The Carousel Excerpt
I cried the last time I had sex.
It was late afternoon, just past four. Rain pelted the windows and wind shook them hard as fog rolled in on the heels of a storm come down from Canada. A typical fall day in Boston. The football game had just finished and New England won, which made my husband feel invincible. After three weeks of trying to score his own touchdown—hand on the small of my back whenever he got the chance, big toe snuggling up to my calf in the night—I finally gave in. I let him take me up to our room and toss me on the bed like a sack of potatoes. He pulled off my pants, and his attempts at foreplay were clumsy. A hand here. A finger there. His hot wet mouth near mine.
It had barely started, and I wanted it over. I whispered urgently to encourage him, little lies all women use at some point or other. “I can’t wait, baby. I need you right now. Oh God, that feels so good.” I said these things even though I wanted to crawl inside myself and forget we existed.
Less than five minutes after the Patriots won, he was on top of me and then inside me. My head fell back, dangling over the edge of the bed. I watched rain slide across glass, long rivulets of silver that glistened and disappeared.
I cried, and he never noticed.
I decided that night I’d never have sex with a man unless I wanted to, not even my husband. In the end, it was a deal breaker for him. By the time the Super Bowl rolled around, he was screwing the barista down the street from his office, and I didn’t give a damn.
That was four years ago, and I haven’t thought about it in a long time. I’ve been too busy reinventing myself, though it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. No longer was I the wife of Mid-Atlantic Insurance’s vice president, planning dinner parties and going to hot yoga. I was a single woman with a sullen teenager in the house and no career to fill my time. I ate my regret every single day.
I should have put more effort into college instead of flunking out first year and blowing my scholarship. I should have worked harder, and if I had done that, maybe I would have some big job. I could have been a CEO with a corner office and an assistant. I could have followed my dreams and become a writer.
I wouldn’t have let Mitch convince me to get married at twenty-two. I would have found my passion instead of drowning in my husband’s prestige and skating by on high cheekbones and good genes. Because the thing about a shallow existence? It eats at you until you’re nothing but a withered husk of something you never were, and how ironic is that?
Deciding not to have sex was the catalyst to escaping a life that suffocated me. But it’s not enough. I want something better. Something for me. I just don’t know what it is.
So I clean. It’s no lie when I say you can literally eat off my floor, and the key to that is no mops. It’s all about hands and knees and elbow grease.
For four years, I cleaned and organized and tried new recipes. I took up Pilates and quit yoga. I attended every PTA meeting, baked for school fundraisers, and signed up for committees I had no interest in, other than filling time.
I didn’t date because I felt my daughter, Daisy, was too young to deal with a new man in her life. Especially since the old one required a lot of work. And the longer I went without a man, the easier it was to forget I’d ever had one. I was as independent as a woman who gets a monthly check from her ex could be.
And I was happy. I think.
When my aunt called two weeks ago, it was one of the first things I said to her.
“I’m happy, Aunt Charlotte. Life is good. Daisy’s good. I’m thinking about getting a dog.” I tried not to wince at the sunshine spilling out of my mouth, but I’m not sure I was successful.
“I’m glad to hear that, dear.”
“Prue, your mother died.”
Another pause, and I pictured Aunt Charlotte tugging on her white pearls as she angled her head just so and studied herself in the mirror. She was always fussing about.
“How?” I managed to speak, that one word sliding past the sawdust in the back of my throat.
“It was fast. A massive heart attack. Doctor McKinnon says she was dead before she hit the floor, so you don’t have to worry that she felt pain or anything. She didn’t suffer.” Aunt Charlotte’s Southern drawl coated her words in honey. “Carol found her when she got up to pee.”
“Oh.” I had more words. Of course I did. But I couldn’t seem to say them.
“There’s so much to do, Prue, and well, you know how the family feels about Carol.”
I know, because it’s the exact same way I feel about the woman. It’s thick and hot and dangerous. Carol Seaton destroyed my family with her kinky dark hair, wide set ebony eyes, and smooth chocolate skin. She has a voice that would make Monroe proud, and I’ve never forgiven my mother for choosing her over us. It tainted our relationship, and as I sat down at the white granite island in my custom-designed kitchen, I remembered the last conversation I had with my mom.
Twenty years gone by now, and she echoed in my head as if she stood beside me. I closed my eyes and swore I could smell the vanilla she loved so.
“Prue?” Aunt Charlotte prodded gently.
I cleared my throat, not wanting to bring up all that stuff, and tried to sound normal. Which was a hard thing to do considering my voice rose at least three octaves. Marilyn Monroe I was not.
“When’s the funeral?”
“Prue, she passed four days ago. She’s already been cremated, as per her wishes. She didn’t want a funeral or a wake. You know your mother. She hated fuss.”
That hurt. Even after all this time, it hurt.
“It’s more the loose ends. The B and B and, well…” She paused dramatically. “Carol.” Her voice gentled. “I know it’s been forever sweetie, and I know you and your momma had a difficult relationship. But you have to come home.” She trailed off into a whisper. “We need you to come home.”
Funny how one simple word can conjure up a million ways to fall apart. A million reasons to stay away. But I suppose there’s some sort of invisible tether that stretches across towns and counties and states, across continents and oceans, a small sliver of time and place that burrows beneath your skin and is always there. Always ready to drag you back.
Which is why, two weeks after that phone call, it felt like I’d never left.
Louisiana in the summer is not for the faint of heart. The bugs are relentless, the air is heavy with secrets, and the humidity isn’t good for the hair. Which is Daisy’s first complaint. The expression on her face is one I’ve become all too familiar with. An expression that makes the teeth at the back of my mouth hurt and the words in my mouth cut through skin.
“Don’t start, or you will absolutely regret it.” I mean every word, and she knows it.
Thankfully, it’s enough. Daisy is silent. Even when the rental company screws up my reservation and all they have for us is a small compact car with questionable suspension that barely fits our luggage. She hops into the front seat, pops in her earbuds, and listens to God knows what as I negotiate my way out of the airport.
Sweetwater is about an hour or so from New Orleans, and I’m not prepared for the wave of nostalgia that rolls over me as we eat up the miles. It lodges at the back of my throat, a big old lump that makes it hard to swallow and brings about pesky tears. I haven’t been home since I left, and my mind wanders. Do the cicadas still sing so sweetly? Does the honeysuckle smell as fragrant? Were the live oaks as impressive as they used to be?
It’s the other questions that creep in that make me anxious, the ones that make me remember why I left in the first place. Are the people as judgmental? Does God still rule? Is Pastor Thornley still a creep?
Is my dad still so goddamn apathetic?
I forget about all of it as I turn off the interstate and head deeper into the bayou. Daisy sits up a little straighter, and even though her buds are still glued to the insides of her ears, I know she’s checking things out. Her mind is going a mile a minute, wondering at the punishment of being dragged from her friends and Boston, out here to a place that time seems to have forgotten.
Sweetwater, Louisiana. Population four thousand and forty-two.
I drive down Main Street. Past the Frogmore Diner. The Heartland Baptist church. The Duquette Grocery. The Hardware store. Past the park. I crank my neck a bit and spy the carousel where I got my first kiss. The fact that it still stands is a testament to this town’s hold on the past. They’re tenacious, these folks. They hold on to everything.
I slow down as I approach the Sweetwater B and B, which is on the edge of town, down along the river. The drapes are drawn and not a single vehicle graces the parking area to the right. The lawn is meticulous and the flower gardens are spectacular, the camellias and citrus trees lush and inviting. I spy an orange-and-white Maine Coon licking its front paw under the arbor. Its big head swings our way as we pass. Hanging baskets sway from the large porch, overflowing with purple and pink petunias. They’ve obviously been watered. Carol, no doubt.
Daisy tugs on one earbud and glances my way, finally showing some interest. “Is this it?”
I nod, my head in the past, my heart pounding rapidly. “Yes.”
“It looks kind of cool. Like from a movie or something. Why aren’t we staying here?”
“Because.” The one-word answer that is a catch-all for pretty much everything.
Because I don’t want to.
Because I’m afraid of the ghosts.
Because I don’t like Carol.
Flustered, I accelerate once more and hang a right, coming up the back way to my father’s place. It’s a sturdy two-story and appears no different from the pictures in my memory. Even the old swing moves gently in the breeze, still hung from the massive oak that sits in the middle of the front yard.
I park next to a faded red Chevy and get out, stretching muscles that are cramped and a neck that’s way too tight.
“You coming?” I say to Daisy, though I don’t wait for her. I walk up the stone path that leads to the house and take the steps to the porch two at a time. I smell fresh paint and notice the trim around the windows looks smart, as do the black shutters on either side. The screen door opens beneath my hand, and feeling a bit like an intruder, I call out to my father and peer inside. It’s dark and cool. The wood floors gleam and smell of lemon, and there are fresh flowers in the vase on the table to my right, peonies, I think. I take a step inside and pause just as he appears from the kitchen out back.
His long legs eat up the hallway as he moves toward me, his face in shadow until we are inches apart. He’s dressed for Sunday, and pays me no mind at first, scooping up a jacket that lies across the bannister. When his eyes meet mine, he takes a few moments to let them run over me and then Daisy. He gives a slight nod as if to say welcome, and then focuses on Daisy again.
“You look like your momma.” The soft Southern roll hits me in the gut, and I work hard to keep calm. How can he sound so normal? As if us walking into this house is something he’s used to?
Daisy says nothing, and we both stare at my father. He’s a tall man, and his shoulders hunch a bit. He still has all his hair, the thick waves curling around his ears, though the color is no longer deep black but a soft gray with strands of silver woven through. There are new lines etched into the tanned skin around his eyes and mouth, but nothing you wouldn’t expect of a man in his sixties.
He looks the same, only older. What he doesn’t appear to be is heartbroken over the death of my mother, and that surprises me. I always thought he’d spend his time pining for the woman who left him for someone else. A woman he’d told me once he would love until he left this earth. It’s a cold reminder that nothing lasts forever.
“There’s ham in the fridge and cobbler on the counter. Help yourself.”
“Where are you going?” I find my voice and am glad of it.
He shrugs into his jacket and reaches for his hat. “It’s Sunday. I’m going to the Widow Barrington’s.”
Shocked, I stand there and watch as he fiddles in front of the mirror and tugs on the brim of his brown tweed hat.
“You’re gonna catch flies if you don’t shut your mouth.” His words are dry with a hint of sarcasm. It’s so close to what I remember that I’m momentarily at a loss for words. Memories tug at the edge of my mind.
Prue, watch yourself. The mosquitos are hungry.
Prue, best be back before dark unless you want to tangle with the spirits in the woods.
Prue, mind your manners when your momma is talking.
I shake away the nostalgia and think back to the endless hours that had filled my day. Hours spent making my way back home. Back to him. To this house. To this damn town I want no part of and the memory of a mother I don’t want to think about.
“Why are you going to Mrs. Barrington’s?” Anger touches my words, and he turns to me, his faded blue eyes direct with an expression that seems almost confused. “It’s Sunday.”
“I know what day it is.” Throat tight, I wait for a proper explanation.
He clears his throat, his voice gravelly when he speaks. “She makes the best damn apple pie this side of the Mississippi, and on Sundays, after church, she serves it up to anyone who comes through her door.”
“But you don’t go to church,” I reply, bewildered and more than a little confused.
“No, I don’t. But she does.” Satisfied with the slant of his hat, he nods and heads for the door. Before pushing out into the bright sun, he pauses, head to the side so that his profile is in shadow. “You can stay in your old room, and your girl can sleep on the sofa.”
My father leaves abruptly, his heavy boots falling across the porch and echoing into the quiet that settles around my shoulders.
“I’m not sleeping on the sofa,” Daisy says from across the room. “It’s gross and looks like raccoons live in it. I hate this place already.” She sounds petulant, which I suppose is right on target considering she’s a teenager I’ve dragged halfway across the country to live in a backwoods town I’d fled as soon as I could. I glance at my watch and wonder if it’s too early to crack open the bottle of wine I’d picked up at the airport.
“Mom?” Daisy crosses the room and stands beside me, her gaze on the door my father had just walked through.
“What?” Tired, I rub the back of my neck and try to ease the tension that has settled there somewhere between Boston and here.
“Do we have to stay?”
I know this summer isn’t what she wants. Hell, it’s nowhere near what I want it to be either. Stuck in Sweetwater with all the ghosts of my past. But there are things I need to deal with. My mom’s estate and all that it entails.
This is called being an adult. My daughter has no idea what’s headed her way. I envy her that.
“Mom?” Daisy prods.
I offer a smile as I stare at her. At her gray eyes so like mine. At the heart-shaped face, pale skin, and mess of dark hair knotted loosely on top of her head. At the black T-shirt with You Suck emblazoned across her slight chest, and the too-short shorts that barely cover her fifteen-year-old ass.
“Yes, Daisy. We have to stay here.”
I think she’ll argue some more being as she’s always been the type to fight, but I can’t quite read her and luckily, she proves me wrong. She reaches for her backpack and shrugs.
“Your father is an asshole.”
I should give Daisy crap for her language but I don’t.
“I’m not sleeping on the sofa.”
I don’t answer on account of the huge lump in my throat. No way am I going to break down now. I’ll save that for later. For when I’m alone with my bottle of wine and the darkness can hide my misery. She heads for the stairs and for a moment I don’t move, my feet leaden and weighted down from exhaustion. I’m not sure how long I stand there, the silence pressing in, but eventually, I grab our luggage and get to work.