The Cider Press Review has recently announced the winner of its 2015 Book Award. More than ten years ago, my book, One of the Cimalores, won their inaugural prize. I wish Julia Bouwsma success with her award winning manuscript and the kind of dream-come-true stuff that happened to me all those years ago.
PART IV: Revelations
Caron warned we’d be busy at first. Then we’d wait through a cold spring that delivered day after day of rain and biting winds, days with no word from Halifax, PA, where my book waited for the editors to put out the next issue of their literary magazine. I write no new poems. I send out old ones and have them back home with me immediately. The only one that gets accepted is titled Aftermath.
Caron sends me two choices for the cover. I choose the one with a photo of my siblings, Easter 1958. I marvel that my mother, raising four children on a waitress’ salary after her first husband left, could have purchased these clothes: matching coats, white gloves, patent leather purses. My brother wears a suit.
The moment captures not just what they wore, but who they came to be: Barbara Ann, the oldest, worried, serious. As if she understood even then she’d be the one to take responsibility when something terrible happened. When Uncle Duke died, Uncle Joe, Patty’s husband, it was Barbara Ann who made the phone calls and summoned the family.
Jeannie beamed. Before her stood the house her father had deserted, behind her the house where our grandmother lived with her abusive husband, but here was something Jeannie could control: what she looked like, how she presented herself to the world, and on this day, she looked especially good.
We don’t have a picture of my brother as a kid where he is being serious. He makes faces, seems to be in motion, as if he can’t stand still long enough, can’t wait to be done with the costume, the pose, the day. And he would keep moving for many years, from apartment to apartment, from woman to woman, restless, impatient, searching.
Patty tips her head, toes in, as uncomfortable being front and center, being told to smile, at five years old as she will always be. As unsure of her beauty even then.
I’ve told your story, I say to them. I wrote it down for strangers.
Mid-August my children, brown and bored by the beach, whine. They want a pool. They want friends over. They want me to examine every mosquito bite they have and console them when they have to scratch. I am reminded of the lure of a book tour, hotels — even cheap ones — in another city. Caron had told me in that congratulatory phone call that I’d be touring in October and November. Shouldn’t I be blocking dates off on my calendar? Packing all my new clothes? Finding someone to help Dennis get the girls off to school? I email Caron asking for an update and get no reply.
Two weeks later, I fire off another. Nothing.
In my final email I say, I can plan some of my own readings if necessary.
The reply comes quickly: Yes, by all means, do.
Robert Wynne, Caron’s co-editor, sends final edits on several poems for my approval. Then the book is ready for the printer. I am at my mother’s house for the last long weekend of summer. Downstairs, she refills chocolate milk for the girls and digs around in her drawers until she finds a third pair of scissors. She’s made eggplant for supper, hung their beach towels on the line.
Do I get to dedicate the book? I say in an email to Caron.
She says yes, but to hurry.
I type: For my mother, Mary Cimalore Panciera. Hit send.
But I don’t ask, inexplicably, regretfully, May I add an acknowledgements paragraph? No one asks for one, either. And then the book is done.
In slow starts, poetry returns. I find a piece of paper with someone’s name and number scribbled on it left in the bathroom of the YMCA where the girls take swimming lessons. Pansy, it says, in big, cursive loops. Someone left it behind, after this woman, Pansy, dug around in her purse to find a pen. Gave away something vital: Here’s how to reach me; I’ll be waiting. I stare at the paper so long, Justina, my four year old, figures out how to turn the shower on and howls beneath the cold water. I return to my day job, adjusting temperature, refereeing between my daughters over who goes first, but I know I can go home and write a poem. I’ve felt a certain heartbreak.
August 28th Caron writes: The book is here! It’s beautiful. Robert and I just need to decide how many copies to send you.
September imparts day after day of sun, mild temperatures. We pick apples, ride bikes. We walk to school though the bus ride hasn’t lost its novelty yet. If we must drive anywhere, we put the windows all the way down, tie our hair off our faces. It’s as if, suddenly, we live in southern California. We make plans for outdoor activities and never have to change them. I neglect the house. We run out of clean socks. No one cares. We’re outside. We’re happy.
Except that when we return home, I check the front steps, but The Box doesn’t arrive. What exactly, I wonder, must the editors decide before sending me one copy? One glossy copy with my name on it?
My family has not seen the cover. Though it appears on-line, I’ve kept it secret. I have a plan to surprise my siblings, especially, with their photo. I’ll wrap the books up, let them unwrap them at the same time.
Driving to Westerly on Labor Day weekend with the books wouldn’t be bad. We could leave Saturday to avoid traffic.
But the books don’t come.
Well, we have nothing planned the weekend of the tenth. I’ll meet my family halfway, just over the Massachusetts border. We’ll have a celebratory lunch.
No books arrive.
The next weekend, we host a huge party for Dennis’ fiftieth birthday. A great time, since my family is coming, to gather them all together and show them the book — that doesn’t appear.
Friends stalk small bookstores where they’ve been buying books for years. They ask the owners if they’d be interested in having me read, in selling my books. Everyone says the same thing: Can I see a copy first? Other friends try buying it on-line and call me: I can’t get through the PayPal system.
My book sits in Texas. Sits and sits in Texas. All of the Cimalores in Texas.
The week after Dennis’ birthday, Patty calls. “Why didn’t you TELL us our picture is on the cover?!” she screams.
I ask her how she knows this and she tells me she looked on the press’s website to see if there was any news about the book’s release.
“Did you tell anyone else?” I ask.
“I called Barbara Ann,” she said. “Jeannie’s out of town.”
I hang up the phone and cry a little putting groceries away. I’d feel silly complaining to Caron about this latest disappointment. I have a book. I’ve published a book. I can cross the oldest, biggest item off my list. And now I’m upset because my little surprise party is ruined?
Though this is how it has always been in my family. We spring good news on one another, reveal it to an enormous coming out party.
But the book is not just ours, and it’s in a bigger world than my mother’s kitchen. It’s in Texas.
Friday, September 23, my daughters invite a friend over. The girls play upstairs. They boss Barbie around. The costume box opens. The mail truck flashes by the front window. I’m cleaning up from lunch. One dog finds a sunbeam and reclines. The other follows me in case I sweep any crumbs her way. When I look up from the counter, the truck is still there, paused at my mailbox. It takes me a second to wonder why, and then I know.
Our front door opens with a skeleton key. A not-often-used skeleton key that requires a specifically choreographed shoulder shove and jiggle before it yields. By the time I wrench the old door open, the mail carrier staggers up the lawn with a box. I leap off the doorstep and hold out my arms.
“It’s heavy,” he says. “Maybe I should set it down for you.”
But I am already carrying it back into the house, propelled by the kind of adrenaline that allows people to toss automobiles off trapped loved ones.
No graduate writing courses explain how to promote books. I decide to start with a reading at the closest library.
“Sure, you can read,” the library director says. “Whenever you want.”
I trot out a few dates and she says, “Like I said, whenever.”
I choose one date, then suggest 7 PM. “Oh, wait,” I say. “The library closes at 8. What if the reading goes over a bit?”
“No problem,” she says. “We’ll leave you the key and show you how to lock up on your way out.”
“What about refreshments?” I say.
“Bring anything you like.”
I call newspapers and ask for a feature on me, modest little me, or a piece on local writers who balance work, family and writing. I suggest several people who might be interviewed. No editor returns my calls.
My friend, Brian, one of the people whose names I would have given for above article, works for a local artist rag. He offers to interview me and arrives one morning with a notebook.
No matter what I say, I think, he’ll make me sound good.
“I don’t feel comfortable being called a poet,” I say.
He asks why, pen poised.
“I don’t feel smart enough.”
He writes, most likely, about my wit and modesty. Thus fortified, I elaborate: “In fact, I feel too ordinary to be a poet.”
“Don’t take this wrong, because it’s one of the reasons I like you,” he says, still scribbling, “but that’s how I’ve always seen you. You are quite ordinary.”
My neighbor, Anne, buys the first copy. She stands in my driveway holding out fifteen dollars as I scrounge around under my car mats for change.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says. But I do. I have already paid for the case of books. Now, the responsibility for making any profit rests solely with me. A person who has not balanced her check book in ten years. Who frequently closes one checking account when things get too hairy and opens another vowing to keep things straight.
When I see Anne a few days later walking her dog, I stop my car and hand her two dollars.
“Listen,” she says. “I love the book. It’s so revealing.”
I’m still basking in the love part. It isn’t until I drive away that I remember the second part of what she said.
Except for my mother, my family has never read my poetry. My family, as is the case with most families in the world, are not poetry readers. When the book comes out, I sit at my dining room table and inscribe one for each of my siblings and for each of their children. I present them to my sisters and my mother at the lunch I envisioned on the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border.
“We’ll read it all the way home,” Jeannie promises.
“Well, someone has to drive,” Patty says. It’s always her.
“We’ll read it aloud then,” Barbara Ann says. And they do, all the way home.
Jeannie calls me later in the week to tell me she’s on her second reading.
“I told Mariann,” she says, her older daughter, “That this is how it goes with poetry. The more you read it, the more you get out of it.”
My mother tells me Mariann called her because her husband wants to know if there is such a thing as Oak Street Cowboys. “They were reading the book in bed,” my mother said, as if this always happened, couples in our family huddled together over a book of poems. “They couldn’t wait to find out the story.”
When Jason, Mariann’s brother calls, he says, “I finally got to sit down with it.” He has twins who stay up much later than their great aunt. “Poured myself a glass of Mickey Murano’s bourbon (Mickey is a long deceased neighbor of Jason’s parents who must have inherited Mickey’s stash and whose liquor cabinet Jason frequently raids) and read it cover to cover. I want to tell you, Auntie Carla, (Jason reached six feet three inches by the time he turned fourteen. Lifts me off the ground when he feels like it), I could have read those farm poems forever.”
He worked with my father the last years of the farm, the hardest years when the buildings collapsed, when my father’s health deteriorated, when no one else came around to help.
“But I do have a question for you.”
“Anything,” I say, remembering when I wondered how I would love my own children as much as I have loved my sisters’ and brother’s.
“Do you have a problem with prescription drugs?”
The poem to which he refers sprung from a fantasy about happy pills. From a friend who took antidepressants and detailed for me how her moods lifted, how the light changed. A poem that, in fact, revealed no more than a desire to discover a quick fix, an immediate change in the weather.
Now I had an idea what revelations my neighbors might be buzzing about.
Caron travels to Manhattan and promises to check out venues for me. When she returns, I ask twice how it went but my inbox remains empty. I try scheduling readings at bigger bookstores but they want sales numbers, more data I ask for but do not receive from the publisher. They want reviews which I don’t have. They want to be able to get the book via their distributors which is impossible since the book has no distributor.
I call my mother and complain.
“It’s not how I imagined it,” I say.
She gives me a list of people who need books signed. Books she sells out of her kitchen. That my sisters sell from their desks in the Town Hall, in the school department.
“It’s going like hot cakes down here,” she says.
“Okay, but . . .”
Before I can finish, she says: “You’re missing the most important thing.”
I wait. I can hear her soap opera in the background, the volume high, the commercials hawking floor cleaners and dryer sheets.
“People are not just buying your book,” she says. “They’re reading it.”
I learned recently that every thirty seconds somewhere in the world a book is published. Many places in the world — mud huts and country manors, sprawling ranches, filthy tenements — then, must be cluttered as my living room is with stacks of pristine copies, sleek spine to sleek spine.
I read to small groups of mostly friends and family members thankful I have enough people to fill the few seats I usually unfold myself. Miriam brings flowers and a tablecloth, struggles to make change so at least I don’t have to sell the books, put the money away and pick up a pen to autograph the purchase. Dennis comes and I am grateful for the opportunity to thank him publicly, for saying what should have been said in the acknowledgements page. That he’s the one who wakes me up at dawn every day. That he’s the one who listens when I say, “I can’t write.” He has to figure out something to say when I cry about things he might not understand. He brings the girls who sit alone in the front row where they pay attention even though Justina admits my poems bore her. When I glance up from the page and see them, they smile. Sometimes, they wear lipstick. My throat closes so tightly, I can barely read the next line.
The week before my Westerly reading, articles about me appear in three different newspapers. My sister Barbara Ann leaves me a message: “I don’t know if you return your own calls these days or if you have a press secretary, but just wanted to tell you the Westerly Sun article is beautiful.” Patty mails me copies of everything. Jeannie hides the newspaper so her husband, a chronic re-cycler, doesn’t cart it off before she gets a chance to cut the stories out. My mother’s phone rings and rings, Cimalores phoning in from all over the place.
For the Westerly reading, I wear jeans and a blouse.
“You always wear that shirt for your poetry,” Justina says.
She’s right. It feels good. It’s dark purple, heavy silk. I chose it myself during the shopping month, thinking as I did so: I never wear anything like this in my real life.
We cut through the park towards the side door of the Westerly Library. Jeannie and her family carry trays of cookies, jugs of cider. Patty totes the cigar box for money. Her son Carl lugs the box of books. Barbara Ann reminds me of several people I will see so I will remember their names. My daughters dash ahead to the fountain, illuminated by a red spotlight. My mother and I come last, her hand on my arm. She lost most of her vision the same year we moved off the farm. I point out the shallow steps, the uneven flagstones.
We take the main stairs to the auditorium, not the metal ones to the glass floored stacks of novels. In the open doorway, I stop. So many empty chairs!! It’s as if I’m about to be married again. The room has enormous windows, arched at the top. Portraits of wealthy (non-Italian) library patrons hang on the dark walls as if we’ve stumbled into a manor’s library and not the library of a town built on the backs of immigrants in the quarries. The library has always felt like this to me: as a mansion or as a cathedral. A place that demands reverence.
We’re still setting up when people arrive: a friend who used to live up the street from the farm that is now a Home Depot. Where her house sat is a liquor store. The woman who sewed my prom dress. A friend of Barbara Ann’s who crocheted matching blankets, one for me, one for Beatrice’s foster mother, when we traveled to Guatemala to bring Beatrice home. My aunts come. “That’s my niece,” Aunt Nanny says, cutting the line. She brings a friend who also worked at the summer houses of people like Mrs. Jacobs. My mother’s best friend for sixty years, the reporters who’ve already done stories, a teacher from my high school, the father of my best friend growing up, Jeannie’s friends who sit with us on the Town Beach every summer, my Panciera cousins, my great-nieces and nephews, people who even Barbara Ann can’t name for me.
The library director stands at the podium. She says, “It must be a writer’s dream to return to her hometown to read from her first book.”
The world gets perfectly small and attainable. No New York. No million dollars. Just an audience of people I mostly recognize, my book in their laps.
I look out at them and they return my smile, or sit back to listen, or tilt their heads and wait to hear what I have to say. This person they’ve come to hear, this woman they knew once or heard about, who has now, it seems, become a poet.
“I’ve told your story,” I say.