She's lying supine, flat on her back, with a board under her hospital mattress, allowed to roll over just once a day when the nurses change the sheets and give her a bath and massage. Hasn't sat up for six months. No radios allowed on the wards, not even with earphones. She's more than 50 miles away from family and friends. No phones of course.
After months in a dim cubicle with curtains on either side (fluorescents not yet in use) she's been moved to the far end of the 10-bed ward, so now she has the window on one side. Three feet away, behind the curtain on her left, an elderly nun is dying; black-robed sisters watch all night by candlelight, slow-moving shadows on the high ceiling.
She is more than halfway through a year-long sentence, aimed at heading off the hunchback developing on a adolescent spine. She writes in pencil. She doesn't own a fountain pen -- they're expensive -- and it'll be years anyone markets the (also originally expensive) ballpoint that will write upside down. She writes on a legal pad, holding it overhead. She starts with an attempt at whimsy, which will not, decades later, turn out to be her best style:
The Great American Novel.
This is going to be the Great American Novel. I don't think fourteen is too young to write it. I was going to wait until I was at least twenty-one, but, as I have very little writing talent, I suppose I'd best begin now. Then when I'm at least twenty-one I can write the Greater American Novel, and when I reach middle or even old age...(Let's skip some here.)
My penmanship is terrible. When I was in eighth grade Miss Forbes kept me after school because of it. I wish Mr. Greenberg had kept me after. I had a crush on him. He was my first crush. He offered to coach me in Latin during the summer. I wish Mother had let him.
If I had to write "had let" in French I'd have a terrible time. I wonder what tense it is? (75 years on she remembers her dread of Miss Forbes and her dread of French verb blanks, but she doesn't remember Mr. Greenberg.)
If I ever write a book, I think that's what I'll call it. "A Book". I hope no body thinks of that title before I use it. (Decades later, her best-selling title will be "Modern Real Estate Practice in New York.")
I guess I'll let the novel go untill I can use my typewriter. I'm flat on my back now, you know. I expect to be in here 'till June. I hope hope hope my face clears up by June. My Sunday-school class is having a dance then, my first Formal. My Formal is red and white in tiny checks on a thin material over a white skirt. It has white lace with ribbons in it down the front and round the top. You wouldn't think I could wear red, with my hair, but it looks beautiful and it has a full skirt. (The exciting "full-length" gown is a hand-me-down from rich cousin Betty, who likes red.) The dress will look fine but what if my complexion doesn't clear???
This whatever-it-is is full of I's. Well, why not? I'm writing about myself for my own enjoyment. I'm really enjoying it. But I'd better be honest. I keep thinking of some one else's reading it.
This buzzer to call the nurses flashes on a little light above my bed. I can send an SOS -- three dots, three dashes, three dots. If it didn't bother the nurses I'd learn to send the whole Morse code with it. (The nurses wear white dresses, white stockings and starched white caps that show what schools they attended, with
black velvet ribbons indicating their status.)
Mr. Emmanuel asked me to write for the Sunday-school paper. I wrote a fair article called "Parents Should Know." I think he thinks it's going to be a regular feature. Well, maybe it will. (Forty years later she writes a weekly column that will appear in more than seventy-five newspapers -- that's before newspapers start to die out.)
If I ever write a story and a murder enters into the life of one of the main characters, I'll just tell enough about it to show how it influenced him and even if you're dying to know who killed the old man, I won't even figure it out myself.
I had a nice trip down to the X-ray room today. Saw an Xmas tree in one room, and had a nice conversation with the elevator girl. The X-ray man has an awfully nice-looking young man there -- and all he did was read "Thrilling Detectives" magazine -- the young man, I mean.
When my writing gets unreadable, it's time to stop.
She got out in time for The Formal -- that's Daddy (he was short) -- don't remember who her date was. The fur bunny jacket was Betty's also.
Betty's dead now.