INTRODUCTION BY ERIKA T. WURTH
I have to be truthful with you here, I’d read anything by Kelli Jo Ford.
You know how you read, and you read, and you come across books that you like okay, and books that make you laugh at least a little bit, and books that you can’t remember reading a week after you finish them? Crooked Hallelujah is nothing like that–it’s the book that you wait for, the one you know is coming, after a year in the paperback doldrums. It’s a stunning novel, and there are parts of it that will stay with me, that come to me in the middle of the night, that haunt me like a ghost story.
In “You’ll Be Honest, You’ll Be Brave,” that ghost is there, chilling you with every word. It’s a quiet story about a Cherokee woman who goes home to care for her elderly mother after she’s in a car accident, so I don’t mean it’ll shoot you up with action. But the people, they will break your heart in a thousand tiny, glistening ways. Justine, going through her mama Lula’s basement full of old photo albums, reminding her of her now-grown girl, Reney, “who after high school had become such a hard woman, so cautious with money and closed off.” Mama Lula, who nearly got herself into a car accident living alone, who just wants to go to McDonald’s where they “treat her like a queen.” Reney, who floats in the periphery–the person all of us know we are; the one who escaped, the one who reads late into the night, the one who feels guilty–but never guilty enough to go home. And Granny, Reney’s soulmate, gone now, except for pictures withering away in Mama Lula’s basement, “her hair still black, her skin dark brown. She stood in a wooden wagon full of watermelons with Justine’s grandfather, a severe-looking white man in a cowboy hat and rolled-up blue jeans.”
Though I’m a multi-tribal, urban Indian, my family isn’t unlike Ford’s depiction of family in this story, and I can more than relate—I can hear the faint lilt of my own grandmother’s Oklahoma-Texan Indian accent on every page. But here’s the thing about relating to art; the trick isn’t in the finding of the book that’s a mirror—the trick is in finding the author who is a magician, who knows how to work spells on the page, to make anyone relate. Because that’s the real magic: the ability to write a story so compelling, so pretty, so mean, so lovely and lonely, that the book becomes a gateway to another world. That story is here. I’m so jealous that you, reader, get to read it for the very first time.
– Erika T. Wurth
Author of Buckskin Cocaine
Our Family History, Packed in Mom’s Garage
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“You’ll Be Honest, You’ll Be Brave”
by Kelli Jo Ford
Justine pulled into Lula’s as the morning sun began to glow behind the hills. She sat in her truck trying to massage the feeling back into her legs after the long drive, as sleepy birds chirped from the power line on the far side of the gravel road. After being on the Cherokee Nation’s list for so long that she forgot she was on it, her mother Lula had finally gotten her dream house in the country. The small three-bedroom rancher with green shutters overlooked Little Locust Creek, where a cloud of fog wafted into the humid air, leaving a dreamy haze over everything. Under different circumstances it would be a peaceful place to come home to.
Sheila already had her purse on her arm when Justine stepped stiffly inside. Sheila’s eyes looked tired, but her bun, teased and sprayed at the back of her head, didn’t betray a single stray hair. She gave Justine a long hug.
“Sorry I have to get to work, Teeny,” Sheila said. “I wish I could stay with you.”
“Don’t know what we’d do without you,” Justine said. She looked toward the closed bedroom door. No matter how Justine tried to square things in her mind or heart, coming home broke her open. She was not accustomed to being unable to contain what spilled out. “How is she?”
“Sleeping now,” Sheila said, leading Justine into the kitchen. “She hasn’t had a spell since right after I got here yesterday.” Sheila opened the fridge and pulled out a big mason jar of brown liquid. “I made her some bone broth. That might perk her up some.”
Justine hugged Sheila again and began to cry. She could rest her head on Sheila’s, so she did.
Sheila, tiny and full of movement even at rest, always made Justine think of her daughter Reney. Sheila had gone back to the church—and Samuel—after Justine and Reney moved back to Texas that last time. With baby crow’s-feet in the corners of her eyes, Sheila could have been nearly any one of the women Justine grew up with, perpetually on the verge of middle age and capable of anything from banging out a hymn on the piano to tying up her skirt and tacking a shingle back in place to making a pot of beans for sick neighbors with a baby on her hip.
Reney, meanwhile, was aging in reverse, it seemed. After she’d left that prick, she traversed the country picking up work as banquet waitstaff wherever she decided to pass time. Now she was a college student in Portland, Oregon, of all places. Finding herself.
“We’ve got to trust the Lord,” Sheila said. “All we can do.”
“Y’all go to the doctor now, don’t you?” Justine said. “Can’t you talk to Mama?” She eased herself into a chair at the same kitchen table she’d eaten at as a girl, picked up a packet of syrup from a bowl, and began to fiddle with it.
“She’s old-time Holiness like Daddy. Plus . . .” Sheila said with shrug, “she’s too ornery.” She smiled. “She’ll be happy to see you. She talks about you, Josie, and Dee all the time.”
“I don’t know why she won’t go to Tennessee and live with them. There’s Holiness churches out there. Beautiful country. Two daughters who love her.”
“Whoa, sufficient unto the day!” Sheila said, smiling and waving her hands to show she wanted no part of that argument. “Samuel went and got her car. Amazingly, it’s not much worse for the wear. Muddy mainly, a couple of scrapes, but fine.”
“That’s about right,” Justine said.
“I know, isn’t that something!” Sheila laughed and shook her head in wonder. “God is good.” She gathered her keys and headed toward the door. “Samuel will bring the car over later today.”
“Wish he wouldn’t.”
“I’m not brave enough to fight that battle either,” Sheila said as she closed the front door and left them alone.
Justine stood in Lula’s doorway a long time before going in and sitting on the edge of the bed. When Lula woke up, she smiled.
“Miss my baby.” Lula ran her tongue around her dry lips. “I suppose they told you I had a spell?” She looked toward the wall. “Sheila said my car isn’t here?”
“No, Mama,” Justine said. “Your car isn’t here.”
Lula patted Justine’s hand, closed her eyes, and said, “We will get it tomorrow.”
When Justine had gotten the call from Dee, her oldest sister, she’d been on the phone with Reney, putting another new zip code in her address book so she could send the old photos Reney’d been asking for. Justine clicked over, and before she could get out a hello, Dee’s voice cut in.
Lula had the seizure while she was out on one of her countryside drives, taking in scenery she’d seen a million times—probably on her way home from McDonald’s. Thankfully, she’d only run through somebody’s barbed wire fence. No one was hurt, though she was still having the seizure when a man stopped and called 911. Lula came to in the back of the ambulance and demanded to be brought home.
“When can you get up there?” Dee asked.
Justine closed her address book, put fifty dollars in Reney’s card, and sealed it shut.
“This is why I wish she’d come out there with y’all,” Justine started in. “Or at the very least, let them take her to the hospital. At least we’d have time to figure out a couple things.”
“You know we can’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to do,” Dee said.
“The bank’s going to come get my truck if I don’t get their check mailed,” Justine said. She could hear Dee tapping on computer keys.
“I’m looking for tickets for me and Josie, but I don’t know when we can get there.”
“I don’t know how long I can stay,” Justine said, but when she got off the phone, she set about doing all the things she needed to do: leaving a message for her boss, shoving Reney’s pictures and card into a box to mail later, writing Pitch a list he’d ignore, grabbing the bills that most desperately needed to be paid, running deodorant across her armpits because she just got off work and didn’t have time to shower, slinging shit into a bag, running by the Smokehouse to grab some brisket and beans since Lula ran the roads too much to stock a cupboard, and, finally, driving through the night.
Now here Justine sat, back in Beulah Springs, propped up on a pillow next to Lula, reading her the Gospel of John as she dozed. After Samuel dropped off the car, she had hidden the keys behind a dusty can of commodity orange juice in a kitchen cabinet. By evening, Lula was up, pouring herself Mountain Dew and wanting to ride to McDonald’s. Justine microwaved her a plate of brisket and beans and told her to be thankful she wasn’t wrapped around a telephone pole. Feeling bad for that one, she’d then taken her for a drive to watch the sun set over Tenkiller.
Justine was sitting in the living room flipping though a Reader’s Digest when Dee and Josie showed up late that night. They came in dragging suitcases and bag after bag of crap. They’d already stopped by Walmart and bought the store. Josie carried in a television with a built-in DVD player.
“You know Mama’s going to lose her mind when she sees that thing,” Justine said.
“I told her.” Dee dropped her purse beside the couch and plopped next to Justine.
“I’m not showing it to her, are you?” whispered Josie, as she heaved the box into the other bedroom and closed the door.
“How is she?” Dee asked. “The car doesn’t look so bad.”
“You know,” Justine said. “Still slow and groggy but getting back right.” She tossed the Reader’s Digest aside. “Whatever that is.”
Dee ran her fingers through the short hair she kept dyed strawberry blonde. Bracelets on her wrist jangled. “Bless her heart,” she said finally. “And yours. She driving you crazy yet?”
“Asking for her keys,” Justine said. “That’s all she’s really worried about. She knows she shouldn’t be driving.”
“Can’t nobody tell that woman what to do,” Josie said, forgetting to whisper as she walked into the kitchen. She had already dressed in her satin pajamas and had a sleep mask propped on her forehead. “About like somebody else I know, huh, Teeny?”
Justine and Dee shushed her at the same time.
“I’m just saying, the woman’s hardheaded. She’s going to do what she’s going to do, whether it’s run the roads or flush her meds.” Josie had come back into the living room with a plate of cold brisket. “I don’t know how we lasted sixteen or eighteen or however many years with her.” She sat on the other side of Dee and sawed on the meat with the side of her fork.
“You both left my ass as quick as you could,” Justine said. She was trying to make a joke, but it didn’t come out right.
Dee put an arm around her and pulled her closer.
“Mama did the best she could,” Justine said. “But the way we were raised up . . . it’s kept us from . . .” She had that feeling again. She wanted to get in her truck, point it south, and turn the radio up so loud she could not think. She could point it west for all she cared, as long as she got gone.
“At least Granny was here,” she said, finally. “For my sake and Mama’s.” She was crying again, and now so were her sisters. “I’d handle being beaten every day better than what went on inside my head.” She wiped her face.
“Mama tried that too,” Josie said.
Dee whacked her with a pillow.
“Hell,” Justine said. “I don’t even know what goes on inside my head.”
By Sunday, Lula was back to herself, or so the sisters thought. She threw them a curve and skipped Sunday school. After exchanging a round of looks and whispers, they took her to McDonald’s for her beloved flapjacks and then piled back in the car and drove her to Brushy Mountain. Lula didn’t say much unless she was pointing out a bird or a rock formation she probably could have mapped. Dee and Josie oohed and aahed, pretending the scrub hills were as majestic as Lula thought. Justine did her best to keep quiet.
By the time they got back to the house, Justine’s back was on fire. Since she’d hurt it slinging a broken pallet into the dumpster at work, she couldn’t sit long, and the drive up had just about done her in. She did best when she kept moving, so she decided to work in the garage, which was stacked with boxes they’d hauled over from the attic of the last rent house. Dee and Josie got busy in the flower beds, and when Lula wasn’t dozing, she stood over them giving directions.
It was a fight to get Lula to let anything go. Ketchup packets and McDonald’s napkins bulged from kitchen drawers; stacks of Styrofoam coffee cups lined the counters. The garage wasn’t much better. Half the crap was junk, useless stuff that lacked even sentimental value. The other half: photo albums and Lula’s old artwork that had been left in the heat. If Lula didn’t care any more about it than this, Justine figured she could clean it up and take what she wanted for Reney. She told herself she was saving the trouble of having to do it later, with the added benefit of getting to it before her sisters. She told herself she wasn’t worried about getting caught.
When she leaned her ear to the thin door that separated Lula’s bedroom from the garage, she heard nothing from inside but the pull chain clinking against the light in the ceiling fan. She adjusted the box fan whirling in the heat of the open garage door. Then she wiped sweat from her forehead and dug into a dusty cardboard box with DREFT stamped on the outside. Pulling out a warped photo album, she listened for Lula one more time. Then she dusted off the cover and started flipping.
She stopped at a photo of Reney, who couldn’t have been more than two, sitting on Granny’s lap. Reney was doing this thing she’d always done to whoever was holding her: pinching and rubbing elbow skin. But Granny, of course, was wearing long sleeves, so it was really polyester that Reney was rubbing.
In Portland, Reney was taking on debt to study books she could have read for free, as far as Justine could tell. Her Reney, who after high school had become such a hard woman, so cautious with money and closed off. Sometimes it seemed this kid she’d more or less grown up with, the girl she’d loved and fought with and rocked in the night—her daughter, her very soul—was a whole different person.
Reney called whatever it was she was going through her rebirth. She lived in a communal house of some sort and dated two different men that she called feminists. She’d taken to asking questions about her “Cherokee heritage” when she called home, wanting to hear old stories. Justine had stories aplenty; few that she cared to tell. Nonetheless, she found herself telling them all.
It was often late at night when Reney called. She asked for Justine’s advice, something she’d never done back home. They could talk for hours now that she was gone. Justine wondered what Reney was doing right then. She thought about calling her.
Justine jumped when she heard footsteps. She shoved the album into the box she’d set aside for Reney and felt relieved to see Dee standing beneath the garage door.
“We’re about to go to Walmart. Need anything?”
“Again?” Justine said. She stood and stretched her back. “Josie better take that damn TV back.”
“I told her, but you know—”
“You know what?” Josie said, peering over Dee’s shoulder. She was the middle sister but had always behaved more like the baby.
“Mama finds your devil box, all hell’s going to break loose,” Justine said, going back to her sorting.
“She finds my TV, I’m directing her to the ice chest full of Coors Light in your truck.”
“You can’t even get any channels out here,” Justine said.
“I’ve got a whole season of ER. Clooney’s an Oklahoma boy, you know. We’re the same age. If I’d played my cards right and not run off with old whatshisname, maybe we would have got married.”
“Bullshit,” Justine said. “Bring back bleach. Did you see the bathroom? I swear Mama’s eyes are slipping. Her nose too.”
“Well her ears aren’t, so you two better pipe down,” Dee said.
Justine was in a groove when Lula opened the door leading from her bedroom into the garage. She wore house shoes, but her hair was neatly braided. She held bobby pins in her mouth as she wrapped her braid around itself on the top of her head. Justine noticed a piece of paper stuck to her cheek. It looked like a tiny curled tail growing out of her face. Justine was compelled to go wipe it away—she knew it would embarrass Lula—but she was feeling annoyed at her own fear over nearly being caught.
“You need your rest, Mama,” Justine said.
“I get lonesome for my girls. Thought you all might like to drive to McDonald’s.”
“Dee and Josie went to the store,” Justine said. “I’m sorting through all this junk.”
“Those folks behind the counter love me,” Lula said. “They treat me like a queen.” The paper stuck fast to Lula’s cheek as she spoke. It looked like it had come from inside the ring of a spiral notebook.
“I know, Mama,” Justine said. “Maybe later.”
She thought Lula was about to go back inside and leave her be, but then she stepped down into the garage. Lula scanned the boxes and garbage bags and then peered into the box Justine had been working in before moving to an untied kitchen trash bag.
Using her index finger, she shifted the trash bag open and pulled out a little Indian doll. The braided hair had come undone and matted. The faux buckskin dress came apart at the touch, and the nose had been chewed away to white plastic. The most intact thing about it was the bold lettering spelling China on the doll’s underparts.
“Mama, that thing’s been in a box for twenty years. Mice got to it.”
“Well, I’d appreciate you not throwing away my belongings,” Lula said. She carried the doll back into her bedroom.
Justine was so relieved at not being accused of stealing what she wanted before Lula died that she ignored the urge to barge through the now closed door and argue. Instead, she dug the album out again and flipped back to the picture of Reney and Granny.
It struck her that unless Granny was caught in a moment with one of her half sisters, she rarely smiled in photos. Even in this picture with Reney, who Justine knew was one of Granny’s secret favorites, her lips turned downward in a soft C.
The Granny of the photograph—old Granny—was a gentle woman who tucked her laughter into all of the places in their house that lacked. But “old Granny” had been far from a pushover. When it had gone bad with Lula, Granny acted as Justine’s and her sisters’ buffer.
Justine turned the page to a faded picture of Uncle Thorpe and his gang of kids—her cousins. The boys wore long pants and long sleeves and crew cuts. The girls were in long cotton dresses and pigtails. Most of them were barefoot— they’d probably been playing outside before whoever had the camera rounded them up and told them to freeze. She wiped a smudge over John Joseph, the cousin who’d been closest to her in age and her best friend. She smiled at the thought of the two of them fighting over who got to memorize “Jesus wept” for Sunday school.
In the picture, John Joseph stood off to the side a little, caught midstruggle, leaning back trying to hold a full-grown German shepherd. His hands hardly met around the dog’s barrel chest, and the dog’s outstretched legs were planted firmly on the ground. The movement must have caused John Joseph to be out of focus. There weren’t a lot of pictures of him, and this one was out here, ruining in the garage.
Justine shook her head and stood up to rub her back as she scanned the garage. She set the album back into Reney’s box before moving to another corner. There was no telling what had been lost.
She knelt before a new box and pulled out another picture of her granny. She was young in this one, her hair still black, her skin dark brown. She stood in a wooden wagon full of watermelons with Justine’s grandfather, a severe-looking white man in a cowboy hat and rolled-up blue jeans.
Justine squinted into the photograph, trying to imagine her grandmother so young. She had been a maid in a big ranch house when she’d met Justine’s grandfather, a barn hand who Justine knew had been a terrible drinker. It wasn’t hard to imagine Granny’s strength. She was kind, but she was not soft. That’s where Lula got it, where Justine got it, and Reney, too, Justine figured, though she’d done her damnedest to keep Reney from ever having to access that kind of strength. Granny had been brought up in Indian orphanages and, later, Indian boarding schools. She’d never taught her grandchildren the language beyond basic greetings. She simply said that life was harder for those who spoke it.
Justine thought of all the times she’d bought herself or Reney language tapes and materials at the Cherokee Nation gift shop. You could probably start a library if you gathered up the books, flash cards, and tape sets that she’d purchased over the years, only to stash them on a bookshelf until they made their way to boxes in the heat of her own garage.
This time, she didn’t even peek over her shoulder as she slid the photo inside the album in the box of thieved treasures. She took out a manila envelope with folded pieces of paper inside. From it, she pulled one of Lula’s charcoal teepee drawings. She marveled over her mother’s talent. No matter how many sets of pastels or pencils Justine sent her, Lula would not—said she could not—draw any longer.
Justine put the teepee in Reney’s box, too, and set the manila envelope to the side. In the bottom of the Dreft box was a leather journal, stiff with age. She thought it was one of Lula’s diaries, which Justine always felt bad about reading, though she could never help herself. Filled with Lula’s perfect cursive, the diaries spoke of deep loneliness and sorrows. It was a side of Lula that she didn’t reveal to anyone, as far as Justine could tell. Justine checked the door and opened the book. She nearly gasped when she saw the writing inside. She hadn’t seen her grandmother’s sweet scribbly handwriting in years. It looked like Granny had used the book as a record of their days, no matter how mundane.
May 25—In Hominy with Celia all week. Caught perch and catfish—big mess. Celia’s baby son graduated high school today.
May 30—Sweet Service tonight. Bro. Buzzard came and preached good.
June 2—Sister Irene picked us up for church but had to leave early for a sick little one.
Thorpe gave us a ride home.
June 3—Lula made a cowgirl cake for Reney’s birthday, so pretty. Reney is always sweet and precious. She stayed all night here again.
At that entry, Justine set the book down and cried so hard she had to pinch the top of her nose to keep quiet. After Reney divorced, she’d started calling Granny her soul mate. She said Granny came to her in dreams and had ever since they’d moved to Texas when she was a little girl. In taking Reney to Texas, Justine knew she’d taken her away from Granny, who, it turned out, had been Reney’s buffer too.
Reney had tried her best to follow in Justine’s footsteps in her sorry choice of men, and the more Justine pushed her to do better, the more Reney dug in. Until she let go and drove off without a word.
“Are you ready to go to McDonald’s?” Lula stuck her head out the door, surprising Justine again.
Justine jerked her shirt over her eyes and pinched them dry.
“McDonald’s is disgusting,” Justine said. “You need to take better care of yourself.”
Lula leaned heavily on the doorway to ease down into the garage. “Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Mother,” Justine nearly shouted. She took a breath then continued: “I’m fine.”
Her mother cupped Justine’s cheeks, as if Justine were a little girl and Lula were checking her face for cake icing. Justine wouldn’t meet her eyes. Instead, she studied the piece of paper, still stuck to Lula’s face. Lula must have fallen asleep studying her Bible and drooled.
“Mama loves you, Justine,” Lula said. “But only Jesus can make it all better.” She turned to go but came back and said, “Please don’t throw away my belongings.” Then she passed through the open garage door and climbed into the dented-up Pontiac.
“Where’d you get those keys?” Justine asked.
“I can rummage through my belongings too,” Lula said. Then she settled into the driver’s seat and started down the hill.
Justine picked up the box she’d been filling with treasures and sat with it in front of the fan. She pulled the rest of Lula’s artwork from the manila envelope. There was a smaller envelope inside, too, labeled “Teeny” in Lula’s looping letters. It was her High School Equivalency Certificate, lost nearly as soon as she’d gotten it all those years ago after Reney was born. She’d always been embarrassed to say she had only a GED, but right now, she felt proud of the yellowed piece of paper, saved all these years by Lula. She remembered what it meant when she got it. She was sixteen, but she could get a good factory job, a job with benefits. She could take care of Reney. She could help Granny and Lula.
She wiped the sweat from her face and pushed her hair behind her ears. Then she spread her GED on the floor before her, smoothing its creases. She placed a rock on top to keep it from blowing away. She added her grandmother’s journal and Lula’s drawings, all of them she could find. She placed the old pictures around everything, too, finding stones and knickknacks to place on each one. A pressed cardinal feather fell from an album. Justine sat there for some time, smoothing the feather between her fingers, letting the wind blow heat over her and her makeshift altar.
She looked back toward the road, where dust from Lula’s car was still settling. Justine knew she should have taken her mother to McDonald’s, where Lula was certain the pimple- faced kids saw her as royalty and not as the strange woman in a long dress who over-enunciated her order and huddled over her flapjacks. Now it was too late. But maybe tomorrow.