DISTANCES by Sally Clay
In a favorite daydream scenario, I would pack some cowboy shirts and jeans in a knapsack, pull up stakes, and go West. I always imagined the West to be a desert, an uncontaminated no man's land free of complications and enlivened only by the courage of the cowboys. To go there was to opt for purity, to live in an exhilarating hardship of bare nature and endless, beige sand. I think that my mother's daydream was not too different from mine, at least in her search for purity. But now that we were actually on our way to Texas, my imagination dried up. I could not picture what it was going to look like in the real West.
It was a long drive from Cincinnati to Houston, three grueling days from dawn to late evening in our old Hudson on sometimes bumpy two-lane highways. On the first day the highway followed the Ohio River along the gentle and sturdy landscape, the familiar hills and woods and tidy towns of Kentucky and Indiana. Late at night we arrived at a dirty little motel in Illinois, where Mommy paid $3.00 for the two of us to sleep in a creaky double bed. The next morning we crossed the Mississippi at Cairo, and the landscape changed. The banks of this river were level, not rising above the water like the Ohio's, and the big river itself was not alive as Mark Twain had described it. It seemed too tame and too static, too used by the factories and businesses on its banks. It was just a river.
As we drove into Missouri, Mommy began picking up speed, no longer finding it necessary to shriek "Go on, you dumb cluck!" to drivers who clogged the narrow highways in the east. West of the Mississippi, miles of rolling farmland stretched on either side of us, and we drove for long stretches without seeing another car. The weather was gradually getting warmer. I no longer had to wear my jacket, and in the evening the heavy air was filled with the hum and buzz of bugs. When we stopped for the second night in a small Arkansas town, I noticed that the motel owner was actually wearing cowboy boots, and the motel itself looked homemade, with faded gray facades on its cottages like the weathered sets that I had seen in Western movies. Everything in this little town was on a small scale and there was a ramshackle look about the place, a sense of lazy poverty, of resentful insularity. The waitress in the restaurant was also the owner, and she talked to us in a syrupy twang that sounded like a foreign language: "Kin I git you-all somethin' good to eat?" Her voice sounded friendly, almost intimate, but its undercurrent of hostility worried me.
The next day we crossed the border into Texas at a strange little town called Texarkana, and from there drove the long, final 300 miles to Houston. I was amazed at the harshness of the scenery. Mile upon mile of unremittingly flat land stretched all around us, relieved only occasionally by bug-like oil rigs and scraggly clumps of grass or brush. I had never before seen such flat land. It was one thing to daydream about the desert but something else to experience this desert-like coastal plain. I felt in my pocket for the shiny buckeye that I always carried there and pulled it out, warm and smooth and magical. Closing my eyes, I remembered the crisp water of the creek on my friend's farm and the cool, black, leaf-covered earth under the horse chestnut trees. I thought of the cliffs overlooking the Ohio River, and the hills of Cincinnati itself, of Eden Park where you could look out over the whole city. There were not even trees in this rough place and no shadows; it had the desolation of the desert but not its dignity, and even the sun was alien.
I climbed into the back seat with Cleopatrick, understanding at last his or her frantic need to race around in circles on the exercise wheel. I did not want to leave Cincinnati, either, and if I thought I could do it, I would try to run home, too. "Calm down, Cleopatrick," I said. "Be my friend. I will take care of you. We've got to stick together."
I curled up next to the panicked hamster's cage and tried to go to sleep. But the lonely feeling that had started in the sullen Arkansas town, the feeling that I was a foreigner in this land, gripped me and would not go away. I could not talk about this to Mommy, for her determination to go West allowed no argument. Letting some big tears drip onto my mouth and sleeve, I said nothing and just licked away the salt. Finally I slept, and did not awaken until I heard the sound of other voices greeting my mother in the humid darkness. We were already in Houston.
Several years before, Clay had given me a fancy riding crop. About two feet long, its staff was braided with leather bands and topped with a miniature horse's head. Although I had no desire to ride horses, I cherished the riding crop because my great grandmother had given it to me and because Mommy, who did love horses, also valued it. In our new one-bedroom apartment the riding crop hung on the doorknob of the closet near my bed.
I hated Houston. I hated the grass that stayed green even in winter, whose blades did not grow from roots but instead from tangled cords on the surface of the pale and grainy soil. I hated the hours when I would have to stay home alone while Mommy was working, and I hated even more coming with her while she tried to sell a house. On Saturdays she would spend the day holding open house at some squat old ranch house that had no attic and no basement but boasted a backyard swimming pool filled with green water and slime. Most of all I hated my school, where the other children came from wealthy homes in River Oaks and who had already learned how to talk in that sugary way, never saying what they really meant. Worst of all, these children never talked to me. Technically our apartment complex was in River Oaks, but by River Oaks standards we were living in the slums. Mommy could never understand this--she reasoned that just living in River Oaks entitled us to the privileges of the upper class.
I hated Mommy for bringing me to this place, and I argued with her nearly every day. I refused to stay home alone. I refused to come with her to work. I refused to clean Cleopatrick's cage. I refused to say "How do you do" when introduced to adults, and I refused to go to bed. When thwarted I threw a temper tantrum, and in a fury my skin turned beet red and my entire face twisted savagely. As my mother was fond of pointing out, I inherited this hot temper from my father, who exploded in just the same way.
"I hate you!" I yelled one day when Mommy told me I could not play outside until I picked up my clothes. "I hate you! I hate the clothes you make me wear! I hate the way you talk to me! I hate your friends! I hate River Oaks! I hate Houston! I want to go to Mt. Sterling! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!" I pulled another handful of clothes out of my drawer and threw them on the floor.
"All right, young lady," Mommy said evenly. "You have gone too far. You do not talk to your mother that way." She grabbed my leather riding crop and held it up. "Bend over, young lady."
I would not bend over. Mommy took a swipe anyway, and struck me several times across the thigh. "There," she said, putting the crop back on the doorknob and leaving me alone in the room to sob. I was humiliated and outraged. Mommy had spanked me before, but it had always been with a hairbrush, and so lightly that I would secretly giggle and later feel sorry for her because of it. This time was different. She had taken something precious to me and used it to hurt me. Wailing in fury, I grabbed the riding crop and broke it over my knee. "Never again!" I growled.
When Mommy found the broken riding crop, she hugged me and wept, then cradled my hand in hers. "I'm sorry, Sally," she said. "I should have known better. I know you're not happy here. If that's what you really want to do, then you can go back to Mt. Sterling. We'll call your father tonight."
It was only my second airplane trip, but my parents agreed that I was old enough to travel the first leg to Atlanta alone. Mommy put me on the plane in Houston, and as I sat with my nose pressed against the window I settled into a familiar state of suspension. I was not afraid of flying, and I even welcomed the bumpy take-off and the ascent through the straggly clouds. As the plane leveled off at flight altitude, I sighed and relaxed, released in a surrealistic way both from what I had left and what I was going to. I stared out of the window at the vague miles of pale blue with the muffled roar of the propellers droning in the silence. This was an extension of the process that I had already learned when adjusting to the trips between Cincinnati and Mt. Sterling. Blanking out brought a kind of peace, an absence of my usual feelings and thoughts. Years later I would use this blankness as a freedom from two impossible worlds rather than a bridge between them. Now I was surprised when the plane began its descent to Atlanta, for I realized with alarm that I had not yet made the required transition; I was still up in the air.
Daddy was waiting for me at the gate. He smiled his face-cracking smile and gave me a hearty hug, two deliberate gestures that already seemed caricatures of the way he had hugged me when I was younger, a long, long time ago. I smiled, too--the same kind of big, forced smile--and hugged him back. Could he detect my self-consciousness, too?
Returning to Mt. Sterling for the last third of fourth grade was like entering into a chapter of a fairy tale in progress. The elementary school there was, after my large school in Cincinnati and the clean and modern school in River Oaks, an old fashioned schoolhouse out of a previous century, like a schoolhouse in Tom Sawyer. Jeannette and I were in the same classroom and sat near each other in old wooden desks with well-used ink wells and wrought iron legs. We carried on our "twin" routine on a large scale, confusing some of Jeannette's best friends into believing that we were actually twins, although born three weeks apart. I was relieved and comforted to be immediately welcomed and accepted by both teachers and students. Many of the teachers had also taught my father, and took great pleasure in informing me that I "looked just like him." Many also said the same things to Jeannette, who took even greater pride than I did in being "Bill Clay's daughter." The fourth grade studies at Mt. Sterling Elementary were somewhat behind Houston's, so I had plenty of room to recover from both the social and academic pressures that had plagued me at River Oaks.
Life at my father's house also had a charmed quality, but in this case it was a sense of security and comfort that was increasingly dependent on following certain rules of behavior. Dai was no longer the warmly inventive kindergarten teacher who made pleasant games of everyday situations. Her life now revolved around my father instead of her children. Daddy had returned from the Mayo Clinic with a cure for his migraine headaches, a treatment that involved his spending over an hour in the bathroom every morning injecting himself with histamine and reading the Wall Street Journal as he sat on the toilet letting the medicine take effect. After lunch every day he would take an hour's nap, during which time no one was allowed to speak or to talk on the telephone or to walk past his door. Even three-year-old Kathryn's life had to conform to his schedule.
This new medical cast to home life filtered down to all of us, for Dai became increasingly attached to her own medical remedies for all woes. The first night after I arrived from Houston she gave me two Milk of Magnesia tablets, so that "I would have a good BM." I was astonished at this, since I had never had any problems with bowel movements. (Mommy's attitudes towards such things was quite casual--if I had no physical complaints, she did not worry about my health.) But the status of our BM's was one of Dai's major concerns, along with germs, rabid dogs, polio, and eye strain.
The first night I obediently swallowed my laxative pills, but the second night I protested. I became angry when Dai insisted that I take them, and found that she, too, lost her temper in a very unpleasant way, calling me "spoiled" and "ornery." I had not been spoken to in that way before, since my mother's anger generally took the form of a personal affront that then invited reconciliation. But Dai became vicious, and she took her case to Daddy, who pulled himself up authoritatively and lowered his voice by several registers to tell me that even though Dai was not my mother I must obey her as Jeannette was also expected to do. So I took the pills in my hand and went to my room, where I threw them on the floor of the closet.
A new television set was placed at the far end of the long living room, and Jeannette and I were allowed to watch one hour every day. Dai required us to sit at least twenty feet away in order to avoid eye strain, so we found ourselves squinting at the screen from the far end of the couch. My favorite shows were "Milton Berle" and "I Love Lucy," although Jeannette often forfeited these in order to watch the news with Daddy. He always watched John Cameron Swatze and Edward R. Murrow, and loved to make pronouncements on the speaking skill of the newscasters. Daddy himself had been on the Dartmouth debating team, as he liked to point out, so he knew good public speaking when he heard it.
Picking up on this, Jeannette would expound the same points to our friends at school, much to my embarrassment, since I secretly knew that the real reason for her interest in such matters was her desire to present herself as "Bill Clay's daughter"--and his true heir. Later in the year we all watched the McCarthy hearings. I did not really understand what was going on, and I do not think that Jeannette did either, but that too became her favorite topic of conversation. She continued to climb into Daddy's lap during these various broadcasts and shamelessly (to my eyes) stroked his face and chest.
By the end of the summer I was ready to give Houston a try again. Patiently Daddy again flew with me to Atlanta, neither of us speaking, as we had not spoken all spring or summer, of my reasons for leaving Houston in the first place nor my reasons for wanting to return. I don't know that I could have put my reasons into words, even if I had wanted to. Of course I missed Mommy and wanted to be with her. But I also had the uneasy feeling that there was something unwholesome, something terribly wrong, about life in my father's house. Yet I would never be able to speak about that to my father, who tried so hard to create the ideal home and to live the most righteous of lives.
We both smiled and hugged self-consciously as I boarded the plane in Atlanta. Over Louisiana the silence of the sky cleared away my tension, but now it also uncovered a great sorrow. I alone could see my father's self-deception. I could not put this knowledge into words, and even if I could there would be nobody to hear. My mother, I knew, would listen with relish to all that was wrong in Mt. Sterling, but for her that would just be ammunition against my father, not a cause for regret. In Mt. Sterling I had missed Mommy because I had always been able to talk with her about how I really felt and what I really thought. But now, even with Mommy, what I said and what I knew must end at my father's doorstep. This melancholy had no cure, for there was nothing I could do about it--not now and not ever.
As I stepped out of the plane in Houston, hot sheets of sweltering Gulf air clamped down around me like a kiln. Mommy waited for me, smiling and teary-eyed, her hands clasped in delight.
My fifth grade classroom at River Oaks Elementary school was bright and modern. Starting at the beginning of the year with the other students, I regained confidence in my studies, and felt more comfortable than the year before. But still I resented all of the impeccably groomed and cheerful girls who dominated our classroom. They did not reject me, but neither did they seem to notice that I was there. In Mt. Sterling I had been an instant star, thanks mostly to my father's well-planned status as community leader. In Houston I was the child of what would later be called a "single parent," and I lived in an apartment. Most of the River Oaks children came not just from whole families but also from big houses.
I no longer argued with Mommy over what clothes to wear, for it was becoming quite clear that to survive in school I must conform both to fashions and to Texas customs. For girls, these customs included the heavy use of self-deprecating small talk and constant laughter that proclaimed the girl's helplessness or stupidity. The trick, of course, as all Texas girls knew, was to hide knives of ambition or intelligence behind the frivolity and to use these weapons skillfully, if covertly. But I could not cope with this, and I never did learn the art, even after I found out that such girlish requirements were not confined to Texas. I could only hide behind my silence and my studies, for the first time taking schoolwork seriously.
I continued to throw off the mantle of respectability as soon as I got home, becoming a tomboy with a vengeance. Not only did I wear boys' jeans and shirts, but I took to slicking my hair back so that I would look like a boy. I acquired a formidable collection of weapons--huge six-shooters, whips, knives, and battery-powered space guns. On the lawn of the apartment complex I played mainly with boys, staging long gunfights and pirate adventures, as well as playing softball and flying kites in the vacant lot across the street. With my friend Michael I started several money-making enterprises such as a pasted-up newspaper culled from clippings from the Houston Chronicle and sold door to door throughout the apartment buildings. Periodically I would persuade Michael to set up a stand on the street where we tried to sell old toys and items found in the garbage. Our trash can discoveries included dozens of miniature evaporated milk cans and some circular aluminum can openers. I don't think we ever sold anything, and Michael always went home in disgust.
Inside the apartment, especially when Mommy was at work or out with friends, I spent a lot of time "skipping around." I would dance and jump energetically around the living room, flapping my arms, tossing my head, and fantasizing fiercely. In my stories I was always a boy hero--a pirate, Superboy, or a medieval page, and I invariably swooped down upon or otherwise attacked a shipful or castleful of villains, vanquishing them utterly with my sword or my strength or my sheer skill and resourcefulness. This always brought me great relief and a sharp pleasure, although skipping around itself was an embarrassment that I tried to hide from Mommy. Nevertheless she discovered me one day skipping around in the bedroom before dinner. I blushed and tried to pretend that I was doing something else, but my mother was not fooled. She was curious and strangely pleased.
"What are you doing, Sally?" she asked politely.
"Skipping around," I said sheepishly.
"And what happens when you do that?"
"Oh, I think of things. I make things up, you know."
Mommy kissed me. "Well, sometime you will have to tell me about what you make up."
Fortunately she returned to the kitchen, and I sat down awkwardly waiting for dinner, hoping that she would never remember to ask about skipping around. But I was secretly glad that she did not disapprove.
Later in the year we spent a Saturday evening together drinking Cambret tea and eating cinnamon toast while Mommy read aloud as she had done back in Cincinnati. That night she was reading from Alice in Wonderland , a book that I had always found more disturbing than fun. I told her how I felt about it, and she acknowledged that she felt the same way, so we decided to continue with Jo's Boys, one of my favorites. Mommy went to fetch it, and while she was out of the room I tried to snatch a few moments of skipping around. I had only begun when she returned.
"Oh, don't stop!" she pleaded. "Go ahead and skip around a little bit."
Reluctantly I stood up and began my little dance. This time, perhaps for Mommy's benefit, the theme of my fantasy changed, and I saw myself as a very young little girl in a transparent pale blue tunic sitting among other children in pale blue on a small cloud so high up that no ground was in sight. The other children were encouraging me to jump off, but I did not want to leave them. At last I allowed them to push me off, and I left to go to the earth. And there the story ended. (Unlike my usual fantasies, this one had a plot.)
Mommy insisted, as I knew she would, that I tell her my dream, so I described the children and the cloud. She was thrilled. "Isn't that beautiful!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands. "Do you think that is really where you came from?"
"I don't know," I mumbled, blushing. "I just made it up."
"Well, I think it is where you came from," said Mommy. "I think that is a wonderful dream. I'm going to write it down. I always knew you came from someplace special! You are my own angel!"
"Oh, Mommy!" I moaned, resisting her mushy hug. At such times I considered my mother truly silly and obnoxious.
Not too long after that, I decided that saying "Mommy" was childish, and I began using "Mother" instead. I insisted on drinking real tea instead of the milky Cambret tea, and I preferred reading comic books to listening to Mother read.
The invitation was in the mailbox when I got home Friday afternoon. It was a small yellow card ringed with flowers and carefully filled out in green ink with flourishes:
You are cordially invited:
WHO: Charlotte Forscheimer
WHAT: Slumber Party
WHEN: Saturday, October 21
WHERE: 1328 Branden Road
RSVP CA 7-8817
This was wonderful! I had never been to a slumber party before, and it was the first time I was invited to any party at all in Houston. For a long time I held the card in my hand, then put it down and inspected the envelope. It was addressed in the same green ink with the same curlicues at the end of every word. I could not wait to tell Mother.
But who was Charlotte Forscheimer?
I spent the weekend speculating, trying to remember all of the girls in my class, but still I could not figure out which was Charlotte. She had to be in my class, because I did not know any other girls. On Monday morning I glanced furtively around, mentally checking off the names of all of the River Oaks crowd who giggled and whispered at the front of the room. I had been so hypnotized by their self-assurance and audacity that during school hours I glanced at them at every opportunity, longing for one of them to speak to me. I had hardly noticed the small, skinny girl with wispy hair who sat at the back with a leather shoulder bag hung over the back of her desk. As I looked at her, she stared back solemnly. Hesitantly I waved, and she smiled.
At lunch I looked around the cafeteria but could not find her. She was on the front steps finishing her bag lunch and drinking Coke from a Thermos. She looked at me suspiciously, but when I thanked her for the invitation and told her I liked the green ink, she broke out in a crazy smile. "Sometimes I use red ink," she said, "but I thought green would be better this time."
"Do you use blue or blue-black for school?" I asked, and we discussed ink until the bell rang.
She threw a great party. Her house was a spacious ranch furnished in a dark Mediterranean style, and although I met her parents when we first arrived, they soon disappeared, leaving their African-American maid Willa Mae to provide refreshments. None of the girls knew each other very well, including Charlotte, but that was no obstacle. As soon as we all got into our shortie pajamas (except for Charlotte, who wore a long gown), we began romping around the house screaming and giggling and creating knock-knock jokes. Soon all inhibitions disappeared and everyone (except Charlotte) began sprinkling the conversation with "damns" and "hells" and "craps." Even a couple of "shits" were ventured, but this seemed to go beyond limits. None of this bothered Willa Mae, however, who just smiled and shook her head while she kept busy making popcorn. We tried very hard to stay up all night but only lasted until about 1:30 when we all dozed off while trying to think of dirty jokes on Charlotte's big queen-sized bed or the pillows on the floor.
After the party I found that I had a few new acquaintances in my class, and I had a new best friend: Charlotte. She invited me to spend the weekend with her the very next week, and I accepted eagerly. Charlotte and I shared an almost furtive interest in literature and popular culture; it was furtive because we both well knew that any such information would totally bomb if presented to the River Oaks group. So I considered myself honored when Charlotte dragged me breathlessly to her room and showed me her new birthday present. Guiltily I realized that the slumber party had been a birthday party, and nobody had brought presents. But that was not the point. The point was that Charlotte's father had given her a complete Webster's International Dictionary with its own stand. The massive book took up almost the whole corner of Charlotte's room, and it was almost bigger than Charlotte herself, who had to stand on a stool to reach it.
"Give me a word," said Charlotte. "Any word. Any word you can think of."
"Antidisestablishmentarianism," I said.
Deftly Charlotte flipped through the pages and triumphantly pointed. "There!" she crowed. "There it is! You won't find that one in the crummy students' dictionary at River Oaks."
Friday night dinner was stilted. Charlotte and I sat at one end of the polished dining room table, and her parents sat at the other, while Willa Mae, wearing a uniform, slipped unobtrusively in and out of the kitchen carrying serving dishes. It seemed almost like Mt. Sterling. I liked Charlotte's parents--Mr. Forscheimer was shorter than his wife but full of a tightly wound energy, while Mrs. Forscheimer (or Dr. Forscheimer, as I later learned) seemed more aloof and impatient. Both of them gave the impression of not really having the time to be there. But they did their best to be gracious.
"I'm glad you could be here with Charlotte this weekend," said Mr. Forscheimer. "Her mother and I are often away, and Charlotte needs a good friend to keep her company."
"Uh, thank you."
"You know, Willa Mae will be here to take care of you. You girls can have lunch at my club if you like--and Willa Mae can drive you wherever you want to go."
"Thank you very much."
Later Charlotte explained to me that her father was a lawyer and her mother a doctor, so they were both very busy and that was why they were away so much. She told me this after her parents had left.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" she asked.
I was shocked. "Do you drink coffee?"
"Oh yes," said Charlotte matter of factly. "I always drink coffee. Sometimes I drink liqueurs, too."
I did not even know what a liqueur was, so Charlotte pulled out several bottles from her parents' liquor cabinet. "This is my favorite," she said, holding up a tall, tapered bottle filled with yellow liquid. "Chartreuse! It even has a pretty name, like a color."
Scandalized, I pushed the bottle away. "You shouldn't drink those things," I said self-righteously. "It'll stunt your growth!"
"Pooh!" snorted Charlotte, pouring a little Kahlua into her coffee. I think she now considered that she held me at a disadvantage.
Willa Mae had just finished up the dishes, and she sat down at the kitchen table to drink a cup of coffee. When Charlotte and I joined her, I waited uncomfortably for her to comment on Charlotte's drink, but she paid no attention to it. Willa Mae was a good looking woman with smooth brown skin who held herself erect even while resting from the dishes. During the rest of the weekend she wore regular clothes instead of her uniform, and, like Charlotte, I began to regard her as more of a friend than a babysitter.
"Do you go to any kind of church on Sunday?" Willa Mae asked.
Embarrassed, I shook my head, because since leaving Cincinnati Mother and I had not joined any church.
"Well then," said Willa Mae. "On Sunday morning I will make us a big brunch of grits and eggs and coffee cake. Then we can spend the whole morning reading the Sunday paper and playing games. That's what Charlotte and I always do. How do you like that?"
I liked that, and was pleased that Willa Mae wanted to spend time with us. She seemed to be interested in me, and without plying me with a lot of questions nevertheless managed to get to know who I was and what I liked to do.
"Tomorrow morning I go to Hebrew class," said Charlotte shyly, waiting for my reaction.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Charlotte's mother is Catholic and her father is Jewish." Willa Mae explained, "and she is being brought up in the Jewish religion."
"I study the Torah," said Charlotte solemnly.
I had no idea what the Torah was, and since this was evidently a delicate topic I did not ask. Noticing my confusion, Willa Mae said, "The Torah is like the Bible, the Old Testament part."
"Oh," I said. "So it's like going to Sunday school?"
"I really have to study in Hebrew class," said Charlotte indignantly. "It's a very important class."
I did not argue with her, for I began to feel jealous that she got to study her religion in an important way. The next day, when Willa Mae and I dropped her off in front of the synagogue and she ran up the big wide steps alone, I nearly asked if I could come along. But it did not seem to be the right thing to do.
Charlotte's religion was never a big issue with Mother, and so was not with me. Charlotte took pride in her faith. At the same time, she was embarrassed and secretive about it and never mentioned it to anyone else at River Oaks Elementary school. It was only later that I figured out that Charlotte was probably the only Jew in our entire school, and I began to understand her position. I was appalled when, after I picked out a new swimming suit on my next visit to Mt. Sterling, Dai hissed, "You don't want that suit. Only Jews wear black and white suits!"
During the rest of that school year Charlotte and I were inseparable. I spent weekends with her often, and although we could not attend the Saturday matinees because of her Hebrew class, we did go to the theater every Saturday, especially enjoying Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies. One Saturday Charlotte announced that she knew how we could get into "The Moon is Blue." This was a risqué new movie being shown only in the downtown theater and prohibited to children.
"How are we going to do that?" I asked, titillated.
"We'll just get Willa Mae to buy the tickets and give them to us. Once we have the tickets they'll have to let us in."
I was skeptical. "They won't sell tickets to Willa Mae!"
"Oh yes they will. You'll see. She'll just tell them she's buying them for her employer or something."
In order to carry off this caper, Willa Mae had to park the Forscheimer's car in a parking lot, and Charlotte and I, wearing our best dresses and lipstick, waited for her around the corner, where the ticket seller could not see us. Sure enough, it worked! Willa Mae gave us the tickets with a big grin, and told us to behave ourselves.
Miraculously, no one questioned us as we walked into the theater, and we settled down in our seats waiting to be scandalized. But nothing happened. It was just a silly movie about a very respectable man (David Niven) and an ordinary looking woman who were having a romance in a high rise apartment building.
"So what's the big deal?" I asked as we left.
Charlotte giggled. "She was a virgin."
"Yeah. So what?"
"A virgin," Charlotte repeated. "You aren't supposed to use that word in a movie."
I was astonished. "You mean they won't allow children in just because they might hear the word virgin?"
"That's it," said Charlotte. Then pointing at me wickedly, she whispered "virgin."
I pointed and her and said loudly, "virgin"!
She yelled the word back at me and started chasing me, still yelling, and as I ran, I screamed at her over my shoulder, "Virgin! Virgin! Virgin!"
Passers-by stared at us in alarm.
With the warmer weather Charlotte, Willa Mae, and I spent Saturday nights at the drive-in. Our movies of choice were horror films, the scarier the better. That spring and summer we saw "Godzilla," "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," "The Thing," and others too numerous to mention. Willa Mae would pull out the big bag of popcorn that she brought, along with a Thermos of coffee for Charlotte and Kool-Aid for me. We would all scoot down in our seats and yell back at the monsters, especially the ones we had already seen several times before.
I was particularly fond of the Thing, who went about a course of total destruction until the not-very-bright scientists realized that he was in fact nothing more than a mutant carrot and made quick work of him. I think Charlotte, Willa Mae, and I were all a little disappointed when the glorious monsters in their fury (are monsters always angry?) were subdued and done in by the group of good guys who were decidedly less interesting and appealing than the monsters they killed.
Toward the end of these evenings Charlotte would persuade Willa Mae to let us have one of her cigarettes, and the two of us would puff away, blowing smoke out the car windows and feeling at the same time mature and deliciously wicked.
In Mt. Sterling the next year I was Queen. In the fall I was chosen to play the Queen of Hearts in the class play, and Dai made me a beautiful long dress of white satin covered with hearts. I relished the part, and stayed in character at all times, speaking the immortal lines, "Off with their heads!" at every opportunity.
In my sixth grade class I was Miss Harding's favorite pupil, as my father had been years before. Miss Harding liked to assign enormous problems in long division every afternoon, and I found that I could complete the work quickly while the rest of the class labored for another hour. So I began writing my first novel in class, much to the delight of Miss Harding. I would write for at least an hour every day, and soon completed a mystery opus entitled "The Haunted House"--with illustrations, and featuring a villain named Enorl. When typed by my father's secretary the book came to 27 pages, and Miss Harding asked me to read it aloud to my class in place of the daily long division exercise.
In the spring the Kiwanis Club sponsored an annual parade for Kids' Day to benefit children's charities, and this parade featured a queen and her runner-up, who got to ride at the front of the procession in open top convertibles. The winners were chosen by how many pennies they collected at school and around town, and that year Jeannette and I both took it upon ourselves to vie for the honor. Jeannette won, but I came in a close second, so we both enjoyed the hoopla, the newspaper photos, and the ride around town waving at all of our subjects.
As long as school was in session, life in Mt. Sterling remained pleasant and effortless. But the long summer days at home accentuated the antipathy that was growing between Dai and me. I had taken to making regular trips to the small town library, and there had discovered Pearl Buck and Agatha Christie. I spent long hours reading, and I completed all of the Good Earth trilogy, as well as all of the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries that I could find. Sometimes after reading for awhile I enjoyed just staring into space from the comfortable chair in the living room. But when Dai saw me she would scowl, and eventually she would order me out of my reverie.
"People who sit around doing nothing are no good," she would say. "That's what poor white trash does. You're not some ignorant darkie. Haven't you got anything better to do that just be lazy all day? Can't you do something useful? Go swimming. Go walk downtown."
Finally I decided that it was time to go back to Mother's. I would be entering a new school, junior high school, and perhaps this time I would succeed in making more friends. If in Mt. Sterling I was the Queen of Hearts and my father had a swimming pool, then surely in Houston I could also be popular. After all, I was as well bred as anybody from River Oaks. I made up my mind that this time I would learn how to be friends with the Houston girls.
The very first night I was back, as Mother and I sat drinking Cokes and watching TV from our twin beds, the telephone rang, and it was Charlotte. My heart sank. In returning to Houston I had primed myself for a new role and an entirely new image. I was going to wear dresses and lipstick, even at home. I was going to learn how to make small talk and giggle like the River Oaks girls, and I was going to learn how to be known and liked by everyone in the school in the same way I was known in Mt. Sterling. Charlotte Forscheimer did not fit into my plans at all.
"Hi, Charlotte," I said warily.
"Welcome back," said Charlotte, "I sure did miss you."
I said nothing.
"Hey," said Charlotte. She was not stupid. She had picked up on my discomfort. But she continued as if she had not. "My father bought great tickets to the baseball game this weekend. You want to go?"
I was silent for a few moments. "I'm sorry, Charlotte, I already have plans. Thanks for asking me anyway."
There was a painful silence on Charlotte's end. "Yeah," she said. "Well, maybe next time. Will you call me up?"
"Yeah, sure," I said. "It was good to talk to you. Enjoy the baseball game."
I felt sick as I hung up, even then realizing what a terrible thing I had done. But I never did call Charlotte, and she never spoke to me again.