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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic


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Currently reading

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Today's Autobiographical Rant - When fiction comes to life

Seventeen - Booth Tarkington

First of all, read this:




Second of all, THANK YOU, Obsidian Blue, for posting it on Twitter.


Now, sit back and read some shit.  You can either read the shit I'm going to post here or some other shit -- or read something good and fun and entertaining and enlightening!


The tl/dr version is Linda Bloodworth Thomason is right; not all harassment is sexual.


I'm not sure where to start this, since I'm not sure where the beginning is.  No matter where I start, it seems there are explanations missing.  I guess we'll just have to deal with that as we go along.


My husband was not one for socializing, and there were numerous aspects of our married life that precluded much socializing anyway.  I consoled myself with a variety of rationalizations, first when we were living in Indiana and then after we moved to Arizona.  I claimed I didn't miss it, that I had other outlets.


There were moments of rebellion, even though I didn't recognize them as that.  I joined various writers' groups and established friendships through them, though the friendships were somewhat superficial.  Over the years, as he and I became involved in arts and crafts, there were some slight cracks in the prison walls. (Is that too harsh?  Maybe, maybe not.)  And when I returned to college, I had more contacts with other human beings, though again the relationships were not deep.  And there was never any real social activity involved.  No house parties or groups going to a ballgame or anything like that.  Just chats on campus, an occasional pizza dinner after classes.


After he died, I was incredibly alone.  I was accustomed to being by myself because my husband worked nights, so it wasn't an issue of just being alone in the house.  By then I was working, too, so I saw other people for a few hours a day.  But I was very, very aware of just how alone I was and how awkward I felt.


BF was an old friend whom I had known since my high school days, and our reconnection at that time seemed fortuitous.  Perhaps more than anything, I reveled in his outgoingness, his enjoyment of being around other people, his preference for engaging in conversation rather than silence.  Though I often felt like a fish out of water, because I had rarely if ever indulged in this kind of socializing, I found that I liked it.


We moved -- for a variety of reasons mostly irrelevant -- and quickly established a group of friends in our new location.  Some of them he had known for several years, but most were new to both of us.  I was shy at first; I simply didn't know how to act.  Almost every morning we congregated for a couple of hours around the sidewalk tables at a local coffee shop, and for weeks or even months I rarely said a word.  I had difficulty even remembering all their names, because that wasn't a skill I had ever had to develop.


I couldn't say I liked all of these people, but I really liked some of them and got along reasonably well with almost all of them.  There were eventually about 40 of us altogether, mostly couples but quite a few single women, all widows.  The lone widower made it clear he was desperate to find another wife, which he did quite quickly.  All were financially comfortable.  They hosted dinner parties, went on cruises together.  They traveled a lot, had nice cars, nice homes.  I felt like the poor relation, but I also felt accepted in spite of that.


I knew I was different from them, and I knew there were still barriers.  But I dared to feel as if a part of me that had been neglected for almost 40 years was suddenly being allowed into the sunshine.


My finances weren't such that  I could join in all their activities -- the cruises, the theatre parties -- but I loved the house parties and other affordable things.  Best of all, I discovered that almost all the women in the group, and even some of the men, loved arts and crafts.  In some cases, the preference was for fine art, but it seemed almost all of us engaged in some form of creative endeavor.


How the whole business with knitting came up, I don't remember.  Someone found a source for inexpensive yarn or something and the next thing you knew, half a dozen of us were sitting at the coffee shop knitting while we chatted.


A woman who was not part of the group somehow introduced herself by asking me to teach her how to knit.  Why she asked me and not one of the others, I don't know  But she did.


Her name was Leigh, and she was not someone I would ever have sought out to make her acquaintance.  She was overdressed in clothes inappropriate for her age and her shape.  She wore too much very obviously cheap jewelry.  Her high heels made no sense when the rest of us were in flip flops most of the time, or sneakers when it was really, really cold.  But who was I to judge?  So I offered to teach her to knit and told her to bring some knitting needles and yarn the next time she came to the coffee shop.


She showed up a few days later with a tangled wad of yarn and some long cooking skewers. 


"I don't have any knitting needles, but these will work, won't they?" she said.


Um, no.  And the yarn she had brought, which she said she had bought for twenty-five cents at Goodwill, was a hopeless knot.  She chatted while I untangled her yarn and rolled it up into a neat little ball with the end sticking out so it could be pulled from the inside, the way my grandmother had taught me.


"Buy some knitting needles," I told her, "and next time you're here I'll show you how to knit."


The rest of us thought she was a little weird, like, I mean, who would bring kebab skewers to knit with, but we were pretty accepting.  And hey, she didn't know, right?


But the next time she arrived, she had more tangled yarn from Goodwill, but no needles. 


"I didn't have time to go to Walmart," she explained. "And Goodwill doesn't have any."


I suspected then that Goodwill was where she did most of her shopping.  Not because her clothes were shabby or anything, but because she never wore the same thing twice.  As time went on, others in the group noticed this, but we never actually said anything. 


So I agreed to lend her some of my needles, but only until she bought some of her own.  I was very emphatic about it.


"These were my grandmother's knitting needles," I told her.  "They mean a lot to me, and I do not want them lost or bent.  You can buy your own for a couple dollars, and I do want these back undamaged."


I then proceeded to begin teaching her to knit.


She was dumb as post.


She was also loud, rude, and obnoxious.  She butted into conversations without so much as an "excuse me."  She was annoying as hell.


Whenever anything went wrong with the knitting, she wanted someone else to fix it.  There was no attempt to learn what she had done wrong so she could avoid it in the future.  She wanted help, meaning, she wanted someone else to fix her mess.


The next day, she arrived at the coffee shop with yet more tangled yarn, but no needles.


"I'm so sorry, Linda, about your grandmother's needles, but my cat wanted to play with them."


She laughed and looked around the group as though she were a child who had just done something bad but expected forgiveness (because she was so cute?).  No one offered it (because she wasn't).


"I suggest you find them," I ordered her.  "I told you not to lose them."


She pouted, exactly like a child.


"Well, I don't know if I can."


I said, exactly as if to a child, "You'd better."


I was heartbroken.  I had tried to be nice to someone, be generous, be helpful, and it had cost me.  My grandmother's knitting needles were always kept in a little taffeta keeper with the sizes printed on a ribbon and I love it.  I was livid that Leigh had been so cavalier about my possessions.


Fortunately, she did find the missing needles and brought them back, and I got the strange feeling that they'd never really been lost at all.  I believed then and believe to this day that she intended to keep them all along.  I think she expected me to just give them to her.  It wasn't going to happen.


Over the next several months, Leigh's knitting skills improved somewhat, but she continued with the routine of constantly needing help, which I began to think of as needing attention.  Constant attention.


Leigh's husband Walter had also joined the group.  Like her, he was rather loud and obnoxious.  He was also obsessed with money.  He made sure everyone knew just how much he had paid for everything, made sure everyone knew he only bought the best.


When neither Leigh nor Walter was around, conversation occasionally switched to gossip about them.  Questions were raised as to how smart Walter was, as some of the business deals he described didn't make much sense.  He bought a car that he bragged was worth twice what he paid for it, that it had incredibly low mileage, that . . . well, you get the picture.  But it was in the shop more often than it was out, and absolutely no one else was allowed to ride in it.  Speculation was that it had a lot more miles on it than Walter let on.  And that maybe it was representative of a habit of not telling quite all the truth.


The big speculation was that they were living way beyond their means.  Though both of them bragged about how much money they had, there were signs that the money wasn't really there.  But it wasn't something the rest of us talked openly about.  Just a comment here or there.


Another person joined our group sometime after Leigh and Walter, a younger woman named Kate.  Most of us were in our 50s to 70s, but Kate was only in her mid 40s.  She had a daughter in middle school, and her husband was about ten years younger.  Kate wasn't shy about her own financial problems; she often brought her own coffee to the shop because she couldn't afford to buy theirs, or she borrowed a few bucks from one of us.  She always paid it back, unless of course she was told to just let it go.


The coffee shop often displayed local artists' work, and every now and then the works would sell.  One member of the group fell in love with a particular painting of some desert wildflowers and arranged to purchase it.  The price was modest, maybe $200. 


Leigh and Walter immediately got into "negotiations," as they called it, to purchase one of the more expensive paintings, but most of us quickly realized that this was a sham, a pretense to make them look like great patrons of the arts with money they didn't really have.  But we had by this time gotten used to their tactics.


What we didn't know was that Kate's husband was an amateur photographer.  One morning Kate brought some 8 x 10 prints he had had made and we were all kind of astounded.  They were beautiful!  We encouraged her to have him make a few larger prints and frame them, and maybe talk the coffee shop owner into displaying some.


We also knew this was kind of an extra expense for Kate and her husband.  When she showed up a week or so later with half a dozen framed and matted prints, we just accepted her explanation that he had got a little bonus at work and decided to put it toward his "art."  The prices she put on them were enough to cover the cost of the framing and a little bit of profit.  Even so, she said she didn't really expect to sell any of them.


Leigh and Walter were slowly wearing out their welcome in the group.  There had been several incidents that raised more than a few eyebrows.


Another member of the group, Emily, had held a couple of Holiday Boutiques at her home.  The first year three or four of us participated.  I did moderately well, but since there was no fee involved other than chipping in to cover an ad in the local paper, I was pleased.  The second year there were seven or eight of us, and with a little more word of mouth, the turn-out was better.  I came home with a much lighter inventory and a much fatter wallet.


The third year, Leigh invited herself to participate.


You're thinking she had brought her knitting up to a skill level where she could put out her wares for sale.  No, that's not what happened.  Her knitting remained embarrassingly bad, both because her skill hadn't improved and because she continued to buy old crappy tangled yarn at Goodwill.


Leigh wanted to sell cosmetics.


"They aren't handmade crafts," Emily insisted when telling Leigh that she couldn't participate.


Most people would have taken that as a firm "No" but not Leigh.  Instead she said she had an extensive client list in the area and she would invite all of them to the "party" and boost attendance.  "They're all women with money to spend," she said by way of enticement.


This sort of thing went on quietly for a week or more, until politeness pushed Emily into allowing Leigh to have a small table to set up her cosmetics.  (I won't mention the brand, but it's a well-known one.)  The Boutique was scheduled for 10:00 to 3:00, and we arrived at Emily's house around 8:30 to set up.


Leigh was already there.  She'd been there since 7:00 a.m.  She had got Emily and her husband out of bed.


Instead of a "small table," Leigh had taken over the entire family room, spreading out her wares so that there was little space for anyone else.  Emily was at her wit's end trying to contain the spread of lipsticks and blushers, hand lotions and foot creams.  Her husband had fled in desperation.  Eventually, we were able to reduce Leigh's footprint to about one fourth of her original territory, but she still occupied a dominant portion of the room that was supposed to have been for the rest of us.


There were a lot of bad feelings.  They were soon to get worse.


Emily's husband had originally volunteered to be the greeter, standing by the door to usher guests in and guide them to the display areas.  His absence meant that the rest of us had to rotate turns.  This wouldn't have been so bad if Leigh hadn't decided it was her personal obligation to greet every guest and direct them to her merchandise.


She was loud.  She intruded on everyone else's attempts to chat with customers.  She shoved perfume samples in people's faces.  She was everything horrible you can imagine.  During the course of the day, each and every one of us had to restrain her more than once.


"I'm talking to this customer, Leigh.  We don't need any facial cleanser right now," I had to tell her on one occasion.  I was horribly embarrassed.


At the end of the event, Leigh had not sold a single item, but she wanted to buy something from each of us.  Oh, but she didn't have any cash with her.  Could she pay us back the following Monday?


I knew she wanted a particularly expensive pendant from me, and I was very reluctant to let it go to her for any price let alone on a promise to pay in a few days.  I just didn't want to.  So I made sure I packed it away first so that when she came around to get it, I could tell her it was already in its box.  "I'll bring in Monday and you can pay for it then."


Of course, I brought it Monday but she didn't mention it.  I knew then that she only wanted to get something for free.


Two of the other women who had taken part in Emily's Boutique ended up having to beg Leigh for the money she owed them.  There was always an excuse for not having the cash.  Always.


Again, we didn't talk very openly about Leigh's behavior.  We were all being polite.  Even though we often groaned aloud when we saw them walking up to the coffee shop, we smiled and were nice.


Emily's Boutique was at Thanksgiving time, and all of us were busy with holiday activities for several weeks afterward.  I even had a couple of other art shows.  Leigh became more and more annoying because she began conducting cosmetic business within our social group.  Whether it was taking up the tables with her packages or demanding people try her samples or begging total strangers to join us so she could use them as "models," she seemed to be destroying the social nature of our group.  No amount of polite hinting seemed to penetrate her thick skull.


One thing our group pretty much avoided was politics.  Our routine was to meet for coffee at the coffee shop from roughly 9:00 a.m. to noon, with various members coming and going during that time.  We talked about the weather, about road construction, about sports, about family, but almost never about politics.  The only ones who did were the rightwingers, and they were the distinct minority.  We were well into the Obama presidency, and the handful of racists among us were very uncomfortable and wanted to make sure the rest of us knew it.  Leigh and Walter were among that handful.


One day Walter brought a handgun with him, a classic western style revolver. He didn't exactly point it at anyone, but he waved it around so carelessly that I simply got up and left without saying a word.


I was told the next day that Walter had taken note of my departure and demanded that everyone else tell him why I had left.  I had said nothing to anyone.  Not one word.  I simply picked up my coffee and my purse and walked away.  The very fact that he noticed and wanted to know why was enough to let me know the gun had been brought for my benefit. 


He wanted to frighten me.


I still said nothing to the others.  Not one word.  I was not going to give anyone else the ammunition -- pun most definitely intended -- to tell him why.


Shortly into the new year, several members of the group were going on a cruise, including Leigh and Walter.  Leigh was particularly excited, since she had never been on a cruise before.  While they were gone, those of us who stayed behind indulged in some brazen pettiness wondering how Leigh would get along in her spike heels on board the ship.


Well, when they all returned we learned that she had had some difficulty with the heels, but that her worst problem was arriving with seven suitcases and not having space in their tiny cabin for all her luggage!  She had had to beg another member of the group to take on some of her bags!


Needless to say, this alone did not endear her.


Comments were made about how cheap she and Walter were when they left the ship to venture into "foreign" ports, and about the racist comments they made when encountering locals who didn't speak perfect English.


Through all this I just rolled my eyes.  None of it surprised me.


What did surprise me, however, was Leigh asking me to appraise -- that was the word she used -- a ring she had bought on the ship.  I told her I had no knowledge of appraisals and that she really ought to take it to a jeweler.  She insisted on showing it to me, and although I was pretty sure she had overpaid for it - it was supposed to be pearls and sapphires but I couldn't even vouch for the veracity of that claim -- I told her nothing.  I couldn't.


I suspected she was just trying to show off, letting me know that she had more money than I did and could afford to buy something outrageously overpriced, but I didn't know for sure.  I felt used and a little bit intimidated, but I valued my friendships with the others and wasn't going to jeopardize that.


But for some reason or other, that seemed to spook both her and Walter.  Their attitude toward me became more and more antagonistic.  Some of the others in the group even mentioned it to me:  Why did Leigh and Walter seem to have it in for me?


I couldn't answer, because I just plain didn't know.


Then came the explosion.


Remember Kate's husband's photos that had been hung in the coffee shop?  Well, Leigh decided she wanted to buy one of them.  Comments were made that it didn't seem the sort of thing that would fit in their home and so on, but Leigh insisted she liked it and wanted it.  It was the most expensive of the lot.


We knew that the haggling over the other painting months before had all been for show, so we expected the same was true of the photo.  Leigh entered into negotiations with Kate, who simply said it would be up to her husband since he knew how much the framing and so on had cost.


A few days later, on a Monday morning, Kate arrived at the coffee shop and quoted a price not much lower than what was on the work.  She explained that he had kept the prices just barely above what the actual expense of printing and framing was.  He could sell them a print without the frame for less.  But of course, they wouldn't haggle any further for fear of looking cheap.  So the price was agreed on.  Walter took out his checkbook and wrote a check, right there in front of all of us.  Kate put it in the back pocket of her jeans, then she and Walter and Leigh went into the coffee shop together to take the photo off the display wall.


It so happened that I went into the shop at the same time, either to get a refill or something, and I was standing right by Walter when he instructed Kate not to cash the check right away.


"Don't cash it before Friday," he told her.  "There's no money in the account right now.  I can't get any money in it until Friday."


She then told him that it wouldn't be a problem.  She didn't have a bank account due to a previous bankruptcy, so she would just give the check to her husband since he handled all the finances.


There was no reason for me to say anything to anyone.  It was none of my business.  And I virtually forgot about it.


Until Friday.


Leigh and Walter were unusually silent that morning.  Walter had a habit of stealing the coffee shop's newspapers so he could do all the crosswords and sudokus and other puzzles, and he was deep in concentration on those.  Leigh was on her phone doing cosmetic business.  They didn't even say hello as members of the group arrived and took seats around the tables.


Then Kate showed up.  And Walter started screaming at her.


"I told you not to cash that check until today!  I wrote today's date on it!  It hit my bank yesterday and bounced and I got charged for the overdraft!  You owe me another fifty dollars!"


Kate was horrified.  She didn't know what he was talking about.  But I did.  I tried to calm the situation, but the only way to do that was to point out that Walter was wrong.


I had been in a similar situation not long before, when a woman had written a check to me at an art show and it bounced.  She had apologized and immediately made it good, but in the process I had done some research on the banking laws in Arizona.


I told Walter, "It doesn't matter what date you write on a check.  As soon as you give it to the person, it's essentially live.  You can post date it a day, a week, a month, and it doesn't matter.  You're responsible for making good on it no matter what date you put on it or what request you make that it not be cashed.  You can't make her pay for your overdraft.  It's your legal responsibility to have the funds there at the time the check is written."


Walter exploded -- at me.  He called me names.  He accused me of practicing law without a license.  He threatened to have me arrested.


No one came to my defense.  No one.


Over the next several days, a flurry of emails and voice mails and text messages flew around the group.  Apparently drunk, Leigh called people in the middle of the night.  She sent emails to total strangers -- because she got the addresses wrong -- lamenting how horrible I was, how mean, how vicious.  She called me a liar.


I had done nothing wrong.  (And yes, I still have the emails.)


The one person who dared to speak to me afterward was Emily, the hostess of the Holiday Boutique that Leigh had more or less crashed with her cosmetics.  Emily begged me to apologize to Leigh.


"Why should I apologize?  And what for?  For helping Kate avoid being bullied into paying Walter $50 for his own mistake?"


Emily was adamant.  "Everyone knows they're phonies, that they don't have the money they say they do.  They hate you because you're smart and honest and they're afraid you'll show them up for what they really are."


"And I just did.  But they can't just take advantage of someone like Kate like that!"


It went on like that for maybe half an hour.  Emily insisted it was my responsibility to make Leigh and Walter look good, make myself look bad, "because you're the strong one and you can take it."


I burst into tears and left.  That was in 2012.  I've been ostracized by most of them ever since.  Leigh and Walter weren't.  In fact, they continue to frequent another coffee shop where BF sees them occasionally.  They say hello to him.  They also continue to steal the newspaper, unless they're caught by the owner.  Leigh still wears clothes from Goodwill, and still risks a broken neck on her high heels.  They forced her to into hip replacement several years ago, and the surgeon told her no more heels, but she thinks she knows more.  BF says she walks like she ought to be in a wheelchair.


Few of my erstwhile friends even acknowledge me if we encounter each other in a store.  I might as well be dead to them.


Emily continues to have her Holiday Boutiques.  I'm not invited, of course.  Sometimes she says hello to me, sometimes not.  In six years, I doubt she's said a dozen words to me.


Rumor had it at one time that Walter made a bunch of money in the Dakota oil boom and then somehow lost it all.  I don't know for sure.  I'm still everyone's poor relation who misbehaved.


Yesterday, while sorting through old old old computer files, I came across a series of emails from 1994 and 1995 that covered a similar experience I'd almost forgotten about, where someone went after me personally for something I had not done, but none of my friends stood up for me.  I read the email from one of them who wrote, "You're the strong one, Linda, and you can take it.  We have to stand with [the person who verbally attacked me] even though she's wrong and we all know it, because none of us are strong enough."


For years after the incident with Leigh and Walter, I tried to figure out who it was Leigh reminded me of.  BF always thought she was smarter than she acted and only played the part of the dumb blonde because it got her attention.  But I never was willing to give her credit for any smarts at all.  Meanness, yes, but not the malice of the smart person; the viciousness of the truly stupid was more her speed.


She even had a fluffy little white dog that always seemed to need a trip to the groomer, and it was the dog who finally gave me the clue.


Leigh was a grown-up, spiteful version of Lola Pratt, from Booth Tarkington's Seventeen.