Now I, too, knew that constant sinking feeling of losing ground. Each day seemed to put more distance between me and where I thought I should be by this time, had Earl not entered our lives. Had I stayed on at smart, rigorous St. Clothilde's, I would be polishing my already sterling record to a high sheen andas many of my classmates would go on to dowould graduate with a nice bouquet of scholarship offers from top colleges, including Sister Elise's own Radcliffe. Whereas, tethered to Earl's itinerant career, I had to start all over again each year in a new high school (once I did two schools in a single year), make my qualities known as quickly as possible, and pray I could claw my way into a college, any college, somehow. Very early on in our life together, Earl had announced that even if he could afford to send me, which he certainly couldn't, he wouldn't, because his own parents, who could have afforded it, hadn't offered to send him.
His backhandings and beatings and sneaky nocturnal raids on my person accrued with my advancing teens. Like the slave owners in the not-so-distant past, he unctuously assumed it was his right to do as he pleased with the flesh under his care. No season went by without a bruise on my face for "answering back." I grew accustomed to awakening in the dark to find him kneeling beside my bed, engaged in one of his proprietary gropes beneath my nightgown. If I cried out, he would shush me sanctimoniously. Did I want to wake the baby, the babies? I'd been moaning in my sleep again, he said, and he'd only come to check.
During my last year of high school I wrote a masterful begging letter to Mother's rich cousin in Alabama, the one who had wanted to annex me and Mother, and she agreed to pay for one semester at a time at a junior college for girls in Raleigh. If I kept up my grades, there would be another semester, "but after two years, darling, you're on your own." The implication being that two years would give any diligent girl time to either win a scholarship to the state university or find a husband to support her. Already at seventeen the rich cousin had snared her future millionaire, as she had more than once pointed out.
I had no difficulty making the grades at the junior college and winning a scholarship to the journalism school at Chapel Hill, but that still left the summers to get through. I had to make money to cover expenses, and the job had to be somewhere that provided room and board so I could avoid Earl's nightly prowls. The first summer, I lifeguarded at a girls' camp; the second, I waited tables at a plush resort in Blowing Rock. The final summer, between my junior and senior years, I waited tables at the Nightingale Inn, a Jewish family hotel thirty miles from Mountain City. By this time, Earl and Mother were back in Mountain City, Earl having gone into the construction business with his father. And since their little house was now burgeoning with offspring, I was allowed to sleep unmolested across town beside Loney, the "snobbish" grandmother, in her lavender-scented four-poster bed when I "came home" to visit my family during college breaks.
And that, Major Marjac, is the behind-the-scenes résumé of the young woman you met on the train who "started ahead of the game."
As I stepped down onto the platform of the Miami depot, there was Tess, who had been my mother's college roommate at Converse until Tess dropped out her freshman year to go home to Florida and become Miss Miami Beach. The last time I had seen Tess was when I was seven and she came to stay with us in Mountain City to recuperate from ruining her life. I was surprised to see she was the same platinum-blond goddess I remembered. In a recent letter to Mother she had announced that her looks were completely gone and she was saving for a face-lift. But why was she wearing her white uniform and stockings and nurse's shoes on Sunday? She gathered me to her bosom like her own lost child and lavished effusions against my cheek in a whispery little-girl voice totally incongruous with her adult beauty.
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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