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colors; or, the ballad of the first forsythia pendleton jones

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verse one

Her name is Forsythia Pendleton Jones. She is the first and only of that name, but just barely. Her mother calls her, “my pretty little pixie.” All the rest call her “jellybean,” a name her father gave her.

The neighbors’ children shout, “Jellybean, come out, come out!” and so she does. She falls onto her back to find shapes in the clouds. She points them out to the other girls: lollipop, top hat, bird. They sit cross-legged on the asphalt and clap their palms together, singing, “All dressed in black, black, black.” But Jellybean doesn’t see black; she sees yellow, orange, red.

Her mother and brother give her books: white pages, black ink. She doesn’t want them. She likes it better when they read her the stories. She likes it best when they sing them.

verse two

It is Jellybean’s eighth birthday. Her brother, called Jughead, hands her a book wrapped in newsprint. He says, “We’ll adventure together, like the brother and sister in these pages.” She asks, “Will you read to me?” and he does.

Their father laughs and lifts her, making the ruffle hem of her yellow dress flip. (He is home for the first time in five weeks.) He sings, “Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays,” and twirls her round and round. She giggles and closes her eyes against her mother’s frown. Behind her eyelids, it is blue, pink, orange.

verse three

Jellybean rides a rickety bus up the highway, squirming in her mother’s arms. Her mother says, “We’re going somewhere better.” “What could be better,” thinks Jellybean, “than a father who sings? What could be better than a brother who tells stories?”

They hop off the bus and walk up a gravel driveway to a house with a gabled roof. There are no neighbors, so there are no neighbors’ children. There is only a grassy field full of fluffy white flowers. It is so quiet.

At the door, there is a white-haired grandmother. She says, “Oh, my pretty little pixie, welcome home.” There is a white-haired grandfather. He says, “I’m glad you’ve finally come down from the clouds.” They hug her mother, and then they hug Jellybean. They do not lift her or twirl her. They do not laugh.

verse four

Her mother walks round and round among the flowers, alone. She is so quiet.

She gives Jellybean books to read, but Jellybean does not want them.

Her grandfather drops an olive into a glass and tells stories of the good old days, when he was young and her mother was a girl, when they danced at the country club. Jellybean swipes an olive from the jar; he doesn’t notice. She tilts her chin to find shapes in the ceiling: elephant, Ferris wheel, palm tree. He doesn’t notice.

Her grandmother pats her cheek and says, “I’ll make you a lady.” She teaches Jellybean to pen cursive, to beg pardon, to sew the alphabet. Jellybean stabs the cotton and scowls. She pulls the red thread until it snaps.

She stomps the grass flat with her black Mary Janes. She pulls the stems of the fluffy dandelions until they snap.

They lock her in her pristine white bedroom, and she cries, alone.

verse five

Her mother brushes her hair and tells her, “You’ll grow up to be a hero, like the girls in the pages of my favorite books.” Jellybean doesn’t want to be trapped in those black and white pages.

Her mother braids her hair and coils it round and round to make a crown. Jellybean says, “I miss my brother.”

Her mother huffs, “Call him, then.” She gives her a phone to use. But Jughead says, “I don’t have enough minutes. The call will cut off.” He says, “Dad’s gone again. I wish we could talk. I love you, Jellybean.” He cannot tell her stories.

In the attic, among the dustmotes, Jellybean finds a record player. She finds a box of records in paper sleeves of every color. She watches the records go round and round. There is music on her phone, so there is music in her headphones, but Jellybean likes the records best.

The girl in the record sings, “In the good old days, when times were bad” and it’s red and yellow. Jellybean twirls, making the lace hem of her black dress flip.

verse six

Her grandfather scolds, “Jellybean is a name for a little girl, and you won’t be a girl much longer.”

Jellybean doesn’t want to be a girl. She wants to be a woman, so she can ride down the highway to her brother and her father. She says, “Call me JB, then.”

Her grandmother says, “You look so much like your mother, with that black hair floating around your face.” Her grandfather says, “You’ll do what she couldn’t.” Her mother says, “What a pretty little pixie you are.”

JB looks at her hair, not ink-black but record-black. She coils it round and round and snips, smiling as it floats to the ground.

Her mother claps her hands. “Oh! Now you’re even more of a pixie.”

JB scowls. Then she shrugs and says, “At least my headphones fit better now.”

verse seven

JB calls her brother on the phone. Jughead says, “Dad is locked in a stone cell.” He says, “I wear a leather jacket now, and my new brothers and sisters need my time. I don’t have the minutes.” He cuts off the call. There will be no more stories.

The man in the record sings, “Another year with nothing to do.” JB sees yellow and pink and thinks, ”I can’t stand many more years of this.”

verse eight

It is JB’s fifteenth birthday. The tiara in her black hair sparkles in the sunbeams. She doesn't want it. There are twinkling candles in her birthday cake, among the iced white flowers. She blows them out with a huff. She kisses her mother, her grandfather, and her grandmother. There is no one to call: her father is gone, and her brother is gone.

When the house is quiet, JB puts on a yellow dress with a ruffle hem. She takes off the tiara and puts on her headphones. She walks down the gravel driveway away from the house with the gabled roof.

When she cannot walk any longer, she sits on the side of the highway, a backpack full of records in her lap. She falls onto her back to find shapes in the stars: switchblade, book, crown. She does not see the trucks and motorcycles coming up the highway.

The man in her headphones sings, “Yellow bird, you are not long in singing and in flying on,” and she sees green, orange, blue, yellow. She does not hear the vrooming trucks and motorcycles. And then: black, black, black.