Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65) writes about her story:
Though not immediately obvious there is a link between my story, Under the Elms, and my reasons for joining the Peace Corps. Ever since I was born, a half-Jewish, white child in a Japanese American Internment camp, my life has been inextricably entwined with issues of race, class, ethnicity and religion in our country. My parents were highly educated with advance d degrees from major universities, but because my father was a community organizer and because, as a result, we were poor, I grew up in poor and working class neighborhoods. My friends were German American farm children in southeastern Ohio whose parents blamed “the Jews” for WWII, French Canadian children of factory workers in Winooski, Vermont who were looked down upon by the dominant New England population, and, as in this story, children of working class poor, and single-mother families in Burlington, Vermont. And in my teenage years, in Uniondale, Long Island, I hung out with a community of kids, recently arrived from Brooklyn, New York, who had brought along their gang affiliations and racist feelings about the growing African American community in the neighboring town. I lived deeply embedded in the lives of my friends, their values often conflicting with my parent’s beliefs, their pain often hidden from the greater society, and their prejudices and “misdeeds” often the result of their circumstances.
I learned from this rich upbringing that even in what many call the greatest democracy in the world, the story is more complicated once one looks below the surface of the fine words and deeds. The two strands, my parent’s activism and idealism, and the struggles of my friends, were what lead me to answering Kennedy’s call, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Under the Elms
by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
She and I sat on the curb in the humid, panty-sticking heat, under the elms that used to line Brookes Avenue and asked each other what we wanted to do with the days that stretched before us, dull and buzzing with cicadas. Susan’s mother was waiting tables down at the Flamingo on Church Street. My mother was teaching summer classes at the high school. Motherless girls for the duration.
My mother arrived home at three in the afternoon, but she was no fun; she took long naps and if Susan and I were in the apartment we had to tiptoe around or stay put in my room with its double bed that practically filled the space. It had been my parents’ bed, but now they slept in the living room on single Hollywoods that converted to sofas during the day, once the maroon covers and matching bolsters were returned to place.
Susan’s mother didn’t get home until after the restaurant closed around ten. Only on her days off was she around. And those were the times I looked forward to. We didn’t sit out on the curb when Mary Talbot was home. We hung around their apartment on the second floor of a three story wooden building with outside staircases, situated dead in the center of the point where Brookes Avenue intersected in a T with Willard Avenue. From Susan’s outdoor staircase you could look all the way up Brookes Avenue and almost see our apartment on the second floor of a two-family clapboard house with indoor stairs. It was a little fancier up the hill, where most of the houses were single-family. But Susan and I were pretty much equally poor compared to the other kids in our neighborhood, even though my mother was higher paid as a teacher. Susan didn’t have a father to bring in extra wages and my father, though he worked, had a job with a goal of seeing that the farmers of Vermont could better their lives, or so my mother said, adding in her sarcastic way, “that’s why he plows back most of his earnings into his efforts.”
Every extra bit of Mrs. Talbot’s earnings were plowed back into making sure that Susan looked beautiful with her store bought dresses, spanking new shiny Mary Janes, and Toni perms for her shoulder length light brown hair. Susan had a closet full of dresses for all occasions and dozens of pairs of shoes. Every detail of her clothing was worked out to perfection. Even her anklets had frills to match the ruffles of her pinafores and puffy sleeved blouses. I had three home-made dresses, cut from the same pattern with differing embellishments, which I changed out of the minute I arrived home. I alternated wearing the dresses over ten school days; my mother said she didn’t have time to do washing and ironing more that every two weeks. My after-school pair of dungarees became my daily outfit during the summer. Eventually they yielded a skim of soft white inside from particles of my shedding skin. Boys’ department tee shirts covered my flat chest. At eleven, a year older than I was, Susan already had small beginnings of breasts. I was relieved I wasn’t yet burdened with the same. Susan was my opposite, a girly, pretty girl with a soft round face. Anytime she laughed or smiled, a dimple in her left cheek dug in deep and her hazel eyes squinted almost shut.
Mary Talbot let us play dress-up in her satin negligees and robes and encouraged us to clomp around in her mules, setting their pink feather wisps shivering in the air as we sashayed across the room trailing a wake of the eau de cologne embedded in her lingerie. She patted out faces with pancake makeup and painted our lips Scarlet Red by Ponds and pinned our hair with rhinestone clips. We were movie stars under the tutelage of Mary Talbot. When she was finished attiring us, she would curl up on the couch in her own red satin robe with a glass full of whiskey and tinkling ice and smoke cigarette after cigarette as she directed us in our scenes and applauded our best lines.
Mary Talbot looked like Judy Garland, her lustrous brown hair piled high on her head and her lips puffy and full, with a twist of a sad smile. Whether she patterned that smile after Judy, I’ll never know. What I do know is that she projected a similar vulnerability, a fragility that bespoke troubled waters.
When it was time for me to leave she’d take me into their tiny bathroom, slip off my metal framed glasses and scrub my face.
“Your mother won’t want to see you with powder and lipstick. I can tell she doesn’t like showy business.”
If she’d painted my fingernails she’d rub the color off with polish remover, her touch and the banana fumes making me woozy with pleasure.
“Now get on up the hill to your mama. Don’t want her blaming me for you being late.”
As the summer wore on I had to leave earlier and earlier, not to arrive after dark. August dusks came on cool and moist, the hint of drying leaves already in the air, mixing with my dread of the evening. It was like walking out of a Technicolor movie into a black and white. Silence usually met me as I closed the glass-paned downstairs door and climbed up to our apartment. Opening the top landing glass-paned door, I rarely smelled dinner cooking. No lights meant my mother was still sleeping. In my room I lay on the bed, one lamp lit, listening to the radio turned low, fingertips to my nose, breathing in the traces of banana solvent.
By now Mary Talbot had splashed more whiskey over her melting ice. She might even be singing or dancing around the living room, her head resting on the top of Susan’s head, her perfume filling the air. Or if a man had come to visit, as Susan told me often happened in the evenings when her mother was off work, always different men she said, he probably had joined in the dancing, gracefully leading Mrs. Talbot around the floor the way Donald O’Conner lead my current movie idol, Vera Ellen.
The elms dropped their leaves mixing with the maples, and our favorite activity after school was to shuffle through the ankle deep accumulations setting them to a musical shushing. We loved falling backward into the raked piles in front yards along the way. We’d lie there covered in leaves, silent, taking in the sensuality of their delicate embrace. Late afternoons the air would become rich with smoke. We picked the remnants of our playing from each others hair before going our separate ways, breathless, ruddy-cheeked, and sorry to part. We weren’t consciously aware that we loved the smell of drying and burning leaves back then, but I know it now, for me it bespeaks a time of sheer innocence, of love and laughter with a girlfriend, of no terror in the night.
The snow piled high on each side of our walk until it was well over my head. The windows were frosted each morning with wondrous scenes of stars and mountains and fir trees, and whatever else my imagination could conger. Icicles hung dangerously from the eaves of our second floor apartment all the way to the ground, slick, thick as my narrow hips and opaque as clouds even when the sun shown on them.
In the middle of the night during a silent, heavy snowfall there was a banging on the outside downstairs’ door. My father was already up when the racket entered my sleep.
“Goddamn it, who the hell is that at this unearthly hour.”
Whoever it was kept rapping sharply against the glass.
My father went down. I stayed in bed.
“Who is it, Scott?” my mother called from the hallway.
He didn’t answer her, but I heard him say, “Come in, honey. Come upstairs. We’ll get you warmed.”
“Oh, lord,” My mother said.
“Let’s get her under the covers.” My father again.
“Sarah,” my father whispered, entering the room. “You awake, sweetheart?”
He sat on the side of my bed. “Your friend Susan’s here. She needs a place to sleep. She’s pretty cold.”
Susan crawled stiffly in under the covers bringing frigid air. She wore her nightgown and nothing else, the flannel fabric was frozen solid like sheets dried on the line in winter. Her feet touched my leg as she curled away from me. I felt the shock of ice. She began to shiver so much the bed shook and the springs creaked.
“You girls get some sleep.” My father was silhouetted in the door frame. “We’ll work this out in the morning.”
He left the door ajar. He said to my mother, “She came the whole two blocks in her bare feet. She didn’t even have a sweater on. Damn, what happened down there?”
Susan continued to shake. When I asked her what happened, she made a sound that was part animal, part little kid who’s been swimming in a cold lake too long. Her teeth were chattering too hard to get any words out. I wrapped my arms around her cold body and tried to hold her calm. It took a long time before she was still, before I could hear her just breathing softly and we could both sleep.
We were wakened by glass splintering and shouting so loud it must have been heard around the neighborhood.
“Where’s my girl? Is my baby up there?” Her cry was raw desperation. I could barely recognize the voice as Mrs. Talbot’s.
“Mommy!” Susan called.
“You stay put.” My mother appeared at our door. “Scott’s going down.”
“You give her to me, you bastard. You give me back my girl.”
My father’s calming voice, the kind of tone I’d heard him use at farmhouse meetings when grown men were having big trouble, came next, but he was talking too low to make out words.
“You let me have her, you fucking bastard. You and your fucking prig of a wife can’t keep her from me.”
The next that reached us up the stairwell was, “You bastards, you called the cops. I’m her mother. I’ve got a right to her.”
Susan struggled against my arms. “I gotta go down to her. She’s missing me.”
I held on tight. “It’s warm here. Stay with me. Tomorrow you can see her. We can go down to your house and play there. She’ll be okay. I promise.”
She lay still. I figured the warmth of the bed won out, that she still had a memory of being barefoot in the snow.
Everything became quiet again. My father came upstairs. I could tell by his slow walk that he was tired. He said so to my mother.
“I’m bushed. Let’s get some sleep.”
Susan couldn’t sleep.
“Look how pretty the moon is coming through the frost pictures,” I said.
It shown silvery and the windows sparkled almost like daytime.
“See the trees and doesn’t that look like a little lamb?” I spoke to her like to a baby.
After awhile her breaths became longer and longer and I knew we could both sleep through to morning.
We sat at the breakfast table in blinding sunshine. It was Saturday. My mother usually slept in on Saturdays, often until eleven o’clock, but this morning she was up early. My father had already left. He was driving down to Putney for a meeting, my mother told us.
I’d worried that she would be in one of her weekend angry moods. I didn’t want Susan to witness that. It could be awful with her stomping around the kitchen in a black silence, slamming pots into the sink, dropping plates heavily onto the table. But today she seemed excited, even happy as she made us waffles. My mother almost never brought out the old waffle iron. I felt proud to have Susan see our nice breakfast.
“We’ll have to get you something to wear, dear,” my mother said to Susan once we were eating.
We were still in our bed clothes. Susan was bigger than I and I knew she wouldn’t be able to squeeze into my things.
“We’ll go down street to Abraham’s, and get you a few items to tide you over.”
Susan could barely keep her head up, her face was pasty with fatigue, but she whispered, “I can get stuff at home. I’ve got lots of clothes there.”
“I know, dear, but you’re not going home today.”
She didn’t go home that day or the next, or the next. Susan stayed with us for months. She became my sister, and my mother who was usually thrifty, turned profligate, purchasing an entire wardrobe for Susan and even buying me new clothes to match hers. The item I remember most was a pastel raincoat; mine was a pale chalky green with a black corduroy stand-up collar and Susan’s was pink. They were the latest thing, modeled on old fashioned slickers, but made of rain resistant cotton. It was the only time I’ve suffered sibling rivalry, before of after. I recall a flash of searing envy, wishing her gone when we purchased those coats in Abrahams, knowing I’d never have been the recipient of such extravagance if not for Susan living with us. As for my mother, she was proud of herself, even I could see that, proud of how she was handling a difficult situation, a tragic case. But I hated her for it.
Mrs. Talbot had come screaming to our house once more, again in the middle of the night. She broke another window pane in the downstairs door and unlatched the hook. She was halfway up the stairs before my father stopped her.
“You fucking bastard, you’ve stolen my girl. You can’t have her, she’s my baby. Your fucking wife can’t even take care of her own. I took care of your girl. I made her happy when she looked so sad. Please, please, let me have my baby.”
I physically restrained Susan again, whispering, “You can’t go back there.”
“I have to.”
We could hear Mrs. Talbot sobbing and my father’s measured voice trying to reassure her that they’d work things out. “Just give it time.” Her sobs became muffled. She must have buried her face against my father’s chest.
“We’ll work it out,” I said to Susan. “But you can’t go back down there until they fix things.”
By that time Susan had told me what had happened. One of the men her mother brought home nights had gotten into Susan’s bed and his thing was stiff, she said and he’d gotten it part way into her. She’d showed what she’d meant with her finger, which shocked me and yet felt nice and made me wish for more. But it wasn’t his finger, it was his thing. Her mother hadn’t come when Susan called for help. The man said her mother was out cold and he tried to put it in deeper while he held her down, but Susan had somehow wiggled out and had gotten away and that’s when she left her apartment in only her nighty and bare feet.
“It’s still too dangerous,” I continued to whisper to her as my father comforted Mary Talbot on the staircase. “You can go home when the danger’s gone.” But I knew better. I’d heard my mother say on the phone, talking in her fussy voice, about making arrangements to get Mrs. Talbot committed to Waterbury.
Waterbury was the lunatic asylum in a big soot-darkened brick building with bars on the windows in the town of Waterbury, a place so terrifying you didn’t even want to drive by in a car with the windows rolled down because you could hear the rasping raging screams from the women within.
Late winter/Early spring
The statewide mandated mud season arrived and we had time off. It was a period of real freedom for the two of us. Before Susan’s mother was committed to Waterbury we had to have escorts to and from school, often we had to be driven in a police car. They were afraid Mary Talbot would have us both kidnapped or she would at least try to steal her daughter back. But with her mother put away and my mother going to the high school during vacation to catch up on her work and make up for the time she’d lost, “taking care of the Talbot business,” Susan and I were on our own. There was no mud in the streets in Burlington so we could take our bicycles — my mother had by then bought Susan a bicycle — and go off around town and to the far reaches, out to the Howard Johnson’s at the edge of the city where we chose from 24 flavors of ice cream or down to the shore of Lake Champlain where we found a narrow beach covered with flat black stones. We’d spend hours skipping those stones across the water until each of us had reached our top throws of sixteen skips.
Not even that accomplishment wiped away Susan’s sadness. She tried not to show her sorrow, tried her hardest to have fun with me and to make my mother think she was grateful. I saw that, was aware of her effort, but I knew my friend, knew the difference between these days of utter freedom, and the hours we used to spend in her apartment while Mary Talbot drank from the glass of whiskey with the tinkling ice and we paraded in and out in our best fashion, strutting for her approval.
We peddled back from the shore late one afternoon as the sun was lowering behind us over the broad lake, lighting up the town like glowing amber as we headed for home. Just before the intersection of Willard Avenue that would have led to her old apartment if we’d turned left instead of continuing straight, she stopped. She stood clutching the handlebars, her head bowed. I pulled up beside her. Huge tears were flowing down her chapped cheeks, over her chin and onto the collar of her jacket. We stayed like that, side by side in silence, she weeping soundlessly as night came on and the air grew cold with the dampness of incipient spring.
I couldn’t say anything, not even, It’s going to be okay, because in that moment I learned that you can’t lie to a person when the world has collapsed around her, can’t lie when the one person she ever really loved and who loved her and protected her until one fatal moment had disappeared from her life, leaving her with nobody, and no place of her own, so that in a way she didn’t exist herself.
The world came back to Susan; she stopped crying, wiped her nose on her coat sleeve, glanced over at me through her bangs my mother had neglected to trim and nodded for us to go. We continued up the hill, at first slowly and then Susan began to put on the speed and we raced each other through the descending night, bumping over the uneven sidewalk now in darkness until suddenly the street lights came on and we moved swiftly through one cone of white light after another, she particularly, bent on winning.
A while after that, when the first hints of green skimmed the maples behind our apartment and the air was redolent with the rich odor of pregnant earth, Susan was called out of the classroom by the principal. I watched her through the window in the door as she stood in the hall crying and smiling at the same time while he spoke to her. The principal came in again and conversed with our teacher and she went to the cloakroom and brought out Susan’s coat. Susan watched through the window but she didn’t look at me. I knew then that she was leaving me and there was nothing I could do about it. The teacher handed the coat out to the principal and in an instant they were gone. Nothing was said during the rest of the day, to me or to the class, about where Susan was going or why she had left us.
Mary Talbot’s relatives had sprung her from the asylum. My mother, furious, went to court to have her recommitted but the judge said if her family would take her across the state line to New York, she was free to go and he wouldn’t issue an order to have her sent back, nor would he maintain the order against her girl living with her.
“He just wanted her out of his hair,” my mother railed, “out of the system. He didn’t want the state paying her keep. That’s all he considered, not the welfare of that child. The same is going to happen again in New York, mark my word, that woman hasn’t learned anything from this about caring for a child. Nothing. Nothing at all.”
I overheard her furious complaints. My father murmured to her. I couldn’t make out his words, but I knew he was giving a weak argument. He was never strong enough to come up against her directly. I wondered, though, if he wasn’t half glad that beautiful Mary Talbot had escaped and that Susan had her mother back. And I wondered if he was secretly pleased that my mother hadn’t won out for once.
I was twenty-three and living in New York City, when one night I turned on my little black and white television in my East Village apartment just at the moment when the participants in the Miss America contest were being given awards in various categories and they proclaimed that Miss New York State have been voted Miss Congeniality because she was loved by all the other girls and everyone else she’d come into contact with during the competition. And there on the stage receiving the honor was Susan, her face not as rounded as it had been, but as she beamed with pleasure, the dimple I knew so well dug into her left cheek and her eyes squinted almost shut, like upside down smiles. They never said her name, but I knew she was my Susan; it made all the sense in the world that she was Miss Congeniality.
That night I dreamed of the two of us, girls at the crest between childhood and maturity, riding our bicycles in the moonlight up and down the streets of our small New England city, safe, unseen, peering in windows to the lives of others, and finally, coming to rest in the shadows of the sheltering elms, now all but extinct.
Marnie’s own story —
My assignment in the Peace Corps was as a community organizer in Guayaquil, Ecuador. I lived and worked in the Cerro Santa Ana, a barrio situated on a hill on the north side of the city overlooking the Rio Guayas. My job was to develop activities and programs for the community center which had been built by the previous Volunteers. Using this as the platform, the community leaders and I went on to grapple with issues that plagued the neighborhood, such as overflowing sewage and contaminated water.
Returning home from the Peace Corps I worked for a few years as a community organizer in El Barrio and the South Bronx of New York City, after which I joined the John Lindsay administration as the Director of Summer Programming, responsible for coordinating all outdoor events throughout the five boroughs of the city. I left there to become Development Director for WBAI-FM, the Pacifica radio station in New York. I was later the Program Director for the station. I went on to run my own business producing large events, including benefits, folk/rock concerts, and city-wide outdoor festivals. And finally, when I was around forty-seven, I began to write. In 1994 my first novel, Green Fires, was published. Aptly, it was my Peace Corps novel. I’ve been writing ever since.”