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Authors: Lee Smith

Family Linen

BOOK: Family Linen
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Family Linen

“Smith's characters are admirably drawn, her sense of scene acute and forceful . . . A very good novel, engaging and consistently interesting.”

Chicago Sun-Times

“Places Lee Smith among the best contemporary Southern writers . . . The novel's greatest strength is its ability to convey the variety and vitality of a single family history, with all its passion and strife, its moments of quiet triumph and unspeakable shame.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Family Linen
is entertaining, but behind the facade of slapstick is serious stuff. Whether you read it for the comedy or a special glimpse of family struggles, you'll find it a serendipitous read.”

The Kansas City Star

“For those readers who enjoy those outrageous eccentrics who inhabit the fictional South, Smith offers ripe entertainment.”


“A friendly book, easily read . . . The style is everyday, colloquial, distinctly American, casual. It is generally bent on humor, satirizing our lives, filled as they are with television adventures, daily murders, floods, plane crashes, fire, intrigue, and mayhem . . . Amusement is Lee Smith's style and her greatest gift. The scenes between women often sparkle.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Smith finds the perfect balance of suspense, motives, and clues for the meticulously plotted mystery at the core of this novel.”

Houston Chronicle

“Smith has given us an absorbing novel of family life—with all its intricate and linen-like interweavings. And she stands alone in her ability to capture in a sentence—often a mere phrase—the entire essence of a personality or situation.”

The Charlotte Observer

“Smith transmutes many of the elements of the Southern Gothic novel into farce, among them familial couplings and murder, feeble-minded cousins, loony aunts, and lowdown tarts . . . Do awful secrets lie behind Miss Elizabeth's lady-of-the-manor act? Could be. Unraveling the mystery, however, is secondary to the pleasures of Smith's wry comic vision.”


“Even the minor characters are palpable and visible entities in the vibrant family pageant. It will be the rare reader who fails to become involved in the fortune and future of this complex bunch and who fails to relax when the mystery of the murder is solved.”

Publishers Weekly

“Welcome to
Family Linen
, Lee Smith's hilarious new novel . . . A murder mystery that makes the reader laugh is rare indeed. In less capable hands, it might not work . . . Lee Smith knows just when to draw back, and just when to stop.”

Richmond News Leader

“It can make you laugh, and it can make you cry. At times it can make you uneasy with the truth. No reader can ask for more than that.”

Chattanooga Times
Free Press


The Devil's Dream

Fair and Tender Ladies

Oral History

Black Mountain Breakdown

News of the Spirit

Saving Grace

Family Linen


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

A Penguin Random House Company

Copyright © 1985 by Lee Smith.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-63928-3

The Library of Congress has cataloged the G. P. Putnam's Sons hardcover edition as follows:

Smith, Lee, 1944–.

Family linen / Lee Smith.

pages cm

ISBN 0-399-13080-2

1. Women—Southern States—Fiction. 2. Fathers—Death—Fiction.

3. Hypnotism—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3569.M5376 F3 1985




G. P. Putnam's Sons hardcover edition / September 1985

Ballantine mass-market edition / October 1986

Ballantine trade paperback edition / August 1996

Berkley trade paperback edition / February 2014

Cover design by Royce M. Becker.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.




Berkley Titles by Lee Smith

Title Page






Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18


About the Author

For Hal

For their help in providing ideas and information for this novel, I would like to thank Laura Horton, Elizabeth Brown Taylor, Godfrey Cheshire, Dino Read, Martha and Willie Mason, and Dr. William Joyner. I'd also like to thank Margaret Ketchum Powell, Nancy Tilly, and Jill McCorkle for editorial assistance; Peggy Ellis for her help in manuscript preparation; Constance Freeman for her invaluable advice and support during the writing of this novel; North Carolina State University for granting me a semester's leave from teaching; and Liz Darhansoff and Faith Sale for their important roles in making all this possible.

The past is a different country:

they do things differently there.

—L. P. H
The Go-Between

Sybill parks carefully at the curb in front of the hypnotist's house and stares at it for some time without getting out of the car, without even turning off the motor or the air conditioner. The hypnotist's white brick ranch house is not at all what she had in mind. She expected an office, with prints on the wall and a nurse. Maybe in a duplex, because of his business card, but still an
 . . . Sybill looks again at the hypnotist's card lying in the passenger seat beside her purse.



108 Mountainside Drive

Roanoke, Va. 24014

703-628-4366 By Appointment Only

Side Entrance for Consultations

After she called him up, the hypnotist sent her this card, with the time and date of her appointment penciled in at the bottom: 10:30 a.m., June 1, 1983. That's today—that's right now. Sybill doesn't know what ACSW means. Maybe he just made it up. He might be a con man. Diamond doesn't sound like a real last name, either. And you couldn't tell a thing from his voice, which could have been anybody's—a noncommittal noplace voice like a computer salesman, or somebody taking a poll, or an anchorman on TV. She and Betty got him out of the Yellow Pages, under “Hypnosis.”

The plastic daisy air-freshener swings back and forth from Sybill's rearview mirror while she looks at the hypnotist's house. The hypnotist has not been out yet to get his
Roanoke Times
, which lies in the middle of the brick walk that goes straight as a shot from the boxwood hedge by the curb to his gray front door. Gray-green, actually. That color's in, now: the Williamsburg look. It's all over
Southern Living
. In the hypnotist's picture window, Sybill sees a big green plant, gold draperies, a round candle-stand table with a pewter lamp on it. Sybill likes the lamp. Of course the hypnotist has got a wife, probably—why not? This idea makes Sybill feel worse, for some reason, instead of better. Then she sees the swing set in the side yard, beyond the rose garden. Children? Sybill has never liked children at all. But of course the children will be at school today, public school's not out until the twelfth . . . Sybill knows she's procrastinating, something she isn't prone to. But she would rather not go in. She would rather sit here in her new Nissan Maxima and study the hypnotist's yard and consider whether she, if she were the hypnotist's wife, would or would not have put the rose bed in the side yard instead of in front of the picture window, and whether she would have used so much ground cover by the walk which is beginning to shimmer, incidentally, in the heat, as is the swing set beyond, from this moist June heat or else from one of her headaches coming on. They often start with that shimmer, that special radiance just beyond the boundaries of vision. Unless they wake her up at night, another problem.

Sybill approves, finally, of the hypnotist's wife. All you have to do is look at her yard. Even if she has children, she keeps order. Sybill approves of order with all her heart. Finally she turns off the ignition and puts the key in her purse which says
on it in counted cross-stitch, and snaps the purse shut. A big pretty willow in the hypnotist's front yard is beginning to shine, she sees, beginning—almost—to twinkle.

Betty's nasal voice hoots softly in her ear: “Girl, you haven't
a choice! I'd say you're right at the end of your rope.” Sybill is out of the car now and walking up the hypnotist's walk, stepping smartly over his
Roanoke Times
. She's a good-looking woman, forty-seven although you'd never guess it to look at her, a woman somehow almost military in the way she carries herself, the way her pretty graying hair is cut and waved so short, the way her gold clip-on earrings match the stickpin in the lapel of her navy blazer, and the way her clear red lipstick is so precisely applied. An attractive, efficient woman—people have said she looks like Julie Andrews. Sybill's best friend Betty put her up to this hypnotist thing.

Of course Betty believes in aerobics and astrology also, dubious practices which she cited in urging Sybill to try the hypnotist. “There are things beyond our control I tell you, Sybill,” Betty said, squinting through her Salem smoke one morning last week in Sybill's dinette. “The fact is, a person can only go without sleep for so long unless becoming a zombie. The fact is, Dr. Rowland has as much as said he can't cure your headaches and said if he was you he'd go to a psychiatrist
muy pronto
, isn't that true?” Betty says things like
muy pronto
since she went on the Mexican tour. Sybill, sleepless and badgered, nodded.

But she didn't want to go, they both knew, to a psychiatrist. Sybill regarded her unconscious like she regarded her reproductive system, as a messy, murky darkness full of unexplained fluids and longings which she preferred not to know too much about. Except perhaps it
true, as Dr. Rowland apparently believed, that something down in there was out of whack . . . anyway, psychiatry was a real expense, and her Blue Cross from the technical school would only cover 60 percent of it. The hypnotist, Betty's idea, was a lot cheaper: twenty-five dollars per hour. Of course Sybill didn't know if Blue Cross would cover
, or not. But Betty swore a hypnotist could put you in a trance and ask you point blank what was the problem and you'd spit it right out, not have to go on and on for months spilling your guts at fifty bucks a shot. Plus Betty saw a lady hypnotist on the noon show one time who could cure just about anything, along with the videotapes of a woman who formerly stammered.

Sybill, walking, has reached the hypnotist's front door and has turned right, following the tidy brick walk around to the side of the house. Betty said that hypnosis, like astrology, is beyond the rational mind. Betty went on to say that if oysters are taken from the Atlantic Ocean and put into Lake Michigan, for instance, they will continue to open and close their shells in sequence with the tides in the Atlantic because the pull of the moon is so strong. Nobody understands it, Betty said, it's beyond the rational mind. Sybill stared hard at Betty, at Betty's close-set little eyes. “Betty,” Sybill said, “we are not an oyster,” and Betty blinked rapidly through the smoke and said, “No, of course not.” But Sybill called the hypnotist, after all.

And now she's here, rounding the corner of the ranch house at 108 Mountainside Drive, feeling like a zombie. Normally Sybill would appreciate, for instance, these roses. But today she hates the Peace rose, the way its colors run into each other. She hates that lavender rose with its petals shading to purple. Sybill likes a solid rose, red or yellow or white or pink, something definite. Up until now, she has been in control of every minute of her life.

Through a sliding glass door at the side of the house Sybill sees the hypnotist, his back to her, writing at his desk. His office looks like a study, like a professor's office, with bookshelves lining the walls, and wing chairs. Sybill feels the flush on her face as she knocks on the glass. Of course, it's so hot today, it's not a headache, they say there might be a heat inversion. The reflected rose bed shimmers in the sliding glass door, and right behind the reflection there's the hypnotist himself, unlatching the door and extending his hand, presenting himself on a wave of air conditioning.

And he's
A little bitty rumpled man who comes up to Sybill's earrings. A small fat untidy man who looks like he might be wearing his pajamas, only of course he's not. That's just his short-sleeved shirt, his droopy little slacks.

“Miss Hess?” he asks. “Dr. Diamond?” Sybill responds. The hypnotist smiles. “Call me Bob,” he says.
I won't
, Sybill thinks.
I will not
—he wears round eyeglasses with pink plastic rims; his tiny hand feels like foam rubber. Sybill shakes it vigorously. He ushers her inside and seats her somehow, without seeming to, in the wing chair facing his desk. The hypnotist picks up a clean pad of paper and a ballpoint pen, the same kind Sybill buys by the dozen at Roses to grade her papers.

“Miss Hess, why have you come to see me?” the hypnotist begins gently, almost idly.

Sybill stares out the door at his wife's rose garden, framed now by an iridescence she doesn't much like. She closes her eyes, then opens them and looks directly at the hypnotist.

“Well, Bob,” Sybill finally says, “I'm right at the end of my rope.”

* * *

Bob smiles, a nice little smile which stays mostly in his eyes. He is not one bit scary. He would never do something like put you in a trance and then tell you that after you wake up, you will bark like a dog whenever you see chocolate. Sybill has heard of that somewhere.

“I have these headaches,” she says.

“Tell me about them.” Bob fiddles around with his ballpoint pen. He seems patient, real slow, like he has all the time in the world. Speaking of which, Sybill doesn't even see a clock in his office. How will he know when the hour is up? Sybill glances down at her watch quickly so
know, so she can tell if he tries to short her on time.

“Your headaches,” Bob says.

Sybill takes a deep breath. She knows she has to tell it and tell it all, or else she'll be wasting her money. But instead she says, “This is so embarrassing.”

Bob looks up. “Why?” he asks, a curious note in his mild little voice.

—” Sybill doesn't believe he can't see this right off the bat. “Well, people don't just
have headaches
, or at least I don't. I mean I am not the kind of person who does something like this, surely you can understand that.”

Bob smiles. “Headaches are hardly voluntary,” he says.

“Listen here.” To her horror, Sybill finds herself chipping away at her nail polish, something she never does, but she doesn't seem able to stop. “I manage a condominium complex, twenty units. The Oaks.” Bob nods. “I teach at the Roanoke Technical Institute, business English, high school equivalency classes, basic skills. I'm the head of Language Arts.” Bob nods again. “I have twenty-six thousand two hundred dollars in my savings account and ten thousand dollars in my IRA.” Bob blinks. “I play bridge and rook, I go to the health club, if I gain a pound I go on the grapefruit diet right away—” The words just come tumbling out now, Sybill can't stop them, she knows she's not making sense. “I go to church, Betty and I go bowling, I've been on a cruise before. I keep up with current events.”

“You sound like a very capable woman,” Bob says. Behind him, in the corner, the air conditioner hisses gently into the room.

Now Sybill smiles. “I am,” she says.

“You live alone?” Bob asks. “In The Oaks?”

“Yes.” Sybill drums her nails softly on the arm of the wing chair, thinking of her lovely apartment, which she keeps just so. It's a source of great pleasure to her. Everything is off-white, with dark, dramatic accents. But Sybill's nails look funny and ragged, red and flesh. Suddenly, she remembers a time years ago when she spent the night with her sister Candy, a big mistake. She had to get up in the night and clean Candy's bathroom before she could go to sleep, it was so messy. But Sybill can't see any point in telling Bob about that. She takes a long breath.

“Everything was just fine,” she says. “And then suddenly, right after Christmas, I started having these headaches, and now they keep getting worse and worse. Sometimes they start in the daytime and I have to cancel my classes and go back home and go to bed. Other times I just
they're starting and I get so worried I can't do a thing. I thought I was getting one when I came in here, if you want to know, but I didn't. I just can't ever tell. I think about them all the time. Sometimes, and this is the worst part, they start at night and I wake up half dead with them and then of course there's no sleeping for the rest of the night after that. I'm getting so tired,” Sybill says.

“It must be terrible for you,” Bob says.

Sybill sinks back in her chair.
He's really very nice
, she thinks. He would never make you bark. Sybill tells Bob that the headaches are growing both more frequent and more severe, that she averages three or four a week now, and she worries about holding on to her job. She describes the headaches, how they start with her eyes, how objects and people begin to glow, to shimmer, before the light around them collects itself and strikes into her brain. “Just exactly like lightning,” she says. Bob sympathizes and says, “Migraine, of course,” which of course it is. She describes how the shooting pains start sometimes at her neck, other times at her forehead. Then the headache spreads out to cover her whole head, growing heavier, like an iron hat squeezing tighter and tighter. This is the point at which Sybill wakes up, if she has been sleeping. “Imagine waking up to that!” Sybill says.

BOOK: Family Linen
2.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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