This is a repost of an old story while I am on holiday. I wrote ‘Jolene’ about three years ago. I saw this woman so clearly, and her good hearted generosity stayed with me. The story was written in response to a flash fiction challenge back then, but I think it holds up on its own. I hope you enjoy it!
Jolene wasn’t like the other girls’ mothers. When she’d pick me up from Windsor Academy, her pink Cadillac drew their notice. Safe inside silver-hued BMWs, their mamas’ disapproval was a palpable thing.
Long blond hair, tanned skin, and heavily mascaraed-eyes, Jolene stood out in a crowd. She had a flashy country-star beauty, and men loved her black fitted jeans and white cowgirl boots. Their hungry eyes followed her whenever she passed by.
She and Daddy were a mismatch, my grandmother always said. While deferential in grandmother’s presence, Jolene privately mimicked her Brahmin pretensions.
It was grandmother who insisted I attend Windsor, saying it would soften my ‘rough’ edges. “It’s never too soon to cultivate the right people, Eleanor,” she’d say, watery blue eyes intense, “especially if you intend to go to law school.”
Law school was grandmother’s idea, not mine. Jolene always said, “Don’t worry about it, baby girl; you’ve lots of time before you need to fight that battle. Let your grandmother have her say – for now.”
Jolene was good at postponing battles. I saw it in the way she shrugged off Daddy’s fondness for brandy, looking the other way as he stumbled from his chair in the evenings, blowing brandy-scented kisses our way.
Daddy was older than Jolene. They’d met when he was in Schuyler Falls on business. He’d sat down next to her in the hotel lounge. “Pretty as a sunny day – and just as warm,” he’d reminisce, the brandy prying open old memories. “Nearly gave your grandmother a stroke when I brought her back to Boston.”
Daddy fought quiet battles of desperation; Jolene was his one victory.
She was the sun; Daddy and I were planets revolving around her brightness. Filling our lives with laughter, she warmed our bleak and proper house with her presence.
Fridays were special – that was the day the servants left early. Kicking off her boots, she’d flip on the radio. Barefoot, we’d dance around the kitchen, singing old Chuck Berry songs.
I’d watch her sing as she cooked. Maybelline, why can’t you be true? Shredding cabbage, making her Mama’s signature coleslaw dish, she’d wink at me. “Nothing better than my Mama’s coleslaw, baby girl. You’ll see.”
Nothing ever was.
Last night, I heard familiar singing.
Maybelline, why can’t you be true?
Rising from my bed, eagerly I floated down empty corridors, finding – finally – the kitchen.
Maybelline, why can’t you be true?
She stood at the counter, shredding cabbage.
Pretty as a sunny day – just as warm.
Seeing me, she stopped singing. “Baby girl, you okay?”
I was now.
“Listen to your grandmother, hear? She’s difficult, but she loves you. And be kind to your Daddy. Life isn’t always what it seems. There’s happiness, honey, but you have to make it. Like we did in this kitchen. Good times, huh?”
Unable to speak, I nodded. She winked, and went back to the coleslaw. Hungrily, I reached for her – and woke to the gritty taste of grief and hot tears.
Like a hymn, I silently mouthed one word: Jolene.
©2017 All Rights Reserved Kate Loveton, Odyssey of a Novice Writer
Author’s Note: This was written in response to Thain in Vain’s flash fiction challenge to write a story in connection with the prompt, “Weird things remind me of her. Cabbage for instance…”