Scrapbook of Secrets: A Cumberland Creek Mystery (Chapter Two)

This is chapter two of Scrapbook of Secrets, which will be published February 2012 by Kensington Publishing. If you want to read chapter one first, click here. And, as always, I’d love to hear from you.

 

<I saw your local newspaper is hiring. They ran an ad on the Web. They say the “bar is high.” Jeez, do you think you could do it? (GRIN)>—Yolonda

<The bar is as high as my relatively low-slung ass. Even so, I think the job is a night job and I am half dead by then. I know you don’t understand, but running around after two little boys all day long is a killer on your nightlife—even a working nightlife.>

<C’mon. I’ve worked with you. I know what you can do.>

<It’s different. I promise. Back then, I did get breaks and even slept the whole night through. . . . But guess what, after a year of being here, I am actually starting to get invited to parties. Tupperware. Mary Kay. And oh, yeah, there’s the scrapbook party, which I am actually looking forward to.>

<WHAT? My eco-feminist, radical-poet friend is going to a scrapbook party? The Annie I knew would have rather carved her initials into her skin with a sharp blade than sit through one of those things. (In fact, so would I.) >

<That’s before I found out the truth. >

<The truth?>

<Yep. This town is run by scrapbookers. They are the women who run everything—the music and dance schools, the public schools, the churches, government. Everything. And they all have one thing in common. They crop till they drop.>

<They WHAT? >

<It’s part of the lingo, man. “Crop” is the term they use for parties. It comes from actually cropping photos. They have their own lingo and cool paper. What more could you ask for?>

Pause.

<A stiff drink?>

Annie sighed. She didn’t know if these women would have drinks at their parties. She really didn’t know what to expect.

“Why don’t you come to our crop?” Vera said to her at the library a few weeks ago. Vera and her dancers entertained at lunchtime. Annie thought the boys would enjoy it. She honestly didn’t know what she would do without the library and its programs.

“What’s that?”

“We all sit around and work on our scrapbooks, share stuff, and visit. It’s a lot of fun,” Vera replied.

“Oh, okay, sounds good,” Annie said, thinking she would have to dig out her second son’s book, and she was not even sure where it was. Poor Ben, he was such a second child. Annie just could not keep up with his baby book, let alone a scrapbook.

One sleepless night, she awoke from a fit of mother guilt and filled in all of the blanks on Ben’s baby book. She had no idea if any of the measurements, dates, and whatnots were actually correct. In fact, she was fairly sure they were not. Ben would never know that. At least it would look like his mother had paid attention to these things. Not like the mother that Annie actually was—harried, tired, struggling, and sometimes bored. Yes, even with her own children. And so she still tried to write—but not in baby books.

When Ben’s older brother, Sam, was born, Annie did fill in the blanks on all the baby books—well, for the most part. After Ben was born, those blanks went blank as well. And she was going to be the mother who nursed her kids until they were two and fed them only homemade baby food. And they would never watch television, let alone the inane, insane children’s videos.

Right.

When they first moved to Cumberland Creek, Virginia, they thought they would be welcomed with open arms. It was a peaceful, rural place. Rural people were friendly, warm, community-minded, right? What Annie and Mike found was that they mostly were met with indifference, sometimes tempered with suspicion, especially in their peaceful little town of Cumberland Creek, with its beautiful Victorian architecture and quaint shops, luring tourists.  Pleasant place to visit—but not to live, if you are an outsider. An outsider seemed to be anyone whose family did not stretch back at least three generations, and who did not belong to the much-vaunted First Presbyterian, First Baptist, or Episcopal Churches. And in Annie and Mike’s case, that was impossible, since they both hailed from Bethesda, Maryland, and were Jewish.

Annie grimaced the first time she was asked the most popular question that new residents were asked, “What church do you attend?” She felt violated. She was used to living in an urban community, where such questions were not asked. She had friends for ten or fifteen years, and she was sure they were Christian, but the topic of religion was never even broached among them. They talked about politics, art, office gossip, and so on. Never religion.

A few months after moving, Annie realized the question was not going to go away. Everybody asked her the same question, and she just told them she was Jewish. Some would stare at her blankly. Others would attempt to pander to her. “Oh, we have Jewish friends, who live in Charlottesville,” or “Look, we have a menorah in our home.”

Annie and Mike never really considered their Jewish faith much when living in Bethesda, surrounded by other Jews, Jewish delis, several synagogues to choose from, and the cloak of urbanism that called for a religious privacy in which both of them felt comfortable. Not so here. It made them both consider their religion in ways they hadn’t before—which, for Annie, turned out to be a good thing. She now found herself feeling more Jewish than ever, especially on the inside, and she heavily relied on that inner world she created.

But now, Mike and Annie faced a dilemma they had not considered when they moved here. The local school system, which was good enough for a public school, still held weekly religion education classes, which were, of course, Christian.  Annie was appalled to learn about this program in which children were bused from the school grounds to a local church for “Bible” study. At first, she thought it was a rumor—in this day and age, schools systems could surely not get away with such a thing. But, much to her dismay, it was perfectly legal in the State of Virginia and her local school system still practiced it.

Since they were getting ready to send Sam to first grade the following year, she found herself wishing that they could send him to a private school. She had one year to figure this out, because the program started in first grade. Kindergarten in the fall would not be a problem.

“Of course, we can just opt out,” Mike said to her one evening over spaghetti and their sons’ squabbles. “Damn good spaghetti sauce. It just seems to be getting better, this batch, I mean.”

Annie smiled. She loved to make spaghetti sauce. When she did, it was huge amounts of it. She froze it and they lived off it for months. Her mood and frame of mind played into cooking it. All of those spices, herbs, and tomatoes frothing together sometimes brought her to the edge of delirium. And so, she mentally prepared herself. It was almost like having sex—so much more delicious after waiting much longer than one should.

“Yes, that is what they say,” Annie said back to her husband. “But if your child is the one that stays behind while the others are being bused off to church, how is that child going to feel? What are they going to do with him?”

“We’re Jews in a very Christian area. Ben and Sam are going to have to learn to deal with this sometime.”

“Yeah, but not when they are six years old,” Annie said.

“I’m six. I’m six,” Sam chimed in, giggling. “I’m six years old.”

“Silly boy, You are not six,” Annie said to her son Sam, whose face was covered in spaghetti sauce. She just had to laugh.

“I better get going.” Mike popped up and was off again, briefcase in hand. At least this time it wasn’t his suitcase. His job in pharmaceuticals took him away at least once a week. After four years, it was getting a little easier because Sam could be helpful—if he wanted to be. And he was not as needy, of course, as when he was younger.

Thank God for that.

 

Now, today, as she watched over her sons playing with puzzles, Annie thought, This is good. I can handle this. I wonder how long this quiet and cooperation will last.

Her next thought, What am I going to wear tonight? What does one wear to a scrapbooking crop?

“Ow! Mommy, Ben hit me with a puzzle!” Sam ran to her, and then buried his dark curls into her lap.

“I sorry,” Ben said, immediately at her side.

“Ben, don’t hit your brother,” Annie said. “Time-out.”

“No!” he said, and growled at her. Literally growled at her.

“Ben, go sit in the chair. Now.” She tried to sound authoritative without yelling.

He folded his little arms. “Hmmpphh.”

“We do not hit,” she said, still cradling her oldest son. She watched her younger walk away toward the chair. Could see his heavy diaper. Oh, great, another diaper change.

While still holding Sam, she noticed her fingernails, uneven, chipped, and dirty. She at least needed to cut them before her big night of scrapbooking. She sighed.

While she knew it would seem strange to Yolonda, Annie had been working on this night for a long time. She sorted photos and put them in a much-used paper gift bag, which she set on top of the china cabinet so that her boys could not get them. It literally took her weeks to accomplish sorting and separating the pictures. Stolen moments during naps. Or when the boys were playing quietly. Or, God forbid, but yes, watching television. Her “stolen time” strategy worked, and she was prepared for tonight’s crop.

At least she would get Ben’s book started, she told herself. That was the goal. She had no idea how she would steal the time to finish it, but she would. Then she planned to go back and bring Sam’s up to date. But in the meantime, the boys hungered for lunch; and oh, yeah, she needed to finish folding laundry and put another load in. It was never-ending—the piles of laundry.

She saw herself in the mirror in the hallway—baggy sweats, nightshirt, and no bra—as she moved through her house to her kitchen. She could not remember if she brushed her hair or not, but it needed it. She also probably needed a haircut. Funny, she thought as she ran her fingers through her long, dark hark, she didn’t think about her hair until she needed to go out.

She briefly wondered if Mike would get home in time for her to steal away to get a haircut before the big crop. Was she making too much of this? She laughed. Probably, she answered herself.

“Okay, Ben,” she said. “Time-out is over. I want you to understand the consequences for hitting your brother. If you do it again, there will be no ice cream tonight.”

“Yes, Mama,” he said, walking off into a corner in his room. Ben always took his punishment to heart and tried to behave himself.

He’s a good kid, she thought, and felt a twinge of guilt for his punishment. Still, she would not tolerate him hitting Sam.

The phone ringing interrupted her thoughts.

Both boys ran for the phone and struggled to answer it—she grabbed the receiver from Ben, with him screaming, “Hullo! Hullo!”

She pointed with her finger for them to go and sit down.

“Hello,” Annie said.

“Annie?”

“Yes.”

“This is Sheila Rogers. I was just checking to see if you are still coming tonight.”

“Oh, yeah, I’ll be there,” Annie said, distracted by the level of noise her boys were making. “I’m sorry about the kids.”

“Don’t worry about that. I have a few of my own,” Sheila said, sort of giggling.

“You do, don’t you?”

“Some of us just don’t know when to stop.” Sheila, the mother of four children, sighed. “They keep you busy.”

“They sure do,” said Annie, wondering where this conversation was going. “So I’ll be there. Is there anything special I need to bring?”

“Oh, no, just your pictures and scrapbooks—if you have them. Of course, I’ll have some books if you want to buy them. But it’s really a no-pressure situation. A crop is for us to make the time for ourselves, do what we enjoy, not really to sell stuff,” Sheila said.

“Good,” Annie said, hearing a trange beeping noise in the background. “Where are you, Sheila?”

“Vera Matthews mother was brought in to the hospital earlier.  I’m just here checking on her. It’s taking the doctor forever. I’m sure she’ll be fine,” she said, with a note of finality in her voice, which made Annie feel like she shouldn’t pry.

“Okay. Bye,” Annie said.

The boys scurried off into their room. Annie surveyed her house. She was glad that the ladies were not coming here tonight. The floor needed sweeping—bits of some kind of food from last night’s dinner were scattered under the table. She just did not have the heart to investigate at this minute. Toys were spread all over the floor, crayons, coloring books, trucks, and dolls. She thought of something her mother always said: “Clean the kitchen first. A clean kitchen is a clean house.”

She walked toward the sink of dishes and began rinsing them to place in the dishwasher. Sippy cups half filled with spoiled milk, juice, and God only knows what else. She held her breath as she poured the mystery liquid down the sink. She rinsed the sink and squirted it with cleaner, allowing herself to breathe.

Ben ran across the floor behind her. “Mommy, can I have a snack and some juice?”

She glanced at the clock—was it only ten in the morning?

“Yes, sure. It’s snack time. You want a cereal bar or yogurt?” she asked. “Go and sit at the table.”

Her other son came into the room and sat at the table, too.

They decided on cereal bars and juice. Annie quickly grabbed the bars and took off the wrapping paper.

“Mommy, what’s a tornado?” Sam asked.

“I want a blueberry cereal bar,” Ben said.

“We only have strawberry,” Annie replied.

“Mommy, what’s a tornado?”

“No. No. No! I want blueberry!”

“We only have strawberry. A tornado is—”

“Strawberry is good,” Sam said.

Ben shrugged. “Okay,” he said, and began gobbling his cereal bar.

“Mommy, can we get a dog?” Sam asked.

“No, a cat,” Ben said.

“Neither one,” Annie said. “We will someday, when you get a little older. But right now, it’s all I can do to take care of you two.”

And that was the truth, she thought, turning back to her sink. Had she wiped it down? She couldn’t remember. So she squirted it again, grabbed a paper towel, and wiped it down, wondering how long her spotless sink would last. She began to wipe the counters off, when she heard a cup fall over. Of course, it was Sam’s non-sippy cup. Grape juice went everywhere.

“Mo-om!”

She ran to the table with the roll of paper towels—which, somehow, never managed to make it to the paper towel holder.

If she only knew how many diapers, paper towels, bread, and toilet paper they would have gone through as a family, Annie would have bought stock in those companies before she had children.

Then there was the juice—sticky, nasty stuff. She used to love juice, but now the sight of it sometimes wanted to make her heave. It was the same thing with macaroni and cheese, which her boys would eat every night, if she let them. And sometimes she did. She planned her meals around the stuff, she was ashamed to admit. But it was better that they ate something than nothing at all. She theorized that they would grow out of it eventually.

Annie actually had nightmares about getting stuck to the floor because the juice hadn’t been cleaned up. After being stuck—and in the dream, nobody was there to help—she would begin to sink through her hardwood floor, as if it were quicksand.

Her other nightmarish dream was about packing and moving. She would be given a deadline by which she’d need to have everything packed and ready to go. She’d be packing and packing, and would think she was finished; then she would turn around and find more packing to do. She would wake up from the dreams, exhausted.

Her inner life was one that she had not paid much attention to while living in Bethesda. Her brain was filled with writing and production deadlines, lunch dates, poetry readings, shopping dates. But now, she found her dreams to be fascinating and rich. And sometimes the thought pattern that she was focused on during a specific day became her only source of sanity. For a while, her thought patterns acted as a mantra—to stay focused in the moment. If she tried to stay focused on what she was doing, I’m changing a diaper, I’m changing a diaper, she would not get as frustrated as say, when she was changing a diaper and allowing herself to think about all of the other things she needed or wanted to do.

Sometimes her dreams led her to writing. And that had never happened before. For a while, she dreamed about an old lover. Filled with such sweetness—and sometimes passion—that she didn’t want to wake up. It was easy to figure out why she dreamed of Wes—that was a time in her life that she was completely unencumbered. Now her life seemed so thick with responsibility that if she left, it would drag her down. Sometimes when she thought of her life now, she felt like a big, fat whale moving through the ocean.

For a while, it bothered her that she was dreaming of Wes. Should she see a psychiatrist? Talk to Rabbi Joe? Was everything okay between her and Mike? Was her psyche trying to tell her something? But then the dreams stopped. So she kept them to herself. In truth, she kept most of her inner life to herself.

Mike was too exhausted most of the time to share any of the details of dreams, thoughts, or prayers with him. She was lucky they communicated enough to try to keep their schedules in sync. She never imagined how difficult communication would get once children arrived on the scene.

Annie’s memories of their time together before the children helped her to cling to the hope they would get there again someday. They had met at a book fair—and their conversations were often about literature, politics, and philosophy. Mike’s mind was a beacon that lit a fire in her. She always found that something he said sparked the desire in her to learn more. Do more. Be more.

Of course, his body sparked other ideas in her. She could hardly contain herself on her first date. “Never sleep with a man on your first date,” she heard from all of her women friends. It was more difficult for her with Mike because she knew she would marry him. It just felt so right that she thought, What the heck? Maybe I’ll jump his bones the first date.

But it was not even an issue. Nor was it on the second date. Nor when she expressed her frustration.

“I think we should wait. I’m not in any hurry. There is so much more to us than the physical thing,” Mike said.

Annie smiled and fell even more in love.

She often thought about the meaning of that in her life. And she thanked the universe that it was true—there was and is so much more than sex between them. Otherwise, they would be in real trouble, now that they had children. Sometimes it was months until they could get together. But when they did, it was always right.

She glanced at her box of gathered photos and looked forward to more organizing and placing the pictures of her boys on scrapbook pages, which she could share with them someday. One neat and orderly facet to her life was appealing to her. God knows the rest was just a mess. No longer was she living in her own world; she now lived in the realm of two messy, active, all-encompassing, energy-sapping little boys. And she embraced that—most of the time.

Just then, Annie’s phone rang. It was Sheila, again, canceling the crop that she’d called earlier to confirm. Vera Matthews’s mother was being operated on that evening. They would be in touch with her soon about rescheduling.

She turned the teakettle on and sat down in front of her computer. Maybe she could catch a little news before the boys woke up from their naps. She clicked on the local newspaper’s website and gasped.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *