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News of the Spirit [NOOK Book]

Overview

New York Times bestselling author Lee Smith offers her signature mix of wit and heartbreak, as well as her “unerring ear for the lyrical and the down and dirty,” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) in this superb collection of stories.

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News of the Spirit

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Overview

New York Times bestselling author Lee Smith offers her signature mix of wit and heartbreak, as well as her “unerring ear for the lyrical and the down and dirty,” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) in this superb collection of stories.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Whack-a-Mole!

"In 1958, when my father had his famous affair with Carroll Byrd, I knew it before anybody. I don't know how long he'd been having the affair before I found out about it -- or, to be exact, before I realized it. Before it came over me. One day I was riding my bike all over town the way I always did, and the next I was riding my bike all over town knowing it, and this gave an extra depth, a heightened dimension and color, to everything. Before, I'd just been any old thirteen-year-old girl on a bike. Now, I was a girl whose father was having an affair -- a tragic girl, a dramatic girl. A girl with a burning secret. Everything was different."
--from "Live Bottomless," by Lee Smith

Lee Smith is in Key West with her husband, on a week's vacation after the book tour for her collection of short stories, News of the Spirit. "There's this terrible game at county fairs called 'Whack-a-Mole,'" she says to me on the phone, in that delightful quick-to-laugh southern-sugared voice. "Do you know it?"

Can't say as I do.

"It involves a big hammer," she says, "and a big painted board full of round holes from which mole puppets erratically appear. To win, you must keep smacking down the moles.

"I always feel like that about my writing," she says. "Things come popping up -- stories and scenes, places and ideas -- and I think, No, not yet, and I keep hitting it and making it go down."

Smith is a writer with a seemingly endless supply of moles to whack -- she is filled with funny and unruly stories, all competing for her attention along with various other, heartfelt distractions. There are book tours, which at this stage in a career that includes 12 preternaturally readable books (nine novels, three story collections), she says, feel like a series of "little family reunions" in the bookstores that have supported her. "I'm a writer who writes about things that people in New York, the marketing people anyway, don't think can sell. Country music, for instance.

"My last novel [Saving Grace] was about Baptist fundamentalist snake-handlers." She laughs. It is the contagious laugh of an ideal friend. "I owe a lot to the people in those bookstores," she says, "who for years have come out to my readings and bought my book, enough that I keep getting to publish the next one."

There's also the heartfelt distraction of her teaching schedule at North Carolina State, where Smith typically puts as much work into her students' work as she does her own. "It can be exhausting," she says, "but I really love to teach. I love the contact with people who are so bright and so eager and still all fired up about writers and writing."

There are also the adult literacy classes in eastern Kentucky that, in the past few years, she's volunteered to teach. "For me, it brought back the whole thrill of reading and writing," she says.

But all mole-bashing aside, maybe the biggest challenge is knowing when a story is ready to be written, something that Smith says is more a matter of feeling than intellect.

"'Live Bottomless' was a story that for years I knew I was going to write," she says of the sharply observed coming-of-age novella that, literally and figuratively, is the heart of News of the Spirit. "I really did come down here to Key West with my parents, when they were trying to patch up their marriage. My mother and I really did see them filming 'Operation Petticoat' -- Tony Curtis and Cary Grant and that pink submarine. And the sign for the exotic dancers that said 'Live Bottomless.' And the Blue Marlin Hotel! It's still here! It's hardly changed at all!"

The autobiographical hooks are changed quite a bit however, says Smith, and they are now just the framework of the story.

That long-battered mole of an idea is certainly no worse for the wear.

******

"People tend to think that short stories are things tossed off between bigger things," Smith says. "I was a story writer first. Things always occur to me in story or novella length. There's just about nothing I love more than a story that's about 100 typed pages, that gives you the depth of a novel, where you can get into the characters and see how they change over time, where you can get all the pleasures of a novel without any of the drudgery."

It's a continued puzzlement to me why people who wished they read more but can't seem to find the time tend to spend what time they have more on novels than short stories. Almost invariably, stories are the fastest, best introduction to a writer's work. This is certainly true of Smith.

"Part of what I love about your novels," I say, "is the way they're so often made up of story-length set pieces, from different points of view." The much-imitated Oral History, for example. Or my favorite of all Smith's novels, The Devil's Dream: a lean multigenerational family saga and perhaps the finest fiction ever written about American music.

"That's my favorite of my books!" Smith exclaims, and then she laughs that laugh, and I am so charmed I am about to implode. "I'm so glad you liked it too!"

That book, she says, is another example of her mole-whacking theory.

"I grew up hearing old-time country music," she said. "We all grow up with music that's the soundtrack of our childhood. For me, that was it. I remember sitting out by the lake on a hot summer night, watching fireflies and swatting mosquitoes, and hearing my father's friend take out his guitar and start playing and singing that song, 'The Devil's Dream.' I always knew that I was going to write about that music."

There is a pause. We both think about this scene, Smith as memory, me as a dream she conjured up for me. Finally, Smith laughs.

"I just keep playing the game," she says. We keep talking for a while and somehow we get on to the subject of Elvis. "Elvis!" she says. "There's another mole that I keep whackin'."

—Mark Winegardner

Katherine Whittamore

At her best, she sounds like Scout (from To Kill a Mockingbird) grown up, at her worst a more-cute-than-usual Fannie Flagg. Lee Smith is Virginia-born. She was raised in the mountains where the words "story" and "lie" are interchangeable; her first yarn, at age 8, chronicled the romance between Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell. Smith also has a fine ear for things Southern. In "News of the Spirit," one of the six longish stories in this collection, a fussy aunt threatens her niece by "putting the quietus" on her. Afternoons are hotter "than the hinges of hell." Girls wear bracelets made of frat pins, are elected Miss Bright Leaf Tobacco and exclaim "Pearl Harbor!" when they're cornered. Mamas discuss whether Dinah Shore really has "negro blood."

The best story is "Live Bottomless," in which a humid adolescent named Jenny watches in horror and sympathy as her parents' marriage swirls apart. Eventually the three travel to Key West for "a geographical cure." But first, Jenny is hustled off to the quietus-putting aunt's house, a place awash in piqué jackets for the Mixmaster and crocheted skirts around the Jergens lotion bottle. It's a Very Christian household: "[Jesus] apparently prized neatness, cleanliness and order above all things; I imagined that the plastic runners on the living room carpet and the cellophane covers on all the lampshades were His idea."

Less successful is "The Bubba Stories," in which a coed makes up a fictional brother to render her life more colorful. Smith is trying for picaresque, but the proceedings seem too cloying by half. The title story is another brother tale (he's real this time, and has been in and out of mental institutions). But unlike "Bubba," "News of the Spirit" has a sense of insight, a welcome spareness. Think Raymond Carver if he liked adjectives. No lie. -- Salon

San Francisco Chronicle
These stories capture the flavor of the South....After ten novels and three collections, Smith has become a master at coupling tragedy and humor.
NY Times Book Review
Her best stories are guilty pleasures...Lyrical and moving.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Many of the Southern women in Smith's latest collection of short fiction (following the novels Saving Grace and The Christmas Letters) view storytelling as a means of survival. In prose that's direct and simple, by turns bitterly funny and lyrical, Smith inhabits the voices of women young and old as they try to muddle through the chaos of their lives. In two coming-of-age stories, "The Bubba Stories" and "Live Bottomless," college student Charlene and 13-year-old Jenny portray themselves and their worlds (mid-1960s collegiate life and late '50s suburbia, respectively) with steely humor and an unrelenting eye. For these two aspiring writer types, storytelling and identity are deeply intertwined. The same goes for the long-estranged twins, Paula and Johnny, of the title story, who find that the deep connection between them has its origins in the storytelling and make-believe play of their childhood. And in "The Happy Memories Club," a moribund nursing home resident finds that writing down her life story is the only way she can recover the acerbic but passionate self she's repressed for so long. Smith excels at creating characters somewhat boggled by the reality of who they've becomeby their lovers and homes, their jobs and their cars, haircuts and bodiesand who, consequently, feel a pressing need to explain themselves to themselves. One thing they never doubt is the correctness of their opinions, especially concerning the proper standards of behavior for a Southern lady, and the failings of "white trash." Smith's humor is pointed but gentle; her characters may be priggish and narrow-minded, but they are never mean. These five narratives are packed with period details (one family has a bomb shelter, a typical 1950s phenomenon) and social observations (the time when wearing blue jeans "meant you were poor") that unobtrusively propel and add texture to the story lines. Such obsession with detail makes Smith's heroines both distinctively Southern and universally feminine. Author tour. (Sept.)
Library Journal
The "Southernness" of the South, especially for women, is the overriding thematic impression one comes away with after reading this engaging collection of short stories. Set in various Southern towns in time periods ranging from the Fifties to the present, they present female protagonists alternately struggling against and reinforcing the confines of their lives in restrictive Southern communities. This is not a new theme, of course, and at times the characters themselves are close to stereotypethe pampered Southern belle, the gold-digging bimbo, the romantic young girl with the burning visions of escape. Still, Smith (The Christmas Letters, LJ 9/1/96) somehow manages to transcend the limitations of her characters and make them real human beings. The best story, however, "The Happy Memories Club," is about a true mold-breaker: an elderly woman who stubbornly refuses to accept society's notions of what a nursing-home resident should be and do. Filled with humor and those marvelous details of Southern life that any native will recognize, this work is definitely a worthwhile purchase for Southern fiction collections.Kay Hogan, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham
Library Journal
The 'Southernness' of the South, especially for women, is the overriding thematic impression one comes away with after reading this engaging collection of short stories. Set in various Southern towns in time periods ranging from the '50s to the present, they present female protagonists alternately struggling against and reinforcing the confines of their lives in restrictive Southern communities. This is not a new theme, of course, and at times the characters themselves are close to stereotypethe pampered Southern belle, the gold-digging bimbo, the romantic young girl with the burning visions of escape. Still, Smith somehow manages to transcend the limitations of her characters and make them real human beings. The best story, however, 'The Happy Memories Club,' is about a true mold-breaker: an elderly woman who stubbornly refuses to accept society's notions of what a nursing-home resident should be and do. -- Kay Hogan, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Kirkus Reviews
All six of the stories in Smith's third collection (Cakewalk: Me and My Baby View the Eclipse) have been previously published, so serious students of southern fiction will find much that's familiar here, though none the less enjoyable. Smith writes affectionately of the small social distinctions between working-class and middle-class southerners. Often at the center of her stories is a woman with odd notions or airs, of which she must be disabused, and her chatty narrators embrace a populace of lovable eccentrics. Smith's clearest aesthetic statement here surfaces in 'The Happy Memories Club,' which concerns an old-age home resident's feisty refusal to render her past through rose-colored glasses—the way everyone else in her writing group does. 'The Bubba Stories' also focuses on the creation of fiction. But in this case it's a reverse parable: A scholarship student at a fancy girl's college invents a more glamorous life for herself, yet doesn't discover her voice as a writer until she turns to what she knows best—her ordinary family. The prissy, spinsterish narrator of 'Blue Wedding' returns to her small-town home to settle her father's estate and finds herself loosening up with some iced tea and vodka. The long novella, 'Live Bottomless,' offers a young girl's perspective on her parents' troubled marriage. After her father leaves his skittish wife for a local artist, the narrator must live with her fundamentalist relatives. But her parents give it another chance on a month-long trip to Key West, where the filming of a Hollywood movie seems to bring just the right level of romance back into their marriage. The equally long 'News of the Spirit' unites along-estranged brother and sister—he a druggie and dropout; she a bit odd herself and stalled in the unmarried state. Their wild reunion frees her from her long-held guilt concerning her troubled brother. As always, lively, salty, and inviting.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101581087
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 7/3/2012
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,173,313
  • File size: 294 KB

Meet the Author

Lee Smith
Lee Smith was born in Grundy, VA. She is author of ten novels and four story collections.She is a winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, and member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.


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Read an Excerpt

Blue Wedding

Sarah can't keep her mind on the spoons. So she starts over, counting right out loud, "One, two, three, four," pursing her lips in that way she has, fitting each newly polished spoon carefully into its allotted space in the big mahogany silver chest. Thirty-six spoons, all accounted for. Normally this is the kind of job Sarah just loves, but today it's so hot,
hotter than the hinges of hell in here, and she is distracted because Gladiola Rolette, who's polishing the spoons and handing them over to her one by one, will not shut up, not for a single minute. Gradiola beats all! She does not seem to understand that it's her fault it's so hot in here, that she should have called a repairman the instant the air conditioner went on the blink. Gladiola does not even seem to understand that it's her fault Sarah has to count the silver in the first place. But Gladiola just let it all go during the last six months of Daddy's illness, forks and spoons jumbled up together, the butter knives scattered to the four winds. And furthermore, it is perfectly clear that Gladiola has been giving her trashy family the entire run of this house.

Sarah has seen the signs everywhere--unfiltered cigarette butts in the flower beds, a beer can stuck in a planter on the portico, a lipstick smudge on the drinking glass in the downstairs bathroom--why, even the furniture has been rearranged! Gladiola herself would never think of doing such a thing. But her daughters, both of them hussies, would. They've got ideas, Gladiola's girls. Sarah has watched them grow up.

Right now Roxanne, the younger one, could not possibly be a day over seventeen but could pass for thirty, she looks so cheap and jaded with that spiky black hair and all those holes in her ears. Gladiola's older daughter, Missy, is down in Atlanta getting certified to be a massage therapist, or so she says. A massage therapist, ha! Sarah can just imagine. Of course Missy has already had one baby out of wedlock, that fat little girl out there digging in the mint bed right now with a spoon. Probably a silver soup spoon, Sarah would not be one bit surprised.

Little Bonnie comes to work with Gladiola every day, and eats everything in the house. This is a pure fact. Sarah had no idea until she came back to bury Daddy and stayed on to clean out this house. Somebody had to! Oh, a lot has been going on here that Sarah didn't know anything about. These Rolettes have practically taken over.

But of course it is all Hubert's fault. Hubert is Sarah's brother, the district attorney, a rumpled, distracted man. All Hubert cares about is his job, and all his northern egghead wife, Mickey, cares about is taking classes at the community college, where she earns degree after degree, or claims to. So Hubert was perfectly happy to hire as many Rolettes as it took and close his eyes to the havoc they wrought, just as long as everybody stayed out of his hair. Hubert! Hubert has no standards.

Sarah practically slams the knives into the silver chest, thinking of Hubert, Hubert who talked so mean to her the last time she came home and tried to make some reasonable suggestions about what to do with Daddy. Hubert wears wrinkled suits and horn-rimmed glasses way down on the end of his nose. He looked at her over the rims. "Hell, Sarah," he said, "Dad's fine. Just leave him alone. He likes to pile newspapers all over the house, he likes to have Gladiola's granddaughter around, it keeps him company. He likes to stay up and watch the talk shows and then sleep until noon, so what's the harm in it?"

"People ought to get up in the mornings," Sarah said. "A regular schedule never hurt anybody." Sarah herself has not slept past seven a.m. in twenty years. She eats one-half cup of bran cereal with banana for breakfast every morning of her life.

Gladiola, on the other hand, fed her father Pop-Tarts and instant grits. This is a fact. Pop-Tarts and grits! Lord knows what kind of shape his bowels were in by the time of his death; Sarah did not discuss this with Hubert.

But she did bring up the hat. "I just don't think we ought to let him go around looking like that," she said.

Hubert laughed. "Hell, he's eighty-five years old. I think he ought to wear whatever damn kind of a hat he wants to."

So Hubert had destroyed her influence with Daddy, Hubert having his way as usual, Hubert who was possibly even more spoiled than Ashley, God rest her soul, however.

Suddenly Sarah feels awful.

She sits down abruptly on a Chippendale chair at the dining room table. She's so hot! Maybe it's a hot flash, maybe she's getting the change of life. "Is there any ice tea?" she asks Gladiola, who runs to get it.

Thank God! There ought to be iced tea in any decent household in the summertime of course, anybody knows that. Mama was nuts on the subject. And among the three children, Sarah is the only one like Mama, that soft pretty woman Sarah can hardly remember right now, sweet Mama who died of a racing heart twelve years ago.

Sarah left work the minute she got the message, and drove all night long to get home in time to see to every detail of Mama's funeral. Then she volunteered to stay home to take care of Daddy, who was just lost withoutMama, it was really the saddest thing. You can't imagine how he carried on.

But instead, here was Ashley back from California, flat broke, to recuperate from the second of her two divorces.

So Sarah stayed on in Richmond, where she is a buyer for the housewares section of Miller and Rhoads, a perfectly elegant downtown department store with branches in all the suburbs. In Richmond, Sarah has her book group, her bridge club, and a whole host of lovely friends. To be perfectly honest, Sarah was glad to stay in Richmond, in her new condominium with its eggshell walls and its silk ficus in the foyer. Daddy was disorderly and always had been, not to mention his drinking. Drunk and disorderly, ha!

Come to think of it, they were all disorderly--Daddy, Hubert, and Ashley--not to mention all of Hubert's and Ashley's spouses and children, a great straggling parade which Sarah loses track of. Lost, Sarah corrects herself. Which she has lost track of, as Ashley herself is lost.

Poor Ashley wasn't even married to the man who caused her last, fatal pregnancy. At the time, she wasn't married at all, and he was married to somebody else. But she was sure he would marry her, Ashley had confided to Sarah that summer morning nine years ago. They were sitting in the kitchen after breakfast, drinking coffee. It was already hot.
Mama's climbing rose was blooming profusely all over the trellis. Sarah remembers that morning like it was yesterday. Ashley leaned forward, so excited that spots of color stained her porcelain cheeks. She looked like a person running a fever.She spilled coffee on her flowered robe.

"He loves me so much," she said. "You can't imagine." Two weeks later she was dead of an ectopic pregnancy.

Sarah drinks her iced tea. She finishes with the knives: thirty-six of them, all accounted for. She smiles at Gladiola. "There now," she says.

Gladiola grins back. She's a fat, foolish woman, poor white trash if Sarah ever saw it, of course up here in the mountains this is common. People spill over from one social class into another all the time--it's hard to know who's nice. This is not true in Richmond, where the help is black and a proper distance can be maintained.

Sarah has been absent from her job at Miller and Rhoads for five days now, but she will be back on Monday. She can't afford to stay any longer. As it is, they will begin carrying three new lines of china during her absence, all of them informal: Pietri, heavy painted pottery from Italy, covered with fanciful animals and fish; Provence, oversize French china patterned in wild flowers; and Hacienda-Ware from the Southwest, all earth colors
(terra-cotta, sagebrush, sunset, and dawn, ha!), which looks like hell in Sarah's opinion. All of it looks like hell. So does that new girl they've hired to "help" Sarah with the expanded china department, a girl with rat's-nest hair and deadwhite makeup and some kind of a degree in "design." Sarah knows she will hate everything this girl likes.

What Sarah loves with all her heart is her mother's delicate bone china right over there in the breakfront, china so thin you can practically see through it. It will just kill her to split up the set with Hubert, who is totally unable to appreciate it. Well, a salad fork is missing, no surprise. Also two butter knives--no, three butter knives!

Out the window, Sarah sees Everett Sharp drive past in his little green car. Everett Sharp is the undertaker who buried Daddy two days ago. Sarah had lost touch with him since their high school days, but she was pleasantly surprised by his manner: respectful, attentive, but not unctuous. Not pushy. Everett Sharp is a tall, thin balding man, with a red beard and a high potbelly. Sarah has to start over on the soup spoons.

"Let's us stop for lunch now and I'll tell you about the wedding," Gladiola says. Gladiola knows how to get Sarah's attention.

"What wedding?" Sarah is a fool for weddings. She stops counting and wipes her face with a napkin. Actually, she's so hot, she's glad to stop for a while.

"Let's us go on in the kitchen and I'll tell you," Gladiola says.

Sarah closes the lid of the silver chest and goes to sit in the old kitchen rocker while Gladiola makes pimiento cheese sandwiches, Sarah's favorite since childhood.

"Well, you knew Roxanne was fixing to get married," Gladiola begins.

Sarah stares at her. "You mean Missy," she says automatically. It's a shame how Gladiola's face has fallen in like spoonbread around her mouth. She used to be a pretty woman.

"No ma'am," Gladiola answers emphatically. "I mean Roxanne."

"But Roxanne is only seventeen," Sarah says. "Isn't that so?"

"Yes ma'am," Gladiola says. "But can't nobody do a thing with Roxanne once she takes it in her head to do something. She's been like that ever since she was a little girl, ever since she was Bonnie's age."

As if on cue, Bonnie comes tracking dirt across the clean kitchen floor on her way to the sun porch, where she turns on the TV. Sarah sighs, bites her lip, says nothing. It is possible to say too much, she knows this, and really this pimiento cheese is very good.

"Tell me about the wedding," she reminds Gladiola.

"Well, I don't know where Roxanne got this idea, mind you, but she took it into her head that she just had to have a blue wedding."

"A what?"

Gladiola hands Sarah another sandwich, then sits down and grins at her. "A blue wedding! All blue! See, blue is Roxanne's favorite color, always has been, why last year when she was head majorette she forced them to let her make herself a new uniform, blue with gold trim instead of gold with blue."

"Do you mean to tell me that Roxanne had a blue wedding dress?" Sarah fans her face with a copy of Time magazine.

"Ordered it," Gladiola corrects her. "We ordered everything through Judy's Smarte Shoppe. You know Judy is real reliable, so usually everything comes in right when she says it will. We ordered a baby-blue wedding dress and veil, and baby-blue tuxedos for Sean and his brother and the two groomsmen, and three baby-blue dresses with an Empire waist and puff sleeves for the bridesmaids."

"My goodness!" It is all Sarah can think to say.

"But then Roxanne and Tammy--that's her best friend, Tammy Bird--had a big falling-out," Gladiola goes on, "and so Tammy said she wasn't going to be in the wedding after all, and Roxanne said that was fine with her, for Tammy not to be in the wedding, and so Roxanne called Judy up and canceled Tammy's dress. But Judy happened to be out sick that day, well, actually, she was over at Orange County Hospital getting her tubes tied and her mother was keeping the store for her. You know everybody thinks she's got Alzheimer's."

"Who?"

"Mrs. Dewberry," Gladiola says. "Judy's mother. But I don't think she's got it. I think everybody just says that because it's popular."

"What is?" Sarah manages to ask.

"Alzheimer's," Gladiola says. "That's one of those diseases nobody ever heard of until it got popular, and now everybody's got it, like that other one, you know the one I mean, the one where you diet until you die, nobody ever heard of that one until it got popular, either."

"Anorexia," Sarah says weakly.

"Whatever," Gladiola says. She lights a cigarette.

"The wedding," Sarah says.

"Well, so Judy's mother went and canceled the whole order, is what she did, instead of just the one dress, and forgot to say anything about this to Judy, so when the Thursday before the wedding comes and Roxanne's order doesn't come in, Judy calls them up. It's this company in New Jersey."

"Can I have a Coke?" Little Bonnie plants herself in front of Gladiola, but Sarah stands up and gets it herself out of the refrigerator. She gives it to Bonnie, then pushes her back out on the sun porch, where All My Children is on TV. Sometimes Sarah actually watches that show herself, back home in Richmond on her rare days off, of course she'd never admit it to a soul.

"What about the wedding?" Sarah asks when she returns.

"They couldn't have it," Gladiola says. "Judy had to reorder everything."

"Rut I would have thought that since the church was already reserved, I would imagine, and the minister all lined up, and the invitations sent, for heaven's sake..." Horror crosses Sarah's face. "I would have thought that they would hold the wedding regardless, and just find something else to wear. Perhaps something more traditional," she adds hopefully.

"Not on your life!" Gladiola laughs. "Roxanne had her heart set on a blue wedding." Gladiola shakes her head. She acts like it was all out of her hands, every bit of it, like sue is powerless in the world. But Gladiola was the Mother of the Bride! Sarah cannot say a word, she just stares at Gladiola, who goes right on with the story. "Well, Preacher Sizemore said he could marry them anytime they took a notion to do it, so they set another date, and Judy reordered everything, and we got on the telephone and called up everybody we could think of, and so we put it off. But then, do you know what those rascals done?"

"Who?"

"Roxanne and Sean."

"What? What did they do?" Sarah cannot imagine.

"They went ahead and moved in together just like they had gone and gotten married after all! I was mad as fire. But there wasn't nothing I could do of course, you can't do a thing with Roxanne, and they already had this trailer that Sean's uncle had gave them after he built himself a new brick home out on the Bluefield road. It's got an aboveground swimming pool," Gladiola says, "which I think are so ugly."

Sarah unbuttons the top two buttons of her blouse and rolls up the sleeves. " Then what?

"Well, so they move into this trailer, which is already decorated real cute, and Sean buys them a new car, which he's real proud of, that he bought cheap in a bankruptcy auction. A black Trans Am, they were both crazy about that car."

"How old is Sean?" Sarah asks.

"Nineteen," says Gladiola. "So anyway, they get all moved in together, and the wedding is set for two months off, and then Roxanne signs up for that nursing program at Mountain Tech. You know she was always so smart."

Sarah nods. Too smart for her own good, is what Sarah thinks.

"Well, this is when the trouble really starts." Gladiola lights another cigarette. "Sean's a real jealous person, it turns out. He can't stand for her to go anyplace without him, and he especially can't stand for her to drive off anyplace in the car without him. He gets downright peculiar about that car. So anyway, on the day that Roxanne has to register over at Mountain Tech, there's a big thunderstorm, and the computers go down. So it takes her forever to get registered, and it's nearabout dark when she gets back to the trailer."

"Can I have one of those?" Sarah reaches for Gladiola's pack of Salems.

Gladiola nods absently. "All I can say is that Sean Skeens went temporarily insane because she was over at Mountain Tech so long. Why, as soon as she pulled up in the road, he came busting out of that trailer hollering all this crazy stuff about Roxanne going off in the car to see other men, and such as that, and then you won't believe what he did next!"

"What?" The nicotine is making Sarah feel high, dizzy.

"He picks up this two-by-four that was laying right there, that they were fixing to build a deck with onto the trailer, see, they had them a big pile of treated lumber that they got on sale from Wal-Mart, and Sean's brother was going to help them build the deck."

Sarah leans back in the rocker and shuts her eyes. It crosses her mind that Gladiola is trying to drive her crazy. "Go on," she says. She blows smoke in the air.

"Well, Sean Skeens proceeds to lay into that car something terrible. He busted ever window clean out, he was so mad, and then started in on the dash."

Sarah sits bolt upright. "But that's terrible! What did Roxanne do?"

Gladiola is putting things back into the refrigerator now. "I'm ashamed to own it," she says, "but Roxanne picks up this other two-by-four and hits Sean Skeens right upside the head, just as hard as she can."

"Good heavens!" Sarah is suddenly, horribly agitated. She feels like she has to go to the bathroom. Instead she reaches for another cigarette.

"Yes ma'am. Broke his nose and one cheekbone and some little bone right up here." Gladiola points to her eyebrow. "I forget what you call it. Anyway, blood went all over the place, it was the biggest mess. Now they've got Sean Skeens wired up till he can't eat no solid food, he can't have nothing but milk shakes. He's still in the hospital. His mother has gone and charged Roxanne with assault and battery, and Roxanne has charged Sean with destruction of personal property. I tried to talk her out of it, I said, 'You'll have to pay that lawyer out of your own pocket,' but you know how she is."

"So what happened then?"

"Nothing yet. They're all going to court next week." Gladiola wipes off the kitchen counters and spreads her dishrag on the sink to dry.

"And the wedding is off?" Sarah feels an overwhelming sense of loss.

"You're damn right!" Gladiola says. "They was too young to marry in the first place. Plus they was too crazy about each other, if you know what I mean. They would of wore each other out or killed each other, or killed somebody else. It wasn't no way they could of stayed together."

The front doorbell rings and Gladiola goes to answer it, leaving Sarah alone in the kitchen, where she rocks back and forth slightly, hugging herself. Sarah feels like she is hovering over her whole life in this rocking chair, she feels way high up, like a hummingbird. It occurs to her that the change of life might not be so bad. No change of life might be worse.

"What is it?" She struggles to her feet.

Everett Sharp has to repeat himself.

"I do hope I haven't come at a bad time," he says, "although no time is good, in such a season of sorrow. I just wanted to thank you for your business and tell you I hope that everything met with your standards. I guess we probably do things different up here in the mountains...." Everett Sharp trails off, looking at her. He has to look down, he's such a tall man; this makes Sarah feel small, a feeling she likes.

"Sally Woodall," he says suddenly, with a catch in his voice. "Aren't you Sally Woodall? From high school?"

And then Sarah realizes he didn't know who she was at all, not really, he hadn't even connected her with her teenage self of so many years before. Everett Sharp moves closer, staring at her. His long white bony arms poke out of his short white shirtsleeves; his forearms are covered with thick red hair. Sarah feels so hot and dizzy she's afraid she might pass out.

"My wife died last year," Everett Sharp says. "I married Betty Robinson, you might remember her. She was in the band."

Sarah nods.

"Clarinet," says Everett Sharp. Then he says, "Why don't I take you out to dinner tonight? It might do you good to get out some. They've got a seafood buffet on Fridays now, at the Holiday Inn on the interstate."

"All right," Sarah says, but she can't take in much of what happens after that. Everett Sharp soon leaves. It's so hot. Gladiola leaves. It's so hot. Sarah takes a notion to look for her father's vodka, which she finally finds in the filing cabinet in his study. She pours some into her iced tea and goes out on the porch, hoping for a breeze. She sits in the old glider and stares into the shady backyard, planning her outfit for tonight. Certainly not the beige linen suit she's worn practically ever since she got here. Maybe the blue sheath with the bolero jacket, maybe the floral two-piece with the scoop neck and the flared skirt. Yes! And those red pumps she bought on sale at Montaldo's last month and hasn't even worn yet, it's a good thing she just happened to throw them into her traveling bag. This strikes her as fortuitous, an omen. She sips her drink. The glider trembles on the edge of the afternoon.

Then Sarah remembers something that happened years ago, she couldn't have been more than seven or eight. Oddly enough, she was sitting right here on this glider, watching her parents, who sat out on the curly wrought-iron chairs beneath the big tree drinking cocktails, as they did every evening. Sarah was the kind of little girl who sat quietly, and noticed things. Actually she spied on people. Her mama and her daddy were leaning forward, all dressed up.

Mama's dress is white. It glows in the dark. Lightning bugs rise from the grass all around, katydids sing, frogs croak down by the creek. Sally has already had her supper. She wants to go back inside to play paper dolls, but something holds her there on the porch, still watching Mama and Daddy as they start to argue (jerky, scary movements, voices raised), and then as they stand, and then as Daddy kicks over the table, moving toward Mama to kiss her long and hard in the humming dark. Daddy puts his hands on Mama's dress.

The force of this memory sends Sarah back inside for another iced tea and vodka, and then she decides to count the napkins and place mats, and then she has another iced tea and vodka, and then she realizes it's time to get ready for her dinner date, but before she's through dressing she realizes she'd better go through the whole upstairs linen closet just to see what's in there, so she's not ready, not at all, not by a long shot, when Everett Sharp calls for her at seven, as he said.

He rings the front doorbell, then waits. He rings again. He doesn't know!--he couldn't even imagine!-that Sarah is right on the other side of the heavy door, not even a foot away from him, where she now sits propped up against it like a rag doll, her satin slip shining in the gloom of the dark hallway, with her fingers pressed over her mouth so she won't laugh out loud to think how she's fooled him, or start crying to think--as she will, again and again and again--how Sean must have felt when his very bones cracked and the red blood poured down the side of his face, or how she must have felt, hitting him.

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Table of Contents

The Bubba Stories 1
Blue Wedding 37
Live Bottomless 55
The Southern Cross 157
The Happy Memories Club 177
News of the Spirit 203
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Blue Wedding

Sarah can't keep her mind on the spoons. So she starts over, counting right out loud, "One, two, three, four," pursing her lips in that way she has, fitting each newly polished spoon carefully into its allotted space in the big mahogany silver chest. Thirty-six spoons, all accounted for. Normally this is the kind of job Sarah just loves, but today it's so hot, hotter than the hinges of hell in here, and she is distracted because Gladiola Rolette, who's polishing the spoons and handing them over to her one by one, will not shut up, not for a single minute. Gradiola beats all! She does not seem to understand that it's her fault it's so hot in here, that she should have called a repairman the instant the air conditioner went on the blink. Gladiola does not even seem to understand that it's her fault Sarah has to count the silver in the first place. But Gladiola just let it all go during the last six months of Daddy's illness, forks and spoons jumbled up together, the butter knives scattered to the four winds. And furthermore, it is perfectly clear that Gladiola has been giving her trashy family the entire run of this house.

Sarah has seen the signs everywhere--unfiltered cigarette butts in the flower beds, a beer can stuck in a planter on the portico, a lipstick smudge on the drinking glass in the downstairs bathroom--why, even the furniture has been rearranged! Gladiola herself would never think of doing such a thing. But her daughters, both of them hussies, would. They've got ideas, Gladiola's girls. Sarah has watched them grow up.

Right now Roxanne, the younger one, could not possibly be a day over seventeen but could pass for thirty, she looks so cheap and jaded with that spiky black hair and all those holes in her ears. Gladiola's older daughter, Missy, is down in Atlanta getting certified to be a massage therapist, or so she says. A massage therapist, ha! Sarah can just imagine. Of course Missy has already had one baby out of wedlock, that fat little girl out there digging in the mint bed right now with a spoon. Probably a silver soup spoon, Sarah would not be one bit surprised.

Little Bonnie comes to work with Gladiola every day, and eats everything in the house. This is a pure fact. Sarah had no idea until she came back to bury Daddy and stayed on to clean out this house. Somebody had to! Oh, a lot has been going on here that Sarah didn't know anything about. These Rolettes have practically taken over.

But of course it is all Hubert's fault. Hubert is Sarah's brother, the district attorney, a rumpled, distracted man. All Hubert cares about is his job, and all his northern egghead wife, Mickey, cares about is taking classes at the community college, where she earns degree after degree, or claims to. So Hubert was perfectly happy to hire as many Rolettes as it took and close his eyes to the havoc they wrought, just as long as everybody stayed out of his hair. Hubert! Hubert has no standards.

Sarah practically slams the knives into the silver chest, thinking of Hubert, Hubert who talked so mean to her the last time she came home and tried to make some reasonable suggestions about what to do with Daddy. Hubert wears wrinkled suits and horn-rimmed glasses way down on the end of his nose. He looked at her over the rims. "Hell, Sarah," he said, "Dad's fine. Just leave him alone. He likes to pile newspapers all over the house, he likes to have Gladiola's granddaughter around, it keeps him company. He likes to stay up and watch the talk shows and then sleep until noon, so what's the harm in it?"

"People ought to get up in the mornings," Sarah said. "A regular schedule never hurt anybody." Sarah herself has not slept past seven a.m. in twenty years. She eats one-half cup of bran cereal with banana for breakfast every morning of her life.

Gladiola, on the other hand, fed her father Pop-Tarts and instant grits. This is a fact. Pop-Tarts and grits! Lord knows what kind of shape his bowels were in by the time of his death; Sarah did not discuss this with Hubert.

But she did bring up the hat. "I just don't think we ought to let him go around looking like that," she said.

Hubert laughed. "Hell, he's eighty-five years old. I think he ought to wear whatever damn kind of a hat he wants to."

So Hubert had destroyed her influence with Daddy, Hubert having his way as usual, Hubert who was possibly even more spoiled than Ashley, God rest her soul, however.

Suddenly Sarah feels awful.

She sits down abruptly on a Chippendale chair at the dining room table. She's so hot! Maybe it's a hot flash, maybe she's getting the change of life. "Is there any ice tea?" she asks Gladiola, who runs to get it.

Thank God! There ought to be iced tea in any decent household in the summertime of course, anybody knows that. Mama was nuts on the subject. And among the three children, Sarah is the only one like Mama, that soft pretty woman Sarah can hardly remember right now, sweet Mama who died of a racing heart twelve years ago.

Sarah left work the minute she got the message, and drove all night long to get home in time to see to every detail of Mama's funeral. Then she volunteered to stay home to take care of Daddy, who was just lost without Mama, it was really the saddest thing. You can't imagine how he carried on.

But instead, here was Ashley back from California, flat broke, to recuperate from the second of her two divorces.

So Sarah stayed on in Richmond, where she is a buyer for the housewares section of Miller and Rhoads, a perfectly elegant downtown department store with branches in all the suburbs. In Richmond, Sarah has her book group, her bridge club, and a whole host of lovely friends. To be perfectly honest, Sarah was glad to stay in Richmond, in her new condominium with its eggshell walls and its silk ficus in the foyer. Daddy was disorderly and always had been, not to mention his drinking. Drunk and disorderly, ha!

Come to think of it, they were all disorderly--Daddy, Hubert, and Ashley--not to mention all of Hubert's and Ashley's spouses and children, a great straggling parade which Sarah loses track of. Lost, Sarah corrects herself. Which she has lost track of, as Ashley herself is lost.

Poor Ashley wasn't even married to the man who caused her last, fatal pregnancy. At the time, she wasn't married at all, and he was married to somebody else. But she was sure he would marry her, Ashley had confided to Sarah that summer morning nine years ago. They were sitting in the kitchen after breakfast, drinking coffee. It was already hot. Mama's climbing rose was blooming profusely all over the trellis. Sarah remembers that morning like it was yesterday. Ashley leaned forward, so excited that spots of color stained her porcelain cheeks. She looked like a person running a fever. She spilled coffee on her flowered robe.

"He loves me so much," she said. "You can't imagine." Two weeks later she was dead of an ectopic pregnancy.

Sarah drinks her iced tea. She finishes with the knives: thirty-six of them, all accounted for. She smiles at Gladiola. "There now," she says.

Gladiola grins back. She's a fat, foolish woman, poor white trash if Sarah ever saw it, of course up here in the mountains this is common. People spill over from one social class into another all the time--it's hard to know who's nice. This is not true in Richmond, where the help is black and a proper distance can be maintained.

Sarah has been absent from her job at Miller and Rhoads for five days now, but she will be back on Monday. She can't afford to stay any longer. As it is, they will begin carrying three new lines of china during her absence, all of them informal: Pietri, heavy painted pottery from Italy, covered with fanciful animals and fish; Provence, oversize French china patterned in wild flowers; and Hacienda-Ware from the Southwest, all earth colors terra-cotta, sagebrush, sunset, and dawn, ha!, which looks like hell in Sarah's opinion. All of it looks like hell. So does that new girl they've hired to "help" Sarah with the expanded china department, a girl with rat's-nest hair and deadwhite makeup and some kind of a degree in "design." Sarah knows she will hate everything this girl likes.

What Sarah loves with all her heart is her mother's delicate bone china right over there in the breakfront, china so thin you can practically see through it. It will just kill her to split up the set with Hubert, who is totally unable to appreciate it. Well, a salad fork is missing, no surprise. Also two butter knives--no, three butter knives!

Out the window, Sarah sees Everett Sharp drive past in his little green car. Everett Sharp is the undertaker who buried Daddy two days ago. Sarah had lost touch with him since their high school days, but she was pleasantly surprised by his manner: respectful, attentive, but not unctuous. Not pushy. Everett Sharp is a tall, thin balding man, with a red beard and a high potbelly. Sarah has to start over on the soup spoons.

"Let's us stop for lunch now and I'll tell you about the wedding," Gladiola says. Gladiola knows how to get Sarah's attention.

"What wedding?" Sarah is a fool for weddings. She stops counting and wipes her face with a napkin. Actually, she's so hot, she's glad to stop for a while.

"Let's us go on in the kitchen and I'll tell you," Gladiola says.

Sarah closes the lid of the silver chest and goes to sit in the old kitchen rocker while Gladiola makes pimiento cheese sandwiches, Sarah's favorite since childhood.

"Well, you knew Roxanne was fixing to get married," Gladiola begins.

Sarah stares at her. "You mean Missy," she says automatically. It's a shame how Gladiola's face has fallen in like spoonbread around her mouth. She used to be a pretty woman.

"No ma'am," Gladiola answers emphatically. "I mean "Roxanne."

"But Roxanne is only seventeen," Sarah says. "Isn't that so?"

"Yes ma'am," Gladiola says. "But can't nobody do a thing with Roxanne once she takes it in her head to do something. She's been like that ever since she was a little girl, ever since she was Bonnie's age."

As if on cue, Bonnie comes tracking dirt across the clean kitchen floor on her way to the sun porch, where she turns on the TV. Sarah sighs, bites her lip, says nothing. It is possible to say too much, she knows this, and really this pimiento cheese is very good.

"Tell me about the wedding," she reminds Gladiola.

"Well, I don't know where Roxanne got this idea, mind you, but she took it into her head that she just had to have a blue wedding."

"A what?"

Gladiola hands Sarah another sandwich, then sits down and grins at her. "A blue wedding! All blue! See, blue is Roxanne's favorite color, always has been, why last year when she was head majorette she forced them to let her make herself a new uniform, blue with gold trim instead of gold with blue."

"Do you mean to tell me that Roxanne had a blue wedding dress?" Sarah fans her face with a copy of Time magazine.

"Ordered it," Gladiola corrects her. "We ordered everything through Judy's Smarte Shoppe. You know Judy is real reliable, so usually everything comes in right when she says it will. We ordered a baby-blue wedding dress and veil, and baby-blue tuxedos for Sean and his brother and the two groomsmen, and three baby-blue dresses with an Empire waist and puff sleeves for the bridesmaids."

"My goodness!" It is all Sarah can think to say.

"But then Roxanne and Tammy--that's her best friend, Tammy Bird--had a big falling-out," Gladiola goes on, "and so Tammy said she wasn't going to be in the wedding after all, and Roxanne said that was fine with her, for Tammy not to be in the wedding, and so Roxanne called Judy up and canceled Tammy's dress. But Judy happened to be out sick that day, well, actually, she was over at Orange County Hospital getting her tubes tied and her mother was keeping the store for her. You know everybody thinks she's got Alzheimer's."

"Who?"

"Mrs. Dewberry," Gladiola says. "Judy's mother. But I don't think she's got it. I think everybody just says that because it's popular."

"What is?" Sarah manages to ask.

"Alzheimer's," Gladiola says. "That's one of those diseases nobody ever heard of until it got popular, and now everybody's got it, like that other one, you know the one I mean, the one where you diet until you die, nobody ever heard of that one until it got popular, either."

"Anorexia," Sarah says weakly.

"Whatever," Gladiola says. She lights a cigarette.

"The wedding," Sarah says.

"Well, so Judy's mother went and canceled the whole order, is what she did, instead of just the one dress, and forgot to say anything about this to Judy, so when the Thursday before the wedding comes and Roxanne's order doesn't come in, Judy calls them up. It's this company in New Jersey."

"Can I have a Coke?" Little Bonnie plants herself in front of Gladiola, but Sarah stands up and gets it herself out of the refrigerator. She gives it to Bonnie, then pushes her back out on the sun porch, where All My Children is on TV. Sometimes Sarah actually watches that show herself, back home in Richmond on her rare days off, of course she'd never admit it to a soul.

"What about the wedding?" Sarah asks when she returns.

"They couldn't have it," Gladiola says. "Judy had to reorder everything."

"Rut I would have thought that since the church was already reserved, I would imagine, and the minister all lined up, and the invitations sent, for heaven's sake..." Horror crosses Sarah's face. "I would have thought that they would hold the wedding regardless, and just find something else to wear. Perhaps something more traditional," she adds hopefully.

"Not on your life!" Gladiola laughs. "Roxanne had her heart set on a blue wedding." Gladiola shakes her head. She acts like it was all out of her hands, every bit of it, like sue is powerless in the world. But Gladiola was the Mother of the Bride! Sarah cannot say a word, she just stares at Gladiola, who goes right on with the story. "Well, Preacher Sizemore said he could marry them anytime they took a notion to do it, so they set another date, and Judy reordered everything, and we got on the telephone and called up everybody we could think of, and so we put it off. But then, do you know what those rascals done?"

"Who?"

"Roxanne and Sean."

"What? What did they do?" Sarah cannot imagine.

"They went ahead and moved in together just like they had gone and gotten married after all! I was mad as fire. But there wasn't nothing I could do of course, you can't do a thing with Roxanne, and they already had this trailer that Sean's uncle had gave them after he built himself a new brick home out on the Bluefield road. It's got an aboveground swimming pool," Gladiola says, "which I think are so ugly."

Sarah unbuttons the top two buttons of her blouse and rolls up the sleeves. " Then what?

"Well, so they move into this trailer, which is already decorated real cute, and Sean buys them a new car, which he's real proud of, that he bought cheap in a bankruptcy auction. A black Trans Am, they were both crazy about that car."

"How old is Sean?" Sarah asks.

"Nineteen," says Gladiola. "So anyway, they get all moved in together, and the wedding is set for two months off, and then Roxanne signs up for that nursing program at Mountain Tech. You know she was always so smart."

Sarah nods. Too smart for her own good, is what Sarah thinks.

"Well, this is when the trouble really starts." Gladiola lights another cigarette. "Sean's a real jealous person, it turns out. He can't stand for her to go anyplace without him, and he especially can't stand for her to drive off anyplace in the car without him. He gets downright peculiar about that car. So anyway, on the day that Roxanne has to register over at Mountain Tech, there's a big thunderstorm, and the computers go down. So it takes her forever to get registered, and it's nearabout dark when she gets back to the trailer."

"Can I have one of those?" Sarah reaches for Gladiola's pack of Salems.

Gladiola nods absently. "All I can say is that Sean Skeens went temporarily insane because she was over at Mountain Tech so long. Why, as soon as she pulled up in the road, he came busting out of that trailer hollering all this crazy stuff about Roxanne going off in the car to see other men, and such as that, and then you won't believe what he did next!"

"What?" The nicotine is making Sarah feel high, dizzy.

"He picks up this two-by-four that was laying right there, that they were fixing to build a deck with onto the trailer, see, they had them a big pile of treated lumber that they got on sale from Wal-Mart, and Sean's brother was going to help them build the deck."

Sarah leans back in the rocker and shuts her eyes. It crosses her mind that Gladiola is trying to drive her crazy. "Go on," she says. She blows smoke in the air.

"Well, Sean Skeens proceeds to lay into that car something terrible. He busted ever window clean out, he was so mad, and then started in on the dash."

Sarah sits bolt upright. "But that's terrible! What did Roxanne do?"

Gladiola is putting things back into the refrigerator now. "I'm ashamed to own it," she says, "but Roxanne picks up this other two-by-four and hits Sean Skeens right upside the head, just as hard as she can."

"Good heavens!" Sarah is suddenly, horribly agitated. She feels like she has to go to the bathroom. Instead she reaches for another cigarette.

"Yes ma'am. Broke his nose and one cheekbone and some little bone right up here." Gladiola points to her eyebrow. "I forget what you call it. Anyway, blood went all over the place, it was the biggest mess. Now they've got Sean Skeens wired up till he can't eat no solid food, he can't have nothing but milk shakes. He's still in the hospital. His mother has gone and charged Roxanne with assault and battery, and Roxanne has charged Sean with destruction of personal property. I tried to talk her out of it, I said, `You'll have to pay that lawyer out of your own pocket,' but you know how she is."

"So what happened then?"

"Nothing yet. They're all going to court next week." Gladiola wipes off the kitchen counters and spreads her dishrag on the sink to dry.

"And the wedding is off?" Sarah feels an overwhelming sense of loss.

"You're damn right!" Gladiola says. "They was too young to marry in the first place. Plus they was too crazy about each other, if you know what I mean. They would of wore each other out or killed each other, or killed somebody else. It wasn't no way they could of stayed together."

The front doorbell rings and Gladiola goes to answer it, leaving Sarah alone in the kitchen, where she rocks back and forth slightly, hugging herself. Sarah feels like she is hovering over her whole life in this rocking chair, she feels way high up, like a hummingbird. It occurs to her that the change of life might not be so bad. No change of life might be worse.

"What is it?" She struggles to her feet.

Everett Sharp has to repeat himself.

"I do hope I haven't come at a bad time," he says, "although no time is good, in such a season of sorrow. I just wanted to thank you for your business and tell you I hope that everything met with your standards. I guess we probably do things different up here in the mountains...." Everett Sharp trails off, looking at her. He has to look down, he's such a tall man; this makes Sarah feel small, a feeling she likes.

"Sally Woodall," he says suddenly, with a catch in his voice. "Aren't you Sally Woodall? From high school?"

And then Sarah realizes he didn't know who she was at all, not really, he hadn't even connected her with her teenage self of so many years before. Everett Sharp moves closer, staring at her. His long white bony arms poke out of his short white shirtsleeves; his forearms are covered with thick red hair. Sarah feels so hot and dizzy she's afraid she might pass out.

"My wife died last year," Everett Sharp says. "I married Betty Robinson, you might remember her. She was in the band."

Sarah nods.

"Clarinet," says Everett Sharp. Then he says, "Why don't I take you out to dinner tonight? It might do you good to get out some. They've got a seafood buffet on Fridays now, at the Holiday Inn on the interstate."

"All right," Sarah says, but she can't take in much of what happens after that. Everett Sharp soon leaves. It's so hot. Gladiola leaves. It's so hot. Sarah takes a notion to look for her father's vodka, which she finally finds in the filing cabinet in his study. She pours some into her iced tea and goes out on the porch, hoping for a breeze. She sits in the old glider and stares into the shady backyard, planning her outfit for tonight. Certainly not the beige linen suit she's worn practically ever since she got here. Maybe the blue sheath with the bolero jacket, maybe the floral two-piece with the scoop neck and the flared skirt. Yes! And those red pumps she bought on sale at Montaldo's last month and hasn't even worn yet, it's a good thing she just happened to throw them into her traveling bag. This strikes her as fortuitous, an omen. She sips her drink. The glider trembles on the edge of the afternoon.

Then Sarah remembers something that happened years ago, she couldn't have been more than seven or eight. Oddly enough, she was sitting right here on this glider, watching her parents, who sat out on the curly wrought-iron chairs beneath the big tree drinking cocktails, as they did every evening. Sarah was the kind of little girl who sat quietly, and noticed things. Actually she spied on people. Her mama and her daddy were leaning forward, all dressed up.

Mama's dress is white. It glows in the dark. Lightning bugs rise from the grass all around, katydids sing, frogs croak down by the creek. Sally has already had her supper. She wants to go back inside to play paper dolls, but something holds her there on the porch, still watching Mama and Daddy as they start to argue jerky, scary movements, voices raised, and then as they stand, and then as Daddy kicks over the table, moving toward Mama to kiss her long and hard in the humming dark. Daddy puts his hands on Mama's dress.

The force of this memory sends Sarah back inside for another iced tea and vodka, and then she decides to count the napkins and place mats, and then she has another iced tea and vodka, and then she realizes it's time to get ready for her dinner date, but before she's through dressing she realizes she'd better go through the whole upstairs linen closet just to see what's in there, so she's not ready, not at all, not by a long shot, when Everett Sharp calls for her at seven, as he said.

He rings the front doorbell, then waits. He rings again. He doesn't know!--he couldn't even imagine!-that Sarah is right on the other side of the heavy door, not even a foot away from him, where she now sits propped up against it like a rag doll, her satin slip shining in the gloom of the dark hallway, with her fingers pressed over her mouth so she won't laugh out loud to think how she's fooled him, or start crying to think--as she will, again and again and again--how Sean must have felt when his very bones cracked and the red blood poured down the side of his face, or how she must have felt, hitting him.

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Reading Group Guide

1.         What themes do you think tie these stories together?

2.         Which story or stories were the most powerful and had the greatest impact on you? Why?

3.         One reviewer has written, "What Smith doesn't write, what she leaves in the tiny spaces between sentences, between narrative moments, is as important as what she insists our attention be turned to." What do you think the reviewer is trying to say? Do you agree with this statement? Are there instances in any of these stories that illustrate this point?

4.         In each of these stories, you are offered glimpses of an array of remarkable, secondary characters. What minor characters intrigued you and made you want to hear more from them? For instance, what do you think happened to Carroll Byrd, the scandalous other woman in "Live Bottomless"?

5.         Just as Charlene made up Bubba, have you ever made up a story to create the self you thought you wanted to be? Did you find Charlene's dishonesty to be troubling? How do people separate fact from fiction in the telling of their own stories?

6.         Why do you think Charlene was initially so resistant to telling stories based on her own experiences? Why did she think her own life was not worth talking about and what changed her mind? How do you deal with these issues in your own life? Are there stories you would not tell? Why is this so?

7.         Howdid Sarah in "Blue Wedding" become so isolated? How would the story change if Gladiola were telling it? Discuss how any of the stories might change if told by a different character; for example, if Jenny's father told the story of his affair and the subsequent trip to Key West with his family or if Alice's nurse was the narrator in "The Happy Memories Club."

8.         A reoccurring theme here is the complicated nature of familial relationships. Discuss the nature of these relationships and how they do or do not change in these stories. Even as adults, we still often view our families through the eyes of a child as does Jenny in "Live Bottomless." How does this blind us? How do we heal the old wounds? Can we?

9.         All of these stories explore the brother-sister relationship in some manner. Why do the siblings in many of these stories become estranged? Does that make the bond less important?

10.         Why do you think Jenny's father had the affair? Do you think he made the right decision to stay with his wife and daughter? How do you think the adult Jenny who narrates the story really feels about her father's decision?

11.         What sets Carroll Byrd apart from the other women in town? Why does Jenny find her so fascinating?

12.         Do you think Jenny ended up with the life she envisioned as a precocious thirteen-year-old? Do any of these characters end up with the lives they planned on? Do any of us?

13.          What price has Chanel paid for her upward mobility? What do you think she will do with her newfound perspective on her life?

14.         Where do you think Chanel will end up? Or Sarah? How do you feel about the form of the short story that often leaves the reader guessing about the remainder of a life?

15.         Why were Alice's stories about her life met with such hostility in "The Happy Memories Club"? What does this story tell you about life in a retirement community? Do you think Alice feels trapped by the role she is supposed to play as a senior citizen?

16.         The members of the Happy Memories Club are appalled that Alice does not talk about her long-time marriage in her stories. Why do you think she does not write about this part of her life at any length? Does it mean she didn't love her husband?

17.         In "News of the Spirit, " were you surprised that Drew stayed at the party? Do you think Paula underestimated her fiancé? Do you think Paula has learned to value her eccentric family?

18.         Paula and Johnny lived in their own private world as children. Paula is still trying to figure out what changed and why. How would you answer her questions?

19.         Did these fictional worlds resonate with your own experiences and your own stories? Or prompt you to think about the stories of your own life? What news of your own spirit would you most want to tell others? If you had to tell just one story about your own life, what story would it be and why?

20.          Why did your group choose to read this particular book? Do you think you will go on to read other works by Lee Smith if you have not done so already?

21.         How does this collection compare with other works that your group has read?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2013

    Love the book

    So neat felles like i am there!!!!;)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2002

    Done for an essay...

    I found that "News of The Spirit" was a great collection of stories. I had never heard of Lee Smith before a certain writing assignment was given to me by my Advanced Placement English teacher. I was assigned to find a novel by Lee Smith in the library at my high school and do a literary analysis on one of the short stories from this particular book. I read "The Happy Memories Club" and I loved it. That elderly woman reminded me of my great-grandmother who is now 99 years old and still acts as a 20 year old. I simply loved it and I think that Lee Smith is a great author and I've come to this conclusion by only reading one of her novels! There's no telling what I'll think when I read more of them!

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