God, I’m always glad to get out of these places. I just hope your grandfather gets the all-clear soon. When I’m older, make sure I don’t...
Yes, thanks love. I hope so too.
What? Oh, his eyes are fading. And the light’s odd. We were standing in front of that big window. That’s the only reason he didn’t recognise me first off. And no, he…
Yes, all right. You heard him right. He called me Jolene. He’s ill, and he’s a big fan of…
No, OK. I guess it’s time.
He’d forgotten, poor man, and that’s what I was to him, what I am to him in fact, although he was good enough to respect my decision. He christened me Jolene.
No, before. In fact, I’m the reason. I’m the Jolene. I just learned to hate the name, and haven’t been called it in… oh, way too long.
OK, I’ll explain. You see, Daddy was a mad fan of Dolly Parton, back in the day, and he dragged me along to one of her concerts. End of the show, and wouldn’t you know he thinks I’ve got more of a chance of getting an autograph than he does. Truth is, I think Mommy would’ve killed him the way he spoke about that woman, if he actually went up there. So I went up and Dolly saw me. She had the most beautiful smile, like she really meant it, like she was really caring about each and every one of us. Anyway, she looked me up and down and said “ain’t you the prettiest thing?” I grinned like a fool, of course. I was spindly and my hair was just flat and dull, and worse still, it was red. I kept wanting to cut it short because the boys kept pulling it and calling me, well, calling me names I don’t like to repeat now. “What’s your name?” she asked. I told her it was Jolene, and she replied with “ain’t that the prettiest name? I tell you, some day I’m gonna write a song called Jolene, and when you grow up, you’ll know it’s about you.”
And she did. I used to love singing it, all the time. It was my song. My best friend back in high school – Rosie – she played the guitar a bit, and we used to sing all sorts of things, but we’d always come back to Jolene. I felt a bit guilty, though, because Rosie didn’t have a song of her own. She kept choosing one which would be her song, but it changed every few months.
We thought of starting our own country group – ha! – as if we were good enough for anything like that. Still, we kept playing, and we made time for each other, even as Rosie started discovering boys. I wasn’t popular with anyone else, though. Just Rosie.
Anyway, Rosie got ill this one summer, just after she’d got tickets to see… oh, I forget who it was. Someone Rick – her boyfriend at the time – really wanted to go and see. They’d saved up, and now she wasn’t going to be able to go, so she suggested I go with him. She suggested it. I wasn’t comfortable with it, especially when she jokingly called it a play-date. I’d not had a date at that point, not even one, so I was a bit nervous about it all, but she said I was being stupid. So I went. And wouldn’t you know it, the octopus of a man first had his arm round my shoulder, then on my leg, moving up until I stopped it by putting my hand in the way. He leaned over, and had to be batted away.
And then Rosie comes round in tears saying Patty had seen us, and how could I do that, and calling me a slut, and how I deserved all I got, and why couldn’t I stay away? Me. Stay away from him. She said “please don’t take my man”. That was the first time anyone had used the song against me. She started shouting, telling me how Dolly must’ve known what kind of person I’d grow up into. She even said I had “flaming locks of auburn hair” and “eyes of emerald green”. The weird thing was until that exact second I hadn’t even considered my looks as being anything other than a curse, but as I saw her eyes, filled with hate, I realised she meant it. And other people must have been seeing it too. I did have pale skin, but that’s because I hate the sun. I go all freckly the moment I’m out in it, and I’ve always hated that.
I argued with her, of course, but she kept going back to “my happiness depends on you” over and over. I said there was nothing in it, and besides, it was Rick making a move. If she had a problem with his behaviour, shouldn’t she complain at him? She asked why I hadn’t told her. I didn’t have a good answer for that. Maybe if I had told her it would have been OK. Maybe she’d have believed her oldest friend over that summer’s boyfriend. Maybe. Maybe I was a little flattered, deep down, that someone paid me any attention at all.
Anyway, that was that for us. She started warning everyone round school about what I’d done and what I was like, and I was suddenly surrounded like a flame to moths, especially as I was starting to… well, you know… fill out a bit if you get me. I was flattered for a while, but then realised that every single one of my female classmates, each of whom had boyfriends, was starting to keep themselves – and their boyfriends – well away from me, thinking I was always trying to “take their man”. Conversation with other girls dried up, and was replaced by the boys offering dates, love, y’know, or whatever each one chose to call it. I wanted company, but all I got was offers of meaningless sex. I did go with one guy – and I thought he was really nice when we went out. It was romantic. Movie, drive, sitting on a hillside watching the stars, and that time a hand on my leg felt OK. We made out, safely I should say – always make sure you use protection – yes, sorry – you’ll forgive your mother worrying about you – anyway, I felt great. He dropped me home and gave me the most wonderful kiss. I was six inches taller when I got home.
It was only the next morning when I found out everyone in school knew, and that he was claiming he’d “tamed the fire”. I went over to him and looked him in the eyes. For a second I thought he was actually gonna apologise – like he was cracking – but then someone slapped me on the back and said “takin’ another look at what you can’t have, eh?” and the place erupted. The shutters came down on his face, and that was the end of it. The rest of that semester was the longest I’ve ever endured, but I went in every day without fail, I went to each class, I went into the dining hall and sat on my own, ignoring the stares. People would keep dropping in lines from the song, all sarcastic. “Her beauty is beyond compare” the boys would sneer as I passed. Occasionally one of the girls would talk to me just to tell me to stay away from whichever boy they were with at that moment. I got so angry about that – I mean, surely you should trust your boyfriend rather than warning every girl you see to stay away from him, as if all men are so untrustworthy the only way to make a relationship last is by keeping them away from every other girl around. I tried not to hate them, but I wasn’t always successful. I did stay quiet, and when the year ended, I was outta there. I never saw any of them again. I cut my hair, dyed it brown, moved away, and became Joanne. Mommy and Daddy weren’t happy about that change, but I needed it, and after a while, they accepted it.
Yeah, accepted. They never liked it. Mommy was always sorry I didn’t show off my hair – she said if she’d had auburn hair she’d sure as damn have shown it off. I considered it, but I couldn’t go back. It was like I’d shut down. The ironic thing – I won’t say funny – is that your father, the dirtbag, left me for a dyed redhead.
Yes, I’ve told you that before, although maybe I’ve been bitter when I did. I’ve lost that bitterness now. He left me with you, and what more…?
Sorry. I know, its Daddy being in hospital. I get emotional. Especially with the way he…
Yes, I’ve got a picture somewhere. Wait ‘til we get home. I’m sure there’s one somewhere.
I suppose I could. It would take ages, though.
I don’t know. It’s been such a long time.
What, Daddy said that? I didn’t know he still… And you knew? I don’t know. For him? Maybe you’re right.
Maybe twenty years on, one divorce and one child later, no man stolen from anyone, one lost, no one’s happiness taken, maybe it is time to go back to being Jolene.