Where muse and memory meet is often over a keyboard. I’m calling that a ghostly visitation. I have been in Boston a couple of months now, and I’m going to talk about riding a synaptic wave that apparently has been building in my psyche for a long, long, time. I used to spend the summers out here on Cape Cod because my mother had family ties in Massachusetts. Now I’ve returned to this side of the world to work on a manuscript and spend time with my husband. We’re living in a brownstone that was built in 1864, near a street that used to have a trolley line. The apartment where we lay our heads at night is filled with books, and on the wall is hung an American naval uniform from 1802.
Climbing up a ladder and taking the dusty uniform down to give it a gentle brushing, I noticed how small it was. So I slipped it on. I think the officer who wore it over two hundred years ago may have only been four inches taller than yours truly. After having strolled the galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts just prior to my cleaning spurt, and seeing some prominent — Revolutionary Bostonians — wearing the blue coat with the gold buttons was like being cloaked in the past. Ever since I arrived here I’ve sensed in the people an old world cordiality, mixed with a good dose of salt, and a verve and frankness I don’t often see in Hollywood. I’m not saying it’s better, I’m saying it’s brilliantly different.
Anyway we were talking about writing, weren’t we? Here are a few excerpts from the work in progress, and an example of how time and place filter through fiction.
The truth was Billie hailed from Cape Anne, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of what her mother rather archaically referred to as nautical stock. Cape Anne was a place whose inhabitants could proudly trace their lineage to whaling fleets and South Seas expeditions (or, at least they affected to). Within the community there were rather tangled thoughts on ancestry — that glossed over generations of grandfathers who introduced venereal disease to Tahiti — and instead focused (with reverence) on funny little artifacts; like the scrimshaw and shells in Grandmother’s china cupboard. It was also an area where you heard words like ghastly, fractious, and dim applied by the Anglo side of the family to the Italian side — the dark side (the side Billie took after) preferred these epitaphs: leccapiedi (boot licking) scassacazzo (pain in the ass).
Growing up in Gloucester it stank of fish sticks, courtesy of Gorton’s, and Billie couldn’t wait to get out. She knew ocean air was supposed to be bracing but for her it was nothing but salt spume and rotting chum, neither of which appealed. At eighteen she rattled down the coast to Cambridge in a sixteen year old Dodge Dart that needed piston work and a new timing belt. Billie was housed in a quad, a triumph for a freshman, with a San Franciscan whose sock drawers bulged with a formidable stash of weed, and two studious Mid-Westerners.
One evening in her second year at Harvard, Billie found herself doing something that if she hadn’t been so high would have confirmed the nagging feeling that she wasn’t exactly making the best use of her time at college. The hours leading to midnight found Billie stoned out of her mind staring into the soulful eyes of a Border Collie — explaining the path of a point on a parabolic curve. In her less than sober state the Collie’s eyes anchored her. The very existence of this dog — who, in reality, was probably concerned with nothing more than when it would next be eating — was something solid to hold onto in a swirl of extremely altered perceptions. When she woke the following morning, Billie resolved to make a change: no more toking and a hell of a lot more studying. Her timing was, however, unfortunate. She failed integral calculus the very same day as she made the vow and within two weeks was working shucking clams at a seafood bar, another briny hell, near Faneuil Hall…
…about a third of the way through the book after Billie has moved to Hollywood and married a movie star…
A major domo/baby sitter was hired from an employment agent that specialized in impeccable credentials and resumes that included service to British aristocrats. Mr. Booker had traveled the world, mostly in a capacity he wouldn’t discuss during WWII. He tut-tutted when Billie swore in Italian and when he put Jake to bed at night he often called the child habibi. She liked his mysterious aura and cracked herself up thinking Mr. Booker might once have been covert ops. If that had been the case, there was not a whit of daredevil left to him at the age of sixty-six. The hire appealed to Dave’s sense of importance and since the major domo was approaching retirement and embodied the hauteur her husband thought was a befitting reflection on him and the grandfatherly aspect (indeed, Mr. Booker reminded Billie of an elderly, much more verbal, version of her father) that was required for Jake, things were looking rosy.
Never, would Dave be spied rubbing sun tan lotion on Mr. Booker’s back, nor would he be tempted to play tonsil hockey with Mr. Booker in darkened restaurants. Mr. Booker wore black horn rimmed glasses that looked like they had been placed on his face in the early nineteen sixties. Mr. Booker insisted on cultivating a proper kitchen garden. Mr. Booker was in the process of reading Jake “Moby Dick” unabridged, as a bedtime story. When Billie questioned his choice Mr. Booker said, “Young men are like puppies. It matters little what I say, it’s the tone in which I say it. And, in my experience, early exposure to literary prose will only serve to elevate Jake’s intellect.” No doubt Joseph Conrad would be next on their reading list but Mr. Booker made Billie feel safe….
…about halfway through the book, Billie’s first time assisting a distraught director…
Billie remembered that Mr. Booker had told her it didn’t matter what she said, all that mattered was her tone and she began to tell Cooper stories from her childhood. She told him how her parents would take her to Cape Cod for the fourth of July, and how she’d scream, totally dazzled, when she saw the fireworks burst over the ocean. Every year they’d book a room at the Gingerbread Inn because the first year, when they’d arrived, she’d tried to take a bite out of the doorjamb because, after all, it was the Gingerbread Inn. She told him how time seemed to expand in the summer and become more real and she told him she loved how her shoulders turned red and warm, and how her feet were always caked with sand, and how she loved beachcombing for shells, and she told him how she loved the Atlantic…
It’s been so enchanting here I’ve barely worked on the manuscript at all, but it’s been an inspiring journey, and I will start anew (or refreshingly wrapped in history) when I get home to California.
With gratitude and honor to Boston, V
P.S. Don’t worry, the uniform with bright buttons is back where it belongs. Please never take what I say literally 😉 .