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Excerpt: 'The Orange Blossom Special'

Cover image from <i>The Orange Blossom Special</i>
Cover image from The Orange Blossom Special

This Southern novel is named after the first passenger train line between New York and Miami. Tessie finds herself widowed and miserable with a soon-to-be-teenage daughter. She decides to follow the path of the train to somewhere she was once happy, Gainesville, Fla. -- where she went on her honeymoon.

Recommended by Rona Brinlee of the Book Mark in Atlantic Beach, Florida, the story is told with the backdrop of the South in the 1960s with layers of demonstrations, race questions and the Vietnam War.

Excerpt: Chapter One

The morning after the letter arrived, Tessie Lockhart dressed with care in a navy blue skirt, red cinch belt, and blue-and-white-striped cotton blouse. Instead of letting her hair lie limp around her shoulders, as she had since Jerry died, she pinned it up in a French twist. And for the first time in God knows how long, she stood in front of the mirror and put on the bright red lipstick that had sat unused in her drawer for nearly three years. She penciled on some eyeliner and even dabbed on Jean Naté.

Jerry died two-and-a-half years earlier and Tessie hadn't given her appearance a second thought since. When he was alive, he would stroke her hair and tell her that she looked pretty, like the actress Joanne Woodward. He even nicknamed her Jo. She'd never fallen under a man's gaze quite that way, and though she'd studied pictures of Joanne Woodward in the movie magazines and even started wearing her hair in a pony tail the way Joanne Woodward did, Tessie never really saw the resemblance. Not that it mattered. Just the look in Jerry's eyes when he would say, 'God, Jo, you are so beautiful,' that and the way he'd pull her toward him was all the impetus she needed to turn up the collars of her shirtwaist dresses, and wear her bangs short just like Joanne Woodward had worn hers in Sweet Bird of Youth.

She told her boss that she had to go see Dinah's teacher at school and would be away for a couple of hours. Instead, she got on the bus and went to Morris Library at Southern Illinois University. She'd gone by it hundreds of times in the past thirty-six years, but had never set foot inside. Never had any need to. Now she ran up the stairs as if she were coming home.

Going to Morris Library filled her with a purpose that seemed worth primping for. Besides, she knew there'd be mostly young people there, and she still had enough vanity in her not to want to be seen as old.

'I've forgotten, but where is the travel section?' Tessie asked the young woman behind the front desk. 'One flight up,' she answered, without looking up from her filing.

Approximately 449,280 minutes after her father died, Dinah Lockhart brought home a letter that her teacher had written to her mother. The word PERSONAL was written on it in small block print.

'What's this?' Tessie asked.

'Who knows?' Dinah shrugged, as her mother took a kitchen knife and slit open the envelope.

Dinah knew. It was a letter from her seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Silver.

Tessie read each word carefully, her lips moving imperceptibly.

Dinah watched her mother struggle with the words, holding the note, written on lined loose-leaf paper, at arm's length. She could see the vein over her mother's left eye start to pulse, the way it did when she felt anxious.

''. . . crying in class . . . distracted and disinterested . . . the seriousness of the situation . . . our recommendation that you seek counseling for her . . .''

Tessie had noticed how Dinah talked in a monotone voice and how she never seemed to be completely there. But she hadn't connected it to the truth: that Dinah was lost. No friends, no language to put to her feelings, no way to help herself. 'Distracted and disinterested,' Mr. Silver had said.

'You cry in class?' she asked her daughter.

'Yeah, sometimes.'

'How come?'

'Can't help it.'

Tessie stared at her daughter, her beautiful thirteen-year-old daughter with the red ringlets and shiny face, and saw the pleading eyes of a child about to be hit. She was not a woman likely to make hasty decisions, but as she read the teacher's words, she was struck by one unequivocal thought: We have got to get out of here.

Tessie knew without knowing how that leaving Carbondale was the right thing. She couldn't spend another day selling dresses at Angel's. The smell of cheap synthetics filled her breathing in and out, even when she wasn't in the store. Only the taste of Almaden Chianti could wipe it out. The sweet grapey Almaden, which she had taken to buying by the case, was her gift to herself for getting through another day of assuring customers that 'no, you don't look like a gosh darn barn in that pleated skirt.' Just four sips. She'd have four sips as soon as she came home from work. Right before dinner, there'd be another four sips and a couple more during dinner, and so the Chianti got doled out through the evening in small, not particularly worrisome portions. It got so that she was finishing a bottle every other night. When she'd go to buy another case at the liquor store, Mr. Grayson always greeted her the same way. 'Howdy do Tessie. You wouldn't be here for another case of Almaden Chianti, would you?'

Embarrassed that he noticed, Tessie would bow her head and pretend to be making a decision. 'Hmm, sounds like a good idea. Might as well have some extra on hand for company.' Of course the last time Tessie had had company was back when Jerry was alive.

We have got to get out of here. The words moved into Tessie's head, each letter taking on a life of its own—arches, rolling valleys, looping and diving until they sat solid like gritted teeth. She thought about their desolate dinners—macaroni and cheese or one of those new frozen meals. She'd ask Dinah how school was. 'Fine' was always what she got back. Then she'd claim to have a lot of homework. Tessie would light her after-dinner cigarette, and the two of them would retreat to their rooms. Tessie's only solace was talking to her dead husband. 'What she needs is a fresh start,' she would whisper to Jerry. 'What we both need is a fresh start.'

We have got to get out of here. The sentence buzzed inside her like a neon light.

Tessie and Jerry Lockhart had spent their honeymoon in St. Augustine, Florida, seventeen years earlier, in 1941. It was the only time in her life that Tessie had ever left Carbondale. The memory of that had all but faded except for the sight of Spanish moss draped over live oak trees like a wedding veil. She had never seen anything so beautiful.

Although the ads for Florida always claimed that it was so, she never really believed that it would be warm enough to swim in the ocean at Christmastime—until she was there, and then it was. So different from Carbondale, with its gray winters and ornate Victorian houses always reminding her what was out of reach.

She checked out every book about Florida that was available in Morris Library. She balanced the giant atlas on her knees and, using St. Augustine as the starting point, made a circle with her fingers north to Jacksonville, west to Tallahassee, and south to Sarasota. As she leafed through the reference books and read about the cities on the map, she found herself staring at pictures of Alachua County, swampy Alachua County, where the sun shining through the moss- covered oaks cast a filigree shadow on the boggy earth. Alachua County, whose name came from the Seminole-Creek word meaning 'jug,' which referred to a large sinkhole that eventually formed a prairie.

'What a beautiful place,' she thought to herself, pushing aside any doubts about an area that was essentially named after a sinkhole. Then she read that Gainesville, in the heart of that county, was home to one of the largest universities in the United States. Pictures of the redbrick Century Tower at the University of Florida reminded her how much she liked being part of a college town. It gave her status, she thought. People in Carbondale assumed other people in Carbondale had been schooled there, or were in some way a part of the university. She liked the exposure that Dinah got to higher education, and it thrilled her that Dinah might be the first in their family to go to college.

Could Gainesville be the place? she wondered.

Just by asking the question, she knew she'd already answered it.

That night she would tell Dinah how they would leave by Christmas and that she would begin 1959 in a new school.

Dinah Lockhart never made a precise effort to tally up the number of cigarettes her mother smoked each day, or how many minutes it had been since her father's death. She knew these things instinctively, the way she knew to avoid stepping on cracks and knew to lift her feet and make a wish whenever her mother drove over railroad tracks. She wasn't superstitious exactly, but why risk it?

Things had been taken away from Dinah, so the things that were there counted. Things like the fourteen honey-locust trees and sixty-two squares of sidewalk on her block.

Two-and-a-half years earlier, when Dinah was eleven, her father had dropped dead of a heart attack. 'It came out of nowhere,' her mother told her when she picked her up from school that day. There was a foggy look in her mother's eyes. She hugged Dinah close to her and said, 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Gone, just like that.' Dinah pictured the heart attack racing around the corner, hoisting her father under his arms and hurrying him off. In the days after, teachers and parents of friends would tell her that her daddy had gone to heaven. Dinah would close her eyes and try to imagine her father up there in pillowy clouds with the doting angels, but nothing came. Besides, her mother refused to buy into paradise. 'He's gone, honey,' she would say. 'Now it's just you and me. We're all we've got.'

When she was little, Dinah's father used to wrap her red curly hair around his finger and call her his little Boing Boing Girl. He was always making up names like that. This nickname stuck, and Dinah turned into the personification of it. Skinny and agile, with her dad's thin shoulders, she had a laugh that kept going like marbles spilled across the floor. Her mother, whose bloodline was swamped with melancholia, would watch her daughter with wonderment. 'Thank God you inherited your father's good nature,' she would say. Dinah knew what she was expected to answer. 'Yes, but I've got my mom's good looks.' They would both raise their eyebrows in that what-can-you-do face and Dinah would giggle, secure in knowing that she was her father's daughter.

Now, her mouth had become fixed in a tight line. Since her father died, everything changed and yet nothing was different. Dinah woke up in her narrow bed every morning and went to the same school with her same old classmates. 'You're still my Boing Boing Girl,' her mother said one day, her stiff voice trying to sound jaunty.

'Sure am,' Dinah answered, trying to sound as if the bounce was still in it.

Inside her, things were mounting that she couldn't control: the way her socks needed to be arranged by color in her dresser drawer; the sixteen times she would run her brush through her hair at night, the eleven times in the morning. These were the things she could depend on when everything else seemed to be coming untethered.

Tessie spent the entire bus ride back to work practicing how she'd tell Dinah of her decision. 'Guess what? We're moving to Florida!' Too abrupt. 'Can you imagine moving far away from here to a new house, and a new school?' Too scary. 'Given all that's happened here, a change of pace would do us both some good.' Too vague. She floated through the rest of the afternoon at Angel's, her head filled with what she'd read in those books: the Spanish architecture, the Seminole Indians, the fact that the average temperature was seventy degrees.

'Well somebody's in a good mood today,' said Irene the cashier, her brown eyes buggy with expectation. Irene, Irene the talking machine, was what Jerry used to call her. The noisiest person in Southern Illinois. Tessie stared back, knowing how it would irritate Irene if she didn't give her an answer. Then she picked up a sweater that had been thrown back on the display table and studied the price tag. 'Seven dollars for a cashmere, now that's not bad at all.' Irene smiled and waited for more, but Tessie had given her all she was going to give.

Tessie got through her days at Angel's by taking cigarette breaks and remembering the rhymes that Jerry used to make up about her coworkers:

Edna McGee in the tight red sweater,

Loves herself, loves her boobs better.

Smelly mean old Warren Nash

Keeps the books but hides the cash.

That night she repeated the doggerel to Dinah. 'They still make me laugh,' she said. 'I can hear his voice and see the little laugh lines around his eyes when he said them.' Then she told Dinah how she talked to Jerry every day. 'I tell him about you, I ask him questions. I know he can hear me.'

'You're lucky that way,' said Dinah. 'I can't find him.'

Tessie paused and took a drag on her cigarette. 'I've been thinking about us moving to Florida. There's this place called Gainesville. It has those grand oak trees I've told you about and it's a university town, like this one. The difference is it's warm year-round.'

The way it had been with Dinah lately, Tessie had no idea what she would say. Dinah stared at her and Tessie looked back, expecting to see that scorched look in her eyes.

'You mean leave Carbondale and never come back?' she asked.

Tessie shook her head yes. The ash that dangled from her cigarette fell to the floor.

Dinah thought about how her days had become about walking home alone from school every day, then climbing into bed. She recognized that it could be different somewhere else where people didn't know about her father, and the teacher wasn't writing notes home about her odd behavior. She felt her face soften into a smile.

'That could be okay,' she answered. 'I might like that very much.'

Her smile made Tessie remember how the warming sound of her daughter's laugh nourished her in ways that nothing else did. 'I'll give notice at Angel's tomorrow,' she said.

Excerpted with permission from Algonquin Books

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