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The story opens with pregnant Novalee, abandoned by boyfriend Willie Jack Pickens, living in a small, dusty Oklahoma town's Wal-Mart. After she is discovered writhing in labor and rushed to the hospital, Sam Walton (Wal-Mart's late, billionaire owner) offers her a job. Conveniently, her housing dilemma is solved, too, when she moves in with the local eccentric with a heart-of-gold. The rest of the book (300-plus pages) follows the next five years in the lives of Novalee and her daughter. We meet more idiosyncratic yet lovable characters and learn the fate of Willie Jack.
Novalee Nation, seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight--and superstitious about sevens--shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the old Plymouth and ran her hands down the curve of her belly.
For most people, sevens were lucky. But not for her. She'd had a bad history with them, starting with her seventh birthday, the day Momma Nell ran away with a baseball umpire named Fred. Then, when Novalee was in the seventh grade, her only friend, Rhonda Talley, stole an ice cream truck for her boyfriend and got sent to the Tennessee State School for Girls in Tullahoma.
By then, Novalee knew there was something screwy about sevens, so she tried to stay clear of them. But sometimes, she thought, you just can't see a thing coming at you.
And that's how she got stabbed. She just didn't see it coming.
It happened right after she dropped out of school and started waiting tables at Red's, a job that didn't have anything to do with sevens. A regular named Gladys went crazy one night--threw her beer bottle through the front window and started yelling crazy things about seeing Jesus, all the time calling Red the Holy Ghost. Novalee tried to calm her down, but Gladys was just too confused. She jumped at Novalee with a steak knife, slashed her from wrist to elbow, and the emergency room doctor took seventy-seven stitches to close her up. No, Novalee didn't trust sevens.
But she didn't have sevens on her mind as she twisted and squirmed, trying to compromise with a hateful pain pressing against her pelvis. She needed to stop again, but it was too soon to ask. They had stopped once since Fort Smith, but already Novalee's bladder felt like a water balloon. They were somewhere in eastern Oklahoma on a farm-to-market road that didn't even show up on her Amoco map, but a faded billboard promoting a Fourth of July fireworks show promised that Muldrow was twelve miles ahead.
The road was a narrow, buckled blacktop, little used and long neglected. Old surface patches, cracked and split like torn black scabs, had coughed up jimsonweed and bedrock. But the big Plymouth rode it hard at a steady seventy-five and Willy Jack Pickens handled it like he had a thousand pounds of wild stallion between his legs.
Willy Jack was a year older, twenty-five pounds lighter and four inches shorter than Novalee. He wore cowboy boots with newspaper stuffed inside to make himself look taller. Novalee thought he looked like John Cougar Mellencamp, but he believed he looked more like Bruce Springsteen, who Willy Jack said was only five foot two.
Willy Jack was crazy about short musicians, especially those who were shorter than he was. No matter how drunk he got, he could remember that Prince was five one and a quarter and Mick Jagger was five two and a half. Willy Jack had a great memory.
Roadside signs warned of tight curves ahead, but Willy Jack kept the needle at seventy-five. Novalee wanted to ask him to slow down; instead, she prayed silently that they would not meet any oncoming traffic.
They could have been driving on a turnpike if they had gone farther north, a toll road that would have taken them through Tulsa and Oklahoma City, but Willy Jack said he wouldn't pay a penny to drive on a road paid for with taxpayers' money. Though he had never been a taxpayer himself, he had strong feelings about such things. Besides, he had said, there were lots of roads heading to California, roads that didn't cost a penny.
He misjudged the first curve, dropping the right front tire onto the shoulder and sending a shimmy through the car that made Novalee's bladder quiver. She unsnapped her seat belt and scooted her hips forward on the seat, trying to shift her weight in a way that would ease the pressure, but it didn't help. She had to go.
"Hon, I'm gonna have to stop again."
"Goddamn, Novalee." Willy Jack slapped the steering wheel with both hands. "You just went."
"Yeah, but ..."
"Not more'n fifty miles back."
"Well, I can wait awhile."
"You know how long it's gonna take us to get there if you have to pee ever fifty miles?"
"I don't mean right this minute. I can wait."
Willy Jack was in a bad mood because of the camera. Novalee had bought a Polaroid before they left because she wanted him to take a picture of her at every state line they crossed, with her posed beside signs like, WELCOME TO ARKANSAS, and OKLAHOMA, THE SOONER STATE. She wanted to frame those pictures so someday she could show their baby how they had traveled west like the covered wagons did on their way to California.
Willy Jack told her it was a stupid idea, but he had taken her picture when they crossed into Arkansas because he had seen a bar called the Razorback just across the highway and he wanted a beer. They were twenty miles down the road when Novalee missed the camera and discovered Willy Jack had left it in the bar. She begged him to go back for it and he did, but only because he wanted another beer. But when they drove into Oklahoma, Willy Jack had refused to stop and take her picture so they'd had a fight.
Novalee felt warm and sticky. She rolled down her window and let the hot outside air blast her in the face. The air conditioner in the Plymouth had stopped working long before Willy Jack bought it with her fifty dollars. In fact, almost everything in the car had stopped working so it had ended up in a junkyard just outside Knoxville where Willy Jack had found it. He had replaced a universal joint, the carburetor, the distributor, a brake drum and the muffler, but he had not replaced the floorboard where a piece the size of a platter had rusted out. He'd covered the hole with a TV tray, but Novalee was afraid the tray would slide and her feet would slip through the hole and be ripped off on the highway. When she would lean forward to check the tray, she could see at its edges the pavement whirling by, just inches below her feet, an experience that only increased her need to relieve herself.
She tried to get her mind off her bladder, first by counting fence posts, then by trying to remember the lyrics to "Love Me Tender," but that didn't work. Finally, she pulled her book of pictures out of the plastic beach bag on the seat beside her.
She had been collecting pictures from magazines since she was little ... pictures of bedrooms with old quilts and four-poster beds, kitchens with copper pots and blue china, living rooms with sleeping Lassies curled on bright rugs, and walls covered with family pictures in gold frames. Before, these rooms had existed only in the pages of magazines she bought at garage sales in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. But now, she was on her way to California--on her way to live in such rooms.
"Look, hon." She held a picture out to Willy Jack. "Here's that Mickey Mouse lamp I told you about. That's what I want to put in the baby's room."
Willy Jack turned on the radio and started twisting the knob, but all he got was static.
"I hope we can get a two-story house with a balcony that overlooks the ocean."
"Hell, Novalee. You can't see the ocean from Bakersfield."
"Well, maybe a pond then. I want to get one of those patio tables with an umbrella over it where we can sit with the baby and drink chocolate milk and watch the sun go down."
Novalee dreamed of all kinds of houses--two-story houses, log cabins, condominiums, ranch houses--anything fixed to the ground. She had never lived in a place that didn't have wheels under it. She had lived in seven house trailers--one a double-wide, a camping trailer, two mobile homes, a fifth-wheel, a burned Winnebago and a railroad car--part of a motel called the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
She held up another picture. "Look at these ducks here on this wall. Aren't they cute?"
Willy Jack turned the wheel sharply, trying to run over a turtle at the edge of the road.
"I just hate it when you do that," Novalee said. "Why do you want to kill turtles? They don't bother anything."
Willy Jack turned the radio dial and picked up "Graceland," by Paul Simon, who Willy Jack said was three and a half inches shorter than he was.
When they passed the Muldrow water tower, Novalee put her picture book away. The thought of so much water was almost more than she could bear.
"I bet they'll have a bathroom in this town."
"Oh, I wouldn't be surprised," Willy Jack said. "Almost ever town has one. You think they'll have a little hot water, too? Maybe you'd like to soak in a hot tub. Huh? That sound good to you?"
"Dammit, Willy Jack, I have to go to the bathroom."
Willy Jack turned the volume up on the radio and beat out the song's rhythm on the dash. As they roared through Muldrow, Novalee tightened the muscles between her legs and tried not to think about swimming pools or iced tea.
She dug the map out again and figured the next chance she would have to stop, short of a head-on collision, was another twenty miles down the road in a town called Sequoyah. She peeked at the gas gauge and was discouraged to see they still had a half tank.
For a while, she played a silent game of running through the alphabet searching for a name for the baby. For A she thought of Angel and Abbie; for B she liked Bordon and Babbette, but she was just too miserable to concentrate, so she quit before she got to C.
She had aches and pains from her top to her bottom. Her head had been hurting all morning, but she didn't have any aspirin with her. Her feet were killing her, too. They were so swollen that the straps of her red sandals bit into her ankles and pinched her toes until they were throbbing. She couldn't reach the buckles, but by rubbing one sandal against the other, she was finally able to wiggle out of them, and for that, she was grateful.
"Wish I had some gum," she said.
Her mouth was dry and her throat felt scratchy. She had a half bottle of warm Coke in the back seat, but she knew if she drank it, it would only make her bladder fuller.
"Red's wife says she had trouble with her bladder when she was pregnant. She thinks that's why she had to have a C section."
"What the hell's a C section?"
"A caesarean. That's when they cut your belly open to get the baby out."
"Now don't you go planning on that, Novalee. That'll cost a damned fortune."
"It's not something you plan, Willy Jack. Not like you plan a birthday party. It's just something that happens. And I don't know how much it costs. Besides, you're going to be making good money."
"Yeah, and I don't want it spent before it's in my pocket, either."
Willy Jack was going to California to go to work for the railroad. He had a cousin there named J. Paul who had made it big working for the Union Pacific. And when Willy Jack had heard from J. Paul, just two weeks ago, he got excited and wanted to leave right away.
Novalee thought it was strange for Willy Jack to be excited about work, but she said she was not about to lick a gift horse in the mouth, so as soon as she picked up her check at Red's, they left Tellico Plains and she didn't look back.
It was the chance she had dreamed about, the chance to live in a real home. She and Willy Jack had been staying in a camping trailer parked beside Red's, but the plumbing didn't work so they had to use the bathroom inside the cafe. She knew a job with the railroad would guarantee she would not have to live on top of wheels ever again. She knew that for sure.
But what she didn't know was that Willy Jack was going to Bakersfield to chop off one of his fingers. He hadn't told her the whole story.
He hadn't told her that a month after J. Paul started to work, he got his thumb cut off in a coupling clamp, an injury for which he received a cash settlement of sixty-five thousand dollars and an additional eight hundred dollars a month for the rest of his life. J. Paul used the money to buy a quick-lube shop and moved into a townhouse at the edge of a miniature golf course.
Hearing that had created in Willy Jack an intense interest in his own fingers. He noticed them, really noticed them for the first time in his life. He began to study each one. He figured out that thumbs and index fingers did most of the work, middle fingers were for communication, ring fingers were for rings, and little fingers were pretty much unnecessary. For Willy Jack, a southpaw, the little finger of his right hand was absolutely useless. And it was the one he would sacrifice, the one he intended to trade for greyhounds and race horses. It was the one that would take him to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park where he'd drink sloe gin fizzes and wear silk shirts and send his bets to the windows on silver trays.
But Novalee didn't know all that. She only knew he was going to Bakersfield to go to work for the railroad. He figured that was all she needed to know. And if Willy Jack was an expert on anything, it was what Novalee needed to know.
"Want to feel the baby?" she asked him.
He acted as if he hadn't heard her.
"Here." She held her hand out for his, but he left it dangling over the top of the steering wheel.
"Give me your hand." She lifted his hand from the wheel and guided it to her belly, then laid it flat against her, against the mound of her navel.
"Can't you feel that tiny little bomp ... bomp ... bomp?"
"I don't feel nothin'."
Willy Jack tried to pull his hand back, but she held it and moved it lower, pressing his fingers into the curve just above her pelvis.
"Feel right there." Her voice was soft, no more than a whisper. "That's where the heart is." She held his hand there a moment, then he jerked it away.
"Couldn't prove it by me," he said as he reached for a cigarette.
Novalee felt like she might cry then, but she didn't exactly know why. It was the way she felt sometimes at night when she heard a train whistle in the distance ... a feeling she couldn't explain, not even to herself.
She leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes, trying to find a way to make time pass faster. She mentally began to decorate the nursery. She put the oak crib beneath the window and a rocker in the corner beside the changing table. She folded the small quilt with cows jumping over the moon and put it beside the stuffed animals ...
As she drifted into sleep, she saw herself thin again, wearing her skinny denim dress and holding a baby, her baby, its face covered with a soft white blanket. Filled with joy and expectation, she gently peeled the blanket back, but discovered another blanket beneath it. She folded that back only to find another ... and another.
Then, she heard a train whistle, faint, but growing louder. She looked up to see a locomotive speeding toward her and the baby. She stood frozen between the rails as the train bore down on them.
She tried to jump clear, to run, but her body was heavy, weighted, and the ground beneath, spongy and sticky, sucked at her feet. She fell then, and from her knees and with all her energy, she lifted the baby over the rail and pushed it away from the tracks, away from danger.
Then, the blast of the whistle split the air. She tried to drag herself across the rail, but she moved like a giant slug, inching her way across the hot curve of metal. A hiss of steam and rush of scalding air brushed her legs when, in one desperate lunge, she was across. She was free.
She tried to stand, but her legs were twisted sinew and shards of bone. The train had severed her feet.
The scream started deep in her belly, then roared through her lungs.
"What the hell's the matter with you, Novalee?" Willy Jack yelled.
Yanking herself from sleep, Novalee was terrified to feel the rush of hot air coming through the floorboard. She knew without looking that the TV tray was gone.
She turned to look out the back window, dreading what she would see--her feet, mangled like road kill, torn and bloody in the middle of the highway.
But what she saw were her red sandals, empty of feet, skidding and bouncing down the road.
"What are you smiling about?" Willy Jack asked.
"Just a dream I had."
She didn't want to tell him about the shoes. It was the only pair she had and she knew he'd gripe about the money another pair would cost. Besides, they were on a real highway coming into a real town and Novalee didn't want to get him mad again or she'd never get to a bathroom.
"Oh, look. There's a Wal-Mart. Let's stop there."
"Thought you had to pee."
"They have bathrooms in Wal-Mart, you know."
Willy Jack swerved across two lanes and onto the access road while Novalee tried to figure her way around a problem. She didn't have more than a dollar in her beach bag. Willy Jack had all the cash.
"Hon, I'm gonna need some money."
"They gonna charge you to pee?"
He drove across the parking lot like he was making a pit stop and whipped the big Plymouth into the handicapped parking space nearest the entrance.
"Five dollars will be enough."
"I'm gonna buy some houseshoes."
"Houseshoes? Why? We're in a car."
"My feet are swollen. I can't get my sandals back on."
"Jesus Christ, Novalee. We're going clear across the country and you're gonna be wearing houseshoes?"
"Who's gonna see?"
"You mean ever time we stop, you're gonna be traipsing around in houseshoes?"
"Well, we don't stop very much, do we?"
"Okay. Get some houseshoes. Get some polky dot houseshoes. Some green polky dot houseshoes so everyone will be sure to notice you."
"I don't want polka dot houseshoes."
"Get you some with elephants on them then. Yeah! An elephant in elephant houseshoes."
"That's mean, Willy Jack. That's real mean."
"I have to buy some kind of shoes."
She hoped that would be enough of an explanation, but she knew it wouldn't. And though he didn't actually say "Why," his face said it.
"My sandals fell through the floor."
She smiled at him then, a tentative smile, an invitation to see the humor in what had happened, but he declined the offer. He stared at her long enough to melt her smile, then he turned, spit out the window and shook his head in disgust. Finally, digging in the pocket of his jeans, he pulled out a handful of crumpled bills. His movements, exaggerated and quick, were designed to show her he was right on the edge. He pitched a ten at her, then crammed the rest back in his pocket.
"I won't be long," she told him as she climbed out of the car.
"Don't you want to come in. Stretch your legs?"
"No. I don't."
"Want me to bring you some popcorn?"
"Just go on, Novalee."
She could feel his eyes on her as she walked away. She tried to move her body as she had when they first met, when he was unable to keep his hands away from her, when her breasts and belly and thighs were tight and smooth. But she knew what he was seeing now. She knew how she looked.
The single stall in the bathroom was taken. Novalee pressed her legs together and tried to hold her breath. When she heard the toilet flush, she was sure she was going to make it, but when the door didn't open, she was sure she wasn't.
"I'm sorry," she said as she tapped on the door, "but I've got to get in there now."
A little girl, still struggling with buttons, opened the door, then jumped out of the way as Novalee rushed by.
Once inside, Novalee didn't take time to lock the door or cover the seat with paper. She didn't even check to make sure there was paper on the roll. She just peed and peed, then laughed out loud, her eyes flooded with tears at the joy of release. Novalee took pleasure in small victories.
As she washed at the sink, she studied herself in the mirror, then wished she hadn't. Her skin, though unblemished and smooth, looked sallow, and her eyes, a light shade of green, were ringed with dark circles. Her hickory-colored hair, long and thick, had pulled loose from the clip at her neck and was frizzed into thin tight ringlets.
She splashed cold water on her face, smoothed her hair with wet hands, then dug in her beach bag for lipstick, but couldn't find any. Finally, she pinched her cheeks for color and decided not to look in any more mirrors until she could expect a better picture.
She went directly to the shoe department, knowing she had already taken too much time. The cheapest houseshoes she could find had little polka dots, so she settled quickly for a pair of rubber thongs.
At the checkout stand, she fidgeted impatiently while the man in front of her wrote out a check. By the time the checker dragged the thongs across the scanner, Novalee was caught up in the headlines of the National Examiner. She handed the checker the ten-dollar-bill while she puzzled over the picture of a newborn who was two thousand years old.
"Ma'am. Here's your change."
"Oh, sorry." Novalee held out her hand.
"Seven dollars and seventy-seven cents."
Novalee tried to jerk her hand back, but before she could, the coins dropped onto her palm.
"No," she shouted as she flung the money across the floor. "No." Dizzy, she staggered as she turned and started running.
She knew he was gone, knew before she reached the door. She could see it all, see it as if she were watching a movie. She could see herself running, calling his name--the parking space empty, the Plymouth gone.
He was going to California and he had left her behind ... left her with her magazine dreams of old quilts and blue china and family pictures in gold frames.