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Excerpt: 'The Garden Angel'

by Mindy Friddle
Jul 6, 2005

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Mindy Friddle

Twenty-five year old Cutter is a waitress struggling to prevent her siblings from selling the family homestead. She enlists the help of neighbors — in this case, the residents of a nearby home for retarded men — to come by when she knows that potential buyers will at the house. "It's a story of people looking for love in all the wrong places," says Rona Brinlee of The Book Mark in Atlantic Beach, Florida. "They end up finding friends in the oddest places."

Excerpt: Chapter One

The view from the attic bathroom always broke my heart a little, for it told the story of my family's own fall: our lost property and standing, our dwindling. The land, as far as I could see, had once belonged to us, to the Harris family. Gran said this had once been fields and meadows surrounding her family's house. Estate back then, she said, when our house was the hub of Sans Souci. But now Sans Souci was a city-swallowed town. The shopping malls and 7-Elevens, billboards and neon signs, reached for us. The city of Palmetto lapped at the shore of our home.

In the distance, I could make out Sans Souci Mill, where it lay sprawled, monstrous and deserted, some kind of thick brush sprouting from its red brick chimneys. My great-grandfather had established the mill in the last century, had built the neighborhood there on mill hill, had financed the pharmacy and soda shop, the jeweler, the motel, the shoe store — most of downtown. A lot of the storefronts were boarded up now, as if they'd been waiting out a hurricane for thirty years. The houses that remained were mostly rentals; we'd heard some outfit up North owned them. And scattered among them were smaller houses, decaying or already gone: stone steps stopping abruptly, eerily, above a grassy lot; the brick remnants of a chimney strewn about a weedy yard like children's blocks in a playroom.

But on our street, the houses were still standing and faintly grand — gussied up with fishscale roofs, cupolas and spires — although our kinfolk and neighbors had long abandoned them. New groups had taken residency: there was the home for retarded men across the way, and the Pinkerton and Colleton homes had been divided into apartments, which seemed to attract Palmetto University students, harried single mothers and older, grim-faced people who had turned a corner in their lives, who cooked on the hotplates in their rooms and attended 12-step programs at night.

Our house sat at the end of Gerard Avenue: coquettish and tattered, on tippy toes, it seemed, from the encroaching world. In the backyard, our family cemetery guarded its weed-choked dead beside a two-lane highway that should have been four. There had been talk from the highway people, but there wasn't much they could do about moving a graveyard, and so our cemetery remained, a fort that withstood the city's attacks. The headstones were broken or toppled or unrecognizable; 100-year-old marble lambs looked like small terriers. And some of the graves were marked by nothing more than gray, worn down rocks that poked up in a semi-circle like neglected, decaying teeth. Only Gran's grave was new, still unsodded after six months.

Home will keep you rooted through the black clouds of living! she'd told us. You might dawdle out there in the world for a while, but you'll need a dwelling to protect you.

I believed her.

The minute they ventured out in the world seeking love, seeking more, the women in my family found nothing but trouble. Now my sister Ginnie was going to college, taking classes over in Palmetto. Escaping, is how she put it. My sister said I was the crazy one, rattling around the three-story dilapidated mansion our great-grandfather built before he died of syphilis, wondering how I was going to pay the light bill.

But I knew better.

I'd found Ginnie's pregnancy test that morning.

What happened was, I'd set my mind on a morning bath. I'd donned my mother's white eyelet lace gown from the cedar closet downstairs, the gown Gran had hand-embroidered special for her honeymoon. It was dingy now, the color of coffee-stained teeth and it puckered around my chest and strained a little around my hips. But it floated elegantly about my ankles as I walked up the stairs to the attic bathroom.

I drew my bath and scattered dried rose petals in the water. I stepped into the tub, pinned up my hair, dipped into the bowl of mayonnaise that had been mixed with fennel and rosemary and soaked secretly in the refrigerator for two days. I patted it on my forehead, my cheeks, across the bridge of my nose. I reclined.

That's when I saw the glossy pregnancy test box sticking out of the old copper wastebasket.

I made it across the floor in two big wet steps. The little color-coded stick was pink. You're going to have a baby! gushed the back of the package. I stood for a while, naked, dripping, with the shock of it.

Then I heard her.

The slam of the front door, the heavy thunk of books and a tinkle of keys hitting the dining room table. I got back into the tub. I slathered on more of the mix, smoothed it on my ears, down my neck.

I heard the grating of the kitchen's swinging door as it scraped the paint from the doorjamb. I listened as Ginnie walked through the bedrooms on the second floor, calling for me. It was easy to track her, even three stories up. The house, like a faithful servant whispering secrets, relayed her sounds to me.

I felt for the cucumber slices and placed them on my face. When the third step up to the attic screeched, I submerged. Water filled my ears. The cucumber slices eddied and drifted. After a minute, I sensed the light shifting and her shadow falling over me.

"What in the hell? Cutter, what are you doing? It is you, isn't it? Behind all that stuff?" She was standing over me now.

"I'm celebrating," I said, squinting up at her. "Can't you tell?"

"This is celebrating?" She paused, a little out of breath from racing up all those stairs. "I just want to say that I'm sorry-I'm really sorry- about not showing up last night." This was a practiced answer, without the remorse I required. The day before had been my twenty-fifth birthday, and no one had remembered, not even Ginnie, my own sister, my Irish twin, eleven months younger than I. "So, did you do anything special?" I shook my head. "C'mon. Didn't anyone remember your birthday?"

"Oh, yeah," I said. "There's a happy birthday postcard from the dentist with a coupon for free mint floss."

She sighed.

I had the satisfaction of seeing her mouth tighten to a line. Since Gran had died, we were both in limbo. Also, drifting apart. Ginnie kept telling me that we would have to sell the house. But packing up and selling three generations of our family's leavings felt like betrayal. I still couldn't bear going into Gran's bedroom. The fine, fragrant talc dusting on the dresser, the brush webbed in silver hair, the fifty-year collection of black handbags stuffed in the top of the closet- it was all too much, too much.

"Your face looks like a salad, you know that?" She dragged over a stool from the corner, sat down beside the tub. " 'It's certain that fine women eat a crazy salad with their meat.' " Her voice was patient, like a teacher.

"Who said that? Julia Child?"

"Yeats. William Butler Yeats."

I made a face, felt the cucumbers shift a little. Ginnie reached out and touched my arm with her fingers, left a track in the glob of white on my arm. Her fingernails were bitten, the flesh raw, bleeding a little around her thumb.

"What gave you the idea for this?" she asked.

Gran's old beauty books. But I would never admit that to her.

"Cosmo. Last month's."

I had discovered the recipe in a book in the basement just last week, had devoured its advice and warnings about beauty, and instructions for potpourri, herbal masks, and beauty soaks. The stern Victorian words, capitalized and underscored: The Young Lady is advised to retire to the Privacy of her own toiletry with only the company of her Maid to assist in the Beauty Episode. When I had leafed through the yellowed, musty pages, a pressed pansy, as brittle and brown as a moth's wing had zigzagged to the floor in a papery flurry.

"I brought beer," she said. "It's downstairs in the fridge."

"Why?"

"For you. To really celebrate."

"I don't drink beer."

She walked over to an alcove window, stood with her back to me. I wondered if she would even tell me. I glanced over at the wastebasket in the corner where the pregnancy test box was crammed out of sight. I pulled the mildewed shower curtain between us.

She cleared her throat. "I'm going away this weekend."

"Well," I said, "that's not news."

I spread more of the mix on my shoulders, across my collarbones.

"I mean I'm not just staying away over at Susan's or Penny's- I'm going away. I'm going away-with Him."

Him. Capitalized as if He were in red like the print in Gran's Bible. The starring parts, where Jesus spoke.

"Your teacher?" I peeked out from the shower curtain and she turned to face me. She nodded, walked over and sat down on the stool again. Her face was soft now, damp from the steam of my bath and the heat of her news. Her eyebrows were as white as cornsilk, her eyelashes clear. My sister had a certain pale, bright beauty, while I was an almost blonde, a shadowy hybrid. Ginnie was willowy and golden, I was shorter and freckled. I imagined our own in utero tug-of-war. How she had seized all those pale, paternal Scandinavian genes, pulled at those chromosomes until they stretched like taffy.

"We're going to a conference today-all day with a stopover in a log cabin tonight in the mountains." She tried to keep her face blank.

"And you're going as his-" I searched for the term, then held it with tongs- "student assistant?"

"Well... yes."

"Doesn't he have a family? I mean, how can you forget that?"

"Believe me, I don't forget Wife."

"What if she finds out about this?"

"Wife doesn't go out. Anywhere. Daniel does everything for her. She's like an invalid or something. But there's nothing wrong with her. Wife is just real sensitive or something." She shrugged her shoulders.

I sunk back in the water. I looked down at my knees poking out of the gooey, white water like identical pink islands.

"Cutter, this is important, so listen. If anyone calls me this weekend, I don't care who they are or what they want, tell them I'm at the library."

Ah. So that explained our chat. An alibi. "I'm not going to lie," I said. "It's Wife isn't it?" It was the first time I used the nickname, and I felt its power to distance, to make fun, even as I felt ashamed for using it. "She knows."

"No, she doesn't. But there's been... some gossip."

"I'm shocked."

"Don't, Cutter. Sarcasm is derived from the Greek for tearing of the flesh. Did you know that? It means to wound."

I rinsed off and wrapped myself in a towel. When I finished she was sitting on the stool again, looking down.

"If Gran weren't dead, this would kill her," I said, shaking my head. "Kill her."

"Who cares about the past? I'm talking about the here and now. And the future. I'm talking about reality." I detected the slightest wobble in her voice. If I thought she'd listen to me, I would have reminded her that our family's motto could be, 'Love goeth before the fall.'

"I have to pack now. He's coming to pick me up." My sister wrapped her arms around herself, her gaze softened. I knew she was gone from me, then. Love had snatched her away.

From The Garden Angel by Mindy Friddle. Copyright (c) 2004 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC

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