The first chapter of the completed novel Jo, the hard story of a girl.
My name is Jolene Allston, and I believed I could make of myself whatever I wanted. My story starts far from the marsh and more than at least one life ago, on a day when I was fourteen. The yellow bus let me off at the rutted drive to the shack my mother and father rented. I stood at the side of the road and looked at the roof patched with shingle roll and tar and set my face against it.
I walked to my home. The autumn wind was moving willow oak, yellow pine and sycamore at the edges of the fields. I sat on the good side of the porch, took a book from my bag and leaned against the dirty clapboard. I looked away from the house, toward the stubble corn and the trees beyond.
My father emerged from the falling-down shed he called his garage. He was not a shade-tree mechanic, because there was no tree beside the shed or house. We burned in summer. He did not have his old car up on cinder blocks—it lay dead on stumps of grease- and resin-stained pine. I watched him go about his business in his ripped jump suit, a red bandanna tied around his head. He spat a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. Both he and my mother had black teeth. I could not stand to see them smile.
My father always wanted nice cars, ordered specialty magazines about them, knew the specifications of his favorites, but he drove old cars and poured money into them. Every month he overhauled an old Ford or Dodge in the dirt yard. He’d buy a salvage engine, talk about what a good engine it would be, and bolt it into its compartment. A month later it would seize tight, and after a day filled with curse words and white smoke the corpse would be dragged down a dirt road into timber company land and abandoned. Within a week a similar carcass would take its place beside our house, and the failed treatment would begin again. He thought he was beating the system by keeping old cars going. He loved the idea of beating the system.
He had a carburetor in his hand. I didn’t know if it was one he’d just fixed or one that needed fixing. There wasn’t much difference. He stared into the dark hole of the engine compartment, then turned my way to spit, saw me, made a quarter turn to spit away, wiped his mouth on a dirty blue-gray sleeve and said, “Reading again?”
I said, “I am.”
He stared at me.
“You working on that car?” I asked.
He nodded seriously. Cars were serious matters. “Jimmy Jackson sold me a carb, but it’s the wrong year.”
He contemplated this dilemma for several seconds.
I said, “Why don’t you save your money and make a down payment on a good car like you always said you wanted? Your payments wouldn’t be any more than the money you waste every month on parts that fall out the bottom as soon as you put them in.”
This was sacrilege and I knew it.
He said, “Don’t get smart, girl.” That was our family’s motto: don’t get smart. Then he walked away.
I stood from the splintered porch and went inside. I pushed open the door to the room I shared with my two sisters and heard the brick doorstop scrape another layer from the pine floor. None of the doors in the house latched, because the floors sloped, and so we held them open or shut with bricks. Most of them had been white years ago and had two series of concentric circles molded into one flat side. Designer bricks, my mother had once joked, the fanciest things in our house. One of my sisters had put ours in place that morning by reaching a thin wrist through the opening and pulling the brick to the back of the closing door. I put my pack on my bed.
My mother was sitting in the kitchen drinking a beer when I walked in with my book. She said, “Did you put your clothes away like I asked you to?”
I said, “I’m reading.”
My mother and I had a secret language. Most of the words translated into “I can’t stand the sight of you.” She stood abruptly and tore the book from my hands. I smiled at her. She tried to tear the book in two, which she couldn’t, then took it to the sink and held it under a running faucet. This sort of thing had been going on for months. Someone who didn’t know us would wonder what had triggered such an act, but it took no more trigger than my tone of voice. I had refined that tone through much practice. I had lately learned how to make her dance in frustration. For several months it gave me a shameful feeling of power. I am not proud of it, but I was young and trying to save myself.
“It’s a library book,” I said.
“Well it’s in your name, so you’ll have to pay for it.”
Then I said, “I put my clothes up this morning.”
We were that way from the start. She was crazy and I was a stuck-up smart-ass bitch. Neither of us knew anything else. Millions of people don’t know how to raise their children, and she sulked at the end of their line. The children do the best we can. It’s not a pretty sight.
My mother breathed hard for several breaths. She said, “Well look where your reading got you, Miss Valedictorium.” She knew she’d gotten the word wrong. It made her feel ashamed, which in turn made her angrier. She tossed the book at me. “You hate me, and I don’t know what the Hell to do with you.”
I turned away from her and began to wipe the book with a ragged dish towel that had Welcome to Myrtle Beach written across one side. I didn’t know how we had come to possess such a towel, as we’d never been to the ocean. It must have come from a bin at a Goodwill store. Then I took a chip from the bag my mother always kept open and near her, and as I ate I said, “You could make me sit in dirty diapers for two days or make me eat the food I throw up. Or you could make me wear clothes with rips in them or force me to take a shower outside at the well, so anybody can watch.” These were all things that she had done to me and my brothers and sisters, although they thought that was the way it was supposed to be. I wasn’t sexually abused like kids are nowadays, but I didn’t spend my money on Mothers Day or Fathers Day cards either. That’s just the way it was. Lots of people know what I mean.
Then my mother tossed her beer in my face. She was drinking from a can, and not much came out of the hole, just a wet string that hit my chin and ran down the front of my T shirt, like she’d pissed on me. “Get out of this house,” she said cold as she could. I could have fought her on it, but I didn’t want to. I wiped the beer from my chin with the ragged dish towel. I smelled the waste of years ahead if I didn’t act.