Susan Pick

When I was in high school, my expository composition teacher told me I was “an OK writer,” but I shouldn’t “try to make a living at it.” Four years later, after earning a BA in English, I didn’t set out on my corporate communications career to prove Mr. Panella wrong, but I did like writing enough to spend my days working on newsletters, brochures, news releases, and website content. In other words, I made a pretty good living as a writer. I wish I could tell you I courageously turned my back on corporate America to pursue my dream of becoming a novelist, of writing creatively, of telling my own stories instead of the ones that fit my employer’s or client's PR narrative. The truth is, I’ve come to this aspiring novelist stage relatively late in life, after experiencing burn out, getting laid off, and becoming a stay-at-home mom. My son left for college last fall, so I have more time to focus on the kind of writing I have always wanted to do. I've completed one novel, made progress on a second, begun outlining a third, and written a short story that was awarded Eighth Place in the 2021 Writers Digest Annual Writing Competition.

Award Type
Madeline must face her most crushing memories when she returns to her childhood home for her father’s funeral. She fled the house, the town and her family to create a life on her own terms. But as so many of us learn, our families form the foundation we build our lives on, whether we know it or not.
Cracking Wise
Logline
Madeline must face her most crushing memories when she returns to her childhood home for her father’s funeral. She fled the house, the town and her family to create a life on her own terms. But as so many of us learn, our families form the foundation we build our lives on, whether we know it or not.
My Submission

1998

         I cracked up all the way through my father’s funeral. It was his own fault.

         Ask anyone who knew him what they remember about Arthur and they’ll say that he was funny, he had a quick wit, he could always make you laugh. He built that reputation one zinger at a time, usually delivered behind the back of the person he was laughing at. Reaching into a toolbox of one-liners, he easily and ruthlessly tore down unsuspecting people who were just trying to be nice.

         Arthur took particular pride in his funeral jokes. Even on some of the saddest occasions, my siblings and I would be forced to regain our composure quickly after our father delivered one of his famous wisecracks into the nearest ear. It was one of the few times I could afford to laugh because I wasn’t his target. At our great uncle’s funeral, my father heard someone say, “He looks so natural,” and he whispered to my sister Julie, “So he looked dead all his life?” At the funeral home before the service for one of my mother’s friends, someone remarked that “she looked good.” “Well, she should look good,” Arthur muttered for only us to hear. “She just got out of the hospital.”

         As we gathered for calling hours the night before my father’s memorial service, his secretary greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and said, “Arthur looks so peaceful, so natural.” I’m sure she thought she was being kind. Betty worked for our family business for forty years, first as my grandfather’s secretary before Arthur inherited her services. Even after what most people would consider a major betrayal, she was so loyal to our family that she still sent us all Christmas cards, gave Julie an extravagant baby gift when her son was born, even wrote Letters to the Editor fondly remembering her years working for Cutler Enterprises. She had also been on the receiving end of his cruel and sarcastic sense of humor; she just didn’t know it. So I felt especially guilty as I suppressed my giggles at her “so natural” comment. I didn’t dare say a word, much less make eye contact with Julie or Trip, because I knew our laughter would explode. So I just nodded and gripped Betty’s hand, pretending I was too overcome with emotion to respond.

         A moment later, I glanced at Julie. Her eyes were squeezed shut, her hand was covering her mouth, and her shoulders were shaking. By the smug look on my brother’s face, I could tell he had dealt the blow. “Dead all his life?” I mumbled, hoping no one else would hear. Julie managed to nod and turned to head for the ladies room.

         “You just couldn’t resist, could you?” I scolded Trip as I watched the crowd sympathetically clear a path for Julie. They assumed she was either crying or hurrying to the bathroom because of her pregnancy, or both.

         “Dad would’ve wanted me to say it,” Trip shrugged. “In fact, he would have been disappointed if I hadn’t. Come on, you were thinking it, too.” True on all counts.       

         The next day, we were called “Arthur’s brave children” as we all sat in the front pew of the same church where my parents got married, where our mother dutifully brought the three of us to Sunday School every week as Arthur slept in, where Julie and I had been scared into sitting absolutely still and silent during our grandmother’s funeral. A church that, had my father died during Cutler Enterprises’ prosperous years, might have been more crowded with employees, clients, even retirees who respected him once filling up the pews. Now his family, his remaining friends and a few former employees were listening to a long-winded eulogy about a “compassionate civic leader” and a “trusted friend” and a “devoted, loving husband and father,” all from a parish priest who was doing his best despite not knowing his subject very well. As Revered Blake declared that Arthur had “literally built up this town by providing construction supplies for two generations,” I was suddenly seized by the absurdity of it all, and I could no longer suppress my laughter. Maybe the rest of the world had been deceived into thinking Arthur was any of those things, but his wife and children had known better. Later, people would probably charitably pretend to believe that my shoulders were shaking with sobs, not laughter. Some of them would nod sympathetically, saying that we all react to grief in different ways. That maybe Madeline had inherited Arthur’s unusual sense of humor.

         The week before, when my caller ID showed Julie’s name and number, my hand was shaking even before I touched the receiver. She hardly ever used the phone to contact me anymore, so this couldn’t be good news.

         “Hey Jules,” I said. “What’s up?”

         “I’m sorry to call you so early,” she began.

         “No problem. I was awake.”

         I heard her sigh before she carefully selected her words: “Dad is dead. He had a heart attack during the night.”

         After I hung up, I sat and stared into space for a long time, trying to determine exactly what I was feeling. At first, it felt as if all the recognizable and expected emotions—regret, grief, heartache, mourning—had fallen away and a kind of numbness was slowly building up in their place. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Arthur in nearly four years, and I made my peace with cutting off contact. Could I really be grieving for him, after all that happened between us? No, I knew enough about sadness to recognize it easily when it wrapped itself around my heart. There was a certain amount of dread, because I had to go back to that house and that town, but it was tinged with some relief that at least Arthur wouldn’t be there. Yes, that was the feeling—relief that for once, I wouldn’t have to deal with my father.

         Back at Arthur’s house after the funeral service, Julie pulled out all the stops, producing more than enough finger food, seemingly out of thin air, to feed the funeral-goers who were gathering in this familiar living room. Because that’s just what you do, right? When someone dies, you have the funeral and then a reception, and you feed the mourners with your very best efforts. Julie and I were well versed in “how it’s done.” In fact, we’d been through it just a few years before. So I wasn’t a bit surprised that she had planned and prepared, cooked and cleaned, and generally put a sparkle and shine on everything that had gone dull over the years. Just like she did when Mom died.

         I gazed around the room at people I had known since I was a little girl, my parents’ friends sitting on once elegant furniture that had faded with Arthur’s fortunes, reminiscing about dinner parties here that probably weren’t as much fun as they remembered, trying hard to focus on Arthur’s positive qualities. Julie’s husband Henry was pouring wine into the goblets of my mother’s wedding crystal set. My Uncle Ron took over Arthur’s usual seat, a winged back armchair, with its cushion caved in and its upholstery frayed and yellowed from all the years he spent sitting there smoking.

         Funny how I thought of this as Arthur’s house, even though three generations of Cutlers lived most of our lives here. My grandparents raised their two children in this house. Arthur brought his bride, my mother Virginia, here to be the lady of the house, a role my grandmother took her sweet time relinquishing. And then Arthur’s three offspring, two daughters and finally, the long-awaited, hoped-for son, all grew up in rooms that had barely changed since Arthur’s own childhood. Now the house was the only thing Arthur still owned outright, and it and its contents were the sum total of our inheritance.

         Detaching myself from the crowd, I watched Julie expertly acting the hostess. Even five months pregnant, my little sister was amazingly energetic. She mingled with the guests, kept the silver serving trays filled, and tended to her son Michael — all while showing the appropriate mix of grief and stiff upper lip. She accepted hugs and sincere condolences, listening to everyone’s favorite stories about Arthur. Julie acted so much like our mother, I could almost imagine being seven years old again, sneaking down the stairs to spy on another of Ginny and Arthur’s parties. Watching from the landing where it was dark, I marveled at my mother playing the perfect hostess, making every guest feel at home, accepting their compliments, flirting ever so subtly, and cooking up a storm. Seeing Julie now, I felt the same mixture of pride, envy and relief, knowing as I had even at age seven that I was never going to be the kind of perfect housewife that our mother was.     

         Julie’s friendly, easy going personality was identical to our mother’s, but her looks were all Arthur’s. As pretty as he was handsome, she got his dark hair and eyes and enviable olive complexion. Her lean body and long legs gave her a natural advantage in any sport she took up. Arthur liked to brag about her trophies, putting them on display in the living room where he could show them to his guests. Most of all, she had Arthur’s bright, disarming smile. When one of those smiles came over her face, her eyes would twinkle and her dimples—another gift from Arthur—would deepen in a way that could make the lucky recipient feel like the only person in the world. The big difference between Julie’s smile and Arthur’s, however, was that Julie’s always felt like an accomplishment, a reward for making her feel like smiling. Whenever my father smiled at me like that, it was because he was about to crush me.

         On the other side of the living room, I spotted Trip, drink in one hand, the other hand in the pocket of his suit jacket. It was the same classic gray wool suit I bought him for our mother’s funeral. He looked more like a schmoozing businessman than a grieving son. Of the three of us, I thought Trip would be the most broken up about Arthur’s death. Even though he had the biggest reason to be angry at Arthur, Trip continued to idolize him, to rationalize his actions, to want to emulate him, right down to the sarcastic jokes. But right now, he was showing no signs of being at all upset by our father’s death. Gesturing with his glass and leaning intently forward, he almost looked like he was trying to sell something to one of Arthur’s friends.

         Trip hadn’t inherited our mother’s gracious nature, the way Julie had. Instead, he got Mom’s looks. They both had an unusual grayish green tint to their eyes, a trait Mom always said was distinctive of the Burton family. When Trip got tinted contact lenses that took the color all the way to green, I think Mom was secretly hurt. And while Mom loved the natural wave in her hair that allowed her to maintain a style without a lot of setting lotions and curlers, Trip kept his fair hair cut short to control the curls. Today I noticed, as he took the last swig of his drink and excused himself to get a refill, that he was beginning to show a little bit of paunch around the middle. He would probably share our mom’s battle to control his weight, too. At least he wouldn’t have to endure Arthur’s constant scrutiny and cruel wisecracks.

         Turning away from Trip, I caught a glimpse of myself in the ornate gold framed mirror that had been hanging above the sofa my whole life. In any other reflective surface in any other place, I would see a grown woman looking confident and successful, with her grandmother’s bright blonde hair surrounding a pleasant face, constructed of features that never really favored either of her parents. Here, in the living room of my childhood home, I tended to see what was not there: I wasn’t pretty like my mother or athletic like my sister. The self-assurance that I created when I moved as far away from here as I could seemed to crumble away whenever I entered this house.

         “So how are you holding up?” My Aunt Elaine was studying me carefully. In spite of spending her childhood in her older brother’s shadow, Arthur’s sister was a remarkable woman. Younger than my father by a little more than a decade, she seemed to view him with a mixture of amusement and mistrust. She built a career and a life for herself away from Graverton and the family business, and I admired that so much. She was the one who showed me I could survive my childhood and gave me the courage to build my own life. I was always grateful for Aunt Elaine’s presence.

This house had been her home, too, but now she looked strangely out of place here, so fashionably dressed, so stylish, so graceful amid the faded glory of all this shabby furniture. Dark hair, like her brother’s, swept elegantly up the back of her head and her perfume making me just barely aware of its pleasantly spicy fragrance. Her black dress flattered her still slender figure, and her jewelry was tasteful, expensive but not flashy. Her usually perfect make-up, however, was slightly smeared. Dark smudges of mascara and a few trails through her rouge testified that she might have shed a few tears at her older brother’s funeral.

         “I guess I’m as close to all right as I can be,” I admitted. “It’s a difficult day.”

         “Well, difficult is a Cutler family specialty, isn’t it? Put on your brave face, as your grandmother would say,” Aunt Elaine replied. “We’ve all gotten so good at that. Especially you, Madeline.” She reached out to rub my arm, and I felt a little tremble in her fingers.

         “Yes, it’s all about keeping up appearances, isn’t it? Plaster over the cracks, maintain the facade, no matter what. Even on the most difficult days.” If Aunt Elaine detected the traces of bitterness in that remark, she ignored them.

         “There’ll be a lot of difficult days ahead. Maybe it’s OK to let your guard down once in a while now, huh?”

         I nodded. Without my father around, maybe it was a little safer to let my guard down. I just didn’t feel ready yet.

         Hours later, the mourners were gone, Henry had taken an already sleepy Michael home to bed, Aunt Elaine and Uncle Ron had gone back to the city, and so the old house was quiet again. Trip sat at the kitchen counter with a cocktail, while I cleared the plates and glasses off the dining room table for Julie to wash and put away. I was enjoying the idle chat and easy banter with the two people who best understood my life because they had experienced it along with me, even though they both had very different perspectives. The three of us had not had many occasions to be alone together lately, since I moved as far away as I could, and Trip just kept moving.

         “Did you talk to Mr. Nichols’s girlfriend?” Julie was asking.

         “Frank has a girlfriend?” I vaguely remembered Mom telling me that Frank and Jean Nichols had gotten a divorce, but it still surprised me to think that my parents’ friends were back in the dating world.

         “Sure, why not? He’s still a pretty good-looking guy for his age, and the divorce has been final for, I don’t know, at least a few years,” Julie shrugged.

         “I talked to her,” Trip said. “Nice house. Nobody home.” He grinned at his own little joke and took another drink from his glass.

         “Well, that’s not very helpful,” Julie said, clearly frustrated that no further information was forthcoming. “What does she do? Where is she from? Do you even remember her name?”

         Trip let out an exasperated grunt, a noise he had perfected in his teens, dealing with his older sisters. “Jesus, I didn’t get a fucking resume from the woman, Jules. All I know is she’s a lot younger than Frank. He should be careful or he’ll end up on the wrong end of a palimony suit.”

         With a scowl at our little brother, Julie changed the subject and turned her attention to me. “Mrs. Bridges said Derek moved back home,” she said to me.

         Derek Bridges? I thought. Really, Julie? We’re going to go there? What I said out loud was, “I thought he was doing so well in Chicago.”        

         “Maybe he was for a while,” Julie reported, holding up a lipstick-stained wine glass for inspection before scrubbing it. “But his mom just said things didn’t work out. Good thing he’s single and didn’t have to move a whole family back here.” Julie paused to cast a sidelong glance at me.

         “But why would he come back here?” I wondered, ignoring the heavy-handed hint. “I mean, there’s just not that much going on in Graverton really, is there?”

         “Well, since I still live here, I’d have to say there’s enough going on to make it interesting,” Julie said sharply. When they got married, Julie and Henry decided to stay in town because both of their families were here. It had never made any sense to me. Good math teachers like Henry were in high demand, and Julie had a business degree. They could live anywhere. But here, Julie could find only part-time accounting work, and they mostly got by on Henry’s teaching salary. It struck me as hopelessly depressing, and I said as much when they were planning their wedding. The response was, essentially, that I should mind my own business. So I did. Still, I had to admit, they seemed pretty happy. Anyway, turning the conversation to the town effectively dismissed Derek Bridges from the room. And it gave me the opening I needed to talk about the house.

         Ever since Julie’s early morning call came with the news of Arthur’s death, I had been thinking about the enormous burden he left us. A large, run-down house in a small, run-down town. He hadn’t bothered with upkeep for years, swearing that the place was so solidly built that he would be spending money to fix what wasn’t really broken and that was a waste. After all, didn’t his father build this place with the best materials available? Hadn’t he himself dealt with construction and building for his entire life? Who would know better than he would? But anyone with an eye could see there was a lot of work to be done here. What’s more, the house was packed with Cutler family clutter. My parents had moved in with my grandmother, who never completely moved out, even when she took a small apartment nearby shortly after Julie was born. Some of the closets and drawers were still full of her things. And Arthur, so stubbornly and blindly proud about family history, refused to throw anything away. And now we had to deal with all this debris.

         “OK, if you’re so happy in Graverton and you’re planning to stay, are you going to want this house?”

         She looked stunned by the question.

         “Where did that come from?” Julie asked, frowning.

         “Don’t act like it’s coming out of the blue,” I protested. “It’s a reasonable question. You do still live here, and you guys are going to need more space pretty soon. And it would mean keeping it in the family. The way I see it, either you and Henry move in or we sell the place.”

         “Whoa, slow down,” Julie said, hoisting herself carefully onto a stool at the kitchen counter opposite Trip. “I don’t know if those are the only two options. I mean, sure, we might love to move in here, but we can’t afford this place right now. It needs so much work, and upkeep would be way more than we could handle.”

         She had a point. The kitchen alone proved it. It had last been remodeled the summer before I started third grade, shortly after my grandmother died. Mom had been really proud of the then-trendy red and black Formica countertops and the wrought iron looking drawer pulls. But over the years, the counters had faded to a fast-food chain shade of orange, and kitchen grime had built up in the ornate patterns on the drawer pulls. Mom put in the effort to keep them clean, but I’m sure Arthur never even noticed while he lived here alone. Only two burners on the stove were still working, and the oven temperature was erratic at best. The only updated appliance was a sleek stainless-steel side by side refrigerator that I helped pay for when the old one finally broke down beyond repair. Whoever decided to live in this house would have lots of expensive renovations, replacements and overhauls to do.

         “And don’t forget that Trip has a say in this as well,” Julie added, nodding pointedly across the table at our brother, who was being uncharacteristically quiet.

         “OK, fair enough,” I agreed. “What do you think, Tripper?”

         Trip grunted into his drink, avoiding eye contact with me. “I still want to get Cutler Enterprises going again,” he said. “That’s always been my plan; you guys know that. Moving back here. Buying back the assets and everything. I don’t know where the house figures into it. But I’m going to have to start making some real money before I can do anything. That’s never going to happen while I’m working for that son of a bitch.”

         In the six years since Trip graduated from college, he’d had four jobs. In every case, he started out working for a “really great guy” offering him “tons of opportunity.” But within a year, each really great guy turned out to be a “son of a bitch.” As I watched him drain his drink, I wondered if he would ever figure out that the only problem with these guys was that they weren’t impressed by his last name.

         “So we’re just going to sell the place?” I summed up.

         “Oh, God, I haven’t really wanted to think about it,” Julie sighed. “Selling it is going to be as much work as keeping it, with all the junk we’re going to have to clear out.”

         “Well, I sure don’t want this house,” I said. “I’ll call a realtor in the morning, start feeling things out in terms of the market around here, see what our next steps should be.”

         “Jesus, Mad, what is the rush?” Trip nearly choked on his drink, as he looked at me with as much surprise as disgust.

         “The rush is that I have a job and responsibility,” I retorted. “I can’t stay here forever. I have to get back to my life.”       

         Trip set down his glass with a thud and looked at me defiantly, ready to start a fight. But without even looking at him, Julie held up her palm to silence him. “Maddie,” she said with a slight warning in her voice. “We just buried our father a few hours ago. Trip and I aren’t ready to have this conversation. We’re sorry to intrude on ‘your life,’ but I really think we should at least wait until Dad’s lawyer actually reads us the will.”

         I sighed, realizing I had pushed too far. Again. “All right, all right. I just thought we should at least start the conversation about it, but clearly, we’re not going to settle this tonight. Let’s see what the will says and take it from there.” I settled down on the last unoccupied counter stool, next to Julie. “So tell me how you’re doing. Is this baby moving around as much as Michael did?” She lit up, forgiving me much too easily. She loved talking about her pregnancy. I could see Trip rolling his eyes, but I didn’t care. For at least these brief hours, it was nice to be here, in this kitchen, having a pleasant conversation with my brother and sister.

         We talked late into the night. Eventually, however, Julie needed to get home and get some rest, and Trip’s drinks caught up with him. While I stayed at the house, Trip preferred to stay with Julie and Henry. Adding a guest to their place made for close quarters, but at least everything there worked. I briefly considered checking into a hotel, but I had a vague sense that staying here would give me some kind of closure, and then I could get rid of the house with a clear conscience.

            So I was alone in the house at last. After carefully locking the doors and turning off the porch lights, I made my way up the stairs. How many times had I climbed these steps in my life? As a child, taking them two at a time in my eagerness to find Mom and share some good news. As a sleepy teenager, coming home late on a Saturday night after babysitting. As an adult, with my mother’s frail frame leaning on my arm for support. It was strange to think that my last trip up these stairs might be just a few days away.

Comments

Jennifer_Newbold Mon, 09/13/2021 - 14:54

Beautifully structured with fully-realised characters! Perhaps this is your first turn as a novelist, but I can tell from your writing that you are masterful at communicating ideas. (Some of the themes resonate with me -- echoes of my own childhood... although it was not my father who was the person who could crush me.)

Best of luck in the next round!

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