“Reading Lee Smith ranks among the great pleasures of American fiction . . . Gives evidence again of the grace and insight that distinguish her work.” Robert Stone, author of Death of the Black-Haired GirlIt’s 1936 when orphaned thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is admitted to Highland Hospital, a mental institution in Asheville, North Carolina, known for its innovative treatments for nervous disorders and addictions. Taken under the wing of the hospital’s most notable patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, Evalina witnesses cascading events that lead up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them. Author Lee Smith has created, through a seamless blending of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart--in which art and madness are luminously intertwined.
|Publisher:||Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Born in the small coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia, Lee Smith began writing stories at the age of nine and selling them for a nickel apiece. Since then, she has written seventeen works of fiction, including Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History, and, most recently, Guests on Earth. She has received many awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature and an Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; her novel The Last Girls was a New York Times bestseller as well as winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with her husband, the writer Hal Crowther. Visit her at www.leesmith.com.
Read an Excerpt
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, Raze out the written troubles of the brain, Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff Which weighs upon the heart?
— WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Macbeth
"An Institution Employing All Rational Methods in the Treatment of Nervous, Habit, and Mental Cases: Especially Emphasizing the Natural Curative Agents — Rest, Climate, Water, Diet, Work, and Play"
— From the manual of Highland Hospital, Asheville, N.C., founded in 1904
FOR YEARS I HAVE intended to write my own impressions of Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald, from the time I first encountered her when I was but a child myself at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1937, and then a decade later during the several months leading up to the mysterious tragedy of 1948. I bring a certain insight and new information to this horrific event that changed all our lives forever, those of us living there upon that mountain at that time. This is not my story, then, in the sense that Mr. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was not Nick Carraway's story, either — yet Nick Carraway is the narrator, is he not? Is any story not always the narrator's story, in the end?
Therefore I shall now introduce myself, as humbly and yet as fully as necessary, so that you may know who is telling you this tale, and why it has haunted me all my life. We must strike up an acquaintance, you and I, if not a friendship, as perhaps the circumstances of my early life are dark and bizarre enough to put you well off that.
"Enough!" as Mrs. Carroll used to say, rapping on my fingers with that pencil, above the ivory keys.
We begin, then.
MY NAME IS Evalina Toussaint, a romantic name, is it not? A courtesan's name — which, under the circumstances, was fitting, though not — never! — for me, myself, a slight ratty sort of child with flyaway hair and enormous pale eyes that made everyone uncomfortable, then as now. I am at present a thin, bookish sort of person whom you would never notice if you passed me in the street, which you will not. Yet I was always my mother's child, through and through. My mother's beloved child, her only child, her helpful "little right hand," as she called me.
My mother, Louise Toussaint, was beautiful, and kind, and I loved her with all my heart. My early childhood was spent in our tiny apartment upstairs over the Bijou on the rue Dauphine, in New Orleans' French Quarter. I remember the shimmering curtains that swelled in the breeze and billowed to pools on the floor, and the enormous mahogany and red velvet divan that floated like a boat above the old Persian rug. I could see myself, that funny little girl perched upon this great ship, in the huge gilt mirror that covered the wall across from it. My first actual memory is of holding myself up in my bed by the fancy grille work at the open window, looking out at the flashing red neon lights across the way: GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS. I fell asleep every evening in their rosy glow, to the shouts and laughter of the streets below, and even in the deepest night, to the rich, round notes of saxophone or trumpet floating out on the air and the clip-clop-clop of a horse down the cobbled stones and, sometimes, a woman's high-pitched laughter. Often I woke to find that Mamma had dropped into bed with me, still fully dressed and exhausted when she came in toward dawn to kiss me goodnight.
On Sundays I was dressed in white organdy and given a dime for the beggar before we walked the little streets through the Quarter and crossed the cobbled square to the grand cathedral. Everyone we passed knew Mamma and tipped their hats or bowed or said hello, greetings that she returned as graciously as a queen. I gave my dime to the legless man on the wide stone steps at the corner of Pirates Alley just before we entered the cavernous chill of St. Louis, where I loved the candles burning redly in their shrines along the sides, the continual chant and murmur of the prayers, the smell of incense burning and the constant movement throughout — the shuffle of feet, the rise and fall as people knelt to pray and rose again, the high, thin sacred songs. I loved the scary Christ-crucified pictures and the sweet, fat baby Jesus pictures and all the sad virgins and the statues of the saints, which often looked like my mother, for she had a ripeness and a paleness and a stillness about her, too, though she was puffier and softer, like the cotton candy sold outside in Jackson Square or one of the angels floating high overhead in the dome.
She was an angel, Mamma, filled with love, always laughing in those early days in the apartment on the rue Dauphine. But everyone loved her, not only me. Flowers and billets-doux were always arriving, brought up the tiny back stair by the hunchback Georges from the Bijou, for no one was to know where we lived. Georges's wife Anna stayed with me at night until I fell asleep, and I went to school with the nuns in the daytime. I was being very carefully raised, so carefully that I was not even allowed to go to the Mardi Gras parade at carnival time, though Mamma rode atop one of the floats.
"It is good she is plain, this little one," I remember Mamma saying of me to her girlfriends from the Bijou, "so she will not fall into bad company or bad ways. Perhaps she will make a teacher. Or a nun!" Much laughter. I wore a white blouse and a green plaid skirt and a sort of bowtie to school. I loved this outfit.
After school I did my homework and played downstairs in the Bijou bar while Mamma slept; often I helped take care of the other, smaller children. It was here that I first learned to play the piano from Mojo, a Negro boy not much older than myself, who would later become famous. I sat on a stool beside him and did exactly what he did, in octaves, and soon I was playing by ear. This amused even Charlie, who was the boss of everything, and Anna and Georges and all those others who were so kind to me.
Gentlemen did not come to our apartment when I was present, though once I found a hundred-dollar bill in the sugar bowl as I was carefully fixing my mamma her customary cup of tea in the late afternoon and, another time, I found a gentleman's diamond stud on the carpet. I threw it out the window, and never told. It was only the two of us, Mamma and myself, and our cats Fleur and Madame, with an occasional visit from the woman out in the parish, whereupon Mamma would run to the drawer where the money was hid before she went out into the hall, closing the door behind her.
I did not then, and do not now, know what that was about. As far as I knew, Mamma had no family and no past, truly like an angel, for angels have no memories either, n'est-ce pas? Mamma often added these words onto the end of her sentences — n'est-ce pas? A graceful phrase which always made me feel a part of things. "Such a good time, n'est-ce pas?" she might say, tousling my hair, after we had been out with the girls from the Bijou, or, "Delicious, n'est-ce pas?" when we bit into our sugary beignets at the Café du Monde.
So it went until, as she put it, "Arthur Graves fell in love with us" — and she with him.
Suddenly there were carriage rides and pleasure-boat trips and new dresses for me and diamonds and shoes for Mamma, who was so happy then that she gave off light like the sun. I am not exaggerating. She glowed during the courtship of Arthur Graves. I liked him, too. Though he was a rich and powerful man, a cotton broker with a grand house in the Garden District and offices that took up an entire building on the river, he seemed truly kind, bending down from his great height to ask me how the nuns were, and what I had done in school that day. He brought me a pink glass necklace and a tiny leather book named Poems for Children that included "Jabberwocky," my favorite.
MR. GRAVES WAS not present, however, on the day the big truck came with the men who packed up all our things while Mamma stood down on the sidewalk looking suddenly small and hugging the girls and Anna and Georges and me, and then we got into the waiting taxi, which took us to our very own house out in Metairie, near the canal. It was a long, hot ride in the taxi; by the end of it, I felt that we had indeed come to a different country. The yellow-painted frame house had a nice little grassy yard enclosed by a flowering hedge and a picket fence. A sidewalk ran down the shaded street past other, similar houses. It was quiet, so quiet, and the spaces between the houses seemed huge to me. The sky seemed huge, too, hugely blue and distant. I felt loose in the world, no longer cradled by the close Quarter. Our beautiful things from the apartment were carried inside the yellow house, where they looked tatty and odd and out of place. Pictures of people we didn't know, with fat faces, hung on the walls.
Mamma and I spent that entire first afternoon trying to find our orange cat, Madame, who had run out the door of the yellow house as the men carried the divan inside. We scoured the leafy streets, but we never saw Madame again. At dusk, people came out to sit in their little yards, and finally Mr. Arthur Graves arrived in his long black car, bringing Matilda Bloom, who would take care of us and the new baby.
This was the first I had heard of the new baby.
Mamma ran out the little stone walk to greet them at the gate. "Oh Arthur," she said, clinging to him, "this is just perfect!" Then she burst into tears, as all the neighbors looked on with interest.
"Come on, honey," Matilda said, putting her heavy arm around my shoulders. "Now you must show Matilda everything."
I came to love Matilda, who loved me, I believe, though she did not love Mamma after a time. After Michael was born, so small and blue. He could not breathe properly, and Mamma wept all the time, and quarreled with Mr. Graves.
Mamma took the baby from doctor to doctor to doctor; she wore a dark blue suit, and a little round hat, and did not look or act anything at all like herself. I considered Michael to be my own little doll, and spent as much time as possible holding him. I was as good as Matilda at swabbing the mucus from his nose and throat. As time passed, he did grow, a bit; he smiled, and sat up, but his breathing was horrible, the breathing of an old man. His eyes were a pale but bright blue, opaque, like robins' eggs, filled with kindness and goodwill. I adored him. But Mamma was weepy, and spent her time playing solitaire or visiting with her girlfriends, who came out bringing cigarettes and gin and scandal sheets, trying to make her smile. Then there was an argument with Mr. Graves, and the girls did not come anymore. Mr. Graves sent Mamma, Anna, and Michael away on a train to Birmingham, Alabama, to see a famous specialist, who could do nothing. I missed them terribly. I was so happy when at last they came back, and once again Michael's breathing filled our tiny house.
Mamma wept or stared into space or played solitaire while Matilda bustled around taking care of us all. "You gots to buck up now," she told Mamma. "You gots to put on your pretty face for him now," which Mamma could not do. Mr. Graves came to visit less often, though Charlie, from the Bijou, began to appear frequently, bringing Mamma the opium that she required by then, and I knew it, and said nothing, and neither did Matilda. "Honey, honey," Matilda said to me, walking me to school where, as always, I did extremely well.
Then one day I came home to find that Michael was gone, just gone, along with his cradle and all his tiny clothes.
Next I remember standing by myself in the vast cemetery to watch a man place his little blue coffin in a concrete tomb above the ground in that veritable city of the dead, beneath a steady drizzle. Mr. Graves and Matilda were holding Mamma up, one on either side of her; she wore the suit she had worn to Birmingham. They half-carried her back to the car. I stopped to pluck a white flower from a wreath on one of the adjoining graves, then kissed it and put it down on the rounded top of Michael's small tomb. I turned back to see with alarm that Mr. Graves's black car was already pulling out, its red back lights visible in the rain. They had forgotten me. I had to run after the car and pound on the door to be admitted.
For me, the gray drizzle of that terrible morning was to continue without letup, darkening and obscuring what was to follow, as if it all took place behind one of those filmy curtains that used to billow in our windows on the rue Dauphine. Mr. Graves did not come to our house. Charlie came and went. Mamma lay upon the divan eating opium. She would scarcely eat food, not even the little corncakes that were Matilda's specialty, nor the beignets that some of the girls brought from the Café du Monde. I gobbled them up instead, their taste bringing back, in an instant, our old sweet life.
One day I came walking home from school and was surprised to see Mr. Graves's car parked outside our gate, black and ominous against the scarlet flowering hedge. Just as I touched the latch, the front door burst open and Charlie came tearing out, stumbling down the steps, mouth agape, wearing no jacket and no tie, white shirttails flapping behind him as he ran straight down the quiet lane toward the streetcar stop, knees pumping high. I had never seen any sign of such activity in Charlie, normally an indolent, slow-moving sort of man. I watched him out of sight.
Coming up the front walk, I glanced in the front window and saw Mr. Graves slap Mamma hard across the face, causing her to fall over and cut her chin on the marble-top table. Blood poured down her silky white blouse. I rushed into the house and leapt upon Mr. Graves from behind like the little monkey that used to ride on the organ-grinder's back in the park at Jackson Square. Mr. Graves swore a terrible oath and flung me to the floor where Matilda, coming in the door with her net bag of groceries, sank to comfort me. "Now, now, now baby," she crooned.
Then — perhaps most terrifying of all — the great Mr. Graves stood completely still in the middle of that small room looking utterly lost, bereft, his hands hanging open and useless at his sides, for there was nothing he could do here, even with all his wealth and power. He raised his face to the ceiling and began to sob, hoarse, wracking sobs from deep within.
Matilda patted my shoulder and stood up slowly, with difficulty, groaning and brushing off the front of her skirt. "I reckon you better go on home now," she said right to Mr. Graves's face, "for you have sure done made one hell of a mess here, Mr. Graves, and all that crying and carrying on ain't going to do you one bit of good. This is Matilda talking, you listen to me. You was one fine little boy that made a fine man, and now it's time to get back to it. You have done been hoodooed, in my opinion. You have got to get this girl on back to where she come from, so that some peoples can come and take care of this here child."
With a start, I realized that she was referring to me. Michael was dead, and I was still a child. I looked at Mamma who lay bleeding on the divan, in a listless state.
Matilda slapped her thighs. "You go on and call Willie right now on the telephone, and get some mens over here, and as for you and me, we is going on home. Right now."
All these things happened, that very day.
But what about me? I wondered and wondered. Didn't Matilda love me, as I had thought? How could she leave me, to go away with mean old Mr. Graves?
Yet I could not ask Mamma, who was beyond such conversation then, and later seemed not to care, as if our episode in Metairie had never happened at all. Even when I mentioned Michael, there was not a flicker of interest in her eyes.
Some things are irrevocable; I know that now. Mamma and I were never to be the same again, though we did move back to the Quarter, this time to a ground-floor apartment with a courtyard just off Bourbon, paid for with the allowance provided by Mr. Graves. In my view now, his generosity (or guilt, or whatever it was) was unfortunate, for Mamma did not have to work, and she never worked again. Perhaps she was not able to, dependent upon the drugs.
I went to the nuns as before, but now there were bad people in and out of our apartment, people we had not known before, and when I came home from school, I had to do everything, even wash Mamma off sometimes, and clean up certain messes. I never told the nuns any of this; at school, my marks were exemplary.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Guests On Earth"
Copyright © 2013 Lee Smith.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
“The American South has produced some of the greatest writers in history. Seated at the head of that table is Lee Smith, who writes with ferocity and detail, tenderness and specificity, about life in the mountains of southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee. In Guests on Earth, something altogether new and different, Smith . . . solves the mystery of the death of Zelda Fitzgerald through the prism of a beguiling narrator, Evalina, who bore witness to the tragedy and lived to tell her version of the events. This is Lee Smith at her powerful best.”
“In Guests on Earth Lee Smith gives evidence again of the grace and insight that distinguish her work. Her characters are realized with singular intensity, the most vivid interior life, and flawless dialogue. Reading Lee Smith ranks among the great pleasures of American fiction.”