Real Life Isn’t 20/20

Hot — OK, lukewarm — news item in the Vineyard Gazette: “Midnight Farm Manager Charged with Theft.”

My $35 (?) handbag in its customary place, leaning against the end table I got at a yard sale about 25 years ago.

My $35 (?) handbag in its customary place, leaning against the end table I got at a yard sale about 25 years ago.

No, this is not about the security guard at an all-night agricultural establishment, and the individual was not charged with rustling sheep. Midnight Farm is an upscale boutiquey sort of shop. IIRC Carly Simon once had something to do with it. Maybe she still does. I wandered in a couple of times when it was still located where the hardware store used to be. It contained a variety of items I wasn’t interested in, at prices I could barely imagine, never mind afford. Among the items the former manager is said to have returned after she was apprehended were an $834 handbag and a $500 scarf. You get the idea.

Midnight Farm has since moved to the higher-profile place on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, formerly occupied by Bunch of Grapes, a fair-to-middling bookstore that probably wouldn’t have survived had one of the big chain bookstores ever set up on this side of Vineyard Sound. It moved across the street to the rustic-looking building that was once home to Bowl & Board, which sold useful housewares at reasonable prices. This is probably why it went out of business.

One could chart the decline or gentification (depending on your perspective) of Martha’s Vineyard by tracking the evolving occupancy of a few commercial properties. Midnight Farm’s former home, the one that was once a hardware store, now houses the health-food annex of Stop & Shop (which used to be the A&P, which is why some of us call it the Stop & P). Fortunately the hardware store survives and (apparently) thrives almost a mile from the town center, where there’s plenty of parking but getting out of the parking lot can be a challenge in summer, when State Road is gridlocked almost to the Tashmoo overlook.

But I digress.

It is said that everyone on Martha’s Vineyard knows or at least knows of everyone else. This is not true. I did recognize the name of Midnight Farm’s owner; I may have been in the same room with her once or twice, but we do not move in the same circles. I did not recognize the name of the woman charged with, according to the Gazette, “larceny more than $250 by single scheme, shoplifting more than $100 by asportation, and larceny more than $250; false creation or use of a sales receipt; and possessing a class E drug (Xanax).”

I didn’t recognize the word “asportation” either, so I looked it up: “a carrying away; specifically :  felonious removal of goods,” says the online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged. It’s not in the (abridged) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or the American Heritage Dictionary, so you know it’s not an everyday word. I can’t wait to work it into a sentence.

But I digress again.

What I set out to write about wasn’t crime, the community, or island economics. What I wanted to mention was how when this news item was shared on Facebook — of course that was where I first heard of it — a couple of commenters expressed surprise that the thefts weren’t discovered sooner, because they may have taken place over a two-year period and because Midnight Farm is not a corporate giant whose right hand doesn’t want to know what its left hand is doing.

The comment thread was long and getting longer (it’s probably still growing). No surprise there: incidents like this touch us in different ways, and wrestling with them in a more or less public space helps us make sense of them. I read and reflected and finally posted: “Hindsight is 20/20.”

What’s driving my novel in progress, one of the questions I’m struggling to answer, is “What do you do when it’s too soon for hindsight? How do you know when to act, and if you think you should act, what do you do?”

The scenario in my novel involves a sixth-grade girl. Her stepfather may or may not have sexually abused her in the past. He may be abusing her now. A handful of people outside the family begin to suspect that something is wrong, but they don’t know what. They can’t know, either because the girl doesn’t have full access to her own memories or because the “don’t tell” imperative is strong or, quite possibly, both. Their suspicions grow, but the price of being wrong is very high — the stepfather is a powerful figure, and a lawyer to boot — and if they’re right, then what?

The dog in the novel is based on Travvy, but with a whole different backstory.

The dog in the novel is based on Travvy, but with a whole different backstory.

The novel also involves the rescue of a dog. The dog wasn’t being abused, but he was being seriously mismanaged and was on the verge of getting shot when my protagonist and the sixth-grade girl intervened. The fate of the dog becomes a matter of some public concern, including a selectmen’s meeting.

Not so the fate of the girl. The fate of the girl is in the hands of two people who aren’t sure they trust their own perceptions, have no way to confirm them, and know the price of being wrong is unthinkably high.

Hindsight, I’m discovering, may be 20/20 but until you get to where hindsight is possible, it’s more like picking your way through a swamp at twilight, where you glimpse ripples and flashes of light but don’t know what’s making them.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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10 Responses to Real Life Isn’t 20/20

  1. “What ifs?” They can be so very binding when moving through life. What if this or what if that?

    In regards pre 20/20 when moving through events that are to be hindsight, one should be careful when one suspects something, such as the abuse of a child. Listen to your gut and question your intent. Intention is powerful.

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    • Yeah. Two of my main characters are recovering alcoholics with many years of sobriety. “Check your motives” is almost second nature to them. But our motives are rarely 100% “pure” and we do second-guess them, sometimes too much. Sometimes events push us through the waffling. Sometimes they don’t.

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  2. Sharon says:

    I especially love the last sentence. It’s so evocative.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As always, lots of interesting points in your post.
    Places, and especially the most renowned, change and most small businesses are pushed away. Hard to keep up with the real estate these days.
    I read with interest about your novel in progress. Like you I’m currently dealing with a past story that I don’t want to reveal too soon. I don’t like prologues and flashbacks, but sometimes it’s tempting…
    The most challenging is to weave the backstory through the present story.
    Good luck to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My main character kept remembering details from her childhood, though she’s had very little contact with any of her family for many years. It sort of made sense, but I didn’t quite get it. Then when I was out walking one morning I thought What if her estranged sister leaves a message on her answering machine early in the book? Several things fell into place. It was as if I’d just excavated a plot thread I didn’t know I’d buried. Writing can be so strange . . .

      The way buildings change occupants — that’s like excavation too. I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived here. There are some places I can’t drive or walk by without thinking of who lived there 10 or 25 years ago. It’s like living in several decades at once. And I know people who’ve lived here all their lives, and whose memories extend back into their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ time because of the stories they’ve been told. I’d like to try working those layers into a novel some day.

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  4. Susan jRobinson says:

    As a sixth-grader who was being abused and had been at least since 4th grade, it wasn’t that I didn’t have full access to my memories or that don’t ask don’t tell was an issue exactly, but that I had no concept for what was going on, just that I tried to keep it from happening, and when trapped, just lay as still as possible, hoping not to die before it was over. There was nothing to tell anyone, I was just in a child’s experience that I’d never heard put into words by anyone.
    The only aspect of don’t ask don’t tell that applied was that I was not allowed to criticize adults about anything, to themselves most of all. So this was part of a broad range of things it wouldn’t have occurred to me to talk about–doing that just wasn’t in my universe. I don’t know if any of this applies to your character or not, but the either/or about memories or don’t ask didn’t seem to me to fit a child’s experience or mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How to show all this is still evolving. The sixth-grader is a viewpoint character, and so far I’m using first-person present tense for her. So far she’s had no reason to think back to what happened when she was in second grade. The trickier part is what’s going on in the present. Kids this age have been warned about adults who might touch them “inappropriately.” This girl is in a battle of wills with her stepfather, whom she does not like and has no reason to protect — except that she does love her mother. But her options are limited, like any kid’s. It’s hard to imagine or remember just how powerless we are as kids. It’s like touching a hot stove every time I think about it. So I’m focusing on the adults: as their suspicions grow, what do they think, what do they do?

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  5. Helen Green says:

    A couple questions for you Susanna-how come you critique BOG’s as a fair to middling bookstore? And wouldn’t any independent bookstore go out of business if a one of the chains moved in across the street?
    Also -aren’t we living in a potential 20/20 situation every day at every moment?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Question #2: When we’re living through it, it’s almost never 20/20. Imperfect information. So many “what if”s. So many reasons to think “Well, everything will probably work out” or “Someone else will take care of it” or “If I say anything, I might lose my job.” And usually everything does work out OK, at least for the time being. But when something really bad happens, it’s all “Why didn’t anybody say anything?”

      Question #1: Long story. Keep in mind that I was a bookseller before I came here. 😉 Here’s an abridged version: https://squattersspeakeasy.com/2011/08/04/bookstores-are-not-sacred-cows/. They seem to have improved some in the years since in that they’re paying some attention to local self-published authors. But long before the rise of ebooks, I got out of the habit of browsing or shopping there because their f/sf section looked like it was bought by robots and most of the nonfiction I wanted was published by independent or university presses, neither of which they paid much attention to.

      Yes, some independents have managed to survive, especially those that specialized and those that diversified a bit, e.g., by establishing a coffee shop. I loathe Amazon.com, but I have to say I’ve felt a certain satisfaction in watching it kill off the big chains the way the big chains killed off so many indies.

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