Karen Keltz is both a former secondary language arts educator of 33 years and a former freelance journalist. Her work has been published in Huff/Post 50, USA Today, The Oregonian, The North Coast Squid, The Ruralite, Oregon Coast Magazine, Poésie, Verseweavers, Oregon English and English Journal, among others. She is a recipient of Willamette Writers’ Kay Snow awards for poetry (2008), screenwriting (2009), juvenile fiction (2010) and poetry 2012. She received awards from the Oregon Poetry Association in 2007, 2008, and 2011. In 2011 she won a Glimmer Train award for new short story writers. In Fall 2012, she was a recipient of an Oregon Writers Colony poetry award. Sally Jo Survives Sixth Grade: A Journal is her first novel. She lives at Happy House Farm with her husband, two cats, and giant gardens full of indefatigable weeds and moles.
Sally Jo Survives Sixth Grade: A Journal is a Middle Grades Novel, best for readers ages 9-12. Three classrooms of students read this book in its earlier version and young readers read the final copy and wrote reviews for the back cover.
Content: Sally Jo Benedict leaves her counselor’s office the second day of sixth grade armed with an empty journal as her only survival mechanism to start a school year that will prove to be full of remarkable surprises, stimulating mysteries, and irreversible change. She records her life as she confronts the new kid, Melvin Porter, who tries to kiss her at every opportunity. Yuck! She grapples with the heartache of her best friend Eddo’s mounting jealousy, her feelings of betrayal, and the burgeoning romance between her teacher, Mr. Wilson, and her single mother. Sally Jo sorts out her frustrations and conclusions about romance, betrayal and loss in her journal entries, and ends each one with a question for her readers to consider and answer.
Author’s Intention: Sally Jo is a character who thinks about and addresses her fears through the use of a journal, a survival trick she learned from her counselor. It’s my hope that a trusted adult will read the novel at the same time a young reader reads it so they can talk together about what happens in each entry. At the end of each entry, readers will find one or two questions to ponder and answer in a journal of their own. It’s great when an older generation can share experiences with the younger so both can see growing up presents the same challenges no matter the calendar year. Young people will find it comforting to know that what they are experiencing is not uncommon. It’s so nice to know you are not the only one.
Available at Amazon.com:
I’m sharing the chapter that won a 2010 Willamette Writers’ Kay Snow Juvenile Fiction Award.
Entry Twenty-Four, 2/14/84: THE LIE BACKFIRES
“I’m over at Sixth Street Hill watching Eddo kill Melvin Porter,” I wrote in the note I left for Mom on the refrigerator door. I didn’t want her to worry that it was ME over there getting killed.
The temperature had dropped by the time I got over to Sixth Street, and the wind blew mist into my face. Eddo and Duke were already there, along with Roger, Neal, and Dave. Duke ran from boy to boy, his tail wagging in excitement because he knew something was up. The guys were joking around so much that they didn’t even realize I was there, least of all Eddo.
Melvin arrived on his dorky bike which made the other guys laugh because it was one of those foldable bikes with 8-inch wheels and a tall handlebar instead of a ten-speed like theirs. Another thing that made them laugh was tall, skinny Melvin on his tiny bike looking like Ichabod Crane transported to the twentieth century. I was afraid if he tried to go down Sixth Street Hill, he’d end up looking like the headless bikeman.
“Well, that’s quite a bike, Melvin,” Eddo said, and I knew he meant the opposite of how it sounded, but Melvin didn’t.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s really…something,” Roger said.
“Thanks,” Melvin said again. “I’ll show you sometime how it folds up. It takes only a minute or two.”
“Sure, yeah,” Roger said, trying hard not to laugh.
“You ready for a big ride?” Eddo said. He was ready to get on with business.
“OK. Where are we going?” Melvin asked.
“Right down this hill.”
Melvin took a look down over the edge of the hill. “Oooh, geez, I don’t know. That looks steep.”
“No problem,” Eddo told him. “It’s a piece of cake.”
“You go down this?”
“Yep. I do it every day.”
I couldn’t take this any longer. “You liar, Eddo. You do not!”
“Sally Jo, would you please stay out of my face?” Eddo glared at me. “Who invited you anyway?”
“It’s a free country,” I said.
“Tell you what, Melvin,” he continued, putting his arm around Melvin’s shoulder and walking away as if I weren’t even there. “Let’s toss a coin to see who goes down first. Heads, you go down, tails, I do.”
“That sounds good to me,” Roger butted in. “I’ll toss the coin so you’ll know it’s fair.”
“OK,” Melvin said. “I guess if Eddo goes down this hill, then I can too.”
“Here we go,” Roger said. The coin flew into the air and everyone crowded around to see what came up on the back of his hand.
That meant Melvin. “Don’t do it,” I said. “Eddo invited you over here only because…”
I couldn’t finish. If I told Melvin what Eddo was up to, then that would be betraying a friend, even if he hated me now, and besides, Melvin would think I wanted to be girlfriends with him when I didn’t.
“Just don’t do it.”
“Tombez morte,” Eddo said to me. That’s a French phrase we saw on a movie once, and it means “drop dead.” I couldn’t believe that Eddo would say that to me.
“Eddo,” I said and even though I said only his name, my eyes were pleading with him to stop this before Melvin got hurt.
“Ready?” Eddo ignored my plea.
“Ready,” Melvin said. “Don’t worry, Sally Jo. I’ll be fine.” He turned his bike around and got it headed downward.
“Never fear, the Great Porterini is here!” he said, and took off down the hill.
While everyone watched Melvin’s takeoff, I realized why the coin came up heads. Eddo had used the trick coin from his magic tricks kit. Both sides of the coin showed a head. No way had Eddo planned to go down the hill. He had wanted Melvin to go down and wreck.
“You slimeball, Eddo,” I said and began beating him on his chest. The other boys whirled around from looking at Melvin to look at me. “You used your trick coin. You knew he’d have to go first. You knew he’d crash and then you wouldn’t have to go. You chicken guts!”
Eddo didn’t have time to react. Roger pulled me off him before I smashed him to pieces.
“That true?” Roger asked. “Let me see your coin.”
“If you don’t let me see the coin, I’ll let Sally Jo loose on you again.”
“OK, OK. Yeah, it’s a trick coin but so what?”
Everyone looked at Eddo but no one spoke. We heard a bunch of yelling down at the bottom of the hill.
“Gosh, we forgot about Melvin,” I said. We looked down at him standing at the foot of the hill, waving and jumping up and down. His bike didn’t look any more deformed than usual. He hadn’t crashed. I felt saved. I didn’t have to look at his mangled body and know my friend had caused it.
“Come on back up,” I called and motioned to him.
In silence we watched him trudge back up, pushing his bike. As he crested the hill, Roger, Dave, and Neal ran over to him and clapped him on the back.
“Hey, congratulations, man.”
“Boy, I couldn’t have done that.”
“Thanks,” Melvin said, grinning, and then he looked at Eddo expectantly, waiting for him to say something.
“Yeah, congratulations,” Eddo muttered, without even looking at Melvin. He couldn’t stand that everyone was on Melvin’s side now. Or that everyone knew what he’d tried to do to Melvin.
“Eddo, now it’s your turn,” I said.
“I need to go home,” he said, picking up Duke’s leash, and turning to go. “I forgot to leave my mom a note.”
“You said you’d go down after I did,” Melvin said.
“Are you trying to weasel out of this?” Dave said.
“Chicken, Mr. Two-Heads?” Roger said.
“Scaredy pants?” Neal said.
“Heck, Eddo, you don’t need to be afraid,” Melvin said. “It’s a piece of cake, just like you said.”
“Hey, I’m not afraid, all right?” Eddo screeched. His whole plan had backfired. He couldn’t stand for Melvin to be the one reassuring him.
“We’re waiting,” Roger said. “Fair’s fair.”
“All right. I’m going. I’m going. Hold Duke’s leash,” he said, giving it to me. At least he was back on my planet.
Eddo situated his bike so it was facing downhill. He took a deep breath and faced skyward. Then he had to wipe off his glasses. The mist had thickened into real raindrops that formed rivulets of water as they joined to rush down Sixth Street. The sky darkened. The heavens grumbled and Duke strained at his leash, growling at the unfriendly noise.
“You don’t have to do it,” I thought to myself, but I never said it out loud. Now I wish I had.
Sally Jo’s assignment for her future kids:
Tell about a time when one of your lies backfired.
NO SECOND CHANCES
“Your uncle is going to die soon,” my mom says, “so if you want to talk to him before he goes, he’s in the milkhouse.”
She continues peeling potatoes while delivering the news, not looking at me, but she’s clearly disturbed by what she has to say. I can tell by the way the peeler rips across the potato in rapid, downward chops.
I hope she doesn’t slip and hurt herself, I think, at the same time I stand there on the soiled brown and orange rag rug beside her, mute. Why would she lay this on me? What am I supposed to do with this knowledge I didn’t ask for and don’t want in any case?
Things live and die, I know. I live on a farm. Sometimes we kill things on purpose, like slugs in our garden, weeds, hornets. My dad shoots raccoons that get in the grain and hog slop. I’ve been recruited to chop the heads off chickens when it’s time to butcher them. We even eat the things we’ve loved, our rabbits and pet bummer lambs. Things grow up and die. I know life really means death, sooner or later.
I haven’t had to know death on a personal level, though. I don’t know how to act or what to say. I don’t have any potatoes to peel to help me out with how I feel. I’m not sure how I feel. I’m just a black hole sucking in the facts. The lesson from all those youthful episodes of sobbing when I was told, “Shut up or I’ll give you something to cry about!” finally took hold. I look to my mom’s face for clues—nothing. I wait for her to suggest how I should be. Nothing.
I scratch my mosquito bite and regard the mushroom-shaped canisters situated along the countertop.
“What’s wrong?” I finally ask. “Why is he going to die?”
“He went to the doctor today. It’s his heart. He doesn’t have long.” Mom tells the window all about it, instead of me. At least she stops peeling while she stares, so I don’t have to worry so much about that peeler slicing off a piece of her finger. She just stands there in her quilted halter top and pedal-pushers, sweat glistening on her freckled arms, her hands frozen above the white, chipped, dirt and water-splattered farm sink.
His heart. His broken heart.
Four years ago, when I was 14, Uncle Melvin’s wife and four kids up and left, and I think now maybe that’s what’s done him in.
In my spare time or under my covers at night when everyone else sleeps, I read literary novels and poems from the 19th century. If what I read is to be believed, people do die of broken hearts. I can see it happening. This is probably what happened to Uncle Melvin. I am forming my own theory of explanation as a way of processing what I’ve just been told when my mom turns and looks at me, her face looking as chiseled as those presidents’ faces carved into a mountain back there in South Dakota.
“He had rheumatic fever when he was a kid. His heart was damaged. Now go talk to your uncle.”
I can hear in her voice that “no” is not an option.
I don’t want to go talk to my uncle. I want to go in my room and shut the door. I hate being this age when I’m supposed to suddenly know how to do and say the right thing, because mostly, I don’t. Why do I have to go talk to him, anyway? Why can’t I wait until my sisters come home from wherever they are? Why can’t I just wait until he comes into the house and talk to him then, when I know he’ll be the first to speak and I can follow his lead?
He always initiates the conversation with me and my sisters, as if he really does want to know what we’ve been doing, as if he really does want our opinion. That’s what we like the most about him. He didn’t get the message when it was being passed out to my parents that children are to be seen and not heard. We know when we see him, he’ll see us and we’ll be laughing soon.
We kids are the first to hear when he comes up with a new theory. Like the time I was babysitting overnight so he and my aunt could go out. In the morning, out of the blue, he said, “Life is all backwards, you know. We should be able to have fun with our kids and then when we’re grown, we can get serious and have jobs.” He laughed, took a drink of his beer, a drag off his cigarette, and then the happy drained from his eyes. He leaned over in his chair, plunked his elbows on his knees, and laid his face in his palms. His glasses slid up above his hairline. My stomach did the worry hoppy-floppy but then he smiled and I thought I’d been mistaken about him being sad. Right after that, though, he didn’t have his kids around anymore, so I guess I’d been right. And our uncle, who had always played tricks on us and told us jokes and laughed, suddenly didn’t.
After the divorce, he didn’t have his house anymore either. He had lived with Grandma. I had dinner with them once, and tried to make him laugh with stupid jokes I’d heard at school, like “What’s black and white and red? A nun falling down the stairs. What do you call a guy with no arms and legs in a lake? Bob.” He tried to laugh, but his heart wasn’t in it, maybe one or two “Heh-heh’s” is all. I could feel how much Grandma wanted him to laugh, too, her eyes all analytical question marks. No matter how much we tried, though, it wasn’t going to happen. He was stuck so far down in sad he couldn’t climb back out to happy. Abraham Lincoln was right when he said most folks are about as happy as they want to be.
Grandma kept trying though, and persevered until she found him a girlfriend. Well, she wasn’t exactly a girl, more like a well-used woman. Ruth was older than Uncle Melvin, their age difference found simply scandalous in my family’s gossipy conversations. I didn’t see what the big deal was. If he was happy with her and she with him, what did age matter? It’s true her corners were sharp, but if you didn’t pay attention to that and kept talking to her, they softened.
She must be mighty sad right now, I’m thinking as I walk down the board sidewalk that‘s slippery in the rain, each foot finding the place where one board sags, hopping over the place where part of the board has rotted out; going past the honeysuckle into the driveway and then under the oak tree, past the doghouse covered in gray tar shingles, up the little porch, and into the milkhouse. I want weeks to go by before I reach the end of this path, another week still, before I reach the milkhouse. I stop and just off the path, pull two milkweeds under the oak to try to make this walk to talk to a dying man last longer.
The screen door screeches as I open it, scaring some flies stuck in the screen that’s come out of the track and is bunched up like smocking. As I’m opening the door, I think on how my dad should fix this like he should fix so many other things he has no time for, working two jobs. Standing before me, their butts resting on the counter where we pour the separated milk into jars are my uncle and dad. Somehow they manage to talk, smoke and laugh all at the same time. Uncle Melvin’s high tenor cackle always makes me smile. Any other time, I’d stop and watch them like they were in a movie because they are handsome men.
I don’t know what my mom thought these two guys were doing out here, but as I let the screen door slam behind me, I see right away that dad has got out the whiskey he hides in the milk cooler and the two brothers are having a snort of solace. Maybe more than one. Mom would screw up her mouth into a tight little “O” like sucking on a cigarette without the cigarette if she knew but I suppose if you’re going to die any minute it’s OK to have a shot or two of whiskey.
It doesn’t seem like they are talking about dying with all this laughing and drinking but since I don’t know how people do it, I could be wrong.
They finish what they were saying and turn to look at me. It’s the “action!” part of “lights, camera, action!” but I forgot to memorize my lines. Nobody even bothered to give me lines. I feel stupid because nothing comes in my head to say. There we stand in silent tableau, me on one side of the chopping block table full of saw and knife cuts from all the elk, deer, birds, pigs, beef and sheep the brothers have butchered here on our farm to feed their families, and them on the other. There has to be dying for living to happen, I guess. That kind of death I understand. Not the one I’m here to acknowledge.
The cigarettes in the ashtray burn down. The cooler motor hums. My dad and uncle swallow the last of the amber liquid in their glasses, no ice. Maybe they don’t know what to say either. It’s like how you feel at four in the morning when some things have just gone to bed and other things are just waking up, that little stretch of silence as the world shifts gears. Four a.m. is also when most people die, but I don’t want to think about that fact now.
Dad clears his throat. “Your mom sent you out here? You heard?”
“Yeah,” I mumble.
Here’s where my dad lodges his tongue between his bottom teeth and lip the way he always does when he doesn’t want to cry. I have tried this trick myself and it kind of works. The thought of losing his brother must have crept across his awareness just when he thought he had it tucked away. Saying things out loud sometimes makes things too real.
“I made it to 49,” my uncle says.
That’s the age grandpa was when he died. That’s the same hump my father had to jump over and he was glad to turn 50 still alive. 49 is an important number in this family.
“I have to give up cigarettes, dang it. Don’t see why if I’m going to die anyway.”
They laugh at that and I think Uncle Melvin has a point.
It’s quiet again, then Uncle Melvin hacks the way smokers do, pulls out his red handkerchief from his pocket and spits into it, and stuffs it back inside his pocket.
“How’s your job?” he asks.
It’s my first week working as a cook’s helper in a restaurant. I prepare the plates with garnish. I mix things up sometimes because I’ve never even eaten some of the food in my life. I forget if it’s the red cinnamon apple slice or the wad of parsley which goes on the plate with the chicken fried steak or the breaded veal. The owner threatens to fire me because I have to keep asking. Those thoughts rise to the surface when Uncle Melvin asks the question, but all I say is, “Fine.”
“How are you?” I ask, and right when I say it I know it is possibly the dumbest thing I’ve ever said. I could have said, “I don’t want you to die,” or “I’m sorry you are going to die,” or “My heart is full of anguish,” or a myriad of other things more helpful and more sane. I don’t even know why that came out of my mouth. No way to take it back. No second chances—for any of us.
“Not so good right now,” Uncle Melvin says to the floor, and I could take the butcher knife and chop myself up in little bloody bits all over the scarred table.
I nod my head repeatedly, and say, “Hmmm.”
My dad can’t even look at me. “You should go back in the house and help your mother with dinner.”
I feel like the girl who missed the $64,000 question which could have saved her family from destitution and penury. No doubt my standing there like a mime and then saying something idiotic has tried my father’s patience. Patience is not his virtue. Still, he’s given me an out, and I’m grateful.
“Okay. See ya,” I say to my uncle, and without even hugging him, I take my stick figure self through the screen door.
On the long path back to the house, walking over bits of twigs, dried leaves and gravel, I reflect on what I haven’t said or done. Why didn’t I say those heartfelt things or do those loving things when the time came? Why couldn’t I even think of them until later? My inadequacy makes my own heart ache at not being who I wish I were. Am I the only one who is less than she hoped to be?
The sky has darkened since I first went to the milkhouse and the screen door into the house is a block of light in a sea of gray. It’s muggy enough we may get a summer thunderstorm later on tonight. I open the door and go in past the washer, its lid heaped with dirty clothes, to a kitchen smelling of roast beef, which my mother is carving. Potatoes, gravy, roast–it’s a heavy meal for the summer but I can tell it’s the only thing she knows to do about Uncle Melvin. She looks up and I see her eyes are red-rimmed and her nose, red. Her freckled face is blotchy. That’s what happens when we cry. It appears she waited until I was gone so she could disobey her no crying rule without me as witness.
“Did you talk to him?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, and pass her without offering to help, going directly through the living room with its wood stove and cracked linoleum floor into my room, all pink and maroon, like a living organ, like, let’s say, a heart.
I lie on my bed and look at the little plaque I won in my second grade Lutheran Sunday School class for knowing my scripture. It’s about the size of a deck of cards and the only thing on my wall, now that the magazine picture of Ricky Nelson I had taped there got too ratty and I told him goodbye to his face, kissed his paper lips, and took it down.
“God is Love” the plaque reads. That sounds good to me. That will be my snort of solace for the moment. God knows there’s nothing else to hold onto. I let loose and bawl.
Karen Keltz 2011
2011 Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers Honorable Mention
Published June 10, 2013 Huffington Post/50
Wood heats twice, Robert Frost said, once chopping, once burning.
I think my math is better.
I say the memory of wood-getting
years and years later
heats once more our hearts.
On a summer’s day,
wearing chocolate brown cotton gloves too big for us
and long-sleeved shirts to save us scratches on the arms,
we ride with Dad in the old clunker pickup
with the whiskey flask under the driver’s seat
up to Mount Fanny.
Driving up a fanny makes us sisters laugh
a joke we’re sure is safe from the adult next to us,
his ears immune to silly twitter.
Dust follows us like beggars trying to join our family.
The whole valley below appears checkerboarded
between the tree branches.
Our house disappears, even the roof.
Alongside the dirt logging road
there lies a pile of slash that will keep us warm next winter
if we work for it now.
That’s our first lesson:
Things desired do not drop into our laps.
The next step after wanting is work.
Sawdust chunks decorate the sky in arcs
as the chain saw grunts, catches, and growls into action.
Insects dining on rot and human sweat join the dance.
Our slapping, no deterrent, seems to amuse them.
Chainsaw smoke stinks up the air.
After the stove-sized chunking
Dad wields the axe and the wedge.
The sleeves of his blue workshirt rolled up above his elbows,
his muscles and sinews,
say this is a man who works,
this is a man who keeps his family warm in winter.
This is what a man is.
His arms are mahogany but we can see the glimpse of
untouched creamy skin just under the sleeve.
This is our dad too—tough outside, but tender underneath.
We’ve seen him cry with his tongue pressed behind his teeth
and we like this about him though we don’t talk about it.
This is our second lesson:
People are not always what they seem at first glance.
As a section of log becomes quarters and eighths,
the sweet smell of what’s held secret under bark
seeps from each crackle of wedge’s split.
Dad stops and blows the dust from his nose on his big, red and black hankie.
Now comes our turn. One girl throws, one stacks, and the pile grows a cord at a time.
We’re clumsy, better suited to the kitchen, and Dad barks instructions.
No soft, sweet talk here.
The V’s are fit into openings of the tops already packed
so that the stack won’t fall over on the bumpy ride home.
The third lesson: If we don’t get it right, we do it again.
This is only practice for the final stacking at home.
From the cooler we take a slug of water
in a Mason jar, or the battered tin cup, and feel the overflow
drip down our chins and chests into our cleavage.
Particles of sawdust cling to the wet and our lips
after we dry them on our arms.
We pee behind the trees, then resume our work.
How many cords of wood is the winter long?
Other men in old pickups full of wood drive by,
checking on our handiwork.
If there are boys in the car
we get interested and embarrassed,
our hair dusty and dripping.
Just a dog, we don’t care.
The pickup bed stacked full and tight,
we head home, the landscape rising up,
trees and grass and swarming bugs, to meet us.
The dust comes too, joining the smoke from Dad’s cigarette.
Our sweat dries and cools us.
Sometimes, if it’s a good day,we all sing.
Karen Keltz 2008
Winner 4th place OSPA Spring Contest
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