By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Eugene brought me here to the Barstow County Hospital night before last, and I would like to take this opportunity right now to thank all the doctors and nurses who have been so kind to me while I’ve been here, even though they know I am a murderer. I would especially like to thank Dr. Fowler (who Eugene don’t trust because he’s so young) for talking kind to me all the time and arranging for me to go to the Barstow County Mental Health Center twice a week until I get straightened out, if I ever do.
Now, the mental-health center is one place I figured I’d never wind up at, but I’m glad to go because I probably ought to be in jail for what I did. So I’m thankful for the opportunity to do what Dr. Fowler says. He really is kind. He keeps telling me not to worry and to stop feeling so guilty. He says all I need to do right now is rest and relax. But just this morning I had to remind him that I’ve gone off and left a husband and three little girls at home, and even though they probably don’t want me anymore, they’ve got to have somebody to take care of them because Eugene is just all thumbs in the kitchen. But Dr. Fowler said he had talked to Eugene and everything has been arranged: my mother-in- law is staying at the house and I am not to worry, but I do.
It isn’t that I don’t like Eugene’s mama (who insists I call her Mother Pewitt even though I don’t care to because my own mother is passed away and Mother Pewitt is Eugene’s mama, not mine). It’s just that she’s a domineering kind of woman and I often disagree with her, even though I always keep my mouth shut because I don’t see any point in starting up trouble within a family. She’s always saying things like, “Eugene is looking a little thin to me, Lynnell. Why don’t you-all come over to supper Friday night and I’ll see if I can’t fatten him up some.” She says this kind of thing with a laugh stuck to it, but I can tell she is mostly serious. Eugene is the baby of his family, you see, and the only one who still lives in Fessler’s Fork. Eugene’s daddy is dead, and my Wanda Jean and Katie Lynn and Carrie Sue are all the grandchildren Mother Pewitt has to fool with so, as you might imagine, they and Eugene are spoiled rotten.
Mother Pewitt lives right down the road from us, so we see her every day. She comes over right when Wanda Jean and Katie Lynn get home from school, which is just about my busiest time of the day because I’m trying to get supper on the table before Eugene gets home, but Eugene is always telling her — and she is always repeating it to me — that “my house is your house, Mama. You are welcome here any time.” Which is, of course, the gospel truth, except I just wish she wouldn’t come at such a busy time for me when the girls have got the TV going and Carrie Sue is getting cranky and there Mother Pewitt is poking around in the kitchen to see what I’m cooking for supper. But she always leaves a full thirty minutes before Eugene comes home. I think it’s because he’s not in a real good humor when he first gets in. Eugene can be sharp sometimes, even to his own mother, who adores him, as do I.
I don’t often see Mother Pewitt at any other time of day. She has her routine and I have mine. We shop for groceries on different days. There is just the one store in Fessler’s Fork, which is the Lewis Brothers’ Market. It has everything from those instant-breakfast drinks (which is all I ever have in the mornings) to overalls in every size, and occasionally something big, like a saddle, will come in. On consignment, I reckon. I know about that because once I took some of my drawings over to the market to sell on consignment. Mr. Avery Lewis’s oldest son — who mostly runs the store now, since Mr. Avery is so old and Mr. Horace Lewis is dead altogether — explained to me about consignment and said he thought my drawings were nice. But they didn’t sell and after four months I went and took them back.
Mother Pewitt thinks my drawings are a waste of time. It never fails but on a Sunday afternoon when we’re having dinner at her house after church, like we’ve always done since me and Eugene got married, she’ll bring up the subject of my drawings, saying, “Did you do any of them pictures this week, Lynnell?” And I’ll usually say, real calm-like, “Yes I did, Mother Pewitt.” And she’ll say, “I thought so. The house didn’t look to be real clean when I was there Friday afternoon. I don’t think that’s real healthy for the girls. I would imagine those drawings take up a lot of your time.”
I say, “Not really, Mother Pewitt.”
And she says, “Well, you must be doing something besides keeping the house up because, if you don’t mind my saying so, it looks it.”
And I get embarrassed and feel real guilty and always give the house a good cleaning on Mondays. But Eugene don’t seem to notice anyway and come Tuesday something nearly always catches my eye and right off I see a drawing in it.
Mother Pewitt always says, “I think it’s fine to have a hobby, Lynnell, but what you got is an obsession, and that ain’t healthy. You got pictures stuck all over the walls in that house and, if you don’t mind my saying so, it’s beginning to look kinda tacky over there.”
Eugene is always too busy eating to hear anything his mama ever says, and I usually just say, “Yes, Mother Pewitt,” because there really is no point in starting up an argument within the family. Although one time I did tell her I didn’t think I had too many pictures and I certainly didn’t have no obsession because I didn’t have the time, trying to run a household and raise three little girls, one still practically a baby.
Mother Pewitt just snorted when I said that, and I never said it again.
There’s no telling what Mother Pewitt has been saying to the neighbors about what I’ve done. Likely she’s attached it to my “obsession.” Everybody knows everybody else’s business in Fessler’s Fork, and it’s in no small part due to Mother Pewitt. She’s always having coffee at somebody’s house, catching up on everybody’s business and spreading around what she’s heard elsewhere. Sometimes I think she ought to be a reporter for the Water Hill Herald. She’d be real good at it.
Water Hill is where I’m at right now. It’s the county seat and where we go to do our big shopping, and of course the bank and post office are here. Fessler’s Fork is just a crossroads, I guess you’d say. There are mostly houses there, except for the one store and two gas stations and the school, of course.
I can’t help but wonder if Mother Pewitt is getting Wanda Jean and Katie Lynn off to school while I’m here, or if she’s letting them stay at home to recover from what I did. I hope they’ll recover, but I can’t be sure. If they don’t it will just be part of my punishment. My girls are smart as whips and have good memories. Wanda Jean is in the fifth grade and Katie Lynn just started kindergarten. (Carrie Sue likes to finger-paint — I think she might take after me that way.) The Fessler’s Fork school goes all the way from kindergarten through the ninth grade, which is unusual these days, but the county is so spread out, you see. After ninth grade you go to the big high school in Water Hill. That one school accommodates the entire county. There must be a thousand students there. Water Hill is only twelve miles north of Fessler’s Fork but the atmosphere is different, if you know what I mean.
And of course the hospital is in Water Hill, which is convenient for medical emergencies like mine. I’ve been in here before: three times when my babies were born and two other times when I lost babies I was trying to have. (Mother Pewitt says it’s because I don’t eat right.) Eugene wants a son but I can’t seem to get him one. I suppose I’ll try again if they don’t declare me an unfit mother after what I’ve done.
I don’t even remember how I got here to the hospital, but Eugene has given me all the details. He said he called Mother Pewitt to come stay with the girls the night before last when he brought me here because he knew from the way I was bleeding that I needed to be sewed up at the hospital. He said that at the time he thought all the crying I was doing was just because I was in pain, but the nurse said I was hysterical when he brought me into the Emergency Room and that they had to give me a shot to calm me down. I must have been real upset. From what Eugene has told me I know I had every reason to be crying my whole soul out, but I don’t personally remember that part, which I guess is a good thing.
Now, I’m the first to admit I’m prone to getting upset. Mother Pewitt says it’s because I drink too much coffee. “You ought to get some of that decaffeinated kind, Lynnell,” she says. “It’s that coffee that makes your hands shake so and makes you have such a terrible temper with the girls.” I have to say, in my own defense, that I’ve never had a terrible temper with my girls. I have hollered at them like any normal mother would, and once in a while I’ve had to smack their little behinds for being sassy, but I’ve never had such a terrible temper that I couldn’t control myself. I would never, ever hurt my girls.
The thing is, I do get tired sometimes and I’ve been upset all along about that dog Prissy. Especially about having to clean up after her — but it is my own fault she never got trained to go outside. And I did agree with Eugene that our girls could have a puppy for Christmas. It was their one big Christmas wish and I just couldn’t refuse, even though I knew they weren’t going to take care of a puppy and I didn’t really want one myself. But as time went by I did get real attached to her. She was just the cutest thing you ever saw when Eugene brought her home Christmas Eve. She has some poodle in her and she was so tiny and white and curly. She had this elegant little face with big eyes and a sharp little nose. I was the one named her Prissy because I thought it just fit her personality perfectly. She was so pretty, all white and clean and pure. I reckon she had a right to be prissy. She walked that way right from the start, like she knew you were admiring her. I have done several drawings of her. They’re on the walls in the girls’ room.
But I didn’t have time for a puppy. Our house is real small for five people and it’s hard to keep up, despite what Mother Pewitt says. Still, I took on the job of raising Prissy because Eugene is too tired when he comes home from work to fool with a dog, and Wanda Jean has homework. The thing was, I twisted my ankle right before Christmas when I fell off the stepladder trying to put the star on top of the tree, and after Christmas I was afraid to take the puppy out on account of we had a spell of bad weather and there was ice on the porch steps off and on for a month. So the dog never learned to go outside. Oh, I paper-trained her and fixed a little place on the back porch for her and she really got to be a sweet little thing, but sometimes I would get a little upset because no one would ever do anything for her except me. I was the one to feed her and keep the fleas off her and pick up the things that were drug around the house. Then, of course, there were the papers to be cleaned up where she did her business. I guess that’s always the worst part of having a dog. But I didn’t mind it much because I’m always picking up after Eugene and the girls anyhow, so a few more little messes don’t really matter.
I just get tired, is all. And the girls come home from school all tired and grouchy because they stay up until 9:00 P.M., even though I put them in bed at a decent hour. They’ll giggle or fight and keep Carrie Sue awake. My girls are really sweet children, though, and I guess I’m lucky that way. I wish I could spend my time with them better, but sometimes I have to get after them about one thing or another and I holler at them just like Mother Pewitt says, but it’s only because I’m tired sometimes. I have never lost my temper any more than an ordinary mother.
Now, Eugene does have a temper, if I may say so, although I know he is tired all the time, too. He works at the paper factory in Water Hill where they make gift-wrappings and the like. Eugene is in the shipping department and he not only has to pack all the boxes, he has to weigh them and label them correctly. It’s a stressful job, and when Eugene comes home all he wants is a beer and his supper and then the TV until the news is over, and then he goes to bed.
Sometimes the supervisor is having trouble at home or something and he yells at everybody and that always makes Eugene real mad and he comes in fussing and fuming about how people oughtn’t to bring their home problems to work. So it’s in part that supervisor’s fault what happened the night before last, because that day he yelled at Eugene personally right in front of everyone, and that really ticked Eugene off.
Now, as luck would have it, that very same day the puppy had chewed up one of Eugene’s shoes. That’s why I was in our bedroom, straightening out the closet, trying to make room for all our shoes to fit neatly so Eugene might put his in there instead of leaving them lying around the house for the puppy to get. And that’s when I heard the backdoor slam. I knew it was Eugene and I could tell right off he’d had a bad day. And on top of that, supper was going to be late because I had to clean up the girls’ room that day, which put me behind schedule doing the wash, and then naturally, as days like that go, the pipe under the bathroom sink had sprung a leak. (Carrie Sue thought it was so funny, and she and the puppy were in all that water playing while I was trying to clean it up.) So supper was going to be late and I knew Eugene would be extra mad on account of that and the chewed-up shoe. But it was a Monday and I didn’t do any drawings, so at least Mother Pewitt couldn’t accuse me of that. Anyway, I hollered out real sweet, “I’m back here in the bedroom, Eugene. Why don’t you have a few beers before supper and just relax yourself.”
Well, Eugene came straight into the bedroom without even getting a beer and stood in the doorway looking down at me sitting on the floor with all them shoes, and he yelled, “What are you doing that for? You’re supposed to do that kind of thing in the daytime when I’m at work. When I come home I want my supper on the table and the table ain’t even set yet. What have you been doing all day?”
Well, that made me kind of mad and I really wanted to tell Eugene a thing or two about what kind of day I’d had, but Eugene don’t like to argue and he gets really mad if I ever talk back to him, so I just tried to explain as best I could without raising my voice that I’d had a problem with the bathroom sink.
But Eugene didn’t let me finish, he was so mad at his supervisor (he really wasn’t mad at me; it was that supervisor). He said, “You don’t know what a real problem is. You ought to get out in the real world. Then you’d know what a problem is.”
I wanted to tell Eugene I’d like nothing better than to get out in the real world once in a while, but I hadn’t seen him this upset in a long time and I was getting more and more afraid about that shoe, so I just didn’t say anything.
Eugene walked into the room and stood over me with his hands on his hips. Eugene has real black hair and a heavy growth of beard that starts to turn his face dark toward afternoon. He’s a tall man anyway, but standing there I swear he looked like some big bear come down out of the hills. (I am a small person myself, and on the thin side. Even Wanda Jean, who’s only ten, is almost as tall as me and broader through the shoulders and hips. She takes after her daddy, I guess.)
Well, Eugene was standing there like that and he said, “You want to know what a real problem is? A real problem is having a supervisor who can’t keep his wife from running around on him on account of he is such an ass, so he has to act like a big man at work because he ain’t one at home.”
Eugene very rarely uses curse words, so I knew the supervisor must have said something really mean. I asked him, “Did he say something mean to you today?”
“Mean?” Eugene said, kinda nasty-like. “No, he wasn’t mean to me. He was just plain ignorant. He said I was working too slow. Can you imagine that? Me! Working too slow!”
I stood up and put my arms around Eugene’s waist and told him, “Oh, don’t bother about what he says, honey. He’s just spiteful.”
But Eugene pushed me away and started pacing up and down beside our bed. “Do you know what he said? What he actually said to me? He said, ‘This ain’t no resort, you know, Mr. Pewitt. You ain’t here for a vacation. If you want a vacation, Mr. Pewitt, I imagine I can arrange for you to have a nice, long vacation.’ That ass — saying that in front of an entire roomful of people. So I shot him the bird when he left the room.”
I said, “You didn’t!”
But Eugene looked proud and said, “I sure did and if he ever says anything like that to me again I’ll squeeze his puny little head off!”
I said, “You wouldn’t! They’d fire you.”
You know what Eugene said to that? He said, “Fire me, hell. I’d quit first.”
Well, that upset me pretty bad. I can’t imagine what would happen to us if Eugene lost his job. I was just fixing to say how we couldn’t afford for him to quit when he spotted that chewed-up shoe on the floor. He picked it up and shook it in my face and shouted, “What the hell is this?” He was angry, I can tell you.
I said, “I’m real sorry about that, Eugene. The puppy got ahold of it.”
He said, “Can’t you keep better track of that dog? What do you do around here all day anyway? Watch TV?”
He started pacing again, banging the shoe against his leg. Then he just yelled out, “Goddamn, woman!” and he threw that shoe and it hit the dresser and knocked my dream jar on the floor and broke it into a million pieces.
I don’t remember what I did at first. I didn’t start crying right away because I was just sort of shocked. You see, that dream jar was my most prized possession. I’d had that jar since I was about twelve years old, and almost everything I ever thought about was in there. It was a pretty, ornamental kind of glass jar with diamond shapes cut into it and a little domed lid with a knob on top. My mama gave it to me for Christmas. She said she’d gotten it at the big hardware store in Water Hill. The saleslady had told her it was actually a candy jar but that you could use it for anything you wanted because it was so versatile and would fit any decor. The saleslady had said you could keep hairpins in it in your bedroom or cotton balls in the bathroom. My mama said she realized I was growing up and might like something personal like that. You know, my mama was the sweetest woman in all the world and I miss her today as much as I did right after she died. Maybe more.
Anyway, for a long time I didn’t know what to do with that jar. I thought it was too pretty for hairpins or cotton balls, and we never had much candy around the house. One day I was just looking at it and thinking how pretty it was. I would hold it up to the window and the sunlight would come through and I’d turn it around and around. It would throw off colors like a rainbow and I’d watch them and dream about having pretty things like that in my life. Suddenly I got the idea that maybe if I wrote my wish down it would come true. So I did, and of course the jar was the perfect place to put the little piece of paper, so that’s how it got to be my dream jar. Every time I wanted something real bad or thought up something I’d like to do, I’d write it down and put it in my dream jar.
For a long time most of my dreams were just kids’ stuff. Like having a bicycle, or wanting my daddy’s tobacco crop to do good. That kind of thing. I remember one real crazy one about wanting a mink coat for my mama. Can you imagine her walking into the Lewis Brothers’ Market wearing a mink coat?
But when I went to high school I got ahold of a really big dream. You see, right at the beginning of my first year at Water Hill High School, one of the teachers saw a drawing of mine and said I had a real talent. Now, my mama had always made a fuss about my pictures and told everybody how good they were, but I never thought about it until this teacher got me into a special art class. I got to work with oils for the first time, and the colors were so beautiful I just can’t describe how I felt. It was like my drawings were coming alive, you know? And then the biggest thing in my life happened (next to marrying Eugene and having my babies, of course): a painting of mine won first prize in a statewide contest. I got to go all the way to Nashville for the judging and I got a blue ribbon for it and my painting was displayed in the lobby of the bank for a full month.
My mama was so proud. It was a picture of her rolling out biscuits on the kitchen table. I remember my mama as always being in the kitchen so it was a natural pose for her, even though she never knew she was posing. I made sketches of her at home and then did the actual painting at school. I made a lot of it up in my head. I put little blue flowers on her dress, and a window where there really wasn’t one, so that sunshine could light on her hair.
The judges at the contest said I had “captured the essence of rural Tennessee.” To me, it was just a picture of my mama. I gave it to her after we got it back from the bank, and now it hangs over the davenport in my living room. Mother Pewitt says it’s an injustice to both my dead mama and my children to have that picture hanging in my house. She says I made my mama’s kitchen poor-looking, what with the rough concrete floor showing and that “tattered curtain” (as she calls it) hanging under the kitchen sink instead of a cabinet door like proper folks have. And she says my mama is too thin and old-looking and, if I don’t mind her saying so, I made my mama look like a country hick. But I’m not ashamed of where I come from and I don’t believe my girls are, either.
Anyway, after I won the contest, that teacher asked me if I had thought of going to college. I almost laughed in his face, but all I said was that I never even knew anybody who had gone to college, and he told me there were ways for young people with talent like mine to get to college even if their families didn’t have much money. (He was a real straight-talking man.) He said I had the potential to be a professional artist and I shouldn’t waste my talent. He even made a special trip to my house to see my folks about it. My daddy was skeptical, I have to tell you, and right in the middle of the conversation he said he had some work to do and got up and left. But my mama got real excited and soaked up every word that teacher said and even worried to him that I wouldn’t have the proper clothes to go off to college in. He just said not to mind about that now.
From then on that was all my mama ever talked about — me going to college. I reckon she believed it could happen because she believed in me. And she got me to believing it, too. I started putting dreams into my jar by the dozen. About going to college. About winning more prizes (I put that blue ribbon in my jar for good luck). And I even put in there about going to Paris after college and becoming famous like the artists we talked about in school. Of course, I had my mama there with me in my dreams, and I was buying her pretty things — even that mink coat, because a person can wear one of them around Paris just about any time they like.
Then the very next year Mama died, sudden-like. Me and Daddy didn’t even know she’d been sick, and for a long, long time everything was sad and sour and ugly. I painted things then that I have long since destroyed because they were the same way.
Then Eugene (who I have known all my life) started asking me out on dates. Eugene is two years older than me, and had graduated from high school and already had his job at the paper factory. I can tell you he showed me a real good time. He helped me get over losing my mama because now I had him to love. I didn’t want to go off to college anymore because I might lose Eugene. He thought being a wife and mother was enough for any woman. So, before you knew it, I was putting things in my dream jar about marrying Eugene and planning what kind of house we’d live in and how many children we’d have, and as it turned out I didn’t even finish high school. There really wasn’t no need.
After Eugene and I got married, I didn’t spend much time dreaming. I thought I had everything I wanted. It was all so new, making love and having a baby. Things were quieter than they are now and I had lots of time to sit and draw as I liked.
Later on, I didn’t have so much time anymore. I had the housekeeping to do and my girls to raise and a budget to keep so my babies could have nice things. But I still kept my dream jar. I have to admit, I still thought I could be a real artist someday (when my girls were grown, of course).
But it was just little pieces of paper, you know? So I’m not sure why I got so terribly upset when the jar broke, except somehow seeing all those dreams there on the floor gave me a little pain in my heart. It was like everything I had ever wanted was wrong.
Anyway, I was already upset on account of that supervisor yelling at Eugene and Eugene yelling at me, and my broken jar just set me off, I guess. And the saddest part is, I remember what happened next. I guess I will for the rest of my life — which is only fair, as part of my punishment.
I began to cry while I was picking up the pieces of glass on the floor, but it was a regular kind of crying, not hysterical like they said I was doing later on. Eugene never has been one to like to see me cry, and I guess he felt bad about breaking my jar. Everything was real messed up by then, as you can imagine. Anyway, I was just so upset because Eugene had been yelling at me, and I could hear Wanda Jean and Katie Lynn fighting over the TV and Carrie Sue somewhere crying and I could hear Eugene in the kitchen slamming pots and pans around. I guess he was trying to make amends by getting supper on the table, but I was just sure he was in there making a royal mess which I would have to clean up. I was mad and upset because he’d broken my dream jar over something that didn’t really have anything to do with me. It was all his supervisor’s fault, and of course that bad dog Prissy.
Well, Prissy would have to pick just that exact moment to come over to where I was sitting on the floor trying to gather up the broken glass. She was still a puppy, of course, and frisky, wanting to play all the time. I can tell you I wasn’t in the mood to play right then. But she walked right over to the middle of my broken dream jar and started nosing around in the glass and the little bits of paper. I was just sure she was going to get cut, and I didn’t want her around right then anyway, so I pushed her away three or four times, but she kept running back like puppies will and grabbing up my dreams in her mouth and eating them. I was trying to pull them out of her mouth and push her away at the same time, and of course I was crying.
Then she got ahold of that blue ribbon my painting had won, and all of a sudden it just seemed like everything was Prissy’s fault for chewing up that shoe and the supervisor’s fault for hollering at Eugene. And even though I will be ashamed to admit it to my dying day and it pierces my soul to even think about it, all of a sudden I felt like squeezing somebody’s puny little head off myself. And I grabbed that tiny little, pretty little dog by the neck with both my hands, and I just squeezed her. I squeezed and squeezed until that blue ribbon fell out of her mouth.
I don’t remember anything else until I came to in the Emergency Room at the hospital, but Eugene has told me exactly what happened in great detail so that the whole incident is permanently imprinted on my brain. He told me I screamed and he and the girls all came running in and saw me holding that little puppy. I sure wish Eugene had kept the girls out of the room, but he didn’t and I guess that’s only fair, too. Eugene told me I was crying and talking a mile a minute but he couldn’t understand what I was saying. And then, he said, Wanda Jean and Katie Lynn and Carrie Sue started crying, too, and that was when I picked up a piece of my dream jar and raked it across the side of my face.
I guess my girls are going to hate me for the rest of my life. Eugene says he got them a new puppy and they are just as happy as can be. But I’ll always have a big scar on my face to remind them what a monster their mother is, which is only fair, because it’s the truth.
Dr. Fowler says I’m too hard on myself. He’s a sweet man, but I wonder if he’s not just saying nice things to me because it’s his job, being a doctor and all, and if he really thinks I am a murderer and hates me like everybody else.
I know Eugene hates me. When he comes to visit he’s real sweet, too, but he looks at me funny like he don’t really know who I am. But that’s all right, because I don’t know myself. And if he wants to divorce me I will understand, although it will kill my soul to think of Mother Pewitt running my household and raising my girls.
I’ve told all this to Eugene, and he says not to say such things as calling myself a murderer, and that it was just an accident and partly his fault for breaking my dream jar. And he says I’m being plain foolish talking divorce and that everything will be just the same when I get home. But right now I don’t know how long I’ll have to stay here in the hospital or when I’ll have to start going to the mental-health center. Right away, I should imagine.
But on the slight chance that Eugene is telling me the truth, I would certainly be glad to get home. I’m anxious to see my girls, even if I have to look at the hate and disgust in their eyes. I will try to make it up to them if they will let me. I’m going to take real good care of the new puppy they got. Maybe they’ll all like me again. I don’t know. But this time I won’t have any excuses for not taking the puppy outside, because it’s springtime and this cut on my face won’t keep me from going out, and I’ll get that puppy trained and teach it not to chew up Eugene’s shoes. I promise.
And I’m going to quit drawing altogether and spend more time cleaning house and cooking, like Mother Pewitt says. And whenever I’m not too busy, I plan on rocking that new puppy in the rocking chair just like a baby. Maybe that will make up for poor Prissy.
Maybe things will be the same, like Eugene says. I certainly hope so; my family is all I have. And I do hope Eugene threw away my dream jar and everything that was in it, especially that blue ribbon (it was all chewed up, anyway). You see, I won’t have time for none of that anymore. I’m almost twenty-eight years old and it’s time I put away childish things, like the Bible says, and started acting like a responsible adult. If everybody will believe in me, that is, after the terrible thing I have done.
In Joan Gray’s story “The Dream Jar” [November 1994], the art judges said the narrator’s painting “captured the essence of rural Tennessee.” Gray has likewise captured the essence of how creativity, when surrounded by hostile influences, turns into aggression — and how we oppress each other, and ourselves.
I have thought about this story for several days. It comes dangerously close to being a feminist cliché: evil husband suppresses artistic strivings of wife enslaved to domestic routine, patriarchy, etc. But the story ends up avoiding such facile explanations or gender stereotypes: the narrator’s husband is also oppressed and does seem to care about his wife, though he’s sadly out of touch with both her inner life and his own; if there is an oppressor in the story, it would have to be Mother Pewitt.
I also commend Gray for the detailed richness of her narrator’s voice. This is a living person, not a mouthpiece for political correctness.
The dream jar lends itself to more than one level of reading. The jar is the narrator’s creative inspiration, but it is also her longing for enlightenment, which both inspires and enslaves her at the same time. The breaking of the jar is both a crushing blow and a liberation — for it bottled up and disposed of her dreams as well as preserving them, and now she has no alternative but to come into the real world. I don’t believe for one minute that she will keep her promise to start “acting like a responsible adult.”