208pp, paperback, £9.99
Lindsay Parnell’s debut is the story of one girl’s sin, guilt and resurrection. Released from prison on probation, 19-year-old Harper Haley returns to the brutal, sweaty, dogwood-scented landscape of her youth. Chronicling her homecoming and struggle for rehabilitation, Parnell delivers a pitch-perfect account of three girls growing up in Virginia, USA.
This impressive novel from a noted short-story writer is attracting a powerful critical response. Paul Bailey said: ‘Lindsay Parnell’s dialogue has a startling and exciting
immediacy. Her American South has its literary roots in Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, but with a difference. Her characters swear a lot, smoke a lot, drink a lot, and do everything to believable excess. This is a really promising debut.’
‘Parnell’s work is that rare beast – tender and brutal, beautiful and raw. Her prose sings off the page, though it’s with the voice of a debauched choir boy,’ said Heidi James, author of Wounding.
bookoxygen readers can now sample an extract from this powerful first work from an impressive young talent.
All the things that happened happened in summer. Maybe that’s because folks sin in the summer months more than any other season. Sinning is easier done in the sticky months with less clothes and when the sun stays out, spitting its hot breath into the dry ground until almost midnight. The sun’s never weak, not never.
Nothing much happened before Caro. Who I turned out to be started the day I first saw Caro and her sweaty face in the woods. The day Caro showed up is the day all this started —which is funny because I known Collier forever but the day Caro showed up was the first summer we started. The first summer we realized there was nothing to do but be bored. Slinking from house to house like lizards hiding under rocks to escape the stink of heat. Or like truck stop whores who bounce from one backseat to another. Our bodies moved because we made them, they did what we wanted. It was the first summer we got lazy enough to start acting like the women who made us, and the first summer we started being bad. Collier’s mama Donna said a Jezebel is born damned and she’ll never be saved. Everything that ever happened to us happened in summer. Always.
Caro shows up the same June our Mother shatters the Willie and Waylon record on the kitchen floor because it’s nothing but a cracker’s gospel garbage. The June Caro shows up she’s seven and I’m seven and Collier’s nine. It’s the June I love listening to Leave Home on the back porch after our daddy goes to bed, sitting on our Mother’s lap. I’m seven and it’s the first summer She accidentally burns me with Her cigarette. I wince when She blows on the raw pink flesh then kisses my neck. She apologizes through tears with a mouth that’s poison slick and it’s the first time I know me and Her don’t have the same skin anymore. That we don’t like the same types of touch and pain. I’m seven and no matter how hard I press my own flesh into Hers, we don’t have the same body no more.
Seven, Seven and Nine
In the small pocket of trees hidden from Collier’s mama’s perch in the kitchen, Collier and Harper stride to the furthest corner of Donna’s acres. Collier leads Harper by the hand to the very back of the woods then pulls the joint from behind her ear.
‘My Mama don’t like when we touch Her things,’ Harper says.
‘She got a million of em. She won’t miss just one.’ The dope cigarette is pinched between Collier’s teeth while her small hands fumble with Tommy’s confederate flag lighter. ‘Sides, She sleep all day.’ She flicks until her thumb is red and worn. Quick sparks ignite in flashing breaths before hiding again and the lighter cools.
‘Hey,’ this real skinny girl calls to them. She’s standing on the broken roots of a tree trunk split during an early-morning thunderstorm, and holding a half-eaten Popsicle that’s melting onto her fingers. Rotting bark curls off the tree limbs like flesh scraped clean off somebody’s bones. She is Harper’s reflection, long hair with dark eyes and gangly limbs, colt-like, untamed. ‘That’s not how ya do it.’
‘Bet you don’t know how neither,’ Collier shouts.
The girl walks to them, tonguing the last bite of her Popsicle before tossing the cherry-stained stick onto the ground. She shoves her open palm towards Collier. ‘Give it here.’
‘I know how to do it—seen Luce do it a million times.’
‘Yeah, my Mama done it a million times,’ Harper says.
‘But ya didn’t learn. Give it here, cmon. I’ll show you right.’
‘I don’t give my stuff to strangers.’
‘My name’s Caro. Now give it here.’
‘Kinda name is that?’
The girl rolls her eyes, places a hand on each hip and spits thick red saliva on the dying tree.
‘Named for my daddy’s mama, Carolyn Naylor. But my mama Tillie says she’s just some dirty cracker, just like my daddy is—he aint dead but we pretend he is—so my mama call me Caro instead.’
‘That’s better than Carolyn. I like Caro.’ Harper plucks the joint from Collier’s lips and offers it to the girl with a Popsicle stained mouth and a sweaty face. ‘I’m Harper. That there’s Ann-Collier, cept don’t nobody call her Ann-Collier. Just Collier.’
‘My mama do sometimes.’
‘Yeah, but Donna aint her real mama cause Collier didn’t come outta her. Collier don’t know who she came out of but we think her real mama prolly dead or somethin.’
‘She better be,’ Collier mumbles.
‘Well I hope she dead too then.’ Caro gently bites the joint and presses her lips together. A small flame ignites on her first try as she slowly lowers her head, letting the tip catch. The paper burns black and the body’s knotted tail glows as she inhales, her mouth making small caves beneath her cheekbones. Smoke leaks from the right corner of her mouth in a thick ribbon, its hips swaying as it rises towards the treetops then disappears. Red embers flare as she caps the lighter and inhales still. She shuts her eyes and pulls the joint from her lips, sputtering.
‘You got a boyfriend taught you that?’ Harper searches the treetops and sunlight for Caro’s smoke but it’s gone.
‘Nah.’ She chokes as Collier gently slaps her back. ‘My daddy Dennis smoke more dope than Satan do—that’s what my mama Tillie says—’
Since that day we all been drunk on each other. We shared everything too. Clothes, razors and safety pins, beds, boys, pills and secrets. But when I left the first time we all stopped sharing everything because we couldn’t no more.
After the first time I left, Caro called every week and visited when she could. Phone calls slowed when she started working, and then came even less when she left for school. Caro got herself into this college that was pretty far away. But on your sixth birthday, Tillie brought you and Caro to see me. Your eyes were real glassy and dark. You looked more like Her than our daddy and you wore this dirty Mickey Mouse t-shirt that looked like it had been worn every day for a month without a wash because it probably hadn’t been. Caro gave me a gift to give to you and we pretended like I’d bought it myself even though we all knew it was a lie. You tore up the paper and smiled something wonderful when you put the baseball glove on your hand. You said thanks and kissed me gentle on the mouth. Then you sat on the floor, tying up the glove’s laces and letting your hands feel the leather.
Collier called the first Thursday of every month for six months then nothing for a year after—not a letter or a card or a call or a visit. Nothing. Then she shows up on my seventeenth birthday. They told me I had a guest so I waited in the visiting room by myself for twenty minutes just sitting there. Then, without saying why she didn’t come, they took me back. I slept for fourteen hours straight. Tara Hackett didn’t say nothing or touch me, she just let me sleep. I slept for fourteen hours with no dreams, no nightmares, no nothing. Caro called the next week and told me they wouldn’t let Collier in because she had been real drunk and caused a scene and that they found a knife with a red handle in her back pocket. Caro told me after all that happened, Collier didn’t leave her mama’s house and cried for days and days and days. I was glad she did.
Caro is the smartest person I’ve ever known and Collier was the second most beautiful person I’ve ever known. There was always something that’s been real tempting about Collier and the way she was. ‘Can’t blame her wild nature,’ Donna used to say to everyone, but mostly Bart and the other cops. But Collier didn’t have a wild nature, she just liked tempting other people and being tempted herself. Temptation is a funny thing. It crawls at your skin, making you itch for something you know is real bad for you. ‘Get rid of it’, they say. ‘Don’t touch things that’ll burn you—don’t put something in your mouth if it’s poison.’ They say it because they never been in the garden, never tasted the apple themselves. They never spoke to the serpent like I have, and they never met Collier.
Nineteen, Nineteen and Twenty-One
Beyond the thick lot of oak trees sits a dirty blue pickup. The bass of Hey Ladies bumps from its busted speakers and the truck’s exhaust breathes grey filth into the heat. Collier’s mama’s trees are so big no matter how hard you try, your fingers don’t touch when you hug them. Their bright green leaves wilt in the humid stink. Hanging limp on their fractured branches, they seem to sweat just as much as people do. Collier’s mama’s earth sinks into itself with its empty creek beds of jagged rocks, sticks and broken roots attached to nothing—a barren womb exhaling dust and ash into the air. Barely anything grows, and what does has a short, dry life, except for those trees.
Walking up the hill, Harper retraces their dead trail from before. A path about a foot wide and so worn in brown earth, grass can’t grow no matter how hard Collier’s mama prays. Donna tried to make that path grow, every spring and summer, yelling, ‘Girls, get off the path. Girls—I said get off the grass. I’ll skin you alive, Ann-Collier, so stay off the damn grass already.’ But Collier would just smile to herself and drag her heels through the freshly laid grass seed, skipping with lead heavy feet down the chalky trail the three girls made together.
Collier sits on the truck bed with her legs dangling off the tailgate, the soles of her shoes just short of brushing the ground. Her honeysuckle hair falls down her back and is longer than Harper remembers and she knows she remembers everything. Collier is still slender, flat chested with long, tanned limbs. She turns away from the woods and a leafless limb strikes a thin shadow down the middle of her face. Her body has the same bony and bulbous hinges as before, scarred elbows and knees—marks of a body with good use. Collier’s body knows use, knows scrapping and running and sunbathing and sinning. Her body has been used because she’s willed it to. Smiling, she looks how she’s always looked—convicted, drunk, resurrected, raising a red plastic cup to her lips followed with a drag from a cigarette. A girl Harper has never seen before, a girl with real black hair, sits next to Collier.
Time slips from Harper’s mouth in shallows breaths as she stands still on the sterile earth.
‘Haaahhhpuhhhhhh,’ Collier yells, stubbing the cigarette against the sole of her shoe.
Collier throws her arms around Harper’s waist, lifting her off the ground. Pressing her body into Collier, she feels skin she knows almost as well as her own. Collier’s summer scent is weed masked with vanilla, sweat and ditch drink, like always. They stand together on the ground, holding each other. Collier gently pushes her hips into Harper, inhaling her, until she’s done.
‘You look good.’
‘Yeah, so do you,’ Harper says, as her eyes drift from Collier and settle onto Tommy’s truck. The front fender is bent, hanging off the frame at a skewed angle. The hubcaps are real rusted and the bed of the truck is littered with rotting newspapers, empty green beer bottles and old paint cans.
‘You got bigger tits.’
The girl with the black hair rolls her eyes. Collier’s face is painted with a wide grin.
‘And for you—’ Collier skips to the driver’s side door and retrieves a paper bag from the front seat. Handing it to her, Collier gives her a peck on the cheek, leaving a sour stamp on her skin. ‘Bit late, but Happy Birthday.’
‘Nineteen.’ Collier drinks from her cup until it’s empty. She hands it to the girl with black hair who fills it with boxed white wine and cheap vodka. ‘You been home?’
‘He’ll pitch a fit—your daddy’ll pitch a fit you came to me first.’
‘Good, I hope he do.’ The bag’s weight pulls at Harper’s wrist. Grasping it tighter, she holds the familiar bottleneck, feeling a pulse in her fingertips and throat. ‘But he don’t know I’m here.’
‘You, uh—you know Denise livin in your Mama’s house? She’s in there pretendin she aint a piece shit.’
‘I heard. Caro told me on the phone.’ Harper casts her gaze into the treetops, searching for more sun and more air and more sky. ‘Who’s this?’
‘Gina, used to go to school with Tommy.’
‘Yeah—I know, Ann-Collier told me. So, you let some dyke fuck you in prison or what?’
Collier grabs her by the throat and pushes her into the bed of the truck, thrusting Gina’s skull into the metal planks one, two, three times.
‘Knock that shit off,’ Collier hisses, her voice barely above a whisper. She releases her neck and Gina coughs, wheezing as she sits up with pink lines of Collier’s grasp already appearing on her throat. Collier is never one to raise her voice and she exhales as her lips taste the cup.
‘What’s at, Gina?’ A smile curls at the corners of Harper’s mouth.
‘I said sorry.’ Gina’s so weak and pathetic Harper almost feels sorry for her. Almost. Collier collects people and their bodies like Harper collects words, hiding them until she’s bored enough to forget them. Gina will be tossed out like the others always are. Nameless and forgotten, faceless with big tits and small waists, the way it’s always been.
‘You here for summer?’
‘I’m staying here for a while.’ She’s rubbing her own neck and is a single shallow breath from tears. She won’t meet Harper’s eyes or smile.
‘Florida didn’t work out,’ Collier says.
‘Open your gift, gone then.’
Harper opens the bag and pulls an unmarked bottle with brown liquid and a dirty plastic bag with a dozen white tablets.
She smiles, almost means it. Three long swigs burn Harper’s throat.
‘You want a cup?’ Gina says.
‘Don’t dirty one for me.’
‘I’m real glad you back.’ Collier eyes are illuminated, deep, and the prettiest shade of blue there’s ever been. Her face is all smile and she looks to the ground because she can’t help but laugh.
‘Where’s Caro at? Where’s she?’ Harper says.
‘I dunno—I aint her mama.’
‘Where’s she? Tell me where she is—’
‘Workin I guess. She found herself other shit to do—’
‘What’d you say to her? Why aint she here? I called her—she knows. Why aint she here?’
‘Christ, perk up—she be round soon.’ Collier’s smile fades and her face eases. ‘Jesus—relax. Don’t cry about it.’
Harper tongues two tablets. ‘Where you livin now?’
‘Where you stayin then, Gina?’
‘With her and Tommy.’
‘Course you are. Why ya’ll here? Shouldn’t Tommy be practicin in Florida?’
‘He don’t play there no more.’
Collier jams her hand into Harper’s front pocket and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. She flicks the top open and plucks one from the box, her hand lingering at the seam of the pocket’s stitching.
‘Well,’ Collier begins, the cigarette dangling from her lips, ‘We went out one night in Tallahassee and there was this girl all over him. Hangin on him and rubbin on him and all that.’
‘You hit her?’
‘Nah—I liked Tallahassee. It was nice. He took me with him, you know? Didn’t care what he did do or didn’t do. I owed him.’
‘You don’t owe him nothin.’
‘—so this girl is all over him. She’s just a kid. It got late so me and Gina went home but he never came back that night. Next mornin, Tommy comes stumblin in then gets this phone call. Turns out the kid from the night before is fourteen years old and told her folks Tommy had at her. Then her folks tell the cops that some outfielder from Florida State was out drinkin and had at their little girl after he slipped her somethin.’
‘Did he what?’
‘I don’t know.’ Collier exhales a halo of smoke that hangs above her blonde crown. ‘His business aint mine, but then he gets benched. They go and piss test him and he fails that, so he gets kicked off the team. He loses his scholarship and all that money. So guess where at lands us? They can’t get rid of us, now can they? Not even you, girl.’
‘He get arrested?’
‘Nah, we left Tallahassee soon as he got kicked out. Dunno what happen to the girl—school paid her folks I guess. But he can’t play no more. Nobody’ll take him now.’
‘Yeah, cause he’s a fuckin piece a trash.’
The heat from the bottle floods Harper’s mouth and sinks into her throat, then belly. She takes the cigarette from Collier’s lips and places it between her own. ‘You aint half as blind as you is lazy.’
‘We aint together no more.’ Collier forces a smile.
‘Liar.’ The warmth in Harper’s throat and chest spreads from her arms to her legs and back again. Her head is light and it’s like her insides are hugging her, pulling her closer into herself, making her feel whole.
‘You look more like your Mama then when you went in. That’s your curse.’
Harper smiles because it’s the easiest thing to do then flicks the spent cigarette butt against a tree. Gina’s eyes are cast on the ground and Collier smiles still.
‘Love ya more than all of em, Harper. I do.’