He screwed off the gas cap, which was on my side of the truck, and began pumping. A small smile curled his full lips when our eyes met. He was so close, I could have reached out the window and touched him.
Seeing him for the first time in daylight, I was taken aback. I had known he was nice looking, but, dear Lord, nice looking didn’t even begin to cover it: Ira was downright beautiful. He took my breath away.
Greasy blue coveralls fit snugly over broad shoulders and narrow hips. Parted on one side, hair the blue-black color of a raven’s wing fell in clean straight lines to the bottom of his neck. Sweat beaded his copper-hued face. Above high, prominent cheekbones, his dark brown eyes danced with amusement. “Better shut your mouth before something flies in it, little girl,” he murmured.
I closed my mouth with an audible snap.
Ira’s eyes locked with mine, and the laughter drained away. His stare grew serious, intense, making me feel funny inside.
The station door squealed, and he turned away, grabbed the gas nozzle–which must have shut off while I was drowning in his eyes–and hung it back on the pump. While he was replacing the cap, Granny came around the front of the truck and eyeballed the numbers on the pump. She dug in her purse, came out with some bills, and thrust them toward Ira. He took the money from her outstretched hand, their fingers never touching.
Granny crawled behind the steering wheel, placing her purse and a small, brown paper bag on the seat between us. She stared at me, her eyes narrowing. “Why’re you so red?”
Flustered, I said the first thing that popped into my mind. “I’m hot, Granny. Why it must be a hundred degrees out today.” Which wasn’t far from the truth.
My answer must have satisfied her, for her mind took a different track. “Lordy, it sure is a trial havin’ to truck with niggers and Injuns. That Etta Faye Burk, actin’ like she’s as good as ary white.” She pulled out on the highway. “That ole man must’a been soft in the head to give them niggers that place.”
“What are you talking about, Granny?” I kept my eyes on the road ahead, not daring to look back for fear of giving myself away. But I felt Ira watching; I didn’t have to see.
“Your grandpappy, Melanie’s daddy,” she explained. “He owned the Quick Stop and left it in his will to Etta Faye Burk. She was his housekeeper, brought her with him from Dallas.” She turned left onto the dirt road that led home. “He brought ole Amos, her husband too. I think Doc called him the groundskeeper, or somethin’ like that. Huh! Fancy title for a nigger. Like your mama, they were gone the night of the fire and didn’t get burned up. Pity they didn’t.”
“Granny!” Her words shocked me. “What an awful thing to say. They’re people too.”
“I knows they’s people, Chloe, but they ain’t like us—God’s chosen. Most of ’em are decent folks, know their place and don’t go around puttin’ on airs. Not that Etta Faye Burk though, no-siree-bob-tail. But she’ll get hers one day, and that high-toned Injun too. The good Lord’ll see t’that.”
That night I told Ira of the momentous event. “I started my period today. Granny said that I am a woman now.”
We were sitting in our usual places on the edge of the bridge, legs over the side, arms wrapped around the side rails. At my big announcement—at least it was to me—Ira slapped his hand over his mouth, making weird snorting noises behind it.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He shook his head, the stifled sounds growing louder.
I was beginning to get concerned. “Are you okay?”
Instead of answering, he flopped back on the bridge, clutching his sides and laughing like an idiot.
“What’s so funny?”
“You are,” he choked out.
I felt a tinge of irritation. “How am I funny?”
His laughter dried up, a wide grin replacing it. “You’ve got a hell of a lot more growing to do before you’re a woman.” He poked me between my almost-nonexistent breasts. “You’re still just a little girl.”
“Granny said I was, so I am to a woman.” I stuck my tongue out at him.
“You’re beginning to make a habit out of that. Ain’t it kind of childish for somebody who has ‘become a woman’?”
“You’re mean!” I hit his broad chest with my balled fist.
He grabbed me, pulling me down on top of him. “Don’t get pissed off, Chloe. You know I’m just teasing, but God, you’re so easy to rile up.” He still wore that infuriating smirk. I tried to sock him again, but he wrapped his arms around me. “I’ll make you a deal—I won’t tease you no more if you’ll quit hitting on me.”
I wasn’t in much of a position to argue. “All right—for tonight anyway.” Ira dropped his arms and I sat up, pushing back heavy strands of hair that had stuck to my sweat-damp face “Think I’ll get it cut.”
“You know, cut my hair. I think it would make me look older, don’t you?”
“Don’t get it cut.” Ira tucked a wayward curl behind my ear, his expression earnest. “I’ve never seen hair like yours. It looks like sunlight and moonbeams all mixed together. And all those wild-ass curls. Chloe, it’s beautiful. Don’t ever get it cut—for me.”
There was nothing on God’s green earth I wouldn’t do for him. “I won’t. Not if it means that much to you.”
“It does.” Eyes half-closed, he stroked my hair.
Never in my life had I felt as cherished as I did at that moment.
Daddy came home near the end of the last week of summer vacation and took me shopping for clothes. This visit he wasn’t drinking, at least not at first, and seemed almost like his old self again.
We arrived in Madison—a large town a few miles on down the highway from Pineville—a little before noon and had a sandwich and Coke at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s, then spent the early afternoon picking out clothes.
In the back of my mind, I think I had known it wouldn’t last, so I wasn’t surprised when he stopped at a liquor store on the way out of town and bought a pint of Jack Daniel’s. And by the time he made the turnoff onto the dirt road to Granny’s house, his smiles and laughter had been replaced with a sullen silence.
In the years ahead, I would remember this day as the last time I had felt anything resembling love for my daddy.
That night after I went to bed, I heard him and Granny arguing again. He was gone when I got up the next morning.
With a blanket of stars overhead, Ira and I waded in the rippling shoal beneath the bridge. We were two shadow people, joined by the hands, in the dark of the moonless night.
“I’m sure not looking forward to school next week,” I said. “But at least you’ll be there, so I’ll know someone.”
He sighed. “We’ve been through this before, Chloe. You know we can’t be friends at school either. Except for here, when we’re alone, you don’t know me.”
I don’t know why I had held out hope that anything might have changed. Maybe that is why I persisted. “I don’t understand.”
“Like I told you a hundred times before, if your grandma was to find out about us, the shit would hit the fan. She’d lock you up and throw away the key if that’s what it took to keep us apart.” He put his arm around my shoulder, and leaned in close, his warm breath stirring my hair. “How’d you get it in your head that things would be any different in school? You know better than that.”
“I know Granny loves me and wants me to be happy. I just keep—”
“She don’t if it includes me. She may love you, little girl, she sure as hell hates me.”
“Why?” I wailed, on the verge of tears.
He grabbed my shoulders, shaking me. “Goddamn it, Chloe, you know why—for the same fucking reason everybody else does. But if you want to tell her about you and me, go ahead, only don’t ever say I didn’t warn you what would happen.”
Hidden behind his anger, I sensed hurt, longing, desperation, emotions I was all too familiar with.
I wrapped my arms around his middle and rested my head against his chest. “I won’t say anything to her, Ira. You’re my friend, my forever friend. I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t, Chloe.” His embrace was tight and fierce, his voice a low rumble accompanying the steady thudding of his heart beneath my ear. He propped his chin on top of my head, ran his hands over my back. “But that don’t change how things have got to be. When you get on the bus next Monday, just pretend I’m not there.”
“Okay, if that’s the way you want it,” I said.
Ignoring Ira proved to be even more difficult than I had thought it would be. He didn’t seem to have a problem with it, though. I was treated with the same silent disdain bestowed on everyone else. Around other people, Granny’s description fit him to a T. He was cold and distant, his dark eyes flat, empty of any emotion. It was hard for me to reconcile this sullen, brooding stranger with the warm, caring boy that I had, over the course of the summer, shared my innermost feelings with.
The yellow school bus picked me up at Granny’s early Monday morning. Full to bursting with loud-voiced, rowdy kids, they all seemed anxious for the new school year to begin. I sat in an unoccupied space beside Janie Higgins, the red-haired girl I had met at church.
When the bus made its next stop and Ira got on, talk ground to a halt. Looking neither left nor right, and appearing unaware of his effect on the school bus’s occupants, he sauntered down the aisle to the back and sat in the vacant seat located there. I must have been staring the same as everyone else, for Janie leaned close and whispered, “That’s Ira Jamison, he’s an Indian.” She said the word Indian as if it were some sort of terrible disease. “Course, you might already know him, seeing as how y’all live pretty close together.” She watched me through sly, slanted eyes.
“No, I don’t know him,” I said. “Granny told me to stay away from him and his daddy.”
“Good. You wouldn’t want to wind up like Karen Jones.”
The name rang a bell. “Who’s she?”
“That half-breed’s mama. But she’s dead now, you know. Has been for a long time. His daddy said it was an accident, supposedly she fell down the steps and broke her neck, but everyone knows he pushed her—or broke it himself. Anyway, when she took up with that Indian, then married him, no decent people had anything to do with her—that’s what my mama said. Imagine, marrying an Indian. I’d just as soon marry a nigger.”
I was so upset, I blurted out my thoughts without considering the consequences. “What’s wrong with marrying an Indian, or a black person either? They’re people too.”
Janie’s eyes narrowed “You ain’t taking up for that half-breed, are you?”
“What if I am?”
“You won’t make any friends around here with that attitude.”
“I don’t care.”
“Have it your way.” Her lips curled into a sneer. “Indian lover.” She moved to another seat.
And so began my tenth grade.
To Granny’s dismay, as had been the case in church, I made no friends at school. I never even tried. After a lifetime spent shutting people out, I couldn’t just throw open the door and invite them all in. I had opened it a crack and let Ira and Granny slip through. That was enough.
I think Janie must have told people what I had said on the bus. It seemed as if everyone, including the teachers, talked to me as little as possible. But I didn’t care. I didn’t need any of them.
Ira continued to work at Mr. Burk’s filling station, but at later hours now that he was back in school. Now, I saw him only two nights a week, Saturday and Sunday.
“I hardly ever get to see you anymore,” I complained one Saturday night after meeting him on the bridge. “I wish you’d quit.”
He chuckled, but the sound held no mirth. “Guess you want me to starve to death.”
“Of course not,” I said. “But what has that got to do with your job?”
“If I didn’t work, I wouldn’t eat, little girl,” he answered. “I buy the groceries. Pa gets a government check, but he drinks it up, and it don’t take him near the whole month to do it either.”
“I’m sorry . . . I didn’t realize . . . ”
“I didn’t expect you would. I know it ain’t the way the world usually goes around.”
But usual or not, the world turned and the days sped by, fall tumbled into winter, winter thawed into spring. The green season roared across the Southland, bringing thunderstorms and flash floods, wildly growing things and a plethora of biting things. Then, as the days of May marched by and drew to a close, the chaos of renewal calmed to a more leisurely pace. It was when summer and nights spent with Ira were so close I could almost taste them, that a boy in school began to show an interest in me.
Steve, “Bubba to my friends,” Higgins was Janie’s older brother, and like his sister, had bright red hair and a wealth of freckles. Large and beefy, he was already beginning to run to fat. I didn’t like him one bit better than I did his sister.
With Ira’s glowering eyes fastened on him, he started sitting beside me on the school bus, attempting to engage me in conversation, mainly by talking about football. He would brag about his prowess on the field, claiming that the Madison Panthers wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans without him, that he was the best quarterback they’d ever had.
At no time did I say more than was necessary to be polite, but my reserve failed to discourage him. I hadn’t the faintest idea what he saw in me. When I said as much to Ira, he told me to look in the mirror and I would; but I didn’t find anything special there, just white-blonde, frizzy long hair I hated surrounding a pinched face containing brown eyes that always appeared startled. My body had begun to develop curves, but I would never be considered stacked like the proverbial brick outhouse. All totaled, nothing to get excited about.
At the beginning of the last week of school before summer vacation, Bubba sat beside me on the bus and started in again. “How about me coming over to your house tonight, Chloe?” he asked for the umpteenth time, showing his yellow teeth in a smarmy grin.
“No, Bubba, I done told you Granny won’t allow me to see boys yet,” I replied for an equal number of times. “I wish you’d quit asking.”
“Don’t you like me, sweet thang?” He put his hand on my knee and started to slide it up under my skirt.
Mad and terrified at the same time, I sprang to my feet. “No, I don’t like you, Bubba Higgins! Leave me alone!”
In my peripheral, I saw movement. Turning to the back of the bus, I saw Ira on his feet, rage boiling in his eyes. I caught his gaze, gave a small headshake. Slowly, he sat back down
As I moved to another seat, I heard Bubba mutter, “Snotty little bitch, I’ll get you.”
But he didn’t; he never got the chance.
The following morning he wasn’t on the bus, and from the seat in front of me, I heard Janie telling Evelyn Miller that he hadn’t come home after football practice last night. He hadn’t told his teammates where he was going when leaving on his motorcycle, but all had assumed he was headed home. That was the last time anyone had seen him.
Janie got called out of class right after lunch and didn’t come back. All afternoon the rumors flew fast and furious. Everyone was whispering that Bubba had been found, that he was dead. When I boarded the bus to go home that evening, the rumors were confirmed. Standing at the front of the bus facing the kids, Mr. Darcy, the driver, announced Bubba’s body had been fished out of Eddy Creek, that he had apparently drowned while swimming alone. His body had been found floating face down in the local swimming hole located a short distance downstream from the bridge, his motorcycle parked nearby on the bank with his clothes draped neatly over the handlebars.
Everyone started talking at once. Several of the girls began crying.
Shocked, my eyes met Ira’s. He was smiling.
To be continued . . .