In 1999, aspiring writer Amanda Eyre Ward got her big break: third place in the Austin Chronicle’s annual short story contest. Her debut novel, Sleep Toward Heaven, was published shortly after and, along with novels How to Be Lost and Forgive Me, the author has continued to earn landslides of well-deserved accolades. In 2009, she released her first collection of short works, Love Stories in This Town, and this week, Ward returns to the literary landscape with new novel Close Your Eyes, a haunting portrait of two siblings trying to uncover the truth behind a shocking event that, twelve years earlier, caused the death of their mother and imprisonment of their father. The novel was inspired by similar events that occurred in Ward’s native New York, an eerie double-slaying that took years to solve.
This Friday, July 29th at BookPeople, Amanda celebrates the release of Close Your Eyes with a reading and reception. She’ll also announce the winner of Austin’s Young Literary Light contest, a local student whose work will be featured at the event.
In this excerpt from Close Your Eyes, we follow realtor Lauren as she gives finicky Northerners Bunny and Benny Hendrix a tour of Austin.
I met the Hendrixes outside the main terminal at the airport. A tanned couple wearing bright ﬂeece vests, they were moving from New England to Texas, Betty Hendrix had said in her emails. They were looking forward to warm weather!!! I’d polished off a grande latte and was still so tired I felt stoned.
“Whew!” cried Betty Hendrix as I held open the passenger door of the Neon for her. She had short brown hair and a ruddy complexion, as if she spent time outdoors, cross-country skiing or chopping wood. “It is sweltering!” she said gaily. “Nothing like Boston.” She spat out Boston as if saying poison.
“Can I help you with your bags?” I asked. I felt a headache beginning to bloom.
“Oh, Benny’s got them,” she said, dismissing her husband, a distinguished-looking man who had thick reddish hair, with a swipe of her hand. Amid the gaseous fumes from passing buses and idling cars, I could smell her fruity lotion.
Benjamin Hendrix slammed the trunk shut and joined us, holding out a pink hand. “Hello, hello,” he said. “You must be Lauren.” He smiled kindly, and I wondered if he had children, and if they knew how lucky they were.
“I am,” I said. “Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Hendrix.”
“Ben, please. Ben and Betty.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “Please, climb in. Let’s go ﬁnd you two a house.”
“Let’s do,” said Betty. She slid into the backseat, and surprising me, Ben settled himself into the front passenger seat. We pulled out of the airport and promptly got embroiled in trafﬁc on 71. “Feels just like home,” said Betty drily.
“Now, come on, dear,” said Ben, gesturing to a topless club along the highway. “We don’t have anything called the Landing Strip near Logan.”
“Hmph,” said Betty.
From my attaché case, I took the stack of stapled papers I had spent the previous afternoon preparing. “Take a look,” I said. “I’ve selected some wonderful homes for you to preview. I think you’ll be pleased.” In fact, the Hendrixes’ price range was well below the cost of fulﬁlling Betty’s dream of acquiring “a big Victorian-style home with at least an acre of land, four or ﬁve bedrooms, and a few ﬁreplaces, but in the city, no gated com munities, please.” For a half million, the Hendrixes were either going to be well into the ’burbs or giving up the land and the ﬁreplaces; and they wouldn’t be getting four bedrooms unless they went for the utility-closet-as-bedroom, which I doubted they would.
Ben slipped his glasses down his nose and peered at my printouts, frowning. “Where are these places?” he asked. “Steiner Ranch? Circle C? Are these the suburbs?”
“Not ofﬁcially,” I said.
“I’m confused,” said Ben. “I thought we were looking at condos. I want a downtown feel, an urban lifestyle.”
“I told her close in,” said Betty. “I told her, Benny. Oh, look at this one! Three ﬁreplaces!”
Ben took the printout and squinted. “Where the hell is Round Rock?” he said.
“It’s close,” I murmured,“to many things.”
“I can just feel a warm ﬁre with Yo-Yo Ma—our cat—curled in my lap,” said Betty.
“Mr. Hendrix,” I said. “Ben. What are you looking for, exactly? I’ll call my assistant and have him send some more listings immediately.” I didn’t have an assistant, but I knew Jonesey would help me out if the day was slow.
“Well,” said Ben, putting his glasses back on and folding his hands in his lap, “I want to walk or, worst case, ride a bus to work. I’ve been driving for thirty years, and I’m sick of my car.”
“Okay,” I said. Betty had told me her husband worked in ﬁnance and that his new ofﬁce was on Third and Congress.
“Furthermore,” said Ben,“I’d like to try ethnic restaurants. I want to walk to various ethnic restaurants from my home.”
“No problem,” I said encouragingly. After all, the P. F. Chang’s in the Arboretum mall was—technically—ethnic, and you couldn’t throw a rock in Austin without hitting a burrito.
“I love the capitol building,” added Betty. “I’ve seen pictures. Let’s have a view of that, wouldn’t it be neat? And I’d like to walk to a park.”
“There’s Zilker Park,” I said. “Barton Springs is a great place to swim.”
“Okay, let’s be able to walk to the park, whatever,” said Ben. “And maybe something sleek, something modern, you know?”
I thought of the folder in his hand, which was ﬁlled with photos of sprawling limestone homes decorated with cowhide furniture.
“And at least two ﬁreplaces,” said Betty. “A nice big garden, maybe a cozy extra bedroom for my sewing? A turret or a widow’s walk would be over the top, I know, but a gal can dream, right?”
“Tell me about your home in Boston,” I ventured.
“Big stuffy old place in Sudbury,” said Ben. “Terrible commute. The house is full of the kids’ crap.”
“It’s a charming Victorian,” said Betty. “It has four bedrooms, but now that the children are gone, it does feel large. Then again, the boys come home for holidays.” My palms grew sweaty with the realization that I was trapped on Highway 183 with a couple on the verge of divorce.
“We’re looking for a change,” said Ben. “That’s why I took the transfer. A new leaf.”
“I’m a little nervous,” confessed Betty. “I’ve heard some Texans are . . . a bit gauche. Kind of nouveau riche. Big hair, right? But you’re a nice girl. So that’s a start!”
“I think I’m getting a better idea of what you’re looking for,” I said, deciding to show them homes way out of their budget so at least they could see the problem for themselves.
When I started out in real estate, I used to take people’s budgets seriously, showing clients only homes they could comfortably afford. But as the years passed, I realized that people were leaving me for Realtors who showed them their dream homes and then either ﬁgured out the ﬁnancing or let them decide they had to look at less expensive homes. Clients wanted to dream. They didn’t seem to care if you respected their bank account.
“How about we start in Clarksville? That’s a beautiful historic area adjacent to downtown,” I said.
“Clarksville,” mused Ben. “I think I’ve heard of that one.”
“It has a nice ring to it,” said Betty. “Very classy.”
“Clarksville has a long, storied history,” I said,“and yet is one of the sleeker, more hip places to live in the city.”
Both Hendrixes leaned in, listening with rapt interest as I began talking about the former plantation of Governor Elisha
M. Pease, historic Nau’s drugstore with the working soda fountain, and Jeffrey’s restaurant, which was rumored to be George W. Bush’s favorite. I wondered which Hendrix had had the affair. While Ben seemed a likely candidate—the sleek stuff sounded like it was parroted from some youthful secretary’s Facebook page—there was something squirrelly about Betty, all her talk of ﬁreplaces and snuggling cats.
“Let’s pop into a local breakfast spot,” I suggested, thinking of Lucinda’s, an Austin institution, which was scheduled to be demolished soon to make room for a Marriott. “You can get the feel of downtown Austin, and I can call my assistant for some more central listings.”
“Okay,” agreed Ben.
“That sounds perfect,” said Betty. “I love it here already!” She reached forward and patted Ben’s hand, then had a second thought, unbuckled her seat belt, lunged, and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. He looked both stunned and pleased.