Four sisters, many lovers, and a series of settings both familiar and exotic delineate the nineteen linked stories in this award-winning debut collection. Whether leaving, returning, or staying put, the women who narrate these stories are bound to Alabama by history and habit, their voices informed by the landscape and lore of the New South.
Michelle Richmond introduces us to a memorable extended family, in which lies come more easily than forgiveness, and parents and siblings conceal the truth as often as they reveal it. In many cases, the women are forced to choose -- between family and lovers, safety and self-sufficiency, the religion they grew up with and the reality of the world they have found for themselves.
In "Down the Shore Everything's All Right," twenty-eight-year-old Grace abandons wide Southern beaches for New York sidewalks, only to discover that the Gulf Coast still has a hold on her. In "Intermittent Waves of Unusual Size and Force," a wayward father is called home from California by a massive hurricane that threatens the lives of his family. In "The World's Greatest Pants," three younger sisters watch in awe as Darlene, the eldest and bravest, defies her parents and heads for Texas in a battered El Camino.
An undercurrent of eroticism runs through the collection. "Propaganda" finds the youngest sister alone in an old house in Knoxville, where she forms a symbiotic relationship with a mysterious upstairs neighbor during her husband's lengthy absence. In "Fifth Grade: A Criminal History," adolescence and sexuality merge with explosive consequences. A woman dancing naked on a bridge in San Francisco is the central figure of the title story.
The divine and the absurd are uneasy but frequent bedfellows in this volume. "O-lama-lama" portrays the scene of a religious free-for-all at a beachside church in Fairhope, Alabama, while "Slacabamorinico" celebrates the holy commotion of Mardi Gras at a Mobile cemetery. In "The Last Bad Thing," a love-struck young woman in the Bible Belt is haunted by visions of Ramadan.
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Angel's mother makes red velvet cakes and talks about the prowess of God. In addition to this she speaks in tongues. Mrs. Brady has never in forty years cut her hair and it is a mountain on top of her head. She says to Angel, "Maybe your Baptist friend will convert."
Angel's father taps the phones in his house so he will know if his wife commits adultery, if his daughter talks to boys. Every morning before Angel leaves for school, Mr. Brady stands drowsily in the doorway of her bedroom and orders her to turn. She performs a lazy pirouette while he inspects her uniform. More often than not, he delivers a passionate lecture on the proper length of skirts before releasing her into the world.
At the little church by the beach in Fairhope, Angel and I sit in the back row. We keep our eyes open during prayer, not wanting to miss a thing. Halfway through the service Angel's father runs up to the pulpit and starts babbling. O-lama-lama-ana-bacha-sabbatine-wyo, he shouts. Mrs. Brady cries out and shakes her hips. Her hair falters but does not fall. O-lama-lama, Mr. Brady says, more quietly now, like a prayer. Tears run down his face. His shirt is drenched in sweat.
The preacher starts a conga line and within moments most of the church has joined in. The conga line weaves its way in and out of the pews, up to the baptistery, where everyone gets wet. The church is on a budget so the baptistery water is cold. Grown men emerge from the dyed blue water slick and shiny, their ties askew anddripping, their bare feet white and swollen. Ladies shiver and shout Amen, the seams of their Montgomery Ward bras showing through their satin blouses.
I follow Angel to the front of the church, where she takes two tambourines from a cardboard box that still bears its proud brand name: General Electric. Now, as before, the box contains the promise of good things to comeof love and enlightenment poured down like fresh water on this burning, beat-you-up life. We stand in front of the pulpit and dance like the freckle-faced girl on The Partridge Family. We shake our hips and snap our fingers and bang the tambourines, singing a Partridge Family tune.
Later, back at the house, Mrs. Brady feeds us red velvet cake and says, "I just hope you understand the meaning, girls. The whole point is to praise the Lord."
We're driving through the Lincoln Tunnel en route to Jersey when Ivan turns off the tape player and puts his hand on my thigh. I know what this means. It means he's gearing up to tell me the story. He'll be telling it in a way that suggests he has never told me this story before, that he has never told it to anyone, that it's coming straight to me from his heart, where he has saved it all these years. Each time the story is a little different; he adds or subtracts a few details, spruces up the dialogue, increases or decreases the temperature of that March day in northern California by a couple of degrees. Every time he tells the story, he has a new hook, an improved first line. This whole day has been planned in homage to that story, the story of the greatest moment of his life. We've rented a car and are on our way to Asbury Park.
It occurs to me that this is the day I'm going to break up with him; there is no more putting it off. After four years, it seems fitting that we should end our relationship in Asbury Park on the occasion of his second pilgrimage, and it seems somehow more civil than if I were to break the news to him anywhere elseover dessert at Edgar's, say, or in bed at our Eighty-fifth Street apartment.
Ivan first traveled to Asbury Park in 1982, soon after the release of Nebraska, three years after supposedly meeting Bruce Springsteen on a service road in San Mateo, California. He had gone to the Jersey Shore with his brother, driven cross-country from San Francisco hoping to get a glimpse of the world beyond the West Coast, and, more important, the world of Bruce. At the time, I was fourteen years old and a big fan of Madonna, and the crowd I ran with thought of Bruce as some overly patriotic guy with a redneck heart and a sweaty bandana. Bruce was a Jersey thing; being from the Gulf Coast, we didn't get it.
"There's this booth right on the boardwalk," Ivan says, fumbling with the hem of my skirt. "Madame Marie. I hope she's still there. Madame Marie read my palm, you know. She said I'd meet a girl with ringlets in her hair."
"Not that I recall. But I did have this girlfriend named Sandy Cho who went to a Halloween party as Shirley Temple."
We exit the tunnel amid a cloud of exhaust fumes. An Atlantic City-bound bus screeches and sighs in front of us. This morning, Sam Champion on Channel Seven promised light showers in the city, heavy wind and rain on the Jersey Shore.
"I've gotta show you the Stone Pony. That's where Bruce met the bandGary W. Tallent, Danny Federici, The Big Man, Vini Mad Dog Lopez, Miami Steve Van Zant. And we've got to see the Tunnel of Love, of course. Remember that song?" He sings it for me. "Fat man sitting on a little stool, takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you ... Did I ever tell you I got a picture of him?"
"You might have mentioned it."
"Too bad about the film."
When I first met Ivan, I thought the Bruce bit was a fish story he'd eventually let go of, a sort of introductory hoorah intended to impress me, like those guys who woo you with expensive restaurants only to settle into pizza-by-the-slice and Chinese-in-a-box as soon as they have your attention. I was a college girl from Alabama, visiting New York City for the first time. Ivan bought me dirty martinis at a place called Sabrina's, and we talked until the lights went down and a waitress in blue tights asked us to leave. Ivan also had stories about going to a Kings game with Tom Hanks and meeting Huey Lewis at a party, stories that came up only once, off-handedly, never to be repeated. But he has held tightly to his story about Bruce and the camera with no film, never budging, recounting it once or twice a year for various audiences, as if by sheer pig-headedness and repetition he might make it true.
He rolls down the window and the smell of New Jersey invades the car, industrial and sad and vaguely mean-spirited, a lingering fog of factory smoke and hair spray. Everything looks dismal from the passenger seat, where I am silently rehearsing my break-up speech.
"I'm exiting the drive-through at McDonald's," Ivan begins.
"I thought you said it was Taco Bell," I say, testing him, hoping to catch him in a lie.
"No, definitely McDonald's. I've got a Big Mac in my lap, a large Coke propped between my knees. There's this Mustang stopped in front of me. Another car has pulled in alongside him, and they're talking, blocking the intersection. I honk and the guy in the Mustang waves a hand out the window, like an apology, says goodbye to his friend, and pulls out. And I'm thinking, wow, I know that voice. That 'Bye, now,' I've heard it before. Bruce said it when he exited the stage at Winterland. But I'm a seventeen-year-old kid, right? And this guy's my idol, and I don't believe for a second it could be true."
"I once met Elizabeth Montgomery when I was waiting tables in Tuscaloosa," I say, but Ivan's so caught up in the miracle of the remembered moment that he doesn't hear me, or at least my words don't register.
It doesn't take long for the turnpike to become less appalling. Smokestacks slowly disappear, giving way to heavily wooded roadsides and expansive medians, the first green I've seen in months. Pale, immaculate roofs peek over the tops of ugly sound barriers, and I think of the people in those regular houses, living regular lives, the kind I felt destined for until Ivan persuaded me to abandon wide southern beaches for big city sidewalks. Half of my motive for breaking up with him is that I blame him for bringing me to New York City, where living quarters are minuscule and people are unkind. The other half is that I'm tired of his stories. Not just Bruce, but the others. Like the time he was walking down the street and saw a group of workmen handling a huge plate glass window several stories above, and in the next instant the glass was suddenly airborne and falling, shattering inches behind him.
"A split second difference in my pace," he once told me, "a moment of hesitation as I walked, and the window would have taken off my head." It seems to me the stuff of fantasy, his frequent meetings with celebrities and his hair-breadth escapes from death. Ivan lives in a dramatic world of his own making, in which he is a magnet for the incredible and the impossible, simultaneously inviting the miraculous and the macabre. The bottom line is this: I do not believe him. In the beginning his stories charmed me. Now, they only annoy me. I want him to be honest, dependable, perhaps a little mundane. I want to be the one person to whom he feels compelled to tell the truth. And there is the lingering fear that there are other, less innocent lieslies relating to the weekend trips to Quebec with other teachers from his school, lies to explain the frequent and panicked voice of his ex-girlfriend on our answering machine.
"Once we're on the service road I pull up beside the Mustang, you know, just to check it out," Ivan continues. "There he is. It's Bruce. I'm not believing it. He's got Gary U.S. Bonds singing 'Rendezvous' on the tape deck. So I roll down my window and yell, 'Bruce,' and he looks over at me and gives me this wave. Real stupid, I shout, 'Welcome to San Mateo!' and he starts motioning for me to pull over. I do, and he does, and he gets out of the car, and then he's shaking my hand. I've got this point-and-shoot in the glove compartment, and when I ask him if I can take a picture he says, 'Sure, why not.' If there had been film in the camera I'd have a picture of Bruce in a plaid flannel shirt and ripped jeans, just standing there looking slightly amused, with Togo's in the background. He's on his way to San Jose, but he says, 'Why don't you give me your phone number. I'll call you.' So I write it on the back of a crusty old road map, and then he pulls out, and I'm thinking, there's no way that just happened."
I finish the story for him, because I know the last line. No matter how it starts, it always ends the same way. "Greatest moment of your life," I say.
"Not any more. Second greatest moment of my life."
"What was the first?"
"Day I met you." He leans over and kisses me on the cheek, and I feel about this small, and I'm wondering how I'm going to pull off the break-up speech. And then I think maybe Asbury Park is all wrong, because it's a place he loves and if I break up with him there, maybe the place itself will be tainted. I should have thought of that before. I should have considered his theory of cross-contamination, how a thing can only be special in one kind of way. According to his theory, you don't take your new girlfriend to the same vacation spot you went with the old girlfriend, and you never fall in love with a woman who has the same first name as someone you loved before. It stands to reason, then, that he doesn't believe in making bad memories in a place where you've already made good ones.
"I have something to tell you," I say.
He cranks up the radio. "Out with it, bubba." That's what he calls me sometimes, bubba, because I'm from Alabama.
"I can't do this anymore."
He looks over at me, laughing. "Very funny. No, really. What did you want to tell me?"
He looks at me again. There's a tiny mole on the curve of his chin I never noticed before, not in four years of looking at him up close. "You're kidding me."
"It's just not working."
We pass a hitchhiker in green corduroy pants. Her sign says she'll pay half the gas. "I spy me a hitchhiker," I say, trying to lighten the mood with a game Ivan and I used to play on our frequent road trips. "I spy me a rabbit." The rule is that you can spy anything as long as it's animate, and the first one to repeat something loses.
"What do you want me to do?" Ivan says. "You want to move? You want to get married? We'll get married if that's it. We'll move out of the city. Get a place in Asbury Park, maybe, you'll like it there, it's real quiet in the winters. Or go down South. You want to go down South?"
"That won't solve it."
"Where's this coming from? What did I do?"
"You didn't do anything."
Silence, except for Howard Stern on the radio. He's interviewing a leading child psychologist, quizzing her on the size of her breasts. He wants to know if her breasts get in the way of her social work. She wants to know if his stupidity gets in the way of his career. She postulates that Howard Stern was breast-fed until the age of ten or so and thus his fascination with the mammary gland. She suggests that he wants to sleep with his mother. "Whoa-ho!" Howard says. "Easy, baby. I'll tell you who I want to sleep with. I want to sleep with your mother!" Howard's sidekick, Robin, tells him to behave.
"Maybe we should turn around," I say.
"We've come this far. We've got the car for the day. May as well."
A couple of minutes later we exit the turnpike, then drive in silence for a long time toward the shore. It begins to rain. The windshield wipers of our plastic rent-a-car keep sticking, and every couple of minutes I have to lean out the window and lift the wipers from the glass to get them moving again.
Our route takes us through broken-down towns that all look pretty much the same: old factories with soot-scarred windows, bent cars parked permanently in driveways, filthy little grocery stores with big white banners in the windows advertising pork roast and Pampers. Ivan watches the slick road while I watch the odometer. It clicks off the miles with a slowness that reminds me of Alabama, Sunday drives with my parents and sisters through green empty places that inevitably ended at some abandoned length of railroad, the crossing signals long defunct. At one point Ivan reaches over and opens the glove compartment, then fumbles for a cassette. When he does this I move my knees aside, but the rental car is small and it's impossible not to touch. His hand brushing the back of my knee feels natural for about half a second, and then it's just embarrassing. He jerks it away, like I'm made of fiberglass or fire, and says, "See if you can find Darkness On the Edge of Town."
As the opening song plays, Ivan's hands beat the steering wheel, only vaguely in rhythm with the music. It's been about twenty miles since he looked my way. I know the story that goes with this song, how this was the first album he ever bought. How he took it home and put it on the turntable in the bedroom he shared with his brother at his family's new house in Burlingame, then listened to it for an entire day, the same song, hundreds of times.
Halfway through the song he pops the cassette out of the player. "How about the Stockholm tape?" he says. I fish through the glove compartment and find it. Bruce's version of "Jersey Girl," by Tom Waits, is playing as we pull into Asbury Park. Now baby won't you come with me, cause down the shore everything's alright, you and your baby on a Saturday night. Nothing matters in this whole wide world when you're in love with a Jersey girl. Sing sha la la la la ... Like most of Bruce's own songs, "Jersey Girl" is two parts hope, one part working-man blues, and another part lusty despair.
A red Camaro passes on our left. The driver, a middle-aged woman with tattoos down the length of her arm, gives us a happy wave, then guns the engine and moves on ahead. After Bruce, we hear Tom Waits doing the same song in his low-down rumble. When Tom Waits sings "Jersey Girl," you get the feeling that nothing is all right anywhere, and nowhere is less all right than where you are right now.
The rain is coming down hard, and the wind is pushing our two-door all over the road. The whole town looks deserted. You can tell from the crumbling facades of big, handsomely built hotels that wealthy people once vacationed here, then abandoned the place when it ceased to be fashionable. We park at a shut-down gas station across the street from the Tunnel of Love. The tunnel is nothing more than a hole carved into a low cement wall, the entrance decorated with a fading mural. I remember my second kiss everin the haunted house ride at Six Flags over Georgia. The guy's name was Jason Lowery. He put his hand up my shirt as our vehicle tipped toward a vast hall of floating skeletons. I felt a strange electricity on my skin, hundreds of tiny pinpricks circling my nipple.
"There used to be a drive-in theater back there," Ivan says, pointing somewhere beyond the decrepit amusement ride. "Did I ever tell you about the freeway drive-in?"
I shake my head no rather than answering aloud, just to force him to look at me. He doesn't.
"When I was in grammar school, my parents had this house above Daly City. From the window of our bedroom my brother and I could see the screen of the Geneva Drive-In across the freeway. Late at night, when we were supposed to be asleep, we'd lean out the window and watch the show. They played mostly sex flicks. We couldn't hear any sound, so we'd make up our own words. Blonde girls with enormous tanned breasts and plump red mouths saying things like, 'I think it's the carburetor' or 'Beam me up, Scotty.'"
I imagine him, age seven, with that bushy black hair I've seen in his old school photos. He's leaning out the window, his small face intersected by the shadows of a gigantic film, his features transformed frame by frame as naked bodies shift on the screen.
Rain is leaking through the passenger side window onto my lap. Ivan takes off his windbreaker and arranges it over my legs. "You ever go to the drive-in?"
"We didn't have one in Mobile. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to Springdale Mall."
We talk about movies for a while, and then about what they call the New South, how it's short on character and big on strip malls. I recount for him the steeple wars waged by the Southern Baptist churches of my childhood, how my parents emptied their pockets each week to contribute to the war chest of Bay Street Baptist Church, how the new steeple towered over Mobile Bay, white and gleaming like a sword.
Then we talk about a weekend we once spent in Monte Rio, when Ivan got sick from Swedish pancakes at the River Inn. "Remember swimming out to the little island?" Ivan asks. For a moment we are both lost in the sweet-smelling warmth of the river, the memory of it running narrow and swift behind the inn. That night we hauled cold beer to the sandbar in a small Styrofoam chest, then lay on our backs and watched cars pass on the highway that hugged the high banks of the river. It's strange how a relationship can go on living for hours after you both know it's dead, how we can sit here and talk about nothing as if everything's the same, as if there are no decisions to be made.
When the rain lets up, Ivan starts the car and we drive about a mile down the shore. We park in front of a boarded-up building, nothing more than a wooden box really, with a roof made of corrugated tin. "Madam Marie, World Famous Psychic" is painted in big red letters on the side of the shack. We walk past Madam Marie's onto the boardwalk. I'm wearing Ivan's windbreaker with the hood pulled tight around my face. My short summer skirt whips up around my thighs. Ivan's wearing only a button-down and jeans, but the cold doesn't seem to bother him. He likes wet weather; the harder the rain, the better. It's the ambiguous days that depress him: when the sun is out but it's windy anyway, and the temperature wavers indecisively between hot and cold. San Francisco days, he calls them.
The rain has slowed to a drizzle, but the wind is roaring off the gray Atlantic so hard the boardwalk shifts beneath us. "Beautiful," Ivan says, leaning on the wooden rail to stare out at the ocean. "Could you live here?"
"Maybe," I say, but I'm thinking it's colder here on an April afternoon than any winter day I remember in the city. I've never seen a beach so austere, just a narrow strip of sand retreating from an angry ocean. On the Gulf Coast the water spans out blue and bright for miles, but here the fog hangs low and the world doesn't seem to stretch much farther than my fingertips. I don't know if it's mere habit or a slim attempt at apology that makes me reach for Ivan's hand. He accepts, and we wander along the boardwalk in the rain and fog. It's only a quarter past two, but the sky is dark. I look over my shoulder every now and then, half expecting to see Madam Marie plodding along behind us, hands outstretched, her gold earrings flapping in the wind.
"He called me once," Ivan says
I'm thinking about packing, wondering if Gristede's at Eighty-fifth and Columbus puts its used boxes out by the curb. I'm trying to calculate how many boxes I'll need to move out. I estimate my life will fit neatly into four or five of the hefty ones from the grocer, still smelling of apples and alfalfa from upstate New York. That, plus a dozen or so smaller boxes from Pricewise at Amsterdam and Eighty-first, where the sturdy security man in his creased pants and lopsided nametag always greets me with a lifted eyebrow and a shout of "Hey Red."
"Of course I thought he'd never call," Ivan says. "I didn't hear from him for a couple of weeks. But then one night around midnight, I'm at home in bed. The phone rings and I reach for it, and a voice says, 'Is Ivan there?'"
I'm so caught up in the logistics of our break-upwhen I'll leave, where I'll stay, whether or not I'll return home, the failed daughter lugging boxes and books over her parents' doorstepthat I don't realize where this story is headed.
"'It's me,' I say. I'm half asleep and I assume, at this point, that I'm dreaming, because it can't be who I think it is.
"'It's Bruce,' the voice says. 'Sorry to call so late.' He keeps apologizing. He's worried that he woke everybody up, like he's going to get me in trouble or something. 'Look,' he says, 'me and my sister were just driving around. We were gonna get something to eat. Want us to come pick you up?'"
"You never told me this before," I say.
"Would you have believed me?"
"That's why I didn't tell you."
"Because now it doesn't matter."
I wonder how long he's been holding on to this story, if it's something he made up a long time ago, or if he's creating it at this moment, one last desperate fiction to win me back.
"In the dark I grope for a T-shirt and jeans, pull on my Pumas, then navigate the carpeted stairs and creep out the front door. It's March in the Bay Area, midnight, which means it's kick-ass cold, and I'm standing out by the curb in the dark, shivering in my T-shirt."
Ivan is leaning against the rail looking out at the sea, raindrops running down his face. His hair is soaked, but he doesn't seem to notice. The top half of my body is dry beneath the windbreaker, but my legs are wet and frozen. I place a hand on his arm and try to pull him away from the rail, toward the car; he doesn't move.
"I wait for what seems like a long time, although it was probably no more than fifteen minutes. I see a pair of headlights down Balboa Avenue, but the car turns onto Carmelita. I'm feeling really alone now, more alone than I've ever felt in my life, wondering what I'm doing on the curb outside my parents' house at midnight, waiting for the world's greatest living rock 'n' roll star to show up at my door. I tell myself it's a dream. As I'm turning to go inside I hear the low hum of a car engine a couple of blocks away. Then the headlights, and this time they turn down my street. The Mustang pulls up in front of my house. Bruce has the top down. His sister's in the passenger seat."
Excerpted from The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress by Michelle Richmond. Copyright © 2001 by Michelle Richmond. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
Table of ContentsO-Lama-Lama Down the Shore Everything's All Right Big Bang Satellite Slacabamorinico The Last Bad Thing Advice Propaganda Curvature Mathematics and Acrobatics The World's Greatest Pants Disneyland Intermittent Waves of Unusual Size and Force Faith Does Anyone Know You Are Going this Way Monkey Stew The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress
What People are Saying About This
The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress is a stunning collection filled with heart-stopping moments of such raw emotion that I am left with a vivid array of visions long remembered afterward. There is humor, there is grief the author skillfully keeping us in that precious spot between the two, so that we are always aware of the fragile filaments linking one experience to another.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A set of interlocking stories carries us across time through the expanding experiences of a southern family. The style of narration, with each sister telling her story in turn, is as intimate as a peek through a lighted window. Every word is set like a gem. This master of mood and imagery has given us quite a treat.
What a pleasure and an adventure it is to put your imagination into the hands of this gifted storyteller. From the image of the unbroken white landscape of Iceland to the mental picture of the soft silk dress falling through the air above the interstate, these stories will haunt you. Treat yourself to the skill of a master craftsman.
Vivid glimpses into the absurdities of everyday life. Strange and wonderful.