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A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty
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Fifteen-year-old Mosey Slocumb — spirited, sassy, and on the cusp of womanhood — is shaken when a small grave is unearthed in the backyard, and determined to figure out why it’s there. Liza, her stroke-ravaged mother, is haunted by choices she made as a teenager. But it is Jenny, Mosey’s strong and big-hearted grandmother, whose maternal love braids together the strands of the women’s shared past — and who will stop at nothing to defend their future.
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Glorious thanks to the brilliant Helen Atsma. She's an old-school, hands-on, invested editor—thank God—fearless and whip-smart. I see her fingerprints all through this book and, as Mosey might say, the book is hella better for them.
Thanks, as always, to my longtime friend and agent, Jacques de Spoelberch. He starts pushing me the second I look comfortable, and I love him for it. Caryn Karmatz Rudy is more than a friend and former editor; she's a voice I always trust.
Grand Central Publishing has consistently gone the extra mile (more like the extra width of a mighty nation) to back my work. I sing their names aloud, probably to the tune of some old-school, righteous Springsteen hit: Jamie Raab, Deb Futter, Martha "Inimitable" Otis, Karen "Incomparable" Torres (isn't it weird how they have the same middle initial?), Chris Barba, Cheryl Rozier, Evan Boorstyn, Elly Weisenberg, Nancy Wiese, Nicole Bond, Peggy Holm, Liz Connor, Thom Whatley, Toni Marotta, Carolyn J. Kurek, Emily Griffin, Celia Johnson, and Bernadette Murphy. I lift a glass and toast with a mighty STET/OK the work of Maureen Sugden. I will remember always the kindness and support of Les Pockell.
As I wrote this book, Lydia Netzer, Karen Abbott, and Sara Gruen acted as an odd, unholy trinity. Sara had her wise finger on the pulse of Mosey from the first word. Karen, my whoodie, insisted I not prudishly shy from Big's (absolutely necessary, sorry, Mom) sex scenes. Lydia was Liza's advocate, demanding that I find a way to give my lost girl a voice. All three holed up with me in various hidey-spots, armed with laptops and liquor. My best working times were side-by-silent-side with them, each of us buried in our own imaginary landscape. I can't imagine how people write books without friends like these. I bask in their collective radiance.
Thanks to Gray James, for her valuable anthropological expertise (the girl knows bones!) and her even more valuable friendship. My Atlanta writing group—Anna Schachner and Reid Jensen—are sexy, sexy beasts: relentless, honest, bold, and talented. Thanks to Mir Kamin for early reads and for being part of the full and plate-ly fellowship that is rounded out by Kira Martin. I am not the elephant plate.
Donna Baker, CTRS, the supervisor for therapeutic recreation services at the Emory University Hospital Center for Rehabilitation Medicine, and Dr. Ray G. Jones Jr. were wise and generous as I researched brain injury and recovery. Emergency room nurse Julie Oestriech was, as always, my go-to girl for information about the likely medical fallout from my characters' less savory ideas. Any mistakes are mine alone.
A secret decoder ring message to my Best Beloveds at Faster than Kudzu, and to the evangelical handsellers who are still singing out for books in this rapidly changing industry, and to my bonded set of dedicated monster-killers in the Vents: You are my very favorite one.
Long live Jack Reacher, who taught me-n-Mosey the difference between a SIG and a Glock.
I have two families who keep my heart safe: The first begins with Scott—of course and ever and only—and with Sam and Maisy Jane, our amazing collaborations. Also Bob and Betty Jackson, Bobby and Julie, Daniel and Erin Virginia, Jane and Auntie Assilon. The second is my family at Macland Presbyterian, especially the odd, good eggs of smallgroup. They love me through my best and my worst, along with the wild bunch of Irish pub–churched Emergent Cohorts who stand shoulder to shoulder on the slanted sidewalk and try to make the world a warmer place.
Most of all, I thank you, if you are one of those sainted people who respond to my books, who like my redemption-infested stories and my weird, imaginary friends. You are the ones who spread the word; because of you, I get to keep this job I love. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I'll keep writing as long as you keep reading.
MY DAUGHTER, LIZA, put her heart in a silver box and buried it under the willow tree in our backyard. Or as close to under that tree as she could anyway. The thick web of roots shunted her off to the side, to the place where the willow's long fingers trailed down. They swept back and forth across the troubled earth, helping Liza smooth away the dig marks.
It was foolish. There's no way to hide things underground in Mississippi. Our rich, wet soil turns every winter burial into a spring planting. Over the years Liza's heart, small and cold and broken as it was, grew into a host of secrets that could ruin us all and cost us Mosey, Liza's own little girl. I can't blame Liza, though. She was young and hurt, and she did the best she could.
And after all, I'm the damn fool who went and dug it up.
I should have known better; I was turning forty-five, and that meant it was a trouble year. Every fifteen years God flicks at us with one careless finger and we spin helplessly off into the darkness. I'd known that Old Testament–style plagues of Egypt would be stalking my family the second that December ticked over into January.
Now, I try not to be overly superstitious; I like black cats about as much as I like any other color cat, and I'll go straight under any number of ladders if you put the right kind of pie on the other side. But the hold the number fifteen has on my family, there's no natural explanation.
I was fifteen when I gave birth to Liza. Then, fifteen years later, Liza had her own girl. Not a hard pattern to catch on to. Liza and I had been prepping, in our separate ways, for this year ever since Mosey was four and kept holding hands with the same chubby blond boy at the park. I'd spent double for organic milk because I'd heard that the hormones in the regular stuff could make little girls bud early and jump-start their periods. Liza worked nights and I worked days, so one of us was always around to keep tabs on where Mosey was and who she was there with. Liza was vigilant for any hint that Mosey was walking in a bad direction, and Liza would know; when it came to mapping all the bad ways adolescent girls could go, Liza had been Magellan. And she was so strong-willed, I never could pull her back to some more reasonable path.…
I remember taking Liza down to the beach when she was two, young enough to have forgotten she'd seen waves the summer before. She came to the ocean like it was a mystery. She sat by my towel on her fat bottom, made fatter by her damp Huggies, and she patty-caked the sand and stared at the blue-green water, mesmerized. I'd never seen Liza sit so still, so long. After a couple hours, I packed up and told her it was time to go home. Her whole face went mulish. She stood up and braced her little legs against me, readying for a battle.
"Wannit," she said.
"What do you want, Little?" I asked, and she pointed her baby finger right at the waves.
I laughed. I couldn't help it. She responded by digging her toes into the sand, and I could read savage kickings and the wailings of the damned in her face. I didn't have anything inside me to match it.
I tried to misdirect, saying in cheery tones, "Aren't you ready for snack time, Liza-Little? I've got pizza-flavored Goldfish crackers at home."
She ignored the bribe and repeated "Wannit!"—demanding I pack up the water and the sand and the deep blue sky above with half a hundred seagulls and pelicans wheeling around and bring it home and put it in her room. I looked at the rigid set of her spine, her set jaw, and I was already so tired of the fight we were about to have. She was willing to die on this hill, on any old hill, and I wasn't.
I told her she could have it. I gave the child the Gulf of Mexico, just like that, and then I picked her up and we stood looking at her ocean. After a minute I turned my back, and she shifted in my arms so she could still see. She rested her cheek against my shoulder, and I swayed back and forth to the rhythm of the surf. I stood that way for at least a half an hour, until she fell asleep. All the while the waves crept closer, as if the very tide were trying to appease her by coming in and packing itself up into my beach bag.
I know that some folks think Liza was so wild and willful because she didn't have a daddy to speak of and her mother was a teenage dumb-ass. Maybe so. I admit she bent me like a weed to her wind, but I was a woman grown now, and no one could say I hadn't done a good job raising Mosey. Mosey was a peach, right up until the trouble year came.
I was caught off guard, even though from the first minute of January all the way to June I had my eyes on the horizon, trying to see whatever might be coming for us. It never occurred to me I might be looking in all the wrong directions. I never thought to look under, never suspected we'd been living on a fault line for years.
Then summer came, and Liza had her stroke. I thought that was it. Surely losing most of my own daughter was enough to feed and silence even God. How could that not be all the trouble we were due, and more?
So I went digging, and what I unearthed would pull Liza down into the black of her own past, would lead Mosey so astray I wasn't sure that I would ever find her, and would finally land me here: standing outside the glass wall of a fishbowl conference room full of lawyers and their legal books. Not a one of them was on my side. All I had was me, the truth, and an empty Dixie cup. I don't think the lawyers cared a fig about the truth, so it was pretty much me and the cup.
I'd never before thought of "custody" as an ugly word. To me it meant that the police had the bad guys, so the streets were peaceful and the dark corners of the garden were safe. But today that good word had turned on me, gone purely ugly. Today it meant this cold-eyed crew was coming after Mosey.
I could have put an ad up on the Craigslist and tried to get one of my own: "Desperately seeking lawyer. Must like long walks on the beach, not getting paid, and losing." I hear there's a whole mess of lawyers just like that; they keep an office between Mermaid Cove and the Unicorn Forest.
I wished for Lawrence beside me. He'd been on the job, as cops say, for twenty-some years now; he ought to be able to stare down a few lawyers. He could make it their silence to break instead of mine. If Lawrence was with me, if he even knew I was here, he'd have my hand in his. I knew what he would tell me. That I should trade anything, surrender anything, sacrifice anything, but not let go of Mosey.
I knew better than any person breathing how much he'd given up for his own little boys; I was one of the things he'd given up.
I imagined his low-set rumble of a whisper in my ear, tried to hear him telling me that I could fight for Mosey, now, because he knew how hard I'd fought for Liza. But I knew better. He hadn't been around when I fetched up pregnant. I never said boo. I was so scared I didn't even tell my folks I was knocked up until I was almost through my fourth month. One night my mother gave me the fish eye after dinner and told me to skip dessert. She said I'd been eating like a trucker recently and I had a new thickness round my middle that she found unbecoming in a girl. That's when my secret came blurting out.
The very next day, they carted me to a strange doctor a town away. They picked one with a Jewish name, thinking he would be pro-choice. After he examined me, with Momma in the room, Daddy joined us. They started asking him about "discreet options," and all four of us knew what that meant. I sat there, naked under my cotton gown, my arms wrapped tight around Liza inside me. I looked at my own bare feet, and I let them ask. I didn't say a word.
Lordy, but they had picked the wrong doctor. He asked them, in a deep, judgmental voice, if they had any idea just how far along I was. He showed them a picture of a five-month fetus, its kicky little feet, eyes squinched tight against the watery black around it. He added, in dark tones like a sorrowing Christ, "We're way past routing out a blastula here, you know. If she really wants to terminate, you'll have to take her to Louisiana. They do that sort of thing in New Orleans." His tone made it clear he thought New Orleans was a den of godless, baby-killing vipers. My folks must have felt spanked up one side of their thin Baptist skins and down the other.
So they took me back home, and I never had to fight. If I'd been in my first trimester, I'd have had the abortion with no idea whether I wanted it or not. But I was halfway through, and I'd fallen in love with her.
Liza had quickened, which was the perfect word for what she felt like, popping back and forth inside me like a sea monkey. That's how I pictured her, too. Not like the actual ones. I ordered the actual ones once, and they were only white, specky-size brine shrimp. One of mine got huge, like head-of-a-pin size. Then he ate all his brothers and swam around so swollen up and hateful that I finally flushed that fat old cannibal down the toilet. I pictured Liza more like the sea monkeys they showed in the ads, little smiley merpeople with crowns and friendly, waving hands. If I'd known her better then, I'd have pictured a sea monkey wielding a flaming sword.
But today my Liza wasn't in any physical shape to take on anyone. She was still trying like hell to fight her way back to using language and crossing the room without a walker. I was on my own.
The cool-eyed woman sitting in the center looked up and saw me through the glass wall. She was dressed in white and had a man on either side of her, both in sleek, dark suits. The three of them looked to me like an evil ice-cream sandwich, corpse-cold, waiting for me to walk in and begin. There was a cut-crystal pitcher of water on their side of the table and three matching tumblers sweating from the ice, each one set neat on a coaster to protect the dark cherry gloss on the table. My own cup was waxed paper, and it was sitting in my purse, bone-dry.
The woman's jacket was spotless. I can never wear white. I drip coffee down my boobs, first thing. She was older than me, but she looked my age, maybe younger. It wasn't like I was going gently into that good night either. I hid my strands of gray in highlights, moisturized like it was my religion, and I could still fit into my favorite Levi's. But she'd had a little work done, as they say. Good work. Not the obvious things like those actresses whose lips look like inflamed cat intestines, just her jawline was crepe-free and her eyes had that wide, lifted look. She had a couple of smile lines, but they were almost too shallow to mention; that may have been from a lifetime's underuse. The men on either side of her had set their foreheads into stern rumples, but hers looked like an egg. Nobody past fifty has a brow that smooth without Botox, especially not while saddling up to rough-ride and rule the law as if it were her own nasty-tempered pony.
I'd come here today to beg, to plead for them not to take Mosey. Fifteen was a hard year, and they'd be sending her to a place where no one knew she still woke up scared in thunderstorms. That she worried at her lower lip with her fingers when she was lying. That you couldn't make her talk by asking questions, but if you left her be and got real busy in the kitchen, she'd come boost herself up onto the counter and swing her feet and spill her guts. That her old one-eyed boo-bunny was hidden under her pillow and she slept with one hand stuffed under, clutching him.
If they took her from me, I didn't even know where she'd be going. I'd seen the worst-case scenario, though, and it was an apple gone wholly bad. There was no place to put your teeth where you wouldn't get a mouthful of a foul, grainy mash with worms in it. Pure poison. I wanted to ask them to leave Mosey be for her own sake, not mine, but I looked into those six cold eyes, now all staring me down through the glass wall, and I knew that it was fruitless. She was a pawn, here, not a person.
So the question was, would I let these corpse-cold bastards come after my granddaughter without a fight, without every bit of fight I ever had? I didn't see a way to win, so what did it matter if I kicked and flailed? You want the ocean? Have the ocean. You want my Mosey, this girl I helped Liza raise? Hell, I'd done most of the raising, truth be told and Liza being Liza. I'd taught Mosey the ABC song, tied her shoes a million times, been her Brownie troop leader. Last year I'd gotten up an hour early every day to try and figure out algebra with her. It was the worst grade she ever got, but we were both so proud of that C-plus we'd held hands and danced around the kitchen hooting and cheering when her report card came.
Standing outside that glass wall, I believed I had come to the awful end of everything. My family has long been familiar with that territory. Liza came across it at the Calvary High End-of-School Luau. Mosey, the day I hired Tyler Baines to take down the willow tree in our backyard.
But for me? It was standing at that window. I tried to preload my mouth with some fruitless begging, and the words stuck in my throat. I had this vision of Mosey in her best dress, the one with a thousand little flowers making up the print, standing on our front porch with all her things packed up in Liza's battered duffel. I saw it as she turned to me, felt it as she wrapped her skinny monkey arms around me, heard it as she whispered, "Bye, Big."
That's when I understood that what I did today was a message. Even if I lost, if Mosey was being driven away from the only home she remembered in a sleek official car, it would absolutely matter. She'd be alone, afraid, and with good reason; she had to know, know down to the bone, that I had fought like hell. That I would always stand with her and fight like hell. That the second after the sleek car pulled away, I'd be in my Malibu, seeing where she landed, sitting outside. Law or no law, she was mine.
I took a deep breath in, as painful and surprising as a baby's first. I straightened my spine and swallowed, though my mouth was paper-dry. I got the Dixie cup out of my bag, and I shoved my way through that door. I banged it down directly in front of them, like a flimsy barrier dividing the table. It made a scuffing noise against the wood, too soft to count as my first gunshot, but it was all I had.
I set it down between me and them, and I went to war.
I NEVER WOULD have known about the other Mosey Slocumb if Tyler Baines hadn't brought his mullet head and a chain saw over to murder my mom's willow tree. I wouldn't have bet someone else's dollar that Tyler Baines, of all people, would be the one to discover her. Tyler Baines was not the discovery type. He was more the patchy-chin-pubes, tats, dirty-white-truck type. He was totally hooked on Red Man, too, so he spewed brown juice like a cricket everyplace he went. Last year my mom nicknamed him the Mighty Un–Butt Crack, because she said he was a single flash of ass plumage away from being the walking definition of redneck.
"It's like he wears mom jeans," she'd said, and I'd reached for a pencil. I'd been supposed to write down three examples of irony for freshman English, and Liza was barefoot in low-rise thrift-store Calvins that showed her silver belly ring, talking about Tyler Baines's mom jeans while he mowed our lawn. But I'd given it up before I dug out paper; I'd been exiled to Baptist school for more than half a year by then, long enough to know that Mrs. Rickett wouldn't like any irony example that involved thong underpants.
Tyler Baines was the last person on the planet my mom would have wanted laying hairy hands on her sacred willow. Before my mom had her brain event, I never even saw him have a conversation with her face. He talked lower, like he thought her boobs had microphones in them and if he aimed right he could order up a chili-dog combo.
For a couple of weeks after the brain event, my mom didn't talk at all. Now if she said one of her slurry words made mostly out of vowels when Tyler was around, he'd goggle at a spot past her good shoulder with his egg-size eyes, whites showing all the way around, and ask me or Big, "Liza says what, now?"
The morning he came to murder the willow seemed like any stupid Tuesday, with me at the breakfast table trying to eat civics facts and toast at the same time and Big scrambling eggs and stirring them into grits for my mom. Liza sat at our old butcher-block table staring at the faded pomegranates on the kitchen wallpaper like her mind was far, far away. So far that she couldn't quite get to it.
These days I liked to sit in Big's old chair, beside the half of Liza that looked like her, even though she sat too still. I felt guilty for picking to sit by the good half, like a magic monkey paw had read my wish for a more mommishy mom and it had broken Liza and left me this. Still, it was better than sitting by her right side, where her bottom lip hung a little slack and sometimes drooled and she kept her bad arm cuddled against her side like a hurt bird tucks his wing.
Big set the bowl of eggs and grits on the table, then picked up a spoon and wrapped my mom's good hand around it.
"Liza. Liza-Little? You see your breakfast?" Big said, and waited until Liza blinked and looked down, making her "yes" noise.
Big had fixed herself a plate, too, and she sat down still wearing Big-style flannel pj's that practically billowed around her teeny body. The clock said she ought to cram a slice of toast in her mouth and run to shimmy into her tweed skirt and bank blouse, which was the color of old mustard and had this vile, floppy bow at the neck.
I said, "You're not going in to work?"
"I took a half day off," Big said, not meeting my eyes, and I felt a nervous little serpent uncurling in my belly.
"Is this about the pool again?" Big'd had a pool guy out to the house last week, but he said that to fit a pool inside the backyard fence we had to take out Liza's willow. That should have ended it right there; the willow was sacred. All my mom's yearly pins from Narcotics Anonymous were pressed deep into its bark. She hung that tree with twinkle lights every year when she got a new one. Those pins were like a love carving that read "Liza + Sobriety" inside a puffy heart. Big should have been laughing at the very idea of taking it out, but instead her lips pursed up and she shushed at me, fast and quiet, darting a glance at Liza.
"Big, you can't—"
"Toast!" Big interrupted. "Put it in your gobhole, please."
Big took Mom's spoon and helped her eat another bite of grits and eggs, then wheeled her away into the den. That was wrong, too. Big always made Liza get in the walker after breakfast. I heard the TV go on, and then Big came back to get Liza's morning meds.
She talked soft while she opened each bottle and dropped the pills into a coffee cup. "Your mom didn't get any better until they started working with her in the water. That's when she started saying 'yes' and 'no,' and now she's got at least eight words I can make out. She hasn't added a word except for 'Mosey-baby' since she got home."
Math's my weakest subject, but even I could figure that Big plus a pool and WebMD didn't equal the team of physical therapists who worked with Liza while she was still in that aftercare place.
"It's almost fall. She'll hardly get to use it, even."
Big was heading into the den, but she paused long enough to grab Liza's juice cup and say, "We get a discount if we do it now. No one else is thinking about pools, and we'll get a good couple of weeks in before it's too cold. Don't fret. I got her NA pins out, and I put them in my jewelry box." Then she turned her back and left. Before the swinging doors had swooshed closed behind her, I'd whipped my cell phone out of my back pocket and was texting Roger.
911! Pool v/s willow. Big 4 pool.
I could hear the TV fellow with the poofy girl hair talking about weather, every word clear as the day he was promising. Big had the TV on twice as loud as normal. Almost immediately my phone vibrated in my hands.
Roger's text said, Tell Big tree = Jesus. I thought about that for a second. It was crap, but it was crap that might work. Big was way serious about respecting other people's religions, even Baptists'. Mostly because it gave her the right to not have one.
I put the cell phone under the table and tucked it between my leg and the chair. I waited there until Big came back in to put the coffee cup in the sink. Before she could say a word, I said, "You can't take out that tree. It's her religion, Big."
Big cocked her head like a robin to fix me with one bright black eye. She said, "A tree isn't a religion. It's an object."
"She's a druid," I said.
Big made a scoff noise, but it sounded like she had to force it. "Liza the Lorax, she speaks for the trees. Spare me. She's only a druid because it gives her an excuse to be mystical and wear a lot of white." Big was so flustered she said it like Liza was still my whole mom, the one who knew that white made her black eyes shine and her pale skin glow gold. It made me flinch, because that mom was gone, and Big swallowed hard, like her throat hurt her. She blinked it away and said, "You sure are suddenly pro-druid this convenient morning, Mosey."
- On Sale
- Jan 25, 2012
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing