Busy Liz

Submitted for Contest #45 in response to: Write a story about activism.... view prompt

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Amalia Rivers was sitting at her desk at the Pejepscot Historical Association of Maine in Brunswick. The afternoon light was fading, and she was rushing to finish some of the cataloguing of the two new quilts the organization had received. One had come from Harpswell and had been the gift of women in the small town in the Maine coastal town to their pastor, Reverend Hallowell. It was a simple log cabin design, but the stitching was very adeptly done and there was a date in one corner: 1889. There was an exhibit planned in two months. The PHAM (Amalia disliked that unhappy result of abbreviating the organization’s official title) was putting together a display of all its quilts, which numbered nearly twenty. Along with the quilts, there would be signs providing the history of each one, its origin, its creators, when and where they had lived. 


There was a lot still to be done in addition to deciding how best to display what truly were masterpieces. Maine women definitely knew their way around a needle and thread. Some of them had recorded the entire process of obtaining the fabric, selecting the pattern, and procuring thread that might well have been produced in the old mill alongside the Androscoggin River. There might be some old photographs pertaining to the homes or villages where the quilters had lived. That would bring the many-colored but faded blocks to life. A highly regarded quilt historian from Maine was already booked to come and speak to what would certainly be a very attentive audience. All the audiences who came to PHAM’s events were attentive, because they were enamored of local and state history.


The Director had left earlier that afternoon because she had a doctor’s appointment. The light in her office was no longer on. The volunteers had just left, because they worked staggered hours that didn’t correspond to the PHAM’s schedule. Some volunteers were a real asset to the association, while others were a disaster and knew (and cared) very little about the important mission of a historical center. They were the ones to watch out for. At least they always remembered to turn off the table lamps in their work spaces.


All of this simply meant that now Amalia was the only one in the historic red brick building. She didn’t usually tend to visitors because her job was to work with the association’s abundant archives. That was what she had been trained to do, why she had gone to college - to learn to do something most people didn’t know was an actual career. Perhaps Amalia’s career choice had something to do with all the huge puzzles she had done as a girl. She still liked doing puzzles, preferably the 5,000-piece ones of quaint old buildings, but didn’t work on them all that often. She wasn’t a historian or a librarian, which was the part that confused most people. However, she was still very skilled at sorting, organizing, and fitting together the tiniest bits of life to form a complete story.


Amalia didn’t mind speaking with visitors, because she always had a good feeling about people who wanted to know more about Brunswick and its residents. They were people who cared, who wanted to learn. For that reason, as long as she wasn’t engrossed in a project or had a deadline, she enjoyed the random conversations that often sprang up. If you worked at PHAM, a lot of people show up on your doorstep, often without notice. It was wise to treat them well, answer their queries, point them in the right direction if the archives of the association were not able to provide the desired information.


There was still almost an hour to go before Amalia could leave. At that point she also would lock up the building and, today, probably go straight home. It had been a very chilly day and she looked forward to starting a fire in her fireplace. The historical (but old) building was drafty and her toes were already stiff.


BRRREEETTTT!!


The tinny old doorbell bleated at her. The bell fit the building: elegant but quirky and slightly worn. No modern doorbell could ever hope to have that sound, which conjured up visions of metal mechanisms pounding on a second piece of metal, all of them making noise that came out through their rusted metal surface and jolted any unsuspecting listener. The tinny alarm sounded again, energetically rather than aggressively. (Some people pressed it several times, as if thinking it wouldn’t work on the first try.) 


Amalia jumped, then recovered herself,. She knew it was up to her to help the person who had ‘come calling’, as she liked to think of it. Now she hurried through one darkened room with its perfectly preserved hardwood floor. She swiftly reached the rubber mat by the thin door that would fulfill nobody’s wish for energy efficiency.


“Hello. Is this the Pejepscot Historical Association building or is it the one next door?” 


A white-haired woman who still wore a pixie cut perfectly stood on the doorstep. She spoke politely, almost to an extreme, and her tone was deferential, respectful. A lot of older people speak that way, with deference and respect. Amalia briefly thought about how times had changed and the world could use some more of the qualities now found only in people of a certain age and beyond.


“Yes, it is. Can I help you?” Amalia’s voice was kind, even though she wanted to be archiving some new donations for their collection in addition to completing the documentation of the quilts.


“I have some things here to donate,” said the woman, who added, “my name is Elizabeth Turner. You can call me Liz. Please call me Liz.”


Amalia was reluctant to call her that, but she did usher Liz inside and down a short hall to her office. When they arrived, she felt the need to be honest with Liz:


“We sincerely appreciate donations, but we have to limit what we take to local history or to people who are from this area. We have a few items that were brought back from expeditions or things like that by Brunswick residents. Otherwise, we have limited space and we don’t want items so generously given to us to sit in storage.”


Amalia could have included the word ‘valuable’ when referring to the items donated, but she decided that it wasn’t necessary.


“That’s great,” Liz smiled, her eyes dancing. “I was born in Brunswick, then went away to college, then after a few more years, I came back here.” The pixie hair appeared to be reflected in a lithe body that clashed with the white (if we are linking white hair to rocking chairs and cats on the lap). Was the original color of her hair black, red, or blond, wondered Amalia, guiltily. Funny how when we meet a person with white hair, we rarely ask ourselves what color it was before the aging began. Is it wrong to ask about the original color? 


“I think my collection could be a real asset to your collection. You know, memorabilia, things like that. You do take those things, don’t you?”


“What do you have?” inquired Amalia, not sure if she could or should commit to taking it from Elizabeth - Liz - without consulting first with her Director. Amalia was, of course, qualified to evaluate virtually any new item, but she was not in charge and there were things she did not know about future plans for the association. If the archives outgrew the building’s storage capacity, it would be necessary to move.


“They’re my journals, mostly, with a few other items I acquired as mementoes.” Amalia was pleased to note that the woman did not say momento like half the population.


Liz proceeded to provide a short and sweet description of what she’d brought. They were journals she’d kept over the years. Journals were often the kinds of donations PHAM got, but as museum artifacts they weren’t all that exciting. Not like, say, the grotesque hair art from the Victorian times, when strands of hair were shaped and plaited into portraits of grief. The hair came from the heads of the dead. Hair hearts and crosses and lilies never had a very positive effect on Amalia. Neither did stiff poses in photographs, drained of all color, immense, occasionally taken post-mortem.


Moreover, Amalia was very aware that personal journals can be invaluable sources of cultural information. So much has been gleaned from them about women’s lives, social beliefs, all kinds of personal things that help piece the puzzle of the past together. She didn’t think there would be a problem taking the donation and gave Liz a form to fill out with her contact information and a brief listing of the items she was giving to the association.


“Here you are,” said Liz, handing both the form and the pen back to Amalia.


When Liz had completed the form, Amalia looked it over. After that, she jotted down the date and time in the lower right hand corner and signed it. Then she looked at Elizabeth Turner once more. The white pixie cut was a nice touch because the elderly woman had such a slight build, although the simple coat and heavy pants probably concealed how small she actually was. Did small mean frail? At her age, it most likely did. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Turner stood straight, straighter than many her age. Her attire might not have indicated much about her, but her frame did. So did those eyes, the ones that didn’t miss a thing about Amalia or her historical place of work, the much-respected Pejepscot Historical Association. Liz was very observant.


How old is this woman


Amalia knew she couldn’t ask and knew she had no justification for doing it, but she said to herself it might help with classifying the journals. Lots of people date the entries - most of them do, in fact - but not everyone indicates how old they are when they are writing, even though this is quite a key feature: the age of the author, especially the author of a journal. 


This Liz could have been anywhere between seventy and eighty, give or take a few years. Closer to eighty, perhaps. Yet those eyes and that hair. She must have been cute and perky (a word people used to use for girls back then) when she was younger and must have had lots of boyfriends. Amalia was willing to bet the journals were full of stories about her dates and crushes, things like that. Girl stuff, romance, a future with some form of love and family in it.


“I must go, but I can come back any time if you need me to clarify anything,” Liz was saying. “Don’t be shy.” Amalia had half-expected the visitor to want to hang around and tell stories about her girlhood and how it had been like growing up in Brunswick. She’d already prepared an excuse about how she had to get back to her work.


Shy? That’s on odd thing to say. After all, these were probably just stories of youth and adolescence.


And so it was that in less than a quarter of an hour, Elizabeth Turner was gone, having accomplished her mission of passing her life on to strangers who might or might not ever read it. At that point, distracted by the brief conversation with the visitor, Amalia simply decided she would leave her file folders organized on her desk. That would make the next day’s work simpler. When she finished placing the five folders in a straight row, there was still a quarter of an hour left. That led her to pick up Liz’s journals because she found that she was curious about them and wanted to get a closer look. Purely out of professional interest.


The journals, each of a different color and well cared for, did not have any identification on their outer covers, but they all had labels on the inside covers. However, the labels weren’t anything Amalia had expected. 


Inside the first journal was the title: 


Selma. Montgomery. Bloody Sunday. 1965.


Inside the second journal was: 


Watts. 1965.


Inside the third journal was: 


Vietnam. 1955-1973.


Inside the fourth journal was: 


Los Angeles. 1991. (Ah, yes, Rodney King.)


Inside the fifth journal was: 


NAFTA. 1999.


Inside the sixth journal was: 


Standing Rock. 2016-2017.


The last few journals had no identification as to place or event, but there were entries in them nevertheless.


Inside all these journals, the ones without a specific name, place, or date, were photographs and rusty splotches. One also appeared to have been pierced by something that had a lot of force. Like a bullet. The pages were worn or ripped. The covers were scuffed in places.


No, Amalia couldn’t bear to look at them all, with a without an identifying label. There were too many of them. They were becoming too heavy. Not in her hands or on the table. Somewhere else. They hurt. They seemed to reach out to Amalia, crying for relief. 


Then the journals, which were sitting primly on her desk, began to show crimson ribbons or rivers that seemed to flow from the pages. After that, threads emerged beneath the gaze, but they were metallic, as if made from bullets of many sorts. The threads had been used to bind the books, that was clear. Liz might have done the binding herself. It’s not hard to learn. She had left the metallic thread long, though.


The journals were throbbing now, or maybe it was Amalia’ could feel her own veins pouring red throughout her body. All the while this was happening, she could hear a chorus of moans and mourning and cries of fury. It was faint, as if off to one side of a stage or behind the curtains of a theater, but it was audible. It was the chorus that made the volumes heavy as they huddled together, perhaps wondering what was to become of them.


Was this a fitting addition to a collection that mostly housed quilts, huge old photographs of moustached men, old town hall documents like property deeds, and souvenirs from the distant travels of rich Brunswickians?


Amalia could not say and considered how she might present the journals to the Director the next day. If she had been thinking about it, she would have realized her mouth had dropped open. Probably she would also have seen Liz not too far away from the desk, her white pixie hair and dancing eyes aglow, and one right fist raised high in the air: 


¡Venceremos!


Liz - not Elizabeth - would be screaming that at the top of her lungs, her body rocking in agitation at the injustice in the world, at the cruel objectives of war, at the corporations and every other criminally rich criminals committing crimes all over the world. Screaming at everything she had screamed at since she was born, almost.


¡Venceremos


Liz would shout over and over, until somebody heard her. Until the world was made better. 


Yes, venceremos, thought Amalia, who had finally noticed.


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4 comments

Ashley Higbee
15:24 Jun 18, 2020

I loved your story Kathleen! You've done a nice job conveying emotion and transporting the reader. I think this was a creative idea and different than anything else I read this week.

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Kathleen March
03:58 Jun 19, 2020

It was fun writing this and I confess it came to me immediately when I saw the prompt. Thanks for the positive feedback.

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Mehak Aneja
03:49 Jun 18, 2020

Really liked the way you narrated the story.... Hope you read mine too.

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Kathleen March
04:01 Jun 18, 2020

Thank you. I will certainly read yours.

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