Lookaway, Lookaway: A Novelby Wilton Barnhardt
One of Slate's and Kirkus Review's Best Books of 2013 and The New York Times, National Public Radio, and Indie Bound bestseller: "Lookaway, Lookaway is a wild romp through the South, and therefore the history of our nation, written by an absolute ringmaster of fiction." —Alice Sebold, New York Times bestselling/i>/i>/i>/i>/i>/i>
One of Slate's and Kirkus Review's Best Books of 2013 and The New York Times, National Public Radio, and Indie Bound bestseller: "Lookaway, Lookaway is a wild romp through the South, and therefore the history of our nation, written by an absolute ringmaster of fiction." —Alice Sebold, New York Times bestselling author of The Lovely Bones
Jerene Jarvis Johnston and her husband Duke are exemplars of Charlotte, North Carolina's high society, where old Southern money—and older Southern secrets—meet the new wealth of bankers, boom-era speculators, and carpetbagging social climbers. Steely and implacable, Jerene presides over her family's legacy of paintings at the Mint Museum; Duke, the one-time college golden boy and descendant of a Confederate general, whose promising political career was mysteriously short-circuited, has settled into a comfortable semi-senescence as a Civil War re-enactor. Jerene's brother Gaston is an infamously dissolute bestselling historical novelist who has never managed to begin his long-dreamed-of literary masterpiece, while their sister Dillard is a prisoner of unfortunate life decisions that have made her a near-recluse.
As the four Johnston children wander perpetually toward scandal and mishap. Annie, the smart but matrimonially reckless real estate maven; Bo, a minister at war with his congregation; Joshua, prone to a series of gay misadventures, and Jerilyn, damaged but dutiful to her expected role as debutante and eventual society bride. Jerene must prove tireless in preserving the family's legacy, Duke's fragile honor, and what's left of the dwindling family fortune. She will stop at nothing to keep what she has—but is it too much to ask for one ounce of cooperation from her heedless family?
In Lookaway, Lookaway, Wilton Barnhardt has written a headlong, hilarious narrative of a family coming apart, a society changing beyond recognition, and an unforgettable woman striving to pull it all together.
A Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2013
“Lacerating but affectionate, as exuberant as it is shrewd, Lookaway, Lookaway is a Southern novel so sure-footed the only real question for Barnhardt is, "What took you so long?"…By the end I felt like a starving man at a buffet--sated but still hungry. That's not really a knock. Lookaway, Lookaway is that rare thing: an excellent long novel that's not long enough.” Malcolm Jones, The New York Times Book Review
“It is a work that hides its craft but never its beauty, that is ambitious but never pretentious, that does not sacrifice nuance for power or power for nuance. The book's careful, formal composition is invisible as you read, and it's a beautiful read, sad and savagely funny, one place inexplicably contained in the other.” Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books
“A dishier array of secrets animates Lookaway, Lookaway, Wilton Barnhardt's big, enveloping novel about a status-conscious North Carolina family.” Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Scathing yet touching, this is a delicious saga of Old South meets New, a story of America lurching toward the future.” People Magazine
“A delicious romp with a dysfunctional Southern Family.” The Chicago Tribune
“Barnhardt's fourth novel is a revelation: witty, savage and bighearted all at once, it is the Southern novel for the 21st century.” Kirkus (Starred Review)
“Dixieland was never so dishy nor dysfunctional as in Barnhardt's ribald send-up of the conflagration that ensues when Old South tradition confronts New South tackiness…Barnhardt's satirical scorching of southern culture comes in second only to Sherman's fiery march.” Booklist Review
“North Carolina native Barnhardt's frothy, satirical latest (after Show World) is Southern gothic at its most decadent and dysfunctional.” Publishers Weekly
“Barnhardt bursts forth with a big book that has everyone bustling.” Library Journal
“An effervescent novel.” BookPage Review
“One helluva barn burner.” Elle Magazine
“Sprawling, generous, delightful...I didn't want it to end. Lookaway is both dishy and literary, but like all good novels, there's a nourishing quality as well.” The Charlotte Observer
“Barnhardt delivers a knowing, wry and delightfully catty satire...there's more than a little Tom Wolfe here, with a dash of family feuding, Pat Conroy-style...As with the best satire, though, there's a strong vein of affection.” Star News Wilmington
“Lookaway, Lookaway is a wild romp through the South, and therefore the history of our nation, written by an absolute ringmaster of fiction. Wilton Barnhardt is back baby, and he's coming at you with everything he's got. Enjoy! Enjoy! Enjoy!” Alice Sebold, New York Times bestselling author of The Lovely Bones
“Move over, Tom Wolfe! There's a new guy in town with the ultimate--no, make that penultimate--take on the New South. Better take a powder, pour a big gin, and put your feet up before you start reading. Writing with brilliance and brio, Wilton Barnhardt has penned a hilarious satire which often has surprising depth and hits way too close to the truth.” Lee Smith, New York Times bestselling author of Oral History and The Last Girls
“This is a raucous novel, bursting with noise and color, immensely and immediately entertaining. And yet it's impossible not to realize how very, very smart it is. Wilton Barnhardt is a masterful storyteller, and Lookaway, Lookaway is high comedy at its brilliant best.” Joshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama and Backseat Saints
“Wilton Barnhardt has written the big Southern novel I've been wanting to read all my life. I can't think of a book that better expresses the complexity of exactly where our Southern culture is right now. His insights into his characters - both male and female - are rich and genuinely hilarious, expressed with a dangerous level of humor and pain. Lookaway, Lookaway is entirely remarkable. I finished reading it and started again on page one to see how he did it. (I still don't know.)” Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama and Georgia Bottoms
“Wilton Barnhardt's Lookaway, Lookaway is our best 21st Century update so far of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. This literary romp is a new South vision with a ferocious vengeance, a heady stew of debutantes, Internet dating, Confederate War reenactors, real estate scandals, and Garden & Gun mores. Wicked family secrets are stirred in with antebellum lore and the Obama-era politics of race, gender and sex, all showing us, truly and newly, a Global Dixie.” Randall Kenan, author of The Fire This Time, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, and A Visitation of Spirits
“A fresh and innovative take on the traditional family saga...the new Barnhardt goes down smooth and delivers with a kick.” Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
“Lookaway, Lookaway is an often humorous, sometimes unsettling, ultimately poignant romp through a "New" South still reluctant to let go of its past. Barnhardt's novel earns a place on the bookshelf between J.K. Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons.” Ron Rash, author of Serena
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Read an Excerpt
There were only two white dresses that ever would matter, her mother said. The first of these was the Debutante Dress that Jerilyn would wear when she would take her father’s arm and march across the stage in Raleigh, into the single spotlight, radiant, along with all the other debs in North Carolina.
As of last week, the suspense concerning that dress had been extinguished, when Jerilyn and her pals from Mecklenburg Country Day, Bethany and Mallory, besieged uptown formal shops to hunt down their quarry, capturing and releasing, debating, embracing, denouncing many white gowns before claiming the perfectly flattering one as their own. Jerilyn suffered an hour of agony as she prayed that her more assertive friends would not fall in love with the beautiful number on the mannequin near the cashier’s station as she had. The crinkled taffeta, treated with some French-termed process, so smooth, like petting a puppy, had an internal corset, mermaid tail, subtle beading that sparkled opalescent around the slimming bodice, all blooming out upon layer upon layer of tulle, soft and dreamy. Wearing it would defy gravity; to walk into the light would be like floating in on a tulle cloud, something right out of an antebellum cotillion, which would please her father. He did his best to remain in that world before 1860: Duke Johnston, descendant of Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston.
Even though the debut was a year off, she had an impulse to take the gown with her to university, let it hang in her Chapel Hill closet so she might look in on it, stroke and adore it, have it as a beacon before her. But the gown was so wide at the bottom, and surely dorm room closets were tiny and who knows what could happen to it there, when it would be safe and sound right here at home.
The second white gown, the Bridal Gown, was thought of solemnly; it would involve years of decision-making. It was, really, a life’s work. Jerilyn and her female contemporaries, having just graduated high school, had already put in reverent hours with scores of bridal magazines, begun the opinionated window-shopping, attended the society weddings like dress rehearsals for one’s own event, notes mentally taken, good things memorized so they might be borrowed or varied, atrocities eschewed. The decision about that gown, mercifully, could wait some years hence.
When she’d brought up the issue of a showstopper wedding dress with her mother, she was cautioned to whoa the horses. “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” her mother reasoned. “Enjoy your independence. Work for a few years before you see which of the young men you met at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement. Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”
Even though Jerilyn’s mother was her hero—Jerene Jarvis Johnston, director of the Jarvis Trust for American Art at the Mint Museum, respected matriarch of one of Charlotte’s first families—and her mother was almost, almost her best friend … her mother did not understand everything. Jerilyn would be very happy to find a husband quickly at Carolina and begin fomenting wedding plans no later than her senior year. She did not yearn to be part of a workplace, never failing to be somewhere for a set time in the morning, nor did she care to learn what it was to balance checkbooks and be frugal; she felt her life would be quite fine without those improving, self-revealing years of sacrifice starting at the bottom rung of something. She wanted (1) to be married in four years, (2) move soon into a beautiful home, (3) babies soon after. She longed to decorate her own new house, having her father and mother—who was an accomplished hostess without compare—over to their new home to see what she, Jerilyn, could offer as hospitality, how she could arrange a centerpiece and the Provençal floral tablecloth with the majolica place settings from Umbria she coveted at Nordstrom. See, Mom, how the tiger lily is picked up in the fleur-de-lys along the golden trim of the dinner plate and the scarlet mandala pattern on the Kashmiri linen napkins (on sale last week at Belk)?
And this desire led to Jerilyn’s one upcoming act of proposed rebellion. She was going to rush a sorority. She had visited older friends at Carolina, girls content with life in the dormitory, study breaks at ten P.M., girls in sweatshirts gossiping and squealing in the hallways with bowls of microwaved popcorn, pop music blasting. Seemed nice. But it wouldn’t get her where she wanted to go: before the eligible men of North Carolina, the next generation of doctors and lawyers and tycoons. Mother had forbidden sororities, because of expense and distraction, and provided lectures on how very different they had become “since her day.” On some mornings, Jerilyn hoped that she might persuade her mother otherwise.
No, she quickly told herself on this particular morning—Jerilyn, get real. She would not change her mother’s mind. Mrs. Johnston had never, since birth, changed her mind about anything. It had to be presented to her mother as a fait accompli. Even then, Jerilyn reflected in these last minutes in her childhood bedroom, her mother could scotch the whole enterprise, such were her powers’ vast and immeasurable sweep. She’d probably call the chancellor or something, get the sorority disbanded nationally …
Jerilyn stood looking at the Debutante Dress hanging in her bedroom closet, along with the unwanted clothes not making the journey to Chapel Hill. She had packed three suitcases of clothes and another three boxes of accessories, the heaviest being her curling irons and blow-dryers and expensive hair care products. “You can open your own salon, sweetheart,” her father said, as he packed the car. There was another suitcase—well, a small trunk—just for shoes, then her computer and stacks of school supplies … the BMW was full to the brim. No, the dress would not be going. She touched it a final time and respectfully shut the closet door.
She should feel more wistful and sad, shouldn’t she? Here it was at long last, farewell to her childhood room, bye-bye to the stuffed animals (well, the pink panda Skip Baylor gave her for her birthday was headed to Chapel Hill, after all), bye-bye to the Justin Timberlake poster inside the closet door, her faded valentine and birthday cards taped to the vanity mirror, remnants of proms and parties, all of it girly and vaguely embarrassing. Nope, no sadness at all. She had waited and waited for this day—couldn’t wait to get to Carolina and begin her life. She was the last of the four children, the “accident,” no matter how they euphemized about it, a full ten years out from the other three, Bo, Annie, and Joshua. Her siblings doted on her, patted her head, thought she was a little pest or brat or doll, some entity at whom love could be directed but not quite fully human. She used to hate being the outlier youngest, but she reconciled to it. It meant being the baby, being spoiled a little.
She checked the vanity mirror one more time. Her stylist had convinced Jerilyn to cut her hair short in a nice rounded bob. Everyone loved it; they loved it so openly and insistently that she realized she must have looked quite dreadful beforehand with dull brown hair to her shoulders that never kept a shape, that fanned out and frizzed. She could grow it long but it was never shampoo-commercial long, gleaming silken tresses that coiled and released, forming waves of sheen. If she lolled her head like a model in a L’Oréal commercial, the hair moved in a piece—it was never silken tresses, it was shrubbery. So Jerilyn had given up that fond fantasy of luxurious hair, as well as a notion that she was a certain kind of beautiful. With the bob she was cute, not beautiful. Mind you, she could work with cute. Big eyes looking out from under bangs, very winning with a subtle suggestive smile, a natural shyness she intended to kill off as soon as she got to Chapel Hill, starting later this very day when her father would charmingly stall for time making small talk with her new roommate, launching into perfectly interesting but wholly irrelevant ruminations on North Carolina history, before kissing his little princess goodbye and driving back to Charlotte.
“Alma?” Jerilyn left her bedroom and called out from the upper-floor staircase. Their housekeeper was nowhere to be found. It would have been a special goodbye had Alma been there to receive it.
“Dad?” she called out. He wasn’t back yet. He said he would take the BMW out to fill the gas tank for the two-hour journey ahead.
Mom wasn’t fooling anybody. After breakfast she invented some small crisis at the museum, the site of her upcoming fund-raiser. She hugged Jerilyn briefly and said they would talk this evening. Mom didn’t do mush. Jerilyn knew that her mother was privately distressed to be losing the last of the four children; the nest was looking a little too empty that morning, so off she went to yell at the caterers. Jerilyn didn’t mind. She admired her mother’s complete lack of public sentimentality—she hoped to emulate it, one of these days.
So, she had the house to herself.
Jerilyn walked down the foyer steps of the two-story entrance hall, the grandest room in the house which, given her imminent departure, suddenly struck her as a feature she might well miss. The Johnston house dated from 1890, built by her great-grandfather (also Joseph Beauregard Johnston, like her father). It sat regally high on its hill on Providence Road for all to see, at the very entrance to the Myers Park neighborhood, the most monied enclave of Charlotte, North Carolina. Jerilyn had been told that the house used to be surrounded by acres of land that they had once owned but, through the decades, the property had been divided and sold for infusions of cash.
Given the neighboring piles of tacky turrets and mansard roofs, faux-antebellum columns and sentry gates bearing coats of arms, the Johnston compound appeared modest. It was part of the architect’s genius—it advertised to the world an unassuming, comfortable two-story home from the outside, but it was spacious as any rambling mansion inside. Cushioned by ancient oak trees, the house sat back contentedly, hiding even its best feature, a large columned side porch, and its second best, a brick verandah and a perfectly enclosed backyard with its whisperings of a country estate: a small birdbath fountain that had not burbled since her childhood, a rose garden which needed much tending, and an arbor and trellis which needed none at all, dependably covered in wisteria or morning glories no matter the neglect. The upstairs of the house contained the six bedrooms. The downstairs had been featured once in Southern Living magazine: the long elegant dining room with the imitation Adam plasterwork on the ceiling, a kitchen large enough to provide hospitality to parties of a hundred or more, several beautifully realized sitting rooms—a classic American room, perfect for one of her mother’s high teas; a blue French sitting room for solitude on gray afternoons, for reading and not being disturbed, avoided inexplicably by every male in the family; an off-to-the-side warren of parquet floors and custom cherrywood cabinetry that picked up a Frank Lloyd Wright flavor for the TV room and entertainment center.
The main attraction, of course, was her father’s Civil War Study, which might have been directly swiped from the mid-nineteenth century. You had to take a small step down in order to enter it; Jerilyn imagined this small difference of elevation to be part of the magic spell that allowed you to leave the publicity and bustle of the rest of the house for the rarefied sense of the past. Like a carnival barker, Jerilyn had offered peeks to the neighborhood children, sometimes sneaking in illegally with her schoolmates—invariably boys—who would beg to take a closer look at the swords, dueling pistols, old maps of battle plans, engravings and parchments of the period, a cannonball. Every book on the Study’s shelves was a first edition from the Civil War era (Dad kept his more modern history books upstairs in the bedroom). Prohibitions against entering, let alone touching anything, haunted all secret reconnaissance missions—and Alma, if she saw any signs of trespass, would tattle on her or any of her siblings, so all forays had to be timed for when Alma was out in the laundry room attached to the garage. Jerilyn loved to have an excuse to visit her father there amid the smell of pipe smoke, burnished leather, book mold, and the aromatic hickory wood in the fireplace; it smelled of an ever-welcoming past, of lost causes and unvanquished honor.
She heard her father’s car in the driveway. So now it really was goodbye to the house. What do you know, she sniffed: one tear, after all.
NOTHING COULD BE FINER
By Joshua Johnston
Your best introduction to Chapel Hill would be to make your way to the hill where the chapel used to be. Saunter into the Carolina Inn for a proper mint julep by the fireplace in the Crossroads Bar before going into the big overdone dining room. It looks like half a dozen plantation drawing rooms exploded in there. Chow down on an eight-course creole-Piedmont gastric blowout, before stumbling to the nearby corner of Franklin and Columbia Streets with all the bars. Try negotiating the balcony at Top of the Hill when Carolina beats Duke in basketball some Saturday night. The scene rivals something out of Ancient Rome, except with lots more vomiting.
This is, indeed, the top of the hill that had the chapel. Even before the university was established, in 1790, as the first state-funded university of the United States,1 locals had already given up on the local church. So it was knocked down so taverns and public houses could take their rightful place. We have our priorities here.
In 1980, Playboy magazine determined that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill led the nation in student alcoholism, followed by Ohio State and Alabama.2 This was based on the high freshman-year flunk-out rate for which drink was to blame
Jerilyn stopped reading there and nervously began twisting her hair. She reached for her cell phone to call her brother.
“Josh. Thanks for the essay, but—”
“But nothing you can use? I mean, I wrote it when I was a senior but I don’t think UNC has changed that much.”
Jerilyn didn’t want to sound ungrateful. “Who let you write a paper like this? It’s so opinionated.”
In Jerilyn’s ENG 101 Rhet-Comp class all the students picked names of North Carolina towns out of a hat. She got Chapel Hill. “We’re supposed to write a factual historical paper. I don’t think Brandon would want us to write it like this.”
“You get to call your instructor by his first name? God, Chapel Hill. Whoa, a customer. Looking at the five-hundred-dollar silk ties, too.”
“Go make a commission,” she directed. Her brother with his two degrees from the University of North Carolina, for years now, working retail in an upscale men’s clothing store. Jerilyn was hoping for a better future, but for the moment she was hoping, with the aid of an online encyclopedia, and by semi-plagiarizing her brother’s old essay, to knock out her first comp assignment so she could be free and clear of any schoolwork by the weekend. She had to keep that totally open. You never know which of North Carolina’s storied sorority houses might summon her to appear.
Jerilyn did not want to spend much more time in stately lonely-making McIver Residence Hall. Of course, her randomly assigned roommate, Becca, was really really nice. Jerilyn wondered if she’d hurt Becca’s feelings when the subject of rushing sororities came up.
“Sounds sort of fun,” Becca said. “Lots of free cookies, I guess. We can laugh at any of the houses that are too hoity-toity.”
“Oh Becca … They say it’s bad to go in pairs because they won’t remember anything about you individually.”
Jerilyn then said nothing about rush registration to Becca, so the date deadline for her to participate came and went. And what Jerilyn truly couldn’t explain was that Becca was a jeans-and-T-shirt, dykey-haircut kind of girl, and sure, those kinds of casual sororities existed, but among the top powerhouse sororities, you showed up stylish and sharp … just not so sharp that it looked like you went to the store and bought the most expensive thing they had.
Jerilyn was recommitted as ever to Operation Sorority; her future husband was not to be found in McIver Residence Hall. But at this point in the secret plan, Jerilyn was losing sleep over her mother. Someone just saying the word “mother” caused her heart to race. The closer she got to her goal the more she feared the Wrath of Jerene (a well-established family concept). Maybe no sorority would take her, she thought darkly, and that would be that.
She liked the girls at Sigma Sigma Sigma; they had a Carrie Underwood CD playing the whole time in the background—Carrie was a TriSig made good. Jerilyn figured the social committee must have heard that CD repeat itself fifty times this week, which represented a seriousness of purpose. At Delta Delta Delta (on a repeat visit), Jerilyn politely enthused over the historical plates on display (God only knows how they famously partied without breaking the whole collection). If she got accepted there—which wasn’t going to happen—she contemplated the long sophomore exile to the lesser TriDelt houses, probably three or four to a bunkroom in some lightless basement, something like where hostages were held, until one day, as a junior, as a senior, she would be summoned to the mother ship and the glorious upper rooms of the big white mansion with the wraparound porch. Bethany and Mallory, from Mecklenburg Country Day, were rushing these same houses; they were crossing their fingers that they’d all get an invitation to the monied Pi Beta Phi … but would one sorority accept three girls who had been to the same high school? Wouldn’t some naysayer stand up at the meeting and say that they shouldn’t accept a ready-made clique?
Oh dear God, she was wasting her time! What delusion, what folly! Jerilyn, get real! These elite sororities could smell her desperation, they could tell she was a party-girl fraud …
No, no, her best bet was to run, crawl, abase herself before her mom’s house, Theta Kappa Theta, and hope for a legacy bid. She had a paper due but this was now or never! Her mind was made up … and this new plan had the added tactic of possibly pleasing her mother. Mother would be officially furious, of course, but she’d be a little proud too, just a tiny bit, and would probably relent and pay her dues for her. Oh God, there she was, stressing out about her mother again.
Jerilyn grabbed her handbag. She wore a sleeveless Carolina Blue linen dress, formfitting and flattering, Stuart Weitzman sandals. She would wow them at Theta Kappa Theta; she resignedly marched out to West Cameron Avenue. Soon Theta House rose into view, a brown-brick box with narrow horizontal upper windows which made the structure look like it was squinting. She glanced across the street at the legendary Sigma Kappa Nu and thought how much more grand their old mansion was, despite their torn-up front yard, repair trucks and construction cones. She saw a laughing band of girls emerge, happy, thrilled to be there …
Nope, Theta it is.
K was a hyper-preppy sorority, retro add-a-beads and sweaters, men’s dress shirts and khaki shorts for crazy casual wear, Italian wool hunter-green peacoats, pearls with little black dresses for evening events. Jerilyn breathed deeply and strode inside with false confidence for what was now the belated second visit. It looked like a furniture showroom, Jerilyn thought again, overstuffed with love seats and china cabinets full of plaques and trophies. Jerilyn was asked her name (and to spell it out) while a smiling older girl wrote it out in lovely penmanship on a peel-off name tag and gently affixed it between breast and shoulder. “Now we’ll all get to know you, Jerilyn,” she chirped.
Margaret, a homeroom acquaintance from Mecklenburg Country Day, spotted her from the stairs and sped down to hug her. “I’m so excited you’re here! I’ve talked you up to so many of our women … I didn’t see you for the first part of rush and I thought about calling you which is dirty rushing and wrong wrong wrong, but … oh I know I shouldn’t ask, but are you aiming for any other houses? Naughty me!”
“Well, of course, Theta’s my mom’s sorority, so this is my priority.”
Margaret squealed and squeezed her arm.
“Though I had a good time at Alpha Delta Phi.”
“Oh yeah, well, they’re nice girls over there,” said Margaret, powerless to berate them.
“I haven’t been in Sigma Kappa Nu yet—been scared off by the mud, I guess.”
“They’ve become the big drug-and-party sorority, you know,” Margaret said with real sorrow, not able congenitally to savage anyone, even if they needed savaging. “It’s sure not our style,” she added.
Yep. That was the settled, empirical truth about unexciting, underdated, good-girl Jerilyn Johnston: being wild was simply not her style, not her scene. Two-beer maximum. Politeness and manners and good breeding, associating with the right people who did the right things—that was her summary, Young Ladyhood’s Southern poster child, halfway to some law firm’s partners’ wives’ charity’s annual luncheon—non-alcoholic of course. She winced a bit as she sipped from her crystal punch cup; someone had put in way too much unsweetened citrus. Next thing she knew, there was a tink-tink-tink of a spoon against a teacup.
“If I could … Each even-numbered hour on the hour, we ladies at Theta Kappa Theta want to introduce ourselves to you and let you know what we’re all about. Each of us, with the red name tags—you, the visitors, have the blue name tags—will be happy to tell you about life here at Cozy House. In truth, the house is named for our chapter’s founder, Sarabeth Scarples Cosy, C-O-S-Y, but through the years we’ve just stopped fighting its being constantly misspelled and gone with Cozy House, C-O-Z-Y, because, you know … it IS cozy here.” Hums of assents from the red-name-tagged girls. “This is a great house for you to pursue your dreams of being all that you can be. We have the highest grade point average at Carolina of any of the houses, male or female…” A slight pause for some of the red-name-tags to let out a mild whoop, some dry hand claps. “… and our sisters have gone on to so many impressive walks of life.”
Jerilyn subtly abandoned the punch cup on a windowsill, and sat on the arm of a sofa while the roll of the immortals was declaimed. The wife of the state attorney general, the assistant to the agricultural commissioner, the CEO of a Durham-based company that manufactures cruelty-free lipsticks. Plus, scads, just scads of prominent communications majors!
“But,” the young woman was saying, “who really can give y’all the rundown is Mary Jean Krisp, who is our president, and oh so many more things.”
Jerilyn saw, presumably, Mary Jean, with her immobile blond hair-helmet and foundation-heavy makeup, smiling to each corner of the large living room like a lighthouse beaming into every cranny of the coast. She wore a peach turtleneck whose collar nearly swallowed her chin—the old hide-the-double-chin trick, thought Jerilyn—and below that hung a small gold chain with a pendant with a gold Greek theta and a cross.
“… during Greek Idol 2002, Mary Jean was named Most Talented Female Singer, and that’s just … why, I’ll read my durn notecard. President of the Panhellenic Council, junior Panhel delegate. The 2001 Theta Kappa Theta State Convention Delegate; 2001 National Convention Delegate, Rush Chairman, co-Chairman of the All-Greek Council, Chairman of the 2002 Homecoming Activities Committee, Director of the Sorority Presidents’ Council—I mean, I don’t know how she does so much important work!—Assistant to the Student Representative on the Chancellor’s Task Force on Greek Issues, an Adopt-a-Grandparent volunteer, a Big Little Sister, a volunteer at the Chapel Hill Animal Shelter, and … phew…” She playacted being winded. “… most importantly, the 2003 Outstanding Greek Woman for her work in the community and on campus. Here she is, Mary Jean Krisp!”
Mary Jean had been beaming to all her subjects, winking to someone she knew, rolling her eyes at some of the honors, little waves to someone special she just noticed, but now it was time to speak. After the mild applause subsided, she began.
“What does it mean to be Greek? I’ll tell you what it means. It means we give a little more, work a little harder, and do a little more than our friends who favor a non-Greek lifestyle. Some people think of a sorority as a place to drink or where women go shopping together and, yes, well, we do that too!” Mild laughter. “But the real point of our being here is to raise ourselves to a higher plane. We are in a position, since we are banded together, to really really help some underprivileged people in this state—to make a difference. Girls whose mothers have made bad life choices: poverty, hopelessness, drugs. Sometimes their kids are lucky and they end up in foster care or in shelters but, even so, they must feel sometimes that nobody cares. But we at Theta Kappa Theta care, and our Little Sister program, which brings these girls out for a weekend here at Cozy House, is one of the most important things we do. I think of a little girl, a little black girl, named Tasha and…” Mary Jean looked away, a noble stare into the middle distance, then composed herself. “… I’m sorry, I just get a little emotional when I see how some girls have literally nothing in life and I think what good it does for them to see us, in school, on a positive path, with nice things to aspire to.”
Jerilyn smiled at Margaret, but when Margaret looked away, she looked at her watch and mapped a path to the door. She could still stick her head in Sigma Kappa Nu by four P.M. and then get home and write her paper.
Old East, Old West, the Playmakers Theatre, and many other landmarks of campus were slave-built,3 but there was some free-black labor as well, particularly where furniture and ornament remain (many of the original Thomas Day4 pieces survive). In 1799 the debate club took up the proposition of “Ought slavery to be abolished in the United States?” Starting Chapel Hill’s long history of being a radical hotbed, the “yes” faction won the night.5 But that was just a brief foray into abolitionism. UNC would not have been possible without slavery.
Chapel Hill never bought slaves outright, but they were in the business of leasing, trading and selling. All the young gentlemen at Chapel Hill were provided servants and they had to pay a fee to the university for their services that in turn went back to the slave-owners whose slaves were being loaned to UNC. You could expect $35 for your slave in a school-year contract.6 Wealthier boys were always bringing their own personal slaves to campus, but they put a stop to that in 1845—it cut in on UNC’s slave-leasing enterprise.7
UNC owes its existence to something called the “escheat,” which means that when someone died intestate or without a surviving heir, their property, including slaves, went to the university. UNC would auction off all the human property and thereby fund itself.8 Funding the university with, say, a tax would likely fail before the historically cheapskate North Carolina voter, so the escheat remained in place. This is out of Kemp Battle’s History of the University of North Carolina, 1776–1799, which shows how it worked:
A free negro had a daughter, the slave of another. He [the free negro] bought her, and she then became the mother of a boy. The woman’s father died without kin and intestate. His child and grandchild became the property of the university. They were ordered to be sold. This sounds hard, but it was proved to the board that they were in the lowest stage of poverty and degradation and that it would redound to their happiness to have a master. It must be remembered that slaves were considered to be as a rule in better condition than free negroes.9
That was probably the most-beloved president of our university soft-pedaling human trafficking for UNC’s gain—and he wrote that as late as 1907.
There is no one, particularly local historians, who will say a word against this sanctified place.
Joey D had spent the morning rummaging through boxes in the basement of Zeta Pi house, even making a trip to the aluminum shed with the outdoor party items. He hadn’t bothered to dress; he wore what he slept in, T-shirt and boxer shorts. Now he was attacking the boxes under the first-floor stairs. “Where’s the damn slave auction stuff?” he finally yelled, within earshot of Frank.
“I think the last president threw that shit away,” Frank said, hoping to discourage the search.
“How we gonna have a slave auction without the woolly wigs and the chains?”
Skip Baylor, sophomore, naturally pink faced and, when drunk or excited, an alarming lobster red, cried out, “Slave auction? Great!” Skip had heard about the slave auctions of other houses. You bid on a sorority sister, and if you won, you owned her, she had to do what you say! (At minimum, a hand job.) But it could be more exciting the other way around, when they bought you. Two or three Skank sisters making you take off your clothes and service them, and all you could say was Yes, mistress, and Whatever you say, mistress.
Indignantly hurling broken toys and props to the back of the under-the-stair space, Joey D muttered, “Spears and shields and all the African stuff, Frank. Shoe polish for the guy who goes all in.”
“Listen good. We are not having a slave auction, and if we do, then we’ll go with Romans and Toga Night and there’ll be no racial element. That’s the sort of thing that goes national, one Polaroid gets found by the local media and it’s on CNN. Speaking of that. We need to all watch a video sent by the Zeta Pi alumni board, okay, Joey? Now’s as good a time as any.”
“I saw it last year.”
“I honestly doubt that, since I got it today.” Frank was determined not to be Southern-nice and passive before Joey D’s mocking up-North assertiveness. Why did he come down South at all? With all the suspensions and flunkings-out from northern schools, what was he by now—twenty-four? Frank had heard about Colgate (an incident involving a blow-up sex doll and the steeple of Colgate Chapel) and then a graffiti incident at Brown (the red spray paint—ALPHAS ARE PUSSYS—did not wash off the white Vermont marble of the Hay Library evenly, and led to a sandblasting of the entire façade) and, unwelcome at the private academies, Joey D went next to Florida.
At Florida, as activities officer for the Zeta Pi chapter there, Joey D was the mastermind of Blob Night, which involved the importation of a giant parade-balloon-sized blob which was inflated alongside the pool. The object, Joey D explained, was to jump from the third-story window of the frat house and into the blob, which would propel whoever was sitting on the other side high into the air and, ostensibly, into the pool. Joey D demonstrated, sending his drunken, loose-as-a-ragdoll roommate up ten feet and down into the pool. Then Joey moved to the bounce position and another guy shot him up even higher where, in midair, he opened and chugged an entire Red Bull before hitting the water. Now that was the gold standard. Soon it became irresistible to see what would happen when Moose (320-pound rugby guy) jumped from the third story and bounced Micro (his name was Michael, but at five-two he was the smallest of the brothers). Micro sprawled upon the blob with a Red Bull in his hand, ready for launch; Moose tried to wedge himself out the window … what happened next varies from what you read about it online, but what was undeniable was that Moose hit the center of the blob rather than the operative side, which flung Micro the wrong direction two stories up, smack into the brick wall of the house; having broken his nose and his right pinky finger, he fell back on top of Moose, audibly breaking Moose’s arm and breaking his jaw (with the still-clutched Red Bull can) … then they bounced together up and over the blob onto the pavement around the pool, with Moose landing wrong, breaking the arm in a second place, and Micro hitting the metal arm of a deck chair with his chin and, for all appearances, having broken his neck.
“It was like something out of a Road Runner cartoon,” Joey D once explained, still amazed by the Newtonian physics of it.
Despite the groans and blood and abundant injury, no one called 911 but rather picked up and moved the boys inside to a couch until there would be a discussion about what would be done next, whether an ambulance was necessary, whether it might be best to make a discreet drop-off at an emergency room in Gainesville and quickly drive away. Which was the course of action decided upon and, later, punished by the university administration, getting the chapter on probation.
Frank might have thought Joey D had gotten the message, but later that night, over a kegger and Linkin Park blasting at high decibels until the police were called, he overheard Joey D sharing the Hell Night plans with Cory and Kevin: pledges have to walk up all the flights of stairs of Zipperhaus with a brick tied around their testicles—he read about that somewhere!
“Joey,” Frank said, shadowing him, “I would appreciate being able to have a Hell Week where the imprint of our pledges’ balls or spread ass cheeks are not emblazoned on my mind for eternity. Did you watch that video?”
The Zeta Pi home office annually sent out to the 126 houses around the country the same safety video, the video that warned of hazing rituals—
“Fuck all that,” Joey D said. “It’s time for Shelly! Shell-laaaayyyy.”
The other guys were led by Skip, too drunk to enunciate but not too drunk to chant: “Shell-lay, Shell-lay, Shell-lay…”
Frank shook his head, so vigorously his beer spilled from the plastic cup he was holding. “Guys, I am sure Shelly is dead.”
“Bullshit Shelly is dead!”
Alec chimed in: “She’s in some meat aisle at Food Lion.”
Alec’s roommate Eric: “Yeah, when Jim graduated, that was it for Shelly. His dad wouldn’t let us use her anymore.”
Joey D was truly exercised. “No more Society of Ram and Ewe?” Pronounced Rammin’ You, invariably. “Ladies, it’s not Hell Week at Carolina without Shelly! We’re not Zippermen without Shelly!”
The next morning, Frank rousted Joey D out of bed at ten A.M. Frank looked away as a naked Joey D with his morning erection hopped out of bed. “Eh? Say hi to Frank, Little Joey…” Frank by now had seen Joey D’s penis more times than that of his own brother, with whom he shared a bedroom for sixteen years. More times than could be counted, he had seen Joey D grab his penis and squeeze the end so it looked like it was talking. Little Joey extolled the virtues of sexual congress with Maribelle McClintock, before bemoaning all the fags and pussies at Zeta Pi who didn’t know how to conduct a Hell Week, concluding, “Hey Little Joey, big gay Frank is looking at you … Oh noooo, Big Joey … Thanks a lot, Frank, you made me lose my erection.”
“I have to call the chapter and give my word that the committee watched their video. See you in the Dungeon in five, okay?”
The video, circa 1997, with dated hairstyles and goatees and one-day stubbles, was hosted by Kip Donnelly, some pretty boy who was on a three-season WB Network nighttime soap set in Orange County. Kip was a Kappa Sigma at USC and tried to be, you know, totally L.A. cool-like, talking seriously for a minute about Hell Weeks and misadventures with pledges. So you see, guys, he was saying, I was a pledge once too …
“The only pledge you ever made was to tongue my hole,” yelled Joey D, now in his boxers, falling into a weather-beaten stuffed chair and popping a beer, 10:17 A.M. “He’s got more makeup on than my alcoholic stepmom on her way to church!”
There is no initiation, said Kip, worth risking someone’s health or someone’s life.
Joey D: “I got your initiation right between my legs, Kippiepoo!”
Alcohol poisoning, Kip intoned, is the number one Hell Week misadventure. Phi Kappa Tau at Rider University was not only ruined by criminal charges and lawsuits, but the dean of students had to face charges as well when a pledge died with .4 alcohol in his body. Many chapters get in trouble for forcing the pledges, who are not twenty-one years of age, to drink alcohol.
“I know what you want to drink, Kippie—my steamin’ cream!”
Frank: “Joey, shut up and listen, willya?”
A student at Indiana University, after drinking heavily during Hell Week, fell and fractured his skull and no one got him help for days. Kip reported that two days after being admitted to a hospital he passed into an irreversible coma and was taken off life support.
“Awww, Kip, Kip, look how sad you are: one less rod for you to suck!”
There have been alcohol-poisoning pledge-related hospitalizations in the last few years at the University of Illinois, Ohio State, the University of Nebraska. In between Kip’s narrative, faded high school–era photos of the lost boys dissolved on and off the screen. Pledgemaster Joey D looked to the ceiling while the others on the pledge committee looked at Joey D; as each tragic occurrence was related, they checked to see if any of it registered. At Kip’s own Kappa Sigma at USC, a pledge choking to death on the raw meat he was forced to eat. A frat at Stetson University shocking pledges with electrical devices. An Ohio State frat feeding their pledges nothing but salty snacks for days, locking them in a dark closet with nothing but plastic cups so they could collect their own urine if they were thirsty …
“That’s freakin’ brilliant,” Joey D marveled.
“We’re not doing anything remotely scatological this year,” Frank announced. And since Joey D looked puzzled by the word, Frank clarified: “Nothing to do with piss or shit.”
Grayson: “Or naked guys, or guys in wet underwear. That’s just gay.”
Skip: “No vomiting. We just have to clean it up.”
Joey D stood up. He’d seen enough of the “anti-frat propaganda.” He crushed the beer can, belched loudly and flung the can behind the TV set.
Later he pulled his fellow pledge committee members aside, Skip and Justin. There was a way to bring Shelly back from the dead.
* * *
Lightning struck. The planets must have moved into single file. Surely all the zodiacal signs scurried into their right moons—or however that stuff worked. After Pref Night, Jerilyn had two matches: Theta Kappa Theta and, stupefyingly, Sigma Kappa Nu!
“Oh my God,” screamed Becca as the slow opening of the bid envelope took place in the dorm room, Jerilyn scarcely able to complete the physical act with her shaking hands. “I mean, that’s the wild one, right? Drugs, booze, and boys!”
“Well, my mom was in Theta…” But this little pretense of weighing her options was too exhausting to finish. Of course she would move heaven and earth to make herself agreeable to Sigma Kappa Nu. Phone calls to Bethany and Mallory revealed they were making their peace with their second and third choices, having to separate, not getting interest from the same house. They screamed in delight for her when she told them: “My God, Jerilyn Johnston is a Skank!” (Well, that’s what even they called themselves at SKN, tongue in cheek.)
She knew the night would be a glorious celebration, and so, dead tired, dragged out from a week of death-by-shmoozing, she lay down for an afternoon nap. She skipped ENG 101 yet again. But what a coup! She had only wanted to see inside Sigma Kappa Nu when she crossed the street from Theta. She was thinking of it like a Farewell Tour: here, Jerilyn, is where the future rich and powerful frolic, here is the place you’ll never be … She stood before the SKN chapter house, three stories with a grand columned porch, azaleas and two giant magnolias, all menaced by a muddy construction project, the dug-up yard, and a terrible sewage smell.
“Don’t run away!” It was Layla Throckmorton from Mecklenburg Country Day. Despite a long painful acquaintance, Jerilyn was still a little surprised super-popular Layla remembered her. “Hoo, I know it smells like manure every-damn-where. This work was supposed to be finished the first of August.” Layla was threading a careful path on flagstones through red-clay mud to reach her. “I’m on the New Members Committee,” she said, breathless. “Long story short—we all are this close to probation if we don’t get our GPA up. And then I was looking out the front door and I saw you and I went, hold everything, maybe we can get our hands on Jerilyn Johnston, brainiac!”
Jerilyn had thought it was wrong, back in high school. Layla, a confident senior to her terrified junior, expected Jerilyn to just hand it over, their homework, last night’s chemistry or social studies take-home. Jerilyn had castigated herself for how weak she was to let her cheat, someone who had it all, really, who was smart enough to study but didn’t, just rode around in rich boys’ sports cars and always dressed in casual designer-labeled clothes, oh and she always smelled so nice.
“Aw, I’m not that smart,” Jerilyn said, “I just work twice as hard as the smart ones. At least in a house like Sigma Kappa Nu, you know at the end of all that work there is some serious playtime.”
Layla gave Jerilyn a hand up to the porch, then looked at her intently. “I see our reputation precedes us. And Jeri, I just love the short hair!”
Jerilyn was led past the columned portico and inside toward the thumping bass of a hip-hop song. It was lovely inside … a little battered, but rich wood paneling in the front downstairs rooms, solid dark wood furniture upholstered in strong earthen colors, pastel hallways to living quarters and the kitchen … and then a step through a brief sheltered walkway between buildings to the dining hall, where the girls were gathered.
Jerilyn had floated light-headed through the whole process. She relived it all, every conversation, every successful attempt at wit … how had she done it? Adrenaline, poise, a lifetime of practice for just such an occasion: she had charmed and smiled, performed her light girlish laugh which had been declared attractive, and she cleverly managed to strew hints of her old-family connections. Jerilyn Jarvis Johnston, yes, a Johnston of Charlotte, some tenth cousin once removed of Joseph E. Johnston, the Civil War hero.
“Well,” Jerilyn sang, “he surrendered North Carolina and the whole of the South to Mr. Sherman, officially sealing the Southern defeat, so less said about that the better!”
(Cue her infectious laugh.) Yes, daughter of Duke Johnston, the city councilman in Charlotte, Republican, for about six years, back in the 1980s. There was a baby photo of her being held aloft by her father at a victory rally; there were red campaign buttons and an autographed picture of Daddy standing beside President Reagan. And then there was her Uncle Gaston, Gaston Jarvis! He was even more famous, the bestselling author of March Into a Southern Dawn, all those Civil War romance and battle series that everyone reads. “Though,” she added, “I’ve never finished one of them yet!” occasioning good-natured laughter.
“I’ve read all of them!” cried a gorgeous blonde named Tiffany. “You tell your uncle I should play Cordelia in the movie versions! I sometimes put the books down and give her speeches to my mirror—I am so obsessed!”
Squeals, some hugs, more laughter.
Jerilyn: “I’m hoping, since he’s a gazillionaire, he’ll kick in big for my debut next year.” Oh she’d done it. She’d dropped every clue of class and privilege and money, and made it seem like they pulled it out of her. It was, without compare, the greatest sustained social performance of her whole life. Of course, Layla would expect Jerilyn to do everyone’s homework and get Layla’s sorry lazy butt across the graduation line. Layla was a user, but Jerilyn was rolling up her sleeves and getting ready to use Sigma Kappa Nu as well.
She would turn the page on decorum-blighted Jerilyn Johnston. She knew that the PG-13 summer-movie sorority stereotype of the wild, hot girls, barely contained in clothes for all the suds and water that came their way, and the male-model-hot fraternity stud, beer in one hand, cell phone in the other, hooking up with the girls like a harem—she knew all that was a cartoon image of sorority life, but it was precisely the movie stereotype she was curious about; she now wanted to immerse herself in this too shallow pool. And if a frat brother was a cad, two-timing her with another sister, if there was face-slapping and tears and throwing herself into his frat brother roommate’s arms … wasn’t that all Life? Excitement, drama, action? For once, someone should say, That Jerilyn Johnston! Back at Carolina, she was a wild one! And everyone knows these frat boys eventually knuckle under, pass the bar, say yes to being in their dad’s law firm, partner in eight years. God, it was all going according to plan!
Her chance to be Wild Jerilyn Johnston came up fast:
“Here’s the thing, okay?” Layla had pulled Jerilyn aside after the pinning ceremony. “How life was back at MCD was one thing. How we live our adult lives here is another. I mean, you’re gonna find out anyway about the cocaine, so I wanted to feel you out on the topic.”
Jerilyn looked especially blank.
“Oh come upstairs, I’ll show you.”
Layla led Jerilyn to her room where two older girls awaited, Brittanie and Taylorr.
“Girls,” said Layla, “this is my old friend from our private school I was telling you about, Jerilyn Johnston.”
Jerilyn smiled and looked at what the girls were looking at, a table with a baggie of white powder, and a few lines of coke arranged on the polished cherry tabletop.
“You cannot keep the weight off without this, Jerilyn,” Brittanie said with authority.
Taylorr: “Nope, won’t happen.”
Brittanie: “Look, it’s not addictive, but it will spike that metabolism and let you have that extra ice-cream cone. The day I leave Sigma, I’ll never touch it again.”
“Me neither. Because by that time, I’ll be engaged to future-governor-of-the-state Kevin Flaherty—or that’s the big goddam master plan!” Taylorr added, shrieking with laughter.
Jerilyn cleared her throat. “I’m not sure if I…”
Layla put her arm around her. “Now Jeri, you don’t have to do it, a lot of the girls don’t—”
Taylorr coughed a disbelieving laugh.
“Tay-lerrrr,” said Layla, exhaling a huff, shaking her head. “Okay, everyone does it, just not every night. Doesn’t matter one way or the other, but you cannot talk about it. Your mom knows my mom. It just cannot get out into the Charlotte gossip universe. And you know Skip Baylor, right?”
“We went to the prom together.”
“Oh that’s right. Well, he’s our source—he and that Benjy guy at Zeta Pi, with the white-boy dreadlocks.” She rolled her eyes.
“Well, I’m not a gossip or a tattletale, Layla. You know that.”
“I didn’t say you were! But you see how you have to be so friggin’ discreet.”
Taylorr was snorting her line, followed by Brittanie.
Layla smiled down at Jerilyn. “You’ve done it before, haven’t you?”
“Uh, well…” She’d smoked pot once, to no effect, no pills or coke or meth or anything else. Jerilyn had only been drunk a few times in her life, one of those times thanks to Skip Baylor at the prom. She once took a second codeine pill too close to the first pill, after her wisdom teeth were pulled—that was really something. “I’m more a booze and pills kinda girl,” she announced.
The girls laughed. “Don’t worry,” said Brittanie, “we got plenty of that, too!”
“If I thought,” Layla said, almost whispering, “that you weren’t cool with this, and that you might tell someone, some family member, and it would work its way back to my mom, well … well, I couldn’t see offering you a place here at Sigma, much as we’re dear friends.”
“Layla! Please, I would never tell my mom anything and I assume, no matter what I get up to, you would never, you would never tell my—”
“Hell no, of course not,” she said. Jerilyn’s readable terror of being thought untrustworthy prompted Layla to add, “Oh calm down. Skip said we had to take you, and though we never take orders from Zeta Pi…”
“If Skip and Benjy are happy,” Taylorr chanted, “then we’re happy!”
Layla was now kneeling before the table to take her line. She vacuumed the whole of it up her nose, pressed a nostril with a finger and waited a moment, a smile spreading on her face. “Aw that’s good stuff,” she murmured. Then she looked up at Jerilyn. The fourth line was cut for her.
Jerilyn bent down to the table. If she was too goody-two-shoes to do it, then there were three blackballs right here in this room, Skip or no Skip. She sniffed too vigorously and it all went up her nostril in a clump. Then she was aware she was giggling too much as she stood, then sat, then sprawled on Layla’s settee. “It is good stuff,” she said to be agreeable.
And it was good stuff. Her heart raced a bit as she sat back on the bed but within moments she was giddy, uncontainable, a little breathless. She was going to be Sigma Kappa Nu, people! She belonged to the coolest party sorority on campus! And secondly, the issue of boys and figuring out ways to meet them, talk to them, attract them—that seemed about ninety percent solved. Tonight, a new life would begin on that front. Mom could just put those expectations of Jerilyn the Career Girl on the shelf with Annie being a society matron and Joshua marrying and having children and Bo being a lawyer and politician like Daddy. Her siblings broke free to do their own thing—why should she alone march to the family orders?
“You feeling all right, Jeri?” Layla checked on her.
“Why yes!” she said too eagerly, to everyone’s amusement.
“Mellow out and enjoy,” Taylorr advised, inhaling another line. These girls would show her how to live, Jerilyn decided. And do it in a size four, and at 110 pounds … Suddenly she had the inspiration that it was at last time to call her mother with this new assertiveness—this woman who stood in the way of so many pleasures and normal college experiences that awaited her. She had to deal with Mom sometime anyway. She popped off the bed and walked down the stairs to the little garden in back of Skankhouse.
And suddenly she was on her cell phone with her mother.
“… I suppose, Mom, I wanted to let you know, not so much as asking permission but as a courtesy, information, information that may interest you—”
“Jerilyn, honey, what on earth are you talking about?”
“I have decided to be in a sorority, Mom. Sigma Kappa Nu. It’s just who I am.”
There was a pause.
“I know, Mom, like, you said it wasn’t a good idea but I’m an adult now and I can make my own decisions concerning these things and I know it goes against your general principle that I should not have one bit of fun up here in Carolina where no one would talk to me if I just was a plain old student and—”
“My land, child, how much coffee did you drink today?”
Jerilyn realized how fast she was talking so she stopped, then couldn’t remember what her thread of argument was.
“There is no money for this sort of thing, Jeriflower,” her mother said calmly. “It’s thousands of extra dollars. Dues, parties, trips to Tijuana or wherever the kids go for spring break these days. And then you have to have new clothes all the time, the most expensive this or that, or the girls will think you’re poor. Well, we are poor, Jerilyn. We can cover it up well enough in Charlotte but our finances are very stretched.”
“Well, whose fault is that?” Jerilyn exploded. “Why haven’t you made Dad go back to work?”
Another pause. Somewhere, far back, there was a depth charge from the remotest areas of the brain saying nooooo that should not have been spoken, dial it back … what was her mother now saying?
“I very much do not appreciate you speaking of these matters so vulgarly. And should your father take up his law practice again, I assure you that it will be for reasons other than your wanting to waste thousands a semester inebriating yourself and abandoning your studies at Chapel Hill.”
“You got to be in a sorority but I don’t—that’s how it works, I see. I rushed your house, Kappa Theta Kappa, by the way—”
“Theta Kappa Theta.”
“That’s what I said, and I told them my mom was an alumna, but … but they didn’t invite me back,” she lied. “Do you know what I accomplished here? Do you know how many rich girls from good families are in Sigma Kappa Nu—some of your friends’ daughters like Layla Throckmorton and Corrine Hutchinson who is the president—”
“Stop talking so fast, Jeri; you’re breaking up. The Sigma Kappa girls had morals that would shame a Babylonian in my day, and I suspect little has changed there. Their mothers were wild as hyenas, too. Maybe if you’d let me know you were attempting Theta, I could have made a phone call.”
Jerilyn, in a crunching flash of self-doubt, thought of how she had kicked Theta to the curb, how she most assuredly would have been given a bid and a rubber-stamp vote for admission, whereas here … some of their pledges will be judged not good enough after the pledge period. Sigma Kappa Nu was famous for that, actually. Maybe they were discussing her inadequacy, up in Layla’s room right now. And when it comes out she doesn’t have the money to hang with the others, Jerilyn imagined the mock sympathy in Corrine’s we’ll-have-to-let-you-go speech.
“Sell one of the paintings!” Jerilyn cried out, the thought just finding itself on her tongue.
Another pause. “Sell off the family’s legacy—your legacy—so you can get drunk at a sorority every weekend?”
“Skip Baylor is in the brother frat … what’s it gonna seem like if I drop out because we have no money? It’ll be all over Charlotte that you and Daddy couldn’t afford to keep their daughter in a sorority.” In her mother’s renewed silence, Jerilyn hoped she had at last hit paydirt.
“Well, then it shall happily make its way around Charlotte that I thought turning you into an alcoholic and being a plaything of rich drunk boys, and watching your grades go down the pan, was not acceptable to me and your father and we would not pay for it.”
“Okay then, like, as I said, I’m just letting you know what the case is, Mother, and I’m not so much asking permission. It’s going to happen—they’re voting in two weeks. I’ll find a way to pay for it.”
“I have no objection to your paying for it.”
Wait … suddenly Brittanie and Taylorr, looking panicked, waving their arms, were in the garden with her, mouthing, Who are you talking to?
Jerilyn mouthed back, My mom.
Both girls’ eyes filled with horror. Get off! Hang up hang up! they pantomimed.
Oh yes, she’d better hang up. But her mother was saying something: “… and do you remember the trouble we went to, sweetheart, for the SAT? The prep classes and the private tutor, that nice Mr. Catherwood, and how you took the test three times? You can do anything you want to academically, Jerilyn, but like your mother, you have to work for it and study; you have to put the time in. And we both know running around in a sorority and racking up a huge credit card debt and going to Tijuana—”
“It’s Cancún, Mother—nobody goes to Tijuana.”
“None of that is going to get you a good degree.”
Her future SKN sisters were doing elaborate unvoiced screaming: Get off the phone!!
“Oh goodbye,” she said, flustered, clicking the red button and hanging up on her mother for the first time in her life.
Brittanie and Taylorr were an immediate chorus: YOU NEVER call anyone on coke! God, she called her mother! Both girls were soon in hysterical laughter. Brittanie had to lower herself to the ground she was laughing so hard—her mom! Jerilyn called her mom! It would go down in legend: the girl who did her first line and immediately called her mother to fight! Soon Jerilyn was hysterically laughing too. Oh it felt good to laugh; it was like laughter took over every cell and flowed through her. And her mother would, of course, come around and help her achieve this dream. Already, in the few afternoons with these wonderful, fabulous girls, she had known the most joyful moments of her young life!
* * *
Jerilyn had heard that at most every other house, once you were on track toward being a new member (no one says “pledge” anymore), you were as good as in, barring catastrophe. But not Sigma Kappa Nu. Commonly, a few fell by the wayside. Already, in this year’s group of thirty-six girls, a girl named Katrina had been caught out lying about her background, fabulating membership in Raleigh’s Carolina Country Club. Like that couldn’t be checked easily.
And then there was Cathyanne. She saw it with her own eyes. Cathyanne, who was sweet as can be, first had announced that she didn’t judge about the drugs but they weren’t for her. Strike one. Then at the Big Little Dinner (where Big sisters sat with new Little sisters), Cathyanne ate two desserts. Cathyanne wasn’t fat but she was buxom and she’d worn this sleeveless top and had, okay, some flesh on the upper arms but she was shapely and fun and good-natured, and after Cathyanne left for the backyard with some of the sisters, Jerilyn saw Brittanie turn to some other girls and put a finger to her lips and blow out her cheeks, and then do the thumbs-down sign! She was too fat … or maybe was likely to be fat down the road. This was the sorority, after all, that got scornful national attention back in the early 1990s for making pledges stand on stools in the front yard, dressed in skimpy underwear, and marking them up with black Magic Markers, circling the “problem areas” during pledge period, prescribing weight loss or liposuction. Dear Cathyanne—she was so sweet!
And so here, right in the middle of pledge period, Jerilyn’s sister Annie was in town to visit her. And Annie, gargantuan Annie, almost 250 pounds and heading toward 300! She had said she’d never seen the inside of a sorority house before—maybe she’d have to have a “look-see.” Jerilyn had to stop this in its tracks! THAT’S your sister? Does your family all get fat? And then Brittanie would put her finger to her lips and do the blown-out-cheek thing and they’d all shake their heads and blackball Jerilyn when the time came …
Maybe she and her sister could go somewhere completely unfashionable and uncool where no SKN had ever set foot: the Sunshine Café (where old ladies and ancient townies went for lunch). As Jerilyn strolled down Franklin Street, shopping bags clutched to her side, purchases from her new credit card with a way-too-small limit, she was overcome with shame and repented of her disloyalty. For much of her life, she had craved Annie’s attention and approval; their twelve-year age difference had only recently not seemed so unbridgeable. She brightened when she saw her older sister lodged in the backmost table; with a wave she sidled her way past the other Sunshine habitués, lifting her shopping boxes high.
“So Jerry, this is your favorite place?” They were not a kissy-huggy family.
“Haven’t been in Chapel Hill long enough to know where my favorite is yet! I picked based on geography.” Jerilyn could see that Annie, who could barely hear above the din sitting two feet from her, found this venue annoying. Jerilyn scooted her chair so she could see the door in the event any Sigma Kappa Nus ventured into the Sunshine by accident.
“What’s good here?” Annie flipped the menu over for the desserts.
“Oh I’ve eaten.”
Annie glanced over the top of the menu. “It’s eleven twenty-five. Nobody’s eaten yet.”
Jerilyn patted one of her department store bags. “Trying to fit into a little number here for the parties. Cross your fingers.”
“A sorority, huh? Can’t say I’m pulling for you there.”
“I know you’re not pro-Greek, believe me. I promise not to go on and on about it.” Jerilyn knew the price of the lunch would include at least one rant about fraternity-sorority racism, classism, the underlying social inadequacy apparent in people who needed ready-made sisters culled from a bunch of money-worshipping strangers, et cetera. But Annie held off. She ordered a tuna melt and fries, and could they bring a little cup of mayonnaise with the fries, please?
Jerilyn asked, “How’s Chuck?”
Annie was blank for a moment. “Great. Hurricanes are good for business. Nature keeps knocking the houses down and Chuck keeps rebuilding. God-awful eyesores, too, up and down the Outer Banks.”
Jerilyn knew it was tricky asking after her husband, although she wasn’t quite sure why. Annie never wore a wedding ring. Annie retained her last name, Annie Johnston, even though “Annie Arbuthnot” would have been way cool. Annie never volunteered anything about Chuck. Maybe they had a very open, wide-open kind of marriage, or … well, Jerilyn had lots of theories, including that the marriage was Annie’s third mistake in a row and divorce was imminent. Over the last few years Annie would descend upon Charlotte for family occasions without Chuck, making excuses for his not being there, always trapped by some construction project down on the coast.
And then a silence. The tuna melt arrived and Annie devoured it all with amazing speed. Jerilyn stole a fry. What to say next? Truth be told, there wasn’t much of a real sisterly track record here. Jerilyn reflected that this was, after all, a first undiluted meeting for the two sisters, Annie and Jerilyn Johnston, no filtering parents, no accompanying brothers.
“How’s your end of the business?” Jerilyn asked.
“Boom times. Commissions galore but the real money will be when I buy some of these undervalued homes and fix them up. I’ll be a landlord capitalist businesswoman—some adjectives you never thought you’d hear in front of my name.”
Silence again. She and Annie would never be friends had they not been in the same family. Jerilyn was clothes and hair and girlie stuff, she was pop radio and watching the tween shows on the Disney Channel even though she had long aged out of the target audience, she loved fashion mags and the Harry Potter books were about the only novels she had ever finished, she had few political ideas whatsoever, while Annie … well, Jerilyn couldn’t begin to imagine what Annie listened to on her iPod (lots of foreign women singers, howling in African or Slavic languages) or if she even watched any TV; there were all manner of save-the-earth blogs that Annie was always linking her by e-mail. Annie was in perpetual war with Mom and Dad, while Jerilyn, until recently, had done her best to obey and please, usually with tangible rewards. And men. There was the real Grand Canyon. By the age of thirty, Annie had been married and annulled, married and divorced, and now was married again to laconic macho-man Chuck Arbuthnot, who seemed the mismatch of the century. Jerilyn had limited experience in any sexual direction, not counting some pants-off touching and experimenting with Skip Baylor at his family’s Lake Norman house last summer.
“You know,” Jerilyn began, brightening. “You ought to let me take you shopping sometime.”
“Jeri, there’s not one thing in the overpriced boutiques you patronize that would fit around my arm.”
“Well now, if you’re going to take people into luxury homes all afternoon with your real estate license you can’t look like…”
Annie smiled, patting her belly, her sweatshirt and stretch jeans. “This is my casual wear. I fix up for clients.”
“Yeah, but I mean dressed to the nines, dressed to impress.”
“My God, Mom did a great job on you.”
“No, c’mon, you know you have to have some sharp business suits and things that feel loose and good on you. Expensive things to prove to your clients you’ve gotten rich off your brilliant ability to place people in homes. And admit it, you don’t have a lick of taste where clothes are concerned, and I do.” It was the most courageous assertion she’d ever made to Annie.
Annie squinted at her suspiciously, before the smile returned. “Hm. In the interest of financial success and independence, I’ll take a rain check on … that Armageddon. Me in a clothing store.”
“I’ll hold you to it.”
“Clothes sure look good on you,” Annie said, eyeing Jerilyn sip her ice water with a lemon wedge. “You’re a cheap date, sis. Promise me you’re not going to be bulimic like every sorority bimbo in town.”
“I would never—”
“Oh yes you would, don’t bullshit your big sister. Let’s face it. The Johnston women come in two varieties. Matronly: me and Aunt Dillie and Grandma. Thin and stately: you and Mom. I believe you’re not sticking your finger down your throat only because I’ve never seen you or Mom give the least thought to what you ate. In fact, I can barely remember ever seeing Mom eat. She stirs stuff around on the plate and lets the waiter take it away. She’s an alien life-form with no normal human desires.”
What would Annie do without Mom to rail against, Jerilyn thought. “Speaking of Mom.”
“So far there’s been no thaw about her helping me pay for the sorority dues. I hate that she pretends we’re poor.”
Annie met her gaze quite seriously. “You may not have gotten the memo, but as a family we really are flat broke.” Annie cocked her head, giving this small rebellion the benefit of her lifetime of military wisdom. “I’d try to work around her and go to Dad. He might sell off a Civil War pistol or something. Then, failing that, hit up Uncle Gaston.”
“To be honest, I’m scared of him.”
“Tell him there’ll be lots of drinking and partying and Mom doesn’t approve. He’ll probably send up a Brink’s truck right away.”
Jerilyn watched Annie brace herself on the table and push up from the chair. Once on her feet, Annie was active and so dynamic that her weight didn’t register, but in the transitions, getting up from the table, compacting herself into the car, Jerilyn often found some distant object to focus upon. What a success this lunch had been, after all! They had actually started something here, something to build upon. Jerilyn gathered up her shopping bags and felt like she might float back to McIver Hall … when at the front, just where Annie was heading to pay the bill, was that … were they … My God, three green T-shirts blazoned with SKN? How could … oh yes, they do no-fat yogurt smoothies to go, very dietetic. She should have seen that coming!
“I’ve got to use the restroom!” she blurted and set her shopping bags back down on the table. She hid in the bathroom stall for another ten minutes until, surely, that smoothie had been made and purchased and the Sigma Kappa Nu girls were all out window-shopping on Franklin. She sat there long enough that she heard the women’s room door open and close several times, once with Annie leaning in: “Jeri, are you all right in there?”
“I’m fine, really!”
“You’re not abusing laxatives, are you?”
“Annie, ssssh! I’m fine. Time of the month.”
Annie pleaded that she had to get going back to the coast, but she’d paid the bill and she promised to come again, real soon. She brought Jerilyn’s shopping bags and set them inside the door of the ladies’ room. And Jerilyn felt terrible about the expedient goodbye, but Annie being gone was a relief and if the Sunshine Café was full of Sigma Kappa Nus, it didn’t matter now.
* * *
Justin drove his Lexus convertible back to Durham and pretty-pleased his mom into lending him her Suburban van for one night. Then he swung by Zeta Pi to pick up Skip and Joey D for the mission to Raleigh, twenty miles away by interstate.
“Shouldn’t we put down newspapers or something?” Skip asked.
Justin, amazingly, hadn’t considered this pitfall when borrowing his mom’s prize possession. “Oh yeah, we need like a tarp, in the event she shits all over the place.”
Joey D overruled them all: “Home Depot’s closed. My cousin, the poor bastard, is waiting for us. If there’s a mess we’ll clean it the-fuck up.”
Justin knew that meant that he alone would clean it up.
“Why is he a poor bastard?” Skip followed.
Joey D checked his watch, and sank back exhausted into his seat. “Because he goes to NC State, that’s why. NC State is thirty thousand farmhands who wanted to attain the … the heights of Chapel Hill but had to settle for Cow College U instead. I can already smell the stink. You can major in Manure Science at State, you know.”
Skip yawned. “I have a hot cousin in the Design School at State.”
Joey D: “Poor her, having nothing but Dungeons and Dragons losers to date! When she brings back someone named Rajeev or Abdul for Christmas dinner, remember I told you so.”
Justin sometimes secretly wished he had gone to NC State or Appalachian State. “Joey, Zeta Pi has a chapter at State—”
“They don’t do Greek at State! They don’t understand what the Greek lifestyle is all about—they’re too busy losing at all the major sports and shoveling manure from one half of the campus to the other. Da only party is a Tar Heel party, or maybe you should transfer down to Zeta ‘Cow Pi’ and play Tony Hawk 3 with Rajeev and Abdul every Saturday night, while the hottest got-it-goin’-on, sorostitute shawtys in the South work my joystick in the BJ Room! Do you think there’s a Blow Job Room anywhere on State? Hell no, ’cause no one’s ever had a blow job or sex of ANY KIND at State. Oh I dunno, maybe some cow or pig starts nuzzling another animal’s crotch—but that’s as close as it fuckin’ gets!”
Silence for a minute before the contrarian Skip offered, “The pot is better at State, and cheaper. All those horticulture students. Hydroponic stuff, grown in the dorms.”
* * *
Tonight Sigma Kappa Nu was visiting those hellcat Zippermen, the Zeta Pis. Yes, it was Hell Week over there and the pledges would be enduring some unspeakable stunt. Jerilyn heard that last year at Zeta Pi, the boys had to parade naked through the party in something called “the Elephant Walk.” One guy reached between the legs of the guy in front and grabbed his penis, and with the other hand put a finger up his behind. Then they had to walk in a chain like that around the outside of the house, through all the rooms—with all the sisters providing shrieking commentary and trashtalk—and then up the stairs. If anyone lost their grip, the whole group had to start over! That was their grand finale of Hell Week. Jerilyn hoped they wouldn’t do anything like that; she would be embarrassed for them. She tried to imagine Skip Baylor, her slightly stiff prom date, doing that and she couldn’t … yet he pledged last year, so he must have.
And the older girls were cooking up something involving nudity, no doubt, for the Sigma pledges too. The Tri-Delts had done a nude run through the library (with all the frats tipped off, in order to line the parade route and make catcalls) so the Sigmas had to top that.
Jerilyn was shy but she had resigned herself to public nudity—it came with the territory with pledge stunts, and she didn’t think she looked so bad. She just wanted to make sure it wasn’t videotaped, and of course, wouldn’t you know, that was the very nature of what was being talked about.
The pledge director, Marlie, laid out a potential plan: “It’s called SororitySleaze.com. They pay ten thousand dollars—ten K—for amateur girl-on-girl action. If we made and sent in, say, three videos and they accepted them, that would be thirty thousand dollars! That would get the whole house to Ocho Rios, right?”
There was affirmative squealing—oh my God—Jamaica!
“Uh, aren’t you worried,” one pledge asked timidly, “that my—your dad or brothers will see these things?”
“Ten thousand dollars—you’re not listening. All the new pledges just have to do it! You’re out if you don’t help us get this cash! In these scenes, everyone sits around a dorm room or the sorority living room and everyone’s bored and horny…”
Parker: “Just like real life!”
“Yeah, and so someone says they’re, like, so horny they could do a girl and the other girls go oooh gross, but then one by one they start kissing, then playing truth or dare…”
Kidge: “They should have seen my junior-high slumber parties. They’d be writing me a check for ten million.”
“Shit, why do the pledges get to have all the fun?” said Brittanie, leaning in too close to Marlie, flicking her tongue as if she might commence girl-on-girl action right here.
Jerilyn remembered some materials they handed out at the registration for rush; it clearly stated that if any of the initiation activities made you uncomfortable or violated your sense of right and wrong, then you were to tell the house president about it, and if you didn’t get satisfaction, then you could approach someone on the Pan-Hellenic Council, but if you went that far to rat them out, surely it would compromise your being accepted. Jerilyn exhaled heavily: get real, she told herself, you’d be finished … or they might have to let you in, but never include you in things, never really befriend you.
She would have a private word with Corinne, their chapter president.
* * *
Joey D’s many-times-removed cousin Ryan met them at the Sheep Research Center and hopped into the back of the van, directing them to a parking place near the animal pens. Ryan was a thickset country boy, dark gold frizzy hair stuffed under a farmer’s cap; he scratched continually at his goatee, smoothing the beard to a point. Ryan led Joey D, Skip, and Justin to a low-lying brick building with classrooms on the first floor, and animal pens in the basement.
“Hold it,” Ryan said on the stairs, fairly certain any involvement with his cousin was trouble. “We’ll go in the stall, you can take your pictures, and then we got to go.”
Skip said, “Yeah, we really appreciate it.”
Justin tried to assure Ryan that they weren’t going to do anything weird with the sheep, just a photo.
Ryan: “I don’t need or want to know what you’re doing—I can imagine.”
Joey D: “Oh yeah, cuz? Just what is it you can imagine?”
“Some frat boy shit. You pretending to screw the sheep or something for some dumb initiation.”
Joey D was getting hot, but he couldn’t blow the arrangement this close to completion.
“Heck,” Ryan went on, “I’d do the sheep before some of y’all’s sorority girls. Probably far fewer venereal diseases.”
“Just let us see the sheep,” Joey D said, barely audible.
Ryan used his key to open the basement door between the stairway and the sheep pens. There was a clean hallway with twelve sheep pens in a row against one wall. Third one down was Ryan’s pen; a clipboard chart was hung on a hook showing feedings and shearings. A removable cardstock label declared this was the pen of FURBALL.
Ryan: “Now take your picture and then get gone. We’re already breaking a hundred rules being here.”
Joey D now saw the difficulty of escaping with Furball. “Uh, could you give us some privacy?”
Ryan stared at them. “You really gonna screw my sheep?”
Skip Baylor cleared his throat. “It’s supposed to be an embarrassing photo. Like you said, a fraternity initiation stunt. You know, our mascot at Carolina is Rameses, a big, um, sheep.”
Ryan mumbled, “Your mascot is a horned Dorset, this is a polled Dorset. Does that matter?”
“Sheep’s a fucking sheep,” said Joey D. “No offense.”
Ryan frowned, then turned and walked to the stairwell … before turning back. “But none of y’all are pledges. So who exactly is being initiated?”
Joey D smiled. “Skip here. He was sick last year when he pledged so we don’t want anybody missing out on the sheep-photo fun.”
Ryan frowned again. “Furball is my—and about five other people’s—senior project, Joseph. Nothing better happen to her or I can promise you a righteous shitstorm of biblical retribution. Can’t y’all just drink each other’s piss or spank each other in wet underwear or the usual stuff?”
Skip and Justin hunkered down, waiting for the explosive Joey D response, but their Northern brother remained all smiles. “If you just give us ten minutes or so, Ryan. C’mon Skip, down with the pants…”
Ryan crossed his arms. Skip, smiling weakly, began to undo his belt.
“What?” Joey D asked his cousin. “You wanna see him in his underwear?”
Ryan narrowed his eyes to a squint then left them to it. “I’ll be back in ten minutes,” he mumbled. “Try not to give my sheep genital herpes.”
After Ryan was out of earshot, Skip whispered, “We’re never going to get her out of here—”
“We’ll take her out that door. Grab her by the collar.” Joey D headed to the emergency exit, which promised loud fire alarms if opened.
Justin pushed and Skip pulled on the collar, but Furball wasn’t budging.
Joey D told Justin to run back to the parking lot and bring the van around to the emergency door; if he sees Ryan tell him, Joey said, “that you need some fresh air.”
Skip had an idea. He got a handful of the green feed pellets from the pen’s trough and tried to lure Furball toward the emergency door. Furball happily ate what was held out to her. “It tickles,” Skip giggled, as Furball grazed from his palm. “I wish you could get a picture of this! Joey, look! She’s eating from my hand!”
“Yeah, it’s an Animal Planet moment right there—look, I’m all teary.”
Joey D’s cell phone rang; it was Ryan. “Y’all about done with your unnatural acts?”
“Two more pictures, thanks!” Joey D sang out, while thrusting his middle finger at the phone.
“I don’t wanna be washing y’all’s bodily fluids out of the wool tomorrow.”
“Hey Ryan, fuck you, you know? I ask for a simple favor, cousin to cousin—”
“Yeah, like that simple favor I asked for, that I come over to Chapel Hill for one little party? And you told me—what was it?—the girls would smell the barnyard on me.”
“Hey, cuz, that’s true, isn’t it?” He hung up on Ryan.
There was the honk of the Suburban from outside. Furball started bleating, barely allowing herself to be dragged, trotters skittering on the smooth industrial floor. They came to the emergency door with its dire red warnings. Joey with one hand banged the emergency exit panel and held Furball’s collar tight with the other. Whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop … Now that’s a really loud alarm, Skip thought.
“All right,” Joey D cried out, wrestling with the back half of the animal, “you bag of sheepshit, you’re coming to a party in Chapel Hill, okay? That’s a good girl…”
Justin jumped down from the driver’s seat to help, his mom’s van idling in position with its tailgate down, ready for loading. “I scraped the exhaust pipe,” he whined, rubbing the scratch with a licked finger. “I backed it up over the curb onto the sidewalk here—oh shit, you can really see this scrape. What is my mom gonna say?”
Joey D screamed in profanities violent and volcanic that Justin and Skip should participate more helpfully in getting the sheep into the back of the van.
Ryan arrived in time to see the emergency door ajar to the outside; he staggered back to the pen … no Furball. He ran through the emergency door in time to observe the van, tires spinning in the grass, pull away, divotting up mud, and speeding directly into a metal pole atop which was a purple martin birdhouse. The pole swayed and the birdhouse came loose and landed with a smash onto the windshield, shattering both objects … The van then backed up quickly, straight into the fenced outdoor daytime enclosure, putting out a taillight, before speeding away … but not back toward the highway but rather deeper into the meadow, bouncing out of sight with a spiraling-free hubcap catching a gleam from the streetlight before the van disappeared.
Ryan squeezed his cell phone … then hesitated.
He had let them in the building, he had let them in the sheep pens. He would surely get in trouble with the rest of them if he called the campus police. He called his cousin’s cell, but Joey D didn’t pick up so Ryan left a message:
“Of course, I’m gonna beat your smug-Carolina-bastard face in. That goes without saying. My friends and I will be at your gayboy frat house in an hour and I want my sheep back.”
* * *
Jerilyn nervously tailed along behind Corinne, the president, hoping to speak to her alone. It was eight P.M. and they were due to arrive at the Zipperhaus around nine. Corinne was in high makeup, formfitting designer jeans and a floppy silken top with a plunging neckline that would have revealed all, had she bent forward. Corinne explained that this was the first full-on party of the year and it was a tradition the Sigma Kappa Nus would be in super-slut mode, flash a little bosom, laugh, flirt, and then get out “at maximum tease,” right as the boys were panting and desperate. “This is the time for you new girls to show your wares,” Corinne chirped. “If they want you, then we want you!”
Some of the older sisters were chiding the pledges on looking like Library Science majors. Jerilyn figured she didn’t have one dress in her entire closet that was right for this sort of gathering. She settled for her tightest jeans—not so much tight in a designer way as they were outgrown from high school—and a midriff-baring top … But anyway, she had to talk to Corinne. She thought she finally had her alone when there was a knock at the door.
“God, what now?” Corinne said.
One of the workmen who had been digging up the front yard throughout the day was standing on the Sigmahouse porch.
“Yes?” Corinne hissed, as the older man in the blue workman’s clothes towered before her. “If you’re trying to get a free peek at all the girls, fella, I’ll call your boss and have a few words.”
“I am my boss,” said the man, “and we can talk about the plumbing situation here or inside.”
Corinne pursed her lips and stepped out. Jerilyn stood in the doorway, sort of curious. Now the smell of sewage was everywhere. “I’m gagging,” Corinne said, her neck pulsing. “God, how could you guys do this to us? We’re trying to convince thirty young ladies to call this house home and every day they have to walk through this torn-up front yard and the smell of septic tanks and shit everywhere! I thought this was going to be done two weeks ago!”
“Miss, you need everything replaced,” the man said somberly.
“Oh what a fucking shakedown. You dig everything up and now we have to pay big money to get our yard back to normal.”
“I’m telling you what every plumber in town would tell you. You have got blockages in three pipes and the septic is not breaking down the waste matter.”
“For God’s sake, just fix it, fix it already!”
“You have to…” The man, who could be anybody’s grandfather, looked concerned, perhaps for the plumbing, not so much for the girls. “You have to … You have to chew your food, miss. Get the girls to digest their food. You can’t just swallow it for a little while and throw it up into the toilet. It—”
“Look, we’ll do in our toilets whatever we want to do in our toilets—they’re our toilets!”
“Just telling you what the problem is, miss.”
“Fix it, whatever the bill is, then give it to me, and I promise you, Mister … Mister Old Plumber Guy, that the Greeks in Chapel Hill will boycott you and I will see to it that you will never have another bit of business from any sorority in this town.”
Corinne stormed away, pushing past Jerilyn.
The man returned to his van and Jerilyn stood out on the porch for a moment and gazed across the street to Thetahouse, having some kind of do tonight. A small limousine pulled up in front and six men and six women got out, all dressed in formal wear, beautiful. Jerilyn watched a man in a dinner jacket put an arm around the lower back of his date, and escort her lovingly up the walk. Jerilyn was already feeling chilly in her skintight jeans and bikini top.
Layla appeared beside her on the porch. “They think they can see my tits through this top but they can’t … see?” Layla was exhibiting herself under the porchlight. Her gauzy Kleenex-thin skirt barely made it over her privates. She had Carolina Blue pumps that added three inches to her height. “Want to feel good?” she asked, and Jerilyn understood there was more coke to be sniffed on some surface somewhere inside.
“I like feeling good,” she said, following her friend.
* * *
Five of the pledges, wearing only a jockstrap, were marched into the television room, all dark except for the TV, tuned to a static channel and muted.
Cory and Kevin bade them stand at attention against the wall. The boy christened Smegma (their pledge names were written on their foreheads in permanent marker) was shivering. “The Pledgemaster will be here shortly,” Cory said gravely.
Kevin added, “You must do as he says or you’ll never be a Zipperman.”
The pledge christened Scrotum mumbled, “Better not be any gay stuff…” There were frats that filmed their hazing rituals—unending hours of nudity and homoerotic dares and things inserted places—and then sold the videos to hazehim.com—again, for a bit of spring break money.
“You’ll do whatever the Pledgemaster demands!” Cory barked.
There was noise and the sound of, maybe, a chair being overturned, some muffled cursing … Then Skip was present, holding one end of a dog leash, lingering in the shadows. Kevin and Cory stood on either side of the doorway, affecting dire solemnity. Joey D slowly, as if marching in a funeral cortege, stepped into the TV room with his long black robe with its Death cowl, a costume rented and never returned for a Halloween some years ago.
“Within the brotherhood of Zeta Pi,” Joey D intoned, “there is a more ancient and secret society going back to the days of the fraternity’s founding in Tulane in the 1800s, when French aristocrats, uh, you know, down in Louisiana where they’re French—French aristocrats laid out the initiation rites that we practice today and have practiced through the centuries. A society with a special name and coat of arms and, um, the seal of Côte d’Agneau…”
Scrotum was sniggering, trying to hide it.
“Something funny there?” Joey squinted to read the name on the sweaty forehead. “Scrotum. Something strike you as amusing?”
“Assistant Pledgemaster Baylor!” Joey D called out, surprising Skip who wasn’t aware he had a title. “Bring forward Shelly.”
The pledges exchanged anxious glances.
Joey D explained that the University of North Carolina has a mascot ram and Zeta Pi has Shelly, a ewe, hence the Society of Ram and Ewe. Skip pulled the sheep into the room, its four legs rigid and stationary, its hooves sliding evenly over the linoleum. Shelly, née Furball, having shed itself in the back of Justin’s mom’s van of every fluid and solid a sheep could manufacture, was remarkably passive after its being fed a ground-up Valium in a bowl of water. It stared at them unblinking and the pledges could have been forgiven for wondering if Shelly was stuffed.
“Blindfold these gaylords,” Joey D continued, as Kevin and Cory obeyed. “Everyone has, in the Zeta Pi archives, an incriminating photo which is your passage into the Society of Ram and Ewe.” Joey D, who had taken a Valium himself, after a six-pack and two Red Bulls, was having trouble focusing. He had thought of making everyone bestialize the sheep or having green feed pellets eaten by the sheep from their buttcrack but Skip reminded him that a simple nude photo, with the sheep tactically placed to cover the genitals, was traditional and incriminating enough. If anyone ever betrayed the Society of Ram and Ewe, this picture would then haunt them for eternity.
Scrotum cleared his throat and announced his jockstrap was not coming off, he was going into pre-Law and might run for office one day and he was not interested in this photo being sold to The National Enquirer and then shown on CNN.
“Assistant Pledgemasters!” Joey D screamed, not used to being defied. “Take Scrotum away and begin the ceremony of … of depledgerization!” Scrotum was shuffled away, mumbling, “You can’t throw me out. My dad paid for the building of this house.”
And then two others said they also did not want a picture with Shelly. “Okay, you pieces of shit, there’s the door! You see it? You walk out that door and … you walk out and there will never—don’t you go and think that—there will be another…”
They were walking out the door.
“Does nobody,” screamed Joey D, “wish to be part of the fraternity’s most sacred obligation, the Society of Ram and Ewe?”
“Sir yes sir!”
“Drop that jockstrap, Smegma!”
“Sir yes sir!”
“You wanna be a Zipperman, don’t you?”
Skip was laughing and he could barely hold the camera.
“Sir yes sir!”
Now Joey D noticed, too, that the pledge was completely aroused.
* * *
The party upstairs was in full tilt. At least two hundred people spilling out on porches, verandahs, in the back by the pool, crammed into every room, with music loud enough to shake the foundations of the whole edifice.
At first Jerilyn was a little shocked to see the pledges running around in jockstraps with matted hair and other caked-on indignities, but then she got used to it. Layla had shared a line of cocaine and, eased by several beers, she was, as promised, feeling good about everything, as her eyes followed two strapping pledges’ bare rear ends down the hall to the kitchen where other Zetas and Sigmas were filling a giant industrial-sized trashcan with every liquor known to man—cheap vodka, cheap gin, cheap tequila, 7UP, Hawaiian Punch, box wine. A frat guy, bellowing some rock-song chorus, held aloft an emptying bottle of Everclear over the trashcan while the girls brayed in mock-horror, Oh no you didn’t! Cortney dunked her cup beneath the surface to fill it, then sampled. “Ellch. Needs something sweet,” she called out, as someone went looking for where she had set down the discount-brand triple sec she had brought.
“Jerilyn!” It was Skip, with his trademark drunken-red face. “I was hoping you’d be here. You know, I told Corinne and Layla, hey, if Jerilyn isn’t going to be a Skank, then I may have to change fraternities.”
“Thank you so much.”
“We’ll figure out some way you can pay me back,” he said. Then suddenly he was tongue-kissing her. She pulled back.
“Caught me off guard,” she said, trying to make a joke of it. She looked at the floor, and by the time she looked up, Skip was off down the main hall of Zipperhaus, towel-whipping the buttocks of some passing pledges.
Back in the kitchen, the trashcan had nearly brimmed thanks to what some guy promised was a gallon of moonshine.
Overheard, from two of the Sigmas:
“My dad can get rid of all of that upper-arm fat,” Georgina said, volunteering her father’s plastic surgery practice for a Sigma Kappa Nu discount. “Not to mention up your cup size.”
“Puh-leeease tell me,” Cortney said, “that your own dad didn’t do your boob job.”
Georgina straightened her posture and let the kitchen admire her newly titanic prominence. “You better believe he did them—so they’d be done right. It’s all like working with meat to him; he doesn’t think about these as boobs.”
Boy, that was another thing Jerilyn did not get in the least. Some girls bragged about their surgery; some hid it and got whispered about (“I heard she had two nose jobs…”). Some girls said they loved to make out with girls and were so popular and funny and beloved; yet one girl, Amanda, whose name was nearly always sneered, hit on another girl while drunk at a party and she was whispered about as some kind of creepy dyke. And then the frat brothers and sex. What on earth were the rules there?
Taylorr bragged about having oral sex with all but two of the Zeta Pis her third year at Carolina; in fact, she said they were renaming the BJ Room after her when she graduated. This set off a contest of sorts about who had come in second, who had been through the most guys, Lew, Richard, Andy, Joey D, and Frank—no one had Frank, he was still in mourning for some girlfriend that dumped him, but two or three of the really slutty-popular sisters were determined to get him in a threeway. And yet, while all that was acceptable and breakfast-bar gossip, Jerilyn heard girls talk at dinner about Sara who was with two guys in a ménage à trois and what a slut she was, how she had “a problem.” The rule, Jerilyn decided, was this: the popular ringleading girls could do or say or screw anything and it was all right.
Jerilyn always listened to see if Skip’s name was mentioned as a frequent conquest, but so far no.
“Jermaine!” called out Britannie. Jerilyn corrected her about the name. “Aw honey, I got close! You be our taste-tester.”
A plastic cup was dunked into the mire and something opaque and brown was forced into her hand. Jerilyn took a tiny sip from her cup, and almost retched at the strength. “It’s a little like drinking mouthwash,” she reported.
As the mixmasters tinkered some more, Jerilyn slipped away to the pantry where no one was standing. She felt she was getting sad again; the cocaine was slowly wearing off, the brightness and tingle was becoming intermittent.
“You don’t like it?” some guy said.
“Hm, oh it’s all right,” she said, lifting the cup. “Not exactly delicious.”
“Yeah, I’m more of a beer person,” the tall boy said, almost apologetically.
“Me too, but I couldn’t get near the fridge.”
“Tell you what. I’ll get us both one.” He flashed a shy smile and she smiled back. God, he was a cute one! Didn’t sound like he was from the South. Some trace of the cocaine reignited within her; she felt her heart pick up.
“Here we go,” he said a moment later, handing her a beer. The boy took the trashcan cocktail from her and dumped it into an already dead potted plant. “I’m Joseph, but the guys call me Joey D.”
“Jerilyn, you can call me Jeri.”
Just then a shirtless young man walked down the hall—a pledge, she figured, given the wet and matted hair, though he had put on a pair of jeans. Joey D and all the guys erupted into “Baaaaaa baaaaaa!” as he walked by. He angrily gave them the finger and everybody laughed.
Then there was a crash in the next room, some raised male voices, a door slamming, another crash …
Joey D muttered something under his breath and bounded upstairs, away from the action in the kitchen.
Jerilyn stuck her head around the corner: some guy had another guy—Justin, right?—pinned to the wall, while he sputtered, “Look, man, she just ran off—I couldn’t help it!”
Then the new guy hit Justin squarely in the face, then once in the stomach, which bent him over double. Another young man in a red windbreaker kicked Justin once he was down on the ground. Lot of screaming. What woman were they fighting over? Two Zippermen came to Justin’s aid … and soon had smashed noses, too. Then one of the Sigma Kappa sisters ran in to do the screaming-stop thing …
“I saw your sheep! It was out by the pool, I just saw it!”
The three interlopers stopped using Justin as a punching bag and backed toward the door. By the time Corey and Kevin got to the kitchen, a gathering mob of Zeta Pis was ready to avenge Justin’s pummeling. The man in the red windbreaker and his friend then took the full trashcan of alcohol and tipped it. To deafening shrieks, the fifty gallons of hard liquor and fruit juice flooded the kitchen, flowed into the carpet of the hallway, out the door, soaking people’s shoes.
“You’re gonna die for that!” yelled one Zipperman.
But now the guy in the red windbreaker held an old-fashioned cigarette lighter, which he opened and sparked the flame. Jerilyn hopped up on a chair. “Stay right there or we’ll see if this all is flammable,” he said calmly.
Everyone stood where he was.
The young man and his friends escaped out the back door.
The fumes of the spilled alcohol, the weed smoke, and her little bit of athletic activity made Jerilyn feel sick. She decided she would go out the front door, avoiding the mess, and get some fresh air … maybe just wander back to McIver, although Corinne said there were rooms back at Sigmahouse set aside for crashing and composing oneself. She wanted to dispose of the rest of her beer; she looked for another garbage pail only to see the stack of paper cups reeking of the trashcan cocktail, plates and saucers piled high with cigarettes ground into congealed dollops of chip-dip … and her nausea renewed itself.
She made it outside to the front curb where the Zeta Pi sidewalk met the street and sat down a yard away from another party refugee.
“I may hurl in the next minute,” Jerilyn said in the stranger’s direction. “I’m apologizing in advance.”
“Whatever,” he said, barely audible.
“You all right?”
He turned toward her. It was the boy everyone was making baaaa noises at. “I guess. Not sure if they’re gonna vote me in.”
“I wonder if the Sigma Kappa Nus are having second thoughts about me, too. I can’t really hang with the professional partiers.”
“You wanna lie down?”
He held out his hand and she wobbled to her feet, and then they were walking back into the Zipperhaus, past the foyer, toward the stairs … Jerilyn thought of the woman in the cool green formal wear, the man in the formal suit with his hand at her lower back walking toward Thetahouse, the way she looked up at him, the way he smiled back at her …
“Watch that,” he said, steering her away from a puddle of vomit with a high concentration of Cheetos. She looked around the strangely quiet Zipperhaus, now a war zone of party debris, alcohol stink, Doritos ground into the rug, the hallway to the soaked kitchen and sodden carpets. Some guys were going in and out of a small room across from the stairs where the lights were off; female laughter emanated from within. She saw Skip Baylor come from the bathroom heading to the little room; he looked up and did a double take seeing Jerilyn ascend the frathouse stairs with … what was his name again? Well, fine. It’s not like Skip and she are a couple. Skip clearly is playing the field, so why shouldn’t she?
And then suddenly they were in a dark room with two single beds—one for each of us, she thought. But as she lay down he snuggled up beside her. He slid his hands around her waist and buried his head in the crook of her shoulder. To slow him down she reminded him, “I still could throw up, remember.”
He didn’t say anything. “You just tell the Skanks I’m not some gay weirdo who wants to screw a sheep. These guys are … it’s so fucking unfair…” He punched at their mattress once with a clenched fist.
Then he was kissing her. He tasted of beer and she imagined she did too. He was very insistent, a little rough but … but he kissed better than Skip who always gave her a tongue bath. Then he was undoing his jeans, and guiding her hand between his legs.
Someone opened the door and light from the hall poured in; Jerilyn instinctively hid her head in the pillow. “Uh … okay. Next time use your own room, all right?” said the voice, before leaving and pulling the door shut.
Then he rolled on top of her. He kissed her some more and she felt the pressure of his erection through her clothes. Okay, well, this was all right if it progressed no further … She was certainly willing to do things with her hands, like she’d done with Skip, so she reached for him down there and he took her hands in his own hands, which was sweet, and … wait, he pinned them back behind her head as he straddled her. He was inside her. Was her underwear off? When did that happen?
“Wait,” she cried. “Stop. Hey stop—”
And then one hand was over her mouth. She tried to bite it but that just got the hand pressed further, harder into her mouth. So she tried to kick and writhe and break free … but he was already doing the thing she didn’t want him to do.
Copyright © 2013 by Wilton Barnhardt
Meet the Author
Wilton Barnhardt is the author of Lookaway, Lookaway, a New York Times bestseller. His previous novels are Gospel, Show World, and Emma Who Saved My Life. A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he teaches fiction in the master of fine arts in creative writing program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he lives.
Wilton Barnhardt is the author of Lookaway, Lookaway, a New York Times bestseller. His previous novels are Gospel, Show World, and Emma Who Saved My Life. A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he teaches fiction in the master of fine arts in creative writing program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he lives.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Once you get past the sorority stuff the book is awesome.so much southern history info told within a great story. I loved it
This is my first review of a book/ or online review of anything. I read constantly and I read everything, and I loved this book. It is hard to put it down yet I didn't want to finish it. I must admit, the first chapter of fraternity initiations caused me to wonder if I would like this book. But by the middle I was laughing out loud while reading it, which is very rare. You can't not love a book that makes you laugh out loud.
Enjoyed the book. People who are offended by language and sex won't like it. I was born and raised in the South. There is lots and lots of truth to this book. The author Lee Smith described it as satire which it is -- but, for me, it is true satire. Family and family connections do matter in the South!
As I so often do, I did not read the synopsis when I borrowed this audio book from the library. I love starting a book with no preconceived idea of what it will be about. All I had to go on was the cover art and the title. My guess was that it was set in the South and in the past. I was right about it being the South, but not about the time period exactly. While it starts in the past, it is a more contemporary past than I expected. I was also thrown by how the characters were all going to tie together. It starts with Jerilyn going off to college and her mother telling her not to join a sorority, then Gaston the writer makes an appearance, and then each of the characters has a piece of the story so that the point of view changes. I wasn't sure at first how the college freshman and the drunk writer were going to fit together. I would listen while running and as scenes unfolded and characters were together the pieces just started to click together. This is a family full of secrets, some known by all but not spoken of, and some that are truly and deeply secrets. What do you do when your own family can't be counted on to be there for you? How much hurt and pain could be adverted by just taking the time to have honest conversations and how much do appearances really matter? And how long does one spend trying to break out of childhood roles and examples that were set at home?
A slow-starting book but as you sort out this flawed family, you won't be able to lay it down. I almost quit on the first chapter but was oh so glad I didn't. A great way to spend a snowy Michigan winter and escape to the Carolinas.
Utterly absorbing. I hated to say goodbye to Jerene and her fascinating family.
This was entertaining and even educational all the way through. Once you get through the disgusting fraternity initiation descriptions it becomes a book about a captivating but flawed family and the secrets that have relentlessly driven them from the past into a desolate future. How they get there is worth reading every page. Funny, insightful, educational and equally pathetic each character unfolds int their own unique, damaged way.
The new novel by Wilton Barnhardt, "Lookaway, Lookaway" is a sometimes humorous and occasionally biting look at Southern culture and the fall of a complex, imperfect, yet ultimately loveable family from North Carolina. Steeped in a struggle to maintain their social standing and a Southern gentility as phony as a Civil War reenactment featuring a cannon whose wheels won't stay on, the Johnstons of Charlotte have more than their share of shocking secrets. The novel is largely a telling of these secrets. The final disclosure -- one that reaches so deep it threatens the foundation of the reputation cultivated by generations of Johnstons -- triggers the tragic, insane, funny, and somehow endearing and hopeful ending. (There is no quit in that girl Jerene!) Each of the chapters (there are eleven rather long ones) is named after a central character. Each character is fully realized, three-dimensional, engendering in the reader as much love and pity as scorn and disgust. No small trick, Barnhardt made each chapter a mini-profile -- with no shortage of back story -- while simultaneously driving the main plot forward. Despite the number of characters, I was never confused about who was who or why they were behaving as they were. I take this as an indication that Barnhardt knows these lovable and flawed people better, probably, than his own family. (And now I do, too.) The novel's structure was fun and fitting. The book unfolds, chapter by chapter, like a layered image revealed one acetate at a time. The faulty, if rational, conclusions made by the reader when the image is just beginning to emerge are later clarified (surprise!) as the image grows more complete. A minor example: College football star Duke Johnston is publicly disappointed when an injury prevents his participation in Vietnam. Later, in the chapter devoted to Duke, we discover he was secretly relieved. Barnhardt obviously researched the Civil War for this book, and sprinkled into it just enough weird tidbits to keep it interesting. (I actually could have used a bit more of the surprising history, despite its relative irrelevance to the story and my having only a passing interest in the war.) Finally, this book is more than just a window into the foibles and shortcomings of Southern culture. Not unlike how "Emma Who Saved My Life" showed us it's OK to drop a dream if the dream turns out to be not as dreamy as you thought it would be, the hopeful message of "Lookaway, Lookaway" is that it's OK to fail. Everyone fails. Even those who succeed fail. Likewise, even those who fail succeed. Our dear Duke, for example, who has squandered the family fortune, feels like a failure until he realizes how much his family loves him despite his faults. (And we love him for realizing it.) Coming away from the book, I was left with the feeling that Barnhardt, who is obviously an aficionado of fine food and wine, must also be an awful gossip. I love gossips. NOTE: I received a free copy of the novel from the editor.
As a southerner, I find this simpering family and their self-involvement offensive. I found none of the characters sympathetic. It pains me to think that some readers will believe that this tripe represents southern culture. I am a fool to have finished this book in the hope that it may have some redeeming parts. WRONG! I deleted it from my Nook. it is not worth the space.
I am a Chapel Hill resident and thought the book looked funny in a Southern way. Although the book started out entertaining, I was quickly bored with the book. I put it down before the end of chapter 2.
I'm furious I wasted my money on this book. It's awful and the description is misleading. Don't bother.
This may not be the worst book I've ever read, but it's a close second! This story has no purpose... all negative with no redeeming qualities. A story about a completely dysfunctional family. If you're into non-feel good books, then perhaps you'll like this one.
If you are a civil war buff or southern hiistory scholar then plenty to interest you Interesting references to southern tradition and faniliar places
I wouldn't read past page 40! Sorry I didn't read a sample, or I would never have ordered this. It is disgusting. I'm not a prude , but this book is trash. I don't know who wrote the promotional blurb for this, but they obviously didn't read very intently. Wish I could get my money back from Barnes and Noble. This doesn't even deserve one star.