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.
From Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts. © 1997 by Billie Letts, used by permission of the publisher Little Brown
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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