Bear Me Safely Over

Bear Me Safely Over

by Sheri Joseph

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With a distinctive voice, Sheri Joseph's remarkably assured debut explores the interior lives of two Georgia families soon to be linked by a marriage, and though it tackles dark themes -- the menace of homophobia, the splintering of families, the discordant voice of religious fundamentalism -- at its core is a hopeful portrait of the different and often elusive

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With a distinctive voice, Sheri Joseph's remarkably assured debut explores the interior lives of two Georgia families soon to be linked by a marriage, and though it tackles dark themes -- the menace of homophobia, the splintering of families, the discordant voice of religious fundamentalism -- at its core is a hopeful portrait of the different and often elusive faces of salvation. Sidra and Curtis, two twenty-somethings who impulsively decide to make their relationship permanent, form an arch that connects their fractured families. Sidra has already lost a sister to the fatal allure of drugs, and now Curtis's young gay stepbrother, Paul, a lonely and defiant outsider, seems to be drifting out of control. As Paul tests the boundaries of his world and explores his sexuality, Curtis can hardly control his homophobic rage, while Sidra reacts with an overwhelming need to protect him. By the book's exquisite conclusion, no character is left untouched by the challenge of having to choose between guiding and thwarting troubled souls in their precarious passage toward firmer ground. Sheri Joseph fashions a subtle and affecting exploration of the sacrifices we must make to be our brothers' keepers, and the consequences of refusing to do so.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The lives of two troubled Georgia families intersect in Joseph's debut novel, a gutsy, realistic and lyrical portrait of country people struggling to find meaning in their constricted lives. The narrative touches on many contemporary issues, including AIDS, homophobia, racism and religious fundamentalism, while chronicling several problematic love relationships. Horse trainer Sidra Ballard is the tough, beautiful 20-something protagonist in love with Curtis, a redneck homophobic bass player in a local band. Though an unlikely pair, the two can't keep their hands off each other and decide to marry. But relationship trouble comes in the form of Curtis's younger step-brother, Paul, a troubled homosexual teen with a penchant for picking up older men. Curtis is disgusted by Paul's behavior, but Sidra, who earlier lost a sister to AIDS, longs to protect Paul. Meanwhile Kent, a member of Curtis's band, is unexpectedly attracted to Paul and a love affair begins between the two men. A large cast of characters takes turns narrating the story, their identities often obscure to the reader, who must concentrate to distinguish them. Joseph works hard at making all of them sympathetic despite their limited views of the world and their inbred prejudices. Her prose can be stiff in places, but the chorus of voices eventually coalesces into an affecting narrative that explores the way people accept or reject the responsibilities of nurturing and love. Agent, Jay Acton. (Apr.) Forecast: Joseph's first novel falls somewhere between cozy Southern fiction and Bastard Out of Carolina territory, skirting clich but still delivering a happy ending a nice handsell for readers (particularly in the South) who are looking to expand their horizons, but still want some of the comforts of home. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Pushcart Prize nominee Joseph aims for a winner with this debut about two quirky Southern families brought together by marriage. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
National Magazine Award–nominee Joseph's first novel, through a murky plethora of viewpoints, finds a way to tell about a couple of clans of Greene County, Georgia, young people battling more or less successfully for love. Sidra Ballard is more interested in horses—riding, cleaning, and stabling them—than in learning why her boyfriend-turned-fiancé, Curtis, loathes his flagrantly sexy and far-too-wise-for-his-teenaged-years stepbrother, Paul. Through alternating points of view, each character is revealed facet by facet: for example, one gains from a girlfriend observer that Sidra rejected joining a born-again church because it condemned heavy-metal music, the very kind that Curtis plays in his band. Sidra's younger sister Marcy, meanwhile, who discovers heartbreaking adventure every week by running away from home to new cities, eventually contracts AIDS from needle sharing. Curtis's lead guitarist, Kent, falls for the sinewy and sexy boy-child, Paul, thereupon incurring Curtis's infantile wrath, but nevertheless also saving the young man from further delinquency. Around these main protagonists toil tertiary voices, such as that of young, ambitionless mail-carrier Lyle, who saves a neighbor's choking baby in spite of his bumbling ineptitude and finds himself a local hero. Where is author Joseph, a 2001 Pushcart finalist, going with these meandering narrative shreds? Proceeding in understated, cautious prose and without clear purpose, her debut only eventually settles its sympathies on the young and gay Paul, who, after being arrested for prostitution, is welcomed into Sidra and her mother's home so that, removed from small-town bigotry and embracing true love with guitarist Kent, he canembark on a new life. By this time, though, it's too late for redirection of the rudderless novel—or for re-engagement of the weary reader. Many small tales, nicely wrought, fail to assume a larger cohesion. First printing of 30,000; author tour

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Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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5.42(w) x 8.38(h) x 0.70(d)

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Chapter One


Sidra wore her hair up, twisted in the jaws of a fierce toothed clip. Curtis, wedging a pocket with his nose, found it still damp on the inside, fragrant with her apple shampoo. Though she'd been mucking stalls for an hour, heaping horseshit into a wheelbarrow, the sweat along her earlobe tasted as clean as her hair—apples and salt—maybe saved by the clip from the smell of horses. Curtis didn't know whether to be thankful, since he loved the look of her hair loose. Without it long and shining over her shoulders, she seemed to be missing something, to be only partly there.

    "You're in a mood," she said. He backed her into a corner of the stall, hands pushing under her shirt where she was slicked with sweat.

    "I missed you last night, is all." His hands traveled over her backside, the tight-muscled ass of a rider, and upward over the knobs of her hipbones, the soft-skinned rails of her ribs. So thin, this girl—bony as Faggot-boy. His stomach lurched at the thought, touched the back of his throat with the taste of last night's beer. Now why, with his hands on Sidra, would he go and think up a comparison like that, his fairy of a teenage stepbrother? It was definitely time to break up with her. He rummaged for her breasts, but she was wearing an exercise bra that made her flatter than usual. She might as well have taped herself down with an Ace bandage.

    She grabbed his hands through the shirt. "Curtis, you know Mama could walk in here any minute."

    Curtis was pretty surethat Sidra's mother could catch them buck naked and not say anything more than "Excuse me." But Sidra liked her dramas arranged her way. His fingers laced into her ribs, burrowed against her skin; he had to force himself to turn her loose, to step back, palms out. "Now, Sid, that is exactly the kind of shit I'm talking about."

    She lolled her head. "Poor baby. If you're not getting enough, why don't you just pick up one of those girls that hang around Slocum's?"

    Maybe I will, he wanted to say, but she had beaten him again. He had been thinking of that very thing just the night before. Girls followed the band he played with, leaned at him across tables with breasts mounding out the scoop necks of their tiny T-shirts. There was real action, offered, his for the taking. But she emptied the threat straight out by speaking it like that, as if it were her smallest concern. How in the hell was he supposed to break up with a woman who would say such things?

    He had intended not to miss her the night before, not to think of her, though he dimly recalled driving away from Slocum's in some dark hour of the morning, and then, jump-cut, he was staggering drunk up her mother's driveway. Had it really been him, or a dream, that moony puppy outside Sidra's bedroom window?

    "I'm just saying—" It was too late, now, to keep the whine out of his voice. "Why'd you have to move home anyway? If you were at all thinkin' about me—"

    "We've been over this, Curtis. If my horses are here, I gotta be here. And Mama needs me with her."

    He snorted—the biggest crock he'd ever heard, and she knew it. That Florie Ballard would need anyone. Sidra was home purely to piss her mother off. And maybe to piss him off in the bargain. He had thought of that before when he tried to imagine what went on in her head. But it wasn't logical. She fell into pieces whenever he tried to tell himself this or that was the true Sidra, the reason and the answer.

    "Baby, it's not like you don't have a place. And a car." She grinned, stroking his belly, and he tensed the muscles against her touch. "What's your problem, anyway?"

* * *

    All the way out to the back field, alone, he listed her pros and cons. They were going to go riding. Sidra's own horses were an oddball collection of half-broke babies, too spooky for strangers. But in the various weedy, barbed-wire fields and leaning sheds where she had managed to board her horses in the past, there had always been someone else's horse he could ride. Now that she was back home, he had several to choose from. "You can take my old show horse," she had said. "Name's Simon. He's out in the back with Mama's mares, seal brown, you can't miss him." She had put a halter in his hand then, and pointed.

    He did enjoy having a horsy girlfriend. He liked to ride. It was something he felt he could do with a reasonable appearance of skill. Sidra called him a natural cowboy. He liked to see himself that way, straight in the saddle—even if it was an English saddle—halfway to Marlboro man. Horses looked tricky, but they were easy once you knew what buttons to push.

    So the horses were one of her pros. But making him trudge half a mile all by himself to catch one was pure Sidra. A girlfriend ought to think ahead about catching a horse, say, so it would be waiting at the barn. Or she might even want to walk out with him, spend a little time. But horses, he suspected, were all that Sidra truly needed. Her own were cozy in the barn and she was with them, and that was that. He ranked second and was on his own.

    The sex was good; another pro. He was addicted to her skin and all the angles of her body, the secret spots he understood the workings of. He knew where to kiss her—inside the elbow, back of the neck—to make her toes curl. Something in that reaction, such a little thing, made him happy in a way he couldn't account for. He knew where there were dimples in her lower back that even she had never seen. More than anything, he loved the look and feel of all that blond hair against his thighs when she went down on him. Even though now it seemed they were beginning to fall into routines, the newness worn off of everything between them, he couldn't tell himself he was tired of her. Not in bed, maybe never. When he broke up with her, he thought, she would still belong to him. And when she was with someone else—he tried to picture it and struck a closed door. Not Sidra with anyone else.

    But it was time to move on. He could see that look in the eyes of the band when they asked, full knowing the answer, "Now, how long have you two been together?" It was going on two years, incredibly; he had never meant it to last so long. They somehow just kept going. It was like his job at Athens Walls and Windows, where he had been since college graduation: nothing impressive, but it paid the bills, and he could think of worse places to be stuck. He knew what to do with paint and wallpaper and Venetian blinds. The work was reliable.

    He came to a fence, found the gate. The horses were grazing at the back of the weedy field along a stand of scrub trees and brush. On the rise beyond the fence was a bizarre landscape—a whole neighborhood of fresh new two-story houses. No lawns yet, only scrubbed red dirt. The few that faced him had the dollhouse look of wide factory-new windows looking in on nothing but another window at the back, the view unobstructed straight through. They made him feel vaguely watched, though no one lived there yet. It was Sunday, no workers around. He and Sidra could ride the horses over there and explore.

    He counted four horses in the field and picked out the one that looked most like a seal—Sidra's former show horse, now a retired old nag. One day, he thought, maybe I'll be good enough to ride one of her precious babies. He pictured Sidra's shock if he were to lope her black stud colt in circles around her, bareback, the horse full of fire but not bucking, halting at his command. "No big deal," he would say. "We understand each other." But something like that would take time—he and Sidra could be broken up tomorrow, for all he knew.

    The dark horse grazed a little apart from the others. Curtis felt in his pockets for a carrot, but he had forgotten one. He held out his hand, faking carrot. The mares down the field raised their heads, looked at him with interest. The gelding, sweet-faced, stood still and stretched out its nose toward Curtis's hand. "Whoa there," he said, looping the lead shank around the horse's neck.

    With the other hand, he straightened the halter to go over the gelding's head. He was thinking, for some reason, of Sidra's hands on the halter, on the head of this horse that she had ridden for so many years. How many years? He looked at the eyes of the horse as if it could answer, and he saw that something was wrong. The gelding raised its head, took a step backward. Something in the eyes was no longer what he thought it had been, sweet old pet after a carrot and a good scratch. "Whoa—" Curtis tightened his grip on the rope. The muscles of the animal's neck flared suddenly against the restraint, and Curtis knew then he was no match, but he set his heels, gripped down. "Whoa, you bastard."

    The horse sat back on its haunches, spun away into a bolt, and not thinking to let go, Curtis felt his body jerked around like a doll, then a sudden shock of impact in the center of his back. He hit the ground on his knees, the horse long gone, and he knew he had seen the rear hooves airborne in his peripheral vision. The bastard mule had kicked him!

    The blow had slammed all the air from his lungs. He went to his hands, sucking for air. When he looked up again, the three other horses were directly above with their muzzles in his face, ears pricked. "Jesus!" He scrambled away, thinking they could trample him in an instant. With loud snorts, they shied back, but at once they were calm again, ears pointed like raised eyebrows, as if he were the most interesting creature ever to appear in their field. One mare glanced at her companion and back at him, so that he had to wonder what the old ladies were saying. "Mildred, what do you make of this?" Or perhaps, "Whaddya know, ole Simon got one right in the back! Will you look at that!" On the ground, so vulnerable, he knew they must be capable of thinking such things, as if he had stumbled into the frequency for their thoughts. The culprit stood cropping grass, unconcerned, several yards off.

* * *

    When he'd first laid eyes on Sidra, it had been from behind—long blond hair and her beautiful ass rounding under a miniskirt. That night, from the stage, she'd been the best-looking thing at Slocum's. Even Kim Fisher—who ran their lights and sometimes, if drunk, went home with him, to the head-shaking envy of the other band members—turned forgettable. He tracked Sidra's movements in the crowd by the flash of colored lights off her pale hair, and Kim seemed to spin the colors wilder and wilder until Curtis thought he was falling, forgot his place in the song.

    But her face proved a sore disappointment. He couldn't decide—still couldn't—if her nose was too long, her lips too thin, her eyes too small, too strange, if it was the mole on her chin, the reddish crescents beside her nose, or the mere fact that she wouldn't wear makeup. All those things and more contributed to a face that was not unattractive, at times strangely attractive, at times just plain strange. He didn't dare think ugly. Not after the way she drew him to her as if she were the only true female thing he had ever run across.

    Oddly, when he faced her, when she spoke, she hardly seemed like a girl at all—at least not like the girls he was used to. She had none of their aloofness. Her games were all her own. She thumb-wrestled him for drinks, and won; he couldn't be sure that he had let her. She taught him a curse word he had never heard before—chordee—straight from the Middle Ages and dirtier than anything he knew. She downed tequila shots in a single deft motion: lick of salt, roll of the hand over the glass and done, glass clunked on the table. Nothing dainty about it. Those reckless movements, the narrow, laughing eyes. He knew he would have to see her again, if only to talk himself out of her.

    Before she left Slocum's that night, she had taken hold of his wrist, unbuttoned the flannel sleeve, and rolled it slowly, painstakingly, back to the elbow; then, in black ballpoint pen, she'd written SIDRA and her phone number over the blank expanse of his forearm. For days after the ink faded, he felt the bite where the pen tip had furrowed his flesh, as if she had meant to leave a permanent mark.

* * *

    Horseless, Curtis walked back from the pasture. He couldn't risk another failed attempt at Simon, and besides, he no longer felt like riding. Sidra, he knew, had somehow planned this fate for him, this humiliation—she was a conspirator, after all, with horses. She was probably laughing already. This was the end of them. The horse's hoof was like a proclamation of God and a stamp slammed out of heaven to seal Curtis's decision. Even he couldn't argue with a thing like that. He tried to light on the right words to say to her, so that she would know how deeply she had injured him, the degree of her blame. "Your goddamn horse," he mumbled, but already it sounded childish, petty. He revised. "Good-bye, Sidra. Don't call me."

    The trail from the field led up beside the house before descending to the barn. The house, blue clapboard, was half shaded by a massive, gnarled oak and set about with roof-high sprays of hot-pink flower bushes. The back porch was a deep one, dark and cool and inviting, studded with white wicker rockers. In one of these sat Florie Ballard, Sidra's mother. Curtis shouldn't have looked over, but he did, and she waved. Then her terriers were suddenly colliding under his feet in a white-and-brown-spotted fury.

    "Here! Gertie! Zeus!" The dogs rolled off, paying him little mind but snapping at each other, spinning circles around him. He could see Florie's solid form in her wide-brimmed hat at the wall of the porch, insistently waving him up. He had no choice. Sidra, brushing Gumby, her spotted four-year-old, was darkly visible down in the barn hall.

    "Look at this good-looking young man! How's the music business?" Florie held out her hands, downturned. Though not especially tall or fat, she always struck Curtis as being twice the size of her daughter. Without softness, she carried an ease of flesh that seemed definite, somehow intentional.

    "Can't complain, Florie." He smiled, gave her his hands to squeeze. She made him forget all his anger in an instant, even the swelling ache of his back. The porch seemed like neutral ground, a place where he could put everything on hold for as long as he felt inclined. He did like talking to Florie.

    "You been working on any new songs?"

    "A few. One I like a little."

    "Well, you bring that guitar over and premiere them for us. We want to be the first to hear them, so later on we'll have that claim to fame." By "we" she meant Sidra and herself and her elderly mother-in-law, who was mostly deaf. Curtis played bass for his band, Fried Baloney, shy of the spotlight that followed singers and guitars. When he brought out his old guitar, played his own songs, it was almost always locked in his room alone and singing half in whispers. Only once had he played aloud and for an audience, one night on Florie Ballard's back porch.

    "Sidra won't mind if I make you sit awhile," she said, with a wink that meant she cared little what her daughter minded. "I haven't seen you in so long. Now that she's moved home, though, I expect we'll see more of you." Florie sat in her accustomed place, and the dogs fell panting at her feet. Sidra's mother—he couldn't help adding her to the pro side of his list, even with his mind already settled.

    Mr. Ballard was gone, like Curtis's own father. But as Sidra liked to point out, he hadn't left by his own choice—Florie had kicked him out. And not for running around or hitting her or any of the usual reasons, but for buying Sidra too many horses. At least that was how Sidra put it, eyes flashing fury. Curtis figured there was probably more to the story. But Florie shrugged it all off, Sidra's anger along with the whole notion of the man who had been her husband. "Pish, him? What was he ever good for? Doesn't the place look nice? I keep it up fine without him, just like I always did." She had said this, he remembered distinctly, over the body of a stray dog she had just shot for running the horses. That kind of woman had no need of a man.


Excerpted from BEAR ME SAFELY OVER by Sheri Joseph. Copyright © 2002 by Sheri Joseph. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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