Jo-Jo

By Laura Albert

“Uh, Jo-Jo?” My sister’s head wobbles, a pool ball on the edge of a scratch. “JO!” I snap my fingers frantically in her face, the way you bring back the hypnosis victim that won’t turn back from a chicken. Her head lolls up to the backrest of the herringbone La-Z-Boy and her skull sinks into its cushion — Sherlock Holmes nodding his deductions deep in the cave of his cap.

Jo-Jo’s eyes stay sealed. The discolored blues of the Cunningham’s household tint her face, a chalked-up cue ball. The Cunningham mother is fretting over a pot roast.

“OH MY FUCKING GOD!” I sprint around the corner from the living room to the kitchen, jerk open the freezer, and dig past the milky-bile colored Tupperware. My heart is missing; it’s not even beating. I’m not breathing. I strain on my toes and stare at the shut, garage-like door — the home of the ice trays. I must show my respect to the keepers of the gate. I hold back the need to rip into the private cubicle that holds the trays. Instead, I honor their nobility and will myself to follow my ritual. I trace my pinkie around its golden scripted name; I marvel at the high expectations the elegant calligraphy sets for anyone entering the private domain of the frozen compartments. The Light N’ Lively, held prisoner by a flat, bland silver bar in the opposing door, puckers with resentful beads of liquid. “Oh, it’s Mr. Big-Shot Ice Cubes! Can’t make it in the real world of Freezerville!”

“Shut up!” I snap at the Heavenly Hash.

I raise the rectangular flap and gaze at the trays. They sit ensconced in their hermit-like dignity, aluminum sleighs with a forest of snow gilding their edges. They pay no mind to the taunts of the Light N’ Lively, to the pork chops delimited by their skating rink of frozen blood. The dual trays, with their interior compartments of metal, know they are the trusted guardians of the hidden, the unspeakable, the magical. The Illegal. I glide them out respectfully. Even the popsicles, stiff with reconstituted orange juice, lean forward to gaze at the cubes’ glory.

I cradle the left tray in my hands, its steel center lever at my service like a fire alarm. I force the handle straight up with all my strength and call the cubes to duty, jerking the rudders so violently the soldiers are broken up in their complacency.

“We are here to help!” they pop.

I nod my appreciation, even though I know they don’t need it. The popsicles swoon, the Hash lets out a sarcastic groan.

I slither out the second tray. “Armed and ready for launch!” they crackle. I have not checked yet to see if they guarded the hidden treasure as they were supposed to. I know if they failed — all is lost.

Part Two

My mother carries Jo-Jo’s limp body to the tub. I follow, wishing I was something cold.

I have to keep Jo-Jo’s head above the chilled water. It is rising too fast. Little rivulets are invading the lower ground of her eye sockets. She doesn’t blink, only stares up at the cottage-cheese spackle ceiling. Her body is floating disjointedly out from her neck. “She’s someplace else,” my mother told me, as she pressed cold washcloths to my sister’s nude infant body. I looked into her eyes and waved. I tried to catch a glimpse of elves; I knew she was with Santa. “She’s too hot.” My mother’s eyes have become mouths that gobble everything. I am consumed too fast. I am not a washcloth, I am not cool water. I am in the way.

My sister is cooking alive. I don’t know what the hell Santa is thinking.

Jo-Jo sinks in the shallow water, the cubes of ice bob along side her, silently sacrificing their lives. My mother ladles the icy water on Jo-Jo’s forehead as if she were basting a turkey.

The phone rings. We both jump. My mother’s torso pulls up, the way my Barbie dolls do — no bend, no give. She looks toward the direction of the shrill ring of the wall-mounted phone, down the hall, in the kitchen.

It is night, late night. It can only be Dr. Deutch, the pediatrician. His name has been the invoked panicked mantra of the damned.

“You have to keep her head above the water,” she calmly instructs, then shifts over. I hoist my body over the clotted cream rim of porcelain. Jo-Jo’s head is placed in my arms. I nod at my mother as she runs off to get the phone.


I was three and a half when Jo-Jo was born. A rhinoceros entered me one day and we charged her carriage, which had once been mine. My mother caught it and me. She held me tight. “You don’t have to like her but you can’t kill her.”

I had killed my pet miniature turtles. When I was two I pressed down on them like sandwich bread. They didn’t move any more. No matter how hard I knocked on their shell.

They went down the incinerator and I understood the act of murder.

Part Three

Jo-Jo had already taken out a piece of my father’s eye with a toy boat. She didn’t ever stop moving. If I held her as a proud big sister, she’d suddenly jerk her head as if riding a horsey, whooping in the wind. The back of her skull always making football-game contact with my chin.

“It’s too pointy!” my grandmother chided when I ran to her weeping from a Jo-Jo bashing. She grabbed my chin between her fingers and pretended she was sawing it off. I didn’t cry about getting bashed there ever again. It was my defect, so my fault to get struck there. I kept my shame to myself.

Jo-Jo strip-searched my dolls, she played bowling with my weeks of architected block castles, she drew on my Weebles. We sometimes fell asleep holding hands.


“She needs more stuffed animals!” Alice huffs as she fills my sister’s crib with lions and bears. Alice is an only child. Alice is older then me; she never has to share. She lives on the floor upstairs.

“Raggedy Ann needs her boyfriend!” Alice whispers and winks like they do on “Love American Style.” I see a foot, twitching against the wood bars as lucent and full of life as the eggs in the incubators they put on display at Easter. Bugs Bunny is gripped in Alice’s hands. She twists the fanged beast violently back and forth as if he is a doorknob she can’t open.

I watch as the Bunny descends on top of my baby sister. My mother is talking to Alice’s mother in the living room. We can hear their soothing banter. The sprinklers that won’t work in the building’s playground, the elevators that never run.

I look at the turtle bowl. It now houses a goldfish, endlessly touring its interior. Last week there were two. They never last more then a week before we skim them off the surface, open-eyed and stiff to the world.


I can’t turn off the tub spout. I cannot let go of her head. What did Mickey Mouse do to halt the march of the brooms — the water rising too rapidly — what words did he invoke? I hear my mother’s compressed voice, the tone when we are lost in the country and she is memorizing “Hansel and Gretel”-breadcrumb instructions from a local. I am leaning too far over into the tub, like a misbalanced see-saw.

“Jo-Jo!” I command. “Wakeup!” Her eyes stay in the North Pole. The water fills her ears. My arms absorb the heat of her skin against the freeze of the water, the way a baby penguin nestles its mother’s warmth. My sister’s head keeps gaining mass.

I turn my head to the bathroom door, “Mommy…” I whisper. Her voice is staccato like a hopscotch game. I turn back. The ice-trays blink up at me in a florescent glare. They have given up their insides for my sister. I watch my arm muscles twitch among slivers of ice.


Jo-Jo’s head is fallen, an egret tucked in for the storm. I can see her reflection in the picture window. The freezer air smells like the threat of rain. I plunge my hands into the back of the compartment and cover every spot. It is all sclera; the brown centers I need to find aren’t there.

I turn to the ice on the counter. “Oh you fucked up this time!” I say as I empty them into a plastic bag.

I run to my sister. Fonzie is snapping his fingers. A room full of girls string together behind him like beads. I snap. Her head slumps lower.

“Jo-Jo!” I shout in her face and lift her paperweight head. Her lids stay drawn. I reach into the disgraced frozen soldiers, one leaps into my hand. He goes down the front of her shirt without a fuss.

Her lids pop open. “JO, DID YOU EAT THE BROWNIES?!”

Part Four

I reach into the sea of fuzzed animals and begin hurling them behind me like a dog digging out a buried bone. Alice catches and tosses them back in over me. The giant stuffed worm my father won for me at a fair soars over my head. It’s covered with a creeping green mold. It’s not safe, my mother always says, but I rescue it from the garbage every time. I watch in horror as it lands with a bounce on top of the pile in the crib.


The water is at Jo-Jo’s cheeks. The brooms keep dumping in more with their horrible march. I am calling the magic words — “Mommy, mommy…” — but it is like in a recurring nightmare, where my lips are moving but the volume knob just will not attach.


“Why? Why? Why?” Jo-Jo’s voice is an uncontrolled scribble. Her head drops into my hands.

There are small clumps of brown on the sides of her mouth, like the first signs of spring in the mountains. I can’t call anyone. I can’t tell them. I can’t call for help.


“It’s-not-safe!” I scream at Alice and watch as my hands dig my sister out from beneath the stuffed menagerie piled on top of her.


I don’t start crying until I hear my mother hang up the phone and then her bare feet on the linoleum — the sticky sound of them, like a Colorform being torn off its board.


“I don’t know where mom is,” I tell Athena — she’s trotted over to lick up whatever fell. I take Jo’s pulse like I’ve seen them do on TV. I feel her heart still going. I don’t know if it’s slower or faster. I put more ice down her shirt. She bats it like she is drawing air circles. Athena crunches the cubes as they flume out her shirt.


“If you can’t kill her, you sure aren’t going to let anyone else do it!” My mother praised me. I got a big slice of Light N’ Lively, vanilla fudge swirl. I was sad that Alice wasn’t going to be able to come to our house anymore, but I got seconds on ice cream.


“We can let her sleep.” My mother towels off Jo-Jo on the changing table. Jo-Jo’s lids were drawing from their rigid lift. My arms tremble as I dry her feet. My mother leans over and presses a silent kiss onto my head.

Part Five

The phone book is open in front of me. I flip to Pot. A woman’s voice answers, “Pot Smokers Anonymous.” Her voice has rich kindness to it, like a female radio DJ.

I clear my throat and imagine I’m adjusting a necktie.

“My name is uh, Kevin. And um I, got a problem.”

“How old are you, Kevin?” She sounds like a mom.

“Fourteen.” I say my age. I should be older, but my voice won’t sound older. “Fifteen.”

“OK. You have a problem with pot?” I hear her pouring something.

“Sort’ve. Do you trace calls?” I stretch the coiled phone cord so I can feel Jo’s pulse.

“It’s anonymous. You can tell me anything. I’m here to help.” She takes a swallow.

“Anything?”

“Yep. How can I help you Kevin?” She swallows more.

I tell her about the magic brownies my mom brought back from Fish Cove, the commune in the Hamptons she goes to. I don’t tell her how I stay alone when she goes. I tell her how my mom gave me one, for like, when I needed it or something. And I was saving it. I don’t tell her that I was saving it for friends that I don’t have because I don’t go to school. I tell her I ate a brownie. I don’t tell her I did it because I just wanted sugar and we only have Fresca and Tab. I do tell her how my 10-year-old brother saw me eating it and I told him it was mine and not for him! And there wasn’t any more anyways! And then I fell asleep in my bedroom. And when I woke up it was night, and “Happy Days” was on in the living room. And my brother? He doesn’t even blink; he’s never tired, not even after “Laverne and Shirley.” I can’t get him to bed till way late! But here “Happy Days” had just started and he was nodding — like I’ve uh, seen…. Someplace. Not sure.

She took a breath. “Were there any other….”

“Two more. And they were bigger. They were my mom’s!”

“Where are your parents?” I hear her make that slow whistle leak of air, that smokers do, my mom does.

“My mom is uh, out. I don’t know when she’ll be back. I mean soon. My brother seems like just, just passed out … pulse is like regular, I think.” I press her wrist again.

Their phone receiver gets covered. I hear muffled voices. She comes back.

I think about hanging up, but I can’t.

“No drinking?” She sounds teacher-like now.

“No, just magic brownies. He’s just sleeping.”

“That’s the good thing about pot.” She sighs wistfully. “Let him sleep.”

“So she…” I clear my throat again. “He won’t, ya know, die?” I kick over the bag of ice on the floor.

“Nope, he’s fine….” She takes a deep inhalation. “Just very fucking stoned, you know?” She laughs. I hear a man’s voice laugh behind her. I release what I hope resembles a laugh.

“It’s actually pretty peaceful. I don’t gotta put him to bed. Well, I can’t get him into pajamas is all,” I say. I don’t want her to hang up. “Oh and her teeth aren’t brushed, but they usually aren’t anyways.”

“Yeah.” She sighs. “I got a meeting to do, Kevin. Call back if you need anything else….”

“Can I? And like it’s all like private?”

“Can’t tell anyone. We ain’t the cops.”

“So it’s OK, right?” I put my foot on the ice. I force it to stay.

“I gotta go. Yeah. It’s fine. Tell your momma to hide her stash better.”

“Oh, it was the ice cubes’ fault, not my mom’s. They’re the guards. They fucked up.” I glare at the wet empty trays on the counter. They know I will put them back in, empty. My foot is starting to throb in a good aching way.

“OK. You OK now, Kevin?” I like the way she says Kevin. She’s concerned.

“Yeah, um I guess….” I want to say something else so she won’t hang up.

“Call me back sometime and let me know how you’re doing.” She coughs. “Tell your mom to come to a meeting. You can come to a meeting sometime.”

I look at myself in the window reflection. The Jehovah’s Witness massive digital clock flashes 8:43 and 56 degrees. If I squint my eyes, I can see Kevin. He could go to their meetings. He’s thin. He’s cool looking.

“OK,” I say.

“Goodnight,” she says and hangs up. I press the phone against my ear until the receiver starts blaring. I recline the Lazyboy and climb in next to my sister. Athena is curled up on her mat. Jo’s head tilts on the ledge of my shoulder.

“See, I know what to do,” Kevin asserts.


“I wouldn’t trust any other four-year-old,” my mother tells me the next day. “I knew you wouldn’t let her drown.” I never tell her how very high the water had come.