My novel, THE SECRET TO FLYING, has been published by TigerEye Publications, http://www.tigereyepubs.com/. Told from the perspective of an adolescent girl named Donita Tosh, THE SECRET TO FLYING explores the intricacies of the mother-daughter bond.
For Donita, growing up poor in a small Arkansas town during the 1980s is bad enough, but having a mother with a scandalous reputation makes her life practically unbearable. Donita’s mother has always told her the secret to overcoming obstacles is to release everything that weighs her down. Yet her mother’s association with a succession of unscrupulous men is a weight Donita can’t quite shake. When her mother refuses to divulge the whereabouts of Donita’s father, Donita begins to believe the malicious gossip circulating about her mother. Once Donita learns the truth about her father, she is stunned by her mother’s resilience in the face of crushing adversity.
An excerpt from THE SECRET TO FLYING*
When I was a little girl, I thought of my mother as a beautiful bird with clipped wings. I wasn’t beautiful like she was, but I was determined to learn how to fly. She used to take me for flying lessons on a stretch of sand that ran along the Little Red River. She’d lie back with her knees pulled toward her chest and arch her ankles. I’d position my bottom on the soles of her feet and prepare myself for flight.
“Close your eyes, Donita,” she’d say, her voice as soothing as river water rolling downstream. “And release everything that weighs you down.”
Flying like that was something Mom’s daddy had taught her. Mom said she was ten when he died, and she told me her mother had been killed in a house fire right before I was born. She never mentioned any other family, and she said almost nothing about my daddy. I thought about him a lot, but I was afraid to ask too many questions.
Closing my eyes, I’d imagine my worst enemies, Kathy Houston and Jimmy Shell, moving to the South Pole together on the same day. I’d imagine our boxy white house with its flat-roofed carport becoming a two-story brick mansion with columns out front and a fenced-in backyard where I would have a swing set and a swimming pool. Most of all, I’d imagine flying far away from Kennerly, Arkansas where Mom and I lived and landing wherever my daddy was. Sometimes, I’d fly out west where he had a ranch. We’d ride horses all day and come home at night dog-tired and eat supper in a big house. Other times, I’d fly to New York City where my daddy was a businessman with pockets full of money he couldn’t wait to share with Mom and me. Always, I’d fly into his open arms and he’d be bowled over by how pretty and smart I was.
I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when I wished harder to fly away from Kennerly and find my daddy than during the summer of 1982. Heat warnings were out for the whole state of Arkansas, and every few minutes the television beeped and a string of words flashed across the bottom of the screen warning people to stay inside unless they just had to go out. The heat lasted for days. Every morning when Mom left to go to her job at the Ringgold Chicken Processing Plant, she gave me strict orders not to go outside the house and not to let anyone except our neighbor, Mrs. Greer, in. I couldn’t believe anyone in Kennerly would want to hurt me, or even pay much attention to me for that matter.
It got so hot one Wednesday I barely moved off the couch all day. By that afternoon, I felt like I was going to smother to death. I kept on looking at my watch and wondering if Mom would get home in time to take me by the library so I could get some more books. I had already read all the books I’d checked out on Saturday morning, some of them twice. I found an old sheet in the closet, spread it out over the couch, and turned the air conditioner up as high as it would go, thinking I could turn it back on low a little bit before time for Mom to get home. I’d just settled down to read Summer of the Swans for the third time when I heard the press of tires grinding against the gravel in our driveway. Our living room curtains were so thin I didn’t even have to pull them back to see the Pepsi truck rolling to a stop. By the time I got the front door opened, Mom’s new boyfriend, Nick, was getting out of the truck. I stood just inside the screen door and watched him tuck the tail of his shirt over his belly and inside his pants. He pulled a carton of Mountain Dew off the seat, shut the door, and began walking toward the house. The grass in our yard was so dry it crunched underneath the soles of his heavy work boots.
As soon as he saw me standing at the door, he shot me a fat-jawed grin and said, “Hey there, Donita.”
“Hey, Nick. What are you doing here in the middle of the afternoon? Mom’s still at work.”
Nick stood so close to the screen I could smell his BO mixed in with the smell of his chewing tobacco. He took off his cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Yeah,” he said. “I know. I just talked to her a few minutes ago while I was filling up the machines down at the plant. She wanted me to come by here and check on you.” He turned his head and spit in the direction of Mom’s flowerbed. When he turned back around, he had a little drop of tobacco juice hung up in the prickly hairs of his beard, and he was sweating so bad it looked like tears were rolling down his face. “Well, ain’t you going to ask me to come in?” he said, smiling and holding out the carton of Mountain Dew. “I brought you something.”
I fingered a wire thread where the screen had come loose from the doorframe. “Mom told me not to let anyone in the house unless she’s home.”
“Well she’s the one that sent me over here. Said I ought to look in on you, make sure you’re staying in and not getting too hot.”
I shrugged. “I’m okay.”
Nick slapped at a fly that was buzzing around his neck and leaned toward me. “Plus, she told me her washer’s been acting up and she wanted me to check it out while I’m over here. She thought I might be able to fix it, so she’s not out a bunch of money calling the repairman.”
I did remember Mom saying something about calling Sears to get somebody out to work on her washer, so I opened the door and let Nick in.
“The washer’s back this way, Nick,” I said, turning to walk toward the back of the house.
Nick caught hold of my wrist. “I’ll look at it in a minute,” he said, closing the door behind him and clicking the deadbolt in place. “Let’s just sit down a while, and you can tell me what you’ve been up to. We’ll have us one of these here Mountain Dews while we talk.”
* Portions of this excerpt were published in the Autumn 2008 volume of THEMA
Praise for THE SECRET TO FLYING
Out of the endless well of Southern story-telling comes a distinctive tale that starts with a keen sense of narrative and deep insight into human relations, and just keeps going.
– Alan Cheuse, book commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and author of Song of Slaves in the Desert
Teresa Burns Murphy has a genius for the surprises and wonders of the inner world. She gives us a story of humor, compassion and optimism for mothers and daughters. I couldn’t stop reading, and when the book was over I couldn’t stop wondering about the characters, what they were doing and what would become of them.
– Margaret Bishop, editor of Single Scene Short Stories
Part Harper Lee, part David Lynch, author Teresa Burns Murphy juggles a full menu of toxic bells and whistles—shotguns, rape, extortion and more—in her debut novel. Teenage Donita navigates the slaloms of adolescence in small town Arkansas circa 1982. She rattles the bars of her caged life trying to escape while struggling to solve the puzzle that is her mother, find the father she never knew, and come to grips with a tangled web of imperfect love. Donita suffers a few close calls before discovering that forgiveness, more than understanding, is what the heart craves most. Murphy takes us along for the ride and brings us back high on adrenaline and very much alive.
–Richard Peabody, editor of Gargoyle Magazine
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I read from THE SECRET TO FLYING at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland on Sunday, March 18, 2012.
I wrote an essay about writing THE SECRET TO FLYING for Brinda Berry’s Blog.