Historical Fiction

Crowningshield

By

This book will launch on Mar 1, 2021. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒
Synopsis

Early summer, 1910. A wealthy industrialist family from Chicago arrives by train from to a small, seaside village in New England. The Crowningshields have just purchased an enormous Victorian relic, a shingled palace on a tall bluff, overlooking the glittering sea, called Juniper Point, known for it's endless tangles of low-lying conifer bushes. They take up residence here, along with forty servants. It is an Amercan story, Downton Abbey, on the half-shell, but there is another side to the idle pleasantries of a wealthy, vacationing family. The household's servants, plain working people who labor each day to satisfy their every need, many of them young Irish immigrants, have a story as well.

Ana Liebling, a newly sober millennial, financial reporter for The Boston Globe and part-time wedding photographer, woke to the last Saturday of April with a grand idea.

Recently discharged from a well-known rehabilitation center in New Hampshire, her diagnosis, and subsequent treatment, focused on a relentless, and sometimes grimly amusing alcohol addiction. The center was called Turning Leaves; its base cost of roughly a thousand dollars a day had been reluctantly paid for by concerned family members. Part-time Globe employees, as the woman in Human Resources had patiently explained, are not covered by its group insurance plan.

Each night at Turning Leaves, the doors to the outside world, a labyrinthine and perhaps unmapped twenty-five acres of thickly wooded countryside, were locked. Escape to these impenetrable wilds was not only impossible, it was laughable.

Ana’s first night was spent inside a gauzy narcosis. Intake had been dramatic. A few days prior, she had begun to drink straight Stolichnaya in her apartment. Chugging that amount of vodka should have stopped her heart. After lurching about the apartment for several hours, drunk-dialing a handful of friends with a deluge of existential, but unintelligible, questions, she finally collapsed on the floor, badly bruising the soft flesh of one cheek. On the second day she opened a second bottle, and so on. On the third day, a neighbor noticed her mail overflowing in the lobby and called 911. Things began to speed up, as she fell under the calm ministrations of crisis professionals. Two burly firehouse paramedics hefted Ana onto a gurney, rolled her gently down the stairs and into an idling ambulance. Its red and blue lights silently strobed against the walls of the Charlestown triple-decker, the curious faces of a few late-night walkers, and the rows of her neighbor’s parked cars. Siren off, the ambulance parted the vehicular sea crossing the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, through the Lieutenant William F. Callahan Jr. Tunnel, and into the city. The attending doctor at the Boston emergency room was astonished. He couldn’t believe, as he gently placed her slender wrists into Velcro restraints, that anyone’s blood alcohol level could be that high and still survive. For weeks afterwards Ana was remembered by hospital staff, with no small admiration, as the “Point-76 girl.” 

After her family had filed the necessary documents, the next morning Ana was delivered, still intoxicated, by sheriff’s van, to Turning Leaves, trussed and shackled as a UPS package. She had been sentenced, or “sectioned,” by a gruffly unimpressed district court judge in Boston.

Many of the women at Turning Leaves had been similarly adjudged. They spent most of their days, in loose-fitting clothes, pacing the perimeter of a nether-worldly, but highly structured, limbo. When not in “group,” or waiting in line for “day meds,” (powerful, and highly addictive benzodiazepines, or “benzos”), they wandered the high-shined linoleum halls, chemically zombified, and numbly indifferent to the cause and effect of their screaming banishment to these palliative New Hampshire woods.

While not technically a lock--down facility, Turning Leaves took the welfare of its clients seriously. It was just far safer, they reasoned, if patients were unable to leave until staff had taken a stab at cobbling together some sort of treatment plan. But for most women it was just another variant of the same compulsions that brought them here; meds and group and cigarettes and caffeine, not to mention boredom, depression, and a stultifying blend of daily self-analysis and pharmacologically induced apathy.

Most came from wealthier families, like Ana. All of them carried a lifetime of addictive behavior, invariably the result of other, darker, more subterranean abuse. For some women, it had been sexual, usually as a child by a family member. Some had body shaming issues, others suffered domestic violence. Most had diagnosed, or undiagnosed, mental illness. These were not poverty’s children. Thirty thousand dollars a month was far above the pay grade of common alcoholics. If you couldn’t afford Turning Leaves, and weren’t immunized from prosecution, you would most likely end up in jail.

Sitting on hard folding chairs in the group therapy room, beneath brash fluorescence, atop cold linoleum, Ana quickly became a reluctant dog-paddler in a nearly fathomless sea of women’s sorrow. Most had diagnosed, or undiagnosed, mental illness. Ana, a journalist, learned to recognize key words, alert to trending catch-phrases. Unhappy childhoods, unhappy marriages, a miscarriage here, a battering boyfriend there. After a while, the stories seemed to conflate into a single, misery-fueled narrative. At first, she saw it as thestory, one she would write about her experience here. She assiduously took notes and thought of herself as an embedded reporter in the house of pain. She even came up with a name. She would be, for the next month, a “felonious monk.” After a couple of days numbness displaced curiosity. Ana began tuning it all out. Better to let the drugs (anti-anxiety, anti-depression, anti-alcohol) blissfully wend their way through her bloodstream.

After the second week she woke to a stark realization. She had been cured, (hands in the air!) and all of this had all been a huge mistake. Now she just wanted to go home. At a one-on-one session with a Turning Leaves staff psychologist, her earnest attempts at lobbying for early discharge were greeted with a seasoned and cynical skepticism. Staff clinicians had literally heard some variant of her miraculous epiphany thousands of times before.

“Tell me why you feel like your treatment has been successful,”the psychologist prompted, adding ominously, “after only fourteen days.”

He leaned forward, creaking the chair, so close that Ana could smell his deodorant, observe the twitch of his nostril hair. She thought a minute, then asked, “Tell me why I’m not allowed to have my laptop or cell phone?”

The man leaned back, triumphantly steepling his fingers.

“Phones and computers are a distraction, Ana,” he patiently explained, reciting a line lifted directly from Turning Leaf’s playbook. “You’re here to work on your recovery, not reinforce the patterns and distractions that brought you here.”

Ana shook her head, and stalked from the room. Falling into a kind of cloudy sulk, she spent the afternoon in her room, misunderstood and alone and falsely imprisoned in her tower keep, like some recovering Mary Queen of Scots. The man recorded the session and tucked a page into her folder.

Liebling, Ana-Patient still exhibits disassociated and overly simplistic notions about her treatment. Argumentative. Suggest more group, possible switch from 100mgs Lorazepam to 400mgsProzac.

She had climbed that first summit of her denial, like some far-off and vertiginous mountain range, but this was only the first breakthrough. An uncountable number of peaks lay ahead.

By the end of the third week, Ana began to breathe again. She no longer thought of the locked door as keeping her in, but as a gentle barricade, keeping her access to addictive behavior out. She now understood she was a sick woman. A lifetime of abuse had gotten her here; a lifetime of recovery would get her out. The staff in group had a pithy AA mantra: To get through it you have to go through it. A month before she would have laughed. Now it sounded suddenly reasonable. She badly needed help, and began to experience what could only be described as a daisy chain of ah-huhmoments.

Bad things happen to us, she wrote in her recovery journal, but they cannot be usedas an excuse to inflict additional bad things, on ourselves or to others. So logical, so linear. For Ana, the response to her high school eating disorder, which, in turn, had possibly been caused by her parent’s acrimonious divorce at fourteen, had been a decade of addictive wilding. It was the root of her behavior; drunken, reckless, and risky. Somehow, miraculously, within the last thirty days, she had cruised through each stage of recovery and moved on to the next. Anger, denial, depression, and finally, surrender and understanding.

By the end of the fourth week, as her discharge day came near, counselors eyed her carefully. They were checking for positive change, or for further cracks in the wall, even though her court-mandated term of rehabilitation was just that, court-mandated. Non-negotiable by either party. After one final group, listening to a nervous, anorexic woman named Janette discuss how her older brother would come nightly into her bedroom to lift her nightgown, Ana met with her case manager. Carl was an intense, ex-heroin addict. He listened, then wrote a positive report. Ana was deemed ready again for prime time, even though relapse and recidivism from such cursory treatment hovers in the high eightieth percentile.

One dreary morning in late April, she was driven to the closest town with a population large enough to have its own post office, in this case Peterborough, New Hampshire. She was dropped at the Trailways bus station with a one-way ticket back to Boston.

Ana’s chauffeur was also her case manager. Carl was a devout, sexually closeted evangelical who wore a pendulous gold crucifix over his gray Turning Leaves polo shirt, and talked in a husky, conspiratorial whisper, as if each banality would someday be memorialized in scripture. Steering the shuttle to the curb, he turned and extended his hand, wishing her the best of luck. As an afterthought, he followed Ana out to the sidewalk, throwing his arms around her thin shoulders, embracing her in a clumsy bear hug.

“Jesus loves you,Ana,” he whispered, even after he’d been warned twice by the Director of Patient Services about this sort of salvational folderol. “Don’t drink,”he continued in a queenly baritone, “don’t get arrested, don’t die. And for god’s sake,girl,” he added, “don’t come back.”

Imprisoned in the hug for long seconds more, Ana thought about jabbing him in the rib cage. Then he stepped back, daintily spun, for a big man, and climbed into the van. As he pulled away from the curb Ana saw his lips moving as he gave a quick little wave through the glass. 

God bless you.

Carl would have no shortage of passengers. Each Friday, which was discharge day, one or two of those suffering women she’d left behind at the center would take that same long ride to the bus station, sitting morosely in the back seat of the bouncing minivan, staring at the back of Carl’s close-shaved head.

***

The week after she got back from rehab, a week before her grand idea, Ana found herself between deadlines at theGlobe. Her editor hadn’t emailed. Nobody was looking for a wedding photographer. She took both as a sign. The HR director might have assumed she needed more time to “get better.” Either way, it gave her space to think. She began to spend entire days in her apartment, padding around in her pajamas with a cup of coffee and a Pepperidge Farm cookie. Sometimes she’d boot up her laptop, check her Google feed, randomly scrolling up and down the pages. Every hour or so, she would would click on the Facebook icon, rewarded with cute cats and cute dogs, trumpeted announcements of complete stranger's birthdays, an endless cornucopia of regurgitated memes. And smiley faces, always the smiley faces. She trolled the Internet, now abuzz with cries and whispers about a slow-moving dumpster fire that was the upcoming presidential election. There were conspiracy theories and talking heads spooled onto infinite 24/7 news loops. After a while, Ana stopped tapping the Facebook icon. Social media is an inch thick, and a million miles wide,she mused into her journal. Like eating nothing but high fructose corn syrup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

One article did hold her attention. A sobering expose from The New Yorkerabout unsafe working conditions in Amazon “fulfillment centers,” as its shipping warehouses are called. She scrolled down. Workers, mostly minimum wage hires: retirees living in RVs in Walmart parking lots, high school graduates with no hope or money for higher education, military vets fallen on hard times, all toiling beneath the Amazon yoke, a business algorithm that stressed ever-increasing production quotas, while ignoring actual human capabilities. It was like some insane hamster wheel sped-up to the point of blatant lethality. Human workers were pitted in direct competition with autonomous “bots,” machines that routinely fucked up tasks and sometimes collided with living flesh. Human production was constantly monitored by remote managers. Enough infractions, such as unscheduled toilet breaks or sick days or even an emergency phone call from a child’s school, for instance, were grounds for immediate termination. Amazon safety recordswere three times worse than any other industry, and workers with aching backs and knees, suffering from repetitive motion injuries and occupational stress, were routinely fired for failing to achieve impossibly superhuman production quotas. Steve Bozos, reputedly the richest human on the planet, was the architect of these cavalier and arcane labor practices. It was a simple business model, based on the oldest instinct, avarice and greed, and it was all happening, globally, in real time. Yet little regulations had been written to address such a systemic atrocity.

Reading the story jogged Ana’s empathy neurons, the part of her brain that concerned itself with injustice and fair play. She realized now that writing about the manufactured foibles of billionairesand the vain artifice of hundred thousand-dollar weddings, had become a nonessential activity in her life. Her blind fealty to them, in pursuit of a paycheck, had insulated her from critical planetary malaise.

She began to leapfrog, on her laptop, from story to story. The keyword was labor. Labor rights, labor abuses, labor laws, labor activists, labor justice. A pattern began to materialize. What was occurring in Amazon’s fulfillment centers worldwide was merely a symptom. It was the tip of the iceberg, historically speaking. What Jeff Bezos was doing had always been done by men with the same inhumane profit motive. Bezos was the perfect Scrooge for a new world order. If a carton, of, say, women’s vibrators, had to be located, stocked and shipped within sixty seconds in Calcutta, or Phoenix or Paris, it was the same as a bobbin of thread that had to be spooled onto a weaving machine in Lawrence, Massachusetts by a twelve-year-old mill worker in 1910. Once the symmetry of such an argument had been shaped, its larger context became crystalline. It was all so “ah-hah.” Labor abuses had always existed, and they would always exist. In plain sight, the one-percenters were not only devouring, they were also torturing, the ninety-nine per-centers. A simple social imperative was at play. Darwin was right. The new industrialists were the same industrialists, and their new victims were the same victims.

Ana flipped her laptop closed and stared out of the second-floor window. She watched the passing traffic. Every once in a while, a particular car would slow. An Uber driver, one of the anonymous millions of gig economy slaves, idling at the curb, checking his smart phone. A young, black man sprinted from a triple-decker next door and hopped into the back seat. The Uber guy pulled away, a tiny gizmo in the global marketplace’s endless conveyer belt. In a few miles, his app would chirp and another rider would materialize from another address. When had it all become so predictable and pre-programmed?

It was dusk. Ana felt weary and suddenly hungry. A month since rehab, after weaning herself from the drugs they’d so eagerly prescribed there, she was finally beginning to feel things again. One last drug remained in her system. A nifty little number called Antabuse. A single tiny pill in the morning made her vomit if she consumed, or even thought about consuming, alcohol. Lovely. Perhaps someday she could wean from that. But for now, it was a grim necessity. Her street in Revere had at least a half a dozen package stores, grimy, run-down Mom and Pop dispensaries of all manner of liquid pleasures, all within walking distance. Sometimes the only thing between Ana and a full, blackout relapse was that tiny morning pill and faithful old Mr. Coffee sitting by the stove.

There was some pasta in the pantry, maybe some kind of pizza sauce in the fridge. Not long ago she would have started chugging Chablis by now. Vodka had kicked her ass, but, surely a little white wine couldn’t hurt. She bit her lip, clenched her fists, and fiercely thought about dinner. Outside the window, somewhere out there, the high whooping moan of a city ambulance. Some other soul’s emergency. Alcohol, relapse, the dark eeries of a blackout, if she said yes, would be in her bloodstream within minutes. If she said yes. Ana slowly opened a cabinet door, peering inside at her meager larder. In a little while, she’d fill a pot with water and turn the burner on, stand before the churning bubbles in a kind of prayerful contemplation, waiting for things to boil.

About the author

Philip Laughing Crow Austin is a long-time author of novels, short-stories and literary non-fiction. He has been a blues singer, a Native American rights activist, a theatre designer, and a shipwright. His tales of the everyday saints among us speak of the invariable goodness of humankind. view profile

Published on March 01, 2021

90000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Historical Fiction