Champeen: A Novel

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
At the beginning of this appealing coming-of-age novel, narrator Titania Anne Gentry is a 43-year-old woman whose two grown daughters think she's a born loser. Determined to prove them wrong, Ti recalls growing up in tiny Badin, N.C., during the 1940s, focusing on the year she turned 13 and realized her dream of becoming a "champeen" fire-baton twirler. Her parents were a mess: mother Joan a "failed movie star, a failed piano player" and handsome Franklin Gentry an alcoholic womanizer who aimed to be a big-time baseball player and claimed to be a chiropractor, and failed at both. Ti remembers herself as a dreamy adolescent forced to take piano lessons by Joan, who projected her own dreams of concert glory onto her only child. But Ti twirled her baton in secret and fantasized about next-door neighbor Sebastian "Sabby" McSherry, a wounded paratrooper discharged from serving in WWII in France. Hoping to capture his heart with her twirling prowess, Ti only succeeded in winning his friendship, which served her better. When Ti performed a dazzling routine with the fire baton Sabby designed for her, she won best of show at the county competition and made her family proud. Thirty years later, she comes to terms with this crucial event in her life, acknowledging that her triumph was one of self-determination and of absolute faith in herself. This, she intends to tell her daughters, makes her a true winner. This framing device, however, is rushed, corny and flat compared to the bittersweet tale of pubescent angst, and Joan and Franklin are unconvincing, stock characters. But narrator Ti is a plucky heroine who's as winsome as she is defiantly fierce. (Dec.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870744464
  • Publisher: Southern Methodist University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/1999
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


I went out to Wal-Mart tonight and I saw an old woman in a pale yellow VW driving around and around the parking lot. She peeled around the asphalt like some kind of hot-rodder. With tight kinky hair the color of my mother's prized Briar Rose sterling and a long cigarette in her mouth, she struck terror in me. I watched the VW bounce around Wal-Mart, yellow and smooth as an Easter egg, the old woman bouncing inside, her hands like shovels on the wheel, and it was a vision like those I used to have. Those highly personal and sensational moments that made me feel I was on the brink of something. Preadolescent and weird.

    I was afraid to get out of my car. I sat there with my window rolled down and I watched her. She wasn't a fragile old thing. This woman was tough and meaty and she meant business. The cigarette bobbled as she muttered things to herself. The VW glistened in the security lights, not a smudge or a dent anywhere on it. She just kept peeling it around the asphalt.

    Nobody else out at Wal-Mart seemed to notice. After a while she rocketed to the exit and disappeared, the yellow Easter egg backfiring once.

    I sat there waiting for her to come back. I had a feeling she could have been looking for me. Had things to tell me. And I was embarrassed about it. She didn't come back. So I got out and slammed my door and hurried inside.

    Wal-Mart always smells like toasted cheese sandwiches, caramel corn, and the sizing on new fabric. I thought first to get a fat little diary sort of a book, something with a paisley print binding and abrass lock and key. But the pages weren't broad enough for the things I wanted to write. The spines too flimsy. I got a big blue account ledger, a heavy sturdy thing with reinforced edges and a spine both stitched and glued. It would absorb anything I could think of to write.

    And what I'd been thinking of was how to make up with my two daughters after the big fight we'd had. It's not the best thing, maybe, for three women to live in the same house. Sarah and Hannah are stubborn. I'm more stubborn, and I don't remember what we had the fight about. But after they'd both gone out, and I settled in for an evening of television, I saw something stuck on our best photograph. It's the one of us all together, I'm sitting with Hannah in my lap, and Sarah stands beside me, everybody smiling and healthy, our hair shining clean, our teeth like white precision. Hannah and Sarah are still little girls in the picture. And I'm still young enough to believe in those weird visions I once had.

    They'd stuck a little pink Post-it note on my head: A Born Loser. Sarah and Hannah meant it for a joke, to get the last word. But I couldn't bear for them to think that, even for a joke. So I drove out to Wal-Mart to get a book to write this down in.

    I want to get this straight for Sarah and Hannah. And for Kelby, too, even though he won't read it out there in California. He lives with Brenda, the blue-haired woman. And I'm forty-three years old.

    I want to think it through. I will probably never write a word, but here it starts, at least, the thinking it through. I can make some lists, put down names, tabulate a few facts for Sarah and Hannah. But the thinking, the remembering, it spreads way out past the page, way past my hand.


I spent thirteen years in Badin being waked and wrapped in a crocheted afghan and then hauled around by Joan Gentry trying to catch Franklin in some infidelity.

    "Look in there, Titania Anne Gentry," she pointed, "he's walking that hussy to the bathroom. See him? That's your daddy."

    I looked at the cold night trees against the lighted apartment window where Joan pointed. I saw Franklin and the hussy walking to the bathroom.

    "Yes," I affirmed, "that's him."

    I wished myself back in our own apartment on Entwistle Street, safe and sweet and unconscious as a warm pie. I pulled the afghan over my face. Shut up, shut up, I wanted to tell Joan, I don't care about Franklin.

    But it was a thing Joan Gentry did to me. A thing Franklin caused. And they made their daughter a part of the thing. Mother and daughter drove around Badin those nights in the black Ford that belonged to my Uncle Morton, who was off by then in the navy firing machine guns at the Japs and Hitler. He came back after the war and took the Ford away. Aunt Della was always mad he left that car with his spoiled baby sister, Joan Gentry. Aunt Della couldn't drive and every time she tried to learn, she hit something, scratched the black paint, knocked off a headlight.

    "Don't you dare touch this car while I'm gone," Uncle Morton laid down the law before he left for Norfolk. "I don't care if I get killed, Della. You still don't dare touch this car until I get back."

    Joan and I drove up with him and Della to Salisbury, where he had to catch the train for Norfolk. On the way out of Badin, Uncle Morton said, "These damn little apartments out here, one just like another. Why don't you move to Albemarle and get a decent house?"

    He spat out the window of his black Ford.

    "They've got decent houses out here, too," said Joan. "You're just not used to the way it all looks, Morton."

    "Damn," he said again, glaring at the rows of apartments crowding the hilly streets. The stubborn duplexes and quadruplexes confused him, the steeply pitched shed roofs, clapboard and batten and six-over-six sash windows.

    "I can't ever find you in this place." Uncle Morton looked over his shoulder at me in the back, grinned. "Hey, girl, whatcha doing with that thing? Gonna hit somebody?"

    He sized up my twirler's baton. I grinned right back. "I'm gonna hit you."

    "Don't do that. Here." Uncle Morton tossed me a roll of Life Savers, all five flavors. I settled down to eat every last one, rolling them around my mouth, sucking thoughtfully until my tongue was sore and my inside cheek puckered.

    I considered that Uncle Morton didn't know a lot of things. He didn't know exactly where the Narrows Dam held back Badin Lake and forced the big Yadkin River to pump power right through it back to Carolina Aluminum on Highway 740.

    He didn't know about the air raid blackouts and other things we had to put up with in Badin became we smelted aluminum for airplanes. We were more important than Albemarle with its unexciting textile mills.

    But Uncle Morton was right about the way it looked. Every apartment like every other apartment. And those French Colonial bungalows that Joan called decent houses were really no better, all of them with the same covered porches and gabled dormers and kudzu trailing the eaves.

    "That damn mill never closes, does it?" Uncle Morton drove us past the smelter, the luminous ingots stacked high in the sunshine behind a chain fence topped off with barbed wire. "They work all the damn time."

    "It's not a mill, Morton." Joan Gentry smoothed her blond hair. "It's a smelter, Morton. A plant. Don't call it a mill. It's not like Wiscassett or Cannon, Morton."

    He slowed for the change of shift at the Dead Man, a zebra-striped pyramid in the center of the street. He watched the workers cross from the parking lot to the Olympia Cafe to the gatehouse in front of the smelter yard.

    "Looks like a damn mill to me," he grunted.

    "Well, it's not," insisted Joan.

    Uncle Morton swung around the Dead Man. Its zebra stripes swirled by on the diagonal. I slid my sore tongue along my puckered inside cheek. The taste of cherry and lime glowed on my lips.

    "My daddy works in there," I pointed. "My daddy works graveyard."

    "He does not," Joan Gentry frowned at me and pinched my knee. "He does not work in the potroom. He works in the payroll office. Why'd you say such a stupid thing?"

    A line deepened between her eyes, her carefully plucked brows. Joan wanted to be superior, in everything. It meant a lot to her that Franklin Gentry didn't work in the potroom. I, however, wished he did. The smelter belched all night, threw red sparks in the dark air, and I listened in my sleep, stirred, trembled, and slept more soundly. I wished my father worked in the middle of those red sparks, naked to the waist, glistening with sweat and dirt, punching the big crucibles and swinging the cranes.

    I admired that hot loud dangerous place. I wanted to claim it through Franklin. But, as Joan had said with her superior and self-righteous air, he worked in the payroll office, wearing an ordinary shirt and smoking cigarettes and coming home to throw down an inch of bourbon at a time, declaring, "Goddammit, shit!" every evening and all weekend.

    He was a failed big-league baseball player.

    He was a failed chiropractor.

    Joan Gentry was a failed movie star, a failed piano player. I carefully planned never to do those things, play baseball, play pianos, practice chiropractic, act in the movies, work in a payroll office. I'll twirl fire, I promised myself, and win prizes. I'll be a champeen. I'll do it right in front of Sebastian McSherry, too, the handsome man next door, before this is over with.

    Back then I could only do two things really well. One was twirl a baton. I had big plans to twirl fire, the baton burning at both ends. The other thing I did really well was make up stories. I had even bigger plans there, such as the capture and seduction of Sebastian McSherry, a man I'd never seen in real life, just imagined to myself until he was more real and alive than a man had any right to be. He was a soldier, a paratrooper.

    These were ambitious intentions for somebody living in a small North Carolina aluminum-smelting town in the 1940s and the stories often got the upper hand of me. My father, Franklin Gentry, managed to aid some of these stories, even though he didn't know about it and wouldn't have cared if he did. Like when he gave me some white shoe skates instead of ordinary roller skates with straps and toe clamps for my thirteenth birthday, swapping off God only knew how many leather coupons in his 1944 war ration book.

    World War II raged overseas. Things were connected in peculiar and perilous ways. I didn't know it yet, but the connections would get me in the end. Things as simple and as complicated as those white shoe skates. As fire-baton twirling. As good-looking soldiers gone off to shoot and get shot. And then, too, the maddening way things got shoved around in my life to make room for other things to happen.

    For example.

    Because Joan Gentry wanted to make a piano player out of me, maybe put me in the movies, we borrowed our neighbor Jettie Barefoot's big black York piano that summer. And I banged on it until another neighbor, old Mr. McSherry, banged on the apartment wall with his stick to make me shut up. Joan blessed out Mr. McSherry and threatened to write to Sebastian to come back to Badin and do something about that old man, maybe put him away, she emphasized.

    And that's how I found out about Sebastian McSherry, a man I began to dream up stories over and love, a man I'd never laid eyes on or even heard about before. He fanned up the stories in my eager mind until nobody in the town of Badin, North Carolina, could take him away from me.

    Not even Erskine "Sonny" Kelly, who would have liked to, had he known, blond and tough, pinching my neck and twisting my arm because he could get away with it. Because I let him get away with it. My normal boyfriend.

    Not even Carol Jean Spence, already thirteen but easily intimidated and pushed around, my best girlfriend, with a grown brother in the navy, so she ought to have known lots of stuff about men. But didn't.

    Things were connected. The shoe skates started it.

    I couldn't skate. I already imagined those skates as real marching boots with white tassels. I already imagined Sebastian McSherry applauding me, licking his lips while I skated big Figure 8's, twirling a fire baton and flashing my red-sequined body in his face.

    The birthday itself, however, which embarrassed me, had to be gotten over first. It seemed to me back then there was always something to be gotten over first.

    Franklin bragged, "If Badin Lake froze over, I'd get you some real ice skates, Ti Baby. You could be Sonja Henie and get in the movies."

    "You could've gotten her some real shoes, Franklin," observed Joan Gentry. She lifted the white boot, spun the heavy hard wheels under a finger, her red nail shining.

    "You could've gotten her some sheet music, or a record by José Iturbi, or something she's used to. Bubble bath."

    "I want these skates." I claimed the boot from my mother and grinned at Franklin. "They're great."

    "She can't even skate," added Joan. "She'll fall and break her neck."

    Joan Gentry wasn't impressed by physical skills. Dancers, Olympic figure skaters, baton twirlers. If they got in the movies, she didn't admire them for their pirouettes or their double axels or their high aerial pitches. They impressed Joan only if they were pretty and could play eighty-eight piano keys without missing a note. If they, like José Iturbi, could finger out "Humoresque" or "Claire de Lune," smiling all the time, showing perfect teeth as well as perfect touch. And only if they kept it up year after year, winning all the time. Big-league champeens making plenty of money to pay for the lights and buy new furniture. Getting in the country club.

    Years later, just this very night, when I saw that old lady barreling the yellow VW around that Wal-Mart lot and smoking a cigarette, though it scared me a little, I felt she meant business. I felt she knew how to make the best of it. Which was exactly like my mother, Joan Gentry. They had things to tell me. Why, then, did it embarrass me so?

    If Joan had been with me at Wal-Mart, she'd have pointed a finger, "Look at that old fool in that yellow car. She can't make up her mind, can't find a place to park that silly car."

    But here in the remembering, in the thinking it back up, I just feel the way I did on my November birthday, a cold raw wartime Carolina afternoon, when everybody made the best of it. Joan splurged her sugar rations and frosted a big two-layer cake in thick pink. Thirteen candles dripped over Happy Birthday, Titania!

    Carol Jean Spence and Erskine "Sonny" Kelly both grinned because they were in on the surprise and had been told before to bring their skates. Then Franklin presented me the shoe skates, poked me in the side, and teased, "Thirteen years old, Ti Baby, a teenager. That means thirteen-going-on-eighteen."

    "Thirteen-going-on-nothing," scoffed Joan from the sink, where she was filling glasses with ice.

    I felt so silly sitting at the kitchen table, them looking at me with such unabashed approval and love. I also felt genuinely pleased and honored. I looked back at their faces through the glow of my candles and smelled the hot wax in the real sugar frosting, repeating Franklin, "I'm a teenager."

    "I already am," said Carol Jean. "It's nothing."

    Sonny shrugged. "I'll be fourteen in three months."

    "So?" Franklin poured an inch of bourbon. "You want a drink, Mr. Sonny Fourteen?"

    Sonny perked. "Yeah."

    Franklin chased down the bourbon with tap water. "Maybe when you get to be Mr. Sonny Fifteen," he grinned. Then encouraged me, "Cut the cake. I got to get back to work."

    I knifed my cake, admiring the way the blade slipped quickly through the soft yellow layers and the pink frosting.

    "I want a lot of frosting," Sonny Kelly reminded me. "Pile it on. I don't like the cake, but I love the frosting."

    "That's greedy," said Carol Jean Spence. She held her plate forward, a little smile crooking over her face. "You ought to eat everything. There's a war going on. My brother's in the middle of it. In the navy."

    Carol Jean looked funny, like a scribble a little kid might make with big, clumsy crayons. She was kid number three in a big crowd of five happy Spences who lived in an apartment on the next block, on Barineau Street.

    I approved of the way Carol Jean looked. Her hair, tar black, flat as a board, lay in bangs across her brows and fell short over her big ears. She looked like Buster Brown, her brows and lashes the same tar black as her hair.

    This was the way a good friend ought to look, simple and unadorned, steady as you go, nothing to flare up and take you by surprise.

    Erskine "Sonny" Kelly, on the other hand, was better-looking, even prettier, I hated to admit, although tough and smart-mouthed. I resented Sonny. And I liked to have him hanging around, too. There was an ambivalence embellishing Sonny. And it made Sonny, I thought, a little bit more valuable than Carol Jean. He was a man. He had options. He could walk right out of there. Or he could hang around eating up my pink birthday cake frosting. He had the best of things. It made me mad.

    Erskine "Sonny" Kelly had always been hanging around. Our mothers pushed us in strollers through the streets of Badin when I had no hair on my head and frowned a lot. Sonny had piles of tight blond curls and a pug nose and smiled at everybody and made everybody fall in love with him. He was a good-looking blond who got everything he wanted.

    "Kiss my foot, Sonny Kelly," I used to yell, then let Sonny Kelly chase me all over Badin and up and down trees, even running through big rain culverts when he dared me. Even under the road, where there might be copperheads ready to bite a leg. For thirteen years, Sonny Kelly, a fact of life.

    Today we ate the birthday cake and guzzled Coca-Colas and watched my father throw down another inch of bourbon and my mother frown and suck in air and exhale dramatically, "Don't use Titania's birthday as an excuse, Franklin."

    "Okay, I'm going to the office." He was out of the kitchen and back to the little chiropractic office he kept across one end of our apartment on Entwistle Street.

    "What does Franklin really do to people?" asked Sonny, arching his brows and emphasizing really. His Coca-Cola was smeared with frosting. Just the sight of that made me feel superior.

    "He gives chiropractic adjustments."

    "He smacks people around," said Carol Jean. She cut little neat bites of cake, cleaning crumbs off each bite before forking it into her mouth, so matter-of-fact, so assured.

    "He does not," I glared.

    Carol Jean continued as if she were teaching a class, so calm, so organized. "He punches people and hits them with the side of his hand and rolls them up and down and that's what knocks the cricks out of their necks."

    "Chiropractors are not real doctors," said Sonny, arching his brows at me again, this time emphasizing real. "They don't go to real medical school."

    "Yes, they are." I rose to this bait. "And he did, too, go to a medical school, isn't that right?"

    I turned to Joan for affirmation.

    "If you can call it that." Joan pushed on the faucet, washed ice cubes down the drain.

    "In Davenport, Iowa," I added for effect. "That's a long way off."

    Sonny wasn't impressed. "Come on." He changed the subject, dismissing me and Franklin and Davenport, Iowa. "Come on, outside. I'm gonna show you how to skate without busting your big butt."

    Outside in that cold bleak November light, he whizzed rings around me and Carol Jean, his rollers almost sparking fire, a big skate key swinging from his neck. I laced on the shoe skates, drinking in the smell of the new leather, taking time to adjust my socks and tighten the laces.

    "I hope you don't get a blister on your ankle," said Joan. "New leather is awful stiff."

    She stuck a kitchen broom in my hands for balance. "There you go." She shoved me off, smiling as broadly as Sonny and Carol Jean. I thought maybe for a minute, my mother, Joan, really liked the idea of a champeen skater. Just for a minute. I could be Sonja Henie. In the movies.

    But Joan had already gone back in the apartment. The sun had come out to welter against the gray sky and reflect off the green enamel of our front door. I blinked my eyes at it. The sun hurt. I was glad for it, but it hurt.


And so right here, blinking again, thirty years later, I got up and filled a glass with ice. I had an old beat-up yellow fridge stuck over with photographs and drawings and notes and magnets. My fridge was bigger than the one we had back in that World War II apartment. And it was worn with use and devotion, like a big old pet, still panting in the corner of the kitchen, obedient and reliable. I painted the cabinets the same pale yellow. My mother looked at it, nodded a faint approval, then said, "I never was crazy about yellow. But this is okay."

    I settled back at the table with my ledger. Empty and white as fresh-washed sheets, smooth, ruled across to each edge in blue lines. It continued to talk back to me without a word on it.


In three days I could skate alone, requiring neither their hands nor Joan's broom. Carol Jean applauded, "That's real good, Ti."

    Sonny proposed a test. "Let's skate," he tempted, narrowing his eyes at me, "all the way to Badin Lake and back."

    "We can't go out there," objected Carol Jean, "it's too far. We can't go out to the lake, up and down hills! On skates!"

    Carol Jean turned to me. "Don't pay any attention to him. He's just trying to get you to fall."

    I loved Sonny for thinking up such stuff. Damn Sonny Kelly. So rascally and wonderful. I'd skate all the way up and down hills to Badin Lake and back, of course. I smiled at him, latching on to the whole thing, taking it over as my idea.

    "Sure," I flared. "Let's go."

    "Well, just remember I told you." Carol Jean put both hands on her hips and skated a graceful little circle around both Sonny and me. "Just remember I said it was too far."

    Sonny shrugged. "Miss Priss," he said to Carol Jean.

    And we took off. Had Franklin known it, he'd have predicted, "You'll all three fall in that water and sink straight to the bottom with those skates on and drown your little asses."

    Joan would have added, "You'll fall and break your neck. You'll fall in front of a car and get run over, Titania Gentry, and then what do you think we can do about that?"

    I didn't care. I rose to Sonny's temptation the way I always did when he grinned and narrowed his eyes and made me grin back, narrowing my own eyes. I didn't care if I killed myself to do what Sonny said. I paid attention to men. To Sonny Kelly. And to my crazy drunk father, Franklin Gentry.

    For example.

    I watched the way Franklin Gentry threw down his bourbon, then I poured an inch of Coca-Cola in my own glass and threw it down, first cutting my eyes slyly right and left, as if I expected to get caught. I tossed it off behind Joan's back in the kitchen, then exhaled a loud satisfied "Ah."

    I paid attention also to a third man, entirely unknown to the others. Sebastian McSherry. Off in the paratrooper corps. I'd learn from him as I'd learned from them. I planned cozy little entertainments for Sebastian McSherry when he got back home, battle-scarred and thirsty for tenderness and sex. I looked at the glossy pictures of women kissing soldiers and sailors in Life magazine. The way the men bent the women over at their waists, the women yielding at the knees, graceful as dancers, skaters. The smudgy lipstick. The closed eyes. Those dark seams down the back of each smooth leg.

    Titania Anne Gentry would know how to do that. How to bend and yield, close my eyes, taste the smudgy lipstick from my mouth.

    So I practiced twirling the baton, practiced how to win, making all the fancy moves, and how to do this without getting sick or falling down to hurt myself in front of people.

    When I got it right, I knew I'd twirl fire. Burn both ends of my cheap chrome-plated baton, already dented from failed aerial pitches, dented hard from bouncing off Badin sidewalks. I'd begged for the baton after seeing twirlers on the Movietone News leading a Rose Bowl Parade. Those flashing circles tossed into the mild California air, the twirlers catching their batons easily, smiling, prancing through Pasadena, all those floats covered with roses gliding behind them, crowds of people waving. I went crazy, my hands dying to take hold of a baton and pitch it, catch it, smile and prance on down the middle of Pasadena.

    Joan Gentry ordered it from Sears. "I don't know why you had to have this, Titania," she scoffed when it came. "It's not going to get you anywhere. It's a toy."

    I stripped off the paper, dazzled by the bright chrome and the white robber tips. I studied the little instruction manual, mimicked the twirlers posing on each page, and learned their routines from the footprints sketched into the captions. On the last page, the picture of the girl twirling fire excited me beyond anything ever thought up by Erskine "Sonny" Kelly.

    I'll do that, I promised, smoothing the page. It'll get me somewhere, I don't care what Joan says, and that's why I had to have it.

    That's what I planned and lied to myself about. The shoe skates and the silly birthday. The baton. Sebastian McSherry. And I thought about it all the time and how I had to choose just the right moment.

    I was already thinking about it before the birthday, before the lake and what happened there to us, me and Sonny and Carol Jean.

    But way back before that particular moment, I had settled against the scratchy backseat of Uncle Morton's Ford, the one my mother would later use to spy on Franklin, and dozed the rest of the way to Salisbury. I was still twelve then.

    In Salisbury, Morton and Della kissed, then he got on the train with a lot of other sailors. I alarmed pigeons in the depot yard and twirled my baton and winked at the sailors and people. They clapped, winked back.

    "Quit showing off," scolded Joan. "Get in the car."

    She drove us back to Albemarle and to Harmanco's for a hamburger and a milkshake. Aunt Della kept crying in her hamburger napkin. "I don't care if he gets killed. I don't care."

    I traced the frosty sides of my milkshake glass. The soda jerk mixed up things in a big silver machine I imagined to be a big silver cup I'd won for twirling the baton and turning cartwheels through blazing fire.

    "He won't get killed, Della," soothed Joan Gentry. "I know Morton Trueblood. He'll come back to Albemarle and everything will go on like before. Believe me, Della. Nothing bad has ever happened to Morton and it never will. You'll see."

    She snuffled the last of her milkshake, tapped her straw on the rim. "You'll see."

    So Joan got to keep Uncle Morton's black Ford, even if she didn't drive it very well, gunning the motor on the hills of Badin, rolling back and yelling at the car, jerking the gears, "I hate this car, I hate Fords!"

    So she drove herself and me through the dark streets, the tight little network of back alleys. She turned around in tar and gravel, alarming dogs who barked and made lights come on in apartments and people look out.

    "I just want to catch him," Joan gritted her teeth. "In just one great big lie or another. I just want to get him in a place where he can't get out and he'll have to lie to me and I'll catch him in it."

    "What are you going to do," I always meant to ask, "when you catch him like that?" But always the car bumped along and I kept dozing off and then at the end of these treks, I fell back in bed like a brick and slept so hard I felt dazed the next morning.

    Sometimes I wasn't sure it happened.

    There would be Joan washing clothes on the back porch. There would be all our neighbors on Entwistle Street talking, dogs barking, babies crying. I could hear Mr. McSherry wheeze in his apartment, hear Jettie Barefoot start up quarreling with her high school boys, then burst out laughing at them.

    The treks through the night in Uncle Morton's black Ford could have been some ornate dream I had. I just couldn't be sure. And the uncertainty angered me. I looked for people to blame, to beat up. When Sebastian McSherry gets back here, I vowed, I'll make him take out his gun and shoot people, make him fasten on his bayonet and cut their throats. Then we'll sit on the sofa and kiss.

    For the moment, though, like always, I had to get through both Joan and Franklin and it took all my attention.


I could cry great big tears on demand. And for this talent, my mother meant to put me in the movies.

    "Titania can cry," Joan bragged. "Just look at that. I'm going to send her to Hollywood."

    She set her hand on my braids, examined my face, my eyes, looked in both my ears.

    "If I'd had my way, I'd have named you Scarlett. For Gone with the Wind. I just loved that." Joan sighed, lifted her hand from my braids.

    "If you'd been a boy," she added, "you'd be named Ashley or Rhett or something."

    "I'm a girl," I reminded her. "And it's not my fault."

    "It would be goddamn tacky naming your own child after a movie star," sneered Franklin Gentry.

    "And that's why she didn't get her way." Franklin leaned over, poked my ribs. "I named you, Ti Baby. I picked out that name."

    He winked. "That's from Shakespeare."

    "Shakespeare, your ass," said Joan Gentry. "When did you ever read Shakespeare?"

    I winked back at Franklin, then slipped from both their gazes, ran out to the front sidewalk and twirled my way down Entwistle Street.

    "Titania!" I beat a rhythm. I tossed the baton. "It's Shakespeare. And she didn't get her way."

    Joan Gentry got her way, though, about plenty of other things. When she got it through her blond head that she didn't have a chance of becoming a movie star, or of playing the piano in Carnegie Hall, she went after the best-looking man she could find, Franklin Gentry, marrying him when she was already pregnant. He knew it, too, so there was no deceiving anybody. They drove across the South Carolina line to York, returning late, worn out with each other already, driving back to Morton's house in Albemarle.

    Uncle Morton cut a watermelon in honor of the occasion.

    "Look at that," he bragged. "Perfect. Just right." He held out a dripping wedge to Joan, another to Franklin.

    Joan detailed the story to me many times. "That was the best watermelon I ever ate, Titania, and I don't even like watermelon," she qualified the facts.

    "And Morton and Della stood out there in the yard with us, and we ate up Morton's perfect watermelon. And then later on, Morton, when he found out you were on the way, Morton went around telling everybody that stupid joke about swallowing a watermelon seed. `Happened in my backyard,' he told everybody. `I was the cause of it. It was my fault.' Morton is such a big mouth."

    Joan thought my daddy was going to be a big-league baseball player when she married him in York, South Carolina. Then she thought he was going to be a wealthy chiropractor, calling himself Dr. Gentry, and getting cards printed up to advertise that. But Franklin failed at both endeavors, settling finally into the payroll office at Carolina Aluminum in Badin.

    Joan Gentry, blond and angry, had believed and lusted for such things. The big-league games, Franklin's name on the sports pages of national newspapers, his spring training reported in Movietone News, tricolored bunting, cleats, bats, gloves, their pictures together.

    When that fizzled out, Joan went to work on her idea of a handsome smart chiropractor with loyal patients who paid good money to get their spines adjusted and their blocked bowels knocked loose. Dr. Gentry, they could brag, he used to play for the Boston Red Sox.

    Gone with the wind.

    Franklin never recovered from those days pitching in front of hollering drunk crowds in Wiscassett Park, Great Falls, Granite Quarry, Albemarle, Badin. He was the best they saw in the textile bush league, a league into which Carolina Aluminum was allowed even though it did not make textiles. Franklin's job as payroll clerk was contingent in the beginning upon his playing baseball for Carolina Aluminum. And it was one way he could hang on to his big-league dreams. He kept his caps, his uniforms, his grimy and mean-looking little baseballs rolling around in his bureau upstairs on Entwistle Street.

    "Let's throw a few," he would invite me on a mild day into the backyard on Entwistle Street and for a while it would be wonderful, Franklin throwing, Titania catching.

    Then, warming to the thrill of his pitch, the hard thud in the glove, warming, too, to the pitch of the bourbon inside him, Franklin Gentry threw the mean little baseballs too hard, hurt my hand, scared me, made me get so mad I hated him. I ran off and left him hollering, "I'm sorry, Ti Baby. Come back here. I won't throw it hard again, honey."

    Joan would come to the back door and yell, "You're going to ruin her hands, break her arm, bruise her, knock her eyes out, knock her in the head and kill her. Can't you leave her alone one minute?"

    Franklin never recovered, likewise, from the two winters he spent at Kincaid Chiropractic College in Davenport, Iowa, before he ever thought about playing baseball, just picking at cadavers and memorizing the skeletal system, the cardiovascular system, the urogenital tract, and the properties of three types of muscles.

    Shutting my eyes upstairs in my room on Entwistle Street, listening to Joan and Franklin quarrel downstairs, I imagined Franklin learning chiropractic. It could be like making love, I thought, Franklin's fingers probing, his palms firm and assured, all his skillful adjusting and pommeling and his smacking people up the side of the head, as Carol Jean Spence said.

    And the result for those people was clear, pure relief. Franklin Gentry, my father, could adjust pain, assault and vanquish disease. He had a healing touch to his fingers.

    I shivered, tightened my eyes. It was a touch Sebastian McSherry would have to his fingers, too. Here, I would say to him, right here, under my arm, and here, too, inside my left leg. He would assault and vanquish my agonies, pommel and rub away my terrible angers.

    Who cared if you went to real medical school when your fingers had such healing?

    Franklin kept all his cards printed Dr. Franklin Gentry, Chiropractic Adjustments. He flicked through them in his dark hours when he most despised himself and Joan. He received patients after a day spent in the payroll office at Carolina Aluminum, but mostly on weekends, sometimes even at night. In the little office arranged across one end of our back porch. They called him "Dr. Gentry." He told them about baseball.

    And at night, week nights, again on weekends, Joan Gentry, as pretty as any movie star, gathered me in a crocheted afghan and stuffed me in Uncle Morton's black Ford and trekked around Badin looking to catch Franklin in his infidelity. And even after Morton came back from the navy and took back the Ford, Joan still schemed to catch Franklin, gritting her teeth, exhaling dramatically.

    "I just wish I knew what you're going to do to him," I continued to want to ask her, drowsing off, falling off deep in a dream with Sebastian McSherry's arms around me.

    Let's throw a few, Ti Baby, he whispered, smacking the glove. Right here. That's it.

    No, I said, I've got to get Franklin Gentry out of this before she catches him. Look at him in there walking that hussy right to the bathroom. Look.

    Yes, Sebastian narrowed his eyes, curled his lip. I see him. That's your daddy.

    It's a full-time job, I exhaled loudly.


Such remembering is time-wasting. I smacked shut the blue ledger and brushed cracker crumbs off the table. I had eaten a whole stack of crackers just sitting there remembering, writing nothing.

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