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By JANNA McMAHAN
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2008 Janna McMahan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe window gave a couple of inches. Virginia, poised on a cinder block, put her hand against the bottom of the sash and shoved again. Paint fractured and fluttered down as the frame broke loose and slid up. The reek of nicotine tinged with perfume seeped over her, a sour contrast to the clean air outside.
It was a vivid day. The sky seemed close as Kentucky skies can, as if you could just reach out and touch the pale smear of clouds. Virginia squinted into the dark interior. She could see it was a bedroom, as she had anticipated. Not hard to figure out where things were in these rectangular brick boxes. People had started trading tall breezy farmhouses for the central air of squat ranches with hardly enough room to make up a bed and no kitchen big enough to have a family meal.
She hoisted herself up onto the ledge. Her pants snagged on rough brick and ripped. She stopped, balanced on her stomach, half in, half out of the window, to inspect the dirty, thin streaks of blood where her forearms had scraped the window ledge.
She hadn't expected to have to go to so much trouble. Most people around Falling Rock never locked their doors. But this woman was from Louisville. She had paranoid city habits.
Virginia dropped down onto the floor, her heart beating in her ears as if she were underwater. She felt submerged, her movements measured, her legs heavy. What was she looking for? What did she hope to find, to not find, in this woman's house?
The louvered closet door screeched as she pushed it aside and there she saw what she came for. His frayed jeans with the torn pocket. Scarred hunting boots. Proof.
A metal tang came to her mouth-an angry taste she recognized. Her fingers itched to rake everything in the room into a shattered pile. She imagined the perfume bottles on the woman's vanity, the hand mirror and brushes and combs in a grotesque dance on the hardwood. The cut-glass lamps and crystal ash-trays-one with Roger's cigarette stubs, the other with her long skinny ones all crinkled down-she could sweep from the bedside tables with one swipe. She could find scissors and cut blouses and skinny little jeans to shreds. Bleach would ruin every carpet and drape and bed linen in the house.
She felt a stinging on her leg and turned in the vanity mirror to check where she had caught her pants. A right angle was neatly cut from the thin material and her skin underneath was abraded. She saw herself fully then-ruddy cheeks and dark hair in riotous curls around her shoulders. She didn't like what she saw, this woman with a set jaw and hollow eyes.
She jerked suddenly, her attention focused down the narrow hall. Was that a car door thudding shut? Virginia reactively laid her hand to her heart. Its staccato throb under her fingertips threatened to burst through her bones. She crept to the kitchen, where she scanned outside through the kitchen sheers. Nothing in the carport. She peeked through dust-filmed windows in the front room. No truck on the gravel road beyond. She moved from window to window, checking every possible angle before she was satisfied that nobody had arrived. It was her imagination. She'd checked to be sure they were in town before she came.
She gave a little laugh then. Silly, she whispered. Why was she so jumpy? She'd thought this through. She knew what she was doing. Her car was hidden on the other side of the woods behind the house. There was a farm road that cut through fields to the next road over. She'd have to open and close a few cattle gates, but she could slip away and never have to drive back down the road in front of this house.
But even if she got caught breaking and entering, nobody would blame her. She'd never spend one night in jail, not with the way Roger was doing her. Did he think she was stupid? Didn't he know how the town talked? How people were always primed for gossip?
At first, Virginia hadn't realized anything was amiss. Then her sisters had come to her with what they'd heard at church, at the factory. Virginia chalked it all up to how much she and Roger fought. They didn't make a big secret out of their intense marriage. But when she really paid attention, Virginia recognized that Roger's absences had grown longer and more frequent. One night at supper, she'd watched his mind wander. He'd turned preoccupied, even when he was physically there.
Virginia hated to admit she missed Roger's touch, but she did. She missed his hand on the small of her back when he kissed her in the morning. He'd grown to treat their infrequent contact as an obligation and then finally stopped all together. The past few months, he'd grown more distant from her and the kids. Her children didn't seem to notice, but once Virginia realized something was wrong, she saw it in his mannerisms and inflections and even his appetite. What had been a sort of foreplay in their high-tension marriage now held no interest for him. He had changed. It was as if, after all these years, their roles were reversing.
Now her whole body ached for his weight against her. She regretted the times she'd pushed him away, imagined she was somewhere else when he reached for her. Now that his interest had shifted, it might be too late. He was getting his fantasies fulfilled elsewhere, from this whore nobody around here knew. So she was all painted up and teased and bleached. So she owned a beauty shop. Roger probably thought that was exotic. Maybe he was tired of a good woman who cooked his meals and took care of his home and children.
Maybe this woman reminded him of those whores in that movie Shampoo. Roger had insisted they make a special trip up to Louisville to see it. Three women were practically clawing the hair off Warren Beatty's chest to have sex with him. If that was Roger's fantasy, he could just dream on. In real life, things were definitely the other way around. Even after they'd been married a number of years, it was a constant source of tension between them. This movie was apparently another of Roger's attempts to "spice things up." He talked about that awful movie for days, pointing out things he found enticing, but it made Virginia feel dirty. Roger knew she couldn't handle strange sex, and he knew why.
She turned her attention back to the woman's house, to the kitchen, where she opened the refrigerator. There wasn't much. Beer. A bottle of wine. Butter. Pickles. Old bread. There was a fast-food bag stuffed in the garbage under the sink. This woman didn't cook. Virginia opened drawers and picked through mail on the counter. She didn't think Roger had enough sense to forward his mail.
She opened and slammed cabinets. There were no Sports Afield among the Hair Styles and Beauty Salon magazines on the coffee table. She went through the bathroom cabinets and saw medicine for yeast infections and birth control pills and an old-fashioned silver razor. She went through the dresser and found leopard print and red lace. She slammed those drawers. She even looked under the bed, but she didn't find the second thing she had come for.
A sign. Any sign that her husband intended to stay.
Virginia checked her watch. She'd been inside twenty minutes. She lowered the bedroom window and shut the closet door. In the kitchen, she locked the door handle and was ready to pull it closed behind her when she saw the photo. It was pinned to the side of the refrigerator with a magnet, nearly hidden by a newspaper clipping. She slid it out.
The shot was grainy and dark, probably taken at dusk. They were seated at the picnic table in the backyard. She was on his lap, kissing him on the cheek. He was laughing. His hands nearly encircled her tiny waist.
So this was it. They looked like a couple. They took photos. It wasn't just sex. Somebody had snapped the photo, so at least one other person knew. Maybe that person had been talking. Spreading lies was what Virginia had thought. But it wasn't a lie. She had known. Inside she had known or she wouldn't be here.
She considered taking the photo as evidence; had actually put it in her pocket. But at the last moment, she balked. What good would it do? She would obsess over it, make herself sick with it. Plus, they might wonder where it went. Women know where things like a favorite photo live. She pinned the glossy paper back under the torn newsprint, checked that the handle locked, and pulled the kitchen door closed behind her.
Her vision was liquid. The cool of shadows brushed her shoulders as she moved beneath the heavy canopy of oaks and tulip poplars toward her car. Although vines tripped her up and logs blocked her way, she walked with purpose. She knew now. At least she had that much. She was no longer a fool. Now she knew.
Chapter TwoShannon found it peculiar that people said her daddy ran off, as if he just disappeared one night and nobody knew where he went. The truth was that Roger Lemmons moved only a few miles past the blacktop down their same road. All summer his car barreled past. He never stopped; but sometimes, if he saw her in the yard, he waved.
"It was like if he slowed down his old house might suck him right back in the front door," Shannon told the guidance counselor.
"That's rough." Ratliff spent the first weeks of a new school year playing catch-up with students whose parents had separated during summer break.
Shannon shrugged. "It was hardest on Momma." Cheerleader hopefuls were already practicing on the front lawn. They bounced and jerked, breasts heaving, ponytails whipping. Their mouths opened and closed in unison, but all she could hear was the hiss from the air conditioner in the window behind Ratliff's head.
"How did she react?"
"She took the high road. Didn't scream or cry or anything. Just watched him haul his stuff out." Ratliff's office had only a metal desk and a couple of chairs, no jumble of paperwork spilling from shelves yet. Shannon didn't want to look directly at the counselor. Her gaze fell on a calendar with a black-and-white photo of a local bank. She thought about the few things her daddy took with him-only what he could fit into that new car of his, as if he didn't really care what he left behind. He hauled out shotguns and rifles in padded cases, fishing rods and a tackle box, some supplies from his workshop. His clothes fit in a couple of grocery sacks.
Ratliff took a cloth from his desk drawer and slowly cleaned his glasses-his way of keeping her talking by forcing her to fill the silence. Shannon didn't care. It felt good to talk to somebody, even if it was the ignorant school counselor who told everybody to go to technical school no matter how good their grades were.
"The worst part was he had his girlfriend in the car. I could see her in the side mirror. She has really long fingernails and this weird color hair."
Shannon couldn't tell if Ratliff was impressed or stunned. He raised his eyebrows and said, "He brought his girlfriend when he moved out?"
"Yeah. I thought that took balls." She waited for a reaction, and getting none, she continued. "Momma sat in the porch swing moving back and forth real slow. She looked cool as a cucumber."
What Shannon didn't say was that after her daddy's turquoise car pulled away, Virginia Lemmons walked inside and slammed the storm door so hard that all the birds flew out of the tree in front of their house. Shannon sat on the steps for a couple of hours watching the glass door crackle slowly from the center out into a giant spider web.
Virginia spent the rest of the summer reporting whore sightings. "I saw that whore driving your daddy's car," she'd tell Shannon. "I ran into that whore in the Big K, but she went down another aisle to avoid me."
After Ratliff said his door was always open, Shannon thanked him, and instead of going back to home ec, she went upstairs to the girls' restroom to wait until classes changed. Shannon was usually excited at the start of a new school year-her blank notebooks and freshly sharpened #2s ready weeks in advance. But this year, she dragged into school. She couldn't memorize the combination to her locker and her books seemed unusually heavy. Even after two weeks, she kept referring to her class schedule because she couldn't recall her next subject. The junior class was planning their float for the homecoming parade, but Shannon wasn't interested in helping this year.
The bathroom door opened. Shannon's best friend threw a crocheted purse in the sink, and a can of hairspray rolled out.
"I hate school already," Pam announced.
"What a surprise."
"I gotta pee." Pam left the stall door open as she crunched her peasant skirt around her waist. "I got Roots for biology. Pretty funny that the biology teacher's name is Roots."
"What was your last class?"
"I thought you smart ones didn't have to take home ec or shop like the rest of us morons."
Shannon looked out the window, down at kids sneaking smokes between cars in the parking lot. Band members straggled out to the football field behind the school, their polished instruments flashing in the sun. A newly painted sign at the field entrance read, Home of the Baylor County Cardinals, Kentucky Division 5 Champs, 1978. Shannon watched the action below, but she was thinking about the past weekend. She had been standing outside The Brown Jersey when her daddy's dusty Trans Am pulled up. At first, her heart gave a flip; then Shannon saw who was driving. The woman strutted up to the little window in four-inch Candies, a strip of leather and a silver buckle across her toes to hold them on. Even in those shoes, she was so short that she didn't have to bend down to place her order. She fished for money in a back pocket of her taut jeans.
"Take a picture. It'll last longer."
"What?" Shannon said.
The woman put her hand on her hip and tapped her foot impatiently. "Never mind. I didn't mean anything by it."
"You know who I am?" Shannon asked.
"Yeah, honey, I know." The service window slid to the side and the woman flung money on the counter. "I got her," she said and motioned that she wanted to pay for Shannon.
"I can pay for my own stuff."
The T-tops were out of the car and the woman leaned through the driver's side and came up with a long cigarette. The boys inside the front glass window of the hamburger stand made lewd noises. She perched on the top of a warped, gray picnic table, adjusted a bra strap, lit the cigarette, and crossed her legs. Her every move designed for effect.
Shannon tried to act nonchalant while she waited. She kicked at hickory nuts collected in low spots in the parking lot. The smell of fried onion rings was strong.
"Your name's not really Bootsie, is it?" she asked.
"Where you from?"
"Why'd you come here?"
"Is this going to be the Inquisition?"
The window slid open again and arms reached out with two milkshakes and a bag of food. "Two shrimp boxes." Shrimp boxes were her daddy's favorite.
"I thought she was younger than Momma until I saw her up close," Shannon told Pam as they groomed in the wavy mirror. "She had so much base on that her face was ready to crack."
"I guess you'd wear a lot of makeup, too, if you ran a beauty shop," Pam said.
Shannon bent over at the waist and brushed her curls out. In one fluid motion, she stood upright, flipped her hair behind her, and shook her head to settle fine layers of blond.
"Good feathers," Pam said.
"Thanks." Shannon sprayed a thick cloud around her head.
"You going out to her house?"
"Why not? She can tell me to leave if she doesn't like it."
"I can't believe he went all summer without calling or nothing. Here, let me do that." Pam brushed blue eye shadow onto Shannon's lids.
Shannon blinked at her reflection. "Don't you think that's too much?"
"No. Looks good. Same color as your eyes."
She closed her eyes again and Pam brushed more color on.
"The longer I talked to Ratliff, the more I thought about going out there," Shannon said. She opened her eyes. "I want Daddy to look me in the face and tell me he's not coming back."
"Don't blame you."
"I need a ride."
"I'd take you but I don't have the car today. What about Will?"
"He's got ball practice. Besides, he's so mad at Daddy that he'd never take me out there."
"Kerry Rucker would take you," Pam said. She rolled frosted pink gloss on Shannon's lips. "Everybody knows he likes you."
"I'd feel bad. Besides, the last thing I need right now is Momma on me because of some boy. You know what she' s like."
Excerpted from Calling Home by JANNA McMAHAN Copyright © 2008 by Janna McMahan. Excerpted by permission.
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