Eli Burnes grows up under the care of Mattie, an opera singer, and Miz Johnnie, the family maid, in Augusta, Georgia. Eli’s alcoholic mother has been gone since Eli was three, and Eli’s father, Willie, is a disc jockey and anti-war activist who lives in Webster Groves, Missouri, with a new wife and two young sons. After Mattie dies of cancer and Miz Johnnie decides to retire, Eli runs away with a draft dodger, but when things go wrong with their plans, she must go live with her father and his family. Secrets of the past and present begin to unravel the happy life she creates. Witnessing and sometimes participating in the protests, drug use and musical fervor of the times, Eli learns about love, forgiveness and survival.
ISBN:978-1-60489-037-2 Library Binding $27 Sale $13.50
ISBN: 978-1-60489-038-9 Trade Paper $16.95 Sale $8.50
Pat MacEnulty is the author three previous novels and a short collection. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she teaches writing, literature and communications at Johnson & Wales University. She is the recipient of several grants and awards and has provided creative writing workshops around the U.S. and in Mexico.
From the Book:
Mattie, my grandfather’s second wife, spirited me away from my alcoholic mother before I was two years old. The story Mattie told me was that Marguerite (my mother) was living in a two-bedroom trailer on the outskirts of town and that she, Mattie that is, 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, like some sort of pioneer, lit out for the West shortly after she left. Grandaddy died of a stroke when I was five so 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 in Augusta, Georgia, a few blocks from the Savannah River.
My dad, Willie Burnes, never made it as far as the West Coast. He settled in a town called Webster Groves, Missouri, and became a DJ in St. Louis. He came to visit us for Christmas and sometimes during the summer. Eventually he brought pregnant Cleo with him and they were married. But we never saw or heard from my mother; they assumed she had died. Neither Mattie nor Miz Johnny ever mentioned her. And who was I to miss a person I couldn’t remember? Especially when I had Mattie and Miz Johnny to take care of me. Mattie spoiled me, and Miz Johnny disciplined me when she could catch me.
After Grandaddy died, Mattie devoted her life to two things: me and the Southern Opera Guild, the old theater downtown that Grandaddy had given to Mattie in order to entice her in to marrying him. While other kids were 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 would sleep backstage on the spare sets while the sound of arias shrouded me like a dream.
When we weren’t at the opera, I had free reign to come and go. I rode the streets of Augusta on my bike and imagined I was a gunslinger on a stallion that no one but me could ride. I didn’t have many friends, but I didn’t need them. I peopled my world with characters from my imagination. And it always felt as though Mattie’s friends were my friends. I considered myself a small adult, and I think they considered themselves large children so I guess we met somewhere in between. Our house was the central location for evening parties where they sang around the Steinway that Carl played with 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.
Then when I was twelve I met a girl named Gretchen, who had miraculously moved from half-way across the world with her German father and American mother. Gretchen had an older sister named Lana, who brought all things bad with her, and an older brother named Wolfgang, an aloof philosophical boy with shaggy hair and bushy eyebrows, a boy who made me go mad with love 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, guys in puffy white suits were jumping on the moon, a crazy man shot down Bobby Kennedy and another loonie gunned down Martin Luther King, Jr. 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.