Thirty years after her stepbrother's unsolved murder, a reluctant Mary Byrd Thornton is forced by a detective's call to return to her family and again confront the crime's irremovable stain.
This stunning debutfrom the cofounder of the legendary Square Books in Oxford, Mississippiis a work of fiction, but the murder is based on the still-unsolved case of Lisa Howorth's stepbrother, a front page story in the Washington Post. And yet this is not a crime novel; it is an honest and luminous story of a particular time and place in the South, where even calamitous weather can be a character, everyone has a story, and all are inextricably entwined. With a flamboyant cast, splendid dark humor, a potent sense of history, and a shocking true story at its heart, Flying Shoes is a rich and candid novel from a fresh new voice about family and memory and one woman's flight from a wounded past.
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About the Author
Lisa Howorth was born in Washington, D.C., where her family has lived for four generations. She moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where she married her husband, Richard, and raised their three children. They opened Square Books (named by Publishers Weekly as the 2013 Bookstore of the Year) in 1979. She received the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1996 and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship in 2007. Her writing has appeared in Garden & Gun and the Oxford American. This is her first novel.
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By Lisa Howorth
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2014 Lisa Howorth
All rights reserved.
Mary Byrd Thornton knew that breaking things was not a good, adult response to getting sudden, scary news about a terrible thing in the past, a thing buried with the dead and kicked to the curb of consciousness; but that was what she'd done anyway.
She'd been unloading the dishwasher, killing time until school let out and half-listening to NPR. The IRA had broken a truce and bombed London, unwanted rape babies—"enfants mauvais souvenir," NPR called them—from the massacres in Rwanda over the past two years were abandoned and dying, some scientist was predicting global chaos, calling it Y2K—planes would be falling from the sky and subway trains colliding in the year 2000. Basically it was the usual news; what she and her brothers called every new day's headlines: More Dead Everywhere. It always seemed like the world was a kitchen full of leaking gas just waiting for the careless match.
Even though it was February and the windows were closed against the cold, damp day, Mary Byrd could hear the knucklehead frat boys over on the next street, hollering and floating around in their hot tub like beer-sodden dumplings in a testosterone stew.
The phone had gone off—more an electronic alarm than a ring that she'd never gotten used to. Answering with one hand and turning off the radio with the other, Mary Byrd received the startling but somehow, she realized, not unexpected news that the unsolved case of her nine-year-old stepbrother's murder, on Mother's Day, 1966, was being reopened.
The call was from a detective in Richmond—what was his odd name? The voice was calm and polite, but strict, like a school teacher dealing with a balky problem child. He suggested—strongly—that she not discuss the unwelcome news outside her family until he'd had a chance to meet with them all. And the sooner the better for that, he said.
"In fact, if you can get up here in the next couple days that would be great. What's happening is that we think we have some new information and we feel we can now go after, and try to convict, the suspect. If we ..."
"Think?" Mary Byrd interrupted. "What do you mean? Like what new information?" She asked the question not feeling she wanted an answer.
"What I was going to say is that if we can get your family to look at some things, make an ID, we believe we've got this thing nailed."
Mary Byrd felt gooseflesh tightening on her arms. "What things?" Was he talking about her little green teen-aged diary, which had been confiscated and never returned? "Is it Ned Tuttle?" she asked. Tuttle, the creepy guy down the street who was the only suspect. She hated to say his name.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Thornton," the detective said. "I don't think it's in anybody's best interest, or in the interest of working the case, for us to talk about details over the phone. But it is pretty ... I'd say critical, actually, for you and your family to meet with me up here very soon if at all possible. There's a lot that needs to be discussed. I'm hoping that a meeting Monday morning will suit everybody. That gives you a little time, anyway."
Mary Byrd felt the belligerent asshole rising up in her. There was something else about the voice—slick? "What, it's been thirty years and now there's this big hurry?"
There was a reproving pause and the detective said, "Yes, exactly. I can apologize till the cows come home for this intrusion. I know this is difficult and unpleasant for all of you. But this is what I do here—try to solve cold cases. These ... developments have just come up. I would think that you'd want to know, and to cooperate. Let's get this resolved once and for all, and put this guy away forever so no one else gets ... hurt."
The guilt card. She wondered how many others had already been hurt over all these years. " Okay, I get it. Have you talked to my mother and brothers?"
"They're willing. Your mother was certain you'd want to be involved."
Why had her mother said that? She was overthinking; it was just her mom's normal bossiness and nothing else. But why hadn't she called to let her know? "Okay," Mary Byrd repeated. "I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you, Mrs. Thornton," the detective said. "I don't think you'll be sorry to be here. I hope that this will mean some closure for your family."
I will be sorry, she thought, and what the fuck is closure?
"And if I may ask once again," he said, "it's very important to the case that you not speak to anyone outside your family about all this. What we don't need is reporters and publicity mucking things up or scaring off people we need to be interviewing before we can get to them. There are a lot of complicated legal issues involved and we need to go strictly by the book on this one. Can I count on your cooperation with that?" She heard the snap of a lighter and breath being drawn. Maybe he was done with her.
"Yes," she lied, knowing she would discuss this grim turn of events with her friend Mann, or Lucy, if she could find her. And her husband Charles. But no problem about not talking to anyone else; it was all so unspeakable and always had been. But why did he care?
Cold and shaky, and guilty; a super-gravitational weight settled on her like a tractor tire and made her want to gimp up right there on the kitchen floor, fetally curled and impervious like one of her napping cats. That's when she went back to the dishes and picked up a piece of the crappy Corelle she used to feed her animals and children because of its alleged indestructibility and threw it hard at the floor, where it shattered in an almost-satisfying way, just as she had always expected it would. Her heart flapped madly and she took some deep breaths to compose herself, trying to decide what to do next. Feeling an acrid thickness in her throat—bile?—she coughed a big, hairball cough of revulsion. As she filled a glass with water and considered adding some vodka, the phone sounded again. She looked suspiciously at the caller ID, which said RICHMOND VA. An unfamiliar number. Did she have to answer?
She did. "Hi! Is this Mrs. Thornton?" asked a too-cheerful, girly voice.
"This is she," Mary Byrd said.
"Oh, hi! My name is Linda Fyce. I'm a journalist and I'm calling from Richmond. Mrs. Thornton, are you aware that the murder case of your stepbrother, Steven Rhinehart, is being reopened up here?"
Mary Byrd went cold. After a moment, she lied, "No. Who is this?"
The woman, or girl, repeated her name and blundered ahead. " I'm working on a story about your stepbrother's case. I'm surprised, but actually not very, that the Richmond police haven't already contacted you. I was wondering if we could talk about it. I'm sure you'd like to see it finally resolved by somebody, which I hope to do. Is this a good time? "
"No," Mary Byrd said, not having any idea of what else to say. There was no good time. She sat down at the kitchen counter. "No, I'm really busy right now. And I don't think I have anything ... useful to say about that."
"From what I know so far, wasn't there some ... well, maybe involvement's not the right word, but weren't there some questions about your boyfriend, and your relationship to the suspect?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Mary Byrd said. "I'm sorry, I have to go now."
"Well, maybe I can call at a more convenient time? I'm sure this is important to you and your family."
Mary Byrd hung up. Anger welled up in her. There was something about the pushy snake-oiliness of the woman's voice that alarmed her. Was this reporter really going to write about the case, and put it all out there in public for her whole family to deal with? Again? She got it, now, about why the detective had asked her not to talk to anyone else. He didn't want the reporter scooping him, and making the police look like idiots. Which they had been. How could they possibly solve the case after so many years? And would she really have to go up to Richmond and look at ... what? She was horrified at the thought.
Pale at no crime. The motto of her eighteenth-century crush, William Byrd, who believed that one must strive to right all wrongs but who was guilty of quite a few, came to her, and she gave herself a mental kick in the ass. Take heart, thou indolent, indulgent wench. There is much ado. In other words, don't be such a pussy.
Looking down at the "china" explosion on the floor, she knew she'd better get it up fast before Evagreen saw it. It was the kind of thing Evagreen expected from her and loved to see: further proof that Mary Byrd was a cradle fuckup. On her knees, collecting the shards—why had her creepy college anthropology professor called them "sherds," as if they'd been digging up turds—and wanting to lighten up, she said to herself, Ladies and gentlemen, what a tragedy. Oh, the humanity! This didn't much work, and out loud she said, "I knew this crap would break." Another myth bites the dust, like Teflon that got scratched and left gray, poisonous flecks in the eggs. Or stainless steel that stained, or insurance that didn't insure. American advertising bullshit.
Her first impulse had been to throw a piece of her Spode Queen's Bird, which might have felt better in the moment, but she had a maddening way of second-thinking her impulses, even split-second ones, making them non-impulses and therefore devoid of real satisfaction. Mary Byrd had a word for this self-thwart, another expression her brothers used to describe the last-minute bungling that made their teams, the Spiders and the Redskins, lose a game: auto-cornhole. But she was glad she hadn't thrown the Queen's Bird because she loved it; a wedding gift and charming play on her name from her dead mother-in-law, Liddie, whom she also loved. And then, if she had thrown the Spode, seeing the pale blue china, the almost-white color of the sky on a scorching Mississippi day, with the lovely little magenta and gold bird, smashed on the floor, that would only have made her feel worse. She'd already broken enough of the Spode over the many years of her marriage. Well, in an unusual fit of anger over something now forgotten, Charles, normally a model of comportment and restraint, had broken a plate once, and not on accident.
A skinny splinter of the bogus china had stuck in a cantaloupe on the floor next to the stove. The cantaloupe was there because one of the cats, Ignatius, was weirdly obsessed with them and rolled them off the counter and into corners where he could wedge them up and get at them more privately. She only bought the expensive, out-of-season fruit (which in February tasted more like pumpkin) for Iggy. The gnawed place with the shard oozed onto the heart pine.
Still on her hands and knees, considering crying a little bit, which she knew would help nothing, and then considering a Valium, which would, Mary Byrd had just finished picking up broken pieces and wiping up the juice puddle when she raised her head and saw that Evagreen, the Thorntons' late-middle-aged but ageless maid—housekeeper, cleaner, whatever you were supposed to call them now; all the labels for black help seemed either degrading, euphemistic, or just silly—stood in the kitchen doorway. One skinny arm was akimbo, fist on the hip of her shrimp-colored jogging suit, the other holding a stack of tightly and perfectly folded sheets and towels to her velour chest. There was no particular expression on Evagreen's face.
Sheepishly, kneeling before the woman, violated cantaloupe in one hand and paper towel wads and pieces of plate in the other, Mary Byrd said, "Evagreen, did you know that this Corelle stuff actually does break?"
"Don't break on me," said Evagreen, moving off. "Anything'll break, thow it down hard enough."
Evagreen never called her by name, never called her anything, and—Mary Byrd appreciated this—never called her "ma'am." She sighed. She was sure Evagreen hadn't seen her throw the plate, yet the older woman seemed to always have a sixth sense about things, especially if they involved Mary Byrd doing the wrong thing. She should work for the damn FBI, or somebody, solving cold cases, Mary Byrd thought. She tried to resist thinking, What a bitch.
She knew Evagreen disapproved of her and she sort of understood why. Whiteness was only a small part of it—that would be reason enough in Mississippi—but actually it had more to do with Mary Byrd not being white enough, or the right kind of white person. As far as she knew, Evagreen didn't do anybody else that way. Mary Byrd wasn't super-lazy; she'd worked most of her adult life. After Charles had gotten his gallery business going and they could afford for her not to work, she'd tried to be an efficient housewife, making beds, loading and unloading the dishwasher, getting up at the crack and making school lunches and breakfast (cold cereal and orange juice, but still), chauffeuring children, trying to keep up with things that needed keeping up with in their vast, overgrown yard, blah blah blah, holding down the fort when Charles was often out of town, and entertaining his photographers and clients when he wasn't. Before Evagreen came to work on Thursdays, Mary Byrd rushed around straightening, getting all the cat turds that hadn't been scarfed up by the dogs out of the litter box, emptying the trash of earwaxed Q-tips and Tampax applicators, getting the pubes off the commode rim, scraping dried toothpaste blobs out of the sink. One of not very many white Democrats in town, she didn't do ladies' lunches, didn't belong to the country club or play tennis or golf on its scrubby, eroded golf course, and her children went to the public schools. For Martin Luther King Day she and Charles went to the long, boisterous services at Second Baptist, where, as far as Mary Byrd could see, they all celebrated not how they were all the same, all in this crazy world together, but how insuperably different they all still were.
Still, Evagreen would cut her no slack. In fact, Mary Byrd felt that she might gain some ground with Evagreen by doing more of those white lady things; that their impasse had more to do with breeding and outsiderness, and with Mary Byrd's willingness to accept, if not embrace, guilt. Evagreen could sniff this coming off her and took advantage of it. To Mary Byrd, Evagreen was like one of the scary old bully nuns at St. Bernard's back in Richmond, except that there it had been okay to hate Sister Pascal because she was white, and because, by example, she had made it clear that hating was okay, like it was okay to scorn you if you had divorced parents. There'd been no pleasing her, and there was no pleasing Evagreen, except when you screwed up. Maybe it was nothing more than what used to be called, before psychobabble, and before everything had to be about race, simply a personality conflict.
Mary Byrd wondered if she needed to tell Evagreen now about this trip to Richmond she was apparently going to have to make and decided no, don't stir that pot yet; she could get back from Virginia before next Wednesday and could get the house in order before Evagreen came again. But Charles and the children, she'd need to tell them today. She should call her mother, too. But not now. She wasn't ready.
To escape her personal Quasimodo and to think, Mary Byrd wandered out of the house in a fog, onto the front porch where she knew a world of ugly winter yard detritus waited for her to deal with it. She should get busy doing something. Slimy yellow rags of elephant ear lay around the porch's edge, punctuated by shriveled caladiums. Pots of impatiens looked like the wet, wilted crap at the bottom of a salad bowl and the lady ferns, so emerald and luxuriant in July, had all frozen and were crispy and brown as toast. It all should have been cut back and raked out of the beds before Christmas, weeks and weeks earlier. The red honeysuckle, morning glories, and clematis vines she encouraged to grow up the white porch posts of the old house still clung there, bare and tangled—so gorgeously frothy and fragrant all summer and at the first frost good for nothing. Thank you, Jesus, for the Lady Banks rose and Jackson vine and Carolina jessamine which kept their verdant, skinny good looks all winter. Vines were her favorite plants; she gave them carte blanche in her yard. Even wisteria and Virginia creeper she egged on, although she knew they were hell on paint and woodwork and pissed Charles off. It was so, so worth it to have the wisteria's grape-scented purple haze in spring and the rusty red creeper that glowed like fire in the fall with the late afternoon sun. She liked to think that that's how her curly black hair looked, backlit, when she put some henna in it. Ha. More like a clown wig. The red honeysuckle would have to be moved, she noticed. It was competing with the clematis and she couldn't do without the sweet waft of that and its delicate white laciness in the worst part of summer. Clematis and crape myrtle and a few weedy things like false dragonhead were the only flowers with the balls to stand up to the relentless Mississippi late summers. If not for the small relief of those tough blooms she thought she might have blown her brains out one of those dusty Septembers. Not really, but the summers were so brutal, and the heat gave her bad headaches. It was no wonder all the horrible civil rights crimes had taken place in summer. It brought out the craziness, and the worst in people.
Excerpted from FLYING SHOES by Lisa Howorth. Copyright © 2014 Lisa Howorth. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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