New Jersey, 1928.
All her life, Etta Wozniak has toiled on her family’s small farm, located on the outskirts of a lake resort town. After losing her mother and siblings to one misfortune or another, life has fallen into a rut of drudgery and predictability. That is, until the day she discovers something in an unlikely place; an old car. Energized by the prospects of a world beyond the one she knows, she decides to make this her last summer on the farm. However, disaster is not through with Etta yet, and there will be consequences for her upcoming departure.
Art Adams, a recent college man, arrives in town for a family reunion. After years of moving from one city to another and avoiding conflict whenever it tries to find him, he becomes enamored with the lake. However, there is another reason for Art’s visit. He is to marry a woman he has never met before; an arrangement that was made on his behalf and without his knowledge. More comfortable around numbers and machines than people, Art is reluctant to confront his parents on the matter. But if he decides to do nothing, he risks losing who and what he has come to love.
In a small town of farmers and firemen, musicians and moonshiners, bossy parents and barn parties, two people will come to understand what they must give up in order to have the chance to build something new.
Targeted Age Group:: 18-65
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A few years ago, I started developing an interest in the history of my home town as well as New Jersey in general. 100 years ago the state was mostly rural many of its lakes served as a summer destination for the well-heeled of New York and Philadelphia. The automobile was only just becoming a common sight and people mostly traveled only as far as they could walk. Radio was the primary form of mass entertainment, and things like refrigerators were more novelty than standard appliance.
In one history book in particular, I came across a picture of a young woman holding a cat and standing in front of a Studebaker sedan. I started to think about the sort of effect that the automobile would have had for one living in such times. From that, came the general idea of a story about a girl leaving her farm and "Jalopy" was born.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The female protagonist, Etta, was partly inspired by the picture of the girl and her car from the history book, as well as stories from my grandmother who grew up in a then-rural town.
From there, the idea of a farming community juxtaposed with a lakeside resort and all the people who would have lived there fell into place.
Art's character and the idea of an arranged marriage was also partly inspired from my own family lore. One set of my great-grandparents were paired by a village matchmaker in Italy in 1912. I have their picture as well as a copy of their Ellis Island papers.
A rooster crowed somewhere outside. Not especially loud, but it pierced the darkness with more intensity than it had a right to. A young woman stirred. Pulled from sleep’s comforting embrace, her eyes fluttered open only reluctantly. Etta Wozniak clutched her thin blanket and remained in bed for another minute. It did not feel like morning. Besides, she had just seen her sister and that could only have been a dream. Perhaps the rooster was another. Those hopes were dashed when the bastard crowed again. More than once, she had suggested – in jest – to include him in the bi-annual cull. A rooster who crowed at night must be defective, so she reasoned.
It was early, even by farmer standards, but as Etta came around, blinking away the mental cobwebs, she knew there was nothing to be done but to get started on the day. For two years she had risen before the sun without fail. It was not that she particularly wanted to be up at such an ungodly hour. There was simply too much to do.
Shivering and rubbing her eyes, Etta confronted the morning chill first with one foot, then the other. As typical of late April, the afternoons teased at the forthcoming warmth of summer, but the mornings remained firmly in winter’s thrall. Sleeping fully clothed was a necessity when the temperature dropped below freezing. Even so, she could not tolerate anything touching her feet during the night. Those first few seconds before she could pull them into a pair of thick, warm socks was perhaps the worst part of her morning ritual. Feeling around the icy darkness, Etta slipped on her work apron and an extra jacket before her teeth could start to chatter.
In the kitchen, she was not entirely surprised to find the wood-burning stove had gone cold. Springtime was a chilly, but manageable season, and so the choice between a warm morning or an uninterrupted night was often a tossup. On this morning, both Etta and her father, Jakob, had decided in favor of sleep.
Things like feeding the fire had not been such a burden when there were more people living in the Wozniaks’ home. Many hands made light work, but these days it was only Etta and her Papa.
The rooster crowed again and Etta shook her head, grumbling.
What on Earth does that chicken see?
The kitchen was dark, but it was a familiar space and she knew it well. The only clock in the house ticked loudly somewhere in the blackness. She gave the box of matches a habitual rattle, and frowned at the hollow sound it made. There were probably more fingers on her hands than there were matches within. Unsure how that had escaped her notice, Etta resolved to pick up more on the next trip to town.
Lighting the kerosene lamp, she squinted against the warm, golden light. It was 1928, and the house had been fitted with electric lights some ten years earlier. While far more convenient, they were also more expensive than burning oil. Once, the Wozniaks had been relatively well off and could afford to turn the lights on without a second thought. Those days, sadly, were long past.
Now able to see, her chores could begin.
Breathing into cupped hands did little to fight the numbness in her fingertips. A fleeting relief, it would serve to give her enough time to clean the stove and start on the fire. Had she discovered one or two hot coals hidden among the powdery, gray ashes that would have made things just a little easier. But no. At least Papa had made kindling the night before. By and large, Etta did things for herself but using the hatchet was one chore she would gladly leave to her father. Sharp metal swinging so close to her hands caused her a tremble that had nothing to do with the cold.
As the growing fire started to chase the ice from her bones she pulled a thick, woolen cap over her blonde head. Snug and warm, it had once belonged to her oldest brother Edward, and was knitted by their mother, Lena. Wearing it helped Etta to remember them, and warmed both body and soul.
Movement in the darkness caught her attention. Etta looked over to find a pair of large, green eyes staring back at her. A black and orange tortoiseshell cat approached the firelight, stopping just beyond arms’ length but close enough to be warmed. The cat regarded Etta with apparent indifference, yet cried loudly as she dropped onto her haunches. Making no move, Etta, responded with a sigh.
“Morning, Howler,” she said flippantly.
Little family that she had left, and this damn cat was one of them. She had been named by Etta's younger, sister, Irene, and out of respect to her, Etta could not bring herself to cast the animal out. As if such a thing were possible. Every morning, Etta let Howler outside, but could seldom recall letting her back in at the end of the day. Yet, without fail, she would simply reappear.
“I'll let you out when I'm damn well ready,” Etta muttered.
Howler cried in response.
“Don't push me, cat.”
Warm at last, a growing personal urgency could no longer be ignored. She resolved herself to going outside. If the first few seconds of exposing her feet to the frigid air was the worst part of her morning, leaving the relative warmth of the house to use the necessary was a close second. After years of this routine, the morning hours hardly bothered her anymore. But walking to the outhouse, no matter the temperature or season never got any easier. At least it was not snowing.
She opened the door and nearly tripped over Howler as the cat ran between her feet to escape. The glow of the lantern revealed a fog that had settled on the farm overnight. It was above freezing, but not by much and the air was heavy with moisture. Etta trudged on. With luck, the sun would burn off the mist when it eventually put in an appearance.
On the other hand, none of her family had been particularly blessed with luck.
In the first piece of good news, the stove was hot by the time she returned inside. Coffee was one of the few luxuries that even Papa would not do without. In the past month, Etta had skipped more than a handful of meals, but not one cup of coffee. The noise from grinding the beans was loud in the dark, but Papa never complained.
Fishing a chipped mug out of the cabinet, she was careful not to make too much noise. The door had worked itself loose sometime over the past year, and the motion of opening it produced all manner of bumps and squeaks as it shifted in place. It was just one of many things around the farm that suffered from neglect.
The table wobbled and moved as she leaned on it. With quick hands she managed to save the steaming contents of the mug before they sloshed out. One of the rare times she would be sitting today, Etta spared a few minutes to savor the piping hot cup. A splash of milk would have been nice, but none had been delivered this morning. It came as little surprise. At least the drink was hot, and banished some of the worse mental cobwebs.
A creak and thump called her attention to the ceiling. A moment later, Papa descended the stairs.
“Dzien dobry,” he said through a yawn while rubbing his eyes. Jakob Wozniak tended to revert to Polish when half-awake or in times of stress. Both Etta's parents had come from a village outside of Warsaw before she was born. While her mother, Lena, was fluent in English prior to immigrating, Jakob was a slower learner. For years, the family spoke a mixture of English and Polish in the house. When Etta was still a child, she remembered it being a huge source of pride when Papa finally went a full week without leaning on his native tongue.
“And good morning to you,” Etta returned in English. She placed a gentle emphasis on “good” and “morning”, so as not to embarrass him.
She waited until Papa had poured his own cup of coffee before she said, “The water pump is leaking.” It was often the case and worse in the spring. For every one part of water that made it to the bucket, two parts typically splashed the ground at her feet. Even so, it was worse than in years past. Her wet foot could attest to that.
Jakob grunted in response. While Etta had come to embrace the early morning hours, like her mother once had, Papa and the rest of the family only accepted them grudgingly. As such, she knew that she would get little from him for the next few minutes. Still, she pressed on. “Also, there was no milk delivery today.”
“I know,” he replied, to her surprise. “The tax bill is due this month, and I had to stop the milk delivery again.” Sneaking a quick sip from his coffee, he moved the coat that had been haphazardly draped over his chair. He might have simply chosen a different seat, but old habits are hard to break. Besides, the others were taken, despite being empty.
Jakob continued, “Also, try to leave the lights off if you don't need them.” Only after he said it did he notice that the electric lights were, in fact, already off. Regarding the kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling, he nodded with approval.
Etta frowned. “How long must we go without milk this time? Or bread for that matter?” Some heat edged into her voice.
Papa peered over the top of his cup. His half-lidded eyes grew more alert at her tone and intent expression. He smiled weakly and raised a placating hand.
“We will have bread, of course. We can get milk again in a few weeks.” He sighed. “You know, it never used to be like this. Then, one day, a man comes to the door and asks for money. 'What for?' I say. 'For your civic duties,' he says.” Papa shook his head. “The Russians made levies as well, in the old country.”
Etta made no response, having heard this all before. Jakob fell quiet.
“Are you going to lose the house, Papa?”
Etta bit her lip. That had been a mistake.
“No,” he said quickly and with assurance. He looked around the room bathed in the golden light from the lamp. “This is a good house. I will make sure that we keep it.”
This is an empty house, thought Etta. Full of ghosts and memories. She said nothing, but breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Her slip had gone unnoticed.
They finished their coffee in silence, as they usually did. Mama had always been the talkative one. Etta and her father had something of a complicated relationship. Instead of pulling them together, their mutual losses only caused the both of them to withdraw.
Every so often, one or the other would attempt a foray into conversation, but by and large, they hardly spoke. That is, about anything besides the farm and what work needed to be done. Even so, he was her father, and she could not shake the feeling of guilt that came with the knowledge that she would soon leave him.
What will he do when I'm gone?
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