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Where the Heart Is

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


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.

"Hon, I'm gonna have to stop again."

"Goddamn, Novalee." Willy Jack slapped the steering wheel with both hands.

"You just went."

"Yeah, but ..."

"Not more'n fifty miles back."

"Well, I can wait awhile."

"You know how long it's gonna take us to get there if you have to pee ever fifty


"I don't mean right this minute. I can wait."

Willy Jack was in a bad mood because of the camera. Novalee had bought a Polaroid

before they left because she wanted him to take a picture of her at every state line they

crossed, with her posed beside signs like, WELCOME TO ARKANSAS, and OKLAHOMA, THE SOONER

STATE. She wanted to frame those pictures so someday she could show their baby how they

had traveled west like the covered wagons did on their way to California.

Willy Jack told her it was a stupid idea, but he had taken her picture when they

crossed into Arkansas because he had seen a bar called the Razorback just across the

highway and he wanted a beer. They were twenty miles down the road when Novalee missed the

camera and discovered Willy Jack had left it in the bar. She begged him to go back for it

and he did, but only because he wanted another beer. But when they drove into Oklahoma,

Willy Jack had refused to stop and take her picture so they'd had a fight.

Novalee felt warm and sticky. She rolled down her window and let the hot outside air

blast her in the face. The air conditioner in the Plymouth had stopped working long before

Willy Jack bought it with her fifty dollars. In fact, almost everything in the car had

stopped working so it had ended up in a junkyard just outside Knoxville where Willy Jack

had found it. He had replaced a universal joint, the carburetor, the distributor, a brake

drum and the muffler, but he had not replaced the floorboard where a piece the size of a

platter had rusted out. He'd covered the hole with a TV tray, but Novalee was afraid the

tray would slide and her feet would slip through the hole and be ripped off on the

highway. When she would lean forward to check the tray, she could see at its edges the

pavement whirling by, just inches below her feet, an experience that only increased her

need to relieve herself.

She tried to get her mind off her bladder, first by counting fence posts, then by

trying to remember the lyrics to Love Me Tender, but that didn't work. Finally,

she pulled her book of pictures out of the plastic beach bag on the seat beside her.

She had been collecting pictures from magazines since she was little ... pictures of

bedrooms with old quilts and four-poster beds, kitchens with copper pots and blue china,

living rooms with sleeping Lassies curled on bright rugs, and walls covered with family

pictures in gold frames. Before, these rooms had existed only in the pages of magazines

she bought at garage sales in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. But now, she was on her way to

California — on her way to live in such rooms.

"Look, hon." She held a picture out to Willy Jack. "Here's that Mickey

Mouse lamp I told you about. That's what I want to put in the baby's room."

Willy Jack turned on the radio and started twisting the knob, but all he got was


"I hope we can get a two-story house with a balcony that overlooks the


"Hell, Novalee. You can't see the ocean from Bakersfield."

"Well, maybe a pond then. I want to get one of those patio tables with an umbrella

over it where we can sit with the baby and drink chocolate milk and watch the sun go


Novalee dreamed of all kinds of houses — two-story houses, log cabins,

condominiums, ranch houses — anything fixed to the ground. She had never lived in a

place that didn't have wheels under it. She had lived in seven house trailers — one a

double-wide, a camping trailer, two mobile homes, a fifth-wheel, a burned Winnebago and a

railroad car — part of a motel called the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

She held up another picture. "Look at these ducks here on this wall. Aren't they


Willy Jack turned the wheel sharply, trying to run over a turtle at the edge of the


"I just hate it when you do that," Novalee said. "Why do you want to

kill turtles? They don't bother anything."

Willy Jack turned the radio dial and picked up Graceland, by Paul Simon, who

Willy Jack said was three and a half inches shorter than he was.

When they passed the Muldrow water tower, Novalee put her picture book away. The

thought of so much water was almost more than she could bear.

"I bet they'll have a bathroom in this town."

"Oh, I wouldn't be surprised," Willy Jack said. "Almost ever town has

one. You think they'll have a little hot water, too? Maybe you'd like to soak in a hot

tub. Huh? That sound good to you?"

"Dammit, Willy Jack, I have to go to the bathroom."

Willy Jack turned the volume up on the radio and beat out the song's rhythm on the

dash. As they roared through Muldrow, Novalee tightened the muscles between her legs and

tried not to think about swimming pools or iced tea.

She dug the map out again and figured the next chance she would have to stop, short of

a head-on collision, was another twenty miles down the road in a town called Sequoyah. She

peeked at the gas gauge and was discouraged to see they still had a half tank.

For a while, she played a silent game of running through the alphabet searching for a

name for the baby. For A she thought of Angel and Abbie; for B she liked Bordon and

Babbette, but she was just too miserable to concentrate, so she quit before she got to C.

She had aches and pains from her top to her bottom. Her head had been hurting all

morning, but she didn't have any aspirin with her. Her feet were killing her, too. They

were so swollen that the straps of her red sandals bit into her ankles and pinched her

toes until they were throbbing. She couldn't reach the buckles, but by rubbing one sandal

against the other, she was finally able to wiggle out of them, and for that, she was


"Wish I had some gum," she said.

Her mouth was dry and her throat felt scratchy. She had a half bottle of warm Coke in

the back seat, but she knew if she drank it, it would only make her bladder fuller.

"Red's wife says she had trouble with her bladder when she was pregnant. She

thinks that's why she had to have a C section."

"What the hell's a C section?"

"A caesarean. That's when they cut your belly open to get the baby out."

"Now don't you go planning on that, Novalee. That'll cost a damned fortune."

"It's not something you plan, Willy Jack. Not like you plan a birthday

party. It's just something that happens. And I don't know how much it costs. Besides,

you're going to be making good money."

"Yeah, and I don't want it spent before it's in my pocket, either."

Willy Jack was going to California to go to work for the railroad. He had a cousin

there named J. Paul who had made it big working for the Union Pacific. And when Willy Jack

had heard from J. Paul, just two weeks ago, he got excited and wanted to leave right away.

Novalee thought it was strange for Willy Jack to be excited about work, but she said

she was not about to lick a gift horse in the mouth, so as soon as she picked up her check

at Red's, they left Tellico Plains and she didn't look back.

It was the chance she had dreamed about, the chance to live in a real home. She and

Willy Jack had been staying in a camping trailer parked beside Red's, but the plumbing

didn't work so they had to use the bathroom inside the cafe. She knew a job with the

railroad would guarantee she would not have to live on top of wheels ever again. She knew

that for sure.

But what she didn't know was that Willy Jack was going to Bakersfield to chop off one

of his fingers. He hadn't told her the whole story.

He hadn't told her that a month after J. Paul started to work, he got his thumb cut off

in a coupling clamp, an injury for which he received a cash settlement of sixty-five

thousand dollars and an additional eight hundred dollars a month for the rest of his life.

J. Paul used the money to buy a quick-lube shop and moved into a townhouse at the edge of

a miniature golf course.

Hearing that had created in Willy Jack an intense interest in his own fingers. He

noticed them, really noticed them for the first time in his life. He began to study

each one. He figured out that thumbs and index fingers did most of the work, middle

fingers were for communication, ring fingers were for rings, and little fingers were

pretty much unnecessary. For Willy Jack, a southpaw, the little finger of his right hand

was absolutely useless. And it was the one he would sacrifice, the one he intended to

trade for greyhounds and race horses. It was the one that would take him to Santa Anita

and Hollywood Park where he'd drink sloe gin fizzes and wear silk shirts and send his bets

to the windows on silver trays.

But Novalee didn't know all that. She only knew he was going to Bakersfield to go to

work for the railroad. He figured that was all she needed to know. And if Willy Jack was

an expert on anything, it was what Novalee needed to know.

"Want to feel the baby?" she asked him.

He acted as if he hadn't heard her.

"Here." She held her hand out for his, but he left it dangling over the top

of the steering wheel.

"Give me your hand." She lifted his hand from the wheel and guided it to her

belly, then laid it flat against her, against the mound of her navel.

"Feel that?"


"Can't you feel that tiny little bomp ... bomp ... bomp?"

"I don't feel nothin'."

Willy Jack tried to pull his hand back, but she held it and moved it lower, pressing

his fingers into the curve just above her pelvis.

"Feel right there." Her voice was soft, no more than a whisper. "That's

where the heart is." She held his hand there a moment, then he jerked it away.

"Couldn't prove it by me," he said as he reached for a cigarette.

Novalee felt like she might cry then, but she didn't exactly know why. It was the way

she felt sometimes at night when she heard a train whistle in the distance ... a feeling

she couldn't explain, not even to herself.

She leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes, trying to find a way to

make time pass faster. She mentally began to decorate the nursery. She put the oak crib

beneath the window and a rocker in the corner beside the changing table. She folded the

small quilt with cows jumping over the moon and put it beside the stuffed animals ...

As she drifted into sleep, she saw herself thin again, wearing her skinny denim dress

and holding a baby, her baby, its face covered with a soft white blanket. Filled with joy

and expectation, she gently peeled the blanket back, but discovered another blanket

beneath it. She folded that back only to find another ... and another.

Then, she heard a train whistle, faint, but growing louder. She looked up to see a

locomotive speeding toward her and the baby. She stood frozen between the rails as the

train bore down on them.

She tried to jump clear, to run, but her body was heavy, weighted, and the ground

beneath, spongy and sticky, sucked at her feet. She fell then, and from her knees and with

all her energy, she lifted the baby over the rail and pushed it away from the tracks, away

from danger.

Then, the blast of the whistle split the air. She tried to drag herself across the

rail, but she moved like a giant slug, inching her way across the hot curve of metal. A

hiss of steam and rush of scalding air brushed her legs when, in one desperate lunge, she

was across. She was free.

She tried to stand, but her legs were twisted sinew and shards of bone. The train had

severed her feet.

The scream started deep in her belly, then roared through her lungs.

"What the hell's the matter with you, Novalee?" Willy Jack yelled.

Yanking herself from sleep, Novalee was terrified to feel the rush of hot air coming

through the floorboard. She knew without looking that the TV tray was gone.

She turned to look out the back window, dreading what she would see — her feet,

mangled like road kill, torn and bloody in the middle of the highway.

But what she saw were her red sandals, empty of feet, skidding and bouncing down the


"What are you smiling about?" Willy Jack asked.

"Just a dream I had."

She didn't want to tell him about the shoes. It was the only pair she had and she knew

he'd gripe about the money another pair would cost. Besides, they were on a real highway

coming into a real town and Novalee didn't want to get him mad again or she'd never get to

a bathroom.

"Oh, look. There's a Wal-Mart. Let's stop there."

"Thought you had to pee."

"They have bathrooms in Wal-Mart, you know."

Willy Jack swerved across two lanes and onto the access road while Novalee tried to

figure her way around a problem. She didn't have more than a dollar in her beach bag.

Willy Jack had all the cash.

"Hon, I'm gonna need some money."

"They gonna charge you to pee?"

He drove across the parking lot like he was making a pit stop and whipped the big

Plymouth into the handicapped parking space nearest the entrance.

"Five dollars will be enough."

"What for?"

"I'm gonna buy some houseshoes."

"Houseshoes? Why? We're in a car."

"My feet are swollen. I can't get my sandals back on."

"Jesus Christ, Novalee. We're going clear across the country and you're gonna be

wearing houseshoes?"

"Who's gonna see?"

"You mean ever time we stop, you're gonna be traipsing around in houseshoes?"

"Well, we don't stop very much, do we?"

"Okay. Get some houseshoes. Get some polky dot houseshoes. Some green polky dot

houseshoes so everyone will be sure to notice you."

"I don't want polka dot houseshoes."

"Get you some with elephants on them then. Yeah! An elephant in elephant


"That's mean, Willy Jack. That's real mean."

"Goddamn, Novalee."

"I have to buy some kind of shoes."

She hoped that would be enough of an explanation, but she knew it wouldn't. And though

he didn't actually say "Why," his face said it.

"My sandals fell through the floor."

She smiled at him then, a tentative smile, an invitation to see the humor in what had

happened, but he declined the offer. He stared at her long enough to melt her smile, then

he turned, spit out the window and shook his head in disgust. Finally, digging in the

pocket of his jeans, he pulled out a handful of crumpled bills. His movements, exaggerated

and quick, were designed to show her he was right on the edge. He pitched a ten at her,

then crammed the rest back in his pocket.

"I won't be long," she told him as she climbed out of the car.


"Don't you want to come in. Stretch your legs?"

"No. I don't."

"Want me to bring you some popcorn?"

"Just go on, Novalee."

She could feel his eyes on her as she walked away. She tried to move her body as she

had when they first met, when he was unable to keep his hands away from her, when her

breasts and belly and thighs were tight and smooth. But she knew what he was seeing now.

She knew how she looked.

The single stall in the bathroom was taken. Novalee pressed her legs together and tried

to hold her breath. When she heard the toilet flush, she was sure she was going to make

it, but when the door didn't open, she was sure she wasn't.

"I'm sorry," she said as she tapped on the door, "but I've got to get in

there now."

A little girl, still struggling with buttons, opened the door, then jumped out of the

way as Novalee rushed by.

Once inside, Novalee didn't take time to lock the door or cover the seat with paper.

She didn't even check to make sure there was paper on the roll. She just peed and peed,

then laughed out loud, her eyes flooded with tears at the joy of release. Novalee took

pleasure in small victories.

As she washed at the sink, she studied herself in the mirror, then wished she hadn't.

Her skin, though unblemished and smooth, looked sallow, and her eyes, a light shade of

green, were ringed with dark circles. Her hickory-colored hair, long and thick, had pulled

loose from the clip at her neck and was frizzed into thin tight ringlets.

She splashed cold water on her face, smoothed her hair with wet hands, then dug in her

beach bag for lipstick, but couldn't find any. Finally, she pinched her cheeks for color

and decided not to look in any more mirrors until she could expect a better picture.

She went directly to the shoe department, knowing she had already taken too much time.

The cheapest houseshoes she could find had little polka dots, so she settled quickly for a

pair of rubber thongs.

At the checkout stand, she fidgeted impatiently while the man in front of her wrote out

a check. By the time the checker dragged the thongs across the scanner, Novalee was caught

up in the headlines of the National Examiner. She handed the checker the

ten-dollar-bill while she puzzled over the picture of a newborn who was two thousand years


"Ma'am. Here's your change."

"Oh, sorry." Novalee held out her hand.

"Seven dollars and seventy-seven cents."

Novalee tried to jerk her hand back, but before she could, the coins dropped onto her


"No," she shouted as she flung the money across the floor. "No."

Dizzy, she staggered as she turned and started running.

She knew he was gone, knew before she reached the door. She could see it all, see it as

if she were watching a movie. She could see herself running, calling his name — the

parking space empty, the Plymouth gone.

He was going to California and he had left her behind ... left her with her magazine

dreams of old quilts and blue china and family pictures in gold frames.

© 1995 by Billie Letts.

Where the Heart Is
by by Billie Letts

  • paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Warner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0446672211
  • ISBN-13: 9780733620188