Featured Writer: Ladette Randolph
Soon after the mild political leanings of her popular PIE social media platform are mountained out of a molehill by a right-wing radio shock jock and his minions of trolls and doxxers, Vivi Marx decides she needs to disappear. She leaves behind her phone and computer and, GPS-less, heads for Nebraska.
It’s not a hiding place she has picked out of a hat. Vivi spent a hectic yet isolated childhood being dragged from place to place by her mother, a serial rehabber of run-down homes. During a decades-long series of a few months here, a few months there with no possibility of settling down, Vivi was never able to develop any meaningful relationships. Except with her grandmother.
Vivi spent a handful of blissful summers in Nebraska with her grandmother, who taught Vivi, among other nurturing skills, how to bake her first pie. As if the memory of her long-passed grandmother might offer her safety, Vivi rents a small house on an isolated cul-de-sac—a “private way”—outside of Lincoln. Though she is released from the invisible interconnected tissue of the too-toxic contemporary virtual world, Vivi finds that her analogue escape presents another challenge, one she hadn’t predicted: it’s time to unpeel her too-often unexamined inner life, to unstrange the stranger that is herself.
Ladette Randolph’s elegant and heartfelt new novel, Private Way, shows us that departure can also be arrival, and that the unexpected should always be expected.
I have a long history of secrecy and solitude. Whenever I don’t catch some pop culture reference and people tease me about living under a rock, I laugh along, but the truth is, I did grow up under a rock of sorts. My mother always said we had to avoid attachments. We couldn’t afford entanglements. She was a vagabond before I was born in Oakland in 1987, and for the first five years of my life she continued her vagabond life, mostly housesitting.
Between housesitting gigs, we crashed with her friends, and she worked short term jobs walking dogs, or waiting tables, but mostly doing odd jobs as a carpenter. She’d learned her carpentry skills from her dad when she was growing up in Nebraska. According to her, he was the only good thing about the state, and after he died (before I was born) she never went back, which is why I didn’t meet my grandma until I was six.
Everything changed when I was five and she met Rex while we were housesitting in Palm Springs. He was a retired stunt man, almost twice her age. Like a lot of guys, he fell hard for her, with one big difference. He wanted to marry her and to adopt me. We moved in with him. He taught me how to swim in his backyard pool, and that first Christmas he built me a kid-sized play kitchen. I started kindergarten in Palm Springs and even made it halfway through my first-grade year (the longest I’d ever attend one school) before Rex died of a heart attack. He and my mother weren’t married yet, but after he died, she found out he’d already changed his will and had left his house to her.
She had zero interest in living in Palm Springs without Rex, so she sent me to Nebraska to stay with her mother—a complete stranger to me at the time—while she rehabbed Rex’s house. In the process of selling that house she taught herself about California real estate laws and found her calling.
For the next eleven years, as she bought and sold houses throughout the Inland Empire, she insisted we travel light. We fit everything we owned into the back seat of our car, reserving the trunk for her tools. We didn’t own a television, and the only radio I heard was the car radio. We didn’t subscribe to newspapers or join local organizations in the towns where we stayed for only a few months. My mother was all business, focused on finishing the job, selling the property, and moving on to the next project.
We slept on tatami mats in construction zones, some houses more disrupted than others. Most of them she brought back to life by stripping wallpaper, sanding wood floors, refinishing woodwork, rewiring, putting in new plumbing, and painting interior and exterior walls. A few of them needed major renovations and she subcontracted with roofers or foundation experts. For periods, we lived in houses without electricity, sometimes without plumbing, using buckets to do our business. In one house, the floors were so damaged, she had to pull up all the floorboards. For weeks before she finished laying the new floors, we walked around on plywood paths over open floor joists and slept on a plywood platform.
Instead of watching TV or playing sports or music, I spent my childhood in lumberyards and hardware stores, paint stores and cabinetry warehouses. As I got older, I took notes for my mother as she estimated costs. She wasn’t patient enough to teach me her carpentry skills, but she used me for unskilled labor. I lugged muck buckets, swept up after demolition, stripped wallpaper and painted. Once I got my driver’s license, I was her gofer. Through it all, she relied on me to listen as she talked herself through one construction problem or another. By sheer repetition I learned to see houses in their component parts and for their potential.
We lived like this until nineteen houses and fourteen schools later we landed in the house on Henrietta Street in Redlands, where my mother, semi-retired, bought into a real estate company, and where I finished my senior year.
She was a hard worker, I’ll give her that, but she was a careless mother. She left me alone a lot of nights in those half-finished houses. For all her talk about avoiding entanglements, she always found a way to connect with men wherever we had landed.
The only break I got from this life were the seven summers my mother sent me back to Lincoln, Nebraska to stay with Grandma. Those summers—from the age of six to thirteen, the year Grandma died—are the only consistent thing in my childhood. Grandma took me fishing on the lakes around Lincoln. She took me wading in creeks and rivers. She fixed up my mother’s old bike and we rode on Lincoln’s flat streets. We went to the Children’s Zoo and the Children’s Museum, and each summer we made one big trip to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo before I went back to California—always on the hottest day of the summer, we liked to joke.
And she taught me how to bake a pie. Something neither of us imagined would become one of the most important things in my life.
My mother often says she “shook the dirt” from her feet when she left Nebraska at sixteen. She has a fierce temper, and I was a watchful kid, careful not to set her off, but if I ever wanted to get under her skin all I had to do was tell someone she was from Nebraska. Even knowing this about her, I was still shocked when, after Grandma died, she didn’t seem to have any feelings at all for her. It mystified me then and mystifies me still. I watched her dismantle the house where she’d grown up with as much dispassion as she would have one of the houses she was flipping, sorting things into two categories: garbage and donations. The only tiny bit of sentimentality I witnessed was one time when she sat down and looked through an old photo album before she tossed it into a trash bag.
When she caught me salvaging Grandma’s pie tins and rolling pin from one of those garbage bags, she accused me of “crap dragging,” but in a rare show of resistance I stood my ground. Otherwise, I’d have no memento of Grandma. I’ve carried that rolling pin and those pie tins with me ever since.
So, yeah. I grew up under a rock. I’ve never fit in with my cohort, the so-called millennials, or any other cohort for that matter. Here’s one way that I’m apparently like everyone else in the world, though: I blame my mother.
It took me five days, two more than I’d thought it would, to drive across the West. I kept the atlas I bought at a gas station outside Elko, Nevada open on the passenger seat, my route highlighted in yellow. At night, I studied maps of each state I’d be going through the next day, making careful notes about where to turn. In spite of that, while driving, I regularly ignored the route I’d planned the night before. Caught up in daydreams, forgetting my GPS wasn’t there to warn me, I overshot turnoffs or made wrong turns because they felt right. When there was a choice to be made, I almost always chose wrong.
Over and over those days, I repeated to myself, I have lost the thread of my life. I was beyond any world I knew. Day after day, only the wind, and the blank, blue summer sky, and the dirt. So much dirt: red dirt, and brown dirt, yellow dirt, and black dirt. And the endless roads through bleached to bone hills, through green valleys, over red mesas, and across gray flatlands: mountains, buttes, badlands and grasslands, everything burned to parchment in the summer heat. Rivers, lakes, ponds, clouds, all of it mixed together into a gauzy haze, like memory, like madness.
Without my phone, I felt I was missing something big like a limb or one of my vital organs. It felt like I’d lost one of my senses. I was a burrowing animal. Blind and deaf, cut off from the world outside and scrabbling underground. A hundred times a day I reached for my phone to check Twitter and Instagram, to know what was happening. Without it, I wasn’t sure I existed at all. Life was happening out there and I wasn’t a part of it. I had no idea who I was or where I was, and no one else knew where I was either.
The heat was intense that August. Fires burned across the West, and everywhere I drove, local DJs interrupted programming to issue fire warnings. In spite of that, I never once saw a fire, only a wisp of smoke now and then on the horizon. A blessing maybe, but I’m hardly one to count my blessings. When I was a little girl, I kept a list of all the things I’d lost: the kid-size kitchen Rex had built for me, all the houses we lived in, even the ones I hadn’t liked, and the schools, same thing. I kept track of little things too: the blue sweater I’d loved and left on a bus when we almost missed our stop; a $5 bill my mother threw away with a birthday card; a one-eyed doll I’d had since I was a baby and kept in the bottom of my suitcase; a little clasp purse Grandma had given me when I was eight. And all the books I collected that my mother made me leave behind each time we moved on.
If I still had that list, I’d add this: I have lost the thread of my life.
I didn’t talk to a single person those days except motel clerks and gas station attendants. My music was all on my phone, and I hadn’t considered an alternative. Somehow, I couldn’t get my head around buying CDs. And the voices on the radio were no kind of company: radio preachers, obnoxious DJs on classic rock or country stations, hysterical whack jobs talking about the end of the world, still more loons spouting conspiracy theories. I didn’t trust any of them to give me advice or to answer my questions. They couldn’t give me instructions or directions or fill in the gaps of what I knew about the places I was driving through. I was on my own. Plus, the radio voices were enthusiastic, and I distrusted enthusiasm almost more than anything.
Blame that on my mother, too. All our moves started with the seed of her enthusiasm and sprouted in the warmth of her optimism as she imagined the perfect buyer, the house she’d sell this time and make a fortune, the new lover she was destined to meet. In all my years growing up, she never seemed to learn from the past, never seemed to question her judgment. Each time we left somewhere, the world was new again, and she was a blank slate, a perfect innocent, ready to jump into the next thing, the thing that would finally make everything right. I told myself I wasn’t anything like her, but I worried now that I’d been kidding myself.
There were things I forgot to do before I left. I forgot to tell Kylie where I was going. I forgot to write down the numbers programmed into my phone, so that even now if I’d wanted to contact them I couldn’t. By the time I reached the Great Plains, all that space, all that sky, all those miles between tiny towns, I knew I’d made a huge mistake leaving California. The only thing that kept me going forward was a new kind of inertia.
The last time I got lost, I ended up crossing the Missouri River twice before finally heading into Omaha on I-80. The second time I crossed the river, I wondered how deep it was. I thought about Mark Twain and how he’d made this river famous. At least I thought it was the Missouri he’d made famous. Or was it the Mississippi? Maybe it was the Mississippi.
These were the kinds of things I would have asked my phone. Quick question. Quick answer. If I forgot, I’d ask again. I could ask the same question all day every day for a month and each time Siri would answer in the same reasonable way. There’d be no attitude, no eye rolling, no frustration, no judgment. It was only one of the many things I loved about it. I wanted to hear Siri’s voice say, “The Missouri is x feet at its deepest. The writer and humorist Mark Twain made it famous. Twain’s characters Huck Finn and Jim made their escape on a raft down the Missouri River.”
Now if I wanted to know the depth of the Missouri River, or if in fact it was Twain’s river, I’d need to find a reference book, or ask a reference librarian, or ask a local smart person. I couldn’t think of any alternatives beyond those three, and since I needed to stop for gas, I opted for the latter.
The guy behind the counter looked nice enough, even if he didn’t strike me as maybe the smartest local person, but then I didn’t know anything about the locals. His mouth dropped open a little when I asked how deep the Missouri was. He looked stupefied by the question, but it turned out he was just thinking. After a few seconds, he turned around and took a book out of a kiosk behind him, a book for tourists to Nebraska. I hadn’t known there was such a thing. He went straight to the back of the book like he knew what he was doing, found the page he wanted and said, “The Missouri River is the longest river of the United States and the principal tributary of the Mississippi River. The length of the combined Missouri-Mississippi system is 3,740 miles.”
He glanced up at me, maybe to see if I was properly impressed, which I was, but I also thought it was a little slick of him finding the information so quickly. I wondered if maybe he was making it up; I wanted to test him a little, to say something like show me where it says that,” but I thought it might hurt his feelings, me insinuating he was a liar. He looked at the book again and then back to me, “I’m afraid that’s all it says, Miss. It doesn’t say anything about how deep it is. Anything else you want to know about Nebraska pretty much‘ll be in this book.” He held the book up. It was for sale. He wasn’t only selling gas and snacks and sodas; he was selling books as well. It hadn’t once occurred to me to buy a travel guide to Nebraska.
“I’ll take it.” I laid down my credit card. “I’m on pump 5. Just add it to the gas.”
“Will do.” He didn’t smile when he said this, but I sensed—along with his surprise that someone had finally come along and bought that Nebraska tourist guidebook, the only copy in the kiosk—a sort of pride in his sales skills. If, right then, I’d been in a position to hire for our marketing team, I’d have suggested he apply. He’d surprised me, and as I drove on I-80 toward Lincoln with my new tourist guide, I made a resolution to try not to let looks deceive me. At the time, I meant it.
I’d wanted to be alone, but until I was on the road, I hadn’t known what an oppressive thing real solitude can be, an ordeal all its own. Still, other people scared me more than being alone. I’d learned how unpredictable, how dangerous people are. I’d learned how people, even the one person you think you can trust, will turn on you. How one minute you feel safe and the next your life falls apart, and things you counted on, the person you thought had your back, becomes your worst nightmare. Fear and betrayal. Those things will rewire your brain.
I wanted to shut my eyes, to pretend the things that were happening weren’t really happening, to escape any way I could. But I couldn’t seem to outrun the things I’d left behind. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw it playing over and over again like a little movie in my head. Plus, where could I hide in a world where it seems like everyone can be found?
Ladette Randolph is the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares and on the faculty at Emerson College. She is the author of five books, including three novels: Private Way, A Sandhills Ballad (a New York Times Editor’s Choice book) and Haven’s Wake; the memoir Leaving the Pink House, and the short story collection This is Not The Tropics. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe grant, a Pushcart Prize, the Virginia Faulkner award, and a Nebraska Book Award, and has been reprinted in Best New American Voices.