Today, we share another excerpt from Robert Goolrick’s upcoming novel Heading Out to Wonderful — and a chance to win a signed copy. Heading Out to Wonderful will be hitting bookstores, both online and bricks-and mortar, in just days. But you can read from it now: Be sure to check out the yesterday’s excerpt as well as Robert’s essay on the inspiration behind the novel.
Fill out the form at the bottom for the chance to win one of 25 autographed copies (SORRY, THE WINNERS HAVE ALREADY BEEN CHOSEN), and check back in the coming days as we feature more from Heading Out to Wonderful.
From Heading Out to Wonderful…
Claudetta Wiley was a genius. She was born that way. She lived in a falling-down old clapboard house way out on the edge of town with the other black folks, with an idiot daughter nobody had seen since she was a baby so maybe she was there and maybe she wasn’t, and maybe she was an idiot and maybe not. Claudie lived in the last house before the fields started, and her house was so crestfallen that even the other black people wouldn’t have gone there if they didn’t need to, and some people said it was green and some people said it was gray, but there wasn’t anybody who didn’t know that Claudie had a gift that was astonishing. Claudie Wiley could sew.
She was a short but majestic woman, pale-skinned and wild-haired and big featured “high yellow,” we called it in those days. She had a slender frame from the waist up, but from her hips down, she was big-limbed and thick. She had eyes that looked right into you, without hesitation or the shyness that most black people affected around white people. She never deferred, because she knew the genius that was in her long slender fingers, needle-threading fingers, and she was sure of herself in a way that didn’t need to say what it was she was sure of. There wasn’t anybody like her, and, like Sylvan Glass, the solid being of her character and her way was fashioned out of a fantasy that had come to her as a young girl, but with a gift that could only have come from God.
Inside that house, with its bare wooden floors and its cracked windows and torn lace curtains, only one room of which anybody ever saw, the room she met customers in, Claudie Wiley dressed most of the town’s women, black and white. At least she made the things they wore when they wanted to look their best. She did all the alterations for Grossman’s, and she dressed every bride and bridesmaid and bride’s mother in this town from the time she was fifteen years old.
Her grandmother, who raised her after her mother ran off to California in search of something other than scrubbing floors, said she was born with the gift. At four, she could thread a needle and sew dolls for herself. She made them out of any scraps she could find, dishtowels, burlap bags, old dresses, and they were always smiling, which she almost never did. By the time she was six, she was making her own clothes, dressing herself like a white girl, and it caused some talk. Little motherless colored girl, people said, putting on airs, but still, nobody could fail to be impressed.
Every Easter she put on a real show, and if this town had an Easter Parade, she would have been the star, every year. When she was ten, she started making clothes for other little girls, white girls, and they were fine, even if Claudie always saved her greatest skill for dressing herself. Sometimes she would use a pattern, but a lot of the time, she’d just make something up.
She went to the little school they had at the church, but she didn’t pay attention much, since she was always doing something with a needle and thread while she was supposed to be studying history or numbers, and after a while, her teachers just gave up on her. So, in one way, she was completely ignorant of the world. But in another way, she knew everything she needed to know. Her grandmother worked as a cleaning woman, moving from house to house on different days, and the women in those houses would give her magazines that showed pictures of women of the day in dresses and evening gowns and suits, and the grandmother would give those to Claudie, who would study them as though reading scripture, sometimes practicing with empty hands on invisible material, making invisible clothes just like the ones she saw in the magazines the white women whose floors her mother mopped gave her.
The white women would always say, when Claudie brought them their new dress, “What do I owe you?”
“Whatever you think is right, ma’am,” Claudie would answer, having no idea what clothes cost. And most of the women, admiring the handiwork of this brilliant child, would give her more than they had planned to. So Claudie was clever that way. By the time she was fourteen, she was one of the few black people in town to have a checking and saving account at the bank. So that set her apart as well, along with the color of her skin, pale when almost all of her neighbors were dark, and that way she had of appearing to belong to nobody, to follow no rules except the ones she found useful to her, like her unfailing politeness to customers. She never flattered them, never went out of her way to tell the women or the girls that they looked better than ever. She just left them with a sense that they looked better than they would have if they hadn’t come to Claudie Wiley, and that was enough to open the purses and keep the money coming in.
Her grandmother died when she was fifteen, leaving her mostly unschooled, unable to cook, or even to clean her house. She never blinked an eye. She went on living there, taking up as little space as possible, letting the rest of the house go to ruin, receiving her customers in the one room downstairs that she kept immaculate even as the house fell apart around her.
People were concerned. Black people and white people alike talked in their houses about how something should be done, but nobody could figure out what that thing might be, and their concern rolled off her, left her unmoved. “I’m fine,” she would say to those brave enough to ask. “Don’t you worry about me none.”
And she was fine, as far as anybody could tell. She’d grown up. She wasn’t the scrawny little girl she’d been; she’d grown into a tall woman with a big behind and big bosoms. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was handsome, and her skill gave her a kind of luminosity that made beauty seem irrelevant. You might have thought her ugly, until you saw her expressions when the subject turned to women’s clothes, and then you would have changed your mind. And she had those fingers, those long, thin fingers like the tines of a fork, fingers that did what she wanted before she even told them to.
Women started to come to her from all over, bringing fancier and fancier ideas and more exotic pictures from magazines Claudie had never heard of. She took them all in, treated them with the same distant politeness, judging their figures and their often absurd visions of themselves with the precise eye of a surgeon, gently leading each one away from their fantasies and into what was at least possible for them, and the women were grateful for that. They paid her even more.
One of them, a woman who drove over the mountain every month all the way from Charlottesville, had an idea that Claudie should go away to a fancy fashion school. Claudie had been secretly doing fashion drawings since she was a child, and one day she shyly showed them to this woman, page after page of tall, thin white women in ball gowns and wedding dresses and luncheon suits, and tea dresses for parties that Claudie would never go to. The woman was convinced that Claudie had a great future; she saw a way for her out of this town and this filthy house and this lonely life. She offered Claudie her help and her checkbook.
She did everything for Claudie. She picked the school, way up in Boston. She edited the drawings down to two dozen of the finest and fanciest, she filled out the pages of the school application, even opened and read to Claudie the letter of acceptance that came in the spring. Claudie dreamed that night of furs and hats and jewels, of department stores, things she’d never seen even in pictures, while the Charlottesville woman sat at her own table, served by black servants, and told her husband how important this was, as a moment, to create a new life for Claudie, a life no black woman anywhere had ever had.
All that summer, her seventeenth year, Claudie sewed the clothes she would need for school in a big city up north. The woman bought her cardigans and little sweaters that went underneath, and gave her a second-rate string of pearls, picked up at the Episcopal Church Bazaar White Elephant table the year before. She gave her knee socks, all of this totally unsuitable to Claudie, who spent most of her days in shapeless dresses and bare feet, with a closetful of clothes she wore alone, in private, clothes that could match any clothes anywhere in the world. But she was excited at the same time, and she worked hard at turning herself into somebody she’d never been, into a fantasy of the woman she might be.
Two days before she was supposed to leave for Boston, the woman drove over from Charlottesville and picked her up. Claudie locked her house and left the town without saying good-bye to a single soul. She spent the night in the woman’s guest room in Charlottesville, not even in the maid’s room, and she slept in the best bed under the best sheets she’d ever felt.
In the middle of the night, she sat for a long time and looked at all her bright new school clothes in her suitcase, so neatly folded, still smelling of the stores they came from. Then she unpacked everything, and hung each piece on hangers in the closet, and then she picked up her empty suitcase and got ready to leave that house and that life and those sheets forever behind her.
She left anything the woman had given her on the dressing table, her train ticket to the future, even the pearls, and walked down through the alien streets of the biggest town she’d ever seen, past the shop windows filled with tweed jackets for the college boys and polite dresses for the faculty wives, marveling at the richness of everything. In the bus station, just another unschooled black country girl, she waited quietly for the first bus to take her back to Brownsburg. The woman and her husband didn’t lift a finger to interfere. Nobody ever messed with Claudie.