A stunning and stylish femme fatale named Miss Jessie Gatewood has arrived in the dusty hamlet of Splendora. Miss Jessie is the new town librarian—but she has much bigger plans than just shelving books. She intends to give the town and its people a much-needed makeover. But even as she is influencing the fashion sense of the local ladies—and winning the heart of the lovesick Brother Leggett, Splendora’s Baptist minister—a surprising plan for vengeance occupies the fabulous Miss Gatewood’s mind.
In Edward Swift’s provocative, hilarious first novel, a small town is turned upside down by a new arrival—and a shocking return.
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By Edward Swift
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Edward Swift
All rights reserved.
Splendora: A small town in East Texas near Louisiana
It was the hottest day anyone could remember; around July, near August; yes, that was it, on one of those July-near-August days, each the hottest on record, the starting up of dog days when the old-timers claimed that the creeks, those that had not already gone dry, were poisoned on account of the weather; claimed that water stagnated in the heat, foamed over with summer breathing hard down the neckline, "The hottest breath ever," Esther Ruth Coldridge would have said had she lived just a little longer; the hottest because it marked the middle-going-on-the-last part of summer; yes then, on one of those hot July-near-August days when the creeks were dried up or nearly, the swamps were parched and cracked, and every drop of ground water there was had already evaporated and was holding up in the air so the town of Splendora seemed to be enclosed inside a blister, that day, and there were many like it that time of year, but that day, that particular one, Miss Jessie Gatewood arrived on the afternoon train.
She had come to assume her post as the town's librarian, although there was no library building and no real library as such, only a battered-up school bus with shelves. She had come as the librarian of the school bus, had been hired by mail, through advertisements in educational periodicals and city papers. She had applied and was accepted and arrived looking like what she thought was expected of her, Miss Jessie Gatewood, director and driver and organizer of the new bus-bookmobile-soon-to-be, just purchased and waiting for someone with the knowhow.
She had gotten up early that morning and boarded the train in New Orleans where she had lived for many years. French Quarter nuns were chanting their way to early mass as she hurried through the narrow streets. She forced her way through their procession, got ahead of them in a hurry, and disappeared into an alley that opened into a green courtyard where her landlady lived. She deposited her apartment keys in the mailbox, and on perfumed stationery penned a fast note:
Thank you for your expression of confidence.
As ever, Jessica Gatewood (Miss)
"Thank the Lord I had the presence of mind to send my bags to the station last evening," she said to herself as she hurried once again into the narrow street and was trapped behind the same procession of singing sisters. Happily she turned a corner and left them behind; made her way as fast as possible toward Canal Street. Her eyes caught every clock along the way and made mental note of the discrepancy in time. "I must not be late as there is only one train that can take me there," she reminded herself, and, in spite of her lack of time, she paused for a few moments to admire herself in a shop window. Her reflection was pale, like a wraith, for she was wearing a dress of white eyelet through which could be seen all the furniture in the antique shop, Victorian furniture.
"It's my very favorite period," she had been known to say, just as though no one could tell by looking. That morning she had dressed beyond her thirty-three years in order to meet the town's and the committee's approval. She was well aware that her hemline fell halfway below her knees and a little farther still for good measure. She was secure in her dress of white eyelet over mint green cut with leg-o'-mutton sleeves, a high neckline, and trimmed with white silk ribbons here and there. She was almost a vision of white except for the green underskirt showing faintly through the eyelet. Her friend Magnolia had designed the dress and had carefully chosen the accessories: white silk, sweet-scented gloves, flowers at her throat, a pocket watch on a gold chain around her neck, and a white sash tied about her waist, giving to her dress a slightly blousy effect, so right for her role, she thought. From her elbow dangled a white linen bag, so practical for traveling, and on her wrist hung a beaded reticule inside which she carried a white lace handkerchief, her cosmetics, and a few cigarettes she had no intention of smoking in public. Her lace-up shoes with one-inch heels gave her the feeling of a matron, and her gold wire-rimmed glasses and Gibson-girl hair were just the right touches for a country librarian still living in days gone by.
How glad she was to be leaving the city. For the longest time she had dreamed of being able to live in a country town.
On Canal Street she boarded a trolley for a short ride to Lee Circle where she got off and walked the rest of the way to the train station. It was still early. A mist was rising off the Mississippi River and covering the city, "as though it is some poisonous vapor intent on trapping me here forever," she said to herself, fumbling in her purse for the ticket.
Fortunately she had thought to carry along a variety of things to occupy her mind on the long trip: a book of Victorian verse, a hoop of embroidery, a traveler's dictionary bound in leather, a box of assorted candies, a thesaurus, and someone to accompany her the entire way: Timothy John Coldridge.
They were almost inseparable.
Timothy John had grown up in Splendora. He had been of great assistance in helping Miss Jessie to be hired there. She was indebted to him more than she would admit. And in many ways he was also indebted to her.
It was over fifteen years since he had been home. He was nothing like the person he had been when he left, and he was not sure he was looking forward to his return. He did not look the same. His thinking was different, too. Although not that much different, Miss Jessie surmised.
Still, he could remember almost everyone and everything in the town. He knew the layout of the streets, the buildings, the houses, even the trees. In his mind nothing much about the place had changed. He had changed; on the outside, anyway, but inside he still thought of himself as the same; he had not changed much, only brought the inside that nobody could see outside where they could, and that to some people meant a change, but to Timothy John it did not. He was still the same except that he dressed differently and spoke in a voice that no one could possibly know him by, for in Splendora he was still remembered as Esther Ruth's grandson, Little Timothy John who left on a Saturday afternoon without letting anyone know; boarded the local bus and did not look back; did not think to.
"Dear heart, everyone will treat you like an absolute stranger," Miss Jessie said as the train left the city. "I am certain that your appearance is totally and permanently altered." She opened her dictionary and read a definition in his face. "'To alter: 1. to change or to make different; modify. 2. To adjust (a garment) for a better fit. 3. Informal. To castrate or spay.'—Well," she whispered, closing the book. "I trust your experience has not been that extreme. I am especially referring to the informal part."
Timothy John did not respond.
When he left Splendora he had said that the town had been cruel to him, that he had no intention of ever returning. Little did he know he would return; little did he know he would want to return; little of all this did he know then. On a Saturday afternoon he had left, boarded the local bus south, and was not seen after that and was not heard from but once or maybe twice a year, at Christmas and on his grandmother's birthday; one or the other, sometimes both, he would write or call or send a box of something sweet.
"You have a different look about you," Miss Jessie said in a soft whisper, "a different face, a different set of clothes, and I would even go so far as to say that you have put on a little weight. I am ever so certain that you will have to tell everyone who you are, that is if you care for any of them to remember who you are. Chances are, you don't."
"I don't care for anyone to remember anything," Timothy John answered. There was tension in his voice. He settled back to look at the passing landscape.
"You are different, yet you are the same," Miss Jessie continued.
Lord, won't she ever hush? Timothy John thought.
She inserted a comfit without parting her lips and then spoke around it. "You are none other than Esther Ruth's grandson slightly effaced." Then she recited from her previous day's reading: "To efface: to rub out, or wipe out, eclipse; to make oneself inconspicuous."
"Completely rubbed out is more like it," Timothy John said. He was thinking of his friend Beasley, a landscape painter, and how he would rub out a pencil sketch and start all over again by using only the bare outlines of what had already been drawn there, thus creating a new picture on top of what was, or what had been and was not right, or creating anew on the surface of what should or could be improved upon.
That's exactly how I feel, Timothy John thought as the train approached Splendora. Rubbed out and redrawn.CHAPTER 2
On the morning of the day of their arrival, that hot July-near-August morning when it seemed that all of Splendora could instantly burst into flames without anyone knowing it, blaze up, and be gone so fast that no one would ever suffer or know what had struck; that morning Sue Ella Lightfoot woke up early and found two flat tires on her car.
Someone had punctured them with ice picks. They were still there; three ice picks in one tire and two in the other. There was nothing to do then but walk to work, she told herself; on such a hot day, too, and when only five days earlier she had had every tooth in her head pulled out and the dentist had warned her about getting too hot. "But what can I do about it?" she said and started out walking. She put the blame on her husband, Snyder, because he operated the icehouse and was always leaving extra ice picks stuck in the outside walls.
Now, who but me would have a man as ignert as all that? she thought, and then, just as though he was standing before her, she screamed, "How careless for someone who's supposed to be halfway educated; finished all four grades of high school and half a semester at some university some-wheres."
She thought at first that the culprits were some of the high-school boys who were working for Snyder that summer and that they probably had good reasons to get back at him for something. But what she could not understand was why they picked the hottest day of the year for their revenge; and why use the car for a target, since everyone in town knew that she was the driver and Snyder the walker. She did not immediately consider that the affront might have been aimed at her. She was usually quick to reason out such malicious attacks, had a nose for sifting through and coming up with anything aimed against her, and did not consider many people brave enough to take her on—or foolish enough—she could not decide which.
Sue Ella Lightfoot had lived through fifty-four summers in Splendora. She was fifty-four years old. She looked older. She was just at five and a half feet tall, slightly heavy. Wrinkles were beginning to run in concentric circles around her face. Her eyes were small and brown. Her hair, brown also but fading fast, was cut as close to her head as she could cut it herself, and her teeth had just been pulled out the week before and she was glad to be rid of them. She worked at the train station, had nearly all her life. She had watched many people come and go, many years come and go, and many summers, but this one, the one she was walking in, was the hottest one there ever had been. She swore that it was.
Walking along that morning, walking because she had to, and not because she enjoyed it, she noticed that the streets, even the tree-lined ones, were bone-white and glistening. "A'ready," she said. "By eleven a-clock everything'll be burnt plum up." St. Augustine grass was curling on every lawn. Even the Johnson grass looked wilted. "A'ready!" Sue Ella remarked. "And here it's only eight-thirty. You can bet no one'll stir the streets today without taking the sunstroke, but by evening, you better know it now, the porches'll be alive with rockers and swings going full blast."
It had been that way for over six weeks: absolutely unbearable. "The hottest ever," the old-timers said, always the hottest ever. Milford Monroe went around reminding everyone that he had predicted the heat wave back in February, and Lucille, his wife, went behind him saying that he had not been right in the head since his last stroke and not to pay any attention to his babblings.
Sue Ella approached her friend Agnes Pullen's house. A.P., as they called her, was four feet nine inches tall and more than eight sizes overweight. She was the inspiration behind The Miss Agnes School of Dance and Expression, and in spite of her size had managed to teach every young girl in Splendora how to tap-dance, tumble, and recite. That morning she was leaning out her upstairs window trying to get some air when Sue Ella shouted to her.
"It's cold washrag weather, A.P., honey. If you ain't got yours a'ready, you better get it fast. Wrap it up in wax paper like I do mine and you can take it anywheres you like. Mine's in m'pocket but it'll be coming out quick, I spec; never can tell in weather like this when you'll need a cool something to put to your face and neck, so you better get ready if you ain't."
A.P. went speechless. She had never known Sue Ella to walk to work before. "How'd you sleep last night, S'wella?" she managed to say, and all the time felt like she was talking to a ghost.
Sue Ella said something that sounded like "Poorly," said that she had taken the sick headache yesterday evening late and was up with it nearly all the night long and felt part of it still going on. "Dog days, dog days, dog days, why'd you come and won't you ever go ?" Sue Ella screamed, lifting up her head like a rooster.
"She don't care if the whole town hears her crowing, I guess," A.P. said to herself.
There was a pause, but only for a moment. Sue Ella filled it up. She was good at closing gaps. She informed A.P. that she was walking to work because she had two flat tires and that she did not have one friend who was friend enough to offer to drive her to the depot. A.P. could not understand a word she said without her teeth so she just nodded her head in agreement, smiled sweetly, and said, "I guess not, S'wella," and hoped she had answered favorably.
Sue Ella thought, It's just like A.P. not to listen to a durn thing. She moved on pretty fast after that; anxious to get to the depot before the bad heat and also anxious to notify the sheriff about her tires.
The train station where she worked was across town from her house and at the bottom of a steep hill, steeper on the train side than the town side, way steeper. On the town side there was not much indication of a hill, but once at the red light the street started going down fast and did not level out again until it had passed the train tracks and was nearly out to the sawmill. Some people called it a bluff. The street running that direction was called Bluff Street. "So I guess it's a bluff and not a hill," Sue Ella said. "But it seems to me you could call it either one depending on what side you approach it from. Coming from across town it's certainly a drop-off, and that's a bluff, but coming from the station it's the steepest hill anyone around here ever put foot on." She was already worrying about how she would get home without having to make the climb in the afternoon heat. "There'll be a way," she said. "There's always a way, someway, somehow, even today."
Air conditioning had just made it to Splendora and there were two cool places in town: the bank, and the R.B. Goodridge mansion. R.B. presided over the bank and almost everything else in town. "He does what he pleases regardless of who says what," Sue Ella remembered her late friend, Esther Ruth Coldridge, having said many times. "Ruthie's been dead, let me see, I guess it's going on six months now, God rest her soul. Funny that I ought to be thinking of her today. Wonder what it means, if anything?"
On the opposite side of the street she saw Brother Anthony Leggett, the assistant pastor. "It's hotter than the hinges of hell, Leggett," she shouted. "Tell 'em that next Sunday and see what they do."
"It's worse than that, Sue Ella," he answered.
"A preacher ain't supposed to say something's worse off than hell," Sue Ella teased.
"I'm only saying it to you," he said, walking off toward the First Baptist Church.
Excerpted from Splendora by Edward Swift. Copyright © 1978 Edward Swift. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fairly close in tone to a Southern Gothic novel with a humorous bent. Reminded me of Sordid Lives or Fried Green Tomatoes in its portrayal of small town Deep South life. Recommended for people who would enjoy novels with a dark humor to them.