This is chapter 2 of “A Story To Tell,” a book I’m working on. You can find the other chapters here.
Ashton, the village where I grew up, didn’t have a real town, with stores and a theater and supermarkets. The center of the village was a church, our church, the spire towering over a collection of dairy farms dotted on a landscape of corn and hayfields. Behind the church, down a hill, was a pond where we met for church picnics and sometimes swam in on hot summer days. We were one of only a few families in the village who didn’t farm. Our house and shed was in the midst of a maze of dirt roads and between two of the largest farms in the eastern part of our rual county.
The nearest town, Danton, where Daddy worked as an accountant, was 20-minutes from our village. Danton was where the diners, the shops, the theater, and the grocery stores were. It was also where my high school was.
If you were driving a straight path to Dalton the drive was 20 minutes, but my bus ride to school was 40-minutes along dirt roads, up and over hills, down into valleys and around sharp curves, with stops along the way to pick up students at houses miles apart from each other.
I liked school. It was the only place I felt even the slightest bit comfortable, other than home. I liked reading the most and math the least. When I was sitting in the classroom I could lose myself in what the teacher was saying and not think about how I didn’t fit in anywhere else.
“Hey, Blanche,” Jeffrey Peterson leaned forward in his chair and whispered at me during English class while I was trying to listen to the teacher talk about John Steinbeck. I ignored him.
There was a hard tug on my hair and I tightened my jaw. All I wanted to do was turn around and slug Jeffrey straight in the face. I realized then I had wanted to slug a lot of people lately, and pondered if I had some sort of anger issue.
“Blanche, how come you never dance?” Jeffrey taunted. “You always have your nose in a book. Don’t you ever have any fun?”
“She doesn’t know how to have fun.” Stanley Stevens snickered softly from the other side of me. “But her sister sure does.”
“Don’t I know it,” Jeffrey said.
“You wish,” Stanley snorted.
“Excuse me. Jeffrey, Stanley. Do you have something to contribute?”
Mr. Shultz interrupted their banter from the front of the room.
“Uh. No, sir,” Jeffrey said quickly.
Stanley just shook his head and straightened in his chair.
At lunch they slid next to me on the bench before my friend Emmy got back with her tray.
“So, Hank Hakes was asking about you last week,” Jeffrey was saying. “I told him not to waste his time with you. I told him you’re tighter than a drum and more boring than a silent movie.”
I looked at my sandwich and wished they would go away.
“Why are you so quiet anyhow?” Stanley asked.
I didn’t answer. I opened my book and prayed they would leave me alone. Harassing me was a favorite pass time of theirs.
I heard Emmy clear her throat and turned to see her standing behind us.
“Hello, boys. Don’t you have a rock to climb back under?” she asked, bold as anything.
I wished I could be bold like her.
“We sure do. Wanna climb under it with us?” Jeffrey asked, smirking as he stood up.
“Not if you were the last snake on earth,” Emmy said with a look of disgust as she sat down next to me.
“Good luck talking to her,” Stanley said as he and Jeffrey walked back to their own table. “It’s like she took a vow of silence.”
Emmy shook her head.
“Those boys need to get a new pastime,” she said, opening her milk.
She turned toward me and grinned.
“Okay, so you have to tell me all about this Hank guy that Mollie Franklin says was talking to you at the banquet,” she said.
“I have no idea why he’s talking to me and I don’t know much about him,” I said.
“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Blanche,” Emmy said. “You’re a pretty girl and smart too. I heard he’s got a gorgeous singing voice. And the most gorgeous green eyes. Does he have gorgeous green eyes?”
I remembered his eyes watching me that night and yes, he did have gorgeous green eyes, but I wasn’t about to admit I noticed. I pushed my glasses up on my nose and lied.
“I didn’t even notice,” I said, taking a bite of my sandwich and looking at the table.
“Millie said your dad was fit to be tied when he saw Hank with you,” Emmy said.
Emmy was originally from the South and though she had lived here five years, some of the old vernacular slipped through. She looked at me with wide brown eyes and as always they were full of curiosity. Emmy was short and trim, with large dark brown curls falling to her shoulders and bouncing on each side of her head. Her fuller, more curvy figure was in stark contrast to my tiny, unshapely one.
“Let’s talk about something else.” I tried to steer the conversation away from Hank.
“Millie said he’s like 24.” Emmy chattered on, apparently not even hearing me. “Does he know how young you are? That doesn’t seem right, him trying to talk up a 17-year old.” Emmy was buttering her roll as she talked.
“Still, it’s not like he’s 30 and if he’s nice then I guess that’s okay. Annie Jenkins got married at like 15, so it isn’t that unusual. And he was just talkin’ to you. It’s not like he asked to marry you or something crazy like that. So, do you think you’ll see him again?”
“No,” I said tersely. “And Annie Jenkins got married because she was pregnant.”
“Oh.” Emmy seemed disappointed and I wasn’t sure if she was disappointed that I wasn’t going to talk to Hank anymore or that Annie’s marriage had been less out of romance and more out of necessity.
Like me Emmy wasn’t very social, despite being sweet and talkative, and I had a feeling she had hoped to live vicariously through me for a little while.
“Do you want to come over and study for our history exam tonight?” I asked, desperate to change the subject.
“Oh yes! And then you can tell me everything about Hank.”
I sighed and drank my milk. Obviously, we were going to talk about Hank whether I wanted to or not. I decided that if we had to talk to him at least it would be in private and not where other people might hear us.
Edith was sitting on the bed, painting her toenails in our room when Emmy and I came home from school.
“What are you getting ready for?” I asked, laying my bag on my bed and pulling my history book out.
“Nothing special,” she said, flipping a dark curl back over her shoulder and flashing a grin at me. “Just life. You never know when someone’s going to come knocking on our door and whisk me away from here.”
“How are the beauty classes going at the community center?” Emmy asked Edith.
“They’re fine,” Edith shrugged. “I guess. It’s kind of gross when they want us to cut old people’s hair, but we’ve gotta practice on someone I guess.”
She jumped off the bed and reached under it for a record she’s hid there.
“Mama is at the sewing circle and Daddy is still at work. I can play you guys this new song by Elvis.”
“Who?” I asked.
Emmy giggled. “Yeah – who?”m
“Oh my gosh! You girls haven’t heard of Elvis? Listen to this!”
Edith put the record on and the sound of Rock N’ Roll filled our room. A man started singing something about his “baby” leaving him, finding a new place to dwell at the end of Lonely Street at a place called Heartbreak Hotel. Emmy and I looked at each other and scrunched our faces up, unsure what we thought.
“Well, I’m so lonely, I get so lonely, I could die,” the man sang.
Edith started to dance and grabbed my hand to pull me to my feet.
“Come on, Blanche. Dance with me. No boys are here to watch you. Let it loose!”
I laughed at her and tried to copy her steps, tripping over my own feet.
“I can’t!” I giggled. “I’m horrible!”
“Just keep trying!” Emmy said, jumping to her feet to try to dance too.
The man was now singing about broken hearted lovers.
“They get so lonely, they could die,” he said.
“What’s with this stuff about being so lonely they could die?” I asked breathlessly, giggling.
“I know! Who could ever be that lonely?” Emmy asked, laughing too.
“Oh, you’d be surprised!” Edith said. “It’s no fun to be alone. Think of all those people who die never having loved.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Are you sure you aren’t the one reading sappy romance novels at night instead of Blanche?” Emmy asked Edith as we all fell on the bed laughing. Emmy sat up, leaning back on her elbows. “Edith – what do you know about Blanch and this Hank Hakes?”
“Emmy! Hush!” I cried.
“Oh, Blanche and Hank!” Edith practically crowed. “Hank has got it bad for my little sister. Jimmy says he’s been asking all kinds of questions about her and says he wants to know when she’s coming back to the dance hall again.”
Emmy looked at me.
“And are you?”
“Why not?” Edith asked. “You need to get out of your head and your books and get into life already!”
The record started skipping.
“So lonely I could die, so lonely I could die, so lonely I could die…”
Elvis said it over and over again until Edith lifted the needle off and put on a Fats Domino record.
“Do you think you’ll ever get married and leave this place, Edith?” Emmy asked.
“I definitely plan to,” Edith said, opening a box of chocolates she’d had stashed under the bed and offering me and Emmy one. “I don’t want to stay around here and marry some dirty farmer. I want to explore the world. I’m going to marry someone rich and he’s going to take me away.”
“If you’re going to marry someone rich then you should stop running around with that Jimmy Sickler,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You’ll end up the secretary at his dad’s mechanic shop.”
“Oh, he’s just someone to play around with until someone better comes along,” Edith said around a mouthful of chocolate. “Maybe when I finish my beautician certification I’ll move on to a bigger city and that’s where I’ll find my rich husband.”
“So, if Jimmy is just someone to play around with, what about Frank and Roger and Billy?” Emmy was giggling.
Edith glared a little then grinned.
“Hush up, you children. You don’t know anything about life or boys. Gotta keep it exciting, right?”
I took another chocolate and watched my sister. I worried about her. I worried about how much she craved the attention of so many boys at one time, rarely caring about their background or that they might hurt her.
I thought about Hank and how I liked his attention, but I didn’t need it like Edith needed attention. I had my books, I didn’t need a man to take me out of my world and into a new one to make life exciting. As I enjoyed the taste of the chocolate I started to wonder, though, what it would be like to live my life outside of a book and if I ever really would.