A Secret Word

A Novel

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About The Book

Jennifer Paddock's incandescent debut novel spans fifteen years in the lives of friends Leigh, Sarah, and Chandler, beginning one fateful day in high school that forever connects them. While Leigh remains stuck in dead-end jobs in their Arkansas hometown, the more privileged Sarah and Chandler move to Manhattan, where Sarah seeks acting fame and Chandler struggles to make sense of her failed relationships, only to be sent reeling by an unexpected tragedy.
Sweeping from the Deep South to New York and interweaving each girl's distinctive voice into a seamless narrative, A Secret Word is a luminous story of friendship and family, sex and secrets, growing up and growing apart. It is about how well you can ever really know another person and the secrets we keep from our friends, our families, and, most important, ourselves.

Excerpt

Chapter One: The Ones Who Are Holding Things Up

November 1986

Chandler

Leigh is the kind of girl who hangs around girls who get in fights. Not that she wears rock-concert T-shirts, but she does smoke. She and I are different, but we are friends. She's been to my house, three stories with woods and a lake in back, a game room, halls you can do cartwheels down. And I've been to her house, dark and small and sad.

Sarah is beautiful and theatrical and is my best friend and has been since the day I almost killed her. When we were eight, she talked the assistant golf pro into letting us hit range balls, and she walked right behind me on my backswing. There was screaming and blood and an ambulance, and seventeen stitches to the back of her head in the shape of a C, my own initial. Then we began taking tennis lessons and now are known as those tennis girls. A tournament can get us out of school for a week. We go to a public school and make good grades without studying. We are on the outside of the inner circle of cool kids but are cool enough.

I'm in Spanish class zoning out, not listening to the scratchy record of a Mexican family having a conversation at breakfast. I'm thinking about my plan for lunch today with Leigh and Sarah, maybe at the country club, and wondering how that would go.

My father tells me that where we live, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, used to be called "Hell on the Border." It was a place people passed through: Cherokee Indians on the Trail of Tears, gold miners to California, trappers canoeing upriver, ranchers headed to Texas, outlaws seeking freedom.

I imagine there are worse places to grow up, and I am lucky to be rich and to love my parents, but I do not love it here. I will pass through.

Between first and second period, at my locker, I see Leigh at her locker, tapping a pack of Camel Lights, and when she catches my eye, I start to walk over, but somebody, a real genius of slapstick, comes up behind me and pushes the back side of my right knee, causing my leg to buckle, and I almost trip. I turn around with a little agitation and find Sarah smiling her coy Sarah smile.

"Falling apart at the seams, Chandler?" she says. Then Trey, the running back, rushes Sarah, taking her in a headlock, holding her like he's in love, and I wonder if Sarah notices this, and when he lets go, there is purple dye smeared across his white jersey. Sarah is always dying her hair. She probably just did it thirty minutes ago, staying home during first period, using one of the drawerful of late notes her mom has written for her.

I watch Trey pushing Sarah down the hall.

"Trey's walking me to class," Sarah yells back. "I'll meet you on the court."

Second period Sarah and I have gym, and so does Leigh, but Coach McGavin lets Sarah and me play tennis, while Leigh and all the other girls have to square dance with the PE boys. I look around for Leigh. I know she has a car today because I saw her pulling into the lot in her mom's old Chrysler, a two-tone two-door.

Sarah and I aren't sixteen yet like Leigh is, even though we're all in the tenth grade, so every day we try to find an older kid with a car to take us off campus for lunch. We've never asked Leigh to take us because you never know when she's going to have her mother's car. Mostly we ask this sweet guy who's a senior in the band, a trombone player, and sometimes we go with this swimmer girl who's a junior with a Bronco. If we ask guys, we always ask guys we would never want to go out with. It would be too humiliating to beg for a ride from a senior on the football team like Trey. But I don't see Leigh anywhere.

I'm late to gym, but I don't mind. I actually prefer it because I hate undressing in front of the other girls. It's not that I'm overweight or ugly or anything. Though I'm cute enough and have blonde hair, I'm shorter and look younger than the others, with smaller hips and breasts. At home, everyone is always covered up. My mother wears a pink or blue cotton nightgown and a pink flowery robe, and my father wears neat Brooks Brothers pajamas with a tattered terry-cloth robe that used to be brick red, but is now pale with spots from too much washing.

Sarah likes undressing in front of other people. When I spend the night at her house, she'll walk down the hall from the bathroom to the bedroom, naked and thin, her straight past-the-shoulders hair hidden under a towel knotted in front, and when I stand there frozen, watching, Sarah says, "What?"

I see Sarah already on the court, sweatpants on, her lucky blue Fila jacket tied around her waist. She's hitting her serve so hard that it bounces in the square, then flies to the metal fence with a clang. My serve takes a couple bounces before it hits the fence with barely a rattle. I can still beat Sarah, though I know it's only a matter of time until she learns to play more consistently, eases up on her power, mixes up her shots. Right now it's a head game -- our matches are close, but I always win.

When I was nine, I went the entire summer, at least ten tournaments in all parts of Arkansas, beating my opponents, even Sarah, 6-0, 6-0. I'm so dreamy about the days when I used to kill everyone.

Sarah and I play a groundstroke game to eleven. I win, barely, by hitting the same shot, deep with topspin, every time. I really do get into a kind of rhythm, and I start thinking of myself like a Buddhist monk chanting one two three hit or like my father who meditates saying the same secret word over and over.

Afterward, we fill up an empty tennis-ball can with water and take turns drinking and talk about what we're going to do for lunch.

"We could stay here," I kid. "Get a Coke and an ice-cream sandwich and stand outside."

"Ah, Chandler baby, no," Sarah says, and I smile.

We start walking back to get dressed for third period, and I spot Leigh smoking under the stadium bleachers. She's long-limbed and awkward there in the shadows but has a pretty face, her wavy brown hair pulled back by two silver barrettes.

I twirl my racquet twice and catch it on the grip. "Why aren't you inside square dancing?" I ask.

"They don't ever miss me," Leigh says.

"Can I have one of those?" Sarah says, then sets her racquet and the tennis balls on the ground.

"Sure," Leigh says, like she's honored that Sarah would smoke one of her cigarettes, and lights it for her. Sarah and Leigh don't really know each other, only a little about each other through me.

"Hey, Leigh," I say, thinking about my lunch plan, and I take the rubber band out of my hair, letting my ponytail fall. "Did your mom call in sick?"

Leigh doesn't answer, just gives me a look like she's ashamed.

"I don't mean anything by it," I say. "I just wondered if you have the car today?"

"I have the car."

"You're sixteen?" Sarah says.

"Yeah, since October." Leigh pauses a moment, taking a drag and looking at us. "Why, do y'all want to go to lunch?"

I smile. "That'd be great. Thanks, Leigh." I reach out for a smoke, and Leigh lights my cigarette off hers, then flicks hers away.

Sarah lets her hand fall to the side and drops her half-smoked cigarette in the grass. "So, how about Hardscrabble?"

Hardscrabble is the name of the country club where Sarah and I have spent nearly every day of our lives playing tennis. I used to think the name was a golfing term, but my dad told me it's because the golf course used to be a farm, which was known, because of its rocky conditions, as a "hardscrabble" way to make a living. It seems weird to me that it's a name of a place where rich people go to take it easy.

"Definitely," I say. "Hardscrabble."

"Do we have time?" says Leigh.

"I have study hall next period," I say. "I can call in our order. No problem."

"But I'm not a member," Leigh says.

"We know, and we'll buy," Sarah says. "What do you want?"

Leigh gathers her hair in her hand, then lets it go. "Maybe a turkey sandwich. With bacon."

"You mean a club sandwich?" Sarah says.

"I guess," says Leigh.

"All right, Leigh," I say. "We'll meet you in the parking lot right when the bell rings. We have to beat everyone out and get there, or we'll never finish in time. It's like a sit-down dinner."

"I know," Leigh says. "We'll get there fast. I'm a good driver."

"Then we'll see you later," Sarah says. She picks up her racquet and the can of balls and walks away, and with the cigarette in one hand and my racquet in the other, I follow.

In study hall, all the football players sit in the back and never study. The closest they come to any real work is copying assignments from me or any other humanitarian who will let them. Trey is always goofing off and thinks it's funny to hold up notes written in big letters that say something like, "Hi, Chandler." I always smile when he does that, even though I know it's subnormal.

Trey and I went to the movies once, and he called my house right before he was supposed to show up and asked my dad, who rarely answers the phone, to ask me if I would iron his shirt for him. My dad was laughing and yelled the message up to my room, and I yelled back that I would. And when Trey came to the door, my dad actually answered because he said he wanted to meet this boy. Usually, if I had a date, my dad would run and hide in the kitchen and leave my mother or me to open the door. It's not that my dad doesn't care about who I go out with. He just doesn't know what to say. And neither did Trey and I on our one and only date.

Coach McGavin runs the study hall. What an easy schedule he has -- gym and study hall. I walk up to him, and he gives me the pass before I even say what I want it for. "Thanks, Coach," I say. I go to the pay phone and call Hardscrabble's clubhouse, where we like to eat lunch. They also have a snack bar, but it's not nearly as nice as the clubhouse. I order a club sandwich for Leigh and two French dips for Sarah and me. I tell the guy who answers to have it ready at 11:30, that we're coming from school, that we only have forty minutes. He says, "No problem. Last name Carey, right?" I feel a little embarrassed that he knows my voice. I say politely as I can, "That's right. Thanks so much."

Sarah and I meet by the trophy case and walk out to the parking lot together. Leigh is already waiting for us in her mom's car.

"Cool," I say, getting into the backseat.

"Yeah, Leigh," Sarah says and shuts the door. "How'd you get out here so fast?"

"I left physics early."

"You must have Mr. Holbrook," Sarah says. "I have him first period, and I'm always late. He doesn't care."

"Well, we can't be late coming back from lunch," I tell Leigh. "We have geometry fourth. Mrs. Schneider."

Leigh nods and starts driving. "Want some music?"

"Yeah, baby," Sarah says and starts turning the dial.

We're just about to leave the lot when we hear a horn blaring behind us. We all turn to see Trey hanging halfway out the window of his new black Firebird, his white jersey waving. We take a right and a quick left onto Cliff Drive, the road that Hardscrabble Country Club is on, and Trey follows us, with his shiny chrome rims, his big tires, his tail fin high in the air.

"God, what a tacky car," I say.

"It's not that bad," Sarah says. "I kind of like it."

"I'd rather be in this one," I say. "Right, Leigh?"

Leigh turns back and smiles at me, then looks ahead, speeding up a little. Cliff Drive is a long, windy road lined with expensive houses with long driveways. It's hard to see the houses from the road, but Leigh keeps glancing back and forth, trying to see something. Sarah rolls down her window and climbs halfway out, the purple streaks in her dark hair blowing, and yells "woo" over to Trey like she's at a concert.

"Good Lord," I say and pull on her to get back in. "Be careful."

"Hey," she says. "Relax."

As we round the corner coming up to the club, I turn around and see Trey taking the curve too fast. His car swings off the road, jackknifes, then goes into a ditch, only his stupid tail fin showing. Sarah sees it, too, and laughs.

"What a moron!" I say.

"What is it?" asks Leigh, and Sarah tells her what she missed.

Leigh slows down and takes the exit for Hardscrabble. She circles the lot, hesitating. "Should we go back?"

"No, he's fine," I say. "He's wrecked there twice before."

"Yeah, don't worry about little Trey, Leigh baby," Sarah says. "Try to park up front."

"Yeah," I say. "Time is of the essence." This is a phrase my mother uses when I'm running late, which is almost always.

We rush into the country club and walk through the bar, and Sarah and I grab nuts and mints from little bowls set around on small marble tables. In the dining room, we sit by a window, so we have a good view of the golf course. Sarah tells Leigh about how I almost killed her with a 7 iron. She always tells that story whenever she gets the chance.

A waiter comes up to us with menus, but I tell him we already ordered by phone, and he smiles and fills our water glasses and takes our drink order. I get a Coke like always, and Sarah gets a virgin strawberry daiquiri, and Leigh orders iced tea.

Leigh leans over and says in a hushed voice, "Is everyone that works here black?"

I shrug. "I guess."

"I think I've seen a few white ones before," Sarah says, then waves her hand and gets a different waiter to bring us crackers and bread and butter.

"This is really nice," Leigh says. "Thanks for bringing me here."

"Thanks for driving us here," Sarah says, buttering a cracker.

The waiter returns with our sandwiches on a big round tray he carries with one hand above his shoulder, and another waiter follows him, like he's the other waiter's waiter, carrying our drinks.

"Cool," I say. "We still have twenty-seven minutes."

On the side of Leigh's plate are silver cups with mayonnaise and mustard, and she spreads both on each layer of the four triangles of her sandwich. Sarah and I dig into our French dips and have a silver cup of ketchup between us for our fries.

"This is way better than the school cafeteria," Leigh says.

"Chandler and I," says Sarah, "have never eaten there. We've successfully gotten a ride every day for three months. And in just four more months, we won't have to. I'm sixteen in March."

"When are you sixteen, Chandler?" Leigh says.

I take a drink of my Coke. "Not until next September."

"God," Leigh says. "I'm almost a year older."

"Chandler's got a bad birthday," Sarah explains, holding her virgin daiquiri like it's real. "If she were just one month younger, she could play sixteen-and-under tennis for an extra year." Sarah waves her drink around. "So Leigh, what's up with your mom?"

Leigh takes a bite of her sandwich, then a drink of her iced tea. "What do you mean?"

I eat a fry and Leigh doesn't say anything, so I say, "Nothing's up with her. She just calls in sick a lot."

"She hates working," Leigh says.

"Man, I don't blame her." Sarah raises her glass and says, "To not ever having to work."

Leigh smiles, and I smile.

"Let's get out of here," I say. "Time is of the essence."

I raise my hand for the waiter, and he brings over our ticket, and I sign my father's name with a short yellow pencil, Ben L. Carey #379.

We have about five minutes before the bell rings. What takes the most time is finding a parking place in the school lot. But Leigh tells us not to worry about it and that if we're late getting back, she'll drop us off by the door.

Leigh turns on the radio and switches the dial around and stops on a commercial that we all know by heart, and we say together in a deep, dopey voice, "C&H Tire. 8701 Rogers. Where we do it just for you."

Leigh takes a right onto Cliff Drive, and we only go about ten yards because there's so much traffic. It normally gets a little backed up every day with kids rushing from McDonald's or Wendy's, but this is way worse than usual.

Sarah's in the backseat this time, and she yells up, "What the hell?"

Leigh is quiet, concentrating, moving the car slowly.

"I can't tell," I say. I roll down the window and lean out as far as I can. In the distance, I can see a fire truck and blue police lights. A cop is waving cars around.

Sarah leans up, too, and tries to get a look. "Is that all for Trey?" she says.

"It has to be," Leigh says.

We creep forward, and as we approach the curve, I see Trey's black Firebird still tipped down into the ditch. His shiny chrome rims, his big tires, his tail fin.

"That looks pretty bad," Leigh says.

I feel relieved when I see Trey standing there by a cop. He looks fine. The back of his white jersey is clean around the number and not torn or anything. The cop is probably talking to him about the big away game tonight in Pine Bluff, which is pretty far from Fort Smith, about four hours. I think the football team is supposed to leave right after lunch. Trey's probably worried about missing the bus. "Thank God," I say. "He's okay. He's right there."

Sarah is still leaning up over the seat, but she doesn't say anything.

"That's not him," Leigh says. "That's someone else. Trey's #68."

"She's right," Sarah says.

Leigh inches the car forward, then the policeman directing traffic makes us stop, and we're right next to Trey's car. Leigh shifts into park, and we all look. The front end is crumpled by at least three feet against the side of the ditch. Firemen are working to cut Trey out. The door is open, but his body is wrapped around the steering wheel. His head stuffed between the dash and the windshield. There is blood on his jersey and on his head and in the cracks of the glass.

I look away and notice that people are starting to drive around us and that we're the ones who are holding things up. The policeman knocks on the back of our car and startles us, tells us to get moving. Leigh puts the car in drive, and we proceed.

Nobody says anything. Maybe we don't know what to say, or what to think. I look at one of the fancy houses and think that I like my house better. And I like Sarah's house even better than mine. She lives in this long sprawling one on the other side of Hardscrabble, on the back nine of the golf course. Sometimes, when I spend the night over there, we'll sneak out and meet guys.

One night Trey met us there with another football player. I was the one who was supposed to be with Trey, but we still had the same problem talking to each other. We lay down on a green, the short grass more perfect than carpet, and looked at the stars. We never kissed, but he put his arm around me, and his other hand rubbed on my shoulder and on my elbow and on my wrist and on my palm and on each finger. He was the first boy to ever touch me like that, and I never even kissed him.

Traffic is moving almost back to normal. The second lunch has already started, and we see kids breeze by the other way, not knowing what's ahead.

Leigh turns off the radio. Sarah starts crying. Leigh looks over to me, and I look back to her, then put my hand over my eyes. Sarah's breathing is loud and erratic. Leigh turns into the lot.

"You can go ahead and park," I say.

"No, I'll drop you off," she says. "I want to."

She pulls up to the entrance of the school, and I wipe my eyes.

"You sure?" I ask. "We'll wait and walk in with you."

"No, go ahead," she says.

I open my door and get out, then pull the seat forward for Sarah. I grip her arm and steady her until she's standing. I start to thank Leigh for the ride but stop myself. I want to tell her that I'm sorry, that we should've gone back, I should've let her go back, but I don't say anything, just shut the door and watch her drive off, all by herself, looking for a place to park.

Sarah and I walk into the school, and I'm wondering how long it will take to forget this walk. It seems too quiet. There should be a commotion in the halls. Others saw what we saw, but classes have already started, and we are going to be late.

Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Paddock

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
1. Why do you suppose Jennifer Paddock chose A Secret Word as the title of her novel? In what ways do the characters keep secrets from one another, and also from themselves?
2. Split into sixteen chapters that are narrated from three different points of view, the novel has an unusual and intriguing structure. Why do you think Paddock chose to tell her story this way? How do the differences between the three young women come through?
3. Do you think the book has a main character, and if so, who is it? Whom did you identify with the most? Which of the secondary characters did you find most interesting? Why?
4. The opening chapter of A Secret Word centers on a car accident that takes the life of a boy that all three of the central characters know well. How does this shared tragedy affect their relationships with one another? Do you think it primarily distances them or binds them together?
5. Each chapter is narrated in the first person, and the tone is often very frank and personal, in the manner of a diary entry: "God, it's depressing being me. Old at twenty, Sarah Blair." [p. 36] How does this approach enrich our understanding of the book's characters and themes? How do the three narrators' voices change over time?
6. Chandler and Sarah grow up going to the country club almost daily to play tennis, while Leigh lives with her single mother who works odd jobs, waiting tables or selling cosmetics. How do their disparate class backgrounds influence their relationships with each other? Later, how do social class and their perceptions of it influence their choices in life?
7. "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."[p. 63] Chandler is struck by this quotation from Aeschylus when she sees it posted in the office of her coworker Scott Foster. Do these words resonate with Chandler's experience? Are they relevant to the lives of other characters in the book? Does the Aeschylus passage square with your own experience?
8. When Scott breaks off the affair with Chandler, she is deeply hurt and suddenly realizes how much she had invested in the relationship. She remarks, "Uncertainty quickens the heart, fools you into believing what could never be true." [p. 74] Do you find that to be true? How does the feeling of uncertainty enhance or hinder the characters' lives?
9. Reflecting on how much she likes Mr. Carey, Chandler's father, Leigh says, "People sometimes ask if I've ever tried to find my father, but I haven't and don't want to. My mother is burden enough." [p. 79] Leigh is not the only one in A Secret Word to have a tangled relationship with her parents, and particularly her father. How do the three main characters' feelings about their parents influence their lives? How do you think their choices are affected by their parents' expectations or values?
10. In the chapter called "And When I Should Feel Something," Chandler recounts finding out her father has killed himself, traveling home to Arkansas for the funeral, and then returning to New York, where she goes again and again to see Savion Glover tap dancing in the Broadway show Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. What makes this chapter so compelling and moving? How would you describe the writing style?
11. Near then end of the novel Chandler recalls a time when she thought Manhattan would save her: "I felt almost happy when I would see the New Yorker hotel sign, and I'd think, I am home, and I will never leave this place." Yet she winds up moving back to the South, to Fairhope, Alabama. For her part, Leigh ends up leaving Arkansas to start fresh in Destin, Florida, where she remarks, "I am now certain that I will become who I really am here, to be cured of all that I never was." Discuss the significance of place in the lives of the main characters. For example, how does living in New York change Chandler and Sarah? What about them remains the same?
12. When Chandler and Mark Starling are growing closer, he sends her a card with the lyrics to one of her favorite songs, a song she used to listen to after her father died. She describes how the song moved her and made her think about her own life, even though she couldn't entirely make sense of the words. Are there certain favorite songs of yours that have this kind of effect on you? Do you ever feel that music communicates to you in ways you don't fully grasp?
13. Near the end of the book, Chandler expresses admiration for Brinson Carr, the singer who used to date Sarah, praising him for giving a benefit concert in New York after September 11th, for "helping people in New York, helping me when my father died." And in the novel's last scene, Sarah sees Savion Glover on the street and yells out to him, "You saved my friend. Thank you!" In what ways do the main characters in A Secret Word save each other?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Jennifer Paddock is the author of A Secret Word. She lives in Point Clear, Alabama.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (March 23, 2004)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439105795

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Raves and Reviews

Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City A Secret Word captures the dreamy rhythms of adolescence between staccato moments of crisis, as three perfectly ordinary and utterly memorable young southern women find themselves transported inexorably into the cosmopolitan landscape of womanhood. While many first novelists wave their arms and stamp their feet to get our attention, Jennifer Paddock seduces the reader with the narrative equivalent of a raised eyebrow or the almost imperceptible nod of the head. At the end the reader is inclined to ask of the writer as well as her characters -- what's next?

Melinda Haynes author of Willem's Field A Secret Word is a rare gem of a book, distilled and heartbreaking, yet full of quiet grace that illuminates the page in extraordinary ways. There is something about Paddock's writing that defies conventional description. The closest word I can summon is 'magic.'

Michael Knight author of Goodnight, Nobody Jennifer Paddock writes like Raymond Carver with a bigger heart...a perfect novel-in-stories.

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