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Moving through time and space, Out of Peel Tree unfolds the patterns of an Appalachian sensibility that reverberate everywhere: a fatalism balanced by humor and flinty, hard-won hope, an appreciation for the surprises of the everyday, and a search for love and home amid strange and familiar places and people.
This innovative debut novel reveals the lives of a far-flung contemporary Appalachian family through a web of delicate turning points. A child discovers a grandmother she never knew has died. A runaway teen schemes to start a new life in Texas. A man on parole falls hopelessly in love with a shoplifter. A woman receives a letter about her husband’s other wife. An old woman confronts a burglar with the help of her ghost-husband.
United by a connection to their matriarch, these characters search at home and beyond to make a fresh sense of their changing lives. As a novel in stories, Out of Peel Tree brings a new lyricism to the page and a new voice to American and Appalachian literature—a voice deeply inflected by the beauty of the natural world and by working-class grit.
|Publisher:||West Virginia University Press|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||807 KB|
About the Author
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Out of Peel Tree
By Laura Long
West Virginia University PressCopyright © 2014 Laura Long
All rights reserved.
Oriole Street curled back from Light Avenue, rose and twisted, fell, twisted again, and ended at the edge of weeds, an old grape arbor, and a ramble of wild roses. Corina lived at the end of Oriole Street in what had been a caretaker's house, and the overgrown field had been the grounds of a mansion. The mansion had burned down. A few blackened bricks from the chimney remained, and in the field was a stone bench, curved in such a way that two people sitting there touched knees.
Corina had no cats and did not brew pots of herbal tea. She did not have a loom or a godmother, and she was as ordinary looking as a blade of grass. She had a lover, and they ate eggs together in the morning. To her, his whistle, gait, and way of stirring soup were as familiar as a childhood rhyme. One day her lover decided to go on a journey. He had read many fairy tales when he was a boy, and he felt that to be a man he must have an adventure.
He sent her a picture of fish that stared out of solemn, barred faces. Another card showed tiers of bleached villas perched on a cliff between two blue lines, the sky and the sea. Corina searched this picture for a sign of wind, but found no trees or people or laundry hung to dry. On the table in her kitchen, under a window gripped by ivy, the postcards leaned hot and vivid against a vase. They did not fade.
She imagined herself the curtain, feeling the wind blowing her in and out. The electric clock burbled when the long hand passed over the short one; butter clogged a slice of bread; the window cracked in the corner; the edges of the wild roses in the vase wrinkled into brown, and Corina felt herself to be, in fleeting moments which had the slow texture of a dream, anything she saw.
She didn't know what to think about this.
She was the picture of a fox on the wall, watching a woman sweep the kitchen floor.
Then she was inside a villa in the postcard. She heard the sea rise and fall. Sand filtered through the screened window. The walls were whitewashed and rough.
Her lover walked in the door with a burlap sack over his shoulder. The threads were the same brown crinkle as his hair. He pushed the sack under the single bed with the white sheet and white pillow. He lay down and wouldn't tell her what was in the sack. There was a nail on the wall over the bed that nothing hung on. When the moon rose in the purple sky and was framed in the window, Corina tried to feel herself the moon but couldn't. Her lover's breath slowed and steadied.
Corina pulled out the sack, carried it to the doorstep, sat down, and untied the string at the top. Inside, the sack was half-filled with small, dried leaves. They smelled sharp and unfamiliar. They crumpled when she touched them and left gray-green dust on her fingertips.
Her lover was standing behind her, his knees pressed into her back.
"Why did you open it?" he asked.
"Because I've missed you."
"I don't want you here," he said, and she was back in her house again, gazing at the vase of wild roses. Although there wasn't a breeze, two petals fell off. Corina picked them up and rolled them between her fingers. They felt like newly washed skin. Just when the roses were beginning to die, they had the sweetest smell, delicate and dense, the trace of longing that remains after hope disappears.CHAPTER 2
What to Keep, What to Toss Corina and Ruben
At three in the morning, on the last day Corina let herself imagine her husband harbored no secrets, she answered the phone on her side of the bed, then hung up without a word.
"Who was that?" Ruben asked.
"Prank caller," she lied.
She rubbed his back with her baker's hands, deft from shaping dough. Ghostly specks of flour were embedded under her nails, and the outer edges of her pinky fingers were calloused from being singed so many times by hot racks of bread. He turned and wrapped his arms around her, and she fell asleep thinking of him. Her practical man. He could mend a tablecloth or rewire a house and not suppose one accomplishment better than another. Maybe she was just one more thing (but a very special thing, he would say with wicked tenderness) he liked having around to fix — to oil and smooth, unkink and then (deliciously) kink. Later, Corina would remember that season of her life as the color green, all-a-flitter spring-green, when the world only moves forward.
At seven that morning, as bird songs crisscrossed the air outside their kitchen window, Ruben stood behind her combing her long dark hair. Usually at this hour she was icing cakes at the Rico Bistro, and he was in the garage putting a new bumper on the Wreck of the Week. But she had traded with the other baker so she could plant a garden today, as advised by the Farmer's Almanac. The moon was in some sort of fertile conjunction with the planets. She might as well have astrology on her side. Houston was so murky from who-knew-what-all (chemical plants, swamp gas, and thousands of people breathing) the moon had a hard time shining through.
Through the open window drifted the blurred sound of traffic headed into downtown. Drivers on the elevated freeway who glanced out would barely notice this pocket of old Houston, where dozens of streets threaded beneath dense trees. Here were small, deep-porched bungalows built in the 1920s, when people took the streetcar across the bridge to downtown. The downtown, now a chalky and shiny eruption of skyscrapers, was separated from the neighborhood by the bayou, where white ibises and great blue herons stalked frogs.
Ruben refilled her cup with black coffee, then started sectioning her hair. Corina's eyes wandered from the tree-filtered sunlight on the tin roof of his garage to their kitchen table, and it was then that she spotted the package under yesterday's junk mail. The package, the size of a cigar box, was wrapped in plain brown paper. His name was handwritten in careful, all-capital, but shaky letters, in the thick ink of a permanent marker. The stamps, featuring individual snowflakes, were ringed by postmarks from South Dakota. "What did you get from South Dakota?"
"Probably junk." He twined her hair through his fingers and began a French braid.
"Can I open it?"
"Sure." Ruben didn't open mail. When she moved in three years ago, she found months of mail dumped in a box and littering the hallway like the wings of giant, extinct moths.
She opened the envelope taped to the package and read the newspaper clipping that dropped out. "What the hell?"
"Hold still. I'm almost done."
Three years ago, Corina fell for Ruben because he was so electric yet steady. When they met, he was an ex-alcoholic who hadn't had a drink in a year, ten months, and twenty-five days. He was thirty-four then and she had just hit thirty. His eyes and hands were warm, firm, and reminded her of a perfect crust on a loaf of sourdough. But now as she re-read this newspaper clipping, his calm changed. Behind her, he became a lake after a breeze, when trees stand too still and clouds hang, suddenly gray and heavy with rain.
His fingertips brushed her nape.
She dropped the newspaper clipping on the table and smoothed it flat. It had been cut with pinking shears. Did the person who sent it sew? Or not have plain scissors? Or want the clipping to look fancy?
The print wavered as if the page were slightly wet, the words a bit slippery. "Page 8. Hinton Messenger." Below that it read "Deaths ... Alicia Hernandez Cordell. Survived by her husband, Ruben Cordell, of Houston, Texas, and an aunt, Maria Blankenship, of Hinton, South Dakota." The date of the funeral service ("burial ... officiating ...") was February 2, a month ago. She had been thirty-nine years old.
Corina slid a postcard out of the envelope. The picture showed a spindle-legged fawn with a blank face standing on a stretch of highway — What am I doing here? Where are my woods? She flipped the card over and read the rounded, uneven letters written in a blue ballpoint ink:
I found your address and this package for you among Alicia's personal effects.
Sincerely, her aunt, Maria Blankenship (P.S. Car accident.)
Ruben finished her braid and banded the end.
"You're a widower." Corina handed him the clipping. She drank her coffee in ferocious sips.
He lay the clipping down with a grunt of surprise.
A cardinal flittered through the old pecans that separated their house, at the end of a cul-de-sac, from a wild, abandoned lot the next street over. "Say something."
"Alicia had me served with divorce papers five or six years ago. I signed them. I guess she didn't file them."
"You never told me you were married before."
"It was over a long time ago."
"Apparently not." Corina looked at her husband — no, not my husband, she reminded herself. "Our marriage license must be null and void," she said.
"What are you talking about, what's this null and void crap?" He poured cornflakes in a bowl, shaking the box loudly, as if to give sound to his grimace.
"Null and void is like sick and tired. Sick isn't enough. The word needs a mate to get knotted up with, show how well they can bring out each other's dark side." She took the box of cornflakes from him and poured her own bowl, shaking the box louder than he did.
"This is just some weird mistake. I sent her money for the divorce. I guess she decided to buy something else."
"She left you something." She pushed the package toward his cereal bowl, and pulled her bowl closer toward her. Its blue roundness, hers. The other blue roundness on the table, his.
"Nothing in there could mean anything to me." He stood up, dropped his bowl in the sink, splashed water in it, then walked across the yard and into his garage, as he did every morning. Soon she heard him welding, a short screech followed by a frizzy sound, like teeth were being ground into flurries of tooth-dust. Usually this sound unaccountably pleased her. She liked to concoct new desserts in the kitchen knowing he was marrying metal to metal, even though it sounded like he was tearing something up.
But now she hated that sound, and the thick goggles she knew he was wearing as if underwater. Why was a package from another wife in her kitchen, where she had painted the table and chairs robin-egg-blue? And he simply walked away! Maybe he wasn't so calm and wonderful. Maybe he was a lunk, an idiot.
In the shower, she unbraided her hair. Then she washed off the touch of his hands, the smell of their shared sweat. They had made love last night before falling asleep. Him braiding her hair meant he wanted to make love again, maybe this time behind her, biting her braid, licking her neck.
As Corina put on old jeans and a t-shirt, she wondered, "Did I marry somebody I didn't know? Like the magazine at the dentist's office said people do? Am I that dumb?"
They had married at the courthouse six months after meeting at the park while watching the Fourth of July fireworks. She had been drawn to how his dark eyes stared into hers, and how the lines on his face were a map she couldn't read. It didn't seem to matter that he wouldn't tell her much about his twenties, when he hitchhiked through Arizona, Nevada, California, and Oregon. He'd said he was glad when he came home and found this house and garage to fix up, a mile from where he'd grown up, around neighbors who made tamales and grew vegetable gardens. Sure, she had wondered about the sudden silences at his parents' house whenever anything about his time out west came up. But their separate pasts seemed like stories that didn't need to be told.
Too bad she had the day off; she could use the enforced distraction of work. When anything bothered her, she sweated it out at the bakery, or by running at dawn. She could run through anything. But now she was remembering. One Thanksgiving he scowled, and abruptly left the living room, after his little nephews asked to see the cobra tattoo — a rough curl and forked tongue — on his shoulder. And his lips tightened when the same little nephews asked if he'd had a lot of California girlfriends. But — so what if he'd run wild? She'd dated guys she'd just as soon forget. But she hadn't married them. Why hadn't Ruben told her?
She got her gloves, shovel, and spade out of her corner of the garage and stood in the doorway looking at him. He was scrutinizing a radiator he'd lifted out of a Bronco. A toothpick danced from one side of his mouth to the other. She tried to envision an herb garden in the sunny patch of yard between the house and garage. The spiky rosemary would bear tiny flowers like pricks of light. Dirt becomes garden, she reminded herself. This is what I want.
He looked up. The toothpick stopped dancing. "What?"
"What was she like?" Corina blurted.
"Just young. Like me."
"Tell me how you met."
He took out the toothpick and took a step back from the radiator. "My motorcycle broke down somewhere in Arizona. She came by in a crappy old Nissan truck and picked me up."
"She was Alicia?" Corina said "A-LISH-a," rhyming "lish" with "fish."
"A-LEE-see-a." He nodded as if Corina had said it correctly, as if he were a kind teacher and she a poor student. Now she realized Alicia Hernandez was probably Mexican-American, like Ruben was. Corina was a West Virginia mix, a mutt she'd say. "We hit it off," Ruben said. "We drove around for a couple of weeks, slept out of the back of the truck. We didn't care what day it was. The land swallows you up out there. When we came to a river, we swam. When we came to a city of drive-through chapels, we got married."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"The years out there feel like they happened to somebody else. But once in a while I can remember that other guy's life in a helluva lot of detail."
"I would have told you if I was married before." She heard her voice sound petty, childish. Play fair.
"If you're confusing marriage with a piece of paper, we have a problem. And don't tell me you don't have any secrets." He thrust the toothpick back between his teeth.
She stared at her feet, where plants in tiny cubes of dirt waited — feathery parsley, tongues of basil, stalks of lemon grass. She bit her lip. Fool. For years she had not let anyone come close to marrying her. Watched her friends marry, drift into cocoons of family. She had taken care of herself. She had felt safe with Ruben, though. For no reason. Corina swallowed, picked up the tray of tiny plants, and walked out. Above, new tree leaves shone like green sequins. Like laughter, but at a party where you don't know anyone.
For hours she dug into the clay-rich earth, hacked at roots, dug up rocks, and whacked slugs in two. She thought of how some mornings she asked him his dreams. He always said "I don't dream." She would say, "Everyone dreams. You just don't remember." Now she wondered if he dreamed about her. Alicia. A-LEE-sea-a. As if she had a sea inside her. "Stop it," Corina told herself. "She's dead. This is twisted." Through the garage window she watched Ruben lean into the engine of the Bronco. His jam box rocked out a funky Neville Brothers song and he slightly shook his head to the beat.
In Corina's eyes, Ruben always had a sexy sway. Even when he was sitting still, he had a vibration she could sense, like barely-visible insects churning over a summer pond. He only lost it when he was sound asleep. So when she saw him asleep, she wanted to wake him up. When he was peacefully sleeping on his back she got especially alarmed. He was so oblivious he even crossed his hands on his chest. This was how he would look in his coffin! But she didn't wake him. She walked away, or crawled into bed beside him, brimming with an indescribable mix of love and dread. Usually this was at three or four in the morning, the house as still as a church. She flicked her lamp off.
Now, though, she narrowed her eyes as he turned, picked up a wrench, then went back to the Bronco engine without glancing up, his head still bobbing to the music.
Who was this man and why was she in the dirt outside his garage?
Ruben worked alone, but he had a deal going with cousins who owned a used-car lot. Every week or so a tow truck delivered a vehicle for Ruben to repair, one of the hundreds smashed on Houston freeways. In the garage shaded by vine-swathed trees, Ruben patiently restored crumpled wrecks. His welding torch melted torn edges and smoothed seams. Sometimes he hammered out dents till the garage clanged, and the impact of metal on metal reverberated through the house and into the narrow street, where the oaks on either side arched and touched limbs.
Ruben's job included cleaning out the interiors. He wore gloves when he tossed out the litter. In the end, he waxed the vehicle and parked it, gorgeously gleaming, in the cul-de-sac. A couple of guys would come over late at night, pick up the car, and hand Ruben an envelope of cash. Sometimes as many as five or six misshapen cars and trucks waited under the trees. They had the air of dismayed circus performers gathered in a hospital courtyard — clowns with ripped costumes, trapeze artists with shattered legs.
When Corina and Ruben were newly married, one day she thought she would help him by cleaning out a car. In the back seat she found broken-back children's books, a hat with a sweat-stained brim, and a crushed Styrofoam cup with a lipstick smear.
Ruben walked into the garage. "Don't touch that stuff."
"What happened to the people who were in this car?" The passenger-side fender was mashed like a closed accordion.
"I don't know, Corina. If I did, I might not be able to do my job." He started prying out a headlight. Later he explained that if the police report indicated there was even a drop of blood in a wreck, then no company-authorized auto dealer could resell the vehicle; it was classified "a biological hazard." Those, he explained, were some of the cars he got. Every time she saw another damaged car arrive, she wondered if someone had died in it. She didn't try to help anymore.
Excerpted from Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long. Copyright © 2014 Laura Long. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsPostcards
What to Keep, What to Toss—Corina and Ruben
Out of Peel Tree—Essie
When My Mama Sang—Corina
Who's in the Kitchen with Dinah?—Billie
Before Bliss Minimum—Joshua
Dreams and Schemes—Billie
The Last Old Lady on Blossom Street—Essie
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You will be so sorry if you don't. Laura's prose is lyrical and her words perfect!