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“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?”
Edith walked into our cozy, dimly lit living room in a flared blue skirt and a white blouse with the top two buttons unbuttoned. “Oh, good grief, Daddy. She’s 17. She’s definitely old enough for dances.”
Daddy looked at Edith disapprovingly.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” he asked sharply.
“What’s wrong with it?” Edith looked down at her skirt and smoothed 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?”
Edith swept a long, dark curl off her shoulder. “Pearls aren’t in fashion anymore, Mama.”
She 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. All the boys loved Edith as much as she loved them – or at least the attention of them.
I didn’t even know why I was there. I didn’t dance. I didn’t flirt. I didn’t even talk to boys. What was I going to do? Maybe hand out punch to everyone else’s
“Gawd, Blanche. You’re so boring,” Edith had said earlier that night when I told her I didn’t want to go. “You never do anything exciting. You’re going to grow old right here in this house gettin’ daddy’s slippers and making apple pie with Mama if we don’t get you out to meet some boys.”
I stood in the corner of the main room of the social hall while Edith danced with each boy who asked for a twirl in her orbit. I sipped punch and shifted my weight from one foot to the other and swayed a little to the music.
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 tilted up on one side in a lopsided smile when he finished the song and announced the band would be taking a break while another band took the stage. Several giggling girls rushed toward him as he tried to step down from the stage and move toward the punch table. Even though I had found myself equally captivated by him, I couldn’t imagine acting so stupid over some boy,
I sat at one of the small tables along the side of the social hall as the second band began to play, watching girls twirl with their skirts fanning out and boys twisting hips in front of them. I felt out of place, as always, and knew if I tried to dance I’d do something stupid like trip over my own two feet and slam into something or, even worse, someone. I couldn’t believe I’d let Edith talk me into coming. I wished I was home, in bed, under the covers with a good book.
The light from a match sparked next to me and I looked up to see the singer I’d been watching earlier grinning at me as he lit a cigarette.
I quickly looked at the floor, studying black scuff marks made by dancing feet on the plank floor.
“You here alone, kid?”
I glanced at him briefly, hoping against all hope he wasn’t talking to me. But he was talking to me. His bright green eyes were focused squarely on mine. I knew I needed to answer but my mouth was suddenly dry and I couldn’t seem to form the words. I simply sat there, like a deaf mute, hoping he would think that was exactly what I was and just keep walking.
“You here with a boy?”
The word squeaked out like I’d been poked with a pin.
There was a piece of gum on the floor and I kicked at it, wishing again that he would just go away.
I shrugged, eyes still focused on the floor. “Not really.”
The conversation, if it could be called that, went on like this for a few moments more, all my answers predictable and repetitive, my palms damp with sweat, my heart pounding hard in my chest.
“You like the music?”
“You wearing a new dress?”
“You’re just a little chatterbox, aren’t you?”
I twisted my finger in my hair and wondered why he didn’t just leave me alone already. I could feel the eyes of other girls on us, their giggles filtering through the hum of other conversations around us.
As I looked toward them, Betty Johnson blew a stream of smoke off to one side, a cigarette perched between her index and middle finger.
“Hey, Hank,” she said with a flirtatious smirk. “I wanna dance if she don’t.”
She looked at the boy with heavy, seductive eyelids, painted in dark blue eye shadow, flipped her long blond curls off her shoulder and leaned forward. 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 leaned closer to me as he smashed his cigarette into an ashtray on the table next to me.
“Well, alright, then,” he said, looking at me, grinning. “I guess I’ll dance with you since Little Miss Chatterbox here don’t wanna.”
I felt a rush of warmth travel from my chest to my cheeks at the sight of his lopsided grin. I lifted my hand to my throat and felt my heart pounding underneath my fingertips as he stood there, his hand grazing my arm as he pulled it away from the ashtray. He paused, leaning his face toward mine, his mouth close to my ear.
“I’ll save the next one for you, pretty girl,” he whispered, his lips soft against my skin as he kissed my cheek.
He touched me lightly under my chin and smirked as he walked away with one hand on Betty’s back. I watched them for a few seconds more before I looked for the exit.
The night air was cool when I reached the front door of the social hall and stepped into the dimly lit parking lot. The twelve miles between our house and town was too far for me to walk in the dark. I knew I’d have to wait for Daddy to pick me and Edith up.
Music drifted faintly from the hall and I rubbed my arms to keep me warm, realizing I’d left my sweater on the back of a chair inside. I peered in the window and saw 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 that open 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, Hank turned and looked around the room. I played with the charms on the necklace Edith had loaned me, wondering if he was looking for me. I watched a couple of other girls approach him, giggling, trying to catch his attention. Another song started and Hank began dancing with a girl with straight brown hair and curvy hips, smiling as he slid his arms around her waist. She bit her lower lip and looked at him with the same heavy-lidded expression Betty had used earlier. I moved away from the window and rolled my eyes.
Sitting down by the old oak tree in the side yard of the social hall, I leaned back against it and placed my head on my knees, closing my eyes, feeling the fatigue of a long day of helping Mama with household chores rush over me. Images of the boy and his smile swirled through my mind as the sounds from the dance faded.
“Blanche! Where have you been?”
Edith’s sharp tone woke me, and I wondered how long I had been dozing.
“I was waiting for you,” I said groggily.
“That Hank Hakes was looking for you. He asked Jimmy where you’d gone.”
Daddy’s car pulled up before I could respond. Edith shook her head disapprovingly at me as she opened the door and slid into the back seat.
Looking in the rearview mirror at me, Daddy’s eyebrows were furrowed. I closed the door behind us.
“Did you girls have fun?”
“We sure did,” Edith said. “Jimmy Sickler danced with me all night and even Blanche had a boy ask her to dance.”
“Did she now? And who was that?”
I shot Edith a warning glare. “It was no one,” I said quickly.
She rolled her eyes and pursed her lips together, wagging her finger at me in a gesture of mock scolding. I stuck my tongue out at her. We drove the rest of the way home in silence, Daddy stealing glances at me with furrowed eyebrows.
“You going to go with me again?” she asked that night when the lights were off and we were in bed.
“Why not? I know Hank wants you to. He told Jimmy he did. You know all the other girls just swoon all over him. I mean, you heard him sing. Oh my gosh, he’s like Hank Williams meets Frank Sinatra. And he’s interested in you – though I can’t figure out why.”
“Good night, Edith.”
I closed my eyes tight and tried not to think about how warm and soft Hank’s skin had felt against my arm or how good he’d smelled when he leaned in close to kiss my cheek.
I wasn’t anyone special and I knew it. He’d probably just wanted to make fun of the scared little girl standing in the corner. I had a feeling he was with his friends right now, laughing about how silly and childish I’d been. I was never going back to one of those dances and no one, not even Edith, was going to make me.
Closing my eyes against the bright sun I could see in my mind’s eye a stream cutting a path in a field filled with brown-eyed susan and Queen Anne’s lace. As I walked in the field, my hands brushed along the still-to-be cut hay and in front of me a handsome man on a horse, sat smiling, ready to lift me to an adventure I could never have in real life. He was straight out of the pages of the latest book I was reading and looking back I can see myself for the silly, nonsensical girl I was, but in the moment, as a 17-year-old caught in a world I didn’t feel I fit in, I was imagining a future I knew had to be more exciting than my present.
When I was very young, I couldn’t imagine a life outside the little farming village I grew up in. Ashton was a cocoon of cozy familiarity where everything was predictable and where predictability was comfort. As I grew, though, so did my realization of, and desire for, the outside world; of adventures and romance and life beyond the mundane and routine.
Lewis Carroll wrote: “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time!” and that was what I wanted once I hit my teen years – adventures first. But there weren’t any adventures in our small village. All I had were books and a journal to write pretend adventures in. Stories filled my mind in between schoolwork and chores and watching my older, prettier sister Edith orchestrate her own adventures. Edith’s adventures usually involved one or more boys following her around like lost puppies.
Even as I craved adventure, the idea of having one terrified me. I was quiet, plain, nowhere near as pretty or as charismatic as Edith and my mind was constantly filled with questions that started with “But, what if” or “I can’t”. I had convinced myself that I would be forever referred to as “poor Blanche” by Edith and everyone else.
Lost in my daydream, one of many I drifted in and out of each day, I didn’t hear my older sister walking toward me across the grass, a pan and a wooden spoon in her hand. The deafening clanging in my ears sent me screaming to my feet, her peals of laughter sending anger shooting through me.
“Edith! Knock it off!” I shouted, shoving her hard
“Back to reality, little dreamer,” Edith taunted as she stumbled back from me, laughing. “Mama wants you inside.”
She skipped back toward the house, her dark curls bouncing across her shoulders and back. Mama was flipping pancakes and cracking eggs open for breakfast, her hair piled up on her head in her usual bun, an apron around her waist.
“Blanche, we need someone to help make the sandwiches and keep the punch bowl filled at the dance and banquet this weekend,” she said, flipping a pancake onto a plate and sliding the plate in front of Daddy.
I cringed at the idea of having to be around so many people in one place, being forced to smile and talk to them.
“Why can’t Edith do it?”
“She’ll be helping too.”
“But – “
“Blanche don’t argue with me. This is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the ladies’ auxiliary. We’ll need your help. Janie Tanner isn’t available since she went off to college to become – well, whatever it is she thinks she needs to become.”
“Did you hear who is playing at the banquet?” Edith asked, snatching a piece of toast from the plate in the center of the table, smirking at me.
She didn’t wait for anyone to answer as she buttered her toast.
“Billy Ray’s Jamboree Band.”
We all looked at her with blank expressions.
“That’s the band Hank is in.” She looked at me, one eyebrow raised, lips pursed, ready for me to squirm under our parents’ interrogation.
“Oh. Well, who is Hank?” Mama asked as she poured a glass of milk for Daddy.
“He’s – “
“No one.” I spoke over Edith and glared at her, desperately wishing I could smack the smirk off her face.
Daddy folded his newspaper, stood and tossed it on top of his empty breakfast plate.
“I don’t want you talking to that Hank Hakes, if that’s who you’re referring to. He’s no good.” He looked at me with a warning scowl, then slid his eyes to catch Edith’s gaze as well. “I expect you two to listen to me, do you hear me?”
I nodded. Edith rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Yes, sir,” I said, with every intention of obeying Daddy.
“Yes, sir,” Edith said, exasperation tinging her words. I doubted she had any intention of obeying Daddy.
Daddy leaned over and kissed Mama goodbye.
“I’m heading to work early. I’ll be late today, so don’t try to keep supper warm for me.”
The door clicked closed behind Daddy and my thoughts began to race. I had to find a way to get out of helping out at that dumb banquet. I felt panicked and my hands were numb at the thought of seeing Hank again, having him look at me the way he had at the dance.
The toast felt as if it was stuck in my throat. “Mama, I just can’t go to that banquet.”
“You can and you will Blanche, and I don’t want to hear another thing about it. Now get upstairs and finish getting ready for school. You’re going to be late for the bus and I don’t have a way to get you there today since Daddy’s gone to work early.”
Edith was smirking at me when I went to my room to brush my hair and I soothed my distressed soul by imagining slapping that smirk right off her face.