The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills

BOOK: The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills

a novel by



of Janice Wills

For my mom, Judy Pearson, who would want me to tell
you that she is
nothing like the mother in this
book, and for my nana, Jo Whisenant, who has always
been ready and willing to dance.



Title Page




























Adolescence provides the female with ample opportunity to appear ugly and awkward as part of numerous socially mandated rituals. These rituals are perpetuated by adult women, who consider such events to be part of their “community heritage.” In other words, the insult was once inflicted upon them, and so must in turn be inflicted upon their own daughters

Like most girls in my hometown, I had to face the Miss Livermush Pageant when I was around seventeen years old. Sixteen years and ten months, to be exact. Thus for purposes of anthropological comparison:

1. Were my name Janice Garcia Lopez instead of Janice Wills, already I might have been ushered into womanhood through a quinceañera celebration on my fifteenth birthday. In a flounced white dress, my hair in perfect ringlets, I’d have performed a choreographed dance with my court of attendants and smiled for a gazillion photos snapped by my adoring aunts and female cousins.

2. Were I Jewish, around age thirteen, I might have had a bat mitzvah, at which I would have read
Hebrew aloud before dancing my feet off at the party held afterward, preferably with Justin Timberlake as the featured entertainment.

3. Were I the son of a noble Japanese samurai family during the Heian era, this year I would have received my adult clothing and hairstyle during the
ceremony at the shrine of my patron

4. Were I a daughter of a Bambuti hunter-gatherer in the Congo, I would already have been married for several years by now, as arranged through a sister-exchange (i.e. my husband would have had to offer his sister or other female relative to a male in my family for marriage too. Like trading teenaged livestock).

Instead, I was an early-twenty-first-century middle-class Protestant girl of Western European descent living in a small town in the southern region of the United States of America. Nearing the end of my junior year at Melva High School, I had two coming-of-age rituals to look forward to:

1. The aforementioned Melva’s Miss Livermush Pageant and corresponding Livermush Festival,
where the community celebrates everyone’s favorite pork liver– based processed meat by marching twenty young women in ridiculous dresses across a stage, and

2. the accompanying Livermush Festival Dance, which holds the place of sociocultural importance that the prom might hold for adolescents in certain other cultures.

I would also add a possible third thing to the list — a secret goal that could make my entire high school experience worthwhile:

3. Publishing an article in
Current Anthropology
before I graduated from high school, thus becoming the youngest person to have done so and legitimizing myself as a scholar in the field.

Because what was my thing — my talent, my one true joy — you ask, having already gathered that being marched across a stage in a ridiculous dress was clearly
it? Observing people, that’s what. Anthropology, that’s what. Anthropology — what our friend Merriam-Webster describes as “the science of human beings;
: the study of human beings and their ancestors through time and space and in relation to physical character,
environmental and social relations, and culture.” If you want the all-time best self-taught anthropologist under the age of eighteen, I’m your girl.

My real coming-of-age began on a bright April Saturday in Melva, North Carolina. The morning air was sweet with hydrangea blossoms, and the carefully manicured gardens of our neighbors were studded with red, heavy-headed tulips. Nosy Mrs. Crandor across the street was outside in little plastic gardening clogs, already at work in her flower beds. The other houses — neat, modest multibedroom homes with basketball hoops and clean cars in the driveways — remained quiet. My best friend, Margo, had slept over, and now we sat on the porch swing, staring speechless at the hypnotic sight in front of us.

A flubbery, middle-aged woman was dancing, right there on our front porch. She had platinum-dyed hair and teeth white enough to blind small children. She did a little skip to the left, hopped two-three, and then skipped to the right, her hands held forward like paws, her gold bracelets jangling. The old boards of the porch creaked as she bounded from foot to foot. The woman looked like a lunatic. The woman was my mother.

“It’s called the Pony, girls!” my mom panted, skipping from side to side. “I loved this dance! My friends and I did it to so many songs back at my Miss Livermush dance, they had to stop the music and force us to do the grand march!”

Margo collapsed onto me, hooting with laughter. “It’s awesome, Mrs. Wills! Keep dancing!” she managed to gulp. Mrs. Crandor looked up from her garden and squinted at us.

“Oh, I could still do it all night, girls! All night! I’ve still got it in me!” She tilted her head back, a bead of sweat zipping down her forehead, her eyes gleaming with lunacy. “Whoo! Yeah!” my mom shouted to herself. “Keep on! Keep on doing the Pony, Sandra!”

I smacked my hand on my forehead so hard my hand stung. “My God, Mom! Jeez, you have GOT to stop!”

The Pony

In a one-two-three, one-two-three rhythm:

  1. Jump lightly off the left foot,
  2. to the right forefoot,
  3. and back to the left foot,
  4. to the full right foot,
  5. then the left forefoot,
  6. and finish on the right foot.

My mom is obsessed with this dance, the Pony. Any dance historians among you will note that the Pony
peaked in popularity nationwide in 1962, well before my mom’s own adolescence. It remains unclear whether my mom’s belated Pony obsession stems from the fact that a) trends only ever make their way to Melva decades too late or b) my mom herself is stubbornly old-fashioned and
be the type of person who was doing a dance from the early ‘60s that her own mom taught her while everyone else was practicing his moonwalk.

The 1960s Pony dance = a wholesomely old-fashioned dance, not to be confused or associated with the 1996 R&B single “Pony” by Ginuwine. It’s a different thing altogether, trust me. My mom once made that mistake and found the experience “much more scandalous.”

Margo, still giggling, tugged my shirt. “Relax, Jan. Your mom is awesome — she’s got spunk!”

I groaned. Mom frowned mid-Pony, right arm up, left arm down. A strand of platinum hair concealed one heavily mascaraed eye. “Janice, you’ve got to stop that. All that God- and Jesus-ing.” She brushed the hair away as she spoke, short of breath. “I’m sure Jesus has better things to worry about, but people in Melva don’t. They’ll say you’re impolite.”

“The only thing impolite is the truth: You can’t dance!”

Margo laughed and jumped up from the swing, shaking her
dark head of curls. She was wearing one of her signature ensembles: paint-spattered overalls and a floral shirt — what I referred to as her Suburban-Graffiti-Artist-Just-Woken-from-Nap look. “Come on, I’m starving. We need to go inside and make pancakes now before my stomach consumes itself.”

It was a Pancake Saturday, a tradition that Margo and I had created when neither of us were invited to Rachel Tedder’s spend-the-night party in seventh grade. Rachel and her family had long since moved to Alabama, but we always toasted her with our orange juice glasses on Pancake Saturdays. She’d been the unwitting force that had cemented Margo’s and my friendship, after all.

I had met Margo the first day of middle school. There, in the lonely, teeming cafeteria, she had smiled and cleared a space for my tray on the lunch table when I, a shipwrecked sailor on the social seas, asked quietly if I could pull up a chair. I’d liked Margo from the beginning because of her face — it was an open face with a mouth that always seemed to be on the brink of laughter. Meanwhile, the other girl sitting at the lunch table, Rachel Tedder, had arranged her impeccably prepared feta salad with low-cal dressing and diet soda — she was always wise beyond her years when it came to obsessions — while predicting two things:

1. that she, Margo, and I would be best friends from then on, and

that when we grew up, Margo would become a famous actress, Rachel would be a successful doctor/fashion designer/businesswoman, and I would enjoy a fulfilling career as an editor of science textbooks.

Rachel had been right — about Margo and me being best friends, at least. Rachel herself ditched us by the time we hit seventh grade, floating effortlessly upward through the higher social strata of baton girls and dance squad girls after deciding we weren’t worth her time. One fateful Friday, Margo and I, waiting for our rides by the side of the middle school gym, saw a group of girls all climb giggling into Rachel’s mom’s van with overnight bags. I’d watched them in silent disbelief — Rachel had always invited
to her spend-the-nights! — until I noticed that tears were brimming in Margo’s eyes. “You can come to my house,” I’d said to Margo, before adding for some reason, “and we’ll have a BETTER spend-the-night party, with pancakes for breakfast in the morning and everything.” Margo and I had been best friends ever since, just as had been originally foretold. (Unfortunately, Rachel’s partial predictive powers now left me worrying about a lonely destiny of mitochondria and cell cycles. An editor of science textbooks?!)

Other than our mutual seventh-grade rejection, I wasn’t sure why Margo and I got along so well. Maybe because Margo didn’t seem to register whether something was cool or dorky, she was less aware of all those tricky social categories in which
people get stuck. I liked this about her. I liked how she simply found things interesting or didn’t — and I liked that she found
interesting. We hung out a lot, but we also still gathered at least one Friday a month to watch movies, spend the night, and make elaborate pancake breakfasts the next morning. It would be embarrassing if the Hipster Hippies or Future Fashionistas at school ever found out about it, so we referred to it simply as “PS.”

Pancakes in various forms have been enjoyed across many cultures and featured in cookbooks from as early as 1430. We were engaging with a diverse culinary tradition.

We walked inside to get the pancakes started. My mom followed us into the kitchen. “Janice never has a boyfriend, and now I really see why,” she called from behind the refrigerator door. “A sour attitude.”

“Thanks, Mom. I call it honesty.”

“Or maybe that sour attitude is only directed at me. I wonder. So, which lucky boys are y’all considering as your Miss Livermush escorts? You know you can confide in me. I just want us all to have some girl talk! Over pancakes!”

My dad, carrying the newspaper, poked his head into the kitchen. Seeing us, he nodded quickly before darting back to the living room — my dad tended to avoid Pancake Saturdays
due to a) his shyness and b) the excessive amount of estrogen. He retreated to the living room, where I could hear my two little brothers cackling over Saturday morning cartoons.

“We’ll be fine without your help on the pancakes, Mom.”

“What about Stephen Shepherd, Janice? He’s such a doll-baby! Such a cute boy, and with good manners!”

Stephen Shepherd had a scattering of long, curling whiskers sprouting randomly all over his chin, and teeth that were always caked with orange crud from cheese puffs. He played Dungeons & Dragons neither ironically nor secretively, and had once (recently) worn a cape to school. This was the type of guy my mom figured I’d like, and this worried me.

The guys — okay, the
— I actually liked was brooding, aloof, and handsome, and he didn’t know my name. Or of my existence. This also worried me.

“Mom, I’ve already told you: I don’t need an escort because I do
plan to participate in Miss Livermush. Really! Please stop bringing it up!” I said.

Margo poured pancake flour, added an egg and some milk, and began to stir. “Well, it could be fun. We’ve been watching the pageant since we were little girls,” she said, stirring the pancake batter rhythmically, “and since we’re juniors, this is our
chance at Miss Livermush. It’s kind of a milestone. Like being a
princess or something for one evening. Or like going back in time — being Scarlett O’Hara.”

“Scarlett O’Hara ended up miserable, remember?”

and kept stirring.

“She was Machiavellian. Cutthroat. And she wore curtains,” I added.

“Lots of romance and great parties,” Margo countered. “Lots of misfortune.”

“Janice, you won’t end up miserable, and you won’t have to wear curtains either,” Margo said. “It’ll be fun if we do it together! And we don’t need dates or escorts or whatever for the dance. We can just go with each other.”

“You could win the pageant, you know,” I said to Margo. And she could. She was beautiful and talented and, best of all, did not actually care about things like winning Miss Livermush — which somehow made her seem all the more deserving. “I’ll root for you. I’ll cheer really loud on the sidelines and take notes whenever the other girls mess up. Then, just in case the judges make a mistake, I’ll have proof you were the best.”

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