Stardust: A Novelby Carla Stewart
Shortly after burying her unfaithful husband, Georgia Peyton unexpectedly inherits the derelict Stardust motel from a distant relative. Despite doubts from the community and the aunt who raised her, she is determined to breathe new life into it. But the guests who arrive aren't what Georgia expects: Her gin-loving mother-in-law; her dead husband's mistress; an attractive but down-on-his-luck drifter who's tired of the endless road; and an aging Vaudeville entertainer with a disturbing link to Georgia's past.
Can Georgia find the courage to forgive those who've betrayed her, the grace to shelter those who need her, and the moxy to face the future? And will her dream of a new life under the flickering neon of the STARDUST ever come true?
With beautiful imagery that engages all the senses, Carla Stewart swept me right into the world of the bayou in the 1950's. Her latest novel, Stardust is told with heart and skill and obvious love for her characters. A gripping storyline that is inspiring and unforgettable."Julie L. Cannon, bestselling author of I'll Be Home for Christmas and Twang"
Carla Stewart is one of the best at slicing out a piece of Americana and serving it to the reader in a delicious story. Stardust is a smooth, inviting, well told story that will stick with you long after you read the last line and close the book. A worthy read."Rachel Hauck, award winning author of Dining with Joy
Carla Stewart writes with incredible heart and warmth. Her stories manage to challenge and comfort me all the while keeping me glued to the page. She's an amazing talent."
Gina Holmes, bestselling author of Crossing Oceans and Dry as Rain"
Carla Stewart writes from the heart about a hard subject. As a polio survivor, I understand the fear and worry that the polio epidemics of the twentieth century evoked. Carla transcends that fear with compassion and achingly beautiful prose. Stardust is a winner."Linda S. Clare, author of The Fence My Father Built
Carla Stewart is a talented writer who has proven that again with Stardust. I was hooked from the first sentence and am anxious to share this engaging story with our She Reads readers."Marybeth Whalen, Founder and Co-Director of She Reads (www.shereads.org), the fiction division of Proverbs 31 Ministries, and author of She Makes It Look Easy and The Mailbox"
This first-person narrative contains resolute characters and vivid descriptions of a small Texas community in the 1950's. If her debut is any indication, Stewart has a promising future."Romantic Times, 4 1/2 stars for Chasing Lilacs"
Coming-of-age stories are a fiction staple, but well-done ones much rarer. This emotionally acute novel is one of the rare ones."Publishers Weekly, starred review for Chasing Lilacs"
While the story is heartbreaking, there is much more to this book. The lives of Mitzi and Brooke are told both in present time and with flashbacks, weaving together love, loss, tragedy and friendship. Stewart skillfully entertains and engages the reader with each character's private pain and survival skills."Romantic Times on Broken Wings
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By Stewart, Carla
FaithWordsCopyright © 2012 Stewart, Carla
All right reserved.
[ CHAPTER 1 ]
April 1952. Mayhaw, Texas.
My marriage to O’Dell Peyton was already over when he washed up on the shores of Zion. Of course, no one knew it was O’Dell when the little boy came running from the bayou, bellowing to Cecil at the tire shop that he’d discovered a drowned body. Fact is, no one even knew O’Dell was missing. If someone had asked where he’d been keeping himself, I would’ve said, “Oh, you know O’Dell. He’s got The Book of Knowledge encyclopedia route for all of East Texas. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s sold to half the people in Tyler by now. Goes over to Kilgore some, too.”
The truth was O’Dell left me and our two girls the second week in February. I found the note tucked in the sugar bowl, telling me he’d met a woman who appreciated him. I’d spent two months chewing on that, hot as a pistol one minute, crumpled in grief the next, trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong.
Aunt Cora said, “Georgia, there are plenty of men out there. You’re lucky you found out now, while you’re still young and have your looks.” Aunt Cora, bless her, had yet to find a man in Mayhaw suitable—or willing—to marry her. And looks had nothing to do with it. She could still be a movie star pinup.
Which was totally immaterial in light of O’Dell’s drowning. I only mention it because you have a whole different knot on the inside from a husband who’s unfaithful than you do from one who’s dead.
We buried O’Dell on the second Friday in April. Mary Frances, his mother and a widow herself, clung to me like cellophane. Two bereft figures bobbing for air on the surface, entwined by grief at our roots. Still, it felt unnatural for me to plan the funeral in light of the circumstances. Mary Frances should have had the honor, but widowhood had not been kind to her, and her fragile constitution rendered her incapable. We all breathed a sigh of relief when she showed up in matching shoes and wearing a dress instead of her usual bathrobe.
A motley pair we made. The anguished mother and the betrayed wife sharing a pew, each wrapped in our own thoughts. If she knew O’Dell had deserted me, she’d not once let on. I still took the girls to see her on Sunday afternoons and had baked her an angel food cake for her birthday on St. Patrick’s Day.
Aunt Cora told me the morning of the funeral, “Georgia, I didn’t raise you to forget your manners. O’Dell might’ve been a two-timer, but you’ll carry your head high and make me proud. His poor mother don’t know up from sic ’em, and she needs you to lean on today. I’ll take care of the girls.”
So I sat with Mary Frances while Aunt Cora sat between Avril and Rosey and drew pictures of Peter Rabbit to keep them quiet during the service. Afterward, Aunt Cora shooed me into the Garvey’s Funeral Home courtesy car with Mary Frances. She and the girls hitched a ride with someone else, and I heard later they stopped for ice cream at the Sweet Shoppe on the way home.
The cemetery sits on a rise outside of Mayhaw, inland from the bayou but nestled in its own sheltering grove of sweet gums. The funeral procession wound snake-like along the road, past the courthouse on the town square toward the outskirts. Cecil’s Auto Repair and Bait Shop on the right. The Stardust Tourist Cottages on the left. And beyond that, Mayhaw’s backyard neighbor, Zion, huddled along the banks of the cypress swamp. Wavy pencils of smoke rose from Zion, thinning to nothing as they reached the sky. I squinted to see if I could get a peek, but dense pines cradled whatever lay inside, the undergrowth like swaddling clothes. My heart inched up a notch knowing the boy who found poor O’Dell lived in that tangle of forest. Must’ve darn near scared him out of his britches.
Beside me, Mary Frances sat rigid, hands folded across the handbag on her lap. Her face, stuporous with grief, mirrored my own unspoken turmoil. Did O’Dell call my name as he tumbled through the murky waters? Or that of his new lover? What he was doing in the rain-swollen bayou was a mystery in itself. Perhaps he’d come to his senses and gone out on his fishing boat to figure out a respectable way to come crawling back to me and the girls. It’s easy to give a dead man the benefit of the doubt. Trickier, though, was the burning question: Were we still married in the eyes of God when O’Dell capsized?
Our courtesy car jerked to a stop inches from the hearse that carried O’Dell. A look of alarm flashed on Mary Frances’s pasty face. “What’s happening?”
I craned my neck. “Looks like a logging truck ahead of us. Creeping along like a box turtle. Guess it’ll take awhile to get out to the cemetery. You want a mint?” I pulled a Starlight mint from my pocket and held it out.
She shook her head, sighed, and then snapped open her purse, took out a blue glass bottle with a milk of magnesia label, touched it to her lips, and took a swig. I was feeling dyspeptic myself, but I knew it wasn’t milk of mag in the bottle. Mary Frances had her own kind of medicine. Pretending not to notice, I rolled down my window and looked at the Stardust.
Weeds had grown up over the winter. No travelers in front of the units, which were in dire need of freshening up. A feeling, akin to pity, twisted my gut. Guilt, too. I’d not been out to visit with Doreen and Paddy in a month of Sundays, Paddy being my uncle twice removed on the Tickle side. The other branch of the family, according to Aunt Cora. The way Paddy told it, he seized the opportunity when he saw it. Before the Depression, lots of folks passed through Mayhaw, needed a place to stay. I thought it was brilliant, and although he hadn’t made a fortune, he’d done all right. Until he found out about the lung tumor.
My mind went back to the day when cherry-red paint outlined each window and washtubs full of geraniums greeted guests by their front doors. A magnificent neon sign pulsed red, blue, and yellow lights then, visible from one end of town to the other as it beckoned the weary travelers. The sign still rose to the heights, but now one point of the star had cracked, and no neon flickered.
My own heart sputtered. Cupping my chin in my hand, I crinkled my eyes, almost able to imagine when Mama and Daddy had first brought me to Mayhaw, and we stayed at the Stardust. We’d been in cottage number five, right in the middle. I ran my fingers over my cheek remembering the pattern the chenille bedspread left on my face while I was supposed to be taking a nap. Mama and Daddy were arguing, screaming at each other, so I kept my eyes shut tight until Daddy slammed out the door. Later we changed clothes, found Daddy out in the car smoking a cigar, and went to visit Aunt Cora.
I could still smell the smoke and closed my eyes, remembering how, later that day, Mama and Daddy left Mayhaw without me. Handed me over to Aunt Cora and never came back. The smell grew stronger, choking me, and I realized it wasn’t Daddy’s cigar at all, but Mary Frances puffing on a Pall Mall.
At least the funeral cars were moving again. I waved away the smoke and shivered, aware my mind had taken a trip back almost twenty years. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes from the tourist court, each tiny building like a spectator of the funeral procession. And for the millionth time, I wondered why, after all this time, I still didn’t know why my parents had left me. A wavy feeling passed over me. Clutching my white dress gloves in my fist, I glanced at Mary Frances, whose eyes now floated in their sockets.
Blinking, she tossed the cigarette butt out the window and unscrewed the lid from the blue bottle before hoisting it to her lips. She hiccupped and looked at me. “You and the girls are the only things left for me in this entire, whole wide world.” She tilted sideways, resting her head on my shoulder.
A white-hot pang pierced my heart as I took her thin, pale fingers in mine and patted her hand. Clear liquid dribbled from the bottle, making a splotch the size of a fried egg on the upholstery, but Mary Frances didn’t notice. Her soft snores filled the air inside the courtesy car.
The next day, Sheriff Bolander knocked on the front door. All I could think was there must have been another disaster. I pasted on a smile and swung open the screen door. “Howdy, Sheriff. Something I can do for you?”
“Matter of fact.” He jerked his head in the direction of the street. O’Dell’s ’46 Ford Coupe sat behind the sheriff’s car, and in the morning sun, I couldn’t make out who the driver was, but he had the same sturdy build, the same slicked-back hair, as O’Dell. I held on to the screen door for support, my knees as weak as if they’d been shot with Sheriff Bolander’s pistol.
O’Dell? Alive? Then who in heaven’s name did we bury next to O’Dell’s daddy? My mind spun, a thousand thoughts jammed together, but I realized the sheriff was still speaking, and I hadn’t heard him.
“I’m sorry. Come again?”
“As you can see, they found O’Dell’s car. ’Twas over to Finney’s Landing with the keys under the front seat. Finney thought it unusual to be there so many days running.” He took a dingy handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped his eyes. “Course, we drove it in and checked it over for evidence of foul play.”
Instantly, I thought he must be fixin’ to tell me O’Dell had been murdered by the angry husband of the woman from Tyler. Or Kilgore. Whichever it was. Maybe her dead body had been stuffed in the trunk. I shooed Rosey, who’d crept up behind me, away. A six-year-old shouldn’t be privy to such gruesome news.
Stepping out on the front porch, I took a deep breath and said, “Well? What did you find?”
I got a one-sided smirk from the sheriff. “Nothin’ incriminating, Georgia. A couple boxes of them there books he was peddling. A briefcase. Nothing to indicate O’Dell had done more than play hooky from work and spent a day fishin’. Only mystery to me is what caused him to capsize unless he’d been in the bayou since that rain week before last. One thing’s for certain: O’Dell knew the ways of the bayou.”
Contemplating how long he’d been there might’ve been important to the sheriff, but not a thought I wished to dwell on. “Did you find the boat?”
“No, ma’am. Even if it washes up somewhere, I wouldn’t count on it being much.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
He shoved a clipboard toward me. “I need you to sign for the car.” He motioned for the driver, who I now saw was Deputy Sam Beggs, to come to the porch.
I signed the paper and took the keys from Sam. Up close, he didn’t look a thing like O’Dell. Sam’s belly hung over his belt, and he had a gap in his grin where his two bottom teeth used to be. I thanked him. And the sheriff, who tipped his hat.
“Don’t know as I ever told you how sorry I am ’bout O’Dell. Crying shame to go so young.”
“Thanks. Kind of you to drop by.”
The girls had crept out on the porch during my conversation. I picked Avril up, licked my thumb, and wiped a dab of grape jelly from her cheek.
Rosey hugged my leg, her curly head hip-high to me. “That’s Daddy’s car.” Her eyes, creamy brown, held a sparkle of what I could only think was hope. Hope that her daddy wasn’t gone. That it had all been a mistake.
“Yes, it is. Isn’t it swell someone found his car and brought it back to us?” I shifted Avril on my hip, took a step down, and lowered myself to the porch.
“I wish Daddy drove the car home, not that other man.”
“Oh, sugar, I wish that, too. I’m sorry…”
I pulled the girls in tight, my gaze fixed on O’Dell’s Ford. Not much to look at, and it probably had a million miles on it. But it was something. Some tiny glimmer that life goes on. At the moment, I had no idea what we’d do or how. I only knew that even though O’Dell Peyton had his flaws, it would be indecent to speak ill of him. His girls would grow up thinking he’d been on a long business trip and died before he got a chance to come home and read them a bedtime story.
The sun warmed my face, my armpits damp from the morning’s dither, but I kept the girls close. Somehow we were going to be okay. Not just okay, but good. I kissed the top of Avril’s head and got a taste of grape jelly. I licked my lips and said, “You know what? I’m starving. C’mon, girls, let’s get you dolled up. We’re going for ice cream.”
[ CHAPTER 2 ]
That evening I called to tell Aunt Cora about O’Dell’s car.
“Yes. Sonny told me.” Sonny Bolander, the sheriff. Aunt Cora’s on-again, off-again beau since his wife died of cancer two years before.
She sniffed the way she did when I irritated her. “Yes, he came by to bring the March of Dimes donations from the jars we put out downtown. Been doing that a few weeks now. You and the girls coming to lunch tomorrow?”
“If you’re fixin’ roast beef, we are.”
“I’ll set places for you.”
Mara Lee, Aunt Cora’s home, named after my great-grandmother, had been in the family since before the Civil War—one of the two dozen or so grand houses near downtown, but grand describes only the size. Bad investments gobbled up whatever fortunes Colonel Tickle, my great-grandfather, once had, and by the time of the Great Depression, Mara Lee stood tall, but in disgrace. Not unlike Aunt Cora, who was twenty-two years old when she’d inherited the crumbling mansion, the same week she inherited her six-year-old niece—me. I’d grown up in the rambling rooms, and now my girls loved to climb the curved staircase and explore the nooks and crannies.
Which is what they were doing while I helped Aunt Cora make the roast beef gravy and carry the butter and jam to the dining room. Set in the turret, the dining room had tall ceilings with miles of plaster molding that had chipped and never been repaired. The wallpaper, once a delicate violet pattern, was now curled, faded, and worn at the edges of the six-on-six-paned windows that looked out to the heart of downtown Mayhaw.
Aunt Cora plopped the mashed potatoes into Grandma Tickle’s china serving bowl, sending a dollop onto the counter. She had a nervous air about her—chatty but skittish. Perhaps she was sparing me talk of O’Dell and my current state of grief, but I didn’t think so. “So, Georgia, what do you think? Sweet tea or lemonade? Sonny prefers tea, but if you think the girls would rather have lemonade—”
“Milk for the girls. And it doesn’t matter to me. Here, let me help.” I scooped the remaining potatoes from the pan and piled them onto the others in the bowl. “Should we take the hot dishes in or wait until the sheriff gets here?”
“If he’s late, he’s late. Don’tcha think the man could try to get here on time? He knows I like to eat by one at the latest, and here it is, ten after, and he hasn’t arrived.”
“If it bothers you, why do you keep inviting him over?”
“Where else would he eat? Gracious, he eats the most horrid stuff on his own. Sardines in that nasty mustard. Peanuts. Gallons of RC Cola. The only vegetables he eats are what I put on the table.”
“Then why don’t you get married? He’s going to quit asking you one of these days.”
“Phfft. Feeding a man and living with him are hardly the same thing. Besides, I’ve been thinking.” She rearranged the sweet lime pickles in a relish dish, adding a sprig of parsley. “That crackerbox you call home has got to be awfully cramped…” She set her mouth in a tight line when she saw me shaking my head. “Now let me finish before you start telling me all the reasons you and the girls shouldn’t move in here with me. Why O’Dell didn’t provide you with a proper house while he was alive riles the ever-lovin’ daylights out of me.”
“We have… had money set aside for a down payment for something more proper—”
“Had? You mean O’Dell took your savings when he left you?”
“No, I’ve been dipping into it for groceries, things for the girls. And now there’s the funeral to consider. But it’s not like I’m destitute or anything. I’ll find a job.”
“I would’ve thought O’Dell’s mother would offer to pay for the funeral, knowing how he ran out on you and the girls.”
“It’s not a topic I’ve discussed with her. She’s in too much of a state.”
Aunt Cora pointed a tablespoon at me. “And we all know what state that is. Think of the girls. We could fix up the place here. Lord knows it could use a coat of paint.”
It wasn’t that I cared about the shabbiness of Mara Lee. It hadn’t bothered me growing up and wouldn’t now. It was more than that, but I couldn’t tell Aunt Cora.
“My savings should cover the funeral. I’m not the first person who’s lost a husband and found herself in tight straits.” I wasn’t sure the money in savings would be enough for the funeral and the fancy casket I’d picked out to please Mary Frances. But even O’Dell deserved a decent burial. “And I’m sure it won’t be hard to find a job.”
“Which will be what? It’s not as if you’re trained to be an assistant in an attorney’s office or work at the courthouse. And heaven forbid you’d wait tables down at Ruby’s Café. You’ll need a stable environment for the girls while you pursue something befitting. Living here in the meantime only makes sense.”
“For one thing, I see nothing wrong with waiting tables. But you’re using us as an excuse not to marry Sonny.”
The back door slammed, and Sonny came sailing into the kitchen, removing his hat. “My ears was burning. What’re you two lovely ladies saying about me?” He pecked Aunt Cora on the cheek, but she ignored the affection and said, “You’re late, Sonny.”
I couldn’t imagine Sonny and Aunt Cora married any more than I could picture the girls and me moving into Mara Lee. Aunt Cora and I had been butting heads since the day I landed on her doorstep. I had no reason to believe things would be different now. And I didn’t necessarily blame her. It wasn’t her fault she’d been straddled with an orphan niece, and she had put food in my stomach and clothes on my back.
A knot the size of Texas wedged into my belly. Thank you kindly, Aunt Cora. I think I’ll take a shot at raising my own girls.
When he’d finished eating, Sonny folded his napkin and tucked it under the edge of Grandma’s china. “Mayor Sheldon asked me if I had any suggestions for someone to head up the Mayhaw Festival this year. I told him you’d be just the ticket bein’s what a jim-dandy job you’ve done with the March of Dimes campaign.”
“You can’t be serious. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea where to start.” She raised her penciled-on brows at me. “Georgia, this might be something to get your mind off your troubles. Give you a worthwhile project, and since you’d be in touch with all the merchants in town, you might keep an ear out for job opportunities.”
“Actually, I hope to be employed before then. The festival’s not until July, and the only part of the celebration I’m counting on is singing in the talent show. Bobby Carl Applegate’s been playing a new song on the radio that’s got a nice beat.”
“If Bobby Carl’s playing it on KHAW, it’s probably some honky-tonk horror.”
“Yep. Hank Williams. But it’s real catchy—”
Sonny burst out laughing. “Whatcha aimin’ to sing? ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’? That’d bring the bandstand down.”
Aunt Cora’s face splotched crimson. “Sonny Bolander. I told you”—she looked at the girls sitting wide-eyed at the table—“oh, never mind. It doesn’t make any difference.”
My mind was still back on what the sheriff said. What, exactly, had she told Sonny for him to make the cheatin’ heart comment? Obviously, my efforts at keeping O’Dell’s infidelity confidential hadn’t been very effective. The whole town must’ve been laughing behind my back at the funeral. Poor Georgia Peyton. Reckon she didn’t have much chance, being raised the way she was. Too bad the cheat she married drowned in the bayou.
“Maybe I can sing this year, Mommy.” Rosey straightened in her seat. “I like Rosey Clooney on the radio.”
“It’s Rosemary, and yes, six is old enough to be in the talent show. We might even do a duet.” I shrugged at Aunt Cora. “Guess the mayor will have to find someone else.”
Aunt Cora laughed. “Where y’all get that penchant for singing is beyond me. None of the Tickles could carry a tune in a rain barrel. Now, who wants dessert? I made strawberry shortcake.” That was the thing about Aunt Cora: she could shake off a disappointment as easy as flicking a crumb off the table.
By the time we’d polished off the dessert, Avril was rubbing her eyes, trying to stay awake.
“I’d better get the girls home and put Avril down for her nap.”
Sonny leaned back. “I’ll help Cora here with the dishes.”
He winked at her, and I thought I caught a flirtatious look in her eye when she said, “Why, Sonny, that’s the nicest offer I’ve had all day.”
I asked Rosey to find Avril’s shoes and the rag doll she toted around wherever she went while I helped clean off the table. A few minutes later, Rosey appeared with the shoes but not the doll.
“Avie’s baby is up in the sky room, but the door’s stuck. Come with me.”
“What were you doing up there? Those stairs are too steep for Avril.”
“It’s okay. I carried her down, but we left her baby.”
“It’s a wonder you didn’t drop her on her noggin.” I did a playful knock-knock on Rosey’s mane of outrageous curls. “You’re the best big sister in the world watching after Avril, though. C’mon, I’ll go with you.”
The room Rosey called the sky room was the third story of the turret. I’d always called it the crow’s nest, but Rosey thought sky room was better because it was like flying with the birds up high. We went to the doorway at the end of the second floor hall, which accessed a steep staircase in its own enclosed space—sort of a secret passageway. I had to give the door a hip shove to get it open. The old house sucked in humidity like a swamp-starved crawdad.
Rosey and I climbed the steps and entered, the brightness startling after the dark climb. The light also drew my attention to the dust and the cobwebs that had been there since I was a child and spent many an hour viewing the world of Mayhaw from my private perch. Mostly I’d kept an eye out for the return of Mama and Daddy. They would come from the Stardust, I knew, since in my child’s mind that was the last place they’d been. I would stretch out on the window seat, propped up on my elbows so as not to miss anything going on below. Or sometimes, when Aunt Cora shooed me away, I sat cross-legged, one eye on whatever book I’d checked out from the library and the other eye on the walk. Her gentlemen callers always came to the side door of Mara Lee, and when I would ask Aunt Cora about them, she would laugh and tell me, “The most stimulating conversations are with men. Women don’t know the art of talking about world events or good literature.” Which to her was Shakespeare and Charles Dickens and William Faulkner, books she schooled me in with fervor. I ingested them like medicine, of course, and when shooed away for the evening I retreated to the crow’s nest with my own beloved Jane Austen and Agatha Christie stories.
Grown up now, I shuddered at the memories and looked out across the world of Mayhaw. Not a lot had changed. I leaned into the glass and looked toward the Stardust. I could make out the postage-stamp roofs of the individual units, the office a slightly larger version of the cottages. Even from so far away, they had a flaky, dusty look, not a patina of something that had aged with grace. The split in the top of the star pierced me with sorrow. My throat grew thick. Letting my eyes relax, I stopped straining for the detail and rested my forearms on the window sash. The air around me stilled so all I heard was Rosey’s soft breathing as her body pressed close to mine.
For several moments we stood there, mother and daughter, spitting images of each other according to everyone who saw us. “Two redheaded sprites,” Aunt Cora said. Then I saw it. As if waiting for me to witness, the star and lettering of the Stardust Tourist Cottages sign sputtered and shone, the neon pulsing, beckoning. I knew the sun had merely taken that moment to glint off the frame around the sign, but I watched in awe, afraid to take a breath.
Longing wrapped itself around me while hunger gnawed its way through my insides. The rhythm of my heart pounded in my ears, and like the flicker of the Stardust sign, I felt a surge of knowing this moment had a purpose. Something tangible. And strong. And at the same time as elusive as the parents who’d dumped me in Mayhaw.
“Mommy. Did you see that? The star winked at us.”
I slumped onto the window seat, drew Rosey into my arms, and kissed an errant curl. “Yes, it did, sugar. Yes, indeed.”
I pulled Rosey in tighter. A visit to Doreen and Paddy at the Stardust was long overdue. Funny how God draws your attention to things like that. Yes, indeed.
[ CHAPTER 3 ]
I’m not a big believer in signs and premonitions. Obviously, if I were more attuned, O’Dell’s straying from me might have caught my attention sooner. But the more I tried to shove the incident in the sky room from my mind, the more it invaded my thoughts. I’ll admit the Stardust did have a grip on me as a child, like when having a pulled tooth, I couldn’t keep my tongue from running over the hole it left behind. Like the hole in my life Mama and Daddy once filled. The truth was, even at six years old, I knew it was odd we had stayed at the Stardust when we came for Grandfather’s funeral. Odder than odd. There was a world of room at Mara Lee, and a perfectly decent hotel downtown a stone’s throw away. Being the Stardust’s owner’s distant relatives hardly seemed a logical reason.
That knowing only fed my imagination, giving birth to a dozen scenarios throughout my childhood. No matter which theory I entertained, it always ended with me dreaming of Mama and Daddy’s magical reappearance at the Stardust.
If pressed, Aunt Cora would laugh and wave away my questions with, “The past is like the color of your eyes. You can’t change it so you might as well get used to it.” Which was ludicrous in light of the fact most folks in Mayhaw lived in the past and revered statues of Confederate generals and waved Southern Cross flags in the Founder’s Day parade.
To her credit, Aunt Cora did lavish me with the best she could. New shoes for Easter and the first day of school. And she put forth valiant efforts to turn me into a lady. To her utter dismay, my fiery hair matched my temperament, and I balked at every turn. All I wanted was to climb trees and wear britches like the boys. Which gave Aunt Cora the vapors more often than not.
My only consolation was the beat-up bicycle Mr. Wardlaw from the newspaper let me ride if I would deliver the weekly Mayhaw Messenger to the far end of town. Would I? I hiked my dress up and off I went. My favorite destination was the Stardust. I spent hours with Doreen, who let me count the change in the cash register while she knitted from her rocking chair behind the desk. And when I told her Aunt Cora would have a hissy fit if she caught me at the Stardust, Doreen would put a finger to her lips. “It’ll be our secret.”
I outgrew my days of Doreen and Paddy when I got interested in boys, but on the occasions we ran into each other in town, they were always warm and asked about Aunt Cora or my girls or how O’Dell was doing. Sadly, I’d not been to visit in a long time and vowed to remedy that the following day.
That evening, I bathed the girls, tucked them in, and settled into going through the things that I’d brought in earlier from the trunk of the car. Two complete sets of The Book of Knowledge. O’Dell’s hard-sided briefcase, which I knew held sales brochures and a tattered copy of his treasured five-point sales pitch. A duffel bag with a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and assorted toiletries, including a bottle of aftershave that always reminded me of mosquito repellent. I unscrewed the lid and drank in the scent of O’Dell. It was pungent and yet had a sweetness I’d never noticed, and I expected to look up and see him standing there with his lopsided grin. I chewed on my bottom lip to stop its quivering, screwed the lid back on the bottle, and tucked it in my drawer of underpants before I went back to sifting through O’Dell’s things.
I took his briefcase to the kitchen table. No one from the regional sales office had attended the funeral or sent a bouquet, so I thought the least I could do was find their information and let them know about O’Dell. Like me, perhaps they didn’t know he’d gone missing.
When a fruit fly buzzed near my head, I waved it away, impatient to finish the task I’d started. I clicked open the gold latches of the briefcase, only to be interrupted again. This time by the telephone.
After dispensing with the pleasantries, she said, “We didn’t get a chance to discuss when you and the girls could move in. I’ve decided to clear out your old room, and we’ll go down to the lumberyard for paint—”
“Hold on. I don’t recall agreeing to any such thing. It’s nice of you to ask, but I thought I made it clear.”
“It’s for the girls. You can’t expect them to deal with the tragedy of their daddy dying and having a mother who’s off working or going to secretarial school… whatever it is you decide to do in light of your new circumstance. What do you intend to do with them? Avril’s practically a baby.”
“She’s three years old, Aunt Cora. And it’s not like I have to decide today. I’m considering my options. Maybe a change of scenery.” I stretched the phone cord over to the table and leafed through the papers in the top of O’Dell’s briefcase. Pretty much what I expected. E-Z payment plans, folded street maps of Tyler and Kilgore.
“Don’t be daft, Georgia. Moving away from the only home and family you’ve ever known won’t accomplish anything. That’s why God made families. To take you into their bosom in times of trial and tribulation.”
“Aunt Cora, it’s a miracle we didn’t kill each other when I was under your roof. Not that I didn’t love you then… and now… but we’re just not meant to—”
“One thing’s for certain—you’re as exasperating now as you were when you were a child.”
“So there’s your answer, and if it’s any consolation, I’m not moving away.”
The map of Kilgore stared up at me. Was that where the other woman lived?
“There’s Mary Frances to consider, for one thing. She’s having a tough time, and her cousin who came to the funeral is leaving in the morning. I’ll have to check on her, take the girls by to visit their grandmother.”
“She’s a misery all right. ’Twouldn’t surprise me if this pushes her plumb over the edge. But you can only do so much. Mercy, she could hardly stand up at the graveside, and I don’t think it was grief wobbling her legs.”
The fly buzz-bombed me again. I shooed it away with the street map, which only encouraged it as it circled around and lit on the table.
“Georgia, are you listening to me?”
“Yes, just thinking. I’m not ready to decide what the girls and I are going to do. Could we talk about this later?”
“Whatever suits you.”
I hung up and then went back to sorting through O’Dell’s business, half expecting the fruit fly to interrupt me again. When it didn’t I picked up the next item on top—a small leather ledger with the telephone number of the sales office. Several pages of names followed, with check marks beside them in various columns that appeared to be the record of O’Dell’s customers. Had I wanted to torture myself, I could’ve tried to guess which one of the customers was my replacement. The O’Dell knot tightened in my belly, and I realized I didn’t want to know. Knowing would somehow burst the illusion I’d been weaving to keep O’Dell’s reputation intact. For the girls. His swaggering mother. And oddly enough, for me.
I wrote down the name and number of the sales office and removed the last item in the briefcase—a trifolded document with a string clasp on it. It was the kind I’d seen on Aunt Cora’s last will and testament where she bequeathed me the family mansion and all her worldly goods. Since she was only forty-two years old, I didn’t expect to inherit anytime soon.
My fingers trembled as I unwound the string in the figure-eight way it was secured, took a deep breath, and leaned back in the kitchen chair. It was an official document, but not a will as I’d assumed it would be. Instead, it had the seal of the Harwell Insurance Company and in bold print gave the amount of life insurance due the benefactor in the event of the death of O’Dell Thomas Peyton. I gasped. Ten thousand dollars. Then I gasped again. The double indemnity clause for accidental death entitled me to twenty thousand dollars.
O’Dell might’ve been a skunk, but his fragrance had just gotten a whole lot sweeter. I speed-read through the rest of the document until my eyes landed on the benefactor line.
My mouth went dry. Fiona? Some Creole queen with a French-sounding name had stolen my husband? I stared until I was sure I’d burned the letters off the page.
What did Fiona have that I didn’t? How could he? While I may not have been the most exotic woman on the planet, I’d been told I had a pretty smile and nice legs.
The familiar droning started near my ear, buzzing, drilling home the truth: my husband cheated on me.
Twenty. Thousand. Dollars.
I threw the document on the table and snatched the flyswatter from the hook by the back door, and when the light caught the iridescent-winged fly hovering over the Harwell insurance policy, I tensed my jaw, drew back my arm, and smashed it into a bloody smudge.
Right next to the name of Fiona Callahan.
[ CHAPTER 4 ]
Southern manners and turning the other cheek be hanged. The name Fiona Callahan winked up at me from the insurance policy, mocking me in a way that felt like I’d been the one dragged through the swamp mud. Who was I kidding? O’Dell’s infidelity left a hole as big as a moon crater in my heart, and I’d allowed the crater to be lined with the saccharine taste of denial. If I had a grain of sense, I would’ve packed up the girls at once and moved to Dallas. Or Shreveport. Or Nashville. Maybe I could get a job waiting tables at a Western bar and start my life over. And I’m as certain as my name is Georgia Lee Peyton, if O’Dell had walked through the door that night, I would have personally dragged him down to the bayou and drowned him myself.
By three in the morning, I’d riffled through every drawer, shoe box, and place I could think of searching for an insurance policy with my name as the benefactor. Nothing. I had a house, bought and paid for—thirty-two hundred dollars, completely furnished, thank you. A savings account with three hundred and forty-six dollars that had to pay for a funeral and our living expenses until I could find a job or move in with Aunt Cora.
Other assets: two girls who depended on me. A 1946 Ford Coupe that was six years old and needed new tires. A gold wedding band from the Mercantile in Jefferson. And a mother-in-law who clung to me like Spanish moss on a cypress tree.
Maybe I’d been living my entire life in a dreamworld where I thought people came back and loved you and would hang the moon if you asked them to. You’d think by now it would have sunk in that people are not necessarily who you think they are. Parents leave their children. Husbands have affairs. Mothers-in-law drink themselves into oblivion, and the one person who wanted to take us to her bosom was an aunt who could’ve been a kissing cousin of Rahab the harlot.
I shuddered and pushed it out of my mind. I’d been down that path so many times I knew every crack in the sidewalk. Tomorrow I would call on Mary Frances and see if she knew anything about O’Dell leaving any life insurance policies lying around. That did give me a glimmer of hope since O’Dell’s daddy had been an independent insurance salesman and had left Mary Frances with a tidy sum when he died. I also needed to check on her. Just because her son didn’t give a fig about me didn’t mean I could abandon her.
Rosey dawdled over her cornflakes while I fortified myself with a second cup of coffee and found her schoolbag, then adjusted the clip in her hair, which flew in more directions than my thoughts.
“All right, time for school. Don’t want you to be late.”
She opened her mouth to protest, then clamped her lips together. We’d already been over it a dozen times. Yes, she had to go to school. No, she didn’t have to talk about her daddy dying. Yes, Mommy would pick her up. And yes, I crossed my heart and hoped to die I would never leave her. Thank goodness, her six-year-old brain didn’t see the irony in that promise.
The air was heavy with bayou smells—rotted earth and mud turtles and boggy pools—smells that tickled the back of my throat, clung to my skin, and reminded me it was God’s way of dust to dust in the swamps. Our part of Mayhaw lay in the crescent of the bayou, and momentarily, I remembered that the other end of town had a completely different texture to the air. Pine needles. The smell of sawdust from the lumber mill up the road. Blue skies above the open meadows where cows grazed. The flashing neon of the Stardust.
After the two-block walk to Robert E. Lee Elementary and another round of hugs and kisses, Rosey shuffled into the front door of the school. As we headed back toward home, a car horn beeped, and I looked up to see my best friend, Sally Cotton, motioning for us to come over. She wore gypsy hoop earrings, sunglasses that covered half her face, and Japanese silk pajamas. “Time for coffee?” Her voice sparkled as always.
“Not today. Going to check on O’Dell’s mom.” Avril bounced up and down, yanking on my arm.
“Please, Mommy, I wanna play with Rae Rae.” Avril couldn’t say Nelda Rae, but she adored Sally’s four-year-old, who sported skinned knees from falling out of trees and had a pair of six-shooters. Cowboys and Indians trumped MeMaw every time.
“Let Avie come, and you can swing by later to pick her up. We’ve a heap of catching up to do.” Avril’s pleading eyes looked up at me, so I opened the door, thanked Sally, and waved as Sally’s Cadillac lurched forward.
Having decided to take advantage of the convenience of O’Dell’s car, I went home, grabbed the keys, and ten minutes later pounded on Mary Frances’s front door, waited a minute, and pounded again. When she didn’t come, I let myself in. “Yoo-hoo! Mary Frances, it’s me… Georgia.”
Doing a quick survey of the living room, I found it wasn’t too disorderly. Magazines scattered about. A cigarette burning in the ashtray, its long ash nearly to the filter. I stubbed it out and almost bumped into Mary Frances, who had apparently been in the bathroom. Her days with her cousin Bertha hadn’t improved her personal hygiene. I’d seen bird’s nests more organized than her salt-and-pepper hair, but she did have on lipstick, so maybe she was improving.
She blinked and said, “You scared me half to death. What are you up to, Georgia? Ever heard of the telephone?”
“I should have called. I’m sorry. I thought you might want some company.”
“I’ve had all the company I can stand. Three days with my cousin Bertha could drive the governor himself out of office. Why, she went on forever and a day moaning about how horrible my life had turned out. You woulda thought it was her son that drowned the way she kept nursing my last bottle of gin. I’m on my way to Ralph’s so I can get fortifications.” Sure enough, she was half dressed, and I offered to zip the back of her dress, which still gaped open.
“Bertha? The cousin from Corsicana? I never knew she was a drinker.”
“Neither did I. Not becoming for a mayor’s wife, you know. And if she thinks I’m moving to Corsicana so she can mooch off me and the pittance I have left of Earl’s life insurance money, she’s nuttier than a hoot owl.”
“What? She wants you to move in with her and the mayor?”
“No. Just to Corsicana. Thinks I should be near family in my time of need. I set her straight. I’ve got my own family to sustain me right here in Mayhaw.”
When she saw my raised eyebrows, she added, “You, Georgia. You and the girls. You’re all the family I want. Or need.” Her hands trembled as she fumbled with her silver lighter and Pall Mall. “So you didn’t tell me what the occasion of your visit is.”
“I came to check on you. And I have some questions.”
“Could we discuss it on the way over to Ralph’s?”
“He doesn’t open until ten.”
“Yes, my dear, I called ahead. He’s meeting me at the Sweet Shoppe. He knows what I want.”
And indeed he did. And since we were there, I bought Mary Frances a donut and a cup of coffee. Now that we had time to talk, bringing up the subject of life insurance felt mercenary. The dirt mound hadn’t even settled over O’Dell’s grave, and all I could think of was what provisions he left to the girls and me. Practicality won out.
“Mary Frances, I hate to bring it up, but I can’t seem to find a life insurance policy at the house. Do you have any idea…”
Mary Frances twitched. Her shoulders first, then shaky hands. “You think we could cut this short? I need to get home.”
“In a minute. I’m trying to figure out where we go from here. I have two girls who need clothes. And shoes. And food to eat. O’Dell didn’t make a great deal of money… the truth is, I haven’t seen any of his commission money in more than two months.” I hated being so forthright, especially in public, but my lack of sleep and Mary Frances’s twitching had taken their toll. Not to mention every time I took a breath, the name Fiona Callahan flashed through my head.
My mother-in-law sniffed. “I’m sure O’Dell had a good reason. Perhaps a slump in sales. And it’s not that you can’t get a job. I know it’s early after O’Dell’s passing to bring it up…” Her foot slipped off the bar at the counter, and she bumped her coffee cup, splashing it on the counter. I grabbed a napkin to mop up the mess and looked at her. Hard.
“Yes, I do plan on going to work. But in the meantime—”
“Hey, Georgia.” A twangy voice on my left interrupted. I knew the voice without turning—Bobby Carl Applegate. I did a slow pivot on the counter stool to greet him.
“Sorry about O’Dell. Man, it gave me the willies when I was reading his obit on the radio.” Bobby Carl. Local disc jockey, newsman, and the boy who gave me my first kiss. Age ten. I smacked him, but he’d acted like he had first rights to me ever since. Silly man.
“Thanks. It was a shock to all of us. We’re still trying to make sense of it.”
“Anything I can do?” He stood close enough I could smell the Aqua Velva he splashed on his fair, though somewhat doughy, face. He’d never outgrown the baby face, and his stature never caught up, either. In high school, I’d towered over him and still did.
“No, but thanks for asking.”
“You aiming to stick around Mayhaw?”
“What else would I do?”
“You never know. A voice like yours, you could raise a few eyebrows at the Grand Ole Opry.”
What a laugh. “I don’t think so. Carrying a tune and being a real singer aren’t in the same league. Besides, you have to be asked to appear on the show. Cut a record or something, which I’ve no intention of doing.”
“Guess you’ll be whuppin’ up on all the other contestants in this year’s talent show then?”
“Sure. If I have time. You never know what I’ll be doing.”
He craned his neck to look around me at Mary Frances, then winked and whispered, “If you need an escort to the dance, you know where to find me.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re a mess, Bobby Carl.”
With eyes narrowed, he said, “Well?”
Shaking my head, I told him to pick on some other poor defenseless widow. Then I paid for our coffee and took Mary Frances home. She remained quiet on the ride, her fingers curled around the paper sack holding her prescription for grief. And life.
I dropped her off, then gripped the wheel, determined not to make the same choices as Mary Frances. Even if I had to dance with Bobby Carl at the Mayhaw Festival, it was better than letting a bottle consume me.
And with a flick of my wrist, I wheeled the car toward Sally’s, intending to take her up on her offer for coffee. Already, though, the morning had heated up, and when I got to the intersection at Main, I knew more coffee wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was to go to the Stardust. To check on Doreen and Paddy. Perhaps Paddy had gone for another round of cobalt treatments and they’d closed the Stardust for a spell. There had to be an explanation for its ragged appearance. The least I could do was have a look. They were—in Cora’s words—family. Of a sort.
The weeds had grown even more since O’Dell’s funeral, tangling the ditch and threatening to choke the gravel drive beside the office. No cars in sight. I swung the Ford into the spot reserved for the manager and cranked the window open. To my surprise, a soft breeze filtered in, bringing with it a green, piney scent. Although the bayou veered off behind the Stardust, its presence seemed more remote here at the edge of town. A flutter came to my chest as I took a deep breath and turned off the Ford.
I slammed the car door and marched to the office. Cupped my hands and put my nose to the glass. Other than a dusty, stale look, the Stardust looked ready for business. Papers stacked neatly beside an adding machine. A coffee cup still on the counter. Brochures tucked in a wall rack, and on the far wall, cottage keys dangled from a board with numbers above the cup hooks. I jiggled the knob and found it, not surprisingly, locked. When I stepped back, the sagging wooden step creaked uncertainly. I studied the outside. The stucco could use a coat of whitewash, and some new shutters would work wonders.
It bothered me that there was no sign saying Back after lunch or Gone Fishing. It looked as if the Stardust had simply been abandoned. I had turned to go when I caught a movement of something or someone between two of the cottages. A blur of tan—a deer that had perhaps come to munch on the knee-high weeds. Curious, I crunched my way on the gravel path that led to the sidewalk connecting the cottages like a piece of seam binding. Up close they didn’t look as worn and tired as I’d thought that day in the car. Some of the window boxes were missing, the remaining ones filled with weeds.
I slipped between the cottages where I’d seen the blur and jumped like a kangaroo rat when I nearly bumped into a child.
Taller than Rosey, with fuzzy black braids poking out in a dozen directions, the girl’s eyes were as round as jawbreakers, the whites of her eyes so white they had a blue tinge, and in the center, they were inky black and staring at me like I was a swamp ghost.
“Oh, goodness. Looks like we ’bout scared each other plumb spitless.” I smiled and extended my hand. “I’m Georgia. And who might you be?”
Course I knew she must’ve come up to the Stardust from Zion. The girl, eight or nine, I reckoned, said nothing, just bugged her eyes at me like she was frozen to the spot.
“Say now, you don’t have to be afraid.”
The eyes narrowed slightly as the girl bowed her head, studying pink palms, but not shying away from me. Then, as if her palms had given her the answer, she looked up and said, “My name is Merciful. And I ain’t afraid.”
“Merciful. What a beautiful name. Can you tell me where you live?”
Her head tilted toward Zion. “Yonder. In the trees.” Then her face broke into a wide grin, her two front teeth on the top missing. A giggle started in her belly and shook her pudgy arms and body. “Not in the trees. In a house with Maw and Paw and my stinkbug brother. His name’s Catfish, case you’s wondering.”
“Now that you mention it, maybe I was. So what brings you over to the tourist court today, Miss Merciful?”
Another giggle. “Y’ain’t supposed to call me Miss. That’s what we’s supposed to call y’all white folk. Hey, you aimin’ to be the new man here?”
“What do you mean? I’m a lady, for one thing, not a man.”
“You know, the one who goin’ to be running the place. The man. Your man. Like the other one and his lady that was here.”
“Well, the ones who were here before seem to be gone right now, but I would guess they’re coming back. You seem to know a lot more than I do. Care to tell me why it interests you?”
“No reason.” For the first time, the wide-eyed child looked away, down at the grass.
“You surely don’t mean that. Why else would you be leaving your maw and paw and coming up here?” The truth was, Merciful was quite an engaging child, and she was probably breaking every rule forty ways to sundown for even talking to a stranger, a white woman at that.
“Paw’s gone on the lumber trailer with the others, and today is Maw’s turn to take care of Mamey. She don’t know I left.” Then, as though the fact dawned on her for the first time, she backed away, looking toward the trees.
“It’s all right. Your secret’s safe with me. You come here often?”
“No, ma’am. Not no more. Maw says ain’t no use crying over spilt milk. The good Lord will provide.” She studied her bare feet. Wide. Flat. And even though she was a mere child, they looked as tough as alligator skin.
Had the child ever owned a pair of shoes? Understanding crept upon me, a dim candle of knowing that warmed my face. The man—Paddy, I guessed—must’ve employed Merciful’s momma to help clean the cottages. Sally, like every distinguished woman in Mayhaw, had a colored girl two days a week. Tansy. Or was it Fancy? A pleasant woman who busied herself with the dust mop and linseed oil.
Aunt Cora hadn’t held to the tradition of hiring someone, burdened as she’d always been with raising a child on her paltry fortune, but I’d always had an unnatural curiosity about the folks who came in from Zion on colored day at the Mercantile. I would sneak downtown on my bicycle, pretending to be on an errand, and watch as they paraded into town, their mahogany faces glistening in the summer heat. Their voices, rich and peppered with laughter, filled my heart. Once I left my bicycle in the bushes and shimmied up close, walking along like I was one of them. I offered a pigtailed girl about my age a lemon drop and laughed along with her. By the time I got home, Aunt Cora had already caught wind of my escapade. She whipped the living daylights out of me with Grandma Tickle’s wooden spoon.
The child before me stared at her feet, the dress she wore at least two sizes too big, the print of it faded to practically nothing. Such a respectful girl. Polite. Well-spoken. And whether she was aware or not… captivating.
“Merciful, did your momma used to work here?”
Her head shot up. “Yes, ma’am. And she let me help her collect the bedclothes and take them to the wash room. Over there.” She pointed to a small building behind the office I’d not noticed before. “Ever’ day, we came and did what the man asked. And on Saturday, he gave Maw her money and he’d give me a penny to put in the gumball machine.”
“I bet you liked that.”
Her wide, gap-toothed grin told me she did.
“I think I have a pack of gum in my car. You want a stick?”
Pigtails slapped all around her head when she shook it. “Cain’t be seen on t’other side of the cottages. Maw would take a willow switch to me lickety-split if she was to hear of me talking to you.”
“It’s all right. I won’t tell. And tell your momma I’m sure someone will be needing her help very soon. I’ll be talking to the good Lord, too. Betcha it won’t be long until the Stardust is back in business.”
She nodded, the spark back in her eyes. I extended my hand and took her small, rough one in mine. “Happy to meet you, Merciful. You run on home now before your momma starts to worry.”
[ CHAPTER 5 ]
Merciful turned and ran toward Zion, her feet slapping the ground with a happy sound. She was just a speck on the horizon when she slipped into the trees, the pine branches swallowing her in an instant. My heart went out to her, but if what she said was true, Doreen and Paddy had shut the place up. Disappeared, it seemed, although I was sure there was an explanation. Still, it left a hollow spot in me, too, and I regretted not keeping up with their lives. I turned and started toward my car, then stopped when I saw Sonny Bolander pull up and hang his head out the window.
“Georgia, what the devil are you doing out here?”
I breezed up to him. “I could ask the same of you. But the truth is, I noticed all the weeds the day of O’Dell’s funeral, and I realized I hadn’t visited with Doreen and Paddy in a while. Any idea what’s going on?”
“Matter of fact, I came out this way to check on the place. Make sure nothin’s disturbed. The ol’ feller passed last night.”
“Paddy? He died?” My insides flipped, leaving me weak. I steadied myself with a hand on the sheriff’s car.
“Cancer got him. He put up quite a fight. I heard this morning the funeral’s Wednesday over to the Methodist church.”
“Oh, gracious. I had no idea. He was my great-uncle, you know.” And the man, according to Merciful in her tattered dress.
“Yes’m, reckon I forgot that. Been awhile since you been out here, then?”
“Too long. Aunt Cora used to have a fit when I sneaked over here as a child. Bad blood or something. Probably some long-forgotten feud like the Montagues and the Capulets.”
“I don’t know nothing about your Louisiana relations if that’s what you’re referring to, but I do know a thing or two about crossing your aunt Cora.”
Inwardly, I smiled. Sheriff Bolander knew his job inside and out, but he didn’t know Shakespeare from a poke in the eye. And part of his job was to know all the goings-on in Mayhaw, so I asked where I might find Doreen.
“They’ve been staying with her sister, Rue Ann Pitts. Over on Jefferson Street.”
I thanked him and waited until he drove off before heading back toward Sally’s to pick up Avril. Maybe the Stardust sign had beckoned me because Doreen needed my help. Being newly widowed, we certainly had plenty of grief to share, and helping her with the Stardust might be just the thing to keep me occupied until I sorted out my life.
Hazel Morton waved from her front porch where she was busy sweeping. I returned the wave and made a mental note to return her potato salad bowl—the one she brought to the house as part of the bereavement parade of food. While I was at it, I should bake an angel food cake for Doreen and her sister.
Two blocks from Main Street, I passed Dickie Mingo on his bicycle. He was eighty if he was a day and still peddling down to the Sweet Shoppe for a bacon and tomato sandwich every day at noon.
Noon already? I had no idea I’d been gone so long.
I pressed on the foot feed and sped over to State Street to Sally’s home. She lived five houses down from Aunt Cora in a bright yellow plantation house—one that her in-laws’ oil money had preserved and kept in grand style. From the day her in-laws moved to Houston and left her and Hudson in charge of the house, Sally had slipped into being Mayhaw’s mistress of philanthropy as easy as pulling on a pair of kid gloves.
She met me at the front door and waved me back to the sunroom, where she’d fed lunch to Avril and Nelda Rae and set a place for the two of us.
“You must be parched. Want some mint tea? I was hoping you’d come along and try out this new chicken salad recipe I’m serving for the Magnolias next week.”
I took the tea from her. “You’re a lifesaver, and I’m glad to be the guinea pig for your garden club. Matter of fact, I’m starved.” Avril slipped onto my lap and lifted her ketchup-smeared face to mine.
“Miss Sally let me put ketchup on my cheese sandwich.”
“That was nice. Have you and Nelda Rae had a good time?”
“We watched Howdy Doody.”
“Cowabunga!” Nelda Rae shouted with a mouthful of applesauce, which dribbled down her chin.
Sally chided her. “Don’t talk with your mouth full. And if you girls are finished, run out and play. Remember, stay in the shade. Don’t want you catching any infantile paralysis, you hear?”
When the girls had gone, she settled into the wicker seat and raised her glass. “To summertime. Remember when our only concerns were catching crawdads and making our daily trip down to Marley’s for an ice-cream cone? Now, every time you turn a corner, there’s talk of a new case of polio.”
“It is the season. Vigilance, Aunt Cora says. But how can you be vigilant about something that comes out of nowhere?”
She shuddered. “They’re even showing those horrible clips at the movies. Kids on crutches. Spooky shadows that, I swan, have me looking over my shoulder and making the kids do the chin touch to see if their necks are still screwed on straight.” She bobbed her head forward, touching it to her chest, her hoop earrings dancing against her olive complexion as she demonstrated.
“It’s not like you to be such a worrier, Sally.”
“Hud’s cousin’s girl down in Houston just came down with it. No earthly idea where it came from. One minute they think she has influenza. The next her legs have gone spastic, her neck is stiff, and she’s lost her wits. It’s scaring the tar out of me. Let’s pray we don’t get an outbreak here.”
I raised my own glass. “Amen.” The summer disease. The crippler. There were worse things than losing a husband. It could be one of my own girls.
Sally shuddered. “What am I thinking? You’ve got the world on your shoulders, and I’m carrying on about something that, Lord willing, we’ll never see.” She flicked a black curl away from her face. “So, tell me, how is Mary Frances?”
For a moment I had to think back. It seemed like days had passed since I’d seen her, but as Sally waited, waving a carrot stick at me, I shrugged. “You know Mary Frances. She’ll be okay.”
Sally snorted. “We both know Mary Frances will never be okay. So you’ve been over there all morning?”
I nibbled a corner of the chicken salad sandwich. “Mmmm. This is delicious. What did you do different? Is that pineapple I’m tasting?”
“No, it’s not pineapple. Surely Mary Frances hasn’t held you captive all this time? Trust me, Georgia, you are going to have to break gently from her. It’s time for you both to move on.”
“It’s not as easy as you think. I feel I’m being pulled in too many directions at once. Mary Frances. The girls. And now Aunt Cora wants us to move in with her.”
Sally’s eyebrows arched like a cat’s back. “You’re not seriously considering it, are you?”
“No, but let’s face it, I don’t have many options. Get a job waiting tables at Ruby’s. Move in with Aunt Cora. Or follow Bobby Carl Applegate’s suggestion and sing at the Grand Ole Opry.”
Sally burst out laughing. “Leave it to Bobby Carl. He’s been pining for you forever. Has he asked you out yet?”
“Good grief. Even he’s got brains enough to know how far that would get him.”
“I’ll give him a month.”
I took another bite of my sandwich. “Are you sure there’s no pineapple in here?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I put mandarin oranges in it. Do you think the Magnolias will like it?”
“I’m sure they will. It’s delicious.”
Sally lowered her head and placed her well-manicured hand over mine. “Forget the chicken salad. Tell me, how are you? The shock of O’Dell walking out, then him drowning—”
I held up my hand. “Hey, I’m through crying over O’Dell. Not only did he leave me without any means of support, but I found a life insurance policy in his briefcase with her name on it.”
“Her, as in the woman he was stupid enough to leave you for? Was it someone you know?”
Excerpted from Stardust by Stewart, Carla Copyright © 2012 by Stewart, Carla. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Carla Stewart's writing reflects her passion for times gone by. She launched her writing career in 2002 when she earned the coveted honor of being invited to attend Guidepost's Writers Workshop in Rye, New York. Since then, her articles have appeared in Guideposts, Angels on Earth, and several regional magazines and anthologies.
Carla received two American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) Genesis awards for unpublished authors. The novel that won in 2007 went on to become her first published novel-Chasing Lilacs which has garnered many rave reviews including a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly and 4 ¿ stars from Romantic Times Reviews. Her second novel, Broken Wings, releases in June 2011.
Carla graduated from the University of Oklahoma and worked as a registered nurse for a number of years. She and her engineer husband are the parents of four married sons and relish the adventures of their six grandchildren. She enjoys a good cup of coffee, great books, and weekend getaways with her husband.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This was a super great book. I really enjoyed it. Stardust was a very different book from what I normally read, the paranormal genre, but when I can find a good fiction book that is “realistic,” I usually love it, though that is rare for me. While reading Stardust I really wanted Georgia to stop getting the shaft all the time and almost all of it relating to her dead, cheating husband! I am not sure I could have acted the way she did, taking care of her MIL and the kids of her husband’s mistress. No way. The book had a ton of plot twists that kept me highly entertained and trying to figure out what was going to happen next. The revelation at the end was the most startling and I didn’t see it coming until right before it was revealed. Very, very awesome! I loved the romance in Stardust and I liked Georgia’s “down- on- his- luck” drifter from the very start. I loved how Georgia took chances, but also took care of her kids. I loved that Georgia didn’t treat Ludi and her kids like everyone else wanted her to, instead she treated them like they were family, even though that was very uncommon during that time period. Overall, this was a great book, it made me laugh, cry, get angry, and fall in love with the characters. It is not a deep book, but one that I truly enjoyed. I will definitely read other books by the author, Carla Stewart. Stardust has a nice happy ending, but not the exact ending that one would easily guess in the beginning. There is no swearing, violence, or sex, but it does have romance. Stardust is the perfect book for a summer read, or really an anytime read. I am not sure I would recommend this book to young kids since there is talk about how Georgia’s husband was a cheater, which could be a difficult subject for younger kids, but it would be perfectly appropriate for kids in like 11th grade and up, though it is primarily written for adults. I received this book as an ARC. I do not get paid to review books; I do so in order to assist you in recognizing books that you might enjoy. Please read more of my reviews on my blog: sarahereads(dot)wordpress(dot)com
STARDUST by Carla Stewart is an interesting Southern fiction set in the 1950′s Texas. Follow Georgia Peyton as she learns forgiveness,the taste of betrayal,loss,tragedy,friendship,on her heartbreaking journey to find herself. “Stardust” is written in first person narrative,with vivid descriptions,full of family secrets,second chances and small town life. Ms. Stewart is a wonderful storyteller who will pull you into the story as your journey with the characters through the landfill of life in small town Texas. A must read! You will not regret picking up “Stardust”,especially if you enjoy Southern fiction,inspirational reads,second chances and a visit with at a most unexpected motel.Received for an honest review from the publisher. Details can be found at Faithwords,the author’s website and My Book Addiction and More. RATING: 4 HEAT RATING:Sweet: No sex or scenes of physical intimacy except some kissing. No graphic violence or profanity. REVIEWED BY: AprilR, My Book Addiction and More
In Stardust we travel back to the 1950’s. Georgia’s husband has left her for another woman. After two months his body is found in the swamp. Now she’s a widow and she needs to take care of her two daughters alone. Georgia was raised by an aunt. Her parents left her at the Stardust motel when she was 3 years old. Her aunt doesn’t want to tell her the reason why her parents left her there. While growing up Georgia often found refuge in the Stardust. Paddy and Doreen ran the place and loved her like a daughter. When Paddy dies he leaves the Stardust to Georgia. Doreen tells her that the answer to her past is hidden in the Stardust. Her aunt doubts that she can run the place as a stand-alone-mother. Besides it’s dangerous for a woman alone to run a highway motel. Soon her mother-in-law comes to live in one of the cabins. Then a stranger –Peter- comes to the Stardust and asks for a job. Peter is helping Georgia with repairs. Georgia grows to like him and people start talking behind her back. Then a pregnant woman and her young daughter come to the Stardust. The woman is sick and needs to go to the hospital. While she’s there Georgia takes care of the woman’s daughter. But then Georgia finds out who the woman is... Can she forgive the woman for ruining her life? And when she finds out the truth about her parents, can she forgive her aunt for keeping the truth from her? Peter gets a phone call from a woman and needs to leave immediately. Is there another woman in his life, or will he come back for her? Can Georgia let go of her hurtful past and focus on a new life with the people she loves in the Stardust? Carla Stewart knows how to make you feel at home with her characters! A well written novel! I’m looking forward to Carla’s next book.
Soft moss for elders
What a wonderful find this book was. It was a sweet story of a woman who was kind to the core, despite having the troubles of Job. It was our book club choice last month and we have such a lively discussion about Polio and the fright that it brought to peoples lives during the 50's. This wasn't a topic that we had covered before in a book choice so it was a terrific discussion. The characters in the book are well fleshed out and the author does a terrific job of evoking life in a small town during a simpler, kinder time.
What a wonderful book. I appreciated, how very honestly, the author dealt with the subject matter. Books like this always end to quickly for me...
format Paperback (edit) review A very beautiful story about the Amana community. I find their style of living very fascinating.This story took place during the Civil War. Some of main characters' lives were directly involved,one of the main characters,Friedrich joined the Union because he wanted to help those who couldn't help themselves-to help free the slaves. Be ready for the tissue box..Friedrich is killed in the war, leaving his wife to be-Amalie,waiting for him to return to be married.There is more to this story,but I will not spoil it. Melanie Dobson has become one of my favorite authors, I love the way she writes. The history in relation to the Amanas and the Civil War in this story was awesome-it kept me turning the pages, to find out what happens next, and the characters and places felt so real to me,I felt like I was there. I hope that Ms.Dobson continues to write more books on the Amanas and the Amish. I am always on the look-out for books written on The Amanas,The Quakers,and The Shakers.(less) comment · see review
An eclectic cast of characters, a setting as rich as any character, the fascinating historical backdrop of the polio epidemics in the early 1950s, and Carla Stewart's lyrical writing make Stardust a winner of a novel.
Carla Stewart weaves heart and nostalgia into her stories. With an eclectic cast of characters, Stardust made me want to jump in the car and drive to Mayhaw, Texas, just so I could check into one of the cottages. Then I remembered Stardust is a novel. It's earned a spot on my Top Ten for 2012 list.
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Reading this story feels like I’ve made a new friend. Georgia Peyton is a true southern gentlewoman; strong, yet open and kindhearted. She’s gracious and generous, but not a pushover. What she gives, she does of her own choice. She quietly carries her hurts, longings, and betrayal, but remains loyal, regardless of whether or not it’s deserved. The kindness she shows to her cheating dead husband’s mother first comes from her instinctive sense of duty, but, as Georgia is challenged to dig deeper throughout this story, her care for Mary Frances comes from an untapped place in her core, borne out of compassion. I love this! I also admire the way her unconventional friendship with Ludi, the black woman from the bayou, begins so naturally. She slips it on like a favorite sweater, without regard to the constant censure of people in her life and community who can’t see past color, fear, and bigotry. Georgia is a woman who shows patience and respect for others even when she doesn’t agree with them, yet she still has plenty of room to grow. Her life has been fraught with unanswered questions and memories that eat at her sense of security. In this story, when the polio epidemic moves in closer to home and fear escalates, Georgia must make difficult choices that affect those she loves. In the midst of fear, confusion, and the unknown, she must keep her head and consider what’s best in the long run for others, and to follow through by faith. Through forgiveness and surrender, she finds the love and peace she seeks, and I love that. Faith is ironic that way, best tested and strengthened when the outcome is unknown. An example of this is seen in one major test of Georgia’s strength and grace: the challenge and opportunity to help her dead husband’s mistress. Georgia’s courage and willingness to go the extra mile for others—whether or not they deserve it—is a powerful example of Christ-like, sacrificial love you can put your trust in. Besides my friend Georgia, what I loved about this story is its subtle complexity. While a smooth, easy read (Carla Stewart’s soft southern voice is like a soothing song), its layers are rich with real characters, each with their own unique strengths and flaws, right down to the children, who charm us with their childish moods and true childlike wonder. While simply captivating and entertaining, this story gently touches on some weighty topics such as infidelity, addiction and prejudice with the same grace and compassion we quickly come to love it its heroine. This is such a beautifully told and engaging story, but it’s also a subtle but powerful lesson in hope, redemption, love, loyalty and grace that you won’t soon forget.