Read Burnt Mountain Online

Authors: Anne Rivers Siddons

Tags: #Family Secrets, #Georgia, #Betrayal, #Contemporary, #North Carolina, #Fiction, #Romance, #Family Life, #Literary, #Marriage, #Camps, #General, #Domestic Fiction, #Love Stories

Burnt Mountain (4 page)

BOOK: Burnt Mountain
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“I knew the minute she walked in that she was going to be my daughter-in-law,” Grand told me while I was still small.

“Were you excited?” I asked.

“Oh yes.” She smiled, putting on her sunglasses so I could not see the slanted amber eyes. “I was very excited.”

Whatever else she felt she never told me, but later I came to see that evening in Fellini-like detail. I did not know how,
but I knew I was right. I’ve never had cause to doubt that.

My mother wore her black silk sheath, matchstick slim, that bared her golden shoulders, and her mother’s pearls around her
neck. She had black high-heeled silk pumps to match, and a slim black satin clutch dotted with rhinestones. My grandfather
took a picture of them as they got into my father’s modest blue Plymouth to leave for Atlanta. Daddy looks like just what
he was: a tall, gangly young man in gray slacks and a blue blazer, his nice Coca Cola-ad face tilted down to my mother, beaming.
My mother looked like a
Vogue
model out for a shimmering evening at the Pierre or the Carlyle.

My grandmother Leona had taken her daughter on many excursions to Atlanta, to shop at Rich’s and J.P. Allen and to drive the
length of Peachtree Road, out to where it lost itself in the tangle of Buckhead. There were many fine and even palatial homes
to see along its length, but they had never turned left off Peachtree and onto Peachtree Battle Avenue and the warren of quiet,
curving, deep-forested streets that made up what Atlantans called, simply, the Northwest. I imagine my mother’s chatter slowing
and finally stopping as Finch Wentworth turned the car onto Habersham Road and drove slowly up it.

Habersham, of all the golden streets in the Northwest,
still shines brightest. It is a beautiful road, winding, swooping up small hills and down over little bridges, arched over
with magnificent old hardwoods that have been fed and pruned almost since their birth. Deep emerald lawns sweep far back to
large houses set like jewels into perfect flowering shrubbery and vibrant borders. More huge trees mass gracefully beside
and behind them, spilling not a leaf anywhere and hiding, but hinting at, magnificent gardens and pools and who-knows-what-else…
statuary, fountains, gazebos, guesthouses… all pristine and camera ready. There is nothing raw or raucous or ragged in the
Northwest.

My father parked on the circular drive before the big gray stone house and carefully decanted my gaping mother.

“Everybody’s out back,” he said. “Let’s cut through the house.”

“Everybody?” squeaked my mother.

“Well, some friends of mine and I think Mom and Dad’s, too,” he said. “Everybody wants to meet you.”

“How nice,” Crystal said. It came out in a sheeplike bleat.

He took her hand and led her up the curved marble steps. The carved mahogany doors were closed but opened silently as he turned
the knob. It flitted foolishly through Crystal’s head that she would never leave these doors unlocked if they were hers. She
looked up and saw an ivy-covered turret with deep shuttered windows on either side of the house, decided then and there she
would sleep in one of the rooms one day, and followed Finch into the cool dimness.

She could scarcely see but got the impression of a vast drawing room with dark, gleaming furniture; a silvery-green
papered dining room with the largest oval table she had ever seen, shining like a skating pond, and two great cabinets holding
intricate crystal and china in patterns that reminded her vaguely of the Renaissance; an enormous kitchen, all blinding white
and as clean as an operating theater. The entire house had an indefinable smell, one she had never smelled but would never
forget: rich, deep wood polish, the museum-like scent of old and very good fabric, a diffuse sweetness like the breath of
flowers, and something else… money?

“Hi, Corella,” Finch said to the smiling black woman at the stove, who wore the only honest-to-God maid’s uniform Crystal
had ever seen, complete with little frilled cap.

“This is Crystal; you be sweet to her. She’s special,” Finch said.

“She sho’ is,” Corella said. “Tell that by lookin’ at her. You mama ‘n’ them are out by the pool.”

Crystal put out her hand and the black woman took it slowly, looking down at their joined hands, then back up with a wide
smile.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Crystal trilled, realizing by Corella’s look and Finch’s small pause that one apparently did not
shake hands with the help in Buckhead.

They stepped out onto a large, cool back porch carpeted with a faded Kilim and set about with flowered, deep-cushioned wicker
sofas and chairs. Great bouquets of garden flowers and foliage—zinnias, asters, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, eucalyptus stems,
feathery grasses—sat on the low glass tables. Small, shapely potted trees gave the porch the appearance of being nestled into
an intimate forest. A ceiling
fan turned lazily. Beyond the porch, down another flight of steps, lay the garden… and the pool, and the fountains, and the
statuary and gazebo, and the guesthouse. It was the largest garden Crystal had ever seen outside
House Beautiful.
The sounds of splashing water and tinkling ice and low, amused conversation floated up to her. When it stopped, she knew
that they had seen her.

There were perhaps ten of them: a striking woman sitting under an umbrella who looked nothing like Finch but was nevertheless
undoubtedly his mother; a squat, dark man with a thick mat of wet hair over almost every inch of him, with a face like Julius
Caesar’s and wet bathing trunks, who had Finch’s dark hair and profile and was, of course, his father; another couple of adults,
deeply tanned and in swimsuits with half-filled glasses of something lime garnished; two tall, bronzed young men with crew
cuts, also in tartan and madras swimsuits; and four girls with perfect white smiles, glowing tans, and little makeup, in swimsuits
or sundresses. Every foot in the group was bare or sandaled. Most hair was wet and slicked simply back.

Every inch of Crystal felt as though she had had hot, shining black tar poured over her. The silk shoes seemed to have been
suddenly magnified to Clydesdale proportions. She was able to furtively toss the flossy clutch into a potted ficus tree beside
the back door, but otherwise there was no salvation at all for Crystal Thayer, come to be presented to the world of Habersham
Road and the Piedmont Driving Club looking, as Bermuda would have said, like a mule dressed up in buggy harness.


Why didn’t you tell me?
” she hissed at Finch, who had taken her arm preparatory to leading her down into the fatal garden.

“Tell you what?” he asked, mystified.

But his friends were streaming up the stairs to meet them and she did not reply. She herself did not know quite what she meant,
only that her otherness was bone-deep and ineradicable, and always would be no matter what she wore.

They were wonderful to her. Never by so much as a raised eyebrow or the faltering of a smile did they let their condescension
show. But Crystal heard it in every drawled syllable, saw it in every attentively cocked head. Perhaps it was not even there,
but by the time the evening was over it did not matter. Hatred and a determination of a degree she had never known had been
born in her breast. It did not truly die for as long as she lived.

“You’re just as pretty as Finch told us,” Caroline Wentworth said, hugging her lightly. Caroline’s skin against Crystal’s
cheek was sun warmed and satiny, and she smelled of sun oil and tuberoses, and her amber eyes swallowed you whole. Her body,
in a faded copper racing suit, was small and curved and neatly muscled. Crystal had never seen a muscular woman in her life.
If a Lytton girl was so unfortunate as to have chiseled shoulders, she covered them no matter where she was. There was a vivid
white scar like a lightning bolt that ran down Caroline’s polished calf; she did not seem to notice it.

The imperial-faced, frog-bodied man who was indeed Finch’s father hugged Crystal, too, a trifle too long and hard,
and said, “No wonder that boy didn’t let you wear a bathing suit. You’d cause a riot.”

Crystal went hot all over, at both his frank appraisal of her body and what she wore on it. The lack of respect was like a
pinch on a buttock. She could not imagine her father saying it to anyone, most certainly the person his child was in love
with. She could not imagine anyone saying it, for that matter, except maybe Sonny Prichard and his crowd in Lytton, who hung
around Buddy Slattery’s gas station and only dated girls from other towns, and only certain kinds of girls at that.

She darted a look at Finch, to see if he was going to defend her honor, but he only laughed, and the rest of the crowd did,
too.

“Don’t mind Finch’s horrible father,” Caroline Wentworth said, raising her beautiful coppery eyebrows and flicking her husband
lightly with the corner of a towel. “His testosterone level is sky-high. He’s been on the road too long.”

Everyone laughed again, so Crystal did, too. The dialogue might have come straight from a Cary Grant movie. No, not Cary Grant.
Steve McQueen, maybe. Nobody in Lytton…

They ate at a long table under two vast umbrellas beside the pool. It was laid with a vividly colored runner Caroline Wentworth
said was a tribal scarf from Morocco. Tiny white lights fringing the umbrella sparkled off heavy, square crystal tumblers
and the heaviest and most ornate silver Crystal had ever seen. Japanese lanterns glowed from the low branches of the nearest
trees, and the candles were set about everywhere. It was a lush blue velvet night and the mothy, warm darkness
was fragrant with the thick scent of ivory magnolias in a bowl at the table’s center.

“Ron at Quelques Fleurs got them for me,” Finch’s mother said. “God knows where this time of year. But the garden at night
has a kind of Moorish feel to it, I’ve always thought, and that thick, waxy smell always seems to me sort of exotic and Oriental.
Besides, it covers up the bug spray. Wouldn’t you think the damned mosquitoes would be gone by now?”

The evening did seem out of the world entirely to Crystal. Shawls and soft sweaters had come out to bloom over the women’s
shoulders, and the men had drawn polo shirts over their swimsuits. There was absolutely no sound besides the gentle lap of
the pool and fountains and the droning of cicadas and the talk. Not a single street noise penetrated into the enchanted duskiness
behind the house. There was not even the chink of silver on fine china. The perfectly broiled filets in mustard sauce Corella
passed around were served on paper plates.

“Nobody but you, darling,” said one of the older women to Caroline.

“Well, it’s just a little backyard cookout, after all,” she replied.

The evening seemed endless to Crystal, stopped in time. Swimming in candlelight. She sat near one end of the table, with Finch
opposite his mother at the far other one. His friends were grouped around them. They drank what looked to be endless glasses
of a pale green wine, and leaned in to talk to one another so that the candles underlit their sun-flushed
faces, and laughed, and chatted, and laughed some more. Crystal smiled brilliantly the entire evening. None of the talk seemed
to be about her.

Oh, they tried. She could see them remembering, breaking off in mid-warble and turning to her and saying something like, “Are
your men in Lytton as awful as they are here? Well, of course they are. All men are awful.”

And Crystal smiled.

All of them were, like Finch, out of college and into their lives. Crystal caught mention of bond sales and law clerking and
volunteering at the Junior League. But all the talk seemed to center on schools.

“Do you remember him from freshman year? He told everybody his father was in oil and it turned out that he ran a gas station
in Opp, Alabama, for God’s sake….”

“… no, no, he did date her for a long time, but he ended up marrying some girl he met at his cousin’s debut in Newark. I didn’t
know they
had
debuts in Newark….”

“… swear to God she did; I saw it with my own eyes. She was at the Old South Ball with Corny Jarrett and they were doing this
really fast jitterbug and he swung her around and one stocking just popped right out of her bra and dangled down the front
of her dress to her waist. It looked like somebody was stuck down in there trying to get out….”

A long silence fell into the candlelight and they all stopped and wiped their eyes and shook their heads and then, as if given
a cue, looked over at Crystal.

“Oh, my God, we are all so rude,” chirped a curly haired,
snub-nosed girl who was, Crystal thought, some kind of docent somewhere, whatever that was.

“We’ve just been sitting here all night yucking it up about our own precious selves and leaving you out completely. You must
think we’re barbarians….”

“No, no,” Crystal said, still smiling. “It’s all so interesting.”

“So where did you go to school?” the docent said, seeming to quiver slightly with interest.

They all looked at Crystal.

Crystal played her ace. She had been wondering desperately how to work it into the conversation. Her smile faded slightly
and she looked down.

“I haven’t gone. Not yet. My… my mother is very ill and I’ve just sort of been, you know, sticking close. She… I… don’t think
it will be forever….”

There was a hush, and then they flocked to her and hugged her and kissed her cheeks and murmured what an angel she was, and
how brave, and how hard it must be.

“I don’t know how you do it,” one of the other girls whispered.

“Oh, you’d do the same, if it was your mother,” Crystal said softly, letting her gentian eyes slowly fill with tears and looking
away.

When they said good night they all hugged her again and said they hoped her mother would be better soon and that they would
look forward to seeing Crystal whenever Finch brought her home. More than one pair of eyes glistened.

Crystal smiled shyly around at them, stopping when she came to Caroline Wentworth. There were no tears in those amber eyes.
Instead they sparkled with what appeared, incredibly, to be suppressed mirth. Slowly she inclined her head to Crystal.

BOOK: Burnt Mountain
10.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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