"She knows Tess," put in Mother from the backseat. Tess was her old college roommate from Converse. "Tess will be meeting her train tomorrow morning."
"So why didn't she stay with Tess at Christmas, when she went down for that interview?" His voice had edged up a decibel.
"Well, I guess she wanted to stay with someone else at Christmas," Mother neutrally suggested.
Of course I had told them, after the fact, with whom I'd stayed. Or rather I had presented an acceptable configuration of the way in which this family I had worked for last summer had offered me hospitality. Not that any configuration of the Nightingales would ever be acceptable to Earl.
"Well, I guess there's just no accounting for some people's taste, but to move down there to be with that tribe . . ." Menacing pause before the refrain: "When her dean said the Charlotte Observer would have taken her."
The voice rolled on, but so, I congratulated myself, did the car. Every mile we achieved was one mile nearer to my release. We had not veered off the road or had a flat tire and nobody had backhanded me to start a black eye for my first day at work.
Think of it as a scene early in a novel, I told myself: The stepfather picks one last fight with the daughter who has not appreciated him. The mother in the backseat, wedged among her daughter's boxes, knees tucked under her like a college girl, is forgiving of the wild little breezes that mess up her hairdo because they mute his voice. There will be plenty more of it to listen to on their long drive back to the mountains. Whose novel was this going to be? Not the stepfather's; the writer might never grow the empathy for that one. Not the mother's, either, though it catches in the daughter's throat to see the youthful way the older woman is clasping her knees, wrapped in her own memories of Chapel Hill, when she still expected to get everything she wanted. If it was going to be the daughter's, there would be some choked-back sobs in the mother's embrace at the train station, one last stoic offering of the daughter's mouth for the imposition of the stepfather's kiss, and then they would be gone on the next page.
When, as a last-minute taunt, Earl, in the act of setting down my suitcases inside my roomette, asked if I thought I had "money to burn" for this exclusive little compartment with its own washroom and pull-down bed, I suppressed the perfect comeback that it was indeed a "burnt offering" of my graduation monies to thank the gods for my escape from him. At long last I had learned that it was never too late for a black eye when saying goodbye to certain people.
Alone in my luxury cubicle, I relaxed for the first time in months, allowing the train's diesel engine to take over the job of getting me to my destination. Woods pinked with afternoon June light alternated with tobacco fields and tin-roofed drying barns. As we shot through a dreary little hamlet, a character offered herself for my perusal: a girl born and raised in this flyblown place who had dreams of going somewhere and one day wakes up on her deathbed, a forgotten old maid who has never left town, and hears this very train hurtle by. She feels the diesel cry in the marrow of her bones and in her last conscious moment believes she is aboard. She savors all the sweetness of having gotten out, and she expires with a rapturous smile on her face for no one to see but the undertaker.
Excerpted from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin Copyright © 2006 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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