With my new novella, The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole, now out through Amazon I thought I would share the opening chapter with folks. Please feel free to share and comment as well as leave your honest critique. I hope you like my little ‘The Waltons meet a Ghost’ story. Literary Magical Realism with heart.
Martha Toole, having come for a visit of ‘a spell and a few days’, had declared herself at home and no persuasion would budge her on this decision. John David, who had given up his bedroom, and had taken up residence in the garage for his elderly great-great-aunts visit was the most put out. But to say the inconvenience was purely his would not be accurate – his sister, Elizabeth, was forced to endure many a lecture on the right, proper and so-called ladylike ways.
Martha Toole, in a way both cruel and curious, would inquire into Elizabeth’s day and upon hearing of her adventures: how many friends she had online versus how many she had at school, which boys had teased her and which ones she had teased back, the names of the trees she had climbed, the color of the frog whose image she had failed to document on her smartphone would promptly deconstruct her stories, rendering each one a moral lesson meant to contain Elizabeth and her ambitions. Most in the Hammer family and a few in the Toole family could tell you this was a failed mission.
Their parents, who each loved the elderly matriarch in ways too profound to speak on, had taken to doing in secret any activity that the old woman’s criticism might land upon. Their mother Linda, lawyer and failed matriarch as far as the old woman was concerned, would wake early and do the day’s cooking or time the making of dinner for the old woman’s naps. Her son would often finding her near midnight preparing the elements of the next mornings breakfast. Once he had seen her pasting a recipe into the great grey cookbook that had come to be known as the Holy Scripture of Martha Toole, hiding her own cooking intentions among those Martha Toole had deemed appropriate.
Nathaniel, patriarch in name only, spent increasing amounts of time in the garage with his son John David tinkering on one project or another. He had been known to break items in order to fix them. He was a faux-burglar, tiptoeing around his own home; knocking vases from their perches, tipping photographs from the wall or side tables. He had his superglue ever at the ready, his pockets full of bits of string, loose screws and a pocket screwdriver to assist in his endeavours. If ever a conversation turned uncomfortable he could, with ease, claim he needed to glue a vase together or replace a picture frame. Compared to what he did to the car, this was tame.
Martha Toole believed in little in life other than the blood ties of family and history. In this, she was like a religious fundamentalist – rigorous in her interpretation of history and neatly writing out those experiences and individuals who could not conform to her vision. Whole branches of the family tree had received her displeasure and had died in a blight of disapproval.
“In my day – and this was not so long ago to justify the so-called progress but not so recent that I would expect any of you all to remember empty fields and the generations of folk who worked the land – all of this was ours, from the river up to the mountain side, farmed by one generation or another. It’s all suburbs now of course, and where my goat trail once was, down along the creek, is now a well-lit path, a disgraceful thing.” Martha Toole, grey and deflated, watery eyes with a drooping sadness about her, took a long sip from her glass. Even in her best clothes she appeared to be dressed in rags and from her brittle hair to the bags under her eyes and the wrinkles in her knees she appeared to be mutated shades of grey.
“Aunty Martha, I think your memory has faded. This was not all ours, folk other than Tooles and Hammers lived this land long before we came here. And, I know you know this though you claim to forget – we still have the old homeplace on the north-side of the river.” Linda had put her book down to address the old woman who commanded nothing less than full attention at all times.
“And I think the lights along the creek was to keep people safe.” John David said this off-hand, as an afterthought to the extensive doodling he had decided to undertake. Sitting just beyond the old woman’s line of sight was the safest way of doing such things and when she turned her head, she had to squint to confirm the speaker.
“John David, you are a fool. Plenty of folks walked that old goat path with no danger when I was a girl.” Martha Toole waved one hand dismissively. “I have half a mind to walk that path and smash the lights, show y’all how safe it can be.” With this she lifted the heavy, gnarled walking stick she had come to rely on these last twenty years and none in the family had any doubt she would, given the right circumstances. “And don’t talk to me about the old homeplace; I was a child there, then a bride, mother, and later a widow. I ain’t forgotten though I only ever go to it for brief visits. Even these are curated by the oppression of well intentioned family.” This last comment was directed to Nathaniel as he came in from the garage, wiping grease from his hands. Caught in her glare he had no choice but to commit to his entry, any possible retreat prevented by a commitment to manners.
Martha Toole came prepared to pay her rent, doled out in family tales, history lessons, lectures, accumulated wisdom for the family and practical advice on the art of womanhood for Elizabeth. For John David she brought a fading envelope of photographs, dates and names penciled in light grey upon the back. Martha Toole presented them to John David, handing each one over carefully, using both hands as if presenting a holy relic. John David was careful to fully express all gratitude for the opportunity, anything less would not have ended well.
“There you can see me and my Zack, young Bray nothing but a moon in my belly. This would have been back at the homeplace, round about – ” Martha Toole flipped the photo over to read the date scribbled there. “No, I don’t think that’s right.”
“You were beautiful Martha Toole.” John David took the photograph gingerly, careful not to smudge or damage the black and white photo. “You look fiery, a gleam in the eye, like steel.”
“What do you mean ‘were beautiful’. I’m still a ravishing redhead, your great-great-something Uncle Zack still tells me so.” Martha Toole took the photo back quickly and then with bony hand placed it carefully on the table with the others.
“Zack’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive Aunty Martha.” John David poured them another glass of iced tea. Through the open window John David could see his father unscrewing a light fixture on the porch. It worked properly, but Nathaniel had decided to initiate an annual inspection. John David knew this particular project would take him to every light in the house, the garage, the yard and the woodshed out back. Possibly, John David thought, he would do this routine several times in an evening, spending all available time to avoid the old woman.
“Don’t mean he don’t still tell me I’m pretty. My word, ain’t you never been in love? Guess not if that’s how you treat the world. Zack and I still dance in the moon and make-love when the night is still.”
“Martha Toole! Aunty!” John David turned a slight pink and quickly hid himself behind his iced tea.
“I thought you young people were more open – I watch TV, I know what sort of thinking fills your world.” Martha Toole shuffled the photos until she found one of herself – skinny, long haired and a steel look in her eyes – and tilted it towards the light from the window. A cloud just then passed across the face of the sun, obscuring Martha Toole and her photo in a shadow momentarily. She waited for the light to return before handing the photo to John David.
“I don’t know what sort of TV you’ve been watching Martha Toole – Aunty! – but in general there is little cross-generational sexual bragging, especially when it involves ghosts.” John David hoped he had been firm and kept how uncomfortable he had been from his voice.
“John David Hammer, you should know better. Ain’t no ghost I’m talking about, nothing but memories stirred – nothing but remembrances. Though, ain’t much difference between a memory and a ghost, it’s a haunting regardless.” She picked up the small collection of photos and said, almost in a whisper “So much living happened at the old homeplace, I feel I’ve left a little bit of me behind, down in the soil, growing like an evergreen.”
What John David knew was this: everything his eye touched had, at one point, belonged to his kin or people who were loosely related to his kin, according to Martha Toole. According to his mother, his family had a long presence here, but were far from the only or even most important presence. Hammer Fields, as it had then been called, had been a green land that followed along a small river. The river was still there, but the fields were now mostly suburbs and their residents people whose names he did not know, with a few exceptions. The exceptions were friends of his parents, childhood and school friends from both high school and his current college studies. Not to mention family like his great-cousin Bray and his children and grandchildren whom Martha Toole never visited.
As an artist, John David knew these parts well. He had drawn or painted many a knotted tree, a bend in the river or an old couple at rest in the town square. He had set out to paint on more than one occasion how the Hammer Fields area now was and how it had once been. The latter paintings and drawings had been informed by photographs from his parents, his great-cousin Bray and his progeny and, of course, Martha Toole.
His art, John David knew, was somehow connected to the land and its people. In his heart he knew he would have to go off at some point to study and work somewhere more connected to a world of art and he both dreaded and loved this idea. The roots of this place were deep inside of him, deep with love and deep with a need to cut free and replant. He had long ago learned that duelling truths were not a contradiction just a dance one must do. On his laptop in the garage was an unopened acceptance email for an artists apprenticeship in San Francisco that he had applied to on a whim. For three days he had tingled with excitement at the notion of opening it, and for three days he had put off doing so.
Today, though, his work in the small garage-studio was on the fragile photograph of Martha Toole. Young and looking as if she were made of metal she stood in front of their small cabin, a hoe in one hand and a basket in the other. The basket’s contents, long devoured, long since returned to the land, fell below the pictures edge, lost forever to time and memory.
“Ain’t Martha Toole too old for you to paint?” Elizabeth, red-haired and ponytailed, had taken up her usual perch in John David’s studio, her eyes keen to take in her older brother’s process. The wild one in the family, she would have much rather her brother painted pin-up models, scandalous events and far away and distant sights. The latter, he suspected, was less from a love of art and more from a desire to acquire his bedroom on the event of his departure.
“That’s true, might be. But not in this photo she ain’t. In this photo she’s, well, not a spring chicken, but she is so young and beautiful. She says when she left the homeplace – used to be we called it the Riverhouse – that she left something behind, her younger self maybe? She says it’s down in the soil, growing like an evergreen. I wonder if I can capture that, when I paint her from this photograph?” With the stub of his pencil, John David had began to capture the curve of the lips and the determined steel of the eyes.
“I thought you were going to paint the pumpkins at the corner store. I thought you and Sean Mills had an arrangement.” Sean Mills, a family friend, had run the corner store since the days it was independent and before he had bought in to a franchise. For years he had given John David wall space to show his art and John David had done so in exchange for a handful of yearly promotional art works. It was, in fact, Sean Mills who had encouraged John David to consider art school and who had paid for that first class that had been like a call in the night to John David, a veritable John The Baptist screaming ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’.
“I’m still going to do that, there are no doubts on that front.” October and fall were special to John David and he had, for the last 5 years, made a point to paint the pile of pumpkins in front of Sean Mills’ store and of one particular field. John David stepped back to admire his work so far – the grey lines that had begun to coalesce into something more, the hint of art arising out of paper like an island rising out of the horizon. John David took a moment and reached for his phone to take a quick picture for later reference in case early genius became obscured by later process. “And I don’t paint them, I do paintings of them.”
Elizabeth considered this a moment, moving her foot in a lazy circle in and out of a shaft of light. “Martha Toole told me I wasn’t lady like ’cause I wanted to climb a tree and didn’t like sitting still any longer than one should. I told her it was OK ’cause I wasn’t a lady I was a person-being.”
“Human-being, darlin’, not person-being.” John David had begun to lay his paints out one by one according to a long established ritual.
“Regardless, John David, regardless. I didn’t mind being taught to knit, though. Momma knits and she’s no lady either, just a good ‘human being’. Martha Toole says Momma’s no lady ’cause she don’t like to cook though she’ll do it on account of we all need to eat sometimes.”
“True enough I guess, to the extent that it is, which means there is an extent to which it ain’t true. Like wings on a house.” With that John David picked his brush up and in a long, straight line put the first mark on his canvas. Elizabeth tilted her chin, to one side, taking it all in.
John David noticed his mother, quietly observing her son at his work from the doorway that led from the garage-studio to the house proper. She nodded to him and, silently, John David put down his paints and went over to her. His sister Elizabeth continued to stare at the canvas with the young Martha Tooles image slowly emerging upon it.
“Did you hear, Momma, you’re no lady?” John David gave his mother a half smile and neatly dodged the swipe she took at him.
“I heard from her and overheard from you that fact. I’ve long suspected it to be true as I decided as a young girl to never be ladylike.” She led her son from his studio in the garage and through the door that bridged the two and into the living room, turning on a light. “Have you met proper and ladylike women? So boring! And who is Martha Toole to give lectures on being ladylike? Have you heard the stories of her youth?”
“I’ve heard a few – from her biased memory and from family legend. Most of it unbelievable.” John David sat down in a chair across from his mother. “She sure was a beauty, in her day.”
“I think you are half in love with the ghost of a woman you never knew.” Linda dug a bit in her purse until she came up with a crinkled piece of paper.
“Momma, you know how I feel about history and old things. I just…like to listen.” He took the paper from her, unfolding it neatly to see a shopping list in Martha Tooles neat, lopsided handwriting.”The rest of you all seem put-out by her.” He then added “What’s this?”
“I never knew her when she was young and beautiful. By the time I joined the family she was already ancient. She’s been lying about her age for five years and she was in her 90’s then!” She nodded at John David and the piece of paper. “And that is the shopping list Martha Toole gave me. My cooking, it seems, is not appropriate. God knows I tried to save cooking until she was out of the house. I should have taken up your father on his offer to BBQ everything, or order Thai food.”
“I don’t know if Sean Mills will have all these items.” John David looked up from the list to see his mother’s small, slight smile.
“Oh, Sean knows his groceries and will take great pride in what he will be able to sell you. But thats not the least of your worries,” John David looked up at this mother in surprise. “Don’t expect to be shopping alone. Martha Toole is going with you”.
“I just love this time of year, Martha Toole” The old woman was belted in snuggly to John Davids second-rate car. A sturdy automobile, no doubt due to his father Nathaniel’s constant tinkering it was more than capable of escorting John David to art school in the city, or a trip to the grocer. “Most people tend to think that fall is when things die, but that’s not true. That’s winter. Fall is when things change, they transition – from bright and busy to colored and still. I’m no church goer, but I will say, the best prayer I know is a starry night and the sight of my breath on the air. That’s my religious atheism, I’ll say it plain.”
Martha Toole’s original apprehension of driving with her young great-something nephew, having faded, turned towards the young man and waved one hand at him. John David was a conversationalist whose eyes never left the road. A sure sign of a steady mind able to entertain multiple responsibilities. She was half way to liking him.
“Foolish talk. The fall is the beginning of death, though not death itself. Each transition is death; childhood to adulthood is a death, from a lover to a bride is death, and from a bride to mother is a death. People, though, mistake death as a terrible things. Life thrives on death. Just a transition among many. The last transition though, that’s the big one. What does your religious atheism tell you about that one?” Martha Toole gave the young man her best, most steely gaze.
“Seems that the universe began in a bang, and what resulted became planets and stars and on one of those planets came humans and among those humans came my family and eventually me. Most likely we are all expressions of the universe itself. When we die all that we are and experience gets added back to the universe – our stories and memories are passed down among friends and family, our genes go on through our progeny and the rest of us become dust for new growth and life and a part of us goes back to the heart of the star we were born in.” John David was quite proud of this talk, already a painting was forming in his mind, placing the whole epic of creation in his own backyard.
“You’re insufferable John David. Young and sure of yourself when what you need to be is unsure. It’s a lost art, insecurity. Insecurity is a constant opening to others, to experience, to family and history. You need more ignorance. More insecurity. Only place you are going to find it is in the dirt. Here, at the homeplace, in your own back yard.” Martha Toole waved one hand at the rows of houses passing by them. “I remember when this was an apple orchard. We played in it as girls, me and my sister, the Dooley twins too most times. Hours we spent here. And in fall – this time of year – Mr. Granger would give us some cider. But you had to wait all year to get that cider. The land had its own clock.”
“Ain’t been apple orchards round here in a long time. I still know of a few trees and a few folks who make cider though.” John David eased his car into a change lane.
“I hear you can buy cider in the store year round. Is that true?” Martha Toole looked sad at this and put one boney-fingered hand on John David’s shoulder.
“I guess thats right. I don’t buy cider myself, except for fall. But I reckon you can buy it year round.” John David glanced at the old woman in time to see her wrinkled face fall.
“It’s a sin, John David, it’s a sin. I don’t understand folk no-more.”
Sean Mills ran the WesternTrail Grocery on the corner of Studdon and Westriver. Previously, it had been the Sean Mills WesternTrail Grocery and before that it had been the Sean Mills Produce and Grocery Stand. Having seen his profits lose out to the larger groceries in the area, Sean had bought into a franchise with reluctance. While he continued to sell a large number of local products – produce, some meat and dairy, local homemade products from garage workshops – the bulk of what he sold was corporate. WesternTrail store brand items – potato chips, candies, sodas and diet aids – filled most shelves. As Sean was quick to say: ‘Middle class suburbanites love brand names, it makes them feel God is watching over them.’
Sean Mills considered himself a ‘blue collar gentleman’. Educated in culture and savvy in business, he was also well read and spent his evenings reading, attending lectures or art openings. A lifelong bachelor, he and his friend Daniel – always Daniel to friends and family, Rev. Daniel in the community – were known for the non-profit they ran for school children; farming a large empty lot and teaching cooking in the schools. Secret to all but the Hammer family was the fund that Sean and Daniel kept where they saved money to commission one musical work at year. So far they had invested in a chamber opera, a piano trio and what Daniel called ‘a hybrid between punk rock and symphony orchestra’. These always premiered at the First Community Church where Daniel ministered or at the Chamber of Commerce.
Sean was well groomed, with a full head of hair above his and brown eyes and a thick, dark moustache below. Despite his long hours of work, John David had never seen him dirty or scuffed, his white apron always pristine and his black tie always straight and neat. The Hammer family had known him for years. John David’s father had grown up with Sean, and the two men considered each other brothers. Nathaniel Hammer’s mother still referred to Sean as her ‘other son’.
In principle, Sean did not suffer fools. In his youth, he had spent many an hour cultivating a wide array of opinions thinking, as he did then, that such an act proved him to be intelligent. In his 20’s, he had discovered the upper ceiling of such action and had, instead, cultivated a deep silence. Nathaniel Hammer, who had known Sean Mills in both these eras of his life, said that his friend’s silence only covered the noise and turmoil of his youth.
Martha Toole, though, was no fool. Determined and steel eyed, a hint of the redheaded beauty she had once been, she was not the sort of person one as stoic as Sean Mills would ever dare cross. And though she considered Sean Mills to be what she called a ‘fancy-man’, even she knew he was a wall that she could not blow her wind against. They were, John David had come to understand, evenly matched.
“That old woman,” Sean Mills said once Martha Toole had tottered off to inspect the produce, “is a near impossibility. An encyclopedia of local produce and their growers coupled with a near resistance that many of those farms are gone and their families scattered across the region, state and nation.” Sean Mills put the grocery list down on his counter and tapped his right index finger three times. “I do have most of these items, many by a different name. I have ‘golden delicious apples’; I do not have ‘Granger Family Apples’. I think I remember the Grangers, their oldest boy started to grow marijuana on the back of the property. The police and his father put an end to that. Family moved upstate soon after.”
“I’m sorry she got so intense about it.” John David lingered a moment by a display case of pens before turning to Sean Mills “She don’t mean nothing by it. And I think ‘fancy man’ just means you’r well educated.”
“I know,” Sean Mills puffed up a bit as he spoke “exactly what she meant. She is only an old woman and her outrage is a form of grief for a world that has died and become something her generation only began to imagine.”
“True enough. She’s rubbing many in the family the wrong way, so you’re no exception.” John David glanced over his shoulder to see the old woman loading up her burlap shopping bag. “I fear a war between Momma and Martha Toole come cooking time though.” And then added, “Are you and your friend Daniel joining us?”
Sean Mills pauses a moment before turning his attention to the grocery list. With a quickness, he produced three paper bags and began to fill them with the requested items or an near appropriation. John David, as always, watched the man with a slight awe as he worked.
“No. I do not think so and that is no reflection on your elderly aunt. I have obligations and am fishing with your father on Saturday.” Martha Toole was walking slowly towards them down a narrow aisle in the corner grocery, a burlap sack near bursting with produce. “It may, though, be a slight reflection on your elderly aunt.”