The sun rose a bright-orange hot, promising another scorcher. It crept across the cloudless blue sky at a snail’s pace, seeming to mock my urging it to hurry by traveling even slower. More than once Granny had to repeat herself. I couldn’t concentrate. Ira filled my thoughts.
Guilt gnawed at me for not telling Granny about sneaking out last night and meeting Ira, but I remembered what he had said, that if I told, I wouldn’t be allowed to see him. I couldn’t take that chance. I had found a friend and I didn’t want to lose him.
When darkness fell and Granny and I went to bed, I waited for a while to make sure she was sleeping, then dressed again in the cutoffs and pink tank I had worn that day. Remembering Ira’s warning, I slipped on my sneakers before crawling out the window.
I ran most of the way to the old bridge, praying, Please, please, please let him be there.
Bathed in moonlight, I saw him in the place where he had been the night before: leaning up against the railing, gazing out over the water. Only then did I slow to a walk. At the sound of my sneakers hitting the boards, he turned in my direction.
“You’re here,” I said, breathless from running.
He smiled. “You seem surprised.
“I am—a little, I guess.”
“I said I’d be, and I always do what I say.” He sounded . . . irritated? Hurt? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“It’s not that. I didn’t th—think you were lying or anything. I thought I might be late.”
His voice smoothed out. “Naw, I’ve just been here for a couple minute myself.”
He sat down, letting his legs hang over the edge between the rusty side rails, and patted a spot beside him. I sat where he indicated, my feet dangling above the water like his, and hooked my arms around the rails.
Eddy Creek bubbled over the rocks in the shallows below. Nearby, a whippoorwill called. A warm southerly breeze swept through the valley, whispering through the treetops.
Ira broke the silence. “I’ve been wondering, what were you doing down here last night? You never did say.”
“It was so hot I couldn’t sleep,” I said. “I got to thinking how nice and cool the water would feel. The next thing I knew, here I was. Guess I didn’t give it much thought.”
“That goes without saying, seeing as how all you had on was a nightgown.”
“But I’ve got shoes on tonight—see?” I raised my feet, then let them drop back down.
“That’s good.” He paused. “But smart little girls don’t go wandering around at night all by themselves.”
“Why not? We’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing out here to hurt me.”
“What about me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I glanced up, catching an odd glimmer in his dark eyes. Feeling uncomfortable, I looked away and changed the subject. “What are you doing out here?”
“I work down at the filling station till dark. I come through here on my way home.”
Alarm bells clanged in my head. “You live out here?”
“Yeah. I live a piece down that other road.”
“Oh God, then you must be a Jamison!”
“What of it?” he growled.
“But you don’t look mean like Granny said. And I don’t think you want to kill me either—do you?” I glanced at him from the corners of my eyes.
His frown turned into a smile. “Of course, I do. I eat funny little girls for supper.”
“Don’t tease, Ira. Granny and Daddy both told me to stay away from you and your daddy. If they find out . . .”
“I told you that you couldn’t tell anybody, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you did. But I don’t understand why they don’t want me around you.”
“That’s simple—because my pa’s an Indian and a fucking drunk.”
“My mama was a drunk too, and Daddy liked her . . . most of the time anyway.”
“That still leaves being Indian.”
“That’s no reason to hate somebody.”
“It is around here.” He sighed. “Look, Chloe, if you wanna be friends, you’d better keep quiet. If you tell anybody, and I do mean anybody, all it’ll get you is trouble.”
“Granny would understand.”
“No, she won’t. She’s just like everyone else. When you’ve been here a little longer, you’ll learn the way of it—white folks don’t make friends with Indians. They got their place on one side, Indians and black folks on the other.”
“But . . .” Remembering Granny’s remark about “stinkin’ Injuns” moments after I had met her, the argument drained out of me.
“That’s just the way things are, little girl. It might be different where you come from, but it ain’t here. If you tell your grandma or anybody about us, that’ll be the end of it. If you want us to be friends, you’ll just have to keep your mouth shut.”
“I want us to be friends, Ira. I won’t tell. I promise.”
I slipped out of the house to see Ira every night for the remainder of the week. Beneath the light of the waning moon, our friendship blossomed as we talked for hours at a time, seeming to have an endless supply of things to confide in each other.
“Maybe we should meet somewhere else,” I said on the occasion of our fifth meeting. Like all the nights before, we sat on the edge of the bridge, our legs hanging over the side. “What if somebody comes by?”
“No need to worry much about that,” Ira said. “Only once in a blue moon does anybody come out this way, what with just the two places being here. There used to be three back when your mama’s rich folks built a big house about a half mile on past your grandma’s place. I heard tell they paid for having this bridge built since the county couldn’t afford it. The bridge is still here, but the house ain’t. But I reckon you know all about that.”
“I knew Mama’s parents were killed when their house burned down, but I didn’t know the house had been out here.”
“Yeah . . . well anyway, there ain’t hardly nobody ever comes out here of a night except an occasional coon hunter. If anybody was to come, we’d see their headlights long before they seen us, and we’d duck down under the bridge.”
“Doesn’t your daddy wonder why you’ve been coming home later?”
“Naw, he don’t give a rat’s ass what I do. Me and him pretty much mind our own business.”
“What do you mean? Doesn’t he care what you do?”
“Not as long as it keeps me out of his hair—and that’s the way I like it.”
“You sound like you don’t love him.”
Ira sneered. “Hell no, I don’t. Would you love someone who beat the shit outta you your whole fucking life till you got big enough to fight back?”
“No,” I answered in a small voice. “I guess not.” I thought about the bruises and the occasional black eye Mama’d had the mornings after her and Daddy had been fighting. “Funny, but it seems like people hurt the ones they love the most.”
“Is that your way of saying that Pa loved me even when he beat the shit outta me?”
“Maybe. I know Daddy loved Mama more than anything in the world, and he hit her sometimes.”
“If I loved someone, I wouldn’t hit them,” he said. Shifting my gaze from the water below to his face, I found him watching me, his expression hard and intense. “If I loved someone I’d take real good care of them.” He paused. “Your daddy ain’t been smacking you around, has he?”
“No, not me. Just Mama.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” Made uneasy by the turn the conversation had taken, and the strange look on his face, I switched subjects. “Tell me about your job. What do you do?”
His eyes wandered away. “Like I told you the other night, I work at the gas station for the Burks.”
“Ha! You said no one would have anything to do with you. They must like you or they wouldn’t have hired you.”
He chuckled. “Don’t go thinking you’ve caught me up, little girl. Old Amos Burk is as black as the ace of spades. If him and his old lady didn’t own the only gas station in town, I wouldn’t be working there. See, people like me and Amos ain’t good enough to socialize with, but we’re tolerated to pump gas and clean windshields.”
And I had thought my life was bad. It had been a bed of roses compared to Ira’s. I didn’t know what to say.
He gently squeezed my shoulder. “Hey, don’t you go feeling sorry for me. It don’t bother me none, not no more. Hell, let the bastards think what they want, I don’t give a shit. Besides, in a year or so I’ll be long gone from this dipshit town.”
“I think you’re . . . nice,” I said, staring into the dark pools of his eyes.
“There ain’t nothing nice about me, little girl. For all you know, I could be an ax murderer.”
“I know you’d never hurt me.” I picked up his hand and placed it over my heart. “I know it right here.”
His face softened. “No Chloe, I’d never hurt you. When I first saw you the other night sitting out there on that log, I knew you didn’t belong in this place, that you weren’t like everybody else. I felt . . . something. I can’t explain it.”
“I know what you mean because I felt something too.”
“You did?” His eyes rounded in surprise.
“Yeah. And when you smiled at me and held out your arms, I knew I could trust you, that you wouldn’t hurt me. I know it sounds really weird . . .”
“Yeah, fucking weird . . . fate, I guess.”
I couldn’t tell if he was serious or joking. “Whatever it is, I’m glad we’re friends,” I said. “You’re the only one I’ve ever had. Mama used to tell me that she was my very best friend, but I didn’t feel that way. Taking care of her all the time made me feel like I was her mama. I know—I think she loved me, but . . . well . . .”
“She had a funny way of showing it, huh? Kind of like Pa.” He rose to his feet, then took my hands and pulled me up beside him. “Come on, little girl. It’s time for you to go home.”
I was out back hanging the freshly-washed sheets on the clothesline when Daddy returned. He had been gone one day short of two weeks. I hadn’t thought much about him in days, or Mama either, for that matter. I was happier living here with Granny than I had ever been before. Her warmth and kindness had brought to light what I had been missing all along: love. Comparing my life now to what it had been, I couldn’t help but wonder if Mama and Daddy had ever loved me.
I clipped up the last sheet, and with my feet dragging and stomach roiling, went to meet him.
He hugged me and dropped a kiss on top of my head. “How’s daddy’s angel been?” The words came out slightly slurred on a wave of beer-breath.
I pulled away. “I’ve been fine.”
His arms held empty air for a moment, then fell to his sides. “Have you and your grandma been getting along all right? She ain’t been working you too hard, has she?”
“Oh no, Daddy, Granny’s nice. I like her a lot.”
“You got a fine gal there, David,” Granny said, joining us. “At least you’n Melanie did one thing you can be proud of.”
Daddy shot an icy glare her way, then turned back to me with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m real sorry, but I can only stay the night. There’s no work for a truck driver hereabouts, so at least for now, I’ll have to live in West Memphis. But I’ll get up here as often as I can to see you. You okay with that, angel?”
“Yes, Daddy,” I said, trying not to show my relief. “Granny’s always got things for us to do. I’ll be fine.”
He reached inside the open car window and pulled out two six-packs of beer. Ignoring Granny’s frown, he turned and started for the back door. “Let’s get out of the dad-blam sun and you can tell me what you’ve been up to.”
Granny didn’t seem none too pleased to see him—nor him, her. A hostile cloud surrounded them, the force of it almost a palatable thing. It seemed strange to me, a mother and son at odds. Was something other than Daddy’s job keeping him away?
When Granny sent me to bed that night, it was well past our usual bedtime. I was glad to escape to my room. Daddy had gotten drunk, and fallen into the mood that always came with it.
From the security of my bed, their raised, angry voices sidled through my partially-open door. I caught an occasional word or sentence fragment, something about Mama and what she had done. Curious, I had just about made up my mind to get out of bed and go listen at the closed living room door when Daddy stepped out into the breezeway and stormed past my room. He slammed his bedroom door, jarring every wall in the house.
After a strained, and for the most part, silent breakfast the next morning, Daddy left again. I was happy to see him go, and I could tell Granny was too. The furrows between her brows smoothed out and her shoulders relaxed as the sound of his car faded into the distance.
Now things could get back to normal.
Normal—that’s what I now considered my life here with Granny. In two weeks, this had become my home, Granny my family.
And Ira, my friend.
I wished I could tell Granny about him, but he had warned me over and over not to tell anyone or we couldn’t be friends anymore. And the only thing I hated worse than not telling Granny, was not being able to see Ira. So I remained silent.
The days followed a predictable pattern. Granny and I rose at dawn to begin our chores in the coolness of the early morning. She milked the old Jersey cow while I gathered eggs from the henhouse. After that, we worked in the garden, weeding and picking the ripe vegetables, and on days when there was enough of a particular one ready, we canned. During the heat of the afternoon we cleaned house, or if Granny was especially tired, she napped while I did the housework. After supper, we read or listened to the radio, which stayed tuned to a gospel station, until bedtime.
Every Sunday morning, Granny put on a clean, starched calico dress and we went to church. After services, she introduced me to the local families, paying particular attention to the few with kids about my age.
Two girls—a tall, freckled redhead named Janie Higgins, and the daughter of the town doctor, Evelyn Miller, a small, dark girl that wore thick glasses—made overtures of friendship. But a lifetime of keeping to myself proved impossible to overcome. After a few attempts to draw me into the conversation, they quit trying.
Granny seemed disappointed, but it didn’t bother me. I didn’t need those girls for friends. I had Ira.
Near the end of June, I “became a woman”, as Granny put it.
When I came to her, scared to death, and told her I was bleeding down there, she asked if I understood what was happening. I had no idea; I thought I might be dying.
She sat me down at the kitchen table and explained about men and women, their personal parts, and what made babies. And that I would bleed every month.
“I went through the change a long time ago, so I ain’t got the stuff you need,” she said. “I reckon we’ll have t’take a trip to the Quick Stop.”
After I changed my panties and placed the clean, folded dishrag that Granny had given me in the crotch, she got her purse from the top of the refrigerator and headed for the back door with me in tow. We crawled inside her rusted-out, white Ford pickup, and perched on two pillows, her feet barely reaching the pedals, she backed out of the driveway.
A short time later, she pulled up to the gas pumps at Etta Faye’s Quick Stop in Pineville and turned off the key. The Ford died with a cough and sputter.
“Come on, gal.” She grabbed her handbag.
“Can I stay in the truck?” I asked. “I don’t want to go in.” Heat crept into my face. “They’ll know.”
She cackled.” All right, I’ll take care of it. But any dang fool with a lick a’sense knows I’m too blasted old t’have any use for such stuff.” Still chuckling, she walked across the grease-splotched gravel lot, pulled open the door to the store, and almost collided with a tall man coming out. “Fill ‘er up, boy.” She stepped around him and disappeared into the store.
My heart sped up, and I felt the blush spreading all over my body as I watched the man draw closer.
It was Ira!
To be continued . . .