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This book is based loosely off The Secret Life of Bees, Walk Two Moons, Another Brooklyn, and several others, because these books all have motherless girls in them. This story came from a personal obsession with motherless girls, sisterhoods, and singer-songwriters from the 1970s.
I don’t pretend to know what it was like to grow up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, but I think there is some of Carney Blue in everyone. This story is also about rearranging the definition of family. I got to writing this story from a news article that described the massive cultural changes happening at this time and place. You might want to read it also. The title is Los Angeles in 1974: When America’s Culture War Was Won.
June 1st, 1976
Santa Monica, CF
Dear Miss Webber,
My hand trembles like the last pecans on a barren, hurricane-stripped tree. This is my last letter. My life’s train is coming. I can feel its whistle all over me. I will see you no more—I am going back to nature. Back to the soil I sprouted from years ago, when I lived in the vein of another sky. I am boiled down to a seed of despair. I must run away.
My poor last belongings I’ve buried under the orange hydrangeas. Please come to Santa Monica and unearth them. To you and you only I entrust these few treasures. Take special care to follow my deliberate instructions about them.
My prize six-shooter is on top. Won it at a wild west show at age seventeen, and it is my most prized possession. Shoot seven holes in my favorite pine tree—the front-yard pine, the one I call Sugar. That will be my memorial. There’s a painted beehive my Navajo grandmother made for me. Hang it above your bedpost. To remind you of me. Keep my ruby heart earrings and my Girl Scout brooch forever and always. Then there’s assorted things, like my lace slip and bottle of Ohio River water, my Miles Davis 45s, my best white platform shoes and hair-rollers and flowered scarves. Keep that brass lion paperweight and my macramé octopus on your nightstand.
As for that bottle-top picture of my husband done in Hollywood, please burn that without question. I know it’s hard to burn metal, but for God’s sake, try!
Oh, dear Miss Webber! You were my favorite teacher in high school. You alone loved me. Remember when you predicted I would be a great New York writer? That was the maddest, merriest, proudest day of my life. Remember that about me. Don’t think of me now.
My devastation knows no end. It’s a mighty fine life, now screeching to a stop, and I have to leave.
All my love and sorrow,
Orange Lilly Blue
Carney’s tight, yellow curls sweated under her pastel-blue headband, her sticky legs clung to their shorts, her hands clenched around a five-dollar bill, and her mouth was stuffed full of popcorn. Her pointy feet were shoved into sandals three sizes too big. Her bright blue eyes roved around, furtive, expecting her long-lost mother to land from the sky on the rollercoasters, like the carefree pigeons who swooped here and there. She left a winding trail of peanuts, popcorn, and gumdrops.
“Hey, Piggie! Where’s the Prima Donna heading off now?”
It was Carney’s six-year-old brother George. She called him Grubber. He held an enormous cloud of pink cotton candy, his scraggly limbs flailing from the Dr. Pepper he’d gulped. Grubber could go inside the petting-zoo cages, Carney thought. He is an animal! All he cares about is squawking, complaining, whining, teasing. Soon he’d tug at her sleeve, demanding, “Where’s the port-a-potty? I’m gonna throw up!”
Carney was visiting a festival in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, July 1976. Mexican hawkers in oversized sombreros sold pottery, green-faced kids stumbled off the rollercoasters, Hare Krishnas banged tambourines. The air was hot, hot, hot. It was hell-hot, like only Southern California could get. Wildfires were in the air.
Grubber had cried for six hours when Carney’s mother left. Carney hadn’t uttered a sound. At eleven and three quarters, she was too big to blubber. The shock of Mother leaving was a softball stuck in her throat, her vision clouding, her hands tightening.
“C’mon, Piggie, you’re gonna sing!” said Grubber.
Carney was starting ninth grade in September, even though she was four foot three, and as immature as kids came. Carney’s brain was stuffed full of songs, movies, radio programs, dances, and shows. She knew them all! Prodigy was the word some teachers used. Others just wrinkled up their noses and called her strange. She lived in a white-brick condo, in a bedroom full of shag carpets and toothpaste-green wallpaper. Sharing a room with her sixteen-year-old sister Mary Joan was a pain, but through her window she saw the Great World.
What a wonderful world!
The lights of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, Brentwood, the Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica Bay were forever shining. In those bright buildings, new movies and music were exploding across the nation like never before. All the time Carney spun records or visited the theater, she knew she’d be living in her own mansion soon.
“Just a couple years! and I’ll be a famous girl singer,” she often told her family.
“Eat your peas and carrots like a good girl,” her mother said. “You will be a junk shop owner like your father.”
One month ago.
Mother had left the Blue household. She’d left one day, like she was evacuating Saigon, like she couldn’t stand to live there another day. She was gone, gone, gone. Back to her childhood home in Redd, Indiana. Bus fading. Pavement squealing. Why?
After her father read her mother’s note, he threw up in the sink. He later lied, “Nothing is the matter!” Carney went to wash out the sink. She found a hairbrush with Mother’s blond hairs threaded through the bristles, smuggled it to her room, and slept with it. That brush had Mother’s scent.
Daddy poured Raisin Bran, drank warm coffee, and went to work at his resale shop called Uncle Bill’s Drawers. He didn’t come back until long past midnight. His face was so tight, like a squeezed prune, his whistling a hollow sound. Carney’s dad couldn’t bear to face his family. He was so grief-stricken. The Blue kids popped their own popcorn, crowded on the couch, watched Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*S*H and All in the Family. They heated up canned spaghetti from the mustard-colored refrigerators and threw dirty dishes onto other dirty dishes. Mary Joan was supposed to wash the dishes, but she was a mean, bossy girl who said, “Women like me deserve better!”
Grubber was a carrot-sized brat. Mary Joan was like she lived on the dark side of the moon. Daddy was always working. Carney was a lonely, nail-chewing kid. Then the resale shop burned.
“Firemen! Police! Help!” Mr. Blue hollered. Uncle Bill’s Drawers went up in a blaze. Burning shirts blew around in the wind. Collapsed, burnt metal racks and scorched underwear littered the block. Police tape covered the entire block, and Mr. Blue wept.
Two weeks ago.
Now they scraped by on welfare. Daddy was gone more than ever, standing in unemployment lines. Carney’s music was her only refuge. She was tickled pink when she got signed up to sing The Star-Spangled Banner at the Festival. She loved to sing. Too wonderful!
She shook in her sandals, her mouth pasty with spit. A crowd had gathered on the dusty ground. People shuffled and whispered impatiently, waiting for this Carney kid to start the show.
Her voice skidded to a stop. She saw him staring across that faceless blob of festivalgoers. Her blood rushed from her limbs, so she was limp as a puppet. She broke out in freezing sweat.
Napalm Wilson is here!
The mean, drunken, arsonist. He had the nerve to come to the Festival. That guy brought his little girl, Jennie. He’s got pistols filling up his jean pockets. He’s gonna kill me!
Jeffery “Napalm” Wilson wasn’t like the other ruined soldiers staggering down Santa Monica, depressed and hollow-eyed and broken. Flint glistened behind his black glasses. He played with matches like a first-grader. When he stayed out in his early-model Chevrolet, smoking and drinking, all the kids ran for their homes. Everyone feared and hated him.
He followed Carney home from school, pretending to be the traffic-guard. Whispered threats. Pinches on her back. Footsteps behind her. His breath hot in her ear.
“Go away!” she screamed at him.
Napalm Wilson just laughed.
His job was making Popsicles at a gas station, and rumor had it that he put vodka into the purple ones. When kids walked in, Napalm yelled, “Get out of this store! Leave my girl Jennie alone! Or I’ll kick you in the butt!”
Jennie played on the gas-station floor, her tongue purple with Popsicles. She was five or six, had choppy brown hair, and scowled unless her daddy gave her attention. Napalm’s only tenderness was for Jennie.
Now, Napalm was looking straight at Carney. Awful! Carney bolted off the stage, toppling the microphone. Screeching feedback. Shouts rang out. Her sandals fell off as she raced across burning pavement. Napalm Wilson is chasing me!
He’s got a gun!
She tore across the festival like a possessed girl. Her Peter Pan collar clung to her throat with sweat. Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Seeing no refuge but a mud-splattered pickup truck, she climbed inside and huddled in the bed. The parking lot was full of V-dubs, spray-painted, closed off. She prayed, God, don’t let the driver see me! Let me escape, let me escape…
Running away, a stowaway kid, she jostled in the back of a stranger’s pickup. Her new life had begun. The pop of tires against pavement was like shots from Napalm’s popgun. Carney’s knees dug into the metal. Bob Dylan’s voice drifted into her ears like spattered roadkill.
He was singing, It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.
Carney ached all over with the pickup truck. She did not lift her head. On and on and on the truck rattled. She knew that night was falling and she was far from home. Lost and alone, like a bird in a runaway cage, she didn’t budge.
Spare me from being shot by Napalm Wilson!
Sleep overtook her. She jerked awake only when whoever it was stopped the pickup to fill the gas-tank, at a place called the Golden Ring Filling Station. The minute Mr. Stranger’s back turned, she leaped from the truck-bed. She dived into the bushes.
Carney Blue! You’re not in Los Angeles anymore! She gazed in horror. This gas-station was deserted and quiet and dark. In Los Angeles, you could wait in line all day, only to have the attendants turn you away. Where were the SORRY, WE’RE EMPTY signs here? Where were all the attendants?
She wandered slowly up the road and found the town sign: PECAN BUSH, CALIFORNIA. LOS ANGELES, 75 MILES.
Carney’s pickup truck stranger blasted off down the highway, dust spewing under his tires, Bob Dylan blaring out the window, “How does it feel?”
“I’m stuck in Pecan Bush,” said the girl, bewildered. She walked inside the Golden Ring Filling Station to investigate. Would they give her a free Slurpee? Would they let her call Daddy? How would she return to Santa Monica?
“Merciful Heavens!” cried a hag behind the counter. She leaped to her feet to look at Carney.
“It’s a child!”
“Yes, I am a child,” said Carney.
“A lost child?”
“Merciful Heavens! We thought we’d never see another customer, inside the Golden Ring Filling Station! Town’s been deserted twelve years now.”
Carney gazed at the razor-blade clock. Two-thirty AM.
“Merciful Heavens!” shrieked the hag. “Call the papers!”
“Please, ma’am, may I have a map…or a coin for the payphone?”
“Oh, honey-child, you can spend the night. We’ve got rooms above the Golden Ring Filling Station. You can live here if you like!”
The hag looked so old that she could’ve been a waitress on the Ark. Her gray curls were tightly permed, dyed red, and she smelled of lemon Jell-O. She wore blue suspenders like a man and was playing poker. Love beads adorned her neck.
“My name is Peacie Pearl Webber, and I’m the Sole Occupant of Pecan Bush, California. I was born here ninety years ago.”
Carney felt her pockets for coins. Nothing. All she had was a paper so crumpled, it could’ve been a receipt. That paper was her mother’s last letter, cryptically addressed and signed and sealed, unmailed. Carney had found it the day after Mother disappeared. She opened the letter. Her mother’s once steady cursive was shaky. Dear Miss Webber…With all my love, Orange Lilly Blue. Carney’s mother was named Orange Lilly Blue. Dear Mother! She was like a hippie even before hippies existed.
This was mighty strange! The hag here was named Webber, the same name on Mother’s letter. I won’t show this hag my Mother’s last letter! Carney scowled. Tears ran down her dirty cheeks. Life was just too hard!
Would she tell Peacie Pearl Webber about Napalm Wilson, Daddy, and Mother? No, she would not. Fugitive? Runaway? Stowaway? Never!
Peacie placed her wrinkled hands on Carney and spoke soothingly.
“Everyone has left Pecan Bush. Everyone but me and my girls. The Golden Ring Filling Station is a hotel, a refuge, an Ark, a shelter for girls and women who’ve been bruised, crushed, and battered by life. They sleep in the upstairs rooms. You will sleep there, poor girl. The constellations guided you to Pecan Bush. Surely you will stay awhile! I never had a daughter—Lord, child, let me look at you. Merciful Heavens, you remind me of a dear girl I once loved. I was a ninth-grade English teacher, back in the old days. Before the crushers demolished this town. The blood of the Lamb was on the Golden Ring Filling Station. This place alone stands in Pecan Bush. So does the First Holiness Presbyterian Catholic Baptist Church.”
“Oh? All right. Well…who is the pastor at the…um…church?”
“Who goes to services there?”
“Just me and my girls.”
Carney smiled weakly at Peacie Pearl Webber, surrendered, and soon fell asleep. Above the Golden Ring Filling Station, she laid down her fears, sins, and sorrow.
Morning light, sharp and hot, woke Carney in a strange bed. She’d flopped like a rag doll and fallen asleep beside a strange body. As she stirred the sheets and searched for a pillow, the body moaned and snored.
Horror filled her eyes. The body twisted and turned and sat up. A ceiling-light flickered. Both their faces met—then they screamed.
“Merciful Heavens!” said Peacie Pearl Webber, from downstairs. Both of them turned, startled.
“Come on downstairs and get dressed. Lazy-heads! Blueberry muffins and bacon for breakfast today. It’ll be a mighty busy day. Customers coming from all over!”
Carney wolfed blueberry muffins, drank milk from a cardboard carton, gazing at her bedmate. A redheaded lady, thirty-five years old—she wore tight white pants and rhinestone glasses. She scrutinized Carney, like Carney was the Los Angeles Times talking about Watergate. Carney choked.
“Don’t mind Nesta. Nesta is a shy young girl,” said Peacie.
“Who is Nesta?”
“Nesta Richards, a teletypist from Orange County. She loves to play the flute and cook all day. She’s at the Golden Ring Filling Station because her Ford Fairlane broke here. Escaped the worst marriage ever. Libbie Holcomb lives here, too.”
Carney gaped. Nesta! Without those glasses, she’d be Mother! She looks just like Mother! Mother had piercing green eyes which slid right through you, discerning the evil you’d done.
Mother! Daddy! Grubber, Mary Joan…Los Angeles. Fire and murder and Vietnam and disappearing mothers. The Festival and Napalm Wilson. Everything smashed down on Carney’s soul. How would she get home?
“Excuse me, Peacie—”
“Call me Miss Peacie Pearl Webber.”
“Miss Peacie Pearl Webber, I don’t live here. I’m from Santa Monica. I’m not supposed to be here, and I need a ride. I need a ride. I need a riddde!” Carney hated her whiny voice. Mother had said, Take a ride from a stranger and you’ll never live to tell the tale because Carney was so impulsive. Mother hadn’t mentioned jumping into pickup trucks, or jumping into bed with strange ladies at strange gas stations in strange towns…
“What’s your name, honey-child?”
“Carnelian Mae Blue—everyone calls me Carney.”
“We should call her Sun Comet,” said Nesta.
“Why? What is this, a hippie commune?”
“Just a community of sisters making a living in a California ghost town, darling.”
“How do you make a living?”
“Well, I pump the gas and run the register. Nesta sells flowers, holds bake-sales. Libbie Holcomb doesn’t work. She’s in her own little world, getting in touch with her soul.”
They sound like bums. Nobody lives in Pecan Bush!
Carney’s roving eye took in the Golden Ring Filling Station. Decrepit wallpaper hung in quivering shreds. Nesta’s flowers stood in wilted baby-food jars. Racks of Coca-Colas so old that they had cobwebs. A payphone and green checkered curtains decorated the store. The cash register’s buttons were like ugly insects. Peacie’s living-quarters included a gas stove, kitchen cabinets, TV with aluminum foil wrapped around the antennae, an ironing-board laden with soggy underwear, and a cot made of two chairs jammed together.
Ammonia and borax, Lysol and Dutch cleanser stood on the kitchen counter next to the mixer and the sugar-bowl, like Peacie had tried to make poisoned cookies. Bath towels, radios, prayer-books, chess sets…everything was so messy, so random, so run-down! Peacie had said she was a schoolteacher, but where were her books?
“We have stories to tell, we women do,” said Nesta, nodding.
“Tell her about that time the gas station caught fire,” said Peacie.
“No, you tell it! You’re the one who beat the flames with wet socks, when the firemen refused to come.”
“Tell her about that gas-station robbery,” said Peacie, eagerly.
“How did you stop being a schoolteacher and start working at a gas station?” said Carney, searching that old woman’s face.
Peacie got a blank expression. “Some things are better left mysteries.”
“Mystery why I ended up in Pecan Bush.” Carney sighed.
“Yes, please tell us why!” said Nesta.
Just then, the door slammed and there stood Libbie Holcomb. She was a toothpick of a woman, twenty-three, in a Pepto-Bismol-colored pantsuit and smiling with boxy goat teeth. You could tell she was a deep, deep Southerner, who’d grown up so deep in the country she couldn’t distinguish a telephone from a radio. She was scared by running water. Libbie was so kind and gentle that nobody saw the hidden depths inside her. Nobody but Peacie had ever known her horrid panic attacks. Carney didn’t know it—but Libbie would become her closest friend. Sweet Libbie, whose life was like a sad flute song and whose smile was like dandelions going to seed! She held out her hand with pleasure, and said, “Nice to meet y’all! Who’s this nice little lady?”
Three women sat around Carney like she was the Queen of England. Peacie, Nesta, and Libbie—just three women. The sight of them touched Carney to the core. Tears came to her eyes. They were ugly and colorful, hurting and lovely and lonely. Their eyes darted like ping-pong balls. Apart, they were splintered, but now they were united like a solid wood-block. They were their own country, their own unit, their smiles like uniforms. Carney ached for that kind of belonging. Would she someday be a woman whose eyes were not complete without her special sisterhood? Their smiles at her were like unpeeling an orange. They wanted the story inside her.
I am the girl who will one day be called Miss Los Angeles. I am the Singing Canary!
She’d heard of this sort of friendship among Los Angeles’s musicians who were called Troubadours—long-haired, gentle people picking their guitars, who contemplated their souls and burst into song without warning. They all lived within a few blocks of each other, shared ideas, and fell in love with each other.
“Tell us your story,” said Peacie.
Carney thought of Napalm Wilson and his guns, and she shook. What if he still pursued her? What if he were listening? She clamped her mouth tight.
“We will all tell you our stories,” promised Nesta, “by and by.”
Nesta was the youngest in a family of six brothers. Little League games. Mud stains all over her house. Pet lizards littered her bedroom floor. They all regularly hit her. They told her, “Make food for us like a good female,” “Know your place,” and “Women are only good for one thing—food.”
She’d yell at her brothers, “Well, I hope you never get married. You may as well hire a maid!”
Since Nesta spent her days cooking for brothers, she turned her food into revenge. She’d make beautiful caramel brownies with dish-detergent, toothpaste cupcakes, chicken legs with sawdust instead of Shake n’ Bake, corncobs with worms—all kinds of cooking “accidents.” Her brothers got so mad that they kicked her out of the house when she was eighteen.
“But I was a tough, fearless girl. I had nothing in this world but my flute and my talent for horrible baking. That was enough. I just knew I’d survive.”
Nesta found herself serving slop at homeless shelters.
“I slept on the bare floor, but Lordy! I knew I’d be cooking at the Governor’s mansion soon if I just held on, persevered, tried!”
When Nesta was twenty-five, she appeared on a TV show called Cook-Off Challenge, ’64. All the other chefs sweated, toiled, and spewed ingredients for show, only to pull a perfectly perfect premade souffle or escargot for the judges. Not Nesta. When the judge jokingly asked her, “Can you make boxed Jell-O?” she broke out into cold sweat. She avenged herself by making chocolate-chip cookies with ground-up spiders in them.
She was booted off TV forever.
“Lordy, I knew better than to trust men. But I did. All it took was fancy nightclub lights, a Buick, and a few too many Black Madonnas for me to marry Sharko Bazuka. Thought he was so handsome—he claimed to be Japanese. He wasn’t! Sharko took me to his ramshackle apartment. Next thing I know, a bill-collector pounded on the door. Sharko just drank and danced, drank and danced. Fool!”
Nesta was a horrible flute-player, so she played her flute for the bill-collectors and drove them away. She couldn’t drive away Sharko Bazuka.
“He’d tie up my hands with pantyhose so I couldn’t call the police. Then he’d…then he’d hit me with…well, I don’t wanna go there.”
She worked her teletype job at the airport, watching the planes glide, wishing so hard she could fly away. Oh, for blue ocean skies! Oh, to see the sun again!
Yet she did run away from Sharko. She did take off! When she got to Pecan Bush and collapsed at the Golden Ring Filling Station, Nesta was bone-thin and bruisy and shaken. A shadow of her old self. Peacie took her in, cared for her till she was well.
Libbie Holcomb was born in an oil-shack in Mud Badger, Mississippi.
She never went to school. Her playground was the Mud Badger Crick. She hardly ever wore clothes. Her mother had religion, her father had liquor. Her baby brother got killed by a pickup truck. Her baby sister got typhoid from a skunk and died.
“Mud Badger’s as low as Mississippi can get,” said Libbie, sadly.
She was supposed to marry her cousin Jim at fourteen, but Libbie rebelled. She hated her town, her life, her family. “I’m gonna be a Yankee for all I care!” she shouted. Her parents couldn’t stop her.
“First thing I did was learn to drive. My car was this trashy Studebaker Hawk. Problem was, I was just like my Pawpaw. Couldn’t stay away from bootleg liquor. I’d be zipping around Mud Badger, drinking liquor until the stars blurred. I was so dizzy…”
Libbie’s drinking caught up with her soon. Her hands were shaky. The road to Jackson was rain-slick and shiny.
“Crash sounded like two paper-airplanes colliding. I laughed. It was nothing. Then the police dragged me out, and the smoke-stench woke me up. I felt like I’d gone to Hell. That car…it was totaled. I asked, ‘Did anyone die?’ I saw these three little children lifted onto stretchers…No! No! I can’t bear to tell more.”
Libbie’s soul was destroyed, her body racked with sobs.
“God, I felt bad. Everyone feels sorry for the victims of drunk-drivers and their families…nobody cares for the drunk-drivers. Nobody. I spent years in jail. Didn’t talk to a soul. My family won’t speak to me no more.”
Libbie! What a horrid story! people said, their mouths like bloated Cheerios.
I am so sorry. I’ll never be whole.
When she came to the Golden Ring Filling Station, Miss Peacie adopted her. Fed her milk and honey. Tried to let her know that, despite her awful history, she was still beautiful and loveable. Libbie picked wildflowers.
Peacie Pearl Webber learned to read at three, and she became a schoolteacher at eighteen.
“Pecan Bush had this nifty one-room schoolhouse back then. Reading, writing, and arithmetic knowledge were Teacher’s requirements. My kids wore no shoes. We still had a wood stove, and when it rained outside, everyone got wet.”
This amazing woman taught ninth-grade English at Pecan Bush High School for forty-five years. When Miss Webber read The Tempest, nobody ever forgot it. How she loved every one of her students! Even the bad boys.
Peacie married but never had a child. One day, visiting a juvenile detention house, she met a boy named Jeffery who was fourteen and had committed robbery.
“Poor Jeffery’d had this terrible life. He needed a mama. So I took him home, set up rule-charts, and he was our son. He wouldn’t speak to me, wouldn’t do his homework, wouldn’t do chores. Just wanted to explode things. Kept matches and oil under his bed. My husband and I feared for our lives. When he got older and went to Vietnam, people started calling him Napalm Wilson.”
When Miss Peacie said My adopted son was Napalm Wilson, Carney said, “No!” When Miss Peacie said My favorite student was Orange Lilly Blue, Carney gasped.
Carney thought, My enemy’s name is Napalm Wilson. My mother’s name is Orange Lilly Blue! Napalm’s chasing me. My mother’s gone, gone, gone!
She knew it now. No escaping the truth—Pecan Bush held the secret to Mother’s past. The story belonged to Mother’s English teacher, Miss Peacie Pearl Webber. The story swirled around her. These three women lived in and ran the Golden Ring Filling Station…
Nesta Richards, the chef,
Libbie Holcomb, the drunk driver,
Miss Peacie Pearl Webber, the mystery English teacher.
Before she knew it, Carney had stayed at the Golden Ring Filling Station two weeks. Miss Peacie had a tinny radio that seemed to play Rock Me on the Water all day. Sometimes Carney found that lady behind the cash register, making macramé octopuses like her mother used to do.
When Carney sang along, Miss Peacie screamed, “Bravo, baby girl, go outside to sing and bring traffic back to Pecan Bush!”
“It’s raining!” she said.
Carney had no desire to sing in the rain in front of a gas station. That was for losers. The Golden Ring Filling Station looked like a tin can from the 1940s. A giant yellow sombrero stood outside with a sign that read, BE NOT AFRAID, THE ISLAND IS FULL OF NOISES. COME INSIDE AND MEET THE GANG!
One day, the temperature rose over 100 degrees. Miss Peacie, Nesta, and Libbie fired up the hose and had a water-fight, while their boom-box blared Long Cool Woman. Carney shut her eyes tight, too embarrassed to watch.
But she did sing. She studied books of show-tunes. Practiced the piano. Worried about Mother. The payphone hung on the wall like a dead body. The sight of it was wretched. Why didn’t she call Daddy? Why? She never did call her Daddy—she was trapped in a drug-dream world. Carney stared into Miss Peacie’s eyes and tried hypnotizing her. Tell me about my mother. Tell me about Orange Lilly and Pecan Bush High School. Tell meee!
Once she wondered, Did I drive my poor momma to run away to Indiana? I think I did. This was like a poisoned stone in her stomach.
“Open up your mouth, little one! I made a caramel-apple pie!” Nesta would say.
“Come pick daffodils with me,” said Libbie.
“Play poker with me,” said Peacie.
Carney shook her head. She thought of her Mother’s hands moving slowly, how she’d caught her humming River as she’d packed suitcases. Tender sadness hung in the July air. Even when Miss Peacie’s radio played Summer Breeze or Take it Easy, Carney scratched at her soul like a mosquito bite, searching for answers. Once she tried writing her own song:
MAMA’S SONG, BY CARNEY BLUE
I’m standing by the highway
It’s the Fourth of July
Banners are waving
Their proud colors high
Oh, I wish I had a VW
To take me to the sea
Take me to the sea
My heart is so lonely
But my feet are so free,
Oh, I wish I had a VW
To take me to the sea
I’m a terrible girl
I made my momma flee.
On July 31st, the windows flew open. Nesta’s mixer drowned out the radio. Flour spewed in huge clouds, and sneezes rang out. “I’m making Mexican tea cakes!” shouted Nesta.
“What’s the secret ingredient?” said Peacie.
Ground-up Pall Mall cigars, most likely.
Just then, Libbie returned hot and sweaty from collecting weeds. “Hey, ya’ll, I’m gonna get married!” she said.
Libbie smiled beside a short hippie man, who wore a pearl choker, ripped jeans, and loose long sleeves like an Arab.
“This is Sparrow Raven Hilton,” said Libbie.
“I don’t like the looks of him,” grumbled Peacie.
“Never trust a man!” said Nesta.
Sparrow said, “I’ve heard so much about y’all at the Golden Ring Filling Station. After we’re hitched, we’ll paint this place, tear it up, remodel it. Promise!”
“Want some Mexican tea cakes?” said Nesta.
“Where did Sparrow come from?” demanded Peacie.
“Sparrow doesn’t work. He just picks up litter from the highway. Why, he’s getting in touch with his soul, same as me!”
Libbie was so happy, like a child at an Easter egg hunt. Carney grinned at Sparrow and he grinned toothily back. “Congratulations, lovebirds!” she said.
“Be our flower-girl, Carney, honey-dumpling,” said Libbie.
“She’s a flower-girl every day,” said Peacie.
Libbie showed off the ruby on her pinky-white finger.
“What did you say when he proposed?” said Nesta.
“I said, ‘Dammit, that’s god-awful pretty of you, but I can’t take it. I grew up in Mud Badger, Mississippi where we ate raw grits and washed clothes in the crick and got leeches. Hell, I’m not good enough for you.”
“Your first words when you got engaged were swear words?”
“You should’ve heard my words when I got engaged!” said Peacie. She chuckled.
“Sparrow’s sweet. Makes me wonder what the wedding’ll be like…”
This is crazy! I’ve been here two weeks, and now I’m planning their WEDDING! Carney Blue! You. Are. Crazy.
“We’ve got to re-decorate the Golden Ring Filling Station!” shouted Miss Peacie.
“I’ve clipped this awesome wedding-cake recipe from McCall’s,” said Nesta. “Next to Mrs. Nixon’s famous White House meatloaf. That’ll be on the menu also.”
“If Libbie’s wedding doesn’t attract every soul from the Los Angeles metropolis to Pecan Bush, I’ll be a tin can-fried antelope!”
“I’m so happy that Libbie’s found her soul.”
“This is the happiest thing that’s happened to us since the Monterey Music Festival in 1967. After the Who smashed guitars, I thought life’s thrills and chills were over.”
Carney draped the Golden Ring Filling Station with crepe paper, rose-water bouquets, lace doilies, palm branches, and banners that read CONGRATULATIONS, ROMEO AND JULIET! The wedding was planned for August 2nd, and Miss Peacie would officiate. She resembled a pastor like a mule resembled a rooster, but no real ministers would go near Pecan Bush. Carney was pleased and excited to play Bridal March from memory and to be a flower girl—but she had this ominous feeling.
By and by. By and by. Say goodbye. By and by, Carney would find her flower-girl dress splattered with red stains. She would face Napalm Wilson—and she’d have no pickup truck to hide inside.
She was a bundle of nerves. She knew where Peacie stored a shotgun. (They needed a gun, since they were three women alone, and they’d witnessed a robbery once.) She stockpiled lighters and matches and firecrackers left from the Bicentennial. When Napalm came to Pecan Bush, he wouldn’t leave alive! The skunk!
“How do you feel, honey?” said Peacie to Libbie.
“So, so happy. On top of the world. Like Karen Carpenter with a lip full of Novocain.”
Night before the wedding, Carney stayed up, went snooping, and found Miss Peacie Pearl Webber’s yearbooks. They were a stack four feet high. They ended eighteen years ago, with 1958. She flipped through them, found pictures of Orange Lilly, found Napalm Wilson…
“Hello…Miss Carney? How may I help you?”
Busted, Carney gazed at Miss Peacie Pearl Webber, who wore a nightgown and held a flashlight.
“You looking for pictures of me?”
No, I’m looking for my long-lost mother. I have her letter!
Miss Peacie went greenish gray, as though she could read Carney’s mind. She looked every inch of her ninety years.
Carney broke out sweating. “Can you please tell me how Pecan Bush got abandoned?”
Peacie propped herself on her knees and elbows. She groaned. “Long story. It started when my son Jeffery Wilson was twenty.”
“Did Napalm Wilson burn the place to bits?” It sounds just like Napalm!
“I thought you heard in the Los Angeles Times why we’re a ghost town.”
“Well, my son Jeffery loved setting fires. He was chemically minded, smart, and loved explosives. He said watching buildings burn helped his soul.”
“Jeffery dreamed of starting a nuclear plant in Pecan Bush. He never could get into college. Had what they call antisocial personality conduct disorder. From his shady friends, he got machinery, generators, equipment—tried to start a nuclear lab in my garage.”
“Worse yet, word got out that Jeffery Wilson had leaked nuclear poison into California and was a Russian spy. Families started to evacuate, leaving all their possessions, loading their children into cars. Then the government found out. They came with trucks and crushers—oh, Lord! They asked no questions. Nothing I could do helped. Every building they demolished, except the church and the Golden Ring Filling Station. God and diesel alone survived. I haven’t seen my son in ten years now. If only he’d come back, I pray everything would be much better than before.”
Peacie’s sharp schoolteacher eyes looked foggy. Sad. Distant.
“What did Jeffery do then?”
“Jeffery’s antisocial behavior exploded when he broke up with his favorite high-school girlfriend. He threatened and bullied her and said he’d get revenge on her children, if she had any. He went too far, too far. That poor, sweet girl was named Orange Lilly.”
Carney sat back. Whoa! So Napalm Wilson had dated her mother? This story was abysmal!
“Orange Lilly had mental problems of her own. She’d say the world would end if she missed a violin recital. Everything set her over the edge. She was naïve, high-minded, lovely, feather-blown, wandering. She was different and very, very special.”
Orange Lilly is my disappearing mother!
The time had come. Carney’s throat tightened as she said, “My mother wrote you this letter.” She handed Peacie the crumpled paper, ink stained from her fists. She trembled, waiting.
When Peacie read Orange Lilly’s last letter, her lip quivered, and she wept quietly. “Orange Lilly’s gone. Orange Lilly’s gone!”
Libbie’s wedding-day poofed up joyously, like Nesta’s angel-food cake.
First Presbyterian Catholic Baptist Church was anything but Carney’s idea of church. It was like walking into an upside-down mirror house. All those denominations mashed together like mashed potatoes! They had stained-glass pictures of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team. Stacks of hymnals and sprawling piles of communion-cups. Statues littered the sanctuary, looking like carved chunks of wood washed up on a riverbank. Here a St. Paul, here a St. Anna, here a St. Teresa, here a St. Lucy, here a St. Antony, and here a St. Thomas Aquinas. She’d never dreamed saints were so ugly. There was a woman so old and ugly that she looked like she’d been dredged from a swamp. She was the organist, playing “Pass It On.”
Happy Wedding Day!
Peacie wore the biggest hat in the world, decked with a stuffed canary. She had drawn over her veins with crayons, smeared rouge, and wore bright yellow gloves. Nesta pressed her gloved hands together and looked stiff, hairspray-ed, beautiful in her rhinestone glasses.
Here COMES the bride, here comes the BRIDE, here comes THE bride, HERE comes the bride.
Libbie tapped out the cigarette she’d been smoking to keep down her wedding jitters, took Sparrow’s hand, and walked shakily down to the altar. While Libbie and Sparrow said I do, I do, I do, Carney’s heart and lungs were in a wrestling match.
At the Golden Ring Filling Station, the gas-pumps had white streamers and balloons. They opened the door, and Nesta’s burnt steaks seared their senses. “Lord, that’s the wedding supper. Mercy the oven didn’t catch fire!” she said.
Wedding glasses clinked like Libbie’s laughter, and Sparrow’s deep voice rang out. “Peace and happiness, peace and happiness forever!”
Miss Peacie had her knife poised to cut the wedding-cake. “God bless you two! Life and peace and happiness to Pecan Bush. Our town will grow and grow, filled up with your children. Thank you. We commit ourselves to you on this Day of Days, August 2nd, 1976.”
That’s when Carney snatched the shotgun and dashed outside. Her head abandoned her, and her feet took over.
She nearly had a heart attack. The sound of a pickup truck made her drop her wedding-cake slice. That could be California state troopers looking for her…it could be Daddy…it could be the FBI. Or it could be Napalm Wilson!
It was Napalm.
Grinning, he laughed, “So this is where the runaway girl’s been hiding all this time.”
His truck was all mud-splattered, like he’d fallen into a drainage ditch. Jennie hung out the window. Flinty eyes and black glasses hadn’t changed. Carney’s fisted hands were so hot that they hurt her. Old bum! Old bum! Old bum! she raged.
“You came way out here to Pecan Bush to shoot me dead!” she hollered.
Napalm wiped his forehead, laughed.
“Damn, girl, I came to check on my mama. This place used to be my town. Playground used to be down the hill, a library on Center Street, the Masonic Lodge on Cactus Lane, high school on Pinwheel Drive. We’d have neighborhood barbecues and hula-hoop contests and Memorial Day parades. Heck, I knew this town like a glove. Down the hill lived the Penny family and the Worthen family, whose houses I egged. I used to prowl town in my truck like Boo Radley. Can’t believe how silent and hot this town has gotten, like a dead dragonfly’s wings. God! Sends shivers through my soul.”
“You send shivers through my soul, Mr. Napalm.”
“Why do I want to dirty my hands with you, girl?”
Carney choked on a sob.
“You ruin everything. You wrecked your mama’s career, Pecan Bush High School, you destroyed Pecan Bush, with your lies and propaganda and nonsense! Stop smiling. You creep. You destroyed my mama’s life—”
“Shut up, girl! Lemme look around. Are only the Golden Ring Filling Station and church left standing in Pecan Bush?”
“Sure. Your mama pumps gas for grizzled truckers, just to make a few dollars a day.”
“Figures. Mama always did have macho-man muscles. She’d whip me into shape and make me quiet.”
Why didn’t you stay quiet?
“Just leave!” Carney yelled.
Napalm gaped, google-eyed. “Why are the pumps festooned? Are you guys holding a gas-station wedding? Let me in! Gotta see Mama. What I wouldn’t give for cold, gas-station beer. Poor Mama! She’s so old—she could be pumping spoiled molasses instead of diesel. She belongs in the old-folks home. Blind old bat.”
“Don’t talk about dear Peacie Pearl Webber like that. She’s the one who dragged your butt out of juvie. She gave her whole life for you. Ninety years old, and she ain’t ashamed to pump gas. She’s gonna teach me to pump gas, too. Cause I ran away from Santa Monica, and I live here now!”
“Carney, calm down. You little freak. How pathetic is this, being Mama’s gas-station apprentice?”
“Why don’t you go home and make some spiked Popsicles? I know who I am. You’re an incorrigible son who sets fires.”
“Forget it. I’m gonna get my cold gas-station beer and shoot up some skunks and blow up the world.”
“Don’t move!” screamed Carney. The pistol felt hot in her hands, like it had grown there. Napalm Wilson was clearly drunk. Those skunk-eyes were bloodshot.
Blue skies froze.
Voices from the Golden Ring Filling Station shouted, “Don’t move, Carney. Drop that gun. Come inside now!”
Carney tried to drop her gun, but her clumsy hand hit the trigger. Smoke blinded her, the sharp smell of killing. Bang. Heat rushed up into her face.
Horrified, she dropped like a wet sock. Miss Peacie, Nesta, Sparrow, and sweet Libbie in her wedding-dress, all fluttered around her. “What’s wrong? What in Heaven’s name happened? Please get up!”
Carney’s world went black. Her last thought was I killed Napalm Wilson. My soul is over. God forgive me…
Blue skies, a bang, and then darkness.
Sirens, screams, and tears.
Jeffery Wilson slumped over the open window of his pickup truck, blood all over his open mouth. Little Jennie, the five-year-old, had blood on her light blue Keds and her DADDY’S COOL GIRL T-shirt. The child stared blankly, like she’d gone deaf, as the paramedics loaded her into the ambulance.
“My God,” said Miss Peacie.
“She’s killed him,” said Nesta.
“Killed him!” Libbie burst into tears.
Miss Peacie, barefooted, tore off down the road after the ambulance, yelling, “That’s my boy! Take care of Jeffery! Bring him back safe!”
Carney woke up hours later in the small room over the Golden Ring Filling Station. The room was dark and smelled of Vicks Vapo-rub. A wet washcloth drilled into her forehead. Her eyes still bugged and her hands were hot. Weakly, she called, “Mama…?”
Patient Libbie laid a cool hand on her head. “Hush, now, baby. Mama’s here, Mama’s here.”
“Where’s Sparrow? Where did the wedding go? Oh, Libbie, you’re not my mama. I just shot my mama…”
“Hush. Be quiet, dear Carney.”
“I fainted, didn’t I? I went down the bathtub drain of reality. Can I do it again?”
“Don’t talk like that, honey.”
“Mama, mama, I want mama. Mama. Please, Mama.”
Carney was an adult now, for she had broken that Sixth Commandment she’d learned long ago in Sunday School. Thou shalt not kill. Jeffery Wilson was dead; Jennie was an orphan…and she hadn’t even cared. She could’ve laughed.
Then she saw Miss Peacie’s face, and knew what she’d done.
She sobbed to Libbie, “When I was a child, I hated Jeffery, because he was a mean man and an alcoholic. A bully. He followed me home from school and threatened me. But he was a human being, and Jennie’s dad. Why did I ever forget?”
Libbie said, “I felt the exact same way…after my accident. I wished I were dead. Now I still have panic attacks. It’s like I wear a scarlet K for KILLER, a marked woman. I’ve never had anyone to understand or help me, not all the world’s therapists and shock treatments and medications. But Carney, just looking at you helps me. We can understand each other and kiss each other’s bruises.”
“I love you, Libbie.”
“Honey-dumpling, the pain will get better.”
“What about the Law? Call the police! They’re coming to arrest me, and they’ll put me in a cell, and what will become of Daddy? What about Mother, Mary Joan, and Grubber? I’ll be on TV. I’ll be that one-armed man in The Fugitive…I’ll be…”
She didn’t know what to say.
Libbie smiled. “Carney, Miss Peacie explained and talked to the police for hours. She convinced them that the gun-shot was an accident. So you won’t even go to trial.”
“Miss Peacie will blame me, and she’ll kick me out on the street.”
“I can taste the jail meatloaf, already.”
August 2nd was a day that lived in infamy. Carney Blue was never to speak of it again.
Miss Peacie wore all black. She pecked at the register-buttons like they were coffin nails. Gone were her love-beads and overalls and poker-games. Gone was her welcoming smile. She talked about Jeffery constantly. “I don’t care what he did. He was my son, and he was worth everything I gave him. What about poor Jennie, my granddaughter? She can’t go into a foster home. She’ll have to move into Pecan Bush!”
Please, please, not Jennie Wilson!
“Sing us a song, dear Carney,” said Nesta.
Carney wished to God in Heaven she could sing songs again. But her tongue was a slab of cold mutton in her mouth.
“Bye-bye, ya’ll!” Libbie shouted out the window.
Libbie and Sparrow moved into the First Holiness Presbyterian Catholic Church. Sparrow’s job was collecting old toilets from junkyards to repaint and refurbish. So the churchyard was cluttered with toilets. Libbie laughed until she cried. She said, “Soon he’ll have a sign that reads WELCOME TO PECAN BUSH, TOILET CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. CHEAP TOILETS FOR SALE!”
This was life in Pecan Bush.
One week after Napalm died, bells rang at the Golden Ring Filling Station. Carney jumped like a hand grenade to greet the customer. “Hello, sir, how may I help you? Want a Coca-Cola?”
“I’m looking for a road-map,” said the stranger.
“Your car broke down?”
“No, I lost a little girl. My daughter.”
“What’s her name?”
Carney stumbled, gaped. “Daddy? Is it…you?”
She’d been in Pecan Bush three weeks, and Daddy was a stranger to her. He blinked in his huge glasses—then they recognized each other.
“You’re coming home now, lady!” He left out the young part.
“Miss Peacie! This stranger’s tryin’ to abduct meee,” cried Carney.
“You’re just like your mother, running off and leaving me!” Mr. Blue cried, desperate.
Miss Peacie stared owlishly. “Are you Samson Blue? Orange Lilly’s husband? Orange Lilly was a dear student of mine at Pecan Bush High School! Samson Blue, you were the cheerleader whom she married at eighteen!”
Mr. Blue laid his coins on the counter. “Give me a cold wine-bottle. I’m exhausted.”
Carney folded her arms.
“Mary Joan and Grubber are waiting in the Cadillac. The engine’s running. You’re gonna come home to Santa Monica, lady.”
Nesta fed him a slice of Mississippi Pecan Pie, which he quietly spat into his mouth.
“Why don’t you like my pies?” she said. She acted like Mr. Blue had uttered blasphemy.
“What’s going on here? Is this a gas station? Trashy place! So Carney’s been living with hookers? I’ve been searching, searching all over for Carney. Everybody back in Santa Monica stares at me and whispers when I pass on the street.”
“No, Daddy,” said Carney, frantic.
Miss Peacie spread her arms and smiled. “So here we have a family reunion! Carney is Orange Lilly’s daughter, Samson is Orange Lilly’s husband, and I am Orange Lilly’s teacher. You can all live here. We always scrimp and pinch to make more sleeping room.”
Mr. Blue lit his cigarette. His lip quivered, like he just wanted to say, Dogonne it.
Come September, the Blues moved from Santa Monica to Pecan Bush. They moved into Libbie’s empty room above the Golden Ring Filling Station. Mr. Blue, Carney, Mary Joan, Grubber—everyone shared a room! Shag carpets and lava lamps decorated the place. Their laughter rang out.
Come September, Carney rode the school-bus from Pecan Bush to nearby Santa Antonia High School, waving gleefully out the windows like the happy idiot she was. Dust spewed down the roads. Palm trees waved their heads.
Come September, Miss Peacie rode a Greyhound to Santa Monica, unearthed Orange Lilly’s chest, and brought it back to Pecan Bush. That was Orange Lilly’s last wish. They pored over the treasures, like they were the Lost Terra Cotta Army in China, or King Tut’s tomb.
“This is your Mama’s Girl Scout brooch,” said Miss Peacie. Carney held it, carefully pinned it to her own chest. Her heart beat fast with guilt. She’d never wanted to be a Girl Scout one bit.
“These are your Mama’s gloves…this is your Mama’s slip. This is your Mama’s brass lion paperweight. This is your Mama’s macramé octopus.”
Carney placed Mama’s junk on her chest-dresser, tears blurring the sight. The objects were so perfect. She still slept with Mama’s hairbrush. Yet all these things weren’t Mama, and Mama wasn’t coming back to Pecan Bush. “I don’t get it. It’s unfair. How can people can act so beastly to their own families?” said Carney.
“We won’t ever know,” sighed Miss Peacie.
“Why did Mama go to Redd, Indiana? Why…Indiana? Why not Argentina? Why not Scotland? Why not Mars?”
“Your Mama grew up in Redd—she was born a country girl. When her family moved to California, it bruised her soul. She lived by the Ohio River and wrote poetry by its banks.”
Carney tried to picture that scene. She pictured her mother falling off a cliff.
“Your mother loved to write. Read this poem she gave me once,” said Miss Peacie, handing her a paper.
THE RIVER—by ORANGE LILLY
The River rolls and rolls and rolls
Gray and deep and sunny
So far far far far
Far to the
The River is not content with watchers;
It demands an offering.
Some paid with their homes or loved ones
While we stood on the shore
Throwing our shells and pebbles and broken toys.
On and on and on. Goodbye.
Roll, river, roll. Like tomorrow and yesterday
And the day before.
“You see, Carney, you can’t bring your Mama back. But you can at least try and understand what made her the woman she is. Everybody has a story, and it would do us all good to listen to each other’s words.”
Carney studied her mother’s yearbooks, school-papers, photographs which were stored around the Golden Ring Filling Station. So, slowly, September 1976 faded into October.
In December, Miss Peacie went crazy with memories. She said that she still worked at Pecan Bush High School, said that her husband was alive, and said that Jeffery Wilson had matches under his bed. Her blue eyes were full of strange fogginess.
“Sit down, Miss Peacie! You worked too hard, that’s all. You need a good long, good long rest.”
“Where’s my car? School is starting any minute. Bells are ringing,” said Miss Peacie. Then she sighed, like she was too exhausted to talk more.
Peacie had worked, worked, worked like a dog all her long life. Now, Mr. Blue took over the gas-pumps and registers. Whistling while he worked, Mr. Blue repainted the gas-station, stocked the shelves with purple Nehis and Snickers bars. There were many, many other changes. A funny thing happened. Cars returned to Pecan Bush.
While Carney and her father worked, they sang along to the radio.
“Will Mama ever come back to us?” Carney asked her father one day, her throat tightening.
Mr. Blue stopped whistling. His wrinkled face drew together, like a folding roadmap. He thought. “I know only this—she’s in Redd, Indiana.”
“Please tell me she isn’t dead. She can’t die. I feel in my guts that Mama’s alive.”
“Mama is alive, and she might or might not come home. That’s all I know, honey.” He hugged Carney tight.
Mary Joan and Carney looked at Tiger Beat magazines, painted each other’s fingernails, and fought. But they talked more than usual. That was bizarre. Carney was learning that a big sister can be kind and give advice. Advice about high-school boys.
Grubber and Jennie Wilson held hands, went to First Grade together, and got engaged on the playground. “Jennie’s cute! I loves her,” Grubber said.
Little Grubber had been badly upset, because Carney’s escape at the Festival kept him from winning a goldfish.
“You’re too young to get married, Grubber,” said Carney.
“You don’t know nothin’, Piggie!” Grubber grinned from chubby ear to ear.
Nesta called, “Dinner’s served! Chicken and dumplings, with strawberry shortcake for desert! Come quickly to the table!”
Carney started. It sounded so much like Mama that a sob burst in her throat. Nesta wasn’t Mama, but the Golden Ring Filling Station was home. Life was funny like that. Who’d ever think Nesta’s cooking would be home?
She could hear that Carole King song ringing in her ears, You’ve got a friend.
“Coming,” she called, and bounded downstairs.