by Jane Doe
The grocery store kept falling apart faster than dad could put it back together again. The business was falling off and the margin of profit proved to be smaller than dad had calculated in his days at the office of the armored tank factory. Mother was tired of living in the dumpy storefront that had no kitchen or bathroom we cooked, ate and bathed in the sink in their bedroom and offering her whole day at the foot of dad's independent business adventure.
The decision for dad to search for a new job was the upheaval that scattered my summer days between the fifth and sixth grades. While he was out answering ads in other cities, mother and I ran the store. Everything I did there I did blindly so it wouldn't touch me inside.
One day I saw a rat the size of a cat. As he stared at me with his mean, nasty eyes, I told him with mine, that if I could, I would give him the whole store. He walked away unafraid. He owned it already.
Keeping store with mother continued my learning. I hated marking prices on all those cans, bottles and boxes which would shortly leave the store and no longer need their numbers on the top. So I practiced printing each number as well as I could. Sometimes I tried to make them too fancy and the little old ladies with their glasses hanging on a chain would complain. With a sigh of disgust I'd go back to trying to be normal. For mother it was not normal being in the store without dad.
Mother was a very attractive woman. Tall, with wavy auburn hair, and when she wanted, she could make her eyes twinkle and call out promises. Extremely vain about her looks, there was always an air of waiting for something to happen that floated about her. I thought she was waiting on me to grow up or to be good or something I never would achieve.
In the store, though, I saw this cloud of closed expectation came out from her face even to the customers. It seemed that with dad being gone, we had more men shoppers buying little and often. Mr. Piedmont, the real estate dealer, who had his crumbling pale green office just two doors away seemed to need the most. I don't know if it was his cigar or his smile that came out of his mattress-like face that repulsed me the most. Instinctively I kept an aisle between him and myself.
One day he had come in as usual and I was dodging him as usual. Like a dolphin I gauged his whereabouts by the direction of his ho-ho voice. For a heavy man, Mr. Piedmont was very light on his feet. Very light. I could smell his tobacco smell but there was no sound coming with it.
Suspiciously, I edged around the cardboard cookie display at the end of the aisle. Mother was bending over transferring butter from box to the dairy case. There stood Mr. Piedmont, his hand was moving as if he was touching fine furniture in the slit between mother's blouse and slacks. I was busy wondering if all men were like Uncle Dean, when mother swung around, dislodging Mr. Piedmont's hand and nearly upsetting the man himself. She stared at me. Wordlessly we looked at one another. I did not understand her message. Mr. Piedmont was not even listening to us. He was already groping in her slacks.
"Mr. Piedmont!" That was the same tone of voice she used when she called me Jane Ellen Greer. I made myself as small as possible and went the long way back to the stockroom. Seconds later I heard the little bell over the door banging like a beaten beast and I looked out. Mr. Piedmont was gone. So was some of the closeness that had built up between Mother and I in those dadless days.
Dad would come home on Friday nights, so full of talk and plans. There was much he and mother had to talk over. A whole week's missing had to be made up between the Saturday rush hours in the store and Monday morning when he left again. There was no time now for me. Normally I wouldn't have cared but since I was in the store all day I rarely saw Jane and we kind of forgot how to play together. We both knew it was only a matter of weeks before I would be gone and there was no sense in making any plans or campaigns. We both felt the beginning of the end and were helpless before it.
In our small town Saturday night was the night of nights. All the stores stayed open until 9:00 o'clock. The farmers put away their tractors, got out their pocketbooks, called the kids, let the wife bring her shopping list and headed for town. In the summer when there was no school to act as social lubricant for the older kids, walking the streets on Saturday night carried all the hopes and fears of a chance meeting. Groups of girls cruised the sidewalks while boys in little knots of two or three leaned on the parked cars. With whistles and comments they watched the passing parade.
I was too young for this ritual but I watched it with interest because it was the prelude to something much more interesting – for me. When the summer evening finally began to grow dark, chairs were brought out of the restaurants, benches where set up in the wide area in front of the Farmer's Grain Elevator. Someone brought out a table and a movie projector was set up. The pictured rippled over the corrugated front of the silo to the wobbly sound of the third or even fourth hand speaker equipment.
In the first darkness, when they were adjusting the focus and volume on the sound, there was a lot of shuffling about to decide who sat next to whom. It was as if sitting next to the wrong person would mysteriously alter the pleasure from these huge light pictures. The other factor that made it important to take care with whom one sat was the knowledge that during the show one would leave one's body to enter the lives of the movie stars. It was wise to know where, and in whose company you left your empty body. For this reason I would often sit with schoolmates until the cartoon was over and
If the story wasn't interesting I would turn my head to watch the chopped light on the faces all turned up at once to the big grain elevator. The white of the film turned greenish on their faces so people I knew in the afternoon were replaced with these lumpy ghostly faces hunched over dark clothes. The longer I looked the more alien they became. If I thought too hard the music wavered and broke apart so the notes came to me one at a time without relation to each other. As I watched the audience I would get the feeling that I was the only person in the whole square. I would notice the occasional car passing on a side street but none of the other people even knew it existed. I would feel very alone. But then when I looked again at their empty faces being drawn up into the air by abstract shapes of black and white I was sure none of them could take away my aloneness. Or better said: Not one of them was someone to whom I would give up my aloneness. I knew my parents were still at the store so I would go down the street to the apartment, lift the loose tile, take the key to let myself into the darkness that knew me.
On a Sunday morning I awaken to nothing. The other room had that abandoned feeling meaning my parents were still asleep. Then I remembered that late last night just as the dime store was closing, I had decided to blow over one half of my allowance on a book of paper dolls. Perhaps if I could look at them, choosing which outfits to cut out first, the time would go faster until mother and dad got up. It seemed that since dad was gone all week, and only home on weekends, they slept longer and longer on Sunday mornings.
The paper doll book lay on the desk across the room. The door separating our two bedrooms was open. I'd have to be very quiet not to waken them. Cautiously I let one foot dangle over the edge of the mattress until my toe touched the cold linoleum. Slowly, so the bed wouldn't squeak, I sat up. With one quick movement I stood. Automatically I looked into their bedroom expecting to see them both asleep.
Mother and dad were not lying side by side asleep. Neither were the covers pulled up under their chins. Neither were they wearing their pajamas.
I took a flying leap back into the security of my own bed, grabbing the covers with one hand and reaching for my white confirmation Bible with the other.
I saw mother and dad... flashed through my head as I sought a story in the Bible to block the images and phrases forming in my head.
"Now as it came to pass, as they went, that he entered in a certain village: a certain woman named Martha received him into her house."
He was on top of her. I saw his bare butt bumping... my monkey mind raced between the Bible and the bed.
"And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus' feet and heard his word."
My parents were doing it. Without me! interrupted my heart.
"That Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him and said, " Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?"
The squeak of the bedsprings. Someone was up walking toward door. I pushed the Bible back under the covers and closed my eyes as if I had been asleep since Saturday.
The door shut. The lock turned. They were going on with their ...
"Bid her therefore that she help me."
The bedsprings were speaking in tongues.
"And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha thou art troubled about many things."
The bedsprings were singing the almighty chorus. I pulled a handful of blanket over my ears and continued to read through a slit of piled up wool.
"But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."
A week later I was delivered. Literally. To Grandma and Granddad’s farm which lay in fertile valley between Big River and Little Creek. Dad was hired by a banker and mother wanted to go alone to look for a house for us. At any other time the thought of two weeks on dad's old homestead would have seemed like a dream. Now it felt like salvation, complete with the whirring of wings. Pigeons.
Everything felt so clean and fresh and good here. Even I felt new and untouched. I got up at dawn to slide my bare feet across the dew on the grass before anyone else made a print on the surface of fragile diamonds. For hours I leaned my stomach on the flat metal railing of Little Creek bridge to watch the frogs and turtles co-existing there. I looked at all the farm magazines piled on the ledge under the solid oak desk. I watched clouds go by. I listened to the corn growing. I missed the bustle of the customers, the shops to roam around in and short, little, slope-shouldered Jane friend.
Poor Granddad. I followed him everywhere he went. To shut out my loneliness, I chattered. From the time Granddad was a young man doing the extra dangerous job of dynamiting oil wells to get enough money to buy this farm, during the raising of the seven children, until now when he did his chores a little slower he was the quiet one. He preferred smiling or whittling on a piece of wood to talking. And he put up with me without saying a word. At most he'd smile less and change his cud of tobacco from the inside of one whiskered cheek to the other. Grandma, when she had enough, would graciously say with her last bit of patience, "Why don't you go to see what Granddad is doing?" I would seek him out by the hour of his chores or the sound of the tractor.
On about the fourth day Granddad took me for a walk. We went down the pasture lane, avoiding the chocolate cow cakes, to cross the fields to a place where I had never been before.
Out of the old two story house came a girl, a couple of years older than I, but shorter. With her was her brother who was, I was told, eleven years old. The small, mother with rosy cheeks like her daughter's talked to Granddad. It was agreed that Roseanna and Frank were to be my new playmates.
August country boredom cemented an instant friendship between Roseanna and I. She knew so many special places on the farm so we could chose a new place for play each day. Roseanna knew how to catch the tadpoles and turtles in Little Creek with a net she made out of one of her mother's stockings and a bent wire. She knew how to find fish in milkweed pods, where the hens hid their nests and how to make ballerina dolls out of hollyhock flowers and toothpicks. We were together from dawn to dusk. I would have stayed overnight but Roseanna's grandfather was deaf. And a hunchback. I didn't want to spend the night in the same house with a man so much like someone out of the stories
My presence disturbed the delicate mossy relationship between Roseanna and Frank. On one hand Frank found our play terribly silly because for years he and Roseanna had done all these things so it was `old stuff' to him. Being totally left out of our play was even more boring, so he took to standing off to one side to watch us with squinted up eyes under the hank of white hair that hung on his forehead like a bell pull.
When I saw Frank watching us I'd feel all wiggly inside. The wiggly feeling made me blush. If Frank didn't show up to watch us play, it wasn't as much fun. I often wondered what this silent boy in rolled up jeans thought of me.
Frank had discovered where the old barn cat had hidden her kittens and offered to show them to Roseanna and I. They were up in the hayloft of the barn. The ladder was old and wobbly. I was dumb and unathletic. Roseanna scrambled right up behind Frank. I tried to follow their example, but when I got to the top of the ladder, I froze. I felt I couldn't go back down and there was no way I could ever swing my leg over theedge of the loft floor to lift myself up without falling over backwards.
Roseanna was chirping away as she bounced through the dusty bales looking for the kittens on her own. She didn't notice my dilemma. Frank did. He came to me. His eyes weren't squinted anymore. They looked directly into mine. He took my hand in his and began whispering to me. Next thing I knew, I was standing in the straw piles, too. Frank held on to my hand, leading me to where the baby kittens were. By then the kittens seemed very far away, pale and insignificant. Just as I was wishing Frank would go on holding my hand forever, he let go of it.
To cover my disappointment, I gushed and cooed over the blind, scrawny babies, mostly hoping to win back Frank's attention. Without a word, in contrast to me, Frank walked to the edge of the loft, grabbed a knotted rope, swung himself free and hand over hand let himself down by the threshing machine to disappear, into the shaft of dusty sunlight.
I began to design campaigns to impress Frank. I smiled a lot. Frank didn't. I talked a lot. My loud words fell on his silence. I gazed brazenly into his eyes. Frank stomped off, his bare feet making puffy clouds in the powdery earth. I was at my wits end about what to do next when Allen came.
Without my knowledge it was decided that my cousin, Allen, who was four years younger than I, should come to stay at Grandma's, too. The first day he came his mother, Aunt Julie, declared that Allen was to young to go as far away as Frank and Roseanna's. I was expected to stay home with him so neither of us bothered Grandma.
Bored with Allen's numbing stupidity I would relive those few seconds when Frank held my hand. Again and again, I was always able to milk some pleasure from the thoughts, I caressed them until honey and wild bees flowed through me.
One morning, like all the rest, Allen and I were sitting on the monumental antique tractor with iron tires, pretending we were plowing, (Allen's prime pleasure), when we saw Roseanna and Frank coming down the pasture lane. I formulated phrases for Frank. I developed situations in my head to get him to take my hand again. Like a camp counselor I planned activities.
Roseanna and Frank stood below us, solemnly judging the new-to-them Allen. He was pale and sickly and acted like a toy that was wound up too tight. I didn't blame them for taking an instant dislike to him. Like invaded invaders Roseanna and Frank sized Allen and I up and down. Wordlessly, a stone wall was built between the city cousins and the country kids. With the wisdom of children, we didn't try to move a rock.
Allen and I were relieved when they left so the midmorning sun could melt the icy ring around the abandoned tractor. Watching Frank slash flowers off of weeds with a stick as he and Roseanna hurried away, I realized more than ever how precious were those memories in the hay loft. It seemed I wouldn't be getting any more, so I took what I had, wrapped them in the gray velvet folds of my mind until I had the aloneness in which to unwrap them, taking them second by second out of the dark, caressing them with my thoughts until they were so burnished with touching that they shone brighter than the August sun. Okay, so I'm in love I thought.
Other nights, the frogs in Little Creek croaked, the cicadas screeched out of their skins in the trees in the front lawn and the moon bounced around on Great-Grandmother's quilt. We both could not sleep. I would have been content to think about Frank until dawn. Allen wanted to play games. In the dark, we played our own game of "I see".
"I see something big with every color in it."
"Is it the garden full of flowers?"
"No, but you are close with flowers."
"The pasture full of wild flowers!"
"What else can it be?"
"I know, the picture over the table in the dining room."
Yawn. "No? There isn't anything else with flowers in it."
"The quilt here. Do another "I see", Jane."
"I'm tired, let's go to sleep."
"I'm not a bit sleepy. Let me do the "I see" and you guess."
"Okay, what do you see?"
"I see something that is white, with pink on one end and has blue stripes on the other, the white part."
" What could that be? A baby's toy?"
"No!" Allen giggled.
If I had been thinking of Frank less and playing Allen's game with more thought, I would have known by that giggle what, or at least, where his "I see" was.
"Are you sure you described it right?"
"Yeah, give up?"
"Yeah, what is it?"
"It doesn't have blue stripes on it, you dummy."
"Yes it does. I'll show you. Turn on the light."
"By gumdrop, it does have blue lines on it."
"Does yours have blue lines on it?"
"I don't know, It's hard for me to see down there."
"Turn around to the light and I'll look for you. You've got lots
In the darkness we'd simultaneously touched the strangeness of each other. Exploring, comparing but not satisfying each other.I didn't go right to sleep and had to lay awake listening to Allen's stuporous sounds. I felt guilty for what we had done. Waves of shame washed over me leaving me still dirty. I called myself bad names and sighed as I pressed my lips over my teeth in disgust. I vowed never to touch and be touched from Allen again. I tried to think about the day Frank held my hand, but the memory came out of it's box in bits and lumps. I gave up and prayed until I, too, slept.
Copyright © the Estate of Jane Doe 2010