by Jane Doe
When it turned cold and rainy, we were trapped in the house with Marvin. The Marvin of no friends. We had to include him in all our games again. There was no way to get rid of him. The hours of October and November were consumed with cards, dominoes, and Chinese checkers. These games took on a new spirit of competition the winter Jane's Uncle Dean appeared on the scene.
Dean was the youngest brother of Mrs. O'Dell. He was about twenty years old and we felt very sorry for him. Mrs. O'Dell said his parents were so angry with him that they had made him move out of their house, even when he had no other place to go. So, Dean moved into Marvin's big room under the steep roof. The object was to find Dean a job. All of Dean's jobs were snow in sunshine they did not last long. He was rarely out of the house in the daytime. Thus, Dean rearranged our games into his game. For Dean made a new rule. Whoever lost had to sit at his right side.
Lost. Darn. I would scoot back my chair. Jane was already out of her loser's place, standing beside me, eager to have my unmolested game place. Slowly I would walk around the table while Jane and Marvin argued about how to shuffle cards. Jane claimed Marvin bent them and he said that was the only way he could really mix them.
In the cacophony of their anger, I tried to pull my chair away from Uncle Dean's side. When I sat down, he picked the chair and me up to plunk us down where he wanted me to be.
Everyone knew Dean was a strong boy. He was also a modest boy. He would carefully arrange the oilcloth with its baskets of flowers against my tummy so it hung like a drape disconnecting the lower half of me from the card playing parts. Before the cards were even dealt, Dean's hand would be traveling around my waist, down the zipper, up to the top of my underwear, down my protruding tummy so his one stubby finger could slip into that fold between me and the chair. Dean knew our geography like a book and he knew how to rule it.
When Dean demanded that we play "War," a never-ending mindless card game, we all knew what was going on at Dean's end of the table. Tossing down and picking up the piles with his left hand, his right hand was pushing here and there until he found just the little bump he was searching for. If I tried to hinder him by leaning forward to bend his arm or clenching my legs together, he would pinch with his fingernails the soft flesh between his thumb and finger. That hurt. I knew that if I leaned back in my chair and relaxed my legs Dean could be very gentle moving sometimes fast and sometimes very slow so that I did not care how long the game of war lasted.
For several days this went on. Neither Jane nor I ever thought of telling on Uncle Dean, thought at times, we'd threaten not to play cards with him anymore. Goaded by our refusal he would buy a sack of peppermints. These he poured into a bowl and set it on the table. Whoever ate peppermints, played cards.
Both Jane and I felt very uncomfortable with this situation. Jane was stuck with it. I stopped going over to her house. She understood my absence had nothing to do with our relationship. And she was proved right.
According to Jane her mother surprised him one day in Jane's bedroom with Jane on the bed. Instantly, no more Dean.
Because of our friendship, Jane and I went to the same church. The winter we were in the fifth grade we attended catechism together with the idea that we would be taken into the church in spring. The worst feature of catechism was that it was ruining our Saturdays. Saturday was the day we received our allowances. Between Jane's house and the United Brethren Church lay all the shops in the town. Each of us with her quarter burning crying to be spent, we'd pace the aisles of the five and dime, the drugstore, and if we thought we had lots of time, the other grocery stores. It was so hard to know what to spend the money on. One could either buy something very small every day or spend it all on one item that gave pleasure until next Saturday. Saving was out of the question.
Jane and I were forever coming late to catechism and our thoughts were far more on our plans for our quarters than the saving of our souls. It wasn't our teacher's fault. Mrs. Powell was a devoted little old lady whose greatest mission in life was to bring her flock into the fold of Jesus. She did her best to teach us how Jesus would forgive us of all our sins if we would just be pure enough to believe her story. Jane and I were skeptical of the efficiency of this belief, but to please the good-hearted lady who had her hands full with the boisterous boys in the class, we were quiet and cooperative and continued contemplating how to spend our allowances.
Winter consisted of an eternity of blighted Saturdays. It seemed that spring would never come to release us from this freedom gobbling commitment. In spite of myself, I began to admire Mrs. Powell. She was so dedicated and tried so hard to smile when she should have been screaming at the boys. I wondered at her courage with this unruly gang. She must have been wondrously concerned about the saving of us from the clutches of the devil to go through what she did each Saturday.
She treated us like the children she never had. She must have been very desolate to try to adopt our souls. I knew there was a Mr. Powell – he ran the grubby filling station down by the big falls bridge where dad bought gas. I never saw him in church.
One day dad needed a piece of rubber hose to fix the cooler on the dairy products cabinet. All the fixtures in the store were so dilapidated that it was only dad's skill with tools that kept the operation operating. Often he was busy repairing this and that, so I had to unpack and price goods to keep the shelves filled. For me, on this early spring afternoon, it was a treat to get out of the smells of old vegetables, spilled and soured milk to walk the length of the whole town down to Powell's garage to buy the piece of replacement hose.
Circle skirts were the newest rage. I was wearing one flaming with colors. I felt so aggressively attractive as I swished my way down the street, wiggling my fanny so the skirt made the improper notions. I smiled at people I normally wouldn't even look at, just so they'd notice me and my skirt. It was long walk down to Powell's, but today I was sorry to see the stores change from drugstores to restaurants, to hair dressers, to car dealers to empty shops, to houses with unkempt lawns and then the empty lots, and finally the garage.
Up close, I was aware that Mr. Powell was older than I had thought he was as I sat in the cab of the grocery truck. Mrs. Powell was also old, so I guessed it was right that he too was old. He was wiping his hands on a greasy rag as I stood on the rim of the sunshine peering into the cavern of darkness peopled with automobiles.
"Dad needs a piece like this." I announced holding up the length of black rubber tubing. He lumbered over, took the frayed hose and disappeared back into his tangled jungle of belts, hoses and other blacknesses. I stared at the river, gauging if I had time to slip down to the bridge before I was expected back at the store.
"That'll be fifteen cents, miss."
I handed him the quarter.
"Come inside, I'll get you your change." He rung up the sale on the silvery scrolled cash register. When the drawer popped open, he dropped in the quarter and picked up a dime. But he didn't give the dime to me. He held it like a prize between his grime- grooved thumb and forefinger. To distract me, he asked me dumb questions about school. I answered as curtly as I thought I dared.
I still had hopes of walking to the bridge to spit in the river before heading back to the store. When the stream of questions continued as he eased his large frame into a broken down over-stuffed chair, I sensed that getting my dime back was going to take a while. He spread his legs wide apart as stout men do when they sit. After checking if anyone was coming down the street he gripped my arm with his undimed hand to seat me on his left leg. The dime he laid on the shelf above his head.
What now? What now? raced through my head along with the even dumber questions he was asking about school friends.
With his free hand he pushed up under my skirt to touch my knee. I made an effort to stand up. His fingers dug into my flesh as a warning to sit still. The touching hand was trembling so I judged that he had not the courage to go further if I insisted on leaving, even without the dime. He must have read my mind in the flexing of my knee muscles. His hand slipped down my leg, releasing the pressure only to slide his hand further up under the generous folds of the skirt. He had stopped talking. That was a relief. I wondered if he was going to repeat Uncle Dean's tactics. As he stroked my thigh I tried to calculate how long this was going to take. In one abrupt movement he released his grip on me and stood up. I nearly slid to the floor. That was all he wanted. He reached over, picked up the dime again, and gave it to me. He was shaking all over. "Promise me you won't tell anyone what I did to you?"
"Naw." and I meant it. How could I tell on him after all the silences about Uncle Dean?
"Here, take these candy bars." He shoved two Paydays and three Snicker bars in my hands. "Anytime you want more candy, you can come back here to me and I'll give you all you want."
In his nervousness, he must have forgotten my dad owned a grocery store where I could get all the candy bars I wanted. Glad to have the dime back and wondering what to do with all the candy bars before I got back to the store, I left. One Payday bar I ate. The rest I carefully laid end to end, one after another, on the inside ledge of the picket fence around the house next to the used car dealer's lot.
The United Brethren Church celebrated confirmation southern Bible-belt revival tent style. At the end of the preacher's sermon on this special Sunday, he gave "The Call." Those of us who felt ready to receive the Holy Spirit were coached to proceed to the altar as the congregation softly sang, "Just As I" and kneel down. What was to happen after that was not explained. Some of the other kids with heads bowed and eyes downcast were already filing to the front of the church. I hesitated. I didn't want to be the object in so many eyes.
Another chorus of "Just As I Am Without One Plea." The specter of another winter of Saturdays in catechism class brought me to my feet. I fasten my glazed gaze on one piece of railing at the altar and headed for it like a sheep to slaughter.
My knees popped as I knelt down. I stared at a patch of carpeting with a dark stain on it and wondered what I was supposed to be thinking. The preacher knelt down beside me, put his arm around me, gripped my arm with his fingers, gave me a shake and said, "Confess all your sins to Jesus."
Confess? What was I to confess? I couldn't think of one sin. I was feeling an utter failure and about to stand up to return to my seat to forget the whole venture, when Mrs. Powell eased in beside me. She was whispering so low I couldn't hear her words over the music. I felt her frail frame beside me and I remembered the day in the filling station with her husband. I felt so sorry for him that he felt he had to feel so guilty and so ashamed of touching my leg when Uncle Dean had gotten away with doing so much more behind a game of cards. The injustice of it all made me sad enough to cry. Mrs. Powell, in sympathy for my anguish for my sins held me closer. I felt even more sorry for her that she had no children except the ungrateful kids in catechism class. I cried for her loneliness. I cried for her husband who was so lonely that the furtive touching of a stranger's thigh was all his pleasure. I wished that they could do something together to help each other in their aloneness.
So, I prayed to Jesus about Mr. and Mrs. Powell. I asked that they would be happy together instead of looking for it in us kids. With that in my tears, I became a member of the United Brethren Church and I felt whiter than snow the rest of the day.
Copyright © the Estate of Jane Doe 2010