1961 Hernando, Mississippi
I'm out the door heading for the town square, angling across to the tree-lined street that leads to Hernando's small public swimming pool. Fifteen cents buys relief from the heat that hangs over Mississippi from May through September. I spot her sitting on the steps of a small brick bungalow: knees drawn to her chin, her arms hugging her legs, and since I don't get on so well with the kids from Vacation Bible School, I welcome the chance to make a new acquaintance. I stop inches away from where she’s perched, smile and say, "Hi."
The skirt of her dress covers her knees, but the fabric is so worn I can see through it. Her white anklets are cuffed and her sneakers are spotless. Her dishwater blonde hair is way longer than mine, with natural curl and pulled to one side with a barrette. Greenish veins show through her pale skin; her blue eyes almost grey.
She stays seated, unwraps an arm just enough to give a weak wave and says "Hello." I respond with a full salute, click my heels, and take off in an exaggerated backwards run down the street, stopping two houses away, then pretend I'm swimming the breastroke through the air. She stands to watch my invitation to join in for a swim, waves back, but doesn't budge. I keep at it, but growing tired I turn away and skip the rest of the way to the pool.
Next day I see her waiting on the steps and race ahead to greet her, asking her name and telling her mine. She stands taller than me and I ask her age.
"I'm twelve. Almost thirteen."
I'm scrawny for nine and wonder how someone, not a full head taller than me, can be almost thirteen.
"You really that old?"
She pulls her shoulders up, tightens her arms across her skinny chest, and almost boasting answers, "I am. Married too."
I pretend things as well; it’s a familiar game I play with friends and cousins back in Memphis. I’m often assigned the role of kid brother, or the Daddy, and since she's already in a dress, and I'm wearing shorts, I figure I'll be the man. In a tone men take with wives I tell her, “Grab your suit. Come on Let's go swimming."
Looking to the sidewalk she shakes her head. "Can't. He won't like it."
I shrug and ask if we can play inside her house instead.
She looks up, motions with her head in the direction of the front door, and asks me if I'm thirsty. I follow her up the steps and through the door into a small and tidy house. There's a pitcher of lemonade waiting on the kitchen counter with two glasses at the ready. The pitcher looks heavy, but she manages, and the two of us head back to the living room. Sitting on the sofa I tell her about Vacation Bible School, how I love swimming, know how to dive, eat out at Bob's Steak House, and attend movies at the only picture show in Hernando. Running out of talk about Hernando I start in on Memphis-- the zoo, libraries, and my Great Aunt Little Bits Beauty parlor. When I realize she hasn't said a word, I ask, "What do you do all day?"
"I make the bed." She blushes and looks to her hands. "Then his breakfast. He's off to work and I stay by here." Taking a sip of lemonade she looks to me and continues. "He's home for lunch. Likes a plate set when he walks in. He'll take a sandwich. Don't have to be hot for lunch."
I empty my glass. She's quick to take it and when she gets up to fill it I follow behind into the kitchen. With the drapes drawn the living room is dark, but the kitchen is sunny. The door to the back yard is open, and I see through the screen door the laundry's up to dry, and wonder when her mother will pop in, walking in with a bag of groceries, or a basket of laundry. But no one else arrives. It's just the two of us inside the little house.
I ask, "Can we go back outside?"
She looks to the wall clock before nodding okay as she hands me a fresh glass of lemonade. We sit on the back steps and stare at the laundry limp in the humid heat. I'm not done with the last ice cube when she takes my glass saying she has to hurry and make his lunch. I follow in to watch.
Lunch is a cold bologna sandwich with mayonnaise on white bread. She cuts it into triangles placing them on a plate, pulls a pickle from a jar and drops it next to the sandwich. With a knife almost the size of her arm she cuts a wedge from a head of lettuce, places it on a plate, then pours orange bottled dressing on top. I take the sandwich plate to the dining table, and she follows with the salad. Back in the kitchen she makes a tall glass of instant tea, dumping in spoons of sugar. She takes a sip explaining, " Likes it real sweet." I finish setting the table and wonder who's going to eat this lunch, when a man walks in the room. He's tall and thin, dressed in tan work clothes, and he doesn't look happy. I introduce myself and wait for him to speak.
Looking down at me he asks, "What you doing in my house? She invite you in?" The little girl holds back in the kitchen and he calls to her," I told ya 'bout that. Don't want no strangers here."
She's quiet, so I talk, "Sorry sir. I was just walking by, and we started chatting. You her Daddy?"
He pushes past me to wash up at the kitchen sink. The girl scoots into the dining room and stands by me. He takes his place at the head of the table and starts in eating his bologna sandwich. His mouth is full when he talks, "Well aren't you two a pair. Susie, that your name? You them that staying by the Cooke’s'?"
"Yes sir I am."
The girl moves closer to me. He watches us as he eats. Between bites he asks my age. I'm afraid of him and say nothing. Sucking food off his teeth he asks, "She tell you her age?"
I decide to lie, shake my head and answer, "No sir. "
"You telling me you don't know how old she is?" My chest is pounding. I want to grab her hand and run. "She tell you she's married?"
The girl answers, "Yes sir. I did.
Striking the table he glares at her and shouts, ''Was I talking to you, little miss? No! I asked Miss Susie there if she knows you're my wife!" A piece of lettuce hangs on his chin and the orange dressing is smeared on his lips. I watch his tongue lick it away. He missed the lettuce.
I judge the distance to the door, and hope he didn't lock it when he came in. My throat tightens when I announce, "Sir, I have to leave. My mother will wonder where I am." I don't even look to the little girl as I run for the door, and push on the screen. It's held in place by a hook and eye, and I jab my finger hitting it hard. It flies from its socket and I run. I'm blocks away before I realize I've left my swimsuit and towel behind.
The following Monday, soon as I see the little girl's house, I spot my towel neatly rolled and waiting on the steps.