The Passion of Estelle Jordan

Maybe the way to save yourself is to save someone else.

One of my many part-time jobs when I was a student at Keene State College back in the middle 1960s was laundry man at Elliot Community Hospital. Since the hospital was next door to the school, it was a short walk from classroom to work space. However, the environments were startlingly different.

The hospital laundry was in the basement. I remember dark stone walls, a rough unpainted concrete floor, washers and dryers the size of compact cars, a network of steam pipes wrapped in what must have been asbestos insulation. I don't remember any color. The phrase "fifty shades of grey" had whole different meaning for me in those days. It meant work in a dreary, cheerless place.

In the middle of the room was a chute that ran to the top floors. One of the rules of the place was don't stand under the chute. Twenty or so pounds of dirty laundry wrapped in a sheet could build quite a lot of attitude in its descent from the third floor to the basement. It was my job to throw the dirty bedding and gowns into a washer. Another rule was look before you reach into the pile. You never knew what kind of bodily mush was in there.

Once a load was washed and dried I would wheel it in a cart to a long table behind which stood three women, the folders. At the time I was young and they were, in my mind, ancient, perhaps late fifties and early sixties. They were dour, a turn of mind they'd earned. I surmised that they'd had the wrong parents, the wrong the spouses, and the wrong breaks in life. They rarely spoke to me, but one them touched my heart.

She dressed plainly, wore no makeup nor ornamentation. But her hair–ah, her hair–it was black and white, long and flowing and always freshly shampooed. I imagined that her pride in her womanhood was in that hair.

During this same time period I would sometimes visit the local bars in Keene–The Crystal Restaurant, The Bon Ton, the Star Cafe, the Coney Island Grill. One night an attractive bleached blond in maybe her late forties came into the Crystal with a man around seventy. The woman was brash, sassy, self-empowered–a turn-on for a young man like myself. I imagined that this woman was a femme fatale of the most fatal kind. She would hook up with older men, give them one last thrill before ushering them into the next world.

Years later when I was writing The Passion of Estelle Jordan I concluded that Estelle, the Jordan "witch", had two personalities in conflict with one another. One self was assertive, practical-minded, slutty, shrewd–in charge; the other self was tender, chaste, and vulnerable. For my models I turned to the lady of the night in the Star Cafe and the laundry woman. The theme of the story would be Estelle's attempt to reconcile her warring selves.

Estelle is a major character in A Little More Than Kin and Whisper My Name, the second and third novels of the Darby Chronicles. The Passion of Estelle Jordan is her story. Estelle is sliding into late middle age, drawn to two lovers who could not be more different, Avalon Hillary, widowed farmer, and a mysterious young punk that Estelle knows by the car he drives, Trans Am. And there's a threat, not to Estelle–she can take of herself–but to Noreen Cook, a younger woman that Estelle sees as a version of the secret vulnerable self that she carries. It's not a coincidence that the title of the book echoes the passion of Christ. This is a story of sin, suffering, sacrifice and perhaps redemption.

I may be a lapsed Catholic, but the church's teachings and influences keep finding their way into my fictional world.