Lovesick was a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction.
Spanning the 1930s to the present day, James Driggers' evocative Southern Gothic collection introduces the intriguing inhabitants of Morris, South Carolina--a small town where a mix of rich, poor, and in-between co-exist, grappling with desire, ambition, hope, and loneliness. . .
Amid a landscaped dotted with farms, trailers, and genteel homes, there lives a talented baker who desperately needs to win a cooking contest but must team up with a down-on-her-heels society matron to do it. . .the Bramble sisters, whose husbands tend to be short-lived and wealthy, but whose latest prospect arrives with complications. . .a widow who becomes dangerously obsessed with a snake-charming televangelist. . .and a lonely florist who will do anything for the sake of a ruthless local mechanic.
With wit and insight lurking beneath a palpable air of menace, James Driggers' debut is a tautly plotted, evocative exploration of love--and all that we do in its name. . .
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Read an Excerpt
By James Driggers
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 James Driggers
All rights reserved.
smothered chicken ...
The winter sky hugged the earth like a tight-fitting lid on a pot. Butcher felt trapped inside this bleak landscape, oppressed; standing alone on the back steps of the Residence, everywhere he looked there was only cold. In every direction, flat clouds pressed hard against the dull horizon, the trees bare and lifeless silhouettes against sheet-metal gray. Though it was early morning, there was no discernable sun, and as a result, the dim light leveled everything to a sadness.
It seemed to Butcher that he had spent the best part of his life inside this gray, that his life could be pieced together like scraps from a newspaper article:
First, there was the boy struggling to plow the pitiable sandy soil he and his mam had 'cropped back in Morris, South Carolina.
Then, when she had passed, there was the youth chasing freedom into the army at the first call to enlist, only to find himself buried deep inside the steel belly of a ship that bore him to France and the Great War.
Then, there was the war itself, where death and misery floated like smoke over everything.
And finally, when he returned home to find that the war had made no difference for him, that he was still just a nigger to all those he had fought to protect, there was the soldier whose anger had killed a man in an alley behind a clip joint only to find himself buried once more—this time locked in a prison for nearly ten years.
He had been barely eighteen when he had gone to war—it had been seventeen years since. A second lifetime. Both equally hard, though now he knew what to expect, and so it didn't wear on him as much. He knew everybody suffered—it was impossible to escape it. Sometimes you caught a lucky break. Sometimes you didn't, so you dealt with what you had. He'd been raised poor and was used to living hand to mouth. Nothing new in that. Besides, he was better off than many.
He'd been in Fayetteville now for over two years, first having wandered through the South after the war, drifting from one job to the next till he got hired to cook for the railroad. During the riots of '19, he'd thought himself fortunate to stay out of trouble. He'd been working for the Southern Railroad traveling between Charleston and Memphis; though the worst of the troubles had been in the North, there had been martial law for a time in Charleston. Black veterans, mainly navy men, had been killed by gangs of whites, some of them veterans as well. A great many others had ended up in jail. For him, it was all in the timing. He understood the anger, the frustration, the resentment on both sides—the whites scared of the black migration taking over the jobs in the factories, the blacks tired of just taking the scraps of what was deemed to be their share. Butcher was glad to see his brothers standing up and fighting back. But when the rioting began over the summer, he was in the dining car kitchen riding from Charleston to Memphis, from Memphis to Charleston. Each leg took one day; he did three trips a week, so the only news he had came from the porters and brakemen. If he had a day off, he spent it drunk and then sleeping off the booze till it was time to get back on the train. Some men worked the train for the travel—the chance to see new things. Having traveled across the ocean and back again, Butcher figured he had seen as much as he ever wanted to see. Some men worked the train because it made them feel important, especially those who got to put on a starched jacket and hoist the baggage of the white passengers. Butcher had worn a uniform and knew there was no privilege to be found in that. He worked the train because it meant he had some money, and he knew that money was all that counted for anything.
In '22, he had been in the wrong place—a honky-tonk on the outskirts of Wilmington. He was drinking, drunk again, and challenged by a man to a fight. Butcher didn't remember much—there was gambling, dice, and accusations of cheating. And there was a woman as well. All of this had been read back to him in the judge's papers at the trial. The woman, a tall, statuesque gal with skin as smooth and black as her silk dress, had testified that Butcher accused her man, whose name was Johnson Everetts, of cheating at craps. She said both men had pulled knives and there was a fight. Butcher couldn't argue with that. He always carried a weapon—had learned to have protection on him when walking the backstreets of Brest, back to the barracks after visiting the brothel. She said she had screamed when she saw Johnson stabbed, and when she said that Butcher had stabbed Johnson in the chest, there was a flash of memory—Butcher could feel the pressure as the knife punctured flesh, then pressed against bone, but only slightly so that it too gave way until the knife lodged in Johnson Everetts's heart. They'd sent him to Caledonia for ten years. Butcher knew it would have been longer if Johnson Everetts had had a family or had been a man of reputation. He was lucky in that regard. Lucky that the judge saw the case as just another two niggers cutting each other. Lucky that Johnson was not a white man.
When he arrived at Caledonia, he feared he might be put to work in one of the road camps, which was where they put most black men, transported every few days to a new stretch of road in a cage with five or six other men. There they would dig and scrape the hillsides to make way for the highway, only to be herded back into their cage for the night, covered over with large flaps of canvas to keep out the cold. He knew if he were forced to live like that for long, he would go crazy or die or be killed just trying to escape. So, when they were cataloging him into the system, he told the boss on duty he had been employed in both the army and on the rail as a cook. Told him he knew what it took to work in a kitchen, knew how to take orders, and knew how to give them as well. Told the boss he could cook anything. That he would make sure the boss's favorite dishes would be on the menu if given the opportunity. The boss said he had always been partial to corn fritters and smothered chicken and gravy.
It was as simple as that. Give the man what he wanted. Butcher worked in the kitchen for the whole ten years he was on the inside, and by the time he was released, he had made a name for himself—his cobbler, his country hash, his biscuits. There were fields and gardens around the prison, and Butcher cooked the harvest, preserving fruit and vegetables for the winters. Even the sorriest prisoner would tell you that the one thing Caledonia had going for it was the food.
He'd been back to his home, Morris, South Carolina, where he was born and lived as a boy, only once after he was released, back to visit his mam's grave, back to see if there was any work for him in surroundings that were at least familiar. What he found was those who lived on a rented farm trying to 'crop couldn't make a living that amounted to more than a chicken scratching in the dirt. Those who worked for wages didn't fare much better. After the cemetery, he sought out the four-room cabin where he had lived with his mam. He followed the dirt road, running near the railroad tracks past the Deegan farm. He was surprised to see the house deserted, a funeral wreath strung on the front gate. He tried to recall the Deegans, could picture the old man and his wife sitting up on the porch, a straw hat pulled down over Mr. Deegan's eyes while he slept in his rocking chair. They had a son only a year or two older than Butcher. Occasionally, he would shout out a "hello" as Butcher passed by. Butcher had walked this road as a boy, remembered the smoky cough from trains as they passed in the distance, freight trains and passenger trains. He had never thought about leaving then, had never imagined working on the train, but then he never imagined his mam dying so young either. As the Deegan farm disappeared behind him, he watched the house he had shared with his mam grow out of the horizon as he crested a small hill. It had never been painted, but nevertheless, it was respectable enough—like a dozen others just like it spread out over the plots of the families who rented them.
A gravel path outlined by stones set one against another led from the front steps about twenty feet and stopped. A small attempt at a yard. He noticed that there had been a small shed added to the rear. There were children in the yard, white children, playing a game with a stick and a ball. When they saw him walking toward the house, the girl ran inside. She reappeared almost immediately, followed out by her father, a tall, lanky young man in overalls. His wife, the girl's mother, stayed on the porch at the door. They were all suspicious of him, but Butcher could also see relief. He posed no threat.
"Is there something I can help you with?" the man asked. The girl, who was older than the boy, stood close behind her father. He swatted her back toward the house. "Get up on the porch there with your mamma. Get. This ain't none of your bidness."
Butcher introduced himself. "I just come round to visit my mam's grave," he said. "Thought I would bring her some flowers. Thought I would walk out this way. We used to rent round here." Butcher stopped short of telling the man that this house had been his. Didn't want to say the man was raising his children in a place once belonged to blacks. Didn't want to shame him. But Butcher could see that the man knew this. Times were hard for everyone.
"Looks like some trouble had fallen on the Deegans," he said.
"Fewer troubles than most," said the man. "Old man and woman have been dead a while. The son hanged hisself almost two years ago. Couldn't see how to make the farm work for him. They took his missus away—went still as a stone after he died. Just sat there on the porch day after day. Wouldn't speak. Finally, her kinfolk came and took her away. Left the farm to just rot. I heard tell that it had been sold."
"Well, I hope whoever bought it can make a go of it."
"I doubt anyone's ever made too much of anything off this land," the man said.
"You got that right," said Butcher. "The rich man gets it all. Always has."
The man pointed to the shed. "See them boards. I bought them myself. Nailed 'em up there just a little bit loose. If we move, I'll just pull 'em down and take 'em with me. What's mine belongs to me."
Butcher tipped his hat to the man and toward the porch, and left. He knew there was nothing left there for him. That it was just a place he had once lived. So, he went to Fayetteville because there was an army base there. There were CCC camps there. There was work there. People would need to eat. He would cook for them.
The whole country was out of work—white and black, one as poor as the next—but Butcher was determined to find a job. He had a letter of introduction from the head boss at Caledonia, and he focused on those places where they were serving large numbers of people. He visited the CCC camp, and the director was impressed with his letter, but the camp reminded Butcher too much of the army. He had only found the Volunteers of America relief house by accident, looking for a place to stay for the night. They took him on in the kitchen, and because there was so much turnover not only with the men, but the staff as well, it only took him about six months to become the head cook. The position was answerable only to the director and because he was head cook, the VOA also provided him lodging—a small room, but it was his alone. Butcher was a large man, a little over six feet tall, and the room was only slightly larger than the cell he had occupied in prison, so it was cramped, and since it was on the top floor of the Residence, as everyone who lived there called it, one wall sloped down low to knee height and he had to bend down if he walked on that side of the room. But there was a window. And there were no bars. And he was free to come and go when he pleased. And it was separated from the dorms for the men who stayed in the Residence while looking for work in Fayetteville, or till they realized there was no work to be had and moved on in search of work in Wilmington or Charleston or some other town. Sometimes they were there for a week or more, sometimes only overnight. The VOA also paid him a salary—six bucks a week. Which Butcher knew was good for these parts—especially for colored. One of the men staying at the Residence had gotten work at one of the mills inspecting hosiery, and he was tickled to have a salary of eight and a half a week.
Plus, Butcher ate for free. The Director of the Residence, a high-strung, thin, bespeckled ex-professor who was employed by the VOA, and whom Butcher suspected was also a three-letter man because of his habit of standing with his hands cocked on his hips when he was trying to speak emphatically and with purpose, had made a point of telling him that meals were included. But Butcher had been around a kitchen long enough to know the cook always eats for free.
Still, he didn't mind if he thought the director was playing up to him. Butcher knew the VOA saw him as a valued commodity. Didn't want to lose him. They served three meals a day, seven days a week. Butcher could stretch the budget so that even though the soup was sometimes little more than broth or the gravy was little more than flavored drippings, he always managed to make it seem like more. He was a damn fine cook and when he put his hand to pastry, there was no one who could hold a candle to him. He could take the thinnest broth and fatten it up with enough soft pastry so that no one thought twice there was only a skerrick of meat. He would nestle a towering golden biscuit in a puddle of gravy so that by the time a hungry man had finished sopping his plate, the greasy film coating his lips held only the satisfying memory of breakfast. Sunday mornings, he always made sweet buns or fried fresh doughnuts with a warm cinnamon and powdered sugar glaze, and on those nights when there was only soup for dinner, any man could have as many helpings as he wanted.
He had been offered a job at one of the penny restaurants on Robeson Street and though the pay had been better, working there meant he would have had to find a room. Here, though he had his private space, he was never isolated. The Residence was alive with comings and goings, of people, of challenges. True, the VOA was charity with a foundation in scripture, but it was still run like a business, and he merely lived over the store. It helped him to hang on to the dream that someday he would do just that. Live over the store, like the bakers and bistro owners he had seen in Brest. And since the VOA perceived itself as doing a "good work," living there also helped keep him on the straight and narrow. No drinking allowed. That was the rule. He had seen it enforced enough to know not to test it. Besides, as they say, he had a problem with the drink. He was smart enough to know it. It had fueled his courage when he joined the army. And it had caused the death of Johnson Everetts in a bar one night after the war. He was happy to stay where he was until he had his own store. His own shop. At night, after he had showered and gone to his room for the night, he would lie on top of his bed, his hands interlaced behind his head, his head resting on his pillow, and he would dream.
The VOA Residence was more than just a soup kitchen. They served three squares a day. He had gotten trained that way in the army. It was his routine for the ten years he had been on the inside as well. There was never enough money, but the director was dogged in his search for donations, and had created a board of "Miss Anns" culled from several local women's clubs and charitable organizations who had agreed to adopt the VOA as their own personal charitable mission, happy to assist those who had even less than they did. At least they were still able to hold to a pretense of prosperity even if their dresses were out of fashion and their hats were several years old, merely redressed with a new ribbon or a silk flower. Still, they were happy to help pass the plate or ask for contributions from their husbands and friends when there were too many men to feed and not enough money to feed them with.
They were exceedingly flattering. On his pies, his cake, his cobblers, his stews, his gravies. Some would even ask him for a pie to take home with them if company was coming. Lemon meringue, buttermilk custard, chocolate chess. They always made sure to bring their own pie pan. They told him they didn't want to put him out in case he needed it for the Residence. He knew, however, they just intended to pass his pie off as their own. That didn't bother him. They acted as if they were paying him a compliment, to take what he had made and claim it—that it somehow legitimized it, gave it worth. Butcher also recognized there was some truth in that idea. His value in this world was determined by someone other than himself. He had learned that in the war, on the rail, in prison. Get what you can get. Nothing's free. Over the two years, with his salary and his pies, he had managed to save almost $500. When he had enough, he planned to take the money and buy himself a storefront, and turn it into a bistro or a café like those he had seen in Brest. And he would sell baked goods to anyone who wanted them. Pies, cakes, bread. The ladies on the board from the VOA would shop at his store or they would send their maids to bring something home. He would even bake a pie in their tin if they wanted. As long as they paid. Set a value on it. Valued him.
Excerpted from Lovesick by James Driggers. Copyright © 2015 James Driggers. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Table of Contents
ContentsButcher, the Baker, 1,
The Brambles, 107,
Sandra and the Snake Handlers, 175,
M.R. Vale, 235,