Southern Comfort

Fiction by Suzie Clarke

an excerpt…
please enjoy the first story from this forthcoming book

The Other Bad News
By Suzie Clarke

I remember that day. Lord, what a day that was! It was the same day Sheryl Anne Dunleavy fell down the steps at the Shadyside Freewill Baptist Church, coming home from setting up for the first day of Revival. She spent the rest of the summer of 2003 sweating on the porch with her broken casted foot propped up and drinking lemonade—a lot of lemonade, with ice and exactly three tablespoons of whisky.

I got the call from my sister Janie back home in Pine Grove at 2:42 p.m. on that Tuesday afternoon. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember looking out at the weather thermometer on the side of the kitchen window, seeing it was ninety-seven, and I knew something was going to happen.

“Matilda Ruth, it’s hit the fan and you better make a bee-line down here!” Janie was yelling so loud I could barely understand her. “Lord, it’s a mess,” she repeated, as if she needed to emphasize the situation.

“What, Janie? What’s happened?” I asked.

“Well, Bitsy has gone and done it this time and I’m not kidding. That girl is going to be the end of all of us.”

“What? What did she do?” I pleaded.

“Lord, I don’t even know how to tell you over this phone.”

“Just say it, Janie.”

“I can’t. I still don’t know the entire story because of all the shouting, just get in the car and get down here as fast as you can, Tilly. Papa has called a family meeting and it’ll commence as soon as you get here. Lord, what are we going to do? Hurry, Tilly. Momma is so upset you can see the steam comin’ out of her ears, and I believe I saw her head spin around twice within the last fifteen minutes!”

Well, I didn’t know what to think, it being June, the beginning of summer, and Bitsy just back from her junior year of college. It was bad enough she refused to go to any respectable Southern state college, but to rub it in Momma and Papa’s wounded souls like she did. She chose New York State College, Lord, what a choice, a damn Yankee college, now there was no telling what happened. Three full school years of Yankee influence on a young, pure Southern girl’s mind was probably more than she could take—hell fire for sure!

So, I threw my sleeveless, flowered cotton-dress on, scribbled a note to my husband Clifford, and drove as fast as I dared down the 129. It took me forty-three minutes, a family record. When I arrived Louise and Janie were outside on the veranda, pacing. Louise was biting her nails like she always did when she was nervous, and Janie was rubbing her hands. They both looked up when they heard my SUV pull onto the long shell driveway and come sliding to a stop.

I jumped out and headed immediately for the door. I could hear Momma yelling three octaves above normal at the top of her voice through the screen door and open windows.

“Child, have you completely lost your mind? Whatever possessed you to do such a thing? I don’t understand it.”

I think Bitsy being the youngest was probably a good thing because it seemed to me, she was always getting into trouble. And since Momma and Papa had previous experience with us other three girls, me being the eldest, followed by Louise, and then Janie, I suppose their expertise in female behavior was helpful. But in this case, honestly, I don’t even think a visit from Jesus, Martha, and Mary would have done much good, and you could have had a drop-in by Ruth and Naomi, and I doubt it would have helped either.

Janie opened the screen door and called directly to Momma, “Tilly’s here!”

We all came through the door in our birth order and sat down in our usual places at times of family crisis: me and Janie on the sofa, Louise in the overstuffed chair, and today Bitsy, as in most family crises where Bitsy was at the center of the melee, by the piano.

I hadn’t seen Bitsy in almost six months and there she stood, arms folded, defiant as ever, razor straight, pursed lips, her long light brown hair flowing gently around her face from the slight summer breeze. Her green eyes were wet with tears but bright and full of life. I didn’t care what she did, I loved my little sister! Halleluiah, woman at her finest—what a sight she was to behold!

Papa calmed Momma and then cleared his throat. “Ladies, we have a…,” he cleared his throat again, “situation that needs family attention.”

“Oh, situation my ass, Albert!” Momma scowled.

“Momma!” Louise gasped, shocked and appalled.

“Oh, get over it, Louise, there’s more to follow!” Momma declared.

Janie and I looked at each other and then at Momma, deciding at the same time that whatever Bitsy had done was way beyond anything she had ever done in the past.

Papa was hesitant but determined to do his duty with as much authority as he could muster, lowering his voice a whole octave. “Ladies!”

Momma burst forward and spat it out like apple cider that had sat way too long and soured in the hot summer sun, “Girls, your sister has written a book about gay women.”

Louise looked confused and said slowly, “You mean you’re upset because Bitsy wrote something about Yankee women who did something fun?”

Janie looked over at Louise and started laughing. “Don’t be an idiot, Louise. Momma, they aren’t gay, they are lesbian, and Bitsy, tell me you didn’t write about YANKEES?” Janie choked on the word like she had a dried lima bean stuck at the back of her throat!

Momma scolded Janie. “Hush up, Margaret Jane. Don’t lecture your sister, and none of us in attendance here today care to have a lesson in gay etiquette.”

I looked over at Bitsy in amazement. “You mean to tell me THAT is what THIS is all about? I drove like I was haulin’ white lightnin’ up my ass all the way down here, putting my life and other drivers at risk because my sister wrote something about lesbians?”

Momma glared at me, pulling her arms so tightly against her chest it was hard for her to breathe. “Yes,” she hissed out, “and Lord what will our neighbors and friends think?”

I had to ask some questions. “Is it an article or a book?”

“Does that matter, Matilda Ruth?” Momma asked back.

“What’s in it?” I asked.

“THAT doesn’t matter either, does it?” Momma said, summoning Papa like an emergency call to 911. “Albert!”

“Well, I… don’t. I don’t,” Papa stammered.

“Oh, shut up, Albert!” Momma growled.

“Momma, please, will you let Bitsy answer?” I pleaded.

“I don’t give a Good damn home grown Georgia sweet potatah’ about what’s in the book. I know all I need to know. It’s about lesbians.” Momma stood defiant. 

As I watched Momma, all I could picture was our beloved great-great-great uncle Tommy Lee, dressed in his Confederate major’s uniform, standing with his sword in the air pointed towards Atlanta. I could even hear the thunder and smell the scent of gun powder from the cannons. Lord, help us—this family was glorious!

Suddenly Bitsy stepped forward. “Stop talking about this like I wasn’t here. It’s a book, a good book, it’s being published, and I won an award already, and I’m proud of it. It’s a story about women who are brave and strong, and yes two of them fall in love with each other.” Bitsy started crying and put her hands to her face.

My heart broke. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I jumped up from the couch and put my arms around my sobbing baby sister and held her, poor thing was so upset she was tremblin’.

“It’s going to be all right, Bitsy,” I assured her, trying to comfort her.

“Lord, no. It is not going to be all right,” Momma shouted back.

I started to lead Bitsy out of the house. “We’re going for a walk and we’ll be back when we’re damn well good and ready,” I announced.

I led Bitsy down the steps and out towards the grove of pine, where we girls always went when we were upset and needed strength, or calm, or peace. We walked fifteen minutes before Bitsy calmed down enough and was ready to bare her soul.

“I don’t want to embarrass the family or hurt anyone, Tilly. It’s just in me to write it. I never dreamed Momma would react this badly. I knew she would be upset, but not like this. It’s just a book about life, people in situations. It’s not evil or bad—it’s just life.”

“Bitsy, you don’t have to explain anything to me and you don’t have to justify why you wrote what you did, ever!” I told her.

We walked and talked and then started back home, the early evening sounds of the songbirds and the cicada growing louder with each passing moment, the sweet scent of Georgia pine filling us as the evening cool began to caress the air.

“Tilly, Momma doesn’t know it yet, but I wrote Aunt Tallulah into the book.”

“Oh, Lord, have mercy,” I moaned. “What did you write about her? Momma will never forgive you for writing about her nutty older sister.”

“In the book she’s the one that gets killed off, after she confesses to stealing the diamond necklace that caused all the problems in the first place.”

“Oh, Bitsy, and you thought writing about lesbians would upset Momma? Wait until she hears that Aunt Tallulah is in the book. Oh, heaven after midnight, there is going to be hell to pay for sure.”

We wrapped our arms around each other as we walked back to the house. 

“If you need a place to stay for the summer, you know you can always come to our house,” I whispered to her. “You do know Momma will come around eventually, she just needs time to adjust, especially about Aunt Tallulah.” I laughed out loud and shook my head. I couldn’t help it. “You better tell her now and get it over with all at once. It’s best to make a clean break of it”

I walked Bitsy into the house, got myself a cool drink, and then stepped outside onto the veranda and sat down on the swing, listening to Bitsy tell Momma the other bad news.

Momma suddenly let out a screech so loud every winged foul in the county took to flight.

“Sweet Jesus after sunset, Mary Elizabeth. Are you purposely trying to destroy this entire family?”

I smiled and kept on swinging, sipping my lemonade—Sheryl Anne Dunleavy style.

Stay tuned to the website for more information on this book and its release date.

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