In Heavenly Days, his first novel in five years, Wilcox returns to the familiar landscape of Tula Springs, Louisiana, and introduces a sweetly hapless heroine trying to come to terms with a way of life for which she is utterly unequipped. Lou Jones—middle-aged, well educated, and faultlessly sensitive—has found herself unaccountably living in a $295,000 faux-Cajun cabin (her husband’s dream house) and working as the receptionist in a fundamentalist health emporium housed in a defunct train station. Hardly the thing for a Ph.D. in music theory, yet Lou consoles herself with making valuable contributions to the American Bassoon Society’s newsletter, and with drawing the town’s spiritually needy citizens into her beneficent orbit. But her well-meaning interventions soon involve her in a series of increasingly complicated misunderstandings, as she becomes embroiled in evading a gun-toting tax collector, trying to befriend her aloof housekeeper and her unnervingly elegant mother, waging an ongoing and fruitless battle over the ownership of her husband's childhood home, and wrestling with a hotly disputed loblolly dresser. These are all distractions, though, from Lou’s true, if unacknowledged, aim: to find the grace of heaven in the days of her own life through the bonds of love.
Heavenly Days marks the welcome return of James Wilcox—a gift to his longtime readers and to an entire generation of new ones.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||245 KB|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Read an Excerpt
In the third Tuesday of every month, Lou Jones sets the alarm for 4:30 A.M. so she can make it out to the toolshed by 5:15. There she allows herself exactly one hour and forty-five minutes to stitch together her column for the North American Bassoon Society newsletter. “Notes from Up and Down the Staff,” it’s called. To help her get this chore done, Lou’s husband customized a plywood desk so that it curves around the riding lawnmower. Lou would have preferred to banish the lawnmower from the toolshed, but for tax purposes, she had to keep it there. A few weeks ago there had been some unpleasantness with City Hall. Because of the dimity curtains adorning the toolshed’s bow window and the morning glories lacing its gutters, Mrs. Melvin Tudie, the newly elected tax assessor, decided that it was actually a guesthouse. Incensed, Lou’s husband not only lugged the refrigerator out of the shed but also hauled off the daybed Lou needed to spread out her notes on the comings and goings of the Society’s fully paid-up members.
Lou hoped that would be the end of it. But Don, her husband, was intent on making this into a federal case. The mayor himself would have to be informed that the air conditioning in the toolshed was absolutely essential for the financial records stored there, to keep off the goddam mildew. And the sink was only used to wash off gasoline and grease after mowing. As for the toilet, his wife had developed a slight bladder problem and needed one close by when she pruned her column. Luckily, the day before Don’s appointment with the mayor, the tax assessor was admitted to the brand-new wing of the Pentecostal hospital for liposuction. Lou was able to convince Don to let sleeping dogs lie. And so far, no notice of an increase in property taxes has arrived in Lou’s mailbox.
On this third Tuesday in September, Lou’s having a particularly hard time with the column. When she types out all the news she’s solicited, she’s still 217 words short. After an arduous struggle, she ekes out the necessary words by grafting a few facts about how pink hydrangeas can be turned blue (sprinkle aluminum onto the soil) onto an item about a Waco bassoonist who tends a hummingbird garden. “Finito,” Lou mutters as she stuffs the column into a priority mailer. Since the post office isn’t open yet, she will leave the envelope with her husband on her way to work. He always promises to mail her column the minute the doors open. Before working out this system, Lou had been spending a small fortune on Federal Express. Needless to say, the Society never reimbursed her—not one red cent.
Lou’s husband lives across town in a house owned by his parents. For health reasons, her in-laws have moved to a retirement community in the Arizona desert. Lou had tried to sell their house for them, but every time a reasonable bid was made, Don’s mother would get panicky and say how tired she was of water. (The retirees were living in a houseboat moored on an artificial lake.) If something should ever happen to Don Sr., God forbid, well then, she would probably want to move back to dry land. Lou then suggested renting the house. There was a friend of a friend at work who would be willing to take it on a month-to-month basis. With a sigh, Lou’s mother-in- law agreed to the proposal, as long as the new tenant didn’t change a stick of furniture in the house.
Lou saved her in-laws so much money by fixing the leaky faucets and stopped-up toilets herself that, even if Don grumbled about her overalls, she felt a surge of something with the accomplishment—most likely, self-esteem. The rent, though, was another matter. After it hadn’t been paid for three months in a row, the friend of a friend started filling up the house with boarders. A librarian and a U-Haul mechanic took up residence in the den, while the north and west bedrooms were occupied by nail sculptors. When the neighbors started complaining about the noise from an endlessly repeated Titanic soundtrack, Lou offered to help the illegal subtenants find nice, cheap efficiency apartments. The sculptors took her up on this, but the librarian and the mechanic claimed they were not illegal. In fact, they told Lou she had better quit her snooping around—peeling Popeye’s chicken skin from the linoleum, vacuuming, setting out roach motels, this was what they called “snooping”—or they’d swear out a complaint for trespassing.
If it weren’t for Don, the house on Coffee Ridge Road would probably still be under siege. Lou, of course, could not approve of her husband’s tactics. She herself had been planning legal redress through a talented arbitrator who cleaned their pool and threw clay pots. But before Lou could map out a strategy with the potter, Don barreled over to his parents’ house and cleared out all the squatters’ belongings, tossing them right out onto the carport after a brief altercation with the librarian, a fistfight the details of which Lou really didn’t want to hear about. To make sure that the librarian didn’t carry out his threat to return with Martha Stewart wallpaper for the den, Don had all the locks changed and then installed himself in the east bedroom.
He’s been standing guard there now for about six weeks or so, during which time Lou’s noticed a definite improvement in their marital relations. For some reason, with a house of his own, Don seems more attentive and courteous. He no longer suspects her of using his toothbrush or leaving rings on the coffee table. As for Lou, she’s free to eat exactly what she wants—and when. And she can sleep on her plain white polyester sheets, cheap and easy to wash. No more looks from the dry cleaner when she brings in the black satin ones Don favors.
“Knock, knock,” Lou calls out as she unlocks the back door of her in-laws’. “Just me—don’t shoot.”
Not long ago, Lou entered the premises without announcing herself and was greeted by an alarming bark—in what sounded like Korean or something. This Don bellowed out in a crouch, ready to spring. Apparently, he still hadn’t recovered from the contretemps with the librarian, but Lou was not persuaded that buying a $59.95 tae kwon do videotape was the best way to go about restoring one’s peace of mind. Tai chi was what she had recommended, the free classes they were offering senior citizens at the new recreation center. Don protested that being fifty didn’t qualify him as a senior citizen, and Lou had to agree that it was hard to imagine him as a senior anything, the way he behaved sometimes.
Don looks up from the base of the food pyramid he’s working on—a bowl heaped with oat- bran dinosaurs. Does one really need six to eleven servings of grains and bread per day? Lou wonders. If she ate as much as these cereal boxes advised, she would have time for nothing else. And yet it’s Don who never gains an ounce. She, who rarely slows down for a square meal, weighs almost as much as the librarian’s girlfriend, the U-Haul mechanic. The librarian himself, though, is so willowy that it’s no wonder Don was caught off guard by his left hook. A real gentleman, Don just protected his face, never really punching the diminutive young man back very hard, and finally steered him out the door with a hammerlock.
“No, thanks,” she says to the green banana he’s waggling in her face. “I don’t have time. Here’s the column, dear. Will you promise to get it there first thing? And don’t let Mr. Singhmarishi tell you he’s out of receipts again. I want a receipt.”
Propping the envelope against a guava, Lou sniffs the air. He’s been at it again, cleaning every surface in the kitchen, from the island he’s hunched over to the pewter cows with nutmeg and cumin in their bellies. Pine cleaner, ammonia, Lysol—all these telltale scents not quite masked by a heavy dose of lilac air freshener. This is what Don does when he can’t sleep. The smell would always wake Lou at three or four in the morning, back before Don moved to Coffee Ridge. Well, she supposes it’s a harmless enough outlet. Being downsized can’t be a very pleasant experience for anyone. But for Don, who’s always been so responsible, such a dedicated employee, it was a crushing blow. What a good provider he’s been, too—buying her that lavish showplace they can’t afford now, ignoring her pleas for a more modest home without all the track lighting and alarms that make her feel like a live-in docent.
“What, Lou? Why are you staring at me?”
“I was just thinking what a handsome man I’ve got.”
Even though Don’s not conventionally handsome, Lou began to realize shortly after he moved out to guard his parents’ property, after he wasn’t constantly underfoot, day in day out, that her husband was really not bad-looking at all, not by a long shot. For a fifty-year-old he’s in great shape—lean and mean and only an inch or two shorter than she would normally prefer. If only he would let his hair grow out. That crew cut makes him look like a drill sergeant, if drill sergeants dyed their hair. That’s another thing she’d appreciate, if he’d throw out the Grecian Formula and just let it be, his hair. She’s not ashamed of her gray. If anything, it’s a badge of honor.
She’s digging in her purse for the keys to the BMW when she notices the rubber band around her wrist. Something important she must remember. What is it? Oh, yes. “That printer, Don. It’s still cluttering up my desk. You promised me a week ago you’d give it back to Alpha.”
Alpha is another luxury they can ill afford, what with Don still looking for work. But even when they were flush, Lou never felt comfortable with the idea of having a housekeeper. She only gives Alpha the lightest chores and does the real work herself. Maybelle, Don’s mother, was behind all this. For years Alpha had worked for Don’s parents, and when they moved to Arizona, Maybelle made her son promise to hire the woman. Lou protested, of course, insisting that Alpha deserved a job with more dignity—and decided to pay for her education. Alpha, though, tore up Lou’s check. She did not accept handouts from anyone. Since she was sixteen, Alpha has been on her own, working her way from Mombasa to Freetown, from Grenada to Tula Springs. Just what sort of education did Lou think she needed after all she, Alpha, had been through? Please do not speak to me about dignity, Lou Jones.
With a paper towel Don wipes up a few drops of lactose-free milk. “It’s going to hurt her feelings, Lou.”
“How can she afford to give me a birthday present like that?”
“Printers aren’t that expensive, babe. Besides, I might have helped out a little myself.”
Even after all these years of being married to him, Lou can hardly believe her ears. How often has she told him she doesn’t want a computer? And where in heaven’s name did he think she would find the time to learn how to use one? Why, she doesn’t even have a spare minute to play the $17,000 bassoon he gave her back in 1987, after the bunion surgery. It’s been months, years, since she’s touched the darn thing.
“All right, that’s it.” Lou pats the Formica counter blindly, hoping she will perhaps feel the keys she has lost. “You take that printer back today, J. Donald Jones.”
“I thought if you saw how small it was, you wouldn’t be afraid of the rest. A laptop hardly takes up any space at all.”
With the back of her hand, she swipes at a tear. “You want to send us to the poorhouse, is that it? Don’t sssh me.”
Alpha’s mother’s bedroom is right off the kitchen, and Don’s been reminding her of this with a finger to his lip or pointing to the door.
“Keep it down, Lou.”
“No, I won’t be shushed in my own—in a home I unclogged on my hands and knees when everyone knows there are certain things female tenants should never flush down the toilet. And what thanks do I get? Does your mother realize what a real plumber would cost her?”
“Mrs. Ompala,” Don warns, nodding again toward the bedroom door.
Recently widowed, Alpha’s mother had booked passage on a freighter from Mombasa to visit her daughter. But it seems Alpha’s studio in the Hollywood Apartments just wasn’t meant to house two adults without a certain amount of friction. While Alpha searches for more suitable quarters, Mrs. Ompala is making do at Don’s parents’. She would much rather have checked into a hotel, but Don has insisted she be his guest at Coffee Ridge. Besides, Tula Springs doesn’t have a hotel—just a Super8 with video poker in every room, and it lies three miles outside the city limits.
Lou has had only one encounter with Alpha’s mother, an unfortunate one just a couple of days ago. It was so thoughtless of Don not to have told her that unlike her daughter, Mrs. Ompala isn’t African-American—or rather, whatever...Lou covered her initial confusion with a too-hearty welcome, which Mrs. Ompala, a pale, regal woman of uncertain age, returned with a dim smile. Never had Lou been confronted by such elegance, such style. Every gesture of Mrs. Ompala’s, every syllable she uttered betrayed a breeding, a restraint that made the stains on Lou’s overalls loom like a veritable map of ignorance and squalor. And the woman’s outfit, the way her immaculate cotton dress was draped so perfectly, every fold as graceful as a pietà’s—well, is it any wonder that Lou tried to work into the conversation a casual mention of her Ph.D., the way she dissected the Lydian mode in Verklärte Nacht?
“You looking for these?” Don shoves Lou’s keys across the island. Somehow they had wound up behind a porcelain cow oozing honey.
As she licks the BMW keys clean, he says, “You know she’s expecting you for tea this afternoon.”
“What, I’m supposed to drop everything because her ladyship wants tea?” she grumbles, delighted. She is to have another chance, after all. This time will be different. No mention of her Ph.D. And most certainly, no overalls.
“At five. You’re home by then, Lou.”
“No, it’s impossible. I’ve got to transcribe those minutes, you know, and pick up...”
“For me, babe—come on. Do it for me.”
The way his voice cracks, slightly hoarse, is just how the sophomore manager of the baseball team had sounded when he tried, and failed, to act casual with the head cheerleader, herself, a senior. To be adored like that, worshiped with a hopeless love—yes, that element of despair was so oddly appealing that she finally couldn’t resist. It triggered in her a curious, blind adoration in return.
“And don’t let Mr. Singhmarishi bully you,” she says on her way out. “You have a perfect right to get a receipt in the post office.”
“Shhh! Mrs. Ompala.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The humor builds steadily from the start to the finish of this complexly structured book. Mildly funny in the early chapters, it becomes colossally funny by the end. In a masterful fashion, Wilcox uses both surprise and suspense to hold the reader's attention. His satirical observations of southern life are here rendered more subtly than in his other books, but the result is just as devastating. Many of them turn on class distinctions mediated by the personal names given his characters. Although I highly recommend this book, I suspect that readers unfamiliar with the markers of southern class membership (upon whose misreadings by the characters themselves much of the plot depends) will miss a lot of its funniest aspects. Wilcox has written a lot of wonderful fiction. As I read this book I got the feeling that he is now creating literature.