"Still got a headache?" Lilian asked down the road.
"Let's go to the library."
I didn't see how that could possibly help a headache, only make me late enough so my mama would double my misery.
"We'll be quick."
"'Sides, that lady might not let me in."
"We'll see. If not, I'll go in and you won't have to wait but a little while."
Lilian had told me she walked into the white library when she was nine years old. Instead of getting her butt beat by both the lady in charge and her own mama, she got to stay. At first, the lady put the palm of her hand on top of Lilian's head, turned her in the direction of the door and pushed her until her little chin almost bumped the knob. She took her outside and pointed to the colored library that owned a used-up, old-fashioned pile of not-much and at least four Little Black Sambo books.
But when Lilian was halfway down the street, the lady called her back. Only one of two folks showed up on weekdays, anyway. Lilian could come, she said, but never on Saturday and always through the back door. "If anybody's here and says anything, you beg their pardon and pity and then scat." Lilian said, "Yes, ma'am," and she's been going to the white library ever since.
All books having anything to do with ladies' problems she swept off the shelves. She hauled them to a back table where the librarian couldn't see what we were doing. Her forefinger rode down the index of each book looking for the words needle, menstruation, or amenorrhea-whatever in the heck that meant. It sounded like somebody got the Holy Spirit and couldn't stop saying amen. She didn't find a paragraph or page (Lilian read bullet fast) that paired needle and menstruation or needle and amenorrhea.
"Edna misheard something, that's all. When grown people are talking, they're half whispering, anyway. She just put wrong words in the empty spaces." My headache left. Lord, this girl had magic.
EVEN THOUGH I prayed every night to keep it away, one morning when I was thirteen, I woke up with reddish brown stains in my underpants. After that, Mama complained more about the time I spent with Lilian, and any other children for that matter. "You don't need to be doing all that ripping and playing and foolishness. You too old for that mess."
"Yes'um," I said and out of her eyeshot, I ripped, ran and hopscotched as much as I pleased. But all that soon stopped.
When I got home from school one Thursday, Mr. Cheevers was sitting in the front room. He was a man with big, old, piano-key teeth, who worked as a house and barn painter in our county and the next. I figured he was waiting for my daddy to get home from work, so I passed right by him, headed for the kitchen. "Hidy," I said to my mama. She was making ham sandwiches. She stared at me in that knocking but steady way that made her eyeballs seem like fists bouncing off my face. That's the way it was with Mercy. With her, you never knew whether it was going to be the picnic or the flies. More and more, it was getting to be the flies.
"Cain't you speak?"
"Yes, ma'am. I spoke."
"You ain't spoke to Mr. Cheevers."
"Hello, Mr. Cheevers," I called. "Hiya doing this afternoon?"
"Girl, go on in there and talk to the man like you got some sense."
How to act around grown-ups could be tricky. I hadn't spoken to Mr. Cheevers in the first place because sometimes if girls spoke too easily to men, their mamas would say, "Shut yo' fast ass up. He grown; you ain't got no business talking to him." Mama had never before told me to talk to a man other than my father.
Mr. Cheevers flashed those old piano keys in a wide grin. He was a long skinny man whose walk was wide legged and hard as if he was stomping a snake with each step. His voice was so deep it sounded as if it was coming from hell. He was maybe about thirty years old.
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.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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