Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story
Second Place Young Adult
About Julia Reichelstein
I built “Ribbons of Linda” around a photograph. In my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher gave the class random photos from magazines; photos that were intended to spark curiosity. The one I received depicted an elderly man sporting a white beard, dirty green overalls - no shirt underneath, and a crazed look in his eyes. He held a pitchfork like it was his staff with which he was leading his own kingdom. I wondered what could have happened to a man to lead him to turn out like that. A year and some later, and I got the chance to build his history- his life story.
“Ribbons of Linda” was a flowing work in the simplest sense- I didn’t have a plan or story outline when I wrote it. It was strangely liberating to write the defining life story of this fictional character, making choices for his life, deciding where it would take him. This short story encompassed something entirely different than my own life, making the work fresh and exciting, and all the more enjoyable to write.
RIBBONS OF LINDA
by Julia Reichelstein
July 3rd, 1985. July 3rd, 1985 Linda left me. July 3rd, 1985 Linda left me and I have been waiting for her to come back ever since.
Kansas was dry that day, a thin layer of sweat, heat, and dirt covered the state. I remember the radio broadcasting information about the county fair that was to take place the following weekend. I had looked to Linda in hopes she might put her black book down for a night to eat a hot dog with me below pink and green paper lanterns. But Linda didn't agree to go to the fair; instead she fired an excuse at me. I swear that woman keeps a whole cache of them firmly cemented in her brain ready for her to pick up and shoot at any proposal of an outing. This time she claimed God had made weekends for rest and reflection, not for gluttony and sin. I guess the real reason she said no to the fair was because she knew she wasn't going to be in town for it.
July 3rd was a pretty standard day, as far as farm work went. The house needed another layer of pale yellow paint, and one of the young horses had crashed through the old pine wood fence. It was only after lunch, when I was plowing the fallow back acreage so it might be of some use, that I noticed something was different about Linda. She had taken her hair out of the tight constrictive bun she habitually wore it in, and let it fall to her waist, long and brown. She had a floral suitcase, too. It was the one that she was carrying with her when I first caught sight of the wild girl who was roof jumping.
I was 18 that summer, done with high school and no desire for college. My cousin Freddy and I worked through summer rainstorms and radio news commentaries to work on our truck. Passed down to me from my old man, it was probably the only red truck in the whole state of Texas that had seen as many pink cowboy boots as it had dirty farmer's backsides. But after my dad retired from his life as a produce man and part time professional cowboy demonstrator, the truck fell to Freddy and I. We didn't even take a map with us when we left our ranch home in Texas, instead we pointed our hood north and started off into the unknown center of America.
We were the master team of the road; at pit stops the routine was flawless. I would go to the counter, flirt with the girl who was at the register, get myself some free food and perhaps a date. Freddy would wander to a table nearby with only one occupant, and convince him or her to join us for lunch. We met some eccentric characters that way; twins who only talked to each other in low voices like they were in the CIA, young girls who would spend hours telling us about their tea party friends and the dislike of the boys who tried to kiss them, and even one very disgruntled housewife whose demonstration of the correct way to clean a bathtub took over three hours.
But Freddy and I still hadn't found the purpose of our trip until we reached St. Morris, Arkansas. We had parked Old Red bellow a hickory tree to try and catch some sleep in the shade, but were awoken by the angry yelling of a woman who seemed to be upset with the sky itself. It was then that I saw this girl, jumping from roof to roof of the flat-topped houses. She yelled to the lady something about having to climb up to the roof to stop her, but her voice was swallowed by the wind and blown away from me. This girl... this girl was crazy. She wore an orange and white striped summer dress, no shoes, with her hair streaming behind her filled with crisp dead leaves, purple star flowers, and a few cigarettes tucked behind her ears.
With a last trumpeting laugh, the crazy girl leapt from the roof, caught a window sill, and slid down a nearby tether-ball pole to the ground. She picked up her brightly patterned flower suitcase and headed in my direction. Even before she reached the truck, I could smell her. I could smell the sweet citrus scent that encircled her. She wore no make-up except orange red lipstick, and a hint of blush on her cheeks. She asked for a ride; she said a ride to anywhere. Without waiting for my consent she climbed on top of the hood, and stared straight ahead; like a princess waiting to be whisked away by a carriage and four white horses.
She became the third member of our unstoppable wandering team- bringing humor and energy to a new exciting way to live. Linda took the towns we visited by storm; she would take old men through the arms and parade them around town while singing old war songs. She would teach impromptu dance classes in small town streets, getting the crowds to "be" the music, and dragging timid high school boys out in front to dance with her. Freddy and I were her back up team, ready to assist, and ready to watch the performance.
Freddy called home late one afternoon, trying to reach his dad in hopes of some news of old Texas. When he came out of the rusted phone booth, I knew something was wrong. Freddy got on a bus to Texas later that day- turns out his high school sweetheart had gotten awful sick and was asking for him. He promised to find us again when she was better, but he never did. From then on it was Linda and me, driving through cornfields, joyously laughing at each new outrageous scheme and falling slowly but deliciously in love. We stopped in new towns that brought us new people and new crowds to please, but we were always based in that rattling red truck.
Until, that is, the truck stopped being red and took on a color entirely its own. Linda thought we needed a reason to be driving from one town to the next. She said that in life you were supposed to be useful. We didn't really have a purpose to our aimlessness, so Linda made one up. She crafted our use as the giving transporters who with good hearts would give anyone and everyone a ride for the cost of a sticker. The stickers we collected from our passengers were ceremoniously plastered on Old Red- a testimony to our use.
One week we stopped in Alexenid, Mo., looking for a drop of gas and a new fan belt. The town was cradled in a valley with rolling hills on all sides. Dotted with oak trees, the hills were smoldering yellow fields that seemed to capture the sun. Linda disappeared for three days in Alexenid, but I wasn't worried. If there was one thing Linda knew, it was how to survive. When I did see her again, she had ribbons of all colors, patterns, and widths tied around her body. She looked like a present from up above - sent special-delivery to me. Linda had me gather the kids outside the elementary school, and walk with them up to the North Hill. I can remember looking only at my feet, dust covered from the hike, wondering what Linda had planned. And as I was staring downward, I heard first the clinging of bells, and then, as the group climbed a ledge, the gasps of the children.
I looked up to see the hill covered with ribbons, blowing from every tree branch and shrub. Some hearty bells were tied to trunks of the oaks, making the deep klongs of church bells, and then there were other dainty bells, fluttering in the wind tethered to the ends of the ribbons, tinkering. I have carried that moment with me- the intake of standing near the ledge, the ribbons in the wind, the chorus of bells, and the comforting and luring scent of citrus from Linda.
After almost two years of being nomads, Linda and I got married and settled down for the farm life in Kansas. For years we were happy, blissfully, alone together, with only our farm edges as walls. But that was too much boundary for Linda. She got restless again, and I could see the fire building up in her eyes with each passing month. She talked of only the old diners and barefoot beaten paths, only of our days together riding where our spirits led us. She was ready to leave our farm, the only place that had tied her down, at least temporarily. But as she saw how the times of us traveling around were over, she tried, for me, to let those dreams go.
Linda funneled that wild energy into something new, something that she deemed useful; she channeled it into religion. And the creativity she had spread as she traveled was turned into her desire to comply and obey, to follow instead of lead. Her made-up songs that she used to chant in town squares turned to quiet hymns, and then into silence. Her flowing colorful dresses into brown, sack-like suits. And her hair, her hair that used to house nature's gifts, became dull and limp <0x2014> strangled by tight black bands.
July 3rd, 1985 was the last day I saw Linda, the last day I saw her with that bright floral suitcase. I waited for her to return for almost seven years, but the weight of an empty pale yellow farmhouse and a garage that still held Old Red was too much for me to carry. So I decided to take out that sticker-plastered truck for one last ride, plunging back into America. I drove almost two days straight to get back to the hill. I parked down by the elementary school, then ran up to the ledge, praying the ribbons might still be flying in the gentle wind, a ringing of hope in the air. But this time I didn't hear the sounds of the bells, or glimpse the sea of ribbons, or smell Linda's citrus scent. But this time, the hill looked barren and plain, this time the hill looked useless.