I wrote this short story for the Yuletide fiction exchange in 2012. Merfilly asked for a story expanding on that country music favourite, Harper Valley PTA. I've always loved the song, so it was fun to come up with something based on it.
"We're going to like it here, I can just tell."
Janie Johnson bit at her lip because it was always better to say nothing, if you had nothing nice to say. Because Janie had liked the last town just swell, and the town before that too. Because telling her Mama the truth was something she would only later regret, so instead she did her best to ignore the dingy drapes and the mismatched furniture, and concentrate on arranging the vase to best hide the suspect looking stain on the wallpaper.
Janie Johnson wasn't fooling anybody.
"Your daddy and I started out in a place just like this," Mama said, putting a hand on her daughter's shoulder. "And we fixed it up so pretty that your daddy said it was fit for a princess."
Mama meant it kindly, she always did, but the words stung. Because all that was left of Mr Johnson was a couple of old photos and Mama's memories. Those weren't enough - how could they be? Her Mama wasn't the fresh faced girl who smiled shyly out of that wedding photograph. She wore fashionable clothes, and had fashionable boyfriends and, sometimes when turning the other cheek just wasn't enough, Janie suspected that her Mama didn't even remember what the inside of a church looked like.
"We didn't have to move here," Janie said, and though she wanted the words to sound calm and reasoned, her throat ached, and her eyes burned with the sting of tears. They could have stayed in Hortonville.
They could have been a family.
Harper Valley wasn't so much different to Hortonville, not really. It had a general store, and a park, and a little lending library with all the same old titles. Her teacher, Miss Martin, introduced her to the class with a smile that wouldn't have looked out of place in her third grade homeroom, and the other girls gave her curious smiles, but gossiped about her as soon as her back was turned.
Then they talked about how her Mama had gone to the store in her miniskirt, and how Mrs Jones had already seen her being escorted home by persons unknown.
To her face they asked about Hortonville, and her daddy, and whether or not she would be going to the upcoming dance.
"Billy's asked Lorrie to go with him," Mary told her, kind of breathless and all flushed behind her freckles. Billy Baker could do no wrong as far as Harper Valley Junior High was concerned. He was smart, and on the football team and, just in case something did crop up, his daddy was the Principal. "Lorrie's so excited."
"I am here," Lorrie protested, but she looked pleased, all the same. "Mama went absolutely wild. She's going to make the PTA agree to extra chaperons."
Lorrie's Mama was the Secretary of the PTA, and had been ever since Lorrie's eldest sister had started at Harper Valley. Janie didn't think Mrs Taylor and her Mama would get on very well.
"Is your Mama going to get involved?" Lorrie asked after a moment.
Janie was suddenly very interested in the scuffed toe of her shoe.
"Just look at the state of these, Janie," Mama said a few days later, when it was clear that no amount of polishing could salvage the shoes. Janie could feel frustration building about the situation - they never would have gotten so scuffed if she hadn't had to traipse back and forth, packing and unpacking.
Mama changed tact, dropping down into the seat next to her, placing the shoes on top of the coffee table though Janie pulled a face in protest.
"Never mind, it'll give us an excuse to go into town and buy a new pair. It's about time you had some more grown up shoes anyway."
"I don't want grown up shoes," Janie countered, because there was nothing wrong with the style she was used to wearing.
"Don't you want a pair like mine?" Mama asked, grinning, showing off kitten heels and too much leg.
Janie said nothing.
The day was off to a bad start before it had begun.
Janie hadn't had too much sleep the night before, because it was late, really late, when her Mama's voice carried up from the hallway. It was accompanied by the unmistakable tones of a man, and Janie tried to peer over the banister and get a look at him.
Mama told her to get on back to bed, and that he was gonna be just fine. Once he'd drank some water, and could stand on his own two feet again.
"He's not a bad man, but if he got into any more trouble Mr. Althorp was going to call the sheriff's office. Now you just go on up and get some shuteye."
Janie had recognised him from the glimpse she'd caught, vaguely, but couldn't put a name to the face. He was long gone by the time she came down for breakfast, anyway. Mrs Jones kept them on their way to the bus stop, asking if perhaps Mama had a brother who was visiting. Mama's jaw clenched tight, and Janie understood the insinuation well enough to flush bright red with embarrassment.
"I'd love to stop and chat but I don't want to be late," Mama told Mrs Jones, stiffly, and Janie would have been happy to forget it if the first thing Mama did on their arrival in town was hiss, "Quick, this way. It's Mr Jenkins!"
"But - "
Whatever Janie might have said was lost, and they hid behind a hideous hat display, watching as Mr Jenkins looked about himself, confused. Mr Jenkins had asked Mama to marry him, back in Hortonville, but Mama had refused and now, watching him, Janie wondered if she just mightn't have made the right decision about it.
When he left their gazes met, and the whole thing was so absurd that Mama burst out laughing, so that Janie couldn't help herself and the shop assistant came running, to see what all the commotion was about.
The day ran smoothly after that, and Mama went so far as to agree she would dress down to help chaperon the dance - at Mr Taylor's request - but only if Janie tried dressing up for the occasion.
Back in Harper Valley, the shops in Mountain View might as well have been a million miles away.
There was only a week now 'til the dance, and Janie was practicing walking in the dainty shoes Mama had bought for her. Janie had asked where the money had come from, but Mama had changed the subject, and told her not to worry herself about it.
She was concentrating so hard on walking that she didn't notice where she was going, and the collision almost knocked her off balance, and sent the books the other girl was carrying flying everywhere.
"I'm so sorry!" Janie exclaimed as she tried to help, succeeding only in making things worse. "I really am sorry."
"It's alright," Caroline Harper said, even as she raked a hand through her hair, looking alarmingly like she might cry. "It doesn't matter," she scooped them back into a haphazard pile, "I really can't stop."
The next day at school the other girls were all telling about how Caroline Harper had tried to sell books to the library, and the general store, and the pawn shop, and Lorrie giggled meanly and said,
"Nobody would want anything that came from the Harper household."
Janie felt sorry at that, because Caroline was a year younger than them, and she had no mother to keep her clothes pressed and laundered. It was obvious, suddenly, who her Mama had been trying to sober up that night, and whose laundry she had been taking in some weeks.
She didn't say anything in defence of either of them though, and all day the fact weighed heavily on her conscience.
Her Mama would never have been content to sit in silence.
Her Mama had problems of her own to deal with.
They all went to Mary's after school, to do their homework, and to listen to some records. When Janie rounded the corner for home she froze, and half hid behind old Mr Riley's rosebush because there were two figures on the doorstep.
At first she thought it was Mr Jenkins from Hortonville, who only a couple of months ago she had considered a suitable replacement for her daddy. Still worse, she thought - just for a moment - that it was Mr Phillips from Little Fir. The less said about Mr Phillips from Little Fir the better, that was her Mama's motto.
The man started in her direction and Janie shrank back, so as not to be seen. Her half gasp almost gave it away - it wasn't Mr Jenkins, nor Mr Phillips. It was Mr Taylor, Lorrie's dad. Janie didn't know what he could want with her Mama.
Janie didn't say anything about it the next day, but rumours still spread like wildfire. About her Mama's respectability, and what exactly her occupation had been, back in Hortonville.
A messenger was sent for her in the middle of last period, and the Principal mopped at his forehead with a handkerchief before handing her an envelope.
"It's nothing to get yourself worried about," Mr. Baker told her, though he sounded worried himself. "You just see that your mother gets that letter, Janie."
It was stamped 'Harper Valley PTA'.
Lorrie and Mary were sat on the steps leading to the building when they reached the school, Janie struggling to keep up, even though Mama was wearing her best heels.
Later, Mama would explain to her just how Mr and Mrs Taylor lead nearly separate lives, and how Shirley Thompson wasn't always fit to be in charge of a class full of minors. Later still, Mama would tell her just what exactly Mr Taylor had propositioned, and explain Mrs Jones' line of business.
Janie went to the dance, and Mama chaperoned, in her favourite minidress. Mama stopped trying to change Janie's wardrobe, and Janie threw away the scuffed T-bars without any prompting, because suddenly growing up didn't seem quite so terrifying.
She stayed friends with Mary and Lorrie, because they weren't all bad, and she made a new friend in Caroline Harper, until they became so close they could have been sisters.
Mama never did find another man she liked well enough to say 'I Do' for, but she stopped moving town at every proposition.
Later again Janie sat holding her hand, throat choked as she smiled down at her.
"You made me the woman I am."
"I know I did a good job then," Mama joked, though her voice was awful weak and tired. "For all the mistakes I made along the way."
Janie just shook her head, squeezed her hand a little harder, "It was all a lesson and I'll never forget a minute of it."
They shared a smile.
"Especially not the day you socked it to the Harper Valley PTA."