Chapter 31: Tammy’s nightmare
Tammy, who had gone to sleep early that night, exhausted from all the intense emotionality of the election, was tossing and turning in her bed.
She was dreaming that she was in the busy, brightly lit salon on the top floor of a luxury department store. Everything around her was perfectly pristine and seemed to be made of gold.
She was supposed to be lying back on her plush, gold-colored recliner, getting her nails and toes done, relishing, as she was aware that she had been, in the facial begun by her attendant, who had somehow gone missing.
She pulled at the towel, which didn’t give at all.
She then understood that her children were missing. They were supposed to be nearby, waiting for her. But like her attendant, they had vanished.
“Jill?” she cried. “Kevin?”
She could see out onto the department store floor. It was beautiful, with its endless sparkling displays and items for sale. She pushed herself off her lounge chair, noting how stiff and hard it had become, and headed out onto the floor.
“Jill?” she called again. “Kevin?”
Suddenly she was surrounded by so many shoppers that she could hardly walk. All of them were dressed in the gray suits and skirt suits of the 1950’s. They were tall—abnormally tall, so that she was almost like a child again, stuck down amongst the midsections, the impossibly long arms, the massive, cord-handled paper shopping bags, being swung everywhere and so heavy they were dangerous to her.
“Kevin!” she cried. “Jill!”
But down where she was, nobody could hear her.
She started muscling her way through the crowd, thinking that if she could just reach some open space, she could from there begin to look for her children.
“Ryan!” she called. But her husband not look up from his work. She rapidly moved towards him. But she kept striking the sharp extensions of the golden display racks that were set between her and him. By the time she reached Ryan’s station, the upper arms of her white blouse were torn to shreds, and her shoulders were bleeding from what felt like a thousand cuts.
She saw something that she hadn’t noticed before, which was that Ryan was dressed like a magician, shiny black vest, top hat and all. He’d even grown a magician’s thin mustache.
When he saw her coming, he quickly hid behind his back all the cash he’d been counting, and with an abrupt move of his hips slammed the cash register closed.
“May I help you?” he said.
Tammy was so dumbfounded by his failure to recognize her that she couldn’t speak. She felt the cuts on her arms throbbing, knew they were continuing to leak blood.
“It’s me, Ryan,” she said. “Tammy. Your wife.”
Ryan laughed. “Oh, yes, yes, of course. I remember.” He didn’t seem to, though. “How may I help you?”
“I can’t find Kevin or Jill,” he said. She was suddenly aware of the large, round schoolroom clock on the wall just behind him, identical to the ones that had been in her classrooms as a kid. The long second hand on this one, though, was moving too fast, and seemed a lot redder than usual.
She looked back at Ryan. “Do you know where our children are? Have you seen them?”
“Not since Hawaii,” said Ryan. “You should have come to Hawaii with us, Tam. It was so beautiful. The native women would break your heart.”
“Maybe not mine,” said Tammy. “But good to know.”
Ryan threw his head back and laughed again. She saw that he was missing his back teeth on the top.
“Oh, Doodles,” he said. “You delight me.”
Tammy heard Kevin’s voice.
“Mom! Mom, over here!”
She spun around to look. But the crowd of shoppers was so dense that she couldn’t even tell from which direction her son’s call had come.
“Kevin!” she cried. “I’m coming for you!” She pushed her way back into the crowd.
“Mom, hurry!” came Kevin’s voice, this time muffled by all the bodies around her. All the people in the crowd started talking, so loudly that within moments it was a deafening roar.
“Everyone, please be quiet!” screamed Tammy. “I can’t hear my son!”
If anything, thought, the roar of the conversations around her grew louder, and the crowd pressed in on her more. She leaned forward against the wall of bodies, dug in, and promptly slipped to the ground, which, she saw, was covered with the same blue-green linoleum that was on the kitchen floor of the house she’d grown up in.
And now, instead of expensive 50’s clothes, all the people packed in around her were wearing jeans, with either mountain boots or red four-inch stiletto heels. She was afraid of her hands getting stepped on. But she saw that she could crawl through the crowd much faster than she could walk, so she started crawling, fast.
As she moved along the floor, it grew progressively dirtier. Torn up checks and receipts started falling on her from above. She didn’t know why all the shoppers had decided just then to clean out their pockets and purses.
With a final effort, she broke through the edge of the crowd. She quickly scrambled to her feet—only to find that she was still, apparently, in men’s furnishings. Before her was a cashier’s station, like the one her husband had been standing behind, except instead of gleaming gold, this one was constructed, very loosely, of rusted corrugated steel. Across the counter, which was made of rotted, moldy driftwood, was haphazardly strewn a great many men’s wallets, each worn and cracked with age.
Sitting on a wooden stool behind the counter, in a wrinkled black suit and tie, was Bernie Sanders.
Tammy stepped up to the counter. “Hello, Mr. Sanders.”
Sanders held up his hand in a still wave. “Hello to you, madam. Tell me how I can assist you.”
“I can’t believe you work here,” said Tammy.
“That makes two of us.” He shrugged defeatedly. “But it’s a living. Now, can I interest you in what I have to offer? Big sale today on goods everybody needs but nobody wants.”
Tammy was then behind the counter, standing right beside the man. She hugged him. As he stood off his stool to hug her back, he seemed to rapidly grow thinner and thinner, until she was left hugging only herself.
She said aloud the question she had meant to ask him before he’d disappeared. “Are we going to be okay?” she said, to no one.
She heard her daughter’s voice calling to her.
“Jill!” she called back. Now she was at the edge of the crowd again, waving her hand as high as she could reach. Luckily, she had somehow come to be holding in her raised hand one of her longest, fattest paint brushes, which Jill was much more likely to spot. The bristles of the brush were soaked with red paint, flying off it as she waved it back and forth.
“Hey!” screamed the people whom she was spattering with red. “Stop it! Stop it!” They began to duck from the flying paint—which made it easier to see past them. Tammy waved the brush with greater vigor. All the people around her, who were again dressed in 50’s suits and pant suites, wailed and squatted down, trying to shield themselves. But she waved the brush that much harder, the better to keep open her lines of vision.
She spotted her daughter all the way across the floor, standing by two golden elevator doors.
“Jill!” she cried. “Wait right there!”
As she began rushing toward her, Tammy saw, out of the corner of her eye, Ryan, out from behind his station, also racing towards Jill, straightening his top hat as he went.
She knew right away that Ryan would reach Jill before she did. She could see that he had lost weight, was in good shape, would be able to weave and dodge his way through the crowd like it was barely there at all.
“Ryan, please!” Tammy screamed. “Leave her be!”
“Daddy! Daddy!” she heard Jill call. “Over here! Over here! Quick!”
Tammy ran just a few feet into the crowd, before the futility of her effort stopped her cold.
“Hey, Mom.” It was her son, now standing beside her.
“Kevin!” cried Tammy, throwing her arms around him.
“Whoa,” said Kevin. “Calm down, Mom. What’s going on?”
“I was trying to reach your sister.”
“Because we’re a family.”
“Are we?” said Kevin. “Since when?”
And then suddenly Jill was beside them, having just burst through the crowd. She was holding the hand of someone who hadn’t yet broken through into their tight little clearing.
“Mom!” she said. “Look who I found!”
Out from the crowd, holding her daughter’s hand, came Donald Trump.
“You!” said Tammy.
“The one and only,” said Trump. He pointed straight down. “Isn’t she pretty?” Tammy looked to where Jill was now sitting on the department store floor, clinging to Donald’s leg.
“What is the MATTER with you?” Tammy said to Trump.
Trump grabbed her, hard, by her crotch. “Nothin’ a little of this won’t fix, sweetheart.” With his free hand, he held before her eyes a clear little box. “Tic-Tac?”
Tammy punched Trump in the face. But instead of it hurting him, her fist bounced right off his face. It was punching a tightly inflated tetherball.
With all of her might, Tammy punched him in the face again. “Let go of me!” she screamed. Her fist rebounded harmlessly off his face. But he released her. With the hand that had been gripping her, he held before her face a deck of playing cards. With a little flick of his wrist, the deck was splayed before her.
“Pick a card,” he said.
“No,” said Tammy.
Trump looked down at where Jill was still clinging to his leg. He looked back up at Tammy, and smugly smiled. “Pick a card,” he said.
Tammy extracted a card from the deck.
“Look at it,” he said.
She turned the card over to look at it.
On its face was a holograph of her rapist, who waved to her.
She hurled the card at Trump’s chest. “How dare you!” she screamed.
In a show of fake sympathy, Trump stuck out his bottom lip. “Ahhh. I guess you lose.” He looked down at her daughter. “And how do we feel about losers, Jilly?”
Jill looked up at him. Her eyes were ringed with smeared mascara, like she’d been crying. “We have no feeling for them at all,” she said.
Trump patted her on the head. “That’s my girl,” he said. “C’mon, baby. Stand up. Let’s get outta here.”
As he and Jill moved past Tammy, Trump’s shoulder banged up against her. Tammy spun from the force of it, and found herself looking again at Kevin. He was making out with Hillary Clinton.
“Wait. No,” said Tammy. That having had no effect, she put her flattened hand in the space between Kevin and Hillary’s foreheads, and began to slide it downward.
Just as she had pressed her hand down past the couple’s noses, Hillary bit it.
“Ow, ow, ow!” screamed Tammy. “Stop! Stop biting my hand!”
Hillary opened her mouth. Tammy snatched back her hand. Hillary said sanguinely, “You deserved that.”
“I did NOT,” said Tammy. She hugged her bitten hand to her chest. “You know, Bernie Sanders is a lot nicer than you.”
“Maybe,” said Hillary. She smiled her robot smile. “But he doesn’t have my teeth, does he?”
“Mom,” said Kevin, “which way did Jill and Big Daddy go?”
“Big Daddy?” said Tammy.
“Trump,” said Hillary.
“Oh,” said Tammy. She pointed into the crowd still bustling everywhere around them. “They went that way.”
Kevin put his arm around Hillary. “Then we’ll go in the opposite direction.”
“Why?” said Tammy. She began to cry. “Why would you walk away from Jill? She’s your sister.”
“That’s why,” said Kevin.
“Don’t go!” said Tammy.
“Ta-tah,” said Hillary, wiggling her fingers in the air at Tammy. She and her son disappeared into the crowd.
Tammy closed her eyes as tightly as she could, and screamed so loudly that she seemed to deafen even herself.
When she opened her eyes again, the first thing she noticed is how quiet everything had become.
Looking around, she saw that she was the only one left in the store—or on that floor of it, anyway. The gleaming displays stretching out everywhere around her were so bright she squinted her eyes against their glare.
The only sound to be heard at all was coming from the store’s music system. So low and muffled she could barely hear it, the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” was playing.
She was standing near a down escalator. She walked to its landing plate, as if she were about to step aboard. But what she saw when she looked down the moving, squeaking stairs was so terrifying that it bolted her awake.
Chapter 32: The rain came
On the last day of November, while Frank was inside napping, Tammy sat alone on Charlie’s covered porch, a cup of tea in her hand.
Finally, the rain had come.
Too late for too many in Gatlinburg. But a blessing is a blessing, whenever it arrives.
“It’s unbelievable,” she had said to Charlie a few evenings back, when the two of them were on his couch getting ready to watch the Gilmore Girls revival. “When I was driving out here from San Diego, I thought, ‘Okay, well, my husband has left me. But at least I’m escaping all the wildfires, and the extreme, unending draught.’ Now I feel like those things have followed me out here.”
Tammy threw a handful of popcorn at her half-brother. “Stop it!”
“I’m begging you. Before there’s a major earthquake.”
Now, looking up at the heavy steel-gray sky, Tammy took a sip of her tea.
She’d heard that local men had been driving into the mountains, going right up to the edge of one of the fires, and then getting out of their trucks, rifles in hand, to shoot at all the wildlife fleeing the flames.
“That is so awul!” Maggie had cried.
“Unless they’re doing it for food,” said Todd. “Don’t judge till you know.”
Now Tammy looked down into her cup.
All those animals.
The heat and dryness of the last month had seemed interminable. The back of everyone’s throat felt sandpapered; weeks of trying to stay inside had made everyone stir-crazy.
So Tammy read Amy’s article, “Forest Fires and Air Quality in WNC,” went right away to Ace Hardware, purchased, as per Amy’s advice, an air filter with a MERV rating of 11, and installed it in the air conditioning/heater of Charlie’s house.
Beyond that, she had no idea what to do. No one did. What else was there to do about the freakish heat wave, and the nearly 50,000 acres of burning mountains, except bring donations to the firefighters? So Tammy had done that, too, collecting from everyone she knew as much money as she could (despairing all the while of her ex-husband Ryan, who had left her with no money of her own to donate), and then filling a moving box with eye drops, nasal spray, little bottles of body lotion, lip balm, energy bars, wool socks.
Sitting in her car in the parking lot of the offices of Mission Health after dropping off her box there, Tammy had cried for the firemen and women, for all they were suffering and sacrificing in their war against the raging, moving walls of flame.
To Tammy the fires felt like a symbol, a metaphor, a materialization of everything in the country that had seemed to so quickly go so wrong. Almost all of Charlie’s friends in San Francisco and New York were imploring him and Todd to pull out of the South, to come “be safe” in their cities. A dear friend of Maggie’s was a white woman married to a black Muslim man born and raised in Jordan; she was distraught about what might happen to her husband and their little boy.
The mass deportation of immigrants. Muslim internment camps and registries. The repeal of Obamacare. A man who’d made a career out of denying the existence of climate change as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump’s right hand man a leader of the alt-right. Prison time for flag burners. Trump supporters openly doing Nazi salutes. Sarah Palin actually being considered for a Cabinet position.
And all the Internet reduced to a feces-flinging fiasco.
Tammy had felt like the whole country was trapped inside a pressure-cooker, which was growing hotter and hotter by the minute. Everything had gone sideways; nobody was in control; the animals had taken over the zoo.
And despair meant nothing. You could cry all you wanted, but the bullies had taken over.
The nightmare was on. And there was no waking from it.
And then the rain had come.
And when she’d seen the gathering of its arrival, Tammy had made herself a cup of tea, grabbed a blanket, and gone outside to sit, to watch, to be there when the first drops hit.
And then it happened.
It really did rain.
And in that rain, in that rinsing, in that dousing of the flames, Tammy, for the first time in what felt like forever, hoped.
Chapter 33: The enemy
“One of the big things I realized about Wyatt was that it didn’t ever matter what I did or said, he was always going to keep hitting me. What I did or said never mattered at all. I kept thinking it would, you know? Every time he started beating on me, I thought that we were in, like, a normal fight—like it was just a regular argument, like couples have, that had just gotten out of control. But that wasn’t it. That was never it at all. It was something more than that. Wyatt wanted to hit me. He wanted to control me. The fights were just an excuse for him to do what he wanted to do: hurt me, beat me, control me, own me. In a way it was never about me at all, you know?”
Tammy nodded. She knew.
Laurel looked good. She’d gained a little weight. The sparkle was back in her eyes. Farm life agreed with her.
So Tammy had called Maggie, who was free to come to Charlie’s to be with Frank, who for days had been as churlish as a hungry two-year-old.
“Good luck,” she’d said to Maggie.
“I’ll try not to murder him,” said Maggie. “Give Laurel my love.”
And now Tammy and Laurel were at Dobra, each with their elegant individual pot of tea, the little golden waiter-person bell on the table between them.
“WHAT?!” Tammy had cried, momentarily forgetting that being inside Dobra was like being inside a Zen monastery, where one rarely, if ever, hears a random voice hollering, “WHAT?!”
“I know!” Laurel whispered excitedly. “It’s so insane, right?”
“How did that happen?”
“I was in the store, just looking around, and I saw they had all these paintings on the wall, done by local artists. So I asked this guy that works there, Julian, if I could talk to someone about showing my paintings there. And he goes, ‘Yeah, you can talk to me.’ So I showed him pictures of some of my paintings, and he said, ‘Sure.’ Just like that. ‘I like your stuff,’ he said. So I’m having a show there in June!”
Tammy was speechless.
“Can you BELIEVE it?” said Laurel.
“No. I mean, yes, I can. You’re a wonderful artist. With a SHOW now!”
Laurel talked like a machine gun. “IknowIknowIknowIknow.” Then she took a deep breath. “Okay, I need to calm down.” She picked up off the table the major tome that is the tea menu at Dobra. “Tea. I need a nice cup of soothing, calming tea.”
“I am so excited for you!” said Tammy.
And now, half-way through their teas, Laurel was talking to Tammy about what she wanted to paint for her show. She needed about twelve more pictures to have enough for the exhibit.
“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that what I was dealing with when I was with Wyatt was just … evil. The thing that made Wyatt so cruel wasn’t rational, you know? You can’t reason with whatever that is. You can’t explain it. You can’t say the right thing, or do the right thing, and make it go away. It feeds off hurting others. That’s what it’s going to do—that’s what’s going to happen—and you can’t stop it. All you can do is escape it. And now that I have escaped it, you know what I think I want to do with it?”
“Paint it,” said Tammy.
“That’s exactly right. I want to paint it. I want to capture, somehow, what it was like, being trapped in a relationship with Wyatt, going through what I did. But, I just … I dunno.”
“What is it?”
“What if I can’t do it? What if I just … blow it? I have to finish twelve paintings in, what, six months? When I haven’t painted anything since school, practically? How is that going to even happen?”
Tammy thought of her own painting, her breakthrough work, which she’d thoroughly abandoned when her new life suddenly became taking care of Frank. She hadn’t looked at the painting since the day Frank arrived at Charlie’s, much less finished it or started anything new.
“It’s going to happen because you’re going to make it happen,” said Tammy. “Yes, twelve paintings in six months is a lot. But it’s not too much. Do you hear me? It’s not. You can do this. You will do it. And you know why you’ll do it?”
Laurel shook her head.
“Because you’re an artist. And artists paint. Especially artists with shows coming up.”
“But what if the paintings I do are no good? What if they all come out stupid, or lame, or boring, or—”
“Stop, Laurel. Stop. Listen to me. The artist has only one great enemy, okay? Just one. But that one enemy is really, really powerful. It WILL kill the creative process. And that enemy is giving one single rat’s fart about what anyone thinks about the work you do. That enemy is outside judgement. It’s critical evaluation. It’s that voice in your head that’s always asking, ‘Is this good enough? Will people like it? Is it great art?’ All of that kind of thinking is nothing but toxic, Laurel. You have to ignore all of it, block it out of your mind. Because none of it matters. It means nothing. It’s just a way to keep yourself down. It’s all the voices you’ve ever heard telling you that you’re not good enough, not smart enough, not talented enough—it’s all those voices, turned into your OWN voice, so that you listen to it. But don’t. Ignore it. Its only purpose is to rob you of the joy of doing art.”
Laurel stared into Tammy’s eyes a long time, before saying, “It’s like Wyatt.”
“That’s exactly, perfectly right. It’s just like Wyatt. It’s there to keep you down, and hurt you, and make you feel like you’re just not good enough—and that’s ALL it’s there for. That’s all it wants. And you have to escape it, just like you’ve escaped Wyatt, so that you can get back to the pure and simple joy of expressing yourself.”
Laurel stood up from the table. “Can you please come hug me right now?” she said.
Tammy stood, and did.
They hugged for a long time.
When they came back apart, Laurel had tears in her eyes. “Thank you, Mrs. Dulton. I don’t even know what to say. Just thank you.”
“You got this,” said Tammy. “And I’m here for you, always.”
Not too long after that, Laurel left—to go buy art supplies.
Which left Tammy sitting alone at their table.
Everybody in Dobra was so quiet, hushed, calm. What an oasis of peace it was in there.
Tammy took a deep breath, exhaled slowly.
What she found was that she wanted another infusion of her tea. And to get it, all she had to do was ring the brass bell waiting for her on the table.
She stared at the bell. It was a beautiful little thing.
She wanted to ring it.
She wanted some more tea.
But she just couldn’t bring herself to do it, to pick up the bell by its little leather top, to shake it, to make a sound everyone would hear, to bring attention to herself that way, to make her needs so publicly known.
She just couldn’t.
She looked out the window at the bookstore across the street, where Laurel was going to have her show. But there were so many cars and trucks driving by that she could hardly get a glimpse of the place.
Chapter 34: Tammy gets a Christmas present
Tammy was grateful. She knew how lucky she was to be living at her half-brother Charlie’s house—to have a place to live at all. And she had such good people in her life now, when she could have easily had no one. Besides Charlie, she had his husband Todd; she had Todd’s delightful sister, Maggie, and Maggie’s friend Sam, and the indomitable Leslie, and young Lauren, now happy and healthy, and Charlie’s young friend, Donna — she even had Frank, Todd and Maggie’s father, who, despite his determined contrariness and apparent goal of becoming the most difficult person in the history of strokes to take care of when they’re convalescing, somehow managed to remain a person whom Tammy had yet to murder by, say, sprinkling rat poison in his morning bowl of cheesy grits, or suffocating him in his sleep, or pushing him down a flight of stairs.
Frank was okay.
What was not okay, at all, for Tammy, was never having one thin dime of her own to spend in whatever manner she felt. She was grateful that caring for Frank meant earning her keep at Charlie’s, and there was no two ways about that. But working her tail off, nearly twenty-four hours a day, taking care of not just Frank, but also, to a large, surrogate-mother degree, of Charlie and Todd, too (not that either of them had ever asked her to do that; but it was almost impossible to care for one of the three males in the house without doing at least something for one or both of the other two: what’s another load of laundry, a few more things to pick up at Target or the grocery store; what’s washing another coffee cup or eight?), had left her completely devoid of two things that, at this point, she was yearning for like she yearned for air to breathe.
And that was money of her own, and time of her own.
Even a little bit of either one of those two most precious of commodities would be to her like food to a starving person; if she ever suddenly had some time AND some money, she would likely as not, at this point, perish from sheer endorphin overload. For what seemed like as long as she could remember anymore, Tammy’s big exciting Quality Time Alone happened each night during the exhausted walk she took down the stairs from Charlie’s place to her own quarters, where she more or less immediately passed out on her bed.
And money? Of that she had exactly none.
Not that she wasn’t free to ask for any. She certainly was; she knew that Charlie would always readily give her any money for which she asked him. But she never asked him for any, because she was proud, and grateful, and had no interest in burdening him, or anyone else in her new life in Asheville, with the knowledge that when she had said that her husband Ryan had left her with nothing, she had meant it literally.
But she didn’t.
And she also knew that neither Charlie nor anyone else realized how hard she worked, or how around-the-clock that work was.
It was endless. She had, in fact, become the mother of Charlie’s house. And a mother’s work is never done. And that, Tammy knew as well as every mother does, wasn’t just a cute saying to be stitched and hung on a wall. It was a brutal, unrelenting, constant fact. There was always some more cleaning to do, another appointment to keep, another chore waiting for her to finally get around to it. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, laundry, the bathrooms, the floors, the chores, the trip to the stores—it never, ever ended. It never even abated.
It just kept coming.
And no one ever really noticed how much works she did, either. Because why would they? No individual thing she ever did seemed like all that much to do, after all. If you come home, and the dishes are all cleaned and put away, but you never really saw how many dirty dishes were there in the first place, why would you think to thank anyone?
Clean dishes and cups are in the cupboards, where they belong. Of course they are. Where else would they be?
Of course all the towels and wash clothes are folded and put away. Why wouldn’t they be?
Of course this gets done; of course that does, too.
Of course, of course, of course.
And meanwhile, Tammy’s life felt like it was being eaten alive, and the plate licked clean. It had been so long since she’d picked up a paint brush she wasn’t even sure she’d remember how to hold one anymore.
At the moment, as she was pushing her cart around the West Asheville Earth Fare, picking up things that Todd needed for the big Christmas party at the house he was throwing, she remembered that she’d left in the car the glass egg nog bottles that she needed to return.
Tammy mumbled a curse word, maneuvered her cart to a place as out of the way as anything could be in a store so packed with holiday shoppers, and headed out to her car.
On her way back to Earth Fare from the parking lot, sack o’ bottles in hand, she looked with an acute pang of longing at Tuesday Morning. Not that she could afford anything inside that veritable bonanza of bargains, either. She might as well have had her nose plastered against the window of a Saks Fifth Avenue.
Such as, for instance, the Saks at the Fashion Valley Mall, back in San Diego, where, in her former life, Tammy had regularly shopped—or, at any rate, contentedly browsed, knowing all the while that she was perfectly free to purchase anything she wanted, since, thanks to Ryan’s company, she was, basically, rich.
Sane—so she always did her actual purchasing at Fashion Valley’s Nordstrom store, where you could return a shoe you’d bought in 1954 and they’d genuinely smile returning your money for it—but rich.
And now, in Asheville for almost a year already, and flat broke for the past seven months, she knew just how wealthy she’d been.
Like a queen!
And now she couldn’t even afford to buy the humblest Christmas present for the people currently in her life, whom she loved so much.
How she would handle having nothing to give anyone this Christmas, she didn’t even know. Or care to think about.
Sometimes having all those chores to do was a good thing.
Not that any amount of work could keep her from remembering all the Christmases she’d relished so deeply back in San Diego, back when she was happily married, back when her children were young, and so thrilled on Christmas mornings they could barely sit still long enough to open their great wealth of presents.
And the mess afterwards of the colorful wrapping paper strewn about the floor everywhere. And the big Christmas breakfasts she always made, of french toast and fruit compote and enough whipped cream to satisfy even Santa Claus.
Christmas had always been Tammy’s very favorite time of year. Always.
Right up until the Christmas morning one year before, that is, which was the first that she and Ryan had spent without their children, who were both away at college. That was the Christmas morning that Ryan had told her that he was leaving her for a woman half their age.
Ho, ho, ho.
Fun for all.
“Isn’t this egg nog just the best?” said the check-out woman at Earth Fare as she took in hand the empty bottles Tammy had place on the conveyer belt along with the cart full of her other purchases.
“It sure is,” said Tammy. “Delicious.”
“Happy holidays!” said the check-out lady when their transaction had concluded.
“Happy holidays,” said Tammy, hoping she sounded cheerier than she felt.
As she pushed her cart toward the store exit, she stopped for a moment to zip up her coat, put on her gloves, and pull her cap down over her ears.
Talk about not being in San Diego anymore. If it ever got half as cold in San Diego as it was right then, people in Canada would hear the surfers wailing.
Out in the Earth Fare parking lot, Tammy rested the front nose of her shopping cart against the side of her car so it wouldn’t roll away, and reached into her purse for her keys. She checked her cell phone, and found that she had waiting for her a phone message from Dan McGowan, her divorce lawyer.
As fast as she could, she freed one her hands from its glove, and pushed the button to listen.
“Hi, Tammy. Dan McGowan here. I’ve got some good news for you. The judge has awarded your interim distribution. I think it’s safe to say that you can consider this a very merry Christmas. Call me!”
She did. Immediately.
And then, during the whole drive back to Charlie’s, she sang “Jingle Bells” with all the verve, volume and joy with which that song, or any other, has ever been sung.
Chapter 35: A new year, a new life
It had been one year, nearly to the day, since Tammy had arrived in Asheville to stay with Charlie. And on this morning, for the first time in all of that time, she woke up feeling like the world just might be a place where she could, after all, have a little fun. Do a little something.
Spend a little money.
“No, no, I’m not disgustingly rich,” she said, merrily talking to herself—or, more specifically, being winningly interviewed by the formless, faceless talk-show host whom she imagined was reverently following her about and asking her questions as she puttered through her flat doing something she hadn’t done in so long that she’d begun to wonder if she’d ever do it again, which was cleaning up the place.
“But I will say this,” she said, as she began rinsing off her dirty dishes. “If I were my rat bastard of a husband—what was his name again?—oh yes, Brian—I mean Ryan, it’s Ryan—I would be shaking in my boots so hard my teeth would come loose. Because I would know that my wife’s divorce lawyer was the magnificent, the inestimable, the fearsomely focused Dan McGowan, of Asheville, North Carolina. And I would know, just from the power of the first punch in the proceedings thrown by Mr. McGowan, that I was in a fight with a man who wasn’t going to be happy until I was lying flat on my back, right in the middle of the ring, bleeding from my nose and wondering, through the deafening roar in my head, if, when the final bell rang, there was going to be anything at all left in my wallet.”
Tammy dried her hands, and sat heavily down at the 50’s dinette set in her kitchen.
She closed her eyes.
All she had been through for the past year came marching across her mind. Ryan grabbing his coat and walking out the door. The long and lonely drive from San Diego to Asheville. Meeting Maggie and Sam—and, later, Maggie’s boyfriend, Ravi, who worried her. Seeing pictures of her two children in Hawaii with Ryan and his bikini-clad girlfriend. Doing the Our Voice Walk-a-Mile. Charlie’s unthinkable experience at Pulse, from which he would never heal because how could he? Meeting—and dating, even, when it came right down to it—Barry, the Blue-Eyed Architect. The indomitable Frank moving in, and she becoming his caretaker. Her erstwhile student Laurel living through the nightmare of being beaten nearly to death by that monster boyfriend of hers—and Laurel’s harrowing escape to the sanctuary of the Family Justice Center, and Leslie, Maggie and Todd’s mother, saving Laurel’s life by bringing the girl out to her farm to live and heal and connect with the earth. The upcoming show of Laurel’s paintings at the used bookstore across the street from Dobra.
Tammy brought her hands to her face, and felt, for maybe the first time in at least a year, just how exhausted she was.
She felt the terrible weight of having lived as long as she had without any money to call her own—and the joyous relief of that weight being suddenly lifted, of her being able to buy the lavish presents she had for everyone who was part of her new family in Asheville.
She felt how much she’d missed not having her two children with her at Christmas—of barely even knowing how they’d spent the day at all.
She felt the thrill, mixed with some trepidation, of the new life awaiting her, now that she was free to stop taking care of Frank, to start paying rent at either Charlie’s or elsewhere, to freely make of her life anything and everything she might want it to be.
She opened her eyes.
Something had come over her.
She went into the little storage alcove just off her living room. Flipping on the light, she looked at something she’d barely dared to think of since hurriedly moving it in there six months before. It was covered in a bed sheet.
She went to it, touched it, lifted it up, carefully carried it into the living room.
She set it down so that it was gently leaning against a space on the wall.
She took the sheet off of it.
And there it was.
There was the painting in which she’d been so lost at the moment Charlie called, at the time she had arranged to become Frank’s caretaker.
Tammy took a step back and looked at the painting, so unlike any she’d ever done before, the painting that had so thoroughly taken her over that it had seemed to be creating itself.
As she stood there staring at the half-finished picture, she knew.
She knew why Ryan had left her. She knew why she’d come to Asheville. She knew why everything that had ever happened to her, not just in the last year, but everything ever, had happened in exactly the way it had.
She knew who she was, why she’d been born, why it had taken her so long to understand who she was and why she’d been born.
She knew it all, in a moment, right there in her living room.
A truly hellacious year was drawing to a close. Goodbye 2016, she thought, and good riddance.
But when a bad moon goes down, the good sun comes up.
It was time, Tammy knew, for her new life to begin.
Chapter 36: Working in the time of Trump
“Oh my God,” whispered Charlie.
Tammy spun around in her seat. “Charlie!” He was standing motionless, staring gape-mouthed at her painting. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
He looked at her. He looked back at the painting, for a long time. “This is so amazing,” he said.
“Is it finished? Is it done? This is done, right?”
He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off it. “This is . . . I can’t even . . . oh, my God, Tammy. You really did it.”
“This. You did THIS.”
“No one is supposed to see it yet. If ever.”
“What are you talking about? What do you mean, if ever?”
“I mean I don’t know if I want anyone to see this.”
“You have got to be kidding me. Tell me that you’re kidding. You’re not kidding. Okay, I get that. I do. It’s like your whole life is right here—and not, it’s pretty obvious, the happy parts.”
“No, not the happy parts.”
“I get wanting to keep it to yourself. I’m so sorry for just dropping in on you like this.”
“Charlie, don’t be silly. I’m always glad to see you. I don’t mind if YOU see it.”
“Well, I’ve got to tell you, I’m glad I did. I mean, it’s so emotionally devastating that now I’m going to have to go out onto the railroad tracks, lie down, and wait for a train to hit me, but it was worth it. I guess all I can say is, Congratulations? I’m sorry? You poor thing? I always knew you were a genius? I should stop talking now?”
“Never. I love it when you talk.”
“So, tell me, do you like your new studio—you fancy RAD artist, you?”
“Well, as you can see, it’s not exactly fancy. I think ‘spartan’ might be the word. ‘Bleak,’ even. Which I like, actually.”
“Can anyone be scarier than Mary Cassatt?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so, no. But then I’d never seen this painting.”
“I’m glad you’re back. How was L.A.?”
“Oh, it was very, you know, L.A. So now I feel fat. But it was fine. I’d say it was nice to get away from the cold weather here in Asheville, if it wasn’t apparently still spring here. Meanwhile, in drought-ridden Los Angeles, it’s been raining in, like, Biblical proportions.”
“Did you see the restaurant?”
“Yes. It’s amazing.”
“Is Todd going to take the job?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. We’re both pretty freaked out right now about living in the South.”
“But this isn’t the South. It’s Asheville.”
“I know. And we love Asheville. But it’s like living on an island. You go off of it, and, you know, good luck. It’s pretty scary for people like us. What, sweetheart? What is it?”
“Oh, nothing. I mean, everything. You know. How things are now.”
“You’re talking about The Orange One Who Shan’t Be Named.”
“Yeah,” said Tammy. “And, you know, I’m already at the point where I’m trying to just ignore the news. Except for how can you, when every day brings five new ways Trump is vomiting all over this country? It’s like the rabid Republican power mongers had a meeting, and went, ‘Screw waiting around for the End Times. Who can we get elected president of this country who’ll make the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse look like a welcoming committee? Someone who is such a raging, drug-addled, sexist, racist narcissist that within a week of his taking office, the entire world will be shocked, terrified, and grieving. Hey, what about that idiot egomaniac, Donald Trump? The orange guy with the psycho hair? He’s perfect! And bonus: he’ll pay for his own campaign!’”
“Wow. Impressive verbiage! You should run for office.”
“I’m sorry for the ranting. I’m just … I can’t even . . .”
“I know. Nobody can. I don’t know anybody who’s even sleeping anymore. Everyone’s so afraid.”
“And there doesn’t feel like anything you can do about what’s happening. It’s just this horrible combination of anger and helplessness. I mean, the women’s march was awesome. So fantastic. But now what? What do we do, march every day? And, yeah, Trump is such a crazed maniac that there’s no way he’ll last one year in office. It’s like he’s trying to get impeached. And he will. But then what? Then Pence is president. Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire.”
Tammy closed her eyes. “What are we going to do?”
“Move to Los Angeles? To New York? To Mars?”
“Maybe to Australia. I don’t know if you’ve heard the latest, but I’m pretty sure any American can now seek political asylum in Australia.”
“Oh, God. What’d Trump do now?”
“Okay, well, I’m off to the railroad tracks. Tell Todd I love him.”
“I will. God, this is so awful. And here’s the really crazy thing, for me. I can’t paint. Which is weird, and terrible, and is killing me, because painting what I can now see with my mind’s eye is literally all that I want to do. But in order to do it, I need to sink into myself, as deeply as possible. You know what I mean?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Well, as it turns out, before I can, you know, situate my consciousness that way—really isolate that way—I have to feel safe. But I can’t feel safe anymore, because who in America feels safe anymore? We’ve got a president who couldn’t be doing more to destroy the country. He’s actually terrorizing America. So I try to tune all that out. I do. Because I know that learning about the latest Trump travesty—when I can’t even do anything about it—is nothing but poisonous. It’s toxic. So I try to simply ignore it—but then can’t, because in a way ignoring it feels even more insane. Who can look the other way when there’s a pack of wild dogs charging towards them? So all that happens, in the end, is that instead of painting, I spend all my time online, reading about the latest reason I have to be exactly afraid as I am angry.”
“Do you want to come out with me for a while? 12 Bones, alas, is closed for now, but maybe that new place, where the Clingman Cafe used to be?”
“No, I don’t think so—but thanks. Now that I’ve fully vented at you—the one person who always makes me feel better—I think I might actually be able to get some work done.”
“Good. Okay. I’ll let you get back to being a genius, then. And don’t be too afraid, okay? Remember: He didn’t, by a long shot, win the popular vote.”
“Right. Cuz that helps tone down the crazy.”
“Good point. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
After Charlie had gone, and Tammy was again alone in her new, white-walled little artist’s studio on the third-floor of the coolest, mightiest brick building ever to be rescued, she looked at the blank screen of her computer. She tapped her keyboard, and the screen came alive, displaying for her again the front page of The Washington Post’s website.
There was Trump, behind his desk in the Oval Office, clearly being his angry, impatient, petulant self, speaking on the phone with the prime minister of Australia.
She turned off her computer.
She stood, and walked back over to her painting.
She stood before it for a long, long time.
She picked up her pallet. She settled it in against her hip. She reached for one of her brushes.
Chapter 37: “That’s not trying; that’s doing”
“Howdy.” Tammy looked up from her phone, where she’d been reading a message from Charlie that had filled her with dread. Standing in the doorway of her studio was a man—medium height, bald, peppered grey beard cut short and carefully trimmed, wearing a sports coat, crisp jeans that Tammy quickly guessed were from Dillard’s Casual Gentleman’s collection, and brown cowboy boots meant to wear, not work in.
In each of his hands he held a tall, unopened can of beer.
He stepped into her space. “I wanted to welcome you to our little community of artists here on the second floor. But I couldn’t just show up empty-handed, could I? So I brought you a little gift. Here you go. It’s an Iron Rail IPA, from Wedge Brewing. One of the finest IPA’s in the land. Are you a beer drinker?”
He put out his hand. “I’m Stan. I have the double studio, just at the top of the stairs. And you are?”
He held her hand just a little longer than was entirely proper. “Tammy. I like that name. It’s got that good ol’ country feel to it.”
“Does it?” said Tammy, taking back her hand. “I’ve never thought of that.”
“Well, you’ve heard of Tammy Wynette, haven’t you?”
“I have,” said Tammy. “She stands by her man, right?”
“That’s the one.”
“Hmm,” said Tammy, eyeing the beer.
“What sort of art do you do?” said Stan.
“Oh, I paint.”
“Oh, wonderful!” He popped open his beer. “Most of us here are painters. What sort of work do you do?”
Stan held up his hand. “Say no more. I understand. I, too, am an artist.” He took a sip of his beer. “Sometimes, when we’re in the throes of our passion—when we’re in the midst of what I like to call ‘the artistic revelry’—we simply cannot reduce the power of our vision to mere words. Just trying to do so causes us something near to physical pain. Am I right?”
“Yes, that’s right.” She wondered if she had just heard the can of Iron Rail call her name?
“What do you paint?” said Tammy.
“Well, I’m certainly best known for my colorful abstracts—for what ArtNews magazine once called my ‘thrashing, jagged miasmas of emotion.’”
Tammy knew she was supposed to respond with, “Wow! ArtNews!” But the words nearest to that which she could manage to get out were, “Wow, miasma.”
“I paint from the heart,” continued Stan. “Oh, sure, I can do realism with the best of them. I mastered all that sort of thing way back when: perspective, lighting, structure—all of it. And that’s all wonderful stuff to know; I wouldn’t trade my classical art education for all the paint in France. But ultimately I found myself face to face with what, for people like us, is the greatest question of all, which is, ‘What is art?’ What is it really for? And more importantly, who is it really for? Have you ever asked yourself that question, Tammy? The question of who it is, in the final analysis, for whom the artist paints? Because when I finally asked myself that question—and I mean really asked it, from the very pit of my being—I had the most profound realization. It absolutely changed my life.”
Tammy was relieved to see come into the doorway behind him an African-American woman with close-cropped hair who was wearing a long brown tunic and matching wide-legged pants, and a plump, blonde woman, shorter than her companion, with sexily mussed-up bed-hair, a busily laced peasant skirt, and a sleeveless pinkish blouse, the upper buttons of which clearly stood no chance in their struggle to repress the God-given liberties of the mighty bosom they were still just managing to contain.
“Stan, are you harassin’ this poor woman?” said the blonde. She came into the room, stood beside Stan, and extended to Tammy a hand glittering with big rings and clacking with bracelets. “I’m Dot,” she said. “I’m right down the hall there, in 210. Very happy to make your acquaintance.”
“I’m Tammy. Glad to meet you. I like your jewelry.”
“Why, thank you! So sweet! Now, this here is Makayla. She’s in the studio right next to mine. She does the most wonderful paintings you’ve ever seen.”
The black woman stepped forward. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Tammy, taking her hand. “I hear you do wonderful work.” Makayla let loose a burst of robust laughter. “I’ve heard that, too! I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard it.” Smiling broadly, Tammy released her hand.
“Are you two ladies done working for the day?” said Stan.
“I was,” said Dot. She stepped to his side, and entwined his arm in both of hers. “Until I saw you in here, startin’ a little party.”
“Oh, we’re not having a party,” said Tammy. Makayla made a quick “I hope you caught that” face at Stan, who didn’t catch it. “He was just introducing himself.”
“I’ll just bet he was,” said Makayla, in what wasn’t quite a murmur. When both Stan and Dot turned to look at her, Makayla said to Tammy, “So, do you paint?”
“I do, yes,” said Tammy.
Makayla nodded toward the canvas, which, on its easel, was facing away from them. “Is that one of yours?”
“Can we see it?”
“She’s not into showing it right now,” said Stan. “It’s in process.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Tammy. She looked at Dot for a moment, and then at Makayla. “I’d be glad for you to see it, actually, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course not,” said Makayla.
“Okay,” said Tammy. She got off her stool, carefully took hold of the canvas and easel, lifted, and slowly walked the painting around until it was facing her three new acquaintances.
Dot pulled in her breath. “Oh, my lord,” she said.
Stan and Makayla said nothing—until, finally, Stan said, “Well, I’ve got to say, I wasn’t expecting anything like this.”
“Nobody ever expects anything like this,” said Makayla softly. Then, fixing Tammy with her eyes, she said, in a tone of something near amazement, “So you’re a real artist, then.”
“I’m trying,” said Tammy.
“Darlin’, that’s not trying,” said Dot. “That’s doing.” To Stan, she said, “What do you think, Mr. Famous Artist?”
But, now slowly stroking his facial hair, Stan had apparently become too absorbed by the painting to have even registered Dot’s question.
His audience could do nothing but silently await his judgment.
Tammy glanced over at Makayla, whom she found looking back at her. Barely noticeably, Makayla shook her head and rolled her eyes. Tammy stopped the sides of her mouth from turning upwards.
Finally, Stan pulled in a slow, deep breath, followed, after a brief pause, by an equally slow exhalation.
With his eyes still locked on the canvas, he spoke. “I’ll tell you what I think.” Then he looked straight at Tammy. “I think I’d like to talk to you about this.”
In lieu of anything she could imagine as a response to that, Tammy began to slowly nod her head up and down, a motion which could have been communicating either, “Yes, yes, that certainly is a fine idea,” or, “Yes, yes, you certainly do think that’s a fine idea.” In the course of her ostensibly meditative nodding, she let herself come to meet the eyes of the woman whom she already felt a friend.
Makayla was nodding right back at her. Her raised eyebrows, with more sarcasm than words could ever carry, were saying, “Can you believe your awesome luck?!”
But Tammy didn’t crack a smile; she just kept on contemplatively nodding.
“Whaddaya’ say we all go out for a drink?” said Dot. “It’s the least we can do to welcome Miss Tammy, our newest artist.”
“That sounds like a plan,” said Stan. “The first round’s on me.”
“Oh, no, thank you, but I really can’t,” said Tammy. “I need to get home.”
“Everything all right?” said Makayla.
“I think so, yes. But I don’t really know. I mean, I’m sure it’ll all work out. Just some family stuff.”
“Makayla, you gonna come out with us?” said Dot. “First round’s on Stan.” She bumped him a little with her hip. “And I’ll bet we can get him to spring for the second round, too.”
“And probably the third,” said Stan. “If you keep playin’ your cards right.”
“Oh, you,” said Dot, slapping him playfully on the arm. “Makayla?”
“Nah, you two go on without me.”
“Are you sure?” said Dot.
“Positive,” said Makayla.
After Stan and Dot had exited the studio, Makayla turned to Tammy, “Hey, now, are you really okay? Is it anything you wanna talk about?”
“No, thank you,” said Tammy. “I’m fine. It’s just … I live with my half-brother, Charlie, who took me in a year ago, after my husband left me. I love Charlie, more than I can say. Well, his husband, who’s a chef here in town, has been offered a job with this major fancy restaurant in Los Angeles. Just before Stan came in, I got a message from Charlie saying he wants to talk to me tonight about something important.”
“And you think it’s about his husband taking the job?”
“I do, yes.”
“So you think they’re going to move to L.A.?”
“I do, yes.”
“Do you want a hug?”
“I do, yes.”