By Karen Brode
It was Friday. Winnie could hardly wait for the school day to end. Her last class was math, and it came so easily to her that she almost got bored. She had carefully copied the math problems on her paper, and she methodically solved them one by one.
She listened to the other girls fussing about the complexity of fractions. It seemed so simple to her. She didn’t have a lot of patience with the other girls. Margie Linfield had hinted to Winnie that maybe she could come to her house one afternoon and they could do homework together. Winnie politely declined because Margie had never shown any interest in Winnie before. She wasn’t born yesterday. Let Margie have her parties and her blonde curls and her frilly dresses. Winnie would take the Math Award any old day over those things.
Soon, she stood up to turn her paper in, and the other students shook their heads. She was usually the first to finish her work. Mr. Haney, the math teacher, smiled at her and told her she could go ahead and leave if she wanted to.
She picked up her books and her purse, and left the classroom, but she couldn’t start home because she had to wait for Albert to get out of class. They had to walk home together. It was a rule.
She sat on a bench by the oak tree, and took out her book. It was not a book she had to read for school, but she loved to read. She had checked it out of the school library the day before. It was called, “Girl Of The Limberlost”. The night before, she had read up to page 44 and it was a book she couldn’t wait to get back to. She had very little time to read with all her chores and duties at home, but she took advantage of what little bits of time she had.
She looked up from her reading and saw Joel Sweeney waiting after class for Margie. Winnie watched as they walked off hand and hand. She looked down at her brown cotton dress. What was it about her that made boys look away and not even consider that she might be someone to get to know? She sighed as she looked for Albert.
It was getting late and her brother was nowhere around. Suddenly, Ernie Mullican came running past her. He shouted that the outhouse was on fire.
Winnie stood there for a moment and said a silent prayer. “Lord, please don’t let it be Albert.” But as she got closer, she saw that Mr. Haney had her brother and Reuben by the shoulders as they watched the outhouse burn.
“Why were you smoking in the outhouse?” Winnie asked Albert as they walked toward home.
“Reuben brought the cigarettes. It’s the first time I ever smoked! I swear! Do you have to tell Daddy?”
“Well what do you think, Albert? After all, he is going to have to come up here over the weekend and build a new outhouse with Reuben’s father.”
She had never understood her brother. He wasn’t like her at all. In fact, when people discovered that he was her brother, they were often dumbfounded. They didn’t look alike or act anything alike. She was so careful to follow all the rules and she had never gotten in even the slightest bit of trouble in her life. She was a child the teachers loved. She was twelve years old and she had the responsibility of an adult. She wished that Albert would show some responsibility. He was soon to be nine years old. When she was nine, she was making biscuits and frying eggs for the family’s breakfast before she went to school.
Albert hung his head, and kicked dirt up with each step he took toward home. He could imagine how mad his daddy would be. He hadn’t done anything all that bad, but his father wouldn’t see it that way. Daddy expected all the children to be perfect like Winnie. Just thinking of his sister made him mad. He knew he could never be as good as she was, and he wouldn’t want to be. She was a bore. If he had to spend his life like her, he might as well eat worms and die.
As they turned the corner and could see their house, Winnie saw Aunt Dollie sitting out on the porch with her mother. Aunt Dollie was holding the baby. It was the first time her aunt had seen little Travis. She and her daughter, Christine, had traveled from West Texas on the train. Winnie quickened her pace as she realized that Christine was there, too. Christine was not only her favorite cousin, but also her best friend!
As Albert walked up the front steps his mother admonished him to “Give Aunt Dollie a hug.”
He put one arm around her neck and kissed her on the cheek. He tried to remember exactly who she was, but his mother had so many relatives that it was hard for him to keep them all straight in his mind. He did know that all old ladies smelled the same; it was a cloying, sickening perfumey smell that repulsed him, but he tried to act nice anyway. He was already in enough trouble.
Dollie handed the sleeping baby back to Effie and stood up to hug Albert. “Oh, he’s the spitting image of Daddy, she said as she held Albert’s shoulders and looked him over. “This boy is John Gamble made over.”
Effie frowned. She didn’t want her son to look like her father. She didn’t want to even think about her father. Dollie wasn’t like her other sister Emma. She could not speak her mind with her like she could with Emma. Dollie liked to keep things pleasant and ignore the hard cold facts. It made Effie mad. She wanted Dollie to talk to her about how things really were. Sometimes she wanted to shake Dollie and say, I know you remember the night he came home drunk, and Momma had to hold his head over the porch railing. When Effie brought these memories up, Dollie suggested that they let the dead rest in peace.
After Winnie hugged Aunt Dollie she put down her books on the porch and ran inside to see Christine. Winnie hugged her cousin and said, “After I get my chores done, we can go for a walk if you want to. And Momma said we could sleep in the living room and talk all night! Won’t that be fun?”
Something was different about Christine, though. She didn’t seem nearly as impressed with Winnie’s news as she would’ve been on her last visit. Winnie stepped back to look at her cousin. She had her hair curled around her shoulders and she had on the prettiest pale pink dress Winnie had ever seen. It had a white collar attached, and Christine had on white patent leather shoes with little straps across her feet.
Winnie again looked at her mud colored dress that was ironed to perfection because she had ironed it last weekend. She felt that she had been ironing all her life, and it wasn’t something she enjoyed. She ironed her entire family’s clothes. This was after she washed them in lye soap on a washboard and hung them out on the line whether the weather was freezing or sweltering. Winnie guessed that Christine had not gotten up to do the family washing on a washboard before she went to school.
Christine’s hands were well-manicured, and Winnie instinctively put her hands behind her back to hide her short, bitten fingernails. She wanted pretty fingernails so bad. She believed that a woman’s fingernails reflected a great deal about her. But how could she have beautiful nails when her hands were either in lye soap or hot dishwater most of the time?
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Christine asked.
Winnie stammered a bit before she could say, “Well, not really.” She wanted to give Christine the idea of someone on the horizon, someone who was sort of a boyfriend. She felt suddenly embarrassed, ashamed that she didn’t have some boy running after her, begging her to accompany him to parties, carrying her books at school, holding her roughened hands and staring into her eyes.
In just that split second, she became more ashamed of herself in a way that she never had been before. She was ashamed of her sun-tanned leathery skin, her hair that she wore in a braid down her back. She was most of all ashamed of her horrible old brown dress. It might’ve been a flour sack at one time. Her mother dyed flour sacks to make Albert’s shirts and Winnie’s dresses. She looked down at her black no-nonsense shoes, and she wanted to cry. There was nothing about her that a boy would find attractive, or that even she found attractive. And that’s when she knew that Christine was looking at Winnie in a different light.
“There’s this boy at school,” Christine said. “His name is George Anderson. His eyes are dark brown and his hair is jet black. He’s going to preacher school when he gets through with regular school. He works on his Daddy’s farm, and he gave me this bracelet.” She held out her arm so Winnie could admire the bracelet with little trinkets dangling all over it. It tinkled as Christine walked into the kitchen.
Winnie followed her cousin, mostly because she didn’t want to let her out of her sight. Christine had wavy hair that looked like a picture in a magazine. Winnie suspected she was wearing lipstick, too. Not a lot, but just a little. Winnie wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick, but if she did, she would want it to look like Christine’s, sort of understated. Behind Christine was a wafting scent of some kind of powder in the air. Winnie wanted so much to be more like her cousin. But how could she do it? She had no pink fabric to make a dress. Her mother had two shades of dye, navy blue and brown.
She looked at her cousin’s legs. It was hard to tell if she had shaved them, but Winnie thought she probably had. They were shiny. Winnie wanted her legs to look like that. She had strange hairs that grew very long on her upper legs which embarrassed her to no end. At least, all of her dresses came well below her knees so no one ever saw her upper legs. She stared at her so intently until Christine finally asked, “What do kids do around here on Friday nights?”
Winnie glanced around the kitchen. She didn’t know. She knew what she did. She would have to fix supper for the family, and then bathe the baby after she did the dishes. She had no idea what other kids did. She did not want Christine to look down on her or think that she wasn’t popular. It was her worst fear that this cousin–her favorite–would find out the pariah that she actually was.
She had heard Margie and the other girls talking about a moving picture show in Bonham. Winnie had never been to a moving picture show, but she had heard about them. Sometimes, Albert’s friends came over and played hide and seek into the twilight, but Winnie knew that this would not interest Christine.
“There was a gospel meeting in Savoy last weekend, but I don’t think anything is going on there this weekend,” She finally said. She had not gone to the gospel meeting because she hadn’t had time, but she knew some of the other kids went. She also knew Margie and her friends went just to mingle with Savoy boys and flirt with some of the older men. The last thing on their minds was religion. If Winnie had gone to the gospel meeting, she would’ve taken her Bible and her notepad and taken it seriously. She would’ve sat close to the front and paid rapt attention. She knew that Margie and her friends sat on the back row and giggled and passed notes to each other.
Christine commented that Ambrose was a dull little town, and Winnie had to agree. There just wasn’t a lot to do.
“We could go for a walk after I bathe the baby,” Winnie suggested. Christine shrugged as if that would be so boring but since there was nothing else to do, she might consider it.
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.