Copyright is held by the author.
BLOATED MOSQUITOES buzzed at my neck. With one slap I smeared their blood into the gritty dirt around my shirt collar. Stepping off the back porch, I headed to the crick just beyond the grain shed. Not a breath of air, even at night. Another long, dry summer.
Though the dust near choked me workin’ at ole Brubacher’s, I liked the jingle of money in my pocket. Rock pickin’ was done and I saved every cent. Well, ’cept for that model car from the drug store. It was a beaut. And, yeah, the chewin’ tobacco. Darned near made me puke. Glad my brother Ned didn’t know ’bout that.
The full moon lit up the crick as I stepped out onto the felled tree trunk. After peeling off my shirt, I dropped my pants and slid into the murky water.
I was thinkin’ ’bout goin’ into town on Saturday. Thinkin’ ’bout asking that fat girl from church to go to the pictures with me. Cindy’s her name.
My brother Ned has a girl. She always wears that same old cotton dress. The one that buttons all the way down the front. It’s kind of a faded blue with little flowers on it. When she walks past, I can smell somethin’ sweet an’ nice; like the wild jasmine that grows along the ditch past Ruker’s place. She’s quiet like. Laura acts shy, but Ned says she ain’t shy with him.
One day I asked my brother if she let him go all the way. He put his palm against my forehead and pushed me backwards into the tractor. He smiled, and then threw back his head laughin’, like it was Friday night or somethin’. “Gentlemen never tell, jughead.”
Just thinkin’ ’bout Laura made me wish I had somebody just like her.
Childish girls dog me when I’m in town. Wait for me outside the general store and then giggle and run when I come out. My mom says I attract them like June bugs to a screen door. The silly ones. Skittish, my dad calls them. The older ones, the real pretty ones, don’t even see me.
Taking a deep breath, I dunked my head under the water and came up with my wet hair plastered to my face. Climbing back onto the tree trunk, I shook myself like a big ole long-haired dog, and stepped back into my dusty pants. I tugged my boots on and swung my shirt over my shoulder. Whistling, I strolled back to the house, my mind fixed on takin’ that church girl to the pictures. A guy’s gotta start somewhere.
At first, I couldn’t believe my ears when Rafe invited me to the pictures. I could barely speak. Even Momma admits he is the most handsome boy in the whole town. He always wears a scowl on his face, like he’s in serious thought, or just mad at the whole world. When I see that look, my stomach feels all quivery.
I was afraid Momma and Daddy wouldn’t let me go. Then Daddy had to go to the city for a couple of days with Gramps, and Momma said she forgot to mention it before they left. Gran smiled, saying that I was growing up way too fast for her.
Momma fretted about me meeting a boy without a chaperone, and wanted to send my older brother Jacob along. I died at the thought, and when she saw me so frantic, she promised not to tell Jacob, or any of my other brothers and sisters. They would give me no peace if they knew.
On Saturday, I washed up, and took my good shirt from the hook. The sleeves were shorter than when I’d last worn it. With a shrug I left the house, the screen door slammin’ like the crack of a gun.
Ned was waiting out front in the truck. After he dropped me off in town, I could hear his laugh as he shifted gears and chugged up the dirt road.
When I mentioned the picture show to Cindy, she rolled her eyes. Just when I thought I couldn’t hold my breath no longer, she said yes. It made me mad thinking about how long she took to give me an answer.
There she was now waitin’ by the picture house. She was wearin’ a damn hat, like she was my mother or somethin’.
I was inchin’ back to the corner of the building when she noticed me. She waved, then tugged at her hat until it slid into her hand and disappeared behind her back.
I shoved my fists deep into my pockets and fingered the heavy silver coins. My jaw set, I hunkered towards the picture show. I was gettin’ a headache from frownin’ so hard, but my face felt like stone and there weren’t nothin’ I could change about that.
Cindy had a big grin on her stupid face. I could see her buckteeth from here. At least she got rid of the hat.
On Saturday, I hung my Sunday dress on the back of the door, and commenced to getting ready. I washed my hair in rainwater until it squeaked, and then using the basin in my room, scrubbed from head to toe. Gran gave me a bit of lavender oil to add to the water.
Wearing only my petticoat, I laid on my bed trying to stay cool until it was time to leave. Momma entered my room with a cotton print dress that I recognized, draped over her arm. She said she never got to wear it much anyhow and it would be much prettier on me. Even with alterations, it fit me a tad snug — baby fat, Momma called it.
She then presented a hat. An old one of hers that she had fussed over. “You can’t go into town to meet a boy without dressin’ proper.” Afraid to hurt Momma’s feelings, I told her it looked real fine.
The youngsters scrambled across the room when they saw me dressed up. Momma distracted them with a promise of homemade ice cream. Thankfully, Jacob was nowhere to be seen.
The picture show was within walking distance of our house. Crossing the dirt-packed road, a layer of gritty sand settled on my shoes. Feeling clammy, I slowed my step, worried that the moisture would seep through the thin cotton of my dress.
I watched as Ned dropped Rafe off down the road. Rafe seemed to hesitate, like he had forgotten something. My stomach fluttered and my legs felt weak and wobbly. I smiled and waved. Feeling self-conscious in Momma’s hat, I slid it off my head.
Dust covered my boots and pants as I scuffed up onto the boardwalk. “Yeah, let’s go in.”
I made up my mind that I was leavin’ if she started to giggle. I know I shouldn’t be mad at her. I coulda asked somebody else to go with me but this bein’ a first date an’ all…
After paying admission, I sat down without saying a thing to her. She settled in the seat beside me and I could hear her breathin’ through her nose. Short, stuffy snorts, like ol’ Peg back on the farm.
My knee jumped and jiggled in constant motion as I thrummed the armrest. Finally, I just grabbed Cindy’s hand and jumped up out of the seat, practically dragging her behind me. “Let’s just walk. It’s a dumb movie anyhow.”
If she said anything, I didn’t hear it. She was skip-walkin’ to keep up when I headed toward the river, cuttin’ through the alley between the tavern and the hardware store — stepping around suspicious puddles in the hard dirt. My hands were clenched in my pockets and my face hurt from bein’ all pinched up as I trudged through the tall grass behind the main street.
When Rafe reached the picture house, he sure didn’t say much of a greeting. Before I knew it, we were sitting side by side. He acted real nervous, making me wonder which one of us would be sick first. All of a sudden, we were both flying out of that picture show.
Once we were outside, Rafe let go of my hand, and headed towards the river. I had to pretty much run to keep up. When he sat on the ground, I hesitated, knowing I could soil my dress, and wondering what Momma would say if I did. Slowly, I sank to the dirt.
He didn’t look at me, or talk to me, or do much of anything. I thought that maybe all boys acted this strange.
At the diseased elm tree, I slid to the ground. Tugging a long, dry stalk out of the dirt, I stuck it between my teeth and watched the green water inch forward along the bank.
Cindy hesitated, and then like an old arthritic hound, she lowered her short, stocky body to the grass-patched dirt. Her black laced shoes reminded me of the grey-haired schoolteacher, Miss Mills.
Not able to wait one more minute, I spoke my mind. “Shoot, are you gonna let me kiss you, cuz if you ain’t, I got lots o’ work I could be doin’.”
Her eyes widened, like she was excited, and then she nodded her head.
Rafe looked so handsome chewin’ on that old straw, I coulda just died. When he asked about kissing me, all I could think was, I’m sure glad Jacob’s not here.
A strand of Rafe’s blonde hair had fallen over his blue eyes. My heart pounded when he looked at me. I knew that if I didn’t kiss him, I would regret it every day for the rest of my life, even if I lived to be a hundred.
I leaned forward, and then remembered the strand of grass. Grabbing it out of my mouth, I pressed my lips against an outcropping of teeth. After a few seconds, I pulled away from her. Seeing the stupid look on Cindy’s face made me all the madder. Disappointed as all get out, I wondered why kissin’ was such a big deal.
Then she reached for the back of my head and gently pulled me forward. She pressed her mouth on mine, urging my lips apart, until I felt her tongue along the bottom of my teeth. My arms wrapped around her waist until her body was pressed so tight to mine that I couldn’t breathe. I wished Ned could see me now. This was better than any old picture show.
When Rafe kissed me, it didn’t seem right. My friends at school talked a lot about kissing. We’d practiced kissing each other when we were playing at Jenny McGregor’s. One time, Jenny was up in a tree when her sister and boyfriend came along. She just about toppled out when Sue Ellen and Cal settled in at the base of the tree. Jenny learned a lot that day.
I decided to show Rafe what I knew about kissing. He liked it. He learned fast. Real fast. I have to admit, I liked it too. I’d never been held that tight before, and especially not by a boy — especially not by a boy like Rafe. I felt a fierce heat. My shoes were gettin’ all dusty and my poor dress, well, I knew it would be a sight.
When I got home, Momma and the young ones were on the back porch. I could hear Gran calling to them from the vegetable garden. I hightailed it upstairs and changed my clothes. Throwing myself across the bed, I closed my eyes. My face was hot and flushed recalling the liberties Rafe had taken — the liberties that I had allowed. Rafe Jackson and I had fallen in love right then and there on the banks of the river. I just knew we’d be together forever.
My face ached from grinnin’ the whole five miles back to the farm. I’d already decided who I’d ask to the pictures next Saturday. Pretty little Amy Watson that helped out at the general store.
Just in time for chores, I headed right to the barn. Ned was already milkin’ when I strutted through the open doorway.
“What’s that big grin all about, kid?”
“A gentleman never tells, Ned, a gentleman never tells.”