Welling recycles thematic elements from her first novel, Crybaby Ranch, in this underwhelming yarn of midlife empowerment. Annie McFall, fed up with her stifling marriage, leaves her husband, Jess, in the middle of their 26th anniversary dinner and flies from Wyoming to Florida, where her aging father and sister live. Annie indulges in self-betterment exercises and meets new friends. Writing from both Annie's and Jess's perspectives, Welling punches up her scenes with appealing splashes of humor. But the story proceeds in muted fashion as Jess slowly comes to terms with a past trauma, and Annie compiles a mundane list of steps to help her thrive within her marriage (e.g., "Enjoy personal friends," "Claim personal power"). Despite an odd though engaging incident involving a former drug smuggler and a spectacular lack of judgment on Annie's part, the novel never takes off. (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Fairy Tale Bluesby Tina Welling
On the night of her twenty-sixth wedding anniversary, AnnieLaurie McFall does the unthinkable. Without a word to her husband Jess, she walks out on their celebration dinner and catches a flight to Florida. It's time for a sabbatical from/b>/i>
From the author of Crybaby Ranch, who ?writes with insight, humor, and complete control? (Tim Sandlin).
On the night of her twenty-sixth wedding anniversary, AnnieLaurie McFall does the unthinkable. Without a word to her husband Jess, she walks out on their celebration dinner and catches a flight to Florida. It's time for a sabbatical from marriage, and some serious soul-searching. So she sets herself up in the small coastal town of Hibiscus and creates the perfect six-month retreat to reimagine a storybook ending that could actually come true with Jess still her prince. What she discovers along the way is far more surprising, outrageous, and just plain fun than she ever expects.
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Table of Contents
A CONVERSATION WITH TINA WELLING
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Praise for Crybaby Ranch
“Suzannah’s happy ending is a well-earned one that readers of inspirational fiction will appreciate. —Publishers Weekly
“Twists and dances like a bouncing bronco, but beneath the humor beats a strong foundation of heart.”
—Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of The Midnight Twins
“Crybaby Ranch follows the up-and-down and all-around adventures of a brave woman who’s willing to ask questions we’ve all asked ourselves. The writing is vivid and will hold you through to the end—bringing home fresh answers to old questions about strength and weakness.”
—Clyde Edgerton, author of The Bible Salesman
“A more winning heroine than Suzannah…would be hard to imagine. From page one, we are in love with this wry, insightful, funny survivor of the Sandwich Generation, squeezed between her mother’s Alzheimer’s and her husband’s detachment. In reflections both luminous and humorous, she charts her way to love and independence.” —Sarah Bird, author of How Perfect Is That
“Women and men are suddenly revealed in Crybaby Ranch, an illuminating arc-of-life writing that unfolds in a rich detail of simple and complex feelings.”
—Craig Johnson, author of The Cold Dish
and Death Without Company
“Like a cliff diver, Tina Welling’s fiction flies, tucks, and slices into the dark depths of her characters. She writes with insight, humor, and complete control. If they ever make compassion an Olympic sport, Tina will have a room full of gold.” —Tim Sandlin, author of Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty
Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.
Visit us online at www.penguin.com.
Also by Tina Welling
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First published by NAL Accent, an imprint of New American Library,
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First Printing, March 2009
Copyright © Tina Welling, 2009
Conversation Guide copyright © Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009
All rights reserved
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Fairy tale blues/Tina Welling.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01960-3
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For John Buhler,
who gave me the best line in this book.
And now I give it back to him.
It adds a special pleasure to the creative process for a writer to have readers in mind as they work. I had very special readers in mind when I wrote this novel: my sister and brother and their mates. Both in-laws and outlaws take openhearted pleasure in my work. It’s only fair that they take something, because I take so much from them: their stories, funny lines, and unique perspectives and experiences. Thank you, Gayle Caston, Tom Welling, Debbie Welling and Bob Caston.
My sons and daughters-in-law contributed to this project, and I am grateful to them: Trevor Buhler, Amy Buhler, Toby Buhler, Amber Buhler.
I feel profoundly privileged to have John Travis as my teacher. Going on meditation retreats in Jackson Hole and in India with him has enhanced my life with meaning and joy. The fictional retreat leader in the novel is a mere shadow of him.
Ellen Edwards is a perceptive editor with a strong sense of ethics, a clear vision of story and mastery over language. I feel immensely fortunate to work with her. Thank you, Ellen.
My husband, John Buhler, offers support in every way from his heartfelt happiness over my pleasure in the writing life to creating delicious ragouts and pasta sauces for our dinners together. And always he is my first reader.
My gratitude goes to Susan Marsh and Patti Sherlock, two exceptional writers, who offered steady support as readers of my manuscript—a considerable gift. Gratitude also to my agent, Charlotte Sheedy, for her expertise over the years. Through the professional assistance of Rebecca Vinter and Meredith Kaffel, my writing life is smoothed and eased. Susan Wasson, Judy Johnson, Eric Boss and Judy Boss, thank you once again for your generous spirits.
For financial support my thanks goes to Pursue Balance, a non-profit organization in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that offers Growth Grants to individuals who are pursuing personal or environmental balance through adventure, study, the arts. I also offer thanks to the Wyoming Arts Council for personal support and statewide support of writers.
An enormous part of my pleasure in this work is the weaving of chance remarks, stories or shared events that find their way into my creative process. In this project I thank Coulter Buhler, Libby Vallee, MacKenzie Caston and Elaine Mansfield. Inspiration and support for my subject came from two books in particular: Medea’s Folly by Tanya Wilkinson (PageMill Press, 1998) and The Light Inside the Dark by John Tarrant (HarperCollins, 1998).
It seemed longer than just twelve hours ago that I walked out on my husband during our anniversary dinner. This morning after a shower, I smoothed lotion supplied by the hotel over my body, nose to toes. Not that my skin needed it in the humid warmth of Florida like it did back home in the dry cold of Wyoming, but this old habit grounded me. And besides the clothes I had been wearing, old habits were all I’d brought along.
We were celebrating at the Granary, a restaurant high atop Gros Ventre Butte, the lights of Jackson Hole glittering below. Surely Jess had caught on by now that I wasn’t returning, yet I still pictured him sitting where I’d left him, watching champagne bubbles spiral up his glass.
Before Jess left for work yesterday morning, I had sneaked a gift bag filled with his favorite chocolate-covered raisins into his backpack with a mushy card and the time and place of our dinner reservation. Last night, once we had ordered our champagne at the Granary, Jess slid a package across the table to me. I recognized the gift wrapping from the goldsmith’s on the town square. I read his note written on the back of our store’s business card.
I love you for a hundred raisins.
I dissolved into a teary laugh at his silly note, and a surge of love for Jess flooded my heart. My fingers tugged on the ribbon to loosen the bow. I paused and looked into his eyes, aware of the difficulty I’d been experiencing with him lately. Yet aware, too, that we had shared a deep and resilient love during our twenty-six years together. Though Jess’ note exposed the fact that he had likely shopped for his gift after being prompted by my gift to him that morning, I instantly forgave him.
I read the note again, out loud this time. “I love you for a hundred raisins.”
My voice softened into a whisper near the end. I reached across the table with both hands and looped the ribbon around my husband’s shoulders. “I love you, too,” I said.
He held one of my hands and grinned at how touched I was by his card. When Jess directed his attention my way, he knew just how to reach me, and he could always make me laugh. For the past two and a half years, though, his attention had often felt tucked away, unavailable to me. To be fair, since our sons, Cam and Saddler, had left for college, I may have expected more in the way of intimacy from Jess than I had before the house became ours alone. Perhaps starting tonight things would improve. Inside of me, a party balloon floated with hope.
“Go ahead, open it up,” Jess said, releasing my hand and leaning forward to watch.
I unwrapped the package. Inside glimmered blue topaz ear studs. Topaz was my birthstone and blue my favorite color.
I looked up, eyebrows lifted, my smile still in place, assuming he was teasing me. Jess smiled back at me, looking open and at ease.
“To match your beautiful eyes, AnnieLaurie,” he said. They were the same words he had said last Valentine’s Day when he presented me with this exact gift. A pair of topaz ear studs, same starry blue. Which at that moment I was wearing. In fact, hadn’t removed since he’d given them to me eleven months before.
It all came rushing in. How Jess lived in perpetual unawareness, like a second grader who came to school wide-eyed that he was late, wearing unmatched socks, having forgotten his lunch. Jess walked through his life and our marriage with this same benign look of happy innocence. Yet until now I had never been conscious of this as a source of our trouble. Or felt quite so angry.
I could barely breathe. I felt as if a geyser churned in my chest, and at any moment it would explode noisily into scalding tears.
“I’m going to the restroom,” I said when I could speak. I grabbed my purse and the satiny gift box. I passed the waiter bringing our bottle of champagne down the wide staircase from the lounge above. The Granary was built on the side of the butte, full of windows full of Tetons, though on this January evening I only saw myself reflected in the window glass, long rippling velvet skirt and silky shirt, standing at the banister.
Some women say they could live through anything but the loss of a child. But, for me, just as unbearable would be the loss of my mate. I stood on the steps, watching my husband follow the beads of champagne as they spilled into the glasses. I was forty-six years old, married to Jess for more than half my life. And I felt then as if I had lost him just as surely as if he hadn’t shown up for our anniversary dinner at all.
Jess didn’t look toward the staircase, though by then the waiter was glancing my way, as were a few other diners, so I continued up the steps. In the coatroom I wrapped my handwoven scarf around my neck, removed my coat from the hanger, found my fringed leather gloves and stepped out into the whipping snow to the car.
The switchbacks down the butte were iced and treacherous, and I gripped the steering wheel and negotiated the steep, curving road in four-wheel drive. This road always made me uneasy, but this January night my thoughts scared me more. I was heading for the airport.
I caught a shuttle to Denver, then another flight to Orlando, rented a car and headed straight for the Atlantic Ocean, a place where I’d always found comfort. I arrived a couple hours before dawn. Now wrapped in a hotel towel, I stood before the sliding-glass doors that led to a balcony overlooking the beach, undecided about what to do next. I barely noticed my lack of sleep; instead, I felt stunned by a sense of loss. I realized that I had been working hard on a marriage in which my partner worked very little. Resentment, built from years of keeping this fact from myself, finally toppled like a many-storied building, burying me beneath it. For two hours I had been tossing and turning in a hotel bed far from home, as if trying to wriggle out from under the rubble.
Now I realized it would take more than a few sleepless nights to tidy up this mess. Yet I didn’t have any notion of what it would take. All I knew was that once my marriage had been a romance full of laughter, sweetness and spirit, and that Jess and I had met every tough time with the determination to work it out, while couples around us broke apart, switched partners, sued each other for custody of kids, cutting horses and golden retrievers.
I checked the clock beside the bed—seven a.m.—and subtracted two hours for Mountain Time. I should phone Jess, report my whereabouts.
I didn’t look forward to the call. Jess’ first response would be to construct a story to excuse his actions; his second would be to diminish the issue. This time, I’d refuse to get entangled in his defenses. For once—despite how unreasonable it was to flee three thousand miles without notice—I had taken action and not just talked about my trouble while following Jess around the house, trying to hold his attention.
As I hovered near the phone, I pictured Jess’ expression when I opened the earrings and I realized the guy was so intent on shedding responsibility that he turned innocence into a vice. He wore it like a mask, peering at the world through a pair of blue eyes as clear and faultless as those topaz stones he had given me.
See? Already distance on my marriage was offering insight.
I will never forget looking up the staircase at the Granary in time to glimpse the vanishing hem of AnnieLaurie’s black velvet skirt. Why the hell was she going to the restroom? That girl had a bladder the size of a rain barrel. Her mother had taught her to never use the public restrooms at school, and so she had trained herself at age five to wait all day until she got home to use her own bathroom. Something else rang off-key that night. A kind of déjà vu floated around while I watched her open the box holding the earrings.
After she went upstairs, I sat there and sat there until our waiter approached and said, “Sir.” I looked at him with a kind of wariness. As if he were going to tell me something more upsetting than that the chef was out of food for the night. Something about Annie. But what could go wrong in a ladies’ restroom, I encouraged myself, besides falling into the toilet?
“Sir, would you like to order now, since the lady has left?”
“The lady left? What lady?” I asked stupidly.
The waiter gestured to AnnieLaurie’s glass of champagne, tiredly sending up a bubble now and then.
“What do you mean she left?”
“She took her coat . . . and drove away.” The guy looked miserable. “They told me upstairs.”
“In my car? Our car?”
I knew it. During that long wait I had stared out the window, my mind deliberately blank. I mean, my brain had removed its own batteries. Now I spoke to the waiter in a voice I’d use asking a doctor, It’s cancer, isn’t it? I said, “Black and red?”
I yanked the ribbon Annie had placed around my shoulders, wadded it up and tossed it across the table beside the torn wrapping paper from the gift I’d given her.
As it turned out Davy, who worked in our store years ago, now managed the bar upstairs. He offered to drive me home in half an hour. While I waited, I finished the bottle of champagne. Figured I’d go home and face the music with a bit of a buzz. I pictured Annie sitting on the sofa with her well-ordered grievance laid like a snare, waiting for me to place one word in the noose. It’d be a full hour before I could get Annie giggling over the problem and carry her off to bed.
While Davy drove and described his day of skiing—“I’m not kidding, Jess, powder to the armpits.”—I worked up a good anger about the wasted ninety-five-dollar bottle of champagne. Somewhere in the back of my mind, Annie’s probable response bubbled to the surface: That the money wasn’t as wasted as I was. Hell, I’d be better off apologizing right away, I decided. But all the while I knew this night was not usual. Neither of us was the dramatic type. We didn’t slam doors or yell or throw pots of oatmeal at the walls. And we never just up and left the other guy.
Davy dropped me off in the driveway. My heart beat so fast I detoxed on the doorstep. Sober as the sun, I opened the door and found an empty house.
When Annie didn’t turn up by midnight, I called my friend Judge Eddy and urged him to discreetly ask questions at the police station about any road accidents, avalanches, a woman hurt.
I finished throwing up the champagne about three in the morning. At five she phoned.
He picked up the phone on the first ring. “Jess,” I said. “Annie Laurie. God, are you okay? Where are you?” “Florida.” “Florida.” He said it like a foreign word, as if trying to wring meaning out of incomprehensible sounds. He even pronounced it Flor-da, leaving out a syllable.
I didn’t know how to explain myself, so I jumped in with the obvious. “I’m going to spend the day here.”
“Well, maybe longer. You know, take some time.”
“No, I don’t know. What the hell are you doing?”
I had no idea what I was doing. Leaving like this was the most impulsive act of my life. Then the perfect answer came to me. Last year, at the store, we’d hired a professor from an East Coast university who was taking the winter off in Jackson Hole to rest and do research.
I said, “I’m taking a sabbatical.”
“A teaching sabbatical?” Jess sounded completely puzzled.
“A marriage sabbatical.”
“Shit, what does that mean?”
“A semester or two off. You know . . . some time.”
“Annie, why?” Anger crept into his voice; he sounded defensive already. “What the hell? Didn’t you like the earrings?”
Jess thought he was making a joke. “Nice as the ones you gave me last Valentine’s Day.”
“Really? Oh. Annie, gee,” he said boyishly. I heard him sigh; then he gathered momentum. “But look, it’s not like I got my girlfriends mixed up. I got my earrings mixed up. We can solve this. You don’t just walk out on me in a restaurant while I wait and wait and the champagne goes flat and people stare.”
How embarrassing. I hadn’t thought of that. Then I came to myself. This was often how our arguments turned. I slipped easily out of my own feelings and sank deeply into his.
I held my silence.
“Please come home, Annie. We’ll talk.”
My favorite thing—talk—and he knew it. However, it really meant: I talked, and Jess sat with his jaw muscles clenched, his eyes staring into the distance.
The image settled something for me. I could not take that look one more time without doing something a lot more drastic than going on a temporary leave of absence. If I didn’t deal with the feelings I’d been experiencing in my marriage now, my miseries would continue to mount.
“I’m not coming home. Maybe in a few months.” Suddenly I felt as though there was much catching up to do, as if I had missed a lot of classes and needed to hand in makeup work. I had been accusing Jess of not dealing with our problems, but now I suspected that was true of me. I had pushed my dissatisfactions aside while doing my work and Jess’ at the store, wearing myself down to ensure that I would be too tired to do anything more than numb out each evening on the sofa, too weary even to fight for control of the TV remote.
I would take a sabbatical, rest and do research.
“No more talk, Jess.”
“Look, I’ll fly down. We’ll work this out. I love you. I’m sorry about the earrings. I just . . . forgot.”
“You didn’t forget, Jess. I’ve worn those earrings for almost a year. Every day, all day. You don’t look at me anymore.”
“Oh, now it’s that I don’t look at you. Usually it’s that I don’t listen to you. What next, Annie, I don’t smell you?”
“I need a rest from being your wife, Jess. Don’t come down; give me the time I need. Maybe a few months will do it. I’ll be fine. My family is close.”
“A few months is too long. Besides, even your sister, Daisy, would notice your presence among her piles of crap after that long and wonder why you’re still around.”
“I’m not at Daisy’s.” Leave it to Jess to get smart-alecky when he lost the reins. “I’m in a hotel. I’ll let you know when I want to see you. And I will want to, Jess.” My voice had begun to shake. I hung up.
I looked around the hotel room, then sat on the edge of the bed on bunched-up sheets, where I’d tried to rest those couple hours before dawn. I opened my mouth to inhale a big breath, and a wail rose from my chest that sounded so alien I nearly checked behind me to find the source. A sob wrenched my body, doubling me in half. I curled onto the bed and muffled my face in the pillow. I bawled loud and hoarse, sounding like a bison calf lost in the sagebrush. I bawled until my throat ached and my stomach muscles were sore from the heaving.
I sat up and reached for tissues on the bedside table. Blew my nose and saw that the early-morning sky was brightening. The rosy carpet almost matched the line of clouds lifting the sun into place. Crying made me more miserable, as if the baptism of tears gave confirmation to my sorrow. Even so, I lay down on the bed again and let the pillow absorb more whimpers.
I must have dozed off a bit. When I opened my eyes, my palms immediately pressed against my chest, and I wondered what awful injury I’d sustained. Undigested grief, as if a bonfire, smoldered there. More like a “bonefire,” as it was called centuries back, a fire of bones burned inside me.
I got up from the bed, blew my nose again, tightened my towel across my chest, walked outside and sat on the end of a chaise longue, which barely fit on the small balcony. I pressed my face between the twisted wrought-iron posts of the railing like a toddler peering through crib bars. My skin felt numb; my thoughts refused to follow my eyes’ gaze outward. I tried to appreciate the softness of the morning air, the lulling expanse of rocking water.
My good spirits had always burbled naturally like a spring out of the ground, for no good reason other than the pleasure of its own flow. In Wyoming ranchers ran their trucks over and over such spontaneous springs to flatten them out. That was how I felt now, flattened out. I wanted to blame Jess, but I was the one who had laid myself out on that path. My mantra for our years together: if Jess and the boys are happy, then so am I. I waited for a hint of what any of them wanted, then worked to get it for them. Jess wanted a happy marriage, healthy kids, a successful ski shop, a comfortable home, friends over for candlelit dinners. I wanted those things, too, and we loved each other. That should make for a good lifetime partnership, shouldn’t it?
Yet I had allowed him to float behind me, his hand weighing down my shoulder as I pumped upstream, swimming toward those goals we had both agreed on—that happy marriage, those healthy kids, the successful ski shop, the comfortable home, the friends. I felt mad that he had allowed me to do all the work, and resented his passive innocence when I complained and he responded that no one asked me to do it all.
“So take a day off, Annie. I’ll cover the store.”
I took him up on that once and Jess slept in the following morning, hadn’t even set his alarm clock after making his noble offer.
But what was the use of recalling all these bits and pieces? It was the big picture I needed. A process involving time and distance.
What did she want from me? I didn’t know what she wanted. She wanted too much, for one thing. Talk, talk, talk. Second sentence and my eyes began to drift about the room, my mind followed, and next I was leafing through an L. L. Bean catalog. And AnnieLaurie was furious.
“You don’t listen to me.”
Once, she was predictable. I didn’t need to listen. Once, she just needed to vent anger or rant out a decision. I’d know she was finished when she’d say, “Oh, that’s what I’ll do.” I could even get away with saying, “What will you do?” and, I’m not kidding, she never accused me of not listening, even though I’d followed the whole plot of a Hill Street Blues rerun. She just welcomed the chance to repeat it.
Now, if I didn’t listen to her the first time—pounce.
As if any human could change an old habit overnight.
In a way, AnnieLaurie changed overnight.
One morning about five years ago, I woke up first, leaned on my elbow and watched her sleep. Slowly her eyelids lifted and she caught me. She recognized right away it wasn’t a sexual invitation.
She said, “What?”
I said, “I don’t know who you are anymore.”
She said, “You’re right; you don’t.”
Well, I didn’t want to talk about it. I got up and showered.
Still wrapped in a towel, sitting on the cramped balcony, I realized I had no appropriate clothing to wear in order to leave this place. Heavy velvet skirt and cowboy boots might startle people in the tropics. Before solving that problem, I wanted to get the hard phone calls over.
First, my dad. My sons, both cranking up for their spring semesters at the University of Wyoming, could wait until I felt steadier; they weren’t likely to hear anything from Jess. If either of them phoned home, Jess would downplay my leaving or fail to mention it at all. Later he’d reach into his grab bag for a story about his omission—he forgot, misunderstood, intended to do it later. Jess didn’t like being connected to bad news. I was reminded again that I had been in this marriage alone much of the time, and the thought raised fresh tears.
I tamped my grief, left the balcony and dialed Dad’s number.
“Annie L, hi. What’s up, sweetheart?” Never one to talk on the phone, he was probably watching the morning news on TV and anxious to get back to it. I worried for a moment about alarming Dad with my own news, but not much alarmed my father. He had kept himself at arm’s length from emotions—his or anyone else’s—since Mom’s illness and death four years ago, and prior to that, he had let Mom do the emotions for both of them. So I stated the facts: I had left Jess and was now in Florida, just up the coast a hundred miles.
“Left Jess where?”
Dad took a moment before answering; I felt him gathering his thoughts or pulling himself away from the TV. “Well, honey, there’s always somebody worse off than you. They found a Cuban gal all alone on a raft bumping off the edge of Bathtub Reef last night.”
I began to cry. “Is she all right?”
Meet the Author
Tina Welling's essays have been published in magazines and several anthologies.
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