The latest installment for Fiction Friday: A story to tell
There aren’t any good stories left to tell. They’ve all been told. So this is just a story that maybe you’ve heard before – the story of a girl who loved a boy, who thought the boy loved her. The story of a girl who thought life needed to be exciting and full of adventure for it to be real. The story of a girl who learned what she thought she needed to be happy wasn’t what she needed at all.
I first met Hank the night of the dance that Daddy and Mama almost didn’t let me go to. After that I’d meet him by the maple tree in my parent’s backyard in the middle of the night and he would tell me about the gig he’d just come from or the dance he’d just been to. He’d ask me about the books I was reading, the stories I was writing in my head, the stories I wanted to tell. We’d talk about the life we wanted, the life we thought we’d have.
“Come away with me and we’ll start a life of our own,” he said one night under the tree, the moonlight pouring across us.
I looked at the tip of my shoes and bent my ankle back and forth.
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” he touched my chin with his fingertips and I looked up into his deep green eyes and my knees felt like butter that had been left out in the sun too long.
“My daddy would be so mad,” I said. “He doesn’t like you.”
“Your daddy doesn’t like me ‘cause he knows you’re better than this little garbage farm town and I can take you away from it.”
And Hank did take me away from the little town I grew up in. One morning he drove up in his old red Chevy truck, with a guitar and promises of dreams to come true. We drove 200 miles to find a judge and a future together.
He kissed me tenderly that night and many nights to come. If only I’d known then what I know now – of all the kisses he was giving away, of all the others he was promising dreams to, of the anger he’d pressed down inside that would come out at me.
But all that – all those sweet moments and happy memories and even the bad ones – was a long time ago.
Now I’m alone on this bus with a baby on my lap and fear weighing heavy on my chest.
I’m going back to tell Daddy he was right all along and that I was very, very wrong.
“She’s too young for dances,” Daddy said, sitting in his chair, reading the local newspaper, not even looking up.
“Well, Edith is going to be there,” Mama offered, mentioning my older sister.
“Is this meant to comfort me?” Daddy asked.
“Oh, good grief. She’s 17, Daddy. She’s old enough for dances,” Edith said, walking into the dining room in a flared blue skirt and a white blouse with the top two buttons unbuttoned.
Daddy looked at her disapprovingly.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” he asked sharply.
“What’s wrong with it?” Edith said looking down at her skirt and smoothing it with her hands.
“It’s fine if you want to wait on a corner in the city,” Daddy mumbled under his breath.
I knew Edith didn’t hear him, but I did.
“It looks lovely,” Mama said quickly. “At least it’s longer than the last skirt you wore. Are you going to wear your pearls with it?”
“Pearls aren’t in fashion right now,” Edith announced then turned her attention to me.
“Come on, Blanche, let’s find you a dress and see what we can do with your hair.”
“I didn’t say she could go,” Daddy said.
“Daddy, I promise to keep an eye on her,” Edith assured him as she led me up the stairs.
It would have been hard for Edith to keep an eye on me with the eyes of most of the boys at the dance on her. She abandoned me almost as soon as we entered the building when a gaggle of her friends surrounded her, giggling and whispering, telling her Jimmy Sickler was asking where she was. I knew Jimmy wasn’t the only boy asking where she was.
I stood in the corner while she danced with each boy who asked for a twirl in her orbit. I sipped punch and shifted my weight from foot to foot and swayed a little to the music.
On the stage the band played country western, the most common style of music in our small farming community. The man at the front of the stage strummed a guitar as he sang, flashing smiles at the young girls looking up at him. His jaw was smooth shaven, his hair longer in front than most boys I knew. His mouth titled up on one side when he finished the song and announced the band would be taking a break. I turned away from the stage as girls rushed toward him, giggling as he tried to step down and move through them toward the punch table. I couldn’t imagine acting so stupid over some boy.
“Hey,” the light from a cigarette lighter sparked next to me and I looked up to see the singer grinning at me .
I nodded a quick greeting then looked at the floor, all scuffed up from dancing feet.
“You here alone, kid?”
There was a piece of gum on the floor and I kicked at it.
“You’re here with a boy?”
I just wanted him to go away so I didn’t feel so awkward
“Not really,” I said, eyes still focused on the floor.
The conversation went on like this for a few moments more, all my answers predictable and repetitive.
“You like the music?”
“You’re just a little chatterbox, aren’t you?”
I twisted my finger in my hair and wished again that he’d go away.
I could feel the eyes of other girls on us, their giggles filtering through the hum of a hundred other conversations.
Betty Johnson blew a stream of smoke to one side and looked at the boy, her eyelids heavy, her blond curls framing her small, round face.
“I wanna dance, if she don’t,” she said with a flirtatious smirk.
She leaned forward and I could see down the front of her shirt. Everyone could see down the front of her shirt. She’d clearly forgotten her bra and wanted this Hank fellow to know it.
The man she’d called Hank smashed his cigarette into an ashtray on the table behind me, leaning close to me.
“Well, alright, then,” he said, looking at me.
He paused and I felt a rush of warmth travel from my chest to my cheeks at the sight of his lopsided grin.
“I guess I’ll dance with you since Little Miss Chatterbox here don’t wanna,” he said, his eyes still focused on me.”
I put my hand to my throat and felt my heart pounding underneath it as he stood there, his hand grazing my arm as he pulled it away from the ashtray. Suddenly he leaned his face toward mine, his mouth close to my ear.
“I’ll save the next one for you, pretty girl,” he whispered, his breath warm against my skin.
He touched me under my chin and smirked as he walked away with one hand on Betty’s back.
I looked for the exit.
I didn’t dance.
I didn’t flirt.
I didn’t know why I was even there.
“Gawd, Blanche. You’re so boring,” Edith had said to me earlier that night. “You never do anything exciting. You’re going to grow old right here in this house gettin’ daddy’s slippers and making an apple pie with mama if we don’t get you out to meet some boys.”
The night air was cool when I reached the front door of the social hall and stepped into the dimly lit parking lot. It was too far for me to walk from home and I knew I’d have to wait for Daddy to pick me and Edith up.
I could faintly hear music in the hall as I rubbed my arms to keep me warm, realizing I’d left my sweater on a chair inside. I peered in the window and could see Betty with her arms up around Hank’s shoulders, throwing her head back and laughing, like everything he said was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
I rolled my eyes. I could never be so forward with a boy, especially not one who was pretty much a man and probably knew all there was to know about the world.
When the song ended I saw Hank turn to find me. I moved away from the window and watched girls stand and try to talk to him before he walked back back toward the stage and picked up his guitar to join the rest of the band. I sat down and leaned back against the old oak tree in the side yard of the social hall. I leaned my head on my knees and dozed, feeling the fatigue of a long day of helping Mama with household chores.
“Blanche! Where have you been?”
Edith’s sharp tone woke me.
“I was waiting for you,” I said, groggy.”
“Well, that Hank Hakes was looking for you. Where’d you go?”
Daddy’s car pulled up before I could answer.
“Did you girls have fun?” Daddy asked, looking in the rearview window, his eyebrows furrowed.
“We sure did,” Edith said. “Jimmy Sickler danced with me and even Blanche had a boy ask her to dance.”
“Did she now? And who was that?.”
“It was no one,” I said quickly and shot Edith a warning glare.
She rolled her eyes and pursed her lips together.
“You going to go with me again?” she asked that night when the lights were off.
“Why not? I know Hank wants you to. He asked me where you’d gone. You know all the other girls just swoon all over him. You ever hear him sing? Oh my gosh, he’s like Hank Williams meets Frank Sinatra.”
“Good night, Edith.”
I closed my eyes tight and tried not to think about how warm and soft his skin had felt against my arm or how good he’d smelled when he leaned in close.
I wasn’t anyone special and I knew it. He’d just wanted to make fun of the scared little girl standing in the corner. He was probably laughing with his friends now about how silly I’d been. I was never going back to one of those dances and no one, not even Edith was going to make me.
“Blanche, don’t argue with me. We need someone to help make the sandwiches and keep the punch bowl filled. This is the biggest fundraiser for the ladies’ auxiliary.”
Mamma was flipping pancakes and cracking eggs for breakfast. Her hair was piled up on her head in her usual bun, an apron around her waist. I was dressed and ready for school, and had almost choked on my dry toast when Mama told me.
“Mama. I just can’t go to that banquet.”
I felt panicked and my hands had gone numb.
What if he was there? I couldn’t believe Mama was making me help with the annual spring banquet for the ladies auxiliary.
“Did you hear who is playing at the banquet?” Edith bounded into the room pulling curlers out of her hair.
She didn’t wait for anyone to answer.
“Billy Ray’s Jamboree Band.”
We all looked at her with blank expressions.
“That’s the band Hank is in.”
Edith looked at me with a knowing smile.
“Oh. Well, who is Hank?” Mama asked as she poured a glass of milk for Daddy.
“No one,” I spoke over Edith and glared at her.
“I don’t want to see you talking to that Hank Hakes, if that’s who you’re referring to,” Daddy said sharply and stood to leave. “I already told you he’s no good. I expect you to listen to me, do you hear?”
He looked at me with a warning scowl.
“Yes, sir,” I said, with every intention of obeying Daddy.
“I’m heading to work,” Daddy said. “I’ll be late today, so don’t try to keep supper warm for me.”
He leaned over and kissed Mama goodbye.
Edith was still smirking at me when I went to my room to finish brushing my hair before school.
The night of the banquet I tried to stay in the kitchen, well away from the dancing and the music. I could see Hank through the kitchen window, standing there with a gray suit coat, clean shaven, hair slicked back, green eyes sparkling. I noticed then the dimple in his chin and the way his mouth tilted up on one side when he said the word “lovely.”
“Blanche, did you put the punch out?”
Mama’s voice startled me, and I almost dropped the dish I was drying.
I carried the punch bowl to the front table as the music ended and I heard Hank say: “We’re going to take a break for a bit while you enjoy some of the food the ladies are making.”
I straightened the cookie trays around the punch bowl and gathered the empty trays to refill, listening to the murmur of conversations as people settled at their tables to prepare for dinner to be served.
“Hey, there my little chatterbox.”
When I heard his voice behind me my breath caught. I closed my eyes for a moment, let out a deep breath and turned toward him.
“What brings you here tonight?” he asked, grinning, looking as good as he had at the dance two weeks ago.
“I’m helping in the kitchen,” I said quickly. “I should get back to it.”
He stepped in front of me as I started to turn to walk back to the kitchen, lightly touching my arm.
“What’s your hurry?” he asked, his hand still resting lightly on my arm. “Stay here and talk to me a little bit. I’d love to get to know you a little more. Like, for starters – what’s your name?”
I thought about what Daddy had told me and Edith and hesitated, unsure what to say, or even if I wanted to respond at all. Hank poured himself a class of punch and looked at me expectedly as he took a sip.
“It’s – Blanche,” I said finally, my voice cracking into a whisper.
“What’s that? I didn’t catch it.”
He tilted his head and leaned toward me, smirking.
I cleared my throat.
“Blanche.” He said my name slowly, watching me as he drank from the punch glass, then set it on the table. “Ah. That’s a lovely name to go with a lovely girl.”
His mouth tilted up on one side when he said the word lovely, just like it did when he sang.
“So, Blanche…you’re a quiet little thing. How old are you?”
I hesitated again. I was a child – silly, plain child with no personality and not a drop of excitement in my life – and I was sure he already knew it.
“Mmmm…young,” he said, biting his lower lip and then smiling. “And pretty. Smart too I bet.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“You look smart.”
“I don’t know if people can really look smart.”
I was surprised I had spoken so boldly.
Hank laughed and I felt a flutter in the center of my chest.
“Well, you might be right about that, Chatterbox,” he said. “It’s hard to tell just by looking at someone. Some of the smartest looking people are actually the dumbest, aren’t they?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Daddy from across the room, speaking to the mayor but glancing over the mayor’s shoulder Hank. I felt my muscles tense and I could barely hear Hank over my heart pounding in my ears.
“I guess maybe I’m talking too much,” he said, grinning.
Before I could say anything, Daddy was next to us. His eyes were on Hank and I saw darkness there. Hank met his gaze, still grinning.
“Hey, there, Mr. Robins,” he said, nonchalantly, “How you doin’ t’night?”
“I’m just fine, Hank,” Daddy said, his jaw tight. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
Daddy’s voice was cold.
“Well, no sir. Blanche has been helpin’ me jus’ fine t’night.”
I couldn’t even look at Daddy. I looked my hands folded in front of me and prayed for some sort of divine intervention to end this humiliating moment.
“Blanche, your mother will be needing you in the kitchen now, I’d imagine,” Daddy said tightly, not even looking at me.
His eyes were boring into Hank.
“Good night, Hank,” Daddy said curtly.
Hank grinned and picked up his glass of punch.
“You have a good night too, sir,” he said with a sardonic twist of his mouth. “I need to get back to the stage anyhow.”
He turned toward me as Daddy stood there, watching us, and leaned toward me. His lips grazed my cheek.
“Hope to see you again soon,” he whispered against my ear.
Redness had rushed into my Daddy’s face and across his ears.
“Blanche Robins, don’t you ever talk to that boy again. Do you hear me?” Daddy was seething when Hank left. He stood close to me, practically towering over me, his eyes flashing with anger.
“Yes, sir,” I said quietly and hurried toward the kitchen. The car ride that night on the way home was quiet. I could feel Daddy’s anger from the back seat.
“What’s so wrong with that Hank Hakes anyhow?” Edith asked suddenly and boldly.
I wanted to sink into a hole and disappear. Why couldn’t she just learn how to shut up already?
“He’s free with the whiskey and his attention to women – a lot of women,” Daddy snapped, knuckles white on the wheel. “He’s bad news and I don’t want you girls around someone like him.”
Edith sighed and then looked at me and winked. I wanted to sock her straight in the face. I felt heat rush through me and hoped I never saw Hank Hakes again.