Cinnamon Girl
by
Trish MacEnulty




Binding

Synopsis:

When her step-grandmother, a retired opera singer, dies of cancer in 1970, 15-year-old Eli Burnes runs away with a draft-dodger, thinking she’s on the road to adventure and romance. Instead she’s embroiled in a world of underground Weathermen, Black Power revolutionaries, snitches and shoot-first police. Eventually Eli is rescued by her father, who turns out both more responsible and more revolutionary than she’d imagined. But when he gets in trouble with the law, she finds herself on the road again, searching for the allies who will help her learn how to save herself.

 

 
About the Author:

Trish MacEnulty is the author of the historical novels, Delafield & Malloy Investigations, as well as two memoirs, a novel, and a collection of short stories. A former professor of English and film, she currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida. Visit her website at trishmacenulty.com and subscribe to her newsletter for freebies and info about new releases. 

 


Excerpt from Book:

1

 

            Thanks to Mattie, my grandfather’s second wife, I spent my childhood as a small adult.

            Mattie had spirited me away from my alcoholic mother before I was two years old. The story Miz Johnny told me was that Carmella (my mother) was living in a two-bedroom trailer on the outskirts of town when Mattie stopped by one day to check up on me after my dad and my mom had split up. Mattie found my mother sprawled on the couch wearing high heels and a black slip with an empty Jack Daniels bottle tucked in the crook of her arm, and me trapped and crying in a playpen, wearing nothing but a dirty diaper. Mattie took me away that day, and then sometime after that – the details get fuzzy – my mother got on a Greyhound bus and never came back. My dad lit out for the West Coast shortly after she left. Granddaddy died of a stroke when I was four, and I hardly remember him anyway.  That left me and Mattie and Miz Johnny, a maid whose family had been interlinked with mine since the days of slavery – not one of us related by blood but bound together nonetheless – in a big brick house on a hill in Augusta, Georgia, a few blocks from the Savannah River.

My dad, Billy Burnes, never made it as far as the West Coast. He spent a couple of years at Southern Illinois University before dropping out to become a D.J. at a Top-40 radio station in St. Louis. He visited us every Christmas and usually for a week or so during the summers. The summer after I turned nine years old, he brought a pregnant girl named Cleo with him and said she was his wife. We never saw or heard from my mother. Mattie never mentioned her. And who was I to miss a person I couldn’t remember? Especially when I had Mattie and Miz Johnny. Mattie spoiled me, and Miz Johnny disciplined me when she could catch me.

Before marrying my wealthy grandfather, Mattie had been a world-class opera singer. In order to entice her in to marrying him, he bought the old theater in downtown Augusta so she could turn it into her very own opera house. She was getting older anyway so she took the offer. While other kids stayed home at night watching “Bonanza,” I was at the Southern Opera Guild. For hours I played dress up in elaborate costumes or had swordfights with imaginary enemies in the rehearsal room. During performances I would turn pages for the pianist or sit in the lighting booth and read cues for the spotlight man. When rehearsals ran late, I slept backstage on the piles of black curtains while the sound of arias shrouded me like a dream. Sometimes I spied furtive kissing in the rehearsal room. Sometimes men kissed other men, sometimes they kissed women whose husbands were at home, drinking scotch.

            I didn’t have friends my own age, but it felt as though Mattie’s friends were my friends. Since I considered myself a small adult, and they considered themselves large children, we met somewhere in between. Our house was the central location for evening parties where they sang showtunes around the Steinway that Carl played, hunched over the keys, a cigarette in his mouth, a highball glass on a stack of sheet music. I usually stretched out underneath the piano with my marbles or plastic horses and created stories till I fell asleep.

When I was twelve, a girl named Gretchen moved from half-way across the world with her German father and American mother. She was an outsider, like me, and for the first time I had a friend my own age. I liked Gretchen a lot, but the real attraction was her older brother named Wolfgang, an aloof philosophical boy with shaggy hair and bushy eyebrows, a boy who made my teeth sweat the first time I saw him. 

            Beyond the borders of our small town, all kinds of things were going on. Rock music had conquered the world, men in puffy white suits were jumping on the moon, a crazy man shot down Martin Luther King, Jr. and another one gunned down Bobby Kennedy. After both killings the house on the hill went into mourning though I didn’t understand why we cried over the deaths of men we had never met. There were riots and revolutions and hippies and Woodstock and all kinds of things the good citizens of Augusta, Georgia, tried to ignore, but the world would not be ignored. It was slouching toward us inexorably and arrived in a rain of smoke and ash in May, 1970. But it was not the brutal race riot that ended my perfect childhood. My perfect childhood dissolved a few months earlier when something growing inside Mattie suddenly emerged and stole the life out of her. I was fourteen years old.

 


 

 

 

2

 

            As I stood shrouded in the darkness backstage, watching Mattie sink to her knees in the bright spotlight and collapse in a pile of pink silk, I was not thinking of death or even of opera. Around her the singers mourned and the tenor bellowed “Mimi” in a crescendo of notes. But my mind transposed the scene. Instead of Mimi and her Bohemian friends, I was the one sinking to the ground, gazing into the hazel eyes of Wolfgang, who had finally realized how much he loved me. He was bending down ever so slowly to kiss me.

            At that moment the curtain closed for the final time, and the performers came rushing off stage. Fallene, the contralto, said to Mattie, “No one dies as brilliantly as you do, Mathilda.”

            Then Mattie stood in front of me, her eyes sparkling full of spotlights, her hands clasping mine.

            “How did you like the performance, precious?” As if the applause wasn’t enough. She always needed my approval. I always gave it. I may have become a teenager without either of us expecting it, but I still adored her.

            Brillant,” I said, stealing Fallene’s word because I hadn’t fully collected myself back out of Wolfgang’s arms. Then as reality came into focus, I added my favorite word of the moment, “Phenomenal.”

            Mattie smiled with relief as if she’d feared I might suddenly say that she was awful and she should never show her face on a stage again. She kissed the air beside my ear as her cheek brushed against mine. “Come help me out of this straightjacket.”

            Just like that I was once again Mattie’s little helper. I followed her back to the dressing room where the other women were already stripping out of their long dresses and holding the hair off the backs of their necks, standing in front of a large revolving fan. “Jesus, it’s hot out there,” one of them said.

            We weaved through the women to Mattie’s dressing table in the back. Lightbulbs shone from the sides and top of the mirror, and Mattie sat down to wipe off her pancake make up with a tissue smeared with cold cream. I helped her take off the blond cascading wig and then placed it on the Styrofoam head with its crayoned blue eyes.

            The women’s voices in the dressing room climbed over each other in that after-show mix of hilarity, exhaustion and yearning for it not to end quite yet. The thing they felt was almost palpable. And I knew they’d all head somewhere to unwind. Usually, the unwinding happened at our house where Miz Johnny would have left plates full of little sandwiches and the bar would be stocked, the Steinway tuned, its ivory keys waiting for Carl to sit down and dance his fingers over them.

            “You know I could never play Mimi in New York at my age,” Mattie said to no one in particular, “and yet I don’t think I’ve ever done her better.”

            “It just goes to show you,” Fallene called from her vanity nearby. “Age gives us the experience to bring depth to a role.”

            “You’re right,” Mattie said, wiping the tissue across her eyelids. “But I don’t need to grow another second older, thank you.”

            Fallene laughed. When they were together, they obsessed about their ages. Mattie swore she’d go home and jump off the London Bridge if she had to grow old and feeble with her hips breaking and her skin sagging to the ground the way her grandmother had. Mattie had left England at the age of nineteen, but it was still “home” to her and she made a point of keeping her fancy-sounding accent intact.

            Louise came trundling over. She and her husband Max, a postman, were in all of Mattie’s operas. Louise usually played some minor role, and Max, an enormously fat man, always played the lead tenor in spite of his bulk because he had as good a voice as you could find on the entire continent, Mattie always said, perpetually astounded that Max was just a postman in Augusta, Georgia. Who would have dreamed?

            “Are we heading to your place, Mathilda? Louise asked.

            “Of course,” Mattie said.

            She clumsily tried to unzip herself. I took the zipper from her fingers and tugged it down.

            “Thank you, precious,” she said. She pulled the dress from her shoulders. I turned away to go buy a bottle of coke from the machine in the hallway with the nickel in my pocket. Even then a drink for a nickel was a novelty. But as I was turning, Mattie bent forward sharply and gasped.

            Mattie?” I asked, wheeling back toward her. “Are you all right?”

            Our eyes met in the mirror. Sweat beaded against her hairline. Her gray eyes looked startled.

            “What is it?” I asked.

            She held onto the chair in front of her and grimaced.

            “I just had the worst pain.”

            “Is it gas?” Fallene asked.

            Mattie straightened up slowly and let the dress fall to the floor.

            “Look how fat I am,” she muttered. “I couldn’t even put on a girdle earlier.”

            Fallene stood up. We both stared at the bulge in Mattie’s abdomen beneath her white nylon slip.

            “You need to see a doctor,” Fallene said.

           

            Mattie went to the doctor on Monday while I was at school. Usually, I would bike over to the park after school with Gretchen and we would go to our favorite hideout—a bridge over the canal that we could hide under and try French inhaling Winston cigarettes stolen from Gretchen’s mother. Later we would go to the corner store to buy a grape Nehi and some bubble gum. We’d run the younger kids off the jungle gym so we could climb on top of the bars and watch the boys doing whatever stupid things they had thought of doing that day.

            But on that Monday I went straight home to the two-story brick house with dormer windows and a large porch. The lawn was wild and weedy because Mattie didn’t care about such things. She said what happened inside a house was more important than how it looked outside. The screen door needed painting. One of the shutters on the living room window hung by one hinge. Miz Johnny did all she could to keep the spider webs off the porch, but otherwise the exterior of our house was left to its own devices.

            I leapt up the steps and went inside. I’d been worried all day. During lunch I had gone off to the restroom by myself. As I sat in the stall taking a small moment of privacy, I heard a voice inside my head. A voice in your head should be an angel’s voice telling you that everything is going to be fine, but this voice was not angelic. It said simply, “Curtain call.”

            Mattie sat in the sun room with a cup of tea, reading the newspaper when I walked in. She looked up at me. Her pale eyebrows rose and fell. She seemed to be mustering up a comforting lie, but then she didn’t have the heart to tell it. Instead she let her eyes fall; her shoulders hunched forward as if she were hiding something. I pulled a wicker chair up next to her, took her hand, and nestled my face against her shoulder.

            We stayed like that until Miz Johnny called us for dinner.

 

Spring came. The azaleas had a brawl of color in our yard. The dogwood turned snowy white, and forsythia wands of gold waved their spells. While the earth obliviously burst forth in a fountain of color, the news in the papers was mostly bad: Anti-war protesters blew themselves to pieces in New York City. Four college students were killed in Ohio by National Guardsmen. The Beatles broke up. Each of these events occasioned a call from my father, who wanted to know if I was aware of what was going on. He was weirdly concerned about my education in that way. But how could I care about these things when my world was disintegrating?

We never said a word about Mattie’s sickness, which turned out to be ovarian cancer, or how long she had to live, which turned out to be not much. I kept going to school, and Mattie planned next year’s opera season as if she expected to be around for it while Miz Johnny cleaned and cooked and tried her damndest not to show undue tenderness to Mattie.