It took almost six weeks for my shoulder to heal. While I was wearing the sling, I was allowed to use my left hand to eat. Mama gave me a careful bath each night, even though I didn’t get very dirty not being able to go out at recess or play with Jo Wren and Cathy Ann after school. Mama laughed and said it was a benefit of having a broken collar bone, but I didn’t think it was very funny, and I never even smiled when she said it.
Elizabeth Jane was in charge every afternoon when we walked home from school together and stay at the house alone. She fixed me a snack, mostly just a peeled banana or a washed apple, and turn the TV on. She said it was for me, but she tuned in some teen music show called Hootenanny and danced all around the den while I sat complaining that I wanted to watch cartoons instead. Then she turned off the TV and I went to my room and play with my toys until my mother and father got home.
Daddy didn’t let Mama hire another maid. He said the last one had caused enough trouble, and that Elizabeth Jane had proven that she was grown up enough to watch me in the afternoons. He said she could sweep, mop, and vacuum, and that when I was all healed that I was old enough to dust and take out the trash. Mama could do the laundry on Saturday mornings, and Granny could help with the cooking after she brought her home from the seminary. “We are going to be a self-sufficient family.” He declared. “We don’t need a maid, black or white, to do for us!”
I started dusting in the living room before my arm had fully healed. It was easy, and I sort of liked it best when I found an extra dusty spot. It was satisfying to see clean wood after I wiped away a thick layer of gray dust. I was careful to put the ashtrays and knick knacks back exactly where I got them from after I finished wiping the furniture where they were placed. I went over the books in our only library case one by one, counting each of them until I knew that we had one set of encyclopedias with twelve books, one set of children’s stories in six volumes, three bibles with one bound in white leather and two in black embossed leather, a big thick dictionary, and seven books called Great American Novels which Mama had picked up at the grocery store. She bought a new novel each Thursday when she went to the A&P. They offered the books for a fifty cents a piece when you bought ten dollars worth of groceries. She stopped buying them when she ran out of room to put them on our small set of bookshelves.
The weather turned to spring, and we opened our windows wide. Every time I dusted I wiped up a thick coat of yellow pine tree pollen from the table tops and shelves. Elizabeth Jane swept the kitchen, then mopped and complained that the pollen made the mop leave yellow streaks on the linoleum. Granny cooked our supper, which came an hour later than it normally did while Daddy watched the evening news on the TV. Mama sat at the dining room table each night, reading Sunday school lessons and daily devotionals from a small magazine called The Upper Room.
I was grounded at home until the end of the school term. I saw Jo Wren at recess, and sometimes talked to her after school before she walked with home with Lisa. I spent a lot of time at the school library reading chapter books the librarian gave me. And I memorized routines that I saw while I watched my sister at cheerleading practice. Sometimes I did them in my bedroom where no one could see me doing such a girl thing. Andy and I spent our time at school drawing pictures, having handwriting contests, and telling each other how much better we were than the other. I never saw Cathy Ann. The weather grew warm, then hot, and second grade finally ended, and my imprisonment at home did too. Sort of.
Staying alone at home all day with Elizabeth Jane proved to be more of a chore than I expected. While I was grounded but still going to school, I only had to obey her for a couple of hours in the afternoon. She was mostly taken up with doing her homework, talking on the phone to her girlfriends for hours, or mooning outside over the fence at Ronnie next door. He was almost sixteen years old by then, tall, and drove an old car he bought for twenty-five dollars from his uncle who ran an old junkyard. The car looked worse than the thing Hannelore drove, and blew more smoke too. He was constantly outside under it with just his feet sticking out, or bending over with his head ducked in the engine compartment.
After summer started, Ronnie was hardly ever at his house. Even though he had failed eighth grade, he got a job as a grease monkey at the Esso station on Main Street, and on weekends he was either rummaging through the junkyard looking for car parts so his jalopy would run, or he was out hanging around with what my father called a bunch of hoods that lived on the other side of the Sunset Shopping Plaza. They mostly roosted behind the A&P, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and occasionally racing their cars down River Drive towards Black Bottom and the Broad River. Daddy would not allow Elizabeth Jane to ride in the car with any boy, much less Ronnie, so she stayed mostly inside the air conditioned den and kitchen of our house, constantly looking out of the window to see when Ronnie came home.
All this meant two things: Elizabeth Jane was bored, and she was frustrated. Mama said it was ridiculous for a girl her age to be interested in an older boy, especially when she hadn’t even gotten her first period. I didn’t know what that meant, but it worried my sister a lot. When she was on the phone with her girlfriends, she talked about how much she was looking forward to getting her first one, and then she would be a woman. I noticed that she had to fill her bra with less and less tissue, and she began to look a little like my mother instead of a gawky girl. My mother gave her plenty of housework to do, to keep her out of trouble she said.
It was early one Sunday morning just before my birthday. I was going to be eight years old, and I was excited because Mama had said I could have a party and invite over six friends. I was dressing in a light blue short seersucker suit getting ready to go to church. We went to the big Methodist church downtown, and it was graduation Sunday, the day everyone in the lower grades would go to the next class. It was the first time I could officially call myself a third grader, even if it was just Sunday school third grade. I’d finally be able to go upstairs where the big kids all went, and I would get a new Bible study workbook, just like Elizabeth Jane.
I struggled in my room trying to get the little clip on my red bow tie to affix to my collar. I stood on my tiptoes to see myself in the mirror on the top of my tall dresser. I didn’t want to stand on my bed as I usually did to see myself because I thought that an official third grader shouldn’t have to. Down the hall I could hear Elizabeth Jane complaining mightily. She hadn’t seemed normal at breakfast, and she continued to crab about everything while she got ready to go to church.
“Mama, I can’t wear this awful itchy old crinoline petticoat another Sunday!” She whined from her bedroom. “And I just don’t want to wear these awful old Mary Jane shoes. You want me to dress like a pariah!”
“You won’t look like a pariah, Elizabeth Jane. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that you don’t even know what a pariah is.” Mama was in my sister’s room trying to get her to wear the same pink suit that she had worn at Easter. It was taffeta, puffy, and had these funny sleeves that made her look like a bit like she was wearing water wings, like Jo Wren’s Betty doll had on the dress that I was once forced to wear.
“Not one girl in my class still dresses like a little child any more. They all get to wear A line skirts, and low heels. Why can’t I dress like that? Why do I have to dress up like Little Bo Peep?”
I snickered and shouted down the hall at her. “Why don’t you bring Mrs. Miller’s old nasty poodle dog with you? It looks kind of like a sheep!”
Mama yelled back at me. “Chance, you are not being helpful. Just finish getting dressed then wait for us out by the car. Your father and grandmother are already out there waiting on us. And don’t you dare get dirty!”
I moved the tie around a little bit more and then left it alone. I knew my mother would mess with it before we went inside the church anyway, and the car ride downtown (and sliding all over the place as my father sped down the narrow streets) would probably loosen it anyway. I ran down the hall towards my sister’s room, glancing inside as I passed. Mama was fluffing out the crinoline underneath my sister’s dress. Elizabeth Jane looked angry and sad at the same time. I could tell she had been crying. I would have cried too, if Mama made me dress like that. It was bad enough to have to wear a bow tie and a dumb short-panted suit with knee socks outside where people could see me, but to have to dress up like a cupcake, well that would have been intolerable. My sympathy, though, was limited, and I stopped at the door bleated like a sheep.
“Chance, I’m warning you!” Mama turned around to face me. I hurried on to the car outside where my father leaned against the tan Cadillac, smoking a cigarette.
“Where’s you mother and sister?” He blew a smoke ring and grinned. Granny was already in the car, sitting in the back seat on the right hand side. “See? Your grandmother is waiting for all of us. She knows Jesus won’t wait for the Pate family to get there to start church!” He laughed a little more.
“I saw them getting ready in Beth’s room.”
“Don’t let your sister hear you call her Beth. Remember, it’s Elizabeth Jane now that she’s almost grown.” He said Elizabeth Jane with an exaggerated length and winked at me.
I got in the car and into the back seat next to my grandmother. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, fingers intertwined. I could see her thumbs twirling around each other. She called it “twiddling” and I started to imitate the gesture.
“Are you mocking me?” Granny looked at my busy thumbs which I was twirling faster than she did.
“No ma’am. Just twiddling my thumbs too.”
The back door to the house slammed and I saw my mother and sister heading towards the back gate. Rusty was racing up the slope from the patio that Daddy built down the hill a little too far from the house. The dog must have been chasing a squirrel when he heard Mama and Elizabeth Jane. They hurried but Rusty was faster than them, and he blocked their exit. Daddy went over and kicked at the fence. The dog backed off, and Mama pushed Elizabeth Jane through the gate, quickly latching it shut behind her.
“Well finally here they come. I’ve been waiting inside this car for ten minutes already. You’d think for once everyone could be ready on time and we wouldn’t be late for services.”
“Granny, why do you work for the seminary still? Couldn’t you come home and take care of me and Beth? Why do they have preacher school during the summer anyway?”
“Well baby, they just do. I guess it’s because they want preachers to get done with their education quick so they can get out there and spread the good word.”
Elizabeth Jane slid onto the car seat beside me, her voluminous petticoat making a rustling sound against the leather. Her face looked puckered, and her bottom lip stuck out like a shelf. She pointed at a stripe of piping on the upholstery. “Don’t you dare come across to my side of the car. This is my area. Don’t you touch it.” I reached over and walked my middle and forefinger around near the edge of the border. “Chance, I’m warning you. Don’t come on my side!”
“Oh you don’t own this car. There ain’t no sides.”
“Ain’t is not a word, young man. And do not torture your sister this morning.” Mama was getting in the front passenger seat and turned to fuss at me in back.
“Well, I don’t have much room so if I accidentally slide onto Elizabeth Jane’s side, it ain’t, um, it isn’t my fault.”
“You better not ‘slide’ on my side or I’ll…”
“Elizabeth Jane, that is not the way to talk on a Sunday morning! And Chance, do not torture her, like I said. Try to keep still. I wish, just for once, that we could ride in peace!”
Daddy got in and started the car. You could hardly hear the engine because of the copious amount of padding and upholstery inside. “Purrs like a kitten.” He smiled as he put the car in gear. “I had that hood from next door change the oil and adjust the timing belt. He’s turning into a good mechanic instead of the criminal I thought he was going to be.”
“Ronnie isn’t a criminal!” Elizabeth Jane grumbled.
“Finley, I wish you wouldn’t let that boy tinker with this car. It’s too expensive and he might break it.”
“He’s not going to break it, June. Turning a couple of bolts and changing the oil ain’t really nothing, and it’s too much money to take it to the dealership for them to fix.”
“Ain’t ain’t a word, Daddy!” I chirped. My mother turned and gave me a sour look.
“Ronnie isn’t a boy, Mother.” Elizabeth Jane sounded cold. “He’s a man!”
“If he’s a man, you’d better stay away from him, little girl.” Mama warned. “I won’t have you spending time with hoods!”
Daddy turned on the radio. On Sunday mornings he tuned in a station that played classical music. We listened to it on the way to church. The announcer said the name of each song before and after it played. His voice was smooth and sonorous. I couldn’t understand most of the words that he used, so I stated my own titles to each piece. Since I didn’t know any musical terms or the names of composers, I made everything up. “That’s Bamboozle’s Docky Wocky Number 16 in m sharp” and “This is the Cockadoodle Suite by Shardonumnum.”
“Shut up, Chance. You’re lying through your buck teeth.”
“Mama did you hear Beth just tell me to shut up? And she said I had buck teeth!”
“Well you do have buck teeth. It’s a known fact.”
“You sound like your husband Ronnie.”
“You sound like a lying monkey!”
“That will be enough from both of you!” My father yelled as he swerved the car around a corner onto Marion Street which led to the side parking lot at the church. “I don’t want to hear a peep out of either of you until after services.”
“You’re so unfair!” Elizabeth Jane broke out into tears.
Mama reached in her purse and handed her a tissue. “Now you quit crying or you’ll look all puffy for church.”
“She already looks puffy like a cupcake.” I jabbed the car seat with my finger on my sister’s territory.
“Mama he won’t leave me alone!”
“Mama he won’t leave me alone!” I mocked back at her.
“Stop repeating what I say!”
“Stop repeating what I say!” I repeated. I poked at the crinoline draped across the upholstery.
Elizabeth Jane swatted at my hand, but she missed. My grandmother reached over and pulled me close to her. “Now you both stop fighting! It’s the Lord’s day! Show some respect! June, control your children!”
“I can control them about as much as I can control wild Indians, Mother.”
“Well someone has to make them stop arguing! I can’t take this back here!” Granny held me tight against her until we parked and everyone got out to go inside the sanctuary.
The service had already started, and Daddy took two programs from the usher on the right side of the entrance. Mama bent down, straightened my tie, and dabbed a tissue at Elizabeth Jane’s face. My grandmother went in with us, but she stopped and sat with her friends in back like she always did. The four of us walked down the right hand aisle and found our accustomed pew. I went in first, then Mama, then Elizabeth Jane and Daddy. I took a small pencil and an offering envelope from the holder affixed to the back of the pew in front of us and began to draw in the margins. Mama sighed and looked up into the choir loft as they began to sing.
The service followed. A boy about two years older than me whose name I did not know appeared in a white robe. He carried a staff with a small wick on the end which had a flame. Mama told me once that he was called an acolyte, and he was the one who lit the candle on either side of the cross in front of the pulpit. Each week it was a different boy.
“Mama, I can’t wait until I’m old enough to do that!” I whispered so no one else could hear.
“Shh. I’ve told you that you’ll have to wait until you’re ten years old. Now be still.”
The preacher and his assistant came out, and led the congregation in a prayer. Even though everyone else seemed to have their eyes closed, I looked around. I hoped that it was okay. No one had ever told me not to look around. A few pews over another kid who was not in my class had her eyes wide open and was looking around too. I raised my hand and wiggled my fingers in greeting at her. Mama pinched my bare thigh really hard, so I knew that she didn’t have her eyes closed all the way.
There was a song by the choir. The tempo was slow, and the thing seemed never to end. There were lots of words about clouds, crosses, and blood that didn’t make much sense to me. I looked over at Elizabeth Jane who seemed to be trying to dig the crinoline out of her butt crack. She seemed very uncomfortable. She looked up over at me and I stuck out my tongue. She stuck hers back out at me and Mama elbowed us both.
By the time the minister got to preaching I had filled up the offering envelope with lots of scribbling. I still liked drawing stars. A two-triangle star, each shape laid on top of the other making six points, formed what Daddy called a Star of David. I had recently got the knack of making a five-pointed star without lifting my pencil from the paper. I usually used my right hand to write around Mama, but that day I drew with my left hand instead, and she didn’t seem to notice. Elizabeth Jane was wiggling and whispering things into my mother’s ear, so she was wasn’t paying too much attention to me.
The minister droned on. I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. It was too grown up, too monotoned, too boring. He started out by saying flatly “Rejoice. This is the day that the Lord has made. Be happy in it.” But he did not look very happy himself. He might as well have been static on the radio for all I understood. He made my head swim.
The sanctuary was a little too warm. I looked up and saw the big, pendulous chandeliers swinging back and forth in the warm breeze created by the huge fans that were placed at the front on either side of the raised pulpit. I saw the assistant minister sitting behind the podium in a giant carved wood chair with a red velvet cushion that reminded me of a throne in a castle. His head was nodding back and forth, just like the lights above, and I thought for second that I could see him shutting his eyes like he was getting ready to take a nap.
There was the rustle of crinoline again, and I heard Elizabeth Jane whining. There was an odor of something that smelled a little bit like the bathroom at school, sour and stale. There was a sharp metallic twang to the scent, and I held my nose.
“Oh no!” Elizabeth Jane said out loud. “Oh no!”
Mama was turned towards my sister who was holding her hands out like there was something in her lap that she didn’t want to touch. Elizabeth Jane stood up and there was a big red stain on the back of her pink cupcake dress. It looked like blood. “Oh no!” my mother repeated in a whisper. “You’ve started your period!”
People were turning around in their seats to see what was happening. The minister kept going on with the sermon, but the sleepy assistant minister was staring directly at Elizabeth Jane.
“Chance, give me your suit jacket! Right now!” Mama spoke low and sternly. She took my jacket and tied it around Elizabeth Jane’s waist, covering the streak of blood on the skirt. There was a wet spot on the padding of the pew. “Finley, let’s go. We can’t stay.”
Daddy got up and let Mama and Elizabeth Jane pass, then grabbed me and we walked closely behind them. He stopped briefly at the pew where my grandmother sat. “We’re going to take Elizabeth Jane home. She’s begun.”
“Begun what? Why are we going home?” I whispered, but none too quietly. “I’m supposed to go to the third grade class today!” All of Granny’s friends turned and looked at us.
“Be quiet, son, and I’ll explain when we get outside.” He quickly caught us up to my mother and sister who were now waiting on us by the front steps to the church. Elizabeth Jane was crying, her head between her hands.
“Finley, I don’t have any sanitary napkins that will fit her. We’ve got to go and find a drug store that is open!”
“Well, she’s ruined that skirt and Chance’s jacket. We’ll take her home first. I think there’s some newspapers in the trunk that she can sit on until while she’s in the car.”
“Oh my God, I want to die!” Elizabeth Jane was almost booger crying, but she kept her face covered by her hands. “I can’t believe it started like this! I want to die!”
I could see for the first time the extent of the blood. It was almost soaking the entirety of the back of her skirt. “Hey why is she bleeding? Did she sit on a nail? Are there nails in the pews?”
“Hush, Chance. Your sister has started her first period!”
“Mama, what’s this period thing anyway? Is that why she’s bleeding? And she smells!”
“I said shut up Chance!”
“If we’re leaving, I ain’t sitting in the back seat with her!”
My father put his hand on my shoulder. “We have to go get your sister some special lady stuff, then we’ll be home. You be nice to Elizabeth Jane. She’s not hurt. She just became a woman is all.”
Elizabeth Jane continued to cry. She wailed when we got to the car and Daddy brought out the newspapers for her to sit on. She continued crying as we drove around town trying to find an open drug store. It was Sunday morning so everything was closed. Finally we drove by the hospital and my mother went inside. The hospital had a store in the lobby that was always open, and Mama said she could find what Elizabeth Jane needed in there. She came out a few minutes later, and when she opened the door to the car, my sister began to cry even harder.
“Oh my God, everything is ruined and everyone will know and I want to die! I just want to die!”
“Everyone understands, honey.” Mama crooned from the front seat. “Everything will be okay. One day you’ll look back and you’ll laugh about this. I promise. It’s happened to all of us.”
“All y’all done bled on yourself in church?” I piped in.
“Shut up Chance, you little boy!”
“Now don’t tell your brother to shut up. You’re a grown woman now and grown women do not talk to young children that way!” Mama said sharply. “And Chance, you just sit back and be quiet. Your father will explain everything when we get home.”
I sat in the car, silent, looking at my sister. I held on to the side armrest so I wouldn’t slide all over the seat and bump into Elizabeth Jane. She was a mess, and I didn’t want any of whatever cooties she had from all that blood to get on me. Daddy didn’t turn on the radio or anything. He just drove fast, and got us home quicker than he had ever done before.