Thirtysomething Leigh Fortune never thought she’d make it this far. Emerging from the ashes of a traumatic childhood, she’s managed to plant her flag on Terra Normal. But under the surface she’s unsure—of herself, of her fiancée, of everything. A letter informing her of her estranged mother’s death tips her from uncertainty into emotional upheaval and sends her on a journey that will take her from the dunes of Cape Cod to Las Vegas and back.
Will she—with the help of her elderly grandmother, an HIV-positive social worker, and a few ghosts—finally be able to leave childhood hurt behind? Or will she upend the life she’s created and fall back into familiar patterns of self-destructiveness? To free herself from her past, Leigh will need to learn to accept her own faults as well as forgive those of others.
|Publisher:||Black Rose Writing|
|Edition description:||First Printing ed.|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.52(d)|
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"I do not, of course, mean that there are not battles, conspiracies, tumults, factions, and all those other phenomena which are supposed to make History interesting; nor would I deny that the strange mixture of the problems of life and the problems of Mathematics, continually inducing conjecture and giving the opportunity of immediate verification, imparts to our existence a zest which you in Spaceland can hardly comprehend."
– Edwin Abbott Abbott
Gertrude has never seen the young man before. He's wearing an apron, so she assumes he is a cook; though it's hard to discern, here in the Walnut Acres Municipal Nursing Home of Lynn, who does what and where: RNs, LPNs, CNAs, an unfathomable hierarchy of nurses. And then there are the doctors, rarely seen, and the handymen, the foodservice workers, new ones replacing ones who have disappeared; as a resident, you never know why or for how long any of them will be around. He is outside her room, flirting with Jessie, speaking loudly enough for anyone to hear them, not that many can.
"What time you get off today?" They are talking across the cart that Jessie pushes from room to room with cleaning products, linens, and a big black trash bag hanging from the side. He puts his hands on top of the cart, leans forward.
"One o'clock." She steps away from his nearing face but keeps one hand on the cart.
"Will you wait for me? I finish at four-thirty, but I can probably get off a little early." He looks like Sylvester Stallone, but not so pinched-looking in the face. And the arms are more sinewy than bulky. He has an accent. South American? Gertrude is surprised at how nice it is to be looking at him. She is a twig on a mattress, watching them over the National Geographic that she has let fall to her lap. The man catches her eye. And he winks. He winks! They hold each other's gaze for a moment — the man grinning with one eye wider open than the other, elflike, and Gertrude, stunned into temporary paralysis. Jessie turns to see what he is looking at. Gertrude lifts the magazine in front of her face and angles it into the lower field of her bifocals.
Jessie turns back to the man. "What am I going to do waiting around this shithole for three hours?" Her arms are crossed; she's guarded, but offering something.
"Go home and come back." The flirtation reminds Gertrude of high school. She drops the magazine below the level of one eye so she can keep watching them; but without depth perception they look flat, like TV characters.
"Maybe I'll come back or maybe I won't. I live pretty close. You'll just have to wait and see."
He calls after her, "Come back," as she pulls her cart down the hall. He walks in the other direction, rubbing his palms together and starting to hum, and Gertrude is left with nothing to look at but yolk-yellow walls and the left edge of an art-nouveau print that from this distance looks like smudges of earwax.
Funny feeling this, thinks Gertrude. A little ... gregarious, a little bold. She's ninety-four, and it's been a long time since she's looked at a man as somebody to be embarrassed in front of, somebody to feel especially appreciative of, for his man-ness. She remembers this feeling of being in a moment, of being alive and aware, instead of going through the motions. She wishes he would come back, and simultaneously hopes to never see him again. She pushes the soft pads of her fingertips together. Her hands are flaccid and pale and splattered with stains. She remembers her daughter's little hands as they made the shape of a church steeple. And her fingers would wiggle: open the doors, here are the people.
She is tired of fighting to stay in the present and welcomes the quiet trance of memory, so long as it keeps its flavor of contentedness. So long as the arrows of regret don't pierce it. She weaves her bony fingers into a steeple. Opens the doors, there are the people. They've all got osteoporosis now, she thinks, and arthritis that keeps them from wiggling. She chuckles, picks up her National Geographic and runs her eyes over the paragraphs, waiting for sleep to overtake her.
Later, after she's dozed, Jessie comes into her room carrying a plastic box.
Gertrude pushes herself up as much as she can. Jessie plucks a clipboard from the plastic slot near the door and makes some marks on it.
"I'm almost outta here for the day. Good news, huh?"
"Yes. Good news." Jessie stands next to Gertrude's bed and takes her pulse.
"How're you today?" she asks, but without real concern.
"I'm a little tired."
"Tell me about it. I'm on my feet ten hours now." She writes Gertrude's pulse on the chart, wipes down the sink in the corner of the room. Jessie is one of the nurses who do everything: clean the people, the rooms, check vitals, keep company. She's not one of the bigwigs who saunter in sometimes full of purpose to administer special medicines and expertise. Gertrude watches her, curious. They are living beings inhabiting the same room. Moreover, they are females inhabiting the same room. Gertrude is surprised at her awareness of the fact and feels guilty for all of the people she's taken for granted. Her fingers fiddle at the glossy corner of her magazine and Jessie twists a stick to angle the blinds.
"You'll be tired for your date tonight," Gertrude tries. This gets Jessie's attention.
"Date? Huh? My boyfriend is in Iraq."
"Oh. You didn't tell me." Gertrude is wary, but hopes Jessie will continue to speak to her, to offer her the semblance of an adult conversation.
"You know something, Missus Littlefield?" Jessie sits on the edge of the bed, which makes Gertrude tip to the side. "It's terrible; I want him to come home. But I'm kinda, like, I guess I don't really mind him being gone. Not that so much, I guess it's more that, well, I'm more ... myself, you know, when he's gone. I feel bad about it."
"Yes?" Gertrude is leaning on one arm very heavily. "Can you ... just ... help," and she tries to push herself straighter. Jessie puts her hands on each of Gertrude's upper arms and yanks her into a sitting position. Gertrude makes a tiny squealing noise because of Jessie's strong grip.
"Anyway, you know the way relationships are. Hard." Jessie moves about the room slowly, not doing anything in particular. "I guess I'm not surprised you never heard me talk about him. We were together two years before he shipped out. A long time...."
But Gertrude is suddenly exhausted and disinterested in Jessie's life, Jessie's soldier in Iraq. She remembers her own soldier, Clive, her vision blurring Jessie into a human-colored blob moving about the room. The day Clive left her on the station platform. The tears that pooled in the corners of his eyes and the way he wiped them away as he stepped onto the train with the other soldiers. The pain in her gut as the train pulled away. The thought that she was about to collapse had brought her sharply into her body, and she'd realized later that the physical pain had saved her somehow — she'd had to forget about him and focus on herself, finding a bench, folding over, the top of her head dropping onto her knees.
Jessie stops talking and sits on the end of the bed, startling Gertrude from her reverie. She is picking at the thin blanket, plucking lint or dust from it and rubbing her fingers together to drop the bits onto the floor.
"What about the cook?" Gertrude says.
"What do you mean?"
"The one you were talking with this morning."
"Oh, that guy? Naw. Helio. He knows I have a boyfriend."
"Yeah, he's okay."
"Nice arms," Gertrude goes on, looking past Jessie's head to the open door where she'd seen them flirting with each other earlier in the day.
Jessie laughs. "Nice arms, yeah. He's got nice arms." She looks at Gertrude, whose attention is brought back to the younger woman's face. "Funny you'd notice that. That's what you got those glasses for, huh? Checkin' out the guys?"
Gertrude smiles with thin lips and puts her hand to the rim of her glasses. If she could still blush — if she hadn't outlived her blood's ability to rush to the skin of her cheeks — she'd blush now. "Well, you were there. Outside my door. I could hardly have helped watching." Her chin hardens defensively.
"You know what? You're a lot more with it than most of the old folks in here. Didn't think you'd've been able to hear what goes on in the hallway. Sure, I know you could see us, since you could see his arms. You should be watching TV instead of paying attention to what goes on in the hall."
"Well," Gertrude says, "I saw."
Jessie launches a stray wisp of hair with an exaggerated puff and goes into the hallway for a moment. When she comes back with a folded towel, she says, "We weren't doing anything."
"Oh, it doesn't matter," Gertrude says. "This has grown out of proportion." She waves her hand in front of her face, as if there were a fly there. "Forget it. Just making conversation."
Jessie puts the towel next to the sink and takes the dirty one. Gertrude picks up the remote and turns on the TV, but keeps it muted. Jessie looks at the clipboard. "Time for pills."
"Do you miss him?"
Jessie is busy arranging cleaning supplies in the plastic box. "Do I miss who?"
"The one in Iraq."
"Of course I miss him."
"Men can be so difficult." Gertrude has the staccato throat of someone with stage fright, and she looks away, her voice trailing. Jessie has the spray bottle of orange liquid in her hand, and she holds it carelessly pointed in Gertrude's direction.
"We were really happy together," she says. "Are happy." Her face seems to have changed in the last thirty seconds. Gertrude can see it in her eyebrows. They're straight across, dipping towards each other in the middle, whereas before they'd been softly curved, making her face look open. "I'm going home after I get you your pills. Do you want me to bring you to the community room before I go?"
"No," Gertrude says. "Well, yes, okay." Jessie nears the bed, clutches the blanket as if it were a weed that needed pulling. "No. I'm too tired, and you have to go. Never mind."
Jessie is exasperated. "Make up your mind."
"I'm too tired," Gertrude says again. Jessie slides the clipboard into its holder on her way out. "I'll be back with your pills."
Gertrude picks up her National Geographic. It is from December of last year, one of the last that she received before canceling her subscription. She has read it already. On the cover are galloping zebras. She finds the article about a lost Amazonian tribe fascinating and likes to look at the pictures of them: their compact beautiful bodies, earthy jewelry, and hennaed hair. She wonders if their lives are less complicated, and imagines that their social contracts hold more weight than those between people in modern society. Here husbands and wives separate, parents leave their children for others to raise, children move to other states, other countries. Strangers care for senior citizens. Her daughter disappeared years ago, and now Gertrude interacts more regularly with a nurse than with anyone in her own family.
It's not so bad. At least she doesn't have to worry about upsetting anyone if she's not feeling well.
She lets her eyes close and the magazine drop to her lap. Minutes later, Jessie picks it up and puts it on the table. Gertrude can feel her glasses being taken from her face. "Come on and take your pills before you fall asleep." She holds a paper cup while Gertrude fumbles in it with her fingers, sips the water that Jessie hands her. The bed thumps and whines flat as Jessie pulls the lever on its side.CHAPTER 2
Mark is a good man. He is.
We're getting married, but I'm petrified. I don't know if I can go through with it, and I feel stupid because I know I should be happy.
He picks me up after work most days, and we ride the T together. Separate homes, for the time being, but close to each other. He lives on one side of Davis Square, and I live on the other. Later this month, I'll be moving in with him, and then in August, we'll get married.
And I do love him. He's good and stable and reliable. He could be better than that or worse. Or maybe he's both. He's my dream man, the perfect compliment, and he's also the dark heavy blanket that's going to smother me if I let him.
I'm at my desk, and my knees are tingly, and my back aches because I've been on my chair for hours without a break. But the work soothes me. When the numbers add up and make sense, it's so gratifying, and here, in my small office, my computer hums amicably, and my shelves are neat, and many of my books are wide enough to stand without bookends. Mark, Gramma, Andy, even my Dad and his wife — everyone but my mother — are small pictures tacked into the frame of my reminder board. They are like tiny clouds hovering over the more imperative information: extension numbers, dates to remember. Every year, every month is the same, and the bank does the work it needs to do, and I am part of its machinery, feeding numbers into my computer and calculating outcomes.
By the way, not to completely change the subject, but I have this letter. From Nevada. Folded into the shape of a hexagon and tucked into a small pocket in the lining of my purse. It says that my mother is dead. I didn't even know she was in Nevada.
I'd like to stay at work forever, but it is six o'clock and Mark is here.
We go for Indian. It's Friday and college kids are out in raucous droves, celebrating the end of the school year. Mark and I find a quiet table. He knows about the letter in my purse, but there isn't much more to say about it. There are a lot of practical details to iron out concerning the wedding and moving in together. He wants me to get rid of my kitchen table, my dishes, my sofa.
We will keep my bed for the guest room ... until ... the kids come.
I imagine them knocking at the door, the kids, carrying their belongings in a bundle tied to the end of a stick, like Snoopy always carried when he had to leave his doghouse. It's easier to think of them that way, arriving at the house fully clothed. Easier than confronting the reality: first off, we're in our mid-thirties, and I don't feel at all ready to have children. Secondly, and more disturbing: growing a human inside my body and then pushing the whole thing out of the little hole that is my vagina. I hate to even say the word vagina out loud, let alone think about expanding it around the head of an infant.
And then there's the prospect of getting married.
How many wives have said, "He's a good man," just like I have, and then, on some TV news program, amended it to, "He seemed like a good man"?
Because then he shot up his office, or got caught pretending to be a different husband to a different wife in three different states. Or skipped parole and the wife never knew about the drug dealing, the gambling addiction, the sexual-abuse allegations. And the wife had children with him? A child molester?
How can anyone recover from the treachery of having been deceived by the person they trusted most? Isn't it best not to set yourself up for that?
Actually ... if Mark is capable of having a secret gambling or prostitute addiction, if he's liable to sneak off in the middle of the night for a tryst in the bushes of a highway rest stop, then maybe I have the same potential....
What if I find myself, after I'm married, feeling so trapped and bored and frustrated, that I become driven to disappear and create a false identity in another state, another country? And worse yet, what if I have children ... when the urge to run hits me?
It's not an unreasonable fear. It's what my mother did.
* * *
I tell Mark that I've planned my yard sale for the weekend of the fourth.
"Why not have it the weekend before? You can move in sooner." "No one will be around. It's a holiday." I'm moving into his place a month before the wedding, which feels unnecessary, but it's what he wants. It takes too much planning to move and have a wedding all at the same time. Even though our wedding will be very small.
I told him I wanted to move in a week or two after the wedding, to keep things relaxed. But he looked at me, his eyebrows low over his eyes, and said, in a deep, accusing voice, "Is that what you want?" I could see that I had made a mistake by even suggesting it. I hadn't just hurt his feelings, but had actually shaken his faith in me as a person capable of wifedom. Or maybe I'm reading too much into an expression, as usual.
"I'll bring some stuff over," he says. "I've got some things I could stand to part with. Golf clubs. Did you know I used to golf?"
"I loved it." "Well, why don't you do it anymore?" He shrugs, and I worry it's because he's with me. I should encourage him to golf, maybe even take it up myself. "Don't get rid of your clubs. Maybe you'll play again."
"You never get rid of anything, Leigh. If I want to golf, I'll borrow or rent clubs."
"But you have your own...."
"We won't have the room."
"It's a three-bedroom. Why wouldn't we have the room?"
"It's just golf clubs. I don't use them."
We eat in silence for a while. I open my mouth to say that I want to keep my LPs even though he wants me to get rid of them, but I decide to move off the subject of our belongings and how we're going to merge them — two thirtysomethings with two lifetimes of habits and possessions. These conversations annoy us both. I keep my mouth shut, recognizing that Mark has pulled into the lead because he's accepted that my cat, Buster, will be moving in too — and he's not happy about it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Long Division"
Copyright © 2019 Sara B. Fraser.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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As a Gen Xer, I loved this book! With edgy dialog and sharp prose punctuated with moments of poignant insight—Long Division reveals the costs and legacy of growing up in the 1970s and ’80s when divorce and family dysfunction ran rampant, school yard bullying was ignored, and sexual assault had no name. Fraser weaves together the stories of endearing characters—including 94-year-old Gertrude who has a penchant for eavesdropping and her granddaughter, Leigh Fortune, who has a gift for numbers but struggles to make sense of her life. I was rooting for her the entire way! Fraser is a master storyteller, who shows us that perhaps the most defining quality of Generation X is resilience.