| I can't say for sure how it is a life can so easily come apart at the seams, like a favorite old dress gone to pieces, leaving little more than a pile of worthless rags. It just happens--never a warning, nothing in the air that smells of change.
That's the cruelest part.
There were two of them come to fetch me just before noon--a chubby man and a schoolmarm of a woman, each gone well beyond Mama's and Papa's years. The fella, he couldn't be bothered with the whole deal, like maybe he'd done well enough in his own sight just to have been talked into driving out to dumpy old Rayford. He stood sentry beside that shiny black Model T Ford, his beady eyes searching neighboring cotton fields like he just knew somebody of a lower station lurked unseen, waiting for a chance to swipe that fancy piece of machinery from underneath his very nose.
And the lady, she didn't want to be here any more than her companion. Uncertainty clouded her countenance like one of those plagues Moses dealt with in the Bible, the sort that could easily blot out that Mississippi sunlight, turning afternoon into evening with the shake of a stick.
Didn't matter much to me. I didn't want them there, neither--even if they could help me along in my dream.
Mama caught me spying through the parlor window. "You just gonna gawk at 'em all day, Emily Ann, or are you gonna meet 'em at the door?"
Papa's lone chuckle softened the moment. "Ain't no reason to be scared, Baby," he said, peeking over his morning paper. "Just invite the nice folks in for cookies and lemonade."
"I ain't ready for this, Papa," I complained, holding fast my position beside that window. "Besides, we don't know they're nice."
His shifting weight sent that ancient oak rocker to squeaking. "Too late. A deal's a deal."
"'Cept I ain't the one shook on it. Who told Pastor Pritchett to set this up, anyway?"
The Rayford Gazette fell away; Papa's tight gaze snatched hold on mine. "I did. Now get to bein' neighborly before you catch a lickin'!"
Eunice Spatch offered one of those forced smiles meant to conceal something akin to disdain--or disgust--at my station in life. Rheumy grey eyes picked apart my threadbare sundress. "Well, now," she started, in a voice humming through her bulbous nose. "You're a bit smaller than I imagined." Her icy gaze stumbled upon those two new bumps pushing against the thin yellow fabric at my chest. "Pastor Pritchett made claim you're a teenager."
A scarlet heat caressed my cheeks. Words caught in my throat, kept my intended invitation inside our home from ever making sound. Uppity rich folks just had a way of stealing my voice.
Mama barged into the moment. "She's a late bloomer, is all. But that don't mean the child can't sing." She jostled in close to the woman, raised that stupid tray of cookies. "I've made refreshments; come inside for a spell."
'Cept old Eunice Spatch, she just waved that tray away, as if Mama's simple offering somehow offended the woman. "Can't stay," she said, stepping clear of the proffered treats. "Only came to give the girl a proper dress. But the one I brought won't fit her."
Mama's pride lay in jagged little pieces scattered across the front porch. I hated her for such a show of weakness, for always trying to fit in with folks who ain't a thing like us.
I don't reckon it really mattered much. Not to me, anyway. It just meant Eunice Spatch--and others like her--would never set eyes on our battered blue sofa with the stuffing coming out the back. She'd walk off without any laugh-out-loud tales of sagging floorboards or the ever-present odor of rancid bacon leavings. And nobody would ever have to know that the Teegarten home lacked indoor plumbing and electricity.
Only colored folks had it worse.
"I'll have to trade the dress for a smaller size," the marmish woman promised. Her long, thin fingers fit snugly beneath my chin, raised my downcast gaze. "Awful pretty child, you are. I've never seen eyes so green--like a china doll's"
The subtle smile playing at the corners of my mouth had nothing at all to do with her stupid compliments--if that's what she intended.
"I ain't wore a new dress in such a long while," I confessed, thinking back two summers, when Papa first brought home the very garment covering my body at that moment.
"Yes, well..." Eunice Spatch latched onto Mama's arm and pulled her in close again. "Bathe the child, please. And wash her hair; it's just filthy."
* * *
I hugged tight to the rear corner of our house, and kept sight on that fancy Ford's slow fade toward town. They'd be back soon enough. Still, I didn't dare budge from behind the lilac bush till the dust settled on Posner Road and I could be fairly certain those two wouldn't double back just yet.
Mama flung a handful of words through an open window. "Take a cake of soap with you, Baby--if you're going to the pond. And don't dawdle, either!"
I checked my tone, mumbled a clipped, "Whatever," and broke hard for my secret place hidden in a rough tangle of trees smack in the middle of dirty old Mister Kuiper's cotton field.
Sharp-angled blades of sunlight sliced open the heavy green canopy above, bleeding lemon-yellow splashes of warmth and light into the cool shade of my private oasis.
Here, I didn't have folks eyeing me like I'm poor white trash.
That creaky ancient dock squeaked brief protests beneath the weight of my sudden intrusion, but kept up its end of our unspoken deal and held me safely above the still water.
Across the pond, a million butterflies rose and fell in unison, courting some grand symphony only they could hear. Or maybe it's jazz that sparks that sort of mood--a mood that lately had me warm and slippery where it counts most on a girl.
I sloughed away that ratty old sundress and took down my underpants. A warm breeze like a first-time lover's hands stroked my bare skin, stirred up a hunger inside me had nothing at all to do with food. Days like this made me awful glad to be a girl.
Alone, it's easy to find my voice. "Look at me, the real me, the one who lives inside," I sang aloud. "Ain't got much money, no fancy dress, but still I have my pride."
'Cept when are we ever truly alone?
The immediacy of that wolf whistle directly at my back knocked me ass-over-tea kettle, dumping me into the cool drink. I broke the surface out where the water runs deepest, and searched for the culprit.
My voice came high and tight. "You get out of here, Billy Blood!" I hollered.
That stupid Choctaw boy paid me no mind, though. He just slithered on down to the end of the dock and squatted leapfrog beside my discarded clothing. "Don't look like you're in no kinda way to tell me what to do, Teegarten."
Anger like sharp barbs formed on my words--anger more at myself for getting caught without a stitch. "What do you want, Billy?"
"Came out for a swim."
"Gonna have to wait. I got here first."
"You ain't the one owns this mud hole." He snatched up my underpants, caressed that worn white cotton between his long fingers.
Such a bold move--for an Injun.
"Put those down!" I demanded.
"Or what?" he dared.
"Or I'll scream."
Didn't matter a lick to that stupid boy; he carried never so much as an inch of fear toward the white man. "You're awful nice to look at, is all, Emily Ann. Can't blame a fella for having a peek, can you?"
Ain't never let a boy come so close to me this way--not without his name being Jobie Pritchett. But even Jobie would never gawk like this one. "You can have it," I said. "Just let me get dressed first."
"Mighty white of you, Teegarten." Billy gathered up to his true height and ditched his grin. "But what exactly are you offering me? I mean, can't be Kuiper's mud hole--since it ain't yours to give."
Scarlet burned my cheeks. The idea of a snappy retort just melted inside my head like an ice cube on an August sidewalk. Flirt with me, Billy boy, but don't you dare play me a fool.
"Cat got your tongue, Teegarten?" Those long fingers worked at the buttons on his dingy gray shirt. Billy never bothered with permission; the boy acted on instinct. "You're a touch underdone--what with no grass on your front yard. But that don't mean we can't enjoy each other's company, does it?"
I could cross the pond and rush the clearing. 'Cept how would I get to my clothes?
Did I really even want this to end?
I fixed that Injun with a sideways glance. "Ain't you scared someone might catch you out here?"
Billy's grin came as lopsided as the boy himself. "Ain't nobody comes out here anymore, Emily Ann. Only ones gonna know is me and you--and I won't tell."
"Suppose I tell?"
"How do you know?"
Billy tossed up a stray shrug and let those dirty black trousers fall from his narrow hips.
"Lord a-mercy," I breathed softly. I'd be a liar running through hell wearing gasoline soaked underpants to claim I didn't gawk. But a thing like that--I ain't never seen a boy so raw, so beautiful. The sight called to mind one of those carved sculptures they show in magazines; a museum piece come to life. Thin and wiry, that boy; his smooth red skin had gone dark from days spent in the sun. Shiny black hair spilled to his shoulders. And down there, well, it looked as if a long, fat snake had fixed hold and refused to turn him a-loose.
"We gonna share us a swim, Teegarten?"
I leaned closer to the dock, tried like the dickens to commit his every curve and angle to memory. "We can share..."
'Cept stupid Jobie Pritchett had to go and ruin everything.
That preacher's boy rolled onto the dock like he owned the thing. "Whatcha doing out here, Blood?"
Billy yanked his pants up. "Just came for a dip."
"With a white girl?" Jobie snatched up Billy's shirt and threw it at him. "Best get gone, Blood."
An awkward still moment passed while Billy finished putting his clothes right. "See you around, Teegarten," he said, taking his grin with him.
I waited until me and Jobie were alone before asking the question burning brightest inside my head. "Are you fixin' to tell Papa?"
Jobie jammed his hands inside the pockets of his denim overalls and floated one of his dreamy smiles. "Tell him what?"
Good boy. This would be our little secret.
I swam into the shallows, over where black muck squished between my toes. "How come you're out here?" I asked, hoping he'd look at me the same way Billy did.
'Cept Jobie, a preacher in the making, set his blue-eyed gaze on some spot across the pond. "Just came out to maybe sketch some pictures, is all."
"How come you won't draw me anymore?"
"I've drawn you a dozen times, Baby?"
"Not like this, you haven't."
The boys cheeks pinked up a nice deep shade. "Can't do that, Emily Ann."
"Why not?" I demanded.
"Wouldn't be right."
Jobie pushed a stray blond curl from his forehead, made like he'd pondered this very notion a time or two in his quiet moments--like maybe he could be bent to my will.
I moved into his line of sight. "You could do a drawing like one of those French fellas you're always bragging on."
'Cept stupid old Jobie had to go and open his big mouth. "If folks even 'spected I made dirty pictures, they'd never let me be their pastor when my daddy's time is done?"
Is that how he saw me?
I gained the dock and pushed past the boy. "I ain't dirty, Jobie Pritchett," I said, taking up my clothes.
"I didn't mean it like that, Emily Ann." he pleaded, though he wouldn't so much as look at me until I had my dress on.
"Didn't mean it," I hollered over my shoulder, retreating toward home, "but you still said it."
* * *
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