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Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

Momma left her red satin shoes in the middle of the road. That’s what three eyewitnesses told the police. The first time I remember my mother wearing red shoes was on a snowy morning in December 1962, the year I was seven years old. I walked into the kitchen and found her sitting at the table. No lights were on, but in the thin haze of dawn that pushed through the frostbitten window, I could see red high-heeled shoes peeking out from beneath the hem of her robe. There was no breakfast waiting, and no freshly ironed school dress hanging on the basement doorknob. Momma just sat and stared out the window with empty eyes, her hands limp in her lap, her coffee cold and untouched.

I stood by her side and breathed in the sweet scent of lavender talcum powder that clung to the tufts of her robe.

“What’s the matter, Momma?”

I waited and waited. Finally she turned from the window and looked at me. Her skin was as frail as tissue, and her voice wasn’t much more than a whisper when she smoothed her hand over my cheek and said, “Cecelia Rose, I’m taking you to Georgia. I want you to see what real living is like. All the women dress so nice. And the people are kind and friendly—it’s so different from how things are here. As soon as I feel better, we’ll plan a trip --- just you and me.”

“But what about Dad, will he come too?”

She squeezed her eyes closed and didn’t answer.

Momma stayed sad for the rest of the winter. Just when I thought she’d never smile again, spring came. When the lilacs bloomed in great, fluffy waves of violet, Momma went outside and cut bouquets for every room in the house. She painted her fingernails bright pink, fixed her hair, and slipped into a flowery-print dress. From room to room she dashed, pushing back curtains and throwing open the windows. She turned up the volume of the radio, took hold of my hands, and danced me through the house.

We whirled through the living room, into the dining room, and around the table. Right in the middle of a spin, Momma abruptly stopped. “Oh, my gosh,” she said, taking in a big gulp of air and pointing to the mirror by the door, “we look so much alike. When did that happen? When did you start to grow up?”

We stood side by side and gazed at our reflections. What I saw was two smiling people with the same heart-shaped face, blue eyes, and long brown hair --- Momma’s pulled away from her face in a headband and mine tied back in a ponytail.

“It’s amazing,” my mother said, gathering her hair in her hand and holding it back in a ponytail like mine. “Just look at us, CeeCee. I bet when you get older, people will think we’re sisters. Won’t that be fun?” She giggled, took hold of my hands, and spun me in circles till my feet lifted off the floor.

She was so happy that after we finished dancing, she took me into town and bought all sorts of new clothes and ribbons for my hair. Momma bought herself so many pairs of new shoes that the salesman laughed and said, “Mrs. Honeycutt, I believe you have more shoes than the Bolshoi Ballet.” Neither Momma nor I knew what that meant, but the salesman sure thought he was clever. So we laughed along with him as he helped us carry our packages to the car.

After stuffing the trunk full with bags and boxes, we ran across the street to the five-and-dime, where we sat at the lunch counter and shared a cheeseburger, a bowl of French fries, and a chocolate milkshake.

That spring sure was something. I’d never seen Momma so happy. Every day was a big celebration. I’d come home from school and she’d be waiting, all dressed up with a big smile on her face. She’d grab her handbag, hurry me to her car, and off we’d go to do more shopping.

Then came the day when Dad arrived home from a three-week business trip. Momma and I were sitting at the kitchen table, she with a magazine and me with a coloring book and crayons. When my dad opened the closet door to hang up his jacket, he was all but knocked senseless when an avalanche of shoeboxes rained down on him.

“Good Christ!” he barked, turning to look at Momma. “How much money have you been spending?”

When Momma didn’t answer, I put down my crayon and smiled. “Daddy, we’ve been shopping for weeks, but everything we got was for free.”

“Free? What are you talking about?”

I nodded wisely. “Yep. All Momma had to do was show the salesman a square of plastic, and he let us have whatever we wanted.”

“What the hell?” Dad pounded across the kitchen floor, yanked Momma’s handbag from the hook by the door, and pulled the square of plastic from her wallet. “Damn it, Camille,” he said, cutting it up with a pair of scissors. “How many times do I have to tell you? This has got to stop. No more credit cards. You keep this up and you’ll put us in the poor house. You hear me?”

Momma licked her finger and turned a page of the magazine.

He leaned down and looked at her. “Have you been taking your pills?” She ignored him and turned another page. “Camille, I’m talking to you.”

The sharpness of his words wiped the shine right out of her eyes.

Dad shook his head and pulled a beer from the refrigerator. He huffed and puffed out of the kitchen, kicking shoes out of his way as he headed for the living room. I heard him dump his wide, beefy body into the recliner, muttering the way he always did whenever he was in a bad mood. Which, as far as I could tell, was pretty much always.

My father didn’t smile or laugh very much, and he had a limitless gift for making me feel about as important as a lost penny on the sidewalk. Whenever I’d show him a drawing I’d made or try to tell him about something I’d learned in school, he’d get fidgety and say, “I’m tired. We’ll talk another time.”

But another time never came.

He was a machine-tool salesman and spent much of his time in places like Michigan and Indiana. Usually he’d stay away all week and would come home only on weekends. And most times those weekends were filled with an unbearable tension that sprung loose on Saturday night.

Momma would get all dolled up, walk into the living room, and beg him to take her out. “C’mon Carl,” she’d say, tugging at his arm, “let’s go dancing like we used to. We never have fun anymore.”

His face would turn sour and he’d say, “No, Camille. I’m not taking you anywhere until you straighten up. Now go take your pills.”

She’d cry and say she didn’t need any pills, he’d get mad, turn up the volume of the TV, and drink one beer after another, and I’d run upstairs and hide in my bedroom. Whole months would go by and I’d hear only an occasional kind word pass between them. Even less frequently I’d see them touch. Before too long even those things faded away, and my father’s presence in the house faded right along with them.

Momma seemed glad that Dad stayed away so much. One day I was sitting on the floor of her bedroom cutting out paper dolls while she sat at her vanity and put on makeup. “Who needs him anyway?” she said, leaning close to the mirror as she smoothed on bright red lipstick. “I’ll tell you something, Cecelia Rose. Northerners are exactly like their weather --- cold and boring. And I swear, none of them has one iota of etiquette or propriety. Do you know that not one single person in this godforsaken town even knows I’m a pageant queen? They’re all a bunch of sticks-in-the-mud, just like your father.”

“You don’t like Daddy anymore?”

“No,” she said, turning to look at me. “I don’t.”

“He doesn’t come home very much. Where is he, Momma?”

She blotted her lips with a tissue. “That old fool? He’s not here because he’s down at the cemetery with one foot stuck in the grave. And that’s another thing. Never marry an older man. I mean it, CeeCee. If an older man ever sweeps you off your feet, just get up and run away as fast as you can.”

I set down my scissors. “How old is Daddy?”

“Fifty-seven,” she said, rubbing a smudge of rouge from her cheek. “And look what he’s done to me.” She scowled at her reflection in the mirror and shook her head. “I’m only thirty-three and I already have lines on my face. Your father is nothing but a Yankee liar. I can’t tell you how many promises he made just so I’d marry him and move up here to this god-awful excuse for a town. But all those promises amounted to nothing but a five-hundred-pound bag of dog breath.”

As I was about to ask her what that meant, a strange, icy expression moved across her face. She gazed down at her wedding picture and slowly lifted it from the vanity. With her tube of lipstick she drew a big red X over my dad’s face, then shrieked with laughter, fluffed her hair, and walked out the door.

What caused it, I didn’t know, but after that day Momma’s moods began to spike and plummet like a yo-yo. One day she’d pitch a fit and break everything she could get her hands on, and the next day she’d be as calm as a glass of water. Then, out of nowhere, she’d up and vanish. I’d panic and run down the street, calling her name while my heart hammered against my ribs. Eventually I’d find her going from door to door in the neighborhood, asking for donations for some charity nobody ever heard of. A few people felt sorry for her and would drop a coin or two into the jar she held in her hands, but most people closed the door in her face.

She became so unpredictable that I never knew what would be waiting for me when I got home from school --- a plate of gooey half-baked cookies or muffled sobs leaking from beneath her closed bedroom door. I didn’t know what was wrong with her, but I did know that none of the other mothers in our town acted the way she did. They’d come into school carrying trays filled with freshly baked cupcakes, and I’d see them walking along the sidewalks with their children and sometimes a dog. The other mothers were happy and seemed like they were fun to spend time with, but Momma wasn’t fun anymore, and there were times when she acted so strange that she scared me.

Each year I watched her grasp on reality loosen as she slipped further away, but the worst part of her descent began on a breezy spring afternoon when I was nine years old.

I was headed home from school, enjoying the way the wind tickled my face, when three boys ran by. One of them skidded to a stop and poked me in the shoulder. “Hey, Honeycutt, it’s not Christmas, so how come there’s a big fruitcake in your front yard?”

He let out a cruel, sputtering laugh and disappeared around the corner. When I turned down my street and saw Momma, a rush of heat scalded my cheeks. My brunette mother had bleached her hair white and was standing in the front yard wearing a slam-on-the brakes horror of a yellow prom dress. It was so tight the seams were puckered up in some places and split open in others, and beneath the full, gathered skirt were layers and layers of stiff white petticoats.

She didn’t look a thing like a fruitcake—no, she did not. My mother looked like a big lemon meringue pie. And if that weren’t bad enough, sparks of light burst into the air from the rhinestone tiara that sat cockeyed on her head as she blew kisses to everyone who drove by.

“I love you,” she called, waving to a carload of teenage boys in a convertible.

The driver screeched to a stop and backed up. His greasy, slicked back hair shimmered in the sunlight. He took a drag from a stubby cigarette and flicked it into the street. “Hey, baby,” he called to Momma. “That’s some outfit. What’s going on?”

“Please vote for me,” she sang out across the lawn. “I’ll make y’all proud of this great state of Georgia.”

All of the boys laughed, and one of them said, “Georgia? What’s the matter --- you lost or something? This is Willoughby, Ohio.”

Oblivious to the truth of his words, she blew him a kiss. “Now, don’t forget to vote for me.”

One of the boys in the backseat motioned to Momma. “Sure, I’ll vote for you, honey. C’mon over and sit on my lap.”

She giggled and set off toward the car. Just as she reached the sidewalk, the driver hit the gas and laid rubber on the road. Clouds of smoke rolled into the air, but Momma kept right on blowing kisses.

I was so embarrassed, I thought I’d implode right there on the sidewalk. Though I knew I should grab her arm and haul her back inside the house, my shame sent me running in the opposite direction. With my books hugged to my chest, I ran full throttle until I reached the public library. I pushed through the heavy wooden door of the ladies’ restroom, hid in one of the stalls, and opened a book. I read as fast as I could, gobbling up pages until the wild thumping of my heart subsided, until the story on the pages became real and my life became nothing but a story --- a story that simply wasn’t true. Couldn’t be true. I stayed in the restroom until the maintenance man came in to wash the floors and shooed me out.

Not long after that day, Momma began walking to the Goodwill store. She’d buy all sorts of old prom dresses and formal gowns, and if she happened to find any dyed-to-match shoes, well, she’d buy those too, even if they were three sizes too big.

One afternoon I was lying on my bed, reading Stuart Little, when I heard Momma’s footsteps on the stairs accompanied by the rustle of paper bags --- always a surefire announcement that she had struck gold during her Goodwill shopping spree. I heard her laugh, giddy with anticipation, as she tried on the newest addition to her wardrobe. Within a few minutes she called to me, “Cecelia Rose, come in here, darlin’, and see what I found.”

I pressed my nose farther into the book and pretended not to hear, but Momma called again, and when I didn’t answer, I heard the sharp clickety-click of her high-heeled shoes coming down the hall. She threw open my bedroom door and exclaimed, “Will you just look at your momma! Isn’t she something?”

She stood in the doorway, eyes glazed wide from her Goodwill shopping hangover. Then she gathered up the skirt of a raggedy old prom dress she’d just bought for a dollar and twirled into my room like a colorful, out-of-control top.

“Oh, how I adore this shade of pink. It suits me,” she said, stopping to admire her reflection in the mirror on my closet door.

I don’t know what Momma saw in that mirror that delighted her so much, but it sure wasn’t what I saw.

She put her hands on her hips, looked over her shoulder, and waited for me to tell her how beautiful she looked. It was all I could do to reach deep inside myself and push out the words she so desperately wanted to hear. “You look nice, Momma,” I mumbled, embarrassed enough for both of us, then I lowered my eyes and went back to reading my book.

“Don’t be sad, CeeCee. One day you’ll win a beauty pageant, and then you can wear all these beautiful gowns too. I’m saving them for you, darlin’. I promise I am.” She grinned and sashayed out of my room.

Grateful that she’d finally left, I scooted off the bed and closed the door behind her.

Momma started wearing those tattered old prom dresses several days a week. The more she wore them, the more of a spectacle she became in our town. Even the nicest of our neighbors couldn’t stop themselves from standing in their front yards bug-eyed and slackjawed whenever she’d parade down the sidewalk in a rustle of taffeta. And who could blame them? With a neighbor like Momma, who needed TV?

In school I was the skinny girl who had a crown-wearing, lipstick- smeared lunatic for a mother. Nobody talked to me unless they wanted an answer to a test question, and nobody sat with me at the lunch table --- well, nobody except Oscar Wolper, who smelled like dirty socks and bore a shocking resemblance to Mr. Potato Head.

After a while I didn’t pay much attention to my classmates. It didn’t matter what they said about my mother or what kinds of faces they made. I’d just walk in, take my seat, and keep my eyes glued to the blackboard. Besides, I always knew a smile would be waiting for me every Sunday.

For as far back as my memory would take me, I had spent Sunday mornings with our elderly neighbor Mrs. Gertrude Odell. At eight o’clock I’d go down to the kitchen and watch for her porch light to go on; it was our signal that she was ready for me. The minute I’d see that light, I’d run out the door, across the yard, and up the back steps of her little brick house. Always she’d greet me with a smile, still with her thin white hair wound in itty-bitty pin curls, still wearing her nightgown and flowery snapfront robe that was frayed at the cuffs.

“Good morning, honey,” she’d say as I stepped into her kitchen. “It’s a beautiful day that just got more beautiful.”

Whether it was sunny, rainy, or even if a foot of snow had fallen overnight, to Mrs. Odell, every day was a beauty. I think she was just happy to have woken up on the top side of the earth. Mrs. Odell lived alone. She’d had a husband once, but he died a long time ago. We helped each other a lot: she made my school lunch each morning, and I pulled weeds in her garden and helped her lift things that were heavy.

Our Sunday breakfasts were my favorite thing in the whole world. While I gathered silverware and set our places at the white enamel-top table that sat by the kitchen window, she’d shuffle across the green linoleum floor in a pair of broken-down, grandma-style shoes with mismatched laces and grill up a stack of pancakes. We’d sit down and have ourselves a feast while we listened to a church station on the radio. Mrs. Odell loved choir singing, and she’d tune in early so we wouldn’t miss it. Most times we’d catch the tail end of the day’s sermon, loudly delivered by an angry-sounding preacher. Every week it was like he was giving his listeners a big, finger- pointing reprimand.

One Sunday while licking maple syrup off my fingers, I looked at Mrs. Odell. “Why is that preacher so upset? He always sounds real mad.”

She took a sip of tea and thought for a moment. “Well, now that you mention it, he does sound a little crabby. Maybe he’s tired of reminding people to be kind to each other.”

“Are all preachers crabby?” I said, taking a bite of my pancakes. Mrs. Odell chuckled. “I don’t know if I’d say they’re all crabby, but I think some do have a tendency to speak a little too forceful at times.”

“Well, what I don’t understand is why people get all dressed up and drive to church so they can sit there and get scolded. Seems to me it’d be a whole lot easier for them to just stay home in their pj’s, eat pancakes, and get yelled at over the radio.”

Mrs. Odell laughed so hard she cried. But I was serious.

On my way home from school the following Friday, I heard the echo of a sharp whack-whack-whack rise above the trees. Up ahead, a man was hammering a sign into the ground in front of a local church. The sign was advertising a weekend fund-raising festival, and printed in bright red letters at the bottom were the words COME JOIN THE FUN --- EVERYONE WELCOME. When I arrived home, I made up my mind that I’d go down there on Saturday morning and see for myself what all this church stuff was about.

Before leaving the house the next morning, I put on a pair of old sunglasses and tied a scarf around my head. Thanks to Momma’s antics, even the adults in our town looked at me with something that was a cross between disgust and pity, so I tried to disguise myself whenever I ventured into town.

The festival was a swarm of activity, and I sunk into the shadows of the trees to watch. My first impression was that pies seemed to help people be kind to one another a whole lot better than any mean-talking preacher. In fact, there were more smiles around the bake-sale tables than I had ever seen in one place. Even the most ornery, stern-faced men in our town turned all happy and grinned like fools as they looked over the long tables lined with homemade cookies, pies, and strudels. Even Mr. Krick, the owner of the local hardware store, who was just about as grumpy as a person could be, picked up a pie. Under the watchful eye of a little gray-haired woman who stood behind the table, he held it beneath his nose and breathed in the aroma.

“Ida Mae,” he said with a goofy grin, “you’ve created a masterpiece. This elderberry pie has been blessed by the Good Lord himself. I’ll take it.”

Ida Mae blushed and packed the pie inside a box.

“Now, don’t you worry about that broken latch on your screen door,” Mr. Krick said, suddenly jolly. “I’ll stop by tomorrow morning and get it all fi xed up.” He handed Ida Mae a fi ve-dollar bill, told her to keep the change, and disappeared into the crowd. I made a mental note that if I ever needed help from a man I would make him a pie. I wondered if that’s why my dad didn’t come home much anymore. As far as I knew, Momma never once had baked him a pie.

Beyond the bake-sale tables stood a line of game booths, but I steered clear of those when I saw a group of kids from my school. I watched from a safe distance as they threw balls, knocked over bowling pins, and won all sorts of prizes.

Once I’d seen enough of the festival, I took a shortcut through the grass and walked by the church. The door was wide open, so I climbed the steps and peeked inside. It was almost dark. The only light there was came from a vibrantly colored stained glass window on the farthest wall. Beyond the rows of polished wood pews sat an altar draped in a cloth of deep red, its surface filled with dozens of burning candles that glowed from inside tiny glass cups.

Careful not to make a sound, I moved down the aisle. Three women were kneeling in the front pew, each one of them wearing a lacy square of fabric on top of her head. The women rubbed long beaded necklaces through their fingers, and one of them rocked back and forth to the rhythm of something I couldn’t hear. I didn’t know what beaded necklaces had to do with praying, but I guessed it was probably some secret code reserved exclusively for women.

For several minutes I watched the scene before me, wondering if a beaded necklace had the power to help my mother. I wondered about it the whole way home.

While walking around the side of the house, I saw Dad’s car parked in the driveway. Just as I opened the back door, I heard Momma’s voice burst through the air. “No. Get out!”

“Damn it, Camille, calm down. We need to talk.”

There was a furious jumble of words, ending with the sound of breaking glass. I ran across the kitchen and hid inside the broom closet. Above me I could hear the shuffling of feet, and then Dad’s words boomed through the house. “Camille, you’ve got to stop this. Now, sit down and ---”

Momma screamed, “Don’t come near me. I hate you!”

The slamming of her bedroom door shook the house, and a moment later Dad pounded down the stairs. I stood stock-still in the darkness of the closet, and when he came into the kitchen, I held my breath. When the screen door slapped shut, I pushed open the closet door and peered out the window. As I watched my father get into his car and roar away, I decided to give the praying business a try.

Later that night, while Momma was asleep on the sofa, I searched through a chest of drawers in her bedroom until I found the strand of pearls she kept tucked inside a pink satin pouch. After pulling an old doily from beneath a lamp and grabbing a Christmas candle from a box in the closet, I went into my bedroom and closed the door. I bobby-pinned the doily to my head, lit the candle, and got down on my knees by the window. Though I wasn’t sure exactly what to do, I gazed into the sky and rubbed the pearls between my fingers until they grew nice and warm.

“Hello. My name is Cecelia Rose Honeycutt, and I live at 831 Tulipwood Avenue. The preacher on the radio said if we opened our hearts and asked, we’d be saved. He said it was that simple. So I’m asking, will you please save Momma? Something’s wrong with her mind and it’s getting worse every day. And while you’re at it, will you save me too? There’s nothing wrong with my mind, but I sure could use some help down here. I’ll do anything you say. Thank you. Amen.”

I prayed for several weeks, counting off one pearl for each prayer. Every day I watched for signs of improvement, but Momma never got any better. There were sixty-one pearls on my mother’s necklace, and if something didn’t happen soon, I’d run out of prayers. One day it occurred to me that it was time to go directly to God. But I was a little worried about that idea.

Is God like the principal at our school who stays in his office and talks only with the teachers? Will God think I’m too bold if I call on him directly?

Though I was nervous about it, I decided I had nothing to lose, so I went ahead and prayed until I came to the last pearl on the necklace. But summer faded into autumn, and nothing in my life changed but the color of the leaves on the trees. Either God never heard me or had a whole lot more important things to worry about.

Excerpted from SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT © Copyright 2011 by Beth Hoffman. Reprinted with permission by Penguin. All rights reserved.

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
by by Beth Hoffman

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143118579
  • ISBN-13: 9780143118572