The job of every storyteller is to give the main character a burning desire for something or someone. In my novel, Bone Girl, my main character, Josey, wants her mother to come home and love her, to be the parent she was before her mother went to prison. This is Josey’s reason for all that she does.
So, if I have given Josey this burning desire for her mother, Rebecca, how do I take it away? Because eventually Josey will realize what the reader has known since chapter 1: Rebecca cannot be a fit mother. This question puzzled me for a long time. I actually stopped writing this novel because I had no answer. It was only after my Aunt Mary Rose and I started corresponding on a more frequent basis did the idea of a surrogate mother present itself.
I would give Josey an example of what a loving mother should be. Enter one of my book’s most colorful characters: May Ellen Jones, loosely based on my Aunt Mary Rose.
May Ellen Jones and her two sons, Leighton and Carson, barrel into Josey’s life when they move back to the home where May Ellen grew up. She’s got a little money from her late husband’s military life insurance, and May Ellen uses that to open her own sewing business. May Ellen knows Josey’s parents; they went to high school together. She sees Josey’s dad do all that he can, but Josey needs a mother’s attention. May Ellen provides this and teaches Josey that “love” is a verb.
Please to enjoy chapter 4 of my book, Bone Girl.
The next Saturday morning, Josey got on her bicycle and pedaled down the dirt road that ran in front of her house. She’d seen an old beat-up station wagon driving back and forth on the dead-end road, and she wanted to see where it had been going. She found it sitting next to an abandoned farmhouse.
Josey eyed the gray boards of the one-story building. The front porch sagged; its two supporting columns bowed outward. The front step was missing. One of the boards underneath the porch was broken off and when Josey peered down, a pair of bright eyes stared back.
The front door opened, and a boy about her age walked out, a biscuit in one hand. He looked at her. Josey looked back. He leaned over the porch railing and took a big bite of the biscuit in his hand.
“Hey,” he said, wiping his hand on his mouth.
“You live around here?” he asked, before taking another big bite out of his biscuit.
She nodded. “Just up the road,” she said. “I heard somebody moved into the old Jones place.”
“That’s us,” he said. “We’re the old Joneses. I’m Leighton Jones.”
“Pleased to meet you. We just moved here from Arkansas. My mama lived here when she was a little girl.”
“Leighton!” a woman called.
“That’s my mama,” Leighton said.
The screen door flung open, and a woman marched out onto the front porch, a little boy perched on her hip. She wore a deep purple dress with silver threads woven into the cloth. Her hair, barely contained by a matching scarf, was the most vibrant red color that Josey had ever seen, and the little boy, tucked into her doughy flesh, had the same bright red hair, cut close to his scalp.
“Leighton, don’t eat up all my biscuits.”
She turned now to face Josey, surprised she was there.
“Who’s this?” she asked.
“I’m Josey Miller, ma’am.”
“Miller…” she said, pausing to think. “Carl Miller?”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s my dad.”
Leighton’s mother laughed, a deep, loud belly laugh. The little boy shook. “I knew Carl Miller when I went to school here. You look like your daddy, dark like him,” she said. “Well, come on in. I’ll make us all some breakfast.”
She turned and went into the house. Leighton followed her, holding the door open for Josey. She got off her bicycle, and propped the kickstand down. Josey felt nervous about going into a house that looked like it was about to fall down, but she didn’t know how to say no.
Josey stepped inside. The early morning sunlight streamed in through the living room curtains. Each panel was a mosaic of fabrics, and when the sunlight hit it, the colors glowed like a stain glass window at the Pine Street Baptist Church. Boxes were stacked in corners. Next to them, Josey saw bolts of fabric of every color, one on top of another, near to the ceiling.
She followed Leighton into the kitchen. A cheerful bright red checked tablecloth covered the small round table. The curtains at the kitchen window matched it.
“Mama sewed that,” Leighton said. “There ain’t nothing she can’t sew.”
“Sit yourself down,” Mrs. Jones said. “If I can keep Leighton out of the biscuits, we’ll have us a good breakfast.”
“Mama, it was just one,” he said, before she shushed him.
She plopped the little boy on a highchair next to Josey and Leighton. He looked at Josey, stole a glance at his mother who had turned away from him, and shoved his finger up his nose.
“That’s Carson,” Leighton said. “Mama! He’s doing it again.”
“Carson, get your finger out of your nose or I’ll get the tobacco sauce.”
The little boy took his finger out of his nose but not before gobbling up the treasure on the tip of it.
“Leighton, set the table.”
The smell of frying sausage filled the kitchen. Josey watched as Leighton’s mother drained the grease into an old Folgers coffee can, added milk to the skillet and sprinkled flour to thicken. She seasoned it with salt and pepper. She stirred and stirred, and when she seemed satisfied, she poured the thick sauce into a white glass gravy boat shaped like a tugboat. She placed the gravy and a plate of biscuits on the table. With that, she plopped down next to Carson.
“Well, help yourself. Don’t let it get cold,” she said.
Josey’s mouth watered. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten a hot breakfast. Usually she just ate cold cereal or toast with peanut butter.
“So, what’s your daddy doing these days?” Mrs. Jones asked.
“He worked at the Hamilton factory in town before it shut down. Now Dad trains horses.”
“I’m glad to hear there’s a living in that,” Mrs. Jones said. “I worked for fabric shops in Fayetteville until Wal-Mart put them out of business one by one. So I went to work for Wal-Mart. I watched as they bought cheaper fabric and charged more for it. Finally, I had enough. I said to myself, May Ellen, what can you offer folks that Wal-Mart can’t? My sewing. I plan on making my living that way. What about your mama, Rebecca? What’s she doing these days?”
Josey choked on her food. This was always a difficult question when people who didn’t know asked about Mama. Josey took a deep drink of cold milk.
“She’s living in Kansas City, ma’am. We don’t see her as often as we’d like.” She’d heard Dad say that to some busybody once.
May Ellen looked at her, nodded, and took a bite of biscuit.
“Carson, you can eat what’s in your nose or what’s on your plate, but you can’t do both,” she said, pulling his finger out of his nose a second time.
The room was quiet as the biscuits and gravy disappeared. Josey accepted a second helping while Leighton ate a third.
“That was real good, ma’am. Thank you.”
“I know it won’t do no good to tell you, but you’re welcome to call me May Ellen.”
“Yes, ma’am. I mean…”
“I understand. I grew up around here too. I know we’re taught to say ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ while we’re still in our cribs. You’re welcome for the breakfast.”
May Ellen took their empty plates and plunked them into a basin of hot soapy water. She handed Leighton and Josey each a clean dish towel to dry while she washed. After the kitchen was clean, Josey thanked her for breakfast and left.
Hands and arms inside the cart, please: Next. The answer is no.