This is from the ANNIE Chapter:


So, at the end of freshman year, the issue of the debut came up again but her fight had drained away.  Annie had once imagined she might be on a full ride at Stanford, which would have provided an easy excuse for not coming home to participate… but instead she was still in-state, waitressing on Tate Street, poor as a church-mouse at UNC-G.  Frankly, free-spending Annie could use some cash, some jewels, some plate and gilt, lucre, rapine, to be handed down, and the good opinion of Grandmother Jeannette Jarvis (her namesake!), with recurring cancer, on her way to a retirement home to finish out her years, who was always musing pointedly about her will…

She didn’t tell her middle class friends about debuting.  The debut might as well have been a secret satanic society for all she acknowledged it.  Once, when back in Charlotte over a pre-debut weekend, she ran into old Mecklenburg Country Day acolytes Tara Brindley and Lesha Bridgewater at the Gourmet Gardens in the Eastland Mall and they all floated the notion of bailing out on it, what nonsense, what bullshit… but in the end her would-be conspirators awkwardly shrugged, said they were knuckling under, there’d be lots of cool presents and gifts, and recited “You know my gramms, it would break her heart” –type excuses.  So in the end Annie did it, too.  Of course, her mother made sure everyone who cared about these things knew Annie was participating, which resulted in a major materialistic haul.  Annie couldn’t believe the loot!  Good Lord, who knew the Johnstons and Jarvises had this kind of mammon tucked away?  And she did, quietly, without any complaint, write thank you notes in a single Sunday morning while everyone was at church so she wouldn’t be observed performing this graciousness.

But it was every bit the hell she knew it would be, every bit the farce.  There was the dull-as-if-designed-to-be drive to Raleigh imprisoned in a limo with Mom, Dad, Jerilyn, Josh, her Grandmother Jarvis.  (Aunt Dillard, who ponied up an array of Wedgwood urns, gravy boats, tureens and chafing dishes, was suffering from her fibromyalgia and was excused from festivities.)  There was an interminable fancy dinner with extended family at Second Empire, and then a retreat to a hotel room for the dressing and fixing up.  This was the female-only time, the apostolic succession, where one generation of matriarchs injected the poison into the next generation.

Her little sister Jerilyn looked on in envy.  Grandmother Jarvis looked like death warmed over after dinner and begged to go lie down.  Josh and her father were banished to the limo.  Jerene was calm despite knowing her rebellious daughter could storm out at any minute—and I just might, Annie thought at the time.  But no… not with this much female authority and Nietzschean superwoman Will in the room.  The collective conformist mass of all the Southern mothers and female relatives, of all the debutantes current and former, made for an inescapable gravity; no mere girl could make a run for it without being pulled back powerlessly into the high-society singularity, now strengthening itself at the Raleigh Convention Center, sucking in all known objects, buildings, trees, moons…

Before the limo was to take them over to the Convention Center, Annie’s great aunts fussed and hovered in the Capital Sheraton hotel room, circling like sharp-billed birds of carrion. Aunt Gert had brought a small sewing kit.  This was her thing, to tsk tsk about the gown and go to work on it—she had done this for her three daughters and every other Johnston girl “back before the War of Northern Aggression.”  This allowed her a chance to condemn the excessive cleavage-display and tsk tsk about Annie’s weight.  “Certainly the largest Johnston girl we’ve ever seen…” she mumbled with pins in her mouth, adding under her breath so Jerene wouldn’t hear: “Must be the Jarvis blood…”

Aunt Mamie Mae had a terrible overbite to which she drew attention by the most lurid orange-red lipstick:  “Ooh honey, you’ve let yourself get so fat!  That’s for after the marriage, isn’t it, Elaine?  You take yourself out of the running, if you let yourself get too big.  All those skinny little bitches—”

“Coarseness,” said Aunt Gert.

“Skinny little snakes-in-the-grass from jumped-up no-account families who were living up North twenty years ago selling metal scrap or some such—they’ll steal your beau faster’n a New York taxi cab!  Now I’m three dress sizes too big, I’ll admit it, but Dennis doesn’t double-dare trade me in for Miss North Carolina because I’d take him to the cleaners and hang him out to dry next to my size-eight bloomers on a very public clothesline.” She threw her head back for the inimitable cackle.


Annie decided she had become like of those Virgin Mary statues in Latin countries festooned with capes, jewels, flowers, relics, that was then lifted up and processed through the street for worship and veneration.  She would try to turn off her mind for a few hours and then hope it rebooted when this despicable enterprise was over.

“I’m proud of you for behaving,” said her mother on the way to the Convention Center, in the privacy of the limo.

“For not throttling Aunt Mamie Mae?”

“I would have helped you cover up that crime.”

“Oh now,” said her father, “Mame’s not so bad.  Whatever the old girls were doing in the hotel room, my daughter looks smashing.”

Smashing, though Annie.  Like Godzilla through Tokyo, taking out buildings and antenna towers with her wide ass and big boobs, in a blindingly white frou-frou ballgown you could spot from the Space Shuttle.

In the sharp spotlight of the Raleigh Convention Center, she took her father’s arm and marched; she would always remember how ghastly the spotlight made her father look, one million years old, and that cold gust of his mortality further enforced her good behavior that night.  Parry and thrust with her father as she did at the dinner table, she would never humiliate him publicly and, clearly, she had learned this evening, there were those in the family who thought him a layabout, a shirker, and whereas she could find fault with her folks as much as she liked, she found it intolerable that the great aunts felt entitled to any opinion at all.  That was the problem with Southern family gatherings:  you came away judged, as to weight, as to economic progress, as to who was making good marriages, getting good promotions.  And the most horrible old venomous shrews with wretched mislived lives were doing the judging too—that hardly seemed right.

There were photos of the affair, mostly destroyed when Annie could get her hands on them.  Not because of any political protest, but because she truly looked stuffed into her white tulle sausage-casing.  The photographer was the shortest man alive—all her photos were shot from miles below, she was all double chins and lit like a late night t.v. horror-movie host.  She was, without rival, the biggest girl at the debut, surrounded by insect-thin blondes (precious few of them natural… oh god, now she was getting catty like the rest of the women, too!), tanning-bed browned, lacquered and made up with a beauty pageant sheen, perfect teeth, some—it was rumored—with breast implants, gotten when teenagers.  And she heard the whispers, the comments, saw deflected glances (as if looking upon the fat girl was contagious for one’s own weight), she radioed in on the female-intuition frequency sensing hypercritical girltalk and ruthlessness.  Oh well.  Looks like they’ll get first crack at the boys wearing checkered golf pants and yellow sports coats, breathing booze-breath on everyone at eleven a.m. at some lily-white-people’s country club…