The cabin we rented every year didn’t amount to much. It was pathetically small, smelled like mildew, and had no bathroom to speak of, except a sink and toilet behind a bi-fold door, so we ended up taking sponge baths all summer. My parents knew the owner of the farm. I think they felt sorry for that family, to whom the $300 we paid them meant a lot. I was miserable, sleeping on the living room couch and finding nothing to do except walk down the gravel roads and read books from the landlord’s collection. Some of those books were from the 1800’s. My mother teased me. She said, “By the time you get through reading all those books, you’re going to be very smart”.
I was bored until the year I discovered the locked door.
I had crawled up through an opening in the bedroom ceiling. The attic wasn’t tall enough to stand up, but it ran from one end of the house to the other. I shined a flashlight down its length, and there was a partition and a door painted white. I inched my way through the dust on hands and knees and tried the knob but the door was locked.
I told my parents about my discovery. I was about thirteen, and childishly demanding, so they had to tell me that what was behind the door was none of my business. I had an imagination. The tales I concocted, about gems and gold coins and dead bodies, either piqued their interest or got on their nerves. In the end my dad sneaked up there and without the farm owner’s knowledge, he took the door off its hinges. “Come on up, Lucy”, he called to me.
He had discovered a little office. It was set up with a desk and a chair on wheels so moving around was no problem even though the pitched ceiling was about four feet high. Though everything was covered with dust, I saw an old laptop computer, a manual typewriter,a stack of yellowing paper, and a shelf with books of the owners’ 1800’s vintage plus some newer volumes, a mason jar filled with pens and pencil, and sundry notebooks and folders. Three art prints hung on the lower part of the wall, stylized portraits of William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allan Poe. The single window overlooked trees, the ones that served as a wind break north of the cabin.
I tried the chair. It fit me well. Dad sneezed and said, “If you’re going to spend time up here, you better bring up a scrub bucket and some dust rags”.
I waited until he crawled back down through the attic opening. Then I opened one desk drawer after another. I leafed through the folders, raising more dust. By the end of the hour, I had a new heroine. Novelist, poet, teller of tales.
Her name was Elysia.
The realization that I was sitting among the original manuscripts of a real life author gave me shivers. As I explored the tiny office, I found more and more manuscripts, invoices, check stubs. Not only literary works but evidences of the business of writing. I continued reading until the smell of cooking wafted up to the little room. That night at the supper table, I announced, “I’m going to be a writer”.
Mom smiled absently. “Wellll….I don’t know. It’s not something you just decide to do one day. And it’s not a career you can count on. But since you’re a kid, you might as well give it a try”.
With my mentor by my side, the absent and mysterious Elysia, I did try. I found an unused notebook, sharpened up some pencils, and struggled with the written word. It wasn’t half as easy as it looked. I told Mom about my difficulties. Again, she told me I was just a kid. “I think you have to live a little before you can do any serious writing. But don’t give up!”
At least the summer wasn’t as boring as it had been. I had something to do. I didn’t even mind sleeping on the couch, or taking sink baths in lukewarm water. As I strolled down the gravel roads, I kept my eyes open.
Time passed and soon we had only a few days left of our yearly vacation. One day Dad and Mom and I drove to the nearest town for some leisurely sightseeing. We stopped into a bakery that was also a lunch counter for refreshments.
There, Dad struck up a conversation with an older couple who were enjoying jelly doughnuts with their coffee.
“So you’re the family who stays out at the old Johnson place”, said the man. They seemed to know all about us.
The man introduced himself as Herman and his wife’s name was Agnes. The two were congenial and talkative, and full of information they seemed eager to share.
“The Johnsons used to go to our church”, said Herman. “I haven’t talked to them for years”.
“They’re ashamed to show their faces, I think”, Agnes piped up.
“What was their problem?” asked Dad.
“It was their girl. Maybe she didn’t have a chance in life, with that goofy name they hung on her. Elysia. Elysia Johnson”.
So they knew her! I was all ears, eager for any scrap, anything, about my pathfinder and guiding spirit.
“What did Elysia do?” asked Mom.
“Do? It was what she didn’t do. She didn’t do a lick of work in her life”.
Dad smiled. “A lazy one?”
Herman snorted. “Lazy ain’t the word for it. Lived down on the farm until she was, heck, fifty years old. Told everybody she was writing a novel. In the meantime, her folks hung their heads in shame. Called herself a writer. No, she called herself a FREELANCE writer. Crazy talk if you ask me”.
“And she wasn’t the least bit sheepish”, Agnes interjected. “She demanded respect without deserving any”.
“Yeah, it was her attitude that got under everybody’s skin”, added Herman. “She CLAIMED to be running an arts and crafts business. Even put up those blue road signs, and those are spendy. Nobody actually saw the inside of her shop. To be fair, I don’t think anyone from church ever stopped in to take a look around and check it out”.
“Sounds like maybe she was just minding her own business?” Mom dared to suggest.
“Maybe.” Herman had ordered another jelly doughnut. He took a bite, then wiped his mouth. “Until the day of the big blow-out at church”.
“We’ve got these ladies in our congregation. They’re movers and shakers. They roll up their sleeves and make things happen. But they can be bossy and get in bad with people now and then”, said Agnes.
Herman continued. “One day a couple of them asked the church secretary to do a write-up on the Johnson family. Elias Johnson was one of the founding members”.
“Elysia typed up her version of the Johnson story, but the ladies told her it wasn’t needed. In fact, the article Elysia wrote got thrown in the wastebasket. Elysia blew her stack”, claimed Agnes. “She called the ladies aide ‘a known quantity’, whatever that means. She also called them dumb oxes and wicked bitches.”
“Elysia screamed one last time, ‘I’m the freelance writer here’, and she stormed out with her ma and pa following her. And nobody has seen any of them since”. Herman finished the story with one last noisy swallow of coffee.
Mom and Dad were silent. Perhaps like me, they wondered if there was another side to the story. A side that none of us would ever hear.
“Is Elysia still alive?” asked Mom.
“Last anybody heard”, said Agnes, “she had run off and got married to some guy she met in a chatroom. She was way too old to be getting married for the first time, if you ask me”.
“But maybe nobody asked you”, I blurted out. I was only thirteen and I didn’t know any better.
My parents hustled me out of the coffee shop. On the way back to the farm we were all silent. We left for home a few days later. It was the last summer we vacationed on the Johnson farm. I gave the office one more dusting and scrubbing, and left everything the way I had found it.
Before we left I vowed to myself that someday I would be a writer. A freelancer, just like Elysia.