The Last Summer of Viola Stone
© 2010 by Orin Hargraves; all rights reserved
There was never anything seemed strange about Jermanie, except that a man could be named a country, but Momma said they were spelled different and just sounded the same, like homonyms we learned in school, and anyway somebody said it was supposed to be Jermaine but they wrote it down wrong on the birth certificate. I never thought about Jermanie different from any other grownup till that one day when I was standing at the bar waiting for Momma and she said to me “go tell Jermanie to get out here I’m goin home.” Momma is the day bartender and Jermanie was the night. We live in a house that we rent from Mrs. Graham behind the hotel but Jermanie lived in the hotel itself, in a little room behind the kitchen, that I had always been told to steer clear of.
So I went down the back hall a little nervous because I knew how Jermanie could get sometimes. I knocked on the door and was just gonna say loud “Momma says shoe’s goin home” but real fast the door opened and there was Jermanie standing there with a shirt half on.
“What you want, pipsqueak?”
“Momma says she’s goin home, it’s your turn.”
I stood in the door trying to see into the room because I’d never been in there before and there was lots of stuff in it. First thing I noticed was how the string on the light was hooked up so a person lying on the bed could reach up and turn it on or off without getting up. This seemed like the contrivance of a lazy person and it made me look at Jermanie in a new way.
“What you lookin at?”
“The string,” I said, pointing, only now I was looking at something else, a bunch of dresses in old plastic bags from the cleaners hanging on a nine-penny nail that was stuck in a door behind the bed. The one on top was bright yellow satin and looked real pretty.
“You lookin at my dresses.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I’ll bet you never seen me wear one.”
“Dresses are for girls,” I said.
“Well what do you think I am?”
I looked at Jermanie in a real different way now because up till that moment I thought Jermanie was a man.
Jermanie pulled me in and shut the door.
She put my hand up on her chest. It was soft and squishy just like Momma’s and when I looked I could see she had bosoms under her tee-shirt. Her heart was pounding so hard it made by hand go up and down.
“Just like you and your momma.”
I didn’t say anything and I had that pressed-in feeling in my stomach like you get when you learn something that makes the world different, like when Momma told me about Black Widows eating their husbands or the thing I read in one of her books that told how The Male Bee Dies For Love. Then I looked up and Jermanie was just looking at me and she let go of my hand and said “Go tell your Momma I’m on my way. Run along.”
Five minutes later she came out looking like she always did, western shirt with mother-of-pearl snap buttons, khaki colored jeans and her hair all slicked back with Brylcreem. She looked just like the man I always thought she was but now I knew different and when I looked close I could see her bosoms, she just had them flattened down under her shirt.
“What’s a matter Sissy, you look like you just seen a ghost,” she said, laughing at me.
After I few days I stopped asking people “Did you know that Jermanie was a woman” because it seemed that everybody did, and I was the only one in the dark about it. And just like when you learn a new word that you never heard before and then hear it five times in the next week, I started seeing all this evidence that Jermanie was a girl that maybe I just never noticed before, like people calling her “she” and “her” and men smiling at her in that way though she never smiled back at them.
Momma said I was gonna drive her crazy with all the questions I was asking about Jermanie and her answer to most everything was “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask her yourself,” so I resolved to do just that and talk with Jermanie myself. I went to the bar one afternoon just after Jermanie came on, before the miners got off work and no one was around.
“You goin to the hotel dance on Saturday?” I asked her.
“I’m workin if that’s what you mean.”
This I didn’t even think about, that of course she was the bartender, dance or no dance, but I went ahead with what I was getting at anyway.
“You goon wear one of your dresses?”
“Now what makes you think I’m gonna wear one of my dresses?”
“You said I never saw you in one before.”
“That don’t even make sense Sissy. I ain’t ever worn a dress to work here and I ain’t gonna start now. Besides I’d have very tramp miner in this town hittin on me if I so much as turned an eye on ‘em in a dress.”
This I didn’t think was true because she could turn an eye on you in a way that would make a flower wilt and she was doing it to me right now.
“So is that why you dress like a man — so the miners will leave you alone?”
“You askin too many questions for a little girl, Sissy.”
From that moment I knew that any information I wanted to get on Jermanie would have to be through watching and listening, because she wouldn’t tell me anything. Little did I know that before too long there would be more information about Jermanie flying around than any one person could keep track of, and that a person both deaf and dumb couldn’t help finding out about. To this day nobody here knows what really happened that summer but that has never stopped anybody from talking about it, and I’m just writing it down as a person who saw more of it than most people did.
* * *
Viola Stone turned up at the hotel one day. That was the first sign that it wasn’t gonna be an average summer, and to me, the beginning of it all. She was Mrs. Graham’s divorced daughter and had come one other summer to help out Mrs. Graham in the hotel, or that was the reason she gave. In fact Mrs. Graham nearly had to shut the hotel that year because of all the help that wanted to quit on account of Viola. One of the meddlesome things she did was try to close off the door between the bar and the coffee shop because she said it encouraged people to drink with their meals. Since that, none of the bartenders could stand her.
I was at the bar that afternoon Viola showed up because the jukebox man was there and I was waiting to see which songs he would take off and sell for a quarter. Jermanie had just come on and like usual it was quiet before the miners came in. Only Polly Murdoch was there, one of the coffee shop waitresses, drinking coffee with Jermanie who was her friend and I remembered how I used to think they were dating when I thought Jermanie was a man, and before I knew that Polly was a married woman.
In walks Viola Stone from the coffee shop and stops dead, looking around like she’s lost or nearsighted. She looked just like she did the other year she came, only older and skinnier. Her hair was black with pieces of gray in it and she had it pulled back in a bun so tight all around that she looked Chinese. Jermanie and Polly froze right up when she came in, even though they hadn’t been talking about anything important, and it was like there had been a scary noise in the room.
“Well lookie here,” Jermanie said, “I didn’t know you was here Vila. Just visitin?”
“Here to work,” Viola said, “for the summer. I’ll be managing the coffee shop.”
Then Jermanie for some reason chose that minute to hock and spit. She did it all the time, just like a man, and some people even caller her hock’n’spit behind her back, so it didn’t mean anything. But Vila Stone, like she suddenly remembered what she was there for, turned on Jermanie and said “Don’t you ever indulge in that vulgar and disgusting habit again in my presence.” Then she turned on one heel like a fashion model and marched out. Jermanie took the Winstons out of her shirt pocket and lit up. I looked at her to see if she thought this was funny but she didn’t smile.
“Long summer, pipsqueak,” she said. The jukebox man took of Roy Orbison’s O Pretty Woman and gave it to me, he said it was so worn it wasn’t worth a quarter.
The summer tourists started coming into town and the hotel got busy. Mrs. Graham said I was still too young to be the Front Desk Cashier, which she said every year, but I could wash dishes, like I did every summer when she needed me. It didn’t look like much excitement was in store, but it was some money anyway and better than setting pins at the bowling alley.
The other good thing was that I started to know Polly a little bit. It was her first year at the hotel and she was the nicest one of the waitresses. We would talk when it was quiet and she always said something nice when she brought dirty plates in. Other grownups called Polly “sweet little thing” or “that poor little thing,” not to her face of course, but she was very sweet and everyone felt sorry for her because she was married to a much older man, Harold Murdoch, who was a carpenter but mostly a drunk. Polly never talked about him but at the end of the day she started looking down in the mouth and if she was more than ten minutes late getting home Harold would start calling and yelling at her on the phone. This happened a lot because Polly always liked to talk with Jermanie before she went home, right when Jermanie started her shift.
Days when I was at the hotel I went into the bar too at 4 o’clock because Jermanie had the key to the jukebox that made it work without money and she let me play my favorite songs, which Momma never did, if I didn’t bother her and Polly. Little did she know that I listened to everything they said at the same time I was listening to my songs. But in truth I didn’t learn a lot about Jermanie that way either. She and Polly never talked about anything important but giggled and chattered like girls in highschool.
This arrangement with j, Polly and me went on for a few weeks real fine and Harold never called to pester Polly. Somebody said it was because she told him she really worked till 4:30, not 4. But then one day it changed. Viola Stone made an announcement from the coffee shop door.
“Mrs. Murdoch,” she said, “your husband is on the phone.” Then her mouth closed up real tight like it usually was, a little jagged piece of wire across her face. I couldn’t understand why she’d started wearing lipstick because her mouth shut up so tight you couldn’t see the color. Anyway, Viola must have told Harold that Polly was just shooting the breeze with j, because he started calling all the time again after that. Polly didn’t come in to talk to Jermanie any more and everyone got sulky.
Next thing that happened was Polly asked Mrs. Graham if she could change her day off to Wednesday, same as Jermanie’s. Nobody would have thought anything of it except that Viola Stone, when she heard about it, flew into a rage like someone had snatched her handbag and said they couldn’t both be off on the same day. Mrs. Graham said she didn’t see why not and Viola said because the other held couldn’t cover for them, which was stupid, because they didn’t even have the same job or work the same shift. Mrs. Graham said give it a try so Jermanie and Polly were off together on a Wednesday.
It did turn out to be one of the busiest days of the summer. Viola waited tables in Polly’s place and didn’t miss a chance to look tired and overworked the whole day, especially when Mrs. Graham walked through, and Viola would give her a look like the bomb was about to drop and the world was about to end.
Meanwhile talk about Jermanie and Polly was spreading over the town like fire. The Girl Scouts (which I never joined because they were stupid) had a picnic that Wednesday at the Red Creek Campground and two of the girls wandered off into the woods. What did they find but Jermanie and Polly in Jermanie’s two-tone Mercury, sitting right next to each other in the front seat or so they said. They told Mary Filock, the Scout Leader, and she was reported to have gathered all the girls up, hustled them into the van and brought them straight home before any of the others saw. That’s why all the girls started talking about it, because Mary Filock thought it was a big deal. So by the next day it was all over town that Polly and Jermanie were parking in the woods, and a lot worse things than that.
Polly didn’t come into work that Thursday and on Friday she showed up with dark glasses, which proved to be covering up a black eye. Everyone felt real bad because they knew Harold had done it and they went on with their “poor little thing.” Jermanie didn’t say anything about it but if looks could kill, many would have died.
The next thing I noticed was that Viola Stone got a new hairdo which liked to shock the whole hotel because no one had ever seen her with it any way but pulled straight back in a bun. What she’d done with it now wouldn’t put her in Vogue unless it was ten years ago but now maybe a man would look at her twice instead of thinking she was a librarian — or so Momma said. She had it cut shorter and done in little curls.
The other strange thing she did was take to sitting in the bar in the afternoon, sucking down Ginger Ale. Polly didn’t come anymore to talk to Jermanie because of the gossip, and now Viola would sit in the bar when Jermanie started her shift. All of a sudden she was just as friendly as she could be, trying to talk to Jermanie about all kinds of girls things like they were old friends. I still came to the bar to hear my songs, though not half as much, because Jermanie and Viola were more boring to listen to than Jermanie and Polly, and Viola always gave me dirty looks. Jermanie hardly said anything and Viola chattered like a monkey about nothing.
After a week or two of listening to Viola jabber I think Jermanie got a little mental about it, because she started acting just like her, talking about this and that that she never talked about before. Viola ate it up.
One day I came into the bar at four and Viola was there alone — not only that, but she was tending bar.
“Where’s Jermanie?” I said.
“Europe,” she said, and started cackling her head off like she was the first one ever to make that joke. I didn’t laugh, only because I’d heard it a thousand times, and suddenly Viola stopped and said real unfriendly “you can forget about your songs today because I don’t have the key and besides you listen to too much of that music.”
I left and went out the back way home and there was Jermanie behind the hotel, coming out of the woodshed with a crowbar in her hand.
“What are you doin here?” I asked her. “Viola’s tendin bar.”
“Just takin care of a little business. You run along now.”
The business she was taking care of, as I discovered when I got home and ran up to my bedroom window, was taking down the boards from a door at the back of the hotel that was always boarded up. I had two questions for Momma: why was Viola tending bar, and what was Jermanie doing with that door. She said Viola came in the bar at four o’clock and said don’t wait for Jermanie, I’m covering for her, and the door probably went to Jermanie’s room.
It seemed real strange that Jermanie would open that door that had been boarded up for all the time I could remember and I tried to think about why she would do it. I figured it must have been the door behind her bed that had the dresses hanging on it, so she would’ve had to move the bed to use it, which meant moving the string too, and the dresses, and who knows what else.
“Why do you reckon she’s openin up that door?” I asked Momma.
“I’m sure she has he reasons,” Momma said, which sounded like ‘I don’t know’ to me.
After that it seems like as often as not I found Viola in the bar at four o’clock without Jermanie and I got out of the habit of listening to my songs because Viola didn’t want me to and Momma didn’t want me in the bar when the miners started coming in, which they usually did before Jermanie got there. I asked Viola one day why she was working in Jermanie’s place so much and she said it was a favor to Jermanie and that Jermanie had asked her to because she had something to take care of.
“What did you open up that door for?” That was the question I asked Jermanie one day when she came to work on time.
“That’s my escape hatch,” she said. Then she lit a cigarette and turned away. She gave me the key to the jukebox and told me to play my songs.
Then the real trouble began and some people say I started it, which I totally deny. It happened because I was walking to the hotel one afternoon with nothing to do and saw Jermanie going into her room through her “escape hatch.” I figured she’d be going to work soon so I hung around till four when I went into the bar but there was Viola.
“Where’s Jermanie?” I asked her, it seemed like for the hundredth time.
“She had business in the valley, she’ll be back later,” she said.
“Oh, she’s back,” I said. “I just saw her go into her room,” I said.
She shot a look at me like I’d knifed her, and I got out of there because it looked like the next thing she would say would be aimed at me.
Next day Jermanie was in the bar at four o’clock but Viola wasn’t there talking with her and she was just smoking a fog around herself.
“What’d you tell Viola about me yesterday?” she asked.
“Just that I saw you goin’ into your room.”
“What’d you say about Polly?”
“Well don’t go blabbin everything you see. Go play your songs,” she said, and threw me the key.
Now it was only Jermanie in the bar every afternoon and she was in a funk, and the only good thing was that I got to play the jukebox any day I wanted. But one day I walked in and found not Jermanie nor Viola but Momma.
“What’re you doin’ here, it’s four o’clock,” I said, because Momma never liked to work late.
“Well I might ask you the same thing darling daughter,” she said. “Jermanie asked me to stay a little later and I said well I guess so.”
Momma fixed me a Shirley Temple and we talked. It was quiet in the bar because not even the jukebox was going and nobody had come in yet. Then Viola walked by the door to the coffee shop and saw me sitting at the bar. She had tried to put her hair back in a bun but it hadn’t grown out enough so she had a funny looking stump pony-tail with these flyaway strands around her face that moved when she walked so that it looked like one of those sea monsters with all the tentacles, except her face was right in the middle of it.
“It’s the first day I haven’t heard that wailin jukebox,” she said, then stuck her head in and saw it was Momma behind the bar.
“Where’s Jermanie?” she said.
“Hasn’t checked in yet,” Momma said.
Viola charged through the door then down the back hall like a storm trooper and we listened to her high heels clicking on the linoleum but then she turned and came back looking real bad.
“Sissy go to Jermanie’s room and see if she’s in there now.”
I started to move though I didn’t want to then Momma said “Viola don’t talk to my daughter like that. If you want her to help you ask her politely like I do.”
For a minute Viola looked like she would take Momma’s advice but a polite look just couldn’t find a way to her face and she stormed away again.
I looked at Momma and she looked at me. Then I started to slide off the stool and we both smiled because we wanted to know what was going on and I was gonna spy.
I went to the kitchen door and Viola was talking to Mrs. Graham right in the middle of the floor with al the kitchen help watching.
“They’re in that room!” Viola was saying and Mrs. Graham said quiet and normal like, “Nonsense. Polly went home at 3:30. You go out and take some air.”
Viola went charging out the back and I followed her as far as the woodpile but then I just stopped and watched because it was so amazing. She was trying to roll a big douglas fir stump up against Jermanie’s door but it was too heavy for her and she couldn’t get any traction in the woodchips with her heels on.
“Well don’t just stand there you little slattern help me!”
I still just stood there because although I didn’t know what a slattern was I didn’t like the sound of it. Then Viola fell on her face as the stump gave way and rolled out in front of her. It hit the building with a thud. Viola screamed. People came out the back way to see what happened and Jermanie came to her door and stuck her head out.
“Viola, what in the name of God, Jermanie said.
“She’s in there with you isn’t she? And all the other times! It was for her! For you two . . .!”
Jermanie closed the door. Mrs. Graham went to Viola and told everyone to go back in. When I got into the kitchen Momma was just coming out of Jermanie’s room and went to her but she closed the door fast and said, “not now Sissy, Jermanie’s busy.”
By that time it was the end of July and the busiest part of the tourist season. Mrs. Graham went around to everyone who worked for her individually and said there would be no more nonsense and everyone would work their assigned hours and go back to their regular days off and there would be no exceptions. On the outside suddenly everything looked normal again but you could tell it wasn’t because everyone was snippy with each other and if you ever saw Jermanie and Viola in the same room together it was like lightning was streaking between them. Nobody knew when we’d hear the big clap of thunder but it didn’t seem very far off.
There was another dance on a Saturday night and that’s the only reason I remember it was that night that it happened. Momma and I were at home in our beds trying to sleep above the noise of the band when the phone went off. All I could hear was Momma talking but I heard her say “Jermanie” and “Oh my word” and then “you bring her right over here.” Then she hung up.
“What is it Momma?” I yelled down.
“Nothin sweetheart you just stay in your bed,” she said back, which was a guarantee I wouldn’t, but I didn’t dare go down, so I went to the vent that came up to heat the upstairs where I could see down into the kitchen.
Unfortunately I couldn’t see very much, there was only the top of the hot water heater and the cat’s dishes which didn’t tell me anything. Jermanie and somebody else came in. I didn’t know who and couldn’t see, and only Jermanie and Momma were talking.
“Just sit her right down here,” Momma said. “You alright darlin?”
“She just came tip-toein in from the back wearin this dress of mine, liked to scare me to death with that blood on it,” Jermanie said. “You alright honey? She’s got nothing on underneath but her panties, she must’ve just run out of the house and come to my room. You alright sweetheart?”
I had to know who it was and I started to tiptoe down the stairs which was a lost cause because they creaked.
“My daughter,” Momma said, and she came around and blocked me from coming into the kitchen before I got there.
“Listen sweetheart Polly’s hurt real bad and you don’t want to see her now, you just run up to your bed and Jermanie and I will take care of her.”
I peaked around the corner while Momma was walking back and there on the kitchen stool was poor Polly, staring right at me but not seeing me. She was the most frightened person I ever saw, all white as a sheet and there were cuts all over her neck. She had on Jermanie’s bright yellow satin dress with smears of blood all over it. It was the worst thing I ever saw and I didn’t sleep for hours just thinking about it.
Sometime though I must have fallen asleep because the next part I remember was being woke up by a ruckus outside. It was so loud I thought it was in the front yard but when I looked out the window I saw it was all happening behind the hotel. It was mostly Viola screaming her head off at Mrs. Graham like a spoiled brat. The door to Jermanie’s room was wide open and after a minute, out walked Jermanie carrying two big suitcases.
“Momma,” I yelled downstairs, “Jermanie’s goin somewhere.”
“I know darlin I’m lookin out the other window,” she yelled back. Then I ran downstairs to talk to her. I knew I had to be careful about this part because I couldn’t let Momma get the idea that this was something I shouldn’t see.
“Momma,” I said, “if Viola’s makin her leave we’ve got to go and stick up for her, we know her better than anyone else.”
It worked. We just put on our robes and slippers and walked out of the house. The sun was just up over the hill making long shadows in front of everything, including Momma and me.
At the hotel Jermanie was loading her car up with things from her room, and there was Polly too, who we couldn’t see from the house, sitting on the chopping block and not saying a word. Her neck was all bandaged up and she was wearing a fur coat.
“What’s goin on Mrs. Graham?” Momma said. But Mrs. Graham didn’t say anything, she just looked like she was about to cry.
“Decency is what’s going on,” Viola said, “and Christian living, and we’re putting a stop to this abomination going on right under our noses. Right in this hotel.”
“Now wait a minute Viola I don’t think this is any of your business,” Momma said. “Jermanie what’s your side of this?”
“Don’t bother Sam,” she said, which is what she called my mother Samantha, “me and Polly is pullin up stakes. We made a decision and we’re goin. Mrs. Graham wants us to stay but we’ve decided.”
Momma ran over to Jermanie and gave her a big hug and then I did too, and the next thing we were all crying. It was the only time I ever saw Jermanie cry, and the first time she really looked like a woman because her face was all soft.
“I’m gonna miss you Sissy,” she said to me. “I’ll write you and your Momma a letter and you come and see us some time.”
And that was the end of it. Jermanie and Polly drove away that morning and in two years no one has heard from them, though the rumor is they went to the big thicket in Texas where Jermanie’s people come from. Harold Murdoch went on a six-month drunk that liked to kill him but then he took up with an older woman who gave him religion and set him straight.
Viola Stone tended bar for the rest of that summer in Jermanie’s place and then left, and she hasn’t been back. There was a rumor about her too that she met a rich man who bought her a big house right on the ocean in California, but nobody believed it.