The following is an excerpt from Donna Everhart’s new novel, The Education of Dixie Dupree, published October 2016 by Kensington. The novel is a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of its plucky, perceptive protagonist. Dixie is an 11-year-old girl struggling to make sense of an unhappy mother and a distant father, all while confronting some serious family secrets.
My diary was my best friend until I gave it up as key evidence against Uncle Ray. Mr. Evans, the prosecuting lawyer who would go to court on my behalf, showed up on our doorstep here in Alabama all the way from New Hampshire just to get it. I had no idea it was so important, but he told Mama it was, even though everyone already knew what had happened. He said it would be helpful in getting the facts, since I was still too embarrassed to talk about certain things. Being as I like words, I had looked up prosecute to find out why Mr. Evans was called that, and according to the definition, if I were in jail like Uncle Ray, I’d be worried.
Mama stood in the kitchen chatting with him while I went to my bedroom to get it. Reaching under my mattress like I’d done a thousand times before, I realized this would be the last time I would do that. I hesitated. Could I give it up? If I did, who would I “talk” to once it was gone? Who would I tell my deepest secrets and fears to?
Mama came down the hall, calling my name, “Dixie?”, and I snatched it from its hiding place, hurrying to pull the pink chenille bedspread back in place.
I came out of my room, the familiar feel of it in my hand more pronounced than usual, the weight of my words and private thoughts sitting heavy in the palm of my hand.
“I have it,” but I held on to it tight while we walked back into the kitchen, where Mr. Evans stood waiting, looking like he was in no big hurry. He was tall, with gray hair and glasses. I liked his blue eyes, they were friendly and they didn’t seem to hold any judgment of me. Just as I lifted my hand to give him the diary, my fingers tightened and there we stood, me clutching it and him ready to take it, yet I couldn’t turn it loose. He dropped his hand and waited patiently. I think he knew I was trying to be brave about giving it to him, but it was a big decision and I understood what it meant. After a few seconds, I took a breath, and let it go. He nodded, as if in approval.
It’s 1969, the Age of Aquarius, at least according to The 5th Dimension on the radio. Being one of my favorite songs, I’m always listening for it so I can turn the volume up, flip my hair over my shoulders like Cher, and sway to the music while hoping Mama won’t yell at me to turn it back down. The 5th Dimension’s song said that when Jupiter aligned with Mars, peace would fill the planets. I figured if that could happen, there was a chance things could be perfect here, as well. Nineteen sixty-nine has been hard, a year when everything in my life and those around me got forever turned upside down. I’ve been smack-dab in the middle of it, well, me, and now my diary.
It was one of the few presents I ever got that was exactly what I wanted. Mama gave it to me three years ago, a present for my eighth birthday, and when I removed the pale pink paper she’d wrapped it in, saw the blue and green cover with the gold latch and special little key, I was thrilled. I wore the tiny key around my neck all the time, only taking it off to bathe, so having to part ways with it was going to be like losing a hand or something equally important.
From the beginning, I’d written about all kinds of things, although now, at the ripe old age of eleven, I realized some of those earlier entries were childish. I’d written about certain foods I hated, but Mama still made me eat. I wrote how my best friend, Barbara Pittman, loved the color orange. I even wrote about her stinky brother, Bryan, who was always trying to show his whatchamacallit to the girls in my class, in other words, mostly non-important stuff.
I’d written about Mama, too. In some ways, she was a mystery, an enigma I’d yet to figure out. There were many facets to her, like a diamond under a microscope; depending on which way it was turned, there was something else to see. Her unhappiness and that sporadic temper that would burst out of her were puzzling. I didn’t understand her, and I thought she certainly didn’t understand me. Sometimes she would say, “You’re too much like me for your own good,” which in turn made me study her, trying to find the parts of her that were me.
For a time, I’d thought our family was happy, but my naïveté was only a safeguard from reality. As things fell apart between Mama and Daddy, I blamed myself, feeling responsible for how it started. But it was what Daddy did that sealed our fate. And when Uncle Ray showed up appearing to be full of good intentions about helping us out, he ended up causing more than his own share of trouble.
Uncle Ray. I always shiver when thinking about him, and Granny Dupree said when you shiver and its ninety-some degrees outside, that’s someone walking over your future grave. It was hard writing about what he did, and I couldn’t go back and reread those entries like I did some of the other ones. You could say what was on those pages about him was akin to a coming storm, like dark clouds gathered on a horizon, persistent in their approach. If someone else had read those words, they might have wondered; Would they bring rain or something worse, something destructive? But the only one reading them was me, and I was too close to it all, too young to see how twisted up it was, too innocent to consider the danger and heartbreak.
Intent on Mr. Evans’s every move, I watched as he put my diary in his briefcase, and only when it was out of sight could I look at him again.
He said, “Dixie, you understand, you might not get it back.”
I had suspected this, but knowing it was another thing.
Still, all I said was, “That’s okay.”
Really, it wasn’t, and my eyes felt like they consumed my entire face as I kept staring at him, the implications of it all too big for me to handle right then. I supposed the only reason to give it up was knowing it held the truth, the truth I wouldn’t have to tell to a room full of strangers. At the time, I hadn’t worried it was going to be exposed for all to read and then dissect. I mean, who cares about a young girl’s diary except her? When I’d told Mama I had everything written down about what happened, she acted surprised.
“What do you mean you have it written down?”
“In my diary. I wrote about what happened with Daddy, and about Uncle Ray, too.”
“You wrote about what happened with him . . . ?”
“Yes, ma’am, most of it.”
I noticed how she wouldn’t say Uncle Ray’s name anymore. I didn’t see what the big deal was, but she went to the phone and called Mr. Evans. Next thing I knew, he was here, taking the diary and explaining to Mama and me why it was so important. It was key evidence.
He said, “Well, with what happened, not much more needs to be known, but it certainly won’t hurt. You are a smart young lady, Dixie.”
That was all fine and good, but I didn’t like the way people’s faces changed once they had the facts, because I sure didn’t want their god-awful pity. Before we left New Hampshire, I’d already been subjected to it all from the police, the doctors, and the nurses. They had looked at me with that “bless her heart” look. When we got back here, Daddy’s folks acted different toward me too, like they were embarrassed, even my cousin, Debra, Uncle Elroy and Aunt Margie’s daughter. I didn’t think she could ever be embarrassed about anything, she was too damn mean. I tried to ignore the looks, but when I caught people unaware, their faces were open and revealing. That’s when I got uncomfortable. I knew they knew, and they were thinking about it.
Mr. Evans asked me how I’d been so good about writing almost every day.
I told him, “Well, Mama said I’m stubborn, about as stubborn as Alabama dirt.”
I thought of a good comparison.
“Do you know how hard it is to grow grass, Mr. Evans?”
We were now standing out in the front yard, and I scratched my toe through a patch of the red dirt I loved, but Mama hated with the wrath of someone who thinks it’s out to get her. I stared down at the line and realized it was just like I’d issued a dare to Mr. Evans to step over it.
He glanced down at the dirt, and with a slight smile on his face, he said, “Sometimes soil just needs a little bit of TLC, right?”
I’d learned stubborn worked two ways; it could help you or hurt you. For me, it usually meant trouble, particularly when Mama was in the mood to conform me to her idea of respectful.
If things weren’t going good with me, she’d say, “Well, I guess when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.”
Most of the time I’d felt like a fly in her glass of lemonade and just when she went to take a big swallow, there I was, ruining her attempt at making the best of things. Our relationship might have gone a bit more smoothly in the earlier days if she’d considered me as being tenacious. It was AJ who’d told me that word, AJ, who never caused her any grief. Once I overheard Mama telling Aunt Margie it was like having birthed an angel, then a small she devil.
AJ’s two years older than me, and for the most part, he’s the typical big brother, doing things like purposefully tripping me when I walk by him, or eating the last chocolate chip cookie when he knew I wanted it. But sometimes, he did nice, non-brotherly things, like trying to help me with homework, or letting me talk when I needed to talk, as well as giving big brotherly advice.
One day after Mama had got on me for persisting in talking to her when she was concentrating on her grocery list, he said, “Tell her you’re not being stubborn, you’re just being tenacious.”
Maybe AJ was right, so next time, I was quick to let Mama know I wasn’t stubborn.
I said, “I’m just tenacious, Mama, not stubborn.”
Her hand connected to my cheek before I had a chance to take my next breath. AJ didn’t mean to get me into trouble. We both knew there were times when you could say something like that and she’d laugh, or she’d unexpectedly snap, and neither of us could figure out when it would be one or the other.
Mr. Evans looked down at the bare patch I’d scraped my toe through and said, “You’ve got to give something to the soil before it will return the favor and give something back.”
His smile broadened and the crinkles around his eyes showed he smiled a lot. I liked his explanation of TLC, and I made a decision right there; I would take him for his word from that point on.
He said, “I’ll be in touch, Mrs. Dupree. And young lady, you don’t need to worry, this will be over with before you know it.”
I nodded my head, all the while wishing he’d tell me how that was going to happen. Mama watched as Mr. Evans got into the waiting taxi and left for the airport. I watched him, too, thinking, He’s taking my best friend, the one way I’ve been able to cope. The knowledge my beloved diary was no longer under my mattress left a hole that couldn’t be filled. I was sorry and blaming myself for everything, including opening my big mouth about it.
Mama turned without a word and walked into the house, and I thought, She’s probably sick and tired of it all by now. I stood until I saw the last of the taxi’s taillights disappear in the curve of the road and then I turned to follow Mama inside. Before I got to the screen door, it opened and she came toward me, her hand outstretched, something small and black held in it.
Her voice was quiet, “I want you to have this.”
It looked like what Mr. Evans had just put into his briefcase, only it was bound in black leather. I stared at it and at Mama, puzzled.
“What is it?”
Her expression became detached, with a hint of sorrow.
She sighed and said, “It’s my diary. I got it when I bought yours. I want you to read it.”
I stared at its dog-eared appearance, and I could tell she’d been as intent on writing in it as I’d been in mine.
She turned to go back inside, and hesitated, “Dixie?”
“You know, none of this was your fault. I hope you’ll understand things after you read it, if not today, then someday. It’s going to get better, I promise.”
I could only nod, mouth hanging open, dumbstruck by what I held. I walked into the house, finding it hard to stay behind her. I was anxious to be in my room and reading, and I had to fight the urge to push her out of the way so I could get there quicker. Mama went to the kitchen and picked up the phone, probably to call Aunt Margie while I hustled down the hall to my room.
I sure was glad AJ was down at the creek catching crawdads to go fishing so he wouldn’t be pestering me to go outside with him. I sat on the edge of my bed and flipped it open, staring at the first entry. It was dated 1966, and what she wrote sent a shiver down my back and my heart to thumping.
It said, She lied. Just like I asked her to, but, what kind of life do I have when I have to ask my own child to lie for me?
She was writing about me. I’d been eight years old and I’d gone and got her in trouble with Daddy and Granny Dupree. It occurred to me this was when it had started, when we’d all begun to lose our way with each other. It happened so gradually, none of us saw it coming, until there was nothing left but empty conversations and useless arguments inside a house that had anticipated love, but had only seen sadness.
Donna Everhart was born and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina and has remained close to her hometown for most of her life. Before writing her debut novel, she worked in project management and product introduction for several high tech companies.
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