Throughout that whole hot summer, after Jolene found her mother dead, she heard the woman’s voice speak to her in desperate utterances--whispered through the pine trees, echoing on the wind, murmured underwater--telling her how to stay alive.
What do you imagine would be the worst day to find a dead mother? You might say on Christmas or even Thanksgiving, but that day happened to be on Jolene’s seventh birthday: July seventh, nineteen seventy. That date was full of sevens and it should have been a lucky day. Jolene came downstairs, excited to see a balloon or two, maybe some silly putty or a yo-yo wrapped up in tissue paper, but what she found was a dead mom collapsed on a chair, a bottle of pills next to her, empty; clear liquid in a paper cup. It might have been an accident, which may have been easier to weather, but there was a penciled note scrawled in a shaky hand—you could almost see her mom’s state of mind in that faint, wobbly script, written by someone who was barely visible, someone who wanted to be erased.
Jolene kept the note in her top dresser drawer. The note said: “My heart hurts too much to go on. The best part of my whole life was being your mom, but I’m doing a bad job of it. Your better off without me.”
The second “You’re” was misspelled: Y—O—U—R. Her dad, after reading it, said, “She spelled ‘you’re’ wrong.” Jolene remembers it that way, as the one thing he had to say about that note, which goes a long way in explaining why her mom thought she did a bad job at everything. What a bastard.
Jolene felt punished because, a few days later, she was taken to her grandma’s house, a lady she had never met. Her dad said it would be a good way to heal--spending the rest of that summer with her mom’s mom--and besides, he had to work. He said they were headed to the town where her mom grew up, a place outside of a city named after big, dumb cows. They drove for a long while, passing by life-size statues of buffalo grazing along a strip of grass between the lanes of the highway.
“Dumb name for a city,” scoffed her dad. “Buffalo never lived here.”
“What are buffalo?” asked Jolene.
“Like I told you, big dumb cows,” he said, stringing the words out long. He thought for a minute, then said, “Shoot. Two of them do live here after all, and you’ll meet ‘em.” He laughed at his own private joke, one that Jolene did not understand. For the rest of that trip she kept peering out the car window, anxious to spy real cows resembling those statues they’d passed along the way.
Finally, after paying the toll, they traveled along roads with less traffic, then almost no traffic, slowing down in front of a tiny yard full of dandelions and a short driveway. The mailbox out front read, “Sherman,” her mom’s last name. Her dad swung the car onto the gravel and Jolene heard the crunching sound beneath the tires before the engine went dead. After their windy trip, with the windows rolled down the whole way, they sat in silence for a moment with nothing now but the sound of a far-off train hailing the beginning of a new life. The heat settled back around their necks like a warm, wet towel.
“This is the place,” declared her dad, looking at a rusty old mower in the middle of the lawn next to a cardboard sign that read: For Sale, Best Offer. He shook his head and snickered. “Still trying to sell busted-up shit to stupid people.”
The house stood at the side of a cul-de-sac, plain and narrow with gray tar-paper shingles. A stocky woman with frizzy gray hair lumbered out. She was wearing a yellow muumuu dotted with stains down the front; some looking old, some fresh.
The woman and her dad eyed one another warily like dogs catching a whiff of something they found offensive. The woman nodded, unsmiling. “How you doing, Jay?”
“Just fine, Beverly,” said Jolene’s dad, like he was settling an argument.
He picked up the suitcase and the three of them headed toward the house. Even before getting through the flimsy screen door, they were assaulted by the smell of cat piss. Six cats tip-toed along the countertops, licking wads of jam or ketchup, the same colors that were splashed on the muumuu.
The old woman noticed Jolene and her dad scanning the cats. “One more an’ I’ll be a Crazy Cat Lady,” she said. “But I ain’t there yet. Number’s seven. All I got is six.”
“Is that right?” said Jay. “You got three more than the last time I was here.”
She looked pointedly at Jay who stared back at her with deadpan eyes. “Those three are long gone now. That’s a ways back. You ain’t been here in some time. Anyways, people keep giving me their cats when they can’t take care of ‘em.” Grandma glanced over at Jolene, taking inventory. “She favors you, I guess, ‘cept for the eyes. That color’s all Sherman. Other than that, I don’t see none of Terri in this girl.”
“She’s in there, alright,” said Jay. “The way she acts is all Terri.”
“Good,” said Grandma. “Least I know what I got here then.”
After a quick trip to use the bathroom, Jay ruffled Jolene’s hair and said, “See you later, kiddo.” It seemed like he was putting on a show for the old woman because he’d never ruffled her hair before, had never called her kiddo. Jolene wrapped both arms around his waist and held on. He patted her back and promised to pick her up in three weeks.
Three weeks means nothing to a girl of seven—he may as well have said three years.
Grandma led Jolene up a spindly staircase to see the bedroom where she’d be sleeping. It had just enough space to hold a wooden dresser and a small bed draped with a faded coverlet. Grandma said this room was a no-cat-zone and Jolene should shut the door to keep them out. “Don’t let nobody in here you don’t want coming in,” she said and demonstrated to Jolene how to slide the latch on the door to lock it from the inside. The latch was placed at a height where a child could reach it. Jolene wondered who’d be trying to get in when it was only her and Grandma living there in the house.
Through the open window, Jolene spied a swimming pool out back, weathered and listing to one side. It looked like heaven to her on that hot July day, full of clouds reflected in the water, with green patches quivering below like miniature islands.
Grandma took Jolene to K-mart to get a bathing suit. She begged for the one that made her look like a mermaid. It was just a regular two-piece, but attached to the bottom half was a gauzy, blue skirt shimmering with big silver sequins. Grandma worried that the sequins would get caught in the pool filter and told Jolene not to wear the skirt part in the water, but what girl of seven can resist flipping her tail? Later, in the pool, she admired how her hair flowed out around her, undulating in the water like golden ribbons, and, with the sparkly tail flashing below, she dreamed herself to be a real mermaid. This gave her some power to think that maybe she could survive life without a mom.
As Jolene twirled and somersaulted under the ocean, a station wagon pulled up front, spilling out cousins: three loud boys, and one sulky girl. The boys leaped into the pool, exploding the water like bombs going off. Jolene grabbed ahold of the side and held tight as waves surged over the edge. A woman strolled into the backyard and Jolene’s stomach flipped to see her mom, now fat, wearing a brassy yellow wig; her mom’s pert nose replaced by a pig’s snout.
“Put your eyes back into your head, Jolene. I’m your aunt,” said the woman, peeking over the side of the pool, devouring Jolene with a curious, hard look. Grandma bustled outside and stood beside the aunt, who said, “Guess Jay thought Terri was too good to visit us, but not his girl, huh?” How long she here for?”
Grandma shrugged, staring into the pool. The aunt lit a cigarette and Jolene noticed she had stubby hands with chewed-up nails covered in chipped red polish. She wore heavy turquoise rings on her fingers. Jolene avoided looking at the aunt’s face, maybe because the sun glared harshly over the top of the woman’s head; Jolene would have had to squint. Or maybe she didn’t look because seeing her mom’s face all puffed up and yellowish, with mean eyes, was a lot to take in.
“I got some stuff I gotta get done today,” said the aunt.
Jolene noticed the girl cousin roll her eyes and mumble low, under her breath.
“I ain’t taking the boys all day,” said Grandma. “They ate up the Captain Crunch last time. All of it.”
The aunt, ignoring Grandma, stared straight at the girl. “You got something to say about it, Denise? I think you better think about shutting up.”
“I didn’t say nothin’,” said the girl. Her tone held fire but she broke eye contact and looked away from her mother’s challenging gaze.
“I’ll get back in two hours,” said the aunt to Grandma, stubbing out her cigarette on the side of the pool. Grandma shook her head; looked up, and rolled her eyes at the sky, which must have meant “yes,” because both of them trudged back to the house and left the kids to splashing.
Jolene’s girl cousin glided under the water and popped up beside her like some kind of fluid, lanky eel. She put her face too close to Jolene’s; a round face full of freckles, some in blotches so big as to form patches of rust. Her eyes matched the darkest freckles, a reddish-brown, not unlike the color of Jolene’s eyes. Her head looked too big for her thin, long body.
“I’m eleven. How old are you?” demanded the girl.
“Seven,” answered Jolene. “I’m a mermaid.”
“Did you know my mom is your mom’s ‘dentical twin?'' asked Denise. “That means they look just alike.”
“My mom was pretty,” said Jolene, stating a fact.
“Your mom’s dead,” said Denise, also a fact. She ducked below the surface and Jolene was shocked to feel her bathing suit bottoms being tugged down over her narrow hips, peeled off fiercely as she kicked in horror. Denise persisted until she had the costume wadded into a ball, tossing it over the edge of the pool onto the dirt and rocks. Jolene had to climb up the aluminum step ladder with no bottoms on, in front of those boy cousins who whooped and slapped their hands on top of the water. She looked frantically around for a towel but didn’t see one and ran to rescue the muddy scrunched-up ball of her gauzy blue tail. She charged through the back door, hardly able to see through her tears, the mermaid’s magic drained out of her.
Denise chased behind. Grandma stood at the sink, peeling potatoes, looking worn down by the sheer weight of her life. She wrapped a dish towel around Jolene’s bare bottom.
“What happened?” she snapped. After Jolene cried out her story, Grandma turned to Denise. “Why’d you do it?”
Denise replied, innocently, “I just wanted to see if mermaids had private parts, Grandma.”
Grandma looked at Jolene. “I told you not to wear that skirt in the pool.”
Grandma didn’t seem to realize that a girl of Denise’s age is old enough to know better. Jolene did her best to avoid the wily Denise, staying indoors for the rest of that hot day, huddled under the Formica table playing with the tattered Barbie dolls Grandma handed her, the cats taking turns at batting the dolls’ snarled hair.
After a few days, Grandma grew tired of Jolene skirting around her feet. Aunt Dulcie dropped off Cousin Denise, and Grandma told them, “Play outside awhile. Let me be.”
Denise wanted to play hair salon. She collected a bucket of supplies, tossing in a brush, a comb, and a handful of bobby pins. She opened a drawer and grabbed a pair of scissors.
“Let me see what you got of mine,” said Grandma, peering into the bucket. “Bring it all back to me. And no scissors.” She plucked them out of the bucket and slid them back into the kitchen drawer, making Jolene wonder if Grandma knew that Denise was a menace.
Denise led Jolene out back to take a seat on an overturned crate next to the shed in a block of shade. She brushed Jolene’s angel hair, lifting it off her neck with the comb and letting the strands fall delicately back into place. The tickling sensation of it raised goosebumps on Jolene’s arms. She missed being cuddled; hadn’t been hugged since her mom died. Her dad’s hair ruffle didn’t count.
“Your hair is so much prettier than mine,” lamented Denise, running her palm against its silkiness.
Denise’s hair was a frizzle-frazzled mess, the brindle color of wood shavings, coarse as a mare’s tail. Jolene didn’t like Denise’s hair but she was trying to make a friend of her cousin that day, so she said, “I wish my hair was curly like yours.”
“I can make it curly,” said Denise. “Let me go get some curlers.” She carried the bucket to the edge of the field along which grew prickly burdocks and milkweed with bumpy green pods. Denise picked the weeds until the bucket was half full. She separated Jolene’s hair into sections, rolling the burdocks like curlers to hold tight against Jolene’s head, careful to get every strand of hair gathered into the bundle. She cracked the milkweed pods open and rubbed the white sticky glue against the balls of hair until it felt, to Jolene, itchy and burning.
Denise said, “When you unroll it tomorrow, your hair will be all curly.”
Jolene touched her head. The burdocks wouldn’t budge. Back at the house, no amount of Grandma’s coaxing or cursing, or tugging with the comb could loosen Jolene’s hair from that trap. Finally, out came the scissors from the kitchen drawer. Jolene heard the chirping blades slicing through stiff wads of weeds and hair. The ragged balls of gluey burdock dropped around her feet as Denise sat transfixed, perched on a stool, watching with hungry eyes. No more mermaid hair.
Grandma asked Denise, “Why’d you do it?”
Denise made her eyes wide. “We were pretending. She wanted curly hair. The burdocks were curlers, Grandma. I didn’t know they’d stick so hard.”
Jolene, even at age seven, thought, “That’s bull.” Grandma rolled her eyes and sighed.
That night, curled under the thin bedspread in misery, nearly bald, Jolene was surprised to hear her dead mother speak to her for the first time; not in a regular voice, but as if that voice was whispered through the pine trees that were bending in the wind. Jolene felt a chill like someone blowing on her neck, causing her to stiffen. She listened closely to hear the message: No more tricks, Jolene. Don’t fall into another trap.
Jolene woke up a different sort of girl, cynical, but not completely motherless. The few old ladies who sometimes visited Grandma’s house to have coffee gazed at Jolene with voyeuristic pity, clucking, “Poor thing.” They didn’t realize the courage infused in her that night by the windy, urgent voice of her mother.
The next time she saw her cousin, Denise plunked a big silver coin into the pool. It slowly descended, head over tail, to land on an island of algae. Denise said it was a pirate's treasure and if Jolene could dive down to get it, she could keep it. Jolene, before sensing the risk, swam under the water to scoop up the prize. She felt Denise’s long foot find her back and press down hard; felt the strong fingers of Denise’s hand curl over her head to keep her down. Jolene could not swim up. At first, she thrashed, but the foot pressed harder each time she tried to twist away. Jolene panicked, her chest aching until her mother’s voice raged like an ocean wave crashing: Pretend to die.
Jolene went limp, longing to breathe, about to explode, when the hand and foot released her. She surfaced, sputtering, gulping for air. Her cousin arched against the side of the pool with a face that said, “Gotcha.”
Denise seemed to be everywhere that summer, circling Jolene like a shark threatening to strike at any moment; bursting open the bathroom door when Jolene was on the toilet, the boys bending over to peek in, mouths agape and honking like unruly geese until Grandma would yell, “Quit your monkey’n. Let her be!” and they’d scatter. Then there was the pathetic dead mouse, mangled, found on top of her bed. “Told you to keep that door shut, else the cats get in,” scolded Grandma, but Jolene knew it wasn’t a cat who’d placed that mouse in the bull’s eye center of her bed. Jolene wondered if her dad would ever come. At night she began using the door lock, not because Denise was in the house, but because she was in her head.
The best times were Thursdays when Grandma told Jolene to help her go through the junk in the shed, and pick out some things to lay on the tables out front for the weekly yard sale. Grandma never used the word junk, but instead said, “going through the inventory,” as if they worked in a real store. Jolene helped Grandma pick out toasters and tools, mildewed boxes full of old greeting cards, musty-smelling skeins of yarn, spools of thread, and bald tires. On Thursday, everything was laid out on card tables at the end of the driveway and hauled back in on Sunday. Grandma would sit out there for hours on a lawn chair wearing a floppy straw hat, waiting for cars to pull up. A sign out by the road guided people her way. The sign, handwritten on a piece of cardboard, read, “Yard Sale. Come find your hidden treasure.” Hardly any cars ever came by, but the people who did slide up pretty much saw that the tables were full of junk, not treasure. One look at the old woman sitting there in the barren yard, the ancient tables laid out with rusty old tools--those cars usually circled and left. Grandma would tip her hat at the retreating headlights and say, “Your loss.” Once in a while she’d sell an item or two, and stare at the handful of dollar bills like they were a thing of beauty. She’d stuff the wad of cash down the front of her shirt and give Jolene a wink. “Gotta be patient,” she’d say with a quick nod. “It pays off.”
One morning, as Jolene munched toast smeared with jam, Grandma said to her, “Jolene, listen. Your dad ain’t coming to get you. You’re gonna have to stay here with me.” The toast suddenly clogged in Jolene’s throat like a wad of damp paper. There was no way to swallow and she gagged, spitting it onto her plate.
Grandma looked at the mess and said, “It’ll be okay.” An earnest plea lingered in her eyes. Her expression was the same one she wore that time when a man asked if the banged-up lawn mower by the road still worked—“It’ll need some repair is all; it’s a damn good mower,” Grandma had told him, trying to sell busted-up shit to stupid people.
“But I don’t want to stay here,” whined Jolene. “I want to go home.”
Grandma raised her voice slightly and said, “He ain’t coming for you, Jolene.” Then lowered her voice and added, “The man’s a coward. Always has been.”
Jolene ran upstairs and fell on her bed, crying.
Later on, Grandma stood in the doorway. “Quit your bawling. Get your sneakers on. I’m taking you to a spot you’ll like. Somewheres your mom used to play.” She made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stuffed them into baggies, and Jolene climbed into the battered Rambler. Grandma swung the car out of the driveway and they traveled down the road apiece, then pulled into a parking lot in a grassy field.
Grandma got out stiffly and hobble-walked using a cane, doing her best to lead Jolene along the pathway through the woods to a gorge. Parents with children, hikers with dogs, and lovers holding hands, all trotted along the trail like a disjointed parade.
“Mind me, now,” warned Grandma. “See them boys up there?” She pointed to two children Jolene’s age, peeking over the side of the cliff, the only spot not blocked by brush or trees. “Them boys are too close to the edge. You stay next to me. You can run off when we get down there, but it’s a drop from up here. A girl fell off last year.”
“What happened to her?” asked Jolene. The notion of it made her want to peek over the edge with the boys.
“What’d’ya think happened to her, Jolene? Don’t ask dumb questions.”
A rocky path led through the woods and narrowed as they descended an incline to a stream. The Shhhhh of the falls strengthened with every step. White noise rose like a deafening silence; a command from God, Shhhhh. The falls appeared, cascading endlessly; frothy swirls churning at its base with the misty fog rising upward like a thousand-winged angels. The stream was strewn with boulders the size of Volkswagens. Children scrambled up to play on them, and lovers reclined to sunbathe. Grandma carefully lowered herself to settle on a log. The walk had been treacherous for her. They ate the sandwiches, looking around at everyone laughing and leaping amongst the rocks. Jolene felt like an uninvited guest at a party. Grandma’s chin dropped to her neck; she closed her eyes, and said, “Go ahead, Jolene. You play a bit. Let me be. I gotta rest some. There’s a surprise up there you’ll wanna see.”
Jolene splashed in the stream, slowly making her way up to the mouth of the falls, pushing through the pulsing current as if wading toward a holy destination on a religious quest. Drawing closer, she noticed a bright orange flame blazing from a recess behind the falls; sheets of water covering it like a transparent veil. She stood in wonder.
“There it is, there it is!” shouted a little girl in a high-pitched voice, racing up next to Jolene. The girl’s mother bent down and squeezed her daughter sideways in a hug. The girl pushed herself into that hug, clearly enjoying the preciousness of being cherished. The mother pointed to the flame, explaining something about natural gas. The girl wasn’t listening but her eyes traveled all over her mother’s face as she spoke, adoring being adored. Jolene was close enough to see the mother’s warm gaze, to hear her say, “All day, all night, it never goes out, never dies. It’s like love.”
The girl touched a dangling strand of her mother’s hair. “Doesn’t the fire ever get tired and want to take a nap?” The mother laughed, charmed by her daughter’s reply, and clasped her hand before they picked their way up closer to the flame.
A chasm opened for Jolene just then, an indefinable longing ignited--her whole life ahead with the tireless need to be held aloft in the eyes of a mother.
Jolene’s attention switched to a movement next to her: two monarch butterflies frolicking in a playful dance. It was odd to see them so far down in the gorge. As she watched, they rose higher and higher out of sight; a fluttering duo tracing figure eights. Jolene wondered if the “surprise” Grandma forecast was the flame or the butterflies. Seeing the monarchs brought her mother into the present in a flash of memory that felt as strong as her embrace. She pictured the two of them playing together along the shores of a lake that was always cold. Her mom had pointed at the horizon—“That’s a whole other country over there. I’ll teach you to swim better and maybe we can reach it by sundown.” Her mother’s expression was wistful, then full of something akin to joy—“Kick ‘n’ paddle, Jolene, kick ‘n’ paddle!”—and Jolene swam straight into her mother’s outstretched arms.
Jolene waded back to where her grandmother rested.
“You seen the fire?” asked Grandma, rising unsteadily to her feet, grasping the cane that looked inefficient to hold her weight. Jolene nodded. A solemn feeling took hold of her, thinking about that flame--how it never dies. “All right,” said Grandma. “We can go then.”
Halfway up the trail, Grandma needed to rest. She leaned on her cane, looking sideways toward the gorge, lapsed in reverie. “You might’a sat on a rock that your mom played on when she was little. Her and Dulcie, they used to be down here for hours. Your mom, more so. She used to make fairy houses.” Grandma sighed and her eyelids fluttered. “She’d tell us that the fairies rode on the backs of butterflies when they got too tired of flying around on their own.” The memory tugged at her features, drawing her mouth downward.
“That flame,” she said in a voice thick with emotion. Jolene waited to hear more but Grandma stopped, straightened her back, and started to walk again, slowly. “They say it’s eternal, never goes out,” she continued, her voice recovered. “It do sometimes, go out. Has to be lit.”
The next day was Saturday. One of the boy cousins, the middle one, had a birthday to celebrate. Grandma sent the three boys out into the field to gather rocks for building a fire pit. She showed them, with her hands, what size rock they should collect: “Like a small loaf of bread,” she said. “Not a big loaf.” The project lasted the whole afternoon, with the boys pulling rocks of all sizes out of the earth, racing back to stack them against the shed in a competition of brawn and speed. They dug a deep hole for the pit but had to refill it. “You ain’t gonna bury a goat,” snapped Grandma. “Do it right, like I told you.”
Finally, the rocks were piled up to form a shape resembling a circle, the firewood placed and ready to be lit when the sun went down. Jolene and Denise dragged lawn chairs out of the shed and set them around the fire.
The children held pointy sticks speared with marshmallows that browned to perfection, but then more often than not, ignited, charring black. The boys dared each other, taking turns raising their bare feet just above the crackling sparks to see who could last the longest. Denise hoisted her feet over the flames and won, her eyes squeezed shut with determination. Aunt Dulcie and Grandma joined them after a bit, Dulcie sitting down heavily with a grunt, popping off the tab on a can of beer.
“Can I have a sip?” asked the eldest son, posturing for his brothers.
“You eighteen yet?” asked Dulcie.
“No, but I’m gonna be in…” he tried to calculate. “Seven years.”
“How’s that?” said Dulcie, smiling. “Try nine. Nine years.” She looked at him for a moment, searching his face. “Here,” she said, handing him the green can. “One sip.”
Her son took a swig, hesitating before he swallowed, puckering as if he’d sucked a lemon. “Mmmmm,” he said, rubbing his belly. He looked at his brothers like he’d just won a prize.
“Goof,” said Dulcie, shaking her head with amusement.
Denise gently bumped against Jolene’s shoulder, as if to say, look at this freaky family you’ve joined. Jolene had never felt more rooted in this group and her heart glowed in gratitude at being included, at seeing the contented faces of her relatives made luminesce by the orange glow of the fire. To see Aunt Dulcie looking peaceful gave Jolene confidence to relax, hoping that maybe she could craft a family out of this rugged bunch.
“Went to see the fire in the falls yesterday,” Grandma offered.
“Ahhh, we wanna go!” said the birthday boy. “I heard it keeps lit ‘cause a’ all the gas. They told us in school.”
“Gas is a fart!” shrieked the littlest of the three, and the boys burst into laughter. The middle one tipped in his chair, knocking into his older brother who smacked him hard on top of his head with a balled-up fist. The birthday boy began to cry.
“See why I don’t take ‘em?” said Grandma, staring straight down into the pit.
The next morning Aunt Dulcie showed up at the house alone and sat at the kitchen table with Grandma. There were no cousins around. A serious tone alerted Jolene not to enter. She listened, perched on the staircase, unseen by the women as they sipped coffee.
“I gotta see Jay’s face now for the rest of my days?” said Dulcie. “When’s she going?”
“I told you,” said Grandma. “She’s here now, for good.”
There was a pause as someone shifted in a chair, the sound of liquid pouring into a mug. Dulcie coughed.
“Denise has got to see him too, now,” said Dulcie.
Jolene wondered what was meant by this—she had not seen her dad in a very long time. Was he here somewhere, hidden, appearing only to Denise and Dulcie?
“You girls made some bad choices back when,” said Grandma. “Now stop with your monkey talk.”
Another pause. The air in the room pulsated.
“Bad Choices! You’re saying I made the bad choice? Me? I’m the one!” There was the sound of a chair scraping across the floor, a mug smashing, and the screen door slamming shut. Jolene leaned out cautiously to look through the doorway of the kitchen, seeing the bulky form of Grandma struggling to bend and gather up the shards of that chunky white mug. Jolene thought about how hard that mug must have been heaved in order to break.
Later that day, as Grandma reached to put away some dishes in the cupboard, she was startled to see Denise out of the corner of her eye, standing silently outside the screen door.
“Get yourself in here, then,” said Grandma. “If you’re coming in, do it.”
Denise entered and stood scowling. Her vision seemed unfocused, staring at the middle ground. The screen had hidden the blotchy patches on her sweaty face, but once indoors those blemishes bloomed into a hideous garden. There was a crosshatching of cuts on her cheek below her right eye and her bottom lip was raised with a single drop of blood where it was split. Aunt Dulcie had dropped her off and sped away.
Grandma looked at Denise and then quickly headed to the freezer. She shook ice cubes out from a tray into the sink, wrapping a few of them in a dishtowel which she wet under the faucet with cold water.
“Sit down,” she commanded. Denise complied.
Grandma twisted the end of the towel to keep the ice from falling out. She handed the bundle to Denise who pressed the wad to her swollen lip in a wordless ritual understood by them both.
Grandma asked, “Who done it, your mom or Milt?”
Denise replied in monotone, “Milton just hits the boys now.”
Grandma shook her head, irritated. “You two got to learn to get along!” she scolded.
Jolene sidled up to Denise. She had an urge to reach out and hold her hand--an urge she resisted. Instead, she asked, “Who’s Milton?”
“Jolene, quit with your monkey questions,” snapped Grandma.
“An’ quit staring at me,” said Denise.
Jolene tried to train her eyes on something else in the room besides Denise dabbing more ice against her swollen face. She watched the cats instead, the way they pressed themselves sensuously against the table legs, blessedly oblivious.
Jolene wandered into the backyard, gathering small sticks and rocks at the edge of the field, imagining how to arrange a fairy house. The day was hot and monarchs bobbed and lit on the milkweed growing in abundance at the edge of the field. She became engulfed in creating a tiny structure out of sticks, moss, and stone with the bright fantasy that fairies might discover and inhabit the little room; the bark beds made soft with milkweed silk, pebble chairs, and a rock table set with tiny pods full of hard, red berries.
A long shadow appeared, jolting Jolene from her play. She looked up into the wounded face of her cousin. The florid red on her cheeks had paled to reveal scratches, the streaks made garishly visible now that the rash had faded.
Jolene’s heart ticked rapidly in her chest, waiting for Denise’s malefic foot to demolish the delicate cottage, but Denise sat down, crossing her legs. She leaned forward to caress the spongy carpet of moss with an outstretched finger, pressing down, forcing a small recess, then leaned back on her hands and closed her eyes, her face turned up to the sun.
Jolene was able to take a long, furtive look at her cousin: the nose, too small for her wide face; her eyelashes, stiff as whiskers, curled and reddish-blond. Denise was flat-chested with broad muscled shoulders and hard lean arms and legs. She looked vulnerable for once; not soft, or even safe, but damaged like those injured lions Jolene watched on the nature shows—the way the beasts withdrew, defeated and maimed, and you knew that death was not far off.
Denise rubbed her eyes. “What’s the house for?” she asked.
“The fairies,” said Jolene. “So they could live here.”
Denise half grunted, half laughed. “You believe in fairies?”
Jolene considered a moment. “Yes,” she affirmed. “They used to bring me money when I lost a tooth.”
“A dime,” said Jolene.
“You should’ve asked for a quarter.” Denise stood and dusted off her bottom. “Take a walk with me,” she said. “I have a secret to tell you; a big one. I’m not supposed to say it, so we gotta be farther out.”
Everything was silent except for the occasional buzz of a cricket or the trill of a bird. There was not even a wafting breeze through the field to make a sound. Jolene felt ruinously sleepy. She hadn’t eaten a thing that morning because Aunt Dulcie was there, and then Denise had shown up. Her head felt mashed and pulpy. She did not want to walk.
“Come on, stand up,” ordered Denise. “Come with me.”
Despite the heat and quiet, Jolene felt a chill and heard a sound thundering in her head like when water got trapped in her ears after swimming in the lake. Her mother would tell her to jump on one foot and shake her head to one side to loosen it, only this sound was magnified, accompanied by a current of words streaming below it, unintelligible, and frantic.
She stood shakily, joining Denise. The two of them made their way through the open field. Denise glided along, ripping the periwinkle heads off cornflowers as Jolene struggled to keep pace with her cousin’s long-legged stride. When Jolene finally turned to look for Grandma’s house, it appeared small, impossibly far away.
“I guess this spot is good enough,” said Denise. She held a smooth gray rock, the size of a grapefruit. Jolene had not seen her pick it up and wondered where it came from. The girls sat down at Denise’s lead, facing each other, pushing the weeds aside to create a sort-of nest.
“Can you guess what the secret is?” asked Denise.
Jolene’s head buzzed with heat and hunger, but she searched back in the day to form an idea. “Who is that guy Grandma named? The one who hits the boys.”
“Milt. Milton. He don’t hit ‘em much, just when they need it. He’s their dad,” said Denise, pulling apart a wide strand of grass and blowing through it. Like a tiny horn, it trumpeted. Jolene tried to do the same but accidentally tore the grass in half and Denise offered no instruction.
“Isn’t Milt your dad too?” asked Jolene, shyly.
Denise shook her head.
“Where’s your dad then?”
“That’s the secret,” said Denise. Her eyes looked darker somehow, almost black. A flush spread across her cheeks. “My dad is Jay.”
Jolene could not believe it. The concept seemed impossible, as if Denise had told her that cats can fly. The air around them cooled and a breeze picked up and ruffled the grass. A few moments passed. Jolene had no words she could think to say, but something brewed in her chest, a swirling sensation she couldn’t control; a microburst. Finally, she shouted, “No, he isn’t!” yelled in a voice one would use to call back a dog running into the street.
Denise nodded, affirming a fact, her lower lip drawn up so tightly that her chin was cratered with dimples.
“No!” cried Jolene, desperate to have her one dad back as her very own.
Denise stood up and screamed, “You think you’re so great! Your mom was a slut an’ everybody knows it!”
Jolene had heard the word “slut” only once, used by her dad, and shouted at her mom. She remembered being in the back seat of his car, crumpled to one side. They were racing to pick up her mom who’d stayed the night at her best friend’s place. Her dad had dragged her mom out of the trailer, yanking her down the steps and tossing her into the backseat next to Jolene. “Three sheets to the wind,” he’d said, glaring in the rearview mirror. “Drunken slut!” He nearly spit the words, then stopped looking back.
Jolene did not know what that word “slut” meant but guessed it was something vile like throw-up or worms on the sidewalk, mutilated in the rain. She remembered the cutting sound of that word; how it started out sly like the hiss of a snake and ended hard, like a door slammed shut.
Denise stepped backward, bent at the knees, and whipped the rock hard. It landed square on the upper part of Jolene’s forehead, knocking her against the ground. She curled to one side, feeling enveloped in a dark heavy cloak. Minutes or hours later--she didn’t know how much time had passed--she came to. The blood had dried. Her forehead felt stretched tight as a drum. She lay there watching everything close up, so close that things were split in two: stems were stripes of yellow and green; pink balls of clover doubled to look like balloons at a party. In a dreamlike trance, she delighted to see the stained-glass orange and black wings of a monarch, praying beside her. “Mom,” she whispered hoarsely.
After a bit more time passed, Denise was there leaning over her, pressing her tiny pig-like nose against Jolene’s cheek. “Wake up, sleepy-head.” She tossed a flower chain across Jolene’s neck, dandelions braided together. “Look, I made you a necklace,” she said. “We gotta head back now.”
Jolene’s vision was foggy. She needed to eat, needed to drink water.
“You fell,” said Denise. She helped Jolene to her feet and placed her hands firmly on Jolene’s shoulders, peering hard into her eyes. “You fell,” she repeated. “It ain’t lying. You did fall.”
Jolene knew that this was the story she must tell or risk a darker fate. She did not recall much of that day except for two things--the word “slut” wickedly roused to life in her memory, and also her mom, praying beside her in the guise of a butterfly.
The girls returned to Grandma’s house, Denise adjusting her steps to match the slower gait of Jolene’s. To an outsider, it would seem a touching sight: the bigger girl caring for the smaller, draping her arm protectively over the younger one’s shoulders. As they entered the yard, Aunt Dulcie, peering from behind the kitchen window, screeched to Grandma, “They’re coming! There they are!” She ran outdoors, grabbing Denise into a hug that lasted a while. Jolene kept moving toward the house, her peripheral vision darkening into a tunnel. She collapsed just inside the screen door.
“Damn!” said Grandma. “That’s a goose egg!” Jolene heard voices as if they were far off. “What did you do, Denise?”
Instead of Denise answering, Jolene heard the voice of Dulcie say, “Why you always think’n Denise did something wrong? Always blame’n Denise. Kids fall sometimes, ya know!”
“That what happened?” insisted Grandma, giving Jolene a shake. “You fell?” Jolene simply nodded her head.
“You best be goin’ now,” said Grandma to Dulcie and Denise. “I had about as much as I can take from the two of you this day.” They exited through the front door with Dulcie muttering, “Jeez,” in protest, as they left.
Grandma applied something called a butterfly bandage to Jolene’s forehead, first rinsing the laceration with a stinging liquid that smelled like a doctor’s office. Grandma ran a shallow bath and Jolene was helped to lay down in the warm water made sudsy with blue dish soap. Her body ached. She was given five pink tiny pills to chew; it was like eating flavored chalk. Grandma left the door ajar as she fixed a dinner of Jolene’s favorites: hamburgers stacked on wonder bread with ketchup, served with potato chips, and strawberry milk. Jolene put on her pajamas even though the sky was still bright and sunny. Grandma let her eat in the living room on the foldout tintable and let her watch T.V. as the cats slinked along the back of the couch, keeping her company.
“You probably need a stitch or two,” said Grandma, looking at her forehead. “But it’s Sunday. Doctor’s closed.”
Jolene woke up and looked in the mirror at the purplish jam-colored medallion on her forehead, split just below her hairline in a red gash. For the next few days, she floated in the pool by herself, on her back, watching the drifting clouds. Those pool floating days were a time of reflection, a time to rest and think about ways to be safe. Her mom spoke to her that week in a quiet, pleading way, and Jolene had to listen not only with her ears but with her whole body, in order to let the message sink in. Sometimes she held her breath underwater, feeling the hum of an internal order that seemed to connect the deepest part of her with everything that was outside: the sun, the grass, the open sky. It was hard for Jolene to fully comprehend this communication, but the message it foretold came from her mom and buoyed her up--it told her to She couldn’t hide from Denise much longer.
One day that week, the front door was found to be wide open and Grandma shouted at Jolene to keep it shut. “I lost Misty that way,” she lamented. Jolene knew Misty must have been a cat. “She got out,” Grandma warned. “Went off to catch mice in the field and the fox got her. Them fox are a mean bunch. Catch’n cats and they don’t even eat ‘em, just like to kill ‘em for fun. They do it to chickens too sometimes, if they can sneak in a coop.”
“How can you get rid of a fox?” asked Jolene, her pupils dilated with urgency. Grandma looked a little surprised, but told her, “You gotta’ set a trap and kill it, or shoot the damn things when you see ‘em running. It’s hard to shoot ‘em ‘cause they’re so sneaky, come’n out mostly at night. Traps work better.”
The August sky was roiling with olive clouds, the same color as Jolene’s fading bruise. Today was not a pool day, said Grandma, as it may storm and lightning can fry you in water just like boiling grease in the deep fryer. Jolene sat on the back steps watching the clouds overlap to form a dense canopy. She felt bored and lonely and anxious all at once. Tingles ran up and down her arms and over her thighs as the grass in the field swayed and whispered secrets. She had a secret too, something incubating and waiting for a time to hatch.
Grandma spoke to her from inside, behind the screen door. “Denise has to come over today,” she said. Her voice was apologetic, but she added in a tone that was unyielding, “That’s just the way it’s gotta be. She has a hard time look’n at you and you have a hard time with her, I guess, but you gotta work it through. Your mom and Dulcie didn’t talk for years, and then look what happened.” Her chest heaved in a loud sigh. She seemed like she had more to say, miles more, but stopped herself and lumbered into the bathroom. Jolene heard water running and something that sounded like a sob but it could have been the squeaky pipes. Afterward, Grandma shuffled out and made a lunch of fried bologna sandwiches on wonder bread with ketchup. Denise showed up at the back door like a specter, her face healed up except for the split in her lower lip.
“Sit down,” said Grandma. “You girls gotta eat, then find something you can do together. There’s playing cards in the drawer, or a jig-saw puzzle--something. My bursitis gets bad in this weather and it’s capturing my knees. I gotta go lie down. Let me be. I bought Twinkies, and you can have one. One.” Her eyebrows raised, looking at Denise. “Don’t let me see you eat’n the whole box like your brothers do.” She hobbled to the stairs and winced as she took the first step.
Jolene was left alone with a penny-eyed fox.
“What do you want to do?” asked Denise, sinking her yellow teeth into the spongy cake of the Twinkie. Jolene did not reply but concentrated on unwrapping the cellophane of her own treat which she pushed toward Denise like a sacrificial offering as her appetite flew out the window and her stomach flipped in anticipation.
“Look,” said Denise, devouring the Twinkies and licking the fluffy white filling off each finger in turn. “I think we can have some fun today. Take me to the flame. I wanna see it.”
“Me too,” replied Jolene.
The girls headed out of the cul-de-sac to a street that curved onto the main road. Jolene was uncertain which way to go but Denise took the lead and turned right. Cars whooshed by at arm’s length as the two of them made their way along a narrow shoulder littered with paper wrappers and shards of amber glass. After a time, they came to the same lot where Grandma had parked on that sunny day of the picnic. Today there was only one car in the lot. The wind was kicking up, arching the tree branches upward. Stony clouds marched across a milky sky.
They started down the rocky path that led through the woods. The temperature dropped and Jolene, dressed in only a tee-shirt and shorts, felt chilled; her skinny arms and legs unshielded. Denise wore shorts, but also a navy windbreaker which came down to her thighs and gave the illusion that she had no pants on. Trucks had beeped when they were passed on the road and one driver had stuck his head out the window yelling something nasty—Jolene could not tell what—but Denise had raised her middle finger to him.
The falls could be heard in the distance, the reverent hush of rushing water near the edge of the gorge. Denise skipped off the path to the place where Grandma had warned Jolene not to get too close. Denise’s legs looked too sharp and long to be skipping--a fraudulent display of innocence. Even at seven, Jolene could see this, how people could fool you.
“Come look,” said Denise. “You can see the waterfall from up here.” She swung her predator’s head around to gaze at Jolene who felt electric air raise the hairs on the back of her neck. She heard the powerful voice of her mother crescendo in the trees and the wind and the water gushing over the rocks: It's a trap, it’s a trap! Save yourself.
“Come here,” said Denise, her eyes as shiny as the black beach stones that Jolene used to find along the shores of the cold lake. Jolene’s memory flashed on searching for those stones: the blackest of the black, the whitest of the white, while her mother treasured the ones shaped like hearts. On those good days, they’d fill a bucket’s worth of rocks and sort them out on the dock as the gulls swooped and hollered above.
No more tricks, Jolene, her mother raged.
“Where’s the flame?” Denise called over her shoulder, balancing along the precipice. “I don’t see it. Maybe it went out.”
Jolene drew nearer. Denise turned with a ravenous look in her feral eyes as a wild wind lifted her hair, making it swirl momentarily around her head. “Come on!” She motioned with her hand, encouraging Jolene to step closer. Denise turned back again to face the gorge. “Oh, it’s right there,” she yelled, pointing. “The fire! Come see it! Don’t be a chicken!” She kept shouting, but the rest of her words were stolen by the wind.
Jolene ran forward and shoved the middle of Denise’s bony back, hard, with both hands. The wind calmed. Jolene did not look over the edge of the cliff but instead closed her eyes and shivered, imagining the determined countenance of Denise, climbing back up the canyon wall, grabbing ahold of rocks and roots like a supervillain set on revenge.
When finally Jolene forced herself to peek over the ledge, she saw Denise splayed on the bank below, looking small from the vantage point above. She could almost believe that Denise was asleep. Jolene picked her way down to the water following the path that she and Grandma had last taken, the same one her mother and Dulcie had skipped along so many times in the past. Jolene crouched next to the lifeless body, helpless as a wingless bird anchored to the ground.
Sounds echoed across the gorge, their direction unclear; voices, barking dogs, the sound of shuffling through dry leaves. Three exuberant mongrels came crashing through the creek, shaking off water in a showery spray. A woman scrambled to catch up with the dogs, shouting apologies from far away, “They’re nice, don’t be scared, I’m sorry! Bad dogs! Caleb, come here! Bandit! Shadow!” The dogs nuzzled and sniffed and pranced and pawed around Jolene, ignoring the woman. When the woman reached Jolene, she was out of breath, continuing to apologize in a huffing sort of way. She was tall, with a long white braid down her back, wearing a denim jacket embroidered with yellow peace signs. As soon as she noticed Denise, the woman began to sputter, “Oh shit, oh Fuck, Jesus! Fred!” She turned and cupped her hands around her mouth to make a megaphone. “Fernaandoooo!” The name echoed across the canyon. She took off her coat and draped it over Jolene’s shoulders. A man, shorter than the woman, appeared on the other side of the creek and quickly made his way across, adroitly hopping from rock to rock.
“Holy shit,” he said, staring at Denise. His skin and hair were dark, in contrast to the woman’s pale face and eyes that held a cast like a blue sky reflected in a muddy creek.
The man crouched down, speaking to Jolene in a slow, deliberate cadence. “Are you okay? Where’s your mom or your dad?” Jolene could not answer either question. “We need to take her somewhere,” he said to the moon-faced woman. “To the hospital or something, I don’t know.”
Jolene said, “I live with Grandma.”
“Okay then, we’ll drive you home,” said the man.
In the parking lot was the single-car, a light blue Volkswagen. Jolene jammed herself into the backseat with two of the three big dogs. The third dog sat up front on the woman’s lap. Fat drops of rain began to smack hard against the windshield.
“Just in time,” said the woman, turning around and smiling. Jolene handed up the woman’s coat as the car felt warm and damp, smelling like a wet dog. A song came to life on the eight-track, a calming melody and a man’s voice that sang about sunshine coming softly through his window. Jolene liked the idea of sunshine entering through her window; there’d been so much getting through lately that wasn’t soft or sunny.
The man turned around. “Where do you live, honey?”
Jolene did not know how to get home, so he said, “Okay, we’ll drive one way, and if you don’t see it, we’ll go the other way.”
“I think we should just drop her off at the police station,” said the woman.
“Think it through,” said the man. “You want to go there and have to answer a million questions? There’s stuff in the glove compartment. We’re driving around with a child we don’t know. We just saw a body at the bottom of Chestnut Ridge. And the shit I ate is starting to kick in about now. In fact, maybe you better drive.”
They took some time getting out and re-arranging, switching places in the car. One of the dogs in the back started to whine and paw at the seat, seeing that now there was a space available on her daddy’s lap, so they switched around the dogs too. The woman, hands gripping the steering wheel, turned around and nodded in a reassuring way, but Jolene noticed worry creep into her bloodshot eyes. “Where do you live now, sweetie? It’s going to be okay.”
The car turned right. Down the road apiece, Jolene recognized the post where she and Grandma hung the sign for the yard sale. “Right here!” she shouted, and the car swung down her street. It pulled up in front and Jolene got out.
“You okay, honey?” asked the man. “Is Grandma home? We’ll make sure and sit right here ‘til you get inside.”
Jolene walked through the front door, waved to the couple, and there was Aunt Dulcie, her chubby hands clasped across her heart. “Where the hell have you girls been!”
“We went to the falls,” whispered Jolene, feeling as if her throat was closing.
“What?! Where’s Denise?” screamed Dulcie.
“She fell,” replied Jolene. The concept of deceit was new to her but even at seven years old, she knew enough to hide the full truth.
“Where the hell is she?” Aunt Dulcie was shaking Jolene by the shoulders and Grandma lugged herself down the stairs, wincing in pain, screeching at Dulcie, “Let her be!”
Then Jolene heard herself say that Denise got too close to the edge and fell off. Grandma moaned in severe pain, the way she doubled over, screaming, “I told that girl about the falling spot! We stood there once and I told her, ‘Denise, you ain’t to come near this spot!’ She just had to show off!”
Dulcie sprang to the bathroom, threw up in the toilet until there was nothing more inside her, and then she phoned the police who went to the bottom of Chestnut Ridge and retrieved the dead body of her daughter.
A service was held at the Anthony Carelli Funeral Home where Denise Lynn Sherman rested in a white closed casket with pink roses placed on top. The mourners formed a line that wound around the building. A hubbub began in the parlor, words circulating among some who paid their last respects, that the girl’s own father hadn’t even bothered to show up to bury his daughter.
“Let him show up now,” said the man named Milton, rolling up the sleeves of his white dress shirt to reveal ropy muscled arms with snaky blue veins. Dulcie stood like a solemn statue the whole time the mourners came through; the only part of her moving was her hands, shaking the hands of others, occasionally letting herself be drawn into a hug. The boys continued to rough house, and Dulcie ignored them as if all the energy she’d had in her was drained out for good. The boys, dressed in suits and looking like tiny disheveled men, chased each other in perpetual circles with their neckties faltering to one side. These would be the lives of Dulcie and her boys thereafter. Grandma was mute, contained. Jolene hovered next to her as if sheltering under a tree that offered shade but nothing more.
Once outdoors, the coffin was placed inside a big, impressive black car. Jolene learned that it was called a hearse. The day was sunny but crisp, a prelude to autumn, with a wide blue sky decorated with puffy, white clouds—a child’s drawing of a pretty day.
A line of cars and motorcycles drove in the slow procession to the cemetery where the coffin was already removed and waiting, set on a carpet of fake grass next to a dug-out pit. The man from the funeral parlor stood tall and official as the family shuffled to gather around the site. He read some formal-sounding words from a leather-bound book, words that did not resemble much in the way of meaning, but everyone stood at attention, listening, even the boys.
A monarch butterfly was bobbing over the coffin above the roses. Dulcie grabbed the arm of her husband and leaned into him with tears streaming down her face, pointing excitedly as she exclaimed, “It’s Terri, come to say goodbye!” And maybe in feeling the devastation of such great loss, not only for this recent event but for all the things of sorrow that came before it, she momentarily forgave her sister. Crouching beside her youngest boy, tenderly encircling her arm around his legs, she watched the butterfly, her eyes glassy with rapture.
The monarch lit upon the coffin, gracefully wafting its’ exquisite orange wings. “She’s telling Denise the way to heaven,” marveled Dulcie, and Jolene was surprised to hear her aunt heralding a miracle to those who gathered, begging witness for them to believe: a slut transformed into an angel on this hallowed day.
But Jolene heard the true message of this enchanted visitor, a promise uttered to her alone in the whisper of those wings murmuring in the rhythm of her own heart beating: safe now, safe now, safe now.
Jolene listened evermore to pine trees swaying in the wind, to the ripples of brooks and the sage whisper of monarchs. Her world filled up with these natural sounds even as she stayed quiet, quiet, quiet; and people did not detect the fire that blazed in her like a revelation; the glowing vitality of it covered by a cool misty veil; a flame that she tended, a flame that she kept lit