Mother: What’s this novel about?

Me: Family secrets and lies.

Mother: So it’s an autobiography?

Me: Aren’t they all?

All Lizzie remembered was sliding into the sticky seat of the taxi, the brush of liquored lips on her own laquerless ones, a kind word being delivered in a Bronx accent and the humiliation — the horror — of being thought a hooker by the hotel detective as she clomped across the echoing, pre-dawn lobby floor. As she focused her eyes on the trail of black-heeled leather boots, fur-collared camel coat and cashmere dress that led to unfamiliar bed all she could think was, “At least I looked like an expensive one.”

Still the guilty memory of too many airplane Scotches and a shared taxi with a stranger dressed her for the new day. She had no meetings, no pressing engagements. Yet she slipped on her charcoal pantsuit, black turtleneck, Ferragamo flats filched from her mother’s closet back in North Carolina and gave her chestnut locks a quick sweep into a ponytail. She palmed her grandmother’s screw-on pearl earrings and shouldered her oversized bag as she headed toward the door. Had she peeked out of the red-eye business traveler’s blackout curtains or remembered her watch, she might have realized that the hour was 7 p.m. and her corporate costume and morning coffee breath might seem even more suspicious in the twilight of cocktail hour. But she didn’t care. It was New York in December and the nocturnal madness of a city consumed with consumption was the perfect camouflage for her mission.

And Lizzie McAllister was a woman on a mission. At 26, she was a fully-loaded magazine of good looks, athletic ability, sexual curiosity, brimming brains and honest-to-Texas Pete humanity. Forget your daughters — lock up your sons. Especially if your son was Willie Armisted, the son of your mainline Philadelphia grandmother’s maid.

Lizzie hadn’t seen Willie nor his cousins since her childhood — Down East summers of doing nothing but sneaking out to old man Smith’s airstrip to play fighter pilot in wingless, abandoned planes. Those days were packed away in the steamer trunks of Lizzie’s memory long ago and shipped off to Sweetwater Hall.

But, oh, what memories those were. Barefoot months of doing nothing but fishing with bamboo poles baited with Jimmy Dean Sausage. Ice-cold Cheerwine to squelch the cottonmouth from stolen cigarettes.

Willie’s uncle owned a juke-joint called the Sans Souci, just down the road from the McAllister family’s decaying manse. That was where Lizzie and Willie would sidle up to the bar, order two tall cans and receive two Cokes, and proceed to wow the crowd with their take on the music that they were just beginning to absorb. It was real blues, R&B — not that fabricated beach music that she heard at the boat club with her parents. There was no “Carolina Girls” or “I Love Beach Music” on the juke at the S&S — it was Bobby “Blue” Bland, the occasional Miles, Coltrane, sometimes Aretha. Etta James was Marcie’s personal favorite and she often belted “Stop the Wedding” en route to the many country nuptials she was forced to attend via RV in the boonies of Zebulon County.

The only thing Marcie was partial to at these command performances was what was coming out of the kitchen. Not the kitchen that prepared the bland tomato aspic, trays of buttermints and miniature ham biscuits for the wedding guests, but the food the servers prepared for themselves during these two- to three-day events. She wouldn’t know what it was called until years later, but the soul food she secreted was the tastebud equivalent of the music on the juke platter of the S&S — the same food that her childhood friend Willie had parlayed from the desolate landscape of Eastern North Carolina into the mouths of hip New Yorkers looking for the next new thing. Yep, Willie had cashed in on his mother Della’s proximity to the furniture barony of the Bass family and joined the CIA. At least that was the family joke when Willie took off for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, courtesy of Georgina Bass’s checkbook.

Georgina’s signature on similar checks was what had secured Lizzie’s own tenure at Sweetwater Hall and later Vassar, where the once mediocre student studied history with a vengeance. A pursuit both the Bass family and her paternal McAllister clan found noble, until some of her research hit a little close to home.

So it was with great trepidation that Lizzie crossed Park and entered the doors of Willie’s own S&S — the Soul Skillet — the talk of Manhattan, and soon to be the talk of the furniture and tobacco nobility for years to come.


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