Nineteen-year-old Jason is lost. The rush of graduation parties has subsided, the ubiquitous discussion of college departures dimmed to a dull roar. His former classmates have made elaborate plans, but the only date on Jason’s calendar is a court appearance next Monday. Jason, who dropped out of high school just two months shy of graduation, finds himself stuck in the well-worn grooves of his hometown. But when his over-achieving girlfriend Lisa departs for UT Austin to study medicine, Jason finds Mesquite a place he can hardly recognize.
Jason’s family can offer him little direction. After his mother Sue’s unexpected death a few years back, his father Burl, fifteen years sober, slipped into old drinking habits. Jason watched the once clockwork-perfect routine of his family life descend into chaos. When Burl marries Lily, a high-strung, high-powered attorney, she brings a daughter into the house: Emily, eleven years old and a self-described know-it-all whose very existence is enough to irritate Jason.
Three days before Jason must appear in court, he receives a “Dear John” letter from Lisa. Heartbroken and determined to convince Lisa of his worth, Jason decides to hitchhike to Lisa’s dorm in Austin—but Emily, desperate to return to her father, a UT professor, overhears Jason’s plans and demands to accompany him. When Burl and Lily return home to find their children missing, Lily puts out an Amber Alert for Emily, accusing Jason of abducting her daughter. The frantic search effort that ensues threatens to destroy the tentative household that Burl and Lily have just begun to establish.
Smith’s gift for creating three-dimensional characters, abundantly demonstrated in his previous TCU Press titles including Understanding Women and Purple Hearts, lends this coming-of-age tale an unexpected quality of honesty and sophisticated narrative rarely seen in contemporary young adult fiction. Mary Powell, author of the TCU Press books Auslander and Galveston Rose, describes Smith’s prose as “rich and sophisticated, yet accessible, and the dialogue is right on.” Steplings doesn’t romanticize the misadventures of its protagonists. Though Jason and Emily grapple with universal teen issues—Emily searches for acceptance in her new middle school, while Jason balks when confronted with new adult responsibilities—their troubles feel like uncharted territory when expressed through pitch-perfect narrative voices. “Watching Jason self-destruct,” according to Powell, “is akin to watching someone in a horror film go down into the basement.”
The authentic quality of Smith’s prose extends to the Texas setting; readers will recognize their neighbors in the characters that populate Mesquite and Austin. Kate Lehrer observed that Smith also “draws subtle distinctions among social classes.” Smith invokes tension between Jason’s no-frills lifestyle and Lisa’s country-club upbringing, and paints a widening gulf between Burl’s small-town mannerisms and Lily’s cosmopolitan tastes.
Powell called Steplings “a friendly, hopeful, humorous, and thoughtful book about growing up.” Growing up, however, doesn’t belong exclusively to the young, and Steplings is a story that can’t be shelved neatly in the young adult category. Both teen and adult readers will see themselves in this multifaceted narrative of self-discovery.
|Publisher:||Texas Christian University Press|
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|Age Range:||3 Months to 18 Years|
About the Author
C.W. SMITH'S novels are Thin Men of Haddam, Country Music, The Vestal Virgin Room, Buffalo Nickel, Hunter’s Trap, Understanding Women, Gabriel’s Eye, and Purple Hearts. He has also authored a memoir, Uncle Dad. His short stories have appeared in The Southwest Review, descant, Mademoiselle, Cimarron Review, American Short Fiction, American Literary Review, Sunstone Review, The Missouri Review, Carolina Quarterly, Quartet, and in his story collection, Letters From the Horse Latitudes. Smith is a Dedman Family Distinguished Professor at Southern Methodist University. He belongs to PEN American Center, The Author's Guild, and the Texas Institute of Letters. He was a Dobie-Paisano Fellow at the University of Texas and has received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. In April 2011, Smith received the Lon Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Texas Institute of Letters.
Read an Excerpt
By C. W. Smith
TCU PressCopyright © 2011 C.W. Smith
All rights reserved.
It would seem a wholesome American scene, an updated Rockwell portrait. Here, on a September afternoon in 2003, a young man—shirtless, tanned torso, blond ponytail, cut-off jean shorts—was mowing the lawn of a modest ranch-style home in a Dallas suburb thirty years past its prime. Hackberry roots buckled the sidewalks, a few dead vehicles hunkered on cinder blocks in driveways or beside garages, and RVs were parked in plain sight; some houses had that closed-up, neglected look that results when the inhabitants grow old and run out of energy or money to replace a torn screen, to have the trim painted, or to worry about landscaping. When it came to lawn maintenance, people on this block watered yards with sprinklers on hoses and usually cut their own grass or hired a kid like Jason to do it.
Today, though, Jason was working gratis for his father, Burl. (Of course, as Burl rightly and often pointed out, it was Jason's lawn, too.) Since July, Jason had been looking for a job. He had applied at several restaurants and at three stores at Town East Mall. The mall was problematic because he'd been fired last spring from a job manning a sunglasses kiosk because he kept leaving it unattended. "It made me feel like a dog on a chain," he had complained to his father. He had also filled out applications at all three Mesquite Pep Boys auto stores (the job he wanted the most) and at two Blockbusters, including one on Belt Line and Military Parkway managed by a dweeb who hadonce ratted Jason out for smoking in the North Mesquite High School restroom.
After a callback at the Belt Line Blockbuster, he'd gone in and talked to the assistant manager, a black girl who said she'd attended NMHS and who seemed friendly enough, but she said he'd have to talk to the manager. He'd intended to set an appointment this very morning, but before he got around to it, Burl called from work at ten to tell him he'd just gotten off the phone with their lawyer.
There was good news and bad news, Burl told Jason. The good news was that after riding the fence for these three months, Lisa's father had finally agreed to withdraw charges for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle on the Miata, and the charge of minor in possession had been dismissed for lack of evidence. Of course, the shoplifting charge was dismissed too, because Jason wasn't even in the store when somebody stole that fistful of Slim Jims, so the clerk couldn't identify him as the culprit who had provoked his 911 call.
And the charge of resisting arrest had been downgraded to failure to obey a police officer.
When Burl didn't go on, Jason said, "So what's the bad news?"
"The bad news is that the charge of assault with bodily harm is still on you, son, and we're going to court on Monday unless you make a plea bargain."
"But I just ran into him, Dad! He was standing in the way trying to stop me! If he fractured his freaking skull and broke his collarbone, it's not my fault! I didn't try to do that—I just wanted out of his way!"
"I know that, son. The lawyer said that might make a difference, and it's possible that charge will be downgraded, too. You might want to think about how you say all that, though. You might try to sound a little bit sorry." Burl sounded a little bit angry. "In the meantime we got to expect that they'll try to scare the bejesus out of us."
Burl's chuckle sounded like a ragged sigh. "Yeah. So maybein the end it will be some lesser charge, and there's hope for a probated sentence if you plead guilty."
Jason fumed in silence. Why didn't that old fucker get out of the way instead of trying to be a hero? Who makes a citizen's arrest over a half-dozen sticks of jerky?
Burl said, "What's for sure is that Mr. Crawford will be filing a civil suit against us for damages."
"Good luck with that! I'm eighteen and I don't even have a job! What's he gonna do, have them put me in indentured servitude or something?"
"No, son, since you were seventeen when this happened, they'll come after me and Lily, and maybe even Meemaw if they feel like it. They could go after Lily's mutual fund portfolio or garnishee my paychecks or go after my pension."
Jason could tell his dad was piling it on. For one thing, pitiful old Meemaw was so poor Medicaid paid for her nursing home. But he heard his dad's steely anger and knew Burl didn't like the attitude Jason had struck. He was tempted to ask what Lily had to do with anything, but, chastened by the possibilities if not by his father's tone, he said, meekly, "Then that's the worst news."
When Burl had no response and they'd both held their receivers for a good many seconds like truculent trolls with cudgels, Jason said, sighing, "I don't know what to do, Dad. I'm sorry."
Burl said, "It would help if you'd mow the lawn."
Jason had carried this news in his head all day long, and it had made his head heavier by the hour. He moped for a while after the call, then tried to work on his song for Lisa, thinking that it would take his mind off his troubles, then he went into Emily's room to use her Mac because it had the only Internet connection in the house (his Compaq was six years old, a hand-me-down from his mother, who had gotten it when her church office upgraded). He wrote Lisa a long e-mail using his Hotmail account, spilling his guts about his worries and the call from Burl and the trial coming up and how much he missed her and loved her and how lonely he felt. He said he knew that after what he'd done at her graduation party and his arrest, he wasn't welcome at their home. He could understand that, but it hurt him bad that she was so cold. He riffed on for a while, desperately flailing about, trying to snag her heart: did she remember when they were carnival king and queen in seventh grade and wore those cheesy costumes—well, his was, she was truly bride-beautiful in hers—and when he kissed her for the first time down in the woods behind her house, and did she remember how they had their first alone date at the state fair—his mom had dropped them off and her dad had picked them up—and rode the Texas Star and it was so tall she was scared and tucked under his arm in the car they had all to themselves and you could see all the lights below around them and the lights in the downtown buildings and it seemed like they were crackling electric alive in an urban wonderland and the October breeze had made her bare arms goosebump and he'd rubbed them smooth, and later he'd won that pink giraffe at the midway with the BB guns for her, the one she'd still had on her bed as of last spring, and when he got home that night before he went to bed he wrote her that note that said I had fun I hope you did too because I want you to be my girlfriend.
He'd left off typing and let the images flow over him: Lisa sitting beside him and his dad as "family" at his mom's funeral and holding his hand, tutoring him in algebra for the GED, coaxing him into going with her to see their pastor about his grief. He added When you get right down to it, you're not just the world's best girlfriend but the best friend friend. She worried about how clean his clothes were, whether he'd eaten on any particular day or not.
Left unsaid were the blissful hours gasping and wallowing in their sweat in the backseat of her car, the miraculous whole night spent in a bed at Cara's mom's lake house where they'd discovered all the ways to use lips and tongues ... the delicate fragrance of her flesh in the crook of her neck, the tender backs of her knees, the taste of grape Kool-Aid Lip Smackers on her soft, moist mouth.
Babe, I love you like a monkey loves its tail, like a hammerloves a nail, like a zebra loves its stripes, like a pitchman loves his hypes.
But even censored the e-mail sounded way too whiney and needy, too full of cheap snares. He left it in his Drafts folder instead of deleting it because there was a line in it he thought he might use in a song: In my heart the hurt and you are crammed together in the same tight space....
Whoever said writing about your pain made you feel better was full of it. Writing that e-mail had aroused his feeling of loss, not like scratching at a scab—more like when you knock a big scabby wound against a doorframe. Made him want to howl and clutch himself.
Soon after the graduation party in June, Lisa had left for a family vacation to Vail that lasted all of July, then she'd come back for only a couple weeks in August to work at Amy's Hallmark Shop in the mall before leaving for UT Austin. She'd called him the night before she left. Or, more accurately, she'd finally answered his call.
She said she still loved him. That's what she said. I'll always love you, Jason.
The Sanborns' backyard was a simple square of grass broken only by a rusting swing set and a bumpy brick patio Burl had laid years ago without sufficiently compacting the base beneath it. By three o'clock when Emily was dropped off by Mrs. Munoz, whose son Rafey went to her school, Jason had moved to the front with the mower, the electric trimmer, and the hand clippers, and he was refilling the tank on the mower when Emily came down the walk with her book bag.
"How was school?" Jason asked, then heard in his own question the age-old parental quest for not so much knowledge as contact.
She halted in the walk to watch him, and he wasn't certain if she wanted him to press for more. Was this the "sucked" he always offered his parents merely to say it was usual, it was normal, it was boring? "Fine" would do as well, but it wouldn't suggest you were miserable and needed sympathy (but weren't directly asking for it). If you did a scratch-off on Emily's"sucked" would you uncover a picture of defeat and humiliation?
He felt a little helpless in this role in the first place. Whatever she might say, he'd wager his day spent here sucked way more. Her sucky day would only be a pimple on the butt of his. And for the umpteenth time he thought of the many bad tricks God had played on him over the past two years, plopping this twerp into his life made the top ten. Guess what, son! You're gonna have a stepsister! Of course he'd dreamed of a girl his age, somebody cool to hang with. Somebody to explain Lisa to him and act as a go-between. But no. Supernerd, pigtails and glasses.
He smirked. "Too bad."
Before she could sass him back, he yanked the starter cord, the mower burst into roaring life, and he pushed it off toward the far corner. As he went along, he found something soothing and pleasurable about methodically mowing the two rectangles on either side of the front walk, moving clockwise around the perimeter from outside to inside at twenty-one-inch intervals and letting the mower fling the clippings onto the next new unmowed quadrangle. That way he was always mowing the cut clippings along with the uncut grass, and he'd wind up at the center of the labyrinth with a heap of damp mulch he could bag.
Pushing the mower and feeling it vibrate through his hands woke up his muscles, his ligaments and tendons, his synovial fluids. Watching the mown path slowly but steadily increase its width as he circumnavigated the yard seemed like an antidote to the disorder of the day, of his life. He could see where he was going; he could anticipate the result of his action; what he was doing produced a beneficial result. He'd always poked fun at preachers and teachers (and his mom, of course!) who professed to live their lives this way: progress toward a distant goal with patience, construct and religiously maintain a daily unbroken regimen of diet and exercise, adhere to the philosophy of deferred gratification. It meant savings accounts; it meant getting up early and doing the same thing each Monday night or Saturday morning (Mom's Bible study group, her ironing); it meant that if somebody gave Meemaw some nice linen hankies, she kept them in their original packaging in her dresser drawer for fifty years and never used them. (Maybe that was where Mom got it from.) Meemaw was more or less the model for all of that, he considered, and look where it got her. She was brain-dead. And look where it got Mom. Just plain dead.
He shivered, shook his head, dug back into his furrow, a mule in the traces. Suppose, he thought, that he went at his life the way he was presently working at the lawn, imposing this kind of order. Could he enjoy it more? Or would it at least help him bear his troubles? Could he achieve something? Could he make his mom smile up there?
The mail carrier interrupted his labor and his musings. He shut down the mower to meet her at the box, largely as an excuse for a break. She'd told him her name was Shondell. She always sweated so profusely that her glasses slithered to the end of her nose, and her mailbag slung over her shoulder was so weighty the thick strap made a valley there between bulges of flesh. But she always seemed happy. Jason wondered what she thought of her job. He'd become curious lately (and belatedly, he felt) about jobs, careers—what adults did with their time to earn a living and how they felt about it. Did she ever feel used or useless when she had to tote around so much junk mail that she knew would be tossed into the trash unread?
"Hot enough for you?" Jason asked. The words felt like a foreign food dish in his mouth; uttering such a banal adult cliché made him feel a strange mixture of pride and embarrassment.
Shondell laughed. "Oh, Lord! If it gets any hotter they'll have to suck me up with a hose."
"Would you like some water or something?"
"Oh, no thanks, hon! My truck's at the end of the block and I've got a jug of ice cold sweet tea in it!"
He took the stack of mail from her, and she hiked up the shoulder with the bag strapped to it with a shrug and went lumbering on, her white sun helmet cocked to the side. Going up the walk, he leafed through the stack. Ad flyers, pizzacoupons. There was a safety newsletter from his dad's work and a brochure from the US Army. Sgt. Brookes and his recruiting partner had stopped stalking Jason since his arrest, though he'd called Jason's house more than once to ask about the disposition of his case. Man, but those dudes were dogged! You'd think that since Bush said "mission accomplished" they'd kick back and let the guys who were all gung-ho come a-knockin' now that it was a little safer to put your name but not your life on the line. Sgt. Brookes had been like a Whac-A-Mole for a while last spring, popping up when you least expected: Hey Sanborn, dude, lemme buy you a burger and just "chew the fat," ha, ha, ha. As if any conversation with him wasn't going to end up with a pitch about three squares, see the world, full medical benefits, and money for college when you get out....
Lily got an issue of Psychology Today. He'd never heard of the magazine until Lily came into their lives. She also subscribed to Smithsonian, Southern Living, Redbook, and Texas Highways. She told Jason she'd once had subscriptions to twenty magazines but had to cut back after her divorce. Jason fingered three envelopes addressed to Burl Sanborn and culled them from the stack. Bills, probably: TXU power, Chase Mastercard, SBC. Handling them gingerly, he was instantly swept back to the morning's call about the civil suit, and the bills in his hand, once harmless because he'd been utterly indifferent to them, suddenly possessed a new potency to alarm.
Although he hadn't expected one, there was a letter from Lisa. The return address was Dobie Dorm, UT Austin. His heart thundered. They'd spoken once on the phone since she'd left, and she'd been insistent on talking only about her daily routine, so he'd surrendered to that and interviewed her when he could think of a question that she hadn't already answered in her monologue. If she was still interested in him, she sure didn't show it. She hadn't asked about his court date or his job search, but she had said, sort of flinging it at him as her cell was disconnecting, "Love you!"
Then she'd sent him a couple of e-mails, but they were chatty, breezy, full of information about her classes and her new friends, things of which he had no firsthand knowledge. Little in them showed the Lisa he felt he'd known—and they only made her seem more distant.
Excerpted from Steplings by C. W. Smith. Copyright © 2011 C.W. Smith. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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