When Venus FellDeborah Smith
A Place to Call Home
“A gracefully written and absorbing tale … seductive … a page-turner.”
“Laughter, wonderment, unrequited love! Meddling old biddies, warring families, lovers reunited. What more could you want?”
—Rita Mae Brown
“These characters leap off the pages. A moving story that holds you to the end and has all the warmth and tenderness of LaVyrle Spenser at her best.”
“A must-read … sweet, salty, passionate and wise.”
“This incredibly magical book will bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your heart. Storytelling at its VERY best!”
“Clear the decks when you read this book because you’re not going to be able to to put it aside until you’ve finished the last delicious page.”
“An engrossing read. The reader’s sense is that these two could only belong to one another, and no one else. I also loved the rich detail of family life, especially the uniquely Southern aspects.”
BY DEBORAH SMITH
from bantam books
When Venus Fell
A Place to Call Home
Silk and Stone
This edition contains the complete text
of the original hardcover edition.
NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.
When Venus Fell
A Bantam Book
Bantam hardcover edition published July 1998
Bantam mass market edition / October 1999
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1998 by Deborah Smith
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 98-15525
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Well into her elderly years my paternal grandmother regularly tucked her sawed-off shotgun into the crook of her arm, set her straw sunhat firmly on her head, and set out to walk the boundaries of our farm. She never found any trespassers worth shooting, and I was never quite certain who or what she feared might threaten us, but her message was clear and strong.
Protecting our family’s land was a sacred duty.
That isn’t an uncommon idea among farm-born southerners of an older generation. As suburban subdivisions and malls creep across the farmland there are still stories of old men and old women who turn down millions of dollars in order to leave their homesteads to their children and grandchildren. To own even a small piece of land is to have roots, to have a home, to never turn your face away from who and what and where you are.
And so it’s natural for me to write about the Camerons, a family of southerners who will go to any lengths to preserve their isolated mountain valley and historic house. The allure of old homes, whether grand or simple, is as powerful as the love for the land. An old home breathes with memories; its walls can talk if you listen hard enough.
When my family finally had no choice except to sell our farm and move on, the new owner cut the old house in two, carted half of it away, and bulldozed the rest. I collected a wheelbarrow full of faded, red, handmade bricks from the foundation, and hundred-pound granite rocks that lined my grandmother’s side yard.
These solid pieces are part of my homeplace, now. Part of my land, which I walk with pride and defense and love, as my grandmother did.
And so this book is for her, my father’s mother, my grandmother Rachel Bennett Brown. And as always, for my husband, Hank, and for my mother, who walk with me.
Let the music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song,
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
the sound prolong.
“My Country ’Tis of Thee”
—THE SECOND VERSE, WHICH NO ONE SINGS
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
By the time Gib Cameron found us, my sister and I were failed southern belles who could no longer count on the kindness of strangers. We lived like gypsies. Home was a forgotten memory. Like lost birds, we had migrated to a cold climate. Our distant connection to Gib and his family was all we had left of an innocent and proud past.
“Pride and self-respect are earned, not given by birth,” Pop always told us when we were growing up amid the gothic gentility of New Orleans. “Nothing else matters.” He had had more pride beaten into him than any man deserved, and it nearly destroyed us.
Ella had developed a chronic case of what would have been called the fancies in more polite eras, and I was well on my way to becoming what would have been deemed a pinched-heart hellion. In more polite eras, of course.
Purists might insist my sister and I were never southern belles to begin with. Pedigree alone should have disqualified us. Our steel-magnolia family tree included one Japanese grandmother and one grandmother of Swedish extraction, who was a truck-stop floozy. Our father was a California-bred Italian-Asian American, not to mention a Communist. He spent his childhood in a California internment camp during World War II. His Japanese mother—my grandmother Akiko—died there, and Pop swore he’d hate the United States government for the rest of his life.
So maybe my sister and I were doomed from the start.
When I was a child my piano tutors told stories about the Phantom Alligator Lady of Bayou Caveaux. Rumor had it she was a failed concert pianist, though when I was a little girl none of my tutors would admit she existed except in self-serving piano-tutor mythology.
They claimed folks glimpsed her around one of the concrete-walled, rusty-roofed little houses off a swampy back road a few miles outside N
ew Orleans. She had doomed her career, her youth, her very soul because she let worldly distractions steal her art. Thus she turned into a crazy, bitter old failure who lured children into her home and forced them to play an untuned upright until they died, mind you—and then she carried their bodies outside and fed them to her alligators. I guess you could say she was the ultimate music critic.
I not only believed in the Alligator Lady, I carried the fear of her into adulthood. I heard her whispering encouragement in the back of my mind like a ten-cent harmonica gone sharp.
I pictured myself growing old and mean, peering spitefully out my windows at strangers while I eked out a living, teaching piano lessons to nose-picking ten-year-olds who deserved no better audience than my asthmatic pet toy poodle—which I would name Dog, or Poodle, because my mind would be gone by then. And while my students practiced I’d drink iced tea mixed with gin as I apathetically watched the poodle hoist his tiny hind leg and pee on dusty scrapbooks filled with clippings that proved I’d been a child piano prodigy, once upon a time.
And those clippings might have been all that was worth telling about Venus Arinelli. Or about any Arinelli, I guess. We were culturally jumbled but southern clear through by the grace of a god who obviously knows where odd people will best fit in. Yet everyone is made up of parts and pieces of their family’s music. The saddest thing is to forget where our songs end and our parents’ begin, because each of us plays the next note for them.
Before Gib Cameron found me, I was sinking into silence.
When the Oklahoma City federal building blew up, Ella and I had just signed a six-month contract to perform in the piano lounge of a hotel in New York. It was the best job we’d had in years.
“You and your sister are fired,” the manager announced. “Pack up your equipment and get out. I won’t have people like you working in my club.”
The TV sets above the club’s bar were turned to CNN, where a tape replay showed rescue workers carrying dead and injured children from the rubble in Oklahoma City. Ella had been pale and hollow-eyed for two days. I was scared and on alert, expecting trouble.
“We have a contract,” I reminded the manager, a burly man whose suits cost more than he paid us in a month. “And we haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I know about your old man,” he replied, jerking his head toward the TV, his face as red as the rare prime rib served in the bar’s dining room. “A couple of federal agents are in my office. They want to ask you and your sister some questions. They say you’ve got connections to antigovernment groups.”
“They always do. If a kid throws a rock at a government building, these guys show up wherever we are and ask us if we know who did it. But we have nothing to do with that. We never had anything to do with it. We just want to be left alone to earn a living.”
“Government agents don’t ask questions unless they think you know something. I was in the Army. I believe in this country. I don’t want my business associated with a group of immoral fanatics.”
“Neither do I, but they show up more often than a government holiday.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The FBI. Government men. It was a joke.”
“You think our government is a joke?”
“Not at the moment. Look, my sister and I need this job, but I won’t apologize for my father. He wasn’t a monster.”
“That’s enough! Get out of my club. You’re trouble.”
This wasn’t the first time Ella and I had been fired because the Feds dropped by to tell our boss we were Max Arinelli’s daughters. I dragged myself back to our dressing room. Ella was watching CNN on a portable TV and crying softly.
“We’re outta here, Sis.” I grabbed a piece of our gear and hoisted it to one shoulder. She turned to stare at me. Behind her, on TV, a paramedic bent over a bloody, limp little boy. “Oh, no,” she said brokenly. “Oh, Vee. How could anyone think we’d know anything about the person or the group who committed a horror like this.”
I forced myself to look at the unconscious child on TV. We had to share the blame for all the brutal crimes of all the vicious lunatics of the world, because to the world our own father would always be no better than the cold-blooded psychos who maim and kill the innocence in all of us.
And so we left.
We were always running from crimes we didn’t commit. After that I perfected the art of disguise and outright evasion. For several years the plan worked fairly well. Until Chicago.
The marquee poster in the lobby of Hers Truly, the city’s priciest women-only nightclub, proclaimed Ella and me the Nelson Sisters. When I chose the name, I hoped the government would have a helluva hard time keeping track of two Nelsons, particularly two Nelsons named Ann and Jane. You couldn’t get more all-American ordinary than that.
The Hers Truly was a fern-draped art-deco show bar filled with women wearing formal gowns and tuxedos. On a small stage in one corner of the main room I played electronic piano keyboard in duet with my sister’s electric violin. We competed with the clink of bar glasses and the soft conversation of women seducing women. In that nightclub packed with women celebrating their true identities, we were the only ones hiding behind a lie.
I was Ann. Ella was Jane. “Next year we’ll switch and I get to be Jane,” I had joked when we split a lobster tail and champagne on my twenty-ninth birthday. Ella was three years younger. I’d been brooding about growing old. About dead ends and hopeless wanderings.
Ella and I kept a low profile by playing the kinds of hotel lounges and nightclubs where admirers don’t stuff the tip jars with ten-dollar bills because they love Rachmaninoff. You gotta have a gimmick. I added a three-foot-long synthetic weave to my hair and kept it in a mass of tiny cornrows and braids dyed eye-popping golden-blond. I wore so many rings and studs in my earlobes I could have picked up signals like the Hubble telescope.
I’d pierced my navel and decorated it with the glitteriest belly-button jewelry I could find at the flea markets and junk shops where Ella and I did most of our shopping. I had to be skanky enough for both of us, since Ella looked ridiculous in anything skankier than slim black trousers and sequined black tops. She kept her black hair dyed a demure honey color.
Our efforts were amateurish, but they helped. We were professional, dependable, and honest, but reclusive to the point of oddity. We were the daughters of Max Arinelli, and even though Pop was dead we remained under scrutiny. So we kept to ourselves and moved on quickly each time government agents found us.
Which was often enough.
The stranger caught my attention like a trumpet player blowing a high C in the middle of a harp solo.
I always drew up in a knot when a certain type of man watched Ella and me in public. Over the years I’d developed a knack for pinpointing the kind who considered himself the guardian of truth, justice, and the American way. But this one stood out more than usual, particularly in the Hers Truly. After all, he was the only genuinely masculine patron I’d ever seen in the audience. In fact he looked like the kind of man who’d been born with a more than ordinary share of testosterone.
I blinked, then stared again through the haze of stage lights and cigarette smoke. Holy freakin’ moly, as we used to say at St. Cecilia’s, when the nuns weren’t listening.
He was tall, dark, and yes, bluntly handsome. But badly worn around the edges. His face was gaunt, his skin was pale enough to show a beard shadow even in dim light, his mouth was appealing but too tight. He was watching me as if I were doing a striptease and he were an off-duty vice cop.
He kept his hands in the pockets of khaki trousers. His shirtsleeves were rolled up. The throat of his collarless gray shirt was unbuttoned. I saw a hint of dark chest hair. The crowd at tables nearest the stage suddenly sensed manly pheromones, like the aroma off a toxic-waste dump, and turned to scowl at him as if he were about to ask the waitresses to fetch him a pitcher of beer and start the wet T-shirt contest.
a beefy redhead in leather shouted at him. âWhat dâya think this is? A peep show?â He smiled thinly and nodded without taking his eyes off me. A dozen women began gesturing for the manager.
Ella and I were playing a k.d. lang medley. She pivoted and looked at me frantically, her violin quivering against the ashen curve of her chin, her short blond hair dancing as she sawed the bow across the strings. Sheâd spotted the stranger, too. Trouble, she mouthed like a plea. I nodded. We always had an escape plan.
I leaped up, grabbed her by one arm, and hustled her from the stage. As we hurried down a back hall the manager approached us. âWhatâs wrong?â she demanded. âThe setâs not half over.â
âMigraine.â I nodded toward Ella. âJaneâs about to pass out.â Ella clasped the left side of her head and moaned. She had no trouble faking the vicious headaches because she suffered real ones so often. She was, by nature, a bad actress but an elaborate fainter.
âOh, dear, I see halos and sparkles.â She moaned again. Levering an arm under her shoulder blades, I guided her over pockmarked floor tiles that caught on my stiletto heels and caused her smooth-soled flats to slip. I was strong and alley-cat lean; she was shorter and softer. âTry to breathe, hon. Iâll get you outside in the fresh air. Well, night air, anyhow. Canât promise it wonât smell like aââ
âFainting,â she mumbled. And then she went limp.
I caught her as she collapsed. Iâd had a lot of practice catching my sister over the years, and more than average in the last couple. A failed romance with a smooth-talking Detroit nightclub owner had nearly destroyed her. It was why we had left Detroit for Chicago. Her healthâphysical as well as mentalâhad improved slowly. Sheâd only recently begun to smile like her old self.
We sank to the hallâs floor. Her eyelashes flickered. âGet me a damp cloth and a glass of water,â I called to the manager, a small crew-cut brunette in crisply tailored slacks and a manâs dress shirt, who hovered over us sympathetically.