Monday, June 14, 2010

Lou Freshwater - Not Looking for Happy

Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A.
Blogging at Baby's Black Balloon 

Lou's out on the front porch watching the rain.
I'm in the kitchen boiling the kettle for tea.
It's one of those cold, gray all day rains that has stretched into all week. A steady torrent rushes across the eavestroughs and out the downspout. Blackbirds huddle in the bird feeder, feathers soaked. Dark sedans cruise by, new puddles in their wake. An old woman carrying a black umbrella and a grocery bag picks her way along the sidewalk.
"She reminds me of Lucille," Lou says.
"Who?" I call from the stove. The kettle is just starting to whistle and I can't honestly hear what she's saying. "Hang on, Lou, tea's almost done." I pour boiling water into an old Brown Betty and toss in a couple of Red Rose tea bags. "Only in Canada, Lou," I say loudly, gathering the rest of the tea stuff onto a tray and carrying it out to the porch. 
"Pity," she says, smiling.
Lou has a lovely smile. Fragile, really. Timid and somehow hopeful. But lovely nevertheless. She is sitting on a love seat near the screened windows, a heavy fisherman's cord sweater and faded Levis loose on her slender frame. She looks 15 years younger than she is.
"See that woman with the umbrella?" she asks. I nod. "She reminds me of Lucille."
"A woman I wrote about."
"A real woman?" I ask.
"Real enough," Lou says. "She is every woman who has never gotten a break yet continues to get up every day – with her dignity intact or ready to fake it – and punches back in order to help instead of hurt the people she loves."
Lou is watching the woman make slow progress down the street. I follow her eyes and try to see what Lou sees. "You see a lot in one old woman walking in the rain," I say.
"There's a lot in all of us," Lou says. "Lucille, she's compassionate and ornery, and handles things on any given day that would break the back of lesser people, even though she knows there is no pot of gold at the end of any rainbow."
We are interrupted by Lou's cell phone. It's one of her two kids calling, asking when she's coming home. "I won't be long," she promises. I pour tea while she's talking. Her face is animated, relaxed. The writer sylph has disappeared and in her place is a caring mother. When she's done, she picks up her tea and asks what we were talking about.
"You," I say.
"No we weren't," she says. 
"Maybe not. But I am curious about you. You're one of the strong silent types on the #fridayflash circuit. Strong and knowing, yet quiet and unassuming. Sometimes I just want to ask who the heck you are."
Lou looks away. A moment or two of silence lingers. I wait.
Finally she speaks, her head still turned away, staring down the yard in the long-disappeared footsteps of the old woman with the black umbrella.
"I'm a country girl," she says. "I'm a city girl. I'm strong as nails but I feel every wisp of wind like it moves through my core. And sometimes that makes me very tired.
"I am a mother and that is always the thing that comes first, even on the days when that is the hardest thing.
"My day job was a student, and now I have no day job. Will you hire me?" she asks with a rueful smile.
"In a heartbeat," I answer. 
"Lou," I say, "why do you write?"
She sips her tea while she thinks, and finally puts the mug down on the tray. 
"I write because, in my tumultuous life, it is something that has always been there internally, even though I'm only now beginning to understand it.
"And because it is the thing that makes me feel like all of my cells are together and working in harmony as they should be."
"You write so well," I say.
"Thanks," Lou says.
"No really. Your writing has a very iconic, classic American flavour. You remind me of Steinbeck. And your characters are always real. Do you even realize what a strong American style you have?"
Lou stares at me. 
"What?" I ask.
"I don't know how to answer this," she says, "because I am floored by your comparison. If I have a 'master' which I hold as my standard, it is Steinbeck. I consider him to be the American writer. He never went saloning in Paris and he never put form above character and telling the truth. He wrote about being an American by doing stuff, real stuff, and by being an American. And Steinbeck has such a tangible affection for his characters."
I kinda laugh. "Like you care for Lucille?"
She smiles back.
"Yeah. I wrote that story because I love Lucille. Seriously though, I should only have half of an English degree because I concentrated so heavily in American literature and, although I don't know what my 'style' is, I certainly aspire to be an American woman writer who uses her voice to honour those who don't have one."
"So Steinbeck is your favourite author then?" I ask. "Oh, did you want more tea?"
Lou shakes her head to the tea.
"I must throw in Moby Dick as my honourable mention but my favourite remains Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. It is my favourite for all the reasons I mentioned before, but also because of the staggering descriptions of both the environmental landscape as well as the landscape of humanity.
"It sums up my feelings about my country because it truly does show the best and worst of America. You have the faceless greed and inhumanity of the banks and others, and then you have the gut and grit and determination of the American individual, whose only weapon against brutal circumstances is an indomitable strength and will. 
"These are some of the individuals and the big issues I wish more of today's literary writers would take on instead of navel-gazing and showing off with pretty cartwheels."
Lou turns and looks at me. "I've gotta go. The kids are waiting. I've gotta make dinner and then tonight I have some volunteer work to do."
She does a fair bit of volunteering. A few years ago she was honoured with a volunteer of the year award in North Carolina. I remember her saying once, "I try to leave things a little better than when I found them. It's one of the things that keep me going."
My heart goes out to this woman, whose real name is Lori, who always seems so sad but writes with such enthusiasm. I want to reach out and hold her, and tell her everything is going to be ok.
Instead, I just ask her another question. Well, two questions. Is she a happy person or a sad person? And why does her blog have such an unusual name?
"Baby's Black Balloon comes from the Goo Goo Dolls song, and that may answer your happy or sad question. 
"Having said that, I am not looking for happy. 
"I am looking for moments to treasure and I still manage to find those on most days."

Black Balloon 
by the Goo Goo Dolls

Baby's black balloon makes her fly
I almost fell into that hole in your life
And you're not thinking about tomorrow
'Cause you were the same as me
But on your knees

A thousand other boys could never reach you
How could I have been the one
I saw the world spin beneath you
And scatter like ice from the spoon
That was your womb

Comin' down the world turned over
And angels fall without you there
And I go on as you get colder
Or are you someone's prayer

You know the lies they always told you 
And the love you never knew
What's the things they never showed you
That swallowed the light from the sun
Inside your room

Comin' down the world turned over
And angels fall without you there
And I go on as you get colder
Or are you someone's prayer

And there's no time left for losin'
When you stand they fall

Comin' down the world turned over
And angels fall without you there
And I go on as you get colder

All because I'm
Comin' down the years turn over 
And angels fall without you there
And I'll go and lead you home and
All because I'm
All because I'm
And I'll become
What you became to me

by Lou Freshwater
In between a few smacks of gum the cashier at the Piggly Wiggly said, “That’ll be ten fifty.”  Lucille took out her book of food stamps, the ones she called her coupons, and handed them to the girl to pay for the powdered baby formula now being put into a brown paper bag.  Lucille then placed a Hershey’s bar down on the counter and took a dollar bill out of her dainty change purse and handed it to the girl.  Philip had been asking for the last two weeks and she figured this would be as good a day as any.  She finished with the cashier, put the candy bar into the bag with the formula, and walked out into the parking lot to begin making her way toward the main road.
Although it was still October, winter was hissing at Lucille from the trees.  It had been a cold and rainy spell.  Her path along the side of the road was a maze of shallow muddy dips in the ground. The cars blew her dress every time they passed her. She walked for about a half mile to Four Corners.  There was one blinking yellow light in the southbound direction, but nobody ever paid any attention to it, so it might as well have not even been there.  Lucille stood at the corner, waiting to cross.  She hoisted the brown bag from one hip to the other, in one fluid swinging motion. Finally, she got a break in the traffic and started across, right into a hole of thick and dirty brown water which soaked her right foot, sock and all, down to the bone.
After another mile and a half, her foot was so cold she could barely tell it was there anymore.  It felt like her body ended at her ankle.  As she got near her place, she adjusted the tortoise shell comb that she had used to pull her hair back off her face.  There were about ten buildings in the cluster where she lived.  All washed out brick and graffiti.  They called it Beau Gardens, but everyone still called it the plantation. Underneath her shoes she could feel the shattered glass and even though it wasn’t making much noise, in her head it seemed loud as it cracked underneath her rubber soles.  Taking her key out of her dress pocket, the one she usually wore to town, Lucille quickened her pace. The hissing had turned to a heavy cold mist and the brown paper bag on her hip had started to sag and collapse, making the weight and the shape of the baby formula seem even more awkward in her arm.  Her knee felt like it was about to give out, making the last ten feet seem like a mile.
Lucille looked at the small porch overhang with two white columns holding it up.  Right about then, Philip opened the door and started to come out.  “Turn your tail around and get back in there before you catch phenmonia,” she said, hardly opening her mouth.
“Ms. Margaret said I could come out and help you.”
“Hush your mouth and get on back in there. Right now!”
Philip turned and went back in, leaving the door open to suck the cold air inside the tiny apartment.  Lucille stiffened her back and said to herself, “Six more, just six more.”
She took a step.  “Five more.


  1. The Goo Goo Dolls are my absolute favorite band. Sigh. Black Balloon is such a compelling song, much like the story I just read by Lou.

    I feel melancholy now, between the story and the interview. But real. Very real.

  2. This great little piece is a prime example as to why I'm a fan of Lou's... I love her prose...

    Again, good goin' Cathy...

  3. A wonderful piece that reveals the psyches of two fantastic writers.

    writer sylph - love that

    And I hope Lou knows I lover her work

    marc nash

  4. So much told about this woman on a simple walk home from the grocery. I am a fan.

  5. I love character driven stories, the ones that make you want to know more about the people. Lou is a master at this kind of writing. I became an instant fan when I read her story Intersections.

  6. Lucille is vivid. Lou's writing did this. In this short piece, the reader does get a glimpse into the "gut and grit and determination" of this American individual.

    Another wonderful interview.

  7. I love the turtle at the beginning of Grapes, so well described, trying to cross the road. A driver almost crashes trying to avoid hitting it, then another swerves wildly trying to hit it. Melville is full of these sorts of contrasts. I share Lou's passion for these writers. And I hear you, Lou, when you say we need writers who write about real people and issues today. There's so much distraction, so much "cartwheeling". And even when a big issue comes up (say all the oil in the Gulf), the discourse is dominated by anger at BP and the government, when the most important thing would be for everyone to look at their own lives and their own hunger for oil.

    OK, I'm off my soap box now.

  8. Yes. Dear, dear Lou. A serious writer. I like that in a woman. And man ;^)

    Everything, and I mean everything, that I have ever read of Lori's is honest and rocks my core. I emote. And that, at least to me, is why I am a fan. She achieves what I strive for, and it all looks so damn effortless.

    Lou, keep writing your truths. I'll be following in your shadow. Lucille is beautiful (I've seen her before?).

    And Cathy, again -- AMAZING INTERVIEW! Peace...

  9. Stark. A sense of bleak beauty I've seen very few other places but have been drawn to. It's realism magnified and washed of color. Wow. Thanks for the smashing introduction to Lou, Cathy.

  10. I love the determination in going on, no matter what. Well done.

  11. Cathy, you made me happy. ;-)

    You really are seriously amazing, and that's before all that talent you have oozing from your pores. Thank you for making me sound far more interesting than I really am.

    Everyone, your kind words and support could not come at a better time, and you'll never know how treasured your encouragement is. I have enjoyed the poetry or prose of each and every one of you, and I'm looking forward to a time when I can get back to my joy which is reading it.



    Thank you.


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