Jo Ann Lordahl takes the saga of oil-in-the-ground to gasoline-in-our-cars and makes it fascinating. Set in Jay, Florida, the scene of the largest oil strike in the continental United States, Devil Oil Diary is the story of the now-gorgeous Mary Celia Diamond, “an ugly female child growing up in a painfully small, religious, southern town.” Where, to lend an extra complication, Mary Celia has a beautiful step-mother: “a charming, spoiled selfish empty-headed southern belle who plays her role to the hilt.” Her father dies when she’s twelve and before he can carry out plans to have her ‘ugly’ nose fixed.
The transformed Mary Celia, now engaged to kind and gentle Stephen, returns alone to her beloved childhood home to gather a few final treasures. Immediately she’s shocked with meeting Vance: I met a man named Vance last night. Oil trash as they call them around here with a new foreign sophistication. Mary Celia wants to learn about oil – those oil leases are questionable. A ‘lean and mean,’ Vance volunteers to teach her. From a helicopter ride to a working oil rig deep in the Gulf, to learning what a “bore” is, or how oil pipes can sneak around to a competitor’s land, we are intrigued.
Her father’s will has disappeared and her now deceased step-mother has left everything to B & B, her highly unpleasant step-brother and sister, Butch and Barbara. B & B want to take over the house and land. Mary Celia knows she could fight but keeps telling herself she wants to return to safe and predictable Stephen. Yet she remains glued to Jay. Or Vance?
Things in Jay have changed and staying alone in her childhood home is not safe. Mary Celia is locked alone in the creepy storm cellar. Doors slam when nobody but her is home. A dead bloody chicken is left on her front door and Claudine, her only nurse-ally growing up, keeps warning her former charge to be careful. Stephen arrives in Florida. Adventures and clashes follow until an unexpected happy ending.
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I met a man named Vance last night. Oil trash as they call it around
here, with a new foreign sophistication. June 1
All day I’ve dreaded this moment. It’s jarred like gaining shocking insight into a familiar character. Catching mirror glimpses revealing a stranger and you stare, searching to find the old you. Wondering about the impression you make on others?
How you appear to them?
I have my life organized. I know where I’m going. I don’t want last night. Don’t need it and won’t let it disturb me. Everything is planned. Although Stephen and I haven’t yet made our formal announcement, I know how it’ll be. See it as clear as if it were happening now. Marriage. Children. A calm, orderly and happy life. I’m probably exaggerating last night anyway. It’s the shock of returning to this jerk-water home town in the forgotten back of nowhere and finding it the oil capital of the United States. I have to keep reminding myself that these are modern times. It’s the 1970s, for heaven’s sake. The world is changing.
Who could have ever dreamed?
Jay, Florida. A small sleepy farming town of six hundred in the panhandle of Florida, thirty miles from Pensacola, out in the lost reaches of the boondocks. No one could have predicted it. I look out my window now at that iron, science-fiction creation holding back the oil they call a “Christmas tree” and I still don’t believe it. I examine the April, 1971, check from Champion Oil Company for two thousand three hundred and forty two dollars and thirty three cents. I can’t trust this money is real. Every month, they say. Frequently more.
Jay, that’s a crazy name for a town anyway. Jay, the home of the largest oil strike in the 1970s in the continental United States. Jay, sitting smack on top of a two by three mile pool of oil that’s thirteen thousand feet below this beautiful rich farm land.
It’s incredible. Mother kept sending newspaper clippings and writing me about the oil, changes, fights, and her favorite … the obituaries. But somehow the oil strike and all the commotion was never real.
I’d left this town forever. None of that oil stuff affected me. Interesting to read about, but it wasn’t my concern.
Mother is dead. Unexpectedly. I’m the oldest child left in limbo by an ancient, outdated will. I’m here only to clear up loose ends. Get out of this town quick. Last night at the party old friends and neighbors came alive as people. And I met a man named Vance last night. Oil trash as they call them around here, with a new foreign sophistication. Vance Marcil Bruten. I must be careful or I will be involved.
But I’m exaggerating the whole thing. I am careful, organized. I’ve taught myself how. Step-by-step, a little at a time, taking the heartbreaking setbacks. I’ve worked so hard to earn my happy life. I’ll only be in Jay two weeks, a month at most. Then I’ll rush back to Stephen. Away from this horrible reminder of my ghastly childhood. I’ll forget this frantic oil hysteria. Oil checks from Champion can go straight into my savings account for our future children’s college education. As a treat every year Stephen and I will plan an extra special vacation.
I wasn’t always this organized. In fact, you could say I didn’t have it together at all That I was miserably unhappy. You could observe that I lived in chaos. A nightmare of ill-matched parents who vacillated their child rearing practices between total neglect and a pathological smothering concern that left me no secrets, no place to hide.
That’s why I started keeping this diary. I needed a place of my very own where I could be honest. I desperately required something that would remain unchanged. A place where yesterday’s truth would remain today’s reality and tomorrow’s fixed fact.
There was no substantial rock in my environment. So I gradually created my own. These diaries. My secret diaries, where private forbidden ideas could be expressed and romantic castles built. Where I could be me. Be the inside person I knew existed somewhere underneath the deformed exterior.
For I was that worst of all possible creatures – an ugly female child growing up in a painfully small, religious, southern town. To lend an extra complication of interest, I grew up with a beautiful mother. A charming, spoiled, selfish, empty-headed southern belle who played her role right up to the hilt.
But I mustn’t be unkind or bitter or unfair. Mother was the unenviable product of her training and rigid southern upbringing. Anyway, we long ago came to terms and worked out our own understanding. And, thank all the gods, somehow managed to forgive each other before she died. Otherwise I simply couldn’t bear it now.
Today I keep losing my train of thought. Usually I’m much more organized. With all this remembering, I’m putting off telling about last night. Don’t want to face it. Don’t want to think about that arrogant, rude, insufferable Vance Bruten. He acts like he owns the world just because he knows something about oil wells. Lean and mean. That’s what he called himself, “lean and mean.” Well, it fits him, all right. But it’s the arrogance I can’t stand. That predatory, confident, watchful look, gleaming from his eyes. Like an animal in the prime of its life. A soaring eagle that knows from successful experience precisely how to calculate, dive and kill. He wastes no motion, wastes no energy. Just takes what he wants. Hard and contained and deadly.
Well, I’m certainly letting my imagination run away with me. So I met an arrogant man. So what. I’ve met plenty of arrogant men who think every woman in sight
is just dying to fall into their fickle arms. I’ve met his sort before and I don’t like them. Stephen is my kind of man. A real man. Kind and gentle and intelligent. And
successful too. He’s figured out the important things in life. And he is maneuvering so he gets them. I admire and respect him and I’m glad he’s asked me to marry him.
I intend to inventory this house I always thought was mine, make necessary decisions about the oil, and leave Jay in the next minute.
Barbara and Butch will have to go along with me or I’ll contest that crazy will of mother’s. I left Jay before and good things happened. I won’t have regrets about leaving again. That’s settled. Finish my work and leave.
Actually the party last night was great fun. Interesting. I haven’t been to a party like that in simply years. Or maybe never.
I’d forgotten how they do things here in Jay. I was at the beauty parlor. Beth’s Beauty Shop. Owned by a striking blonde that completely overshadows the girl friend
I grew up with. Only her beautiful dark-lashed blue eyes were the same. Surely I can be forgiven for making the casual observation that this tiny town has three beauty shops and no library. But that’s the southern emphasis on beautiful women. The thing that nearly
destroyed me as a child. But anyway, there I was at Beth’s Beauty Shop, knowing full well that everyone was simply dying of curiosity,
They knew I was back in town. My conniving cousins, Barbara and Butch, or B & B as I call them, would have seen to that. Beth and all the plump lady customers rushing to say hello were bursting at every manicured pore to ask me about my nose. Ask about my mother. About the oil, the old will that’s left everything to Barbara and Butch. And to ask about this antiquated old house that should have become mine. I know my father wanted me to have it.
But, more than anything, I knew they were curious about my nose. Absolutely exploding with curiosity to learn how this insecure, ugly ducking had arrived at being a confident, attractive woman. And much, much, too polite to allow the natural questions to flow out. Only the bright inquisitive eyes stabbed their interrogation.
On the surface all was polite sweetness and light. “My, aren’t we glad to see you, Mary Celia.” “My, don’t you look well, Mary Celia,” and “Won’t you please have a coke?” Yet always their cold eyes were darting and asking. It gave me a perverse joy to ignore these unspoken pleas. And, I suppose, too, I must admit I found a strange unexpected pleasure in their familiar, time-honored behavior.
It was a ritual. A southern ritual, as rigid and unyielding and prescribed as any Japanese tea ceremony. Yet, underneath the avid curiosity, I felt they really were glad
to welcome me back. Were sincerely interested in me as a person. It was pleasant, comforting, to feel this individual concerned interest after living so long in the impersonal city.
“Mary Celia,” Beth had said, her hands swiftly buzzing about my head, still hot from a thirty minute session under the dryer. Expertly she grabbed clips and rollers
from my hair, saying, “I was wondering if you’d like to come by the house tonight for cold cuts and then later walk over to a party with us?”
I hesitated a moment while proprieties and memories danced in my mind. Mourning was out of fashion and besides everyone knew how mother had treated me. No
secrets in a small town. I knew people were speculating like mad since her death three months ago. No, I couldn’t be hypocritical. Even after all these years, the tragic long
ago death of my father caused me a hundred times more regret and true sorrow. Mother had chosen not to love me; it was no wonder after a time I came to reciprocate her negative feelings.
Other parties in Jay flitted across my mind. Happy gatherings to which I’d not received invitations. And from somewhere tumbled the odd notion that by accepting I could escape spending the evening alone trapped in my old house. An unwilling prisoner of the memories it held. The secrets. “Yes,” I said quickly “cold cuts and a party sound nice. What time should I arrive?”
I was excited dressing for the party. Apprehensive though. And somehow strangely shy. I knew many local people would feel I’d done wrong, sinned as it were, to have plastic surgery on my nose.
“You shouldn’t interfere with the handiwork of God, Mary Celia.” I can still hear pious old Mrs. Miller, waggling her weak chin with three long black hairs sprouting from a brown mole. “It’s the will of God,” she told my father, “you shouldn’t interfere with the will of divine providence.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” my father had said. But I knew differently. He’d told me about the specialist in Birmingham. Then father died before putting his plan into motion. How would people treat me now that I’d carried out my father’s plans?
A feverish, childlike exuberance first impressed me about the party last night. A heedless, willful, naughty kind of gaiety, as though some mildly illegal activity was happening. Today, when I think of last night, I think of a charade. Think of Mardi Gras balls with people wearing masks. Think of the dancing French nobility waltzing on the bloody dawn of their revolution. Waltzing and smiling and laughing too loud, never knowing that tomorrow it would be their pretty little necks feeling the cold edge of a rushing guillotine.
Last night for no reason at all, I felt like I was facing a guillotine. Suddenly at Beth’s, I didn’t want to go to the party. But in another way I did. The mixed feelings gradually seeped into consciousness.
I’d spent extra minutes luxuriously soaking in jasmine bath salts in the huge lion-pawed bathtub.
“Now Miss Celia, don’t be stubborn,” Claudine’d said, standing in the bathroom door with the ease of someone who’d known me forever. She shifted the thick stack of sun-dried towels, deftly putting them on the low shelf. Then she quickly exchanged the hanging blue bath towels, putting a fresh one at my fingertips.
“Claudine, you shouldn’t spoil me,” I smiled.
She sniffed, not one tendril of hair escaping from the screwed-up bun on top of her freckle-faced head.
“Somebody around here had to,” she aimed a direct stare straight into my face. As I quickly looked away, I saw a flashing vision of my life in this house after that strange birthday present in my twelfth year. They’d never been my brother and sister. Claudine knew that as well as I did. She knew father’s untimely death left me alone in enemy territory. My father hadn’t always been successful but he’d tried to shield me.
As if reading my mind Claudine continued without pausing, “You can never tell what tricks that pair can dream up. Besides, it’s not safe for you alone in this old house.
You don’t realize the change. The oil’s brought riffraff. The smell of money brings out the jackals. Don’t spend the night here by yourself. If you won’t let me stay again
tonight, even though I know Tom wouldn’t mind, then at least drive to Milton and get a motel. You’ll be safe there.”
I wondered at the frustration shrilling in her tones. This wasn’t like her.
“No, Claudine,” I said quietly. “I won’t be driven from my own home – before I have to leave it forever. The will has left them everything,” I said fiercely. “But
it’s not theirs until it’s official. And until it is official I’m staying right here,” I strongly protested. Illogically, irrationally I knew I must stay put in my father’s house.
“I might have known,” Claudine said resignedly. “I’ll be over in the morning at eight o’clock.” As she turned to leave, “Enjoy yourself at the party,” came floating behind her trailing footsteps.
Claudine’s concern surprised me. Her leaving so abruptly. I’d been counting on her to advise me on party wear for the newly rich Jay. Now I’d have to decide by myself.
The house lay suddenly quiet. Except for me, this immense old two-storied house was empty of human life. My heart pounded faster. I was all alone. Was this what I had wanted?
Not stopping to think, I grabbed the blue towel, burying my face in its clear sweet perfume. The gleaming southern sun was tantalizingly trapped in its soft warm
depths. Claudine must have just brought it in from the clothesline tightly stretched between two shady water oak trees in the back yard. I’d forgotten the joy of clothes freshly dried by the natural sun. Plastic manufactured heat from the electric dryer in the crowded city had all unknowingly become my way of life.
Wrapping the enveloping blue towel around me, I fastened it with a secure tuck over my breasts. It would stay if I didn’t make any energetic movements.
My few dresses, slacks and blouses were forlornly huddled in one corner of the spacious walk-in cedar-lined closet. Grandpa Diamond may have been a bit of a scoundrel with his timber holdings, but I had to admit he certainly placed his priorities in the right order with luxurious lion-clawed bathtubs and fragrant over-generous closets.
I spread out two possible outfits on the stitched patchwork coverlet, not seeing its familiar beauty. Tamar, my cross-eyed, blue-eyed, goateed Siamese cat got up with a disdainful attitude and walked out. The unusual tuft of small hairs under her chin gave her a rakish air. I’d disturbed her nap and anyway she was getting over being angry because I’d left her for so long.
Suddenly I had to smile at myself. All along I’d been seeing this necessary visit to Jay as a distasteful duty. I told Stephen I hated the place and the people. That I didn’t care if the will could be fought, I only wanted to be free of any clinging traces of the past.
Why, then, had I packed two party outfits for Jay? An unedited part of me had known there’d be party invitations. That part wanted to show this hick town. Wanted to return triumphal to the scene of my unhappiness. Wanted to rub it in their shallow faces that I was happy, successful, attractive and getting along quite well without them.
Was I trying to prove something? Well then, let’s do a good job of it, I told myself, rejecting the turquoise jersey with its white halter top. The evenings here were cool, and removing its concealing long-sleeved jacket might not be appropriate. I wanted to show off.
The skin-hugging silver lame pantsuit with its jangle of silver and pearl necklaces and silver sandals would better project my defiant image of sexy elegance. That’s what I suddenly wanted. This was no time to worry about being overdressed.
Thirty minutes later, giving myself a final survey in the mirror, I was satisfied with my creation. All this unaccustomed fussing with clothes and hair was fun, but it certainly took time.
This young woman looked as if she had always lived in the sunshine of effortless popularity. Her blonde hair shone and the sparkle in her brown eyes said she could
handle anything. The chosen nose, narrowly aristocratic, even held a hint of haughtiness that was denied by curving high cheekbones and full rich lips. I liked the way her blonde hair caught the silver highlights.
As I turned slowly for a sideways view, I happily felt every sacrifice was worth it: the week of not being able to eat solid food because of the operation, the exercise program so the rest of me would be worthy of my new nose, and lately each foregone chocolate chip cookie.
My heart stopped and then began a hard pounding. For an instant some trick of the light gave the girl in the mirror the old hooked nose. Familiar feelings of rejection poured over me. Suddenly they were with me – all those false, faked smiles as I’d watched happy, laughing classmates at the few parties I had attended.
I started as a door downstairs banged shut. Claudine had returned after all. She could tell me how I looked. I needed someone to tell me how pretty I was.
“Claudine,” I called. “I’m in here. Hurry on up.”
The expected footsteps didn’t come. Of course, how silly of me. Claudine was leaving. After being delayed in the kitchen she was just now getting away. But why
hadn’t she come by to see how I appeared all dressed up for the party? Claudine never could hold a grudge for more than five seconds.
I moved to the white-curtained window to catch a glimpse of her. It was unspoken but there was a special childhood tenderness for Claudine. The skinned knees, the
stubbed toes, the cruel, betraying friends were all handled by Claudine. I wanted her to share this pleasant time.
I stared. The road was empty, the landscape calm and peaceful. Only a black cow grazed in the shadow of an oil well. These wells didn’t pump up and down like all the pictures I’d seen of oil wells. How queer, I thought again, to see oil wells like these, which are masses of pipes and connectors.
Inside me a cold panic gathered into a hard knot. If it wasn’t Claudine downstairs, who slammed the door in this empty house? I tried to tell myself it was only the wind, but I knew I didn’t believe it. Or that it was some other noise. Something falling perhaps. Or a noise from the road. Or maybe I’d imagined the intruding sound.
But I knew I was ridiculous. Of course, the sound was real. There was an explanation. Probably just Tamar jumping on something. Except the cat was now back on
the bed. I shuddered. I’d run downstairs and look around carefully before I left for the party. It wasn’t like me to be this jumpy.
The party was a mad crush of people. Old friends, unrecognizable, forgotten. New people, oil people bringing the ultramodern world to Jay. In stray moments the mystery of the slamming door invaded my thoughts but chattering party sounds helped me forget my small mystery at home.
Everybody was there. I’d forgotten what parties were like in small towns. Everybody had to be invited. Otherwise feelings got hurt. Friends stopped speaking
and children weren’t allowed to play together. New rich, old rich, the woman clerk from 7-Eleven, old people, young people, the calm phlegmatic face of a lifetime farmer and the tense nervous face of his newly rich wife. Here and there moved the oil faces. Hard controlled features with measuring eyes rarely touched by their quick-smiling lips. Hawks among the chickens.