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Negative Space I
The first episode of our new Tuesday serial
from the fountain pen of Myra Love
  Chapter Index Next Chapter

 Chapter I

The sky was getting darker by the minute. So was my mood. As I looked across the table at Mr. Harmon, his eyes met mine. He smiled and twinkled at me but continued talking. Miss Carswell was standing at the sink. rinsing the nib of an Endura ringtop that Arnold Steiner had asked her to repair during the meeting of the pen club. Her eyes were on the pen as she listened to her friend's account of his latest phone conversation with some guy I'd never heard of. I could observe both of them, but they couldn't see each other's faces.
"Well, he surely can't imagine that his action would escape comment," Miss Carswell replied, shaking the pen. "No matter how innocent or well-intentioned, his invitation to the young lady will be discussed by neighbors and colleagues. All sorts of interpretations will be offered, not all of them benign. In fact, I'd be surprised, human nature being what it is, if any were benign." She laughed shortly. "But he certainly knows that. I don't think he should refrain from doing a kindness on account of what people will say. He just needs to remember that virtue is not only its own reward, but more often than not its own only reward."
Bob Harmon shook his head, even though she couldn't see him. "I don't think he realizes how people will talk," he insisted. "Stew has a streak of naivete."
"Must be more than a streak," she said with another brief bark of laughter. "If he takes in a pregnant teenager, someone is going to think he's the father of the child. He'd better be prepared."
I tapped my foot softly. It was getting darker by the minute, and I had to get home by six. I'd promised my father that I'd return the truck promptly so Donald could go bowling with his idiotic friends. Ever since my younger brother had discovered bowling, that was all he wanted to do in his spare time. Not that he had all that much spare time with school and chores on the farm. But at least he got to use the truck most any time he wanted it. I usually had to travel by bicycle or else beg a ride from someone in the pen club in order to get to meetings. And I didn't even own a bike. Donald was willing to let me borrow his, but only for a price. I either had to do his chores or cover for him when he was off in town bowling while he was supposed to be studying or working.
This afternoon I'd borrowed the truck so I could stay after the pen club meeting to talk with Miss Carswell, but now it looked as if I'd have to leave without getting a chance to do that. Mr. Harmon was always talkative, but he usually got his time with Miss Carswell in before the meeting. Today he'd come late, however, saying that his wife needed him to take out the screens and put in storm windows. He seemed proud of that fact, which I found touching, though very funny.
Mr. Harmon was the one I usually caught a ride with when I didn't have a way to get to meetings. At first, my parents were uncomfortable since he's an older, married man. But once they'd met and talked with him, they got over their suspicion. Mr. Harmon is a really good talker, especially to parents. That's not too surprising, I suppose, since he teaches high school. I'd always been glad that he taught in town rather than out at the regional high school out in the boondocks where I was a student until last year. It would have made me uncomfortable to sit in pen club meetings with him on Sundays if I'd had to take English from him during the week.
At the moment I wished he weren't such a good talker, or at least not such a long-winded one. Miss Carswell seemed enthralled by his story which I thought sounded like ordinary gossip.
"I'm glad Stew asked your advice, Bob," the old woman went on after a brief pause in the conversation while she pulled the nib loose. "I hope he takes it."
Mr. Harmon shrugged. "Well, Stew will do whatever he wants, or should I say, is driven to do." He sighed a little theatrically, I thought, and then added, "Oh, by the way, he sends his regards and thinks he'll actually be able to visit us some time during his long Christmas break, so you will get to meet him after all."
"I'm looking forward to it, Bob. But doesn't Betsy find him trying to be around? How will that play out?" Miss Carswell asked, ignoring or perhaps not hearing my loud cough.
"Betsy was the one who invited him," Mr. Harmon replied, looking quite pleased. "I think she's coming around."
Miss Carswell smiled. "I hope so. It's so hard when one's spouse dislikes one's friends. Or vice versa."
Mr. Harmon nodded, but of course, she still couldn't see him as she was peering at the Endura.
"Hmmph! Just as I thought! The feed is cracked. And I'm not sure I have one that will fit." She frowned intently. "I'll have to look tomorrow. It's getting too dark for me to go rummaging through my stuff this evening."
"Well," Mr. Harmon said, standing up and stretching, "I'd better get home. I'm glad you heard from Miranda. And I'm not surprised that Ellen wants to sue the doctor who misdiagnosed Needles' case of rubella as measles. But I think it's a waste of time and effort. Since no real harm was done, she should just be glad the child is all right."
"You know Ellen though," Miss Carswell said.
"Yes," he replied. "I certainly do. I'm glad the little rascal is doing so well though. Imagine her telling her mother she was going to write me a letter!" He looked delighted at the prospect, which made me want to laugh. At a pen club meeting after his return from the failed trip with Miss Carswell to the Chicago pen show, he had held forth very publicly and at great length about his discomfort with the little girl he called Needles.
"Miranda said she was actually writing quite well. She uses block letters, of course, but still, being able to write complete sentences before her first day of school is no mean accomplishment."
Mr. Harmon grinned. "I'll look forward to her letter. At least, it won't be a demand that I read to her." He shook his head and picked up his case of pens from the table."
"Let me know if you need that leaf mulcher," he said, suddenly in a hurry to leave.
"I think I'll wait until Jason comes home," she replied, turning to look at me. "He will be back for Thanksgiving, won't he, Lisa?"
I shook my head. "I thought you knew. He's not coming home until Christmas. In his last phone call he mentioned a writing project he had to complete over Thanksgiving."
"I repeat my offer of the leaf mulcher, Anita." Mr. Harmon called out as he opened the door. "You don't need a ride, do you, Lisa?" he added.
I waved my hand at him. "I've got the truck, thanks, Mr. Harmon," I called out to him.
"Bob," he shouted as he disappeared into the dusk.
I just didn't feel comfortable calling him Bob. Maybe it was because he had been Jason's teacher, and Jason didn't call him Bob. I called many of the pen club's members by their first names, but Mr. Harmon and Miss Carswell weren't among them.
Miss Carswell wiped her hands on a dish towel and cleared her throat. "I take it you want to talk with me, Lisa," she said.
"I did," I replied, "but I have to be home by six. Dad needs the truck. Or rather Donald does, and dad wants him to have it."
Miss Carswell scowled. "Still giving that boys first priority, is he?"
I nodded and then felt disloyal. "Well," I added quickly, "dad has a right to do what he wants; it is his truck, after all."
"Indeed," Miss Carswell said. "And the money you earn as a teller at the bank and stocking shelves at the drugstore is his as well?"
I was surprised at her irritated tone of voice. "I have to go," I replied.
"You still have a few minutes," she said, sounding friendlier. "I didn't mean to put you on the spot, Lisa. I understand and admire your loyalty and devotion to your parents. I just wish they could see their way clear to letting you continue your education."
"I'm taking a psychology course at the community college," I protested.
She smiled. "Yes, I know. But you could be getting an undergraduate degree at State, or maybe even somewhere better."
I shook my head. "Dad says we need my income to help keep the farm running. Mark is sending some money home, but he and Susie are sure to get engaged one of these days, so that will stop soon. And Donald doesn't make much with his paper route, and what he does earn he spends." I tried to smile, adding, "It's the least I can do, given that mom works that extra job at the children's home."
She looked at me with a very disapproving expression, refusing to be distracted from her line of inquiry. "So Donald's spending is okay, but your getting an education isn't?"
I had no answer, so I just shrugged. "Got to go." I stood up and walked the three steps to the back door.
"What did you want to talk to me about?" she asked as I turned the knob. "Jason?"
I stopped and turned to face her. "Jason, my family, what I should do next."
Miss Carswell looked at the old clock on the wall behind her stove. It was already ten to six. "You'd better be off. I know how irritable Ralph gets when he feels anxious. Call me tomorrow if you have time to meet me at the Barrow during your lunch hour. We can talk then."
I stood up. "It's not about college," I said. "Just about Jason, my folks, and me."
She nodded. "But the two topics are related, aren't they?"
I had to agree.

If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have been willing to swear on a stack of Bibles that Anita Carswell would be the last person in the world I'd turn to for advice about my love life. Of course, at that time my love life consisted of occasional dates with Roger Healy or Mike McLaren, both of whom were about as interesting as the ads in the local newspaper. My parents liked them though. "Nice boy," my dad would say whenever Roger brought me home after a movie. My mother was more partial to Mike. "You could do worse, Lisa," was her comment each time she saw him. "He's good-looking, hard-working, and his father owns that big tract of land that Wal-mart wants to buy."
Until Jason appeared on the scene, Miss Carswell was nothing more than the slightly scary, old woman at whose house the pen club usually met and who knew more about fountain pens than anyone else in the pen club. But once I met Jason, who just loves her, I started to see her differently.
Still the idea that I'd ask her for guidance when it came to my relationship with Jason seemed absurd until he left for college. I'd hoped until the last minute that he'd change his mind and go to school at State or, if he really wanted to get a good education, at Washington U, only a few hours from here. But once he got the athletic scholarship from Michigan, it was clear that was where he was headed.
"You could apply too," he told me. "And I'm sure you could get financial aid. It's not like you're rolling in money."
Of course I wasn't rolling in money. My family was in debt up to the ears, and I had to stay home and help them. I couldn't just go off to Ann Arbor and let them sink. But Jason didn't seem to understand that. There was a lot he didn't understand, including why my parents really didn't want me to go out with him.
"I don't know what they have against me," he'd say over and over, each time my dad gave him the cold shoulder or my mom glared at him disapprovingly. I was sad that he was so bewildered and hurt. So I turned to Miss Carswell. Even though she'd never been married or even in a serious romantic relationship as far as I knew, I was sure she'd understand about my family and be able to help Jason understand as well.
Miss Carswell understood all right, though she didn't agree with them. "They want you to make what they consider a good match," she told me the first time I approached her with my problem. "They don't see Jason's strengths because their minds are closed."
"It's not as if we're planning to get married," I protested. "Jason is only eighteen and I'll be eighteen in two months."
"Your parents see marriage as the only acceptable reason and ultimate goal of dating," she explained patiently.
I remember shaking my head. "That's so absurd!" I
"Well," she temporized, "I may be wrong about that, but I don't think I am."
I knew she was right, much as I hated to admit it. "So what should I do?" I remember asking, feeling very sorry for myself.
"You can stand up for yourself or stop seeing Jason," she replied. "Or you can put off making a decision until he's left for Ann Arbor."
I could tell that she was not enthusiastic about the last option, but I knew that was exactly what I was going to do. I didn't really see that I had any other choice.

 


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