Catherine Kimrey’s debut novel, When We All Get to Heaven, won the 2003 Washington Writers’ Publishing House fiction competition. Kimrey grew up in North Carolina and lives near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland with her husband. She has a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Pfeiffer University and a Master of Arts in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University. She works for the Criminal Division of the U. S. Department of Justice and was formerly the Special Agent in Charge of criminal intelligence for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. Kimrey is working on a novel and a screenplay.
When the county seat got bored with education and sent the dancing lady down to our school is when I found out that art is something besides what you can draw or paint. But when I told Grandma she didn’t believe it.
“Pssshaw, Robin,” she said, sticking out her lips in a little frown. “Don’t you go thinking all them foolish notions that teacher woman is filling your head with means a thing. Art ain’t nothing but what you can hang on a wall and look at. And dancing ain’t nothing but a sin and abomination. Anybody tells you any different ain’t in their right mind.”
“But Grandma–,” I said.
“Even if it is your precious Miss Revere,” she said, and pressed her hot iron down so hard on the back of Pa’s shirt that it left a big three-sided scorch mark.
“And don’t you go ‘Grandma-ing’ me neither,” she said. “Remember that story we read? The one about how John the Baptist’s head was served up on a platter all because a wicked girl danced in front of King Herod.
“Besides, it ain’t just the dancing itself. It’s what all them bodies huddling up together can lead to. Now I better not hear one more word about any dancing in this house.”
So for a long time I didn’t say anymore about the dancing lady who showed up one day when Miss Revere, as smart as she is, didn’t know to look for her. Us Busy Bees, which is the very fastest reading group, even if I am in it, were all circled around Miss Revere in the reading corner when the dancing lady knocked on the door.
Dick and Jane were running down the hill after Spot. And I missed my turn to read out loud next. Even though I was already whispering to myself. Practicing the words.
The dancing lady whirled in with her long ruffley plaid skirt flying around her high heel shoes that had straps tied around her ankles. When she whipped her neck, her black hair that was so long it nearly reached her waist flew into a circle around her head. At first I was afraid she was a witch, the way her eyeballs flashed and sparkled. But I knew she wasn’t when Miss Revere jumped up and hugged the dancing lady right there in front of the whole class.
“Oh, Esther,” Miss Revere said, “it’s such a nice surprise to see you. I was afraid the school board had cut out the funds for your job.”
“There’s always that possibility,” the dancing lady said. “A very real possibility. Most of those old men think that anything besides reading, writing, and arithmetic are frivolous pursuits. After all, Martha,” she said, having the nerve to call Miss Revere by her first name, “they’re not out here in the hinterlands like you are every day, seeing these impoverished children who are starved for a little culture in their lives.”
Miss Revere clapped her hands together twice. “Now students,” she said, “you have a real treat in store for you today. A very special treat. Miss Harris,” and she nodded over toward the dancing lady, “has come all the way from town, right down here to Cool Springs School, to introduce you to the art of the dance. Have any of you ever taken dancing lessons before?”
Miss Revere cut her eyes over toward Jimbo Lee and shook her head in the way that means “quit that this minute.” Jimbo had already jumped up out of his desk, and was standing in the aisle shaking his hips to beat the band. Making like he was playing on a guitar.
Uncle Bobby showed me his guitar one time. When Grandma was out of the house. He pulled it from behind a pile of clothes in his wardrobe, and let me mess with the cords on it. But the noises that came out sounded more like an old hoot owl screeching than any sounds anybody would ever want to listen to on purpose.
“Don’t you dare tell your Grandma about this,” he said. “It gits on her nerves and makes them flare up ever time she hears string music. Your Grandma always was agin a body having a good time at anything.”
Uncle Bobby tilted his head and started moving his fingers over the music cords. Turning the little knobs that held them on to the funny-shaped wood box, and humming to himself like for a minute he’d forgot all about me.
“Your Grandma’s not a bit like her brother Robert was,” Uncle Bobby said. “He’s the very one give me this guitar and showed me how to play. He could make right pretty music on a mouth harp too. Fact is he’s the only one of the Almonds I ever knowed to act like living was something other than waiting to die.”
“Then why did he go and shoot himself?” I said.
Uncle Bobby laid the guitar down and put his hand under my chin.
“What do you mean, Robin?” he said.
“One time when we were up at Molly’s I heard Grandma and Aunt Nutmeg quarreling over him. Aunt Nutmeg said the reason he done it was because their Ma was so strict on him growing up.”
“And what did your Grandma say?”
“She said it didn’t have nothing to do with their Ma. That Uncle Robert got what he deserved because he had the Devil in him.”
“Um,” Uncle Bobby said, “Maybe they was both right.”
He picked the guitar back up. “Don’t you go telling your Grandma we talked about this. Now listen here,” he said, and started in to singing with a beautiful voice that didn’t sound a bit like his real one.
“Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.”
Uncle Bobby singing to me is what I thought of when the dancing lady stuck the plug in the electricity socket and started the record player up. The music that poured out sounded like it had a guitar mixed up with the piano.
The dancing lady swayed back and forth in a way that looked just like the record player music–she called it sauce music–was running straight through her body and making it move without her even having to do anything.
While Miss Harris was dancing in front of the blackboard, Miss Revere told us students to help her push the chairs and desks out of the middle of the class and stick them around the edges of the room. To make a floor we could dance on.
“Come on and join me,” the dancing lady said, holding her hands out toward Miss Revere. “Help me show these young people how good it feels to move their bodies to the beat.”
At first my arms and legs didn’t want to go the way the dancing lady said they had to. But after Miss Revere stood and watched us dance a while, she said some of us were trying too hard. Then she came around and showed me and Judith how to suck in our breath and raise our arms up over our heads at the same time. And move them gratefully in a nice smooth way. She said it would come easier to us if we played like we were feathers floating around in the wind.
“Pretend your mind is way up in the clouds somewhere,” she said. “Then imagine that your body wants to float off and catch it. When you’re dancing you’re not supposed to be thinking about how to read or spell or add numbers or anything like that. You’re supposed to let the music take over and just make you feel glad to be alive.”
After Miss Revere showed me how to do it right, I liked it a lot when the dancing lady came back to teach us something new. We did square dance in a circle. And we did ballroom dance which was yucky because the boys and girls had to hug up together. And we did tap dance, which made an awful noise when we all stomped our feet on the wood floor at the same time. After one of the other teachers who is real mean went and complained to the principal, he showed up at our door and called us down. Miss Revere’s face turned red as a beet, and we didn’t ever get to do tap dance a single time again.
One day Miss Revere said for me and Karen and Jimbo and John to stay inside while the other students had recess. She said that the Jaycee men up town had invited her to pick out a group of students to come and give them a program at their next meeting. I couldn’t hardly believe my ears when Miss Revere said she wanted us to ride off up to the Sweets County Hotel and dance for the Jaycee men. I was a little bit scared because I hadn’t ever danced outside the class before. But I was the most afraid that Grandma would find out about the dancing and keep me at home.
I was glad that the permission slip piece of paper Miss Revere gave us to get signed, before we could go uptown, didn’t have one word about dancing. All it said was that our class had been invited to participate in a series of programs that students from different schools were putting on for the Jaycees during their regular monthly luncheon meetings. And that it was a special honor for this particular student to be selected to go on this teacher-escorted trip.
I handed the permission paper to Grandma that night after supper, when she and Pa were going back and forth in their rockers on either side of the stove in the front room. I was afraid that when Grandma read the note she would ask me some question about what kind of Jaycee program it was going to be. But all she did was look over at Pa and say, “Ain’t it nice that Robin’s been picked out of all the young’uns in her class to go up town and eat lunch with the Jaycees?”
“It shore is,” Pa said. “It shore is. But I hope that teacher woman is a safe driver. I wonder iffen I ought’en to drive Robin up there my own self.”
“Clyde,” Grandma said, “the way you drive, she’s bound to be a whole lot safer riding with that Revere woman. Besides you don’t know nothing about how to act in a Jaycees meeting. Them there is business men.”
Catherine Kimrey’s debut novel is a chilling tale told through the eyes of a child. Her artful dialog returns readers to an era of American innocence when ‘good’ people lived ‘moral lives’ in ‘much simpler’ times. Only Ms. Kimrey cleverly digs beneath this façade to reveal that even the most ordinary of lives is scarred by frightening secrets best kept hidden. This is a seductive, cautionary novel about the naiveté of youth, dangers of piety, and stolen dreams.
—Pete Earley, Author: The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison
Steeped in the tradition of O’Conner and Welty, Catherine Kimrey weaves an uncommon story of family secrets and violent redemption. Colorful, witty, alive with the arteries of Southern life,When We All Get to Heaven is an unfolding revelation of what cannot be easily explained away. This tale of twisted destinies keeps us in suspense and shows us, in the darkest hours of affliction, how inadequate we are to comprehend our own lives even as we are trying to get through them. Authentic and wise.
— Judith Harris, Author:Atonement: Poems
When We All Get to Heaven illustrates the stranglehold of fanatical religion’s repressive tendencies and the effect they can have on a family and a culture. The young girl narrator is bright and appealing; her story is heart-rending.
— Michael D. Langan, Final Judge in the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2003 Fiction Competition
A charming little horror story. Kimrey’s descriptions are powerful. Like Steinbeck, she places you directly inside the action.”
—Gerald Shur, Co-Author: Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program