In Songbirds and Stray Dogs, Jolene has been abandoned by her addict mother on the steps of her spinster aunt's door at eight years old. She's spent the last thirteen years living in the shadow of the pain her mother caused and trying to prove herself worthy of her aunt's stingy love. Unintentionally she becomes pregnant. When the father refuses her and her aunt kicks her out, Jolene tries to outrun her shame by heading to the mountains. Homeless, penniless, alone, and chased by demons from her past, she makes friends who help and hinder. She is forced to confront exactly who she is, what she wants, and what she is willing to do to get it. Geography and a sense of place are central to Songbirds and Stray Dogs. It is a Southern story, born of sweet tea and the Bible Belt, chow-chow and cornbread, shotguns and porch rocking. But it is also a universal story of escaping the burden of your past and finding yourself at home in a strange land.
Woven white wicker framed the bathroom mirror. Her big brown eyes looked back at her, wider than usual. In an attempt to relax her face, she lifted her brows and wrinkled her nose. She squared her shoulders and wiped her sweaty hands on the front of her dress before she gripped the edge of the sink. Today had to be the day. She had to tell him. She wouldn't be able to hide it much longer.
"You're going to be a dad," she said into the mirror as a huge smile overwhelmed her face. Her fingers reached out and brushed her image in the glass. "You're going to be a mom," she whispered. She took another deep breath and smoothed her skirt before grabbing her purse and heading out the door to David's. She spent the walk practicing her speech.
He was going to be so surprised. He would probably be worried. His work situation was still so tenuous and babies were expensive. They hadn't even said 'love' to each other yet.
Her stomach was a nest of snakes. Unlike declarations of love, this couldn't wait. She had a deadline. There wasn't time to feel ready. Jolene reached within herself and pulled out every shred of bravery she'd ever possessed. It was all going to be okay. She had a plan.
She knocked twice on his front door and let herself in.
He was in the La-Z-Boy in the living room, a can of beer crushed in his hand. "Oh, Jolene, you are a sight for sore eyes. You look extra pretty today, baby. Can you grab me a beer from the fridge before you sit down, darling?"
She turned and went to the kitchen wondering how many beers had come before the one she was pulling from the depths of David's harvest gold colored fridge. If this was three or four, this conversation might go easier than she expected. If it was five or more she wondered if she should come back tomorrow.
"Hey baby," he called from the other room. "Can you make me a sandwich too?"
She opened the door again and scanned the emptiness. Ketchup and bologna would have to do. She scraped fuzzy, grey mold off two pieces of bread and cut the finished sandwich into tiny triangles. David's kitchen always smelled of onions. The scent made her nauseous but she found that she was no longer in a hurry to get back to the living room and break the news. There was so much hinging on this moment. Her palms were sweaty, the knife slipped in her hand. She took her time preparing the food and let her mind wander.
When her period was late, she barely noticed. Her period was often late. Being pregnant wasn't at the front of her mind. Being pregnant was something that happened to the loose girls in high school, or the nice married ladies at church, not her. But then getting out of bed for work became harder and harder. And her breasts ached. At first she thought maybe they were just growing; she wasn't well endowed and was excited by the prospect. And then she threw up in the shower, and she knew.
Jolene had spent the time since her discovery avoiding Rachel. She was sure that every time her aunt looked at her, she'd know. It felt as though Rachel could see into her head, or her womb, and know her secret. Jolene overthought every move: every time she touched her belly, every trip to the bathroom. Every moment of nausea or headache or fatigue was another chance for Rachel to discover her secret. Once Rachel knew, everything would change.
Always a thrift store shopper, Jolene had found herself wandering into the baby section and staring in wonder at the tiny garments. Surely they were too small to put on a person, but when she thought of how that person had to exit her body she became queasy. She'd purchased a few things. Over the month she'd added to her collection hidden in a cardboard box at the back of her closet, a package of cloth diapers, some small blankets, bottles and nipples, it was all so overwhelming. Jolene knew she should go to the doctor, but in a town as small as Beaufort, going to the OB/GYN was as good as an announcement in the paper. She ate as well as she could and drank as much milk as possible without Aunt Rachel scolding her for being a cow. Once everyone knew, she'd go.
The first step was telling David about the baby; he would be scared, but excited. They would get married. Rachel would be concerned, angry even, about the marriage, but when she saw how happy they were, she'd get over it. A month later, when David and Jolene announced they were expecting, all would be forgotten in the joy of preparation for the baby. Rachel loved babies. Jolene could finally relax, settle in. Everything was going to be okay. She just needed David to realize how amazing this was going to be. Telling David meant that she needed to make her feet work and go back to the living room.
The floral pattern in the wallpaper made her mildly motion sick before she sunk into the lawn chair David kept for guests. Her short dress left the backs of her thighs bare to the itchy plastic webbing of the chair. It pinched her. David's La-Z-Boy squeaked as he rocked back and forth.
She took a deep breath and smiled at him. "I want a family. I've always wanted a family."
His eyebrows came together and his head tipped to the side. "Um, okay."
"Jolene, we've talked about this before. I'm not exactly a family man." He sighed.
She pressed on. "You'd make a great dad."
"Well, I mean, maybe. Someday. Way down the road, but I'll never be the marrying kind."
"We wouldn't have to get married. " she said, watching the image of the wedding she'd been dreaming of fade away. A tiny ceremony at the courthouse, soon, so she could still wear white. Nothing too bride-like: just a white dress, her patent mary-janes, a couple of daisies in her hands and maybe one behind her ear. David in his dress shirt. She'd press it so it looked crisp in the picture she'd ask her aunt to take. They'd eat lunch out together with Rachel and his parents, and maybe a friend or two. No one would expect champagne. Then when the baby came, they could always tell everyone about their preemie miracle. Happily ever after.
"You know I'm hoping to get on a big boat here soon. Head on down to the Gulf, get some real shrimpin' in. Make some money, finally."
"I thought I could go with you. "
"You were going to protect me from the gators."
"Oh, shit. That was just talk. You can't- I don't want that, out on the boat for weeks, then having to come home to some woman waiting for me to mow the lawn or fix the sink."
A gasp slipped out of her mouth.
"Aw shit. Jo, you wouldn't want that either," he rubbed the bridge of his nose with his hand. "We were just messin.' It's no life for anyone."
Jolene closed her eyes. David was being too ugly for her to look at him. But with her lids shut all she could see was Rachel's face. She could imagine the corners of Rachel's lips turning down in disappointment, the crease emerging between her brows. Rachel had made that face once before. Jolene was eight, standing in front of her aunt's front door, with everything she owned in a garbage bag beside her. They'd never met, and yet Rachel had smiled big, the gap between her front teeth showing, when she opened the door. Despite Jolene's bare feet, dirty hair, and obvious smell, Rachel had sunk to her knees and opened her arms in welcome. It wasn't until she asked where Leah was, where Jolene's mama was, and Jolene pointed to the empty street, that the corners of Rachel's mouth descended and her brow buckled.
Painfully aware that as her mother's daughter she was predisposed to draw Rachel's disappointment, Jolene had spent the last thirteen years doing everything she could to avoid seeing that look on Rachel's face.
Except staying away from David.
Jolene had been willing to inch closer and closer to Rachel's disapproval, for David. She knew Rachel didn't like him, but had held onto the hope that someday David would prove himself, that Rachel would see what Jolene saw. One day they could all be happy together.
She pulled her fingers out of her mouth and took a deep breath. "I'm pregnant."
He stopped rocking. His skin turned grey.
She twisted her mouth to the side. She knew that he wasn't going to be happy. But this reaction was nothing she would have expected.
"You sure?" His voice was higher and quieter than usual.
"Yes," she said, searching his face for a clue.
He started to rock, faster, and stared at the television. "Did you plan this?"
"What?" Jolene couldn't help the snorting noise that came out of her nose.
"This. Is this on purpose?"
"Obviously, this wasn't the plan. You just got that job, and I'm a waitress living with my aunt. No one in their right mind wants this. But we can make the best of it. I love you. I want to be with you. This is our baby. And. don't you want to be with me, too?"
He continued to stare at the TV.
"I don't know why you gotta be like this, Jolene. Just. Jesus, lemme think, would you. We don't got to make any decisions right now."
"Yes we do. I'm gonna start showing soon. And when Rachel finds out, she's going to kick me out. People will know." She tried a different tactic. "Let me come live with you. I won't have to quit my job for at least six more months, and I could cook and clean for you. We don't have to get married or nothing."
His eyes narrowed and smile smeared across his lips. "You didn't...