oceanview mouse pad was hers. And the verse-a-day flip calendar. And a bottle of Advil. She shook it like a maraca before dropping it into the box's cavernous mouth. Half a bottle left. Without a regular paycheck, she'd have to ration them.
Jayne picked up the box and used her hip to push the straight-backed chair tight against the flea market desk. The flip calendar lay open to a verse that read, "'There's a time for searching and a time for losing.' Ecclesiastes 3:6." Did that wisdom apply to the search for a place to belong? Lost. Time to admit it.
Had Bertram Dennagee's homespun Kevorkian actions made it impossible for her to know a true home?
She set the box on the bed beside an open suitcase she'd borrowed from Geneva. The dresser emptied in less than five minutes. Neatness counted little in the middle of the night. They'd managed to dodge the expected ambush of reporters. They'd be back at dawn, no doubt. Jayne and Geneva planned to be long gone before then.
The apartment hadn't been the refuge Jayne hoped when she moved out of her parents' latest downsize after her mother's death and her father's arrest. The one room seemed as cold as it had the day she became a renter. All the more so, shadowed as it now was, with a minimum of lights to illuminate their packing. It wasn't that she had no nesting instinct, Jayne assured herself. But temporary seemed stamped across everything she called her own.
Excerpted from All My Belongings by Cynthia Ruchti. Copyright © 2014 Cynthia Ruchti. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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