Ugly ways, p.1

Ugly Ways, page 1


Ugly Ways

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Ugly Ways

  Ugly Ways

  Tina McElroy Ansa

  * * *


  San Diego New York London

  * * *

  Copyright © 1993 by Tina McElroy Ansa

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced

  or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,

  including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and

  retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work

  should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,

  Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Ansa, Tina McElroy.

  Ugly ways: a novel/Tina McElroy Ansa.—1st Harvest ed.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 0-15-600077-6

  1. Title. II. Series.

  PS3551.N64U36 1995

  813'.54—dc20 94-33938

  Designed by Lisa Peters

  Calligraphy by Judythe Sieck

  Printed in the United States of America

  First Harvest edition 1995

  O Q S U T R P

  * * *

  For Jonée,

  whose love sustains me

  * * *


  I am blessed with a family of friends and supporters who contributed to me and my writing of this novel.

  I wish to thank my family, especially my sister Marian M. Kerr, for being there for me, my editor Claire Wachtel at Harcourt Brace who listened to me, laughed with me, and understood me; the friends on my island home who have bolstered my strength and been strong for me when I needed them, especially novelist Eugenia Price, author Joyce Blackbum, artist Ana Bel Lee Washington, and Susan Oliver.

  I am grateful to Tuck, Ladysmith, and, in particular, Zora, for their invaluable companionship.

  And I thank St. Simons Island, which continues to offer me the beauty, peace, and acceptance of home.


  "Come get me."

  When Betty picked up the receiver of the cream-colored wall phone, the voice on the other end was already speaking. It sounded as if it came from the grave.

  "Come get me. Come ... get ... me. Come ... get ... me," the voice kept repeating slowly, deliberately, as if each word carried some specific meaning.

  Betty turned her head away from the phone and massaged her temples.

  "Damn," she said to her sister Emily, who was sitting at the rec room bar looking at herself in the mirror through rows of glasses and leafing through a stack of her father's science fiction magazines. Emily fiddled with her thick black shiny bangs awhile and finally pulled them back behind her ears with the rest of her hair, blow-dried straight and even nearly down to her shoulders. "We ain't even had Mudear's funeral yet and the Lovejoy family's already falling apart. It's Annie Ruth."

  Emily bit her lower lip and shook her head slowly.

  Betty took a deep breath. "Annie Ruth," she said serenely into the receiver. "Annie Ruth, where are you?"

  "Come ... get ... me" was the only response.

  "Sugar, you have to tell me where you are for me to come get you. Now, calm down and stop acting so silly. Tell me where you are. Are you here in town? Are you here in Mulberry?"

  There was a long pause. Betty could just imagine her baby sister dramatically brushing her soft thin hair back out of her face with the flat of her free hand, then sighing deeply. Betty could hear her labored breathing over the phone.

  "Uh-huh, I'm home," Annie Ruth finally said.

  "Okay, you're home. Now, where are you at home? You're not out on the street, are you? What's all that noise? Just be quiet for a minute and let me listen....

  "Is that some kind of a PA system? You can't be at the train station, can you? No, not this soon. The airport?"

  "Yes," Annie Ruth said.

  "The airport?"


  Betty sighed. "We're on our way. Stay by the phones. You hear me? Stay right there by the phones."

  Emily didn't say a word. She just picked up her sister's car keys, tossed Betty's purse to her, and, grabbing her red-fringed cowboy jacket and Betty's beige light cashmere shawl, headed out the door toward the newly painted double carport.

  Betty stopped long enough at the small table by the front door to scribble a note to their father on a yellow Post-It—"Poppa, we've gone to get Annie Ruth"—and stick it on the mirror over the table before following her sister's rounded red-fringed figure to her own big silver Town Car with the black fabric roof. Her butt looked like two ripe apples.

  "I'll drive your car," Emily said as she slipped behind the steering wheel into the thick black velour contour seat and threw the coats in the back.

  Even though it was a chilly fall day, Betty rolled down the window as soon as she got in the car. Her sister pulled out of the driveway and headed down the narrow suburban street past modern brick houses that all looked the same. Only their parents' house stood out from the other cookie-cutter ranch-style and split-level brick and wooden houses that each had the carport on either the left or the right. Even from the end of the street where Emily made the turn under an ornate black wrought-iron sign stretched between two mortar columns that said SHERWOOD FOREST, Betty could see the big screened porch attached to the back of her parents' house and the grove of trees and lush vegetation growing in the front and back yards. Next to the manicured lawns and thin rows of shrubbery surrounding the other houses, her parents' home looked as if it had been picked up from a tropical plantation and dropped in place in a different zone.

  Opening the car window was the one concession Betty made to her sister about smoking cigarettes. Even though Emily smoked enough marijuana to keep a small country's economy going, Betty knew Emily couldn't stand the smell of cigarette smoke getting in her hair and clothes.

  The brisk wind blowing in Betty's face and tousling her short permed hair felt good. Emily watched her out of the corner of her eye as Betty smoothed her hair back into place. Even after it was arranged as before, she continued to run her fingers through it—really just over the top of it because it was hardly long enough for her to get her fingers through. Betty continued raking her square manicured nails—shining with clear gloss, no color—through the ringlets at the nape of her neck as she reached in her purse for her cigarettes and matches and lit up the first cigarette she had had in two hours. The bracing wind and the first lungful of smoke sort of brought her back to herself. Ever since she had gotten the message from Poppa on her answering machine that Mudear had passed during the night, she had felt as if she were drifting in and out of herself, almost dizzy.

  As she smoked, she continued to play with the short hair at the nape of her neck.

  "Well, it looks like everything is already arranged," Emily said as she drove down the long country road that led to the interstate. She could have driven it with her eyes closed. She had just taken this same route coming down from her home in Atlanta. She sighed a bit, but it was more for changes she saw along the side of the road than for thoughts of her mother's funeral. It seemed housing construction was going up everywhere she looked, uprooting the trees and greenery she loved so much about this part of Mulberry, turning the woods of pines and pin oaks and chinaberry trees into the barren stretches developers called subdivisions and tiny office parks. The smell of the razed pine and cedar trees reminded her of Christmas, not a happy thought. From time to time there would suddenly appear stretches of roadside that looked the way it had when Emily was a child. Broadleaf oaks tucked in so tightly with short squat pines and prospering cypress
seedlings and ferns that one would think there wouldn't be enough room for a group of tall Georgia pines to grow there, too. But just as suddenly the thick green clump of trees would disappear, leaving fields of scorched-looking grass.

  As recently as five years ago, Emily thought as she scanned the countryside, all of this was rows and rows of corn or beans or just fields for grazing cattle or goats. Along the interstate and state highways around Mulberry there had been peach orchards and pecan groves with homemade signs tacked to trees promising, "Freshly Sheeled Pecans" or "The Meatiest Pecans in Middle Georgia." Seeing the land surrounding her small hometown lying exposed and useless made her feel as violated as she thought the earth must have felt.

  "Well," Betty said as she stubbed her half-smoked cigarette out in the already overflowing car ashtray. "Most everything. Poppa has already done a lot. I'm gonna do Mudear's hair and makeup sometime. Poppa said Mudear didn't say anything or leave any instructions on how she wanted services handled specifically."

  "I can hardly believe it. That's not like her," Emily said.

  Betty didn't reply.

  "I would have thought she would have left stacks of written messages and maybe recorded videotapes of her explicit instructions on how she wanted just everything conducted." Emily could almost hear Betty decide not to respond and take her bait. "Yeah, that's not like her at all." Emily pretended to talk casually, keeping her focus on the road.

  Betty leaned her head farther out the window a second like a dog in hot weather looking for a refreshing breeze on its tongue. Then, she settled back in her seat.

  "I guess you and Poppa made sure it's a closed casket," Emily persisted. "You know how she'd always say, 'Daughters, don't you have a whole lot of strangers and family that don't like me be looking down on me in my casket.'"

  Betty sighed again and spoke. "Don't nobody feel like talking about her now, Emily." Then, Betty lit up another cigarette and reached over to punch up a CD to punctuate her statement. As Oleta Adams's voice filled the interior of the car, Emily looked at her sister next to her with her head thrown back on the headrest and accepted that Betty could not be persuaded.

  By the time they reached the exit ramp leading to the tiny airport, Betty felt almost herself again and strong enough to deal with Annie Ruth and her theatrics.

  As soon as they entered the airport terminal, Betty and Emily saw their younger sister at the end of the short corridor by the airport's only bank of public phones.

  "Good God," Emily said. "She's actually sitting in a wheelchair."

  Annie Ruth looked terrible. The dark circles that all the girls in the family had inherited from their father were even more pronounced than usual, deeper smudges under Annie Ruth's eyes as if someone with dirty thumbs had wiped away her falling tears. She had obviously applied makeup sometime in the last twelve or so hours, but she hadn't bothered to freshen it lately. Crimson lipstick had left only a rose outline on her full wide lips and dark teal-blue eye shadow was still visible over only one eye.

  There was a big scuff on the toe of one of her purple suede high-heeled pumps that made Betty wince because she knew there was no way to repair the damaged spot. Annie Ruth had carelessly thrown her big slouchy suede bag, purple, too, on the floor by the side of the wheelchair.

  Her green tweed suit with the short jacket trimmed in amaranth suede at the collar, cuffs, and pockets was a bit wrinkled but so stylish, so good-looking, that both Betty and Emily immediately wondered if there was any way they could fit into it. Even as teenagers, they had never had fights over clothes, or over anything, for that matter. They loved to wear each other's outfits, intimately digging into each other's closets and drawers for accessories and skirts and jackets to complement their own wardrobes. One of the things they regretted most about living in separate cities was lack of access to each other's clothes.

  "I know she sees us," Emily said through clenched teeth as they headed down the nearly deserted airport corridor.

  When they reached Annie Ruth, they saw that a skinny blond stewardess stood next to their sister looking panicked and totally unprepared by her experience on the little propeller planes that flew into the Mulberry airstrip for this level of emergency.

  "We'll take her," Betty said with a tight smile to the woman, who actually breathed a sigh of relief, pressed a wad of damp airsickness bags into Betty's hand, and rushed off without saying a word, dragging her luggage cart behind her.

  Emily and Betty both squatted down beside Annie Ruth's wheelchair and Betty reached out and smoothed down her sister's wild rufous hair.

  Annie Ruth looked as if she had just been pulled thrashing and struggling from the deep end of a pool. She smelled faintly of vomit.

  Then, Betty took her hand, squeezed it, and it began.

  Outsiders would have called it a game. But it was much too serious and necessary to be called so frivolous a name. It was more of a ritual.

  Betty looked into Annie Ruth's face, still streaked with traces of some expensive European makeup, and said, "Once, when I lived in New York that time I ran away, I had an urge for a blind man. Stood outside the Lighthouse for the Blind building all afternoon once 'til I saw one come out that I liked. I bumped into him and pretended it was an accident. We started talking, and I fucked my blind man."

  Emily spoke next. "I let a man I worked with stay at my house two nights once because he used the word 'juxtaposition' correctly in a sentence."

  Annie Ruth raised the gaze of her brown eyes slowly, tilted her head to one side, she was too weary to play around. She looked from one sister's eyes to the other's and then said, "I fucked a chink once."

  Her sisters were speechless. Annie Ruth had won. Emily took one of Annie Ruth's arms and Betty took the other. Then, they gently lifted her from the wheelchair and guided her down the corridor toward the baggage claim and exit.


  The three of them headed back under a sign over the corridor that proclaimed, "WELCOME to Mulberry—The Big Little Town in the Heart of Georgia."

  Betty, the only one of them who still lived in Mulberry, noticed the people at the airport watching the three of them as they made their way to the baggage claim area. She recognized many of the folks there and knew that in a town the size of Mulberry they all knew who she and her sisters were, too. She motioned for one of the two skycaps to help take Annie Ruth's plum-colored tapestry luggage—five bags in all—off the revolving carousel.

  "Where's her Louis Vuitton steamer trunk?" Emily whispered to Betty as she moved to help the skycap.

  Betty could feel the commotion they were causing around them as they made their way to the tiny airport parking lot with all the baggage. With so many people looking, Betty thought of what Mudear would say to them when as teenagers they had complained that people seemed to stare at them when they went downtown to shop or to pay the family bills. Mudear would always reply, "Just yell at them, 'Ain't ya'll never seen no crowd of good-looking brown-skinned colored women before?' That'll stop 'em in their tracks."

  The sight of the three sisters at the airport—Annie Ruth, a half-madeup, perfumed wreck, still needing to be supported by a sister's firm hand under each arm—all trailed by the skycap, whom Betty knew, too, made even the woman at the Avis rental counter rubberneck around the corner of her booth to get a better look. Betty could already see the tongues wagging. She had always made her living working in beauty shops—the hotbeds of gossip—and she knew from experience that Mulberry had not stopped discussing and dissecting the Lovejoy family since the day Mudear changed.

  Years before, it had been Emily, not Annie Ruth, who everyone in town who knew the Lovejoy family felt would be the first one to go crazy. Even some members of the family had thought that Emily would crack first. First, that is, after Mudear. Nearly everyone over the age of forty in Mulberry claimed they knew the date that they said Mudear lost her mind.

  "It was one of the coldest winter days we ever had here in Mulberry," women would say, recounting the
beginning of Mudear's seclusion. "And she ain't come out of that house since. At least, not during daylight hours. Except to move to that new one in Sherwood Forest. Even then, I don't know nobody who saw her move. And to work in her garden at night. Yeah, at night. Esther always did think she was above the laws of God and man.

  "Heck, that woman didn't even come out of the house to go to her own mother's funeral."

  Betty would hear the townswomen whisper about her family even as they sat in the specially designed chrome chairs in Lovejoy's 2, her sleek modern beauty shop at the Mulberry Mall, leafing through the latest issues of her magazines and sipping her complimentary coffee, tea, bottled water, and Coke. She would have to talk herself out of leaving the strong-smelling, lye-based straight-eners in their hair a few minutes too long, to bald them in retaliation for their talk. She feared a lawsuit when all their hair fell out. But still, she couldn't bring herself to confront the women directly. She had nothing to say in the family's defense. She knew what they said was true. She and her sisters—still little girls—had sat next to Poppa in the hot little church in East Mulberry in front of their grandmother's casket to represent Mudear while Mudear stayed at home looking at T.V. It made Betty mad that Mudear's actions had left her and her sisters so vulnerable, so defenseless, open and raw to the town's gossip. Always had.

  So, it was Emily—the middle girl—who everyone in town who knew the family felt would be the next one to lose her mind. There were quite a few citizens of Mulberry who figured it was only a matter of time before all the Lovejoys were seen running up and down the streets of Sherwood Forest half-naked with their hair standing on top of their heads. Some said the whole family had "walking insanity" like other folks had "walking pneumonia." They still went about their daily routines, but as far as people in Mulberry were concerned all the Lovejoys were walking-, talking-, working-, shopping-crazy.

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