What's Best for Jane picks up in 1975, ten years after the close of Miss McGhee.
Bett gives an overview of the book:
Jane glanced up from her book and looked through the bedroom window. Her daddy was walking up the road toward the house. That was strange. Usually, if he was going to show up, it was on Friday evenings when Mama got paid, not Sunday morning.
Actually, he looked like he was marching at a brisk and steady pace. As she watched him get closer, Jane got the feeling from the stiff set of his shoulders that he was mad about something. She slipped into the hall just as he came in the front door. Daddy pointed a finger at her.
“What’s this I hear about you hanging out with two nigger boys all day Saturday?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t lie to me. It’s all over town. You was ridin’ on the back of Henry Smith’s pickup and everybody in town saw you. What the hell you been doin’ with those boys of his?”
“Daddy, for heaven’s sake. I was helping them work on—” Jane cut herself off. Stupid, stupid. She couldn’t tell him she had been at Miss McGhee’s. It was hard to guess which he would consider the greater sin.
Mama emerged from the kitchen. “What’s all the yellin’ about?” She turned a suspicious look toward Jane. “What you been up to?”
“I’m fifteen years old. I can go where I want and do what I want as long as I do my chores. I do my part and more. What I do with my free time is my business.”
“You just hold it right there, Missy,” Jimmy looked ready to explode. “I won’t have you hangin’ around with black folks. I raised you to have better sense. A white girl runnin’ all over town with two black boys!”
Mama finally caught on. “I bet that’s not all you’ve been up to, is it, Miss Priss? I told you and told you to stay home where you belong. Your daddy ain’t here enough to know how many times you run off on your own, roamin’ all over the place. Doin’ God knows what.” The level of satisfaction in Mama’s tone was hard to mistake.
“I have not been running around doing anything,” Jane spoke slowly. “I was helping the Smiths work in Miss McGhee’s yard, if you want to know. I wasn’t ‘running around’.”
“Now you’ve torn it. I will not allow you to have anything to do with that woman, do you understand? I forbid it!” Daddy looked mad and disappointed at the same time.
“You can’t order me around! You’re not even here enough to know everything that goes on.” Jane didn’t know which felt worse, Mama’s obvious pleasure in Daddy lighting into her, or Daddy’s betrayal.
“Well, I can,” Mama interrupted. “You need to stay your little butt at home from now on. First of all, that McGhee woman is crazy. She’s had it in for the Jacksons since before you was born. And you cannot not hang around with niggers. We may be poor, but we ain’t sunk that low.”
“What does money have to do with anything?”
“Jane, girl, you listen to your daddy,” Jimmy pleaded. “I know I ain’t home all the time, but a man’s got to scrounge to make a livin’ when people like that McGhee woman spread lies and gossip. She’s crazy and mean and dangerous, you hear? Stay away from her.”
Jane couldn’t take her eyes off Daddy. He wasn’t drunk, and he didn’t seem really mad any more, but he was livid. He acted like he was afraid of something.
“I’m sorry I yelled, and I don’t mean to talk back. But you can’t force me to stay home twenty four hours a day when I work as hard as anybody else here. I get to have some free time of my own, to do what I want.”
“You mark my words. That McGhee hussy knows you’re my young’un, and she’s up to something, and it can’t be any good. You don’t know what she’s like, what she’ll do. I don’t want you to ever be alone with her for any reason. She’s a witch, she’s not right.”
“I’m going to the tree house. If that’s all right,” Jane turned and headed down the hall, out the back door, and up the hill, her own shoulders stiff now with rage and defiance. She swung up into the tree, foregoing the rungs, and sat on the platform, chest heaving and hands shaking.
Daddy had never talked to her like that in her whole life. She had always figured he’d have a fit if he found out about her friendship with the Smiths, but he was hardly ever around to catch her over there.
Was he really gone so much that he didn’t know how the Jacksons were treated, regarded, by most of the town? She didn’t have friends at school. To them, she was the Jackson girl in the hand-me-down clothes, the girl who never said anything to anybody. The strange, weird girl who made straight A’s and who the teachers liked, but for sure nobody else did. She sat alone in the lunch room, ate her baloney sandwich when she had one, and read a book. She sat alone in the library, reading during study hall, while everybody else gathered in groups and talked.
Jane drew in a deep, shuddering breath and exhaled. “Damn everything to hell,” she spoke to the sky and the tree, and the squirrels and birds. “I work like a slave around the house and they know it. It’s not fair that I can’t do what I want on my own time.”
She imagined herself an indentured servant, and wondered when her time would be up and she’d be free. She wanted to take off running and never stop.
“They can’t boss me around any more. I’m too old. I’ve done everything they’ve ever asked of me.” Jane fiddled with the latch on her book box but didn’t open it.
“I’m not even interested in boys.” A subject her sisters talked about incessantly. “They should worry about Cathy and Carol. They’re not even fourteen yet and they dress like grown women. Slutty women.” Jane spent little time in their shared room since the twins discovered the art of makeup, endlessly applying gobs of mascara and eye liner and doing each other’s hair, swapping and trying on clothes for hours on end, with the rock station from Mobile blasting on the radio.
Jane dropped to the ground and made a wide circle of the house, coming out on the dirt road closer to the Smiths’ place. She ran then, full out, as fast as she could, and arrived panting and sweating and out of breath on Miss Janey’s front porch. She collapsed into a rocking chair and waited for her heart rate to slow down. Miss Janey came out to join her.
“Jane Jackson, what on earth!”
Jane couldn’t talk, so she just smiled and waved.
“You’re as red as a beet. Go wash your face and I’ll get you some ice tea. It’s too hot to be rushing all over. What’s the hurry, anyway?”
Jane went to the well beside the porch. She grabbed the bucket, half full of water, and dumped it over her head. It was cool, and her shirt got soaked, but she didn’t care. Shaking her head from side to side, she flung water from her hair like a dog. She sat down again just as Miss Janey came back with a tall glass of tea. Jane took it, drank a huge gulp, and finally felt normal.
“Thank you, ma’am. Sorry if I startled you. I just ran away from the loony bin that is the Jackson household. Everybody took an extra dose of crazy today.”
Miss Janey’s kind eyes blinked at her from behind tiny gold-rimmed glasses. “Jimmy ain’t on a tear, is he?”
“No, ma’am, he’s not drinking, if that’s what you mean, but he’s on something, that’s for sure. He’s all over me and every little thing I do.”
“He’s touched in the head when it comes to you. That man simply worships you. I ‘magine now that you’re nearly grown, he’s startin’ to worry about boys.”
Jane cocked her head. “I guess in a way that’s it, partly anyway. He found out that I hang around with Ben and Martin and just went completely insane about it, practically foaming at the mouth.”
“Well, Jimmy Jackson does not like us, or any black people. But I believe he’d act that way about any boy you were spendin’ time with, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like boys, except Ben and Martin, and they’re like brothers or something. You don’t go all crazy worrying about them spending time with me, do you?”
“No, but I know my boys. And I know you.”
“Mama and Daddy act like they don’t know me or trust me. What on earth do they imagine I’m doing, anyway?”
Miss Janey simply raised an eyebrow, and Jane relented. “Okay, I know what they imagine. But I’m not interested in stuff like that. Not with Ben and Martin. Not with any boy, really.”
“Drink your tea while it’s cold. Some people just can’t let go, that’s all.” Miss Janey fanned herself and rocked. They both stared off toward the river, which couldn’t be seen from the porch, but they felt it, heard it, a faint humming in the air, a drone of insects, more imagined than real, but the river carried a sense of itself, a smell and a sound, that spread far out from its banks. It was a living thing that they could feel.
“Did you ever think that something about me is not normal, not right?” Jane choked up again, but she pretended it was because the tea was so cold it froze her throat.
A cool hand reached over and patted her leg. “That’s foolish. You’re as right as rain, as right as the day you were born, just like God made you, child. You’re growin’ up, that’s all. Feeling growing pains, all sorts of things you never felt before. Your mind’s reachin’ out, thinkin’ about things you never did before, because till now, you had all you could handle just growin’. Every child goes through it, that in-between time when you’re not fully grown and you’re not a child any more, and you start to look around you a little wider than you did, start seein’ more, feeling more, questioning.”
Jane thought that she had always thought pretty widely all her life, and things around seemed to be crowding in more, but she kept this to herself. She felt tight inside, constricted, like everything was pushing in and she might collapse against the pressure.
“Daddy was always on my side.” Jane was shocked to find herself fighting tears. “He always defended me to Mama, and they just ganged up on me. I bet she got a big kick out of that.” She kept seeing her daddy standing there in the hall, looking and adamant and puffed up. “He looked scared, almost.”
“I reckon he was. Any father gets scared when his girl grows up.”
“It seemed like there was more to it than that. Like there was something else he was afraid of. Some secret thing he couldn’t warn me about because it was too awful to say out loud.”
They rocked some more. “It must have been Miss McGhee. That’s what set him off.”
Miss Janey’s feet fell flat on the floor, stopping the rocker. “What about Miss McGhee? What did he say?”
“He found out I spent Saturday at her house, helping Henry and the boys do some stuff in her yard. He was so red in the face he was almost purple. I thought he was going to explode, he looked so upset. I’ve never seen him like that.”
Miss Janey resumed rocking. “Your daddy don’t like Miss McGhee, that’s for sure. He’s got his reasons, just like she’s got reasons to dislike him.”
Jane knew that there was much more to it than that, but she didn’t ask. It wasn’t Miss Janey’s place to tell her what she wanted to know. It was something deep and dark, a secret buried so long nobody wanted to say what it was. She knew about the car accident. Her daddy blamed Miss McGhee for it, and Miss McGhee blamed him. It was something else, but what could be worse than killing a person?
She kept staring at the line of trees that marked the line of the river as if she could see through them. She pictured the river, its broad, smooth surface showing barely a ripple. It made her recall an experiment in science class about the viscosity of water or surface tension. It moved so sluggishly and seemed so thick that it slapped and sucked at the clay on its banks. Jane pretended she could see beneath, into the murky depths, where silvery, mysterious fishes with bellies as white as eyeballs flashed and were gone, disappeared into the opaque dark. She imagined herself on a raft, floating on a hard, square platform like the one on her tree house that she once thought of as a magic carpet, twirling slowly on the wide, still water, the invisible force of the current underneath pulling her south to the Gulf.
“They acted like I committed a crime.”
Born and raised in Alabama, I grew up about forty miles from Harper Lee's home town. It was inevitable that her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, influenced my writing. I graduated from the University of Alabama with a BA in history and a burning desire to write, having grown up...