Read by Joshua Ferris
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Rose Mae Lolley’s mother disappeared when she was eight, leaving Rose with a heap of old novels and a taste for dangerous men. Now, as demure Mrs. Ro Grandee, she’s living the very life her mother abandoned. She’s all but forgotten the girl she used to be-teenaged spitfire, Alabama heartbreaker, and a crack shot with a pistol-until an airport gypsy warns Rose it’s time to find her way back to that brave, tough girl . . . or else. Armed with only her wit, her pawpy’s ancient .45, and her dog Fat Gretel, Rose Mae hightails it out of Texas, running from a man who will never let her go, on a mission to find the mother who did. Starring a minor character from Jackson’s bestselling Gods in Alabama, Backseat Saints will dazzle readers with its stunning portrayal of the measures a mother will take to right the wrongs she’s created, and how far a daughter will travel to satisfy the demands of forgiveness.
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Reading Group Guide
A Preview of gods in Alabama
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A MARRIAGE MADE OF SWORDS
Amarillo, Texas, 1997
IT WAS AN AIRPORT gypsy who told me that I had to kill my husband. She may have been the first to say the words out loud, but she was only giving voice to a thing I'd been trying not to know for a long, long time. When she said that it was him or me, the words rang out like church bells, shuddering through my bones. For two days, they sat in the pit of my belly, making me sick. I had no reason to trust her, and I'd as soon take life advice from a Chinese take-out fortune cookie as believe in tarot cards, but I'd lived with Thom Grandee long enough to recognize the truth, no matter how it came to me.
So on Thursday morning, I got my Pawpy's old gun, and I lay for my husband near Wildcat Bluff. Thom liked to run a trail out there. It was too far from the picnic grounds to attract most day-trippers, and he got his miles in early, when he could trust it would be his alone. That day he had me for secret company.
Not two hours ago, I'd gotten up before the sun to make him real biscuits. I'd cut Crisco into flour until it felt soft, like powdered velvet. I'd mixed the dough and rolled it and pressed out circles with the top of a juice glass. I'd fried bacon and then cooked two eggs sunny-side up in the grease. I had loaded his grits with salt and cheese and put thick pats of butter to melt on everything that looked like it could hold butter. There must have been a thousand calories in fat alone floating on that plate.
I'd often made him devil-breakfasts like this after fights, so I hadn't thought of it as a last meal. It was more of an absurd apology. Like me saying, "Baby, I'm scared I might blow holes in you later, but look, I made you the naughty eggs." Last night I'd made sex for him, too, in the same way, buttery slick and fat with all the things he liked best.
An hour before the sex, he'd held my head sideways in his big hand, my other cheek pressed into the cool plaster of the wall. I'd been pinned, limbs flailing helpless sideways, while he ran four fast punches down one side of my back. Then he'd let me go and I'd slid down the wall into a heap and he'd said, "Lord, Ro, why do you push me like that?"
I didn't say a word. He knew the answer. We both knew; I was a good wife most times, but I was made like nesting dolls. I had something bad, some other girl, buried way down in the meat of me. That inside girl was the thing that needed to be hit, that deserved it, and I called it to her. Last night, I'd lay coiled on the floor at Thom's feet, wondering why a big man like him couldn't hit through, could never hit me hard enough to reach her.
On Tuesday morning, I'd driven my elderly neighbor, Mrs. Fancy, to the airport. She'd come over the week before with a plate of her hot cheese cornbread and asked me if I would drive her. She was on a fixed income, and I knew four days of airport parking would be a trial for her, so I'd lied and said I'd love to spend a solid hour fighting highway traffic. I owed her more than a ride to the airport, as good as she had been to me.
"We can take my Honda," Mrs. Fancy had said, smiling her thanks at me with her brown eyes squirrel bright. "You're saving me the parking, Ro. At least let me save you the gas."
Since my ancient Buick got about twelve miles a gallon with the wind behind me, I was happy enough to take her in the Civic. That would have been the end of it, if I hadn't helped Mrs. Fancy tote in all her luggage. The gypsy was standing near the airport's little coffee shop like she'd been waiting for me. Like she'd known that I was coming.
That gypsy looked at me and knew me. She saw me whole, inside and out, as if my skin was made of glass. She laid her tarot cards for me, and that reading… it was like she took my life and ran it through a Cuisinart. She told me it was Thom or me, and God help me, I believed her. As I drove home after, I was shaking so hard I like to run off the road. I pulled onto the shoulder and sat, trying to remember how to make my lungs work right. My hands gripped the steering wheel so tight, the knuckles had gone bloodless. As I looked at them, a chill, small voice rose up inside of me, not shaking at all. It said, clear and cold, What we got here is an almost anonymous car for three days. That could be right useful.
So instead of taking the Honda back to Mrs. Fancy's garage, I'd parked it on a busy street a few blocks over. The hours until Mrs. Fancy's return began ticking backwards in my head, like a countdown. I was set to pick her up come Friday, so this muggy Thursday morning was my last chance. As I'd made Thom's final, butter-logged breakfast, my eat-in kitchen had looked as fake as a movie set, the sunflowers nodding cheerful on the wallpaper, the mellow old linoleum gleaming under its fresh coat of Mop & Glo. I'd whisked about, wiping down the countertop and washing the cook pans like I was an alive cartoon, hand drawn into a sunshiny kitchen.
"You trying to kill me, woman?" Thom had said when I'd set the plate in front of him. My mouth had gone slack, and he'd grinned up at me. He'd tucked into the bacon, eyes closing as he chewed. "I can feel my arteries hardening, but my tongue don't much care." I'd managed to get my lips to close before drool fell out. He'd broken the yolk with one of the biscuits and said, "You're gonna get me as fat as your damn dog."
Gretel had thumped her tail on the floor in honor of the word dog, or maybe the word fat. She knew both words meant her. Gretel was mine. She was a khaki-colored mutt, mostly hound dog, but Thom always said at least one of her ancestors must have been a piece of carpet, as much time as she spent sprawled out snoozing on the floor. I'd listened to the real sound of her tail on the linoleum and thought to myself, This is how to kill a man. I keep myself believing I won't, but I keep going, until I am there and already doing it.
It was a trick I was playing on myself, and it worked even though I knew I was playing it.
Thom left early. Before his run, he had to drop Fat Gretel off to get her shots, then go by his daddy's main store and put an antique Winchester in the safe. He practically had to drag poor Gretel; she knew a car ride alone with Thom meant the vet. Thirty seconds after the front door shut, I was butt-up under the kitchen sink, digging my Pawpy's old .45 revolver out from the stack of rags behind my cleaning products. We had another .45 and a .38 at the house, both automatics, but they were registered. Not even Thom knew I had Pawpy's. A gun this old and unused was off the books even before I stole it out of a shoebox in my daddy's closet and carted it halfway across America. It's the kind of gun a certain type of cop would like to have on hand. A "drop weapon," they call it, because they can lay it down by the body of a bad man and say that he pulled first.
The pin had broken off years ago, and since revolvers don't have safeties, I took the barrel out to travel it. Until I put the barrel back in and latched it, it was only two lumps of inert metal. I dropped both pieces in a Target bag. Then I ran back to our room to grab a handful of bullets out of the gun safe. While I was there, I changed into baggy, dark jeans and a floppy T-shirt, tucking my long dark hair under a baseball cap. Short as I was, in these clothes I looked like a kid. No neighbor, catching a glimpse of me trit-trotting down the street near school bus time, could possibly think of pretty, feminine Ro Grandee.
I jogged to Mrs. Fancy's car and got in. I shoved my gun under the passenger seat, then I started up the car and headed out to Wildcat Bluff. On the flat land behind me, Amarillo stuck up like an ugly thumb, and I was glad when the rare hills near the bluff began to hide it. I parked in a pull-in lot that bellied up to the woods, a mile and change past the lot Thom favored.
Counting the time it would take for him to finish his errands, I was a good half hour ahead of him, but I found myself running down the trail like he was fast after me. The Target bag banged against my leg, the loose bullets jangling. I made myself slow to a measured jog and breathe deep, scanning the woods for the right spot every time the trail took a sharp turn. Ready, Teddy, hands rock steady, as Daddy used to say when he was teaching me to shoot. He'd started me on .22s when I was so small that the knock back from a .38 would have pitched me over.
At a hairpin curve near the middle of Thom's route, my gaze caught on an underdark beneath the waxy leaves of a thicket of ground ivy. I paused. Peering down, I could just make out the lip of a long ditch, running like a crossbar to the point of the trail, about a yard past the first row of trees. Perfect.
I slid myself into the woods, easing between the questing offshoots of a honeysuckle vine. I curved my spine to limbo under branches. I slipped each foot between the high fronds of ground fern to the dirt underneath, precise, like I was stepping into strappy shoes. Once off the trail, I looked back the way I came and saw every leaf unbent, every twig unbroken. Even Davy Crockett wouldn't think so much as a rabbit had passed. Some days it's good to be slight.
Some days it's not; I could feel the bruises running in a chain down my back, left of my spine, four in a vertical row. The purple black bloom in the center of each was the size of Thom Grandee's fist, and the yellow and pale green mottling was different around each, like the off-sparks from a firework caught in a picture on my skin. They ached me something fierce as I squatted to check the trail's visibility through the green haze of leaves.
Down in the ditch, I'd have a clear view up the slope. I would see him coming. He'd be at the top of the gentle hill, the rising sun's light in his face. I'd wait to shoot till I could see the whites of his eyes. Better yet, I'd watch his Roman profile pass, his short forehead leading directly into his long, straight nose, his wide mouth set in a line as he pushed himself. His blond hair would be darkened down by sweat. I knew every line of his face; I loved them all. The beauty of my laying at the hairpin was that I would see him going, too. His familiar face might stay my wifely hand as he passed, but I could bury two bullets in the anonymous back of his head.
As I lowered myself down into the ditch, motion caught my eye. At the other end, perched on a branch, a long-legged burrowing owl was swiveling his head around in a perfect half circle to face me. He'd been sitting still, and his mottled feathers blended with the shadows, so that he'd been invisible until he moved. He was perched on a root, head poked up over the lip. He was unconcerned, sure that he was not what I was hunting. Still, his round eyes, gold and blank, looked mildly affronted by my intrusion.
"Leave if you don't like it. I have business here," I told him, but I didn't sound like myself. The words came out pure Alabama, neglected consonants, long vowels.
If the owl had had shoulders, he would have shrugged. He was a witness, not a judge. I kneeled down in my half of the ditch, and he stayed in his.
I said, "Lord, I am talking to owls. I might well be crazy enough to shoot my husband." Now I could hear the sharp, small twang Texas had given me. Half a dozen years here, and my voice had grown corners.
The owl fluffed himself. He didn't like me breaking the quiet morning. I shouldn't be making noise anyway.
I scrabbled in the Target bag, finding the loose barrel by feel and then picking out six bullets. I palmed five and slotted the last one into an empty chamber. It made a snicking sound, then the whispery rub of metal on metal as it slid home. And there I stuck, one bullet loaded, as if I were undecided.
"Nothin' left to decide," I whispered. Pure Alabama again. I didn't sound like Mrs. Ro Grandee, Thom's cool-mouthed wife whose tongue would not melt butter. I sounded like Rose Mae Lolley, a girl I'd buried years ago, when I was eight, the year my mother disappeared. She left her rosary and took her flowered shoes, the ones she seldom wore because the toes were stuffed with money.
Thom knew Rose Mae was there, though. He'd known she was in me from the very night we met. Sometimes I wondered if that bad girl hidden in the deeps of me was the thing he really loved.
Seven years ago, at three A.M. on a warm spring morning, he'd come into the diner where Rose Mae Lolley was working. She was wearing the mask—warm smile, light step—of the fake girl she'd grown over herself. Rose Mae had worn that face over hers all the time, every waking minute for almost two years now, since the moment she'd figured she'd taken enough beatings for her long-gone mother and lit out from her daddy's house. She'd waitressed her way west down the coast, every few months trading one small town with a bad job and a worse boyfriend for another, much the same.
She'd yet to find a town or job or man that made her feel safe enough to take that face off. At work, her sweet exterior upped her tips, and her most recent home was a cheap furnished room with kitchen privileges and no privacy. Her landlady, Kim, claimed to be a lesbian, but Rose guessed she had given up women in favor of Captain Morgan. Kim would barrel into Rose's room at all hours, demanding to know where the salt had gotten to or asking if Rose had taken any messages. She never knocked or apologized, even the time she burst in on a freshly showered Rose wearing nothing but a sheer white bra.
"You ain't got drugs in here, do ya?" Kim'd said that time.
"Of course not," said Rose in her best pep-squad girl voice, picking up her towel. She was trying not to glance at her bed. A pair of red fuzzy dice was lying beside Rose's uniform. The dice were Kim's, and Rose had stolen them out of the coat closet. She planned to take them to work and sneak to hang them in the short-order cook's car. He seemed like he was a single pair of fuzzy dice away from lighting out for Vegas, and since he couldn't keep his hands off her ass, Rose Mae wanted to give him a nudge.
Kim didn't notice the dice. She didn't seem to notice Rose's state of undress, either, even though Rose Mae Lolley laid bare was worth seeing: long waist, tightly curved hips, creamy skin. Kim turned laboriously and began her drunken shuffle out. Some lesbian, thought Rose, tossing the towel over the dice in case Kim looked back.
"I don't do drugs," Rose called after her, still working the perky, and Kim grunted in a way that could have meant satisfied or disappointed.
With no safe space, Rose kept her smiling shell on all the time, but some days it felt as thin as the candy pink cotton of her retro fifties waitress uniform. The uniform had a white Peter Pan collar and a miniature apron. It was cut to fit and the skirt was short, and when Thom Grandee came in on a double date that first evening, his girl didn't like that uniform one bit.
The sign by the door said, "Seat Yourself," so Thom did, sliding into one side of a four-top booth. His date followed, and the other couple sat down across. Rose was the only waitress on at this hour. She could tell by looking they were from the A&M Kingsville campus. She'd pegged them as sports boys, taking their dates for eggs after the victory party.
And it had been a victory. Rose Mae could smell it on the boys as she came around the counter bringing the coffeepot and four plastic-coated menus, a mix of pheromones and beer and fresh male sweat. The smell of win.
They were both good-looking boys, but her eye went right to Thom. He was six feet tall with a thick, meaty build that said football to her, and she liked the Roman nose. She also liked the way he eyed her as she swayed toward them. To the other couple she was a vague pink waitress shape, bringing menus. Thom looked.
Thom's date had a high ponytail that was beginning to unravel into fronds onto her pretty neck. She had a mound of bangs, flat on the back side, teased into a rigid foam of curls that humped over her forehead. This late, her Breck was beginning to fail her, and the bang puff was listing to starboard.
When Thom spent too long looking at Rose's face before the inevitable stealthy eye slide down her body, Rose could feel the girl bristle up. Rose was only twenty-one, but this girl looked young even to her. A freshman with a glamour shot fake ID. The girl narrowed her eyes, venomous, telling Rose plain that she wasn't used to chapped-lipped waitrons with no tan stealing her male gazes. She'd no doubt been the prettiest girl in her high school, but Rose was willing to bet that it had been a small school.
"Good morning!" Rose gave them her best three A.M. cheerful, passing out the menus. "Welcome to Duff's. I'm Ro. I'll be taking care of you this morning."
They all had flipped their mugs right-side up, so Rose leaned across to pour coffee, first for the dark-haired boy, then for his date.
"Morning," Thom said back.
He was the only one who spoke to her. She turned to pour his coffee. And then, because he was looking at her face again, not her tits and not his date, looking at her like she was a person, she found herself saying, "So, what position do you play?"
"Outfield," he said. "Sometimes third base."
She shook her head. "I asked what position you played, mister. I didn't ask what you did in spring to stay in shape."
He grinned then, giving her an assessing nod, like he was adding smart and sly to the pretty. "Strong-side safety."
"Oh. Fast boy," she said, and started filling his date's cup.
"What the hell are you doing?" his date demanded, bangs atremble.
Rose stopped and tipped the pot upright, smile fading. "I'm sorry?"
"Did I order coffee?" Bangs asked.
Rose said, "I'm sorry. You turned your cup over."
"Yeah. Because I want hot cocoa."
"Sure thing," said Rose. "I'll get that while y'all look over the menu."
"What can I get for you today?" the girl said to her friend across the table. "What would you like to drink? Would you care for a beverage? You'd think you'd get those lines on, like, the very first day of waitress school."
Rose felt the fever of a blush rising in her cheeks, and she knew it was painfully visible on her pale skin. Dropping her eyelids, she focused on her feet so that none of them could see the furious deeps in her eyes. She held her hand very still to keep from pouring scalding coffee over that bang puff. She could practically smell the ashy scent the girl's hair products would release, could hear her surprised cry as the hot liquid seared her scalp and ran down to blister that smug face. While the girl was screaming and clawing at herself, Rose would say, calmly, "You turn your cup over in a diner, it means you want coffee." Then she'd call an ambulance.
"I apologize," Rose said. Her voice was trembling with the effort that it took to stay her hand. She picked up the cup with the small splash of black liquid in the bottom. Made herself pivot. Forced herself to walk away.
Duff's was quiet. She heard her every footfall on the floor. There were the two obligatory old drunk guys silently nursing coffee at the counter, yellow-skinned because they had maybe half a working liver left between them. They hadn't asked out loud for their coffee, just flipped their mugs over and waited to be served. A couple in the back had cuddled up on the same side of their booth, whispering to each other. No one was feeding the juke. She could hear Bangs saying something low and giggly. She caught the word Casper.
Her blush was traveling, flushing the backs of her pale, bare legs. The girl's friend was laughing with her now in a high-pitched trill that sounded to Rose like a mean pig squealing.
Back behind the counter, Rose dumped a packet of Swiss Miss with minimallows into a clean mug. That girl, Bangs, was wearing a sundress, crisp green and new. She had a sheer white sweater thrown around her shoulders. It was a frivolous sweater, the kind a doting mother would buy along with new bedding and a tiny dorm refrigerator. Rose would bet her week's tips that that same mother kept Bangs's girlhood room intact, waiting for Christmas and spring break.
And meanwhile here was Rose, prettier and smarter and nicer in public, drifting motherless from town to town. Rose lived alone in her dank room with no lock on the door. Even Kim's damn cat, Boo, could open Rose's door. He'd stand on the back of the couch and bang the knob with his scabby paw. He was all over scabs. A flea allergy, Kim said, but she never took him to the vet. He'd creep into Rose's room when she was sleeping and slide under her blankets to press against her side, desperate and moist. Rose was allergic to cats, but she dry-swallowed Benadryl and let Boo press and press against her, because she was that desperate right back.
She acted like a girl in hiding, but her father was too busy, what with his part-time construction work and his full-time drinking, to ever come looking. No one else came, either. She daydreamed her long-gone mother would burst in, crying, "I'm so sorry! This time I'll take you with me!" or that her high school boyfriend, Jim Beverly, would reappear to shoo the foul cat away and say, "Here you are! Thank God, I finally found you!" They never came. The room, the cat, the diner, the chafing mask of a happier girl, they were her whole real life, and she was living it.
It should be me in that booth, Rose thought, a college girl like Bangs, smart and busy and worthy, going places with a sharp-looking sports boy watching. For half a minute, bantering about football, the smiling girl with the sass and the bouncy step hadn't been a skin. Rose had really been her, and it had felt like coming home to someplace new and clean.
Bangs could have spared her that thirty seconds, because Bangs had all night. Hell, Bangs had all year, and more years coming. Rose poured hot water and watched the cocoa foam to life. All Rose had was prettiness, a spoon, and the right to stir the cocoa of bitches until it was smooth. It was too much to swallow, and Rose found she had literally built up a fine and bitter coat of spit inside her mouth.
She couldn't help it. She had nothing, and her thirty seconds had been ruined. She crouched down, her sweet second skin finally off, disappearing behind the counter. She pursed her mouth into a kiss and bent her head over the mug. The long wad of spit drooled down into the cocoa. Rose stirred it in. She was smiling now, a genuine and ugly thing, so wide that it showed her back teeth.
When she looked up, Thom Grandee was leaning over the counter. She froze, more naked in that moment than she had been the day Kim came barreling into her room. He saw her. He saw the real Rose Mae Lolley, no longer hidden by Ro-the-perky-waitress. His face wasn't readable.
She stood up, slow, holding the mug, trying to call back her sugary smile.
He said, "I came to get change," and his smile was plain and open.
She blinked stupidly at the dollar he held out, uncertain. Maybe he had only just poked his big head over the counter when she looked up?
"For the jukebox?" he said.
"It takes dollars," Rose said, her voice rusty. "It's one song for a quarter, but if you put in the dollar, you get five."
"That's cool," he said, retracting the money.
The closest drunk said, "Refill?" It seemed he was blessed with the power of speech after all. The red vinyl on his stool creaked as he shifted his butt, backing away from the surprise of his own voice.
Thom said, "Want me to tote her cocoa back to the table for ya?"
He couldn't hold the plain face he was making anymore. His eyebrow quirked and his bland blue eyes changed. They filled up with enough devil to match her. He had seen.
She felt another blush coming. "I'll make her a new one."
She pulled the spoon out, but he was already reaching for the mug.
"I'm Thom Grandee," he said.
"Ro," she said. She let him take the mug.
"I saw that," he said, and for a second she thought he meant the spit. Then he gestured with his free hand to the gold name tag pinned north of her left breast. "Rose Mae," he read. "Go ahead and get that guy his coffee. No worries. I'll take this over."
She went to pour for the drunk, peeking out from under her lashes as Thom Grandee walked back to the table with the cocoa. He handed it to Bangs.
The second drunk was pointing at the doughnuts in the cake stand. Rose got him one and then picked up her pad, prepping to check on the couple in the back booth and then go take Thom Grandee's order. All the while, she watched him watching Bangs sip spit.
As she came across to their booth, Thom pried the mug from Bangs's fingers. All four were laughing and talking now. As she came toward them, Thom was saying to Bangs, "Didn't you go to kindergarten? Didn't you learn to share?" and as Rose came close he lifted the cup and drank, and his eyes met hers over the rim. He was drinking in her spit, greedy, taking all of it, though the cocoa was still so hot that it must have been scalding him. He opened his throat and drank it down and didn't for one second look away from Rose.
"Oh, my God! You hog!" Bangs said, laughy-teasy. "Now you have to buy me another."
"What can I get y'all to eat?" Rose asked cautiously.
They ordered their breakfasts, and at the end Thom Grandee said, "And Caroline wants another cocoa." He grinned at Rose. "Exactly like the first."
She recognized him then. He was every boy that had ever belonged to her, from her daddy on down. He'd recognized her, too, when he'd peered over the counter and seen what was under the sweet waitress. He liked the whole package. He would be back. Rose smiled and walked away.
She'd been the prettiest girl in her high school, too. Maybe she didn't get her diploma, but she'd damn well learned how boys worked. He'd come back to the diner alone, soon, hoping to follow the blush he'd seen on the backs of her legs all the way up, as far as she would let him. Tomorrow, maybe the next day, she would see him coming toward her through the big front window, moving fast in his swingy athlete's gait. She would have to stay ahead of him and keep him coming toward her, fast and sometimes angry. She'd stay in sight but out of reach. If she kept him on the far side of that window glass long enough, she could keep him always coming toward her.
He was coming toward her now.
I could hear him, his big feet pounding up the trail.
My lips were moving soundlessly, but I recognized the shape of the words. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. My mouth was getting a jump start on the thousand rosaries I'd have to say to get clean after killing him.
I felt the vibrations of his pounding run, heard his sure and steady gait. I socketed the barrel into the well-oiled cradle of the gun. I felt more than heard it slide home while my lips shaped, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
- "Joshilyn Jackson is a storyteller whose clarity and elegant poetry are worthy of the tradition of our great Southern writers. The really big surprise is her reading. Jackson reads with energy, enthusiasm, and the finesse of an accomplished voice actor. Her artful characterizations draw listeners into Nonny's world, filled with quirky, genuine, and original characters."—AudioFile Magazine on Between, Georgia
- "While set in the languid deep South, the pace is rapid. Jackson's reading keeps things brisk without going too swiftly. Jackson's excellent reading allows characters' voices to reveal much about their histories and personalities: Laurel's gentle but determined manner, her outrageously funny sister's sarcasm, the thick drawl of an impoverished girl visiting from Alabama. A brief interview with Jackson at the end offers some insight into the book's genesis and development and into her writing habits."—Publishers Weekly on The Girl Who Stopped Swimming
- On Sale
- Jun 8, 2010
- Hachette Audio