A moving debut novel about two mothers—one biological and one adoptive—from a compelling new voice in Southern women’s fiction.
One baby girl.
Two strong Southern women.
And the most difficult decision they’ll ever make.
Frances “Khaki” Mason has it all: a thriving interior design career, a loving husband and son, homes in North Carolina and Manhattan—everything except the second child she has always wanted. Jodi, her husband’s nineteen-year-old cousin, is fresh out of rehab, pregnant, and alone. Although the two women couldn’t seem more different, they forge a lifelong connection as Khaki reaches out to Jodi, encouraging her to have her baby. But as Jodi struggles to be the mother she knows her daughter deserves, she will ask Khaki the ultimate favor...
Written to baby Carolina, by both her birth mother and her adoptive one, this is a story that proves that life circumstances shape us but don’t define us—and that families aren’t born, they’re made...
“Dear Carolina is Southern fiction at its best....Beautifully written.”—New York Timesbestselling author Eileen Goudge
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||1 MB|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I designed a special scrapbook for each of my children. A custom-made blue or pink album with white polka dots and a fat bow tied down the side, the front center proudly displaying a monogram that was given to each of you. I take those books out every now and then. Sometimes I add a new photo or memento. Other times I gaze at the pictures and marvel at how quickly the eyes-closed-to-the-world phase of infancy morphs into the headfirst-plunging alacrity of toddlerhood.
Other times, like tonight, with your book in particular, my sweet Carolina, I sit on the floor of our family room overlooking my favorite field of corn and simply stare at the cover, running my finger across the scrolling monogram. It’s only a name, we have been reminded since middle school in what has now become perhaps the most cliché of Shakespeare’s musings. But, in what is certainly not the first exception to a Shakespearean rule, that name means more than the house your daddy built in this field where we spent so much time falling in love or the sterling silver service that has been in our family for generations.
It means more because that name wasn’t always yours. And you weren’t always ours.
I was, just like a mother should be, the first person to hold you when you were born. Your birth mother, after thirty hours of labor, fainted when she saw you, perfect and round and red as a fresh-picked apple. I felt like holding you first would be like stealing money from the offering plate. But as soon as the misty-eyed nurse placed you in the nest of my arms, you quit crying, opened your eyes, and locked your gaze with mine. That instant of serendipity was fleeting because it wasn’t more than a few seconds that your birth mother was out.
When she came to, and I was there, cuddling this lighter-than-air you that she had grown inside herself for nine long months, I begged for forgiveness. But she said, “I’m glad you got to hold her first. You’ve been here this whole dern time too.”
I had given birth myself before, and that teary first introduction to a new life after a forty-week hormone roller coaster was fresh in my mind, still damp like the coat of paint on the wall in your nursery. But I’d never been on my feet, outside the bed, when four were breathing the air and then, with one tiny cry, there were five. To experience that kind of wonder is like being born again.
Even in that resurrection moment, I couldn’t have known that one day, I would get to hold you, swaddled and warm, all the time. But I did swear that I would do everything in my power to protect you, love you, and make sure you grew up good and slow as salad greens.
And so, my love, if you ever look at your book and think maybe it’s a little thicker than your sister’s and your brother’s, it’s only because instead of having one mother to save snapshots and write letters and remind you how much she loves you, you have two: the one who brought you into the world and the one who brought you up in it. And if you ever start feeling like maybe you got dealt a bad hand, that having a mother who raised you and a mother who birthed you is too tough, just remember this: You can never have too many people who love you.
JAM LEFT ON TOO LONG
Some things in life, they don’t even seem right. Like how you can preserve something grown right there in your own backyard and have it sitting on your pantry shelf ’til your kids have kids. And how them women down at the flea mall can write a whole Bible verse on one of them little grains of rice. And then there’s the thing I know right good: how ripping-your-finger-off-in-the-combine awful it is for a momma to have to give up her baby.
I think you already got to realizing, looking at me right now, messin’ in your momma and daddy’s white, shiny kitchen, that I ain’t just your daddy’s cousin. ’Course, you’re still so little now, you cain’t know how I grew you in me, how I birthed you, how I loved you and still do. But you give me that same crooked smile my daddy had and squeeze my finger real tight—and it’s like you know it all. Whenever I say that to your momma, she says back, “Of course she knows. Babies know everything.”
It’s a right simple thing to say. And simple is who I am and what I’ve been knowing my whole life. I cain’t say a lot of fancy things, and I don’t believe in making excuses as to why I’m not doing your raisin’. So here’s the boiled-down-lower-than-jam-left-on-too-long truth: I gave you up ’cause I loved you more than me. I gave you up ’cause I wanted you to have more. I gave you up ’cause, in some, murky way, like that river that runs right through town, my heart knew that it’d take giving you up for us to really be family. I used to tell your momma I was scared that being in your life was gonna hurt you. But then she’d tell me, right simple: You can never have too many people who love you.
My favorite interior design clients have always been those who approach me with file folders with magazine clippings seeping over the edges like overfilled cream puffs. They like the feel of this room, the light of this one. They can’t live another day without a chaise precisely like that.
I’d always been like one of those clients, totally in touch with what I wanted. So when your daddy Graham and I got married, I knew we’d have lots of babies. I already had your brother, Alex, of course. But when he was born it was different. I was a very young widow living in Manhattan full time, my design business and antiques store taking off. In short, I was busier than a Waffle House waitress when third shift let out.
But once I moved back home to North Carolina and married your daddy Graham, his calming demeanor and being so close to nature soothed my soul like a raw potato on a cooking burn. I wanted to breathe deeply, feel the sun on my face, and watch my children grow.
I was dreaming about Graham and me rocking on the porch watching Alex and his two little sisters—little sisters that he didn’t have—play, when I woke up that Sunday morning, my arm tingling numb from being up over my head. I looked down to see Alex nestled in the crook of my body, his arms splayed wide in that unencumbered, worriless sleep of children. He was snoring on one side, Graham snoring on the other, the three of us snuggling like a litter of puppies in the barn hay. I smiled at how the morning sliver of sun peeking through the small opening in the curtains glistened off of my three-year-old’s blond strands.
Graham yawned, opened his eyes, and leaned to kiss me. His muscular grip wrapped around me as I shook my practically dead arm, the pins-and-needles feeling burning through me. “Mornin’, Khaki,” he said.
My name was really Frances, but Graham had changed it nearly two decades earlier when I used to dress in head-to-toe khaki work clothes and ride around the farm with my daddy. It was one of those nicknames that had grown like creeping ivy and been impossible to escape.
I looked back down at Alex’s closed eyes, smiled at his legs propped on mine, and whispered to Graham, “Do you have any idea how many times we’ve had sex in the past two and a half years?”
“Mmmm,” he hummed, nuzzling his face into my hair, his unshaven chin pricking my cheek. “I like where this conversation is going.”
“No, I’m serious,” I said. “Four hundred sixty-two times.”
He nodded. “I’m glad to know that someone is keeping track. Are you saying that’s too much or not enough?” He grinned that boyish grin at me, his blue eyes flashing, and said, “Because I’d err on the side of not enough, personally.”
I rolled my eyes. “Come on, Graham. Why the hell am I not pregnant? I mean, how hard can it be? I wasn’t even trying for Alex, and ‘bam!’ just like that.” I snapped my fingers, ignoring the fact that I had been only twenty-six then. I tried to push away the thought of that declining fertility chart the OB-GYN had shown me at my last appointment. He had said, “Well, at your age it just takes a little longer.” He’d made Graham and me feel like a couple of forty-eight-year-olds asking for some sort of miracle, not thirty-one-year-olds on a very reasonable quest for their second child.
Graham shrugged and yawned. “Maybe my guys don’t want to swim in the winter. Maybe it’s too cold. Maybe we should wait until summer.”
I crossed my arms, my nostrils flaring. He pulled me in closer and kissed my cheek.
“Oh, come on, pretty girl, you know I’m just teasing you. We’re going to have lots more babies and fill this house up.”
I looked up at him, my lower lip protruding the slightest bit. He kissed it back in place, leaned his forehead on mine, and whispered, “I promise. I’d never let my girl go ’round not getting something she wanted.”
I smiled, my heart feeling that familiar, practically lifelong surge of love for my childhood sweetheart, when Alex rolled over, looked around sleepily, and laid his head on my lap. “Hey, Mommy?” he asked.
“Can we have bacon for breakfast?”
I laughed and ran my hand through his shaggy hair. “You can take the boy out of the hog farm, but you can’t take the hog farm out of the boy.” I pulled him up and gave him a firm kiss on the cheek that was still plump and juicy as a ripe tomato.
“I think we might be out of bacon, but I know some grandparents who never run out of pork.” I pinched his side and said, “You go brush your teeth, and we’ll go over there.”
Graham perked up, and, rubbing his tight stomach, said, “I need a big ole Pauline country breakfast.”
Pauline had worked for Mother and Daddy my whole life on the farm, and she made the best homemade biscuits and gravy in the world. I shook my head. “I will take Alex to Mother and Daddy’s. Then, when I get home, if you impregnate me, you may have a Pauline breakfast as a reward.”
He whistled and rubbed his hand down the back of my silk gown. “Oh, baby, I love it when you get so romantic with me.”
I slapped his thigh and pointed my finger at him. “I’m not teasing you. I’m getting Alex ready, and you better concentrate on producing some of that fine Jacobs baby-making sperm.”
When we pulled up to the end of Mother and Daddy’s driveway I took a moment to marvel at how the giant oaks, each of them having been there for centuries longer than the home itself, grew together into a green canopy, the ideal frame for the white plantation home that graced their ending. I had an entirely new feeling about this house now, its white columns of Pantheonic proportion that were so quintessentially Southern.
When I was younger, coming home equated to poorly chosen words and hurtful digs from my mother. Maybe it was becoming a grandmother or the general smoldering of temper fire that comes with aging, but my once impossible-to-please mother—though still a force to be reckoned with—had become much, much more pleasant.
Alex unsnapped his booster, jumped out of the car, and flew through the front door before I could even say, “Hey, wait up!” or wrangle him into his coat.
He always got as excited as a jewelry collector at a Christie’s auction to see his grandparents. It was the same way I felt when I saw Daddy, that mixture of love and pride that swirls together like a backroom science project. Mother stepped out onto the front porch, her sassy hair perfectly styled in keeping with the same Chanel suit she’d been wearing for decades. I felt myself unwittingly roll my eyes. She leaned over to hug my son. We still didn’t always see eye to eye, but Mother could have slapped some butter on Alex and eaten him right up like one of Pauline’s homemade biscuits.
Instead of following Alex through the front door, I walked around to the side, smiling at Pauline’s imposing figure turning bacon on the griddle at the opposite side of the blue-and-white tiled kitchen while she hummed “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” When she heard the screen door slam, Pauline wiped her molasses-colored hands, almost the same size as the eye on the antique stove, on the apron puckering over her thick waist. She wrapped me in a hug and said, “What’s wrong with my baby?”
I had a smile on my face and hugged her back as hard as I could, and Pauline still knew something was wrong with me. “I was just wondering why you’re back here frying bacon when I tried my damnedest to bust you out.”
She laughed heartily and shrugged. “Had to come back. You was the one that introduced me and Benny, after all.”
Pauline had met her second husband and late-life love when she, Mother, and Daddy had come to New York to help after Alex was born. They had started their life together there, but, as I knew all too well, you simply can’t take the South out of the girl. Much as I would imagine one would want to escape the claws of my momma, not a year later, Pauline was back like a homing pigeon, Benny in tow. When I confronted her, jaw agape, about why she hadn’t run far, far away, she said simply, “You know, baby girl: You and Miz Mason and Daddy Mason’s my family.”
And so we were, which was even more evident when Pauline said, “Come on, baby. You can tell Pauline.”
I sat down on the stool beside the range, my lifelong Pauline-talking perch, and said, “I can’t get pregnant.”
She looked me up and down. “’Course you cain’t.”
I crossed my arms. “Why on earth not?”
“Girl like you cain’t get pregnant. You ain’t nothing but skin and bones.”
I looked down at myself. I was naturally thin. But maybe the stress of traveling back and forth to New York for work was getting to me. Or perhaps the vegan diet and yoga kick I’d been on was too much. The hormone-balancing book I read said it would help me conceive. But every month I was more disappointed than the last when that minus sign appeared on the EPT. “You think that’s all it is?”
“’Course,” she said. “You was lookin’ healthy when you got pregnant with little man.”
I nodded, thinking that, who knows, maybe I was just too thin. Pauline might not have been a doctor, but she was always right. Feeling sorry that I was kissing three months of sprouts, flaxseed, and leafy greens good-bye, I grabbed two crispy pieces of bacon off Pauline’s drip pan and crunched. I was a hog farmer’s daughter, after all. Bacon was my birthright.
“Good girl.” She nodded. “Now you get on outta here and come back for some breakfast when you’re good and pregnant.”
I laughed, and she added, “I’ll keep an eye on little man.”
Lying in bed an hour later with my legs propped on the headboard—I had read somewhere that elevating your legs helps the sperm find their target—Graham kissed me and said, “I just feel like it took that time, babydoll.”
I smiled weakly. “I sure hope so.”
He nodded. “I’m going to go get ready for church while you . . .” He paused, circled his finger around where I was lying, and said, “While you do whatever it is that you’re doing there.”
An hour later, sitting in church, light streaming through stained-glass windows, Graham’s arm around me, Daddy beside me, and Alex playing down the dark wood pew, I felt the strongest message from heaven that I had before or since: I was going to be a mother again. Of course, I thought, naturally, that I was pregnant. Turns out, God had other plans.
Whole grapes is one of the hardest things to put up. You got to seed ’em and stem ’em and, even when your fingers are worked to the quick, all stained and blistered and burning, the end result ain’t worth a whole heck of a lot. But try telling that to a regular at the farmer’s market who’s so crazy about grapes he cain’t see straight. He scrunched his nose and said, “Well, I know they won’t be perfect, but, hell, can’t I just skip all that and can ’em whole anyway?” If you ain’t never canned you cain’t understand.
It’s the same way with drinkin’: People who ain’t never had a run-in with the bottle don’t get what it’s like. They squint their eyes, look at you like you’ve been spoutin’ off some kinda calculus formula, and say, “Can’t you just stop drinking?” They shake their heads to make you feel the Lord’s shame and say, “Can’t you see what you’re doing is ruining your family?”
But you cain’t.
One time when I was coming up, Daddy took me to Atlantic Beach, and, while I was swimming in the ocean, wouldn’t you know, that dag dern undertow got me. And it was gonna have its way with me too. I paddled left and kicked right, spewing and choking and coughing, that salt water clogging me all up. Then I figured that the waves is gonna win this fight. So I let go, gave in to that madder-than-hell devil ocean, and let it take me away. Finally, when it was done with me, it carried me to shore.
Same thing when I was drinking. I’d claw and kick and spit all day long not to have that first sip. But it was only just a matter a’ time before that bottle’d be calling my name so hard I couldn’t do nothing but feel my lips wrapped around its fat, dirty neck.
When Momma was sober one time she said, “Baby, I ain’t just gonna stand around here and watch my girl go through this shit.”
But my raisin’, it had been oil-slick with Momma passed out on the bathroom floor right after she’d gone to an AA meeting. And the other mommas would corral their youngens outta our house like dogs on sheep’s heels when they met my word-slurring momma. I remembered all that one morning, while I was fixing to get my head in the toilet and rid of the poison I’d drunk the night before. And I made a promise: I would never put anyone through a raisin’ like mine. I would never, ever, I promised my dragon-breathed, dark-circled reflection in the mirror, make a child go to wonderin’ every time she walked through the door if she was gonna get the nice sober momma, the short-fused craving-crazed momma, or the angry drunk momma.
Even while my head was pounding like a hammer on a two-by-four, while that black sea of drink was doing the tango with me, I knew I was being like my momma. I could smell that same godforsaken venom on my breath and feel its grip on my body, like one of them pythons in the woods that got Bobby Daniels when I was a girl.
But I couldn’t stop.
And so, I lost everything. I had already lost my daddy, which is how I got this whole drinkin’ thing started anyhow. Now I was losing my momma. My friends. My job. But I would have rather lived on the street than give up the destroyer that felt like it was the only thing sacrificing itself for me.
I can see now that being with my boyfriend Ricky weren’t a good idea no way you look at it. He was as stumbling and slurring and crazy-ass acting as I had ever been. My therapist in rehab—that’s what they call it when they lock you up in a hospital with a stranger snoring in the hard twin bed beside you—said that women choose to be with men who belittle them because that was the example they saw during their raisin’. That might be right. ’Cause, the girls I know, we been through more bad men than the slaughterhouse has pigs.
I guess that, even though he could be the meanest son of a bitch you’ve ever seen, when Ricky was having a good day, he was the guy you wanted to be around. Like the afternoon he practically ran into the garage where I was working, lifted me up in the air, and said, “I got us a house!”
We’d only been courting a few months, and I ain’t never heard hide nor hair of us moving in together. I almost told Ricky that. But then I thought about Momma. I mighta been clean and sober, but she was a dirty drunk. Me and Momma, we was like fishin’. One of us’s that bobbin and one of us’s that weight. One’s floating by minding her own business and the other’s trying her damnedest to sink ’em down to the bottom of the sea. While I was at my AA meetings, she was fixing to go to the bar.
“This is all your damn fault,” she’d slur when she got home. “Having you ruined my life. I coulda been somebody.”
I got to looking at her good, that shriveled woman alone in her nicotine-stained single-wide. “Momma,” I asked, “who in the hell’d you think you was gonna be? You pushed away every person who ever even figured on helping or loving you.”
When I told her I didn’t have time to get her more cigarettes before I left for work that afternoon, she took to yelling. “You’re so damn worthless.” That vodka was talking for her right good. “Get the hell out and don’t come back,” she had slurred at me from the couch, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, yelling over the TV.
I looked into Ricky’s deep, hazel, bloodshot eyes and kissed him square on his clean shave. Ricky, when he got all clean-shaved it meant he had woke up with one hell of a hangover and decided his drinking, partying, womanizing days was over.
I wished that that cigarette would fall outta Momma’s mouth and burn up her vodka-soaked couch with her on it. I got all happy about it for a half second. Then I felt right sorry. It’d been me on that vodka couch not too long ago. And couldn’t nobody or nothing save me from drowning neither.
But my momma, she could make me take to drinking again like nothing you’ve ever seen. So I did what I reckoned I ought to. I said, “Yay! I cain’t wait to see it!” I kissed Ricky, he lowered me to the ground, and I asked, “So, where’s this house you’re so tickled over?”
“Well, it’s still on the lot ’til we find a place to put it, but then they’re moving it to us free of charge.”
I wasn’t trying to let Ricky see how disappointed I was. My entire life I’d been clawing my way outta that trailer park like a cat up a tree. “Just you make sure it ain’t in the same park as my momma,” I said.
Ricky laughed, kissed me, and said, “Love you, babe. Cain’t wait to show you when you get offa work.”
As he turned to leave, a voice behind me said, “He seems like a nice guy.”
I turned and stood right up on my tiptoes to put my arms around my cousin Graham’s neck—my oil-stained coveralls and his mud-covered overalls meetin’ up. We were people that made it through this life by workin’ with our hands. I shrugged and said, “Sure.”
My big cousin, he always been watchin’ out after me. He and his wife Khaki, they stuck by me even when everybody else turned their backs. I was all looped out and spinning around one afternoon, but I remember Graham scolding Khaki for giving me money when we all knew good and well what I was gonna do with it. Khaki, who was damn near as feisty as crazy old Miss Pat in the trailer down the lot, she looked at Graham and hissed, “I know what it is to lose the most important person in your life. She’ll work it out when she’s good and ready.”
Khaki’s first husband died from drugs, keeled over right there on that fancy Wall St. trading floor, just about how I like to have died from drinking.
Graham said, all whispery like, “If she doesn’t kill herself first.”
Khaki gasped. She hadn’t realized yet that me and her husband, we was the same—and she was helping me do what he done. And I loved her for it that day like she was the fireman who rescued my cat from a tree.
Graham got me all outta my head, saying, “Sounds like you need somewhere to park your new home.”
I nodded and scrunched my nose. “One of my goals in rehab was to get out of a trailer park once and for all.” Tony, who’d been working at this garage practically since it opened, was looking up at me kinda mean. So I said, “No offense.”
He shrugged and slid underneath a white 1998 Oldsmobile just like my momma used to drive.
Graham nodded and said, “I’ve got this patch of land a few acres over from the house that not a damn thing’ll grow on. It’s all yours if you want it.”
I gasped. Me and Ricky could be sitting in lawn chairs, holdin’ hands and staring at the trees, grilling out, maybe even having a kid or two sometime. It don’t matter that that picture assumed Ricky could act like his nice, human being self for long enough to make it through a meal. “Now don’t get to thinkin’ I’m being ungrateful. We’ll pay you rent and whatnot,” I said.
Graham readjusted his cowboy hat and said, “Tell you what. You keep us in Grandmomma’s blackberry preserves I love so much, and we’ll call it even.”
I shook my head, thinking a’ my daddy and how he wouldn’t never take a handout. “Graham, you been getting into the whiskey again?” I said. “That ain’t nowhere near even.”
Graham shot me that half smile with the dimple that made all the girls in high school swoon, that made all them hate Khaki for how he chased her like a retriever after a pintail. He said, “You don’t know how much jam I eat.”
I thought about it and it didn’t take too much more convincing to make me say yes. I wondered what it was gonna take for Momma to clean up again, how far that bottle would have to drop her off the balcony before she’d kick it to the curb.
For me, it took a lot. It weren’t until I woke up in a trailer park with no shoes, no purse, facedown in a puddle of my own throw-up, not one dag dern clue what I’d got into the night before, that I finally hit rock bottom. Or, near like I was that little girl at the beach again, the undertow released me. And I was carried to shore.
One of my favorite rooms I’ve ever designed was featured in my first coffee table book. It was an awkwardly configured bathroom in which, years before it was popular or I had ever seen it in Veranda, I placed a gorgeous, antique claw-foot tub in the middle of the room. It was something I’d never expected.
Adopting a child wasn’t something I’d ever expected either. But you can’t know how your life is going to turn out until you’re living it.
I feel guilty sometimes about the way it all happened, about my participation in your birth mother giving you up. But then I push that thought away because if I hadn’t been at the right place at the right time, if I hadn’t done what I did, then I wouldn’t get to wake up every morning to the sweet sound of cooing through the baby monitor or see you laugh with delight when I walk into the room. And so I know it all turned out like it was supposed to.
But I’ll never forget the day that Jodi came to me, head hung down, eyes red-rimmed and puffy, and asked, in the quietest, saddest voice I’ve ever heard, “Can I borrow some money?”
It sounds terrible now, but, in the moment, I was kind of annoyed. I had planned a call with the head of my design firm, Anna. And I was in the throes of three very demanding design projects, was working on a marketing plan for my new book, had to get a blog post finished, and needed to check in with Daniel, the manager of my antiques store in New York, to see what I needed to buy at the auctions that weekend. And Alex was with Mother and Daddy for only three hours. Needless to say, every moment had been carefully orchestrated.
But, all the same, I brought Jodi through the front door and sat beside her on the couch, holding her hand, looking deep into her watery eyes, my mind going to the first, natural place it would go. “Oh, Jodi, you’re not drinking again, are you?”
She shook her head like that simple movement was taking all the strength in her bony body. I looked her over, her mousy hair stringy and greasy, hanging in her face, a tomato-sauce stained sweatshirt over a pair of faded jeans with holes that hadn’t been put there ironically. My mind jumped to a vision of poor, sweet Jodi, down on her knees, wearing away at that fabric, praying every minute that God would give her a different life.
“I am happy to lend you money,” I began slowly. “And I’m not trying to treat you like a child. But I can’t give you cash without knowing what it’s for.” I thought back to the last time I had helped Jodi out, to the lecture from Graham I was certain would never end. He was usually fairly amused by my antics, my husband, and I craved that way he looked at me like I was the only thing on earth that mattered. He scolded me only when it was serious. And he was serious that I never, ever give money to an alcoholic.
One fat tear fell down Jodi’s face, but she wiped it away quickly and said, “I gotta get an abortion. I ain’t got the money to do that and make the trailer payment.”
I leaned back on the couch and took a deep breath. My first thought was, Why her and not me? But I pulled myself together. I knew exactly where she was because I had been there a few years earlier, right after my first husband Alex had died. Of course, I wasn’t contemplating an abortion for the same reasons as Jodi. I was just afraid. Afraid of being a widowed mother. Afraid of being alone. Afraid of dying and leaving an orphan. It was the kind of afraid that wakes you up at night and won’t let you settle back down, the last wound-up, sugar-crazed girl at the slumber party. Part of me wanted to tell Jodi I was sorry, give her the money, and go on about my day. Part of me knew that, at nineteen and a recovering alcoholic with a minimum-wage job, the future was bleaker for her and that baby than a hospice patient.
But the other part of me knew how having my Alex had erased the gray rain cloud hovering above the black-and-white sketch of my life and replaced it with a full-color blue sky. The other part of me knew that one day, the little girl in front of me shaking like a guitar string in a blues solo might wish she had known all the information before she had made her decision. And so, I found myself wrapping my arm around her and saying, “Honey, I’ve got to tell you about when I found out I was pregnant with Alex.”
I told her about the abortion clinic that rainy day in New York and Jane, the counselor who had helped me realize that I should at least think about my other options. I told her about how I saw Alex jumping inside me for the first time on that ultrasound screen, and I realized that I wasn’t just a widow and I wasn’t all alone; I was a mother. I told this teenager, whom I didn’t know much better than the teller at the bank, my deepest, darkest secret, the horrifying truth that I had shared only with Graham and my best friends Stacey and Charlie.
I poured my soul out onto the living room rug like a can of Carpet Fresh. And I knew from her vacant, listless stare that she was so buried in the ash from the eruption of her life that she couldn’t hear me.
So I said, “Jodi, I have to tell you: I was in the worst, deepest, darkest well of my life and that baby was the rescue crew that came to fish me out. I don’t know how I would have made it without having him to live for.”
Her face shifted. “Ricky left me.”
I nodded solemnly, but I was thinking that was probably the best thing that could ever happen to her. But I didn’t say that, of course. Instead, I asked quietly, “Did he know about the baby?”
She nodded like she was about to be unhooked from life support and take her final breath. I knew how she felt. I remembered that weariness that seeps through your organs and hides out in your bones, that sadness that takes over your mind and grips you in a way that you don’t think you’ll ever get back to a place where a smile can dance on your lips or a laugh tickle the back of your throat.
“He seemed like he was all right with the whole thing. But he didn’t show up for my doctor appointment yesterday mornin’. And he didn’t come home last night. And he ain’t been here all day today.”
I wanted to say, Good riddance. But you can’t make someone see how terrible their partner is when they’re blinded by love, no matter how ill-advised that love is. “Doesn’t he disappear like this from time to time?” I asked.
She finally leaned back on the silk faille-covered sofa, pausing for a second, staring down at her feet. Then she said, her voice cracking, “He’s gone for good this time.”
I wanted to tell her that gone for good meant dead like my husband Alex. Gone for good didn’t mean cruising around in the truck that your pregnant girlfriend was paying off with her hard-earned money. It didn’t mean chugging beer with one hand on the wheel, throwing empty bottles out the window into the bed—and, if you were really, really lucky, a girl drunk enough that she didn’t realize what a no-good bastard you were. But I remembered being nineteen. I remembered that shiny half dollar of love story hope that made you think the beast was going to turn into a prince if you just waited a little longer. Sure, he was an ass, but he was going to change for you.
I had bitten my tongue long enough and so, in a way that I hoped seemed encouraging, I said, “Sweetie, I think you’re better off raising this baby by yourself than you would have been with him.”
She shook her head. “I cain’t be trusted with a baby.”
I cocked my head and adjusted the books on the mirrored coffee table, catching a glint of my diamond in the reflection.
“I think you’ll be an incredible mother. Why couldn’t you be trusted with your own baby?” She shook her head again. I added, “I know you’re young, but you’re smart and ambitious.” I leaned back, smiled, and rubbed her arm supportively. “For heaven’s sake, you can change a tire faster than a highway patrolman.”
I thought that would elicit a smile, but instead, I saw a shiver inch up her spine. “What if I get to drinking again?” she whispered like she was afraid the cloisonné lamps would hear her and tell.
And that was when I realized it: I could try to equate our two situations all I wanted to, but they’d never really be the same. Because addiction is a force that I can read about or listen about or think about, but that, praise Jesus, I’ll never truly understand.
NOBODY FROM NOWHERE
Asparagus is one back-flipping tricky vegetable. Some people can it, store it, pull it out and eat it like their last meal in the joint before they meet their maker. But I wouldn’t give you two grubby cents from the car cup holder for canned asparagus. Now, when I was coming up, I wouldn’t touch fresh asparagus with one of them clubs we played trailer park golf with. I didn’t like that light green crunch I’m so crazy ’bout now. I’d down that slimy goop straight from the can. But, like them sparkle high-tops the ladies down at the Salvation Army brung to the house one Christmas, I grew outta canned asparagus.
I reckon Ricky and that asparagus was kin; I grew outta him too. In any sorta crisis, any time you needed your man to stand up, take charge, Ricky, he shriveled up on you like that poor, limp canned asparagus.
When I told your birth daddy that we was having a baby, he looked me up and down, sighed, and said, “I thought you had that shit taken care of.” Then he turned and said real low like, though he knew I was in earshot, “Should’ve known she was too stupid not to get pregnant.”
I hope you’re wonderin’ why I would let a man treat me like a maggot-filled garbage bag. But that’s how my momma done my daddy. And I was all wrecked from drinking and not even thinking I deserved Ricky, that flea-bitten dog.
Right straight from rehab and clean raw like an asphalt scrape, I walked outside, sat down in front of all them rich-looking red flowers that Khaki and me planted like we was gonna be happy, and cried. I kicked myself like Mr. Simms done them poor dogs down at the trailer park before the animal control people come in and took ’em away. I sat up real straight and said out loud, “Jodi, you get to leaving that sorry-ass man. Trailer’s in your name anyhow on account a’ his sorry credit.”
But here’s the thing about worthless men: They know how to behave right well enough that every time you’re right on the verge of scraping ’em off your shoe, they do something that makes you ignore how awful they been.
About that time, that truck I cosigned for come up the road, dirt flying out from bald tires. Ricky scrambled out, holdin’ one a’ them gas station roses with the baby’s breath. He jumped outta the truck and kissed me good and hard. “I’m so sorry I said that, baby. I think I might like to have a youngen.”
And damn if I weren’t right there again, thinking the devil was a saint. Why I let him pull me in and reel me back out over and over again like a fly rod on a riverbank, I cain’t say. I can say it was on account of my age, but I think it was something more like fear. I was nobody from nowhere and didn’t have nobody. What decent guy was ever gonna want me?
So I think it was a blessing from heaven when Ricky didn’t show up at that ultrasound appointment. I had to stand in line with that Medicaid card, face burning with shame. I had to lay down on that rough, white paper sheet with no one holdin’ my hand. I had to see my baby all alone.
Khaki, she had some life-changing moment when she saw Alex for the first time, one of them visions from heaven that gets people to thinkin’ they can make it through dern near anything.
But me, I saw a jelly bean, reckoned it didn’t look like a person, and decided to take care of it once and for all. Khaki, she tried to talk me out of it, but my mind was made up.
I had carried my friend Marlene to have two abortions already, so I got to figuring she’d be the best person to call. But before I could even pick up the phone, I heard a knock at the door and, lo and behold, wouldn’t you know it? There she was.
I know she cain’t help it, and, heaven knows, she’s my best friend. But some people are just born looking cheap and stay that way ’til the worms get done with ’em. A sorry excuse for a dye job from Antonio’s salon right there in the trailer park and makeup done up tall like so much cake frosting weren’t good no matter how you looked at ’em. But that weren’t it. Khaki could take Marlene on up to New York City and get her plucked and brushed and trimmed and scrubbed and clothed by the fanciest people in the world. But one look right hard and you’d know she’d grown up on the rough side of the trailer park.
“Girl,” she said when I opened the door. “You gotta do something to yourself.”
I knew my hair was greasier than them fast-food fries my momma was always trying to pass off as home cooked. And wouldn’t no amount of makeup cover up them dark circles. But, for Pete’s sake, I was fixing to make the biggest decision since rehab. Marlene squinted brown up at me from under blue shadow, and I could smell the Aqua Net holding her curling-ironed ringlets in place.
She cocked her hip and pointed at me, them dark eyes gettin’ even squintier. “You been drinking again, Jodi Ann? ’Cause if you been drinkin’, you cain’t hide it from me of all people.”
Watermelon breath flew clear across the trailer, and I could see that wad of gum hiding in the corner of her mouth. I’d been knowing Marlene for sixteen years, since her momma left her daddy and moved into the trailer right beside ours. And I couldn’t think up one time I ain’t seen gum in her mouth. I asked her ’bout it one time and she said, real cocky like, “It’s my diet plan. If I got gum in my mouth I ain’t puttin’ a brownie in it.”
“Ain’t being poor our diet plan?” I had said.
That day, I peered back at her. “I ain’t drinking again, Marlene.”
“Oh good,” she said, shimmying past me through the door and plopping down on my couch. “’Cause I started selling Shaklee, and I think it’s gonna go real good. You gotta do it too.”
I sighed. Marlene was always climbing up on one moneymaking pyramid or another. She’d get all happy and carryin’ on for a week or two, realize she couldn’t sell water to a man on fire, and go back to waitressing while figuring how she could get the government to give her more money for community college. She handed me the brochure all official like and said, “See, it’s environmentally friendly cleaning products.”
I looked at the brochure, and I near about dropped my teeth when I saw that a “starter pack” was getting at $100.
“Who in their right mind’s gonna pay more than a day’s wages for some Windex?” I asked.
Marlene smacked her gum, twirled a piece of hair around her finger, and rolled her eyes. “Jodi,” she said, like I were denser than poor old Mikey that swept the floors at the market. “You don’t understand. They’re concentrated.”
“I don’t care if they clean the dag dern house. We don’t know nobody who can spend a hundred dollars on some cleaning mess.”
Marlene wasn’t listening, same as usual when I tried to talk her out of these harebrained schemes. First it had been Tupperware. Then Mary Kay. Then prepaid legal. Now this.
“Jodi, I just don’t know why you gotta be so negative all the time. All we gotta do is sell to rich people who don’t want chemicals in their house.”
I leaned back on the couch. “We don’t know any rich people.”
Marlene shook her head. “You know Graham and Khaki. They can send us on over to all their rich friends, and we can get them hooked on supplements and weight loss products and cleaning supplies.” She snapped her fingers. “Before you know it we’ll be living in big houses like theirs thinking expensive, fancy cleaning supplies ain’t nothing.”
My head was hurting good now. “Look,” I said, setting the Shaklee pamphlet down beside me, thinking that it sure did look fancy. I sighed. “I’m pregnant.”
Marlene squealed. “Yay! A baby!”
Before I could even get to tellin’ her that I weren’t having the baby, she was going on down the line about streamers we could get from the party supply store and who she was gonna invite to the shower she was throwing and how much fun it was gonna be to have a baby.
“Marlene,” I finally broke in. “If you’re so in love with babies, why the heck didn’t you have the two you got pregnant with?”
Marlene looked at me like I just told her I ain’t been washed in the blood after all. “Because, obviously, Jodi, I got a career to think about.”
Like Marlene was some Erin Brockovich saving the world and I was sitting up here on my ass watching soaps all day. “Well, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I ain’t exactly shining my diamonds over here.” I took a sip from the glass of water beside me. “I ain’t some pampered housewife. I gotta work too.”
“But you got a man to take care of you,” Marlene protested. “Nobody’s ever took care of me.”
My chin got to quivering, and Marlene was across the room faster than a twin-diesel pickup at a green light. “Oh, sweetie. Where is Ricky?”
I leaned my head onto Marlene’s shoulder and sobbed good. “He’s gone. He left when he found out about the baby.”
Marlene jumped up again and said, “That no-good bastard! How could he leave you all alone like this?”
I shook my head. “That’s why I have to have an abortion,” I whispered. “There ain’t nothing else to do.”
Marlene stomped her foot. “No. No, no, no. I’ll help you. You always been the smart one. I ain’t lettin’ you ruin your life over some asshole cain’t even make his own damn truck payment.”
I hadn’t let Marlene talk me into one dern thing before. Not Mary Kay or prepaid legal or any a’ that mess. But I got all weepy and girly when Marlene started going on and on about tiny socks and hair bows and having someone to love you no matter what. Having someone to love me no matter what.
Now, Marlene cain’t sell a tube of lip gloss to her own momma. But she got me all stirred up and believin’ that having you was gonna be some great adventure. Having you was gonna be the thing that turned my life around. Sometimes, when we want to believe something bad enough, even a second-rate salesman can close the deal.
Here’s something I know: Homes with small children should forgo white sofas, regardless of how much Scotchgard they have. Here’s something else I know: Men don’t like fertility clinics. Cups and small rooms and other things that you’re too young to hear about are involved. Graham might have been “sure” that that Sunday morning baby-making session had taken, but, a week and another negative test later, I thought I might disintegrate into a puddle of tears on the Stark area rug–covered ground. I reminded myself about a million times a day how lucky I was to have one healthy, beautiful child. But I felt like another baby was the missing piece in our family puzzle.
I had waited as long as I could to broach the subject. As the edge came off the cool and the whole world felt like it was going to burst into bloom on the first warm day, I knew my time had come. I wasn’t going to be the only one who hadn’t blossomed. So I said, “Honey, I’m making us a doctor’s appointment, you know, to make sure everything is okay.”
He gave me an Elvis lip and replied, “We’re young and healthy, babydoll. We’ve just got to keep trying.”
I crossed my arms, looking down on him where he was lounging shirtless on the couch, watching SportsCenter. His tight, toned abdomen and upper body, sculpted by nothing more than good genes and sweaty, manual labor, almost distracted me enough that I let him win. Almost. I got my wits about me and sighed loudly, and, when he saw my serious expression, he said, “Fine. Make the appointment, and I’ll go.”
Truth be told, I simply assumed something was wrong with him. I had, after all, successfully created one offspring with another man. So it shocked the daylights out of me when a doctor who looked young enough to be one of Graham’s summer high school farmhands said, “Mrs. Jacobs, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but according to your preliminary tests and ultrasounds, it appears that you have a condition called endometriosis.”
I only half listened to him chattering on about tissue surrounding my ovaries. I was stunned because I hadn’t let myself consider that something might actually be wrong with me. I think I came back into the space across from the huge, mahogany CEO desk that made my physician look even more like he was playing pretend right about the time he said, “A simple laparoscopic surgery could both diagnose the extent of the disease and clean it up so that it would be easier for you to conceive.”
Without so much as thinking, I said, “Great. I’m available tomorrow.”
Graham looked at me skeptically and said, “Khaki, let’s not be so hasty.”
I glared at him and, I must admit, raised my voice a bit. “Hasty? I’m fairly sure that after three years making this decision isn’t hasty. I want to be pregnant now.”
I knew I sounded like a spoiled child, but I didn’t care. I turned my raised, worked-up voice to the doctor. “This surgery will mean I’ll get pregnant, right?”
He looked a little scared of me, which was logical. I was something to fear.
“Well,” he started, “it will certainly increase your odds, but . . .”
I set my hand on the desk and peered at him. “But what? Spit it out. What are you trying to tell me?”
He leaned back farther in his chair, and said, “There’s some evidence that women with endometriosis have difficulty carrying a child. Uterine muscle cells lose their ability to expand and contract—”
I inhaled sharply and loudly, cutting him off. “What’s the bottom line?” I asked, far too irritated to sit through an hour’s worth of medical jibber-jabber.
“The uterus isn’t . . .” He rubbed his fingers together, looking for the right word. “Stretchy.”
My OB-GYN had just used the word stretchy when referring to my uterus, and I might not be able to have a baby. Not the news I had dreamed of. Instead of asking for a Kleenex, I looked at Graham and said, “I am happy to discuss this with you further when we get home.” Then I looked back at the doctor and said, “Theoretically, how quickly would I be able to get in for the surgery?”
“Well,” he said, and I could tell by his body language that he was fully prepared to put both hands up to cover his face in case I launched a pointy object at him. “Dr. Stinson is one of the foremost experts in the country in this disease, so I would assume you would want him to do the surgery.”
“Of course,” Graham responded before I had the chance to say that any old resident would be fine with me as long as he or she could un-gunk my ovaries.
“Honestly, you’re probably looking at seven to eight months before he can work you in.”
What People are Saying About This
“Characters with rich, complicated lives…beautifully shows how a family comes to be.”—New York Times bestselling author Jodi Thomas
"Dear Carolina is Southern fiction at its best. Lovely and lyrical, with the strong voices of the two female narrators taking us deep into the heart of what being a mother is about. It shows us that love is not without sacrifice, and there’s little in life that doesn’t go down easier with a spoonful of jam. Beautifully written."—New York Times bestselling author Eileen Goudge
"Dear Carolina is like the Southern women within it’s pages and those who will love this book, sweet as sweet tea on the outside and strong as steel on the inside. The dialect of the south is so entwined in these pages the reader is transported to a place where women and children are treasured and family rules all. Kristy Harvey is a natural."—Ann Garvin, Author of On Maggie’s Watch and The Dog Year