First Chapters: ‘White Oleander,’ by Janet Fitch

Janet Fitch | White Oleander, Little, Brown and Company | 1999 | 19 minutes (4,640 words)

This week we’re excited to introduce First Chapters, a new series on Longreads dedicated to sharing your favorite first chapters, nonfiction or fiction, past or present. Our first pick comes from Longreads contributing editor Julia Wick, who has chosen Janet Fitch’s 1999 novel White Oleander. If you want to recommend a First Chapter, let us know and we’ll feature you and your pick: hello@longreads.com.


The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon.

“Oleander time,” she said. “Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.” She held up her large hand and spread the fingers, let the wind trace itself through. My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas. I was twelve years old and I was afraid for her. I wished things were back the way they had been, that Barry was here, that the wind would stop blowing.

“You should get some sleep,” I offered.

“I never sleep,” she said.

I sat next to her, and we stared out at the city that hummed and glittered like a computer chip deep in some unknowable machine, holding its secret like a poker hand. The edge of her white kimono flapped open in the wind and I could see her breast, low and full. Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife.

I rested my head on her leg. She smelled like violets. “We are the wands,” she said. “We strive for beauty and balance, the sensual over the sentimental.”

“The wands,” I repeated. I wanted her to know I was listening. Our tarot suit, the wands. She used to lay out the cards for me, explain the suits: wands and coins, cups and swords, but she had stopped reading them. She didn’t want to know the future anymore.

“We received our coloring from Norsemen,” she said. “Hairy savages who hacked their gods to pieces and hung the flesh from trees. We are the ones who sacked Rome. Fear only feeble old age and death in bed. Don’t forget who you are.”

“I promise,” I said.

Down below us in the streets of Hollywood, sirens whined and sawed along my nerves. In the Santa Anas, eucalyptus trees burst into flames like giant candles, oilfat chaparral hillsides went up in a rush, flushing starved coyotes and deer down onto Franklin Avenue.

She lifted her face to the singed moon, bathing in its glowering beams. “Raven’s-eye moon.”

“Ritz cracker moon,” I murmured, my head on her knee.

She softly stroked my hair. “It’s a traitor’s moon.”

In the spring this wound had been unimaginable, this madness, but it had lain before us, undetectable as a land mine. We didn’t even know the name Barry Kolker then.

Barry. When he appeared, he was so small. Smaller than a comma, insignificant as a cough. Someone she met at a poetry reading. It was at a wine garden in Venice. As always when she read, my mother wore white, and her hair was the color of new snow against her lightly tanned skin. She stood in the shade of a massive fig tree, its leaves like hands. I sat at the table behind stacks of books I was supposed to sell after the reading, slim books published by the Blue Shoe Press of Austin, Texas. I drew the hands of the tree and the way bees swarmed over the fallen figs, eating the sun-fermented fruit and getting drunk, trying to fly and falling back down. Her voice made me drunk — deep and sun-warmed, a hint of a foreign accent, Swedish singsong a generation removed. If you’d ever heard her, you knew the power of that hypnotic voice.

After the reading, people crowded around, gave me money to put in the cigar box, my mother signed a few books. “Ah, the writer’s life,” she said ironically, as they handed me the crumpled fives and ones. But she loved the readings, the way she loved long evenings with writer friends trashing more famous poets over a drink and a joint, and hated them, the way she hated the lousy job she had at Cinema Scene magazine, where she pasted up the copy of other writers paid fifty cents a word to bleed their shameless clichés, their stock nouns and slack verbs, while my mother could agonize for hours over whether to write an or the.

As she signed her books, she wore her customary half-smile, more internal than outward, having a private joke while she thanked everybody for coming. I knew she was waiting for a certain man. I’d already seen him, a shy blond in a tank top with a bead-and-yarn necklace, who stood in the back, watching her, helpless, intoxicated. After twelve years as Ingrid’s daughter, I could spot them in my sleep.

A chunky man, his dark hair pulled back in a curly ponytail, pushed in, offered his book to be signed. “Barry Kolker. Love your work,” he said. She signed his book, handed it back to him, not even looking into his face. “What are you doing after the reading?”

“I have a date,” she said, reaching for the next book to sign.

“After that,” he said, and I liked his self-confidence, but he wasn’t her type. He was chubby, dark, and dressed in what looked like a suit from the Salvation Army.

She wanted the shy blond, way younger than her, who wanted to be a poet too. Of course. He was the one who came home with us.

I lay on my mattress on the screen porch and waited for him to leave, watching the blue of the evening turn velvet, indigo lingering like an unspoken hope, while my mother and the blond man murmured on the other side of the screens. Incense perfumed the air, a special kind she bought in Little Tokyo, without any sweetness, expensive. It smelled of wood and green tea. A handful of stars appeared in the sky, but in L.A. none of the constellations were the right ones, so I connected them up in new arrangements: the Spider, the Wave, the Guitar.

When he left, I came out into the big room. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed in her white kimono, writing in a notebook with an ink pen she dipped in a bottle. “Never let a man stay the night,” she told me. “Dawn has a way of casting a pall on any night magic.”

The night magic, it sounded lovely. Soon I would have lovers and write a poem after. I gazed at the white oleanders she had arranged on the coffee table that morning, three blossoms representing heaven, man, and earth, and thought about the music of her lovers’ voices in the darkness, their soft laughter, the smell of the incense. I touched the flowers. Heaven. Man. I felt on the verge of something, a mystery that surrounded me like gauze, something I was beginning to unwind.

All that summer, I went with her to the magazine. She never thought far enough ahead to put me in a Y program, and I never mentioned the possibility of summer school. I enjoyed school itself, but it was torture for me to try to fit in as a girl among other girls. Girls my own age were a different species entirely, their concerns as foreign as the Dogons of Mali. Seventh grade had been particularly painful, and I waited for the moment I could be with my mother again. The art room of Cinema Scene, with its ink pens and a carousel of colored pencils, table-sized paper, overlays and benday dots, border tape, and discarded headlines and photographs that I could wax and collage, was my paradise. I liked the way the adults talked around me; they forgot I was there and said the most amazing things. Today, the writers and the art director, Marlene, gossiped about the affair between the publisher and the editor of the magazine. “A bizarre bit of Santa Ana madness,” my mother commented from the pasteup table. “That beaky anorexic and the toupeed Chihuahua. It’s beyond grotesque. Their children wouldn’t know whether to peck or bark.”

They laughed. My mother was the one who would say out loud what the others were thinking.

I sat at the empty drafting table next to my mother’s, drawing the way the venetian blinds sliced the light like cheese. I waited to see what my mother would say next, but she put her headphones back on, like a period at the end of a sentence. This was how she pasted up, listening to exotic music over headphones and pretending she was far away in some scented kingdom of fire and shadows, instead of sitting at a drafting table at a movie magazine pasting up actor interviews for eight dollars an hour. She concentrated on the motion of her steel X-acto knife, slicing through the galleys. She pulled up long strips that stuck to the knife. “It’s their skins I’m peeling,” she said. “The skins of the insipid scribblers, which I graft to the page, creating monsters of meaninglessness.”

The writers laughed, uneasily.

Nobody took any note when Bob, the publisher, came in. I dropped my head and used the T square, as if I were doing something official. So far he hadn’t said anything about my coming to work with my mother, but Marlene, the art director, told me to “fly low, avoid the radar.” He never noticed me. Only my mother. That day he came and stood next to her stool, reading over her shoulder. That day he just wanted to stand close to her, touch her hair that was white as glacier milk, and see if he could look down her shirt. I could see the loathing on her face as he bent over her, and then, as if to steady himself, put his hand on her thigh.

She pretended to startle, and in one spare movement, cut his bare forearm with the razor-edged X-acto.

He looked down at his arm, astonished at the thread of blood that began to appear.

“Oh, Bob!” she said. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there. Are you all right?” But the look that she gave him with her cornflower eyes showed him she could have just as easily slit his throat.

“No problem, just a little accident.” His arm bore a two-inch gash below his polo shirt sleeve. “Just an accident,” he said a bit louder, as if reassuring everybody, and scuttled back to his office.

For lunch, we drove into the hills and parked in the dappled shade of a big sycamore, its powdery white bark like a woman’s body against the uncanny blue sky. We ate yogurt from cartons and listened to Anne Sexton reading her own poetry on the tape deck in her scary ironic American drawl. She was reading about being in a mental home, ringing the bells. My mother stopped the tape. “Tell me the next line.”

I liked it when my mother tried to teach me things, when she paid attention. So often when I was with her, she was unreachable. Whenever she turned her steep focus to me, I felt the warmth that flowers must feel when they bloom through the snow, under in the first concentrated rays of the sun.

I didn’t have to grope for the answer. It was like a song, and the light filtered through the sycamore tree as crazy Anne rang her bell, B-flat, and my mother nodded.

“Always learn poems by heart,” she said. “They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s soft decay.”

I imagined my soul taking in these words like silicated water in the Petrified Forest, turning my wood to patterned agate. I liked it when my mother shaped me this way. I thought clay must feel happy in the good potter’s hand.

In the afternoon, the editor descended on the art room, dragging scarves of Oriental perfume that lingered in the air long after she was gone. A thin woman with overbright eyes and the nervous gestures of a frightened bird, Kit smiled too widely in her red lipstick as she darted here and there, looking at the design, examining pages, stopping to read type over my mother’s shoulder, and pointing out corrections. My mother flipped her hair back, a cat twitching before it clawed you.

“All that hair,” Kit said. “Isn’t it dangerous in your line of work? Around the waxer and all.” Her own hairstyle was geometric, dyed an inky black and shaved at the neck.

My mother ignored her, but let the X-acto fall so it impaled the desktop like a javelin.

After Kit left, my mother said to the art director, “I’m sure she’d prefer me in a crew cut. Dyed to her own bituminous shade.”

“Vampire ‘n’ Easy,” Marlene said.

I didn’t look up. I knew the only reason we were here was because of me. If it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t have to take jobs like this. She would be half a planet away, floating in a turquoise sea, dancing by moonlight to flamenco guitar. I felt my guilt like a brand.

That night she went out by herself. I drew for an hour, ate a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich, then drifted next door to Michael’s, knocked on the hollow door. Three bolts fell back. “It’s Queen Christina.” He smiled, a gentle soft man about my mother’s age, but puffy and pale from drinking and being inside all the time. He cleared a pile of dirty clothes and Variety from the couch so I could sit down.

The apartment was very different from ours, crammed with furniture and souvenirs and movie posters, Variety and newspapers and empty wine bottles, tomato plants straggling on the windowsills, groping for a little light. It was dark even in the daytime, because it faced north, but it had a spectacular view of the Hollywood sign, the reason he took it in the first place.

Snow again,” he said along with Garbo, tilting his face up like hers. “Eternal snow.” He handed me a bowl of sunflower seeds. “I am Garbo.”

I cracked seeds in my teeth and flicked off the rubber sandals I’d been wearing since April. I couldn’t tell my mother I’d outgrown my shoes again. I didn’t want to remind her that I was the reason she was trapped in electric bills and kid’s shoes grown too small, the reason she was clawing at the windows like Michael’s dying tomatoes. She was a beautiful woman dragging a crippled foot and I was that foot. I was bricks sewn into the hem of her clothes, I was a steel dress.

“What are you reading these days?” I asked Michael. He was an actor, but he didn’t work that much, and he wouldn’t do TV, so he made most of his money reading for Books on Tape. He had to do it under a pseudonym, Wolfram Malevich, because it was nonunion. We could hear him every morning, very early, through the wall. He knew German and Russian from the army, he’d been in army intelligence — an oxymoron, he always said — so they put him on German and Russian authors.

“Chekhov short stories.” He leaned forward and handed me the book from the coffee table. It was full of notes and Post-its and underlines.

I leafed through the book. “My mother hates Chekhov. She says anybody who ever read him knows why there had to be a revolution.”

“Your mother.” Michael smiled. “Actually, you might really like him. There’s a lovely melancholy in Chekhov.” We both turned to the TV to catch the best line in Queen Christina, saying along with Garbo, “The snow is like a white sea, one could go out and be lost in it … and forget the world.”

I thought of my mother as Queen Christina, cool and sad, eyes trained on some distant horizon. That was where she belonged, in furs and palaces of rare treasures, fireplaces large enough to roast a reindeer, ships of Swedish maple. My deepest fear was that someday she would find her way back there and never return. It was why I always waited up when she went out on nights like this, no matter how late she came home, I had to hear her key in the lock, smell her violet perfume again.

And I tried not to make it worse by asking for things, pulling her down with my thoughts. I had seen girls clamor for new clothes and complain about what their mothers made for dinner. I was always mortified. Didn’t they know they were tying their mothers to the ground? Weren’t chains ashamed of their prisoners?

But how I envied the way their mothers sat on their beds and asked what they were thinking. My mother was not in the least bit curious about me. I often wondered what she thought I was, a dog she could tie in front of the store, a parrot on her shoulder?

I never told her that I wished I had a father, that I wanted to go to camp in summertime, that sometimes she scared me. I was afraid she would fly away, and I would end up alone, living in some place where there were too many children, too many smells, where beauty and silence and the intoxication of her words rising in air would be as far away as Saturn.

Out the window, the glow of the Hollywood sign was slightly blurred with June fog, a soft wetness on the hills raising the smell of sage and chemise, moisture wiping the glass with dreams.

She came home at two when the bars closed, alone, her restlessness satisfied for the moment. I sat on her bed, watched her change clothes, adoring each gesture. Someday I would do this, the way she crossed her arms and pulled her dress over her head, kicked off her high heels. I put them on, admiring them on my feet. They were almost the right size. In another year or so, they would fit. She sat down next to me, handed me her brush, and I brushed her pale hair smooth, painting the air with her violets. “I saw the goat man again,” she said.

“What goat man?”

“From the wine garden, remember? The grinning Pan, cloven hooves peeping out from under his pants?”

I could see the two of us in the round mirror on the wall, our long hair down, our blue eyes. Norsewomen. When I saw us like this, I could almost remember fishing in cold deep seas, the smell of cod, the charcoal of our fires, our felt boots and our strange alphabet, runes like sticks, a language like the ploughing of fields.

“He stared at me the entire time,” she said. “Barry Kolker. Marlene says he’s a writer of personal essays.” Her fine lips turned into long commas of disapproval. “He was with that actress from The Cactus Garden, Jill Lewis.”

Her white hair, like unbleached silk, flowed through the boar bristle brush.

“With that fat goat of a man. Can you imagine?” I knew she couldn’t. Beauty was my mother’s law, her religion. You could do anything you wanted, as long as you were beautiful, as long as you did things beautifully. If you weren’t, you just didn’t exist. She had drummed it into my head since I was small. Although I had noticed by now that reality didn’t always conform to my mother’s ideas.

“Maybe she likes him,” I said.

“She must be insane,” my mother said, taking the brush away from me and brushing my hair now, bearing down on the scalp hard. “She could have any man she wanted. What could she possibly be thinking?”

She saw him again at her favorite artists’ bar downtown with no sign by the tracks. She saw him at a party in Silverlake. Wherever she went, she complained, there he was, the goat man.

I thought it was only coincidence, but one night at a performance space in Santa Monica where we went to watch one of her friends beating on Sparkletts bottles and ranting about the drought, I saw him too, four rows back. He spent the whole time trying to catch her eye. He waved at me and I waved back, low, so she wouldn’t see.

After it was over, I wanted to talk to him, but she dragged me out fast. “Don’t encourage him,” she hissed.

When he turned up at the annual publication party for Cinema Scene, I had to agree that he was following her. It was outside in the courtyard of an old hotel on the Strip. The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate. The women wore bare dresses, my mother like a moth in white silk. I threaded my way through the crowd to the hors d’oeuvres table, quickly loaded my purse with things I thought could stand a few hours unrefrigerated — crab claws and asparagus spears, liver in bacon — and there was Barry, piling a plate with shrimp. He saw me, and his eyes immediately swept the crowd for my mother. She was behind me, drinking white wine, gossiping with Miles, the photo editor, a gaunt, stubble-chinned Englishman whose fingers were stained with nicotine. She hadn’t seen Barry yet. He started through the crowd toward her. I was close behind him.

“Ingrid,” Barry said, penetrating her circle of two. “I’ve been looking for you.” He smiled. Her eyes flicked cruelly over his mustard-colored tie hanging to one side, his brown shirt pulling at the buttons over his stomach, his uneven teeth, the shrimp in his chubby fist. I could hear the icy winds of Sweden, but he didn’t seem to feel the chill.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” he said, coming even closer.

“I’d rather you wouldn’t,” she said.

“You’ll change your mind about me,” he said. He put his finger alongside his nose, winked at me, and walked on to another group of people, put his arm around a pretty girl, kissed her neck. My mother turned away. That kiss went against everything she believed. In her universe, it simply did not happen.

“You know Barry?” Miles asked.

“Who?” my mother said.

That night, she couldn’t sleep. We went down to the apartment pool and swam slow quiet laps under the local stars, the Crab Claw, the Giant Shrimp.

My mother bent over her drafting table, cutting type without a ruler in long elegant strokes. “This is Zen,” she said. “No flaw, no moment’s hesitation. A window onto grace.” She looked genuinely happy. It sometimes happened when she was pasting up just right, she forgot where she was, why she was there, where she’d been and would rather be, forgot about everything but the gift of cutting a perfectly straight freehand line, a pleasure as pure as when she’d just written a beautiful phrase.

But then I saw what she didn’t see, the goat man enter the production room. I didn’t want to be the one to ruin her moment of grace, so I kept making my Chinese tree out of benday dots and wrong-sized photo stills from Salaam Bombay! When I glanced up, he caught my eye and put his finger to his lips, crept up behind her and tapped her shoulder. Her knife went slicing through the type. She whirled around and I thought she was going to cut his liver out, but he showed her something that stopped her, a small envelope he put on her table.

“For you and your daughter,” he said.

She opened it, removed two tickets, blue-and-white. Her silence as she examined them astonished me. She stared at them, then him, jabbing the sharp end of her X-acto into the rubbery surface of the desk, a dart that stuck there for a moment before she pulled it out.

“Just the concert,” she said. “No dinner, no dancing.”

“Agreed,” he said, but I could see he really didn’t believe her. He didn’t know her yet.

It was a gamelan concert at the art museum. Now I knew why she accepted. I only wondered how he knew exactly the right thing to propose, the one thing she would never turn down. Had he hidden in the oleanders outside our apartment? Interviewed her friends? Bribed somebody?

The night crackled as my mother and I waited for him in the forecourt of the museum. Everything had turned to static electricity in the heat. I combed my hair to watch the sparks fly from the ends.

Forced to wait, my mother made small, jerky movements with her arms, her hands. “Late. How despicable. I should have known. He’s probably off rutting in some field with the other goats. Remind me never to make plans with quadrupeds.”

She still had on her work clothes, though she’d had time to change. It was a sign, to indicate to him that it wasn’t a real date, that it meant nothing. All around us, women in bright summer silks and a shifting bouquet of expensive perfumes eyed her critically. Men admired her, smiled, stared. She stared back, blue eyes burning, until they grew awkward and turned away.

“Men,” she said. “No matter how unappealing, each of them imagines he is somehow worthy.”

I saw Barry across the plaza, his bulk jolting on his short legs. He grinned, flashing the gap between his teeth. “Sorry, but traffic was murder.”

My mother turned away from the apology. Only peons made excuses for themselves, she taught me. Never apologize, never explain.

The gamelan orchestra was twenty small slim men kneeling before elaborately carved sets of chimes and gongs and drums. The drum began, joined by one of the lower sets of chimes. Then more entered the growing mass of sound. Rhythms began to emerge, expand, complex as lianas. My mother said the gamelan created in the listener a brain wave beyond all alphas and betas and thetas, a brain wave that paralyzed the normal channels of thought and forced new ones to grow outside them, in the untouched regions of the mind, like parallel blood vessels that form to accommodate a damaged heart.

I closed my eyes to watch tiny dancers like jeweled birds cross the dark screen of my eyelids. They took me away, spoke to me in languages that had no words for strange mothers with ice-blue eyes and apartments with ugly sparkles on the front and dead leaves in the pool.

Afterward, the audience folded its plush velvet chairs and pressed to the exits, but my mother didn’t move. She sat in her chair, her eyes closed. She liked to be the last one to leave. She despised crowds, and their opinions as they left a performance, or worse, discussed the wait for the bathroom or where do you want to eat? It spoiled her mood. She was still in that other world, she would stay there as long as she possibly could, the parallel channels twining and tunneling through her cortex like coral.

“It’s over,” Barry said.

She raised her hand for him to be quiet. He looked at me and I shrugged. I was used to it. We waited until the last sound had faded from the auditorium. Finally she opened her eyes.

“So, you want to grab a bite to eat?” he asked her.

“I never eat,” she said.

I was hungry, but once my mother took a position, she never wavered from it. We went home, where I ate tuna out of a can while she wrote a poem using the rhythms of the gamelan, about shadow puppets and the gods of chance.

From White Oleander, copyright 1999 Janet Fitch.


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