Now available in ebook!
ALL OF US AT THE SAME TIME
is now available in ebook format for the Amazon Kindle
, for the Nook
, and from Kobo Books
The entire book has been removed from my website, but please try Chapter 1, below.
ALL OF US AT THE SAME TIME ©Jo Dereske 2014
After the decisions had been finalized and we began clearing out the house, stripping it of its memories, silencing its echoes, and leaving only ghosts to ramble the empty rooms, my brother Ray found the diary.
The discovery of a diary was akin to a plot contrivance in a fiction novel. What would we find next, a faded hand-drawn map with a red X marking treasure buried in the cornfield? Hoards of hundred-dollar bills tied with old shoelaces? A decomposing body in the basement?
I had heard Ray bumping and dragging boxes in the attic above my head for the past hour. He’d tackled wading through stashes of receipts, legal forms, and tax returns that dated back at least forty years, filling cardboard boxes and stacking one box atop another to maneuver down the narrow stairs – actually a slanted ladder – and to the pit behind the barn for burning.
Forgetting his six-foot five-inch frame and the low-ceilinged attic, my brother had risen and cracked his shoulder against an open rafter, jostling loose a leather-covered volume from above the beam. It thumped to the wooden floor at his feet.
I worked downstairs in the kitchen, sorting dishware into grocery store boxes I’d marked with crayon: DONATIONS, CONSIGNMENTS, AUCTION SALE. There was so much. An appraiser had already inventoried and crated up the Royal Winton china, the Limoges and blue flow plates, the mantel clocks and rarer pieces of German porcelain. Kitchen drawers had yet to be tackled, closets still stood closed and untouched. The best of the antique furniture – the Arts and Crafts pieces: the Stickley table, a Roycroft chair, an Eastlake dresser and the Tiffany lamp – had been delivered to an antique auction house in Indiana. In the living room only the old sofa stood against a wall. A Gingko-patterned rug pocked with black holes from fireplace embers still covered the oak floor in front of the fireplace. The beds had been stripped.
Lights blazed inside at ten in the morning because outside, cold rain steadily fell. From somewhere water dripped in a monotonous cadence. The house already had that indefinable abandoned smell. Not of decay or rot, but of absence: no baking or washing or freshly brewed coffee. No showers or alarm clocks or radio voices.
“Take a look at this,” Ray said as he entered the kitchen. Gray cobwebs were tangled in his hair, his forearms smeared with dust.
I wiped my hands on a cotton dish towel and took the small bulging book. Its embossed cover was frayed along the edges, a thread of loose stitching dangled from the spine. A leather strap and a tarnished lock with a small round button, the same as a diary I’d received on my twelfth birthday barely held the gilt-edged pages together. The golden words A Line a Day scrolled across the cover above art-deco embossing.
“Is there a key?” I asked my brother, holding the book gently in both hands.
“It’s not locked.”
It wasn’t. I sat on the taped box marked CONSIGNMENT and thumbed the little button to the left. The covers leapt apart, crammed so tightly with inserts that the binding had sprung. I gently fanned the pages: browned newspaper clippings, poems, dried flowers and butterfly wings, photos, notes in English and Lithuanian, were wedged between the sheets. And on every page: Aunt Louise’s distinctive handwriting.
I spoke the obvious. “She kept a diary. Did you read it?”
“Only the first page. That was enough.”
I turned to the inside front cover and read, “In case of death: To be destroyed or to be read by Wm. L.”
“I knew that wouldn't bother you,” Ray said.
William L. was Bill, our Aunt Louise’s mysterious first husband who’d died young. I’d seen a few old photos: dapper and slender, mustachioed, rumored to have been the black sheep of a wealthy Dutch family. “A lot of flash,” our father had commented in an amused voice.
An envelope slipped from the diary and wafted to the floor, creased and browned, one end torn open and folded over to protect what was inside. I shook it and detected the whisper of movement. Inside was a handful of dried seeds, golden-fringed and weightless. On the envelope’s front, Louise had written: "Coral ivy. They only grow in tropical climates. A little frost and they will perish – like me."
The leather volume held five years of Aunt Louise’s life, from 1929-1933, written during her tumultuous twenties, years of the Depression and Prohibition when she’d lived in Chicago before returning to rural Michigan.
Some pages she’d filled with dense, cramped handwriting that spilled into margins and crowded other entries, some dates were blank, others held only a succinct line or two. Most intriguing, lines here and there had been rendered in code, a series of numbers, letters, symbols, and vague references. Small sections had been scissored out, leaving slashing tracks of ink along the excised edges.
I kept the diary, nosy and eager to meet the young Louise. Over the following months, I tip-toed my way through the minefield of her youth. Most of her encryptions I was able to cipher out, others I inferred from content, still others eluded me. My brother declined to read any of the diary entries in any form. “I’ll just remember her the way I knew her,” he said.
In a way, after reading the diaries, what was most surprising was how little she had actually changed in the intervening decades.
1929 Today is my birthday. I’m now 21. Gee! Getting old! Ed, Al, and Johnny called. Mae and Sylvia, too. Mother and Sis sent cards. Vince called twice and we’re going out tonight at 9:45.
Mrs. B. was kicking that I get too many calls and I said, “I can’t help it if I have a lot of friends.”
“It’s not the tail that wags the dog,” she told me and slammed the door!
Well, if the dog doesn’t wage its tail, who will?? Hah!
But it’s Vince I love. I care for him alone – and how! There’s no kick out of the others.
We Begin The Year
From the first page of Louise’s diary, 1929:
A Way to Success
Don’t be a Snob
Try to Forgive and Forget
Don’t be Selfish
Think of Others Before Yourself
(Or maybes this is a way to Sainthood!)
We’d been dodging snow for two thousand miles: racing ahead of a state-wide blizzard, and trailing a snowstorm that still lingered white along the aprons of the freeways.
By the time we reached Michigan and turned into the farm’s circular driveway, it was dark and a thin spit of white had evolved into steady loose snowflakes buffeting like static in the headlight beams.
“At last,” I murmured, already unbuckling my seatbelt.
“Where are we going to live?” Kipling asked as he parked our small pickup truck behind my sister-in-law Barbara’s Subaru. Barbara had assured me over the phone that either she or Ray would wait at Louise and Mike’s for our arrival, “no matter how late.”
Kipling squinted toward the two houses across from the larger house, all three outlined by the yard light, the two smaller buildings dark. One was my aunt’s antique shop, the other was separated from the main house by the narrow driveway, less than twenty-five yards away, front door facing front door.
In the silence my ears rang. We’d driven fifteen numbing hours on this final day, determined not to suffer another restless night in a motel, wary of the snow creeping up at our backs.
“The house under the trees, with the glassed-in porch and cement steps. Everybody calls it ‘the little house.’”
He nodded, accepting. No doubts. Kipling exhaustively examined the pros and cons of every decision. He made no choices lightly – or quickly. I had watched him debate and compare features for a half hour before he purchased a new flashlight, and he read every breakfast cereal ingredients before he dropped the box into a shopping cart. Unlike me, once he’d made his decision, he didn’t second guess himself, didn’t consider the avenue he might have taken. The verdict had been passed, let’s get on with it. It was occasionally maddening.
We climbed out of the pickup, buttoning our coats. Kipling paused to lock the doors.
“Why bother?” I asked. We were in a driveway in the middle of rural Michigan in a snow storm.
He shrugged and the lock clicked. We were coming from the city. Changing our habits would take a while.
After the warm truck, I gasped at the frigid air. Snowflakes feathered my shoulders and head. I couldn’t resist holding out my hand to watch them land and collapse, vanishing. Snow was still a novelty.
The tall pines around Louise and Mike’s house swished and shooshed in the wind, perfect accompaniment to the falling snow.
I didn’t knock. Over the years we’d learned to open the breezeway door and call out, “Hello.” If the door was locked – which it frequently was –Louise and Mike weren't accepting company, and that was that.
Fragrances prompted the most evocative of memories, I’d read, and opening the door invoked the past: a rich potpourri of apples, fireplace logs, furniture wax, indefinable spices. I was walloped by a rush of memories: raucous oversized family gatherings highlighted by too much food and too much alcohol, an increasingly loud cacophony of Lithuanian and English.
In the yellow glow of lamps – Louise disliked overhead lights – Barbara and Louise sat at the oak table in the kitchen. Barbara touched Louise’s arm. “Look who’s here.”
The room, like the entire house, was packed with antiques and oddities from years of collecting. Blue plates and a mishmash of art hung the walls. Silver salt cellars, Toby mugs, and colorful bird feathers shared shelves with Dresden figurines, Limoges china, faded photos, a quirky celluloid figure of a toddler boy peeing in a pot, stones and peculiarly shaped glass. Clocks of various sizes and rarity ticked in the background. Old prints and articles or books that had caught Louise or Mike’s fancy were stacked in precarious piles along with letters and ads and envelopes that she planned to reuse. To the right, the living room waited in darkness.
As children, the house’s tumble of treasures had been unbearably tempting, and we’d eagerly awaited the holidays when instead of only staring and staring, once the liquor began to flow, we could poke around beneath the adults’ radar.
Louise rose unsteadily from her chair, her smile wide, her blue eyes sharp. “My goddaughter. How nice of you to stop by,” she said graciously and nodded to my sister-in-law of seven years. “Do you know Barbie?”
1929 Got home at twenty minutes to two last night – this morning! Vince will never really know how much I care for him. I long for him so much.
I helped Mrs. B. prepare for a big dinner party and burned my hand in the deep fat. I thought I’d die. Nobody noticed except Mr. B. Lucky me he’s a doctor. He salved and wrapped my hand and told Mrs. B I had to lay down. She said it was “providential” I’d already done the cooking.
I wish Vince would call. I worry he doesn’t care for me like I do for him. Why??