older women

FAME, LANA TURNER AND ME

For a minute I felt a little like Lana Turner must have felt as she sipped her Coke at a Hollywood drugstore counter and heard the guy sitting next to her say, “Would you like to be in movies?” I’m guessing she turned, smiled brightly, said “Yes,” as he took her by the hand and led her away to fame.
I sat in a wicker chair, so dry-mouthed I had to force my lips to open. No drugstore, only the Pacific mumbling below us. “I like the sound of your story.  Will you send me the manuscript?” I licked my mouth, tried to curve it into a smile. “Yes.” The NY agent walked me to the door and into a life of fame. But first I had to find a glass of wine or at least a Coke so that I could celebrate, tell the news to my friend.
We had spent the day at a writers’ workshop listening to a speaker tell us how we should write our next novels. I fidgeted. I couldn’t relate. I had finished my next novel and I had paid the fee to pitch it to the guest agent. I waited two sweat-palmed hours for my fifteen minutes with her and with destiny. “Send me the manuscript,” made the year of writing, the long workshop, the wet hands, the dry mouth all worth while.
I went over each page one more time, incorporated some of the changes one of my Beta readers had suggested, and created a title. The Long Road, I decided late one night. Done. Punched “Send” and flung my book into the world. Then I waited for fame––or at least a response from the pleasant young woman who had nodded through my halting synopsis in that ocean-fringed room.
“We get three hundred queries a week,” she had warned. Then she added, “We are a small agency. We bring out about four or five books a year.” For days I tried not to think of the odds. I went for walks, drank a little too much white wine, was so crabby that my husband escaped regularly to the bakery down the street for a little peace and his New York Times.
On the tenth day, I opened my emails and her name appeared.
It was not a standard everyday rejection. She referred to the great weekend at the beach. She had read The Long Road, liked it, but. . . “But I’m afraid that I just didn’t get that breathless sense of connection while reading your pages, and that’s the kind of enthusiasm that I need to summon when I decide to go to bat for a book.”
Fair enough. I know about that breathless sense of connection. I’ve experienced it in books I’ve read and loved, the ones I wished I’d written. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, the first half of Penelope Lively’s bio Dancing Fish and Ammonites, come to mind. These stories are my kind of stories, about the lives of older women. Perhaps I’d do better with an agent over sixty instead of a smiling twenty-something.
But I’m questioning whether I’m brave enough to risk further attempts to find an agent. Or tenacious enough for more rewrites of The Long Road, breathless connections in mind. When I decide,  I’ll have my summer’s work laid out.

ON BECOMING SEVENTY-EIGHT

For much of my life I’ve avoided old ladies. Not that I didn’t like them.  Mostly, they just didn’t interest me much.  A few of these almost invisible women come to mind:
            My grandma Anderl, a pudding of a woman who lived with my family for several of the last years of her life, sipping her daily glass of bourbon, doctor-prescribed, she insisted. 
            Mrs. Kauffman, the housemother in my college sorority with her precisely lacquered hair and manicured nails, who taught me how to iron my marriage sheets. 
            Ms. Pedersen, the spinster English teacher in the room next to mine, recycling meticulous forty-year-old lesson plans on the use of the subjunctive and asking if I’d like to borrow them.
            The elementary teacher in the room down the hall, who at sixty, attained her life’s goal of becoming a school principal, just in time to be asked to retire. 
            The Medicare-eligible counselor, dissatisfied with daytime TV, returning to her job on the kindergarten story rug, even though it meant getting on all fours and leaning on at least one five-year-old to rise up.
            My unnaturally coal-black-haired, crepe-skinned, neighbor, with her push-up bra decolletage, searching the Internet daily for a newer, younger bedmate.
            The raggedy woman in the plastic rain cap, sitting on the park bench talking to anything that moves, squirrels even, about her dead husband, probably a sister of the wild-haired shopper at Fred Meyer leaning over the head lettuce, asking how it’s doing today.
For years, I observed these women and others like them.  From a distance, smiling a little, turning away. They had little to do with me, with who I was, with what my life was all about.
And now I’m one of them. 
Today I heard myself talking to the Brussels sprouts in the vegetable section.  ‘Nasty little buggers,” I said as I piled a dozen of them in the plastic bag. “Why did I marry a man who loves you?” 
Last week I ironed our new 500-count cotton sheets because the developing permanent wrinkles in the top hem chafed my chin.  “Should have bought polyester,” I muttered into my ironing board. Mrs. K. didn’t have that choice back then.
For some reason, in spite of already having a man to sleep with, I sidled into Victoria’s Secret this weekend and, with boobs smashed into steel-like armature pretending to be a bra, felt as if I were an ancient stand-in for Super Woman. I also gave up on the idea of hair dye.
A couple weeks ago, I advised the copyeditor of my about-to-be-printed book that her use of salt-and-pepper commas needed to be tamped down; also, semi-colons, not to mention colons and M-dashes. “Want to borrow my Strunk/White?” I asked. I could hear Ms. Petersen cheering.
This lazy morning, I drank a third cup of coffee and glanced at the obituaries, followed by the want ads. Someone needed a tutor proficient in English skills willing to work with reluctant learners. I almost called for an interview when I realized I truly am not able to get up off the reluctant learner rug.
This evening I poured myself a glass of Scotch and watched the seven o’clock news on PBS.  It was a nice way to end the day, even if my doctor did not prescribe it.  Grandma knew.
Tomorrow, I will receive the proof of Graffiti Grandma. I am to give the go-ahead on its publishing.  This will be a little like getting a principalship and then realizing that you don’t have the time or the energy to create your perfect school. And that from here on out, my goal will most likely be what it is for all old ladies:  one day at a time, seize that day, breathe, be glad to be alive and kicking; always carry a plastic rain cap in a coat pocket.

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