Gone eight hours, counted Zelma, her watch in one hand and the other on her back. She could wait for Ray no longer. Truth be told, she’d been feeling poorly since yesterday. Now, it was time to go. The hot, round belly rolled her off their rusty trundle bed. She rested on her hands and knees on the floor, listening to the whines of the mattress coils disappear into the pulse of frogs and katydids. Sand coated the wobble-prone wooden planks of flooring no matter how often she swept. It stuck to her sweaty palms against the wall as she pawed herself upright. Rickety and weathered, same as the floor. Zelma’s pregnant belly tugged her barefoot across the threshold toward the trail, all sweetgrass and skinny pines, that led to Mobile Bay. Ray had gone down to the water to wait for a jubilee before the sun went down, and she had been in a mood to see the back of him. Nobody had ever accused Zelma of being smart, but she knew a jubilee night. She knew that night would not be one, but she didn’t press him too hard on staying.
She had learned all the tells from her daddy, who she only ever called Mister. Mister worked at the paper mill in Mobile and came home smelling like it. When she was little, Zelma could tell he was home by the sulfur stink in the house. Dark pink, she always thought, like azaleas. Mister had been at the mill since he dropped out of school as a boy. He liked to tell Zelma that his people were descended from royalty and that Napoleon was her great-great-great granddaddy. Zelma once asked her mama if Napoleon would come visit, like her other far-away relatives in Louisiana. Her mama laughed ’til she about choked.
“Your daddy ain’t got no royal blood. Don’t you know better by now than to listen to a word out of his mouth?” She lit a cigarette with a click and exhaled another laugh.
“Zelma Marie,” said Mister from the shower the evening before her first jubilee. Mister went nowhere without a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, not even the shower. The hollow wooden door to the bathroom was half open, and as she sat on the carpet shucking beans, she was eye-level with the splintered hole where Mister kicked the door in a few months back. Mama had locked herself in for a whole day and hadn’t answered for nothing. She didn’t even answer to her sister Aunt Betsy, whom Zelma had called in a panic and who could usually coax her sister to the phone. Zelma had held up the heavy beige receiver that smelled grayish, like the wax in the lipstick worn by all the grownup women, so her aunt could yell at her mama from all the way up in Daphne.
“Camille, ain’t nobody understands these fits,” called Aunt Betsy in an echoing clang ten miles away.
Betsy and Camille Clardy had each been born during a different hurricane. When her mama was in a decent mood, they liked to argue over which storm had been worse. “You got to factor in the beach erosion, Betsy. Ship Island up and disappeared after Hurricane Camille,” reasoned Zelma’s mother in better moods. “That don’t get fixed overnight.”
“Nobody’s saying you don’t, Camille. I’m talking about on the cumulative whole. Hurricane Betsy was the first storm to cause a billion dollars’ worth of damage overall,” her aunt would come back.
Zelma had known Mama was still alive in the bathroom because she had heard her crying when she pressed herself up to the door. She didn’t notice the splinter in her ear until it got infected. The top curl of her left ear turned red and hot. The school nurse pulled the tiny piece of wood out with tweezers and sent her back to class with her head wrapped up like a mummy. Mama had said she was prone to peculiarities. “You’re your daddy’s child for strangeness, can’t nobody dispute that.”
With her mama locked in their only bathroom, Zelma had to pee out in the woods, squatting down on the orange pine needles, the same color as fire ants. Zelma was scared to death of snakes. The summer before, their noisy metal air-conditioning unit outside the kitchen window had fallen silent, and Mister had fished out a family of rattlesnakes with the garden hoe. He dropped the mother, as long as Mister was tall, and her five babies in their kitchen garbage can, which he’d emptied out and refilled with gasoline. He threw a match in behind the last snake. Before he decided on burning, he’d fired his shotgun at the side of the A/C unit. That hadn’t done anything but set Zelma’s ears to ringing, her mama to crying, and all the snakes to rattling.
Listening hard for the bathroom door to open, Zelma had crouched over the sharp, dead pine needles. A twig snapped under her heel. She jumped up and soaked her good school clothes. When Zelma had finally called Mister at the paper mill to ask him to come home, she knew she’d be in trouble with both of her parents, but she wasn’t going to pee outside anymore for nothing.
The bathroom door never shut right after Mister kicked it open. He yanked the brass knob far enough out to dangle by its hinges. Zelma was relieved her father let the lock stay broke. She could see in if her mama stayed too long.
“Zelma Marie,” said her father again from the shower.
“Yes sir, Mister?” She answered, watching the cigarette smoke rise above the shower curtain through the half-open door. The bathroom ceiling was stained the same yellow-brown as Mister’s fingernails and teeth, and wet black ash always stuck around the edges of the metal drain.
“What are we doing tonight?”
“We’re going fishing.”
“Not tonight, baby, we ain’t. Tonight, we’re gold miners,” he said, twisting the water off with a squeal. He reached for a towel to wrap around his waist and pushed the shower curtain back in clinks like her Slinky made. The cigarette, gone but for the speckled orange end, fell from his mouth onto the bathmat, as he smiled and stepped in front of the mirror full of fog.
As she did most nights, Zelma fell asleep dressed in front of the television, covered by a blanket of crochet squares in variegated greens and oranges. She liked the black-and-white reruns the best and waited until they came on after the news. At midnight, Mister scooped her up, letting the blanket puddle onto the floor. “Camille, we’re gone,” he called.
From their house, they could walk to the best fishing spots on the beach. Sometimes they fished from the skiff Mister kept tied to a nearby dock. That night Zelma found herself tucked into the side seat of Mister’s pickup truck.
“What kinda Coke you want?”
He handed her a can of Dr Pepper.
“It’s a special night. This’ll keep you up for it.”
She took the can, warm from sitting on the floor of the truck since her father got off work.
“Zelma Marie, what would you think about being rich?” he asked, pulling a new cigarette from the end of the pack.
“Like Ross Perot?” she asked, handing him a lighter from the seat beside her.
Mister exhaled a cloud of smoke with a laugh and started the car. They drove for only a few minutes, parking beside the old umbrellaing oak tree under whose limbs her classmates held birthday parties. They were not the only ones there. Mister waved at a couple of men walking a trail toward the water. Turning and climbing onto her knees to look out the truck’s narrow back window, she noticed a blue tarp spilling over the walls of the bed. Every bucket, bowl, cooler, and fishing net they owned had been thrown in. She watched Mister collected the gear he wanted.
“Here we go, Zelma Marie. First jubilee’s important,” he said as they walked the short sandy path to the beach.
Clusters of men stood in the shallows with the legs of their pants rolled up, each as still as the old oak.
“What are they doing out there, Mister?”
“They’re waiting on the jubilee, just like we are.”
“Is that when the fish turn to gold?”
“I ain’t mean literal gold, Zelma Marie. It’s when the fish in Mobile Bay swim out of the water and up onto the beach.”
“The water gets too salty some nights in summer. They can’t get no oxygen down at the bottom, so they come up looking for air. Catching fish is as easy as picking up shells after a storm,” he said, making his eyes wide.
The sand was cool and the breeze lifted her t-shirt. The air smelled different than the paper-mill fumes; mud and rain, like gold, like Mister had said, instead of pink. The moonlight laid on the water, shiny and silver as aluminum foil.
“Mister, I don’t think I ever wanna live anywhere else but here with you and Mama.”
“World’s a big place, Zelma Marie.” Cigarette smoke tumbled from his nose and into Zelma’s eyes. “You might could see it for yourself when you get grown. Close your eyes, baby. Sleep until the fish get here, if you can.”
Curled up in the sand, she drifted in and out of sleep, waking to waves of conversation or to the hiss-crack of Mister opening another can of beer.
“I asked your mama to marry me on a jubilee night,” Mister said, and Zelma knew he was talking more to himself than to her. She kept her eyes shut, pretending to sleep. “She got a nose for it like nobody else. Camille used to be something, all right. Camille Clardy. Best-looking girl in Fairhope. Didn’t want nothing from me, but to get out of Alabama.” He lit another cigarette. Zelma heard the low, warm crackle of his inhale, like the record player made when the needle first hit. The orange circle floating in the dark drew back in ripples.
“I know you ain’t sleeping. You need another Coke to stay up?” he winked and took a sip of beer.
“No, sir,” she answered, but he handed her a new can anyway.
“This is important to learn. You got to know the signs ahead of time, Zelma Marie. Some jubilee tells everybody knows.” His eyes scrolled the water, flat as a mirror on its back. He waved to his friend Mr. Andersen, whom Zelma recognized, standing in the surf with a group of men in baseball hats. “Gotta be summer, first of all. Best time is late summer. Hurricane season, like now. We might get a big one this year. The alligators been singing loud.”
Mister looked at his watch and then stuck a hand in the air to wave at newcomers. More a salute than a wave, and Zelma did the same. The only time Mister didn’t work at the paper mill was when he was in the Air Force. He’d been sent to the desert a few years back to fight in a war, but she couldn’t remember that far back. She only remembered Aunt Betsy reminding her that she used to live with them while he was gone.
“Tide’s got to be coming in. Soon as it starts back out, the fish go with it. It’s got to be a moon coming down from full. Only a little bit on the wane. If you count the dragonflies, there’s more than usual. And the lightning bugs get real busy, like they’re dancing.” He paused and handed Zelma another Dr Pepper. “What kinda weather we had earlier?”
“Cloudy, I guess, but sunny-cloudy,” she said. “It sprinkled after Bewitched.”
“The devil was beating on his wife all afternoon. That’s jubilee weather. Most important, you got to pray for one. Jubilee is a miracle. Pray hard as you know how. Like those fellas over there.” He pointed to the men congregating in the water.
“Aunt Betsy says Jesus knows everything. That’s how come she got saved.”
“Jubilee saves more people than Jesus.” He turned and caught her eye. “But don’t go saying that to nobody,” he wagged his fingers at her and ashes fell onto the sand.
Mister stood and rolled up his stained khakis. Grains of sand fell onto Zelma’s face, like when her mama threw salt over her left shoulder at the stove. “God Almighty, Zelma, get out from under my feet. Ain’t a mosquito gets as close as you,” her mama said to her when that happened.
Mister stood in the water silent and still with the other men. A splash drew Zelma’s attention to a dock down the beach, and as she squinted, what could’ve been a cloud of gnats over the water became patches of moving blue. Crabs scrambled up the wood poles at the end. More than she’d ever seen that weren’t dead on a mountain of ice. Some wielded their arms at one another. Some climbed over those toward the dock. Every few breaths the whole bunch toppled into the water. Before the surface settled, a claw would emerge, then another, and another. They crawled up the pole once more, and fell again. She watched the cycle a few times. None made it to the dock.
The edge of the rising tide spilled across the sand, missing her feet by inches. It had been several cartwheels’ length away when she and Mister sat down. Something long and shiny slid from the water’s edge and slithered up the sand. Thinking it a snake, Zelma jumped to her feet. It was an eel. Ugly and slick with a pink, flat tail that jerked left and right. Its mouth, full of teeth, opened and closed as it moved. Her arms and legs were sprayed with sand, as the eel twitched. It was digging. Soon it had buried itself up to the neck. Only its pointy, toothy head stuck out. Zelma looked up for Mister who was bent at the waist with a fishing spear half stacked with the flat frills of a dozen flounder.
“Zelma Marie,” he shouted. “Bring me some of them buckets, and don’t forget your net.”
Suddenly, the whole coast was awake and busy as Easter Sunday in the yellow-gray of approaching dawn. Bells began to ring, and car horns blared.
“Mister took a bucket from Zelma’s hand. He grinned, then letting go a cuss word as his cigarette fell into the water. “We won’t have to buy groceries ’til Thanksgiving. Make a wish, Zelma Marie. If this ain’t magic I don’t believe in it,” he laughed, not bothering to replace the lost cigarette. Zelma did as she was told.
“How come the dinner bells are ringing in the morning?” she asked.
“What good’s gold if you can’t share it? It’s to let everybody sleeping know the jubilee’s on.”
Crowds packed the beach as fish crowded the surf. Zelma watched a large red and silver fish swallow the cigarette Mister had dropped. She was knee-deep in the water with Mister, watching the fish sputter and splash so much, they could’ve been setting off fireworks underwater. A small, flat-headed shark floated over her feet, beaching itself behind her in the sand. Then came wide fish in black-and-white stripes, like the pajamas men in jail wore on TV. Sting rays like baby dragons flapped the tips of their wings gliding across the surface, and silvery fish stacked themselves at the water’s edge. The sun would be all the way up any minute. Mister had gone to dump buckets of fish and crab into the bed of his truck. Zelma had stopped counting his trips.
Old women in housedresses with their hair in soft pink rollers filled their pots and frying pans. On the picnic tables were cake tins and yellow buckets in the shape of upside-down castles overflowing with fish. Shouts of “Jubilee!” carried over the sounds of splashing feet and fish. The cawing of seagulls and crows merged with the bells and car horns. A pelican glided low over Zelma, so close she could have pulled a fish out by the tail from its orange, bulging beak. Solemn in the late-night hours, the beach had turned into a party. Zelma scooped net after net of fish into the empty buckets that reappeared with Mister. Her arms and legs were flecked with iridescent fish scales that flashed purple and green when she moved, like the tails of mermaids in movies. There must not be any mermaids in Mobile Bay, she reasoned, or else they’d have to come ashore in a jubilee, too.
Mister looked at the sky and then at his watch. “That’s it for us, I reckon.” He crooked his head for her to follow and walked with his spear and bucket to shore. The puddle of clear ocean water around her had gone a milky red. The salt of the water began to sting, and she wondered if she’d stepped on a jellyfish. Lifting her foot, she saw the pointy white teeth ringing an eel’s mouth for a moment before the water covered it again. Blood from her raised foot streamed into the water. The eel had taken off the tip of her left baby toe below the nail. She dropped her net and froze.
“What’s taking so long, Zelma Marie? We got to get all this fish home, and then I got a shift.”
She said nothing, but managed to lift her foot a little higher. A dark gray snout stuck through the murky, stinging saltwater in a pyramid.
Mister carried her to the truck and set her at the edge of the passenger seat. From the glove compartment, he pulled out a glass jar of liquid as clear as the Florida ocean. He took off his T-shirt, soaked in sweat and bay water, and dabbed at her foot with it. Trails of blood slid down to her heel and onto the seat of the truck.
“Zelma Marie, if you wanted to holler, I wouldn’t blame you.” She had never heard him talk so softly.
She shook her head no, unable to make a sound had she wanted to.
“Good girl. I can tell you got your daddy’s royal blood. A real daughter of Napoleon,” he said.
He handed her something heavy and cool. His pocketknife with the wooden handle.
“That old eel got you good, but it don’t look so bad as it might. I want you to bite down on this real hard and close your eyes.”
She did as he told her, but opened her eyes when she thought he wasn’t looking. She couldn’t look at the stub of her toe. Not without feeling like she had to throw up, like when she tried to read a book in the car. Instead, she focused on Mister’s watch. He unscrewed the jar of clear liquid and poured some onto her toes. Zelma heard the wood crunch under her teeth, but sat silently until she heard the clap of the lid on the jar.
“Marathon. U.S. Government,” she sounded out the tiny letters on the face of Mister’s watch, and the knife fell into her lap. The wood was damp with spit and had taken the shape of her baby teeth on both sides.
Mister pulled up the metal clasp of his watch at his wrist where his tan turned white, like on the belly side of a fish.
“Here,” he dropped the watch into her lap, beside the knife. “This thing’s been around the world with your daddy. All the way to the desert where they wrote down the Bible and back.” He pulled a bandana from his back pocket and wrapped it three times around the end of her foot, finishing with a tug and a knot. “Good as new.”
“Thanks, Mister,” said Zelma, trying to sound cheerful. She ran her thumb over the face of the watch, going back and forth over a scratch in its smooth glass.
“Your daddy fixed you up good, ain’t he?” Her father sounded unsure for the first time. As he looked at her, he put a rough hand on her cheek. His skin smelled pink, like the sulfur of the paper mill, and his nails and teeth were stained the same yellow-brown as the bathroom ceiling.
Mister had been dead of cancer for ten years when Zelma Marie Day married Ray Travis Todd two months past, on the first of June. The day after the wedding ceremony, her mama moved in with Aunt Betsy to argue full-time over the destruction caused by their namesake storms.
“Betsy, you can’t get around the numbers. Hurricane Camille’s fatalities alone are close to three hundred,” Zelma’s mama pressed.
“There’s no reason to exaggerate, Camille. You got me beat there, but we have to count the economic losses just the same. In New Orleans alone after Hurricane Betsy—”
“Do I look like I give an armadillo’s eyelash about any of them sinners in New Orleans? Let’s get back to the facts…”
Camille had turned to Jesus after Mister died. She got out of bed every Sunday to strap herself into church clothes and roll her hair for the Lord. Zelma suspected it was more for her sister than for Jesus.
“Let’s go skeet shooting, Zelma Marie Day.” That was how Ray became her steady in the ninth grade. She had liked the freckles on the back of his hands and how he called her by her full name. It reminded her of Mister. They married the Sunday after high school graduation. She was big already by then. The baby moved around under the folds of her blue graduation gown on Friday, and then her white one on Sunday. She rented both with money she saved up waiting tables.
After they were done, that first time in the cab of his truck on Christmas Eve their senior year, Ray handed Zelma a bottle of Coca-Cola. “I like Dr Pepper,” she said.
“Naw, stupid. You gotta drink it after to keep from getting a baby,” he said, his dirty blond hair sticking to his sweaty forehead.
He twisted the cap off and took a swig. The glass was warm and sticky from his palm when Zelma took it. She sipped in as ladylike a fashion as she dared, considering. What would her mama say? She didn’t know if it was worse to be a sinner or peculiar. She held the bottle by its neck with her pinky out in the dark. Hadn’t she heard somewhere that made you more ladylike? The smell of dust on the glass mixed with the soda’s sweetness made her feel sick, a swirl of yellows, and she tried to hand back the bottle.
“Don’t you know nothing, Zelma Marie? You gotta drink the whole bottle.”
So she did, the bubbles tickling the back of her nose until tears came down her face and she sneezed.
“That means it’s working,” said Ray, who then pushed her down against the seat once more. “Ain’t this a special night, Zelma?” he panted. Not knowing any better, she thought that it might be.
Zelma checked the watch after every pain like she saw in the movies and on TV. Mister’s old Marathon. She wore it on a long necklace chain, and never took it off, not even that first time in Ray’s truck. The ten-minute walk to the Bay had taken her three quarters of an hour in the middle of the night. Zelma wanted to lie down, but the three-o’clock dark propped her up. The moon leaned away from her to wane. There was no breeze that early-August night. Just the same old air, salty and stale, that carried the sulfur stink clear across the bay from the paper mill in Mobile. “Air’s so thick, you could cut it with a knife,” her grandmama used to say, just the same as every grandmama in Alabama said from April through October. Ray had already lost the knife Zelma gave him as a wedding present in June. She knew it was resting at the bottom of Mobile Bay, which was where all the fish were that night. Any fool could tell that night would not be a jubilee night.
“You think you know everything, Zelma. Well, I know it ain’t no fun being married to a know-it-all for a wife,” Ray said before leaving that night. He tugged at the cushions of their threadbare loveseat looking for his keys, and the pillows tumbled onto the sandy floor. He stopped to light a cigarette, sitting on the loveseat’s arm. The paisley print was too far faded to see. Layers of silver duct tape tried to hold the stuffing at bay, and the edges of each strip curled in the humidity. Sand stuck to the exposed glue like it stuck to everything.
“They’re where you left them, Ray. Beside the sink,” said Zelma quietly, her eyes fixed on the task at hand. She pushed a sewing needle through the end of another long bean. Once pierced, she dragged it down a length of thread that held a few spiraling inches of green beans. The friction warmed her fingertips against the thread. Its bottom end looked like the jagged fingers of coral that washed up on the beach sometimes. She planned to hang the beans from the porch to dry, and then to cook them into leather britches. A faded chartreuse Tupperware bowl overflowed with trimmed beans waiting to be plucked and strung by Zelma. Ray swiped his keys from the counter by the sink and let the screen door slap loudly against the wooden frame, as if he had gone to the trouble of slamming it. He’d been supposed to fix the busted spring since they moved in after the wedding.
Some wind from the bay brushed Zelma’s cheek, as she ran her hands over her belly. She was as full as the moon ever got, but her stomach looked more like a cracked egg with its thick, crooked line down the front. Zelma wondered if a hurricane could be offshore somewhere. Babies came during hurricanes, didn’t they? Something about low pressure, she’d heard her mama and aunt say. Nowadays they had Doppler radar and other such technologies to tell about storms in advance. She’d been to the obstetrician one time. The doctor used radar to see that the baby looked healthy on the black-and-white TV screen. Ray didn’t think they needed the expense any more after that. “Everything’s normal, ain’t that what the doc said, Zelma Marie?” Even when she wasn’t sure she liked him much, when he called her by her full name like Mister used to, she didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Looking at her watch, its hands the only ones she’d had on her since the honeymoon weekend in Pensacola, Zelma kept on toward the beach. She’d more than once found Ray drinking his paycheck from a paper bag in the sand or on one of the neighbor’s docks that looked like giant grasshoppers hovering over the water. Already she was acting the part of a mother, calling home a child who paid her no mind. She called out his name. It sounded loud in her ears and felt rough in her throat. Everyone was always telling her to speak up. She hated that more than anything except the sound of her own voice. Besides, she didn’t want to wake the neighbors. What would they think? Ray. Ray. Ray. She had told him there would be no jubilee that night. The wind was wrong, for one thing. The tide was low. The smells were not the right color. The lightning bugs blinked like normal. There were tells a jubilee was coming. They were the only things Zelma knew for sure.
She could hear the waves in the distance. There was no hurricane out there. No jubilee. No Mister, and no sight of Ray. The water rippled too much. She cried when Ray lost Mister’s old knife, the one with the shape of her baby teeth printed on the handle. She wanted to bite down on it then. Hadn’t she heard that a knife under the back would cut the pain in half?
“I wanted a new one, anyway,” Ray said, a week after they married. She had asked to borrow it, to trim the ends off green beans. They hung where wind chimes might have on the front porch, but they moved without any pretty noises. Leather britches was the only thing she wanted to eat. It had been Mister’s favorite. Hearing his knife was gone, she felt like locking herself in the bedroom.
“You might take a few shifts at the paper mill, if you want a new one,” suggested Zelma, instead of locking herself away.
“You ain’t got no imagination, Zelma Marie,” he said. “There’s plenty of money out there for me that don’t come from the mill. I don’t see why you got to do what everybody tells you.”
As she had set up the thread and needle at the kitchen table, the screen door slapped shut. “Don’t wait up,” he yelled over the croaking frogs and chirping crickets, just getting into their nighttime rhythm. She pulled at a fraying corner of the graying apron her boss at the diner insisted she keep wearing. It used to tie around her waist into a bow she thought elegant. When she was too big to reach back and loop the ribbon ends, one of the older girls used safety pins to fasten them to her uniform. “Shelby showed me how with my first,” the girl told her. “And you’ll do the same for the next one gets herself in this condition.”
The dirty rectangle looked like the frilly curtain her mama kept over their old kitchen window. The one that looked out onto the long-replaced air-conditioner unit. What would it look like inside her belly if she pulled the curtain back? She thought often about the fuzzy black-and-white picture the doctor showed her. She didn’t think it looked like much. More like a fish than a baby, but she was told they all looked like that. Zelma could hardly imagine herself as a mother. She didn’t want to be like her mama, though. It had scared her, that evening she felt like locking herself away. At least she had Mister growing up. Ray would be a sorry father, she knew, but hadn’t it been the right thing to marry him? Everybody said so. It got her out from under her mama’s roof. She was glad of the baby for that much. She didn’t have anything else to do anyway. She didn’t have anywhere else to go. At least Ray paid her some mind, even if it was only to yell at her. After Mister died, she stopped wanting anything except to hear his voice.
Zelma stopped again on the sandy path. The frogs and katydids seemed louder than usual. At the pain across her middle, she fell to her knees. This, she thought, was the worst thing to happen to her since her toe, since Mister died, since she met Ray in the ninth grade. Since she let him climb on top of her in his truck last Christmas. The only thing worse would be if she treated this baby like her mama treated her.
Zelma hid her pregnancy for as long as she could. She didn’t want to think about it. By the time the azaleas were in bloom, none of her clothes fit.
“Mama, I’m pregnant.”
“When?” asked Camille, setting down an empty casserole tray, without a hitch in her step.
“Christmas, I reckon.” She kept her eyes and hands on her toes.
“Ain’t nothing to do about it now,” said her mama, same as she had that September day in the shoe section of Peebles when she was six. “You weren’t never gonna make it out of Mobile with nine toes, anyway.” She spat brown tobacco juice into a plastic Coca-Cola bottle. After Mister died, she’d gone off of smoking.
She and Mister had kept her toe a secret, which wasn’t hard in the summer. Her mama slept most days until supper. At home, she hobbled around with Mister’s T-shirts wrapped around her foot, and he showed her how to clean it with hydrogen peroxide that stung and bubbled. Her mama finally caught sight of her foot while shopping for school clothes with Aunt Betsy. A clerk removed her tennis shoe to try on a discounted penny loafer, and she’d bled through a bandage and her sock.
“Looks like your daddy done ruined you, too. Ain’t nothing to do about it now,” said Camille, lighting a cigarette. “Another bout of strangeness.”
Somehow only a few minutes had passed since Zelma last looked at her watch. The urge to yell out took over Zelma’s whole body, but it caught in her throat again. She never raised her voice and didn’t know how it was supposed to feel. She had fallen into a patch of sand spurs, and the piercing of the skin on her knees made everything else hurt less. It made her think less about Ray. About how she didn’t want to be stuck in Mobile raising a child she wasn’t half sure she wanted. About how she didn’t want to be like her own mother. She pressed her knees harder into the thorns to distract herself from her pain, sighing in relief as the stickers broke her skin. She had to get back up and find Ray. Ray, who was probably looking for fish at the bottom of a bottle miles away. Ray, who wasn’t worth the rust on the knife he lost and who she’d married because she thought she had to and couldn’t think of anything better to do with herself. She didn’t know how to be in the world without Mister, and so she just followed along. Zelma lay down fully on her back in the sand and weeds and felt around for another patch of sand spurs. She’d flattened the ones she had fallen on. Warm water puddled under her legs now, and she finally let out a strangled noise realizing that her only good house dress was ruined.
In the movies when this happened, the husband rushed his wife to the hospital. Not knowing what to do, she lifted up her thin, stained dress that she had saved up to buy from the maternity section of the Peebles where her school clothes had always come from. The housedress was pink with eyelets sewn in yellow loops at its edges, and when she picked it out, she’d hoped Ray would think her pretty in it. She covered her face with the embroidered hem, leaving herself naked below the shoulders except for Mister’s watch, which she wore on a necklace chain. The brown and pink scars of her stretched stomach looked like the patchy scales of a catfish, the ugliest fish. She lay there rolling over another patch of sand-spur stickers till the gray of dawn snuck between the horizon and the sky.
If this baby was anything like Ray, she decided she didn’t want it. The shiny skin at the scar of her baby toe itched at the thought of him. If only there were a jubilee that night, she could leave her newborn among the fish for someone to scoop up and take home. If only it were a jubilee night, maybe then she wouldn’t be so mad at Ray. Even Ray could catch a fish in a jubilee. If only her last jubilee wish had come true. She looked at the watch to time her pains. Mister used to tell her that she could see the world if she wanted, even when she hadn’t wanted to go anywhere but to the bay with him.
“Mister,” she whispered, pulling down her house dress. “What do I do?” She prayed hard for some kind of miracle. Didn’t women die giving birth? That wouldn’t be so bad, she thought. She felt like she could be dying right then. Probably on her way to hell, like Mama told her would happen. “Hell is full up of strange girls like you,” her mama told her. It had seemed like a miracle when Ray, the sandy-haired baseball player who never turned in his homework, didn’t think her strange.
Memories of her first jubilee filled her. She usually tried not to think about that night, but suddenly she was there again. The warm water around her legs. The dinner bells ringing and car horns honking. People talking and the seagulls cawing loudly at their luck. The morning cicadas and crickets buzzing loud enough to wake the light and summon the heat of day. If she were dying, maybe she’d get to hear Mister’s voice again before she went to hell.
Mister’s friend Mr. Andersen had found her and called an ambulance, a nurse told Zelma. He went out at dawn to bait his crab traps with a cooler full of fried-chicken skin. Zelma was in sight of his dock, and the ambulance brought her in with sirens blaring. Lying in the hospital bed, she only wanted to get up and leave. The sheets were itchy, and the smells were not right. Orange and gray and the yellow of bile. A rerun of Bewitched played from a television she could not see. The xylophone and the laughter that followed meant that something magical was happening, but she felt worse than she had when she left the house last night. She could hardly recall what her baby looked like. She woke up, and there it was. Asleep in a clear plastic box beside her bed. It had since been removed to the nursery. She was in the nursery, she corrected. A girl. She remembered the pink hat more than her face. That was a dark purple, a color she would not forget. The same color as the eel that had taken off her toe, which itched worse than a mosquito bite under the sheets.
She began to think of all the things she wanted to say to Ray, assuming he hadn’t left for good. She imagined him turning up with flowers for her and a teddy bear for the baby. She imagined apologies he might give.
“Zelma, I ain’t never gonna leave your side again,” he would say, as men said on TV.
She would keep her face calm at first. Pretend to consider him before responding, “Nurse call security.”
That made her smile. She had never mouthed off to him before, and now it was the only thing she wanted. But when noon came and went, she knew he wouldn’t come. She couldn’t yet bring herself to call her mama. She could not go to her aunt’s house to live with them. She would never go back to the shack she had with Ray, she thought. Then she realized had nowhere to go, even if she could get up and leave. Maybe she could leave the baby here and go find Mister’s people in Louisiana, her relations descended from Napoleon. Might as well go all the way to France, she thought. Impossible.
She asked a nurse to bring her a sheet of paper, and she wrote down what she most wanted to say to her husband. Then she crumpled it up inside her fist. Uncrumpled it flat and soft and damp against her thigh.
“Dear Ray, I know you ain’t caught no fish last night. Here is your baby come out uglier than you, and I don’t reckon I’ll look on either of your slimy faces never again.”
A nurse shuffled into the room in a mismatched and too small uniform with little red crabs printed on it. Stretched out across her chest, they looked as if they were leering at Zelma. The nurse lifted the baby from the plastic box and handed her to Zelma, who could do nothing but take it with the note for Ray still in her fist. Zelma’s baby was wrapped in the same soft flannel square that swaddled all the babies. White with blue and pink stripes.
“Whatcha gonna call her, honey?” asked the nurse, the little blue crabs on her shirt twitching every time she moved.
“Jubilee,” said Zelma before she could stop herself.
“Ain’t that a pretty name. Real unusual.”
The nurse returned with a birth certificate for Juby Lee Todd. It was then that Zelma wept. She brought her hands up to her face and wiped her tears away with the edge of the note she’d written for Ray. What was she to do with this little animal that had come out with the look of the eel that had taken off the end of her toe? She looked toward the long, wide window of her hospital room. It overlooked a parking lot. A row of tall crepe myrtle trees lined the sidewalk. The limbs of the trees bent in tall arches, bowed by the weight of their blooms. The soft, ruffling petals would cover the ground a bright pink by September. It was overcast out, but still bright. The baby began to make a sucking motion with her mouth, but stayed quiet. Zelma turned again toward the window. She could hear the chiming of light rain begin outside. A flurry of pink whirled between breezes and fell to the ground. The rain was freeing the crepe myrtle petals. Mister called it an Alabama snowstorm. “Closest thing Mobile gets to a blizzard is a light rain in August,” he used to say.
It would be a jubilee night, she could tell. Between the floating pink petals, dragonflies darted and twirled. The purple-blue scents of saltwater and mud crept at the edges of the hospital smells. She was tempted, for the first time since Mister died, to make a wish. Her last jubilee was her first jubilee, when she had closed her eyes and wished to stay in Mobile with Mister forever. He was dead before the next hurricane season, and Zelma couldn’t find it in her to ever follow the dinner bells and shouts to the beach. Her wish hadn’t come true, she always thought. The scar of her toe itched, and she reached to scratch it, forgetting about the baby in her arms. She squirmed for a moment and settled again.
“Juby Lee,” she said, trying out a small bounce. “I don’t know if we got any royal blood, but I reckon we got enough toes between us now to get out of Mobile.”
J. Nicole Jones is a former editor at VanityFair.com and VICE, and her writing has appeared on VF.com, VICE, The Paris Review Daily, LitHub, Electric Lit, among others. Her first book, Low Country: A Southern Memoir, was published by Catapult in 2021; her novel The Witches of Bellinas is forthcoming from Catapult in May 2024.