Though outwardly successful, young Anne Christie’s prominent midwestern coal-mining family is deeply troubled – Anne especially. While growing up during the late 1950s, Anne becomes convinced that her mother hates her. Emotionally isolated at home, she seeks love and approval in the arms of the many men who pursue her. As she embarks on a journey that will take her to New York in pursuit of a modeling career, Anne doesn’t dream that one day her past will come back to haunt her.
When Anne meets and marries Billy Kane, a jazz musician with an explosive personality, her mother makes it known that she does not approve. Anne and Billy move to the suburbs with their young children, but when Anne discovers that there are other women in Billy’s life, the marriage disintegrates. Seeking a new romantic attachment in 1970, Anne immerses herself in Manhattan’s wild singles scene. After two years she tires of this lifestyle and comes home to her children and the young man she will eventually marry. But though Anne works hard to create a stable life for her family, her painful relationship with her mother keeps interfering.
As she attempts to unearth her true identity, Anne explores love, motherhood, and middle age and finds a new life at the center of a series of personal losses.
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So Long, Little EgyptA Novel Told in Stories
By Nancy Scott
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Nancy Scott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDigging to China
I first saw her when she came to my sixth birthday party. We were living on Peach Street then, and Mother had invited her because she was near my age and lived nearby. "And you're both Annes," I remember Mother saying as she introduced us. I recently dug up a picture of that party. Eighteen children, in three rows according to age, are standing in front of a white Dutch Colonial house. My older brother, Kenneth, and his friend from next door form the back row, looking bored and uncomfortable. I'm standing in the middle row with Anne on one side, and a girl whose face I remember but whose name I do not on the other. My sister, Fay Lynn, and an uneven line of the littlest kids are in front, looking excited and hamming for the camera.
Anne is by far the best-dressed child at the party. In white dimity and petticoats, lace-trimmed socks, and Mary Janes, her hair an elaborate arrangement of braids and bows that I envied, she has a worried look on her face that I think of as characteristic. The birthday girl and her brother are the least presentable. Kenny's face is dirty, his hair mussed, and his collar askew. He and Bucky must have been roughhousing minutes before the camera caught them. I'm wearing a drab little dress that's too short for my already coltish legs, and ugly brown high-top shoes that were in aid of "weak ankles." No doubt I'd been humorously spanked and put under the bed, according to local custom, which would explain why I look like I've been pulled backward through a knothole.
Mother said once, when we were looking at the family album, that originally there'd been two pictures of the party. Two snapshots of that same grouping of children had been taken only seconds apart. In one of them, however, I couldn't be found. I'd disappeared. "My changeling child," Mother had called me, amused at the ancient claim that Daddy's maternal family could vanish at will.
It wasn't until I'd started school and then skipped a grade that I saw Anne again. We'd moved across town, in the meantime, to a street that dead-ended at the old Chautauqua route that still meandered through the countryside. There was a summer house in the large yard where Lynnie and I played dress-up, and an ornamental pond where we splashed around in summer. Mother used the fruit of a little wild cherry tree to make wine, and Daddy burned trash in the big brick barbecue. Under the house, once owned by Coleville's only millionaire, there was a crawl space where we children hid and played Jack the Ripper, a game of my brother's invention. There we demolished anthills with kitchen spoons and unearthed the remains of toys belonging to children who'd lived there before us—slain lead soldiers and dismembered dolls. Once Kenny cut a worm in two, and Lynn and I watched in horrified fascination as the halves crawled off in opposite directions. "Looky!" he'd pointed out triumphantly. "It didn't die. It multiplied."
"What are you kids doing under there?" Daddy would ask, squatting down to peer through the lattice when he got home from the mine. "Digging to China?"
The Coleville Community High School class of 1953 is having their fiftieth anniversary reunion next year, during Homecoming Week. Sifting through my stash of memorabilia in order to write a commemorative poem, I discovered something Anne had written in one of my yearbooks. On a page where I'd scrawled "Reserved for Anne Lindstrom" across the top, she'd written in her perfect Palmer cursive, "Although it seems we've known each other forever, we only became best friends in sixth grade, remember?"
I did remember. Ten years old and slowly savoring a Twinkie, I walked to Anne's house where she lived with her mother and grandparents in a household as ordered and certain as my own was casual and confusing. Mrs. Lindstrom was divorced and worked behind the hosiery counter at Stern's Dry Goods. "Aren't they exquisite?" she'd whisper to ladies out shopping, slipping her fist into the top of a gossamer stocking. "Fifteen denier, so sheer." She appeared old to me of course, as my own parents did, but probably wasn't much over thirty with teenage acne scars still on her face. A kind woman, she seemed to take her motherly duties seriously—giving Anne the cod liver oil every morning that Mother said was too nasty to bother with—but I don't remember seeing her smile. The grandparents kept the house and a large garden in back, out of which they ate year round. I have an abiding interest in homesteading, and I believe it began at the Lindstroms with the pickles and preserves.
We were tomboys, then, who wore our bright-red, Mercurochromed skinned knees and scraped palms like badges of honor. A gang of girls who climbed trees and rode secondhand Schwinns out into the peach orchard country for picnics. Who read Nancy Drew books and swore we'd be old maids forever. We took turns hosting Saturday afternoon get-togethers at our homes, where we made fudge and played hearts. We were Girl Scouts who pitched a tent at Tompkin's Lake and had slumber parties where we stayed up late telling ghost stories and jokes. "Eek," we'd cry, "what a scream," and "laugh, I thought I'd die." One night we spied on a couple of high school kids kissing goodnight at the screen-porch door of a cabin. She was standing at the top of the steps, he at the bottom, and she leaned forward to take his face in her hands, a gesture we decried as mushy and "ughy-poo," but which I secretly thought was as thrilling as seeing Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews in My Foolish Heart.
At twelve Anne became the first in our class to menstruate, and I didn't know whether to pity or envy her. Some of both, probably. It helped, though, that she allowed me to observe the changes in her body and was instructive in the use of the paraphernalia that accompanied the changes—the sanitary belt that held the Kotex, the garter belt that held up her hose, the Hollywood brassiere that made every girl look like a "sweater girl," the Odo-Ro-No she used to prevent BO. Once, during PE, we were sitting side by side on the bleachers in our ugly blue gym suits, hoping we wouldn't be chosen to play cruel, bruising kickball. I couldn't help noticing the difference in our bare thighs. Anne's were smooth and rounded, convex in shape. Mine were thin and concave, as flat and featureless as my chest in spite of the cream I'd ordered from the back of a magazine and religiously rubbed on my nubbins at night.
When Anne entered eighth grade, her mother began taking her for monthly visits to a dermatologist in St. Louis. Fearing that acne was inherited, she believed prevention was the best cure. Mother remarked, about the trips, that Mrs. Lindstrom felt guilty about Anne being the only fatherless child in our class and wanted to save her further grief. I loved car travel for its opportunities to daydream and went with them occasionally. Sitting in the waiting room reading American Girl magazine, I was glad that clear skin ran in our family. Mrs. Lindstrom conferred quietly with the doctor while Anne received a treatment with a sunlamp—like the one we used at home for "health and hygiene," I imagined, only we all got naked and put on goggles, and I didn't think Anne did that. The visits always ended with her getting a fresh bottle of stinky sulfur lotion, followed by lunch at the Stix, Baer, and Fuller tearoom. We usually ordered scallops on toast points, and I usually received a lesson in manners and deportment because, Anne told me, her mother thought I was being brought up like a "wild Indian." Driving home we began looking out the window as soon as we crossed the Mississippi, trying to be the first to spot the big old burial mound that sat smack in the middle of some farmer's field. Our teacher had told us about the mound builders who'd lived here a long time ago, and had taken us on a field trip to one of their villages. Standing safely behind a rope, looking down at a dwelling marked off in the dust, I'd felt a shiver up my spine. "Like someone walking on your grave," Anne had teased me.
As graduation from junior high drew near, our group still met on Saturday afternoons, but for different reasons. Nancy Drew mysteries gave way to Frank Yerby romances, and candy-and-card parties were replaced by manicure and pin-curl sessions. We pored over a book called The Secrets of Charm, in which we learned how to "snag" boys by drawing them out and getting them to talk, by never talking about ourselves: "A girl who blows her own horn will find herself alone," we read. We tried on Tangee lipstick, powdered our noses with Angel Face, and stroked Vaseline on our eyelashes. We swore that Halo shampoo made our hair the shiniest. We sang a raunchy song about a place in France, talked about French kissing as if we knew what we were talking about, and practiced saying "Voulez vous coucher avec moi?" Anne told us that she'd heard it got boys hot to have the back of their neck rubbed. Once I borrowed my brother's razor and a bar of Lifebuoy, and we took turns shaving our legs. The blue blade was new when we started, but became so dull with use that it scraped off skin along with the hair, and Anne had to get salve from the Red Cross box. Nevertheless we were thrilled with the results, and when our handsome science teacher wrote in my yearbook, "Keep your beauty and improve your posture," I felt I was catching up with Anne at last.
In my freshman yearbook there's a photo, captioned Giggling Girls, that shows us all in front of the school sitting on a low brick wall. I'm next to Anne, laughing and holding out my hand as she, frowning, reaches into her purse—bailing me out again, probably, after I'd gone through my allowance like greased lightning. I'm interested in what we're wearing. Anne is dressed in the uniform of the day—plaid pleated skirt, white blouse with Peter Pan collar, cardigan sweater, and saddle shoes. I'm wearing a gypsy skirt and mandarin-collared blouse, a safari jacket, and dance slippers. When I used to go shopping with the Lindstroms, I chose traditional clothing of which they approved. But given my head in high school, I broke new ground in the way I dressed, wearing colors that "clashed" and earning the label "strange." A decade later I would favor ethnic fashions, but in Coleville, in the fifties, I made do with the bohemian look of peasant skirts and blouses, bold jewelry and makeup.
We eventually quarreled over boys. Over a boy. And our quarrel grew to include other people and other issues until our group split into two factions—the good girls and the bad girls, the cool and the square. Anne stayed as she was, straight, sweet, serious, a touch smug. I went to hell in a handbasket and stayed there for many years. It began like this:
As soon as Anne discovered boys, she'd fallen in love with the one next door. I liked him too. Richie Hunt was the cutest boy in our class as well as the smartest, with some subterranean darkness that attracted me but which my friend didn't seem to see. The year before, she and I had competed for the attention of the lifeguard at the country club. I thought this was more of the same. She didn't. Richie played us off against each other all summer, and then in the fall, after smooching me up in the backseat of my brother's car, he asked Anne to go steady. He told her that my "crush" on him had grown "too hot to handle." She told him that in the future he would call me "sis." She told me that from now on, Richie's embraces would be of the brotherly kind. Now, Saturday afternoons found the three of us sitting in the Lindstroms' backyard, Anne and Richie nuzzling when Grandpaw wasn't looking. Sometimes Richie's friend Rodney walked me home in the evenings. Sometimes Richie did—with his girlfriend's permission of course—taking the long way through the woods, holding my hand and calling me "the other Anne." I was very unhappy.
That all ended a year later when I got my own boyfriend. He was twenty and just out of the navy, up to no good and looking for his fun in Coleville. He called me baby and gave me a gold ankle chain and cigarette box for Christmas. On my fifteenth birthday he got me drunk on rum and Coke. He took me places he shouldn't have taken me and did things to me he shouldn't have done. I adored him.
Anne and the old gang formed a sorority called the Sub-Deb Club, which had lots of stupid rules for admission. You couldn't belong if you bleached a streak in your hair, dated older boys, or went to roadhouses. I and my new friends did all of that and more, working very hard at being hip chicks, coming close to being JDs. We forged our parents' signatures on absence slips and used them to skip school. We learned to drive and cruised the college campus looking for guys, peeled out in the family sedan from the stop sign at Central and Grand, no one able to beat me in the cream and aqua Olds. We shoplifted, using a foolproof method we swore not to divulge, and which I haven't to this day. We faked IDs in order to get into a dive called The Alibi, where we danced to a black R&B band that played "Night Train," "One Mint Julep," and sometimes just before closing, the sly, rollicking "Rocket 69." We chain-smoked Pall Mall cigarettes and chug-a-lugged Canadian Ace beer, threw up Mogen David wine. We got suspended from school. Richie took an avid interest in all my extracurricular activities, lecturing me, questioning me, warning me as a good brother should, and then spreading gossip about me that was no less embarrassing for being true.
He broke her heart at last. Broke the engagement, then went north and made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian. I heard he drank, I heard he died, but those were rumors. It was Anne who died—of lung cancer, although as far as I knew she'd never touched tobacco. Once, passing through Coleville on the way to somewhere else, I'd found her house and the little grocery where she and I had bought jelly-babies with change her grandpaw had given her. My husband was driving the car and, feeling suddenly faint, I'd asked him to pull over to the curb so I could get my head down between my knees.
After I read her obituary, I began working on the reunion. I wrote a poem and dedicated it to my old girlfriends, sent a check to the alumni committee, got involved in the newsletter. That was how I happened to write Richie, after half a century, to ask if he'd be our MC for the dinner-dance. It took me days to compose the letter, hours of trying to get the right tone, asking a favor of someone I'd known a long time ago and about whom I had very mixed feelings. I e-mailed him with nervous fingers and received his answer the same day. He was polite and distant, in the way of a careful, busy man. He said he'd be happy to play host for the evening. He spoke briefly about his life and career, the ups and downs, the successes and failures. But something was missing from his words, and I didn't know what it was until I read the last line. "Give my warmest regards to Donny," he'd written.
Donny? Donny who? He was confusing me with someone else, surely. He didn't know who I was. That was what was lacking in his letter, any sense of the personal. He might have been responding to a journalist interviewing him for a magazine article. He'd forgotten me. But how could that be? We'd been a small school in a small town. I remembered people I'd only nodded to in the hall as we passed. How could he forget someone whose life had been so closely intertwined with his? Someone who remembered him so vividly?
I felt erased, anonymous, a woman with no history. But as embarrassment and anger began to wear off, they were replaced by something else: envy. I envied him his forgetting, the way he could do that. Because I can't. Forget. Remembering is what I do. It's a life, going over and over the same old ground. I'm still under the house, digging in the dirt, picking through the pieces, taking notes. Here's one from my daybook, dated June 21, 2002. "She came to my sixth birthday party. Sixty years later she was buried on my birthday."
Excerpted from So Long, Little Egypt by Nancy Scott Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Scott. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsDigging to China....................1
Music! Music! Music!....................9
My Russian Period....................45
The Frog Prince....................79
Speaking in Tongues....................93
In the Garden....................161