فصل 05

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فصل 05

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Five

With a lot of women who had never worked before having jobs in the war plant and getting money from their husbands in the war, most people had more money in our valley than they ever did have. They didn’t have too much to spend it on with the ration books for almost everything. In the grocery you could see everybody looking in their books trying to figure out which coupon to use for what. Nobody seemed to have enough, especially people with a big family. Aunt Mae and Mother and I always didn’t have meat or butter or something because there weren’t any more coupons for them.

We got oleomargarine for the first time, too. When I first saw it, I thought it was lard. Mother brought the box into the kitchen and put it in a bowl and dropped a red bean in and started to mix it. It was thick and hard to mix. After a while the bean disappeared and the lard started to get yellow. By the time it was creamy it looked like butter. I didn’t mind the taste. I kind of liked it, though it was salty at first. That night we just had bread toasted in the oven with oleo, and cabbage with some pickle meat, because Aunt Mae used the coupons we needed to get good meat to get something else. The ration book made Mother go down into town more than she did before. She was the only one who knew how to use it.

One night that summer the women at the plant had a party. Aunt Mae was a chairman of it because of her job. The whole day she spent down at the plant decorating and helping them with the food. When she got home, she went right up to her room to get ready. I was going with Mother and Aunt Mae, and I wanted to see what it would be like because I didn’t go to a party since I started school.

At about seven o’clock Mother and I were ready sitting on the porch waiting for Aunt Mae. Mother had on a good dress, and I was wearing my suit, a nice gabardine one. It was a wonderful night for a party, warm and clear, with just a little warm breeze. I hoped they had punch and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. We didn’t eat any dinner because we were going to get food there.

After a while Aunt Mae came out, and she really looked good. She was wearing a dress she bought in town. It was maroon crepe with silver glitter around the neck. In the shoulders they had big pads that made Aunt Mae look strong, and the skirt just came to her knees. I liked her shoes because I never saw a pair like them before, with the toes sticking out and a little strap around her ankle. I thought what nice legs Aunt Mae had. Mother got out a handkerchief and wiped some of the red off Aunt Mae’s cheeks, and Aunt Mae fussed about it. When Mother finished, she got out the little powder box she had in her purse and looked at herself in the mirror in it.

All the way down the path to town Aunt Mae told us to go slower because of her shoes. It smelled good on the path. Not only because of Aunt Mae, but because the summer flowers were out and the honeysuckle was climbing along the old stumps. Even though it was seven-thirty, the night hadn’t set in yet. It was more like twilight, and the hills always looked pretty then.

Down in town a lot of people were walking over to the river where the plant was. When we got there, there were plenty trucks parked along the river and in the plant parking lot. Almost all the women getting out were dressed up with flowers in their hair. It must have been the honeysuckle from the hills, because you could smell it all over and I knew it didn’t grow down by the river.

We went into the big room in the plant where they put the parts together. The small machines were pushed up against the wall, and that left a big space on the floor for dancing. There weren’t too many dances in the valley. Now with the war on and the men gone there hadn’t been one in a long time. Aunt Mae went behind a table where they had some food and helped the women there. Mother and I just sat on a chair by a big gray machine and watched the people.

A band came after we were there about fifteen minutes. It had a piano, a bass fiddle, a banjo, and a trumpet. The players were from the county seat, I think, and were all men except for the woman who played the piano. They struck up a lively tune that I’d heard plenty times before but didn’t know the name. A few women started dancing with each other. Except for Aunt Mae, they all had on thin summer dresses with flower patterns all over. You could see the flowers moving across the floor, a rose pattern with a gardenia and a violet with a sunflower.

The room was pretty filled. More people came in all the time and stood around against the tin walls and the machines. Some would start in dancing with each other, or see someone they knew and start talking. Before we knew it, Aunt Mae was on the floor dancing with that woman who walked home with us after the night we saw Bobbie Lee. Aunt Mae took the man’s part, and she was swinging the woman all over. The band was playing a song I always heard on the radio called “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” When they saw what Aunt Mae and the woman were doing, the other dancers moved back in a circle and let them have the whole floor. Mother and I stood up on our chairs to see over the heads of all the people who had crowded around the floor. They were calling, “Look at Flora” – which was the name of the other woman – and “Swing her, Miss Gebler,” and “Look at those two go.”

When it was over everyone clapped. Aunt Mae got through the crowd of women who were patting her on the back and came over and sat down by us. She was trying to fix a heel on her shoe that came loose. It wouldn’t go back on, so Aunt Mae sat by Mother and they talked. By now the floor was full of women dancing and trying to watch out for the little children who ran in and out between them. Aunt Mae watched them, and I knew she was disappointed over the heel.

The women walking past where we sat were carrying big glasses full of white foam that dripped over the sides. They didn’t usually have beer at any party in town, and Aunt Mae said the manager of the factory sent it over from the capital, where they had the brewery. She told me to go get her a glass. I could hardly get through to the table where they were giving it out, there were so many women and little children around it. Aunt Mae took her glass and took a long drink, then got a faraway look in her eye and belched.

It was almost ten o’clock. Most of the beer was gone, but there were still plenty dancers on the floor. The little children were sleeping on top of the machines with their legs hanging down the sides. Women stopped by where we were sitting and told Aunt Mae it was the best party they’d been to since they were girls. After a while the band played a waltz, and Mother asked me if I wanted to dance. I never danced before, but we didn’t do too bad. Mother was a good dancer, though, so she took the boy’s part. I was almost as tall as she was, so I don’t know how we looked.

Some woman got up where the band was playing and asked if there was anybody who could sing. Nobody in town sang except the woman at the preacher’s church, but she had the kind of high voice that nobody liked. Flora, the woman who danced with Aunt Mae, got up by the band with the other woman and said that Miss Gebler, the supervisor, told her she used to sing. Everybody looked over where we were sitting. Aunt Mae said no, she hadn’t sung in years, and she’d just make them hate her, but everybody told her to come on or they wouldn’t go home that night. After they went on this way for a while Aunt Mae said alright, like I knew she wanted to say when they first asked her. Aunt Mae had a few beers, so I wondered what she’d do. She took off her shoes, because of the heel, and went on up to the band and talked with them for about a minute.

Then the piano started up and played a few notes. Aunt Mae nodded her head. The big fiddle began to thump, and the piano started again with the banjo. Aunt Mae turned around.

“Saint Louis woman with your diamond rings

Got this man of mine by your apron strings. . .”

The trumpet blew a few notes here that sounded real good. Aunt Mae sounded good too. I didn’t know she sang like this. Her voice was better than any I ever heard outside of the movies. I looked at Mother, and she was looking at Aunt Mae with her eyes all watery. The women stared at her. Nobody in the valley heard anyone ever sing a song like that except on the radio.

Aunt Mae finished, and they all whistled and clapped. They wanted her to sing again, but the only song the band knew that she knew was “God Bless America,” so she sang it. It was a song that you always heard on the radio then, and everybody sang it with her the second time. When that was over, the women all grabbed ahold of Aunt Mae and hugged her. She was crying as she came to where we were.

As we walked home up the path, the cool summer night had set in. No matter how hot it was in the day, it was cool in the hills at night. Aunt Mae had talked all the way home after we left the plant, after everyone had stopped talking to her and we got away at last. We left after midnight and were the last ones to go except for the night watchman. It was about one now. Up ahead I could see the house with the lights on. I could feel my bed under me, but Aunt Mae was going slow. Right when we got into the yard and could hear the cinders grinding under our feet, Aunt Mae turned around and looked down at the town and held Mother by the arm.

“You know, I never thought I’d be happy here.” Then she looked out onto the hills and the night sky.

We didn’t see much of Aunt Mae after that. One of the old men who played in the band at the plant that night asked her if she wanted to sing with them all the time. They had a lot of jobs in the hills playing and went into the county seat and the capital sometimes, too. When Aunt Mae came home from the plant in the evening, she put on the dress she wore to sing with the band and went off. The old man met her at the foot of the hill in his truck with the bass fiddle in the back. I used to sit on the porch in the twilight when the night birds were beginning to sing and watch Aunt Mae go down the path in her good dress and disappear where the hill got steep and I couldn’t see her anymore. A while later I could see the old man’s truck going off down Main Street with Aunt Mae’s arm resting on the door and the big fiddle in the back.

The newspaper had a story in it about the band once, with a picture of Aunt Mae singing along. It was like all the other pictures in our paper. Aunt Mae’s hair looked like a cloud with a bunch of colored men playing behind her. In all the pictures people’s skin was always dark and their hair white, no matter what color it really was. The story told all about how Aunt Mae was once a famous singer and that people like her were needed in the valley to make people feel good. Mr. Watkins wrote a letter to the editor about the story. It said that the people of the valley needed a lot more things before they needed Aunt Mae. Then Aunt Mae wrote a letter that said the valley needed a lot less people like Mr. Watkins, if it needed anything. They didn’t have any more letters in the paper on either side, and I thought it was over when the preacher got into it.

He put an ad in the paper that had a list of reasons from the Bible why the band and Aunt Mae weren’t doing anyone any good. After Bobbie Lee Taylor left, the town was split over the preacher. The people who didn’t go to the preacher’s conference when Bobbie Lee was in town were dropped from the church rolls. The people who got dropped were mad at the preacher because everyone liked to go to church if he could pay the pledge. Of course, there were people like us who didn’t belong to the church when all this happened, and the preacher said they were the kind that “didn’t care which way the wind blew.”

The people who were dropped bought an ad in the paper the next day and gave a list of reasons why Aunt Mae and the band were good for the valley. It started that on Saturday night the moviehouse began to have Aunt Mae and the band besides the movie for ten cents more. The second Saturday that they were there some people who belonged to the church walked up and down in front of the moviehouse with big signs about the evil inside. When the editor of the paper heard about this, he got a picture of them on the front page. Our paper went all the way into the county seat, and even plenty people in the capital bought it. They saw the picture of the people with the signs and, like people always do, came to see Aunt Mae the next Saturday night. That night the town looked almost like Bobbie Lee was there. Trucks were parked all over, and only a few out of all those people could get into the movie house. You couldn’t even find the preacher’s people with the signs in the crowd on Main Street. The people came back the next Saturday night who couldn’t get in, and by then the sheriff told the preacher his people were creating a nuisance and would be removed. They had done his brother’s business all the good they could.

After this the preacher sort of set himself off from the town. Mr. and Mrs. Watkins and the others who were still on the rolls tried to fight anything the town did, and even sent a few of themselves to the state legislature to see about the moviehouse. This didn’t get anywhere because the governor was a friend of the sheriff, but it did make the preacher’s people get even closer together, and there were quite a few of them. They bought time on the town’s radio station for the preacher to speak on Sunday night at the time Amos ‘n’ Andy came on. The people who didn’t belong anymore, and those who didn’t in the first place, got mad because Amos ‘n’ Andy was everybody’s favorite. The only other station you could get was the one strong one in the capital, but it never came in well.

Meanwhile Aunt Mae was going with the old man and the fiddle in the truck every night. They got famous all over our part of the state. When the soldiers came home on furloughs, they got married to the girls they’d been writing letters to in town. A lot of girls who never expected to get married were asked to by soldiers they knew since school who were home for two weeks. Aunt Mae and the band got plenty business from all the wedding receptions going on in our section. People didn’t usually dance at wedding receptions like they did in the movies. If the preacher married you, you couldn’t do it, but people liked to sit around and listen to the band and Aunt Mae. Mother and I went to a lot of receptions that way that we never would have been invited to. Mother told me Aunt Mae didn’t get half the money she should for singing with the band, but I knew she liked to do it and would sing even if they didn’t pay her anything, most likely.

Mother was worried about the letters she got from Poppa. He was right in the middle of the fighting in Italy. In one letter he said he was living in an old farmhouse that was about a thousand years old. He wrote about the olive trees, and that made me think, because I always saw olives in a bottle, whole or with the red stuff in the middle, but I never thought they grew anywhere. He said he had marched along the Appian Way, too, which was a very famous road that I’d read about in history and would be able to tell my teacher about. The sun wasn’t prettier anywhere else, he said, than it was in Italy. It was the brightest and yellowest he ever saw, much brighter than in the valley in the middle of the summer. He saw where the pope lived, too, and I had heard about him plenty times when the preacher was talking over the radio in place of Amos ‘n’ Andy, who I liked. The beaches were nice there too, he said. When he returned he was going to take me to the ocean, because I never went there, so I could see what a beach was like with the waves rolling up it. In the end he said he missed every one of us more than he ever thought he would.

All his letters Mother kept in a tin box in the kitchen over the icebox. Aunt Mae read them all twice or more, especially the ones where he described how pretty Italy was. Aunt Mae said she always wanted to go there and see Rome and Milan and Florence and the Tiber River. One letter Poppa sent had some photographs of some Italian people in it. They looked healthy, and even the old woman in the picture was carrying a big bundle. Poppa was standing between two Italian girls in one picture. None of the girls in the valley had thick black hair like they did. Mother smiled when she saw the picture, and I did too. Poppa was so serious it was funny to see him standing smiling with his arms around two girls. Aunt Mae laughed when she saw it and said, “My, he must have changed.”

Down in school I was doing alright in Miss Moore’s. It was my last year with her. In spring I would get out of sixth and go into Mr. Farney’s. With Miss Moore we went all over on field trips. After we finished going all through the valley, we went to the county seat and saw the courthouse. The school didn’t have a bus because it was easy for everybody to get to who lived in the valley. It would have been harder to get a bus into the hills than to have everybody just walk there. For our trip to the county seat Miss Moore got the state to send a bus to the school. Everybody went “pew” when they got inside, because it smelled bad. I thought I knew the smell from somewhere before, and I thought for a while, and then I remembered Mrs. Watkins’ breath. It smelled just like that.

I always thought Miss Moore was a little deaf. I know some other people thought it too, but I never said anything to anybody about it because there was always some way that stories got back to her. When we got in the bus and everybody went “pew,” Miss Moore didn’t say anything. She sat down on the front seat and started wiggling her nose. She asked the driver if he could open the windows, and he said that they were sealed because some children tried to jump out once while the bus was moving. I never felt a bus shake you up and down so much as that one did. Even when it hit the smallest bumps it made everybody go “uh.” Miss Moore made us start singing some song we knew from school. Because of the bus the long notes always sounded like “uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh” and never straight like they should be. Some of the bad boys who were sitting in the back started singing other words that they made up. For about the past year I understood what they were singing about. Miss Moore didn’t hear them, though, and when we stopped she said, “That was nice.”

But the singing started the bad boys, so they began to tell jokes and recite poems that no one said out loud. None of the girls laughed because it wasn’t nice for them to do it, and any girl who did was pretty bad. There was one girl, though, named Eva, who didn’t laugh but just giggled. The other girls looked at her and probably told their mothers when they got home. Up front the driver was laughing at what they said. Miss Moore smiled at him. She probably thought it was nice for an old man to have such a happy disposition. I didn’t know what to think about the bad boys. Some of the things they said were pretty funny, but I didn’t know if I should laugh, so I just looked straight ahead like the girls and pretended I didn’t hear them. They started saying things about Miss Moore I didn’t believe. Even if she wasn’t too smart, she was still a nice woman.

At the courthouse there was a statue of a naked woman holding a big vase. The bad boys stood around it in a circle and laughed and pointed at things. Miss Moore and the rest of us didn’t even look at it when we passed, but I got a pretty good idea of what it looked like out the corner of my eye. Miss Moore wouldn’t go back and get the boys, so some man who worked at the courthouse told them to move on. There wasn’t much to see there, though, besides the statue. We sat in the courtroom and listened to a judge talk to some colored man about taking somebody’s mule. Then there was a man who was drunk, and that was all.

We sat out on the grass in front of the courthouse and ate the sandwiches we brought, and Miss Moore asked us how we liked it, and we said it was okay. The courthouse was a real old building. At the top it had colored glass windows in one place instead of a roof. All the time we ate, the bad boys were up in the windows making signs. Miss Moore couldn’t see them because she was sitting with her back to the courthouse. If she had turned around and seen them up there she probably would have put them out of school. Everybody knew what those signs meant, and the girls looked down at the grass and pretended to be looking for clovers. Miss Moore saw them doing this and started looking for clovers herself. After a while I saw a man come up behind the boys in the window and pull them away. About a week after we came back from that trip, the judge at the county seat wrote Miss Moore a letter that she read to us about how bad we were at the courthouse. Miss Moore didn’t know what he was talking about, and she got mad and wrote him back a letter that we all helped her write, especially the bad boys, that said the judge must have had the wrong school on his mind.

When spring came I was almost out of sixth grade. We were going to have a play at the end of school that Miss Moore wrote. The day we started practicing for it, we didn’t get out of school until five o’clock. It was a nice spring afternoon, just like all the ones we had in the valley. In town everybody’s garden was full of flowers. The grass in the yards was green and full of dandelions. The warm breeze that always smelled a little like the pines in the hills was blowing through the streets.

In the spring the prettiest place in the valley was the hills. Up along the path all the wildflowers were beginning to come out. If there was snow that winter, the ground would be damp and warm. We did have a lot of snow that year that made it hard to get down the path to school, but now the only thing that would tell you it had been there was the wet mud. All the pines looked greener than they had for a long time. The warm air smelled strong of them, much stronger than in town. All the birds were back too, and they sang and flew from pine to pine and dropped down to the ground and flew back up again. Sometimes I would see a broken egg along the path that fell from a nest up in the pines, and I thought what a fine bird it might have been. Sometimes a little baby bird would fall out too, and I saw it there dead and blue. I didn’t like to see dead animals. I never hunted like plenty people in the valley did. Some just shot at a bird to test their aim.

Spring was really the time I was glad we lived in the hills. Everything was moving. The breeze made the pines sway, and the little animals played in the grass and the low bushes. Sometimes a rabbit would run across the cinders in our front yard. Everything was moving that evening I was walking home. It made you feel you weren’t alone on the path. Every step I made, something would move. Down in the wet mud I could see the holes that the worms made and the bigger holes of some bugs. I wondered what it would be like to live down in the wet mud with the water going by you every time it rained and your home liable to be knocked in when someone stepped on it, or else be trapped when someone just closed the opening and you couldn’t get out. I wondered what happened to bugs that were just trapped and if they starved to death. I wondered what it would be like to starve to death.

Up ahead the house was sitting right in the middle of the cinders. It looked like it was a part of the hill, just a big box of wood without any paint on it. It looked brown like the trunk of a pine, and the mold on the roof was a greenish color. The only part that made it look like people lived in it was the white curtains blowing out of Aunt Mae’s bedroom window and the pair of woman’s pink underwear hanging on a clothes hanger from the window shade to dry.

I went in the front door and put my books and my copy of Miss Moore’s play on the stairs. Mother usually sat on the front porch these spring afternoons because she liked the pine breeze. I hadn’t seen her there, though. Something began to smell like it was burning, so I went into the kitchen, and there was a pot on the stove full of smoke and Mother was sitting on a chair with her head on the table crying. At first I didn’t know if she was crying or what, because she let out little screams every now and then and scratched her nails into the oilcloth. I picked up the piece of yellow paper on the table. It was a telegram. We never got one. I only knew about them from the movies. No one in the valley got telegrams. It was addressed to Mother. It was from the government. It said Poppa was dead. Killed in Italy.

I held it in my hand. Poppa was dead? We just got a letter from him the day before saying he thought the worst of the fighting was over. I went over to where Mother was sitting and tried to make her sit up, but she acted like she didn’t even feel my hand on her. She kept screaming and scratching the oilcloth. I shook her by the shoulders, but she just screamed louder, so I let her alone and went over to the stove and turned off the fire under the pot.

I went outside to get away from the burning smell in the kitchen. We didn’t have any chairs on the back porch, so I sat down on the back steps and looked up into the hills. Aunt Mae was still at the plant. She had a party to sing for tonight that they were giving in the county seat for some soldier home on a furlough. I wondered if she’d go to it. Poppa and Aunt Mae never got along. She didn’t have any reason to feel bad.

I looked back at the telegram and thought of how funny it was that a few black letters on some yellow paper could make people feel the way it made Mother feel. I thought what it would do if the black letters were just changed around a little to read something else, anything. I wondered where they had Poppa now so far away from home where he should have died. No one I ever knew well died before. This was the first time, and I didn’t know how to feel. I always thought people should cry, but I couldn’t. I just sat there and thought about where Poppa was, and if they were going to send his body home like they did some. What was it like to have your father’s grave somewhere where you could never visit it like you should or put flowers on it or know he was resting in peace? Then I imagined what Poppa looked like now that he was dead. I only saw one funeral in my life, and the person looked all white. Poppa’s skin was red and oily, and I couldn’t think of him being white and powdery-looking.

Behind the house I could see the place Poppa tried to grow some things, the place Mother took care of after he left until the things all came up. That was about a year ago. The ground was wet like all the other ground in the hills, and grass was beginning to grow in it where he had it all cleared and there wasn’t any shade from the pines. You could still see the high places where the rows were, but they were beginning to wear down from the snows, and now that the grass was out, everything looked almost even. A few seedling pines were growing up there too, and I knew that when a few more years came and they were tall, the whole little place would look just like any other place in the hills and you’d never know anyone spent almost all of one week’s pay on it and put in a lot of time too. You’d never think in a few more years someone almost left his house over that piece of clay and hit his wife in the jaw and scared his son. But besides me, that was the only thing Poppa did while he was living that you could see now. I thought of the letter where he said he was going to take me to see the beach and the waves when he got home, and Poppa’s little cleared land got all blurry, and I knew I was crying.

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