though this is fiction, I seem to have written people I know into it. don't look for yourself in it; i don't intend on any of the characters resembling anyone in particular, though it is ridiculously hard to write about Spring without writing about the people I know.
the plot is going somewhere, I promise. I have an outline, and three principle characters whose stories will be told Winesburg, Ohio style. i only hope that i can finish what i am planning before i have to turn it in for portfolio, otherwise it will just be laurel's story and nothing else.
Winter in Spring
Spring, Texas is a wonder of a place. It is a large small town, liberally conservative, and hot as all hell on any day in the spring, summer, or fall, though it’s been known to see flurries right around Christmastime. It is as though God knows just how special this place is, so He sends down a bit of relief from the heat and humidity for just one day every ten years, and all the rest of the days are the same. People emerge from their cozy little houses – Texas-sized homes or miniature mansions to out-of-staters – and stand in awe on their front lawns. The frost sits atop the cropped blades of grass, and melts along the poorly insulated rooftops. People in Spring don’t know any better than to stare open-mouthed at the airy flakes falling from blue skies. They put their Christmas Eve dinners on hold, allowing the turkey and buttery mashed potatoes to cool. The littlest kids run in mesmerized circles; the bigger ones attempt to collect the snow from the ground and build snowmen. Friendly neighbors become even friendlier. They grin wildly, reminiscing about the last snowfall to ever grace Spring, Texas. And then the flurries cease. Families gather their children from the streets and they return to their food. Life goes on, though the smiles last forever – or at least until the next flurry on the next Christmas Eve.
It was one of these flurried Christmas Eves that Laurel nearly hit the Williamsons’ cat, Smokey, as she was pulling into her driveway. The flurries started as she rounded the corner of River Springs Road and pulled onto the main drive in the subdivision where she had been working. Her white Mazda skidded on the wet pavement. The car was not too old, but the way she drove it, it probably would not last another five years – either she would wreck it or just plain drive it into the ground. Laurel personally believed that it was her right to drive it into the ground, so she took every chance she could to do just that. The radio station was playing Top 40 hits, with a Christmas song thrown in the mix every once in a while. A Frank Sinatra version of “White Christmas” began. Watching the snowflakes hit her windshield and then melt before her wipers could get to them, she thought, “How appropriate.”
She pulled into her neighborhood, speeding past the stone entrance markers decorated with wreathes and giant plastic ornaments, slowing only to reduce the risk of hitting any of the children standing in the street with their tongues sticking out, trying to catch a snowflake. As she neared her street, neighbors recognized her and waved cheerily.
The Williamsons lived next door to Laurel, and they also waved as she drove by them. They were a big brood: six kids, ranging from seventeen to five, and two dogs and a cat as well. All of them were standing on their front lawn, admiring the flurries. The animals were more of an obstacle than the kids, Laurel thought. Seeing nothing in her way, she eased into the gas petal and sped into her circular driveway. But as the car went over the curb and into the driveway, the youngest two Williamsons shrieked and pointed to her car. Quickly, Laurel jumped out of the car, crossing her fingers with hope that she had nailed the cat, once and for all.
“Did I hit Smokey?” Laurel asked hopefully.
“No, he’s okay,” one of the Williamson kids said, scooping the scared cat up from the other side of the driveway. “It was a close one though.”
The kids grinned at her. “Look, Laurel! It’s snowing!”
She nodded, unenthused. Her parents walked over to her car, peering at the boxes of pots and pans and cooking utensils inside – the tools of her trade. “Cook anything good tonight?” they asked.
“A week’s worth of mush for the Kleins and the same for old Mrs. Kryskowski,” Laurel said airily. “Quigley wanted mushy peas again. He’s got some strange cravings sometimes. I really need to find some clients who don’t have dentures.”
She took one last look at the street – parents with cameras, children in wooly hats with large pom-poms on top – and sighed. They all looked so happy. They didn’t realize that happiness is not in snow.
“It’s just snow,” she said to herself. “You would think that they’ve never seen snow before.”
Shaking her head, she went inside her parents’ house. The doors were all unlocked, even the screen door leading into the kitchen. The side door stuck and she kicked at the bottom, adding a dirt toe print to the years of toe prints already gathered there. The door stuck when they bought the house four years earlier, and it would stick until the house was eventually torn down to build a newer, more contemporary house many years later. Entering the kitchen, Laurel was hit by the smell of food – it vaguely resembled the smells of the food stalls at the Ag show the local high school hosted every year. Barbeque. She crinkled her nose.
“I thought we could try something new this year,” her mother said, coming in from outside. “Something local.” The look on Laurel’s face was something between disgust and disbelief. “But don’t worry,” her mother continued, “we’ll be having a roast tomorrow night.”
“And mountains of roasted vegetables? And fennel salad with parmesan? And rhubarb pie? Anything remotely civilized?” Laurel had a taste for fresh vegetables. As far as she could tell, barbeque consisted of nothing even resembling a vegetable.
With the family gathered around, they sat and immediately began passing the plates of ribs smothered in barbeque sauce and the bowls of baked beans and potato salad. Laurel settled for a hunk of cornbread and honey butter. Jordan, Laurel’s 16-year-old brother, spoke voraciously through mouthfuls of meat and potato of how his favorite band was coming to the Texas Livestock Show and Rodeo in February. “A rock band? At the rodeo?” was Laurel’s response. “I didn’t realize that Texans knew anything other than country music,” she said disdainfully. Her brother dutifully ignored her.
Their household was a relaxed one, typical of most contemporary families: nuclear in every way. Two more or less well-adjusted kids, two more or less happily married parents. They had been in the state for four years, after Laurel’s father had moved from a so-so position in Buffalo, New York to a cushy job at Shell in Houston. She had been told that most of the people who worked in the city lived in suburbs like Spring, and she had yet to meet anyone whose parents defied that idea; every single one of her friends’ parents worked for one of the huge oil companies or one of the tech companies that made Houston such a profitable place to do business. The only part of her dad’s move to Shell she appreciated was the employee discount on gas that the family enjoyed. Everything else she could live without: the heat, the lack of four proper seasons, the accents, the giant gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs that blocked her view on the road and made parking impossible. The houses and swimming pools weren’t bad, but they still didn’t make up for having to give up a perfectly nice life in a perfectly nice city where the leaves actually changed color in the fall and where people didn’t use “ya’ll” on a regular basis.
Laurel managed to pick out a group of friends in high school who generally were on the same page as far as Texas was concerned: they were there because of their parents and had every intention of getting out of the state after high school. All of them were dreamy high schoolers, with images of turtle-necked Beatnik writers and Romantic poets in their brains; all of them had big plans. Amy was going to an East Coast school for computer science and engineering at her parents’ urging, and aspired to be a poet on the side, specializing in free-form poetry about the corporate world. Tess wanted to go to Northwestern for their journalism program, and already had three newspaper internships under her belt. Lindsey was off to be a prolific writer at whichever school gave her the most money. Laurel had her mind set on St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She realized that New Mexico was still the Southwest – far from the East Coast to which she originally dreamed of returning. But St. John’s was absolutely something else. It was a liberal school, to the extreme. No traditional grading system. It was the only school she visited where students were seen on a regular basis sitting on the steps of a spectacular building smoking pot and drinking wine while discussing the philosophic intricacies of Plato. Only 200 students were accepted into the freshman class every fall. The application was a ten-page minimum essay on anything regarding the liberal arts, though the instructions indicated that the application was something to be interpreted by the applicant. So to demonstrate her brilliant creativity, she submitted a four foot by three foot abstract painting. She was a talented artist – everyone told her so. Laurel’s parents, while they appreciated her artistic passion and talents, could not and would not approve of their daughter attending such a school. They pushed (and pushed and pushed) for Georgetown University, where generations of Laurel’s family had gone.
But plans changed as grades started coming in and rankings where cemented for graduation. Amy and Tess made the grades, packed up their belongings and kissed good old Spring goodbye. Lindsey stayed in-state for financial reasons, but was going to school two hours away – and she discovered that dorm life was a good enough substitute for suburbia. Laurel, though she could sketch a fantastic portrait in twelve minutes flat, just didn’t have the same talent in pre-calculus or advanced chemistry or American history. She still achieved a decent ranking that got her into some decent schools. But ultimately she ended up with one important rejection letter and one important acceptance letter: Georgetown and St. John’s in Santa Fe, respectively. Her parents absolutely said no to St. John’s right away, and they refused to budge on the subject.
“Laurel, you can’t base the rest of your life on whether you go to a particular school or not,” her parents said. “You got into several other good schools.”
Her parents took her rejection from Georgetown better than she took her acceptance to St. John’s. They saw her other acceptance letters as a welcome (and less expensive) compromise. But Laurel wouldn’t hear them. The other schools were merely safety schools she applied to in order to humor her parents. They just weren’t good enough.
“What about Boston University? Or Drexel?” they pleaded. But Laurel, still caught in the angst of her teenage years, would have none of it.
“Either I go to St. John’s or I go nowhere,” she said stubbornly.
“For God’s sake, Laurel, you’ve got to go to college,” they said. “Texas A&M at least.”
She shook her head. “If anything, maybe I’ll take some classes at North Harris Community College.”
Her parents were distraught. They blamed themselves for moving her to Texas, something she had vehemently opposed. But as her friends began packing up to move away, her anger calmed and her senses came back to her. Her parents compromised with her: if she took a full load of classes at the community college and worked to pay for at least half of the tuition for St. John’s, then they would allow her to transfer for her junior and senior year. That was three semesters ago.
“I need another job,” she announced to the table as she buttered her cornbread.
“What do you mean, another job?” her father asked, wiping the barbeque sauce off of his fingers.
“Well,” Laurel began slowly, “the market for freelance art work in Spring is not especially thriving. And cooking for old people is not exactly satisfying. I mean, all I cook is mush, night after night. If I could at least make something that you need to chew, then that would be immeasurably more satisfying. And working for the gallery pays well, but the gig only lasts through the end of the holiday season.”
“Why don’t you try getting a normal job?” her mother asked.
“Yeah, Laurel, I heard that McDonald’s is hiring,” her brother teased. “And Arby’s is always hiring.”
“Why would I want to work in someplace that you and your snot-nosed friends frequent?” she said. “And besides, you could at least hang out somewhere that doesn’t serve food that’s going to give you a heart attack one day.”
“You mean someplace like Starbucks, where all the hipster kids and fake-intellectuals hang out? I don’t think so.”
She shot him a nasty look, and grabbed the last piece of cornbread before he could.
“Well Laurel,” her mother said. “It’s worth a shot applying for a traditional-type job. Think it over at least.”
“I only mention it because I submitted by transfer application to St. John’s last week.”
Her parents nodded and asked when she would find out whether she was accepted. They still hoped that she would give up on St. John’s and go someplace like Texas A&M – it would certainly be cheaper for all of them, not to mention more respectable than St. John’s. She didn’t elaborate on the state of her transfer application, and they did not push the matter. There was no use getting into an argument now.
Though it was Christmas Eve, Laurel had plans to meet her friends after dinner at one of the six Starbucks within five miles of her house. She got there early, staking out a cluster of comfy chairs in the corner. This particular Starbucks was directly across the street from her former high school, though they hadn’t built it until after she graduated. Had it been there for the two years she attended Klein High School, she would have skipped school more often in favor of no-ice-iced-white-mochas with extra caramel syrup and white chocolate lemon layer cake. This Starbucks was on the corner of Stuebner Airline and Louetta Roads, just three blocks from her house. She was a regular, spending hours at a time sitting at the bar sipping free drinks from the baristas who knew her well, and over-priced ones from the baristas who were less familiar with her. Waiting for her friends to show up, Laurel surveyed the employees working, and decided it was a good enough night – not great, but pretty good. Morgan was at the counter, working a peppermint mocha frappuccino in one blender and a green tea frap in another. Amanda and Greg were at the registers, taking orders for drinks rapidly. It was a busy night, considering it was Christmas Eve. All around the store, people were still chatting excitedly about the flurries they witnessed earlier. They were all wrapped in sweaters and wool coats, no doubt purchased specifically for an occasion such as this. In ten years, those coats must have seen the outdoors maybe three times. Laurel was wearing a cotton cardigan over a skinny tank top with sandals. It amused her that everyone had warm coats and winter gear – snow boots, too! – even though the average temperature for December was something around 50 degrees.
Laurel perched herself patiently on the second stool at the bar, choosing to wait until the line at the register disappeared before ordering a drink. Morgan nodded to her silently, as he deftly manipulated the espresso machines and blenders like pro. Listening to the holiday music playing too loudly in the store, she brought out a small notebook from her bag and began sketching random customers in the store. While she sketched, she received a phone call and a text message: Lindsey would not be able to come, and Amy would be late. “No worries,” she told both.
Morgan finally ceased at the blender, and placing both hands on the bar, greeted Laurel in his usual semi-friendly, semi-unenthused manner. He was one of those guys with such a deep voice that it was difficult to discern when he was altering its pitch and tone to display emotion.
“What can I get you on this Christmas Eve night?” he asked.
“Surprise me,” she said. He was one of the baristas who knew her well and gave her free drinks. When the store was busy, like this night, she hated making a request, so she left it up to him.
“Hot or cold?” he asked.
“Cold,” she said. “It’s not cold enough for a hot drink.”
He laughed. “Of course, Miss New York. It’s never cold enough for you.”
He went to work on some miscellaneous creation for her. “I could do that,” she thought to herself, as she watched Morgan making her drink. “I sit here often enough to know when the new baristas make a mistake. I could definitely do that.”
“You guys wouldn’t happen to be hiring right now?” she asked when he placed the drink in front of her. It was a venti-something-or-other with red and green sprinkles on top of the whip. Caramel was dribbling down the side.
“You looking for a job?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she said, sipping the frap thoughtfully.
“We’ll, I’m sure that Jim will take your application because he knows you, but we don’t have any openings right now.”
Before she had the chance to express her disappointment, Amy came bounding into the store, arms outstretched for a hug, with a broad smile on her face.
“Laaaurel!!” she sang, weaving her way in and out of the maze of chairs and tables and bodies that was Starbucks. Laurel met her in the middle of the store and they embraced as other customers glanced from their seated positions. Taking seats at the bar, they exchanged the usual information: the “how are yous”, and “how’s lifes”.