Twelve-year-old Chili Sue Mahoney has never been outside of her small Appalachian town. Momma says Mercy Hill, Kentucky, is her “true home,” but Chili longs to see the world—to have the freedom to leave and to explore.
So when Miss Matlock is brought in as the 7th grade substitute teacher, Chili and her classmate Willie Bright are thrilled. Everyone knows Miss Matlock has traveled around the globe. Why she’s come back to her childhood home after all this time is a mystery, but Chili and Willie are eager to befriend her despite the rumors. As the three spend time together, Chili learns about the jungles and deserts and cities of the world. But she also discovers that there’s more to Mercy Hill than she thought: beauty, in the people and places she’s known all her life, and secrets, sometimes where they’re least expected.
Told in vignettes and set in 1970s Appalachia, To Come and Go Like Magic is a heartwarming and hopeful debut novel about family, friendship, and the meaning of home.
An Excerpt fromTo Come and Go Like Magic
And the stars keep on moving--
no one can tie them to one place.
--Charles Wright, Appalachia
*Leaving . . .
Momma's ironing on the sunporch when I break the news.
"Someday I'll leave this place," I say. The glider creaks when I give it a push.
"Where you going?" She looks at me with about as much concern as if I'd told her I was going to Brock's store for a Coke.
"Not sure," I say, putting my eyes on my painted toenails. Aunt Rose spent the weekend with us and polished my nails Hot Geranium to match hers. I imagine these red toes walking down some wide tree-lined boulevard in a faraway city. The where is not important. I've never been anyplace but here. How can I have a where?
"People don't leave Mercy Hill," Momma says, laughing her you don't know what you're talking about laugh as she swipes the iron across Pop's white shirt, giving it a lick and a promise.
She shakes her head. "Grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence," she says, sliding the hot iron carefully around each button.
"I don't care," I say. "I want to see what it looks like, see if it feels the same and smells the same someplace else." I'm thinking fresh smells, like perfume and new-car vinyl and strange food scents in a city full of fancy restaurants. Not like here. Not like Mercy Hill's coal smoke and sawdust and fields of cow manure fertilizing the corn. Momma's eyebrows arch the way they do when she's trying to fill in spaces with her black Maybelline pencil. "Grass is grass," she says. "One side of the fence is as green as the other."
Momma does not understand that the color of grass has nothing to do with it, that all the fences in the world separating here from there have nothing to do with it. Leaving is all that matters.
Outside these plastic porch windows the winter sun is white-hot and the bare maples and elms shudder in the slapping wind. Dried-up honeysuckle vines twist and dip along the fence top, barely hanging on to life. In the spring Pop will take off the scratched-up plastic windows and slip in screens, but today the backyard is a blur. It's like looking through water or into a dream world from some other place and time.
*Then and Now . . .
A year ago life was hunky-dory, as my aunt Rose says. A year ago we were the right size for this house. Momma; Pop; my brother, Jack; and me. Three bedrooms, two porches, and a dusty attic full of junk. A year ago my sister, Myra, was married to Jerry Wilson and lived in Jellico Springs. Uncle Lucius lived on Sycamore Street with his young redheaded wife, Gretchen. A floozie from way back is the way Pop describes her. With Uncle Lu going on seventy and her not even fifty, Momma says things were bound to happen the way they did.
The whole world can change in a year.
One morning Uncle Lucius woke up and found Gretchen gone. She'd run off with a traveling vacuum-cleaner salesman named Vernon Wright. Uncle Lu still laughs sometimes and says, I guess I was Mister Wrong. Then he goes out back under the sour-cherry tree and throws up.
Uncle Lu didn't want to sleep at his own house anymore, so Pop and Jack set up an old, wobbly bed frame in our attic, and Momma bought a cardboard chest of drawers at the Kmart in Jellico Springs and put yellow curtains on the tiny window. From that attic window, with Jack's binoculars, I used to watch redbirds sitting in the bare winter trees along the riverbank. Now the attic's off-limits. My uncle has to have his private space to moan and stomp and talk to himself, shaking my ceiling so much the overhead light fixture jiggles with last summer's dead bugs in it.
If the changes had stopped with Uncle Lucius, maybe it wouldn't have been so bad. But next came what Jack calls the aftershock. My sister, Myra, showed up at the front door with a suitcase, saying Jerry Wilson had run off, too, and she had a baby on the way. All this news, the good and the bad, spilled out in one long breath. Myra couldn't bear to sleep alone in her house either, so she moved in with me. Now she and her round belly with the baby-to-be take up most of the double bed, and every night I hang on to the edge, afraid to move. If I kick in my sleep and hurt the baby, it could end up loony or something.
Pop says everything will work out in its own time, but he spends his own time working at the hardware store away from it all. Three days a week Momma sells dresses at Donna's Dress Shop, and Jack practically lives at the ball fields--football, baseball, track. Any field will do. Meanwhile, I get to listen to Myra cry and my uncle curse the dogs. Our two dogs, Old Tate and Foxy Lady, live in a chain-link pen with identical white doghouses. Uncle Lu says those dogs are better off than he is.