The grass unfurls like a carpet all the way to the dusty road. We are playing, my laughter emerging in firecracker bursts. Clark has his baseball cars splayed out on the ground where we've trampled down the lawn with bare feet. He points to Joe DiMaggio and waves a freckled hand over his face. Joe is gone.
I hoot again, disbelief swirled up with my joy like on a painter’s palette. “How’re you doin’ that?”
He grins, and dimples sprout on both cheeks. “I ain’t gonna tell.”
I shake my head at him. “I’ll just look it up in a book.”
“Ain’t in any book.”
“Then I’ll ask your Daddy.”
“He won’t tell nobody, neither.”
“Then your Mama.”
“She swore secrecy.”
Such a frilly phrase. I try it from my tongue. “Where’d you learn that?”
“School.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out another guy, this one with big ears and a smirk like Clark’s. “They were vocabulary words.”
Another infinite string of letters, none of which I knew before. “Vocab'lary. That’s fancy. What’s it mean?” I lean over to get a closer look at the name on the card, whisper the sounds of letters beneath my breath. Mm-eh-elle Ah-tuh.
“It just means like what we’re supposed to know. Like Ms. Gregory gives us a whole big list of ‘em every Monday, and we gotta learn ‘em by Friday.”
I pause to count the days on my hands. “In five? That possible?”
“Yeah. It’s pretty easy.”
“Oh.” I close my eyes. I’ve never been to school since there wasn’t one before we moved here. And then when we came in January, it had already started, so Daddy decided I could wait until next year. Three months, and I’ll be in a classroom. In the meantime, Mama is sitting down with me every single day to do reading and some math. I like the math best.
“Hey.” When I open them, Clark’s face is right before mine, and I wrinkle my nose up. He grins.
“I like you, you know that?”
“I like you too.”
“I like you cause you never get sick of my magic.”
“I love it.”
“I know.” He waves a hand over the card, and it is gone. Another guffaw bubbles from my mouth. Clark’s whole face lights up at the sound of it.
“Oh, you have to teach me!” I plead, ruffling up some grass in search of the missing card. “I wanna learn.”
“Tell you what.” He snaps his fingers, and the card flutters to the ground. My world is alight, brighter than the sky above us. “I’ll teach ya before you start school, and that way you can make all kinds of friends with it. Okay?”
“That’s so far away!” I tear up a fistful of the browning green and glare at him. “It’s no fair to hog all your secrecy like that.”
His cheekbones arch up, almost all the way to his brown eyes, and I feel my face go all red. It is infuriating, having him smile at me like that in his all-knowing way.
“Maybe not,” he concedes, “but it’s lots of fun.”
From the porch, Mama calls me. I stand up and brush my skirt off. “Fine. I gotta go.”
He rises too. “You mad at me?” His Mama probably won't call him in until it starts to go dark. His Daddy works at the bank, gets home at an hour when mine is usually in bed.
“No,” I huff. “You’re jus’ an only child anyways, so you don’t know nothin’ about sharin’.”
“That ain’t true.” He frowns in a satisfying way.
“Yeah it is.”
“Louise!” Mama chimes again, a little more insistent. “Come help me set this table!”
“No it ain’t!
Clark is so childish sometimes. “Coming Mama!” I flounce away, but not before throwing over my shoulder, “guess I know things even you don’t”
That summer, we play cops and robbers, and chase my chickens, and we even venture into the corn when it gets real tall, thrashing wildly between the stalks. It’s scary, the threat of Clark leaping out at me, which he does at least five times.
Despite all his promises, he doesn’t teach me the card trick.
“I got somethin’ neat for my birthday,” he confides one June evening, as we’re outside catching fireflies. I walked across the pasture to his backyard for a change, and his Mama was glad to see me so she brought us lemonade and then went back inside. His parents are different from mine. They don’t keep animals or even have a barn, and both of them have jobs. They moved out here, Clark said, cause they like the peace and quiet.
“Oh yeah?” I’m not really paying attention, am instead hyper-focused on one especially evasive lightning bug.
“Yep. It’s this thing called a telescope. Lets you see all the way up into outer space.”
That gives me a pause. I widen my eyes at him, and then crane my neck up to the sky. “I think I can see it right now, though.”
“Yeah, you kinda can.” He points up to the glittering stars. “But you can see past those, to the planets and get a real good look at the moon.”
“Oh.” I fixate on the glowing orb. “Isn’t it awful bright?”
“No. It just looks like it from here.” He scratches a mosquito bite on his wrist. He’s wearing a big old baggy shirt, probably something of his Daddy’s, and shorts that are a little too small, probably from last year before I knew him. “It actually has all these things called craters in it. Looks like somebody took an ice-cream scooper and just dug parts of it out.”
“But it looks so smooth from here..." An idea occurs. "Can I see?”
“Yeah, dummy.” He slings an ice cube at me. “That’s why I was askin’.”
I dig into my own lemonade, grubby fingers and all, and hurl one at him. He dodges too easy, and I’m about to try again when his Mama sticks her head through the screen door.
“Kiddos, it’s gettin’ late.”
“Can I show her through my telescope, Janet?”
That’s another thing. Clark always calls her Janet, which was so odd that the first time I heard it I forgot the rest of my sentence. She doesn’t seem to mind.
“That’s fine.” She steps out and sweeps the door open. “Five minutes.”
Clark takes off, and I race in after him. She doesn’t tell us not to run, like my Mama would. As I fly by, she reaches out to give me a pat on my head, and when I dart my head around I see her smiling. She’s so pretty, Clark’s Mama, with her big lips and long eyelashes. She’s young, too, more than my Momma, even.
We make it up to Clark’s room, and I see that he’s glued more baseball cards to the door. This is the first time I’ve been up here. He pushes on the door, and it creaks open, not even been shut all the way. I expect mustiness, maybe, or boy smell, but it’s nice in here. The windows are open, and his bed is made. He bypasses an oil lamp on his bedside and goes straight for the open window.
There’s this thing set up in front of it, a long white tube on black legs. I approach slowly, watching as he turns some knob on the side to lower it and fiddles with an apparatus.
“Here, look.” He waves me forward, and I take the last few rocky steps.
“You just look through here.” He bends at the waist and presses his eye up to the end nearest him, which I can see is made of glass from here.
“Does it hurt?” I ask, putting my hand to my cheek.
“No.” He chuckles. “Louise, it’s just like lookin’ through a pair of binoculars.”
“All right.” Reluctantly, I dip forward, touching my forehead to the circle. It’s cool, like the door of the refrigerator on a warm night. I move a little father down, until my eye is over the glass plate, and—oh my.
I gasp. “That’s the moon?”
“Sure is.” He reaches forward and moves the machine around a little bit, so it goes to a new place on the surface. “How’s that?”
“Amazing.” I reach up and curl my fingers around the body. “Can I move it?”
“Yeah, but just a little bit. If you move it a lot it’ll lose its place.”
I try just a increment. “This is crazy.”
“I know.” I hear a creak behind me, but I’m too engrossed to look away. I continue to explore the moon for five more minutes while Clark chatters behind me, all about his birthday and the different presents he got. Sweaters from his Gran in New York, where the buildings reach all the way up to the sky, and toys from his Uncle in New Orleans that talk when you press a button. It all sounds too good to be true, but the best thing is in front of me, so I don’t look away.
Finally, when I can’t seem to skim over anything undiscovered, I pull away and suck in some fresh air. It's like I haven’t taken a breath for ages.
I turn around. Clark is sitting on his bed, watching me. “You like it?”
“I love it.”
He crosses his legs up on the bed, shoes and all. Mama would never let me do that. “You know someday we’re gonna go up into space?”
“Nuh-uh.” I come to sit beside him. “Quit lying.”
“I ain’t. Janet said so.”
“How would she know?”
“She works in the news.”
The News. It sounds so professional. “Wow.”
We sit there for a moment, letting the crickets swell around us.
“I’m awful glad you moved here,” Clark finally says. His words make my cheeks warm.
Footsteps sound on the stairs which are creaky like my own, and I relish in the similarity. Clark’s Mama peeks her curly head around the doorframe.
“Kids, it’s past nine. Your Mama probably wants you home, Louise.”
“Yeah.” I make for the door. “See ya tomorrow, Clark.”
“Wait—“ Clark’s Mama reaches out to point at him. “You walk Louise home, Clark. A gentlemen always does.”
“It’s only across the way,” I protest, but I’m grinning.
Clark does too. It’s a fair excuse not to have to say goodbye just yet. “Okay.”
We clamber down the stairs and then onto the porch. From here, I can see the back of my house. Daddy might already be in bed. The world’s been dark awhile.
The grass swishes beneath us as we amble along. We’re the only two homes for miles, save for a little shack at the edge of the pasture. It’s several strokes away, though, a little ramshackle eyesore that we can’t tear down because it’s part of a separate property. I don’t understand all the lingo that Daddy uses when he gets to ranting about it.
Clark and I don’t speak as we walk side by side. Occasionally he’ll bump into my shoulder with his, and I’ll reciprocate.
“Thanks for showing me the moon,” I offer, when my back door is within a stone’s throw.
“Welcome. Hope ya liked it.”
“I really did.” I study it once more. It’s so bright, and so intricate. “Can I come look again tomorrow?”
He beams. “Every day, far as I’m concerned.”
I nod, trying to tame my euphoria. “See you then.”
“Then.” He nods and turns, then he’s sprinting back to his home. I breach the back two steps and stand there watching him until he vanishes inside, back to his breezy room and beautiful Mama and that magnificent telescope.
Mama buttons me into a yellow dress with a starched white peter pan collar. It reminds me of something I’d wear on Easter, and I keep whirling in the mirror to get a look from every angle. Aside from my perpetually scraped knees, I’m a vision.
“Don’t you go getting vain,” Mama says, coming back into the room with my coat and buttered toast peeking out from a cloth napkin. She comes to stand behind me, draping the coat over the crook in her arm. “V-A-I-N, Louise. Meaning to think highly of yourself.”
“V-A-I-N,” I repeat. This is one of the ways that Mama has taught me lots of words. None as hoity-toity as Clark’s, but there are some that I’m proud of. “You think I’m gonna learn a lot, Mama?”
“I think you’re going to learn everything,” she says, bending over to kiss my frizzy head. She smooths down the blonde strands. “Come and get into your coat. Clark’s already waiting downstairs.”
“Is he?” I wriggle into the armholes. “What time is it?”
“Six-thirty, baby.” She spins me around to face her and does up my buttons, deft and quick. “Now, Daddy and I’ll want to hear everything about to day, so do your best to memorize it.” She stands from her crouch, takes my hand, places my breakfast in the other one. She continues to rattle off a list of intonations as we start down the steps, the floor rough hewn beneath our feet. “If you get confused, raise your hand. Don’t speak unless called on, and make sure you smile at people.”
I bare my teeth at her. She shakes her head. “Not like that, Louise.”
We come around the corner. Our house is old, and it opens up into the kitchen. Mama’s got the Chambers stove going with Daddy’s breakfast, and Clark sits across from him at the kitchen table, reading the comic section.
“Well, don’t you look pretty,” Daddy says, setting down the agriculture section. He beckons me forward. Clark glances up to follow me across the room with his eyes.
“Have a good day, Louisa,” Daddy says, as he pulls me in close. I hold him tight. Only he calls me Louisa. I tuck my head against his arm as my whole body rushes with warmth. I'm safe, with Daddy.
And then I'm not. I'm afraid--afraid the other kids will laugh at me, afraid I won’t know the right answers, afraid all the words I’ve painstakingly learned will swim right out of my head. “Love you, Daddy.”
“You too.” He pulls back to look at me. “I wish I had hired one of them camera men to take your picture this morning.”
“We have a camera. Janet would take our picture,” Clark volunteers, scooting his chair back from the table. He clomps to his feet. I notice he’s dressed up real nice in a clean shirt and pressed pants. His hair has been slicked down with some kind of pomade, and as I pull away from Daddy to step beside him, he smells like men’s aftershave.
Daddy shakes his head. “Nah, don’t bother her none. This’ll do.” He raises his both hands up to his face, thumb and forefinger in L-formation, and taps them together. “Look here, I just took a picture in my mind. Stored up here.”
I shake my head. “Daddy, you’re silly.”
He smiles wide. He’s gruff and a little unshaven, with happy eyes. My Daddy’s kind of old, at forty-five. He and Mama already had five children and they’d all up and moved away by the time I came along. So I guess I’m an only child too, kind of, like Clark. But I understand sharing, because I get my sisters’ old hand-me-downs, and when we have get-togethers they hog all Mama and Daddy’s attention.
“Have fun, baby,” Mama says, following us to the door, “and don’t hang back at the end of the day. You still have to do your chores.”
“All right.” I let her kiss me on both cheeks and then we are off. The sun isn’t real warm yet today—there’s a little nip of fall in the air. My white farmhouse and Clark’s pretty green one take on a dreamier glow with each step we take.
“I can’t believe it,” I babble, hurrying in front of him, although I have no idea which way to go. Up past the shack house, apparently, because that’s where he’s headed. “I never thought I’d get to go. Mama and Daddy said, but it’s like—I dunno, like I’d never see it. Does the school have lots of windows? How can you keep yourself from lookin’ outside? And are the kids real nice? Do you think I’ll make—”
“You’re gonna love school,” Clark promises, throwing his hands up. “You’re real funny, Louise, and nice. The girls’ll love you ‘cause you’re a girl, the boys’ll like you ‘cause you like playing all the physical games—“
“That a vocab'lary word?”
“Vocabulary. And no, just somethin’ I picked up.”
I reach my hand out and run it along the wooden fence parallel to the shack. I hardly ever see it up close, so I take a chance to look good. It’s all wild and overgrown, but the windows have a little shine to them. I rove my eyes all over the yard and stop short.
“Yeah.” Clark sees the same time I do. Out on the clothesline, there’re things hanging: a little shirt and pants, a woman’s ratty dress, a big men’s shirt. I’ve never seen that before.
“Is somebody living there?”
“Dunno.” He pauses, leaning against the fence with his whole body. “I don’t see a car.”
“Not everybody has cars, Clark.”
“Right.” His cheeks redden, and I know it isn’t from the whip of the wind.
I copy his stance and drape myself over the fence, willing the next few seconds to chase the words away. Sometimes he’ll say something like that, Clark, that can be taken wrong. He forgets that Daddy and Mama pay Otis Kitchett twenty cents a week for carpool. He lives down the way and on Mondays and Fridays his old truck will rumble up into our driveway. Mama will come out in a pretty hat with her lipstick on, and Daddy will be wearing one of his shirts without wrinkles, and they’ll get in and go.
Clark, his Daddy has a car that comes and takes him to work and they have a car at home, for his Mama to take all around. She knows how to drive. My Mama never learned.
“Maybe we should go knock,” Clark says at last. I steal a look at him. His jaw’s real sharp, and his eyes are narrowed down so much you can’t see any color.
“Mm, maybe,” I agree, but then I pivot off the board, flailing my hands out. “But I got to get to school.”
He laughs hard. “What’re you doin’?”
I climb back up onto the fence, up the second rung, edge around so I’m facing Clark, and then jump, throwing my hands to the sky. “Flying.”
“Why?” I catch his grin.
“Because.” I mount the rungs again. Soar. My dress flutters up in the wind.
When I drop down, I fix my skirt real quick. But Clark is curled over, hands on his knees. He can’t seem to get a breath in between his hiccups.
“I saw your underpants! They’re real frilly!”
“Stop it!” I try to be mad, or embarrassed, but it’s Clark. So I end up on my back too, giggling up into the sky. “I’m gonna be so late.”
“Nah. We can run a little ways.”
“Then I’ll be all sweaty, and my dress will be gross.” I flick at some grass on my skirt. “I’ll have stains.”
“Life—“ Clark leans toward me on one arm, all serious, “life was made for stains.”
“Life—“ I lean back, shaking my head, “was for nothing, ‘cause Mama’s gonna kill me.”
“Okay, frilly underpants.” He smirks at my expression. “Let’s go get you an education.”
My homework is laid out in front of me on the kitchen table, and I’ve stubbornly been working my way through it. I have my ‘rithmetic, and spelling, and my vocab’lary. Outside, the wind is howling, and I’m glad to be inside with a warm fire going and Mama’s chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven.
I reach my last addition problem to stop and count on my fingers. Nine…plus…fourteen. I get 113, but I know that can’t be right.
“Daddy!” I call. He’s in the living room, listening to the radio.
“Yes, Louisa?” He replies.
“What’s nine plus—plus—” I glance down at the page. “Fourteen?”
“Well, what do you think?”
“I got one-hundred thirteen! But it ain’t right!”
“No, it isn’t.” A few seconds later, and he’s walking in to join me. He’s wearing his thick stockings and it’s so funny to see my Daddy without his work boots that I giggle.
“What’re you laughing at, Louisa? I look funny?”
“No…” The word comes out all broken up.
“Okay, crazy. Time to focus on this homework.”
I jab at it with my finger. “I don’t get it, Daddy. The numbers are small but the answer is so big.”
He picks up the paper and cocks his head to the side. “Well, you’re on the right track. But you forgot something important.”
“Remember how you’re supposed to carry?”
A light dawns. “Oh!” Hurriedly, I snap up and grab the paper back out of his hand, so quickly that it rips a little. A second later I’m brandishing the answer. “It’s twenty-three, Daddy!”
“Good job!” He rests his hand on the top of my head, and he does look so proud.
Mama’s timer goes off in the next room. I remember she’s upstairs having a bath, and she told me to take them out. I duck out from under his big hand.
“Sure does smell good,” Daddy says.
“I’ll bring you some!”
“All right. I’ll just sit down in there.”
He moseys into the living room. I open the stove, and a whole lot of hot air billows out and wraps me in its arms. I stand there for a good minute or so, reaching my hands out to the warmth.
I hear Mama’s feet at the top of the stairs. “Louise? You get those cookies out?”
“Um—yeah, Mama.” I grab a cloth and hurriedly take out the pan. I can hear her coming down the stairs, so she’ll see me any moment. I’m slamming the oven door shut right as she hits the kitchen floor. She purses her mouth at me and rests her hands on her hips.
“You forgot, did you?”
“No, Mama.” I turn away and poke at a cookie. “I—”
There’s a squeak from behind me, a sound I’ve never heard before from Mama, like her air’s being squeezed out. I frown and twist around to look. Her eyes are frozen off to the side, toward the living room, and her mouth is gaped open. She lifts her hand to her stomach, and it’s shaking.
“Mama—” My whole body is seized up with fear. Is she going to collapse? What’s wrong? “Daddy!” I cry, “something’s wrong with Mama!” I start rushing toward the living room, but all the sudden she is jumping forward, seizing me hard.
“No, baby!” She cries. “Don’t go in there!”
“Mama?” I look up into her face, and it’s wearing an expression I’ve never seen before. Her mouth is down, her eyebrows pulled tight together. As she pulls me flush with her chest, I can feel her heart beating wildly.
“Mama?” I try again.
She squeezes tighter.
I will never be called Louisa again.
It starts to sink in, as the days plod by. I curl up in my bed with my face pressed so hard into the pillow that the tears don’t come out. Mama sleeps in there with me. She cries when I pretend to be asleep, staring at the ceiling and rubbing a hand over her face.
After two or three days, the word has spread. Mr. Otis Kitchett comes in his loud truck holding fried chicken and cookies prepared by his missus. He says Mama needs anything, just to phone him up. He comes by for a solid week every day, asking if we need to go to town, but Mama always says no, thanks. So eventually that stops.
Clark and his Mama come by. His Daddy’s always working at his business office, and he comes in late, but she says he’s really sorry. She brings lemon cake which is so delicious we sit there with them on the couch and devour the whole pan. She talks to Mama about things in the news, like the rising price of hens, and Clark chatters about baseball.
“I was thinking,” Janet says at last, forking some more lemon cake into her mouth, “that maybe I could take Louise out tomorrow to the moving pictures.”
Mama’s been smiling politely, but it crumbles away. “Oh, Janet, that’s awful nice. But we don’t have any extra money—”
She waves her off. “No, no. I don’t want money. My treat!” She leans across the table to pat Mama’s hand, shooting me an encouraging smile. “Anyway, Clark always goes by himself, and he’s been asking about Louise coming along. Please, please let me.”
“Yeah, please—“ Clark starts, but Janet shuts him up real quick with a swift pinch that only I can see. Mama’s faltering, I can see.
“Well—“ She draws in a pitiful breath, then curls her arm about me. “Louise, you want to go?” Her face is so close, her breath warm. I’m afraid to leave her.
“I’ve never seen a moving picture before,” I say at last. “Is it fun?”
“Real fun,” Clark hurries to say. “And it’s a Shirley Temple!”
I know I’ve seen that cherubic face before on newspapers. She’s not much younger than I am, maybe a year. It’s crazy, a little girl starring in the moving pictures.
“Can I, Mama?” I venture at last, feeling more than guilty.
“Of course, baby.” She closes her eyes swift, and I can see that the words hurt. She doesn’t want me gone, I understand that much. “Of course you can!”
“Thank you.” Janet polishes off the last of her lemon cake and stands up. “Here, Darlene, let me take your plate.”
“Oh, I’ve got it.” Mama scoops up my dish and follows Janet into the kitchen. Clark eyes the remaining piece in the dish.
“Here.” I scoot it toward him. “You can have it.”
“Thanks.” He doesn’t bother to serve it up, just eats right from the dish. His chewing fills the room. I lean onto my knees and watch him.
He’s halfway through when suddenly he stops, drops his fork. I watch his throat move as swallows. Then, “Are you real sad?”
I sigh. “It’s awful.”
“Yeah.” He jiggles his foot against the floor, making the whole couch vibrate. I reach forward and put my hand on my knee to stop him.
“You know,” he says, “I lost my Mama, too.”
“What?” I shake my head. “Clark, your Mama’s right in there. That’s not funny.”
His eyes widen. “Oh, no! Janet’s not my Mama.”
“Why, yes she is.” I scoot away from him, far as I can, and cross my arms. “It ain’t nice to joke about, Clark.”
“Louise—“ and he is so exasperated that I just have to look at him, I just have to. “Janet is my stepmother. My father married her five years ago, after I lost my Mama.”
His words sink in, squirm their way into my stubborn mind. “Oh.” All the sudden, a hundred different interactions make sense.
“She ain’t even old enough to be my Mama,” he adds. “She’s only twenty-one.”
“Yeah.” He shift his weight around, side-to-side. “My real Mama died when I was a baby, so I don’t remember her none, but it still makes me sad sometimes. I dunno.”
I feel mean for thinking it, but it’s not the same. I want to shout that in his sorry face, tell him he doesn’t know how it feels—like your whole world has ended.
Mama and Janet are heading back in here, though, walking slow. Janet’s saying something soft to make her laugh. I decide to be happier, too, for the time being. After all, I’m going to the moving pictures tomorrow. I bounce myself on the cushion a little and ask about Shirley Temple.
At the moving pictures, we each pay five cents before we even walk in, and I’m handed a little piece of paper that has a big long word on it that Clark has to help me sound out. Admission, it says, which apparently means being allowed inside.
It smells wonderful in the lobby, what Clark calls the big open room we enter. It has purple carpet, and there’re kids lined up at a counter. They walk away cradling bags filled with popcorn. I didn’t even know you could get popcorn anywhere else but home.
“Janet gave us money for some,” Clark informs me, stepping up behind a big tall girl who is probably a teenager. I scoot up right beside him.
When we get to the counter, Clark asks for a small popcorn real grown-up, and the girl behind it—this time, most definitely a teenager with her primped hair and rouged cheeks—takes his quarter and hands back a bag of the delicious-smelling snack, plus a dime in change.
I grab a single piece off the top before we even reach the theater part. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever tasted, all buttery and hot. Clark grins at my expression.
“I wish I could have popcorn every day,” I chatter, as we step into the darkened room. Rows and rows of seats are spread out in front of us. I hesitate.
“How do we know which seats are ours?” I whisper, as Clark comes to a stop beside me. His head turns from side-to-side as we scan the room.
“You don’t,” he hisses back, “you just pick.”
“Anything?” I grab a handful from the bag.
“Yeah. Where you want to sit?”
“Right there!” I point to the very front row, where the screen is closest.
Clark glances at me, but it’s hard to see in the dark what his expression means. “If you’re sure.”
“Yeah. You see the most, right?”
“I guess. Yeah.” He starts toward the front. All around us are people, grown-ups and children and everything in-between. They’re all talking quietly, even though the moving picture hasn’t started yet. I see Poppy Miller from school and give her a big wave.
“Here we go,” Clark says, stopping at the front row. I hurry past him to the seats dead-center. The chair’s all folded-up, and for a moment I puzzle over how to sit down in it until I watch Clark press it down with his hand. The spot for your bottom opens up beautifully, like a spring tulip in bloom, and I hurriedly follow suit.
“Wow!” I whisper, as I sink down into the plush warmth. “These are so comfy!”
“They’re all right,” he whispers back, “but think of all the butts that have sat here.”
“Clark!” I squeal, but I’m laughing.
“There are farmer buts, and little girl butts, and old lady butts…” He ticks them off on his fingers, and I’m giggling so hard I can’t swallow my popcorn.
“Old man butts…” he continues.
“Okay! I get it! Lots of butts!” I wrinkle my nose. Mama would smack me if she knew I was saying that word. “Gross.”
“Yeah, it’s gross. And they don’t clean these seats, neither.”
“How’re you to know?”
“‘Cause they just don’t. But we’re lucky, ‘cause we pretty much got the only seats nobody ever sits in, ‘less they have to.”
“What?” I gaze up at the screen. It is so enormous from here, I can tell, even blank. “These are great!”
“Not really. You have to watch the whole thing with your head way back.” He mimes this, arching his neck so far I fear it’ll break.
“It’s true. But it’s okay. You’ll learn.” He reaches for the bag in my lap. Somehow, I’ve ended up with the popcorn, but Clark doesn’t care.
We whisper and laugh for another ten minutes, until sudden music swells around us, so full and beautiful I spin around to see if there’s an orchestra behind us. There isn’t, just rows and rows of faces, slowly lit up by the brightening screen. I face forward.
An hour of pure bliss passes in which I watch Shirley Temple outsmart more men than I can count on my two hands. When it’s over, I sit there for a minute in shock. We’ve eaten the whole thing of popcorn between us, and I feel a little nauseous.
“Does eating that always make you feel sick?” I ask, licking my dry lips.
“Nah. The more you eat it, the more you get used to it.” Clark crumples up the popcorn bag and pats my knee. “So. What’d you think?”
“It was—” I stand up on shaky legs. It feels as if I’ve been sitting for ages. “It was amazing.”
“Good. Maybe you can come with me next week. I liked seeing it with you.”
As we leave the theater, back into civilization and brightness and the real, harsh world, I smile at him. “I liked seeing it with you, too.”
Janet’s waiting out front with the car. We climb in and talk the whole way home about the movie, the engine rumbling loud beneath us, and I agree to come again next Saturday—not that I would have ever said no.
Janet lets us off on the dusty road for us to walk the way up to my house together. “Now, don’t stay,” she chastens Clark, even though I wish he would. Mama wouldn’t like that, though. She’s kept the drapes closed and the company out since it happened.
“I loved the moving pictures,” I breathe, as we cut through the tall grass. “They’re so beautiful. And Shirley Temple—she’s the prettiest kid I ever saw.”
Clark doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, reaching out to tug on a waist-high weed as we pass. “You’re prettier.”
“What?” I glare. I’ve never been called pretty before. “That ain’t true.”
“Is not. Quit lying!”
“I’m not.” He fixes me with his stubborn look. “Stop being ungrateful. It was a compliment!”
“Oh, great,” I sigh, “another word I dunno!”
“Well, then ask me, and I’ll explain it.”
“No, sir. Don’t care.” We reach the door. I turn to face him and try to be mad, but he’s staring at the dirt beneath his boots and he just took me to the moving pictures, after all. I try to flick my bad mood away, like a gnat on fresh fruit, and open the door.
“You can come in, if you wanna.”
“Janet said not to stay.”
“Just for a minute. Mama has cookies.”
He shakes his head as he follows me inside. “I thought you said you were sick.”
“Of popcorn, not cookies.” I open the fridge and reach in for one, two—
“Better grab another.”
I startle and drop the cookies. They crumble to the floor.
Mama is standing in the doorway. For a minute I fear I’m in trouble, and then I register the rest of the scene. She is flanked by a woman, and the woman has her hand on a little girl’s shoulder. Right away I notice how dirty they are—the woman’s grimy clothes and the girl’s ratty hair, her fingernails caked with brown. She’s real skinny, hasn’t got any meat on her bones, and she’s staring hard at the floor.
“I said better grab another,” Mama repeats. “Did you two have fun?”
I can’t seem to find my words. Why are these strange people in our house?
Clark saves the day, as always. He hurries up to me and stoops over, start picking up the cookie fragments. “Yes, ma’am. It was real fun.”
“Good, good.” Mama reaches over and pat’s the girl’s shoulder. She doesn’t look up. Her eyes are real hollow underneath, and purple like a winter sunset. “Louise, Clark, this is Rita Plymouth, and her mama, Mrs. Plymouth.”
“Miss,” the older woman corrects.
“Miss,” Mama amends. “Apologies. Anyway, they came to, um,—” she takes a breath through her nose, so loud I can hear it “—pay their respects, and I invited them in for cookies.”
Clark pokes me in the back so hard it makes me shudder. “Okay.” I reach in and grab the whole plate of cookies, holding them steady with two hands. Clark shuts the fridge door for me, and we walk in silence to the kitchen table.
I set them down with an audible clink. This Rita girl and her Mama still haven’t moved.
“Rita, would you like a cookie?” Mama asks.
She seems to really consider it, darting her eyes up to me, and then Clark. They’re the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen my whole life, so bright against her dirty skin. “Sure.”
“Well, help yourself.” Mama starts in, reaching for the teapot. “Would you like some tea or coffee, Miss Plymouth?”
“Esther,” the woman says, “and no, thank you.”
“Okay. Well.” Mama closes the cabinet and drops her hands. “Let’s leave the children to their snack and have a seat in the living room, shall we? I want to hear all about how you ended up here. I didn’t even know they’d sold that house out there.”
I frown. “What house?”
“The one at the edge of the property,” Mama answers smoothly. “Miss Plymouth and Rita just moved in about two months ago. Never would have known.”
The shack, she means. The one where we saw the clothes hanging on the line that day—people really had moved in.
“We keep quiet,” Miss Plymouth says. “And actually, I might step outside for some air.”
“Oh, sounds nice!” Mama clips off into the living room, Miss Plymouth shuffling behind at her heels. “I haven't been outside much, since—”
Her words are severed as the door closes behind them. I swallow and grab a cookie.
Clark takes one, too, and I wait for him to have a bite but he surprises me by handing it to Rita. He grins at her, showing his shiny teeth, and her lips move up an imperceptible amount.
“You like it here?” He asks, grabbing a cookie of his own.
She shrugs, chewing daintily.
“I do. I used to live in the city, and it was so different.”
She doesn’t even have to swallow, her bite was so small, but she clears her throat. “So did I.”
Her voice is husky, deeper than I thought, and kind of loud. I’d expected something mousy from such a small girl.
I chomp into my own cookie, then, flitting back and forth between them. Clark’ll say something, and then she’ll answer with a few syllables, and this continues. I don’t offer up a single word, but I eat two cookies.
“I’m gonna go see about Mama,” I say at last, dusting my hands off. I watch the crumbs shower the ground. Rita doesn’t react to my words, back to staring—this time at the table—but Clark nods.
“So I can do this trick—” he tries. I take that as my cue and scurry out of there.
Mama isn’t back inside yet. I go to the window that looks onto our tiny porch. She and Miss Plymouth are standing with their backs to me, hair whipping in the wind. Miss Plymouth is balancing something between two fingers, and a little path of smoke trails from the tip. I squint, trying to make out whatever it could be, when Miss Plymouth turns a little, and I see: it’s a cigarette.
I’ve never seen a woman smoke before. It shocks me so much that I back up, red-faced, and I have to stand there and count to ten three times.
On the last round, Clark enters the room. He’s taken his baseball cards out of his back pocket and he sets the thin stack onto the coffee table.
“So,” he says, sitting down, and patting the place beside him. “I can make any one of these disappear. You choose which one, and then I do the rest.”
I edge back up to the window, peeking around. Miss Plymouth is turned away again, but you can still see the cigarette. Wordlessly, I motion to Clark.
“Uh—” he pushes them to Rita. “You pick. I’ll be right back.”
He stands and hurries over to me, cutting right in front of her, but she doesn’t even seem to notice. She's absorbed in the cards, studying the names and faces of each player.
“Look outside,” I hiss into his ear once he’s reached me.
He does, and frowns. “She smoking?”
“Yep.” I cross my arms. “What’s it mean?”
“I dunno.” He shrugs. “I guess that she likes to smoke.”
I slide forward to get another gander. “I never seen a woman smoke before.”
From the couch, Rita raises her head, holding Mel Ott. I scurry away from the window real quick and plop into the chair closest to Clark’s side of the couch. He takes his time heading back, which paints him considerably less guilty.
“All right,” he says, rolling up the sleeves of his button-down, “here we go. Mel Ott. Great choice, great choice. And now—” He wiggles his fingers in the air, “—he will” he slides his palm over the shiny surface, “—disappear!” When he lifts it, Mel is gone.
I laugh as I always do, but Rita does not. She smiles softly from ear-to-ear, and her eyes sparkle like expensive diamonds. Clark motions to the stack.
Things get easier.
When we’re running low on everything and have been eating eggs and toast for breakfast and supper, Mr. Otis Kitchett rumbles into the yard. His pickup truck spits yucky exhaust, and I hold my breath as I follow Mama outside.
“How you do?” He tips his hat. Always wearing a hat. “I thought I’d stop by, see if you want to venture into town. It’s been a week since I was last hear.”
Mama smooths both hands down the front of her dress, finds a breath deep within. “I would very much like to do that, Mr. Kitchett. Thank you.”
I step back and ready my had to wave, to watch Mama go. She grabs it, though, and tows me behind her.
“You won’t mind if Louise comes along?”
“Not at all.” Mr. Otis Kitchett rushes around and opens the door for Mama. I stare into the cab. It’s so high up.
“Here, Louise.” Mama puts a hand under my armpit and I wriggle. She smiles. “Now, now. Stop that. You have to put your foot here—“ she points to a little step underneath the door, also a stretch, “and then grab on to the inside and pull yourself up.”
I succeed the first time, though a lot of that is probably owed to her boost. I scoot to the middle and watch Mama hoist herself, face a little pinched from the effort. When she sinks down beside me, all the air whooshes out of her.
“There we go,” she says after a couple seconds, patting down some fly-aways.
Mr. Otis Kitchett closes out door and strolls around to the driver’s side. He’s a big man, I notice, but not fat like Saint Nick. He could be a giant, I think, but I know it’s rude to ask.
He gets right on up into the seat without so much as a hitched breath, and he takes up the rest of the space. I have to squeeze closer to Mama. I wonder how she and Daddy rode in this, and I’m about to ask.
I glance over at Mama and find her staring out the window, hand under her chin. As if sensing my eyes, she reaches out to put her hand around my neck, rubbing my shoulder. She doesn’t look at me, though, and I wonder if her eyes are teary. I know mine are.
The truck groans as Mr. Otis Kitchett reverses it, as if the machine will at any time give up. The further down our dirt driveway we get, the more my body buzzes. Me and Mama have been caged birds for two-and-a-half weeks. The movie outing, although nice, has gone a little stale in my mind. I wasn’t ready to appreciate it.
Now we’re rushing past the tall grass and blue sky and our hen houses and vegetable gardens with mounting speed. As we roll past the shack, I can’t help but lean over to get a good look out his window. The clothes are still on the clothesline, I’d swear the same ones, and the splintered front door is open wide, and that girl Rita and Clark—
Mr. Otis Kitchett has now reached the long road, and he starts turning the wheel to angle us onto it. I’m well within viewing distance. I twist around to watch out Mama’s window, and she follows my eyes to the grungy yard of that eyesore.
“Oh,” she says quietly, “Clark.”
I feel like I should be boiling, but mostly I’m scared. Of what, I dunno. But right as Mr. Otis Kitchett shifts gears and we start forward, Clark looks up. We lock eyes. Rita, with her stringy hair and dingy clothes, is oblivious as before.
Clark raises his hand. I raise mind back, and his image trails away.
I twist to the mini window behind us. Clark can’t see me, but I can him, and I watch him watch us the whole way down the road until we make a left turn, and then we’re truly gone.
Mama slips off her sweater and twists it around her arms after a little while. I’m grateful she doesn’t say anything. I settle back in the seat and try to put my mind elsewhere, but all I see is Clark playing with that awful Rita Plymouth instead of me.
The farms start to pick up as we draw nearer town, the houses moving closer together and the plots of land growing smaller. I didn’t notice before, when driving to the movie a couple weeks ago. Clark and I were too busy talking.
Eventually the land shortens to grassy squares, just a few feet of space between the shutters. I notice that some roof corners could almost shake hands. Sidewalks crop up, pristine despite all the people rushing across them. We enter the main drag of town, and it’s brilliant—so many stores with their doors swung open to let in the warm breeze, people dashing in and out in their Sunday best, horses and cars paused intermittently along the street.
“Thank you, Mr. Kitchett,” Mama says softly as he maneuvers us into a spot. It’s very impressive, and required a lot of craning his neck and sharp wheel-turning. I feel Mama’s finger poke into the soft skin on the back of my arm, and I sputter my own thanks.
“Well, I have some things to attend to, and then I’ll be back here in an hour,” he says, as he opens his door. Mama waits for him to come around to her side, and she takes his hand as she steps down. I do the same. It’d big, and meaty, and calloused.
I stare up at him and wish I had a hat like all the other ladies here. The sun’s shining hard, and it casts his whole face in shadow. Mama says thanks, and then he takes off, merging into the crowd. I start to ask Mama what’re we going to do first, but these three woman come clipping by, drowning out my peckish tone with their loud chatter. I stumble back to make room for them, until I’m pressed up against the door of the truck.
“He wasn’t even good at—” The blonde nearest, face all made up like out of the movies, darts her narrow blue eyes at me through her strides. “Well, nevermind. I’ll tell you later.”
The other two with her, less pretty brunettes, giggle mysteriously. Then their high, squeaky voices fade away, and I can see Mama, forced to the other side.
I rush forward and clamp down on her hand. “What were they talking about?”
“Never mind that,” she says, bending over me. She dusts my back with her hand. “Oh, Louise. You’re covered in dirt.”
She gestures to the truck, which now boasts a place that appears far less dusty. Her mouth is all drawn up as she fusses over me. “Your dress is ruined. We can’t have you running around in this.”
All the brightness of possibility deflates. “We’re gonna have to go home?”
“No.” She squeezes my hand. “We’re gonna go get you a new dress.”
“What?” My eyes widen with glee. A new dress!
“Yes, Louise. A new dress.” She takes a decisive step forward, tugging me behind her before I come to and unfreeze my legs. “And one for me, too.”
It takes a while of peeking into shops to find one that has clothes for both mothers and little girls. There’s even some matching numbers, but Mama bypasses those to a rack that has a sign boasting Lowest Prices! She starts thumbing through. The hangers on the bar make tinkling metallic sounds when they scrape against it.
“How do you tell what fits?” I ask, trying to steal glances as she quickly moves through them.
“There’s a little tag.”
“That says who’ll fit?”
“Kind of.” She glances down at me. “I’d say you’re an eight, but I’ll get you a size up so you can grow into it. How about that?”
“That sounds good, Mama.” I scoot around her to get to the lower rack and start looking. It’s women’s clothing. The dresses are all so beautiful, but either to tiny or too big for Mama. I start mimicking the quick way she dashes through them, until a lovely sliver of blue fabric catches my eye.
“Mama!” I call, as I extract it. The dress is short-sleeved with white caps and a white collar, the skirt perfectly sculpted. I offer it to her.
“Oh.” Mama wrinkles up her nose, but she’s smiling. “I couldn’t. That’s for a young schoolteacher.”
“It’s so pretty. You have to.” I shove it at her. “Please?”
She studies it. Turns it this way and that. “Well, wherever will I wear it?”
“When you come to town!”
“Baby, that could be ages.”
“I—“ She inspects a little tag that must have a price. “It’s an awfully good deal.”
“Oh—“ She folds it over her arm. “I’ll keep that in mind. Now, you.”
We move to the children’s. They’re all either too frilly or too plain, like something I could wear any day. I think we both know we want something special.
“How about this?” Mama holds up a red gingham dress with bows.
I shake my head. Clark would call me Miss Priss, like he did that one time I came back from church with bows in my hair.
We continue our search, but with a little less vigor.
It’s plain paisley, brown and a nice rose pink, but not want I want. It’s something that Rita Plymouth could wear, plain Jane she is. I want eye-catching. I want to be pretty like Shirley Temple.
“Oh, Mama!” I suddenly cry. “I need a Shirley Temple dress!”
“A Shirley Temple? You mean that little girl from the moving pictures?”
“Yes—her!” I abandon my rack and hurry over to her. “Like the one I saw in the movie! With a full skirt and a nice collar. I’m not sure what color it was, but that don’t matter!”
“Doesn’t,” Mama says swiftly.” She comes to the end of her stack. “And I don’t see anything like that here, baby.”
“I bet they have it somewhere else.” I start roving my eyes wildly over the contents of the room. A lady in the corner, all prim and proper with her hair and bare face, is lingering in the corner. I pretend not to notice Mama reaching for me and evade her with a quick dash. I hesitate. Maybe she’s not a salesgirl.
My time is ticking. I skirt around a whole rack of blue frocks, peeking through the gaps between the garments. An older woman approaches the girl. They converse for a minute, and then she points a slender finger to the back of the store, where I noticed some of the stuffy old lady clothes earlier. She most definitely works here.
“Miss—” I pivot from behind the rack, but am reigned swiftly to Mama’s side.
“We’re leaving,” she says sternly, laying the blue dress across the back of a chair.
“What? But Mama—”
I can’t argue. We march right past all the lovely clothes, the hats and the gloves and the handbags, the lavish coats, until the jingly door is dangerously close. I turn to get a last glimpse of Mama’s blue dress. It is sad and lumpy puddled on the chair.
“Mama, can’t we—?”
I’m swallowed by a rectangle of sunshine. We’re at the door, seconds away from a cool breeze and saying goodbye to all this niceness. My regret is so dense that I can taste it. I should have taken the paisley dress, I should have been happy—
“Can I help you?”
The salesgirl has stepped in front of us, come to life under the threat of our leaving empty-handed. It’s a little scary, actually, the cheerful intensity that she’s staring us down with. Mama gives her head a firm shake.
The salesgirl steps forward, sweeping a slender hand at Mama’s shunned dress. “I noticed you were carrying that earlier. Was anything the matter?”
“No, we just decided not to purchase it. But thank you.” Mama ropes her arm around my shoulder, pulls me in swift. “We’ll be going now.”
“Certainly.” She claps her hands in front of her and steps back. As we pass, I plead to her with my eyes. If she asks me something directly, Mama will want me to answer. It’s only polite.
The girl arches her eyebrows up. “Oh—darling, did you have a question?”
I feel Mama’s chest rise up and hiss back down. A sigh.
“Yes, please,” I say, disentangling myself from her. “I wanted to know if you have a Shirley Temple dress.”
She puts her hands on her hips, fixes me with a full-lipped smile. “Oh, you like Shirley, do you?”
“Well, so do I. What a small world.” She holds out her hand. “We can probably find you something like what she wears, sweetheart. If it’s okay with your Mom.”
It takes me a beat to realize she is talking about Mama. I’ve never heard that name before—Mom. It sounds cold and detached to my virgin ears.
I fix her with my most hopeful stare. “Mama?”
She softens like ice cream, crossing her arms over herself. “You may.”
“—but five minutes,” she tacks on, “and then we need to leave.”
The salesgirl nods quickly and takes hold of my hand. “Come on, darling. Let’s see what we can find.”
I live in my new Shirley Temple dress for the weekend. It’s too nice to wear outside, so I stay in and draw and read from picture books with limp spines. Sunday evening, Mama says it needs a wash if I’m to wear it to school tomorrow, so I reluctantly take it off.
“Now,” she says, taking the dress over to the big sink in the back room, where I’m standing in my underclothes, “you need to throw something on and go play outside until bed. You haven’t had any time outdoors.”
“I didn’t want to mess up the dress.”
“I know.” She lays it against a washboard and grabs a bar of soap. “But now I’m washing it, and you need to get yourself some fresh air. Go on.”
My nose whistles with frustration. “Fine.”
I take the stairs extra fast to my room, grab the first dress I find—one made out of a feed sack, and I shrug it on. I wear my old Mary Janes with the cracked leather and pound my way back down to the living room, putting extra oomph into each step so Mama knows how I feel about this.
“You stay out until I call you,” she throws over her shoulder, as I sprint past her in the back room. I consider slamming the door, but that would only get me in trouble, so I shut it with a soft click.
Standing on the stoop, I can see the back of Clark’s house. Most of the lights are on inside, including the one in his room. Good, I think, and sink down onto those steps. I fold my arms up on my legs and use them as a pillow.
He’s nothing but a dirty traitor anyway.
I sit there for a long while, mulling over everything wrong in my young life, when a rustle in the grass makes me jump up.
It’s easy to see him, even in the near-darkness. We don’t have any fancy outside lighting like he does at home. The twilight glows bright enough.
“Hey,” he says. His hands are shoved in his pockets, and his hair’s all mussed up, shirt half-untucked.
“Were you asleep?” I ask, swallowing my impulse to be silent.
“Yeah—kinda.” He swaggers to a stop about three feet away. “I got up to look through my telescope and saw you.”
I purse my lips. “You should be using that to spy on the moon, not me.”
“I wasn’t spying—”
“Never mind. I don’t care.”
His mouth droops. “Louise—”
I sink back down. “Go away.”
“I’m real sorry.”
He inches forward. “I just felt bad for her, is all.”
“So?” I draw my knees up against my chest and drop my chin onto them. “I also feel bad for the kids in school who can’t do the work, but you don’t see me doing it for ‘em.”
“I was just trying to be generous—”
“Stop being vain. I don’t wanna hear your vocabulary words!”
He smiles faintly. “Hey.”
My eyes sting. “What?”
He bridges the divide and sinks down right beside me, purposefully bumping his shoulder into mine. “You didn’t say ‘vocab’lary’.”
“You always say that.” He pokes me in the ribs. “You finally learned it.”
“Oh, shuddup.” I’m never supposed to say that, but it feels good. Mama would wash my mouth out with soap. “I ain’t stupid.”
“I know. You’re the smartest girl I know.”
“You are. And I’ve missed you a whole big lot.”
“Well. Well—” The retort fizzles out.
“I know you missed me too.”
“You’re awful full of yourself. That’s a sin, ya know.”
“That’s okay.” He mimics me, curling into himself. “I never go to church, anyway.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
We went to church for Daddy’s funeral. That was the first time I’d been in one. There were men and women from town, all dressed in black, and pretty windows made up of colored glass. The preacher spoke about Daddy’s goodness and God while Mama and I cried. I don’t know if I’ll ever want to go back.
The crickets and katydids fill the silence. Eventually, I crack open my arms, push my legs way out from their shell, let them dangle until my feet almost touch the ground. Clark’s already do, I find, when he unfurls himself as well.
“You get taller the past couple days?” I ask.
“Hm.” I pick at a scab on my knee. “I got a new dress yesterday.”
“Mm. Shirley Temple.”
“Like from the moving pictures?”
“Yep. Almost exactly.”
“Neat.” He breathes into the night. “Well. I should get home in a minute.”
“Yeah. Me too.” I push myself up. Clark too. As we stand side by side, shoulder-to-shoulder, I think about all the good things he does for me. The good things I do for him.
“Clark?” I ask.
“Yeah?” He acknowledges me from the corners of his eyes.
“You said I’m the smartest girl you know?”
“Okay.” I shake out my arms, relieving them of their tension. “Well, you’re probably the smartest person I know. Aside from Mama.”
He grins at me. It takes a faltering minute, but I return it.
Suddenly, he pushes his hand into me, so hard that I have to jump off the step for fear of falling. I let out a gasp as I try to find my footing, and when I do, I see that Clark is beaming.
“Tag!” He cries out, and then hurtles himself off, into the grass.
“No fair!” I shout as I split after him. “You didn’t give me no notice!”
Our squeals and laughter ring out across the shadowy plains. We tag, and we shriek, and we giggle. Those noises resound in my mind long after Mama’s called me, long after I’ve had my bath, long after I’m lying in bed next to her when I’m supposed to be asleep.
I sit up. Outside our window, across the yard, I can see that Clark’s light is off. I stand up and ghost over as quietly as I can, trying to keep the floor from creaking. I position myself so I’m perfectly framed in the glass. He’s probably not peering through his telescope, but I raise my hand and wave anyway. Just in case.
Helllooooo! This is going to be a three-parter, for those who are interested. I just finished this one this morning. The idea started as a short story, but I think it's going to come out more of a novella. I would love your feedback! Critiques/thoughts/whatever you feel inclined to share. This has materialized differently than what I originally thought it would--it's taken on a life of its own, as stories tend to do. Anyway, thank you for reading! <3