I have a muse, and my muse (her name is Maxine) has her own primary directive, which she holds to be inviolate:
Ignore me, and I will pay you back in kind. Piss me off, and I will turn my back on you. You may beg and grovel, but from me? Crumbs. Dribbles. Until I’m feeling generous again, which if I may be frank, don’t hold your breath.
Maxine looks something like Phyllis Diller in the 60s, but scarier. She’s a good six feet tall and smokes cigars. Imagine a cross between Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Doubt) and Gunnery Sargent Hartman (Full Metal Jacket). Sharp-edged, opinionated, relentless. Maxine has a strong north-side Chicago accent, which makes sense as that is where she came into being.
Lately we have been in a mammoth struggle. I don’t know why I fight her; I never win. She has all the power in our relationship. Lately she’s been spouting Nike ad copy: Just do it. When I tell her she’s a walking cliché, she laughs at me. Watch it, sister, she tells me. Or I’ll walk right on out of here.
Me: But you only gave me one image, and it’s hazy.
Maxine: Oh, please. Have you forgot your Gabriel Maria Marquez?
Me: “What I like about you is the serious way you make up nonsense.”
Maxine: Not that one. You know what I’m talking about.
Me: Well, he also said: “Whenever I write a book, I accumulate a lot of documentation. That background material is the most intimate part of my private life. It’s a little embarrassing–like being seen in your underwear. . . . It’s like the way magicians never tell others how they make a dove come out of a hat.”
Maxine: Smart ass.
Me: I’m merely pointing out that I’m not done with the research yet.
Me: Research IS important.
Me: Okay. “One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.”
Maxine: So what should you be doing?
Now, if I handle this badly she’ll go off in a huff of cigar smoke and it will take a long time to woo her back. So I close my eyes to call up that image she put in my mind weeks ago.
The Hudson on a cold, wet day in March 1883, and a ferry on its way to Hoboken, rocking hard in a high wind. Cinders and ash and salt in the air, and the stuttering rhythm of the steam engine. A young woman sits wrapped in her cloak, her hood pulled down low. At her feet is a satchel, black leather, quite worn. The wind and the rain are loud, but they can’t drown out the sound of so many voices and languages battling to be heard. Right across from the young woman, so close that their knees almost touch hers, are two nuns, both of them wearing heavy boiled wool cloaks and sturdy boots. White wimples frame their faces. On the floor beneath their bench are two enormous lidded baskets. Somewhere nearby are the young men they bullied into carrying them.
The young woman knows what’s in those baskets because she was nearby when they were packed. Children’s clothing, all of it much used but laundered and mended, in a variety of sizes. Shoes. Blankets, towels, soap, bread and cheese and twists of jerky wrapped in newspaper.
Every once in a while the elder nun looks at the young woman and offers a nod or a smile, even while she carries on her conversation at high speed. Italian is a jumping language, full of sharp tappings and still, somehow, musical. The young woman recognizes some words. Vaiolo. I malati. Orfani. Infamia.
There’s a smallpox epidemic raging in the mill towns in New Jersey, and Italian immigrants are dying by the hundreds, often leaving orphans behind.
In the young woman’s satchel are the medicines she’ll need, and enough smallpox vaccine to innoculate two hundred people. As she herself was innoculated as a child. As everyone should be innoculated.
It’s important work, but she admits to herself that there’s a large dose of self-interest in this outing.
If things go her way, she won’t get home until sometime tomorrow, and she’ll have more than Italian orphans to show for her trouble. She’ll have an excuse to give James, one that will, hopefully, keep him from yet another lecture on her many neglected social responsibilities.
When I open my eyes Maxine is puffing on her cigar, looking smug.
Kath here: A reminder that Rosina’s latest release THE PAJAMA GIRLS OF LAMBERT SQUARE is available at booksellers now. I’ve read it and it’s terrific! Don’t miss it.