Stories from my collection
I want to waltz in, hollering, “Git yer gladrags on, ladies. We’re going to the picture show.”
But first I want some of Miss Georgia’s lemonade she’s got cooling in the ice box. Being as how it’s July in Wilcox County, Alabama, we find ourselves existing in a boiling in Hades both day and night. Hot under the collar, favoring my back, I’m moving, oh, so slow coming in, letting the screen door close quietly behind me. The womenfolk back in the kitchen don’t know I’m here.
Then I back out the screen door like Miss Georgia would surely tell me so as to slap the dust off my trousers. I drag my feet under the day lilies to clean my shoes best I can, not wanting to bend down to wipe ‘em. All this time the sun is blazing down like that fiery furnace. Cotton won’t grow until it’s too hot to sleep at night, and I ain’t slept good in quite a while. My shirt clinging to me, I take off my hat to wipe my brow, sweat dripping from my fingers.
Tuckered out is what I am, after supervising the gin three nights running. Had to do it. Had to cover for Stabler while he and Zugar went down to Hybart lumber yard and Monroeville Lumber, too, which was for the greater good. It was for all us store owners---for Stabler who is closest to the river, giving him the advantage of boat deliveries. For Baker, closest to the railroad tracks. For me, Morgan, maybe six miles from Baker, but still close enough to the tracks. And for Zugar’s tent store, two miles further down. Why Zugar won’t move his tent to a better spot, I can’t figure. That Hungarian is just set in his ways, but I wouldn’t do what he’s doing, running retail out of a tent like that. These Alabama boys around here would steal me blind. But anyway, all four of us want to get in on that Hybart lumber deal. Wilcox County is growing, specially around Coy and Lower Peachtree, and the cotton is high, which means we got to rid our crop of all those damn seeds. Long hours. Day and night both. Long, hot hours.
Time was, I would have hauled the Hybart lumber myself, but my back won’t allow it now. I ain’t as young as I once was. I’m lucky to have the store, the gin, and my school bus driving job so I can keep my ladies in their finery and take them to Camden for the picture show twice a month. I get tickled watching ‘em scramble when I announce, “Okay, ladies. Git yer gladrags on fer the picture show.” They got Mrs. Miniver showing in Camden this week, and I bet the ladies will like that one.
Moving under the eaves to find shade, I light up my seegar to consider Zugar’s night letter, which came in yesterday morning, and I know what’s in it because I see through the little window on the War Department envelope. I seen a lot of those already, and it’s only been seven months since Pearl Harbor. I already made several rounds delivering bad news night letters all around this county.
I regret to inform you that your son, Ollie Taylor, died on station in Honolulu….
Miz Taylor’s face was ashen at first. She took the telegram from my hand, read it, and handed it over to her girl, Shirleen, to read for herself, and, while Shirleen was wailing and generally carrying on, Miz Taylor’s face drained of all color as it was, suddenly flushed red like I had slapped her cross the face. Her eyes darted to her daughter collapsed there on the couch. Then to me, who she knows me well enough. Shoot! Ever Sunday I’m setting with my brood of womenfolk just two rows back of her at Lower Peachtree Baptist, and she normally pays her bill at the store with fresh eggs. Sometimes with peach jelly, to which Miss Georgia is mighty partial.
Ollie Taylor got crushed when a concrete septic tank slipped off a truck bed on him. He lived two days while the doctors tried to save him, but he never said a word in the hospital.
We didn’t get that from the night letter. The Army sends the least expensive telegrams at night notifying families their boy gave his life for his country, including precious few details so as to save money and to get the dirty work over with as quick as possible. They hire me to deliver out of the Camden office because who knows these dusty country roads better than a school bus driver? And I make twenty cents for each delivery. Which provides money for these occasional picture shows.
It ain’t kind to the families that receive them, but it’s efficient, cheap, and fast. Or supposed to be. A week or ten days later we learned about Ollie from his cousin, who was in the hospital at Pearl, recuperating from the mumps. He wrote his Momma a letter, and she took it to Miz Taylor. Lots of folks read the Taylor’s night letter, and then shyed away, not looking me in the eye, wary of me. But, gosh, it weren’t my fault. Remember, I’m just the messenger.
Even so, I wouldn’t want to give Miz Taylor another one. Not with that God awful look she got in her eyes as the color came flooding back into her ghost gray face. She wasn’t looking at Morgan, the school bus driver, the fella that brought the War Department news. She was looking at Ollie in my face just for an instant as I was standing in front of her at the couch. She saw his apparition. Then he was gone. Gone forever, leaving just me in his stead.
I don’t want to bring no more news like that. No, sir.
Miz Taylor took her bad news better than Miz Ledbetter did. I mean, Miz Taylor was stunned. I seen that, and I wanted to get out of there quick as a wink, but Miz Taylor, she recovered after a minute or so. She says to me, “Let me put Shirleen to bed.”
“I can let myself out,” I says, easing backwards.
“No!” she said, sharply. “I want…You let me do this first. You wait for me!”
She changed right before my eyes, so I stood with my hat in my hand a couple of minutes before she came back out from Shirleen’s room and says, “Who else knows about my Ollie?”
“That fella at the telegraph office over in Camden,” I says.
“You ain’t tole nobody else?”
“No, ma’am,” I says, gathering how she’s looking at this.
Her face was nearly crimson. Her brow wrinkled, she looked past me at the wall. Then she squinted and glared at me.
Moving closer, she hissed, “Don’t you tell a soul!”
And I didn’t, recalling those slits that were her eyes.
Still, she was better than Miz Ledbetter, probably because she still had just the one child, and Ledbetters had three. A boy, Kenneth, same age as Shirleen. Maybe eleven or twelve. Old enough to be some help around the place. And there were the twins, Kendra and Kile. Probably four years old. All three Ledbetter children took their lead from their Momma.
I dropped off all my riders that afternoon, backtracking to the Ledbetter’s. Her husband’s pickup truck wasn’t in the yard. I was hoping I could just hand it over to him, but that wasn’t to be. I put on my jacket, dropping the envelope in my pocket and trudged up her walk, admiring her pink hollyhocks and yellow gladiolas. Her little gray pea gravel walkway looked neat as a pin. I knocked on the screen, and Kendra came to the door.
“Momma,” she says, smiling, calling back into the house, “it’s Mr. Morgan.”
Miz Ledbetter came out, wiping her hands with a napkin. “Hidy, Mr. Morgan,” she says.
She seen the envelope in my hand and swooned before she even touched it. I tried to catch her, managing to throw my back out pretty severe. I was crimped up a whole week after that.
Lucky for her, Kenneth was clost enough to catch her and he pulled her back inside to let her down easy on the living room rug. The little ones thought she was playing and jumped down on her, trying to get on her lap, giggling, pinching, and pushing one another.
“Here, now,” I says. “Git off yer Momma!”
I reckon my voice was too loud, and I scared ‘em some. They hopped off, eyes wide, and Kenneth picked her up and dragged her over to the rocking chair. He run into the kitchen and come back with a wet hand towel, which we put on her brow. I took her hand and patted it, saying, “Come on now, Miz Ledbetter. You need to wake up and take care of these young’uns.” Then Kenneth started the patting routine as I rested my back some.
She was breathing shallow, her skin clammy. I didn’t want to touch her, but I looked at Kenneth, and he didn’t know what to do next. His chin quivering, his eyes pleading with mine.
“You’re doing it right,” I says, nodding at him. “Keep doing that.”
I looked around for the little ones. They were in the other room, whimpering. We were one pathetic bunch.
Finally, I says, “You go take care of your sister and brother.”
He did that, and I kneeled next to Miz Ledbetter. It wasn’t hard to get down on one knee, but I knew I’d have to be careful standing. I let my back relax slowly as I watched her, and I wished I could help her do the same. To just relax and let things happen. I tried to think what to tell her when she came around, but what I wanted to say wasn’t sounding good even to me. I sounded like I wanted just to get away from her. Which was true enough.
Mr. Ledbetter saved me when he come home. I didn’t have to explain a thing because Kile ran outside and told him. Then Kenneth and Kendra went out, and helped the little boy tell it. And they handled it a lot better than their bus driver ever could. Mr. Ledbetter was grim. Quiet and slow moving, like he was worn out from chopping cotton.
But it wasn’t tired muscles that weighed him down. It was knowing Davey wouldn’t be coming back.
Davey first went to work at a place in East Tennessee called the Clinton Engineer Works, but they had him running a bulldozer there and wouldn’t never tell him what it was they wanted built. So he transferred out of that place into the shooting part of the Army which got him took on a ship to Spain and then to Morocco. He got shot in the neck somewhere in West Africa. I heard tell he never knew what hit him, but he was doing what they told him. To tell the truth, I never thought much of Davey Ledbetter, but his folks thought he was a good ‘un, and Mr. Ledbetter had made plans to send Davey way over to the Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn to learn agriculture science. All the ways to make the cotton business pay. Davey had been the pride and joy of that family. Now he wouldn’t be going down to Auburn. Wouldn’t be chopping cotton. Wouldn’t be walking past his Momma’s hollyhocks coming in the door again.
I was ashamed of myself for thinking so little of him after he was dead and gone. That won’t but three weeks ago.
Now my seegar is about smoked down, and there ain’t even a hint of a breeze out here. I can’t think about all this any more, but I’ve got one of those War Department envelopes in my pocket for the Zugars, and I have decided I’m not going to take it to them. Not just yet. It’s Saturday afternoon, and I ain’t driving the bus today. I been carrying it around since yesterday afternoon, which was when I should have delivered it. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I need some respite from these infernal night letters. I feel like some kind of Messenger of Death, and that ain’t right. I’m a church-going man, I tell you.
But those gypsy Zugars are different. I don’t need to think more about all this right now. I don’t have to worry about Eddie Zugar tonight, do I?
My back feels pretty good, so I bang through the screen door, hollering, “All right, you women. Git yer gladrags on. We’re going to the picture show!”
And they’re all over me before I can get into the kitchen. They ain’t much around these parts to celebrate over. There’s school for the little girls. Work for the adults. Housework for the womenfolk. Chopping cotton or running the gin for the men. You have to look for ways to make folks feel good. And we all need something to feel good about. That’s why I ask ‘em to put on their gladrags. So they’ll have a little luxury, something to look forward to.
Our oldest, Nellie Agnes, nearly eighteen, has already told me she wants to see The Maltese Falcon when it comes. She’s been reading in the magazines about Humphrey Bogart. I want to see that one, too.
Katie Evelyn and Beryl Aleen want some of that candy at the theater. Ju Ju Bees are powerful motivation for sixth graders. They don’t care about dressing up as much as Nellie Agnes. Our baby, Miss Lou, loves everything about the pitcher show. She’s a pistol. Nine years old now, but can’t read a lick. When she was younger, if we went to a silent movie, she had to ask me or Miss Georgia to tell her what the captions said at the bottom of the screen. I loved to see her digging down into her popcorn, turning to her Momma, asking, “What’d it say? What’d it say?” Someday that girl has got to learn to read!
And I’m right. This Saturday night is extra special. One of the best in a long while. We love Sam Spade and his mysterious black bird. The stuff that dreams are made of, right? My ladies always get so excited when they’re in their gladrags. Getting all gussied up changes their whole outlook on life. Works like a charm on me, too because I’m able to sleep restfully for the first time in a long time.
After church Sunday morning I remember Eddie Zugar when I really want to remember Sydney Greenstreet, Wilmer, and Sam Spade. The girls are singing as I drive the jolt wagon from church to the depot. Nellie Agnes sings, “I got spurs that Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” while Katie Evelyn is somewhere Deep in the Heart of Texas. Their voices ain’t exactly good singing voices, but they love what they’re singing, and I love them for singing like they do. But that reminds me of Eddie Zugar, one of the nicest kids I ever had on my bus. He wasn’t the biggest or the smartest. He wasn’t the best ball player, and he talked a little funny, but a whole lot better than his folks. One time they came out to meet the bus. In fact, it was the very first day I brought him home. They were waiting out by the road, wearing those dark, heavy clothes in that heat. I would have melted into a puddle, but they stood it fine. He got off, and they walked up to the bus and said something I couldn’t understand.
“They said thank you,” he told me. “They said you come in for tea?”
“Naw,” I said. “Got to take the bus on back now.”
Eddie told them what I said, and Mr. Zugar said something, which made Eddie smile.
“What?” I said.
“My fodder, he says you got no childrens on the bus. Why go now?”
Eddie’s was my last stop. I looked back to the Zugars, and Miz Zugar made a drinking motion with her hand and said, “Vino?”
Eddie said, “If you don’t want tea, you drink wine? My fodder makes good scuppernong wine. Come drink. My parents want to thank you. For what you have do for me.”
“Oh, that’s nothing. It’s my job.”
“Even so, they thank you for what you will do. For bringing me home.”
Miz Zugar held up a hand as she turned toward the tent, which I had seen but not paid much attention to. A little black and brown goat with nub horns walked up, pretty as you please, and Mr. Zugar rubbed its neck, and it snuggled up to him, bleating softly almost like a cat purring. He gestured like his wife, making that drinking motion.
And I says, “What the hey! I can stand a couple glasses.”
That was the only time I done that, but they waved if they were around the tent when the school bus came by, and I honked if I was driving the empty bus. Nellie Agnes said Eddie was nice, but not smart. He had eight little brothers and sisters, but Katie Evelyn and Beryl Aleen didn’t take to them. Said they talked and dressed funny. Smelled funny sometimes, too, and their clothes had holes in them. Even with his tent store, Zugar’s family was the poorest I knew about.
While I’m driving slow so as not to jar my ladies in the wagon, Miss Georgia has got to be suffering. Genteel as she is, my wife pays an awful price for it. Even when the cotton starts growing, she always wears her face powder to church, plus a long-sleeved dress with black gloves, a corset, and spool-heeled shoes. Nellie Agnes tried for a while to do likewise, which so delighted her mother, but she quit pretty quick.
“Daddy,” she says, “I can’t do what Momma’s doing. I sweat too much in that getup. I was soaking wet when we got home from the depot.”
“I’m sorry, darling.”
She looked anxious to me. “Do I have to keep doing it?” she says.
“Lord, no!” I says, hugging her to me.
“But don’t you think Momma will be disappointed? Won’t she be mad?”
“Naw,” I says. “She might act that way a while, but I expect she’ll understand that the only genteel lady around Peachtree is Miz Georgia Tait Morgan herself.”
I offered up a smile to my eldest. “That sound all right to you?”
“Sure does,” she says.
So here’s Miss Georgia, hair tight in a bun, powdered and rouged, upright and straight, sitting on the buckboard with me proud as Punch with our girls in the back. It’s Miss Lou’s turn to sing, and she directs us all, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me,” which entertains us as well as the rest of the folks from church who are strolling thataway to see who and what comes in on the train. All of Lower Peachtree lolls about the depot Sunday afternoons.
Uncle Mose Holloman comes traipsing by on Bucephalus, his old white horse, so skinny you can see the animal’s ribs all too clearly.
“Howdy, Morgans,” the old darky says, his teeth shining brightly as he tips his hat.
“Good day, Mr. Holloman,” says Miss Georgia.
“Mose,” I says, setting the brake so the horse won’t go nowhere, “Let me borry Bucephalus a while, will ya?”
“Mr. Morgan,” Miss Georgia says in her most regal tone, “Whatever are you doing?”
Dismounting, I smile back at her, explaining about the night letter in my coat pocket. “I got to deliver it today,” I says. “I been holding it more than twenty-four hours.”
Miss Georgia’s always gracious and forgiving when I admit to what she calls a foe pah. This time’s no different.
“Uncle Mose,” she says, “will you take us round the loop? The girls and I owe a visit to the Reverend Mosby, and we might drop in on Pearlie Booker, too.”
“Oh, goodie,” says Miss Lou. “Can we have dinner with Pearlie?”
“I will discuss that with your father, dear.”
“Do as you think best,” I says. Which gives her free rein.
Uncle Mose thrives on associating with the finer folks so he dismounts and holds the horse for me. Bucephalus is awful bony, and I certainly wouldn’t want to ride that ancient steed bareback, but the saddle is tolerable, even though my left leg is tingling by the time I get to the tent that is Zugar’s store. A breeze has picked up a little, and I expect rain here by supper time. It has cooled off some, thank God, and the trees are ruffling and waving. Zugar’s canvas is billowing, and I wonder what life would be like living in a tent year round. I have only seen the inside of his store a couple of times, once after dark, and it was exotic and overwhelming, scented with sweet smoke and cooking smells I couldn’t name.
Once they offered me shish kabob, cooked meat on a stick, which I learned later was kid goat marinated before it was put to the flame, so tasty good it almost melted in my mouth. Zugar never stood still when I was there, and the language problems we had with one another made him seem shy.
I couldn’t tell if he was boss or she was. Miz Zugar had some gentility in her ways, too. She often sat conversing with me while Mr. Zugar came and went, quietly handling things, bringing a tray with glasses when she indicated. He bowed and smiled, fetched what she wanted, removing what was no longer necessary. Cleaning any spill, directing the children, impish ragamuffins in tattered shirts, barefooted, agile gypsies, silent as Hungarian mice, except for Eddie, who she would allow to translate when she wanted my opinions. Eddie acted like his father, quietly industrious and shy, but he usually warmed to the task whenever she said, “Eddie, come. Talk for us.”
Suddenly I am ashamed of how poor prepared I am for bringing the terrible news of Eddie’s death to the Zugars. I can’t figure how to go about it. I could tell her like Miz Taylor, who steeled herself with the secret I had delivered. But I don’t think Miz Zugar is a tall like Miz Taylor. Or I could tell her like Miz Ledbetter with smelling salts and cushions to fall down on. But would Miz Zugar even understand what I’s saying? Or I could relate the tragic information as I would for Miss Georgia, in structured, formal terms without emotion. You know, clean like that. I don’t know. I got to come up with something pretty quick.
I tether Bucephalus at a little sweet gum, and he promptly nods off where he stands. Turning to the velvety blue draped entrance to Zugar’s store, I am greeted by the youngest Zugar, a dark-eyed little tomboy beauty wearing a dusty brown skirt and an old loose-fitting yellow blouse much too large. She has luxurious black hair with eyes to match, and she motions for me to wait, disappearing inside the tent. I hear murmuring inside the tent. What could she be doing or telling? Sounds like more than just, “Momma, the school bus driver’s outside.”
After a few moments the little beauty returns, dressed this time in a bright green dress that brushes the ground as she walks. Did she change clothes for me? What gives with these Zugars? Silently, she comes forward, grasping my left hand to draw me inside the blue velvet. Once inside, my eyes take a few seconds to adjust to the shadows and flickering candlelight. The rugs and cushions, low tables and tapestries, vases at once ornamental and practical, are mysterious and new to me. The Zugar children appear from various panels and curtained crevices, maybe all eight. I don’t have time to count ‘em. Each smiling and studying me silently. What do they make of me, I wonder. They are not the poor tattered young ‘uns I’ve seen before. Now each wears rich, vivid colors, silken slippers, the girls with sparkling earrings, feathers in their hair. The boys in ballooning trousers with scarves wrapped around their waists or on their heads. I remember that picture in Miss Lou’s history book where she had me read out the caption, Cossacks on the steppes.
Mr. Zugar comes in carrying a brass tea service on a platter, that bashful smile on his lips, making eye contact with me only briefly, setting the platter on an ottoman before me. He, too, is dressed in finery, a vermilion sash at his waist. He glances at the tallest of his daughters, who replaces my young guide, her sister, drawing me by the hand to a large cushion before the tea service. Zugar retreats through the rear of the tent as his wife enters like an empress, a long silvery gown hiding her feet. Her hair, piled upon her head in an intricate knot, shows her fine shoulders, a lovely, delicate neck. Her fingers glitter with rings on each finger, bejeweled with the colors of emerald, sapphire, and ruby. Her earrings bedazzling.
I’m speechless until I remember that, without Eddie, I have horrible work to do.
“Miz Zugar, I need to…There’s something I should….”
A sudden look and upraised hand.
“Stop, Morgan,” she says. “We know. You bring letters of the night. First to Taylors. Then Ledbetters. My children, my husband,” she waves her hand to them. “Now you bring letter for Eddie.”
“But that’s my job,” I says. “I’m the school bus driver. That’s all. Now I got this,” I says, holding up the envelope.
She shakes her head.
Chin held high, she searches my face for words as she pours the tea, offering it to me with both hands, then prostrating herself on the carpet, as do husband and children. I’m shifting uneasily on the cushion, not just because of my back, but because of this solemn celebration I’m witnessing.
This ain’t what I came here for.
Yet I’m savoring this foreign elixir, this precious offering here in my cup.
Cossacks on the Steppes
Rebecca Kathleen Woodson had the feeling that every princess has, and she was determined to have it always. She did not want to hear her brother Ronnie remind her again about her being only five years old because he himself was eleven years old. But Ronnie was not the oldest. Big brother Hank was thirteen. Gary was ten, and little brother Toby was three so he was the youngest. That was all the boys. The girls were sister Sue who was seven and then Kathleen. That was, as Momma always said, the whole pack of Woodsons. And, of course, Daddy Earl and Momma Tilde.
Whenever someone called her Rebecca she was quick to say, “I’m Kathleen! I want to be Kathleen!” So everyone always did that. Called her what she wanted. Sue should have been Kathleen’s constant playmate, but wasn’t hardly ever because Sue was always reading books. So Toby was the one she played with, but he was a crybaby even when Kathleen let him be prince. She had to tell him what to do all the time to be prince, but that was good. She liked doing that. Toby was like their dog, Blossom. Following her around. Looking at shiny things. Going after anything that might taste good. Blossom was a good little brown dog with droopy ears, but Momma said she was an outside dog. She wouldn’t allow her in their grocery store or the house behind the store.
Kathleen gazed out the window at the Clinch, a river that was mostly green water, but also muddy water. She wanted to help the Sad Lady look for flowers down in the mud. The last time Kathleen had seen her at the store the Sad Lady looked tired standing at the lettuce and celery, moving slow, fingering things without putting anything in her basket. The Sad Lady was pale, and her arms were white. Her face, even whiter. Her hair was dark and wavy and very, very nice. And she was very, very sad. She just needed some help. Kathleen was sure she needed help, and she was the only one who could help because nobody else could see the Sad Lady. Kathleen’s imagination helped her see lots of things other people couldn’t see, but her imagination was really good when it came to the Sad Lady. And sometimes her imagination could get scary.
And flowers would be good, too. Kathleen was good with flowers, and she knew all the prettiest weeds. She knew trees, too. Pines, oaks, dogwoods, sumac. She liked the red sumac leaves best. And pine cones. She liked the smallest, greenest pine cones which she picked and put on a shelf in her room. Momma said, “Kathleen, you’re a natural with all growing things. I don’t know how you do it because you sure don’t get it from me or your Daddy. It’s a gift you got somehow. And, darling, since we’re at war with Germany and Japan we need to make the most of everything God gives us.” And when she said that, Momma gathered her up in her arms, hugging Kathleen to her front. The place on her body she called her bosom. Nobody else in the family had a bosom. Just Momma. And Kathleen wondered if someday she’d have a bosom, too. And would she get her own children to feel as good as Kathleen felt when she was embraced at Momma’s bosom? Kathleen pretended with her own doll, Suzy Polineau, who wore a blue and white dress and a permanently worried look, carrying her around held tight so that Suzy Polineau would always feel loved by Momma Kathleen. Suzy Polineau loved being held this way.
Kathleen forgot Suzy one time and left her in the Treasure Cave down by the river. She had forgotten about taking her down there because Toby had got all muddy, and she washed him off so Momma wouldn’t fuss about how dirty he was when they went back to the store. “Ewwww!” he said, making his unhappiest face, the one he always made right when he was about to start crying. “It’s cold! Ewwww!”
Kathleen jerked him straight like Momma did sometimes. “Stand still! We’re not through. We don’t want you going back to the house thisaway. And you better not set foot inside the store either. Not with mud all over your pants.” And being mad at Toby had let her forget sweet, sweet Suzy. Which made Kathleen upset all over again with Toby.
Dealing with her little brother, she decided that she sounded like she was the Momma, and he was the baby. Which he certainly was. And he must have thought so, too, because he straightened up and stood pretty still while she wiped off his legs and arms and especially his trousers. “There now,” she said, imitating Momma. “You’re clean enough, buddy.”
His eyes were handsome eyes, especially when he was smiling. Blue eyes, but with a speck of brown in one of them. This was something new she had not noticed before. Kathleen thought it was pretty special to have two different colors in one eye, and she told him, “You got pretty eyes, and you need to come with me now. Momma needs to see your eye. This one,” she said poking him above the eyebrow such that he blinked and flinched. Toby didn’t want to stop playing in the sand by the water. He’d found a little frog and didn’t want to go show his eye to Momma, but Kathleen told him, “Come with me, Toby Woodson!” and he started crying because she said it so loud. He sat down in the sand, holding onto a little black and green frog he had caught so she stood behind him, bent down, picked him up from behind, and hauled him up to the store to Momma. He was littler than her, but he was heavy, too. She had to rest two times so Blossom did, too. And he tried to get away, but he didn’t get far before she picked him up again.
When they got inside the store, Kathleen said, “Momma, Momma,” because Momma wasn’t looking. She was on the phone. Kathleen put Toby down but kept a hand on his head. “Momma, look at him. At his eye.”
Momma nodded to her, but she was talking on the phone, “Yes…that’s right…that’s right. It’s the new rationing. You only get as many shoes as the ration book allows.” She wasn’t even looking at Kathleen or Toby.
“Momma, Momma!” Kathleen said, holding onto Toby with one hand, grabbing Momma’s skirt with the other. “Look at his eye. This one,” poking her brother right above the eyebrow so he blinked and blinked.
Momma shook her head, put a hand over the phone, and said, “Kathleen, hush. I got business here.”
Toby tried to get up, and Kathleen put both hands on his head to hold him down, and he screeched at her, “Eyaaah!” trying to get away, still holding onto the frog, which Kathleen saw was getting squeezed hard. She reached for the frog, but he squeezed even harder, and she couldn’t get it.
“Toby!” she said. “You’re killing your frog.” She could see it would be gone in a few minutes. Others couldn’t see things going like she could. She knew before others knew. And that bothered her a little bit because she didn’t know why she knew what she knew. And what should be done about somebody who was going away. She told Toby, “It’s going fast, buddy. You’re killing your Froggie.”
He shook his head. “No, I won’t.”
“Yes, you are.”
She straightened up and took a deep breath to show him she wasn’t thinking about the frog any more, and he relaxed just long enough for her to snatch the frog and run into the grocery. Toby was after her, but she was faster and knew how to get into the cold pantry. She closed the pantry door and put the frog on the cucumber shelf which was higher than Toby’s head, pushing it back a few inches from the edge so he wouldn’t see it. Toby banged on the door, which she knew he couldn’t open, and she let him yell and hammer a while. Then she opened the door, and he rushed right in as she rushed right past him back outside, closing the door on him. He couldn’t get out now, but Blossom stayed right outside the door, so Kathleen thought he was all right.
“Your frog’s on the shelf higher than your head, Toby. Feel around with your fingers. You’ll find it,” she told him. “You can play with him until Momma comes.” She listened, but he didn’t answer. She opened the door, saw him sitting on the floor with the frog in his hands, and he looked up.
"He’s not wiggling.”
“He’s asleep. Let him rest.” But, of course, she knew Froggie wasn’t sleeping. Froggie was already gone, and Toby would be the only one who cared about him.
She closed the door and went back to Momma, who wasn’t on the phone now. “What do you want, Kathleen?”
“Toby’s got one eye that’s brown and blue. Did you know that?”
Tilde Woodson smiled as she sat down in the rocking chair she used in the store room at the rear of Woodson’s Grocery. She patted her knee, beckoning for her younger daughter to come sit on her lap. Once again she noted how different the girl was from her older sister, Susan, who clearly favored her father. Taller, with a longer face than this little cutie pie, Kathleen, with her straight auburn hair, her cupid’s bow mouth, and piercing blue eyes. This little girl had energy and fierce resolve. And something else Tilde couldn’t describe. She saw it, but couldn’t identify it. Something special lived in her little girl.
“Now” she asked the child, “what is it that you were so determined to tell me? Couldn’t wait for me to get off the phone to say? What’s so important, young lady?”
Kathleen thought Momma’s words did not go with the look on her face. Her words were stern, but her face was gentle. Kathleen said, “Toby has one eye that’s funny.”
Tilde pulled Kathleen’s head to her bosom, stroking the girl’s hair as she spoke, a familiar, calming maneuver that worked wonders. “I know all about that, darling. I know everything there is to know about your little brother. And I know things about you, too. I know about all my babies.”
“Momma, I’m a big girl, not a baby like Toby.” She wanted to look at Momma’s face, but Tilde held her close, and Kathleen didn’t want her to let go, so she waited to hear what else Momma would say. Momma didn’t know about the frog. She didn’t know about the Treasure Cave, which Kathleen had discovered while playing Hide and Seek a month ago. Kathleen was always the best hider. Nobody else but Blossom and Toby knew about the Treasure Cave.
Tilde stroked her daughter’s head, rocking slightly in the rocking chair, and Kathleen could feel the words that would soon be coming, words that Tilde liked to use when they were together like this. No matter how long her mother embraced her in this manner, when they were alone, just the two of them, sooner or later Tilde would ask, “Miss Kathleen, will you sing for me, please? Like you always do? I love to hear you sing.”
And Kathleen’s heart would seem to grow inside her chest as she sat up, escaping from the embrace, turning to face her mother, beginning the song:
Hankie Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony,
Stuck the feather in his hat,
And called it Macaroni.
Huh, huh, huh-huh-huh,
Umm, umm, umm-umm-umm
We call it Macaroni!
Tilde laughed and laughed and laughed, “I do love to hear about old Hankie Doodle, Kathleen. Promise me you’ll always sing about him for me.” And Kathleen would join in the laughter, too, not understanding why Momma was so happy, but knowing it was good for Momma to be happy like that. And knowing that it wouldn’t hurt Momma not to know everything Kathleen knew. Like how Toby had surely killed his frog. And Kathleen had taken things, pretty things, to the Treasure Cave. And that Kathleen saw the Sad Lady at the Cave mostly. But sometimes in other places. And nobody else could see the Sad Lady. Maybe Blossom could. Nobody else. They were always talking about the war, the Not-See’s and Nips.
Kathleen saw by their faces that nobody else ever saw the Sad Lady, which made Kathleen just the tiniest bit uncomfortable. The Sad Lady was the one who helped Kathleen with pretty flowers and weeds. Her name was Bathsheba Kincaid, but she told Kathleen, “You can call me Bashie.”
Kathleen corrected her, “You mean ‘Miss Bashie,’” and Miss Bashie gave a little laugh like Momma, nodding, “Yes, that works for me. Thank you kindly.”
“I’m Rebecca Kathleen Woodson,” she told her, “but I want you to call me Kathleen.”
“All right. I love your name, Kathleen.”
“Me, too,” she answered, and that was when she decided to keep Miss Bashie all to herself. Unless Miss Bashie had other ideas, wanting Momma and Ronnie and Sue and everybody to talk to. But that didn’t seem the case when they first met. And Kathleen let it stay like that, which seemed just fine with Miss Bashie. Kathleen noticed Miss Bashie never talked about the war, but maybe it was the thing that was making Miss Bashie sad.
Toby started making a big fuss in the cold pantry, which helped Kathleen remember how she’d left little brother, so she hopped up and said, “I got to let him loose.” Momma held onto her a second, took Kathleen’s chin in her hand so she could see her face up close, and said, “Sometimes you’re a little rough on your little brother. I want you to be kind and gentle with him, all right?”
“I will,” Kathleen said, wriggling out of Momma’s grasp. “I’m gonna turn him loose now, Momma. Soft and gentle, too,” and she ran as Momma laughed some more. Kathleen dearly loved to hear her Momma laugh, and she was thinking while she opened the pantry door for Toby, I would sing any time Momma asks me. I would sing to the end and forever.
Toby cried and cried, and Momma had him on her lap a long time because the little frog was sure enough dead as a doornail. Momma shushed him, explaining, “We got plenty more frogs, buddy. You’ll find yourself another one before long.” And she wiped away his tears, kissing him on the forehead. He screamed and fussed, but then got down and walked away. Blossom was right there with him, and when he stopped to pet her she licked away the hot tears rolling down his cheeks.
The next day Kathleen visited the Treasure Cave down near the river in a hollow under a rock cliff where the sun couldn’t find it, where it was always cool. Kathleen wanted to start a fire in the Treasure Cave to keep Suzy Polineau warm. And Blossom, too. And she wanted to bring her jewelry to the Cave. The necklaces, the crowns, and her wand. The wand was broken. The little star had lost one of its points, but it was still a wand. She had saved the broken piece, but, because they were busy dealing with the war, nobody would fix it for her, so she was still saving it. She had some matches, too, in a little box. Daddy fussed about that, and fussed at the boys for taking his matches, and he looked straight at Kathleen when his face got red from fussing. But he never asked her about his matches, and she knew he would get mad if he found out because matches could burn down the house and the store, too. But the Treasure Cave was just a little hollow place in the rocks by the slow, brown river, and she needed it to be a better place just for her. And for the Sad Lady who was always hugging herself like she was cold all the time. The Treasure Cave was too cold.
The first time Kathleen had met the Sad Lady was the day she learned how to make a crown out of Johnson Grass. Miss Bashie had showed how to wrap the long grass around and around so it would fit on your head. Miss Bashie showed how to make sure they stayed wrapped. If you stuck yellow (which Kathleen pronounced “lellow”) dandelions in the crown just right, you got a golden crown fit for a princess. “There you go,” Miss Bashie said, placing the wreath on Kathleen’s head, adjusting it so it was straight and proper. “You look beautiful.”
“Do I?” Kathleen asked, searching the Sad Lady’s face for affirmation. Miss Bashie was herself beautiful, with green eyes, dark, nearly black hair, a small, slender nose, and high, fair cheeks. Her sun dress was white and lellow, Kathleen’s favorite color.
“Oh, yes, you do,” Miss Bashie said. “Your Momma would say so, too.”
Kathleen walked a few steps to the other side of the Cave, acting like a princess would act. “I’m actually Princess Cinder Lella. That’s my name. Cinder Lella. Do you have any glass slippers for me?”
Miss Bashie smiled a sad smile, which puzzled Kathleen a moment, but the crown slipped a little bit, and they had to fix it better. They worked on the crown a while and talked about the things a princess would do in a Treasure Cave, pretending a good long while. Kathleen was a good hider and a better pretender with all her invisible playmates, and now she had Miss Bashie, too, who would listen whenever Kathleen talked. She told Kathleen good stories, too, and they had tea parties. Kathleen showed her finest manners lifting one dainty finger while holding her imaginary teacup, and Miss Bashie laughed, “Kathleen, do you know all your fingers? All their names?”
“Names?” She didn’t know finger names.
Miss Bashie said, “Here, I’ll show you,” and she raised one finger after another. “Here’s Little Man. Ring Man. Long Man. Lick Pot, and Thumbo.”
Kathleen grinned. “Let me do that.” And she did like Miss Bashie showed her until the fourth finger. “Who’s this one?”
“Lick Pot,” Miss Bashie said. “You know, that’s the finger you use to lick something good out of the pot.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kathleen said. “Momma lets me get the last of the biscuit dough that way.”
“I liked that, too, when I cooked with my Momma.”
“Do you still do that?” Kathleen asked.
“Not any more.”
Kathleen saw sadness growing inside the Treasure Cave coming from Miss Bashie, sadness she didn’t understand. “Why don’t you cook with her any more?”
Right away Kathleen saw that what she’d asked was not good, not right, but she didn’t know what else to say to undo it.
“I don’t cook with her because she’s long gone, that’s why. But she’s still with me in my heart. She always told me that if you try hard enough, you can put some magic in what you cook. Magic to help someone feel happy. When I cook nowadays I remember my Momma and how she always helped me if I came into the kitchen feeling bad.”
“Like now?” Kathleen said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you’re sad, and that makes me sad.” Kathleen waited for Miss Bashie to talk next. But the Sad Lady was still quiet, so Kathleen turned and picked up Suzy Polineau and nestled her baby in her arms knowing her new friend would explain when she was ready to talk. As she held Suzy Polineau to her bosom, a little gray and white bird flew by the opening to the Cave, making a sound Kathleen didn’t recognize. Maybe Miss Bashie would know what kind of bird that was. Maybe she would tell now about helping someone feel happy. Kathleen wanted to help Miss Bashie, but she didn’t even know why she was sad. She wanted to ask, “What’s made you sad?”
Miss Bashie stood up and walked to the cave entrance, peering outside. “Do you know where there’s a boat, Kathleen?”
Miss Bashie turned around with an odd look on her face. “I can’t say why, but I have a feeling my Momma’s on the other side of the river.”
“What?” Kathleen was confused. “Your Momma’s over on the other side? I thought you said she was gone.”
“Oh, she is,” Miss Bashie said. “But I think if I was over there, I’d be closer to my Momma.” Her face was a happy face, but that didn’t make sense. Kathleen thought about that and went to see about Suzy Polineau, who was crying and fussing a little bit. “Shh, now,” she told her, and she patted her back to see if she needed to burp, and she did.
When Kathleen turned back around, Miss Bashie wasn’t there. And she wondered how did the Sad Lady leave so quietly. Was she looking for a boat to get across the river? Kathleen got scared because it was so quiet now, and she took Suzy back to the house. She thought about telling Momma about Miss Bashie, but Momma was busy getting supper on the table, and Daddy and the boys were hungry. After supper it was Sue’s turn to help wash dishes, and Kathleen didn’t want her to be around when she talked to Momma. One thing led to another, and then it was bath time. Then it was brush your teeth and bedtime, and that was when Kathleen got to talk with Momma.
She started with, “Momma, do you know your fingers?”
“Sure do. Why do you ask?”
Kathleen held up a hand, all five fingers extended. “Look. Look. Itty Bitty Man. Ring Man. Long Man. Thumbo. Lick the Pot.”
Momma was scrunching up the pillow as she lay down, pulling the Fairy Tale book off the nightstand so she could read two stories, which she did every night. “That’s good,” Momma said. “Where’d you hear about finger names? Who told you?”
“The Sad Lady told me,” Kathleen replied. “I got em right, didn’t I?”
“For the most part, you did,” Momma said, smiling. “I hadn’t heard those finger names since I was a girl. I was just wondering who told you their names. A Sad Lady, you say?”
Kathleen cocked her head in a coquettish affectation, one she had down pat, utilized whenever she was about to display what her mother considered one of her more outrageous fictions. “The Sad Lady and I were having tea this afternoon, and she held her teacup like this,” little finger aloft, “and she told me all the finger names.”
“I see,” Tilde said, enjoying the conversation, yet still intrigued about who had enlightened her youngest daughter about Thumbo, Lick Pot, and Itty Bitty Man.
So it was that Kathleen got to choose one story that evening. Cinder Lella. And Momma got to choose the other. Twelve Dancing Princesses. After that, Momma wrote something in the Dream Book. That was something Kathleen liked, especially because she chose first, but Momma knew all the stories better than she did. But the very, very best part was when Momma wrote down what Kathleen dreamed. Dreaming was the best pretending.
Kathleen was the champion hider, but an even better pretender, and Momma always wanted to hear about what she’d pretended all day long. Sometimes Momma would say, “Dance, Kathleen. Show me how the princess danced at the palace ball.” And Kathleen could twirl and prance and slide all around for Momma til she was out of breath. She didn’t need music others could hear, and Momma thought that was special. She told Kathleen, “Your imagination’s going to be a blessing long as you live, darling. I’m saving your wishes and dreams for you here in your Dream Book. It’ll be precious one day. You’ll see.”
Kathleen had already drawn Miss Bashie, but she called her the Sad Lady when she told Momma about her, not Miss Bashie. And she didn’t draw her just right. She ripped the page out of the tablet three times in a row and got flustered so much she screamed “Bleeahh!” and threw the pencil skittering along the floor across the room. Momma had got up to fetch it, trying to soothe her. “It’s all right, darling. Your drawing was fine. Just right.”
“But it wasn’t, Momma. I didn’t do her eyes right. They weren’t sad at all. The Sad Lady is really sad, and you couldn’t tell that by looking at my picture, could you?”
Sitting on the side of the bed, Momma said, “Let’s put this away for tonight and try again tomorrow night. Does that sound all right to you?” The look Momma gave her was the kindest look, and Kathleen knew how much Momma was trying to help. That was the way Kathleen was trying to help Miss Bashie.
Kathleen lay back, but the pillow wasn’t right. Momma saw that and said, “Sit up a second,” and when Kathleen did that, Momma set the pillow just exactly right. She put the Dream Book back in the drawer with the pencil, and said, “Say your prayers for me now.” She clapped her hands twice. “Chop, chop now! Hurry up!”
So they did prayers, blessing all the boys, Sue, Suzy Polineau, Daddy, Momma, and finally Kathleen herself. Oh, yes, and Blossom, too. Momma brushed her hair out of her face, kissed her on the forehead, turned off the light, leaving a crack in the door so the hall light shined into the bedroom for Sue when she came to bed half an hour later. Momma stood there in the narrow light, and Kathleen could feel her words were coming.
“Kathleen, I already told you your imagination will be your blessing. But I also need you to tell me the truth when I ask you a question. You understand me?”
Kathleen said nothing, and Momma waited a little bit. “You understand?” she asked again. “You talk a lot about this Sad Lady, more than you talk about your other imaginary friends. I want you to talk about all of them, not just the new one. They miss you, you know. I miss you, too, when you’re gone so much.” She came back in the room over to the bed. “I need you to help more with Toby. With us being at war and no end in sight, Daddy and I will be spending more time in the store, and all the kids, your brothers and your sister, everybody will need to do more. I might not be able to pretend as much as we’ve done in the past. That’s why we’ve started your Dream Book. So we can keep them all for later. You understand, right? I need to hear you say it out loud.”
Kathleen answered, “I understand,” but she didn’t. Not really. She didn’t understand how she was going to do it all the time. She was frightened she wouldn’t be able to do it. Things were getting heavier on her, especially she felt another person would soon be gone. Momma nodded and backed out of the room as Kathleen suddenly got tired. But before she would let her two eyes close she told herself that she needed to ask Momma tomorrow about Rose Felt who would be going sometime soon. Before too long. What was the rest of that name? She was amazed how many people were going to cry when he was gone. Too many to count.
She also remembered to bless the Sad Lady. And there were others who needed blessing. Faces she couldn’t see all the time, but names of Miss Bashie’s friends, the ones that painted shining numbers on soldiers’ watches so they could tell time at night. Soldiers in the war. Fighting in darkness. Miss Bashie’s friends, Polly Tadlock and Martha Jane Poteet, needed blessing to the end and forever. Kathleen had seen both ladies, but got scared seeing their faces, which were eat up. Miss Polly had a hole on the side of her face where her jaw should have been. You could see her teeth and tongue, and she made hurting faces every time she spoke. Miss Martha Jane’s neck was shrunk and weeping watery blood down her front. They scared her, the way they looked and suffered. They weren’t gone yet, but they wanted to go soon. They didn’t tell Kathleen they did, but she saw it clear. They wanted to be gone. Kathleen didn’t have to pretend they needed her. They were as sad as Miss Bashie. Sadder. And Miss Bashie would be gone, too, but Kathleen was pretty good at not thinking about that. She felt that pretty strong, but she could keep the thought away if she tried real hard. Kathleen didn’t know how she could feel everything that was coming at her, but she felt she just had to. Feeling was what she simply had to do. What she couldn’t resist for long, but somehow she could stop feeling about Miss Bashie’s going. She just wouldn’t let the thoughts fully form in her head. That’s how she did it.
Just before she closed her eyes she thought about that important man. He was going to be gone next year, which seemed like a long, long time from now. And people were going to cry about him being gone. He was a real big man. Real important in the war. People talked about him all the time. He was in the newspapers.
“Frank Lindy Rose Felt,” she murmured. “That’s him.”