Read American Ghost Online

Authors: Janis Owens

American Ghost

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Contents

Part One: The Indian Study

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Part Two: When the Chickens Came Home to Roost

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Acknowledgments

A Scribner Reading Group Guide

About Janis Owens

For Emily, Abigail, and Isabel, with love
And the light of the future, Lily P.

Part One
The Indian Study

An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.

—Charles Dickens

Chapter One

T
hough rumors of Jolie Hoyt's star-crossed romance with Sam Lense would dog her reputation for many years to come, in truth their grand
affaire
was a little short of grand:
barely three months long, and as quickly ended as it had begun.

To the casual observer, it bore all the earmarks of a swift, overheated bit of late-adolescent romance and might never have happened at all if not for the inspired manipulations of Jolie's best friend, Lena Lucas, who would later rise to minor-celebrity status as the dashing wife of an international televangelist darling. Lena would often be seen on TV, sitting in the front pew of her husband's enormous church and beaming up at him with childlike devotion.

But those days were far in the future, and back then, in the final weeks of summer '96, Lena was technically not even legal, being seven months shy of her eighteenth birthday. She'd come late to Jolie's childhood, halfway through their freshman year of high school, when Lena's father had retired from the air force and taken a part-time job managing a KOA campground in the tiny backwater of Hendrix, two hours southwest of Tallahassee, between the Apalachicola River and the coast. Their meeting was inevitable as Hendrix was hardly more than a crossroads—a scattering of bait shops and churches and listing cracker dogtrots and trailers, with nothing but the river and the National Forest to recommend it.

Lena had caused a stir the moment she set foot in town, for reasons of her personality, which was effervescent, and her looks, which were extraordinary. She was northern Italian on her mother's side and had inherited all the attendant excitability a Milanese DNA might imply, along with the copper-blond hair, olive skin, and charming, pointed-chin smile. It made for a potent package, and added to the general astonishment of her beauty was the small matter of her dress. Her father's last berth had been at Homestead Air Force Base outside Miami, where Lena had adopted a casual, seminaked personal style: bikini string tops and frayed jean shorts; pink toenails and well-worn flip-flops.

To say that it was a compelling combination would be a great understatement: when she went to work for her father at the counter of the concession stand at fifteen, she'd inadvertently caused a countywide run on live crickets and bait minnows. Jolie's brother, Carl, was among the stampede of local men wanting to make her acquaintance. Being an unrepentant skirt chaser and fine sampler of local female flesh, he made it his business to hard-sell Lena on salvation and bring her to his father's church, El Bethel Assembly. Ostensibly this was to save her soul, though Jolie surmised that he was really looking for a place to keep her in semivirginal storage while he finished sowing his wild oats.

Jolie never delved too far into the arrangement, but she had an eye for the colorful and a taste for the eccentric, and she and Lena became quick and inseparable friends. They proved perfect foils for each other as Jolie was her near opposite: brooding and inverted, and a singularly local product—a direct descendant of the two hardy Hoyt brothers who'd sailed to Spanish West Florida from Edinburgh in the trackless days of colonial trading, half a century before General Jackson began clearing the swamps of the Indians. With true Scotch efficiency, they had adjusted to the alien culture by marrying a string of hardworking, thirteen-year-old Indian wives. Between them, they produced a virtual tribe of handsome, half-breed children who shunned outside interference and intermarried with their Scotch-Indian cousins for decades to come. Jolie was, at eighteen, a perfect example of their legacy: tall and
dark-haired and fair-skinned, with a level, hazel gaze and a natural reticence made worse by the loss of her mother to breast cancer when Jolie was three. Her grief had cut deep and all but silenced her.

Lena proved outgoing enough to breach the great silence, and after Carl was foisted off to Bible school in punishment for a minor moral lapse, she'd practically moved into the parsonage with Jolie and her father; she even joined El Bethel. There, she was duly saved and baptized and Spirit-filled, though she confided to Jolie that she would never give up makeup or dancing or wearing practically invisible bikinis, not unless the angel Gabriel himself required it. This sort of good-natured defiance wouldn't have been tolerated in an earlier day, but by the midnineties, Bethel had shrunk to a few dozen faithful members, mostly old ladies (the Sisters, Lena called them, because they were called thus: Sister Noble or Sister Lynne or Sister Wright), who gave themselves fully to the Pentecostal experience, with waved hankies and shouts and many messages in tongues. Physically, it was nothing more than a simple country church of the sort that you see all over the South, white and unassuming, perched on the side of the road in the shape of a large shoebox. There were Sunday-school rooms below and a sanctuary above, small and Pentecostal-spare, with concrete floors and hard wooden pews, a faded banner from the 1925 glory days still attached to the ceiling behind the pulpit, pale lavender inscribed in Gothic script:
Without a vision the people perish.

The Sisters called it the Tabernacle.

Lena joined Jolie as official church pet, their bond only strengthening as they finished high school and became ever more dedicated to the high calling of art (both were fledgling artists), joined in a single overweening ambition: to get out of Hendrix, as soon as they could, forever and amen. To that end, they excelled at every art class offered at Cleary High, hoping to snag scholarships at some up-and-coming art school, knowing they were at the mercy of staid admission boards, as their fathers were good men but hadn't much in the way of educational funds.

But Jolie and Lena were both bright and naturally gifted, and certain
they'd win favor in some corner. After settling on design as their major (thanks in no small part to the popularity of
Designing Women
), they had set about their first official project: redecorating the living room of the parsonage, a dicey proposition as Brother Hoyt had given them a budget of precisely $25. Fortunately, both of them were natural-born junkers and they spent the better part of their senior year mixing paint and cruising garage sales and rebuilding old lamps and tables that the Sisters had donated to the project. The result was colorful and strange and apt to change by the week as new paint or plants or lumber was donated or otherwise uncovered. Some weeks, the room was calm and natural, with fern-green walls and khaki slipcovers and muted rugs. Some weeks, the walls were brilliant red, the pillows turquoise, the wood floors bare, only the slipcovers (too expensive to change) the same. Whether it was going well or falling apart, the girls kept their weekends free and spent their Friday nights in Cleary, and their Saturdays forty miles west in Panama City, where they lay on the beach and cruised the strip and ate 99-cent bean burritos at Taco Bell.

So it went, till college acceptance letters were sent out in October, when contrary to all prediction Lena had snagged a full scholarship at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), while Jolie was turned down flat, her ACTs not up to par;
too weak in math,
a helpful counselor had penciled in the margin on her official letter of rejection. She'd been so set on SCAD that she hadn't applied elsewhere, and as graduation approached, her single option was a need-based grant to a community college thirty miles away, which she would commute to in the same rattling school bus she had ridden into town to Cleary High.

She pretended indifference, but as their senior year passed and graduation was upon them, Lena became increasingly convinced that if Jolie was left in Hendrix to her own devices, she would bail on college altogether and backslide into the aimless half-life she'd led before they met: hanging out with the old Sisters at church; lounging around her bedroom, listening to AM radio. Lena worried over it for months and, in the end, came up with a purely Milanese solution. What Jolie needed, Lena
decided, was a man. And not just any man. Jolie needed a husband, in the strictest Roman sense of the word, one who'd stare down the Hoyts and rescue her from Hendrix and, in return for good, regular sex, serve as the springboard to the rest of her life.

Once she made up her mind, Lena was nothing if not tenacious and she spent most of the summer searching high and low for such a man, which wasn't the easiest thing in the world, in Hendrix. She had no success at all till the brink of her departure, on the third Saturday in August, when Sam Lense appeared like an answer to prayer at the high counters of the KOA commissary, checking in for a four-month stay. Lena volunteered to give him the official tour and, by supper, had extracted an encyclopedic amount of information on his past, present, and future plans.

He was South Miami–born, the youngest of three sons, and a first-semester grad student at UF, in Hendrix for a single semester, on some sort of field grant with the Department of the Interior (or maybe UF). Lena didn't pay too much attention to his academic qualifications: he was blunt, talkative, straight, and single, and the chances of his staying in Hendrix one hour longer than his degree required were absolutely nil. To Lena, that was qualification enough.