Authors: Beth Hoffman
ALSO BY BETH HOFFMAN
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
Published by the Penguin Group
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A Pamela Dorman Book / Viking
Copyright © La Belle Epoque Literary, Inc., 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental
This book is dedicated to:
My husband, Mark—a gentleman of enormous patience and good humor.
My gratefulness for your love and support is immeasurable.
My whip-smart literary agent, Catherine Drayton—for rearranging the constellations in my sky. I’m privileged to have your friendship and guidance.
My brothers Mark and Lee—for memories made in shadowed woodlands and secrets shared in Grandpa’s barn.
How I wish we could do it all over again—and do it better.
To the memory of Eddie—the finest four-legged friend I’ve ever had.
I’ll see you at the Rainbow Bridge.
Just down the street there lives a man and woman who are family to me—not of blood but of heart. They have championed my work and put up with my writerly madness for years. A big, Southern-style thanks goes to Steve Knopf, aka Commander Click, a man of uncommon insight and courage, and, to his wife, the indomitable Marlane Vaicius, precious friend and confidante. How blessed I am to have both of you in my life.
For the luminaries of the publishing world, I begin with gratitude to my brilliant editor and publisher, Pamela Dorman, whose dedication and vision are without equal. And to the unflappable and gracious Kiki Koroshetz I give warm thanks. I am indebted to Susan Petersen Kennedy, Clare Ferraro, Leigh Butler, Hal Fessenden, Carolyn Coleburn, Nancy Sheppard, Shannon Twomey, Langan Kingsley, Veronica Windholz, Roseanne Serra, Nancy Resnick, Dennis Swaim, and Andrew Duncan. I’d also like to offer abundant thanks to Kathryn Court, Patrick Nolan, John Fagan, Maureen Donnelly, Dick Heffernan, and Norman Lidofsky and their terrific sales teams—it couldn’t happen without you.
My journey through this chapter of life has been enriched by book lovers across the globe—readers, librarians, bookstore folks, book bloggers, and fellow authors have extended a hand of friendship and embraced my work. Y’all are dear to me.
ome people run toward life, arms flung wide in anticipation. Others crack open the door and take a one-eyed peek to see what’s out there. Then there are those who give up on life long before their heart stops beating—all used up, worn out, and caved in, yet they wake each morning and shuffle their tired legs through another day. Maybe they’re hoping for a change—a miracle, even—but runaway dreams and lost years hang heavily on their backs. It’s the only coat they know how to wear.
They’ve become accustomed.
That’s what I thought when Mama pushed open the screen door and stepped onto the back porch.
I was sitting on the steps folding pillowcases I’d just pulled from the line, fresh as the day and still warm from the sun. One by one I set them into the laundry basket and watched Mama from the corner of my eye, shoulders sagging, slippers scuffing as she moved toward her favorite chair.
It seemed to me that at the age of sixty-nine Mama was too young to walk the way she did, and I fought the urge to ask her to lift her chin so I could see her eyes—eyes the color of an Irish hillside and so arresting that I still caught myself staring at them. I wanted to tell her that if she’d greet the day with her head held high, she’d see the beauty surrounding her and just might feel better about the world and her place in it.
But I had no right to say such things. I hadn’t lived her life or carried its weight, so who was I to judge?
Mama’s blue housedress, sun-bleached and long overdue for the trash bin, ballooned in the breeze, then collapsed over her thin frame when she eased herself into the chair. A low groan escaped her lips as she bent over and plucked her knitting from the basket, and a moment later the clicking of the needles began, needles that I swear weren’t all that much thinner than her arms.
When I was a little girl, Mama had been a head turner, slender and long-legged with thick red hair that played tricks with the sun. Though I never saw her respond to a whistle or a sideways glance from an admirer, I always suspected she secretly enjoyed the attention. Not having inspired many whistles myself, I didn’t know how that felt, nor did I know the sadness that must have come when the whistles stopped.
I set the laundry aside and breathed in a long, slow breath. The air was perfumed with scents from the garden: basil, tomatoes, and chives. Ever since I’d left home after high-school graduation back in 1972, the aromas of harvesting season always drew me back to the farm. And of course there was the row of crepe myrtle that grew tall along the fence—all those pink blooms against the August sky.
Eddie was stretched out next to me, baking in a spot of sun. I reached over and gave his belly a rub. “What do you think of Kentucky?”
He yawned and slapped his tail on the floorboards.
Mama wound a strand of yarn around her finger and looked at me. “You know what, Teddi? He reminds me of that little black-and-white dog in those cartoons. What was his name—do you know who I’m talkin’ about?”
“Yes, that’s it. He looks like Snoopy.”
“I think so, too. When he wakes up in the morning and realizes that being loved isn’t just a dream, he grins. I swear he does.”
“Where was it you found him?”
“Limping down the side of the road. It was during that awful rainstorm back in March. I wrote you a note about it, remember?”
“Maybe he got lost. Did you try to find his owner?”
I pulled a dish towel from the basket and smoothed it over my knees. “No, he wasn’t lost. He was runnin’ away from home. A bad home.”
“Now, how in the world do you know that?”
I looked at Eddie and winked. “He told me.”
Mama shook her head, and we fell into a comfortable silence. I didn’t know why, but everything about this visit seemed different. I had the feeling, or maybe it was just a hope, that in our uniquely inept ways we were trying to build a bridge toward each other. A fragile bridge, but a bridge just the same.
While folding an apron, I glanced toward the barn. Soaring above the silo was a red-tailed hawk. Round and round he went, the pale underside of his belly catching the light, his wings outstretched as he floated in the sky.
I couldn’t see a hawk without thinking about my brother, Josh. When we were kids living here on the farm, raptors were frequent visitors—hawks, peregrine falcons, and even an occasional eagle. Early in the morning, Josh and I would often watch on the back porch, as they soared out from their homes in the woods that stood behind the barn. The birds spent their days gliding low over the fields as they hunted for unsuspecting rabbits and squirrels. Sometimes they’d ride an air thermal and just glide and glide. After supper, when the sun hung low and shadows stretched long across the grass, the raptors would return home to the mysteries that lay hidden within the pillars of the giant trees. All the raptors were beautiful, yet it was the red-tailed hawks that left my brother spellbound.
There were times when Josh would run through the hay field with his eyes set on a hawk soaring in the sky, and he’d end up tripping in a tractor rut and falling flat on his face. And once, when he was racing alongside the barn trying to keep a red-tail in view, he ran smack into a fence and got a bloody nose.
One summer’s evening when he was no more than six, Josh trotted across the lawn, overalls rolled up to his knees, his bare feet caked in dirt. “Look, Teddi,” he gasped, pointing toward the barn. “See up there? That’s the big guy, the one I told you about yesterday. I know that’s
I got up from the porch swing and joined him on the back steps. And sure enough, perched on the tip of the silo was a red-tailed hawk.
My brother looked at me. “What do you think he’s doin’ up there?”
I draped my arm around his shoulders. “I read a story about that hawk’s great-great-granddaddy. He guarded an Indian who lived in a cave high above Red River Gorge. The hawk watched over him from the time he was just a little boy. They were best friends for all their lives. When the Indian grew old and died, do you know what happened?”
“The hawk swooped down, spread his talons as wide as they’d go, and lifted the Indian’s spirit right out of his body. And then he flew up through the clouds, past the moon and the stars, and straight into heaven. They’re still together.”
My little brother drew in a breath. “They are?”
I nodded. “And now this hawk is watching over you. He was born way up in Clifty Wilderness. And from all the other red-tails in Kentucky, he was chosen to fly down here and be your guardian.” I looked deep into my brother’s eyes. “Now I’m going to tell you a secret. His name is Menewa. Do you know what that means?”
Josh shook his head.
I leaned close and whispered, “Great Warrior.”
And what I would remember most about that moment was the way my little brother turned and looked at the hawk—lips parted, eyes fixed on the bird as if he’d suddenly stepped into a boyhood ritual so full of wonder that it changed his life.
Perhaps it had.
I sat quietly and watched the bird swirling off in the distance, its rusty-red tail feathers dipping into the blue of the sky. I wanted to believe he was a messenger sent from Josh, and I could almost hear my brother’s voice ride in on the breeze:
Don’t worry, Teddi.
The first feather appeared on the fifth of February in 1967, the morning of my thirteenth birthday. I woke to a chilling wind that rattled the window and rippled the hem of my bedroom curtains. I rolled over to look at the clock, and on my night table I saw a feather resting on a folded piece of paper. The air was so cold that a shiver ran through me when I pushed my arm beyond the thick layers of quilts and picked it up. The feather was about eight inches long, soft rusty-red with stripes of brownish black. I smiled and smoothed it over my cheek, then picked up the paper. In green crayon letters, my little brother had spelled out the words
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE BEST SISTER.
Below, he’d printed the name
Often Josh would be gone for hours, scouring the floor of the woods in search of feathers, fossils, and the occasional arrowhead, none of them easy to come by. For my brother to give me a feather from his collection was one thing, but to part with one of his prized red-tailed hawk feathers? Well, that was special.
I still have that feather. I have the birthday note, too. They’re tucked away in a shoe box at the back of my closet, but I can’t bring myself to look at them. If I did, I might split wide open.
Mama’s voice startled me. “Good heavens, Teddi, what’s so interesting out there? You look like you’re in some kind of trance.”
I wanted to point out the hawk and tell her I was thinking about Josh, and I wanted to look directly into her eyes and say,
We need to talk about him, Mama. We need to remember him and say his name.
But I knew she’d get upset, so I began folding another dish towel and said, “I’m enjoying the beautiful day, Mama, that’s all. I forgot to tell you what I did last week. There was a flea market in Orangeburg, so I drove up there to see what they had. I bought the prettiest old lightning rod. It’s solid copper with two cobalt-glass globes that don’t have so much as a crack or a chip. Once it’s polished, I’ll put it in the front window of my shop. People love antique lightning rods. They put them in their gardens.”
Mama frowned. “A lightning rod? I worry about you, Teddi. You’re thirty-six years old and still a junk picker. I wish you’d find a job with a future. Something with benefits, like health insurance and a retirement plan. Remember that girl from your high-school class, Adele Stafford? She got herself a job as a secretary for a big funeral home up in Louisville.”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, of
Adele works for a mortician. She had a subzero personality, just perfect for working with dead people. I can still see her sitting in the cafeteria, all that stringy black hair hanging in her eyes. She was creepy.”
“I hear she makes real good money and has every benefit you could think of.”
“I’m sure that’s true. They probably give her a quart of embalming fluid for Christmas instead of a turkey.”
The corners of Mama’s mouth quivered as she fought against a smile. “I hear she has a cute little house.”
I shook out a dish towel with a snap
live in a carriage house that has original heart-pine floors
a walled garden.”
“Adele Stafford owns her house. You just rent.”
And there it was, Mama’s coup de grâce, delivered with precision straight to my heart. I had driven all the way from Charleston, South Carolina, to try to have a nice weekend with my mother, and we just couldn’t stop ourselves from poking each other.
So much for that bridge I thought we were building.
For most of my life, I had hoped my mother would see me. That one day she’d open her eyes and, as if a rush of sunlight had poured into a darkened room, she’d see who I was, not the shadow of what I wasn’t. But if I were to be honest, I suspect she wished I’d do the same for her. So here we were, mother and daughter, sitting on opposite sides of the porch while holding tight to our opposite truths. Truths that always ended up canceling each other out until there wasn’t much left but a big hole filled with years of disappointment.
After shaking off the sting from my mother’s comments, I tried for the umpteenth time to explain myself. “I’m not a junk picker, Mama. I’m an antiques dealer and faux-finishing specialist. I see things differently than you do, that’s all. If you went to an estate sale or an auction with me, you’d just see a bunch of trash. But you know what I see? Endless possibilities. And I see history, too. It’s amazing how old furniture speaks to me. The older it is, the more it has to say.”
“So, now you’re tellin’ me that your dog
old furniture speak to you? What’s gonna talk to you next, Teddi, your car? How about that dish towel you’re foldin’—what’s
got to say?”
I couldn’t stop from smiling at her sarcasm. “C’mon, Mama, I’m trying to tell you about my work. A few months ago, I found an old chest of drawers someone left in an alley. It was an unusual piece, shaped like a tall bombé with pineapple feet. I painted it with antique silver leaf and replaced the handles with crystal pulls. When I was done, I had a piece of black soapstone cut for the top. Then I upholstered the insides of the drawers with a deep pink satin moiré. I wish you could have seen it. That old chest looked like it came straight off the cover of
And you know what else? I sold it within a week to a lady from Louisiana. She never even blinked when I told her the price—sixteen hundred fifty dollars, plus shipping costs.”