Featured Excerpt in the Penguin iPhone App
Momma left her red satin shoes in the middle of the road. That's what three eyewitnesses told the police. The first time I remember my mother wearing red shoes was on a snowy morning in December 1962, the year I was seven years old. I walked into the kitchen and found her sitting at the table. No lights were on, but in the thin haze of dawn that pushed through the frostbitten window, I could see red high-heeled shoes peeking out from beneath the hem of her robe. There was no breakfast waiting, and no freshly ironed school dress hanging on the basement doorknob. Momma just sat and stared out the window with empty eyes, her hands limp in her lap, her coffee cold and untouched.
I stood by her side and breathed in the sweet scent of lavender talcum powder that clung to the tufts of her robe.
"What's the matter, Momma?"
I waited and waited. Finally she turned from the window and looked at me. Her skin was as frail as tissue, and her voice wasn't much more than a whisper when she smoothed her hand over my cheek and said, "Cecelia Rose, I'm taking you to Georgia. I want you to see what real living is like. All the women dress so nice. And the people are kind and friendly—it's so different from how things are here. As soon as I feel better, we'll plan a trip—just you and me."
"But what about Dad, will he come too?"
She squeezed her eyes closed and didn't answer.
Momma stayed sad for the rest of the winter. Just when I thought she'd never smile again, spring came. When the lilacs bloomed in great, fluffy waves of violet, Momma went outside and cut bouquets for every room in the house. She painted her fingernails bright pink, fixed her hair, and slipped into a flowery-print dress. From room to room she dashed, pushing back curtains and throwing open the windows. She turned up the volume of the radio, took hold of my hands, and danced me through the house.
We whirled through the living room, into the dining room, and around the table. Right in the middle of a spin, Momma abruptly stopped. "Oh, my gosh," she said, taking in a big gulp of air and pointing to the mirror by the door, "we look so much alike. When did that happen? When did you start to grow up?"
We stood side by side and gazed at our reflections. What I saw was two smiling people with the same heart-shaped face, blue eyes, and long brown hair—Momma's pulled away from her face in a headband and mine tied back in a ponytail.
"It's amazing," my mother said, gathering her hair in her hand and holding it back in a ponytail like mine. "Just look at us, CeeCee. I bet when you get older, people will think we're sisters. Won't that be fun?" She giggled, took hold of my hands, and spun me in circles till my feet lifted off the floor.
She was so happy that after we finished dancing, she took me into town and bought all sorts of new clothes and ribbons for my hair. Momma bought herself so many pairs of new shoes that the salesman laughed and said, "Mrs. Honeycutt, I believe you have more shoes than the Bolshoi Ballet." Neither Momma nor I knew what that meant, but the salesman sure thought he was clever. So we laughed along with him as he helped us carry our packages to the car.
After stuffing the trunk full with bags and boxes, we ran across the street to the five-and-dime, where we sat at the lunch counter and shared a cheeseburger, a bowl of French fries, and a chocolate milkshake.
That spring sure was something. I'd never seen Momma so happy. Every day was a big celebration. I'd come home from school and she'd be waiting, all dressed up with a big smile on her face. She'd grab her handbag, hurry me to her car, and off we'd go to do more shopping.
Then came the day when Dad arrived home from a three-week business trip. Momma and I were sitting at the kitchen table, she with a magazine and me with a coloring book and crayons. When my dad opened the closet door to hang up his jacket, he was all but knocked senseless when an avalanche of shoeboxes rained down on him.
"Good Christ!" he barked, turning to look at Momma. "How much money have you been spending?"
When Momma didn't answer, I put down my crayon and smiled. "Daddy, we've been shopping for weeks, but everything we got was for free."
"Free? What are you talking about?"
I nodded wisely. "Yep. All Momma had to do was show the salesman a square of plastic, and he let us have whatever we wanted."
"What the hell?" Dad pounded across the kitchen floor, yanked Momma's handbag from the hook by the door, and pulled the square of plastic from her wallet. "Damn it, Camille," he said, cutting it up with a pair of scissors. "How many times do I have to tell you? This has got to stop. No more credit cards. You keep this up and you'll put us in the poor house. You hear me?"
Momma licked her finger and turned a page of the magazine.
He leaned down and looked at her. "Have you been taking your pills?" She ignored him and turned another page. "Camille, I'm talking to you."
The sharpness of his words wiped the shine right out of her eyes.
Dad shook his head and pulled a beer from the refrigerator. He huffed and puffed out of the kitchen, kicking shoes out of his way as he headed for the living room. I heard him dump his wide, beefy body into the recliner, muttering the way he always did whenever he was in a bad mood. Which, as far as I could tell, was pretty much always.
My father didn't smile or laugh very much, and he had a limitless gift for making me feel about as important as a lost penny on the sidewalk. Whenever I'd show him a drawing I'd made or try to tell him about something I'd learned in school, he'd get fidgety and say, "I'm tired. We'll talk another time."
But another time never came.
He was a machine-tool salesman and spent much of his time in places like Michigan and Indiana. Usually he'd stay away all week and would come home only on weekends. And most times those weekends were filled with an unbearable tension that sprung loose on Saturday night.
Momma would get all dolled up, walk into the living room, and beg him to take her out. "C'mon Carl," she'd say, tugging at his arm, "let's go dancing like we used to. We never have fun anymore."
His face would turn sour and he'd say, "No, Camille. I'm not taking you anywhere until you straighten up. Now go take your pills."
She'd cry and say she didn't need any pills, he'd get mad, turn up the volume of the TV, and drink one beer after another, and I'd run upstairs and hide in my bedroom. Whole months would go by and I'd hear only an occasional kind word pass between them. Even less frequently I'd see them touch. Before too long even those things faded away, and my father's presence in the house faded right along with them.
Momma seemed glad that Dad stayed away so much. One day I was sitting on the floor of her bedroom cutting out paper dolls while she sat at her vanity and put on makeup. "Who needs him anyway?" she said, leaning close to the mirror as she smoothed on bright red lipstick. "I'll tell you something, Cecelia Rose. Northerners are exactly like their weather—cold and boring. And I swear, none of them has one iota of etiquette or propriety. Do you know that not one single person in this godforsaken town even knows I'm a pageant queen? They're all a bunch of sticks-in-the-mud, just like your father."
"You don't like Daddy anymore?"
"No," she said, turning to look at me. "I don't."
"He doesn't come home very much. Where is he, Momma?"
She blotted her lips with a tissue. "That old fool? He's not here because he's down at the cemetery with one foot stuck in the grave. And that's another thing. Never marry an older man. I mean it, CeeCee. If an older man ever sweeps you off your feet, just get up and run away as fast as you can."
I set down my scissors. "How old is Daddy?"
"Fifty-seven," she said, rubbing a smudge of rouge from her cheek. "And look what he's done to me." She scowled at her reflection in the mirror and shook her head. "I'm only thirty-three and I already have lines on my face. Your father is nothing but a Yankee liar. I can't tell you how many promises he made just so I'd marry him and move up here to this god-awful excuse for a town. But all those promises amounted to nothing but a five-hundred-pound bag of dog breath."
As I was about to ask her what that meant, a strange, icy expression moved across her face. She gazed down at her wedding picture and slowly lifted it from the vanity. With her tube of lipstick she drew a big red X over my dad's face, then shrieked with laughter, fluffed her hair, and walked out the door.