Authors: Melanie Sumner
a novel by
A Shannon Ravenel Book
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
I dedicate this novel to my husband,
Mary Ruth Sumner
Zoe Page Marr
The Whiting Foundation
The Author's League Fund
Pen American Center
Zeke's Auto Supply
Sadie Christmas Sumner-Marr
Thank you for your support in the creation of
The School of Beauty and Charm
My sponsor, Regina, says I've never had a problem as bad as my solution for it, and that is more or less how I ended up in the Wapanog County Jail on the night after I was supposed to marry Zane Wilder. She says God saved my ass. She should knowâshe's been married nine times. “Why did you marry all of them?” I asked her once. She said she didn't want to hurt their feelings. Regina has been sober for a while. She carries a cane decorated for each season and raises it to any man who hits on one of her sponseesâ“My babies,” she calls us. We call her Mom. She asked me to come here tonight and tell you my story.
WAS BORN AGAIN
, for the first time, when I was seven. That year smiley faces covered the country and people ended conversations with “Have a nice day.” In March of that year, a string of tornadoes whipped through Counterpoint, Georgia, lifting pine trees as if they were birthday candles stuck in a cake, then scattering them willy-nilly across the roads. Houses flew to new yards, and cars sailed through the sky like lost kites. Dogs landed in trees; cats went bald, and hamsters left the hemisphere. For the entire month, the wind whirred and sucked with relentless fury. It was obvious, at least to the Baptists, that God had taken out His vacuum cleaner. Clearly, He had found me, Louise.
“Remember who you are,” my father warned me each time I left the house. Not one to leave anything to chance, he would add, “You are a Peppers.” Then he straightened his shoulders and smiled hard, demonstrating the posture of a Peppers facing the world.
Pepperses are white, not albino or Swedish or anything like that, but regular white. We are also white on the inside. Except for my mother, Florida, who is high-strung, we never raise our voices or blow the horn of an automobile. We have no rhythm, and when we watch others dance, we tend to blush. Spicy food burns our tongues. Every other November, we vote Democrat, which, down South, used to be the same as voting Republican. Florida is always careful not to cancel Henry's vote by voting for a different candidate. The whole family avoids discussing sex, politics, and religion, favoring the topic of the weather, which averages seventy-five degrees in Counterpoint year-round.
A Peppers is smarter than the average bear, as Henry likes to point out, with a stern reminder to be grateful because God could just as easily have given our brains to other people. According to Henry, most folks don't have a lick of sense. He doesn't know how they survive. There are a few people smarter than usâgeniuses, probably, but they don't have much personality.
That's how God made the world; Henry doesn't know why. God is white, upper-middle class, and Southern Baptist. He has sideburns like Henry, and small, straight, white teeth like everyone else in our family, but whereas the Pepperses are on the short side, God stands about twenty-one feet tall. Inside Bellamy Baptist Church, His head grazes the faux cathedral ceiling, forcing Him to bend down to see His flock up close. He wears square glasses from Revco and one piece of jewelry: a gold Masonic ring. In His back pocket He carries a small black comb and an ironed white handkerchief. He drives a four-door Ford without electric windows.
God's son, Jesus Christ, looked like a Hell's Angel in every picture I ever saw, but Florida explained that these portraits were done long after His death and may not have been accurate. “Jesus lives inside of you,” she said. “Your body is His house.”
For some reason, perhaps because we received extra portions of brain, God made all Pepperses tone deaf. I swear that Henry sang “Home on the Range” to me when I was a baby, but no one believes me. Every Sunday morning at Bellamy Baptist, we'd rise from our pew bench and lip-synch, lifting our chins and stretching our mouths wide to accommodate the whole notes. Florida made herself the exception. With her shoulders back, eyes bright, and red mouth open, she emitted a brave warble, having once done so in a beauty contest before walking away with the Miss Western Kentucky title.
Had anyone in the family been albino, it would have been my brother, Roderick, who had asthma and could turn so pale he was almost invisible. According to our local psychiatrist, Leo Frommlecker, Roderick was the Lost Child. I was the Clown, perhaps because of my ears, which were unusually large and also pointed. Neither Henry nor Florida cared to be diagnosed. All the same, as Florida pointed out, Roderick was regular white because albino's have pink eyes.
None of us has brown eyes or big noses or kinky hair. Originally, we all had straight, thin, mouse-brown hair, but Henry has lost most of his worrying about everybody, Florida has her coif dyed a different color every month, and Roderick's hair sprang into nervous curls when he entered the Middle School at Bridgewater Academy. Then, by an act of will, he went so blonde that it was difficult to spot him in the sun.
“The boy got the hair,” Florida would say whenever she introduced me. Then, straightening my collar and tucking a few strands of hair over my pointed ears, she would sigh and admit, “She looks just like Henry.” If the other person said “I see the spittin' image of her mother,” the introduction had been successful.
Florida was a Deleuth before she was a Peppers, so she is not exactly like the rest of us, but she has a knack for imitation, and after she had been married to Henry for a couple of decades, you could hardly tell she wasn't the real thing. The biggest difference between the two families is that a Deleuth grew up under the instruction “You're a Deleuth, so you won't amount to much,” while the Pepperses constantly remind each other that despite any temporary setbacks, we are Pepperses.
Both families come from the same stock: inbred European royalty with criminal records, weathered and further inbred in the hills of Appalachia. Henry and Florida are the only members of their clans to leave Kentucky without dying first. As soon as they were married, they blazed out of the state in Daddy-Go Deleuth's '58 Ford pick-up, with a black-and-white TV, a Kirby Lady Deluxe vacuum cleaner, and a salted ham strapped down in the back. Florida wore a pillbox hat and gloves; Henry wore wing tips and smoked a Louisville cigar. They were headed for Georgia.
“Mark my words,” said Grandmother Deleuth. “Florida will git above her raisin's.”
F YOU'VE EVER
heard of Counterpoint, Georgia, you probably read somewhere that it consumes more Coca-Cola per capita than any other town in the world, or that a member
of the band KISS attended Bridgewater Academy. Someone might have mentioned that the freshman class at Maude Wilson College for Women boasts a virginity rate of 73 percent. None of it is true.
Counterpoint, governed by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, is indistinguishable from any other Southern gothic town: oversized magnolia trees line the streets, a dinky mall attracts wayward youth, and on every other block, the statue of a Caucasian male on horseback scowls at the enemy. Some locals swear they've seen an alligator in the New Hope River, grown to a ponderous length of six feet on Moon Pies and light beer, but the water is too cold for gators. All the same, her name is Earnestine.
The New Hope River divides Counterpoint into the beautiful and the ugly. On the beautiful side, there is the Maude Wilson College for Women, founded in 1876 by the former plantation owner, Colonel P. Wilson. Wilson's real name was Tony Rittoâa lowbrow thief who was run out of Italy with a donkey's tail pinned to his pants. Upon his arrival in Counterpoint with a hundred slaves handpicked on Goree Island in West Africa, the colonel donated a statue of a howling wolf to the courthouse on Front Street. Inscribed on a gold plaque at the wolf's feet is the inscription in bocca al lupi, crepi! which literally translates “In the mouth of the wolf, eat it!” It means “Good luck.”
In the summer, Officer Fitzpatrick patrols Front Street on a bay mare with a braided tail. The hooves strike bricks hand-made by the colonel's slaves, klop klop. Officer Fitzpatrick patrols the street from Wanda's Wig Shoppe down to Spivey's Drugsâboth run by an all-female, white-trash familyâand
back again, looking at his horse's reflection in the windows. The odor of sizzling hush puppies fills the air, and sometimes, as the sun sets on the muddy river, a ray of light flashes onto the golden wolf at the courthouse, lighting up her emerald eyes. Cats stand sentry on the porches of millhouses painted in lemon, cherry, and vanilla, iced with gingerbread trim. Down by the river, an old black man wearing a suit raises his face to the blue sky and sings in a deep, sonorous voice, “Jesus is tenderly calling thee home. Call-ing to-day.”
Turning onto Mansion Street, a broad avenue lined with dazzling white monstrosities vying for our annual DAR Most Beautiful Home Award, you can still hear the old man singing “Call-ing to-day . . .”
UR HOME SITS
on the beautiful side of the New Hope River, but not in the Historic District, atop a hill called Mount Zion, so high that clouds pass beneath our windows. From the roof of our house, we can see across the river to the virulent spawn of Frenchie Smartt's empire: the glaring tin roofs of Smartt's Gas Station, Smartt's Liquor Store, and Frenchie's Bar; the gash of Smartt's Junkyard. Over this skyline rises the purple smoke plumes of Southern Board, the corrugated board plant where Henry has been general manager for nearly half a century. Most people think that Southern Board stinks, but as Henry will patiently explain, it's the paper mill next door to his plant that has an unpleasant odor. This situation exemplifies his theory that a lady's reputation is formed by the company she keeps, but Henry does not himself make that connection. In any case, it's just paper, and if the wind was right, it smelled like money to me.
With Henry's money, the help of a succession of hare-brained architects, and the counsel our local interior decorator, Shirley Frommlecker, Florida created a house unlike anything ever seen in Counterpoint. It had no front or back, that anyone could locate, and the ceilings were painted while the walls were left bare. Since no one ever helped her carry groceries into the house, Florida designed an electric dumbwaiter, which never worked right and finally had to be dismantled, leaving Henry with the constant fear that one of the children would fall down the thirty-six-foot shaft, break his neck, and become a paraplegic. It was Henry who tactfully suggested the intercom, in hopes that Florida would not need to holler at the top of her lungs to someone in another room, but after lightning struck the house twice, the intercom only functioned on
âallowing unlimited eavesdropping. There was an alarm system that was not connected to anything and could not be heard by the neighbors because there were none. About once a month a bird would set off the alarm, driving us all into the same room in a frenzy of adrenaline-powered family feeling whose aftermath left us sheepish and surly.
Owl Aerie, Florida named the house. When the last shingle had been nailed down, she sent a photo of Owl Aerie to Grandmother Deleuth in Red Cavern, Kentucky. Grandmother was seventy that year and attending a funeral every other week. At the Farley Brothers Funeral Home, she unsnapped her musty, black pocketbook and with trembling, spotted hands, passed around the photo. Everyone agreed that it looked just like a barn. Uncle Lyle, the evangelist, said, “It's a wonder with all that money Henry's making, he can't buy him a coat of paint.”
The house was built in the seventies, when Shirley
Frommlecker was reaching her peak as an interior decorator. Henry, conservative by nature, kept a tight reign on her in the upper regions of the house, where he slept, ate his cereal, and read the
Wall Street Journal
in the bathroom, but in the basement, she and Florida went wild. No one in Georgia really had a basement, being mostly Baptists and avoiding the underground. Instead, on the lowest levels of our houses, we built small dank bedrooms for boys and assigned the rest of the space to recreation rooms, called rec rooms for short.