Forms of Shelterby Angela Davis-Gardner
Perched amid the leaves of the Osage orange tree in her stepfather’s backyard, Beryl Fonteyn observes the life around her—Mama’s desperate attempts to gain Jack’s approval by writing her novel, which he mercilessly critiques; her brother Stevie’s unhealthy fascination with acting out events from the Bible; and Jack’s obsession
Perched amid the leaves of the Osage orange tree in her stepfather’s backyard, Beryl Fonteyn observes the life around her—Mama’s desperate attempts to gain Jack’s approval by writing her novel, which he mercilessly critiques; her brother Stevie’s unhealthy fascination with acting out events from the Bible; and Jack’s obsession with his bees—all the while imagining that her runaway father will one day return. But as Beryl’s adolescent turmoil collides with the confines of Jack’s eccentric home, a shattering secret will divide their loyalties—and in one irrevocable moment the home that Beryl’s family has found, their shelter in the storm, will be torn apart forever. . . .
“Pulls the reader into its clutches, then refuses to let go. As Beryl Fonteyn recounts her troubled but not unusual childhood, Davis-Gardner’s seductive poetics lure us on. . . . Captivating.”—Boston Globe
“Rarely has an author confronted more honestly one of the deepest betrayals of the notion of family... A deeply moving piece of literature.”—Los Angeles Times
“Davis-Gardner skillfully renders the fine lines that connect sympathy, intimacy and menace. . . . A wise novel.”—Washington Post
“A strong and wise book . . . Angela Davis-Gardner writes with integrity.”—Kaye Gibbons
“What a strong voice Angela Davis-Gardner has, and what a listening heart. Forms of Shelter shows the transcendent power of childhood to heal itself when the adult world cannot or will not."—Anne Rivers Siddons
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
DADDY WENT AWAY when I was five. My clearest memories of him are from that year, those winter mornings when he would wake me before light so we could go feed the pony, just he and I together. At least that was his excuse for waking me so early; later I thought he was telling me goodbye, over and over.
We lived in Virginia in an old house heated by a wood- stove in the living room. When he woke me, those early mornings, Daddy took me out of bed still wrapped in my quilts and carried me downstairs to get dressed by the stove. After he had gone for good I sometimes jolted awake, thinking for an instant that he was about to come, that the sound of the doorknob had wakened me, but then there was only silence and the cold darkness against my face. Before he went away and he really did come to get me in the early mornings, I didn't begin to wake until my face was scraping against the rough wool of his shirt as he carried me down the steps, didn't open my eyes until he put me on the floor in front of the woodstove and said, "Be quick now, Beryl, your pony will be waiting."
While Daddy went to make our breakfast I got dressed, shivering as I peeled off my footed pajamas and the cold shocked my skin. After I had put on the jeans and sweater Daddy had laid out for me, I sat on the sofa and watched the big window for signs of light.
At first it was so dark that all I could see in the window was myself on the sofa and the lamp beside me, but as the sky gradually lightened, my reflection began to fade. I liked the moment when I could just make out the shadowy forms of trees and then I could see them get clearer and clearer like the photographs Daddy made in his darkroom. Taking pictures used to be Daddy's hobby, but now it was his daily bread, his do-re-mi. When Mama knew I was about to be born she had made him give up his job in the dance band and go to work in the darkroom of a photo lab in Richmond. Once when Daddy took me there he printed a picture of me and Mama and Stevie, and I was so amazed to see our faces come up from beneath the water like that, I never forgot how we looked even though I didn't see that photograph again (later I thought Daddy must have taken it with him to remember us by): Mama with her pointed-chin smile and lipstick so dark it looked black; Stevie, a baby she was holding up like he was for sale; me grinning to show how all I wanted for Christmas was my two front teeth.
Daddy carried the breakfast into the living room and put it on the coffee table. "Eat up, skinny ribs," he said, pushing my bowl toward me. Daddy always fixed my oatmeal with a crust of sugar and a lump of butter so big it turned the milk yellow. Mama didn't put on so much sugar or butter and she didn't give me cocoa for breakfast like Daddy; I always ate quickly so she wouldn't come and see.
If Daddy finished eating first he would take his saxophone out of the case and polish the long silver throat until it gleamed in the firelight and made bright, wobbly reflections of our faces and the room, but he never played it then, never made a sound except when he pulled out the mouthpiece and blew on it as if he were testing a microphone. He didn't talk either, but I thought that was to keep from waking Mama and Stevie; I did not know then that he was sad. But after he went on the road with the band, leaving behind the note signed "Sadly, Daniel," and I began to relive these mornings, then I could see the sadness in his hands as he laid the saxophone back in its case and shut the woodstove door. Later I remembered asking him why he closed the stove and his saying, in the saddest voice, "So everything won't go up in smoke while we're gone."
By the front door in the hall he bent down to help me put on my jacket. Daddy's eyes were blue—Grandmuddy later told me this was so—and I know his skin was rough, I remember that myself, but his face has been harder to hold in my memory than anything else about him. I have had no photographs to help me, for Mama cut out his face from the family pictures and threw away those of him alone. Later, when we lived with Jack, and I tried to re-create in my mind that moment with Daddy in the hall, I could see his rough skin, but the eyes were harder to imagine because of Jack's eyes, which were also blue. What I remember best from that moment in the hall is my jacket, the silkiness of its lining against my wrists, and then the quick sound of the zipper as Daddy did it up.
Outside there were pools of shadow where the trees were and it was very cold. The grass was a mat of tiny ice blades that Daddy's boots crunched through, but I hardly made any sound at all. It seemed a long way to the shed, where the grain was kept. One of my hands was warm in Daddy's, but the other turned pink from cold. He showed me how to make a fist with a hole in the middle and then blow through it to thaw my fingers. I liked the way my breath came out the other side in white puffs as if I were smoking a cigar.
The cold was thicker inside the shed. I stood at the doorway by the bucket while Daddy went to get the sack of feed. He came back carrying the sack on his shoulder as if it were a baby. He stood in the doorway for a moment, with his eyes smiling at me but his mouth pretending to be serious as he reached into his pocket and held out his closed fist, then dropped into my palm the lump of sugar I was to give the pony. After I put the sugar in my pocket, Daddy poured the feed into the bucket.
As he tipped over the sack I squatted so that I could hold my hands beneath the grain. It felt cold and crumbly and left a fine, gritty powder on my skin.
I hated for that part to be over, because next I would have to feel the pony's awful mouth against my hand. I walked a little bit behind as Daddy carried the grain bucket to the fence. "You're not a sissy, are you?" he said, frowning a little as he looked back at me.
I peered out from between the slats of the fence as Daddy called "Ho, boy!" and banged the grain bucket against the post. "Ho, boy!" There was an answering whinny, and soon I could hear him cantering up the hill from the dark part of the pasture. I could hear his hoofs and his snorting breath before I could see him; the way he took shape out of the dark made my heart thump and the sugar go damp in my hand. As the pony came closer and I could see his eyes and big nostrils, I had to lock my knees to keep from backing away.
The pony was a Shetland, with a long black mane and bangs that nearly covered his eyes. "Give him the sugar," Daddy said. "There's nothing to be afraid of." Holding Daddy's arm I stepped up on the fence rail and held out the sugar on my trembling palm.
He sneered. There were the long yellow teeth. I held my breath and did not move. But then with just a tickle and a wash of hot breath it was over; I was safe until next time.
Then Daddy set the bucket on the ground, on the pony's side of the fence. His halter rattled against the bucket and he began to eat, a loud crunching like scissors through heavy cloth. Daddy swung me to the top rail of the fence and I snuggled back against him. This was my favorite part of the morning, the two of us quietly looking out at the pasture as the sunlight moved slowly down the hill toward the pond. The cold air made my eyes water so that I could see everything in such sharp focus: the starched blades of grass shining in the sun, the white sycamore on the far hill, the giant scribble marks on the frozen pond. When Daddy was in his slow mood we stayed long enough to see the light touch the pond. On those days Daddy smoked a cigarette, holding me tight with one arm as he reached into his jacket for the pack of Luckys. He did it all with one hand: shook out the cigarette, put it in his mouth, and lit it by striking the match on the fence post. Then he brought the other arm around me, and I settled back against his chest again. After Daddy had gone I could close my eyes and remember the warmth of him behind me, and the smells of his brown plaid jacket, a mixture of tobacco, wool, and cold air.
We were facing west, looking into the distance where Daddy was soon to go. Later it shocked me to realize that while I was looking at the line of mist on the horizon and trying to imagine, as Daddy told me to, the Blue Ridge Mountains, he must have been thinking, those last days, of the city far beyond.
Sometimes Daddy called that mist the wild blue yonder. I remember he called it that the last day. The pony was still crunching grain in the bucket, and the light was only partway down the hill.
Daddy hadn't even lit his cigarette when he said, "Just think how it would be to throw your leg over old what's his name and go cantering off into the wild blue yonder. What is his name, anyway?"
I never liked that question because it meant it was almost time to leave; my deliberation about the pony's name was always the last thing before Daddy swung me up on his shoulders and took me back to the house, where Mama and Stevie would be awake and wondering what took us so long.
"I don't know," I said, looking at the pony, taking my time. "Prince? Here, Prince, Prince, Prince."
The pony munched on, not raising his head.
"Nope," Daddy said, "that doesn't seem to be it." He knew my method: if the pony seemed indifferent or snorted, he hated the name; if he raised his head, he approved. I was torn between two names, Smoky and Prince, both horses in books Daddy had read to me.
"Smoky," I said, "Here, Smoky, Smoky, Smoky."
I could hear teeth against metal so I quickly said "Prince! No, I mean Smoky!" just as the pony raised his head.
"See you later, Prince Smoky," Daddy said, lifting me by the waist and settling me on his shoulders.
"No," I cried, "Prince or Smoky." But we were already jouncing across the grass. I looked back at the pony forlornly watching us go. "Wait, Daddy, I didn't get to choose."
"Be quicker tomorrow," he said.
Later I wondered if he knew it was the last day. I couldn't tell, thinking back on it, from his voice, but I did remember that as he carried me on his shoulders to the house, he was humming "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" and he kept squeezing my feet one after the other as if to memorize the bones.
The next day, Mama told me he'd gone to Chicago to be with the band; then she lay on her bed and cried. I walked down to the edge of the pasture and looked at the pony with his head over the fence, but I didn't cry. Daddy had given up the band when I was born, so it was my fault he was gone. He would come back, though, or send for me when I was old enough; for a long time I believed this.
I believed it when we moved a few months later, Mama and Stevie and I, from Virginia to North Carolina. I kept believing during the years we lived with Grandpa and Grandmuddy and even, for a while, when we lived with Jack.
JACK SAVED US, Mama said.
When we first lived with Grandpa and Grandmuddy, Mama worked in a department store selling perfume. Grandmuddy took me to see her once; I remember how excited I was as we rode the escalator to her floor. Grandmuddy had bought me a pinwheel, which I held high like a flag. I expected that the pinwheel would twirl with the speed of our ascent, and that Mama would see it and guess it was mine. But there was neither twirl nor welcoming smile; Mama was waiting on a customer—a man—and did not at first see us. My heart quickened as we walked toward her. How glamorous she looked behind the glass case of glittering bottles and atomizers, how unattainable.
Her dark hair was in a smooth pageboy; her face was sternly beautiful. The carpet was deep, the air fragrant; in the distance a discreet bell chimed insistently, the same note over and over. That Mama was not ruffled by the bell impressed me; she understood the language of this exotic world.
I put my chin on the sharp, warm countertop and watched her move silkily about in her red-and-white polka-dot dress. She saw me and winked. The man—dark-haired and, if I let my eyes go slightly out of focus, a little like Daddy, though shorter—seemed very pleased with her. As he left, he gave her a lingering smile.
Mama glanced at me and reached for something beneath the counter. It was a small, dark blue bottle; she carried it toward me smiling, her face alight with intention. "Hold out your wrists," she said, and opened the bottle. I stood with my arms stretched uncomfortably across the high countertop as she tipped the bottle against her finger and touched the sweet-smelling liquid to my wrists and the insides of my arms where they bend. Then she put the top back on the bottle, put the bottle in my hand, and closed my fingers over it. "You're old enough for this now," she said in a hushed, serious voice.
When we went down the escalator, Grandmuddy had to carry the pinwheel because I refused to let go of the perfume; I held it in my pocket. After we had gone out the revolving door into the heat, I took out the perfume and read its name: Evening in Paris.
Meet the Author
Angela Davis-Gardner spent a year in Japan as a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Tsuda College, which inspired her acclaimed novel Plum Wine, as well as her latest novel, Butterfly's Child. She is also the author of Felice and Forms of Shelter. An Alumni Distinguished Professor Emerita at North Carolina State University, she lives in Raleigh.
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