My debut novel, Iola O was published by Bedazzled Ink. It was released on April 1. 2019. It is available at most independent bookstores, Barnes and Nobles stores and if all else fails, Amazon. It is available as both paperback and e-book in either Kindle or Nook format.
The first six pages can be previewed below:
Pilgrim, Tennessee 1931
THE HOUSE WAS calm for no one else was awake. Out the window, the dawn’s light had just touched the treetops. But my mind was a mile away where there was a whole different world. Nothing could discourage me. Not if ordered to remove a dead rat from the woodpile, not if berated, not if I got only bread and water for breakfast. Having a need was exciting because I knew I could fill it as soon as I dealt with the obstacles—if I let go of my pride.
When a whippoorwill sang, Ethyl Lou stirred and got herself up. Before long, everyone was. Papa was the last. All morning, I did my chores—sweeping, mopping, rubbing Mama’s swollen feet, washing, dumping the garbage in the smelly trash pile, and saying my yes ma’ams. Then I told Ethyl Lou—using my most polite voice—“I’m going neighboring.”
But it wasn’t cousin Alma Bevil I needed to visit. It was her new blue-glass radio with exotic voices that had captured my imagination several times before. It was President Hoover talking about the Hoover Dam project. It was the mayor of Chicago. The king of England. It all sounded good—their names, their ear-catching stories. I especially liked Amelia Earhart talking about flying planes. I loved her voice. What did she look like? Was she tall? She had to be smart. Was flying like heaven? I imagined flying far away from eensy Pilgrim.
Radio talk was different—the rhythm, accent, the words themselves, words I never heard before. Soon it dawned on me Pilgrim folks often ran words together. And if someone was speaking in tongues, their words ran together like they had melted in rain. Mama was good at it. People claimed she was a saint talking with God in his own private language. But if someone asked me my opinion and said I could be honest, and wouldn’t get punished, I would’ve said, If Mama’s a saint, she’s a mean, cruel one.
Now the radio people—that is, the ones I liked—finished most every one of their words, clear and succinct. It was crisp talk. It said you were going someplace important, having no interest in living your life with a mean saint in a hollow nestled between steep hills, good mostly for hunting wild meat. Except, eating the pawpaws growing by the creeks was fun, and fishing for crawdads with my brother, Buck. Very possibly, if I could learn crisp talk, I might not live my whole life in Pilgrim. So at age fourteen, I made plans.
After doing Saturday chores, I walked, wanted to run, out the old front door, down the two stone steps, turned a bit to the right and took thirty quick steps, past the garden that got a half day of sun, to where the path to town opened up. I headed across the footbridge over Short Creek swollen with rain, past wild azaleas, skunk cabbage, and the woods full of trilliums. In no time, I was on the wide dirt road, avoiding puddles and mud, walking a mile to where the hollow widened and Pilgrim came into view.
It had a feed store that smelled like hay, the one-room schoolhouse with sixty desks, the town square with one bench, where if a boy and a girl sat down together, they had to sit a foot apart. No kissing, except holding hands was okay. There were two magnolia trees, the general store, post office, the church that got noisy Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings with singing, holy rolling, and talking in tongues, and Reverend Spence preaching like Jesus was present in the holy flesh. The meetinghouse sat off, behind the post office. Buck told me some of the boys would get drunk there on Friday nights. Not that I ever saw them—not being allowed.
I picked up my pace at the road just before town. It went off to the right, where I skipped past the orange daylilies, and on to the Bevils’.
Soon I was sitting down with plump Alma with her thick braid hanging down her back, listening to the magic box. I liked the nameradio, the knobs that turned the dial that changed the stations, and the glass tubes in the back that lit up and captured voices out of the air. I spent as many afternoons as possible in her kitchen with its big window and pretty blue curtains with ruffles on the bottom. She had soft cushions on every chair. Sometimes I lost myself in her green easy chair that felt like Pilgrim’s lap of luxury.
Cousin Alma said, “Iola, you visiting, it’s like I have a daughter finally and not just six sons. You’re always welcome.” What with the friendly words, often a corn fritter, or a pancake with wild blackberry jam, always a glass of sweet- tasting water, I wanted to visit all day. On my way home, I practiced crisp talk one sentence at a time.
One Saturday, I was late getting home. Papa had told me earlier that day to be back before dusk. My big family had already sat down at the supper table. It was mostly potatoes that night. Papa and the older boys each got two slices of meat, and the rest of us got nibbles. The little ones got the last of the milk.
“Late, plus she not do her chores good this morning,” Ethyl Lou said.
I knew I had. The first thing come to mind was to use my crisp talk to get back at my bossy big sister. “How was your day today? Mine was definitely fine.” I spoke each syllable as clear as my favorite radio folks. Then with tightly closed lips and my tongue pressed against my teeth, I managed a smile.
Friend looked at me cockeyed. Cecil almost fell out of his chair laughing. Ethyl Lou elbowed me and said, “Shush. You loony girl.”
“What ailing you, child? The devil get to you?” Mama’s molasses tongue wasn’t asking a question. It was making an accusation. Everyone knew that.
I coughed, sputtered. Face and neck felt hot. I said, “I was just practicing for a speech I got to give in school. Best way to practice is overtalk. It’s what I hear.”
“She hearing things,” Sledge Jr. said with meat in his mouth. “Heard it in school.” My eyes darted over to him. “Overtalk?” Mama leaned back in her chair. Shook her head in slow motion. “It’s talking the same thing but not the same way; it’s using different words.
That way, you won’t forget. Gets stuck in your memory good.” I had made up the word overtalk on the spur of the moment. It was kind of like what I heard in school, so it wasn’t really a lie.
“You talking nonsense,” Ethyl Lou said. “Never heard that in school.” Buck shot me a supportive glance. “I know what overtalk is. It’s talking uppity,” Cecil said. “Problem’s her name. Look at Uncle Arvo—no one’s as oddball as him. A bad name messes you up,” Friend said. “Think about it. I’m the nicest and got the nicest name.”
Mama paid no attention to Friend. She narrowed one eye at me. “So you giving a speech about us at the supper table?”
“Just figuring ways you can talk different so I be sure to remember my speech. Like maybe . . . how you might say howdee different.”
“Nothing wrong with howdee.” Lucine wiped her plate clean and licked her cute little fingers.
“That’s not what I mean.” “Well, what you talking about?” Maude didn’t even look at me. “Well, I don’t cotton to different ways. You hear me?” Mama narrowed both eyes. “Yes, Mama.”
“She in school too much,” Sledge Jr. said. Papa said nothing. He smelled of liquor.
AFTERWARD, I USED crisp talk only when I was by a side creek in a ravine, a safe mile from the house. It was odd—talking to the trees, so I made a joke out of it. While sitting by a pawpaw tree, I whispered, “Is this where you grew up? . . . (Yes, and I never left home) . . . I hope to leave home . . . (Wish I could).” I laughed so hard at a tree wanting to leave home I keeled over. Then I cried. I knew why, but I couldn’t think about it or I’d cry all day. Crying never helped. I’d just get slapped, so I sat up and asked, “Would you like to know about Amelia Earhart? . . . (Love to) . . . Her nickname’s Meeley . . . (That’s silly) . . . When she was a kid, she made a ramp going from the top of a shed to the ground and she slid down it in a box. She said it felt like flying but she got hurt . . . (Where’d you hear that?) . . . On the radio . . . (Honey, that’s interesting, but may I ask why you want to leave home?)” I touched my lips to the pawpaw and whispered, “Because something awful happened, but I can’t talk about it or I’ll get beaten hard. Sorry for crying . . . (When did it happen?) . . . Three years ago. Can’t say no more.” I sat there awhile, thinking Amelia Earhart would’ve approved of my syllables.
When Mama heard a rumor that Cora, Alma Bevil’s second cousin by marriage, sang in a nightclub with a colored girl in Chicago, she told all us kids not to neighbor over there. But I had once met Cora and her smile melted stone with joy. She had put her arm around me and said, “You’ll go far.” Later when I heard her singing, it seemed like the finest thing a human could do. It was obvious I had met perfection, and anything she did had to be good and righteous. Soon after, following my unbridled instincts, on my way home from school and lagging behind my siblings, I popped into the Bevils, and said, “Cousin Alma, I’ll do your ironing every Saturday afternoon—for a nickel.” She offered me three, a cup of tea with cream and sugar, and called me sweetie.
I told Mama, “Cousin Alma said she’ll pay me three nickels to iron for her. I give you the nickels.” Next Saturday after doing my chores, I went neighboring again—ironing, planning, dreaming as I listened to the radio, and hoping to hear Amelia Earhart talking about planes and where she flew, how long it took, what it felt like. Was she ever scared? I was pleased I put one over on Mama. From that day forward, I decided I could nudge my life to what I wanted, if I figured out what pieces went together. That might be easy because one time, Buck dragged home a jigsaw puzzle he found in someone’s trash. I put it together in no time flat, except for the three missing pieces.
“Anyone can do that,” Ethyl Lou had said.
Just to show her, I turned the pieces over to the blank side and finished it almost as quick.
“That be the way the devil put together a puzzle.” Mama took it and threw it in the fire.
I GOT GOOD at planning my future. I finished easy ninth grade, did tenth, did my ironing at Alma’s, visited Aunt Pleasant and Uncle Dillard the few times possible because they lived in Chattanooga and were awful nice and let me read their newspapers. I saw a picture of Amelia Earhart—she had freckles and modern short hair. Modern was the best. The newspaper said she was the sixteenth woman to get a pilot’s license. Sixteenth? Could I ever do that?
Knowing it would never happen in Pilgrim, I helped Buck fix the broken- down car he got for free, because if we got it running he promised me a ride to Chattanooga. I finished eleventh grade, finished twelfth, and then graduated at the head of my five-student class. I said goodbye to Alma, gave her a bag of the best pawpaws as a token of my gratitude. We both said we’d miss each other.
THE NIGHT BEFORE leaving home, under a black sky laden with stars, Papa whispered, “Good luck,” and gave me a hug. Then something in me heard the stars, the pawpaws, trilliums, the whippoorwills, crawdads swimming in the creeks, and cousin Alma all calling. Like the air had shimmered them. Some doubt about leaving slipped in.
Back in the house, Mama said, “She’s going to lose her soul.”
Ethyl Lou hissed between her teeth, then said, “Already has and she better not come back unless she on her knees.”
With his sergeant voice, Sledge Jr. said, “She’ll be back by year’s end, begging forgiveness.”
It was hard hearing them talk nasty about me, like I wasn’t around. My stomach got knotted up, causing me to not sleep well that night. In the morning, my doubt disappeared. With my anxious, excited head held high and carrying one small suitcase (held together with an old rope, donated by Alma), a letter of recommendation from my schoolteacher, and two dried leaves from the pawpaw tree that wanted to leave home, I got into Buck’s old car he finally fixed. He drove me to Chattanooga, dropped me off at Aunt Pleasant and Uncle Dillard’s, and hugged me goodbye. He said he was driving on to Florida to stick his feet in the ocean and find a cute girl. I was eighteen.
While hoping my stomach would unknot, I found a job as a secretary because a job was part of my plans. It was nice that Uncle Dillard charged me hardly any rent. First thing was to save my money to buy my own radio. Aunt Pleasant said I could’ve listened to hers. She didn’t understand—I needed my own. Second thing was save for a plane ride. It cost twelve dollars for a twenty- minute ride, which was a lot. When Uncle Dillard realized what I wanted, he said he’d pay for it.
I was beside myself climbing in the four-seater plane, feeling it take off, and seeing the ground fall away as the plane climbed higher. Soon Chattanooga lay before me in one big swoop. It seemed to go on forever. The crisscross of streets, the houses, the roofs, cars, the green hills far away. Someone’s yellow balloon floated up in the sky. I floated. Never before. At that moment, Pilgrim and its moonshining violence and fear of change evaporated like a summer’s snowflake. I was glued to the window, on top of happy, wanting to fly planes. The noisy engine vibrated my seat. It was my first time sitting on a vibrating seat. Then Uncle Dillard’s hand caressed my inner thigh, and he leaned into me. Lust-filled big blue eyes. He’d never done anything like that before. Not knowing what to do, I turned away and talked real loud and edgy, hiding fear. “Look at the church, look, the people—like little ants. That’s a fancy rooftop. So steep. Is that the city hall? Uncle Dillard, look at the farm far away. The rows of corn. Yellow. Look. See the creek. Silvery. Look out your window, Uncle Dillard. Look.” I moved as far from him as I could, trying to make an inch a mile.
He removed his hand. When we landed, he looked shamefaced and mumbled, “Sorry.”
I forgave him but moved out of his house, saying I didn’t want to be a burden on them (not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings). Sometime later, Aunt Pleasant said she didn’t like traveling on a train with Uncle Dillard, because all the motion and new scenery gets him too romantic. I knew what that meant.
I rented a room—single bed, thin mattress, a dresser, one wobbly chair, three clothes hooks on the wall, each with three coat hangers (more than I needed and worth a chuckle), one loose window, hot in the summer, cold in the winter—real cheap at old Mrs. Felton’s in exchange for cleaning her house every Saturday. It was nice having a little wall mirror, where I combed my hair right and proper before heading to work, thirteen blocks away. It wasn’t a bad walk on nice days. In six months’ time, my words were crisp, and my stomach wasn’t so knotted.
IT WAS GOOD being tall until I realized it put off the few boys I liked. They wanted short, ladylike girls. Now I was fair-looking enough (strong cheekbones, eyes okay, just-right lips, a nose not too little and not too big, well-arched