Saddled with an unfortunately long name by her eccentric mom, Carolina Agnes London Indiana Florence Ohio Renee Naomi Ida Alabama Lavender just goes by Cal to keep things simple. Cal Lavender is perfectly happy living her anonymous life, even if she does have to play mother to her own mother a whole lot more than an eleven-year-old should. But when Cal's mom has one of her "unfortunate episodes" in the middle of the public library, she is whisked off by the authorities and Cal is escorted to a seat in the back of a police car. On "just a short, temporary detour from what I call life," Cal finds herself in a group home with four other girls, watched over by a strange old woman everyone refers to as the Knitting Lady. At first Cal can think of nothing but how to get out of this nuthouse. She knows she doesn't belong there. But it turns out that all the girls, and even the Knitting Lady, may have a lot more in common than they could have imagined.
About the Author
Jill Wolfson is the author of the highly acclaimed novels What I Call Life and Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies. The editor of a parenting magazine, her writing has appeared in publications around the country. Her book Cold Hands, Warm Heart was published in 2009 by Henry Holt. She lives in Santa Cruz, California and volunteers in a writing program for incarcerated teenagers.
Read an Excerpt
WHAT I CALL LIFE
Everyone is always living her story.
When I first heard this, I thought: What kind of nutty philosophy is that? Who would buy it? Everyone? Always?
All I had to do was look at my own personal situation to see how wrongheaded this kind of thinking happened to be. I looked around at where I was living at the time and with whom I was living and shook my head. No, sir. This isn't MY story. This is nothing like MY life.
My lifewhat I call lifehad been running its usual course up until recently. Until everything came to a complete and total halt. That was the day my mother happened to have one of her episodes in full public view at the library (more on that later). I, for a fact, knew that things weren't as bad as they might look. Anyone who knew my mother knew that she'd snap out of it eventually. She always did.
But certain people in the library didn't look too kindly on some of the things she was doing during her episode. So these certain people called the police, and, while one of the officers whisked my mother one way, another whisked me outside and loaded me into the back seat of his patrol car.
That had been my first time ever in a police car, and, while I suppose that most eleven-year-old girls would have thrown a full-blown emotional conniption, I didn't put up a fuss, no fuss at all.
Which brings me back to the subject of life stories. If I was going to tell mine, that's one of the first things I would put in about myself: Cal Lavender is known far and wide for never fussing.
No crying. No whining. No complaining. No fuss. Not even when she has to sit in a police car, breathing in the smell of sweat, stale cigarettes, and worn, cracked leather. Whew! I'll tell you one thing. If that vehicle is any indication of what the rest of the police cars in our city are like, they could definitely use a good airing out. But even though I have the ability to clean up far worse messes, I wasn't about to volunteer to do it. Let that officer and his criminal riders clean out their own car.
There was a sharp crackle of static from the police radio, and that's when I decided that I would fold up and die right then and there if the policeman put on the siren. I cringed at the thought of being paraded through downtown in such an embarrassing manner, especially so soon after the previous embarrassing situation at the library. (Like I already said, more on that later.)
That's another thing you could put in any story about my life: Cal Lavender hates it when nosy strangers think itis perfectly okay to stare at people in situations that they know nothing about.
But thank goodness the siren didn't happen. There were only the usual traffic noises. I was perfectly anonymous, just the way I like to be. I pressed my nose against the window. I looked out at the streaks of stores and buses and people rushing by, but nobody could see in. For all anyone knew, the car contained a cold-blooded killer/ arsonist/drug dealer on her way to the electric chair, instead of an eleven-year-old girl with a mother who unfortunately happens to have episodes every once in a while. Which, to my way of thinking, does not come anywhere near qualifying as a criminal offense.
Every so often, I caught the policeman sneaking peeks at me through the rearview mirror. When he saw me looking back, he snapped his eyes away. But then he would look again when he thought I wasn't looking. Then I would snap my eyes away. We went back and forth like that for a while, until we stopped at a red light. This time, he didn't drop his eyes. "No problems back thereright, young lady?"
His eyes held on to mine, which made me feel kind of funny in the stomach, even though I'm sure I didn't show it. I have spent many hours in front of a mirror, imagining embarrassing situations even worse than this one and making sure that, whatever jumpy feeling was going oninside of me, I, Cal Lavender, would have the same fixed expression on my face. I call it My Face for Unbearably Unpleasant and Embarrassing Situations. It looks like this: Eyes like two black checkers. Mouth, a thin line with only the slightest curve at the corners. I'm naturally olive-skinned and thin, with one long eyebrow instead of the two short ones that ordinary people have. This gives me the ability to scowl without even trying. My mother, who has the same line across her forehead, says it's an awning over our eyes, protection against whatever life throws at us.
That's the face I showed the policeman, which made him cough nervously and then say, "Hey, would you like one of these breath-mint things? Sure, all kids like breath mints." A tin of Altoids landed next to me. I didn't touch it. "Not all kids think that their breath needs help," I said.
"No offense intended," he said back.
I forgave him. I had seen the name on his tagOfficer Quigglyand immediately renamed him in my mind. Officer Quiggly Wiggly. That's another thing I inherited from my mother. She has a way of finding the perfect name for everyone, me included. (More on that later, too.)
Then there was more crackling from the radio. "Yeah, that's where we're headed," Quiggly Wiggly said into the receiver. The light changed to green, and the car moved forward.
Now, your average eleven-year-old would probably have been scared out of her wits, not knowing where she was headed, where the ride was taking her, not knowing what waited ahead.
But not me. Not Cal Lavender. I wasn't scared at all. My knees were aligned, my thighs pressing together and perfectly matched. My hands were folded on my lap.
Why should I have been scared? After all, this wasn't my story. This was just a short, temporary detour from what I call life.
Copyright © 2005 by Jill Wolfson