<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>Bob, a Dog</b> <p> <p> It was early May, two days after his thirty-ninth birthday, when David left her forever. "Forever" - that's what he said. He stood in the downstairs hallway turning an old brown hat around and around in his hands. Cheryl had never seen the hat before. She stood on the stairs above him, coming down, carrying towels. David said he needed a different life. Behind him, the door was wide open. It was sunny and windy outside. She had made him a carrot cake for his birthday, she was thinking - now what would she do with the rest? Nobody liked carrot cake except David and Angela, who was dieting. Angela was always dieting. David continued to talk in his calm, clipped way, but it was hard to hear what he said. He sounded like background noise, like somebody on the TV that Cheryl's mother kept going all the time in the TV room now since she had retired from her job at the liquor store. David wore cutoff jeans and an old plaid shirt he'd had ever since she'd met him, nearly twenty years before. She must have washed that shirt a hundred times. Two hundred times. His knees were thin and square. He was losing his hair. At his back, the yard was a blaze of sun. <p> Cheryl could remember the first time she ever saw him like it was yesterday, David standing so stiff and straight in the next-to-back pew of the Methodist church, wearing a navy blue suit, and everybody whispering about him and wondering who he was, him so prim and neat it never occurred to any of them he might be from the Peace Corps, which he was. He didn't look like a northern hippie at all. He was real neat. Cheryl and her sister Lisa and her brother Tom were sitting right behind him, and after a while of looking at the careful part in his hair and his shoulder blades like wings beneath his navy suit, Cheryl leaned forward and gave him her program so he would know what was going on. He acted like somebody who had never been in a church before, which turned out to be almost true, while Cheryl's own family was there of course every time they cracked the door. <p> But oh, it seemed like yesterday! He was dignified. And he sat so straight. He might have been a statue in a navy blue suit, a figurine like all those in Mamaw's collection. Cheryl had sucked in her breath and bitten her lip and thought, before she fell head over heels in love right then, that she ought to be careful. Because she had always been the kind of big, bouncy girl who jumps right in and breaks things without ever meaning to, a generous, sweet, well-meaning girl who was the apple of everybody's eye. <p> Cheryl handed him the program, and touched his hand too long. After the recessional she took him into the fellowship hall for a cup of Kool-Aid and wrote her telephone number down on a paper napkin before he even asked for it. "He's just my type," she said to her mother, Netta, later. "Ha!" Netta said. Netta thought he looked nervous. But Cheryl liked that about him, because everybody else she knew was exactly like their parents were, exactly like everyone else. David was older, a college graduate. Cheryl, who had finished high school two years before, was working then at Fabric World. She thought David was like a young man in a book, or a movie. Whatever he said seemed important, as if it had been written down and he was reading it aloud. <p> Later, when she got to know him, she'd go to the room that he rented over Mrs. Bailey's garage and lie with him on the mattress on the floor, where he slept - the mattress pulled over to the window where you could look right out on Thompson's Esso and the back road and the river winding by - and sometimes afterward she'd open her eyes to find him looking out this window, over the river, and she couldn't tell what he was thinking. She never knew what he thought. Then, Cheryl found this romantic. <p> But probably she should have gotten herself a big old man who could stand up to things, not that she didn't have offers. Look at Jerry Jarvis, who had always loved her, or Kenny Purdue, who she was dating at the time. When she told Kenny she didn't want to go out with him anymore because she was in love with David Stone from Baltimore, Maryland, Kenny went out and cried and rolled in the snow. That's what his mother told Netta on the telephone: she said Kenny rolled in the snow. But David Stone had a kind of reserve about him, a sort of hollow in him, which just drove Cheryl wild. It was like she was always trying to make up to him for something, to make something be okay, or go away, but she never knew what it was. <p> David came from a small, quiet family, one sister and a shy divorced mother with her hair in a little gray bun on the top of her head, and a father who was not mentioned. At the time she met David, Cheryl didn't know anybody who was divorced. Now everybody was. Including her, it looked like. With David leaving forever, Cheryl would be divorced too. Should she put up her hair in a bun? Cheryl would be a divorce. Like her sister Lisa, like her best friend, Marie, like everyone on television. <p> This seemed totally crazy with all the towels she held in her arms, with how fresh and sweet they smelled. With the bedrooms upstairs behind her so full of all the children, of their shared life. Now Netta would say, "I told you so." She'd swear up and down that she wasn't a bit surprised. And even Cheryl knew - had known when she married him - that David wasn't exactly a family man. She'd had four children knowing it, thinking that he would change. Because she loved him, and love conquers all. You can't decide who you're going to love. <p> And even though David didn't really believe in God and made fun of their cousin, Purcell, an evangelist, and taught at the community college all these years instead of getting a real job, and refused to help Louis make a car out of wood that time for the Pinewood Derby in Cub Scouts, even so, there were other things - good things - as well. He liked to cook, he read books to her out loud, he'd been the one who got up with the babies in the night. It was weird to find these traits in a man, although they were more common now since women's lib than they had been when David and Cheryl got married, all those years ago. <p> Cheryl looked down the stairs at David, memorizing him. <p> "Please don't blame yourself," he said formally. "I feel terrible about doing this." <p> "Oh, that's okay," Cheryl said without thinking, because she had gone for so long pleasing men. <p> David started to say something else, and didn't. He turned sharp on his heel like a soldier and plunged out into the shiny day, right through Louis and his friends playing catch in the yard, and got in the Toyota and drove away. Cheryl stood in the doorway and watched him go and couldn't imagine a different life. She wondered if David would wear the hat. <p> <p> Netta did not say "I told you so." Instead she cried and cried, sitting in her pink robe on the sofa in the TV room surrounded by blue clouds of Tareyton smoke. You would have thought that David Stone had left <i>her</i>, instead of her daughter Cheryl. But Netta, now sixty-two, had always been a dramatic woman. When her own husband, Cheryl's father, George, died suddenly of a heart attack at forty-nine, Netta had almost died too. She referred to that time now as "when George was tragically taken from us," but the truth was, it <i>was</i> tragic. Cheryl's father had been a kindly, jovial man, a hard worker. <p> Not like David Stone, who was, as Cheryl's friend Marie put it, an enigma. Marie came over a lot after David left, to help Cheryl cope. Marie was divorced too. She went to group therapy. "He was just an enigma," she said. That seemed to settle it as far as Marie was concerned, only of course it didn't. <p> For one thing, although David had left forever, he didn't go very far, just about four miles out the Greensboro highway, where he rented an apartment in the Swiss Chalet Apartments, which looked like a row of gingerbread houses. At first the kids liked going over there, especially because of the pool, but then they didn't because their daddy wouldn't get a TV or buy soft drinks or meat. According to Angela, he said he was going to simplify his life. <p> "Isn't it a little bit <i>late</i> for that?" Lisa asked when she heard this news. Lisa, who ran the La Coiffure salon in the mall, had had one so-so marriage and one big disaster and always took a dim view of men anyway. She disagreed with Marie and felt that David was an asshole instead of an enigma. <p> Cheryl sat among these women - Lisa, Marie, and Netta - in her own velvet armchair in her own TV room, feeling like she wasn't even there. What Angela said about David simplifying his life reminded Cheryl of the old days, the really old days, when she lay with him on that mattress pulled over to the window in the room over Mrs. Bailey's garage, when the sun fell through the uncurtained windows in long yellow blocks of light, warming their bodies. She remembered the way the leaves looked, yellow and red and gold, floating on the river that October. David had loved her so much then. Whatever weird stuff he might be saying or doing now, David had loved her then. <p> "Good riddance, I say," said Netta, lighting up. David had made no bones about how much he hated cigarettes. If they hadn't been living in Netta's own house, he'd have made her go out in the yard to smoke. <p> "It might just be the male menopause," Marie offered. Marie was thin and pretty, with long pale legs and a brand-new perm, which Lisa had just given her. Marie and Cheryl had been best friends since grade school. "He might turn right around and try to come back," said Marie. <p> "Ha!" said Netta. "Never!" <p> But Cheryl seized on this, thinking, <i>He might come back</i>. <p> Marie's other insight, seconded by their cousin Purcell, was that David's sister's dying of cancer so recently had a lot to do with this whole thing. Louise had died that January, before he left. She was forty-seven, a sweet shadowy English teacher who had never married. She was so shy. Yet it was surprising how many people had showed up at her funeral, ex-students, friends, people from their neighborhood in Baltimore. Cheryl, who never could find much to say to Louise, had been amazed. Louise had lived with David's mother, and now David's mother lived alone. David used to call them up every Sunday night. Now he probably called his mother. Cheryl bit her lip. David leaving was like him dying, was exactly like a death. <p> The first week, for instance, everybody in the neighborhood brought food. Mrs. Tindall brought her famous homemade vegetable soup, and Mr. and Mrs. Wright, across the street, sent a twenty-six-dollar platter of cold cuts from the Piggly Wiggly, where he was the manager. Helen Brown brought chicken and biscuits, Betsy Curry brought enough chili to feed a crowd. Other people brought other things. Then Johnnie Sue Elderberry came in bringing a carrot cake, and Cheryl sat right down on the floor and burst into tears. <p> "Mama, <i>get up</i>," Angela said. Since her daddy left, Angela had gone off her diet and started smoking, and nobody had the heart to tell her to quit. Angela was sixteen. <p> "Sometimes God provides us with these hidden opportunities for growth and change," remarked Mr. Dodson Black, their minister. But Purcell, their cousin the evangelist, disagreed. "I'd like to get ahold of him," Purcell said. "I'd like to wring his neck." Purcell was a big blond man with a bright green tie. Lisa and Marie were putting all the extra food they couldn't eat right then into white plastic containers and freezing it. They put labels on the tops of the containers. Finally Cheryl got up from the floor. "Don't make any big decisions for the first year," warned their cousin Inez Pate, who had come on the bus from Raleigh to see how they were holding up. "Try some of this meat loaf," said Marie. "You've got to keep up your strength." <p> But Cheryl couldn't eat a thing. She was losing weight fast. She was wearing some nice gray pants that hadn't fit her for the last two years. She pushed the meat loaf away and said something to Marie and something to Purcell and went out the back door, under the porch light which wasn't working because Louis had shot it out with his BB gun. He was shooting everything these days. Cheryl couldn't keep up with him. "It's <i>okay</i>. He's expressing his <i>anger</i>," Marie had said. But Cheryl wouldn't have a light fixture or a breakable thing left in the whole house, at this rate. <p> She sighed and wiped her forehead. It was hot. Every summer, her whole family had rented the same beach house out from Morehead City for two weeks. This year what would they do? <i>What would they ever do?</i> It was almost dark. Shadows crept up from the base of the trees, from the hedge, from the snowball bush, from the nandina alongside the house. Cheryl had grown up in this very house, she'd played in this backyard. Her daddy used to bring her packing boxes from the store and help her cut windows and doors in them for playhouses. <p> Cheryl walked out in the yard and stood by the clothesline, looking back at the house which was black now against the paling sky, all its windows lighted, for all the world like one of those packing-box playhouses that she hadn't thought about in years. It was <i>her</i> family, <i>her</i> house, she had opened all these doors and windows for David, had given it all to him like a present. It was crazy that he had left. <i>He'll come back</i>, she thought. <p> But in the meantime she was going to have to go back to work, because even though David had simplified his life so much and even though Netta had a pension and they got some money all along from the rent of Daddy's coal land, anyway, things were getting tight all around. Luckily Johnnie Sue was pregnant again, so Cheryl could fill in for her over at Fabric World while she thought about her options. One thing she was considering was starting up her own slipcover business. Slipcovers had come back in style, slipcovers were big now. Cheryl wished her mother would go out and get a job too. Her mother was driving Angela crazy. "Don't make any big decisions," Inez Pate had said. Poor Inez was aging so fast, she put a blue rinse on her hair now, it looked just awful. Cheryl held on to the clothesline and wept. But she didn't have to make any real big decisions, because of course he'd come back. It was just the male menopause, he'd come back. How could a man leave so many children? <p> And Cheryl thought of them now, of Angela too grown up for her age, too big breasted and smart mouth, smoking, suddenly too much like Lisa; of Louis, who'd always been edgy, getting in fights at school; of Mary Duke, only six, and whiny, who didn't really understand; and of Sandy, who was most like his father, so sober and quiet his nickname had always been too sporty for him. <p> Right after David left, Sandy had run away for four or five hours, and when Purcell finally found him down by the river he said he was sorry he was so bad, he knew his daddy had left because he was so bad. Purcell had brought him home in the rain coughing, and Sandy was still coughing, although Dr. Banks couldn't find any reason for it. Dr. Banks said the cough was just nerves. <p> Suddenly Cheryl heard a funny, scraping noise. And speaking of Sandy, here he came up the driveway, dragging a box along the gravel, walking backward, coming slow. <p> "Mama?" he said. <p> Then suddenly Cheryl felt like she hadn't actually seen Sandy, or any of her other children, for years and years, even though they had been right here. She had been too wrought up to pay them any mind. "What are you doing, honey?" she said. <p> Sandy pulled the box more easily across the grass and stopped when he reached her. "Lookie here," he said, leaning over, reaching down. Netta opened the back door just then and hollered, "Cheryl?" Cheryl looked down in the darkness, down in the box. Sandy coughed. His hair caught the light for a minute, a blur of gold. Netta slammed the door. Sandy straightened up with something in his arms that made a sniffling, slurping noise. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger</b> by <b>LEE SMITH</b> Copyright © 2010 by Lee Smith. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.