Table of Contents
PREVIOUS NOVELS BY
Sherri L. Smith:
Lucy the Giant
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet
Many thanks to Professor Abe Ravitz for overseeing the seedling version of this novel and to my manager, Garrett Hicks, for recognizing what the story could become. Special thanks to my husband for his input and support. There's no crying in writing!
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
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Copyright Â© 2008 by Sherri L. Smith. All rights reserved.
eISBN : 978-1-440-69928-3
For my mother, Joan Marie.
You taught me to soar.
It's Sunday afternoon, and the phonograph player is jumping like a clown in a parade the way Jolene and I are dancing. We're cleaning the Wilson house and Nat King Cole's singing on the record. It sounds fine. This is one of the best places to clean because they have a big yard and no neighbors close enough to hear our ruckus. Otherwise, working on a Sunday would be a real drag. But the Wilsons are gone for the weekend and Mr. Wilson said he'd pay extra for a clean house when he gets back. With Christmas just a few weeks away, the money will come in handy.
I am knee-deep in Murphy Oil Soap, washing Otis Wilson's sticky fingerprints off his mama's fine oak banister, when Jolene comes waltzing down the stairs with the laundry.
“I swear, these people must change their clothes every hour on the hour, every day. I've never seen such a mess of laundry in my life. Ida Mae Jones, hurry up with that polishing and come help me.”
“I am hurrying. If they'd stop giving Otis jam for breakfast, I wouldn't be cleaning this railing every week.”
“If they stopped giving Otis jam for breakfast, he'd cry for a week,” she says.
Otis Wilson is the most spoiled white boy in New Orleans. Just a year younger than Jolene and me, but at seventeen, he's still a slobbering mess. Jolene says it's because he's soft in the head. I think it has more to do with being spoiled.
“You think he'd enlist if we ever join this war?”
Jolene laughs her big horse laugh. “Girl, can you see that little jam jar in a uniform? I mean he's big enough, for a white boy, and not bad looking, either, if you like the pasty type, but taking orders and holding a gunâwe'd be better off surrendering than sending him to fight.”
“Too true, too true.” I laugh, thinking about Otis's broad-bellied self in a uniform. “Think they've got maids in the army to wipe the jam off his rifle?”
It's Jolene's turn to chuckle. “Now stop making me laugh and get to work. We're going to have to clean this house a hundred more times if you're going to get the money to go to Chicago.”
“Don't I know it.” I sigh. At home, we get by running our little berry farm, but getting by is far from getting rich. Even with cleaning houses full-time since Jolene and I graduated high school in June, the saving is coming slow. Sometimes it seems like my purse is nothing but a sieve with money running through it like water. “The way I see it, another month of solid work and I'll be set. Then all I have to do is find a way to get my mother to let me go to Chicago by myself.”
“Or work another six months and take her with you.”
“Oh, I can see that now,” I say, rolling my eyes. “âMama, you wait right here, I'm gonna go take my pilot's test.' She only lets me fly now because Grandy's with me. She hates to fly.”
“Girl, I know better than to tell you to give it up. You've got the flying bug just as sure as your daddy did, but some days I think it's more trouble than it's worth. More money than it's worth, too.”
“Bessie Coleman had to go all the way to France to learn how to fly just because she was colored.” She was one of my idolsâthe Negro Amelia Earhart. “She was nothing more than a hairdresser, but she did it. So why can't I? I already know how to fly, Jolene. If I can't get my license in Tuskegee, at least Chicago's closer than Paris.”
Jolene shrugs over her armful of dirty shirts. “If you say so.”
Just remembering my first time in a plane, in my daddy's old Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” I get goose bumps. Nothing else on God's green earth does that to me. Of course it's worth it.
Last year, just before I turned seventeen, Mama's daddy, Grandy, convinced her to let me go to Tuskegee to take my pilot's test. I'd taken over Daddy's side business of dusting crops, but I needed my license. Daddy would have taken me, had he lived. I'd already flown over forty hours with him, and I had passed the written exam by mail just before he died. All I needed to do was go up in a real plane with a certified instructor. Mama kept Daddy's promise by letting me go.
Grandy and I showed up real early at the airfield. I was so excited I thought I'd have to run to the restroom and pee every five minutes. Grandy was as calm as could be, though, and that helped me a lot. The instructor, a Mr. Anderson, showed up, and he was a white man, with blue eyes and a firm jawline. I'd heard he had passed other colored pilots at the base, and I thought he looked tough, but fair.
Well, I said a little prayer asking Daddy for help, and I took that instructor up in the test plane. It was a Jenny, like Daddy had taught me on, easy as slipping into an old sweater. We did rolls, and loops, and landings, and I could hardly stop smiling because I knew I'd done good.
But when we climbed out of that plane, Mr. Anderson looked at me and said, “You can fly, no doubt about it. But no woman's gonna get a license out of me. Go home, Miss Jones. You've failed.”
I stood there, staring at his strong jawline and his blue eyes, and if looks could set a fire, he'd have been a three-alarm blaze by the time I was done. Grandy, who's seen more than his share of wrongness, just took my arm and said, “S'all right, honey. We've got better places to go.”
That better place is Chicago, the Coffey School of Aeronautics. Owned and run by colored people, like me. Teaching men and women alike. No matter how long it takes me, that's what I'm working toward.
“Stop daydreaming, Ida,” Jolene says, disappearing into the washing room. “Hurry down here so we can talk.” Her voice carries from the back of the house. I finish scrubbing the banister, still trying to figure out how to get to Chicago without letting Mama catch on. She doesn't like the idea of me flying. She only lets me dust crops because it pays a little and Grandy comes with me. Daddy is the only person who could convince her that I'd be okay by myself. But since he's gone, I'm on my own. As far as Mama is concerned, going to the big city by myself is crazy enough. She'd call me a damn fool if she knew it was because I wanted to fly.
“Finally,” Jolene says as I round the corner to the washing room. “Grab a tubâthis is old-fashioned dirt in these socks. It'll take a washboard to clean them.”
She pours boiling water from a kettle into the washer and runs those socks through about a hundred times each. Mr. Wilson fancies himself a golfer, but you'd think he was a gopher with all the dirt he brings home with him from the course. The socks are a hopeless cause. Still, I put them in a galvanized tub with bleach to get them white and bluing to get them even whiter. Laundry is my least favorite part of housekeeping. The smell of the soap and chemicals stays in your skin for a week. Sometimes, on a hot day, I feel like I sweat bleach.
“Now, about Chicago,” Jolene says, sounding just like her mother. Miss Tara is a math teacher, and whenever she puts herself to any sort of problem, math or otherwise, you just know she'll solve it. Jolene isn't as reliable as her mama, but it is comforting to have her on my side, just the same.
“Here's what to do. Tell your ma that you're visiting my mama's sister in Natchez, with me. I'll even go see my old aunt to keep your story straight.”
“You make it sound like a sacrifice,” I say, “when everybody knows your aunt lives across the river from the city. And that she falls asleep early every single night, Miss I'll Be Back Before She Knows I'm Gone.”
“Why should I suffer for you?” Jolene raises an eyebrow and laughs. “Besides, we can't all fly airplanes. Some of us have got to keep both feet on the ground. New Orleans is a good place to do just that.”
“On the ground, Jolene? On the dance floor of a jazz club is more like it.”
Jolene grins, the gap showing in her smile. She pats her Marcel curls beneath the gray scarf that is part of our cleaning uniform. “Don't I know it, don't I know it.” Jolene has a fantasy of leaving Slidell to sing in a New Orleans nightclub. Trouble is, she has no voice for it. So she spends her days in the city with me, washing clothes and cleaning houses.