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By Kim Church
Dzanc Books Copyright © 2014 Kim Church
All rights reserved.
Carswell, North Carolina, August 1965. The summer before fourth grade, the summer before Roland. Addie is playing with her little brother in the blow-up pool under the poplar tree, in the shade. Fair-skinned children. Claree, their mother, doesn't want them to burn. She is hanging laundry.
"Stop!" Addie yells.
Sam won't stop splashing her. He is five, small for his age because of asthma. He splashes her again, his hand flinging a few drops of water in her face, her eyes. One in her mouth at exactly the wrong instant. It catches in her throat—so small, a tiny droplet. Who could choke on a tiny droplet? But Addie's throat closes, and when she tries to breathe, nothing happens. She pulls for air, she pushes. Nothing. Her head starts to feel tight like a tied-off balloon. Her face gets hot. Her eyes water.
"What's the matter?" Sam says, taunting, little-brothery.
Addie jumps out of the pool and runs to her mother. Sam runs after her.
"What, honey?" Claree says.
"I didn't do it," Sam says, crossing his arms over his chest. He is shivering, his swim trunks dripping.
Addie moves her lips. Help, she tries to say, I can't breathe. But her mother doesn't understand, or doesn't know what to do. Seconds are going by with no air, and Addie doesn't know which neighbors are home or if she could get to them in time or if they could save her anyway.
Finally her mother clicks into gear. She grabs Addie from behind and presses her bony fists under Addie's ribs—once, twice, three times, until the air comes. Not the big gulps Addie wants, but a thin, whistling stream. Enough, but just barely.
Sam starts to cry. His crying turns to wheezing.
Claree puts her arms around both of them and kneels down. Addie expects her to tell them everything's fine, not to worry. But she just keeps kneeling until she is all the way on the ground, sitting in a patch of moss with her dress billowed out around her, the blue laundry dress with big pockets for clothespins.
Roland's last Alabama summer. His family is about to move to North Carolina, where he will start fourth grade in a classroom where the desks are set out in a circle instead of rows, and the teacher, Miss Overcash, wears tight seersucker dresses that show the raised outline of her bra. When she calls roll he will answer "present" instead of "here" and everyone will laugh, kids with crew cuts and pigtails and teeth too big for their faces, all staring because he's the new boy and his shirt is paisley instead of checks or stripes. His favorite shirt, worn just to impress them. A girl with green eyes and long thin red braids will stare hardest. She won't even pretend not to. Addie Lockwood. She will stare so hard he will have to look away.
But not yet. Not today. Today he's still in Birmingham and Dooley is his best friend and they're at the swimming pool like any other day of any other summer. Except today, as a parting gift, Dooley is teaching him how to dive.
They start on the edge of the pool. Dooley shows him how to bend his knees, lift his arms, cross his hands. He shows him how to tuck his chin to his chest. The idea is to go in clean, without a splash.
Roland has good form. He does everything Dooley says. What he doesn't know, what Dooley hasn't told him because Dooley doesn't know either, is that you can tuck your head too tight, you can curl all the way under yourself in the water and come around and hit your head on the side of the pool.
All he will remember is plunging in, the thrill of going under headfirst, water rushing up and closing around him, swallowing him, the music of it. A burbly, muted symphony.
When he wakes up he is lying on the pavement with people standing over him. Everything, everyone glistens, Dooley most of all, with his slick white hair and blinking, bloodshot eyes.
"Not bad for your first try," Dooley says. "You almost nailed it."
What's your name now, I wonder. Not Blake, I hope, or Blair. Or Smitty. Please, not Smitty.
I can guess what you're thinking: what mother would name her child Byrd?
But I knew the name wouldn't follow you. Which is partly why I chose it—I wanted a name no one else would ever call you. One thing about you that would be only mine.
What I first loved about your father was his name. It was lyrical, something you might hear in a song or read in a book.
Not that anyone would ever write a book about him. Or that he would ever read it.CHAPTER 2
Queen of Mind Beauty
Addie believes in books. They are more interesting than real life and easier to understand. Sometimes you can guess the ending. Things usually work out, and if they don't, you can always tell yourself it was only a book.
Also, there's the paper-and-glue smell of them, and the way the pages turn soft from being read and re-read.
In first grade, Addie's teacher gives reading prizes: for every twenty-five books, a silver dollar, or, if you prefer, she'll drive over to your house after supper and let you choose a toy out of the trunk of her car. Addie always invites her over. She likes having the teacher's giant black Chevrolet parked out front where the neighbors can see. She likes standing over the trunk, inspecting the dolls, cradles, jump ropes, Slinkies, kickballs, knowing any of them could be hers. In the end, she is always practical. She collects enough silver dollars to fill a peanut butter jar, which she keeps on her dresser. It makes her feel rich and important, like someone you might read about in a book.
In fourth grade she sits next to Shelia DeLapp and watches her practice her cursive: the slow, fat letters; the way Shelia bites her tongue when she writes; the way her hands sweat and make the notebook paper bubble up. At the end of every word, Shelia lifts her pencil off the page and rolls it around in her fingers to redistribute her weight on the lead.
Shelia spells her name with the L before the I, prettier than the way most people spell it, even though she pronounces it the same. She-la.
She is plain and shy, with a round face and slippery black hair that falls out of her barrette. Her eyes wobble when she's nervous, a condition she was born with.
She invites Addie to her house after school, the green house behind the car wash. There's a hole in the front porch; you have to be careful walking in. They sit at the kitchen table and play Crazy Eights. There's a breeze; the curtain bats the window screen; the car wash whirs. Shelia's hands sweat and make the cards sticky.
"I saw you staring at the new boy," she says to Addie.
"I wasn't staring."
"He doesn't even look at you when he looks at you."
"I heard he hit his head at the swimming pool. I heard it did something to him."
"Hitting your head doesn't make you stuck-up."
The new boy's long legs jut into the aisle. His hair is shiny and dark as Coca-Cola. Addie once gave a boy her ice cream dime to let her touch his hair. It was short and flat on top—a brush cut, which she imagined would be stiff like the bristles of a toothbrush, but it was soft, like her father's softest shoe brush.
The new boy writes left-handed, and when Miss Overcash calls him to the board for his times tables, he stands close, his elbow over his head and his face almost against the board so that no one can see his wrong answers until he's finished. He gets chalk dust on his shirt from standing so close. Miss Over-cash has to brush him off. It's embarrassing to watch, but thrilling, too, like watching someone get punished. He stands very still and stares out the window as if he's somewhere else, as if that isn't chalk dust flying off his shirt.
In the cafeteria he bites his ice cream sandwich into a different animal shape every day. People call out: Giraffe! Elephant! Bear! Addie calls out, but he never makes hers. Once he was making a rabbit so she said Rabbit! But then he changed it into something else.
She thinks his name sounds like a place. Roland Rhodes. A faraway place. One that would take a long time to get to, and once you did, you would never want to come back.
"The Rhodes woman came in today," Addie's mother announces over supper, which is canned ham, canned green beans, and sliced cranberry sauce. "The new doctor's wife. Acting like a doctor's wife."
Addie's father makes a face. "He's a chiropractor."
Her mother laughs the way she does when something isn't funny. A small, sour sound.
Her parents do this every night, complain about people they know, or used to know, or barely know, or don't know at all.
"Roland's in my class," Addie says.
"First time she'd set foot in the store and she wanted to take five dresses out on approval. Said her daughter didn't have patience for shopping. I wanted to say, What child does?"
Addie's mother works at the Carousel Shoppe selling expensive girls' dresses to mothers who don't have to work. Dress-up dresses: Peaches 'N Cream and Polly Flinders and Ruth of Carolina Originals with sashes and built-in crinolines and Peter Pan collars, stripes and plaids all perfectly matched at the seams. She can buy dresses for Addie because of her employee discount—the only part of her job she likes. As soon as Addie outgrows girls' sizes she plans to quit and get an office job.
"Roland has nice clothes," Addie says. She closes her eyes and remembers his paisley shirt, the swirls of blue and purple and green.
"Your clothes are as nice as anyone's," her mother says, and reaches over to cut up her little brother's ham.
After dinner their father leaves the table and their mother tells stories. "Tell the one about the birthday cake," they say, and Claree tells about the time when she was a girl and baked a cake for her father, their grandfather. A sheet cake with lavender frosting. She hid it under her bed, planning to surprise him. That evening while she was cooking supper, her mother went upstairs and found the cake, slid it out from under the bed, stomped on it and smashed it flat. Then walked down to greet Claree's father, her shoes thick with frosting.
"Those big black orthopedic shoes," Claree says. "She always had trouble with her feet."
Addie and Sam laugh. They think the story is supposed to be funny.
Sam is four years younger than Addie, with eyes gray as nickels and hair so short you can't tell what color it is.
Addie has red hair, which she is not allowed to cut. Girls aren't supposed to cut their hair. Her mother's hair comes all the way to her knees, black with a long silver stripe, her birthmark. No one at Addie's school has a mother with hair as long as Claree's.
Addie's father works at Reliable Loan Company, in a building on West Fifth Avenue that used to be a house. The company has a billboard on the highway, a giant picture of a dollar bill, but instead of George Washington, there's Bryce Lockwood in his big square glasses and plaid sport coat. When the sign was new he would take the family for rides in the car just to look at it.
At school, Addie is the Dollar Man's daughter.
Bryce's gold velour armchair and ottoman take up the middle of the living room. He likes to stretch his legs while he watches TV. Their set has rabbit ears and thirteen channels on the knob. When it's time for a different show, Bryce makes Sam change channels.
"While you're up," he tells Sam, "how about grab me another beer?"
Sam goes in the kitchen, brings back a cold can of Schlitz, hands it to his father.
"Come a little closer," Bryce says. "I want to tell you something."
"Don't," Addie says. "It's a trick."
But Sam doesn't listen. He never listens. He leans over, hoping to be let in on a secret, a joke, something Addie wouldn't get, and Bryce flicks him on the head with his middle finger, the way you thump a melon. Sam's head makes a sharp, hollow sound.
Their mother sits at one end of the sofa, leaning against the arm, her long black hair splayed out across the plaid upholstery. It looks clingy, like cobwebs. She watches TV as hard as she can.
In middle school everyone has to take P.E. The girls wear starchy blue gym suits with snaps down the front. Sally Greer, the first in their class to develop, is always popping out of hers. Sally tells everyone she's dating Roland Rhodes. "We made out under the bleachers," she says.
After school, Shelia's mother, Betsy, makes them glasses of Tang, the drink of the astronauts, with Tang ice cubes. Betsy knows how to make everything better. She works the early nursing shift at the hospital and gets off before school is out; by the time Shelia and Addie get home, she's changed out of her white uniform and into her afternoon clothes: baggy shirt, pants, unlaced brogans—old clothes her husband, Shelia's father, left behind. He's been gone for years. Shelia doesn't remember him.
"Staying for dinner, Addie?" Betsy ties on her apron, reaches under the cabinet, and lifts out a white coffee-can-sized can with no label, just MEAT in big black letters, which she plunks on the counter. "Could be pork chops."
"Sure," Addie says, "I like pork chops."
Betsy has short hair, which she cuts herself and dyes yellow. She is loud like a man, and likes to whistle.
Addie rolls a Tang ice cube over her tongue and lets it plunk into her glass. "What's 'make out'?" she asks Shelia.
Shelia frowns; her eyes wobble.
"It means," Betsy says, and slings a spoonful of Crisco into her frying pan, "you get by on what you've got."
Bryce gets paid on Fridays and takes the family out to dinner. Afterwards, he stops in the VFW for a drink. Addie and Sam wait with Claree in the car. Addie slides down low in the back seat in case anyone walks by.
"I would never do this to my children," she says. She is thirteen.
"You don't have children," Sam says.
Claree, facing the windshield, says what she always says. "He won't be long."
"This is yours to keep." The health teacher solemnly hands each girl a pink booklet. "Take it home and read it."
The other girls roll their eyes. They've already started. They don't need pink booklets. Shelia has started. Addie is the only one who hasn't. She rolls her eyes along with them, but secretly she can't wait to get home and read her booklet.
It has line drawings. The writing is clear and direct. "During your cycle," it says, "you may feel bad about your body. Pamper yourself. Take a scented bubble bath. The water should be warm but not hot."
She memorizes her favorite parts. "Warm but not hot."
Girls huddle in the hall talking in whispers, pretending not to notice when people eavesdrop. They wear makeup. They wear halter tops and hip-hugger jeans that show their navels. They carry little purses for their lipstick and lunch money and cigarettes. Boys love and fear them. Addie sometimes wishes she were one of them. She wishes she were one of anything.
She reads. She reads Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. She believes Franny and Zooey have something to teach her, even if they're high-strung and always talking in italics, even if the things they call phony, things that really get under their skin, are things that only privileged people or New Yorkers ever have to deal with. She recites Franny's Jesus prayer. She goes on Franny's cheeseburger diet. She doesn't have a mystical experience, but the ritual is comforting. Eaten every day, even a cheeseburger (she likes hers with pickles and mayonnaise) can be holy.
She reads The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A Separate Peace. Huckleberry Finn. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. To Kill a Mockingbird. A Clockwork Orange. Light in August. Brave New World. Mrs. Dalloway. In Cold Blood. The Stranger. All the King's Men. She reads Daybreak by Joan Baez and Tarantula by Bob Dylan, a book that makes her decide to write poetry because she sees how you can write anything and call it a poem.
She and Roland have one class together, an elective called "The American Counterculture" taught by Mr. Saraceno, a young teacher with horn-rimmed glasses and black hair that curls down onto his shoulders. He wears jeans and blazers with patched elbows and comes from "places too many to name."
They read the Beats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, William Burroughs. They talk about sex and drugs. They can't believe they have a teacher like Mr. Saraceno in Carswell, and figure he'll get fired when their parents find out what he's teaching.
In his class, Addie is outspoken, brazen, always raising her hand, always arguing. "Why weren't there any women Beats? It's not like women hadn't already been part of the literary scene. Look at Edna Millay in the twenties. She wrote better than any of these guys. She was a bohemian. She was sleeping with everybody in Greenwich Village while Jack Kerouac was being fussed over by his mother and all those Catholic nuns who thought he was some kind of saint."
"There were women Beats," Mr. Saraceno says.
"Spectators," Addie says. "Disciples. They sat around listening to all that crap poetry, snapping their pretty fingers. They cooked and cleaned and had sex and helped their men get famous. And ended up in mental hospitals, hanging themselves. They didn't write, and if they did, why aren't we reading it? They were nothing like women now. Look at Joni Mitchell. She's a poet and a painter and a musician." She pauses to catch her breath. "You know, Mr. Saraceno, American counterculture didn't begin and end with the Beats."
Excerpted from Byrd by Kim Church. Copyright © 2014 Kim Church. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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