Ch 1-2 GLOSS (a novel-in-progress)

It was recorded in the town history that the Irish women tossed their black dresses to the dirt under the midday sun, their underclothes drenched with sweat working with Mister Kip to build their home.

Gloss

A Novel by Michele Young-Stone

1

The Scenic Byway

The Route 6 Scenic Byway snaked its way east to west, ten miles south of the interstate, following the Rockfish River through forgotten Virginia towns with squat cinderblock markets where old men once sold red-hot sausages out of glass jars. You could dig your whole hand inside and pick the best one out.

Lola Brewster, twelve-and-a-half, running home from the Spivey Trail, stopped at Red’s, boarded-up now, the concrete overgrown with weeds. Lola had faint memories of coming to this market with an uncle or grandfather, and sitting on a pea-green stool that swiveled, a burly fellow behind the counter unscrewing the tin lid, the uncle or grandfather plunging his hand into the brine. The wind swept a cellophane wrapper across the lot where gas pumps used to be, the Coca-Cola sign groaning from rusted hooks. She wondered who the man was. It wasn’t her father. He’d been asked by Lola’s mom to stay out of the picture, for now, but now had turned into forever. Lola took off running again.

It was August, and the sun was going down fast. The scenic byway was wild with white-tailed rabbits and deer. Kudzu and oak shaded the hilly road where the waning light cloaked milkweed and berries, and the only sounds were of the river, of twigs snapping and leaves rustling, and Lola’s breath.

Nearing downtown Rock Gap, the scenic byway turned to a scenic Main Street, and the speed limit dropped to twenty-five. At the town’s center was an ivy-stitched gazebo beside a clock tower where a grandmother and granddaughter, Alice and Susie Fitzpatrick, sold herbal elixirs. Two doors down was Bean’s Pharmacy with a real soda fountain dating back to 1951. Further along were the public library, built in 1971, a stone theater dating back to the mid 1800s and a Baptist Church where Lola’s mother, Deb, had been a congregant.

Across from the clock tower sat the AG Supermarket, the Flower Market, Spoonful, a coffee shop, and Mission Thrift, run by the Baptists to fund missionary trips to Ghana.

Behind the AG Supermarket stretched a grid of streets with dark buckling roads, dirt yards and double-wide trailers. Lola and Deb lived here among the ever-multiplying stray cats who fed off the AG’s dumpsters. One of Lola’s neighbors, Cam Lewis, had gotten a raccoon trap a couple years back and started catching as many cats as he could. Lola was ten and asked, “What do you do after you catch them?”

He’d shrugged, not wanting to upset the neighbor girl. Taking a drag off his smoke, he said, “If I take them to animal control, some do-gooder liberal is going to adopt them, and they’ll end up right back here mewing all hours of the night. All heated up and one-eyed. Fuck that.” He flicked his cigarette butt. “Pardon my language.”

Lola and Deb Brewster lived three doors down from Cam. Deb liked cats. She was prone to put out a can of tuna or a saucer of milk for the feral cats, down on their luck—something she understood. She was meant to go to college or be a cruise attendant. She had yellow hair like Cinderella and a good figure. But like the cats, she got knocked up and everything went to shit.

Deb’s trailer was a single-wide on a double scrub lot. The land had belonged to her mother and grandmother. The trailer, purchased by Deb’s mom before she passed on, was second-hand. Busted fiberglass walls had been filled with cardboard and duct tape. A lightning rod and TV antenna mounted to the roof. The door didn’t shut all the way. Deb tied a black shoelace between the metal latch and plastic handle that opened and closed the awning windows.

Deb was at home with her friends, coked-up, listening to the Bee Gees, when Lola came up the cinderblock steps through the door that never shut all the way. Deb was dancing and singing, “My woman took me higher,” and flung her arm hard, a “Solid Gold” move, smacking Lola in the face with her bony elbow.

Disoriented, her nose smarting, Lola turned, one sneaker catching the other, and fell face first into the oversized glass coffee table—much too large for the room.

The Bee Gees kept singing. Lola was on the shag carpet, but her face was connected to the table. She started to get up, blood pouring from a deep gash. She touched her face before looking at her hands, carmine red, redder than red, unreal, before falling down. The brown carpet fibers turning black. She rolled onto her back and stared at her hands.

Deb said, “Fuck me.” Lola’s face looked like it’d been sliced open.

Jack, who’d known Lola since she was eight, said, “Call an ambulance.”

“No phone,” Deb said. She hadn’t paid the bill. “Go next door to Sheila’s. Ask to use her phone.”

Jack, barefoot and shirtless, in OP corduroy shorts, was out the door.

The album started from the beginning. “Why the fuck does bad shit happen to me?” Deb crossed her arms at her stomach and looked at Lola, whose eyes were wide, the right side of her face like a neatly sliced slab of meat.

Crystal, who had two kids of her own, but they lived with her mom (she didn’t have custody), dropped to her knees beside Lola. “You’re going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.” She squeezed Lola’s blood-red hand. “Stay with me.” Sometimes, when everyone was kite-high on coke or passed out, Crystal went to Lola’s bedroom, the last room in the trailer. She would pull a book from her purse. They were too young for Lola, but Crystal read anyway. Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. “If you run away, I will run after you.” They were sweet stories, and Lola played along, like she was one of Crystal’s kids. Sometimes, Crystal brought candy or sandwiches.

Now, she murmured, “Good night, moon,” spotting Big Boy Burger napkins on the shag and reaching for them.

“Get towels,” Crystal told Deb and Mary—an eighteen-year-old who’d shown up with Jack. She’d been matching beers to bumps all afternoon. Crystal pressed the folded napkin to Lola’s face. “Everything’s going to be okay.” She smoothed Lola’s hair back from her forehead. There was blood in the ash-yellow strands. The blood had soaked through the knees of Crystal’s jeans. Everything sticky and warm.

Deb said, “Get away from my kid.”

Crystal said, “You’re fucked up,” her eyes on Lola.

“And you’re not?” Deb lit a cigarette and crossed her arms at her waist.

Crystal looked up at Deb. “I know I’m fucked up, but I took CPR. I know First-Aid.”

Deb wagged her smoke at Crystal. “Can you drive her to the hospital?”

“I can’t drive,” Crystal said.

Mary returned, handing one towel to Crystal. “The other ones were wet.”

Crystal pressed it to the gaping wound. Lola’s blood quickened, like a heart beating under Crystal’s hand.

Jack returned through the door opened to the dark. Gnats and mosquitos flitting through the room. He said, “The neighbor lady is calling the operator.”

Deb perched over Crystal and Lola, her hands on her thighs. “Look, honey,” she said. “You’re going to be fine. An ambulance is on the way.” Crystal’s eyes stayed on Lola, whose big brown eyes were vacant face.

Deb said, “It was an accident.” The towel had soaked through with blood.

Crystal said, “She feels cold. This is bad. Does anybody have a flashlight? Maybe we can turn the lights on and off and see if her eyes react.”

Jack, tall and druggie thin, likening himself to the Thin White Duke, said, “The ambulance is coming. I told you. Man, this shit is fucked up, Deb.”

“It was an accident,” Deb said. “Chill out.” There was a line of coke on the countertop separating the galley kitchen from the coffee table and plaid couch. Someone had skipped a turn. Deb slipped a rolled five from her front pocket and snorted it up, tossing her head back. “Be cool.”

Jack said, “Cops come with ambulances.”

“I can’t think straight,” Deb said. “I can’t believe she fucking fell into the coffee table. Jesus Christ.” She grabbed the ends of her strawberry-blond hair. “I need to think.”

No one had turned the lights on and off or found a flashlight, but Crystal had managed to get her arms under Lola, rocking her and saying, “You need to get out of here. You need to get out of here. You need to get out of here.”

Deb, Mary, and Jack, gathered the coke baggies and the rolled twenties and Deb went to Lola’s room to hide them. Under her bed, Deb found stolen library books on Degas, Rodin, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, and Van Gogh. Deb slipped the twenties and coke baggies behind the books. Returning to the living area, she said, “This isn’t my fault.”

Jack said, “Of course, not.”

They heard the ambulance approaching.

“Goddamn it,” Deb said. “Kids fuck everything up.”

Lola lay bleeding, thinking she might die. That would be one way to get out of here. Looking up, her eyes fixed on the missing bits of Styrofoam ceiling, she saw Susie Fitzpatrick’s iridescent blackbird hair splayed against a raspberry coat and white sky. She was a vision, pulling her scarf tight, the flurries whirling around her, like an oil painting in a museum. Lola didn’t see or hear Crystal or the EMTs or Deb saying, “I don’t know what happened. She tripped. Her shoe was untied.”

Susie Fitzpatrick, whom Lola had never met in person, knelt beside her. “You’re going to be okay,” she said, her black hair falling and fluttering, bird wings, on Lola’s cheek. “I’ll make sure of it.” Lola reached up to pull Susie closer. She’d been admiring and painting Susie Fitzpatrick with acrylics and watercolors for months. Lola breathed deep, smelling Susie—who smelled like Viburnum—pulling her tight and holding her fast. They were best friends. Only Susie didn’t know it yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

The Stand

Susie Fitzpatrick was fourteen, raven-haired and miserable—organizing vials of lavender and tea-tree oil at her Nana’s holistic healing stand, Alice’s Herbals, beside the clock tower, where Route 6’s speed limit dropped from thirty-five to twenty-five and became Rock Gap’s Main Street.

The stand was a hand-hewn gazebo carved from oak, laced with mountain creeper vine, its waxy leaves catching the late afternoon showers and hot sun that beat down in August.

Beyond the curtain of variegated vines, a long oak cabinet rose like an altar from cream earthen bricks, the cabinet fitted with six deep drawers. An orange tabby rubbed itself against the cabinet’s wide base.

Nowhere on the gazebo or counter did it say Alice’s Herbals, nor were there business cards or banners. Alice didn’t need to advertise—hers was an institution—the oldest establishment in Rock Gap. A photograph of the gazebo and clocktower, the townsfolk milling about, hung in town hall.

Dated 1900, the enlarged photo met visitors when they pushed open Town Hall’s heavy double doors. In grainy hues of black, white, and gray, the photograph showed the Rock Gap community in their Sunday best, like the gazebo was Church, and the townsfolk were shopping for the goods they hadn’t grown, luxuries like chocolate and salt, cider and beer, jam they hadn’t canned and loaves they hadn’t baked.

Alice’s Herbals predated the AG Supermarket and Flower Market, the day-old bread store, and Bean’s Pharmacy. Mr. Bean, twisting his waxed Salvador-Dali moustache, told anyone who would listen, “My great-grandfather’s drugstore burned to the ground in 1895. Hell, most of the town burned.” The general store, where the people bought soap, ammunition, sugar and tea kettles went up in flame. The blacksmith, not the iron, but everything around it, caught fire. The Winslow Home, the nicest boarding house in Rock Gap with yellow-wood siding, a wrought-iron terrace and roof-top perch, and a view of the Appalachian Mountains, smoldered to the ground, the beams collapsing like matchsticks in a finger snap. And the milliner, Mr. Ford, lost his hats.

“Those stupid hats,” the husbands had complained before the fire, their wives wasting hard-earned money from the men’s quarry and farming, to outdo one another, gone, burned to ash, bits of wool and feathers riding a wave of heat down Main Street. Later, the men missed the milliner, realizing he’d been a pastime for their overworked, complaining wives.

No one had died, which was another mystery, since the fire started an hour after dark. Those who’d been asleep—the sun set late in August—woke from strange dreams to the smell of smoke. The wooden walkways that crisscrossed grass, dirt and stone, and saved the children’s and ladies’ shoes from winter’s slush and spring’s puddles, caught fire. The blaze zigzagged torching planks, making the sign of the cross.

The theatre, where plays were performed and popular songs were sung, was built of stone and rock and withstood the fire, but it wasn’t in any of the photographs that remained from that time. The more religious set were ashamed of it—despite gathering under its roof after the church burned. The Rock Gap Baptists thought acting—pretending to be someone you weren’t, and singing for the sake of gaiety and not God—a sin. Pleasure was for the next life. In this world (aside from their short-lived love of hats they wore to service), hard work and sacrifice were the ways of the Lord. Now that they thought about it, the hats had been a sin. All vanity was sin.

 

In the large photograph—the morning sun caught the whites, grays, and blacks reflected in the glass, turning them silver and sparkling, animating the women in dark dresses, their hems sweeping the dirt, parasols twirling, men mindful of pocket watches, smoking pipes, chewing cud, sampling bread and butter, perusing the wooden crates holding cider and beer.

When Susie was nine, two years before her mother left town with a man named Ray, her mother took Susie to Town Hall. She needed to pay a speeding ticket. While Susie’s mother traipsed down the hall, waving her ticket and swinging her hips side-to-side (she had a reputation she liked to feed), Susie remained in the lobby, standing beside a spindly-legged sign with removeable plastic letters and arrows pointing to various departments: Agriculture, Child Welfare, Health and Human Services, and Transportation. She looked up at the sparkling photograph, as wide as she was tall. Her ancestors were somewhere in the photograph—though she could never decipher where—their faces blurry.

Beneath the photograph in a glass cabinet was a leather-bound town history published in 1890. It included a full ten pages on the Fitzpatrick women who moved to Rock Gap in 1885, twenty short years after the Civil War. In the book, mother and daughter posed in front of the gazebo, each in dungarees, their hair braided in pig tails, brandishing chisels and hand-saws. They’d built the gazebo and the oak stand beside a 240-foot stone clocktower, erected sometime in the 1700s.

A replica of the history’s text had been laminated and bound and attached to the glass cabinet by a silver ring beside the Visitor’s Log-in. At age nine, Susie was tall enough to reach the laminated history and read about the women she’d heard so much about. These were her ancestors.

Ivy and Windborne Fitzpatrick arrived in Rock Gap in 1885, having fled Kilkenny, Ireland, traveling west by boat, south by train from Prince Edward Island, and then south again by train from Baltimore to Richmond, where they headed west. On this train that’d run during the Civil War, Windborne, who had a sixth sense, felt a hand squeezing her heart and glossed the dead soldiers who’d been transported home after battle.

They got off the train in Scottsville. At thirteen, Windborne was exhausted and would’ve been happy to stop anywhere, but Ivy told her that she’d made arrangements with a man on Prince Edward Island to buy a mountain at the foothills of the Appalachians. “It won’t be too much longer. I want us to be safe. The only way to do that is to own the land.”

The mother and daughter followed Plank Road on foot. Each lugged one leather suitcase. They caught rides when they could, making their way from the piedmont to the foothills, on to Rock Gap, where they bought the plot beside the waiting clocktower to erect their gazebo. In 1886, it was already a major thoroughfare. Then, on to Cinnamon Mountain. Ivy had the deed on her person. By the time they arrived in the spring of 1886, a man called Kip (there were no pictures of him) had delivered slate from the quarry upriver and cleared the land for their house and garden. The daughter Windborne was thirteen, and the mother, Ivy, thirty-three.

It was recorded in the town history that the Irish women tossed their black dresses to the dirt under the midday sun, their underclothes drenched with sweat working with Mister Kip to build their home.

The townsfolk who met at the Baptist Church, little more than a barn in 1886, whispered of the newcomers’ haughtiness and strangeness. First off, they were women, and second off, they were foreigners. Never mind that the Rock Gap residents were of Scotch-Irish descent like the foreigners.

Something funny about those two.

Where are their menfolk? And where does that fellow Kip sleep at night? Weren’t the Micks supposed to be settling North?

Susie read that old history a dozen times over her young years, remembering her great-grandmother Windborne’s death. Not her life. Susie had been three. The year was 1974. Despite her mother telling her that she couldn’t remember that far back, Susie did remember: waking to the stench of dying—the tinny smell of blood—pulling the covers tight up to her neck. When she got out of bed and went downstairs, she heard weeping and a football game on TV. The TV announcer, Howard Cosell, said, “He’s at the twenty, at the ten, at the five.” The people in the TV roared. “Touchdown.”

Downstairs, Susie went unnoticed through the TV room, through the kitchen, her slippers slapping the slate floor, to the dining room, where the table had become Windborne’s deathbed. Ivy’s portrait and those of deceased Fitzpatricks in ornate gold frames lined the walls. Susie saw her great-grandmother’s white hair and gaunt face. She was tiny under the blankets. Susie backed up until her hands found the wall.

Grandfather Frank came into the room, looking sympathetically at his only granddaughter. “This is a hard time for everyone,” he said. In her pink robe buttoned at the neck, Susie found the damask print and picked at the metallic gold wallpaper with her fingernails. Her nana’s mom was very old.

Today, Susie Fitzpatrick was hot, agitated, gathering her black hair in one hand, lifting it off her neck, looking for something with which to fan herself, while her nana, oblivious to the steam rising from the grass, immune to heat and humidity, sat in a director’s style canvas chair reading People, an article on Richard Gere, an actor she loved, and licking her fingertips, chocolate residue on her thumb and forefinger from a truffle that would’ve melted.

“Do you have another one?”

“No,” Nana said, sucking the last bit of chocolate from her finger.

“What kind was it?”

“Hazelnut,” Nana said. “Do you think I’m too old for Richard Gere?”

“Nah. He probably likes grandmas.”

“Did you count out the drawer?” They had an antique cash register that dinged loudly when the total was tendered and the drawer flew open. Without looking at Nana, Susie pushed the tender button, and the drawer shot open, dinging and clanking loudly at the end of its metal spring. “Yeah, I filled it.”

Susie slipped between the creeper vine, stepping into the clearing, where the yellowed summer grass gave way to a pebble parking lot. With her back to the sun, she looked for customers. She was sticky. This morning, the TV weatherman said it might reach one-hundred degrees today, a record for Rock Gap, where seventy-degree summer days weren’t uncommon. Susie said, “It’s really hot,” more to herself than Nana, who was still beneath the gazebo, curtained by the vine. She looked up at the clock tower. Its gold hands indicated that it was 9 am. Susie looked down the street. Mountain Bank had the same time. Its digital temperature showing 90 degrees. Susie touched the back of her hand to her forehead. The humidity was miserable. It would be a long day.

Across the street, the Flower Market delivery driver filled his wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon with vases of cut flowers: lilies, daisies, roses, and carnations. Susie rehearsed their medicinal qualities: white lilies for pain and swelling; daisies for cuts, scrapes and respiratory illness; carnations for fever and upset stomach, and rose water for Vitamin-C deficiency and lovesickness.

A hot wind blew a Bubba-Jo bubble-gum wrapper across the parking lot, the wrapper catching on the strap of Susie’s Mary Janes. The wind tickling her ankles and lifting the hem of her dress.

She squinted at the delivery driver Steve, who waved. She didn’t wave back. He was a mama’s boy, nineteen, living at home and working for his parents.

Steve closed the wagon, his floral arrangements ribboned and stuffed with baby’s breath, neatly stored between thick green foam. He glanced up at Susie and smiled before looking away. Last year, Susie had crossed Main Street after shutting down the stand, and he’d shown her the sad arrangements, how each square or circle of foam held a specific vase—so as not to tip or spill, and Susie had felt sorry for the flowers, for the waste of being grown and cut only to sit in a vase and die.

And then he’d tried to kiss her and she nearly fell backwards avoiding him, and he grabbed her wrist and she glossed him, socks gathered at his ankles, calves with hair like black thread, sitting on the toilet with a Hustler andDungeons and Dragons Rule Book at his feet, and she’d pulled free of Steve—filled with revulsion. She never knew what she’d see, what gloss would reveal itself with her touch. They came in the span of a finger-snap, one click, a lens opening and closing, one flash.

He’d said, “I’m sorry. I thought you liked me.”

She said, “I’m thirteen.”

“I thought you were older.”

“You thought wrong.”

He’d looked up, his Adam’s apple prominent and swallowed hard. Susie pulled a daisy from one of the arrangements, slipping it behind her ear and crossed the road. She hadn’t spoken to him since. Poor Steve. He was probably in love with her. He was always staring and then turning away. She imagined him anxious, palms sweating, wishing he hadn’t tried to kiss her. Wishing he’d played it cool a little longer. Wishing he could say something to make everything better, wishing she liked him. The Fitzpatrick women had that lovestruck effect on men—and women.

Back in Ireland, a midwife, Grace Fitzpatrick, ran off with a washer woman McMurrough. Neither was seen again, but Nana said there were rumors they’d moved north to Dublin. Others suggested Belfast. And others said they went south to Cornwall and ran a tavern in Morwenstow. There was talk that the Fitzpatrick woman, Grace, who would be Susie’s great-great-great something, jumped to her death from one of the salt-licked cliffs in Cornwall after her lover was stoned to death for impersonation a man..

Susie, holding her dark hair off her neck, returned to the stand. She leaned against the oak counter with its deep drawers, while the customers, Saturday regulars and unknown tourists, young and old, trickled beneath the creeper vine, parted and strung from nails like stage curtains. Tourists always bought something. If nothing else, a postcard with a picture of the gazebo, the stand and the clocktower. Ivy and Windborne in long-sleeve white dresses, their hair loose. Susie put on white latex gloves to work the register. Her excuse for the gloves was that money was dirty, but in truth, she might gloss someone if her hand brushed theirs, and glossing was exhausting. Today, she rang up a lemon candle, a dozen eggs, and a bundle of juniper. She answered questions about the tinctures she and Nana made—had they been approved by the FDA? “How exactly do you get an oil from an herb?” When her hands grew sweaty, she took a break from the gloves, took her chances. She sold three dozen hand-rolled beeswax candles to a buyer she recognized, a petite woman with a pointy chin. “I just love your candles,” the woman said, smiling.

“Okay,” Susie said, rubbing the back of her neck, avoiding the woman’s hands.

The woman was going to take the candles thirty miles south and resell them at double the price to the college students in Chase, Virginia, and Susie would be the one cooking the honeycomb this week, separating the wax, reheating and filtering it a hundred times. Anyone who bought in bulk had plans to resell Alice’s Herbals.

“Have a nice day,” Susie said.

As the woman left with her box of candles, Susie gave her the middle finger.

The morning turned busy. Susie felt faint from the heat, the pink draining from her cheeks.

Nana waltzed chatting between the customers. Susie ran the register. In between, she poured water from the cooler onto her hand, dabbing her chest and neck.

A Rolls Royce pulled up beside the gazebo. Susie knew the car, the man, John Halston, a financial advisor, one of their repeat customers, who passed through Rock Gap to ski in the winter and fish in the summer. His chauffeur emerged from the front seat, opening the back door. John Halston was what Nana called, “A card, a real eccentric.”

Handsome for an elderly gentleman, John Halston had a thick mop of white hair and a salt-and-pepper moustache. He wore dark sunglasses. The wind parted his hair down the middle, lifting it off his scalp. He walked surefootedly toward Nana, who stood in front of the cabinet, her back to him. Tapping her shoulder, she turned, and John Halston took hold of her long, freckled arms, pulling her within an inch of him. “There you are. A godsend.”

“Here I am.” She grinned. “And there you are.” She looked him in the eyes, curious.

“You did it,” he said.

“Did what?”

Mrs. Lynne, a Rock Gap local with a bad case of eczema, drummed her pink nails on the countertop. Susie entered the price for the soap, $7.95, into the register. She said, “With tax, it’s $8.27.”

Mrs. Lynne said, “That’s highway robbery,” but unclasped her sequined change purse, digging through her coins. Paper money is dirty. To make her point about the price, she added, “A bar of Safeguard costs fifty cents.”

“Sure, but a bar of Safeguard won’t help with that.” Susie shrugged, knowing Mrs. Lynne had once again stubbornly waited too long between bars of soap—trying cheap chemical-based products. The skin around her mouth, nose and eyes splotched and flaking.

John Halston was still gripping Nana’s arms. “My God, Woman, you did it.”

Nana shook her head, still unsure what she’d done.

John drew closer, whispering like they were coconspirators in some plot. “It worked.” He nodded, conscious of how he was holding onto her, letting go.

Mrs. Lynne, having counted out eight silver coins and three dimes, turned to him. “What did she do now?” She puckered her lips like she’d eaten something sour.

“She saved my life.”

Mrs. Lynne scoffed. “That’s a good one.”

John clapped his hands together, his voice low. “My dick wasn’t working.”

“Excuse me?” Certainly, Mrs. Lynne had misheard him.

“My dick wasn’t working and now it is. Because of her.” His voice louder, John testified like this was a Sunday church service—and Nana was his savior. He dug into the pocket of his khaki pants, reaching out, trying to hand Nana a roll of bills.

She raised her hand in protest. “Put it away.”

The customers who overheard John’s testimony laughed.

Mrs. Lynne put one hand to her stomach like she would be sick, stuffing her precious soap in her purse.

A young man, eighteen or nineteen, said, “Good for you, old man.”

John addressed him. “You think it’ll never happen to you. You’re golden. I was golden. I used to tell the women, ‘The first one’s for me, and the rest are for you.’ I could go all night, but age catches up with you.” John stuffed the wad of cash in the tip jar.

Mrs. Lynne said, “Pardon me,” passing by Nana and John Halston, her hands and purse at her chest.

“I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” he said.

Susie had accidentally kept Mrs. Lynne’s change, three cents. She thought to drop it in the tip jar but trailed Mrs. Lynne instead. Ducking beneath the vines, Susie glanced up at the sky. It was no longer blue. More lavender with black clouds, hearse-like. Susie looked to Mountain Bank. The temperature was eighty degrees. Then 79, 78, 76, 71 in a matter of seconds. She’d never seen it fall that way. The wind picked up, cooler. It licked the back of her neck. She had goosebumps on her arms and legs. Then, a funnel whirled up her blue dress, a coolness escaping through the wide embroidered neck. The rusty wind vane squawked and spun maniacally. According to the clocktower, it was one o’clock.

Susie came up behind Mrs. Lynne, who startled. Her thin blonde hair wild about her face, a bald spot showing.

“Your change,” Susie said, her thumb and pointer fingers pressed against the coins.

Mrs. Lynne held out her palm.

Susie dropped the three cents into her palm. She’d glossed Mrs. Lynne before. There’d been a yellow polyester nightgown hanging on a bathroom hook, a fat man in a recliner, and a small dog yipping, scratching at a screen door.

“Use that soap as soon as you get home,” she said with a smile. “It looks painful, and don’t scratch.” Mrs. Lynne dropped the pennies in her bag, not bothering with her change purse.

 

Susie returned to the stand where Nana was ringing up John Halston’s purchases as those around him either whispered at his brashness or congratulated him. “You’re a pretty woman, Alice,” he said to Nana. “If I were a younger man—.”

Nana said, “And unmarried.”

“It goes without saying.” He pressed his lips together like he was about to get something fine to eat.

Susie rolled her eyes, dropping John’s vodka and elderberry tincture and lavender spray in a bag. Nana was probably older than John. She used tannins, witch hazel, flaxseed oils and vanity spells to alter her appearance. Nana said, “I’ll walk you to your car. Let me get my sweater.”

Susie too felt chilled. She rubbed the back of her neck. Her head hurt. She twisted the silver and blue stone ring on her pointer finger round and round, forcing herself to smile and make eye contact with the customers perusing the counter. Round and round she twisted before reaching for a new pair of gloves.

A young woman, her hair covering her face, went round and round the stand. The other customers withdrew, eyeing items strung from the gazebo, heading for their cars. The wind vane squawked. The weatherman had lost his mind.

The young woman set down eggs and butter. She had stringy dishwater hair. Glimpsing the left side of her face, her cheek was ruddy. She was Susie’s height.

“Hey,” Susie said, and started to ring up the eggs she’d collected and the butter she’d churned. (Churning butter was one of the many chores she loathed, like planting and digging and pulling and picking. She had to use a hard bristle brush to get the dirt out from under her nails. She hated that feeling of dirt.)

The girl at the counter said hi back to Susie, smoothing her hair back from her face. A fiery red scar ran from the right corner of her lip to her earlobe, the cheek sagging beneath like an old woman’s jowl.

Susie looked down, opening the carton of eggs.

The girl pointed at the open carton. “That one’s blue-speckled.” Her nails were stained ochre and red, gnawed to the quick.

Susie cleared her throat, looking up. The scar was a beast, molten, like the flat side of a poker had branded the girl. Susie said, “The eggs are different depending on the chicken. The ones at the AG are bleached white, and the chickens don’t free-roam.” She was going to list off the names of their chickens when a white flash of light illuminated the gazebo and the people within. Thunder followed. It clapped, and the ground shook. The girl jumped and Susie put a hand to her chest. A fierce wind cut between the creeping vine, toppling vials and jars. Customers, who’d ducked, ran for their cars while Susie righted the toppled jars. The girl bent down, gathering the bound juniper and Mugwort that had blown to the ground. Rain thrummed the vine. Nana said, “I’ll get the tarpaulin.” As the girls rose, Nana squatted, pulling the bottom drawer open with two hands.

The scarred girl dug into her shorts pocket. Rain dribbled between the vines.

The girl released crumpled one-dollar bills on the counter. They started to blow away, and she corralled them.

Susie stared between the parted vines at the navy-blue sky, the parking lot emptying out. Thunder rumbling in the distance. “Four-dollars and fifty-cents,” she said.

The girl smoothed the dollar bills before handing them over. Susie reached for the money, not giving it a second thought. She wore her latex gloves. She didn’t like to gloss strangers. In addition to being exhausting, it felt intrusive: that instant, a photograph in her mind, sometimes a birthday party, paper hats and horns, balloons, cake, an older sister blowing out her kid sister’s candles; a steak dinner, watery blood on a plate sopped up with a roll; line dancing, cowboy boots, peanut shells on a plank floor; a baby taking its first breath, an old man, toothless, his mouth hinged open. Snapshots.

But this was different. This girl. No gloss. Through her gloves, Susie got a montage with David Lynch directing—glass shattering. Blood on hands, the hands with the nails bitten to the quick. Paper bags and cardboard boxes ripped. Blackberries mashed with a rock. The juice on her scarred face. Hardees’ fast-food wrappers on the floor. An ashtray overflowing. A trailer with cinderblocks for stairs. Sneakers kicking up dirt. And the girl, that sagging, scarred face, oily hair and bruised limbs, splayed out, making dirt angels under a red moon.

“Fuck,” Susie said, folding her arms against her stomach, sinking into herself, the money on the countertop between them, the girl’s hands protecting it. Susie had never glossed anyone through gloves.

Nana stood up, holding the tarpaulin against her chest, looking around for the threat—seeing the sad scarred girl across the counter. “It’s a thunderstorm. You’re all right. No need to use profanity.”

The girl smiled at Susie. “My name is Lola. I live behind the AG.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Interview with Amy Jo Burns, Author of Shiner

I wanted to write about both “snake-handling” and “taking up serpents” because I think a big part of identity comes in how we describe ourselves, versus how the rest of the world sees us.

homemade bookmark

I discovered Shiner by Amy Jo Burns when I saw the novelist’s posts on Instagram. Here we were, entering a shelter-at-home pandemic, and she had a book about to launch. The world was topsy-turvy. It still is. Her book tour was canceled. Like the rest of us, she was entering uncharted territory, with her baby, her first novel.

I ordered a copy from my local indie bookseller, and Amy sent me a homemade bookmark. I’m smitten. The novel is so good. It’s one of those books where you get fifty pages from the end, and you just don’t want it to end. You read a few pages and then plough through when you can stand it no longer.

Shiner is an incredible novel about two generations of Appalachians, about family, friendships and myth-making. The novel’s protagonist Wren is a teenage girl on a quest to find out the truths that have been kept from her. In order to learn the truth, she has to confront her father, a man larger than life, a preacher who survived a lightning strike, who feels God in his bones, who can work miracles, and who tries to kill her.

As the main character Wren tells us at the start of the story: “Beyond these hills my people are known for the kick in their liquor and the poverty in their hearts. Overdoses, opioids, unemployment. Folks prefer us this way–dumb-mouthed with yellow teeth and cigarettes, dumb-minded with carboys of whiskey and broken-back Bibles. But that’s not the real story. Here’s what hides behind the beauty line along West Virginia’s highways: a fear that God has forgotten us. We live in the wasteland that coal has built, where trains eat miles of track. Our men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday mornings and pray for God to show Himself while our wives wash their husbands’ underpants.”

I had the privilege and pleasure to ask Amy a few questions about this riveting tale: Enjoy!

  1. The relationships between Ruby and Ivy and Briar and Flynn are so close and complex, were these friendships based on your own or inspired by people you know?

Thank you so much for saying that. These relationships definitely came from my imagination, though they’ve been with me for so long that these people feel like my family! I tried to give each of the characters a true piece of me–maybe a fault or an aspiration of mine–in addition to a few small details from people I know.

The relationships between these characters came to me first, in addition to the setting of the novel, and the rest of the story came from there. So much of what we do in life is determined by who or what we love, and I wanted that to be true for the characters in Shiner, too.

  1. The setting of the novel is so paramount to the story, are you from West Virginia? What inspired you to write about this area, mining, “taking up serpents,” and moonshining?

I grew up in northern Appalachia, though not as isolated as the characters in Shiner, and I camped in West Virginia in the summers when I was a teenager. The landscape there really imprinted itself on me–there’s nothing like it in the world. Everywhere you go, the creeks and mountains and caves are telling a story. I think I’ve always wanted to listen in on those tales and tell my own from them.

I also wanted to write about what it means to have faith–and for some people that might mean taking up serpents, for some it might mean laying down your life for your friend, and for still others it might mean making moonshine. Who’s to say one kind of faith is more authentic than the other? I wanted to play with the idea of where real danger, and real miracles, truly lie–and it’s never in the place you expect.

  1. As a child, I experienced day-long, born-again church gatherings with a friend. Was this a part of your personal upbringing?

Oh, yes. This kind of faith (though not snake-handling specifically) was a huge part of my upbringing and the way I first saw the world. So often it’s painted kind of snidely in literature, and I wanted to write about the breadth of it instead–the holy parts, the misguided pieces, the sacredness of that kind of devotion, and even at times the violence done in the name of religion. I think to paint it authentically you have to show all those fault lines between religion and faith and have characters reckon with finding the truth of God in the fissures between them.

  1. “True Story,” the opening of the novel, is gripping and foreboding. Did you know the novel’s ending before its beginning or did “True Story” come after you’d discovered the ending?

I never know where a story is heading when I start it–which is a frustrating way to work, but it’s the only way that works for me! This is why it’s such a long process, but also surprising–which I think is great for a reader. It was only after I’d written the whole thing that I could see it from a kind of global perspective. “True Story” was the last part of it I wrote before the book went out on submission. Often the things I write last become my favorite parts of the book.

  1. I love the distinction between “snake-handling” and “taking up serpents.” can you extrapolate on the meaning and inspiration?

“Snake-handling” is a term only outsiders use to describe the act that followers of this kind of faith refer to as “taking up serpents.” The act references a verse in the chapter of Mark that says, “they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” It’s a way of worship and practicing one’s faith, and for a small number of people it’s a way of life, I think.

I wanted to write about both “snake-handling” and “taking up serpents” because I think a big part of identity comes in how we describe ourselves, versus how the rest of the world sees us. Everyone in the novel is struggling with the labels that have been forced on them and who they might be if they weren’t trapped by those terms–for example, the preacher’s wife, the snake handler’s daughter, the moonshiner. The novel is really about the true story behind the story, and often those stories come from how we see ourselves.

I think this is partly inspired by my own experience of growing up in a place that has a lot of labels and stereotypes. It was only once I left western Pennsylvania that I heard terms like “Appalachia” or the “Rust Belt.” It was so weird to see how the outside world had defined us, and in some ways, written us off. So I wanted to write a book about people who felt forgotten and misunderstood, and ultimately refused to be written off at all.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read Shiner, the next questions might ruin the ending for you.

6. Did you struggle with whether or not Ruby would die, or did you always know that she would have to die?

I always knew she would die. That sounds so heartless! Please know how much I love Ruby with all my heart. But I knew from the beginning that this would be a book about the price women pay for men to celebrate their own false legends. But in my mind, Ruby is alive. That’s one of the great things about being the author–all the moments in the book exist at the same time in my mind–so when I think of Ruby, I don’t think of those quick final moments. I think of her at the creek with Flynn, or sitting on a mountain top and looking over the valley with her best friend. To me, her heart still beats with a lot of strength.

  1. Did you struggle with how things would turn out for Wren or did you always imagine her staying on the mountain?

When I started writing the book, I knew I wanted to write a kind of coming-of-age where the main character actually gets to claim the home she’s always known. It’s different kind of story than leaving home or returning home. I loved the idea that Wren gets to tell her own stories, and through that, she brings change to her mountain. So often we think of escape as the answer, but truthfully geographic mobility isn’t always an option for a lot of different reasons. I wanted to celebrate the rich realization that “home” is something you can take with you, and it never means you don’t love your home if you decide to leave. It just means you always have a place–or a person–to return to.

Find Amy at www.amyjoburns.com

Twitter: @amyjoburns

Instagram: @burnsamyjo

 

 

How to Find the Agent Who’s Right for You: How much rejection can you take?

I want to be published because I want the whole world to experience the world I’ve created, but that world isn’t any less “me”, it’s no less unique, it’s no less art, if it’s not published.

I recently taught my second seminar on how to find the literary agent who’s right for you at The Muse in Norfolk, Virginia.

Just thinking about looking for a literary agent makes me feel sick to my stomach. I always called that part of trying to get published “the business part,” something us creative types loathe. I would sit down and mark eight to ten agents to query. At the time, 2004 to 2008, they all wanted snail mail queries, so I would send my letters out with their SASE and wait for the rejections to arrive, hoping that one of the agents would ask for the first chapter or the first fifty pages. Then, I’d be off to Kinkos to make copies, and off to the post office to mail them.

I queried every New York City agency accepting unsolicited manuscripts A-Z, not once, but twice! I had close to 1,000 rejections. (I managed to query the agencies twice because I had rewritten the novel.) I would get excited over handwritten, as opposed to form-letter, rejections. Even a signature would shoot me to the moon. “Wow! He took the time to sign his name and write, ‘Best of luck.'” I was up and I was down more times than I can remember.

I also had a lot of close calls: one agent called to ask me not to accept any other offers, she was so in love with the book, then emailed me a day later to say, “Never mind.” She didn’t like the end.

I had another agent say that she wanted the book, only to tell me six months later that she hadn’t been able to find an editor who would take it, but that her husband was a book doctor if I wanted to hire him.

One of the greatest lessons I learned is that you have to find the agent who is really passionate about your work, who feels invested in what you have to say, and THIS IS NO EASY FEAT. (Yep, I’m shouting. It’s fucking hard, near impossible.)

This individual has to know deep down in her bones that she can sell what you’ve written. That’s the only way you’re going to get published. Find someone who can’t imagine the world without your book in it. Yes, the work has to be that good.

If an agent wants to represent your book, she should have a game plan. She should know where she’s going to take it, and how she’s going to produce buzz about the book.

After so many rejections, I would take anyone I could get. I am very fortunate that my agent had a game plan. She told me that in order to represent my first novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, she would need me to rewrite it. She gave me specific feedback on what was missing. I went to work. She gave me two weeks. She said that as long as she could get it into editors’ hands before Thanksgiving, she could sell it, and she did. We had two competing offers on November 8, 2008. Pinch me! It was an incredible day: the highest of all the high/up days.

Of course, since it’s a book about lightning strike survivors, and I am one, the day wouldn’t have been complete without a terrible storm, lightning splitting the sky in two, the hair on my arms standing up, and a near-death experience. I was on vacation in Hatteras. I knew that I was going to get struck: it was just my luck. Fortunately, I survived.

Later that day, my agent said, “It’s a good thing you weren’t struck. Publishers won’t publish first-time authors posthumously.”  She’s very funny!

To anyone who wants to publish traditionally, I say, Never give up. This means NEVER stop revising, never stop rethinking the structure, plot, characters, and momentum of what’s on the page. If you ever think that what you’ve written is perfect and deserves to be published, and there’s something wrong with the agents in the world, not you, not your book, because your friends like what you’ve written, well, you’re only fooling yourself. You’re delusional. Books are never “finished”. They’re never perfect. They are only set aside because the author can do no more at the time to make it any better. But, I guarantee, any author worth her salt will pick up a book she’s written months or years ago and find something to improve upon. We’re artists. We’ll see a new angle.

Be resilient. Persevere. Remember that the art, the gold, the manna, the life’s blood, all of it, is in the act itself. WRITE. Hell yes, I want to be published because I want the whole world to experience the world I’ve created, but that world isn’t any less “me”, it’s no less unique, it’s no less art, if it’s not published.

Go forth and be brave. You got this.

I’m speaking on “Balancing the Art and Business of Fiction Writing” Friday, May 15, 6 pm, at Christopher Newport University’s 39th Annual Writers Conference. The conference includes Agents, Fiction, Nonfiction, Music, Mystery, Poetry, all for adults and children: Virginia is for Writers.

This Writer’s Life… writing the next book, process, and telling the truth to the reader and yourself

Things happened, characters acted in ways I never anticipated, and I felt like I had no control over them. That’s when you know the writing is really good. That’s when the subconscious, the muse, the monkey-mind, the soul (whatever you want to call it) is at work. All inhibition and second-guessing have been lost. The good stuff is pouring out.

I started writing my fourth novel three years ago this month, maybe this very day. It’s been titled George Glass Loves Lily Snow, The Reinvention of Amy Brown, the working title The Reimagining of Amy Brown—because the whole thing needed to be reimagined, and finally, The Hummingbird. My past three novels have had long titles, so maybe it’s time for a short one.

What do I want now?

I want to show you the seven-plus notebooks with every page full. I want to show you early drafts with telekinesis and doors exploding off hinges. I want to tell you the life story of every character in my novel because I know them. I want to tell you how Elisenda swallowed the emeralds and held them in her gut until she soaked in a tub in Barranquilla and passed them into the lukewarm water.

I want to tell you that the main character’s mother used to be his grandmother, and after I made this change—from grandmother to mother, the members of the novel-writing group I was leading, were sorely disappointed. They really liked the grandmother. I’d liked her too, but writing is a process, and one of the things I realized was that this book was my most autobiographical, and I was afraid to make George’s grandmother his mother because it was too close to the truth, to holding up the mirror, and as you know, nothing is better than the truth. The core of all good fiction is its truth. Novelists tell more truths than memoirists. We just don’t admit to anything.

George’s mother wasn’t sympathetic like his grandmother. She was selfish how mothers can sometimes be.

At one point in the evolution of this novel, George’s foster mother was his sister, but again, it was like I was writing around what needed to be written, what had compelled me three years ago to abandon my historical novel-in-progress to tell the story of George Glass, a boy who loses his mother and has to navigate the world without her. Not only does George lose her, but it turns out she was never the woman she claimed to be. He, and the police, have no idea of her true identity.

I want to tell you how much my father’s cancer and his passing influenced this novel, and how much my love for my son, and my willingness to do anything to protect him, influenced this book. I want to tell you that I know, like the dead woman in my book, that I am selfish, that if I could keep my teenager young forever, I would do it. I’d consider consequences, but it doesn’t seem so bad—despite Tuck, Everlasting—no one growing up, no one getting old, no one dying. This might be the most honest novel I’ve ever written.

With every new book, there’s a new adventure. Every time, I hope the process will get easier, but it never does because each book is its own beast, its own treasure, a unique act of discovery. If you’re not putting down layers and scraping them away, you’re not really learning anything. You’re not, as John Gardner wrote in The Art of Fiction, making art.

This novel, like all of them, was an adventure.

2017

I want to tell you about the miracle that happened when my father died, the miracle I was in too much grief to admit to for over a year, because a miracle flies in the face of anger. A miracle crushes anger. I was reading from The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service, a book my father used to read to me early in the morning when he had his instant coffee (and late in the day when he had his beer). My father was dying. We were alone in his room, and I’d woken that morning wondering what I could do to get through the day. I got out a rocking chair and that book, which had seemingly disappeared until just that morning (I’d looked for it the day prior), and I sat across from my dad. I said, “We’ll start at page one,” even though “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was our favorite. I was reading from the poem, “The Three Voices,” (p. 8)

But the stars throng out in their glory,

And they sing of the God in man;

They sing of the Mighty Master,

Of the loom his fingers span,

Where a star or a soul is a part of the whole

And weft in the wondrous plan.

 

Here by the camp-fire’s flicker,

Deep in my blanket curled,

I long for the peace of the pine-gloom,

When the scroll of the Lord is unfurled,

And the wind and the wave are silent,

And world is singing to world.

My father and I were alone, and I knew he was gone. I knew that he had wanted me there to help send him on his way. I knew that he was a part of that firmament.

I want to tell you that this novel is for him. It’s for all of us who love, who grieve, who mourn, and who survive.

I don’t think I’m very good at “writing blogs” because I like to disguise my truth in fiction, but I needed to share the process of writing this novel and how important it is to me and what a journey it’s been thus far.

And I have lots more to share. To be continued…