Laura Fulton (RMIT University, Australia)
“Ew! Jolene stinks so bad today! I can smell her from over here. I think I smell her cupcake.”
Jolene sat at the edge of the playground, her legs outstretched in front of her, slowly scooping up the dry red dirt within reach around her. Her aim had been to bury her legs completely, but the ground was hard and her reach limited.
Most of the fifty or so children who attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School swarmed the playground, dangling from the half-circle climbing frame or crawling up the slide and jumping from the top of the ladder to the dusty ground below. Both of the swings were occupied, and a group of boys played baseball in the field, the one good bat and ball shared among them.
The midday sun beat down overhead. Several girls played hopscotch, singing a rhythmic chant in time with each bobbing body as it hopped from square to square. Another cluster hunched over a scattering of jacks, bouncing the ball and grabbing with varying degrees of dexterity. In the shade behind Jolene, three girls whispered.
“She is so nasty. She always stinks like that. She don’t never wash her cupcake. Her momma don’t neither.”
“Ain’t nobody gross as her. ‘Cept her momma. And her big brother Tuck. And her sister Rebeka. And her brother Lucas … ”
Jolene took a deep breath, absorbing the aromas around her – the sweat in her dress that had gone unwashed since the previous weekend, the heat resonating in the air, the leaves in the trees over her head. She couldn’t smell her cupcake.
“You know what I heard? I heard her momma go down to that Nickel John’s place. You know Nickel, that real dark one what used to shine shoes? Won’t none of the other places for whites let her in no more.”
“Her momma go INSIDE the juke joint? That is SO! GROSS!”
“And listen to this – I heard she go with the men inside that place. Doing ‘You Know What’ and all kinds a thangs you wouldn’t even believe!”
In response to this revelation, a collective groan of revulsion.
Jolene stopped, stared at the ground then reached for another handful of dirt. Inside her stomach, a ball of icy snakes heaved as needles of fire bloomed across her face. She didn’t need to turn around to know who it was. Patty and Betty Anne and Dot. They were all mean but Betty Anne was the worst. Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look …
With both hands, Jolene scooped up the dry dirt, scraping it towards her, unconscious of the fact that she would never be able to complete the job and hide in the grave she was silently digging for herself. They still see me – scoop, pat, pat, pat. Scoop, pat, pat.
“My big brother was there and he said he seen her. Know what he said she was doin’?”
“Why was your brother there?”
“He was just PASSIN’ BY was all. SHUT UP! Anyway, he seen her and guess what she done?”
Now they whispered too softly for Jolene to hear, the shushing punctuated by occasional giggles. Jolene scooped the dirt, patted it down around her legs, reached further, scooped more. She hunched her shoulders, her chin pressed into her chest, trying to disappear inside herself. They see me, they see me, they still see me. Scoop, scoop, scoop. Behind her, the girls exploded in disgust.
“I know. Sooooo nasty.”
“What does that even mean?”
“What kind of a girl would even DO somethin’ like that? Why would anybody go an’ do somethin’ like THAT? Oh my GAWD!”
“Ain’t no wonder Jolene the way she is, what with her momma goin’ round actin’ like that.”
“Your brother musta’ just been playin’ with you, Betty Anne. Ain’t no way no girl would never go and put a boy’s thang-go in her mouth! That ain’t even how you do it, my cousin told me. He puts his thang-go in your cupcake.”
“No he don’t! It goes in your belly button, stupid! That’s where the dumb-billy cord grows out from an’ attaches onto the baby. Dang, you’re dumb sometimes.”
“No it ain’t! My cousin’s a nurse! She told me! She said he puts his thang-go in your cupcake and then that’s where the baby comes out in nine weeks.”
In the shade behind Jolene, two voices scoffed.
“Ha! Girl, dang! You tellin’ me a great big ole’ huge baby comes out your cupcake? Ain’t no way! I seen my cupcake in my momma’s little hand mirra’. It’s TINY. I can barely stick my fanger up in there.”
“Yeah, I reckon you crazy there, Patty. A baby cain’t come out your cupcake. And Betty Anne, what chu’ doin’ stickin’ your fanger up in your cupcake?”
“Shut up, Dot! I just wanted to see. Sometimes it gets all tickly down there.”
“OK then genius, where YOU think a baby comes out?”
“Your BUTT, dummy!”
Now it was Patty’s turn to crow.
“Ha! You ain’t never had a poop the size a’ no baby.”
“Not at this age – your poops gets bigger when you get older. That’s just part of becomin’ a woman. It’s real gross.”
“Well, you might be right there. My cousin did say lots a’ gross stuff gonna’ happen when we get to be ‘round fifteen or sixteen or so. I ain’t never had great big ole’ poops before. Dang! That IS gross! I just thought she meant shavin’ my legs an’ puttin’ on face cream an’ pluckin’ out them extra hairs ‘tween my eyebrows.”
“Least we ain’t never gonna be as gross as JO! LENE! and her MOMMA!”
The snakes in Jolene’s stomach, which had quieted as soon as the girls’ conversation turned away from her, now roiled again, oily and sickening. Her face, only half cooled, flared as a sob rose heavy in her chest. To cry, she knew, would be the worst thing she could do. Nothing would make the girls laugh harder or keep at her longer.
They still see me. They ain’t even pretendin’ to whisper no more. They know I hear ‘em. I hate you I hate you I HATE YOU ALL!!!!!
Jolene looked up. Across the playground, she could see that one of the two swings was now empty. Between her and the empty swing was the climbing frame, covered with children like ants swarming a sugar cube. Run. Get on the swing. Then they won’t see me.
When she stood, the accumulated dirt she’d heaped onto her legs fell into two neat piles at her feet, but Jolene didn’t notice the grit in her shoes. She didn’t notice the miles of cheerful blue sky over her head or the distant whistle-blow of the far away train coming steadily into the station behind the school.
Some ancient, shapeless instinct in the base of her brain whispered that if she stood motionless, they couldn’t see her and she would be safe. The second she moved, that instinct told her, she would have to run with everything she had in her. Taking a deep breath, she readied herself. One more second …
“Hey Jolene! I can smell your cupcake! You NASTY!”
Later, she would not recall making a decision. She would not recall turning around. She would not recall taking the two steps that lay between her and Betty Anne, nor would she remember pulling her arm back or balling her hand into a fist.
What she would remember would be the fleshy smacking sound her fist made when the flat of her knuckles connected with the fattest part of Betty Anne’s mouth, the look of sudden shock in the other girl’s eyes – who had not for one single second anticipated that Jolene Casey might ever fight back – and the high thin screams of the other girls.
“OH MY GAWD!”
“Jolene punched Betty Anne!”
“Jolene went crazy!”
“Get the teacher! Get the teacher! Oh my GAWD!”
But before the girls could even help their friend up from the ground, Jolene had already cleared the schoolyard, darting through a hole in the fence and making her way down the back road across the train tracks towards home.
Laura Fulton is a writer, teacher and researcher based in Melbourne. Born in the Mississippi delta region of Arkansas, she is currently exploring issues of identity, origin and belonging through the writing of autobiografiction, imaginative projection and speculative biography.