All We Had: A Novel

All We Had: A Novel

4.2 6
by Annie Weatherwax
     
 

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The stunning debut novel from sculptor and painter Annie Weatherwax, a wry and sharply observed portrait of a gritty mother and daughter, living on the edge of poverty, who find an unlikely home amid the quirky residents of small town America.

For thirteen-year-old Ruthie Carmichael and her mother, Rita, life has never been stable. The only sure thing is their love

Overview

The stunning debut novel from sculptor and painter Annie Weatherwax, a wry and sharply observed portrait of a gritty mother and daughter, living on the edge of poverty, who find an unlikely home amid the quirky residents of small town America.

For thirteen-year-old Ruthie Carmichael and her mother, Rita, life has never been stable. The only sure thing is their love for each other. Though Rita works more than one job, the pair teeters on the edge of poverty. When their landlord kicks them out, Rita resorts to her movie-star looks and produces carpet-installer Phil, "an instant boyfriend," who takes them in.

Before long, Ruthie convinces her mother to leave and in their battered Ford Escort, they head East in search of a better life. When money runs out and their car breaks down, they find themselves stranded in a small town called Fat River where their luck finally takes a turn. Rita lands a steady job waitressing at Tiny’s, the local diner. With enough money to pay their bills, they rent a house and Fat River becomes the first place they call home.

Peter Pam, Tiny’s transgender waitress and the novel’s voice of warmth and reason, becomes Ruthie’s closest friend. Arlene, the no-nonsense head waitress, takes Rita under her wing. The townspeople—Hank and Dotty Hanson, the elderly owners of the embattled local hardware store, and even their chatter-mouth neighbor Patti—become Ruthie and Rita’s family.

Into this quirky utopia comes smooth-talking mortgage broker Vick Ward, who entices Rita with a subprime loan. Why rent when you can own? Almost as soon as Rita buys a house their fortunes change. Faced once again with the prospect of homelessness, Rita reverts to survival mode, and the price she pays to keep them out of poverty changes their lives forever.

Accomplished visual artist Annie Weatherwax has written a stunning, heartrending first novel. Ruthie’s wry voice and razor sharp observations about American life in the twenty-first century infuse the prose with disarming honesty and humor. All We Had heralds the arrival of a powerful new voice in contemporary fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
05/19/2014
Left hardened and cynical by a life lived on the edge of poverty and homelessness, Rita and Ruthie Carmichael are mother-and-daughter misfits who use their wits and larceny to survive in Weatherwax’s gritty and convincing debut novel of hard times in smalltown America. It’s 2005 and Rita has tired of her current boyfriend, hygiene-challenged carpet installer Phil, so she and 13-year-old Ruthie steal Phil’s TV and a few of his other possessions and begin a road trip from California to Boston. Their car breaks down, stranding them in Fat River, Pa., where Rita lands a waitress job at Tiny’s Grub ’n’ Go! diner/gas station. For a while, the pair are happy in Fat River, moving into their own house and meeting kindhearted people like Peter Pam, a flamboyant transgender waitress with a waxed-tip handlebar moustache who becomes Ruthie’s best friend. This brief period of stability is shattered, however, when their mortgage payments begin to rise, threatening to permanently derail Rita’s ambitious dream for Ruth: college at Harvard. Although sad and depressing, this is a remarkably authentic story of folks on the skids: “When you live so close to it, the bottom is never far away.” And Weatherwax’s smart style, crisp narrative, sharp dialogue, and vivid descriptions send a powerful message: there is hope hidden in despair. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (Aug.)
Kate Alcott
“All We Had is a remarkable combination of the fierce and the tender, taking the reader on the journey of a mother and daughter struggling against daunting odds to find a place they can call home. It is at its core a love story, sometimes heartbreaking, but always a strong, quiet and powerful look at the human heart.”
Robert Olen Butler
“Smart and unflinchingly honest and brilliantly voiced, All We Had is a remarkably accomplished and compelling first novel. Annie Weatherwax’s other artistic persona as a visual artist has made her an instant expert at one of the most challenging but fundamental skills of a fiction writer: the ability to render the moment to moment sensual thereness of a scene. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.”
Shelf Awareness
Annie Weatherwax isan accomplished visual artist and sculptor. In her debut novel, All We Had, she craftsthree-dimensional, multifaceted characters and infuses gritty humor andpoignancy into the story of the hardscrabble existence of a mother and daughter…Weatherwax's tight dialogue and short, emotionally charged scenes examinehope, the meaning of home and the unbreakable bond of love between mother anddaughter.
Shelf Awareness - Kathleen Gerard
"Infuses gritty humor and poignancy into the story of the hardscrabble existence of a mother and daughter… Weatherwax's tight dialogue and short, emotionally charged scenes examine hope, the meaning of home and the unbreakable bond of love between mother and daughter.”
O, The Oprah Magazine - Leigh Newman
"Part commentary on the subprime crisis past, comic novel All We Had keeps you reading for its small observations."
The Washington Post - Stacia Brown
“The most profound insights in All We Had have to do with the potential hidden costs of ‘economic recovery’…There’s much to recommend this lovely debut novel, but the best of its virtues are these truths.”
Patricia Cornwell
“A fresh voice that sculpts with words in a way that's as beautiful as it is brutal. I love this story and the hands that crafted it.”
Library Journal
03/15/2014
The 2009 winner of the Robert Olen Butler Prize for Short Fiction, sculptor/painter Weatherwax now offers a debut novel. On the road looking for a better life, tween-aged Ruthie Carmichael and her devoted but marginalized mom, Rita, end up in a nowhere town called Fat River, where Rita works at the local diner and Ruthie befriends the transgender waitress Peter Pam.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-29
A mother and daughter take a coast-to-coast journey and get caught in the economic downturn.Thirteen-year-old Ruthie’s entire life has been a parade of shoddy homes and questionable men as her mother moves from relationship to relationship. The pattern’s pretty much the same: When Rita tires of one man, she and Ruthie clear the house of any items they can sell and move on to the next. Rita is unapologetic about her lifestyle, but she’s protective of 13-year-old Ruthie, a remarkably bright and precocious girl who rarely misses a day of school despite their vagabond existence. When Ruthie suggests it’s once again time to move on, they pile their belongings into their usual luggage—plastic garbage bags—and climb into Rita’s dilapidated Ford Escort for a cross-country trip from California to Boston. But their car breaks down short of their destination, and with only a few dollars remaining, Rita finds work at a diner in Fat River, New York, a one-horse town with a stagnant economy. The longer they stay, the more Ruthie and Rita feel part of the community. Mel, the diner owner, is the first man to look at Rita with respect. Transgender waitress Peter Pam becomes Ruthie’s closest friend and confidante, and the elderly hardware-store owners make sure her recycled bicycle remains in top-notch shape. Then Rita buys a home she can't really afford, and Ruthie’s tenuous hold on normalcy shifts as the economy takes a nose dive. Weatherwax presents a finely drawn central character whose first-person voice drives an acceptable plot, but her imagination flags in other aspects of this debut novel. Characters in Fat River are superficially drawn, and sometimes even Ruthie seems too detached from the story she tells.A run-of-the-mill mother-daughter story.
Providence Journal - Betty J. Cotter
"A vivid journey into the dark side of the American Dream... alternates between black comedy and heart-breaking realism... an enjoyable read that takes an important look at economic insecurity."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781476755205
Publisher:
Scribner
Publication date:
08/05/2014
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
1,225,054
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

All We Had

  • CHAPTER ONE

    Grit

    Phil’s kitchen was littered with crap. A rotisserie chicken from the convenience store down the street sat on a plate at the center of his table. It glistened and shimmered with fat as it teetered unevenly on a pile of old papers.

    It was June 2005, I was thirteen. My mother had just lost one of her part-time jobs at Walgreens and another landlord was threatening to kick us out. So with her movie-star looks and Oscar-worthy acting, voilà! Out of nowhere, she produced Phil, an instant boyfriend with a place to live. It was my least favorite of her acts, but it always worked.

    It was over 95° that day in Orange, California. The breeze from the fan in the window traveled up the chicken’s spine and the remains of a few feathers quivered.

    Phil sat next to my mother across from me. He reached forward, yanked off a drumstick, and the entire arrangement shook. “Mmmm, I just loooove chicken,” he drawled, biting off a piece. I hated all my mother’s boyfriends. Uniformly, they were jerks. This one, I decided, might also have some brain damage.

    A 1-800-next-day-wall-to-wall-carpet installer, Phil claimed he could have a one-bedroom house totally carpeted in under two hours. He talked about his job as if he were a paramedic. “People need carpeting. It’s important,” he’d explained. “And for some, it’s urgent.”

    Except for a trophy of thinning hair quaffed and perched on the front of his head, Phil was bald. He had a big bushy beard and his mustache grew all the way over his mouth. It squirmed on his upper lip when he chewed. It was gross.

    He lived on the first floor of a run-down building on MacArthur Boulevard. His apartment smelled like carpet glue. Dark paneling was everywhere and half the ceiling was coming down.

    “Oh, honey.” My mother patted Phil’s arm as if he were a baby. “I’m so glad you like the chicken.”

    You’d never know it by the way she was acting with him, but my mother was fierce and smart. She could spot an asshole from a thousand miles away and her favorite word by far was fuck.

    “I like them earrings, too.” Phil gestured, nodding and pointing his chicken leg in her direction. “They go real good with your dress.”

    She clutched her chest in a soap-opera swoon.

    I’d seen this act a million times before. If I had to classify it, I’d call it phony melodrama. And every man my mother ever dated fell for it.

    My mother finished her ogling and got up to use the bathroom. With the chicken leg in his hand, Phil stretched out his arms, yawned loudly, and showed his crooked yellow teeth.

    A truck whizzed by. The house shook and a sprinkle of plaster drifted down from the ceiling like snow. Phil gazed around with a dull look and went on chewing.

    I eyed him across the table.

    “Psst,” I whispered. He closed his mouth and looked at me.

    “Yeah?” he said.

    I moved closer, pulled my glasses down my nose, and looked him in the eye.

    “You ever hit a woman?” I asked.

    “No, ma’am.” He tugged on his beard nervously. “Never hit a one.”

    I squinted my eyes lower. “Well, if you ever hit my mother, I’m going to set your beard on fire and watch you burn to the ground.”

    My mother said I was born knowing exactly what to say and do. It was a gift she didn’t have.

    Phil looked good and worried now. He picked his napkin up and wiped his forehead.

    I withdrew. I pushed my glasses up and sat back in my seat.

    “Know what happened to the last guy who hit her?” I asked.

    “No, ma’am.” He pulled on his beard again.

    “He’s dead,” I stated matter-of-factly, stabbing my last piece of chicken with my fork.

    One of my mother’s ex-boyfriends was in fact dead, but not because I set him on fire. He died in a car crash with whiskey on his breath.

    “And one other thing,” I added, “the bathroom is gross. Clean up your overspray and put the seat down when you’re done.”

    He burped. When his mustache vibrated he seemed surprised to feel it move. He wiped his mouth, put his napkin down, and looked at me.

    “Fair enough,” was all he said, smiling.

    It sent shivers up my spine.

    Clearly, Phil was an axe murderer. He probably had a freezer full of body parts hidden in a storage unit somewhere.

    I searched his place for drugs and firearms. I was sure he had kiddie porn stashed inside a drawer. But I didn’t find a thing. He didn’t drink or yell and he went on saying nice things to my mother, about her hair, her eyes, her makeup, her clothes.

    But Phil did not fool me. No matter how they started, all my mother’s boyfriends turned into assholes. It was only a matter of time before he did too.

    Five nights later, I was lying in bed when I heard a floorboard squeak. I listened and waited, but nothing happened. The day had never cooled; the air was dry and hot. The only window faced the street. The corner pane was boarded up.

    The plumbing clattered. A speeding car outside left a whoosh, and a smattering of shadows spun across the walls. Then, one by one, footsteps in the hall got closer. When my door creaked open, my throat seized. A shadow loomed in the doorway and blocked out all the light.

    With Alfred Hitchcock lighting and the theme from Jaws hammering in my head, I waited for the axe to rise. I opened my mouth to let out a bloodcurdling scream. In a perfect finale, it would echo on through the night. But then I heard a sigh.

    “Push over,” my mother said to me, “I can’t sleep.”

    When life was just me and her, it felt like magic. When we slept, we fit together like spoons. We’d start out with her arm wrapped around me, and in the middle of the night, like clockwork, we’d switch. It made no difference where—we could be sleeping in an alley or on a single cot, but we never crowded each other or pulled the covers off no matter how small they were.

    Phil, according to her, snored. But I knew what was really going on. She missed our late-night conversations like she always did and she was bored.

    That night she chitchatted like nothing was wrong. She repeated several episodes of Roseanne verbatim. Normally when she did this it made me crazy, but I missed her too. So I laughed at all the right parts and hung on her every word.

    Finally after two nights she dropped the charade and started talking about what was really on her mind.

    “Phil likes kissing too much and his penis is small.” My mother never treated me like some stupid kid. We told each other everything, but this topic made me want to kill myself.

    From what she’d said, the penis, I decided, was like a dim-­witted dangerous child growing between the legs. But I knew when it was best to just listen. In exchange for her confidence, I remained neutral.

    “I’m thinking about leaving him,” she finally said one night. And even though I wanted to shout, “Halle-fucking-lujah!” I maintained my cool and nodded, expressionless. If I didn’t, it could backfire. Like a stray cat, one false move and she’d be gone.

    I got tired of waiting, so when Phil was on a carpet call, I took a gamble and made my move. I packed my stuff into two garbage bags and dragged them into the kitchen.

    My mother was there cooking. Not in the way she usually did—by sticking already-cooked things in plastic containers into the microwave and pressing High. She was actually wearing an apron, chopping something, and trying to use the stove.

    Phil had a crappy little TV with a coat-hanger antenna jammed in the corner of the kitchen counter and Wheel of Fortune—her favorite—was on. The image was fuzzy and blurry. It made the wheel look oblong. A plump lady in a plum dress took hold of the shape and spun it around. She bounced up and down and brought her small hands together in quick, staccato clapettes.

    I cleared my throat. My mother finally turned and saw me, the knife limp in her hand.

    I was tomboyish and rough around the edges, but she was classically beautiful. She had emerald eyes, flawlessly arched eyebrows, full lips, and a perfect figure. And she moved with natural grace, no matter how bad the conditions were around her.

    But my mother was tired. She had me when she was sixteen, and even though she was now only twenty-nine, worry lines were beginning to define her face. In this light, her eyes were dull. The hints of gold in her light brown hair looked flat and dark. Her hair was up with her favorite tortoiseshell clip, but the clip had come loose and her hair was spilling out. She reached up and tucked a strand back in.

    Her eyes slowly traveled down my arm and rested on my bags, but she ignored me. She turned away, picked her cigarette up off the edge of the counter, took a drag, and started chopping again.

    “Come on, Mom,” I pleaded. “We can go somewhere nice like the beach.” We were only twenty minutes from the ocean, but we’d hardly ever been. “We could get beef tacos—the crispy kind with extra cheese.” I knew that’s how she liked them.

    There was more clapping on TV because someone bought a vowel. My mother looked to see which one.

    Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. Vanna White turned over five e’s.

    “Come on, Mom,” I said again.

    My mother raised a finger (one minute please) as she sounded out the clue.

    “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” I said. It was such a standard on this show.

    “You know,” she said, then turned and glared at me, “I really hate it when you do that. I almost had it.”

    “Well. I’m leaving. Are you coming or not?”

    But she didn’t answer. She picked up the knife—chop, chop, chop.

    “Mom!” I stamped my foot.

    “I heard you!” She slapped the knife down and turned around to look at me. “You think I like it here any more than you do? Well, I don’t, but I don’t have a job, and we have exactly, let me add it up”—she looked at the ceiling and pretended to calculate—“no money.”

    “So what?” I failed to see what else was new.

    “We-have-no-money.” She enunciated loudly and slowly as if I were deaf, then picked up her cigarette and sucked on the end of it so hard the hollows of her cheeks caved in.

    “Fine!” I shrieked. “I’ll go by myself.” I grabbed my bags and dragged them toward the door.

    Usually our fights escalated rapidly until we were shouting the single word jerk back and forth at each other, as if we were married. But this time, there was silence. The only sound was the tick, tick, tick of the knife on the chopping board.

    “My hand is on the doorknob!” I yelled. “I’m turning it! I’m pulling the door open! Have a nice life! Good-bye, adios, arrivederci, sayonara!”

    A truck sped by in front of me. An empty Bud can rattled along the curb behind it. A cloud of exhaust and the bitter smell of gasoline lingered in the street. The sun felt hot enough to burn the earth to ashes. The air was so stifling, I could barely breathe. My eyes fell out of focus. The city sounds of traffic moaned and slowed until I could hardly hear them. But the sound of my mother’s knife on the cutting board grew louder. My tactics usually worked, but I feared today they wouldn’t.

    I took a step out the door. Flap, flap, flap. In the other room, the wheel of fortune spun around.

    We had planned our whole lives out together. We dreamed someday we’d own a house. My version of it was always yellow with black shutters for contrast. A custom-made welcome mat would sit in front of the door with our names—Ruthie and Rita Carmichael—written in script at an angle. In my mother’s version the house was white and our names were written on the mailbox. But we both agreed: our house would sit back from the road on a corner at a pleasing angle and we’d have a pool.

    “Bye.” I swallowed. I started to close the door behind me when her chopping stopped.

    A long moment passed.

    “Wait,” she finally called. “I’m coming.”

    “Okay, that’s it, come on. Let’s go, move it, fast, before he gets home.” I knew the drill. My mother traveled with a tattered old suitcase and two garbage bags and I was lugging her last one. She stood in the doorway and waved me on. I headed for the car but when I realized she wasn’t following me, I went back and found her waddling out of the kitchen with the TV resting on her belly. “We can sell it at the pawn shop,” she said.

    So I looked around and grabbed the closest thing—a toilet-bowl-shaped ashtray with a figure of a man squatting over it with his pants down. “He’s shitting cigarette butts,” Phil had said. “Get it?”

    “That’s it,” my mother said, “just that one thing, now let’s go.” I ran my ashtray out to the car and when I turned around my mother was stumbling down the walkway. She was now balancing the TV with one hand on her hip. In the other hand she carried a lamp. “I really like this.” She lifted it slightly to show me. So I ran back in for another ashtray.

    And, even though my mother had sworn we’d never do this again, before we knew it we were robbing him.

  • Meet the Author

    Annie Weatherwax was the 2009 winner of the Robert Olen Butler Prize for Fiction and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, for years she earned a living sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters for Nickelodeon, DC Comics, Pixar, and others. She is currently a full time painter and writer. Visit her at AnnieWeatherwax.com.

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    All We Had 4.2 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 6 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This is an exquisitely crafted novel, telling a poignant mother/daughter story that will touch readers deeply.  Filled with wonderful, quirky and endearing characters, you will not want this book to end! 
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The book was enjoyable and the characters real. The failure of this bookis its ending. It is so rushed, almost as if the author got sick of working on it or had to meet a deadline. The end makes this book a disappointmenr.
    MorrisMorgan More than 1 year ago
    I received this book for free from Scribner through the Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for an honest review. “Every character is a protagonist in their own story” is a quote I once heard (apologies, but for the life of me I can’t find the person who actually said it), and on my own attempts at writing, I have always tried to keep it in mind. “All We Had” is hands-down the greatest example of this concept in action I have ever read.  The heart of the story is Ruthie and her young mother, but every single character has a deep and rich history that is revealed through remarkably little prose.  I found myself wondering what happened to them all after the last page, and I imagine I will do so for quite some time. This book is a slice-of-life story that is a very easy read about subject matter that is not easy to read about.  Ruthie shares it all with stark realism, zero nostalgia, and brutal honesty.  There are no feelings of self-pity or self-congratulation.  It is what it is, and that is how the story is told.  As such, it feels raw and honest, ultimately leaving an uneasy feeling in the readers about all of the Ruthies that live within our world. I don’t want to spoil anything, because in this case the journey is the story, so even a summary feels as though it would give away too much.  I can say that it’s on the list of books I will be giving all of the readers in my life this holiday season.  Annie Weatherwax is a wonderful storyteller, and I look forward to many more novels from her. Five stars.  I wish I could give more.
    provincetown More than 1 year ago
    This is a remarkable novel that I didn't want to end.  I savored each page.  Annie Weatherwax writes like a visual artist, which she is so her descriptions are vivid and  luscious.  Her characters are amazingly real and grabbed me right from the start.  The book is both funny and sad, simple and complex and absolutely rich.  A must read.