4.     Jolene

Jolene gripped the sink and looked into the dirty mirror. She was hiding in the restroom of the gas station’s convenience store afraid to pee in the overflowing toilet and waiting for inspiration to smack her upside the head. She looked into the mirror, which was covered with lipstick smudges, fingerprints, and graffiti. Her bloodshot eyes stared back. Meanwhile, up in Jolene’s head the first verse of her lifetime anthem, Dolly Parton’s Jolene played on an endless loop through her mind.

When she was younger serving drinks at the bar, everyone in the room would put down their pool cues, and sing the first line of Jolene every time she walked through the room carrying her tray one-handed above her head, her long red hair floating behind, and her little ass swinging from side to side. “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.”  That song was the only true thing in her life now, and since Jerry hated Dolly Parton he wouldn’t let her play it or sing it out loud.

He’d gotten her to go home with him that first night by promising to take her to Dollywood so that she could meet her idol, and maybe get a job there. He’d promised her a new life. Instead ten years later she was trapped with Bob and Jerry, and now Jerry hated her. Worse, Jerry hated Dolly Parton. Which wasn’t fair because all she had left was Dolly and that song, which played through her head all the time making her forget what she was doing, and earning her a slap when she didn’t move fast enough getting Jerry a beer, or whatever. To Jolene, the song was worth it.

She’d needed to pee for miles, even before they pulled over at the accident, and was surprised that Jerry and Bob let her go in alone when they’d pulled into the gas station. There’d been a big argument about it as usual. She never knew where one argument started and ended, and when exactly the next one had begun. The two of them were always shouting at each other, and shoving her back and forth between them. The arguments were permanently smudged together.

Finally, Bob had pulled off the freeway into this rundown rest stop. There was nothing around for miles but an aging diner with an old, burned-out neon sign, this combination gas station convenience store, and a stretch of empty land. This was no oasis, it was a little stretch off the freeway for those on their way from one shitty situation to the next.

Thinking of the guy they’d left on the side of the road, Jolene rubbed a small blurry circle in the smudge on the mirror and leaned towards it. “He’s dead,” she said, testing her voice. A tear rolled out of one eye and made its way down her cheek. She’d seen dead guys before, sure she had, couldn’t live with Jerry as long as she had without seeing some ugly stuff. The difference was that she watched this one die. Could have sworn she felt his spirit pass on through her, saw his eyes go from watchful to blank with little pinpoint pupils just as her pupils changed when she was really high. “We shouldn’t have left him all alone,” she said aloud.

Christ, she needed something, a drink a pill, a jolt of something, even crack much as she hated the whacked out feeling of it; just something to get her through the next fifty miles so that she could figure out what to do next. Jolene was always trying to figure out what came next, and never got very far figuring it out.

The stench in the bathroom was getting to her. Jolene gagged and leaned over the sink. It was one of those boy/girl combo bathrooms with a urinal against one wall, and a stall with a broken door, but at least the door to the room locked behind her. Jolene rubbed her hand across her mouth smearing what was left of her lipstick across her cheek.

Outside the bathroom, she heard the door ding as it opened. It was a puny sound meant to warn the clerk that he wasn’t alone. The door gave up more of a whine than an alert, and the guy behind the counter hadn’t even looked up when she came in. Just jerked his thumb towards the wall when she asked where the bathroom was.

“Jolene, fuck, Jolene,” Jerry banged on the door, “get your ass out here. What the fuck are you doing in there?”  More banging, “Shit.”

Get her out of there,” Bob growled, “come on man.”

“I’m almost done,” Jolene wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and rubbed her nose. “Gimme a minute.”

“Get the fuck out here fast,” She heard Jerry say, another bang on the door. “Bob, grab me some jerky and a beer.”

“Grab it your fucking self.”

Jolene heard the ding as Bob and Jerry went out the door, the sound of their argument fading into the parking lot, but still loud enough to hear. She looked up in the mirror into the circle she’d made on the glass, and into her face, which looked blurry through all of the smudges, all the rough edges smoothed out almost like she was young again.

The dead guy, it felt like he knew her. There was blood on her jeans where his head had been, and a streak of it on her palm that she couldn’t quite wipe off as much as she tried. He’d looked right into her eyes like he knew she was done with it all, passed around once too often, through with this life and hopeless. A strand of her long red hair slipped over her shoulder. She was known for her bright red hair, kept long and wavy. It was still bright red, but out of a bottle now. Under this light, it almost looked purple. Jolene wiggled a loose tooth with her tongue. She needed something to take the edge off. Jerry always had something to get her up or down when she needed it. It helped to keep life a blur.

The man had looked right into her eyes as he died. Just looked up and through her, and when he died she felt the hopeless part of her start to go with him like it was being sucked right out of her soul. Jolene pushed back from the sink and ran her hands through her hair. She didn’t have her purse with her, but there was no money in it anyway. Wiping a few layers of grime from the toilet seat she hovered an inch above it, and let loose, feeling instant relief.

Jolene opened the door and peeked out. Bob and Jerry weren’t in the store. She was alone with the counter guy, who seemed to be nodding off. Jolene left the restroom and looked out through the windows. Bob, looking irate as usual was waving his arms, his bandana askew. Jerry was smoking and pacing, his long skinny body bent over to hide his tallness, which he hated. Jolene knew that she used to think he was handsome, but she couldn’t remember why. Once she thought he was the answer to her prayers but that had lasted 24 hours max. She’d stayed anyway, got married and stayed some more.

She tiptoed to the counter taking exaggerated steps, trying not to make a sound. The counter guy jumped when she whispered, “hey.”

The man did not look at her.

“Sir,” Jolene whispered looking down at the counter, “Sir, my name is Jolene. I need to get out of here. Is that the only way?”  She pointed a trembling finger at the door.

Looking up the man cocked his head to the side and looked from the woman to the two men outside. They were waving their arms in the air, and yelling at each other. The one with the bandana hit himself on the top of the head several times. His bandana fell off, and he jumped up and down on it before putting it back on his head. The tall skinny bent over guy laughed, lit another cigarette from the one in his mouth, and flung the half smoked lit cigarette onto the cement.

The man behind the counter gritted his teeth. He had immigrated to the United States from India two years ago after finding an ad offering this convenience store, and its accompanying gas station, for sale in a local newspaper. With an uncharacteristic leap of hope, he had bought it sight unseen. He’d left his family in India for a year, and moved here to begin their new prosperous life. When he’d saved enough to bring his sweet wife and son to America, and brought her to this wasteland in the middle of a depressed and uninspiring landscape, she’d smiled and proclaimed him very successful, but when she looked at him her eyes were filled with betrayal.

He regarded the red-haired woman. He noticed the bruises on her arms that looked like fingerprints. He looked into eyes that were like deep holes of nothingness. She was probably a drug addict. He looked at her more closely, there was a plea in her eyes, and something more, maybe the last grip on hope as it slid down her soul on the way out.

The man came to a decision. “Come with me lady,” he said. He came out from behind the counter and stretched his arm out towards her, his hand unfurling from its usual clench. She flinched back. The man smiled gently and lowered his voice so that it was soft and silky, the way he would speak to the very old, a small child, or a frightened animal.

Making his hand into a small cup he gestured for the woman to follow him. “Follow me, lady,” he said, suddenly filled with a sense of urgency, something he’d forgotten existed, “hurry.”  Later when he told his wife about it she would ask him why he had helped the sad woman, and he would shrug. Then he would look into his wife’s soft eyes and see pride there for the first time in years, and it would help bring back his hope.

The man led Jolene to his office in the back of the store. He opened a drawer, counted out some bills, and held them out. “There is a big field behind this door,” he said, unlocking and opening a door that seemed to lead into a dark vast expanse of nowhere. “In about five miles you will find a small town. Look far away and you can see the lights. It is a small town, few buildings. When you come out the other side of the field there will be a road with one street light in front of a house. The house will look very disreputable, but do not worry. Knock on the door. The people in the house will help you if you mention my wife’s name, Mrs. Lavanya Singh. They know her from church. Just mention her name.” He reached forward and touched her elbow, noticing her flinch. “Now lady,” he said gently as if to a very small child, “run.”  He maneuvered her towards the door. “Run, and do not come back here tonight.”

Jolene looked into his eyes.

“I will be okay,” he said smiling and gesturing towards the door. I will lock the door after you leave, and call the police. Now, run.”  He motioned her out of the door. Shaking his finger, he said, “I do not need you to tell me that these are very bad men. Go, and fast.”

Jolene stepped over the threshold into the dark night. The door shut behind her, the sound like the end of something. She shoved the bills into her back pocket and looked up at the stars. And then she ran into the dark, into the weeds. She fell, pulled herself up, and fell back down, scraping her knees, and arms.

As a toddler, Jolene had scared her parents with her stubborn refusal to crawl. Instead, she had pulled herself up by any means possible to stand, falling down many times before managing to finally stand up, shaking and triumphant.

Summoning her childhood stubbornness Jolene ran into the dark as fast as she could and fell, crashing down on her hands. Pulling herself up by the tall weeds that surrounded her she ran on, tripping over rocks, weeds, and once something that growled. Still, she pulled herself up and ran, faster than she thought she could run. Jolene ran on, grabbing at the tall weeds, falling, stumbling, and scrambling until she saw the lights of the promised town up ahead, and while Dolly Parton sang inside her head. “I had to have this talk with you, my happiness depends on you, and whatever you decide to do, Jolene.”

Pushing her way through the weeds Jolene finally found herself on an old and uneven sidewalk. Reaching into her back pocket she found that the money Mr. Singh had given her was still there. Across the street, a light illuminated a house, badly in need of repair, with an overgrown lawn strewn with rusted bicycles, strollers, and an old car with no tires. The house looked pale and ghostly in the yellowish light of the streetlight. As she crossed the road tumbleweeds rolled slowly past, though there was no wind that night.

On the front walk, Jolene made her way to the house stepping over toys, tricycles, wrenches, and the remains of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Standing for a moment at the door Jolene looked behind her into the darkness. Finally, she took a deep breath, and turning towards the door, raised her hand to knock.