Kathleen L. Asay, "It's About Hope"
When I was in college, I worked in a bookstore in Beverly Hills and one of our customers was an Russian woman who claimed to be Anastasia. Was it possible? Unlikely. Especially as I read in the paper one day about another woman in L.A. also claiming to be Anastasia.
A few years later, after I married, I got an accounting job in an office building in Los Angeles. At lunch, I liked to walk along the boulevard to get a dose of “fresh” L.A. air and look in the shops. There happened to be a bookstore across the street so I often went in there, and when I did I occasionally saw a woman who might have been in her 70s, shopping idly just as I was. She moved soundlessly through the store, picking up books then putting them down, not speaking to anyone.
It intrigued me that she always dressed in yellow, had yellow hair and wore her hair and her make up as she might have done when she was younger. I was twenty-six. I had never noticed that “older” women did that to hold onto a bit of their youth. Who had she been? I was too shy to ask, but I already thought of myself as a writer. Remembering Anastasia, I vowed to give her a story someday.
From Los Angeles, we moved to Portland, Oregon, where I fell in love with a city. I carried my woman in yellow with me, but I could not see her there. I was into writing mysteries, so I wrote a mystery about an acclaimed nature photographer who was bilking the environmental groups he fronted. Then another character came forward and demanded a role. He was Henry Post, lawyer to the poor. In thinking about what to do with him, a woman came to me, Velma, a poor woman whose garden enriches the lives of the people she lives with. I might have found roles for both of them in another novel, but we moved again, Kansas City briefly, and then again, back to California. My husband worked in the L.A. office again, but we lived in Orange County. I saw no place for my woman in yellow nor for my idealistic lawyer in trendy, competitive Southern California.
Disappointed, the novel I wrote there was about murder among the paper millionaires in their fancy homes just feet from the ocean. I hated it. However, I liked my central character and narrator. She was a columnist for an Orange County newspaper. I liked newspapers and I’d taken journalism in school. Maybe I had something there.
Our next move, our last so far, was to Sacramento. I hadn’t wanted to go. I knew Sacramento as a small city of two industries, farming and politics. However, it also had a central core of Victorian-era homes, and I had nothing underway and nothing to lose. Which was where the miraculous and unfathomable in creativity came in. When I opened my mind to Sacramento, I found it was perfect, and to a Victorian, I discovered Maisie Flint and her boarding house known as Flint House. My unknown woman in yellow lived upstairs, and I knew who she was and why she was there. I also had Henry Post, lawyer to the poor, and Velma Patterson who planted a floral necklace around the house.
My narrator, Liz, was an older, more settled version of my Orange County journalist. She was also a version of me, I suppose, who I might have been if I’d been brave enough long ago to ask the Los Angeles Times for a job. Like me, she’d burned out of the writing she was doing and was uncomfortable with the changes in her life. Flint House intrigued her.
When I sat down to write, the story was in my mind as though I had read it recently and memorized it. I knew my peripheral characters as well as the main ones; they entered the story when their time came and I did not have stretch to find them. I went where they took me and trusted what they told me. Flint House, the novel, grew on paper whenever I came to it, as though waiting to be told.
I don’t know how this happened. It had never happened to me before in quite the same way. Usually I struggled to find the next word, worried over the next scene and searched the globe for names for my characters. Now, as I examine my world for a new story to tell, I reflect on this one and the message Henry offered in the following scene, which opens chapter two. In it, Liz recalls her first meeting with Henry. I wrote much of the scene twenty years before Flint House, but it became a theme for the book and works for me still.
I’d met Henry Post seven years earlier, following my chance discovery of an assault victim near Henry’s office on the seedier north edge of downtown. Street regulars directed me to him, but I’d seen his name in the newspaper a few times as someone’s lawyer or witness. I’d expected a crusader, a natural showman, possibly a man with political ambitions, bearded and affectedly casual. Instead, I discovered a trim, pale-skinned, bookish young man in a bare two-room office with nothing at all on the front desk except Henry Post himself, standing on it to change a light bulb in the ceiling. Gray sunlight reflected in the sheen of his trousers, and he wore scuffed wingtip shoes that had been out of fashion so long they were coming in again. My husband had once owned a pair like them.
I looked at the shoes one moment, then Henry bounded down, full of apologies, brushing at his pants when it was the desk that needed dusting. I thought he looked in need of nourishment. It might have been the fire of burning calories that lit his eyes; I was shocked by the intensity of them. They were the warm, bright blue of natural gas flames.
The pale bony hand he held out was warm, too. As I shook it, I suffered the first of the many pangs of conscience I was to know in Henry’s presence. This young man with his thin, colorless hair and hollow-cheeked face, faded shirt and narrow tie, had found a cause he believed in and dedicated himself to it. I was reminded of all the idealistic ambitions of my youth. Guilt stung me, then jealousy. I was short-tempered in that first meeting, telling him only that a man named Handy was about to be arrested and was asking for him. Handy had repeatedly interfered in a police investigation in the next block; Post would find him at the precinct.
Henry was unruffled. “That’s Handy’s stash. That’s where he keeps his things, where he lives, you might say. He didn’t want them handling his belongings.”
“That was obvious. He was a little . . . belligerent."
Henry smiled. “He does that,” he agreed. But his eyes narrowed on me. Who was I and why did I care?
“Liz Cane with The Sacramentan. I decided to see who you were and why you cared if a homeless man got himself arrested for berating a police officer.”
“Fair question. Let’s talk while we walk.” He turned off a lamp in the inner office but left without pausing to lock the outer office door.
Always open for business, I thought wryly, as uncomfortable with unlocked doors as I was with unbridled charity. I’d seen both disappoint as often as not. Later, as I came to know Henry better, I would reflect that the open door was truer than I’d known in those first moments. While not actual charity—he had to make a living, after all—Henry Post was always open for the business of helping people.
“Most police officers I’ve known,” he volunteered, “have been decent enough fellows. They just don’t know what to do around here. When things don’t go the way they would in other neighborhoods, they lose their tempers and shout, swear, even knock people around. All too often they reach for their guns before they open their eyes.”
“Police are not necessarily seen as friendly in this neighborhood.”
“Right. I want to do something about that. Distrust on both sides."
“Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I just don’t believe it will succeed.”
“You have to have hope.”
Flint House is about many things, but for me it’s about hope. Whether you put pen to paper or press letters on a computer keyboard, it’s all about hope.
Asay is a writer and editor in Northern California. Her debut novel Flint House was published by Bridle Path Press in November 2012. She's hoping to write another novel featuring journalist Liz Cane. You can read more about Kathleen L. Asay at www.kathleenasay.com.