By the time Gib Cameron found us, my sister and I were failed southern belles who could no longer count on the kindness of strangers. We lived like gypsies. Home was a forgotten memory. Like lost birds, we had migrated to a cold climate. Our distant connection to Gib and his family was all we had left of an innocent and proud past.
"Pride and self-respect are earned, not given by birth," Pop always told us when we were growing up amid the gothic gentility of New Orleans. "Nothing else matters." He had had more pride beaten into him than any man deserved, and it nearly destroyed us.
Ella had developed a chronic case of what would have been called the fancies in more polite eras, and I was well on my way to becoming what would have been deemed a pinched-heart hellion. In more polite eras, of course.
Purists might insist my sister and I were never southern belles to begin with. Pedigree alone should have disqualified us. Our steel-magnolia family tree included one Japanese grandmother and one grandmother of Swedish extraction, who was a truck-stop floozy. Our father was a California-bred Italian-Asian American, not to mention a Communist. He spent his childhood in a California internment camp during World War II. His Japanese mother--my grandmother Akiko--died there, and Pop swore he'd hate the United States government for the rest of his life.
So maybe my sister and I were doomed from the start.
When I was a child my piano tutors told stories about the Phantom Alligator Lady of Bayou Caveaux. Rumor had it she was a failed concert pianist, though when I was a little girl none of my tutors would admit she existed except in self-serving piano-tutor mythology.
They claimed folks glimpsed her around one of the concrete-walled, rusty-roofed little houses off a swampy back road a few miles outside New Orleans. She had doomed her career, her youth, her very soul because she let worldly distractions steal her art. Thus she turned into a crazy, bitter old failure who lured children into her home and forced them to play an untuned upright until they died, mind you--and then she carried their bodies outside and fed them to her alligators. I guess you could say she was the ultimate music critic.
I not only believed in the Alligator Lady, I carried the fear of her into adulthood. I heard her whispering encouragement in the back of my mind like a ten-cent harmonica gone sharp.
I pictured myself growing old and mean, peering spitefully out my windows at strangers while I eked out a living, teaching piano lessons to nose-picking ten-year-olds who deserved no better audience than my asthmatic pet toy poodle--which I would name Dog, or Poodle, because my mind would be gone by then. And while my students practiced I'd drink iced tea mixed with gin as I apathetically watched the poodle hoist his tiny hind leg and pee on dusty scrapbooks filled with clippings that proved I'd been a child piano prodigy, once upon a time.
And those clippings might have been all that was worth telling about Venus Arinelli. Or about any Arinelli, I guess. We were culturally jumbled but southern clear through by the grace of a god who obviously knows where odd people will best fit in. Yet everyone is made up of parts and pieces of their family's music. The saddest thing is to forget where our songs end and our parents' begin, because each of us plays the next note for them.
Before Gib Cameron found me, I was sinking into silence.
Excerpted from When Venus Fell by Deborah Smith. Copyright © 1998 by Deborah Smith. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.