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Authors: Laura Lee Smith

Tags: #Literary, #Family Life, #Fiction

Heart of Palm


Grove Press

New York

Copyright © 2013 by Laura Lee Smith

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 or
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9356-8
Grove Press
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
841 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West

For Chris

A costly delicacy indeed,
when to get to the heart you must kill the tree.


March 1964

Most people never understood why Arla went and married a Bravo. The world genuflected before her. She was beautiful, then: skin like white linen, blue-blooded and hot tempered, stood a full six feet tall in her pink Capezio flats. She could have had so much more. Leon Fontaine, that sweet young man, perfectly lovesick over her and set up so nice like he was in his father’s law practice. He bought her a diamond ring; she thanked him and had it made into a pendant. Donny Pellicier, who took her to the senior prom, got to second base, and then went off to seminary at Our Lady of Perpetual Help up in Savannah. He wasn’t there even a week when he nearly went crazy with longing for her. He embarked on an aggressive and frantic spiritual reckoning, reevaluated the munificent bodily benefits of lay service, then hitchhiked back home to be with Arla, who wouldn’t have him.

When she told her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Bolton of St. Augustine’s Davis Shores, that she intended to marry Dean Bravo, her mother put her hands to her face, and her father went for the Scotch. This was 1964, the day before Arla’s eighteenth birthday. Just off the lanai, the azaleas were in full bloom, a wash of magenta against the somber green weave of the lawn.

“Oh, Arla,” Vera said. “Don’t do this to us.”

“Are you knocked up?” James said. Vera began to cry.

“I am not knocked up,” Arla said. “My Lord, you people.” She stood before them, all lightness and promise and sass, with that soft red hair that made you forget what you were going to say.

“But, Arla,” Vera said. “He’s a Bravo. He will ruin you.”

“Mon dieu. You’re so dramatic.” Arla had lately adopted an affectation of using French colloquialisms, enjoying the way they slid off her tongue, the way they suggested some vague seduction, some abstract sensuality that she’d learned was a powerful currency. “Men don’t ruin women. Daddy didn’t ruin you, did he?” She opened her eyes wide, stared at her mother, tilted her head a bit.

“He wants your money,” James said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Arla said. “He wants me.” Her eyes narrowed when she said this. James ran a hand across his eyes, and Vera hunched over on the chaise, clutching her shoulders.

“You might could congratulate me,” Arla said. “Here I’m going to be a married woman and all.” She sat down and picked at a scab on her knee. James stared at her and jumped when an ice cube in his glass shifted position. Vera wept.

“I love him, Mother,” Arla said.

“Oh, Arla,” Vera said. She reached for a tissue and blew her nose. “Dean Bravo? Love won’t be enough.”

Vera had a point. The Boltons were St. Augustine’s finest, pillars of the community, champions of industry, transplanted from Connecticut during Arla’s infancy, when James Bolton inherited an insurance franchise and decided there could be no better setting for natural disaster, property loss, and financial gain than the sparkling shores of the Sunshine State. He was right. Business had boomed, and the Boltons had prospered accordingly. James pursued his ambition relentlessly, with the focus of a man for whom success was all and sentiment was a nuisance for which he had no patience. He was a cold man, stoic and aloof even from his wife and daughter. Arla had watched over the years as her mother’s desperation grew, as Vera became ebullient and cloying when James was in the house, despondent and weepy when he was not. But the money kept coming in. James bought a house on the Matanzas Bay, drank whiskey sours with the city council, and slept with his secretary. Vera joined the Garden Club and played bridge on Thursdays. They had a cleaning lady. Arla had grown up knowing she was special, she was different, she was better. A Steinway piano in a formal living room. Pointe class every Wednesday, private French lessons every Friday. Chenille bedding. Sleepover parties. Waterskiing at Salt Run.

The Bravo family, on the other hand, lived twenty-five miles north of St. Augustine, in the tiny town of Utina on the east bank of the Florida Intracoastal Waterway. They were Menorcans, settled in Florida not direct from Menorca like most sensible people, but by way of Tennessee, which might have explained a few things. They were descended on their maternal side from the famous Admiral Farragut, whose father Jorge Farragut came to Tennessee from Menorca in 1783, and who is best known for his pithy, if boneheaded, battle cry: “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” It might as well have been the family slogan. The Bravos bullied and bollixed their way from Tennessee to St. Augustine around the turn of the twentieth century. They probably would have stayed there, but as luck would have it, Alger Bravo, grandfather of Arla’s betrothed Dean, had been chased out of St. Augustine by a collective of rumrunners he’d double-crossed. Alger had cut his losses and retreated north into the thick piney woods of Utina, where the Bravos had lived ever since, dispersing like shadows into the scrub.

Thus the Bravos were cut from a different cloth than the Boltons. The Bravos had never seen the inside of a country club, frequenting, instead, such establishments as Utina’s Cue & Brew, the cold case at Soto’s Discount Beverage and the county drunk tank. They weren’t poor, not by the broadest standards; the Bravos made money when they needed to and quit when they didn’t, but they found themselves, to a one, unfettered by the distractions of ambition that seemed to plague other families.

And then there was Dean—third son of Tucker and Margie Bravo—best of the lot, give Arla that. Dean had the Spaniard’s dark charm, a brooding chill in his blue eyes and sinews in his forearms that made Arla think impure thoughts. He was cocky and mouthy and comfortable in his own shortcomings in a way Arla found astounding, arousing.

He’d been raised, along with his brothers Huff and Charlie, in a culture of recklessness, neglect, and some mild thuggery. The Bravo brothers had run wild through Utina since they were old enough to walk. As a teenager, Huff went downhill pretty quickly, following his parents’ twin examples of alcoholism and lawlessness; he was twenty-four when he earned his first sentence for theft, forgery, and capital battery. Dean and Charlie got wise. They stayed, for the most part, just this side of the law, steering clear of actual felonies—at least the ones that were prone to get them caught. At twenty-two, Charlie got a sixteen-year-old girl pregnant and settled down to family life. At twenty, Dean met Arla.

He’d been driving to St. Augustine and had seen her from a distance late one afternoon in ’63, a tall, pale figure walking on a deserted stretch of A1A in the scalding rays of Florida’s September sun. The road ran parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. A few houses dotted the shoreline, but mostly it was a lonesome road, the main thoroughfare, if you could call it that, between St. Augustine and Utina. The scrub extended hot and barren for miles north and south; the ocean over the dunes pushed a searing wind across the road. She’d been wearing nearly nothing: a sky blue bikini, a pair of thin sandals, a silver locket, a canvas tote over her shoulder. He pulled over.

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