These beautifully crafted stories depict the changing relationships between black and white southerners, the impact of the civil rights movement, and the emergence of the New South.
Mary Ward Brown is a storyteller in the tradition of such powerful 20th-century writers as William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty-writers who have explored and dramatized the tension between the inherited social structure of the South and its contemporary dissolution. With Tongues of Flame, her first collection of short stories, Brown bares the awkward, sometimes hopeful, and often tragic suffering of people caught in changing times within a timeless setting.
Here we meet such memorable characters as a dying black woman who seeks the advice of a now-alcoholic white doctor whom she knew in better years; a young woman, jilted at the altar, driven crazy by an illuminated cross erected by the church opposite her house; and a 95-year-old woman buying a tombstone for her long-deceased husband only to discover that he had been adulterous throughout their marriage. Brown constructs her characters in a disarmingly plain style while breathing life into them with compassion and honesty as they confront the large moments of their lives.
First published by E. P. Dutton in 1986 to immediate critical acclaim, Tongues of Flame won the 1987 PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award. The judges commended Brown for "seeing life whole, without prejudice, without sentimentality, without histrionics. Her voice may be quiet-sometimes she speaks in a whisper-but her words are, nevertheless, always forceful, clear, and ultimately lasting." With this new publication of Tongues of Flame and its inclusion in the University of Alabama Press's Deep South Books series, a whole new generation of readers may once more discover Mary Ward Brown's profound stories of pain, loss, and hope.
About the Author
Mary Ward Brown is an award-winning writer who lives in her family home in Browns, Alabama
Read an Excerpt
Tongues of Flame
By Mary Ward Brown
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Mrs. Lovelady, in a morning-fresh white uniform, helped Lisa's mother-in-law, Mrs. Worthy, into the car. Lisa could only stand by and watch. The bucket seat was too low and dangerously tilted for Mrs. Worthy as she was now, and Lisa wished she had listened to David, had come in his car instead of her own as he'd tried to tell her. Mrs. Lovelady kept smiling, for Mrs. Worthy's sake. Her eyes froze over when she looked at Lisa.
Mrs. Worthy had been a Laidlaw of Virginia, and before her illness she had looked it. Good clothes, her grandmother's jewelry, those quadruple-A shoes. Today she had on an old London Fog coat buttoned up to the chin. She was so thin it fell from her shoulders as from a hanger. On her head was a plain dark hat, to hide the loss of hair, Lisa supposed. She wore none of her rings. Only the yellow-gold wedding band she never took off.
Mrs. Lovelady handed in a cane with a wide silver band. "Got your medicine?" she asked.
Mrs. Worthy patted her purse and smiled. Her smile was too bright, like the wrong shade of lipstick.
Off at last, she didn't look back, though Mrs. Lovelady watched and waved from the walk. Behind Mrs. Lovelady was the portico of Mrs. Worthy's house, family home of her late husband. With its tall square columns and porches upstairs and down, the house stood as it had for over a century, through good times and bad, including wars that had cost the family a son in each generation. A driveway, where leaves and acorns crunched beneath the wheels of the car, made a deep half-circle in front.
It was the end of November, and trees on the grounds were all bare except evergreens. Several magnolias glistened in the sun. Their leaves, dull and suede-like underneath, shone as if waxed and polished on top. The sky was clear and blue, the air like a subtle stimulant. Nature seemed to favor this venture of Mrs. Worthy's, looked on by her son and her nurse as a whim of the sick, and foolish. But maybe it wouldn't kill her, David said.
They left the driveway for bare blacktop. A short stretch of woods, then a used-car lot followed by a veterinary clinic, and they were in the city limits of Wakefield.
"Why, there's Grandpa Robbins, out raking leaves," Mrs. Worthy said, with surprise. In front of a small neat house, an old man was at work in his yard. "I thought he must be dead and buried by now."
"Oh, no." Lisa laughed. "He was in the store just recently, buying something for another grandchild."
At mention of anyone's grandchild, Mrs. Worthy always fell silent.
For weeks Lisa had neglected, to the point of ignoring, her sick mother-in-law, but with an excuse that could pass for a reason. Lisa was the bookkeeper at Worthy's, the jewelry store Mrs. Worthy's son, David, had inherited from his father, to whom it had been left by his father, the first D. Worthy, Jeweler, of Wakefield. Lisa was born with a talent for figures, a gift as unmistakable as perfect pitch. In childhood she liked piggy banks, coins, and numbers, not dolls. Now, with the countdown to Christmas under way, she had a new computer at the store and could almost believe her own excuses.
Mrs. Lovelady had called last night during dinner. Mrs. Worthy had announced she was going shopping today, Mrs. Lovelady said. Alone, in a taxi. Mrs. Lovelady couldn't talk her out of it, so David would have to put his foot down, she said. To solve the problem and try to redeem herself, Lisa had offered to take her.
"Want to go by the mall?" she asked, near the intersection.
"Honey, no. Thank you." Mrs. Worthy was definite. "Just one stop for me. Miss Carrie is expecting me at Hagedorn's. She said she'd have some things picked out to show me."
"What did you have in mind?"
Mrs. Worthy seemed not to hear. She was trying to find the handle to the window.
"What are you shopping for, Mrs. Worthy?" Lisa asked again, in a moment.
"Oh, a dress." Mrs. Worthy looked off to the right. "Everything I own swallows me now."
In front of a red light, Lisa looked again at her mother-in-law. A year ago, she had seemed a different person. Off to work as a Pink Lady, gold earrings dangling from her pierced ears, she was talking, laughing, listening, busy in her church and the Charity League, running her own house. Now all that was over and Mrs. Lovelady was there, full-time. Behind them a bearded black man blew the horn of a Datsun. The light had turned green.
"Miss Carrie could have sent some things out," Lisa said, moving into the proper lane. "You could have tried them at home."
"But somebody would have to take them back, maybe try again. No, this will be easier. On everybody."
"Well, we have a beautiful day," Lisa said, with a smile.
It would be good to tell people, constantly asking, that she had seen Mrs. Worthy and had taken her shopping. "She's doing better, gaining a little weight," David had been saying lately, and she'd been repeating. Actually, Mrs. Worthy was no better at all and, if anything, worse.
Most of what David said Lisa didn't repeat. Health reports aside, it was the same in effect. His mother was a hero.
He had always praised her. "When we got home from school, she was there," he would say. Or, "Nobody could make hot rolls or mayonnaise like she could." Now his praise was on a different plane and Lisa heard it daily, her mother-in-law's courage, stoicism, self-sacrifice. After a day at the store, she heard it at night as she worked in the kitchen. Usually, she listened in silence.
"What do you mean, 'sacrifice'?" The words popped out one night, to her own surprise. "She has everything anybody could want."
His job was setting the table. Beside the sterling flatware he put down paper napkins. At first he said nothing, then his answer came like a blow in slow motion. "Not quite," he said, estranged already for several days to come. "She's sick, with nobody to look after her but a paid companion."
His mother came first with David, Lisa felt. She had thought so from the start, or almost the start. There had been a short happy time before she began to suspect that Mrs. Worthy sat on his right hand and she, Lisa, somewhere on the left. When she finally said so, in a burst of frustration, he was amazed.
"But she's alone now, and she's my mother!" he protested. "I love you both. Don't you know that?"
She didn't care about both. It was not to be shared. Something inside her was always watching for, ready to resist, any such notion on anyone's part.
David still referred to his mother's house as home, to their own home as "the house." "I'll run by home and see Mama, then meet you at the house," he began to say each afternoon as Mrs. Worthy grew worse. He also ran by on his way to work in the morning, and sometimes during lunch.
Mrs. Worthy was not to blame, Lisa knew. The bond had been forged too long ago and had nothing to do with her. Besides, Mrs. Worthy asked for nothing. On the contrary, she gave so much Lisa didn't like the obligations involved. Mrs. Worthy was a "giver," people said.
Once the three of them had gone to church together, a weekly habit. At the family pew, Mrs. Worthy stood back for Lisa to enter first. When David in turn stood back for his mother, she motioned him ahead of her to sit by Lisa. Sunday after Sunday he sat between them, his eyes on the preacher with polite disinterest. Sunlight, coming through a stained-glass window, fell on him like a halo. His face between them, in that light, was fixed in Lisa's mind forever, she thought.
Hagedorn's, like Worthy's, had been family-owned for three generations. Lisa preferred Lowe's, which had a younger, newer clientele; but Mrs. Worthy did most of her shopping at Hagedorn's, and had for forty years. Lisa was relieved to find a parking place in front. When she came around to help Mrs. Worthy out, her mother-in-law was trying this time to find the handle to the door.
"I'm a real drag now, Lisa," she said.
Lisa wondered where she got the word, drag. Not from grandchildren that she wanted so much, and didn't have. Of the children she had brought into the world, only David was living. Her daughter had been killed in a teenage wreck, her other son in Vietnam. Now, since no one could take Lisa's place at the store, she and David were putting off children as long as possible, maybe altogether. They no longer even discussed it. Lisa had left the Catholic church and its birth-control laws. The Worthy family had been Baptist for generations, Southern Baptists, as unyielding on dogma as Catholics themselves. Lisa, a cradle Catholic, had felt she should join them.
"You'd give up your soul for him?" her father had asked, stunned, when she told him her decision. Later, in Wakefield, people would say, "She worships him." She should love her husband a reasonable amount, they seemed to think, and spread the rest around (family, friends, a good cause or hobby). When, in eight years, she had played no bridge, produced no child, joined no clique or club, they gave up on her. She was simply David Worthy's wife, "a girl from up north somewhere."
The windows of Hagedorn's were ready for Christmas, with formals and furs on one side, lingerie and robes on the other. While waiting for Mrs. Worthy to turn in her seat, to put one foot out and then the other, Lisa studied the display. Nice but dull, in her opinion. Nothing exciting in the least. The truth was, David carried out a similar policy at Worthy's. Lenox, Gorham, Waterford, diamonds in Tiffany settings. Lisa would like to add a little Steuben glass, a few pieces of costume jewelry by Dior or Chanel. Anything new and different, but no. "It wouldn't go over, love," he said. "This is Wakefield. And Worthy's."
Mrs. Worthy took a few steps, holding to Lisa's arm, and had to stop.
"Want to go back?" Lisa asked.
"No, give me a minute."
To avoid the looks of passersby, Lisa fixed her attention on the cane Mrs. Worthy leaned on. She had seen it before in Mrs. Worthy's back-hall closet, one of several left behind by members of the family. Someone's initials were engraved on the band, but all Lisa could make out was a central W through which other letters looped. When Mrs. Worthy first had to take over the big house and all the family relics, it was the last thing on earth she wanted to do, she once told Lisa. She had considered herself only an in-law at the time, she said. Now she took a deep breath and, still holding Lisa's arm, began to walk.
In the store everyone came up to greet her with hugs and handclasps. Everyone wanted to touch her, it seemed. On Lisa's arm, her hand began to tremble.
"Thank you all, thank you." Her eyes filled with tears, but she rallied. "It's so good to see you! How are you?"
Lisa wouldn't have known the strain she was under, except for the telltale grip on her arm. She herself did not aspire to such grace. She was from Chicago, the daughter of an Irish contractor, successful, but self-made. When her mother died, he'd sent her to Catholic boarding schools and finally, against her wishes, to a sheltered college for women, near Wakefield. Sometimes at night, in the poster bed from David's old bedroom, the whole thing seemed more dream than reality—the Deep South like a foreign country, the Worthys with their contradictory piety and pride, the big house that was more than a house. Sometimes even David, behind the façade of manners and codes. Everything but the store where, surrounded by accounts and figures, she felt at home.
As a new wife she had wanted a new bed and had impulsively bought one, king-size, with her own money. David didn't say so, but she knew he wasn't thrilled. "We don't need all this room," he finally said. "Do we? I want you closer." She had put an ad in the paper and sold the bed, new bedclothes, all.
The elevator operator, a black woman, made Mrs. Worthy laugh as they went up. "Pretty as ever," the black woman said. "Go buy you one them fur coats out the window!"
Miss Carrie, on the third floor, was a stout strawberry blonde, the color of her hair a little hectic today. In navy blue over a snug foundation, she was watching for her old customer when the elevator door opened. At first sight of Mrs. Worthy, the muscles of her face went slack, but she came forward smiling.
"Bless your sweet heart!" She took Mrs. Worthy's arm. "I'm so glad to see you. Let's go sit down."
Facing the elevator, near the center of the floor, a place was set aside for customers to wait, rest, and visit. Sofas and chairs were grouped around an Oriental rug. Tables held lamps and ashtrays, sometimes a potted plant or flowers from someone's garden. The spot, comfortable as the living room of a friend, was seldom without someone sitting there, purses and packages lying about.
Mrs. Worthy decided on a chair to sit in, and Miss Carrie turned to Lisa. "I'll take her now," she said, to Lisa's surprise.
"Yes, Lisa." Propped on her cane, Mrs. Worthy agreed. "Miss Carrie will help me. Thank you for getting me up here, my dear."
Lisa was dismissed. That she understood. Was she also being censured? Did everyone know she had not been attentive? Southerners were masters of indirection, she had found.
"When do you want me back?" she asked cautiously.
"Before long, I'm afraid." Mrs. Worthy swapped her cane for Miss Carrie's arm, and began the process of sitting down.
The black woman shook her head when the door was shut. "Lord, Lord," she said mournfully. "She going down fast now, and she so nice. I loves that lady."
Lisa knew what to say, but she stared at the floor and said nothing. No one could see her side at all, she thought, much less understand. So why care? In front of the store she checked her watch and, knowing she probably shouldn't, hurried down to Lowe's.
Lowe's too was ready for Christmas. Against a background of black and silver, like a starry night, one window featured evening gowns in shimmering holiday colors. Beaded, embroidered, winking with sequins. The spotlight, however, was on white, a crepe dress on a dais near the center of the window. Simple and Grecian, it was draped to one side and caught on the shoulder with a rhinestone clip, leaving the other shoulder deeply bare.
Ah! Lisa needed something new for the big Christmas dance. She had seen and liked the dress in a magazine, had even considered ordering it by phone. What a coincidence to find it at Lowe's! The only one, they said, but in her size and if she would wait, they'd get it from the window.
Lisa's regular salesgirl was off today. The one who brought the dress, whose name she didn't know, had large blue-green eyes, dramatically made up with lids like green satin. In a dressing room, she helped Lisa get the dress on, then stepped back to view it.
"You look like something for the top of the tree," she said.
Lisa studied her reflection in the mirror. The dressing-room lights put an overlay of gold on her medium-blond hair and skin. In white she did suggest, remotely, a certain concept of angel. But the dress was really Greek, its true association with broken columns and sculpture with blind, unfinished eyes.
"I want you to see that back, see the whole thing," the salesgirl said. With a motion like windshield wipers, her girdled hips led the way to a three-way mirror out on the floor.
In front of the mirrors a stylish older woman stood smoking, trying to make up her mind about a navy blue blazer she had on. She moved aside but not away and, with shaky fingers, raised the cigarette to her lips. While she exhaled, she looked at Lisa.
"That dress is out of this world on you," she said, coughing and choking. Ashes fell on her gray shoes like suede on suede.
David didn't always care for her clothes, Lisa knew, in spite of her efforts to please him. This time, for once, she was sure. He would love her in the white dress. She knew exactly how his eyes would look as he walked into the ballroom with her. The material, subtly draped, was as soft and light as air, the price more than she'd ever paid for a dress in her life.
"Think of it this way," the salesgirl said, as she helped take it off. "How can you afford not to get it?"
"I know." Lisa laughed. "I'd pay in regret, wouldn't I?" She glanced at her watch, slipped on her skirt, and left the dressing room still buttoning her blouse.
The salesgirl was folding the dress for a large pink box with Lowe's in lipstick-red on the top. "Want this charged?" she asked.
"Yes, please, I'm Lisa Worthy. My husband ..."
"Oh, I know. I know Mrs. Worthy, senior. How is she?"
"Not well at all." Lisa waited at the desk. "I'm on my way to pick her up now, and I'm late."
"Everybody in town is pulling for her," the salesgirl said, working faster. "She's such a doll, it's just not fair. Well...." She handed the box to Lisa. "Thank you. Have a nice day."
Excerpted from Tongues of Flame by Mary Ward Brown. Copyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction by Jerry Elijah Brown,
DISTURBER OF THE PEACE,
TONGUES OF FLAME,
FRUIT OF THE SEASON,
LET HIM LIVE,
THE BLACK DOG,
BEYOND NEW FORKS,