White oleander, p.1
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White Oleander

  Copyright © 1999 by Janet Fitch

  Excerpt from Paint It Black copyright © 2006 by Janet Fitch

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

  Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company

  Hachette Book Group USA

  237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

  Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroupUSA.com

  Originally published in hardcover by Little, Brown and Company, April 1999

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  An excerpt of this novel was previously published in Black Warrior Review.

  The interview with Janet Fitch in the reading group guide at the back of this book is excerpted from an article that first appeared in Salon.com, at http://www.Salon.com. An online version remains in the Salon archives. Reprinted with permission.

  ISBN: 978-0-7595-6817-4

  First eBook Edition: June 2008


  Extraordinary acclaim for Janet Fitch’s


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  White Oleander

  About the Author

  A Preview of "Paint It Black"

  Extraordinary acclaim for Janet Fitch’s


  “Quite simply, White Oleander is amazing. It’s the kind of book you don’t want to put down. It’s full-blooded, alive, breathtaking, frightening. . . . This incredible novel is the story of what it is to be extraordinary women.”

  — Rohana Chomick, Tampa Tribune-Times

  “White Oleander is likely the best debut this reviewer has ever read.... Heartbreaking, but without a trace of sentimentality, it provokes amazement.”

  — Judith Kicinski, Library Journal (starred review)

  “White Oleander is just what the title promises — a tale of poisonous beauty, dangerous, heady scents, an unforgettable story of a young girl growing up. . . . Its narrator is part poet, part seductress, part Scheherazade, part street punk. . . . Long after the book has ended, you’ll feel the hot breeze of this novel scorched in your memory, lingering in your heart.”

  — Susan Larson, New Orleans Times-Picayune

  “As a character, Astrid falls between the innocent lambs some imagine children to be and the great female survivors of literature: as resilient as Moll Flanders, as necessarily selfish as Thackeray’s Becky Sharp.”

  — Chris Waddington, Minneapolis Star Tribune

  “There’s nothing ordinary about Fitch’s debut. For starters, Ingrid and Astrid Magnussen are one of the most intriguing mother-daughter duos in recent fiction. . . . Fitch’s is a fresh, exotic, full-to-bursting voice, fitfully under control but never dull. Her characters are unusual, wildly imagined.”

  — Jocelyn McClurg, Hartford Courant

  “When we first came across this novel last month, we loved it and believed we had discovered the season’s best-kept secret.”

  — Felicia Paik, Wall Street Journal

  “White Oleander resonates with commitment to no other master than the art of storytelling itself.”

  — Greg Burkman, Seattle Times

  “Thoroughly enjoyable. . . . As Astrid develops into a powerful character in her own right, her desire for self-discovery and sheer will to survive drive the narrative. . . . Fitch’s hypnotic voice offers an honest and oddly seductive vision of L.A.”

  — Deborah Picker, LA Weekly

  “There may be no personal relationship more complicated than the one between a mother and her adolescent daughter. . . . Not surprisingly, there are also few personal relationships more difficult to write about well. Mona Simpson did it admirably in Anywhere But Here. Janet Fitch does it spectacularly in White Oleander. . . . Fitch keeps her vision surreal, her touch light, and her focus strong: This is a story of two particular women and the ambivalences that unite and divide them. That it will speak to anyone who ever had a mother is just a bonus.”

  — Sara Nelson, Newsday

  “A dazzling debut, a triumph of voice and character. . . . White Oleander is the moving and complex story of Astrid’s journey through six foster homes across southern California, each one an unnerving snapshot of contemporary American family life. Fitch’s prose is fresh and evocative. . . . Stunning.”

  — Patty Housman, Bloomsbury Review

  To the man from Council Bluffs


  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 desert dryness lick 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 still 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, and 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.”

  “Baby-face moon,” I countered, my head on her knee.

  She softly s
troked 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 these readings, the way she loved evenings with her writer friends, trashing 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, who, at fifty cents a word, bled shameless clichés, 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.” She signed his book, handed it back to him, not even looking into his face. “What are you doing after the reading?” he asked.

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

  “After that,” he said, and I liked his self-confidence, though he wasn’t her type, being chubby, dark, and dressed in a suit from the Salvation Army.

  She wanted the shy blond, of course, way younger than her, who wanted to be a poet too. 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 sounded lovely. Someday 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 clusters of blossoms representing heaven, man, and earth, and thought about the music of her lovers’ voices in the dark, 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 hear 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. 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 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 agat
e. 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 down 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.

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