I had no one to walk home with that October afternoon. Sometimes other girls would stroll along with us, listening to Myraleen make fun of everybody out of hearing range. "That Zelma got feet as big as baby caskets," she'd say, or "Miz Marsh's butt stick out so much you could set a table on it and serve Christmas dinner." But I had no sassy talk to attract the girls. So I walked along the red dirt road alone. Myraleen was the only person who'd listen to what I had to say. Where was she?
Odd that I would think back to then, when yesterday was now. Old people used to say there comes a time when you remember fifty, sixty years ago as if it were last week, but damn if you can remember last week at all. They were right. Every generation thinks their time is the time and talks about the present as if it's some stable territory they can occupy indefinitely. Yet when we say now, by the time we get to the w sound, the n is in the past.
Pallbearers haul the casket from the church into the damp day, and we stand watching and waiting for the car. A familiar shoulder rubs against mine in a by-now ancient gesture of comfort between two intimates, a touchstone to the moment. Still, my mind zigzags, traversing a century, two continents and four lives.
...Mr. Cheevers was getting married...
MY MAMA USED TO SAY, "I DON'T KNOW WHY YOU WANT TO be around that li'l tar baby. Her and her mammy's as black as a hopeless midnight." But Lily never got bold in my chest, like some of the other girls did and said, "You think you cute!" And I'd have to set 'em straight and say, "Naw, monkey face, I know I'm cute!" Lily's talk stayed stingless and nicey-nice. Plus she knew things in a town where folks didn't know pee from perfume and were proud of it. Strange, dark as she was, Lily was my only snatch of light. You could ask that girl anything, I swear. When God was handing out brains and everybody else was off picking their noses, Lilian with that polite look of hers stood holding out a bushel basket for extras.
On the way home from school one day when we were about twelve or so, Edna Crawford told us how her cousin was eighteen before she got her period. "So my auntie took her to this lady who was like a nurse and the lady stuck a long needle up her you-know-what and made her period come down."
The thought made my steps come to a stop in the red dirt and my thighs clap together to shut out evil. "Oooh, girl, no!" Edna and Lilian stopped when I did, in sympathy. Edna wasn't afraid of anything, and for some reason Lilian didn't look too concerned.
"I should know. It happened to my own cousin."
My knees moved forward again but my shoulders slouched in disgust. Periods were a secret only a few of us knew. Edna's older sister Johnnie started that year and thought the red pop she'd been drinking had leaked through. That's how we got a little of the lowdown about it. Why did such a nasty thing have to happen at all? I'd made up my mind I wouldn't start until I was at least nineteen. "I hate needles," I said. "That would be the worst thing in the worst place. But I don't want to get a period either."
"I guess you damned if you do and damned if you don't then," Edna said.
"Girl, damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't is the house where I live."
About this time, Lilian, usually too shy to buck anybody, put her two cents in. "That doesn't sound right, Edna. Maybe you misunderstood."
"And who was talking to you anyway, blacky?"
I laughed. Generally, I enjoyed any bad-mouthing that wasn't aimed in my direction.
"Well, I ain't no liar. That's what happened."
"Look, I can't listen to no arguing. All that talk about needles gave me a nervous headache. I hate needles."
Edna's mother was waiting at the gate with a list of chores long enough for Job and a what-took-you-so-long-you-always-lollygagging speech. Lilian and I had a ways more to walk.
from This Side of the Sky: A Novel by Elyse Singleton, Copyright © 2002 Blue Hen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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