One day, somebody had left a bloody Kotex lying on the floor in one of the cabinets in the school restroom. After examining it from afar with wonder and awe, Jane and I, like guardians of the school's reputation, reported it to Mrs. Cox. She came down to the restroom with us to see what was causing the big fuss. She casually picked the napkin up by its ear and dropped it into the paper towel container.
Teacher wise, she read the brightness in our eyes saying, "What was that?"
"That was a cotton napkin that women wear when they have their periods. Some of the girls in Mrs. Farmer's class..."
She had seen the knots tighten on our foreheads at the word, "period."
"A period comes once a month when old blood the body doesn't need anymore comes out a hole between the holes where you make water and business. This doesn't happen until your breasts are developed and you have dark hairs under your arms and down there. It will be a long time until you are ready for this, but when it comes, I want you to promise me that you'll be neater about throwing your used napkins away."
"Oh, I will." chorused the Janes.
After this talk, Jane and I spent one whole Saturday afternoon, without Marvin's company, searching our bodies for one dark hair. It seemed that for us, dark hairs had not been invented. One thing was clear in our minds. There had to be a better way of getting rid of that leftover blood than having to sit on such a messy glob as we had seen.
For days we considered this plan and that. Our final idea was that they should make small longish glass bottles with wide tops (later we found scientists using them as test tubes) that could be inserted in this mysterious third hole. When the bottle was full, one removed it, dumping out the blood, washing it out and reusing it.
We figured this invention would save us kids from those emergency trips to the drugstore for the box wrapped in plain paper, asked for on a paper note and then stuck behind the toilet as if it wasn't really needed - as if the whole operation had been an exercise in command obedience. Thanks to us, every mother could have her own bottle so tiny she could take it with her wherever she went. We were concerned about the possible dangers of the glass breaking; so we thought about balloons but they were not stable enough. China you could not see if it was clean and so forth but the word sounded foreign and we were afraid women would be unhappy about that. Unfortunately technology lagged so far behind us with its development of soft plastics that we gave up the idea before science and marketing tampons caught up with us.
Sometime after this, my mother, who never dropped the veil of being herself, coyly laid on my bed a slim blue booklet, What Every Girl Should Know. I read it because I read everything, even the advertisement on the toothpaste tube. But what I read in this book - oh, oh,oh.
Some of it was true because it was like Mrs. Cox had told us about the leftover blood coming out and so forth. But, those weird shapes the drawings said would begin to grow in us was unbelievable. The stuff about babies growing in us was unthinkable. That only happened to other people who did bad things together. I would never do any naughtiness like that so none of this should have anything to do with me.
Next in the booklet came a bunch of rather good people drawings showing a young girl wearing an elastic band with the wad of cotton that Jane and I had worked so hard to make obsolete. On the back of the booklet was the answer why this pamphlet was such a pack of lies. It was published by the Kimball Kotex Company, our commercial enemy. It was a constant surprise when one after another of the statements in that little blue book came true for us. Who would have thought those lies were true?
At times we had to let Marvin tag along with us. In these hours were born some of our best competitions. One could only be held on the days when I stayed for lunch consisting of baked beans or the like. The O'Dell's were always having to cut corners, as they said, so beans in one form or another were offered up every couple of days.
Several hours after eating we three would make a circle, each with both hands laid on the shoulders of the person in front of him or her. We would start walking in a tight circle. The object was to leave such a smelly fart that the person behind you broke the circle to get away from the terrible stink. It took belly fulls of laughter, giggling and falling on the floor before one of us manufactured the winning blast. Marvin usually won so it was he who requested this contest most often.
As it was often inconvenient to stop playing to go inside to the bathroom so we delighted in squatting and pinkling wherever we were. This activity was also inspired contests. Who could make the most in a jar? Whose was most yellow? Or pale? Or who could pee the farthest. Marvin always won this test until one day we were up in the loft of the barn which the O'Dells used as garage, rabbit hutch and general storage for tools. Marvin was standing there at the edge of the opening in the wooden floor where the steps went up and down, when he got the idea of peeing down across onto the dirt floor where at night the truck was parked. On the soft dust it was easy to see the plop marks of pee. The challenge for a contest went out. Working from this angle and height, Jane got further than ever before, but most of it landed on the steps. Having taken off my underpants, I stepped over to the edge, hung my bare toes over and squatted down. I started to pee and get dizzy at the same time. I leaned backward to put one arm out to support me. The angle was too acute. My hand began to slip away from me on the crumbly dust. As I fell over on my bottom I sent out a beautiful arc of shining gold that went twice as far as Marvin's.
After that Marvin wouldn't challenge us to pee competitions so I couldn't use those opportunities to study Marvin's little dingle and to compare it to the drawing scratched in the green paint on the wall in the restroom.
It took music to explain it to me. All these years, since I was six years old, there had been a weekly piano lesson with the hope that I would follow Aunt Freida's talented footsteps. I amazed my three different teachers. None of them understood how I could have studied so long and learned so little. Each in turn, tried to remedy my problems by starting over from scratch.
Three times I opened the red and ivory beginner's book and attacked middle C . Each time it ended up the same way. I couldn't read the music fast enough to play it in time. In order to learn new piece, I would need to memorize it note for note until the spaces between the sounds were clear in my head. What I couldn't remember were the time intervals between the notes. If I could hear a piece correctly played enough so that I could hum it, then I could play it back so it sounded "right" to others.
Poor Mrs. Anderson. Even with her clanking metronome and eraser-less pencil that cracked on my knuckles, I felt sorry for her. She wore dark printed cotton dresses with little round collars and piles of ruffles where her breasts should have been. Her hair always looked as if it was trying to escape some mysterious point on the top of her head. Sometimes I'd see, more feel, her stifling a yawn behind her unpenciled hand, and I would wish that I could play so charmingly that I could bring her something besides boredom. I was bored with learning the lesson the third time. How must she feel hearing it over and over, student after student?
In the winter she gave the lessons at the home of her friend who lived across the street from the school. There was an agreement that her students were excused from school for their piano lessons. For me it was always a toss up whether the specialness of getting to stand up and leave the classroom, walk through the weather alone, knowing all the other kids were packed into that one brick building was worth the humiliation of those fifty-five minutes.
In summer it was all different. Mrs. Anderson gave the lessons in her home, about one and half miles north of town. Now the trip to the lesson, shrank the discomfort of it into a better proportion. I rode my bike out there once a week. I write "my bike" but I never thought of this bike as mine. It was forever the preacher's kid's bike. Later when I found out what an albatross was I recognized it as that bicycle.
When I first came to this town it seemed to me all the kids had bikes. I asked my folks for one. The overly reasonable answer was that I could have a bike when I had learned to ride one.
So one evening I stole this bike from the preacher's kid who had carelessly left it on the lawn in front of the church. I walked it three blocks away into a strange neighborhood where I used the whole street for my first wobbly attempts. By the time the street lights came on I had learned to petal and steer without falling over. Under the cover of darkness I returned the bike to the church yard where I had found it, returned to the store filled with wonder at my new accomplishment.
My folks didn't even give me time to break my good news. First, where had I been since six o'clock? Did I know the whole neighborhood had been out looking for the bike someone had stolen from the Methodist preacher's kid? The poor thing, she had so little to play with, anyhow. Terrible that someone should steal her bike.
What could I say? If I told the truth they would be so angry with me for taking that bike, they'd never buy me one. I wanted them to share my joy for having learned how to ride, but no twist of my imagination could put together a story that wouldn't incriminate me. I ignored bicycles until the question came up about how was I to get to Mrs. Anderson's in the summer. Without even asking to see if I could ride it, dad bought, from the preacher, this bike. I rode that bike only for piano lessons. I never took it to Jane's. That bike didn't like me, nor I it. We tolerated each other once a week.
Part of the way to Mrs. Anderson's was on the main road. In this part of Indiana it still wasn't a busy road, but I couldn't ride down the middle line like I could on the road that turned to the right and went down the last half mile to the piano. On the main road was a roadside park where we often went for picnics when we had company. On the way to my lesson it was a temptation to stop to get a drink of the metallic tasting water that gushed out of the pump into the cement trough. I was always afraid I would be late for the lesson if I stopped in the park. No matter how early I left home or how long I had to wait at Mrs. Anderson's for the pupil ahead of me to finish, I never felt I had the right to stop off in the park on my way there.
On the way home, then, the stop was even sweeter for having postponed it for an hour. I pumped the long curving handle until the water was flowing and overflowing. If one quickly put one's hand up to stop the water it was forced up out of a small hole drilled where the neck of the pump curved downward. It spurted a cold stream of water just right for drinking. After drinking to fill up my hunger, I'd wash off the smell of Mrs. Anderson's house. It smelled like fried onions, even in the morning.
I had my "own" picnic table that was in the sun where I would sit, look at the trees and passing traffic until I forgot the pain of music.
This one day late in June, I pedaled past the park without a stopping thought because today I knew I was going to be late getting to Mrs. Anderson's. Mother and I had gotten into an argument over whether I was to mark the piles of cans sitting in the aisles at the store with the price that was on the little piece of cardboard on the shelf or if I should ask her each time if there been a price change. I maintained that if she didn't mark the first one with a new price, I had the right to assume they should all be marked with the old price. In a few words, I had to change all 24 prices on the salt. When I left the store I was boiling mad. The old bike made me madder the way the chain kept slipping. I fought with it for a half a block before I realized I had forgotten my music. I went back to get it. Dad was tinkering with the engine of the GMC truck. I complained about the chain on the bike hoping he would drive me to the lesson and get me there on time. Instead he insisted on tightening the chain saying that was all that was wrong with it and it would only take a minute to fix it. As he worked the long arm on the Doctor Pepper clock was getting closer and closer to the twelve.
After passing the park with the wind blowing my pigtails straight out behind me, I whizzed around the corner onto the deserted side road, enjoying the speed the old bike was putting out. The sun warmed breezes brought messages to the skin of my face about the quiet growing of the countryside. All seemed so effortless and yet so there. Along the road were overflowing banks of wild roses dripping into the ditches. There was no time to stop and pick some, or even get off my bike to stand a minute inhaling the richness of the odor heightened by the moistness of the morning dew drying in the sun. I engaged myself in a long dialog on the relative merits of smelling roses on a morning like this, or taking a piano lesson or even marking numbers on boxes of salt. The closer I got to Mrs. Anderson's, the less important seemed the lessons.
As usual, when I was in such a mood, the lesson went badly. The other student had already gone. Mrs. Anderson was waiting. There was no time to catch my breath and prepare myself for the ordeal. She had time to prime. She asked me to play a piece I didn't think she was very interested in and therefore had not given it the least bit of practice. The piece I liked and had worked on she said was an unimportant exercise she should not have given it to me.
The smells and pollen of the roses ran down inside my nose. I had no handkerchief. I kept taking deep breaths, mostly inhaling to keep the drop of moisture from gathering at the tip of my nose. I exhaled through my mouth as to not put the least downward pressure on the liquid of tickling, trickling flowers. Since the mind cannot concentrate on two things at once, the piano suffered. Mrs. Anderson suffered. I suffered.
Somewhere behind us, dinner was cooking. These smells, added to the roses in my head, the emptiness in my stomach, decreed I couldn't play another note. Either Mrs. Anderson kindly perceived this or she herself was hungry. Mercifully she shortened the lesson. I gave her a dollar. She gave me my freedom.
I rode homeward very slowly, going from one side of the narrow country lane to the other to make the way as long as possible. When I got to the banks of wild roses, I dropped my dumb bike to walk slowly among the nodding mountains of fragrance. Strange, how when one looks at a mass of flowers each one looks perfect, but, if you look for a flower to pick, you see some have already turned pale with the aging of the hours, some have been the dinner of bugs or when you touch the prickly stem, the petals fall away as if they are too sensitive for such harshness. I didn't feel right about robbing these delicate creatures, breaking them off by the feet, especially when their legs were so thorny and taking them out of the sunshine to live in a watery vase. I also didn't feel right about the argument I had had with mother and thought that perhaps bringing her some roses might patch up our relationship. The fact that I would probably get scratched up a bit with my effort only added to my contriteness. Taking two sticks, clamped together, I broke off several large clusters of pink blooms. Then I licked the blood off my arm. I had managed to get several marvelous scratches. I put the flowers in the bike basket with my sheets and book of music. The sun shone alone in the sky, except for a few pencil marks where birds flew by. I began to anticipate the coolness of the park trees, the taste of all the water I could pump.
I whizzed across the loose gravel of the parking lot as I headed for the pump. The rusty creaking deep in the well seemed the best music I had heard all day. As I drank I wondered if I should water the roses. I didn't want to get my music wet so I merely dipped the stems in the trough. After shaking off the water I carefully laid the roses on one side. I got back on my bike to ride across the short grass to my usual picnic table where I would watch everything. As I rode onto the grass under the trees, I thought I saw a man moving. Coming from the glare of the sun into the shade it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
It was a man, shuffling toward me. He was hobbling because his pants were dropped to his ankles. My eyes ran up his hairy legs, and there, I saw what the drawing in the restroom represented. I had never seen a man naked before, not even my father. I had no idea that the little thing Marvin had, could on a man, be so huge and upright and aggressive. It curled up and out of the dark hairs onto his tummy. It glistened and shone as the dappled sun made spotlights on it. It jiggled stiffly as he walked toward me.
The man was holding his shirt balled against his chest with one hand and still advancing toward me with his other arm outstretched for me. My feet stopped pedaling and the bike stopped. As soon as I was standing on solid ground I froze to it. Like in the traditional bad dream I couldn't move. Every instinct said "run!" and I couldn't move. I was held fast by the seat and handle bars of the bike. Instead of moving I stared.
The man came to a tree, stopped to lean out his free hand on the huge beech trunk. He laid his head on the crook of his arm. Now I saw that he was old, unshaven, dirty and probably very sick. His eyes were red-rimmed and unfocused. The realization of this weakness, gave me the strength to marshal my feet to the pedals of the bike, to turn away from this sight and ride for the road.
When the bike hit the loose gravel, the front wheel was wrenched out of my control, stopping me, dumping me, the roses and the music onto the stones. Ignoring the dig of the gravel in my bare knee, I looked back where the man had been. He had seen me fall. He had pulled his pants up above his knees and was now running toward me.
Cursing that bike saved me. I directed my fear and anger on getting it upright and going. With out looking back, I ran, pushed, shoved that bike to the edge of the asphalt. There I jumped on, still running and rode faster than my fat legs had ever been able to pedal before.
When I got into the store, several customers were waiting to check out their groceries, so I ran to the back, into the stockroom. Dad saw my tears and bloody leg. He came toward me with the questions still in his eyes. I didn't want him to touch me I kept backing away from him as I panted, "Daddy, there was a man in the park. He had his clothes off. He came after me."
To my surprise, dad whirled away from me, flinging back the words, "Go in the restroom and wash your face and leg." I did as I was told. I felt very small and alone. And very dirty. It took a bit of scrubbing as there were bits of stone stuck in the skin, but when I got all the blood washed off my knee it didn't look nearly so bad. Not knowing what to do with all the pictures in my head and feelings pounding through my chest, I went back out into the store, picked up the greasy marking pencil to began marking the one-four on cans of green beans.
Mother hurried by, took a glance down at my work and said, "Those beans are 16 cents, not 14. Get the rag and wash off that price and put the right one on them." By the time she got out the last word out she was already around the dairy case.
I didn't cry. Tears ran down my face all by themselves. I went back to the restroom, got the rag I had used to clean my knee, moistened it, rubbed it on the dusty top of the scouring cleanser can and was going back to repair my mistake when over the ice cream sign I saw a police car ease into the parking place in front of the store.
The driver got out. As he came toward the store, I stared at his belly rolling down over his heavy leather belt. I wondered if, under those blue pants, he looked like the man in the park. When he opened the door of our store, I instinctively crouched down over my box of miss-labeled beans. Dad appeared and disappeared down the far aisle. I could hear their voices.
"Were you the one who called in the complaint about the man in the park?"
"Was it your daughter who said she saw him?"
"Yes. Was there really someone there?"
"Uh huh. Just an old, very sick drunk. He was lying on the ground. His clothes were, uh, not all together!"
"Was he exposed?"
"She probably saw something. Did she say if he touched her?"
"I didn't ask."
"Mind if I talk to her? Is she here?"
"Yes. I mean, yes she is here. Must you talk to her?"
"It's up to me to see if anything criminal happened. Oh, is this her piano book? I found it in the parking area along with some flowers. "My heart froze for the second time on a hot June day. Was what I had seen criminal? Was I now a criminal because I had seen that man?
"Yes." I stayed where I was. I wasn't leaving my beans. The policeman came down the aisle followed by dad. He loomed huge over me, reached out and seized me by the arm to pull me up into a standing position. My knees barely held me so I swayed. Instinctively he grabbed me with both hands. That movement startled me into the screaming I couldn't do in the park. The screams filled my whole being. T here was no room for thought or vision.
I was sitting on the old broken down couch in the storeroom where we sat to eat and where I had often slept when other and dad worked late at night stocking shelves. Mother was holding me, comforting me with such fear in her own voice, that the words came out all harsh with corners. "Must you really ask her these questions?"
"I can't force her to answer, but it helps when filing the report to know what charges to bring against him."
"Okay then, but be gentle." Dad moved away to lean on a stack of flour sacks.
The big man squatted down with one knee on the floor in a trail of spilled soap powder. "Okay, Jane. That is your name, isn't it?"
I must have nodded because he continued. "I'm sorry, but I must ask you what happened this morning at the roadside park."
I didn't answer,
"Did the man there touch you?"
I shook my head sideways.
"Are you very sure he didn't?"
I shook my head up and down.
"Were you alone in the park?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Was anyone else with you?"
I shook out a half-hearted no for him. I was unsure if I was alone if that man was there. The wrong answer could be right and the right answer could be wrong. As I pondered this he continued.
"Why were you alone in the roadside park?"
I looked up at him, wondering how I'd ever explain all of that to him.
"It is important that you tell me the truth."
"I wanted to get a drink..."
"But why were you alone in the park?"
"To get a drink."
"She rides her bike out to Mrs. Anderson's on Bluelick Road for piano lessons. The lesson was supposed to last until noon. She was probably on her way home when she decide to stop to rest and get a drink"
"I found her music in the parking lot. Roses were scattered about with it."
Was it criminal to pick those roses, too? Again I thought I'd stop breathing.
"Where did you get the roses?" the policeman asked.
I stared at him, judging if I should lie or not. "Along the road on the way to Mrs. Anderson's."
"You stopped along the road to play?"
"No," I started to say, but my voice came apart. "I just stopped long enough to pick some roses to give to mother." The word mother was a wail.
Dad stood up and straightened his shoulders. "Isn't that enough questions?"
"I've got to know if he did anything. Where did you get the scraped knee?
"The dumb bike fell over in the loose stones."
"Where you riding the bike or walking it?"
"I was riding until I fell over, then I ran with it."
"How long were you in the park?"
I shrugged my shoulders. They ached. How long had I stared at that thing sticking up between the old man's legs? How long did I look at that lumpy sack falling out of that dark hair? How long is long when time stands still and you can't move? I had no answer.
"Did the man touch you?"
I had to think. I had looked at such private part of him, I began to feel that he had touched me. Or I him. I made the smallest no shake of my head. He wasn't convinced.
"Did that man touch you or do anything to you?"
His voice was raising. He was sweating in the afternoon heat in the tin roofed building. His legs looked like fat blue sausages. I wondered if Mr. Henry in the meat department knew what was going on here. Who was watching the store? Could anyone else hear these questions? Where there customers out there?
"Once, more. Did that man touch you?"
I leaned against mother's arm as I tried to shake my head no.
"Joe, I think we've had enough today." she said
"Can you stop now?" Dad moved so he stood beside mother.
"I suppose so. The poor old guy was so sick and drunk, I really doubt he could have done anything to her even if he had wanted to.
This she will soon forget."