By M. J. Moore
In his short story “Just Like the Girl” (with its sardonic epigram being a line from an old 1890s ditty: “I want a girl, just like the girl that married dear old dad . . .”), author James Jones dramatized a deeply upsetting series of incidents that he experienced before he was ten years old. He was born ninety-eight years ago this week, on Nov. 6, 1921.
Jones is most often recalled as the author of the National Book Award-winning From Here to Eternity, and other bulky novels. However, in 1968 he published his remarkable collection of short fiction, which is again in print thanks to the Brooklyn-based publisher Akashic Books. The Ice-Cream Headache and Other Stories offers today’s readers some stunning glimpses of the 1930s and 1940s, including the childhood story “Just Like the Girl.”
Jones’s alter ego in the story is John Slade. Like Hemingway’s doppelganger Nick Adams, the character of John Slade was deployed by Jones in short fiction, serving as a stand-in for the author and allowing him to discharge autobiographical grief through the crucibles endured by his protagonist.
The mother in “Just Like the Girl” is convinced that her alcoholic husband is having affairs. She makes a spectacle of her suspicions and her fear. Most of all, she leans on her young son and confides her dread inappropriately. Then she creates a whole new level of mother-to-son tension when she conscripts the boy to hide in the back of her husband’s car, on the assumption that when he drives off after dinner, he will surely be en route to a tryst with a girlfriend.
Persuading her son to spy on his own father, whom she assumes will soon arrive home in a drunken state, is not the worst thing to happen in this story. What’s worse is that the mother conveys all of her requests in a way that causes the boy to think that he must do her bidding in order to prove his love for her. And to be worthy of her love for him:
“He’ll be home in a minute,” she said to him, her eyes bright and nervous. “It’s after six now and he never stays at the office later than five. He’s been somewheres drinking. I could tell by his voice over the phone. He’ll come home with that great big ugly nasty belly tight as a drum with beer again.”
“Yes, Ma’m,” John said. He was scared by the intensity of her voice, and she was gripping his arm so hard he could hardly keep from wincing.
“Here is what I want you to do for me, John. I want you to do this for your mother who loves you. When he brings the groceries in, you run out and get in the car. You understand?”
“Yes, Ma’m,” John said. “All right, Mother.” He knew this was important, because she was shaking his arm hard. “But what for?”
“Be still. Listen to me. I asked him to please not go back downtown in his condition. I asked him to stay home. I only just hope the operator was listening. Mrs. Haddock says they always do. God knows I’ve lived with it long enough and tried to hide it and hold our heads up,” she said. “And he just laughed at me. Like he always does. But I’ve always done my duty, in the eyes of God and society. I’ve done all I could be expected to do. . . . He isn’t fit to have children. Him with those great big arms and strong as a bull. He hurts everything he touches, he’d kill any woman. We’ll go far away where he can never find us, with his big talk of education and making fun of my [Christian] Science and Mrs. Eddy, making everybody think he’s so intelligent and saddled with a dumb wife.”
“You’re not dumb, Mother,” John said. “You’re smart. You’re my mother.” He blinked tears from his own eyes, he felt very sorry for his mother. A diworce, he thought, we’re going to get a diworce.
He knew his mother didn’t have the money to give him quarters and half dollars like his father did. He knew how hard up they were because his father threw so much money away on beer and whiskey, and then tried to buy his son’s affection with quarters and half dollars. Every time he sneaked up in the garage to play with his secret collection of extra soldiers and guns, he felt guilty.
“I’ll always stand by you, Mother,” he said.
“Will you prove it to me? Will you find out who your father goes out with tonight?”
“Sure I will, Mother. Didn’t I say I would?”
His mother stood up. “All right. You wait out on the front porch where he won’t see you. When he brings the groceries in you run out and get in. But be careful: He bought groceries for over Sunday and he’ll probably have to make two trips to the car.”
“All right, Mother,” John said. “You can trust me, Mother.”
His mother was on her way back to the kitchen. “Don’t let him see you out the porch.”
“OK,” John said.
It is a story so stark in its evocation of childhood despair (the deliberately mispronounced “diworce” sadly echoing) that one editor, in particular, recoiled. Jones recounted it this way: “I once showed [“Just Like the Girl”] to a newspaper editor in my hometown of Robinson, Illinois, who had known and admired my mother. The strange, guilty, upset, almost disbelieving look on his face when he handed it back, which seemed to say: ‘Even if it’s true, why do it?’ was worth to me all the effort I put into writing it.”
George Garrett (a biographer, poet and historical novelist) once remarked: “Jones was always a truth seeker and a truth teller. [He] has left a good record of his own mixed feelings about himself and his youth. If we turn to the evidence of the John Slade stories published in The Ice-Cream Headache, stories Jones claimed as autobiographical and that tend to conform to the known details of his youth even while adding more information, we discover other characteristics and other forces at work within him . . . we are presented with a more complete picture than anywhere else of the family, a ‘Faulknerian’ family. In letters, in interviews, and in some of the best of the stories collected in The Ice-Cream Headache and Other Stories, there is strong evidence of the conflicts and contradictions which helped to shape his character.”
M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. His new book Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest, the first-ever biography of Mario Puzo, was published by Heliotrope Books [heliotropebooks.com] on March 8, 2019 – the 50th anniversary of The Godfather.