Tale of Southern ladies aces the laugh-cry test

When I teach Introduction to Writing Short Fiction, I tell my students that if their story makes me laugh out loud or cry real tears, they get an "A."

An "A" from me is rare.

Having said that, I've got to give Todd Johnson an "A" for his debut novel, "The Sweet By and By." He made me laugh and cry, plus he did it from a first-person, female viewpoint, something few men would attempt and even fewer could pull off.

Johnson's portrayal of five women living at the Ridgecrest Assisted Living facility are as convincing as Reynolds Price's Kate Vaiden and Allan Gurganus' Lucy Marsden.

From the first page they step into your life and start talking pure Southern music. And well they should, with Johnson being a North Carolina native and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate. His ear is fine-tuned and hehas a great feel for assisted living facilities, capturing life at Ridgecrest 24 hours a day. .

First there's Margaret Clayton, who's fierce, witty and wise. She says, "One of the true pleasures about being old: you realize every day how many things are more trouble than they're worth, and how much time you could have saved yourself over the years if you had only had that precious knowledge sooner."

In Ridgecrest she realizes that her "wings are clipped" and sometimes she gets "just plain old mad" at being where she is, asking her daughter, "What do you expect me to act like? Wake up smiling every day like some soft gray-haired church lady when I can't do one damn thing I used to?"

Margaret grew up in Johnston County, a childhood of "heat, dry dirt," and "one of the ugliest things God put on this earth, tobacco worms." She was "raised on fried chicken, pork barbecue and hot-as-fire sausage" and has no intention of changing her diet as long as her daughter Ann smuggles in contraband.

Margaret's best friend is Bernice Stokes, who does most of her talking through stuffed animals, one of which is used to hold "a baby whiskey bottle" of Christmas cheer. When Lorraine, one of the nurses at Ridgecrest, catches the two women overloaded with Christmas cheer," she says "You're full of something else too and you better be glad it's me that came down here."

Lorraine has worked at Ridgecrest for 20 years, starting every morning "pouring urine from one container to another. I ain't gon say I don't mind it." But she knows, "For some of them I'm the only face in this world they know. I can't hardly stand hearin one of them cry out, 'I'm ready to go home now, Lorraine,' when all I come in to do is take out a plastic bag full of trash or soiled bed sheets rather than wait for a nurse's aide to do it when we don't have enough of em to go around. That's my day, doin what needs to be done. I guess some people get to where they don't hear it, the sound of those voices, but that ain't me. I can't help it. I hear it every single time."

Lorraine is a single mother raising her daughter, April, "who says she's gon be a doctor. Where was I gon find enough money for anybody to go to college with me working as a LPN? But the good Lord provides and she didn't need my money or anybody's else's. She got herself a scholarship and is sittin up there on her own in Raleigh at Shaw University." When April calls to tell her mother she's graduating summa cum laude," Lorraine says, "Some of what?" Never in her life did Lorraine think "she'd need to know Latin, but those particular words suited her fine."

Rhonda works one day a week as Ridgecrest's beautician, and she has a photo album inside her head of everybody's hair she's ever fixed. She says, "You can do anything in the world to hair, but you have to know when to stop." She's not looking for love but it finds her, and she says she has "learned that attention is a prize in love, the first thing you give and the first thing to go when the new wears off."

Johnson structures "The Sweet By and By" around holidays at Ridgecrest, including one very toxic Mother's Day and a 4th of July celebrated with a plush bulldog named Betsy Ross.

If you read for character, "The Sweet By and By" will hold you all the way through. Plot it's not got, but things do happen and you'll find yourself knowing the inevitable.

The big bone I must pick with Todd Johnson is phonetic spelling. We Southerners may let our cotton fields get covered with boxes of "little ticky tacky," and we may, in speaking, drop the ending "g," but we don't write them that way. Somebody should have told him better. Shame, shame.

Still, there's an old saying that you can't go home again if you lose the voice in which you learned to say "Mama." Todd Johnson can still come home.