THE BLUE LOTUS
You remember the beginnings. The phrase jumps into Jolene’s mind as she looks out the screen door of her straggle-ivy bungalow, waiting for the U-Haul. First day of school, first trip alone, first lover, first day on the job, first time you saw the ocean, first morning out on the open road. The first time you suddenly realized that the vast cloud across the night sky wasn’t a cloud but the million stars and galaxies of the Milky Way. Before the rains came, and the rage, and the dimming, she thought. The beginnings are pure, then comes the U-Haul.
Sounds like the stuff of a poem, if she ever tried to write poems again. The damp morning air has a faint burnt-tire smell—somebody’s pissed off a skunk. She hooks a foot around Zorro, her hovering cat, shoves him back into the empty living-room, and shuts the door.
Beginnings. Someone writing her a recommendation had called Jolene Webber “a seasoned business woman.” She couldn’t help thinking, Hmm, garlic? oregano? She wasn’t really certain what she was seasoned with. Two years out of UC/Berkeley, her B.A. in English Lit had brought her waitress jobs, two freebie internships, a grim little room in the Lower Haight, and a whopping pile of debt. “You might think about getting serious,” her friend Megan had told her. She put up with that kind of crap from Megan.
So next day she opened the paper and stabbed her pencil point down into the want ads—as momentous a turning point as losing her virginity. And amazingly, like that distant event in Jerry’s aunt’s rec room, it turned out to be fun.
A car dealership needed a bookkeeper “skilled in double entry.” That’s what Mom had done for twenty years, and at the age of ten Jolene had nagged to be taught. It sounded vaguely illegal, and it gave her more of Mom’s attention. In later years she jokingly termed it “child abuse!” and got the brisk response, “You brought it on yourself!” But in fact she loved the dopey elegance of the system, the unflinching honesty of the bottom line. Her skill impressed the math teacher she had a crush on when she was twelve, and now it got her a job. A long commute but a decent paycheck.
Her last operational boyfriend Benny, who liked Thirties slang, once called her “a really smart cookie,” and Iris, her first lady love, would say, “God, you can do anything!” whenever she helped unscramble Iris’s mangled check book. After two years of steady work, when she asked to take time off to go to Burning Man and her boss said no, Jolene astonished herself by telling him to stuff a tailpipe up his twat. She got another job two days later at twice the pay. Smart cookie, and sexy too, in a gawky, horsy way.
The smart cookie moved on—and on and on. She never stayed less than six months at any job, but she got better at picking them. She hop-scotched through positions as a loan officer (that was the worst), assistant manager at Whole Foods, manager at Kinko’s, PR copywriter—gritting her teeth, socking away savings, and scoring a rent-controlled apartment in the Mission District. Finally, on the verge of her thirty-third birthday, she made the last payment on her student loan. That night she and Iris got stinking drunk.
Iris. She had a good time with Iris, until she didn’t. She went to lesbian activist events, danced at raves, demonstrated against every war that came down the pike, read soft porn at poetry slams, camped at weekend music festivals, and splashed naked at Harbin Hot Springs—but always got back to the office on Monday morning, feeling refreshingly naughty. Iris was the longest she’d been with any one person. When it was good it was very, very good, and when it was bad it was horrid.
Some time after Iris had become history, she took a friend’s wisecrack seriously and sent her resume to Google for a mid-level job in human resources (they called it “People Operations”). Incredibly, she was called for an interview. Miraculously, she was called for a second. It would mean a significant career hop, a chance to jack herself up the ladder, and way more money. It might even be fun.
The night before the second interview, she did what any seasoned business woman would do: she cast the Tarot. Next morning she called Google to cancel. Her second call was to Ozzie at The Blue Lotus. “Ozzie, hi. Jolene. What the hell, let’s do it.”
Endings. Two years and eight months since that phone call, Saturday after Labor Day, Jolene steps out on her dilapidated porch to greet the U-Haul. When they had first arranged to come and move out the loot, she imagined slamming the door in their faces, screaming obscenities, slashing her cheek with a paring knife and pressing her bloody face against the glass. Watch Ernest dissolve on the porch, crying, “Jolene! Jolene!”
But instead she opens the door, mumbles, “Hi there.” Ernest hugs her, then introduces his two grown sons, who’ve come to help. Mickey is blond and handsome, Jed dark and baby-faced, but they both have Ernest’s big funny nose. She glances at their U-Haul. Too small for all the back issues, let alone the furniture. Mickey follows his dad back to survey the storage room. Jed, the younger, asks for the bathroom. One of them, she recalls, has something incurable. She can’t remember which or what.
She herself has something incurable. The rage. Like the mean little rat terrier that her kid brother claimed as his pet: he’d punch it hard in the mouth to make it try to bite him, and it would lunge and he’d punch it again. Daddy wouldn’t ever make him stop. It died of distemper, and she’d thought that meant getting mad all the time.
Early July, two months ago to this day, almost, she’d received her own punch in the mouth: the e-mail. She read it, walked out to the porch, her mind a blurred erasure. Staring at the begonias in the window box, red scallops frisking in the sun, she felt a fierce cramp of rage, dug both hands into the foliage, ripped it out and stood there till dusk clutching fistfuls of ruddy salad. A registered letter followed. And now the moving crew.
“I guess we’d better start,” Ernest says.
“Start in there?” she asks, pointing to the front office, a.k.a. her living room. Except for the couch, kitchen table and futon, the furniture was all property of The Blue Lotus, the “Print Voice of Earth Consciousness” as it was called. They could have it, for chrissake. Though she’d miss her office chair.
“How are you, Jolene?”
“Let’s keep it clinical, can we, Ernest?”
She ushers him through the house to survey the task. Her living room and a side alcove constituted the office. The magazine promoted recycling, of course, which meant that every ancient artifact held sacramental status. Five huge filing cabinets, thirty-year-old typewriter ribbons, dried white-out, graph paper for layouts, archaeological remnants stretching back to the Age of Zip-a-Tone. Five computers, two of them defunct, including a Mac SE30, nine-inch screen with a whopping 512K of computing power. Ozzie had told her the joy of that garrulous band of over-educated hippies who’d spawned the Blue Lotus legend. “We can do our own typesetting, yay!”
Behind the kitchen is a rear storage room, clogged with boxes and files stacked to the ceiling. Thirty years of back issues in ninety-six boxes. Priceless or worthless, take your choice. Jolene stifles an urge to make a caustic jibe: Ernest doesn’t deserve the vengeance of irony.
Her datebooks. Those are hers. Black vinyl calendar books that hold her life, with marginal comments. In recent years, her life has been mainly comprised of marginal comments. Life on hold. A quick celebratory romp whenever they’d met the deadline or got the grant, visions over a glass of wine on a misty afternoon, cheers when they’d signed with the new distributor, and stunned befuddlement when that distributor went belly-up. So the datebooks are hers, and she’ll keep the damned things. Were they bought from Blue Lotus funds? So was the office toilet paper: do they want that too? Two years and eight months of it? Welcome to it.
They decide to start with the back issues. The sons prop the door and push the laden dolly through the office. Jolene sits at the desk that is no longer hers. The rage is blurred, but it’s lurking, no way to purge it. Test results are in and she’s stuck with both the disease and the bills coming due.
Ernest and his sons move quietly, apologetically, through the house. Sweet Ernest. Caretaker, peacemaker, volunteer drudge. After twenty years teaching third grade, he nears a second retirement as director of a foster home for violent kids—not at-risk but past risk, oblivious to risk—and cares for Ellie, who suffered a stroke last March. These gentle people, who’d been arrested dozens of times, chained themselves to redwoods, faced attack dogs, laid down in front of an earth-mover—she loves them. Ernest, sweet Ernest, had hammered the nose of a hydrogen bomb.
Beginnings: a lotus unfolding… Screw that: she could never stand New Age jargon. Jolene’s earliest memory of The Blue Lotus was coming across a copy at Iris’s office in those heady days of falling in love with her acupuncturist. Yes, she was passionate about the environment, but she was too much a realist to become a true believer. She’d never met an ideology whose books would balance. She grabbed a back issue and started reading, expecting a good laugh from a seasoned business woman’s perspective, and instead she was gobsmacked. She’d always been a sucker for a sense of humor, and this ragtag gaggle of Bay Area fanatics had not only balls and breasts and brains but a funny bone. She hungered for people she could laugh with.
Its tone wasn’t all mellow. After several Humboldt County frays between activists and loggers, the magazine had upped its belligerence. But even then, she sensed that whoever these people were, they seemed to be having fun. Not frivolity or New Age woo-woo, just a deep aura of joy. She imagined an office where each issue was danced into being, albeit a week late to deadline. Her own friends (besides the required contingent of nerds, geeks, and sports-bar habitués) were a menagerie of old hippies and Deadheads, Burners, tantrikas, Wiccans, forty-seven varieties of queers, even an ancient Trotskyite dentist—and it seemed as if they’d all fit comfortably between the pages of The Blue Lotus, with its one simple mantra, “The Earth is our Mother.”
But it was just a magazine. The real challenge was Iris. Even then Jolene knew that this lady was a major security risk, and her first affair with a woman proved to be a self-inflicted Ponzi scheme. She cringed at the notion of Iris sticking needles into people, until she remembered that had included her. She hated herself for finding Iris unbearably attractive while Iris regarded herself as profoundly unlovable. This bristly woman was a feral cat, demanding passion, requiring caution. When Jolene received a birthday card from her long-gone boyfriend Benny, Iris accused her of being a bisexual backslider. Jolene made a raw joke about bisexual backsliding, then dodged a jar of honey that smashed on the kitchen wall.
Iris had her own instinct for double-edged wisecracks. In one of their more cuddly moments, Iris said inexplicably, “You should meet Ozzie Rabb. He’s a total asshole. You’d like him.”
A legend in the environmental and neo-pagan communities, Ozzie Rabb had founded The Blue Lotus thirty years ago. Most of those years he was editor, and depending on one’s personal experience, he was a beloved eccentric, a prophet of the New Millennium, or a total asshole. An April Fools party in Bolinas was celebrating the magazine’s anniversary, and Corky had invited Iris. Jolene had seen Corky at East Bay pagan gatherings, a round, bouncy, bleach-blonde witch who lived on a houseboat in Benicia and clearly wanted to get into Iris’s pants. Iris’s pants proved to be receptive. Bolinas was a long haul and Iris needed a ride, so she asked Jolene along. At least she chipped in for gas.
Jolene half expected a dope-crazed orgy, but it was actually very sweet. Certainly the weed was there for the asking, some traffic up to darkened rooms on the second floor, and several bare-breasted souls of equivocal gender, but the food was plentiful, the wine fine, and conversation on every topic from BDSM to gray-water recycling systems. She couldn’t help picturing a snarky New Yorker cartoon of the group blessing the barbecued pig on the spit for its generosity, with vegans thanking the yams. But she felt the jazz.
Corky waltzed Jolene up to Ozzie Rabb, picked up his arm and draped it around her shoulder, then hauled Iris off to dance. Jolene moved back to reclaim her distance, but he turned to her and said, “So tell me your life.” And she did.
Bearded, pony-tailed, hair still showing a bit of chestnut in the gray, and green eyes that twinkled with playful lust or simple surprise at being alive, he tilted his head, looked into her eyes, and listened. Knowing his reputation, Jolene was mildly miffed that Ozzie didn’t proposition her, at least for form’s sake, but she hadn’t known how deeply she longed to be heard. She talked, he listened, they laughed.
Within a week Iris announced that she was moving with Corky to Portland. Jolene could only murmur a silent Thank you, Corky.
Jolene was happy to be in love again—this time with The Blue Lotus. She began doing weekend volunteer work, driving up to the Novato office, thirty miles north, for proofreading, errands, or clearing the desks of beer cans and pizza crusts. She loved the easy sexiness of the atmosphere and the effervescent optimism that flowed from these creatures despite the hardships they’d endured. There were the dopers and flakes, yes, and the priestess blessing the new photocopier had forgotten matches to light the sacred candles, but the work went forward, and it was joyous. She felt the charm of these cantankerous individualists who longed for community and who found kinship, true kinship, with the bounteous, merciless Mother Earth.
Every month the printer’s deadline was a sleepless marathon, and she would sprint to the finish line with the beleaguered crew, editing, cooking dinner, shouting randy jokes, then jumping in the car to get back to her East Bay job on time. Lots of laughter, and a brief, gentle affair with Lilith, one of Ozzie’s lovers, who taught her the Tarot. That Christmas, they gave her a copy, signed by everyone, of The Little Engine that Could. Those were the sweetest times.
One Saturday in Novato, picking up coffee for the deadline rush, she met Gabriela. She ordered a bone-dry cappuccino, and when she saw the barista tilt the pitcher and start pouring milk, she called out, “No! Just foam!” “Then order a macchiato!” “No, I meant what I said, a bone-dry cappuccino with lots of foam, no milk!” The place was empty, and the debate kept escalating until the barista reached her spoon into the pitcher and yelled, “You want foam? Here!” and plopped a spoonful on Jolene’s forehead. A terrible, frozen moment, then they both cracked up. The barista grabbed a towel and came around the counter to clean her up. She was short, wiry and busty, a volcanic Peruvian with full black hair, olive skin, tasty mouth and salty neck. In one stunning glint, Jolene was invited to a feast.
Within weeks she calculated—mistakenly—that she could get to her East Bay job as quickly from Novato as from San Francisco, so she said goodbye to fifteen years in the Mission and moved northward to Novato. She found a funky house to rent, dog-eared but rife with greenery. The move not only brought her near Gabi but drew her ever deeper into the mad zoo of saints and clowns at The Blue Lotus. She began to see promise in her Tarot spreads.
She also saw the realities. It took her one donut and half a cup of coffee to see that their accounting system was a shambles. What their treasurer called a financial report might work for a bake sale or for the Pentagon, where billions could disappear like Houdini, but not for an actual business. Some files were meticulously organized; other drawers had folders labeled Stuff and Old Shit. She half expected to see a file of Pizza Crusts. The copy editing, layout, and fact-checking were impeccable, but no one actually knew what the circulation was. If there was any discernible business plan, it was to lurch from deadline to deadline hoping the Goddess would provide. Yet it seemed to work.
The tumultuous bond with Gabriela was filled with discovery, ecstasy, and sheer exhaustion. The thirty-mile work commute began to grind her down, and the magazine’s pressures strained their liaison, though Jolene argued that it made herself a livelier mate. She tried to draw her lover into the tribe, bridging the cultural divide, but Gabi felt alien to these obsessive jokers. The monthly deadline was worse than PMS, and it curdled their loving. The strain began to show on Zorro, whose meow took on a flinty edge, but even more on Gabi. “Let’s live together” was Jolene’s desperate inspiration, and so Gabi joined her in the ramshackle dwelling she called Niflheim. It didn’t solve much, but they stuck it out right up to the point where Jolene, offered the suddenly-vacant editorship of The Blue Lotus, called Ozzie and said, “Let’s do it.”
Ernest’s sons are unhooking the computer network. Thorn had put it in. Four days he’d sacked out on Jolene’s couch, occasionally attaching a cable, cursing Microsoft for crimes against humanity. She’d be trying to work at her desk as he kept up a non-stop monolog about the built-in deficiencies of PDF protocols, his bipolar disorder and the raw details of his girlfriend’s bulimia. He’d start talking to the computer, then explode with a sudden “Okay, shithead!” A few moments of silence, then back to a clinical analysis of the digital miracle that he was networking for The Blue Lotus.
She couldn’t help it: she didn’t like smelly fat men. But after eating his way through her fridge, stinking up her couch, and pissing off Zorro, who had to be exiled because of Thorn’s asthma, he got the computers talking. He’d offered to customize the database, but she could stand no more—which meant that their database never worked right, and when the crisis finally hit she’d be accused of being obstructionist. “I offered to help,” said Thorn, and she wanted to ask why he hadn’t offered to take a bath. But she didn’t. If these people couldn’t understand the fact that he’d been squatting his carcass in her living room for days, what was the point of trying?
Now the five computers are packed away, dead or alive. Good riddance. They might find Thorn under the desk and cart him off in the U-Haul if his beefy butt would fit.
“Ernest, I forgot,” she says, “we were going to make back-up disks so I had a copy.”
“Okay, I can do that when I get home, and either FTP the whole thing, or if it’s just the accounts it’ll fit on a CD.”
“I really don’t feel good about that. It was my understanding that I would have a copy of the files in case there were any questions in an audit.”
“Well, no one is going to have access to the files except the CPA, and as I said, as soon as I get back, I’ll back everything up and send you whatever.”
“That wasn’t the agreement.”
“Jolene, we’ve packed it.”
“Ernest, an agreement is an agreement.”
“Do you distrust me?”
She looks at Ernest. Sweet Ernest. Ernest, who’d taught twenty years of third-graders that there was at least one utterly honest, loving, honorable adult human being in the whole godforsaken world.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “No problem.”
“Megan? I’ve got a crazy question.”
Since rooming together their senior year at Berkeley, Megan Gradich had been Jolene’s sole link to sanity. They had bonded as political activists, Springsteen fans, and jovial cynics. They’d worked themselves raw on the Al Gore campaign. They’d sistered each other through eighteen years of stuttering relationships. Jolene saw herself as a rational soul, but compared with Megan she was a fibrillating basket case. Megan had her boyfriend and her freedom, her career as a fundraiser, a nice apartment in Oakland, her spirituality as what she termed a “Dionysiac Quaker,” and an inner Midwestern gyroscope that kept her upright unless she definitely preferred being flat on her back with her heels in the air.
So when Jolene was offered editorship of The Blue Lotus, it was natural that she would consult Megan as well as the Tarot. For a while she hedged. The Google job was a distinct possibility, and she’d heard enough war stories to know that an editor working with publisher Ozzie might expect a bumpy ride. She’d been present herself at a few of those brawls. Then the Tarot turned up an unexpected card: Ozzie quit.
Not quit, exactly. Fired. No, not fired, perhaps redefined. The editor’s departure, the chronic fiscal crises, and Ozzie’s cancer diagnosis stirred the long-standing tussle between the Founder and the magazine’s Board of Trustees, whom he’d recruited and whom he often ignored. The consequence was Ozzie’s grudging retirement, exiled to a title on the masthead—“Guru without Portfolio,” he phrased it—and several candidates being considered as publisher. Two months ago Megan had said casually, “I need to expand my horizons.” To Jolene the logic was clear.
“You publisher, me editor.”
“You’re nuts. What do I know about magazines?”
“You can come up on weekends and still have your day job. And when Green Power prevails on Planet Earth, you’ve got it made. Meg, look, consider—”
“Don’t fucking call me Meg. My name is—”
“Megan, Megan, Megan Gradich, Publisher.”
Jolene heard a deep sigh from the phone. She could see Megan rolling her eyes to the ceiling. One thing about long friendships: you could fill in the silences.
“Are we actually capable of working together?”
“We were great on the Gore campaign.”
“We fought all the time.”
“But we did terrific work.”
“But we lost.”
“True.” Another silence.
“Well, it’s hardly as wild as hang-gliding,” Megan said. “Or maybe it is.”
At last Megan agreed to drive up to join Jolene at the Progressive Festival, a clutch of activist groups, speakers and musicians at a park in downtown Petaluma, where The Blue Lotus shared a booth with something about salmon. You could pick up flyers, get on mailing lists, or make a donation to save the whales, legalize pot, cut defense spending, stop aerial spraying, stop domestic violence, stop globalization, stop the Republicans, stop, stop, stop— It got depressing at times, but the weather was always great.
They left the booth for a while, bought a couple of all-organic hot dogs and strolled, talking about the environmental movement, the decline of the print media, their status as women on the verge of middle age, junior cronehood, whatever. That got a bit depressing, but fun.
Then they sat on a bench, chomping free Gravenstein apples from the ACLU booth. Jolene took out her notepad, and they talked seriously. Facts, figures, priorities, demographics, five-year projections, what they knew, what they didn’t know, what they needed—all the trolls lurking under the overpass. Jolene took detailed notes in meticulous handwriting. Sometimes she thought of going back to enroll again in second grade, needing something in her life where she was dead certain of success. At least she could pride herself on her penmanship.
The figures added up to success. What was incalculable was the human factor. It was clear that the workload was utterly impossible for two people, however meticulous their handwriting, especially with one working part-time. They’d need many more volunteers, yet you had to recruit volunteers, train volunteers, shoot the breeze, make them feel part of things. “How about a computerized thank-you machine?” Jolene offered.
They barely touched on the feud that still smoldered between Ozzie, the Board, and the various part-timers and hangers-on who felt they had a stake in the magazine. They both knew progressive groups’ knack for the circular firing squad and the inevitable back-biting that besets any tribe, however enlightened. They knew that a change of personnel might only add to the stack of corpses. But Jolene held that firm American faith that any obstacle might be overcome by skill, grit and, well, intelligence. Finally, nothing was decided except that they’d do it together or not at all.
When Jolene got home, Gabriela was carting out her last suitcase. They’d both seen it coming, and there wasn’t a lot to move. Jolene was thankful there’d been no big scenes as with Iris, and they vowed continued friendship, though she’d heard that before. Gabriela nodded Hi, bye, then stopped, and they stood six feet apart, each waiting for the other to speak.
“You’ve got my address, for the mail.”
“Yep. Phone number, email.”
“Cool. Well, stay in touch. How’s Megan?”
“Pretty good. I’m not sure we’ll do the magazine, though.”
“Seems like a good thing for you.”
“Lotta problems, but…”
Gabi picked up her suitcase. “Well, have fun.” For a moment, she seemed near tears, then she walked out the door.
Jolene stood in the hallway, dazed. So this was the definition of let’s-be-friends: “Well, have fun.” She went into the kitchen. Gabi had left her orange peel on the counter. Typical. Thank Goddess she’s gone, Jolene thought, though she knew she didn’t mean it. She made a cup of tea, went into the bedroom, sat on the floor, cast the Tarot. Four of Swords. The Hierophant. Nine of Cups. The Wheel. The Hanged Man. The Tower, ye gods, the Tower: don’t do it. She lay on the bed. It felt empty, even of herself.
But one phone call led to another, and soon it was “Let’s do it.” Ozzie was on her side, and the whole crew, including the Board, loved her. In a burst of inspiration she felt empowered to negotiate conditions. The Blue Lotus office would move from a cramped little storefront into her house, Niflheim: cheaper rent for everyone and an easier working arrangement for her. Megan would come on board as publisher, working on weekends. Ozzie would write a regular column, quelling the too-accurate rumors of dissension. And there would be a massive expansion of marketing and distribution. The first day at Niflheim was topped by the jovial arrival of Ozzie, a pack of volunteers and most of the Board, with pizza, beer, and a vegan casserole. They all drank a toast to Megan, the newly-manifest Wonder Woman in their midst.
The big front room was inviting, with boxes of ivy in the windows, colorful sarongs on the walls, and somehow the office furniture fit just right. They constructed a kitschy little corner fountain decorated with Barbie dolls dressed as Hecate, Kali, and the Morrigan. That choice of goddesses might have been their big mistake.
The only way this can work, Megan said, is to work on ourselves. If we can’t change ourselves, how do we persuade the masses to change the world? So they’d embarked on a scheme of self-actualization. First agreement: no smoking in the office. In the heyday when she’d first volunteered, she’d watch Ozzie chain-smoke at the keyboard, saving Gaia as he puffed himself to death, and now he’d just finished his first round of chemo. They made resolutions, purged their diet of contradictions like organic salads with Pepsi for lunch, and started to learn Spanish.
They began to excavate the Augean stables: the encrusted horseshit from decades stretching back to Eohippus, the first hippie, Megan joked. It was screamingly funny at the time. The mailing list was in disarray, along with defunct addresses, subscriber complaints, botched subscription reminders, unprocessed checks, unpaid receivables from distributors, moldy queries, huge stacks of manuscript submissions.
“One might get depressed,” said Jolene.
“If we could start fresh,” Megan said, “but we can’t. It’ll take six months just to dig out from the rubble. Have you looked over the email files?”
“The email’s not working right now.”
When Jolene accepted the job, she made clear that they’d need more volunteers to help with fulfillments, to sell advertising, to call bookstores, to raise funds—a dozen full-time tasks. No problem, they said, Blue Lotus had thousands of friends, a huge reservoir of talent that would come pouring forth. After all, these were people who had sat for weeks in trees, sailed into nuclear test waters, gone to jail. They could put together action teams and triple their subscriptions in a month.
Only seasoned pros could be so blind.
“What about the furniture? Are you keeping that?” Ernest returns from pushing the dolly laden with the last boxes.
“It’s not mine. I don’t want to see it,” she replies too curtly. He doesn’t deserve that. He’s only trying to be helpful. She rises, goes out to the porch, and lights a cigarette, her second this week. Should she feel pride she’s held out so long, or despair at starting again?
On lunch break, Ernest sits at the kitchen table eating his salad, while the boys drive downtown in the U-Haul for burritos and beer. Jolene comes into the kitchen as the tea kettle whistles. She prepares two cups of chamomile. She realizes she can’t avoid conversation but remains standing by the stove. “Really appreciate your taking care of this. Helps to get everything clear.”
“We’ve got a full load now,” he says, “so we’ll try to get back for the furniture by late afternoon unless the road up to Jennings’ is all mud. I’ll give you a call when we’re on our way.”
“No problem, I just— I’m appreciative.”
A pause. “Who do you blame, Jolene?”
She’s not ready for that. She glances in his eyes to spot malice or pity, but there’s only simple friendship. It’s a conversation she doesn’t want to have, and he’s not insisting, but after a moment she sits at the table.
“I don’t know, Ernest. Myself, maybe? Thinking I was Wonder Woman? Ozzie, for making us all believe too hard and then not being the Messiah, which he never claimed he was? Maybe the Board, Mike and Jessie, but they were only doing what they thought they had to do. That’s the maddening thing. Everybody’s a saint, except to everyone else. I got so pissed when Thorn was flopping in here, sweating up my sofa, but I admit the guy was just doing his best to save the planet.”
“But you look like you definitely want to punch somebody in the nose.” He speaks in his gentlest voice.
“Are you talking to one of your at-risk kids or to one of your third-graders?” she snaps.
The ripple passes. They sit, tea cooling, in silent presence. Mercifully, the conversation is at an end, but she can’t quite let it go. “What keeps you banging away at this shit, Ernest? It’s hopeless. The most beautiful people are the most hopeless. The saints all pee their pants. What’s the secret?” Jolene instantly loathes herself for what she’s said.
He takes a long sip of tea. It seems the question has never entered his mind. Then he grins, as if finding a small curlicued seashell on the beach. “High aspirations, low expectations,” he replies, then adds, “and no ultimatums.”
They would put together action teams… Eighteen months later, those action teams had proven to be Thorn, Ernest and a few other diehards, two girls out of college who wanted to score dope, and a scroungy couple who came for a week “to do whatever you need” and pitched their tent on top of her creeping thyme. Slowly, the reliable troops dwindled. For some old hands, battle fatigue had set in. Some were livid over Ozzie’s dethronement, others lusting to see him consigned to hell. Some saw the newcomer Megan as a “professional” supplanting the anarchist spirit. Some felt uneasy working in Jolene’s living room rather than in a funky office that was “theirs.” And Megan had little patience with the petting and grooming of volunteers.
It might have been a time frenzied enough to make them lovers. Sometimes, when Megan drove up from Oakland for a working weekend, they slept together. Not sexually—somehow they’d long ago made an unspoken pact on that. Megan, Jolene felt, was possibly open to woman love, and they desperately needed the closeness. But they were already making a baby together. The Blue Lotus was its name. It had curious wide eyes and a barbaric yawp. So they hugged, slept gently in each other’s arms, woke at sunrise and sat down to their computers. Then on Sunday nights, Megan worked through dinnertime, grabbing a bite at the computer, hugged Jolene, and drove back to her week in the city. Zorro seemed to sense Jolene’s swelling tide of loneliness and curled about her ankle like a tendril.
In desperation, Jolene composed a long email to Board, volunteers, and assorted friends of Blue Lotus, depicting the towering tsunami coming down upon them, hoping to spur them to action. It had the opposite effect. The Internet burst aflame, a tabernacle choir hallooing accusation. “I offered to help but I never heard back from Jolene,” “How about new blood, dudes, not the same old croakers?” “This is all so typical!” She was too dog-tired to think straight. She’d lost email twice when her system crashed. She’d accumulated three hundred unread messages while facing the printer’s last deadline. She’d stopped checking her answering machine: they’d call with a rambling fifteen-minute message demanding an instant response, then forget to leave their number.
What hurt most was the loneliness. Megan drove up on weekends, and they worked non-stop, taking short breaks for wine and pizza. They made plans to take one weekend to go camping on the coast and renew spent energy, but they never did. She went to her women’s circle on Thursday nights, where she tried to heal her wounds by scratching off the scabs. She called distributors, wrote checks that couldn’t be put off any longer, and launched into long Facebook responses to the latest rumors and accusations—each of her notes eliciting a swarm of attacks on her motives, her patriarchal mindset, or her punctuation. At midnight, with Zorro purring on her lap, she sat at the computer, staring at the screen, wondering what the holy fuck to do. She woke at five a.m. composing a desperately cogent letter to the Board in her head, but when she finally got up and sat down to the keyboard, the words all scattered like chickens.
At last, without consulting either of them, the Board met, took a look at the figures, decided to cease print publication and go online. And to terminate her employment, hers and Megan’s. It was a pattern all too familiar to Jolene: people who weren’t business types but tried to act like business types always replicated the worst elements of business types. She got their starchy letter midweek.
She called Megan and told her. Megan had two days to think about it before driving north in Friday rush-hour traffic.
“We sue them. Simple as that.”
“What?” Jolene was aghast. It would be like suing your mother.
They talked late into the night on Friday, most of the day on Saturday, and shortly before starting the oyster stew they’d planned as a treat for dinner, Megan stormed out the door, their friendship shattered. Jolene lay weeping, face down on her bed, all evening, with Zorro curled up on her butt.
The warfare ground on. Megan threatened legal action, and eventually the Board agreed to a makeshift settlement, paying back wages and a small severance. Everyone saw Jolene as being in cahoots with Megan in an assault on the sacred Blue Lotus—everyone but Megan, who would not return her calls. It was arranged to move the files and furniture to a barn in Ukiah, where the magazine would await resurrection or the slow grind of compost. Ozzie called one night and thanked her. She was grateful for that, though she heard in his voice a whisper of bone-deep grief that she’d let his baby die.
They finish the move that evening. Jolene offers the crew some beers, but they still have a drive to Ukiah. Ernest asks if they can leave her the office chair: no more room in the truck. She repeats that it isn’t hers. “Jolene,” he says, taking her hand, “it would sit up there in a barn.” It’s hard to relinquish the least morsel of disgruntlement, but at last she nods and gives the man a quick hug.
Next morning, waking to the alarm, she feels lighter than in years. She grasps the tag end of her dream: it had frogs in it, tiny fluorescent green frogs frisking over the lawn. They’d lie there against the soft mossy field like gemstones, then pop like popcorn. A field aswarm with emerald frogs.
The alarm rings again. She bumps it off—why did she set it if she has nothing to do?—but then she heaves out of bed, throws on her robe, goes to the bathroom, feeds Zorro, puts water on to heat. She can’t afford to lie in bed and wait for the demons to frolic in her skull. Her laptop is on the kitchen table. She flicks it on to collect email, abruptly closes the lid. Why fling open the window to mosquito swarms?
Again, beginnings. Once more a job search, but she has to decide where. She likes the little house and so does Zorro, but it reeks of loss. For the next six months she’ll find debris left behind by the exorcist crew, manuscripts under the bed, invoices in the bread box, Thorn’s denture in the fridge, a stack of mail—
A stack of mail. Under the kitchen phone pad, a stack of unopened mail. Her fault, she knows: she’d rushed in from the mailbox to answer the phone, got stuck with a woman who’d submitted the billionth article on fracking, demanding to know why hers wasn’t rushed into print, and left the mail there. That must have been days ago, maybe weeks. Junk, junk, bill, junk, purchase order, junk— She’ll put it all in a packet tomorrow and mail it to the new beaters-of-dead-horse.
Her eye falls on an envelope, hand-addressed. The kettle screams, she calms it, pours her tea, and out of pure habit opens the envelope. A check falls out: a subscription. Oh, damn: she’ll have to send a note. If she sends this on with the other mail, the poor soul’s checkbook will stay unbalanced for years. There’s a letter inside. Nothing better to do, so she sits and reads it.
Enclosed is $10 for a student subscription to The Blue Lotus. The issue was old at a bookstore in Wichita where Im at college so I hope the price is the same.
It is a very good magazine on the environment in our lives and brought some questions which perhaps one of your departments could answer—
Hey Im just going to write this, sorry if its stupid. You don’t have to answer.
This is my first year at college where Mom thought being a church college was OK but still a lot is making me wonder. Just ideas which open up. For one thing finding out Im ignorant which in high school you just get straight A’s for using long words from the dictionary.
But this bookstore has magazines and I picked up yours. I read everything in it. Its not just about redwood trees, is it? I guess about the Earth being a Mother, that got to me. My dad left, so its just my Mom and me. Nuff on that.
Here’s my question. What is all this? Are you all hippies or a cult or what? Do you all live together or something? I don’t mean that in a bad way. Is there stuff like this in Wichita? Can you make a living doing this?
Sorry if this sounds weird. It just opens up stuff about life and you all sound really really fun.
Jolene weeps a dry weeping. Like a yawn that won’t stop. Like a small trapped animal, running back and forth in its cage. Is it worse to feel yourself a hopeless failure or to see that you’ve had an effect on another human being? It always comes to this. You try to take the world back from the murderers and the greed-heads, but you’re more like the Three Stooges seeking the Holy Grail and poking each other in the eye.
She’ll have to write to the girl. To say what? Several books you might read are… The kid doesn’t want to read a book, she wants to find a world. There’s much we all can do in our own arenas to… Devote your life to petting the cat? Sorry, babe, it all turns to shit… Can she live for the next thirty years, having said that to this dumb girl or to herself?
She’s opened a letter and it’s from herself. The reply? You have to believe, even knowing that belief is foolishness. You have to nurture that belief, knowing that something so closely nurtured will metastasize and the true believers go nuts, rave like lunatic gods, like a tank rumbling down the road over all in its path. And it always happens. Always. It always comes to this. Or else you give your life’s blood, and then along come the managers and the neckties and the suits, the very talented people who design the letterhead and craft the mission statement and file articles of incorporation on your heart.
She’ll take a long hike downtown, sit with coffee, and write the girl a note by hand. The address is on the check, if she’s still there. Make it short, encouraging, a few words that might open pathways. Too strong a dose of truth might have nasty side effects. For herself— How is she to patch together the self-deception required to believe that she’s living a meaningful life?
Jolene picks up her cup of tea, shuffles into the living room. Its spareness stands waiting—the couch along the windows, a small table at one end, and her armchair crouched in a corner under a reading lamp. The barrenness numbs her, but she may at last have a chance to read. The motley sarongs on the wall, dusty as they are, put forth a faint cheer.
In the middle of the bare wood floor, her office chair. She sits in it, sipping her tea, and begins a slow rotation counterclockwise, widdershins, undoing.
(Published in Printers Row Journal)