Here is an excerpt from my third novel, At the Edge of the Sea. It’s an original work (not Austenesque) that takes place circa 1960. Billy Ray Davenport is staying for the summer in Orchard Hill, and working at the office of the local physician, Alvin Miller. Billy Ray has already had a run-in or two with Lizzy Quinlan, Orchard Hill’s town Magdalene. She confuses and flabbergasts him, but Lizzy’s company is infinitely more pleasant than that of Dr. Miller’s daughters – as shown in this scene from Chapter 5…
From the time I was a little boy, I always liked Westerns—movies, comic books, TV shows like Gunsmoke and Northwest Passage, and, of course, Western novels. Some of my friends thought they were boring and predictable, but to me, forging new territory in the untamed West seemed like an exciting adventure. Then again, I liked the familiar feel of the stories, comforting as an old blanket—mountains and prairies, cowboys and noble Indians, determined settler families and gunslingers. Everyone knew good from evil, and was clear on which side he stood. When my father saw me with another book in my hand or heard I was going to see a western movie, he’d just smile and shake his head.
“Those stories make the right thing seem crystal clear, but it isn’t always so easy to discern in real life, Billy Ray.”
And I’d just smile and say, “You’re right, Dad.” I knew that the real Old West wasn’t quite as exciting as the stories. After all, I’d been to college. I knew my American history. But my Westerns—those stories had rules: rules for how men behaved toward women and how women behaved toward men, rules that made it easier on all the townsfolk to get along and unite against the outlaws, and the bad guy always lost in the end. I found no better escape than a well-told cowboy story.
There was no TV in Doc’s office, of course, and no bookstore in Orchard Hill, and I was really missing my Westerns that summer. I could have spent my evenings in the Millers’ living room watching television, but I didn’t. I had grown tired of Marlene’s snide gossiping by the close of the first evening after Dad left town, and by Thursday of that week, I’d had it with her.
By that time, I had already learned to claim the wingback chair to the side. The sofa had the best vantage point for watching TV, but when I sat there, Marlene couldn’t resist all that open chenille-covered space beside me.
Thursday was Zane Grey Theater night, and it was an anthology series, not one continuous story like Gunsmoke, so you had to pay attention to know what was happening. As the opening credits faded from the screen, and I got ready to lose myself in the story, Marlene started in over and above the sounds of gunfire on the show.
“Who’s that girl on TV?”
“Diane something-or-other,” Louise replied. “I think she’s pretty.”
“I don’t like the look of her. She reminds me of that Sheila Robinson down at the dress shop. You know who I’m talking about, Louise. The girl who acts like she’s better than everyone else because her mother was a Thompson, of the Bedford Thompsons.”
Marlene looked at me expectantly. I suppose she was waiting for me to ask about the Thompsons from Bedford, but I couldn’t care less, so I ignored her and leaned toward the TV set.
“She might be related to the Thompsons, and her uncle might be a state senator, but that sure doesn’t make her the envy of every girl in Orchard Hill. Her teeth are crooked, and she has a face like a donkey’s.”
Mrs. Miller glanced at me. “That isn’t kind, Marlene.”
“But it’s true.”
Her mother pursed her lips and let out a little sigh of frustration as she jabbed her needle into the fabric she had stretched tight across some kind of round frame. Her face looked as tight as that fabric, but she made no reply.
Marlene scooted over until she was sitting at the corner closest to my chair. She leaned over the sofa arm and twirled her ponytail around one finger. “Besides, if the Robinsons are so important, what are they doing here in Orchard Hill anyway?” She sat back. “I certainly wouldn’t live in this tired old place if I could live over in Richmond or London, would you, Billy Ray?”
For me, not wanting to live in Orchard Hill had more to do with Marlene being there than anything else, but of course, I couldn’t say that in her mother’s living room after I’d just eaten from her table.
“Once I’m through school, I’ll have to move anyway. I probably won’t have much choice in the matter.” I turned back to the TV set.
After a couple of minutes of blissful silence, she tried to engage me in conversation again.
“And look at that actress’s hair! My goodness, what a mess! Reminds me of the way that Lizzy Quinlan looked on Sunday—all wild and sticking out all over.”
I felt an involuntary jolt at the name. Casting a quick look at Marlene, I saw her watching me closely.
“But then again, there probably isn’t a comb in the whole Quinlan household.”
I still said nothing.
“Or maybe she was still disheveled from a tumble with some fella in the churchyard.”
Louise snickered, and Mrs. Miller implored, “Marlene, please!” She laid her needlework to the side and stood up, desperate to provide a distraction. “Billy Ray, would you like a scoop of ice cream?”
“No, thank you, ma’am. I’m still full from dinner.”
“I’ll have some,” Louise piped up.
“None for me,” Marlene replied without looking toward her mother.
Mrs. Miller looked between the three of us and went into the kitchen.
Marlene leaned toward me and lowered her voice so her sister couldn’t hear her. “You sure disappeared fast after church on Sunday. Did Lizzy Quinlan haul you off behind a bush too?”
I stood up.
“Oh, sit down, Billy Ray. Don’t get all in a huff; I was only teasing.” Her smile was bright, but it had a cruel undertone to it.
“I’m going to bed. I’ve gotta work early in the morning, and I’ve missed the first part of the TV show anyway.”
“Suit yourself then. Good night. Sleep tight.” Marlene leaned back against the sofa. She looked confused, and if I read her right, a little miserable too. Then a smug smile crossed her face. “Think about me.”
Mrs. Miller was standing at the doorway with Louise’s ice cream in her hand. Her eyes widened at Marlene’s remark, but she didn’t respond to it.
“Turning in so early, Billy Ray?” she managed to say over her embarrassment.
“Yes, ma’am. Big day tomorrow. Thank you for dinner.”
“You’re welcome, of course.”
As I left the house, I could hear the strained voices filled with family strife as Mrs. Miller scolded her daughter. I couldn’t make out the words, but then again, I didn’t try very hard.
I was still trying to clear my head of the image of Lizzy Quinlan hauling me behind a bush.