Every day of her life Julia Rich lives with the memory of a horrible accident she caused long ago. In the years since, she has tried to hide her guilt in the quiet routine of teaching at a small South Carolina college, avoiding close relationships with family and would-be friends. But one day a phone call from Carmen, a niece she has never met, disrupts her carefully controlled world.
Carmen is a study in contrasts—comical yet wise, sunny yet contemplative, soft yet assertive. As she sets about gently drawing Julia from her self-imposed solitude into a place of hope, she also seeks her own peace for past mistakes.
Together, the two women embark on a journey that takes Julia far from the familiar comfort of home and gives Carmen the courage to open her heart. Together, their sightseeing trip turns into a discovery of truth, grace, redemption, and, finally, love…
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||1 MB|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
CAROLYN SVANA TURNER
Born September 30, 2009
CHARLES KJELL TURNER
Born July 12, 2013
• chapter 1 •
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE
On the last class day of the spring term, Julia Rich was heading home in her big blue boat of a Buick along the familiar route she could have driven blindfolded. As she neared Ivy Dale Lane, where she lived, she once again reminded herself of two things. First, that many other professors worldwide not only had endured what she was facing but had actually enjoyed it and, second, that most of her current colleagues would gladly trade places with her right now. Neither of these reminders, however, helped to settle her mind.
She slowed her Buick as she turned onto Ivy Dale, a narrow, tree-lined street less than a mile from the campus of Millard-Temple University, where she taught. At one time numbers of faculty members had lived here, but now only Julia and one other remained—a French teacher named Dr. Boyer. He was an odd, nervous sort of man, a Charlie Chaplin look-alike, who never said “hello” to her, only a prim, tight-lipped “bonjour,” though more recently he had not spoken to her at all. She suspected that he resented her being granted a sabbatical ahead of him. Or maybe he avoided her because he felt sorry for her, as others now did.
As soon as her house came into view, she slowed even more. It was an old habit—the initial sighting, then the intentional deferral of her arrival as she took it all in. It was a small stone house with the charm of a storybook cottage. She and Matthew had driven past it one day before they were married. “Stop,” she had said. “There, look at that one. I want to live there someday.”
When it came up for sale a few years later, Matthew had arranged to buy it as a surprise for her. Those were the days when he was doing anything he could to make her happy, an enterprise he persisted in long after every effort had proved futile. Once they moved in and discovered the extent of the work it needed, it had lost some of its storybook charm, at least for Matthew, who did most of the labor himself. But Julia had loved it straight through the years of repairs and renovations. Even now there were times when she would be away from home and would suddenly think of the stone house on Ivy Dale and be flooded with something close to gladness. In many ways her house had taken the place of children in her life, the way some people’s pets did.
She parked in the circular drive in front and took a few moments to let her eyes sweep the yard from one end to the other. Spring had come to South Carolina early this year, wet and mild. Daffodils, hyacinth, dogwoods, azaleas—all had bloomed in a spectacle of color. And now the irises were opening, soon to be followed by peonies, lilies, roses.
She walked around to the back door to let herself in, then locked it behind her. The answering machine in the kitchen was blinking, so she stepped out of her shoes at the door, laid her briefcase on the table, and walked to the phone. She knew who it was, of course. Since last August, her sister, Pamela, had worried incessantly about Julia’s living alone and had called daily to check up on her. Because she didn’t work, Pamela had time on her hands, and because her children were both grown, she needed someone else to mother. It didn’t matter that she was younger than Julia by five years. She had always had the manner of an overseer, even as a child.
If Julia wasn’t home when she called, Pamela left a message, usually constructed around a warning of some kind: Always check the backseat of your car before getting in, don’t order with a credit card over the phone, wear flat shoes in case you need to run. She often included reports of tragic outcomes for people she had heard about who failed to follow these rules.
Julia almost pressed the button to listen, but she stopped. She was bone-tired and mentally spent. She wasn’t in the mood to hear her sister’s voice reminding her that evil prowled the earth. She turned and went to her bedroom instead. She took off her skirt, removed her jewelry, pulled her sweater over her head, and took her time putting everything away in its place. From the hook on the back of the bathroom door, she took her housecoat, slipped it on, and snapped it up.
Even as she did these things, she was thinking of the hours ahead. Since it was the last Friday night of the school year, she had no papers to grade. The evening gaped before her, with no plans to fill it, which was part of the reason for her present unrest. By putting on her housecoat, she realized she had already decided not to take a walk, which was one way to spend an hour or so now that Daylight Saving Time was in effect.
But for now she had supper to think about. On her teaching days she often ate a substantial lunch in the faculty cafeteria on campus and only snacked in the evening. Today, however, she hadn’t felt like walking over to the cafeteria, choosing her food, sitting at the same corner table with Marcy Kingsley, her only real friend among her colleagues. Today had been a day of reflection. She had stayed in her office between her morning and afternoon classes. When Marcy had stopped by to get her, she had begged off, claiming a headache.
She had bought a bag of pretzels from the vending machine and busied herself going through the bottom drawer of her desk, discarding entire folders of old papers and ditto masters. Ditto masters—dozens and dozens of them, some handwritten. It was hard to believe she had hung on to such antiquities so long. Afterward she had run new copies of an exam, cleaned out the top desk drawer, dusted her bookshelves.
And then, because she still had a half hour left before her three o’clock class, she had sat at her desk with her door cracked, listening to the graduate teaching assistants socializing in the hallway. They were as eager for summer as the undergrads. Not one of them had yet wished her well during the coming year. By now they had probably forgotten all about the announcement in the February faculty meeting, after which there had been a pattering of polite applause for the two professors chosen for sabbaticals—Julia and Harry Tobias, who taught psychology.
Julia didn’t fully understand the selection process, but she knew it was a committee decision and that the words “having distinguished yourself by the length and quality of your service” had been used by Dean Moorehead when he first informed her of the award privately. Though he didn’t add the words “and because of your recent personal difficulties,” he might as well have, for Julia was certain a measure of pity had also figured into the committee’s choice.
Though she had pretended to be pleased and honored, it was mostly shock she had felt. That, and the beginnings of worry as she tried to take in what it would mean to the comforting structure of her life to have a year off. Long ago she had resigned herself to the mischief of time, for though a year could pass swiftly, the days within that year could seem endless. And each day included a night.
Stepping into her bedroom slippers, she thought of all the nights like this she would have to fill in the coming year. She was struck with the urgent need to write up a list of projects she wanted to complete and places she wanted to visit. That would be one thing to do tonight.
• • •
BACK in the kitchen, she opened the freezer. Earlier in the week she had put up a dish of leftovers, which she pulled out now and put in the microwave to defrost.
She looked again at the blinking light of the telephone, but walked past it into the living room—a comfortable room, well decorated with an eclectic mix of fine old furniture and modern accessories. Above the stone hearth hung a large, colorful framed collage made of scraps of old road maps, travel brochures, and envelopes with canceled postage stamps. It was one of the few things Matthew had bought for the house that she liked. She made herself stop and look at it now, as she often did, to prove that she held no grudge against him, that her world was still intact.
She turned on the television and listened to the news for a minute, then lowered the volume and turned on the CD player. The sounds of Dvorák filled the room.
She walked back to the bathroom to wash off her makeup. Glancing into the mirror above the sink, she saw a long purple smear on her chin. She rubbed at it with her index finger and got some of it off.
She suddenly remembered the folder of old ditto masters she had leafed through in her office that afternoon. The mark on her chin must have come from those. Purple ditto ink—amazing that it could still be picked up and transferred after all those years of sitting in a folder.
As she stared at her face, it came to her that she must have had the purple streak on her chin when she met her afternoon class. Her ten students in Writing Fiction must have seen it. When she stepped off the dais to deliver her farewell remarks, they must have been reminded of all the old people they knew who went around with spots on their clothing and tufts of hair sticking out at funny angles.
At one point in her little speech, Julia had paused and looked toward the transom window above the door. Such an occasion called for a little drama, as it was no ordinary final day of class, at least not for her. “Remember this,” she had said when she resumed. “Writers must be close observers of people.” They must have wanted to laugh at that. “And of places,” she had added after another dramatic pause. “Particularly your own native soil, into which you must keep digging deeper.” She knew they would recognize the last part as a quotation from Flannery O’Connor, the woman Julia considered the best Southern writer of all time.
Looking at her watch, she saw that the bell would ring in two minutes. Time now for the real news. Stepping a little closer to the students, she said, “Some of you may have heard a rumor that I won’t be teaching at Millard-Temple next year.”
No dropped jaws, but she could see a sudden return of interest. All eyes were on Julia.
“It’s true,” she said. “I have been granted a sabbatical, which simply means I will get paid to read, to write, to travel, to do whatever I choose for a year.” She glanced up at the transom window again and nodded slowly. “It’s an opportunity not everyone gets.”
“You going on a cruise?” Aaron Clements asked. This drew laughter.
“Maybe,” Julia said. “Or maybe I’ll travel in the States. Visit some of the big cities I’ve never seen.” It was impossible to think she had lived fifty-four years and never been to Chicago or New York City, had never really wanted to. “Or maybe I’ll just stay home and be lazy,” she said. “Watch old movies and read and clean out a cupboard every now and then.”
They smiled, though she could tell their thoughts were already drifting elsewhere. She hurried on. “Others will cover my courses next year, and I’ll return a year from this fall.”
“Who’ll teach Southern Writers?” someone said.
“An adjunct from Clemson,” Julia said. “You’ll like him. He’s a Faulkner man.”
The bell rang. The students looked uncertain, as if wondering whether it would be rude to gather their things and bolt for the door.
“All right, off with you,” Julia said. “I’ll see you here again on Monday for your exam.” She had already announced the essay topic. What she hadn’t told them, of course, was that she wouldn’t read the essays, wouldn’t even skim the first pages, but would take them all home and gently place them in the trash can.
And the whole time they must have been sitting there thinking, What is that on her face? Maybe they thought it was a bruise. That would be better than if they thought it was a smudge she had failed to notice.
And the student who had come to see her in her office less than an hour ago—she must have seen the purple mark, too.
Julia had been sitting at her desk after class, thinking about how much she would miss coming here for the next year. She loved her office—her massive oak desk, the wooden file cabinet, the high ceiling, the window that faced the fountains. It pleased her to know it wouldn’t be assigned to anyone else during her sabbatical. Everything could be kept in place. She imagined herself sneaking over at nighttime to sit here in the dark.
Turning to the window, she watched the students crossing the footbridge between Simmons Hall and the Snack Shop. Everyone walked differently on the last day of class. Every step said, Let me out of here, I’m dying for summer. On the sidewalk outside her window, two girls stopped to talk, and one of them gave a whoop of laughter as they bent their heads over a cell phone.
And then there had been a light tap at her door. She turned and saw a form silhouetted through the large pane of frosted glass. “Come in,” she called.
The door opened partway, and she saw a face. “Dr. Rich?”
Julia recognized her at once. “Come in, Kelly,” she said, standing.
The girl opened the door farther and stepped inside. Kelly Kovatch was one of the few bright lights in Julia’s morning class of Creative Writing sophomores this semester. A tall, pretty girl, quiet and demure the way girls used to be.
“Will you have a seat?” Julia said, nodding toward the old library chair she used for student conferences. Julia sat back down at her desk and swung her chair around to face the girl.
“I can’t stay long,” Kelly said. “I need to be at work soon.” She pushed her dark hair behind one ear. Unlike the disarray so many girls favored these days on the tops of their heads, hers was a neat, tidy hairstyle from an earlier era—longer than a bob but not quite a pageboy. She took a deep breath and continued. “I came to tell you something about the short story I wrote for your class. You probably don’t remember which one was mine, but it . . .”
“Of course I remember. It was about the father and his teenage son, whose driving lesson was a fiasco.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “Yes. That was it.” She looked directly at Julia and swallowed. “Well, I need to confess something. It . . . wasn’t really my work.”
She could have no way of knowing what effect her words would have. For a long moment Julia stopped breathing but never took her eyes off the girl. “What do you mean?” she asked at last.
Kelly sighed and shook her head. “Well, I turned in that story for a class called Creative Writing, but I didn’t really create it. The whole conversation in the garage really happened, almost verbatim. It was my own father and one of my brothers. And the part about the paint buckets and the garden hose—that really happened, too. And the spare tire and the bag of flour and the scorched hot dogs—those, too. I’m ashamed to say . . .” She trailed off and looked down at her hands, then added softly, “. . . well, I never even told them I was using them for my story. I just did it.”
Julia was afraid the girl might be crying, but when she lifted her face, her eyes were dry, her voice steady. “I keep remembering what you said before we ever started writing our stories about how important it was to transform a real-life experience before trying to use it in fiction, and . . . well, I didn’t—and so I’m not sure I deserve the grade you gave me. I feel awful—I don’t know what to call what I did. Exploitation or plagiarism or . . .” She broke off again.
Such innocence and probity astounded Julia. And shamed her. She swiveled her chair around to face the bookcases, and after a brief silence she spoke. “Kelly, that’s not called plagiarism or exploitation. It’s called being smart enough to recognize good material when you see and hear it.” She swung her chair around again to face the girl. “You don’t need to confess. You simply need to be grateful that your father and brother did and said those things while you were nearby and that you had the good sense to remember them and to realize what a fine story you could make out of them.”
A smile of disbelief slowly spread across the girl’s face. “You have no idea how much I’ve dreaded this. I was prepared to . . . well, I was prepared for the worst.” She glanced at her watch, then stood up. “Thank you, Dr. Rich. This is a very happy ending to what I was afraid might be a very sad story.”
Julia stood also. “Writers get their ideas from many places, Kelly—sometimes right under their noses. So stay alert—and keep writing. Please keep writing.”
Kelly nodded. “I will, I promise.” At the door she turned around. “I hope you enjoy your sabbatical, Dr. Rich. And I hope I can take another class from you after you get back.”
After she left, Julia thought of other things she could have said to her. But it was too late now. Like so often in the past, words she should have said were left unspoken. But this time maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. If she had talked longer, it would have only given Kelly more time to stare at the smear across her chin.
• • •
JULIA looked away from the mirror now. She turned on the water at the sink and ran it till it was hot. Then she lathered her hands with soap and rubbed her face for a long time, then scrubbed her chin hard with a washcloth and dried it with a towel. No mild cleansing foam today. It didn’t matter anyway. All the little lines and wrinkles would keep coming regardless of how she washed her face. More and more of them. You could buy every age-defying cream on the market, but not one of them was a match for time. She picked up her brush and examined it, something she did more often these days, for her hair was not only graying at an alarming rate but also thinning. Once a month she colored it herself, but nothing could be done about replacing what fell out.
She and Marcy Kingsley had observed old Dr. Kohler in the cafeteria recently. Dr. Kohler, her hair a frail white web, had taught Shakespeare at Millard-Temple since time immemorial. She liked to joke that her students thought she had known Shakespeare personally. Very deliberately she had made her way down the cafeteria line that day, then had taken her tray to a table by the window, where two rookie English teachers were already seated. Within minutes they had excused themselves, and Dr. Kohler had eaten her lunch alone, staring out the window.
“She must’ve spent a lot of time in the sun when she was younger,” Marcy had said. “When I start looking like that, I don’t think I’ll have the nerve to go out in public. Especially not to stand up in front of a class of college students.” Julia hadn’t said anything, but her sympathies were with Dr. Kohler. Marcy was only forty-three, but it would dawn on her sooner or later that a woman couldn’t stay inside and hide her wrinkles from the world. There wasn’t a thing you could do about growing old. You just had to keep going.
• • •
THE microwave was finished when Julia got back to the kitchen, so she reset it to cook on low and started it again. She poured a glass of sweet tea, took a long drink, and then refilled it. She knew she shouldn’t drink more than a single glass, since caffeine kept her awake if she drank it this late in the day. But tomorrow was Saturday, so she could sleep later. If she could sleep at all—that was often a problem, caffeine or not.
She walked back to the living room to get a magazine and brought it back to the kitchen. It was an issue of The Atlantic from months ago that she had never even opened. Only one of many things that had gone unattended since last August.
She stopped at the counter beside the blinking telephone. As much as she wanted to ignore it, she knew she couldn’t much longer. She briefly considered deleting the message without listening to it, but she knew there would always be the niggling thought that Pamela might actually have said something important this time. The only way to get rid of it was to go ahead and play it.
She sighed and pressed the button.
But it wasn’t Pamela. “Hey, Aunt Julia,” a voice said, just short of a shout. “This is Carmen.” There were crackling, popping sounds in the background like distant gunfire. “I know you’re probably surprised to hear from me. It’s been a long time. Like almost forever.” She laughed. “Well, okay, more like never.”
Julia couldn’t have been more stunned if the telephone had suddenly caught fire. Carmen? Her brother’s Carmen? The little girl he had fathered with some waitress he’d met at a truck stop out west? She didn’t know of any other Carmen. She tried to calculate how old the girl would be now, but she was having trouble thinking. The last she had heard, Carmen had dropped out of high school, left her mother’s trailer in Wyoming, and fled to Canada with her boyfriend. That must have been five years ago now. Maybe not that long, maybe longer.
“Anyway, I hope this is the right number!” the voice said. Now it sounded like someone was shaking a large piece of sheet metal right beside the telephone. “I called information. Hang on, I can’t hear.” There was the sound of clomping footsteps, then a whooshing sound like a high wind through a tunnel, then the slam of a door, and the voice was back. “There, now, that’s better. Anyway, I’ve been riding around on a sailboat for a little bit with this friend I met, and we docked down here in Charleston. So now the ride’s over, and I said to myself, hey, I’ve got an aunt somewhere down here, so why don’t I call her up and tell her I might come see her. So that’s what I’m doing.” She laughed, a single hoarse “Ha!”
Julia felt a sudden panic. If this indeed was her niece Carmen, she didn’t want to see her, not now or ever. She had no desire to be reminded of her brother, Jeremiah, who had made more than his share of mistakes during his life, impregnating a waitress in Wyoming being only one of many. And neither did she want to be reminded of her own poor choices in regard to Jeremiah.
“I don’t know when exactly I can come,” the voice said. “But maybe next week. I need to work out some things first. I got your address from Lulu a while back, so if I . . .” There was a burst of static, and Julia missed the next words. Then came a muffled shout in the background. “In a minute!” the girl said. “I’m on the phone!”
By now Julia was convinced that the voice belonged to her niece, for Lulu had been the name of the waitress in Wyoming—exactly the kind of name a truck stop waitress would have, the same kind of woman who would let her daughter call her by her first name. What a horrible thing if this girl really did show up on Julia’s doorstep next week. She couldn’t let that happen.
The voice continued. “Sorry, I need to hang up and help somebody, but maybe I’ll see you soon. I need to get some ducks in a row before I . . .” There was a loud bump and another shout, not a happy one. Carmen sighed into the phone. “I’ve got to go now.” And that was the end. She hung up without saying good-bye.
Julia quickly reviewed the call log, but the only entry read Unknown Name, with no phone number. Dismayed, she stood staring at the phone. This couldn’t be happening. She hated the thought of having company, period—someone invading her space. But she especially hated the thought of this particular company.
When the microwave beeped, she was still rooted in the same place, still looking at the telephone, her hand over her mouth. The call had come at a little past two that afternoon. Almost four hours ago. What if Carmen was already busy getting her ducks in a row?
Julia replayed the entire message, her sense of foreboding increasing every second. She had seen a picture of Carmen only once—a snaggletoothed child with a pale, sweet face, a dimpled smile, and wildly curly blond hair. But that had been many years ago now.
Slowly she walked to the microwave and took out the dish. It was only lukewarm, so she put it back in. She couldn’t think of what to do next. Maybe Pamela had a phone number for Carmen, though Julia knew that was highly improbable. Pamela had never wanted anything to do with anyone in Wyoming, their own brother included. She had told Julia not to respond to Lulu’s first letter twelve years ago, the letter she had received not long after Lulu’s phone call claiming that Jeremiah had died of a gunshot wound from a stray bullet while hunting.
“She just wants money,” Pamela had said. “How do we know she’s telling the truth? People like that are always looking for a handout. We don’t know how Jeremiah died or even if he died—she might be making the whole thing up. Why would we take her word for it? Somebody like that, she probably doesn’t even know who that child’s father really is.”
But one look at the picture Lulu had enclosed with the letter, and nobody could deny Jeremiah was her father. No judge with eyes in his head would have bothered ordering a DNA test. After Pamela saw the photo for herself, she never again expressed doubt, though she continued to urge Julia not to write Lulu back.
But something in the letter had compelled her to answer. For one thing, Julia had truly loved her brother, more than she loved her sister if the truth were known. For another, Lulu’s mention of Jeremiah’s “papers” had intrigued her. Julia had written back and sent her money for shipping. A thousand times since then she wished she hadn’t, but she had. And just like growing old, there wasn’t a thing she could do about it now. The box had eventually arrived, and what was done was done. Other letters had followed over the years, but Julia had never again written back.
Quickly she walked back to the phone now and punched in Pamela’s number. It rang six times before the answering machine turned on. Of course—wasn’t that the way life went? Pamela was always interrupting Julia’s life to talk about absolutely nothing, but the one time Julia actually wanted to talk to her, she wasn’t home. “Call me right away,” she said testily and then hung up.
She walked back into the living room and saw on the television screen a building engulfed in black smoke. Part of her took it as an omen that something catastrophic was about to happen in her life right now, yet the other, more rational part of her argued that a phone call from a niece she had never met was no cause to overreact.
She went back to the kitchen and tried to collect her thoughts. First she would sit at the table and eat her supper. That was a starting point. And as she ate, she would listen to the rest of the Slavonic Dances and try to read a story in The Atlantic as she waited for Pamela to call back. Then she would watch something on television, make a tentative list of things to do during her sabbatical, and eventually go to bed.
She walked to the window above the sink. The stone house was laid out in a modified L shape, the two ends extending slightly perpendicular to the middle of the house so that from where she stood now, she could see all the way across the front yard to the iris bed beneath her bedroom window at the opposite end—the same flower bed where Matthew had collapsed one day late last summer.
There was a time when she had thought of her house on Ivy Dale as a lookout on the world—at least all she wanted to see of the world—but lately she had begun to feel that her view of life was diminishing into something the size of a postcard, and not one bearing a cheerful message either.
She turned and looked toward the microwave, watching the seconds count down.
• chapter 2 •
IN THE EVENT OF RAIN
Julia was in the middle of a dream when she woke with a start the next morning. Unlike many of her dreams, she could remember this one. She had been at the edge of a lake, calling to a little girl on the other side: “No, don’t send them over!” But one by one the child put them into the water—yellow rubber ducks, all lined up in a row. She scooted along the ground, giving each one a little push into the water. And as the wind drove them rapidly to the shore where Julia stood, she saw that these were no comical Aflac ducks. These had menacing orange bills and black eyes filled with hatred.
She tried to laugh away her fear, reminding herself that dreams were like the stories she taught in her literature classes—not to be taken literally, of course, but not too symbolically either. She was of the mind that too many teachers ruined literature for their students, leading them to view a story as a captured prisoner tied to a post and flogged until it yielded its identity, its meaning.
Pamela had never called back the night before, but Julia had left two more messages. She went into the kitchen now and checked the answering machine. Nothing. No message on her cell phone either. This was very uncharacteristic of Pamela, who considered her phone as necessary as food and water. Maybe she and Butch had gone to another one of the tacky bluegrass festivals they loved so much. Or maybe she was visiting one of her children, though she hadn’t mentioned doing that until midsummer, when the new grandbaby was due. Even then, she always had her cell phone with her.
Julia dialed her home phone again, but hung up as soon as the answering machine came on. She briefly considered calling Butch since she had his cell number, but she had no desire to have any kind of conversation with her brother-in-law. She would call him only if she got truly desperate.
Well, she couldn’t sit by the telephone all day waiting. She started the coffee, then returned to her bedroom to get dressed. A nice long walk after breakfast—that was what she needed. She had taken to walking after Matthew’s death, finding it useful for both filling time and easing her mind.
It was almost ten o’clock when she finally set out. She took her cell phone along, though Pamela probably wouldn’t think to try her cell number since Julia so rarely had it turned on—a subject of Pamela’s frequent complaints.
Ivy Dale was a picturesque setting for the stone house. The trees had leafed out early this year, already forming a canopy overhead. Even on the hottest days of summer, the street seemed cool and peaceful, though today there seemed to be something unnatural and ominous about so much shade on a sunny morning.
A car was coming toward Julia, moving slowly as if looking for an address. She felt a weight in the pit of her stomach. She had thought about Carmen all through the night. Every time she woke up, she remembered her words: I don’t know when exactly I can come. But maybe next week. Since today was Saturday, did that mean the week starting tomorrow?
The car passed. The driver was a man, no one Julia knew. She came to the end of Ivy Dale and decided suddenly to take a different route today. She turned right and walked a block to a street named Placid Place, which ran parallel to Ivy Dale. This was the way she went whenever she walked to the campus of Millard-Temple, which wasn’t often.
There were some interesting old houses along Placid Place, though several of them had been divided into student apartments in recent years, which was exactly the reason Julia usually avoided this area. She didn’t like the way the neighborhood had changed from earlier days, and she certainly didn’t want to run into students on the weekend, especially her own students. It was Saturday, though, so most of them were probably still asleep after the usual Friday night partying. Final exams might be starting on Monday, but the average student wasn’t going to let that interfere with his weekend.
Sure enough, there was no sign of activity along Placid Place, at least not current activity. One porch was littered with articles of clothing and beer cans. A lone sneaker hung by its laces from the mailbox, and a Chinese take-out carton sat on the bottom step, its lid open, chopsticks sticking out the top. Julia tried to imagine how the original owner of this once-stately old home would feel if he saw it now.
• • •
SHE picked up her pace. Well rehearsed in not thinking about things she didn’t want to think about, she fell back on an old strategy. She imagined a storage room with dozens of boxes, the kinds of boxes with nice, tight-fitting lids. For now she would put Carmen in a box and close it snugly.
Since she still hadn’t made a list of projects to undertake during her sabbatical, she could start that now as she walked, then write it down later when she got home.
Clean the screened back porch—that was a good place to begin. After months of winter winds and rain, it was always dirty by late spring. After the porch, she would tackle all the closets. Not that any of them were terribly messy, especially not Matthew’s. Though she had cleared out the drawers of his bureau and desk, all of them uncommonly tidy for a man, for anyone really, she had not opened the door of his closet since the day after he died, when she had to choose a suit to bury him in.
She also needed to sort through all the bookshelves and kitchen cupboards and . . . suddenly she felt her cell phone vibrate. She took it out of her pocket and saw that it was from Pamela. Finally.
She flipped it open. “Where have you been?”
“Amazing—you actually have your cell phone on.” Pamela’s voice sounded weak and scratchy.
“Are you sick?” Julia said.
“Why did you call? What’s the matter? You don’t ever call.”
“Do you have a cold?”
“I wish that’s all it was,” Pamela said. “I’ve been sick as a dog.” She broke off to cough, a prolonged crackly cough that sounded like somebody grappling with a large cellophane bag.
“Are you taking something?”
“Yes, I’m taking something. A bunch of things. I’ve been drugged out of my mind for three days. All I’ve been doing is sleeping. But what’s wrong? Why did you call and leave all those messages? Butch said you sounded mad on the answering machine.”
“I wasn’t mad,” Julia said. “I just needed to talk to you. I need to know if you have a phone number for Carmen.”
There was a pause. “Carmen? You mean . . .” Pamela choked on whatever she tried to say next and started coughing again, deep and hacky. Finally she caught her breath. “You mean, as in our brother Jeremiah and that truck stop woman? That Carmen?”
“How many other Carmens do you know?” Julia said.
“What do you want to call her for?”
“I don’t want to, but I need to.” Pamela started to say something, but Julia stopped her. “Don’t talk, just listen.” And she told her about the phone message, every detail she could remember. “So I’ve got to get in touch with her. She can’t come here. That can’t happen. Not now, not ever.” She realized suddenly that she had stopped walking and was waving one hand around. She was standing in front of a three-story house with peeling green paint, where a girl was lounging on a porch swing in what looked like her underwear. She was holding a cup of something in one hand, and she was staring at Julia.
Julia hoped she hadn’t overheard anything. She would hate to have it spread around campus that Dr. Rich was standing on a sidewalk yelling at someone on the telephone. She lowered her voice and resumed walking. “So you’re sure you don’t have a number for her?”
“Why would I have her number?” Pamela asked. “I’ve never talked to her in my whole life, not once. How about her mother? Did you try her?”
If Julia needed any proof that she hadn’t been thinking straight, this was it. Even though it was probably a dead-end idea, the thought of trying to get in touch with Lulu hadn’t crossed her mind. She wasn’t going to admit it to Pamela, however. Pamela loved to point out how she might not have a doctoral degree like Julia, but she did have an abundance of common sense—as if a person couldn’t have both.
And it was true that she was very smart, very capable. She did things Julia had to pay people to do—things like painting shutters, planting flowers and shrubs, doing their own taxes. Most of these skills, though, were the result of marrying a sloppy, overweight man like Butch. To be fair, Julia didn’t really know him, had seen him only three times in person and in a few photos. “I can do anything a man can do,” Pamela often said, which Julia interpreted as If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.
“I don’t have Lulu’s number,” Julia said. “I never did. And I don’t know her address either. I didn’t keep any of her letters.”
“Butch can probably track her down on the Internet,” Pamela said. The computer was the one area, the only one, in which Butch was competent.
Julia laughed. “So what’s he going to do—Google ‘Lulu in Wyoming’? She might be living anywhere by now. And we don’t even know her last name. Whenever she wrote me, she just signed her name Lulu. I’m sure she and Jeremiah never married.”
“Well, okay, then, I guess you can just wait and ask Carmen how to get in touch with her when she shows up,” Pamela said.
Julia sighed. “Of course, it’s easy for you to joke about this since you’re not the one whose doorbell she might be ringing any day now.”
“Sorry, Jules. My head feels like a mush melon. I just can’t think right now. I wish I had a . . .” She stopped for another coughing fit, then blew her nose. “Hey, I can’t talk anymore right now, but I’ll call back later. You going to be home tonight? We can figure out something.” Her voice sounded weaker now, only a croaky whisper, though Julia suspected her of putting on.
“No, don’t bother,” Julia said. “Just go back to sleep and get well. Good-bye.” She closed her phone and put it back in her pocket.
Well, so much for that. She suddenly realized how much she had been counting on her sister’s help. Though Pamela’s specialty was disaster prevention, she was also good in an unexpected crisis—for example, sweeping onto the scene after Matthew’s death without waiting to be asked, then supervising and reorganizing Julia’s life for weeks thereafter. And before that, when their parents both died within months of each other, it was Pamela who showed up to help, who made all the final arrangements and cleared out their house. So how could it be that now, faced with a matter of relatively minor importance compared to a death, she had nothing to offer?
• • •
A FEW minutes later Julia came to a street corner. She could turn right and head back home, or turn left toward the college. Or she could continue going straight on Placid Place, which would eventually lead to a new subdivision with a small lake and golf course, where several of the younger Millard-Temple professors lived. She stood there for a moment before deciding to keep going straight.
She hadn’t gone far, however, before regretting her decision. A boy came bounding down the front steps of an old brick house wearing a black T-shirt and jeans with holes in both knees. Julia recognized him at once—he had sat on the back row in her Creative Writing class all semester—and she saw that he recognized her, too. He ran both hands over his hair, which, as usual, was in need of a good combing. Julia wished she had spent more time on her own hair and makeup this morning. She didn’t like her students to see her when she wasn’t put together, not even a student like this one.
Too close to ignore her, the boy bobbed his head and said, “Dr. Rich.” Frowning, he darted a glance at his car by the curb, as if worried that she might waylay him with a lecture about the different types of irony in drama or the rhyme scheme of a ballad, but she had no intention of doing so. He hadn’t appeared the least interested in anything she had said in class all semester, so she had nothing to say to him now.
“Hello, Mr. Vincent,” she said with a curt nod as she continued walking. Seconds later, his car started and she heard the heavy bass thumps of his music as he sped past her.
She kept walking, eventually passing the city limits sign, where the sidewalk ended and Placid Place changed its name to Chapel Road. Beyond a little bridge she stepped onto the bike path and kept going. The road was wider now, the houses scattered farther apart.
Returning to her list of projects to undertake during her sabbatical, she thought of all her teaching materials she was still using from fifteen or twenty years ago. Marcy Kingsley had recently converted all of her class presentations for British Literature to PowerPoint slides and had told Julia she would show her how. “It makes taking notes so much easier for the students,” she had said.
Julia was convinced that too many things were made easier for students these days. If they couldn’t figure out how to take notes from a professor’s lecture, they didn’t belong in college. Besides that, she knew what happened with technology. Something new would come along and PowerPoint would become passé. It probably already had. But she might give it a try anyway. First she would need to retype all her notes and handouts—that would be a good way to take up time.
And she probably ought to travel some, even though she had no urge to do so except on a very limited basis. For example, she did want to drive to Milledgeville, Georgia, again to visit Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor—a trip she had taken several times in the past. There was something inspiring about the house and farm, something that reminded her that a plain, confined life could count for something, or rather, that what appeared to be a plain, confined life could in fact be spacious and well furnished if one kept her mind active and open.
She felt the splash of a raindrop on her arm and looked up, startled that she could have been oblivious to the clouds gathering overhead. She wondered if there had been thunder she hadn’t heard. Further, how could she have missed the forecast, something she usually consulted morning and night? More proof that her thoughts were in disarray.
More raindrops were falling, leaving dark splotches on her shirt. She began walking faster. An old chapel stood back from the road just ahead. She could wait out the storm there. The wind suddenly picked up with a fury. If she hadn’t been witnessing it with her own eyes, she never would have believed the sky could burst open so suddenly. By the time she reached the covered entrance of the chapel, actually running the last hundred yards, she was soaked.
Standing against the door, panting, she watched the rain fall in sheets and felt the spray against her face. She had never liked being out in the rain the way some people did, had never really liked rain at all, not even from indoors.
A tired old memory came back to her now, across the span of nearly fifty years. It wasn’t her worst memory, but one of her earliest and most vivid. She was standing with her back against the door of an old brick building, just as she was now. It was the last day of school, so it must have been early June, and her mother had just dropped her off at the front door of the elementary school in Nadine, Alabama. There had been more angry words and tears at the breakfast table, then only the two of them riding silently in the car, neither offering comfort to the other, and now she was late to school again.
It was raining heavily that day, and Julia had stood at the door of the school, first watching her mother drive away and then turning to look at the soggy playground, where flags and markers were set up for races and games. It was a day she had looked forward to for many weeks, barely able to concentrate on anything else, not even on her achievement tests, which, though only in first grade, she understood to be very important to her father. But she had tried to rise above her excitement and do her best, for she knew the test results would be included in her final report card, which the teacher would hand out at the end of school on the last day.
Before that, however, there were prizes to be won during the Field Day activities, an event that had already been rescheduled once for inclement weather. A fast runner, Julia had pinned all her hopes on winning a race and bringing home a blue ribbon. She had imagined a look of pride and approval spreading across her father’s face, a hand laid on her head, maybe a word of praise.
But it was raining and showed no signs of letting up. The sky was gray, the playground full of puddles. And it was the last day of school. Even at the age of six, she knew a lost cause when she saw one. She didn’t know certain words, but she knew the concepts. She knew this meant wholesale cancellation, not postponement. Time had run out. There was no contingency plan, and there would be no prize to take home.
Out on Chapel Road now, cars had slowed. The rain had slacked off some but was still falling steadily. She had no umbrella, of course. She had her cell phone but could think of no one she wanted to call for help. Marcy would come, she knew that, but she didn’t want to hear her cheerful, idle chatter all the way home—“You’re all wet, girlfriend!” and “What in the world were you doing all the way out here?” and all the rest of it.
So she would stay here and watch the rain until it stopped. Then she would slosh her way back home, change out of her wet clothes, and . . . well, she didn’t want to think past that. There was nothing to anticipate at home, nothing good.
But what of it? She had known dreary days before and would certainly know them again. There was no sure way to plan for the unforeseeable, no way to avert misfortune or guarantee shelter in the event of rain. At least this time she had found a small, dry place for refuge.
• chapter 3 •
NOTHING SOLID AND SURE
Days later, as Julia turned onto Ivy Dale after giving an exam, she realized that the phone message from Carmen had completely changed the way she arrived home.
Gone was the sense of breathing more easily as she proceeded down her quiet, shaded street, of slowly shedding the carefully calculated way she conducted herself away from home, of letting her eyes settle on the stone house, dropping whatever worries she had at the time to admire yet again the steep pitch of the roof, the dark red shutters and front door, the way the two ends of the house angled politely toward each other, the stone walkway Matthew had laid, the lamppost by the circular driveway, the ivy-covered mailbox.
She still saw all of these things, but only in an absentminded way. They gave her no sense of well-being. Not even the gnarly trunk of the Japanese maple afforded her much joy, or the irises unfolding daily under her bedroom window.
Now, from the moment she turned onto Ivy Dale, she strained forward, looking for a car parked in her driveway or someone at the front door. All looked safe right now, however, so she pulled into the driveway, not the circular one in front but the original one that shot straight to the garage at the rear of the house.
In the kitchen the red light on the answering machine was blinking again. Carmen’s phone message was having its effect here, too. No more waiting till later. A phone call might require immediate action. She walked directly to the phone. Unlike only days ago, she was now relieved to hear her sister’s voice. Though still hoarse, it sounded better than it had last week.
“Hey there, Jules. Call me. Butch did find Lulu, and you won’t believe it—she’s listed as Lulu Frederickson. So either she really did marry Jeremiah or else she just took his name without bothering, which wouldn’t surprise me.”
Julia called her back at once. Pamela answered after the first ring and began talking as if in the middle of a conversation.
“And the town is Painted Horse, Wyoming. I found it on a map. I’ve got her address and phone number. You have a pencil? You think she really married him?”
“Who knows?” Julia said. “I wonder if she moved. Seems like Painted Horse is a name I would remember.”
“Well, anyway, it’s still a trailer,” Pamela said. “Butch found that out in the personal property listings.”
Julia took down the information and told Pamela she would let her know if she got in touch with Lulu. But Pamela wasn’t ready to hang up. Starved for conversation after her long fast, she rushed into a news report about a woman being held up at an ATM. But Julia didn’t let her get far. She had to hang up, she told her. She had a phone call to make. There was no time to waste.
• • •
IT was almost three o’clock, but it would be two hours earlier in Wyoming. She had no idea whether Lulu had a job. Maybe she was still a waitress. More likely she had quit working by now and was on welfare.
She punched in the numbers quickly, and, remarkably, someone answered. At first Julia wondered if she might have called Pamela back by mistake, for it was a woman’s voice, low and husky like Pamela’s sick voice. But it sounded like an older voice, and not a very cordial one.
As there was no one to impress in Painted Horse, Wyoming, Julia didn’t bother with preliminaries. “Hello,” she said in a businesslike tone. “I’m trying to get in touch with someone named Lulu, and I was given this number. Is this Lulu?”
There was no reply at first, then a short laugh, and then, “Nuh-uh, this is Ida. You wanting Lulu? Lulu Frederickson?”
Julia wondered if Lulu was a common name in Painted Horse. “Yes, that Lulu,” she said. She couldn’t make herself put the two names together.
“Who is this? What you wanting Lulu for?”
“I need to contact her daughter. It’s urgent. I was hoping Lulu would give me a phone number for her.”
Another coarse laugh. “Which daughter you talking about?”
This shouldn’t have surprised Julia, but it did. She should have known a woman like Lulu would have several children, probably by several different fathers.
“Carmen,” she said.
“Who is this?” the voice asked again. “Is something the matter with Carmen? You know where she’s at?”
Julia spoke briskly as if to convey the need for answers, not more questions. “My name is Julia Rich. My brother, Jeremiah, was Carmen’s father. I need to talk with Carmen right away.”
“Jerry was your brother?”
“Yes, I’m Jeremiah Frederickson’s sister. One of them. And I need to get in touch with Carmen.” And then, as if someone from Wyoming needed clarification, she added, “I’m Carmen’s aunt.”
“Well, you’re not the only one that wants to talk to her. I do, too. I got a thing or two to tell her.”
Julia’s heart sank. “You don’t know how to reach her?”
“Not even her mother?”
Julia wasn’t sure she had heard right. “But . . . we found a listing for her with this phone number.”
“Folks can die sudden.”
“When . . . did this happen? Does Carmen know?”
“That’s what I just got through saying. Nobody knows where she’s at. Funeral was a week ago.” It struck Julia that the woman didn’t seem particularly sad about any of this, only inconvenienced.
This was bad news, of course. Not because Lulu meant anything to Julia personally but because any hope of contacting Carmen was now dashed. But she couldn’t help being curious. “What happened? Was it an accident of some kind?”
“Well, for sure she didn’t mean to die.” The woman coughed, a smoker’s deep, rolling cough. “She give out sudden. Real bad off. Couldn’t get her breath.”
It struck Julia that this woman sounded more like a native of the Deep South than the West. She could be one of the people routinely interviewed on the local ten o’clock news here in South Carolina: “Yep, we was a’layin’ in the bed sleepin’ when they was a loud boom and ’fore we knowed it we didn’t have no roof.” These people were usually missing at least one front tooth and often had a bad eye.
She said, “Was it . . . heart trouble?”
“Just up and died,” the woman said.
Julia wondered if everyone in Wyoming spoke so cryptically. She heard a sudden high whistling sound in the background. “Water’s boiling,” the woman said. “I got to go tend it.”
“Wait, please. I’m very sorry to hear about all this, but are you absolutely sure you don’t have any idea how to reach Carmen? No cell phone? No address? Nothing at all?”
“She used to call Lulu some, but Lulu never did call her. Carmen, she was footloose. Trekked around a lot. She come back here once, just a day, then lit out again. Told Effie she was going to Oregon. Or maybe it was Ohio.” Julia doubted that this woman even knew the two states were in opposite directions from Wyoming.
Julia sighed. “Oh.” Then, though it didn’t matter at all, she asked, “Who’s Effie?”
“Lulu’s sister. Half sister. Lulu was the oldest.” There was a thump in the background, and the whistling sound stopped.
“And you’re . . . their mother?” Julia asked.
“Practically same as.”
Julia decided not to follow up on this. She had a sudden vision of the three women—Lulu, Effie, and . . . had she said Ida?—soft-fleshed, disheveled, and slack-jawed, sitting on a dilapidated sofa in a trailer, engrossed in a soap opera, eating nachos and beef jerky. She knew she was being unfair, assuming the worst about people she had never met, but she also knew she was probably right.
She couldn’t resist one last try. “So you can’t think of anyone at all who might know how to reach Carmen? Or how about a place she might have worked recently? Or maybe Effie would know something?”
There was a sudden frantic yipping in the background, along with loud thuds, as of someone trying to kick down a door. “He’s not allowed in!” the woman shouted. “You let him in, you’ll be the one cleaning up his nasty turds.” She coughed another deep, racking cough. To Julia she said, “Nobody knows where she’s at. Nobody means nobody. Effie can’t help. She’s bad sick, half out of her mind.” There was more barking in the background, then the sound of breaking glass. “Now look what you’ve gone and—” And suddenly the line was dead.
Julia slowly closed her cell phone and stood in her kitchen a long moment, trying to absorb the setback, trying not to think ahead to the eventual, inevitable slam of a car door, the sound of a knock on the door or the chime of the doorbell, the sight of a stranger on her front step.
• • •
WHEN at last she came back to herself, she was still standing in the same spot, staring at the backsplash above the sink. It was something she often found herself doing—studying the rows of small multicolored tiles, looking for but never finding a repeating pattern. The whole length of it was just a random mix, though something Matthew had “designed,” as he had liked to say. In Julia’s opinion, such a design could have been drawn up by a child—a blind one.
She knew there was a parallel here to the course her whole life had taken, except there was no one to claim the role of designer for that sad piece of work. Hers was a life of echoes and shadows. No pattern, nothing solid and sure.
Slowly she walked back toward her bedroom, trying hard to think of something, just one thing, she could latch on to as the dimmest flicker of hope in this whole situation with Carmen. Only one thought presented itself: At least if Carmen did call her back or, worse, did show up in person, Julia could get rid of her by saying her family needed her immediately back in Wyoming. She could hustle her to the airport, buy her a plane ticket, and get her on the next flight out.
In the meantime, she would fill up the next days and weeks with comings and goings, as many as she could think of, until enough time had elapsed that she felt safe again. In case Carmen did come sometime soon, Julia was going to try her best not to be at home. And if she did happen to be here, she could always pretend she wasn’t. There was no law that said you had to open your door if someone knocked.
Julia changed out of her teaching clothes into a crisp pink shirt and a pair of tan slacks. As afternoon seemed a particularly likely time for an out-of-town visitor to arrive, she had already devised a plan for the next several hours. She would run by the library and get a couple of books she had put on reserve as well as a movie Marcy had recommended, then go to the mall for a wedding gift for Dean Moorehead’s daughter. She would take her time selecting it and having it gift-wrapped. Then she would stop somewhere to eat, and if she read one of the library books as she ate, the way she saw other people doing in restaurants, she could stretch it out even longer.
She ran a brush through her hair, dabbed on some lipstick, and left the house a few minutes later. As she backed cautiously out of the driveway in her Buick, an ancient pickup truck lurched to a stop at the curb. No clutching at the heart, though, since she recognized it at once as belonging to Gil, her yardman. Gil did a lot more than mow the lawn. A “lawn sculptor”—that’s what he called himself on his business card. A droll little man with a luxuriant mustache, he had a disconcerting habit of blinking constantly whenever he spoke, which thankfully wasn’t often. But he was very fastidious, very dependable, not to mention reasonable in price, so she was willing to allow him any eccentricity.
Though Matthew had made a hobby of puttering in the flower beds himself, he had hired Gil years ago, one of several forward-looking arrangements he had made for upkeep at home when his job started requiring him to travel more. Julia sometimes thought of such arrangements as credits on her husband’s ledger page, though they in no way canceled the long list he had left in the other column after his death. It was a conflicted sort of gratitude she felt even now, colored as it was by the discovery of his many debts, which had become her debts.
She still remembered the day after Matthew’s funeral, when certain financial horrors were beginning to come to light. Pamela had gone through Matthew’s desk and dug out bills, statements, receipts, and one insurance policy, ironically small considering the fact that Matthew was in the insurance business. Pam had sorted through them all and put them in order, then entered everything on a spreadsheet. As Julia stood at the desk and stared at the figures displayed on the computer screen, she heard two things simultaneously: first, Pamela’s voice saying, “I’ll help you get through this, Jules, but I have to tell you it looks like he left you in a mess,” and, second, a lawn mower starting up right outside the window.
Looking out the window that day, Julia had seen Gil in his baggy work pants and red suspenders, his broad-brimmed hat pulled down low over his eyes, maneuvering the mower around the base of an oak tree. And she remembered Pamela following her eyes to the window, then saying, “At least you don’t have to worry about your yard along with everything else right now—well, except paying him to do it.”
And that wasn’t the end of it. After Pamela finally packed up and left, Julia had found several dozen handwritten IOUs in an old cigar box, all neatly printed, dated, and signed by Matthew—debts to his card-playing friends, totaling over six thousand dollars, all of which she had insisted on settling out of pride.
• • •
JULIA waved to Gil now, but he made no sign of having seen her, though she knew he had. She stopped her car and pulled forward onto the circular drive, then eased out onto Ivy Dale and turned in the direction of the library. She and Gil didn’t converse often, as there was little to talk about. They had a routine, and he stuck to his part. She stuck to hers, too, which was to mail him a check at the beginning of every month.
As she pulled away from the stone house, Julia glanced at Gil in her rearview mirror and thought again about what a colorful character he would make for a story. Tweak him a little, of course, add a limp perhaps, make him more talkative with some quirky speech patterns, maybe give him a more distinctive name, something more obviously foreign, and perhaps a characteristic odor—garlic or cabbage or curry.
She thought, too, of other people in her life who could also be cast as story characters: Marcy Kingsley, Dr. Boyer the French teacher, old Dr. Kohler, even her sister Pamela, and Pamela’s big sloth of a husband, Butch. And Ida from Wyoming. But it would take a better writer than herself, not just someone with a good eye for detecting idiosyncrasies. A real writer had to be able to create, not just imitate and exaggerate.
More than once when mentioning her upcoming sabbatical, Dean Moorehead had said to her in his soft, earnest voice, “We know you’ll enjoy some extra time for writing,” which she had taken to mean, We expect to see you published again.
But publication was another one of those things Julia didn’t want to think about. She tried to push the thought away, but it pushed back this time, then began to settle in. She knew her few scholarly essays and two stories didn’t count for much in academia, especially considering the origin of the stories. No one knew about all that, however, and there was certainly nothing to be gained by allowing herself to dwell on it again.
To her credit, she was a good teacher, a proven teacher, an excellent teacher in fact, perfectly capable and fair in her critique of student writing. No one could deny that she had much to offer in the classroom, whether she ever published again or not. Unfortunately, however, publication carried a great deal of weight with deans and department chairs. She knew they were waiting for her to deliver again. She had told her dean a couple of years ago that she was “working on” a novel. What she didn’t tell him was that the only work she had done on it had taken place in her head. She hadn’t actually written down the first word.
Sitting at a stoplight or eating breakfast or walking across campus, she might think of a perfect opening, but as soon as she picked up a pen or sat down at her computer, doubt set in. She might make several tries but by the end rejected them all as too stilted, too bland, too pretentious, too something. And then an old worry: Maybe she had read those exact words somewhere else and was only recalling them. She had the kind of memory that could do that. And even if she could write her own decent opening, where would she go from there? The thought of advancing beyond the first page was terrifying, like walking to the edge of a chasm and leaping.
Shame and fear—they made a debilitating pair. The closing words of one of her two published stories came to her now: He saw her on the loading dock, waiting for him in the rain, the steam rising about her like an unholy incense. She knew she could recite most of the sentences before that, too, all the way back to the first one. That was how well she knew the story. Backward and forward, as they said.
It was a good story, perfectly balanced between suggestion and revelation, with complex characters and a strong ending. But it wasn’t her own, except for the title.
• chapter 4 •
Sitting in her Buick at the public library, Julia studied the towering oak tree near the entrance, the roots of which had heaved the sidewalk upward until it cracked. It had been that way for years. Evidently no one was concerned enough to do anything about it. Library patrons simply skirted that section of the sidewalk. All it would take would be an accident and a lawsuit, and then something would be done.
When Julia had first received the box of Jeremiah’s papers eleven years ago, theft was the furthest thing from her mind. She had never stolen from anyone, but the fact that it was from her own brother made it worse. And it didn’t matter that he was dead and would never know. Somehow that made it worse, too.
She remembered well the shock of Lulu’s long-ago phone call with the news that Jeremiah had been shot and had died instantly. And before Julia could even get her breath to ask about the funeral, Lulu had gone on to tell her that it had happened four days earlier, that he had already been cremated and his ashes scattered somewhere in the Grand Teton National Forest.
Pamela had been furious. “First of all, she waits four days to tell us? And then she just throws him to the wind?”
By this time, their father had been merely existing for almost two decades, his body refusing to follow where his mind had gone, and their mother was worn out from caring for him night and day. When Julia told her about Jeremiah, she received the news mutely, as if she had lost so much already there were no words left to say, as if this were just the epilogue of the long tragedy called life.
Julia thought she might have dropped the phone from shock. “Are you there, Mother?” she asked after moments of silence.
“Yes.” Barely a whisper.
“Did you hear me?”
“Will you tell . . . him?”
This was consistent with the mother Julia had known all her life, always serving, forbearing, shielding. Even now, though her husband’s mind and heart were hollowed out, she wanted to spare him the grief she knew he would feel if he could. For above all else in life, Jeremiah had been his one shining prize, not that he ever put it into words, or showed it in any way.
Julia always wondered if somehow in the black cave of her father’s mind he had sensed a tremor in the earth the day her mother learned of Jeremiah’s death, something that told him all was lost, for within days he took a sudden downward turn and two weeks later Julia received a phone call from her mother. Her father had died in his sleep. Pamela was there to help.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of Jamie Langston Turner
“Beautiful writing full of wisdom…and stylistic elegance.”—Blog Critics
“Memorable and inspiring.”—Publishers Weekly
"[Turner] writes with elegant precision."—Touchstone
"The always-thoughtful Turner turns in another solid performance...Charming throughout."—Booklist
Reading Group Guide
Every day of her life Julia Rich lives with the memory of a horrible accident she caused long ago. In the years since, she has tried to hide her guilt in the quiet routine of teaching at a small South Carolina college, avoiding close relationships with family and would-be friends. But one day a phone call from Carmen, a niece she has never met, disrupts her carefully controlled world.??Carmen is a study in contrasts—comical yet wise, sunny yet contemplative, soft yet assertive. As she sets about gently drawing Julia from her self-imposed solitude into a place of hope, she also seeks her own peace for past mistakes.??Together, the two women embark on a journey that takes Julia far from the familiar comfort of home and gives Carmen the courage to open her heart. Together, their sightseeing trip turns into a discovery of truth, grace, redemption, and, finally, love.
ABOUT JAMIE L TURNER
Jamie Langston Turner is the award-winning author of seven novels and has been a teacher for more than forty years. She is currently a professor of poetry and creative writing at Bob Jones University. Jamie lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with her husband.
- Describe Julia Rich at the beginning of the novel. Is she a likable woman? Would you like to have her as a teacher, a wife, a friend, or a sister? Why or why not?
- Julia dreads her sabbatical time. If you had a year off, what would you do? How would you fill your days? Discuss the things you would want to accomplish and the people you’d want to see.
- Why is Julia so fearful about Carmen’s arrival? What do you think makes her change her mind and let the girl stay with her?
- In what ways are Carmen and Julia alike? In what ways are they different? Do you think they are more similar than not? Discuss their thoughts on children, their attitude toward religion, their hobbies, habits, and childhoods.
- Carmen frequently quotes Bible verses while talking to Julia, often to reinforce her point, and it is clear she has a strong faith in God. What is the role of religion in the story, and in the relationship between Carmen and her aunt?
- Julia says, "Many years ago, she had read a description of guilt that had stuck with her, the gist of it being that guilt is an irresistible thing humans latch onto and carry around like precious cargo.” How do the characters in this book carry around their guilt? What moral compasses do Julia, Carmen, and Luna use to determine what makes a mistake a crime, or an act of love a sin? How do they justify or reconcile their guilt in their daily lives? Do you believe one of them deserves to suffer more than the others for her actions?
- Discuss the importance of the many catastrophic events of Julia’s life: her traumatic relationship with her father, Jeremiah’s disappearance, the fight with her mother, the accident, the plagiarism of Jeremiah’s story, and Matthew’s death. Which one of those things do you think had the biggest effect on her, and why?
- How do you think Julia’s life would have been different if she hadn’t had the accident in her parents’ driveway that killed a little boy? Would she have let herself have kids? Would she have married Matthew? Would she have reconciled with her family?
- When trying to convince Carmen that she needs to find out if her baby lived, Julia says, "Sometimes the same thing can bring good and evil." How is this statement relevant not only to Carmen’s situation, but also to other situations the characters have encountered? Consider Julia's accident, Jeremiah's death, and any other events that had both a good and bad effect on the characters’ lives.
- Carmen always manages to see the positive in a situation, and is confident in God’s plan for her life. After Luna confesses to taking Lizzy as her own grandchild, Carmen reacts by marveling at how God orchestrated that plan so she could find out the truth about her child. Were you surprised at Carmen’s reaction? What would you have done in her situation? Does Carmen’s interpretation of Luna’s actions as ‘a deep mercy’ seem frustratingly naive to you, or is it something to be admired?
- As an English professor, Julia frequently analyzes situations or conversations as they relate to creative writing, or the stories and essays her students might write. Why do you think the author refers so often to literature and writing technique? Do her references affect the way you read certain passages in the book?
- Forgiveness—particularly the ability to forgive oneself—is a big theme in this novel. Why is it often easier to forgive others than yourself? Do you think Carmen and Julia were finally able to forgive themselves? How did Julia's views on forgiveness change throughout the book, if at all?
- Julia believes she “forfeited her right to have children” when she had the accident, and doesn’t believe she would have been a good mother. After seeing her develop a relationship with Carmen, do you agree or disagree with her assessment? Why?
- How has Julia changed by the end of the book? How are her attitudes, relationships, and feelings different than before she met Carmen? In what ways do you think she will be a different kind of teacher when she returns to the classroom in the fall?
- Julia’s relationship with her husband was not warm and open. Whose fault was that? What were their reasons for marrying each other? Have you ever known anyone in real life who learned to appreciate someone only after that person died?
- Another theme in the book deals with “letting go.” Do you think it’s fair to say that women tend to hang onto their children more than men? Why or why not? How can parental possessiveness damage both the child and the parent? Besides Carmen, what else does Julia let go of?