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By Julie L. Cannon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Julie L. Cannon
All rights reserved.
It's Friday, and Siegfried's being particularly annoying as he walks back and forth through the front office, emptying all the wastebaskets and saying things like "It grieves my heart to see you missing out on life, Miss Joan. Spending all your time on that computer."
He thinks I should get out more. But he knows that's not really gonna happen. And he knows all too well why. That I can't. Still ...
"You gonna retire one day, and you won't have no children or grandbabies to come by and see you and light up your life."
I try to ignore him. Not easy. His tone is light, but his voice booms around the cubicles. He knows I don't worry about the future and being lonely, so I say nothing. Unfortunately, Siegfried really gets bent out of shape if you ignore him. Believe you me, I've tried numerous times over the past three years to wait him out, and it never works.
But I'm just impatient and irritable enough today to try one more time. I noisily shuffle some papers and try to exude invisible waves of unapproachableness as I check my watch. Not quite 4:00 yet. Siegfried's early with the trash. He usually is on Friday because he knows everybody at Giffin & Burke beats an early retreat for the weekend. Except me. I'm basically through with work, but I have to man the phones until 5:00, so I'll have a good hour to respond to Laverna in Alabama's comment about my latest post on my Scarlett Says blog.
"Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Beauty of Putting Things Off" had generated some serious feedback.
"You deaf?" Siegfried finally stops in front of my desk, one arm around the breakroom wastebasket. Picture a tall, bone-thin, very dignified, elderly gentleman with dark skin and fuzzy gray hair who wears half-lens reading glasses so low on his nose they look like they're fixing to slip off any second.
"I'm not missing out on life! And you don't exactly have a passel of grandkids running around." I let out a long breath, trying to show how tired I am of this. "I do socialize!"
"But I've got a big family. And my church. You just got a mama you don't talk to much, and that computer—"
"You know why I don't talk to Bitsy. You even encourage me not to."
He won't be discouraged. "—and a computer is ... that's antisocial!"
"Okay, Mr. Brilliant. So that's the reason they call it 'social media' and 'social networking'?"
He puts one hand on his chest. "My opinion, virtual and reality do not even belong in the same phrase."
"Would you kindly just let me finish my work, Siegfried?"
"I can tell you're already done, the way you keep shuffling things around. And I am your work," he says. "I'm employed by Giffin & Burke, and that makes you my administrative assistant, too." He stops, grinning at me.
This is actually true—occasionally I make calls and place orders online for the cleaning products, toilet paper, and paper towels Siegfried requests. I process payments and receipts for businesses he contracts with, folks like carpet shampooers and window washers. I sigh again, looking up at his beautiful smile. "Okay. What do you need?"
He sets the wastebasket down, puts his hands on my desk, and leans in to whisper, "I need you to type a e-mail to one of my favorite women in this world. In the universe! Ask her if she would be willing to meet a tall, dark, and handsome gentleman at the V for supper tomorrow."
I intend to say quit harassing me, but I can't. Despite our age difference, Siegfried is one of the few friends I have who is not on the other side of a screen. And his eyes are so sincere and kind, so touching. "Thanks, Siegfried. That's really sweet. But I can't. I'm busy."
"Then get unbusy. Let a friend buy a couple dogs, some crispy rings, two tall frosty FOs." His eyebrows are way up high, his glasses literally trembling on the tip of his nose. He definitely knows my biggest weakness. Just thinking of the smell of fried onions and hotdogs on the grill at the Varsity, washed down with a delectable Frosted Orange, is making me salivate.
But I shake my head. "You know I'm a takeout kinda girl."
"Come on. Be fun. I know you ain't busy all the livelong day. We could meet for a late breakfast or lunch or an afternoon snack of chili-cheese fries and Co-Colas with crushed ice!" He closes his eyes, shakes his head in ecstasy to hum three beats —"Mmmmm mmmm mmmm."
"Oh, Siegfried, you act like ..."
Like I'd be able to just up and do something like that, especially on such short notice. Like I'm some kind of confident social butterfly who can decide to alter her usual Saturday routine and flit off to downtown Atlanta with calmness and confidence. Like I don't have an actual diagnosis for my anxiety ...
"Like I'm lying. I really am busy all the livelong day."
This is true. On weekends, besides eating, sleeping, reading an occasional novel, reading or watching Gone with the Wind, and doing household duties I absolutely cannot avoid, I work on my blog for the coming week.
I love my blog. And my followers. The thing is, I cannot force the posts. They almost always come as a surprise, but that said, I do have to be available to the inspiration, and before I discover it, there's this huge pressure in my chest and stomach, an incredible frustration mixed with insane hunger. I'm a complete mess, at least before I get the topic. And I don't get soothed, feel anywhere near human, until I'm sitting at my computer, typing away like crazy. My search for, and the writing of, my blog posts involve a concentration that is totally encompassing.
And I do this at least three times a week. I need Saturday to write one ... and recover.
But I love it. Because no matter how difficult or frustrating, it's a blissful state. A mental zone. Being focused like that is satisfying. It's why I'm so happy to seclude myself. Why I feel grouchy when I have to deal with other people's unreasonable expectations. Like my mother's. And Siegfried's.
Expectations that make me break out in a cold sweat.
"'Hast thou found honey?'" Siegfried quotes. "'Eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it.'"
"Okay." I sigh. "Tell me what verse and its practical application for life today." I say this dutifully, though I know he will anyway. Another annoying thing about Siegfried is that he has memorized the entire book of Proverbs in the King James Bible, and like a Hallmark greeting card, he has one for every occasion.
"Chapter 25, verse 16. Means a person's got to have moderation in all things of life—in food, work, enjoyments, et cetera." He turns serious. "Everybody needs some downtime, Joan." He looks pleadingly into my face.
I'm struck a little mute by his comment about food because I'm a big woman—five feet, three inches, and size 16. Bitsy calls me stout, disapproval in her voice. One reason, of many, we don't talk much.
But just as quick, I know Siegfried doesn't mean anything negative by it. Not like my mother. Siegfried may be a string bean, skinny enough that he has to run around in the shower to get wet, but I'm certain he's not getting down my throat about weight. I'm sure, because he's constantly bringing me calorie-laden treats, and here he is, trying to get me to meet him at the Varsity, no less, where I'm sure you could get fried Coke if you only asked.
"Yes, that's true," I finally say. "But we all have different kinds of ways of getting our downtime."
"Don't nothing substitute for the heartfelt, personal connection." Siegfried speaks in a solemn tone. "Plus, I can't believe you turning down a friend who wants to celebrate the day of your birth. And, after our sumptuous repast, I plan to carry you down to the Margaret Mitchell House on Peachtree Street for a little tour, because I ask myself, I said, 'Siegfried, my man, what would delight Miss Joan's heart the most on her special day?'"
I feel myself stop breathing. How in the world does he know it's my birthday tomorrow? My birthday plans, besides avoiding phone calls and drive-bys from Bitsy, are to pick up a Murphy's Burger—avocado, mayonnaise, Swiss cheese, smoked bacon—and a side of fries from my favorite neighborhood restaurant, Murphy's, on Virginia Avenue, and then run into Kroger for a container of Ben & Jerry's Heath Bar Crunch ice cream. The perfect feast to enjoy while perusing the pages of a Doubleday Book Club catalog for a gift to myself.
Suddenly, I'm ashamed at the self-centeredness of it all. I feel like the biggest heel on this earth as Siegfried stands there, waiting for my reply.
I look up at him, flustered, my heart beating out No, no, no, no, Joan. You must avoid saying yes to him at all costs, and then I shock myself silly by saying, "All right."CHAPTER 2
Just thinking about tomorrow, about the Varsity, makes my palms sweat so much that I rub them on the sheets repeatedly. How did Siegfried get me to consent to meeting him? I may be outspoken on my blog, but I don't handle the outside world with its demands and expectations very well. I'm an absolutely awful dinner companion, the worst party guest you can imagine. Bitsy has reminded me of this many times.
I roll over onto my back, then to my stomach, my side, curl into a fetal ball while clutching the extra pillow for a while, then back to my stomach. I squeeze the pillow hard, fervently willing it to have been a dream, er, a nightmare. But no, this is real. I look at the glowing red numerals of my digital clock—1:43 a.m. I should cancel, just call him and cancel. But I like Siegfried. Not "like" like, I mean, he's way too old for me. But he is a friend. I don't want to disappoint him.
I press the pillow over my face, have one of those very brief and not truly heartfelt fantasies about dying, thinking, This'll show Siegfried—when he finds me dead!
Then it hits me—what my salvation will be! Must be! I need some of Scarlett's boldness, her defiant demeanor that says Forget the world. I'll do whatever I darn well please. Snaking my hand out through the dark, I turn on the bedside lamp, maneuver onto my side, and pick up the weighty copy of Gone with the Wind from my nightstand. There's a small, sweet meditative silence as I prepare to channel some inspiration, some wisdom from the thousand-plus pages that transformed my life long ago.
With a deep breath I bow my head, close my eyes, open the novel at random, and plunk my pointer finger down on the page. My "literary roulette."
The place I land is smack in the middle of chapter 22, right after Prissy has delivered Melanie's baby. I could quote it by heart, but I read every syllable about how Scarlett thinks Prissy's bragging, how she gets jealous, and then how she muses that if the Yankees wanted to free them, they could have them.
I stop, scowling, and Siegfried's face comes to mind. He's certainly not the first black person I've ever known, but he's the first one I've ever had as a friend. Not that I've had all that many friends. But for the first time, in all the times I've read the book, when I read the words, I see a friend's face in them.
All of a sudden, my stomach lurches, and I feel the blood fly out of my head with shock. I lie there numb, light-headed, my mind whirling. This is awful! It's offensive! How've I not seen this before? But as if of their own volition, my eyes read on—to the part where Scarlett pushes Prissy down the stairs and threatens to sell her.
I slam the book shut and hurl it across the room. I've read this novel, and thus this scene, more than twenty times prior to this, but never have I felt like I want to climb into the pages and slap Scarlett senseless. Scarlett! The person I love more than anyone else in the world. On second thought, it would be more gratifying to watch Prissy slap Scarlett while I cheer her on from the sidelines! Why have I never noticed this ugly side of Scarlett?
Is it because of Siegfried? Or have I just been blind to this side of Scarlett because I love the rest of her so much?
After several minutes, I turn over on my stomach and cry for a long time. I'd been so caught up, lost actually, in Scarlett's beguiling nature, her charisma, as well as her stormy relationship with the debonair Rhett Butler, that I failed to see the principles that guide her life. I consider this and finally tell myself I obviously did not start my Scarlett Says blog with a surplus of wisdom. It wasn't like I said: "Man, Joan Meeler, you need an outlet for this brilliance running around in your head!"
When I began my illustrious blog, I was just trying to repay a debt I owe to Scarlett. I needed a way to make my voice heard despite my affliction.
* * *
Saturday morning my eyes pop open at 6:00 on the dot. I lie in bed, desperately wishing I hadn't agreed to go to the Varsity, thinking, If I'm meeting Siegfried at noon, I've got four hours to write my blog with two hours left to get ready and make my way to downtown Atlanta. There's a tightness at my center, and I know I need to sit down and start typing. I need to feel that release. But the problem is I'm not a robot. I'm an artist, and I can't push myself into creativity. There's a certain element of surrender involved in writing my blog, and even after two years, I still have to work hard to let go of my crippling self-consciousness so my muse can swoop into action.
I go into the kitchen and make coffee double strong. Looking out the kitchen window as dawn breaks over Virginia Highlands, I fancy I see the shape of Bitsy's gray Escalade gliding along Ponce de Leon Avenue. My stomach pulls into a knot. There's no way I'm answering the door today, I think, struck anew at how close I live to my mother and simultaneously wondering for the zillionth time if I'm not just some glutton for punishment.
After graduation, I stayed here in Atlanta, less than half an hour from where I grew up in Brookhaven. I picked this area because it's an old, historic neighborhood in the city, with charming twentieth-century bungalows and tree-lined streets. I rent a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in a complex modeled after those homes—but not really anything like them. It would take an inheritance for me to be able to afford to buy one of the cute homes I long for.
I wonder briefly if I'm one of those subconsciously graspy children wishing for a parent's demise. I close that thought down by acknowledging that in the natural order of things, parents do precede their children in death.
Anyway, due to our proximity to each other, every now and again Bitsy drops by unexpectedly. If I'm not on guard, she'll pop right in, stand there inside the door—tall, slender, and elegant, her frosted hair perfectly coiffed, stylish earrings dangling on either side of her still-pretty face with the perfect bone structure. She wears the latest fashions and coordinating Manolo Blahniks on her feet. We're like two negatively polarized magnets being pushed apart by some invisible force—she with her shopping and ladies' luncheons and cocktail partying and decorating, and me with my hermit self, content in an apartment with nothing but the 1980s neutral-colored furniture I bought at a thrift store the day I moved in, in exactly the same arrangement I put it in that day.
Except for the red sofa. I love that sofa, with its high back and winged sides. Siegfried helped me pick that one out during one disastrous afternoon—that's when he got to see the "social anxiety" (that's what my therapist calls it) in high form. A complete meltdown when the salesmen kept hovering, kept pressuring. Siegfried shooed them away, got me to admit I loved the sofa, took my credit card, and made it all happen. He even drove me home and waited for them to deliver it.
Bitsy's always hated it. Calls it old-fashioned and out of style. Like me. Yep, I do love that sofa.
The last time she dropped by, unannounced as usual, was a rainy Saturday afternoon two weeks ago. I stood, surprised and clutching a half-empty bag of mini powdered doughnuts as I spied her head through my door's peephole. I had to fight the urge to crawl under the table and hide. I stashed the doughnuts behind the telephone shelf near the door and let her in. She looked remarkable in a shrimp-colored cotton sweater, short black skirt, and flirty sandals with ankle straps. I was in my blogging clothes, with no makeup and lank hair. She wore a tight smile, and I could see disapproval in her green eyes, but out came her lilting cocktail-party voice.
Excerpted from Scarlett Says by Julie L. Cannon. Copyright © 2014 Julie L. Cannon. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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