By Anna Keeler
The sky’s lining was so intricate Janah’s mother could have done the patchwork. Variations of blue flowed and tangled themselves against the wisps of white until each stitch of wind was visible to the naked eye. It was no accident of summer. It was the work of god, who no doubt cared too much about how the sky looked to leave the grunt work to the angels, and for once, wanted to do more than just admire his work.
It’d been a while since she entertained the notion of god, but in moments like this, it was hard not to. Absentminded mumbling from the soft hum of the radio, the Smoky Mountains tracing across the horizon, washed out bands of green that flowed from cloud to earth. It was in these moments that the sky, that cliché body that she’d always been told to avoid talking about in her poems, became that much more noticeable. Inescapable. Maybe it was the lack of intelligent conversation. The horrible country station. Those damn mountains that seemed to block out the sun.
More likely, it was the fact that she’d been dragged out of bed at eight in the morning to follow her mother from craft shop to craft shop, looking for threads and paints and picture frames. All of these details matted into her mind in equal parts nostalgia and irritation, and she was too tired to remember she wasn’t supposed to notice or care.
“Janah, did you hear me?” her mother said.
The woman’s eyes were focused, mouth pinched in the frustration of having to stop mid sentence to grab her attention.
“Yeah, you need to get gas after we go to JoAnne’s.”
She wished her father had come along. Not that the trip would be any more enjoyable, but the long, silent moments weren’t near as awkward with the man acting as a barrier between the two.
“You know, I was reading the paper this morning,” her mother said, reaching into the backseat. She grabbed her purse and set it on the center console. “Looks like they’ll have some good yard sales this weekend. We should check them out like we used to.”
The hesitation on the last few words pulled at Janah’s chest, her boredom superseded by guilt. She knew deep down that her mother was making an effort, more of one than she had in the three years since she initially kicked her daughter out.
Janah hesitated before saying, “Sounds fun.”
Her mother paused again, the anxious uncertainty betraying her cold face. “It’s probably been a while since you’ve done that, huh?”
“Actually, I went a few weeks ago.”
Janah grinned, looking toward her mother. “You wouldn’t think so, but there’s a lot of those up in Illinois. I guess selling next to useless stuff on your lawn is a universal thing.”
Her mother chuckled, her face lighting up for the first time all morning. “You don’t say?”
“Yeah,” Janah said. “Marjorie got me up so damn early she practically had to drag me out of bed. I still haven’t recovered.”
As quickly as the tension between them faded it grew again, her mother’s attention back on the road. “Uh-huh.”
Janah turned away, the palpable distance making her stomach grind. As much as she tried to meet the woman halfway, she could still see it all there: the distance, the heartache, and even to an extent, the hatred that settled below the surface, paling her once bright eyes. She wondered why her mother had invited her back home in the first place if it was going to be this unbearable. She said she’d made her peace with it all, but still treated Marjorie’s name like the cuss words she’d never allowed in her house.
But that was the difference, Janah thought; she could smack the curses right off her mouth, but this was the one she couldn’t punish away, no matter how hard she tried.
Static came in and out, drowning out the sound of the Blake Shelton ballad on the radio. Her mother reached over and shut it off. The car was quiet again, except for the sound of car keys jangling against the steering wheel.
Janah hated silence in general, but didn’t mind it as much now. It was better than the alternative. Talks of fire and brimstone. Quoting bible verses that neither of them ever really understood. How God, Jesus, Lord and Messiah, Lion of Zion, forbid it, and so did her mother, because the musings of men who followed an invisible deity mattered more in the Dunbar household than the children they gave birth to. It would have been funny if it didn’t hurt so bad. Then again, order and rules always mattered to her mother more than people did. And neither of them were stupid, just stubbornly set in their ways. And as much as Janah liked to buy into the anecdotes she heard in the Gay-Straight Alliance, she knew it would never happen for her.
They pulled into the parking lot of the only JoAnne’s in Pigeon Forge, and her mother killed the engine.
“Listen, Janah, I’m willing to work on things, but I told you, I don’t want to know about any of that.”
“Any of what? I was just saying—”
“Janah.” The way her mother said her name had that sense of finality that it had when a conversation with children was over, and she wouldn’t hear any more. She didn’t know why she expected any different, for this conversation or the whole trip. She had no idea she was at her breaking point until her face fell into her hands, loose sobs getting caught in her warm tears.
Her mother didn’t reach over to comfort her, sitting uncomfortably with her hands knitted in her lap until Janah sat upright, leaning her head against the seat. She wiped her eyes and nose on her arms.
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” her mother said, reaching into her purse and thrusting a bundle of fabric in the girl’s direction.
Janah took the cloth from her mother’s hand, wiping her face down until it felt clean enough.
“I’m gonna go in and get what I want,” she said, unbuckling her seatbelt. “You can come in once you’ve stopped with your little tantrum.”
I’m not a child, Janah wanted to say. But her mother had already slammed the car door before she could open her mouth. She watched as the woman disappeared into store, eyes lingering long after the automatic doors had shut.
Real life wasn’t symbolic, though. There was no great playmaker out there pushing people’s lives into pretty poetic boxes. As Janah saw it, circumstance was circumstance and the universe didn’t have the literary training to write things to make sense.
She sat there coughing and sniffling for another few moments, moving only to wipe a stray tear off her cheek. With nothing else to turn to, she focused on the sky, still as crafted as it had been before the fight. Had this been one of her stories, it would be gray clouds and torrential rain, washing away her sorrows in the stereotypical manner that stories had about them. Real life wasn’t symbolic, though. There was no great playmaker out there pushing people’s lives into pretty poetic boxes. As Janah saw it, circumstance was circumstance and the universe didn’t have the literary training to write things to make sense. And there was no point in putting faith in a bigger meaning that didn’t exist.
She had no idea how much time had passed, but it was clear her mother was making no effort to be fast. Janah unbuckled her own seatbelt and stretched her legs, fist still balled around the cloth her mother gave her. She unraveled her fingers to see it was one of the hand stitched handkerchiefs she made and sold sometimes to the old ladies at church. It wasn’t as elaborate as the other ones, a simple taupe square with rose gold stitching. She turned it around to the lower right side, making out the letters at the bottom under a stick cross: John 13:7. The years between Janah’s rebelliousness and Sunday school lessons weren’t enough to erase the knowledge of her mother’s favorite verse: “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but someday you will.”
Janah bit the inside of her lip and dropped the hankie to the ground, grinding it under her shoe. When she saw her mother approaching again, she sat up straight and dried her eyes. She’d wasted enough tears on things she couldn’t change.