Authors: Jill McCorkle
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
This book is dedicated to Max Steele, Lee Smith and Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
a small exchange for their instruction, encouragement and irreplaceable friendship.
There is a picture of my mother that she keeps tucked away in her old scrapbook, yellowed pages pressing crumbled corsages, letters, gum wrappers. I used to sneak the book down often just to find that picture, to study every detail. Even now, I can see it: She is seventeen years old and it is her senior promâshe is wearing a strapless gown with a tulle ballerina length skirt. Behind her you can see stars, glittered cardboardâthe theme is “Stardust.” For years it bothered me that the man beside her was not my father. It seemed wrong that my brothers and I were not there, wrong that there was no knowledge of me behind those familiar eyes, wrong that there was no bump of a wedding ring under those white gloves, no thought that those gloved hands would one day change my diapers. It made me feel strange, very lonely, and I would cram that picture back between the gardenia crumbs, sneak it back to its place on the shelf in her closet, knowing all the time that I would have to look again.
And I did look againâagain and again. I would spend hours sitting on the floor of that closet, my father's clothes all bunched together on the right, faint traces of tobaccoâmy mother's on the left, neatly spaced, hangers going in one direction like a parade of flat limbless
people. Sometimes I would try on the clothes so that they wouldn't look so empty but usually I just sat with the picture box and spread its contents all over the floor. Then I would go through one by one and try to put them in chronological order so that I could see myself, my history, the parts that I could not remember. One day, I labeled all of those parts. I wrote B. J. (before Jo) in black magic marker; I drew a goatee and horns on the man at the senior prom; I put a neat circle around myself every time that I appeared. It seemed very important that all of that be done, even after my mother discovered my documentation and switched the hell out of me. Even now, those parts seem important. I call them pastshots.
There was my parents' wedding dayâspecks of rice frozen in midair; Great Aunt Lucille with a lace hankie up to her nose; my mother's mother with her hand lifted in a slight wave while my parents are caught in a blurred run towards the old black and white Ford on the street. I don't remember that car because it was B. J. My grandmother died B. J. Much of my father's hair thinned B. J. and yet, I know that it happenedâI know that there was a moment when it was all real, even though what I remember is an old blue Rambler, going to the cemetery on Sunday afternoons to see my grandmother, Lucille looking much older and blowing her reddish snout into a jumbo Kleenex.
My favorite picture of my brother Bobby is one that was taken when he was two. He is sitting on Santa's lap
in front of the old Wood's dime store and he is crying because he is scared. That picture was taken B. J. but it doesn't seem as foreign as the others. Maybe it's because it's Bobby and because I can remember him making that same face, crying that same way one other time.
This is Mama standing beside the old blue Rambler. When I was three and a half, I spray painted Jo Jo on the side of that car. Mama is fat and she looks upset just as she did when I painted the car. Bobby, who was three, is standing beside Mama and he is filthy dirty, mud all over his little overalls and face. They had called him away from his puddle in the sideyard where he had been making mud pies just to make the picture which Mama later labeled “just before Jo” which is what inspired my own system of documentation and the neat black circle around Mama's belly. I am told that Bobby could not wait for me to come out because he had always wanted a pet. All he had at that time was a fake snake named Buzzy that he kept in a jar of water by his bed. He wanted to name me Huzzy so that Buzzy and I would be related and for years it was tradition that this story be told on my birthday so that everyone could get a good laugh. Several years ago, that changed, and now they just make a toast to me, a year older, many happy returns.
This is my birth day. It is my debut but I don't have a long white gown, long stemmed roses, or an escort. All I have is myself and my Mama and the little plastic bracelet
that assigned my name and sex, Spencer/Femaleâa picture of the beginning of my beginning, though there is not the slightest resemblance. This picture disturbed me, not just because I look so different, but because of what Great Aunt Lucille (who was not so great) told me on the day of her husband's funeral, that my mother threw up the entire nine months that she carried me, that she was so miserable, the most pitiful sight, that I almost killed my Mama coming out backwards the way that I did. “You ripped her wide open,” Lucille said and blew her nose in a jumbo Kleenex. My mother said that Lucille shouldn't have told me that, that I was worth it all; but it was true. Now, when I think of that picture, I am reminded that I made my Mama vomit nonstop for three-fourths of a year, that my whole life started in reverse, that Lucille was a bitch and is now a dead bitch. However, the picture did have one very useful function. It was the bit of proof that I clung to all of those times that Bobby told me that he was the real child and that I had been left in the trash pile by some black people who did not want me.
Here, I am eating something that is green and comes in a little jar. Mama zeroes in on my mouth while making train noises, choo choo chugga chugga. Bobby is right there beside my high chair and he is holding long and rubbery Buzzy. “Buzzy loves you, Jo Jo. Buzzy wants to kiss you, Jo Jo. Buzzy wants a bite of your lunch, Jo Jo,” and after rubbing Buzzy all over me, he dove Buzzy's
nasty rubber head into the nasty green cuisine and it all froze: Buzzy's head always covered in green slop, Mama's spoon suspended on the invisible railroad track, her lips pushed forward in a “choo” while I sit helplessly, unable to control what is about to happen, unable to control the story that goes with this picture. I have felt that way many times.
It is my first birthday, documented by the one candle and the little “1” above the circle around my face. I am allowed to put my hands inside of the cake and mush up the good chocolate insides, squish them between my fingers, rub it on my faceâso good for little Jo Jo for at this time, guilt was not associated with pleasure. Bobby is wrapping his gift to me (a girl snake named Huzzy) around my tiny wrist like an Egyptian bracelet. I am told that I never minded Bobby's attention; he was the dark haired creature who stood at the end of my crib when my diapers were being changed and made me laugh. I have always liked Bobby's attention and sometimes, still, he can make me laugh.
Bobby and I are sitting on the front steps with our Easter baskets on our laps. He is holding me so that I don't tumble down the steps in the few seconds that it takes Daddy to take our picture. Bobby had taken all of my red and purple eggs and replaced them with his white and black ones. He told me that he did that because he
wanted me to have the “good” eggs. I loved him for that and yet, I hated to take all of the good ones because all I did was roll them around in my mouth and then leave them places where they would not be found for a long long time. I was feeling quite pleased when Mama yelled at Bobby for giving me all of the “bad” colors. I cried during the picture but then I forgave Bobby when he gave me all of the pretty colored tinfoil off of all of his chocolate eggs after he had eaten them. He also gave me all of the pretty colored tinfoil off of all my chocolate eggs after he had eaten them. My faith was restored and it made me smile such a sweet smile that Daddy had to take another picture. “A happy hoppy picture,” he said, so I sat very still like a good Jo Jo when all the time I was confused by the fact that I did not know “good” from “bad,” yet was content to roll both “good” and “bad” eggs in my mouth and deposit them in places where they would not be found for a long long timeâinfantile artifacts to remind me of myself on that particular day.
We are all in the front yard of the house on the corner of Walnut and 16th streets, Blue Springs, North Carolina. The house is red brick and the shutters were white then. There is a flat football on the roof of the house, thrown there by Bobby just two weeks before. He did not get a whipping because he had chicken pox. He is standing beside Mama and she looks upset. I am in Daddy's lap, a perfect circle around my face, and we are off to one side
on the steps. The top of Daddy's head is cut off by Mr. Monroe, the fat man from next door, who took the picture. I am crying because I have just been switched for spray painting Jo Jo on the side of the old blue Rambler. At three and a half, I am told that I looked just like Lucille because of my dark auburn hair and wide green eyes. (I see no resemblance.) Already, I was starlet material because I had learned that if you will cry the first time that the switch hits (unlike Bobby) that it will not last as long and if you go further to pout and moan, then you can, indeed, hurt them worse than they hurt you. I also learned something else; you can get away with bad things if you are sick. This is a thought that has crossed my mind several times over the years.
It is my fourth birthday and I am sitting on my new red trike. Daddy tells me to hold up four fingers so I put them in front of my face (an age when obnoxious behavior is acceptable). Bobby is sticking his foot into my picture because a bee just stung it. He was trying very hard not to cry but he did anyway and it made me laugh to see him do that. I laughed and he pulled my hair until it almost came out but I did not fight back; I just sat there so that he would get in trouble (which he did). I had hurt him worse than he hurt me but I didn't enjoy it anymore when Mama switched him (in spite of the bee sting) and sent him inside. I made it up to him by letting him pull all of the roses off of my cake and then letting him blame me
when Mama saw it with nothing but candles and a little ballerina. Looking back, I realize that this is the only time that I actually remember seeing Bobby cry. The time that he busted his head on the pier at Moon Lake, he just turned very white, and when Nancy Carson dumped him, he locked himself in his room, but I didn't see him cry. He didn't even cry in part three of
Lassie Come Home
when Timmy is burying Lassie's toys at the foot of that hill. No, but there was one other time that I can really remember seeing Bobby cry only it is hard to remember why. He was all grown up and we were down at the lake and he cried just a little, a quiet cry, and I didn't laugh that time because somehow it was my faultâsomehow, I had made Bobby cry.