Chapter One: June, 1982
Jolene stared out the passenger window, her hands fisted next to her thighs, holding apologies in her mouth. The car rocked violently, up then down, hard. Her head hit the headrest, and the tender flesh of her lower lip crunched between her crooked teeth. Warm fluid filled her mouth, pooling hot and rusty under her tongue. She needed to spit. She longed to pull out her lip and survey the damage, but there wasn’t time. Aunt Rachel was in a hurry, racing over the potholed downtown streets. She was going to be late for her prayer meeting. She was doing Jolene a favor by dropping her off. Years of favors had worn Rachel’s patience thin. Jolene imagined each one a straw in a pile. She didn’t know which one would be the end, so she rationed herself, asking for Rachel’s help only when there was no other way. Jolene couldn’t handle the roll of her aunt’s eyes or the accompanying sigh, the inconvenience of Jolene’s pain.
If she kept her lips pressed tightly together, she could wait until her aunt stopped the car to spit out the blood. It was simple; she just needed to keep her mouth closed. Jolene could hear her aunt’s gasps and moans as the bottom of her old beater scraped the uneven pavement. Rachel hadn’t noticed Jolene’s squeak of pain, nor her silence. The silence wasn’t new.
“Y’all are going to a movie? Are these nice girls you’re meeting? Do I know them? Church girls, right?”
Jolene looked at her aunt to see if these were questions she had to answer. She found Rachel’s brown eyes on her, so she nodded. That seemed to be enough. Rachel turned back to the road, but not before another pothole rocked the car. Jolene’s mouth throbbed. Her lip felt swollen, hot. She ran her tongue against the broken meat and couldn’t help but think about the fragility of skin, of bones and blood. You could break your body with something that grew inside you. You could self-destruct. The only thing to stop you was pain. Sometimes, she thought, pain wouldn’t be enough.
Rachel pulled into the parking lot of the dollar theater and yanked the parking brake. The regular brake wasn’t enough anymore to ensure that the car wouldn’t roll. The ratchet sound was Jolene’s signal to move. Jumping out, she smiled with her mouth closed, as usual, and waved at her aunt before moving quickly away from the vehicle. She was being rude, and she would hear about it. After making Rachel late for church, she could at least have had the decency to say good-bye properly. Her jaw ached with the tension of clenching. A headache snuck in behind her ears. Palms sweating, she headed for the theater door.
“Jolene!” Rachel called from the car.
Jolene’s heart beat hard and fast in her chest. She was caught. Her stomach rolled as she swallowed the mouthful of blood and licked her dry lips in preparation. She turned back to Rachel and waited for the question, nausea welling in her gut.
“Remember who you belong to!” Rachel called. Then she drove away, arm waving out the window. Jolene sighed; Rachel wasn’t even looking at her.
Her aunt meant Jesus. That’s who Jolene belonged to. It seemed to be one of those loose ownerships, Jolene thought, spitting out the contents of her mouth. Like a co-op, or a condo association; part-time ownership anyway, the kind where no one really takes responsibility for the upkeep. Blood, bright red with spots of pink foam, lay on the pavement.
She’d told Rachel she was meeting girlfriends, but that had been a lie. She just needed Rachel to think she had friends. Nice friends—girls who went to church with their parents on Sunday and volunteered with children or old people. Jolene couldn’t break her aunt’s heart by telling her that girls like that didn’t want to be friends with the orphan dropped on her spinster aunt’s doorstep, the doorstep of a tiny cottage that the aunt cleaned houses to pay for. It didn’t help that the girl was plain, her absent mother a junkie, the aunt fat, and that none of them had ever owned anything even vaguely trendy. Jolene had heard some of those supposedly nice girls talking once, in middle school, when she was in a stall in the bathroom and they didn’t know she was there. They had laughed about how wide her ass looked in the gypsy skirts that her aunt had found in the attic and given her. Jolene had thought she looked cool, retro, maybe a little bohemian. She was wrong.
Jolene longed to tell Rachel that going to church didn’t make someone less likely to notice that she’d never been to a dentist, that her shoes were a little boy’s size, or that her lunches were always leftovers from Rachel’s gig cleaning restaurants. “No one else gets fried chicken from Bitty’s for lunch every other day,” Rachel would say. “You should feel special. People come from all over South Carolina for that cornbread.”
High school was a couple years behind her, but even now, alone, Jolene’s cheeks were hot with shame. She’d emerged from school with no one she could call a friend. She’d hidden her embarrassment over not being invited to a single graduation party by working as much as possible. She was too busy to have friends, she told Aunt Rachel, knowing that her aunt understood the desire to work and respected Jolene’s rigor. It might be the only thing that made Rachel proud. Lately, though, she had been obsessed with Jolene’s lack of a social life, imploring her to make more friends than “that old colored lady, and that no-good boy.”
Jolene could feel her pulse in her lip. The last thing she wanted was more attention drawn to her mouth. She sat on the steps of the theater and waited for David. She watched the couples arriving for their dates and smiled. Then the stream of people headed into the theater waned, and Jolene wondered what time it was. She tried to remember what time he’d said to meet. She didn’t want to miss the previews. The trailers were tiny snippets of hope, slivers of excitement to come. She pressed her fingers to her lip; it was hot and puffy. Would he be able to tell? She pulled her lip smacker from her purse and tenderly slicked her mouth, then pushed her hair behind her ears and back out again. Her knees bounced.
She was about to go inside and ask to use their phone when David’s truck roared into the parking lot. She watched him crank the window closed as she ran across the pavement.
She met him just as he exited the truck. “Hi!” she bubbled, throwing her arms around his neck.
Jolene’s skin hummed when he called her that. David was the most beautiful person she’d ever seen, and the idea that he was attracted to her still made her dizzy with disbelief. “We’d better be quick or we’ll miss Return of the Jedi.”
“We’re not doing that. It’s stupid. Nerd stuff.”
“I changed my mind. Brought us a picnic, for the beach.” He pulled a bucket of chicken and a six-pack out of the back of the truck and winked. The deep dimple in his left cheek riveted her. “Grab that blanket, wouldja?”
They crossed the street and headed out on the beachwalk to the dunes. She watched the muscles of his back move beneath his t-shirt, the setting sun reflecting copper in his curls. He led her to a secluded spot beside some sea oats, and she spread the blanket. She’d never been on a romantic picnic before. He handed her a beer. The sky was turning lavender; lines of purple and tangerine decorated the horizon and reflected in the calm water. Jolene could see movement just beyond the waves. She watched to see if the dolphins would break the surface.
“What’s so interesting out there?” He crushed his empty and threw it in the dune grass.
“Dolphins, I think.”
He landed next to her heavily. She heard the tinkling of sand hitting the top of her beer.
“Dolphins ain’t that interesting. People think they’re smart, but they ain’t. We have to pull them out of our nets all the time. They look fucking disgusting, all tore up and shit. Not smart enough to avoid a shrimp net means they’re not that fucking smart.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Like what? About bloody dolphins with their flippers ripped off?” His mouth was on her neck, but the image of ravaged dolphins made her skin crawl.
“I know you don’t like that stuff. But you’re dating a full-time sailor now, so you’re going to have to get used to it.”
Jolene pushed him away just enough to look into his face. “I am? You got the job?”
“You’re looking at the newest, and handsomest, deckhand on the Bevy Sue. Congratulate me, gorgeous.”
“Oh! This is a celebration picnic then.” She climbed into his lap and melted into his chest. “I have good news too!” She waited for him to ask her to explain, but instead his hands slid beneath her dress and his mouth found the spot beneath her ear that made her knees rubbery. She pulled away and raised her eyebrows.
“It’s okay,” he said, not for the first time, pushing her down onto the blanket.
After, wrapped in the blanket and David’s limbs, Jolene felt almost settled. The edge of safety, of being needed and wanted, felt within arms’ reach. She laid her cheek against the inside of his bicep and watched the sun fall toward the earth. Jolene thought sunsets over the Harbor River were the most beautiful things in the world: the ripe orange fading out, the cobalt and indigo sneaking in. Surrounded by David, there was nowhere she’d rather be, and there would never be a prettier sunset than this one. It was the perfect moment to tell him.
“David, do you ever think about the future?”
“Cap’n says when he heads to gulf he’s going to take me.”
“Oh, yeah?” She could smell the yeasty sweetness of the beer on his breath.
“What? You don’t believe me? You always think the worst of me. Don’t think I can do nothin’ right.”
She turned to face him, eyes wide. “It’s not that.”
“What is it? You think there’s someone better than me on that boat?”
“Not at all!” She could feel her stomach sinking. This wasn’t going as planned. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Ain’t any more likely to get hurt in the gulf than here. Heck of a lot more money to be made there too, all the way over to Mexico.”
“No, I mean, your feelings.”
“Why would my feelings get hurt?”
Jolene wished she’d kept her mouth shut. She could feel the heat of his anger through the air. “I only meant if something happened. You know. If he couldn’t take you. It’d be okay, you know. If you didn’t go.”
He pulled his arm away and started to rise. “Shit. You’re a buzzkill!”
She hated the sudden coolness of her skin without his, and the chill in his voice. She pulled him back on top of her and tangled her fingers in the silky curls at his nape. “I’m sorry. I’m being such a cow tonight. I am proud of you.” She looked up at him through her lashes the way he liked, and he kissed her hard. The sharp pain in her mouth was worth the silence and knowing that he was happy with her again. As he moved to nuzzle her neck, she asked, “Can I come with you?”
“Huh?” David paused to look at her.
“To the gulf? I’ve never seen it.”
“Sure, sure. You’d love it. Water is always warm. More gators, though, you know that, right?”
“You’ll protect me.”
“Damn straight. I won’t let any gator get my girl.” He returned to kissing her neck, his hands roaming her body.
“We could get a little place of our own—nothing fancy, but ours, you know. I want you to come home to the dinner I’ve made you on the table. Sweet tea on the porch on a hot afternoon—”
David pulled away. “That sounds nice, babe. Listen, I got to be on the boat really early tomorrow, so I gotta run. You okay to get back to the parking lot?”
“Oh, sure.” She still hadn’t told him. She had thought tonight would be the night. She’d even practiced. But it didn’t seem like the time anymore.
He stood and tugged on the end of the blanket still beneath her. “Oh, sorry,” she said, blushing as she stood. He kissed her good-bye, hard. His fingers traced the line of her jaw and tangled in her long hair. Jolene imagined waking up every morning and going to bed every night to that kiss. It made her head feel light, her joints loose.
“Gosh, you’re pretty,” he said as he turned to go.
She watched him jog across the sand and then sat back in the dune. A small sigh escaped her. They hadn’t said “love,” but she felt it. She hoped he did too. She hoped this job he’d won would be the sign he needed for them to move forward together. His employment had always seemed to stand in their way, and they couldn’t afford that now.
Jolene watched the contrail of a jet trace a line across the darkening sky. She’d never been on a plane. She’d never been out of South Carolina. It embarrassed her, given how close they were to Georgia. The pretty girls in high school had bought their clothes in Savannah, or Charleston, somewhere else she’d never been. But one didn’t have to go all the way to Charleston to shop at the Salvation Army. Rachel would say that the distance was equal to the airs those girls were putting on. Jolene didn’t mind not having nice clothes. If Rachel ever bought her anything like that, she’d be so eaten up with guilt she wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. But that didn’t stop her from wanting to go, to see something she’d never seen before. Soon though, she’d be moving to the Gulf, not just for a visit, but for a new life in a new town. A new life with David. That was better than any shopping trip.
Sand, trapped between the elastic in her underpants and her leg, chafed her as she walked back to the cinema, to watch the couples flood the parking lot while she waited for Rachel. Her eyes lapped up their secret smiles, their giggling at shared jokes, the men guiding the women with palms on lower backs and arms around waists. For so long she’d watched these couples with envy. Now she watched with understanding, with belonging.
She was alone when Aunt Rachel arrived. Jolene could hear the Chevette coming down the road before she saw it. She stood, and met her aunt at the curb.
“I was hoping to meet your friends!” Rachel was bursting with evangelical energy.
Jolene shrugged. “The movie wasn’t as long as we thought.”
“When I was your age we would have gone to the diner for a coke, if we had a spare moment. Put some Elvis on the jukebox and make eyes at handsome boys.”
Spending time with Rachel after she’d been to church was like hanging out with a happy drunk. She fizzed, effervescent with energy and zeal.
“Betty thought she was getting a headache, and Sandra has to work early tomorrow.” Jolene went cold with the lie. Remembering all the details of her stories was terrifying and exhausting, like memorizing a map that didn’t exist.
“Don’t we all!” Rachel giggled. “No rest for the wicked!” She began to tell Jolene about her church group’s fantastic plans. When she started on missionaries in Africa, Jolene zoned out. Her skin, her muscles, her very essence could tell that the distance between her body and David’s was widening. The hum of energy she’d felt in his arms was slipping away. She was exhausted.
Her mouth was still sore, and flaps of dangling lip skin sang their siren song to her tongue, luring it to poke and prod. Her jaw closed tight; she kept her eyes on the windows of the houses passing by. They stopped at a stop sign. In the dark, the interior lights of the little yellow house on the corner lit up a family playing cards around a kitchen table, like players on a stage. Jolene sensed the intrusion of her gaze on their private time, but she couldn’t look away. As Rachel pulled through the intersection, Jolene turned her head, unwilling to let them disappear until she had memorized every detail.
Jolene stared into the white-wicker-framed bathroom mirror. Her big brown eyes looked back at her, wider than usual. Today had to be the day. She had to tell him. She wouldn’t be able to hide it much longer.
“You’re going to be a dad,” she said into the mirror. A huge smile overwhelmed her face. Her fingers reached out and brushed her image in the glass. “You’re going to be a mom,” she whispered. She took another deep breath and smoothed her skirt before heading out the door to David’s house. She spent the walk practicing her speech. Her stomach was a nest of snakes.
She knocked twice on his front door and let herself in. He was in the Laz-E-Boy in the living room, a can of beer crushed in his hand.
“Oh, Jolene. You are a sight for sore eyes. You look extra pretty today, baby. Can you grab me a beer from the fridge before you sit down, darling?”
She turned and went to the kitchen, wondering how many beers had come before the one she was pulling from the fridge. If this was number three or four, the conversation might go more easily than she’d expected. If it was number five or more, she should come back tomorrow.
“Hey, baby,” he called from the other room. “Can you make me a sandwich too?”
She opened the fridge door again and scanned the emptiness. Ketchup and bologna would have to do. She scraped fuzzy gray mold off two pieces of bread and cut the finished sandwich into tiny triangles. David’s kitchen always smelled of onions. The scent made her nauseous, but she was no longer in a hurry to get back to the living room and break the news.
A month ago, when her period was late, she had barely noticed. Her period was often late, and being pregnant wasn’t at the front of her mind. It was something that happened to the loose girls in high school or the nice married ladies at church, not her. But then getting out of bed for work became harder and harder, and her breasts ached, and then she threw up in the shower, and she knew. Jolene had spent the time since her discovery avoiding Rachel. She was sure that every time her aunt looked at her, she’d know. Every moment of nausea or headache or fatigue was another chance for Rachel to discover her secret. And once Rachel knew, everything would change.
She would tell David about the baby, and he would be scared but excited. They would get married. Rachel would be concerned, angry even, about the marriage, but when she saw how happy they were she’d get over it. A month later, when David and Jolene announced they were expecting, all would be forgotten in the joy of preparation for the baby. Rachel loved babies. Jolene could finally relax, settle in. Everything would be okay. She just needed David to realize how amazing this was going to be. And telling David meant that she needed to make her feet work and go back to the living room.
The floral pattern in the wallpaper made her mildly motion sick as she sank into the lawn chair that David kept for guests, facing the TV. Her short dress left the backs of her thighs bare, and the itchy plastic webbing of the chair pinched her. David’s Laz-E-Boy squeaked as he rocked back and forth.
She took a deep breath and smiled at him. “I want a family. I’ve always wanted a family.”
His eyebrows came together, and his head tipped to the side. “Um, okay.”
“Jolene, we’ve talked about this before. I’m not exactly a family man.”
“You’d make a great dad.”
“Well, I mean, maybe. Someday. Way down the road. But I’ll never be the marrying kind.”
“We wouldn’t have to get married…” She watched the image of the wedding she’d been dreaming of fade away.
“You know I’m getting on a big boat here soon. Heading on down to the gulf, getting some real shrimpin’ in. Make some money, finally.”
“I thought I could go with you.”
“You’re going to protect me from the gators.”
“Oh, shit. That was just talk. You can’t. I don’t want that—out on the boat for weeks, then having to come home to some woman waiting for me to mow the lawn or fix the sink.”
A gasp slipped out of her mouth.
“Aw, shit, Jo, you wouldn’t want that either. We were just messin’. It’s no life for anyone.”
Jolene closed her eyes. But with her lids shut all she could see was Rachel’s face. She could imagine the corners of her aunt’s lips turning down in disappointment, the crease emerging between her brows. Rachel had made that face once before. Jolene had been eight, standing outside the front door, with everything she owned in a garbage bag beside her. They’d never met, and yet Rachel had smiled, the gap between her front teeth showing, when she opened the door. Despite Jolene’s bare feet, dirty hair, and obvious smell, Rachel had sunk to her knees and opened her arms in welcome. It wasn’t until she asked where Jolene’s mama was and Jolene pointed to the empty street that the corners of Rachel’s mouth descended and her brow buckled.
Jolene had spent the last thirteen years doing everything she could to avoid seeing that look on Rachel’s face. But she had been willing to inch closer and closer to it, for David’s sake. She knew Rachel didn’t like him, but she’d held onto the hope that someday David would prove himself, that Rachel would see what Jolene saw. One day they could all be happy together.
She pulled her fingers out of her mouth and took a deep breath. “I’m pregnant.”
David stopped rocking. “No.”
She twisted her mouth to the side.
“You sure?” His voice was higher and quieter than usual.
“Yes.” She searched his face for a clue.
He rocked faster and stared at the television. “Did you plan this?”
“This. Is this on purpose?”
“Obviously, this wasn’t the plan. I’m a waitress living with my aunt. No one in their right mind would want it now. But we can make the best of it. I love you. I want to be with you. This is our baby. And…don’t you want to be with me too?”
He continued to stare at the TV.
I have been, since my seven-year-old daughter escaped my body, obsessed with motherhood in all its iterations. I am preoccupied with how motherhood is perceived by individuals and cultures—by those who desire it, and by those who don’t. I’ve labored over the question of what it means to be a mother, what it doesn’t mean, and the murky grey between those two points. Unsurprisingly, this theme of motherhood roots my story of betrayal, old pain, desiring what you can’t have, and learning to live with the cards you’ve been dealt.
My protagonist, Jolene Brodie, was abandoned by her addict mother on the steps of her religious aunt’s door at eight years old. She’s spent the last thirteen years living in the shadow of the pain her mother caused and trying to prove herself worthy of her aunt’s stingy love. Unintentionally she becomes pregnant. When the father refuses her and her aunt kicks her out, Jolene tries to outrun her shame by heading to the mountains. Homeless, penniless, alone, and chased by demons from her past in this new place, she makes friends who help and hinder. She is forced to confront exactly who she is, what she wants, and what she is willing to do to get it.
This novel is set in my two favorite places in the world: the coast of South Carolina and my current home of Asheville, NC. Geography and a sense of place are central to it. Song Birds and Stray Dogs is a Southern story, born of sweet tea and the Bible Belt, chow-chow and cornbread, shot guns and porch rocking. But it is also a universal story of escaping the burden of your past and finding yourself at home in a strange land.
Meagan Lucas lives in western North Carolina with her husband and their two small children. She teaches composition at AB Tech Community College. Her short work can be found in a variety of literary journals, including Four Ties Lit Review, The Santa Fe Writers Project, The Same Literary Journal, and The Penmen Review. Her story “Kittens” was the 2017 winner of the Scythe Prize for Fiction. Song Birds and Stray Dogs is her first novel. You can read more at meaganlucas.com.
Embark, Issue 5, July 2018