Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween! This year, for my Halloween-themed excerpt, I’m sharing the first half of Chapter 6, “Samhain Proposal,” of Green Sunrise, the hiatused sequel to Little Ragdoll. Here, it’s 1974 in Hudson Falls, NY, where six of the Troy siblings and the three Ryan sisters now live.

This is a shortened, edited version of the rough draft.

“I just love Halloween,” Fiona says as she, Deirdre, and Adicia decorate the yard and Ernestine, Aoife, and Justine decorate the house on a Saturday two weeks before the holiday. “Christmas and Easter decorations are really pretty, but Halloween decorations are really groovy.  I prefer spooky stuff.”

“Halloween, or should I say Samhain, is gonna be extra-special this year,” Deirdre says. “It’ll be a holiday no one’s ever gonna forget, particularly not Ernestine.”

“What are you planning?” Adicia asks as she stands on a ladder to drape Halloween lights over a tree. “Can we be let in on this secret?”

“So long as you don’t squeal to Ernestine.” Deirdre looks behind her to make sure the windows and door are shut, then pulls a wooden box out of her baggy front skirt pocket. “Have a look at what I bought her when I pretended I was studying late at the campus library.”

Fiona pops open the box and squeals at the sight of a ring with a heart-shaped garnet clasped by two hands, with a crown on top. “You’re proposing?”

“It’s time to take the bull by the horns.  This is called a claddagh.  I got a garnet ‘cause red’s her favorite color, and rubies are too damn expensive.  The three symbols represent love, loyalty, and friendship.  They’re traditional Irish wedding and engagement rings.”

“When are you gonna pop the question?” Adicia asks. “Is it gonna be in private or a public event?”

“I think I’ll do it on Samhain night, when we get back from trick-or-treating.  I’m gonna slip it into her candy bag and wait for the results.”

“You’re going trick-or-treating?” Adicia asks. “At twenty-two?”

“We all did it in Poughkeepsie.  Why not take the opportunity better late than never?  You’re going trick-or-treating too.”

“Folks here are nice, even if somea ‘em don’t share our revolutionary principles,” Fiona says. “They won’t care we’re not kids.  I’m going to be a dragon, and Aoife’s gonna be a ladybug.”

“Are you staying home with the baby this year, Adicia?” Deirdre asks.

“Robbie would love to get candy!  My baby’s never gonna lack for anything.  Lenore made him the cutest little monkey costume, and she made Oliver an elephant costume.”

“I’d love to celebrate the traditional Celtic way.  Some folks practice divination on Samhain, predicting stuff like your future spouse and how many kids you’ll have.  We can have fun trying our hand at that.  Some Wiccans and Celts also use the holiday to pay tribute to their ancestors and other loved ones who are no longer here.”

Deirdre quickly shoves the ring box back into her pocket when the door opens and Ernestine comes out with Robbie on her hip.  Ernestine doesn’t notice anything out of the ordinary about Deirdre’s expression and proceeds over to Adicia, handing her the baby.

“He started fussing like he wants to nurse, and I think he wants you instead of grape juice in a cup.”

Adicia’s eyes have lit up at the sight of her child, and she doesn’t wait to go inside to ease him under her blouse.

“It still gets me how happy she looks every time she sees him,” Ernestine says. “She looks like a kid in a candy store.  It’s the kinda look our mother never gave any of us but Tommy.”

“We’ll both be giving that kinda look to our babies soon enough,” Deirdre says. “We’ll be one big happy family, even if it’s a little different from most.”

***

Before everyone sets out for trick-or-treating on Halloween, they meet at Lucine and Zachary’s for Simone’s second birthday party.  Simone is dressed as a tiger and sitting in a chair decorated with pink and purple streamers and balloons.  Some of her friends from daycare are there with their parents.

“I helped frost the cake!” Fiona says. “It looks like a wrapped present, and has cherry filling.”

“What a great unisex costume!” Emeline says. “A tiger can be a boy or a girl.  We had a storytime and Halloween activity for young kids today at the library, and a bunch of ‘em were dressed in such disappointingly sex-typed costumes, like princesses, kings, ballerinas, cowboys, and witches.  If I ever have kids, I’ll give ‘em costumes just like Simone’s.”

“I hope you don’t think Amelia’s and my costumes are too girly,” Irene says. “I know girls can do anything, but I like dressing like a girl.”

“I suggested to your mommy you could be a Colonial girl and a pioneer girl, and I helped her shop for fabric.  I always wanted costumes like that growing up.  They’re feminine without being too girly.”

“How long are we going out for?” Ernestine asks as Allen takes pictures of the cake.

“Simone can probably only handle an hour at most,” Lucine says. “Oliver and Robbie will probably be the same.  Don’t tell me you’re going.”

“Deirdre and I are both going.  We never did it growing up, so we might as well milk it while we can still get away with it.”

“Don’t they have a Halloween party at the university yous guys can attend?”

“I’m a sexy saloon girl, and Deirdre’s a pirate.  Afterwards, we’re gonna try our hand at divination.  Emeline’s coming with us.  It must stink to be all alone on the funnest day of the year.”

“I’m not trick-or-treating,” Emeline defends herself. “I’m just meeting up with them at their house after I’m done handing out candy.”

Lucine pats Emeline on the shoulder. “Hopefully someday you’ll have a husband and a couple of kids, and you won’t always have to tag along with us.  Not that we mind having you, but it’s nice to have your own separate family.”

“I’m not entirely alone.  I’ve got Georgiekins.”

“A cat can’t take the place of people, no matter how nice he is.  I hope you don’t mind you’re in my prayers.  I want you to find love like the rest of us.  Even Ernestine’s gonna lesbian-marry Deirdre at some point.”

“It’s called a handfasting,” Deirdre corrects her. “What the hell kinda term is ‘lesbian-marry’?”

“Well, whatever you call it, it is happening eventually, isn’t it?”

“You better believe it.” Deirdre smiles enigmatically as Zachary lights the candles.

***

Adicia, Ernestine, Deirdre, Fiona, Aoife, Justine, Lenore, Lucine, and Sarah canvassed a twenty-block radius with Irene, Amelia, Oliver, Simone, Robbie, Fritz, and Nessa before heading back to their respective houses.  A few people looked askance at Ernestine’s costume, which consists of a purple corset attached to a very short skirt with black fringes, fishnets, her one pair of heels, black lace glovelets, a dark pink leg garter, and a big purple feather on her head, but no one held back candy.

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“Next year, I’m gonna be a sexy French maid,” Ernestine announces as she kicks off her heels the minute they get inside. “It’s a blessing in disguise we were cheated outta proper Halloweens growing up, ‘cause when you’re a kid, you can’t wear fun costumes like this.  Plus I probably woulda gotten stoned for wearing something like this in public.”

“I hope you mean at a costume party for adults,” Adicia says. “You and Deirdre both said this was probably your last year to go trick-or-treating.”

“You didn’t have a true Halloween till you were eighteen either.  I’m surprised you’re not milking all that lost time for all it’s worth too.”

Ricky looks away from Ernestine in embarrassment and takes Robbie from Adicia. “I’ll be upstairs with the little monkey while you girls are down here doing your thing.  I’ll read him Corduroy and The Poky Little Puppy.  Those are his favorites.”

“Don’t be afraid to look at me,” Ernestine teases him as he limps up the stairs.  “Nothing you haven’t seen before.  This is downright modest given somea the stuff in Adicia’s lingerie closet.”

Adicia turns as red as a beet.

“Don’t you go being shy either.  We all do each other’s laundry, and I bought you that dark blue corset with the matching garter belt.  I see it in the wash so often, I guess you’re getting good mileage outta it.”

“Shall we get on to divination?” Adicia asks. “That’s Emeline’s car pulling up.”

Fiona gets the door for Emeline, who’s in a dark green velvet flapper dress. George jumps into Justine’s lap while Emeline finds a place on the davenport.

When Ernestine gets up to pet him, Deirdre stealthily retrieves the ring box from under the davenport and tosses it into Ernestine’s pillowcase full of candy.  Each embroidered her pillowcase differently, so they won’t get them mixed up.  Deirdre’s has shamrocks, Ernestine’s has flowers, Fiona’s has baby animals, Aoife’s has moons and stars, and Justine’s has butterflies.

“It’s not time for candy yet,” Emeline calls when she sees what Deirdre’s doing. “I thought divination was your idea.”

“What method would you like to try first?” Deirdre asks, trying to look and sound as normal as possible. “Tea leaves, Tarot cards, apple peels, I Ching, palmistry, Runes, bibliomancy, lithomancy, podomancy, what?”

“What’s podomancy?” Justine asks.

“Palmistry for the feet.”

Justine and Aoife wrinkle their noses in unison.

“That’s gross,” Aoife says. “I don’t think our feet smell like roses right now.”

“How do you tell fortunes with apple peels?” Justine asks.

“You throw it behind you or drop it into a bowl of water, and the letter it forms is the first letter in the name of the person you’re gonna marry.”

“What if it falls into a lump or a straight line?” Fiona asks.

“If it breaks, it means you’ll never wed.  Other methods for tryna predict if you’ll have a faithful lover or if you’ll ever wed are roasting chestnuts and seeing if they stay close together or drift apart, and separating an egg white and putting it in a bowl of water.  If the egg white sinks, you’ll be alone for the next year.”

“Didn’t all these parlor tricks originate when most girls were married by all of eighteen?” Emeline asks. “They also started before the modern concept of dating.”

“Can I start with the apple peel?” Justine begs.

“Sure, if you know how to peel an apple in one piece,” Deirdre says. “In the meantime, who wants to give me her palm first?”

Fiona scoots over to the coffeetable and gives her sister her hand while Justine is in the kitchen peeling an apple in one unbroken piece.  Deirdre tells her the names of the major lines and mounts, followed by an analysis of the shape, size, and appearance of her hands, fingers, and fingernails.  They’re all laughing at Deirdre’s prediction that Fiona will have at least seven children when Justine returns with her apple peel.

“Does anyone else wanna try counting?” Deirdre asks. “I’m not sure if I’m seeing more than seven, or if somea the extra lines are broken segments of pre-existing lines.”

“Where are these lines?” Justine asks.

“Under the pinky.  They say that you’ll have as many kids as there are lines.” Deirdre gets up. “Close your eyes and I’ll spin you three times.  You toss the apple peel over your left shoulder after the last spin.”

“Are there any boys you like, Justine?” Emeline teases as Deirdre spins her. “Any names you’d like to tell us?”

“There are a couple of guys I fancy, but no one I’d be interested in getting serious with.  I’m having a hard time in somea my classes; the last thing I need is a relationship.”

“Are you failing?” Ernestine asks. “If you’re having difficulties, we might be able to help you.”

“I’m having problems too,” Aoife confesses. “They’re nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Justine throws the apple peel over her left shoulder and holds onto Deirdre for support, her eyes still closed.

“Is that an O?” Emeline asks. “Or maybe a G?”

“I think it’s a U or a V,” Fiona says.

“Oh, brother,” Deirdre says. “That looks like a D to me.”

Justine blushes. “Even if this stuff is for real and not just a parlor game, I’m still five years younger than David.”

“You’ll be old enough for him someday,” Adicia says. “Age differences aren’t so big when you get older.”

“Can we try tasseography now?” Ernestine asks. “I’m mad with curiosity to see if you can see anything concrete in a bunch of loose tea leaves.”

“Maybe you can have some candy with the tea,” Deirdre encourages her. “Do you have a preference for tea?”

“Raspberry green tea with honey, please.”

Deirdre picks up where she left off with reading Fiona’s palm while the water heats up and Emeline pulls out teacups, saucers, the wooden box of teas, and the blue cast iron teapot with a butterfly motif.  Ernestine thumbs through one of her fortune-telling books as she waits.

“This line right above the Heart Line and under the index and ring fingers is the Girdle of Venus,” Deirdre says as Ernestine sips the tea. “It’s usually found in people who are extremely sensitive.  This marking between the Head and Heart Lines is La Croix Mystique.  It means you’ve got a natural gift for mysticism and the occult.”

“That’s groovy,” Fiona says.

Ernestine sets down her teacup midway through her drink and reaches for her pillowcase, hoping to pull out a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, a bag of M&Ms, or a Snickers.  Instead she finds the wooden box on top of her sack of loot.  Curious, she pulls it out and examines it.

“Did anyone else get something like this?  Don’t tell me it’s from some dentist who gave out boxes of coins ‘steada real candy.  We had some awful killjoy back in Poughkeepsie who gave out toothbrushes every Halloween.”

“At least you can do something with money,” Aoife says. “The worst are the dentists and health nuts who give out apples.  Who wants an apple on Halloween?”

Ernestine pulls the box open and finds a folded note propped up on a slight angle.  Even more curious, she sets the box down, neglecting to notice the ring, and reads the note.

My belovèd Ernestine Zénobie Troy, you are my best friend, my life, my soul, my heart, the only best friend and life partner I want for the entire rest of my earthly existence.  We promised this to each other six years ago, but now I’m formally, officially asking you again if you’ll be my best friend, my dear one, my partner through life, even until we’re seventy, and beyond if we live so long.  We’ve been inseparable and interconnected since we were kids, and now I want to make things permanent by having a handfasting ceremony binding us together as wives.  Will you please make my world complete by telling me you’ll marry me?  Love forever and always, Deirdre Apollonia Ryan, Halloween 1974.’”

Deirdre looks at her expectantly. She knows full well what the answer will be, but is unable to breathe until she knows for sure.  Ernestine sets the note on the table and turns her attention back to the little box, letting out a loud, excited scream when she sees the brilliant red garnet in the claddagh setting.

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“Yes, of course I’ll marry you, Deirdre!  I’ll belong to you forever!” She jumps up and throws her shaking arms around Deirdre. “Would you like to put the ring on for me?”

Deirdre slips it onto Ernestine’s left hand. “I knew it’d fit you perfectly!”

“This is awesome!” Justine says. “Now you’re gonna be our real sister-in-law, and Fiona and Aoife are gonna be our sisters too!”

“It’ll be so nice to officially be family,” Deirdre says. “Ernestine, how about a June wedding, after finals and papers?”

“June is fine by me!”

“Can we start planning the wedding tomorrow?” Aoife asks. “Is it in good taste for us to reuse our bridesmaid dresses from Adicia and Ricky’s renewal?”

“You can if you want, but it’s always nice to have new clothes for a special occasion if you can afford them.  At the very least, Deirdre and I will have to look for wedding dresses.  I’d love to go back to Mrs. Marsenko’s salon.”

“Better book the appointment for an entire day,” Fiona says. “You know how much Deirdre hates formal clothes.  I bet she’ll try to get away with wearing hot pink, turquoise, or electric green.”

“I’ll have to take you to look for your own engagement ring tomorrow, darling,” Ernestine says. “Does anyone wanna look at how gorgeous my ring is?”

“We all saw it already, but not on your hand,” Adicia confesses.

“Well, I didn’t see it,” Emeline says.

Ernestine giddily dances over to her and thrusts her hand in Emeline’s face.

“Rubies were too expensive, but I know red is your favorite,” Deirdre says. “That’s called a claddagh.  It’s very traditionally Irish.  It represents love, loyalty, and friendship.”

“Very pretty,” Emeline says. “I’m kinda jealous.”

“You’ll get a fellow someday, if you want it enough,” Adicia tries to cheer her up. “Why don’t you try onea those divination games to see if you’re gonna get a fellow within the year, or what the first letter of his name might be?”

“If you walk out the door backwards at night, pick some grass, and put it under your pillow, you’ll dream of your future husband,” Fiona says. “If you eat a dry crust of bread at night, any wish will come true.”

“You can also wear your night clothes inside-out to dream of your future spouse,” Ernestine says, still admiring her ring.

“I don’t wear anything to bed mosta the time,” Emeline confesses.

The others look at her in surprise, barely able to imagine Emeline of all people, the stereotypical quiet, shy librarian, routinely sleeping in the nude.  Justine and Aoife are unable to contain their giggles.

“Well, you know what they say about those quiet ones!” Emeline giggles a little herself. “When it’s really hot, who needs pajamas or sheets if you’re the only one around?  I pulled it off a couple of times at Vassar when my roommate was there, by maneuvering just so.  She never suspected anything.”

“Does anyone else know this?” Deirdre asks.

“I told Lenore awhile ago, and she was kinda blown away too, but she thinks it’s my own personal business.  Speaking of, don’t you think it’s a good idea to go over and tell her and Allen your exciting news?”

“Oh, we will, but first we can do another divination game,” Ernestine says. “You crack an egg, separate the white, and put the white in a bowl of water.  If it floats, you’ll soon be married, or you’ll continue to be happy in an existing relationship.  If it sinks, you’ll be alone for the next year.”

While Deirdre fills a bowl with water and separates a yolk and white into little bowls, Justine gets a piece of paper and starts doing some calculations while Aoife and Fiona dig into their candy.

“What are you doing math for?” Aoife asks.

“I’m figuring out when David and I won’t break the half plus seven rule.  I’ll be nineteen and he’ll be twenty-four.”

“Oh, boy, if only my brother knew what a big crush you have on him,” Aoife says. “Even if he were interested, it’s kinda lowlife for a guy in his twenties to date a teen girl.”

“Lenore was eighteen and Allen was twenty-one when they got together.”

“There’s a smaller difference between eighteen and twenty-one than there is between nineteen and twenty-four,” Emeline says.

Deirdre presents her with the bowl of water and the bowl with the egg white. “Have at it.”

Emeline pours the white into the water, and her heart sinks when the white immediately sinks to the bottom.  She’s not entirely surprised, and knows it’s only a game, but is still a little offended the negative outcome attributed to this superstition had to present itself immediately.  At least the white could’ve floated around for a little bit on a gradual descent to the bottom.

“Remember, you always told us the right guy’s worth waiting for, and that your future spouse will be even more special and appreciated if you had to wait a really long time for him,” Adicia tries to cheer her up, seeing the look on her face.

“Never mind this silly egg white,” Ernestine says. “We’ve got some calls to make.  After Lenore and Lucine,  we’ll call Sarah, David, Julie, Betsy, Mr. and Mrs. van Niftrik, and Gemma.”

“I hope they don’t care how late it is,” Deirdre says.

“That’s a valid point.  Why don’t we hold off breaking the news till tomorrow?  For now it’s just between us.  Why don’t we get back to divination now?”

“Oh, come on, don’t you wanna enjoy some post-engagement sex?” Fiona asks. “We won’t mind if yous guys retire early and leave us without our resident divination experts.”

“Not with all of yous knowing that’s what we’ll be doing!” Ernestine hopes she isn’t turning too red. “It was bad enough when my own parents did that without caring we walked in on them or overheard them!”

“Unless one or both of yous is having her monthly visitor, I’m pretty sure we all know you’ll be doing that anyway after you hit the hay.”

“Yeah, we’re all ladies here,” Justine says.

“We’re not going upstairs to have celebratory engagement sex,” Ernestine reiterates firmly.

“We don’t mind if we overhear anything,” Fiona says. “It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve overheard you.  Though I don’t know if sound carries as far downstairs as it does down the hall.  Me, Justine, and Aoife have overheard Adicia and Ricky doing it too, and we’re not embarrassed to look them in the face afterwards either.”

“This conversation is over,” Ernestine declares. “Now where were we with divination?”

Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part III

There’s nothing better than good old-fashioned time in a writer’s journey. We become better writers with the passage of time, and learn what our weaknesses are and how to edit our work. Excellent, experienced critique partners and the most esteemed editor in the world telling us such-and-such is awkward phrasing, an overused word, cluttery chat, overwrought prose, or infodumpy dialogue won’t mean anything if it doesn’t click in our brains. We have to see it for ourselves, not merely be told it’s a problem. Only then can we begin to understand how to improve.

Thus, I noticed a number of shortcomings while editing the second edition of Little Ragdoll. In addition to what I’ve previously mentioned, I also found:

1. Rehashing established information. We already know, for example, everything good Allen has done for Lenore since he gave her a safe place to stay when she was a 15-year-old runaway. Why be reminded of the main points every time Lenore reflects on or talks about their history together?

We also already know all the good things Father and Mrs. Murphy up in Yorkville have done for Lucine and Emeline, and how they adopted oldest sister Gemma’s birth son Giovanni after she divorced her abusive, unwanted husband and started over. There’s no need to be reminded again and again.

2. Pointless, cluttery chat adding nothing to the scene, or coming across like me putting my own viewpoints into characters’ mouths. At one point, Allen is talking about how his parents were very upset when Giovanni was adopted and taken out of their clutches, since they’d been planning to sell him for at least $1,000 on the baby black market. There’s no need to point that out when we already know how black-hearted they are and why Allen doesn’t want them coming anywhere near his kids.

In another scene, when Ernestine, Julie, and the three oldest Ryan siblings are comforting Adicia after her black-hearted, unmotherly mother coerced her into sacrificing her virginity to save her mother from returning to prison, Ernestine and Girl/Deirdre get into a discussion about the repackaging of Beatles’ albums. Though Adicia snaps at them to have this conversation later, and they apologize, it’s still really inappropriate they began discussing that during such an emotional time.

3. If a character is meant as an intellectual or someone very political, make sure that naturally flows with the overall direction of a scene or dialogue. Emeline just wouldn’t be the same Emeline if she didn’t constantly bubble over with chatter about books, philosophy, music, Eastern religions, and vegetarianism. Likewise, Girl/Deirdre, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Ernestine wouldn’t be the same if they weren’t so tuned into politics and social issues. They have to be discussing that for a reason, not out of the blue.

4. Some dialogues and passages don’t lose anything, and are made stronger, by cutting out the fat. This goes for removing overwrought prose, too many details, unnecessary lines, rehashing established information, and polemics which sound more like the author trying to work one’s opinions in than a character naturally expressing such thoughts.

In the scene of Ernestine and the Ryans riding up to Hudson Falls from Poughkeepsie for Thanksgiving 1972, I cut out everything Deirdre said about a certain topic. Now, Adicia begs to talk about something else after she feels Deirdre’s scathing critique of this subject is finished. I similarly cut out the dialogue Ernestine and Deirdre have when revisiting this subject during baking on Christmas Eve.

5. When a story is set during a very political time, conversations of a political nature are kind of inevitable. The first time the subject of the Vietnam War is broached, it leads into Lenore hoping Allen isn’t drafted, and then turns into the girls planning what Lenore will get Allen for his upcoming 21st birthday and trying to get Lenore to admit she has a crush on Allen.

Chapter 37, “The Year the World Went Up in Flames,” is about 1968, and so it naturally follows there will be discussions about things like the presidential election, RFK’s assassination, the feminist protests by the Miss America pageant, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Were I only starting over with this story today, I’d write certain things differently, maybe change wraparound narrative passages into active scenes. Part I in particular might be drastically different. But this is how the story came together, and I can’t alter everything in the impossible quest for perfection.

50th Anniversary Special

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America (7 February) and their first appearance on Ed Sullivan (9 February), I decided to share the entirety of Chapter 25, “Ernestine and Girl Are Beatlemaniacs,” from Little Ragdoll. I posted the Ed Sullivan section for Sweet Saturday Samples awhile ago, but not the whole chapter. That was also before I wrote in left-handedness for a number of the characters, so that original post was missing the children’s excited discovery that Paul is a lefty.

Ernestine, Girl, and Betsy are almost 12; Julie is almost 10; Boy is 9; Baby is almost 7; and Infant is almost 5.

***

“Wanna come over to my place and watch Ed Sullivan?” Betsy asks Ernestine as they’re playing Aggravation, which Betsy brought over for them to play this Sunday afternoon.

“You mean watch television?” Julie asks excitedly. “Sure, I’d watch anything on television, even if it was just a station pattern!”

“I’ve never watched television except for in store windows,” Ernestine says longingly. “Isn’t Ed Sullivan a variety show, from what I’ve heard?”

“He has on musical acts.  It’s on every Sunday at eight o’clock.  Tonight he’s having on a British group called The Beatles.  They have the number one record in America right now.  I have their single.  It’s called ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ and it’s very good.  I can bring it over and play it on your record player now, unless you wanna wait for the show tonight.”

“We haven’t even thought about buying popular records yet,” Girl says. “We’ve been waiting to break even with our begging and odd job money before buying stuff we don’t need to get by.”

“I don’t wanna miss it.  I’ve been waiting to see this group in person since December.  All of you are welcome to come over tonight to watch it with me.  My parents will make us popcorn and egg creams.”

“It might be fun,” Ernestine concedes. “We do need a break from being miniature grownups sometimes.”

“What kinda music do they make?” Boy asks. “I hope it ain’t like this boring Pat Boone stuff the former owners left behind.”

“They do rock music,” Betsy says. “Like The Beach Boys or The Four Seasons.  You remember we’ve listened to some of those records when you’ve been over to my place, and you liked them.”

“I remember my oldest sister Gemma useta play Elvis records sometimes,” Ernestine says. “Our parents thought he sounded like a cat in heat, whatever that means.  Gemma’s ex-husband said he couldn’t sing or act his way out of a paper bag, which is a funny expression I don’t know the meaning of either.  She had some popular records by Negro singers too, even though our parents don’t approve of Negroes.”

“Oh, they don’t sound like Elvis.  I’m not such a big Elvis fan myself.  My favorites are still The Four Seasons.  Elvis seems like a nice guy, but his old records aren’t my style.  The records he cuts now are kinda boring, like he sold out to the people who useta complain he was too rough around the edges.”

“Your parents are pretty neat for letting you buy and listen to popular rock music,” Girl says. “I’ve heard a lot of parents don’t approve of modern popular music.”

“My parents don’t even care yous guys are squatting.  They’re very open-minded and progressive about almost everything.”

Infant reaches for a grape in the bowl of fruit on the coffeetable. “Will we really get to watch a real television tonight?”

“Yes, we’ll watch television for the first time in our lives,” Girl tells her smilingly. “We’re going to watch a popular music group from England.”

“Where’s England?” Baby asks.

“It’s across the ocean from us,” Ernestine says. “It’s an island that’s part of Europe.  There are two other countries on the same island, Scotland and Wales.  England is in the middle.  Together with Northern Ireland, they make up Great Britain.  Betsy, do you know where in England this group is from?”

“Liverpool.  It’s a sailing city on the coast and along the Mersey River.”

“I don’t remember if I’ve ever heard a British accent before,” Girl says. “I only remember that one of the grownups at the squat once said an English person can make a shopping list sound like Shakespeare.”

“What’s Shakespeare?” Infant asks.

“He was the greatest writer of all time, at least in the English language,” Ernestine says. “At least that’s what I’ve heard.  Emeline and Lucine had to read some of his sonnets and plays in their English classes, and they said it was almost impossible to understand what he was saying without a lot of footnotes.  He wrote in a form of English we don’t use anymore.  Emeline said his appeal over the centuries is more about how he was a writer for all time, with characters and stories that seem real in any era or place.”

“English people also drop their Rs and use long As,” Betsy says. “They have some funny pronunciations of words too, my mother said, like how they say ‘aluminum’ with five syllables instead of four, and pronounce schedule ‘shedule.’”

“Do you know how old they are?” Julie asks.

“I’ve seen some pictures.  They’re pretty young.  Early twenties, I think.  They’re pretty cute too.”

“So they’re a little older than Allen,” Ernestine says.

“Your big brother is cute.  Do you have any other brothers where he came from?”

“My oldest brother Carlos is gonna be twenty-one this month.  He’s a cripple.  Then I have a little brother, Tommy, who turns eight this month.  He’s the spoilt brat of spoilt brats.  Allen’s the only one with a lick of sense or decency.”

“Isn’t Carlos a Spanish name?  What’s the story with giving him a name that doesn’t match with the rest of your names?”

“Who knows what my mother was thinking when she named him.  She doesn’t even like Spanish people, though apparently she doesn’t hate them enough to have refrained from using a Spanish name for her oldest son.”

“Why is he crippled?  Did he catch polio, or was he born crippled?”

“He was in an accident at work in July of ’62.  A car fell on top of him and crushed his spinal column.  He was going in and out of his senses for a long time and only regained his senses a couple of months ago.  I hear he’s going crazy now on account of realizing what happened to him and that he’ll be in a wheelchair the rest of his sorry life.”

“He’s not just any cripple, but paralyzed too,” Girl jumps in. “Paralyzed people can’t even move their legs or anything else below where they was paralyzed.  If you’re paralyzed at the very top of your spine, that means you can’t even move your arms and don’t feel nothing below the neck.”

“Carlos was supposed to be arrested for arson, petty theft, and drugs, but the cops can’t do anything when he’s a helpless hospital patient.  I feel bad for him for being crippled so young, but he was never gonna amount to anything anyway.  It’s not some huge loss to society that he’s a permanent cripple and invalid.  All he did was sell drugs and work low-paying jobs where he tried to get away with stealing.  He was fired from his first job for eating cereal off the conveyer belt, and at his second job, the one where he had the accident, he was found out for stealing stuff from people’s cars.”

“No wonder you don’t want anything to do with certain people in your family,” Betsy says. “I’d move out young too if I were you.”

“Is there enough room for all of us to watch television?” Baby asks. “A davenport only seats three or four people, and the rest of us would have to sit on the floor.  I don’t wanna sit on the floor my very first time watching television.”

“My dad sits in his recliner and my mom has her own cushioned chair.  Julie, Ernestine, and Girl can sit on the davenport with me, and we can find some soft cushions for Boy, Baby, and Infant to sit on.”

“I can’t wait!” Infant says excitedly.

***

A little before 8:00 that night, the six of them trot across the hall and into the van Niftriks’ apartment to watch Ed Sullivan.  Betsy shows Girl, Ernestine, and Julie some newspaper articles she cut out about the British group that’s going to be on the show tonight.  The girls think they kind of look similar, since they all have brown hair and the same haircut, but they agree with Betsy that they are pretty cute.  Betsy is a little surprised they have haircuts on the long side for a man, but Ernestine tells her there were a number of men with hair that long back in the West Village and Greenwich Village.  Mrs. Troy would probably lecture them about being interested in male singers with long hair, but thankfully she’s not here now to spoil their fun.  Someone who was born in 1923 doesn’t know jack about what’s popular nowadays, anyway.

“Here they are!” Betsy shouts as Mr. Sullivan is introducing them.

She and the other three girls on the davenport sit at rapt attention as the band begins their first song, “All My Loving.” Girl’s eyes light up when she realizes the bass player is a lefty, and she turns to Ernestine and her siblings with a huge smile.  Ernestine and the younger Ryans are thrilled to see one of their own in such a public venue, and to see some grownups who stayed true to their left-handedness instead of giving in to attempts to shame and bully them out of their natural inclination.

Ernestine thinks it’s pretty rude how the majority of the girls in the studio audience are screaming.  Even if you really like a band and are excited to see them perform, that’s no excuse for screaming nonstop.  They’re probably screaming over the entire performance and making it hard for the band to hear themselves play, and are missing the entire show because all they’re doing is screaming.

During the next song, a cover of what Mrs. van Niftrik says is a Broadway tune, “Till There Was You,” there are close-ups of each member of the band, providing each one’s name.  Ernestine rolls her eyes when a caption appears under John’s name, saying, “Sorry girls, he’s married.” As though any of the girls in the audience or watching at home stand a chance of marrying someone that much older and that famous.  She and Girl both think he’s the handsomest, besides, married man or not.  The others are cute, but John seems to have a more mature face, like a handsome adult man, not a man still carrying the look of a cute, soft-faced boy into early adulthood.  Girl also feels a special energy coming from him, an aura she has a very good feeling about.

After the third song, “She Loves You,” there’s a commercial break, and then a magician named Fred Kaps performs some tricks.  Infant and Baby are more interested in the magic tricks than in The Beatles.  Boy seems more interested in the tricks too, feeling the musical stars of the evening are more for girls.

Performing next are some of the members of the play Oliver!  After the opening musical act, Ernestine and her friends can’t help but feel bored and anxious for The Beatles to return.  A day ago, they never would’ve been so picky about what they did or didn’t watch on television, never having watched it before, but now everything seems somehow different, like a special kind of magic has been worked upon them by these cute visitors from across the ocean.

Finally The Beatles return and sing “I Saw Her Standing There.” Julie decides she thinks Paul is the cutest one during this song.  Their final song of the evening is the one Betsy told them about, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Ernestine, Julie, and Girl think it does sound fantastic, and hope they can buy their own copy if they can hustle up enough money after they’ve bought some food for the week.

The final performers of the night are Wells and The Four Fays, who do some kind of comedy routine.  The four girls on the davenport barely care about them at this point.  All they can think about are the four cute young British musicians who just stole their hearts and did something to them they can’t find words to explain.  All they know is they feel really different now.

“I don’t feel sad anymore,” Ernestine announces. “There’s been such a black cloud hanging over everyone since we lost President Kennedy, but now it’s like the bad spell has been broken.”

“I think I feel the same way,” Betsy agrees.

“Do they have a full LP do you know?” Girl asks. “After tonight, I could listen to those fellows singing the phonebook!”

“They have an album called Meet The Beatles.  I’ve been saving up my money so I can buy it.  LPs are about three bucks, two bucks more than a single, but I like them so much I don’t care how much I have to pay.”

“When can we see them again?” Julie begs.

“I think they’re going to be on again next week.”

“Can we come over again next Sunday night, Mr. and Mrs. van Niftrik?” Girl asks.

“You girls are welcome anytime you like,” Mrs. van Niftrik tells them.

“Do you have a favorite yet, Betsy?” Ernestine asks. “I like John.”

“So do I!” Girl says. “We haven’t been best friends for almost two years for nothing!  It’s like we’re sharing a brain at this point!”

“I don’t know who my favorite is yet,” Betsy says. “I think I’ll have to see them again and read a little more about them before I make my decision.”

“Paul is cute,” Julie says. “He has pretty eyes.”

“I didn’t know you was into that girly stuff,” Boy says.

“What, just because we don’t do other girly stuff doesn’t mean we can’t do one girly thing in our lives?” Girl challenges him. “Why can’t we fawn over cute guys in a band?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking this happy, Julie,” Ernestine says. “I guess the special magic these guys brought over the ocean with them healed even you.”

“Maybe we can even see them in concert!” Betsy says. “I’m sure they’ll be playing here in New York.  After all, they’re right here in the city as we speak, right in the CBS studio.”

“Maybe if they’re here over the summer, you can go to a show as a summer vacation present,” Mr. van Niftrik says. “You do deserve something nice as a reward for your upcoming sixth grade graduation.”

“That would be the best present ever, Dad!”

“We’ll start stepping up our begging and odd jobs to earn money for our own concert tickets!” Girl says with bright eyes.

She, Ernestine, Julie, and Betsy look around at one another with happy expressions and the same special feeling in their souls.  They have no idea exactly what just happened, but they do know they’re never going to be the same again after tonight.

Sweet Saturday Samples—1965 Blackout Continued

I’m continuing in Sweet Saturday Samples this week with more of the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. This time the spotlight is on 13-year-old Ernestine in the Meatpacking District. Ernestine reaches a milestone at the mother of all inconvenient times.

***

Ernestine is fumbling around for some matches or a flashlight when she feels as though she’s wet herself.  Hoping against hope it’s not what she dreads it is, and at this worst of all possible times, she dashes out to the fire escape and looks around for people standing on nearby fire escapes or down on the street.  When the coast is clear, she pulls down her skirt and underwear.  In the bright light of the full moon, she sees what looks like a colored stain and lets out an angry shout.

Girl comes running out onto the fire escape after her. “Ernestine, what in the world are you doing with the bottom half of your clothes down where everyone could see you?  Even I ain’t so into the mystical and unexplained that I’d believe people go nuts with a full moon.”

“Look at this,” Ernestine whispers in mortification. “I’m having my first period.  Damn, I wish I could just hang out on this fire escape all night and bleed onto it.  At least then no one would know what I was doing.”

Girl puts her arm around her. “I know it stinks.  Pull your clothes back up and we’ll go across the hall to Mrs. van Niftrik.  She helped me when I got mine back in June.”

“Can’t I just spend all night sitting on the toilet?” Ernestine begs in mortification. “I don’t like the idea of anyone else knowing.”

“What if someone else needed to use it?  They’d wonder what you was doing in there so long.  And you know Boy would be embarrassed beyond belief if he was told you was in there all night ‘cause you were menstruating.  I don’t envy him, the only guy in a household full of girls.”

“Then I can sit on onea the buckets we use for washing windshields in the warmer months, and just switch buckets if I fill one up all the way.”

“Even I think that’s gross.  Come on, Mrs. van Niftrik was a girl once.  She knows how to handle this.  I keep the cloth sanitary napkins I made in a purple laundry bag in the bathroom closet.  Yours are in a smaller blue laundry bag within the big laundry bag, ‘cause it ain’t healthy to share something as personal as that.  We’ll just take ‘em over to Mrs. van Niftrik and let her do the rest.”

Ernestine feels herself blushing in the dark as Girl leads her over to the bathroom and pulls out the blue laundry bag, then takes her by the hand and slowly makes her way over to the van Niftriks’ apartment.  The other four residents assume they’re just going to borrow a flashlight or something and don’t question why they’re leaving.

“We’re glad to see you, girls,” Mrs. van Niftrik smiles at them when she opens the door. “We were just wondering how you all were making out with the power outage.  You can all come over and keep us company if you want.  Mr. van Niftrik isn’t home yet.  I assume he’s trapped in the subway with all those other poor people.”

“Ernestine needs your help the same way I needed your help in June,” Girl says. “She just started to menstruate.”

Ernestine hangs her head in shame.

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, dear,” Mrs. van Niftrik tries to reassure her. “All normal girls have that happen at about your age.  It’s a normal part of growing up, and it means everything is working just as it should.  I know it’s inconvenient and that you don’t always feel your best during this time, but just think, this is your body’s way of preparing for having a baby when you’re a grownup.”

“But normal girls don’t have babies as teenagers anymore,” Ernestine protests as Mrs. van Niftrik ushers them inside. “Why couldn’t our bodies evolve to do that when we’re eighteen or twenty-one instead of twelve or thirteen?  I don’t want all those years of menstruation when I’m not even old enough to get married or have a baby.  My ten-greats-grandma probably got married and had her first kid at my age!”

“I’m not looking forward to my first one either,” Betsy admits. “That filmstrip we saw in sixth grade just made me even more confused and scared about what’s gonna happen, and so did that silly booklet.  Why am I supposed to look forward to something so annoying and cherish it as some magical, special part of becoming a young lady?  Those dumb booklets were written by people who think all girls in junior high are wearing their first makeup and going on dates.  I’m not even allowed to wear makeup till I’m sixteen, and I can’t go on a date till I’m in high school.”

“Well, complaining about it won’t make it go away, will it?” Mrs. van Niftrik asks. “I’ll help fix Ernestine up, and then we’ll all have some roasted marshmallows and chocolate bars.”

Sweet Saturday Samples

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples comes from Chapter 35 of Little Ragdoll, “Welcoming a New Troy.” While Allen and Lenore are having their first meeting with their prospective midwife in March of 1967, Adicia and her sisters make a joyful discovery in the midwife’s photo album.

***

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Troy,” she says, shaking their hands. “I’m Veronica Zoravkov and I hope I can be your midwife when the time comes.  I’ll give you a chance to talk with me about what you’d like out of your birth experience, what your expectations are, and what your plans are if you need to be transferred to the hospital, but first introduce me to everybody.  Are all these girls going to be present at the birth?”

“I ain’t no girl!” Boy protests. “Just ‘cause I’m the only guy in a group of girls don’t mean my maleness don’t count!”

“These are my younger sisters, Ernestine, Adicia, and Justine,” Allen indicates. “Those are my sisters’ friends, Julie and the Ryans.  Their parents called them Girl, Boy, Baby, and Infant, though they decided on some real names, I think, for when they go into wider society when they’re older.”

“Deirdre,” Girl reminds him. “My brother is David, Baby is Fiona, and Infant is Aoife, or Eva.”

“Are you a Miss or a Mrs.?” Adicia asks.

“Just call me Veronica.  We’re all friends here.  I probably won’t answer if you call me Mrs. Zoravkov anyway, since only people who don’t personally know me address me by my title instead of my first name.”

“Is that a Russian name?” Julie asks.

“Bulgarian.  My maiden name was Bulgarian too.  I wanted to marry another Bulgarian-American to keep my heritage alive instead of diluting it, since I’m so proud of where I come from.”

“Where’s Bulgaria?” Infant asks. “Is it very far away?”

“It’s on the Black Sea,” Ernestine says. “It’s in Southeastern Europe, in an area called the Balkans.  It borders Romania, Greece, and Yugoslavia.”

“What’s in your picture book?” Justine asks. “Can we look at it?”

“They’re pictures of past clients and their babies. If your brother and sister-in-law choose me and everything goes well, their pictures will be in here too come June.  It’s meant to reassure my prospective clients that normal people just like them have had their babies with a midwife, and that everything turns out alright in the majority of cases.  Of course, if the baby’s breech, we’ll have to take you to the hospital.”

“What’s a breech?” Baby asks.

“It’s when the baby is facing the wrong way,” Girl explains. “Babies are supposed to be born head-first, but sometimes they come out with their feet or rear end facing first.”

While Allen and Lenore are chatting with Veronica, the girls look at the pictures in the album.  A number of times they express surprise that the newly-born babies look rather unattractive instead of all cute, cuddly, and cleaned-up.  The people in the pictures look like normal people, just as Veronica said.  They don’t look like oddballs, but rather people they might pass in the street and not assume any anti-establishment thoughts about.

Allen looks over at them questioningly when there hasn’t been a peep out of them for more than several minutes.  Adicia, Ernestine, and Justine in particular are bent over one page, looking intently at one photograph.

“What’s so interesting?” he asks. “Something we should be alarmed about?”

“Sarah!” Adicia shouts. “It’s Sarah!  She’s in a picture!”

“You’ll have to tell me more details,” Veronica says. “Sarah is a common enough name that I know I’ve delivered more than a few.  Most of my Sarahs didn’t pronounce it with a long A, though.”

“Sarah Katz, our nanny till our mean mother fired her in June of ’62! She was born in Germany and came to America in ’47.  I know it’s our Sarah.  Even the tattoo on this woman’s arm has the same numbers as our Sarah’s tattoo.”

Ernestine brings the book over to show Allen, and his jaw drops when he too recognizes the face of the woman who helped to raise him since he was three years old.  Since he wasn’t as close to her as his sisters were, he wouldn’t know if the tattoo bears the exact same numbers, but he does see a serial number tattooed on this woman’s left forearm.

“I remember that woman.  Her name is Sarah with a long A, and her last name is still Katz.  I think she’s the only woman I’ve ever delivered who had a different last name from her husband.  She said after all she went through under the Nazis, may they all burn in Hell for what they did to so many innocent people, she couldn’t dream of giving up the identity she had when she survived.  She also said she was the only member of her family to survive, so it was doubly important to her to hold onto her original name.  Her husband’s name is Henry Rosen, short for Heinrich.  She was one of the oldest first-time mothers I’ve ever worked with.  I delivered her son Friedrich in August of ’65, when she was thirty-eight.  She called him Fritz for short, after her father.  She’s expecting another child now, and wants me to deliver her again.”

“Sarah finally found a husband and had her own baby!” Justine says happily. “Our mother wouldn’t let her even go back to school.  The bad guys in Germany kicked her out of public school when she was fourteen, so she never went to high school or college.  And then she had to spend all her time taking care of us, so she was never able to really do anything else.  Our mother wouldn’t have let her go on dates, get married, or have a baby anyway.”