A Story to Tell Excerpt

A Story to Tell, my debut novel, is available on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.

a story to tell (6)

I’m sharing the first two chapters with my blog readers. A New Beginning, the sequel to A Story To Tell, will be available on Kindle and other outlets in Spring 2020.


Chapter 1

“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 he did take me away. One morning Hank Hakes drove up in his old red Chevy truck with a guitar and promises of dreams to come true. He kissed me tenderly that night and many nights to come.

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, the stories I wanted to tell. We’d talk about the life we wanted, the life we thought we’d have.

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. But all that – all those sweet moments and happy memories, 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 home to tell Daddy he was right all along.

✽✽✽

“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 the living room in a flared blue skirt and a white blouse with the top two buttons unbuttoned. “Oh, good grief. She’s 17, Daddy. She’s 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?”

“Pearls aren’t in fashion right now, Mama,” Edith said.

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 had been asking where she was. I knew Jimmy wasn’t the only boy asking where she had been.

I didn’t even know why I was there. I didn’t dance. I didn’t flirt. I didn’t even talk to boys.

“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 she danced with each boy who asked for a twirl in her orbit. I sipped punch and shifted my weight from 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 and 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 to let another band took the stage. Several giggling girls rushed toward him as he tried to move toward the punch table. Even though I had found myself captivated by him, I couldn’t imagine acting so stupid over a 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 their 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 someone or something. 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.

“Hey.”

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 wood floor.

“You here alone, kid?”

I glanced at him briefly, hoping against all hope he wasn’t talking to me. His eyes were on me and I knew I needed to answer but my mouth was suddenly dry, leaving me struggling for words. I simply sat there, like a deaf mute, hoping he would think I was both.

“You here with a boy?”

“No.”

The word squeaked out like I’d been poked with a pin.

I kicked at a piece of gum on the floor, wishing he would just go away.

“Having fun?”

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?”

“Guess so.”

“You wearing a new dress?”

“No.”

“You’re just a little chatterbox, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Wanna dance?”

“No.”

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, 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.

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, 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.

When I reached the front door of the social hall, I felt the cool night air 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 forward with a boy, especially not one who was pretty much a man and probably knew all there is to know about the world.

When the song ended, Hank turned, and seemed to be looking for someone. I wondered if he was looking for me. I watched a couple of other girls standing near him, 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.

“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.

Daddy looked in the rearview window at us with furrowed eyebrows as 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 wanted to dance with Blanche?”

“No one,” I said quickly and shot Edith a warning glare.

She rolled her eyes and pursed her lips together, wagging her finger at me in a mocking gesture.

“You going to go with me again?” she asked that night, the lights off, both of us in bed

“No.”

“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 could just hear him with his friends right now, laughing about how silly and childish I’d been. I would never go back to one of those dances and no one, not even Edith, could 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, straight out of the pages of the latest book I was reading. Looking back I can now see I was a silly, nonsensical girl, but in the moment, as a 17-year-old caught in a world I didn’t feel I fit in, I imagined a future I knew had to be more exciting than my present.

When I had been very young, I couldn’t imagine a life outside the little farming village I grew up in. In Ashton, I found predictability, a cocoon of cozy and comforting familiarity. 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 once I hit my teen years I imagined life as adventures first, thinking about them later. 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 who followed her around like lost puppies.

Even as I craved adventure, the idea of having one terrified me. Quiet, plain, nowhere near as pretty or as charismatic as Edith, 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. In the kitchen, Mama flipped pancakes and cracked 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. I already told you girls 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 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.


Chapter 2

 

Ashton, the little village where our house didn’t have stores and a theater and supermarkets like bigger towns or cities. The center of the village featured 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, nestled between two large willow trees set 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, with a shed out back for Daddy’s tools and a one car detached garage to one side, sat in the middle of a maze of dirt roads and between two of the largest farms in the eastern part of our rural county.

The nearest town, Dalton, where Daddy worked as an accountant, 20 minutes from our village. Two diners, a few shops, the theater, and my school were in Dalton. If you were driving a straight path from our house to Dalton the drive was 20 minutes, but my bus ride to school was twice that 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, at least the time spent in the classroom. Sitting at a desk in a classroom was one of the few places where I felt in my element, other than at home in my room with a book. I liked English the most and math the least. When in the classroom, I lost myself in the lesson being taught and didn’t have to think about how I didn’t fit in anywhere else.

Jeffrey Peterson leaned forward in his chair and whispered loudly at me during English class one day. “Hey, Blanche!”

Listening to the teacher talk about John Steinbeck, I tried to ignore him.  He tugged hard on my hair, but I still didn’t turn around, instead tightening my jaw and staring straight ahead.

“Hey, Blanche. Saw you at the dance a couple weeks ago. You just stood there,” Jeffrey taunted. “How come you never have any fun?”

“She don’t know how to have fun,” Stanley Stevens snickered from the other side of me. “But her sister sure does.”

“Don’t I know it,” Jeffrey said.

“You wish,” Stanley snorted.

Mr. Schulze interrupted their banter from the front of the room. “Excuse me. Jeffrey. Stanley. Do you have something to contribute?”

“Uh. No, sir,” Jeffrey said quickly.

Stanley just shook his head and slid down in his chair, shoulders hunched.

At lunch they slid next to me on the bench before my friend Emmy got back with her tray. I knew they weren’t done with the taunting they’d started  the period before.

“So, Hank Hakes was asking about you after the dance,” Jeffrey said. “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 my best friend Emmy Stanton clear her throat and looked up from my book to see her standing next to the table:

“Hello, boys. Don’t you have a rock to climb back under?” Emmy 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 boy 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 as she opened her milk.

“Those boys need to get a new pastime.”

She turned toward me and grinned.

“Okay, so you have to tell me all about this Hank guy that Lily Franklin says talked to you at the dance.”

I shrugged. “I have no idea why he’s talking to me and I don’t know much about him.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Blanche. 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’d noticed. I pushed my reading 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.

“Lily said she bets your dad would have been fit to be tied if he saw you with Hank,” Emmy said.

Though she had lived here five years, Emmy had originally lived in the South and some of the old vernacular slipped through. She looked at me with wide brown eyes full of curiosity and anticipation. Emmy, short and trim, had large reddish-brown curls falling to her shoulders and bouncing on each side of her head. Her fuller, curvier 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 26.” 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 buttered a biscuit 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 like it’s 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 it was disappointment that I said I wouldn’t talk to Hank anymore or that Annie’s marriage had been less out of romance and more out of necessity. Emmy, like me, wasn’t very social, despite being sweet and talkative, and I had a feeling she had hoped to live vicariously through me with my stories about Hank.

“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 Hakes whether I wanted to or not. I decided that if we had to talk about him at least it would be in private and not where other people might hear us.

 

***

Edith sat 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.

Edith flipped a dark curl back over her shoulder, flashing a grin at me. “Nothing special. 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.

Edith shrugged. “They’re fine, I guess. It’s kind of gross when they want us to cut old people’s hair, but we’ve gotta practice on someone.”

She jumped off the bed and reached under it for what I assumed was a record she’d hid there.

“Mama is at the PTG meeting and Daddy is still at work. I can play you guys this new song by Elvis.”

“Who?” I asked.

Emmy giggled. “Yeah – who?”

“Oh my gosh! You girls haven’t heard of Elvis Presley? 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 and 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, giggling.

“Well, I’m so lonely. I get so lonely, I could die,” the man sang.

Edith started to dance and grabbed my hand, pulling 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, trying to dance too.

The man was now singing about broken-hearted lovers.

They get so lonely, they could die,” he sang.

“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 alone, never having loved.”

I rolled my eyes.

“You’re so dramatic, Edith.”

“Are you sure you aren’t the one reading sappy romance novels at night instead of Blanche?” Emmy asked as we all fell on the bed laughing. Emmy sat up, leaning back on her elbows. “Edith – what do you know about Blanche 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?”

“No.”

“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 repeatedly 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.

Edith opened a box of chocolates she’d stashed under the bed and offered one to Emmy and me. “I definitely plan to. 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. “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 find myself a rich husband.”

“So, if Jimmy is just someone to play around with, what about Frank and Roger and Billy?” Emmy giggled. I stifled a laugh behind my hand.

Edith glared at us, 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, seeming not to care who she hurt, including herself. But even as I worried, part of me envied her.

The night of the Ladies Auxiliary banquet I tried to stay in the kitchen, well away from the dancing and the music. I mixed punch, loaded cookies on trays, cut brownies into cute little squares and let Edith and the other girls carry them to the tables in the main hall. I worked happily in my quiet corner of the kitchen, a haven of welcomed obscurity.

I caught a glimpse of Hank through the kitchen window that looked out through the main hall, standing there on the stage where community plays were usually held. Wearing a gray suit coat and clean-shaven, he wore his hair slicked back, green eyes sparkling. He’d definitely cleaned up more for this performance than the one at the social hall a couple of weeks before. The music was also more reserved – covers of Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Hank Williams. I started to look away but the dimple in his chin and the way his mouth tilted up on one side when he sang the word lovely fascinated me. I was still watching him when Mama’s voice startled me, and I almost dropped the dish I held.

“Blanche, did you put the extra punch bowl out?”

“I thought Edith…”

“I don’t know where Edith has gotten off to. Probably found some boy to talk to. While you’re out there find her and tell her to get back here and help with cutting the pies.”

I carried the punch bowl to the front table as the music ended, avoiding eye contact with everyone I passed. 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. It’s my little chatterbox again.”

My breath caught at the sound of his voice. I closed my eyes, let out a deep breath, opened my eyes again and turned toward him, determined not to act like a silly little girl in front of him like I had at the dance.

“What brings you here tonight?” he asked, grinning, looking as good as he had when I’d first met him two weeks before.

“I’m helping in the kitchen,” I mumbled. “I should get back to it.”

He stepped in front of me as I started to walk back to the kitchen, lightly touching my arm to stop me.

“What’s your hurry?” he asked. “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 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.”

“Blanche.” He said my name slowly, watching me over the edge of his punch glass, then set it on the table. “Ah. That’s a lovely name for a lovely girl.”

His mouth tilted up on one side when he said the word lovely, just like it did when he sang it.

“So, Blanche…you’re a quiet little thing. How old are you?”

I hesitated again. I was a child, a silly, plain child with no personality and not a drop of excitement in my life, and I was sure he already knew it.

“Seventeen.”

“Mmmm…young,” he said, biting his lower lip and then smiling, his eyes drifting from my face and down the rest of me and then back to my face. “And pretty. Smart too, I bet.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the way he studied me, like a wolf sizing up their prey.  My face flushed warm under his gaze and I thought my heart was going to pound out of my chest.

“I don’t think I am,” I said.

“You look smart.”

“I don’t know if people can really look smart.”

He 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 at Hank and me. 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.

“No, it’s fine,” I said.

“So, where did you go the night of the dance?”

“Just. . . out. . .”

“I wanted to have a dance with you.”

Before I could say anything else, Daddy stepped next to me. His eyes were on Hank and I saw darkness there. Hank met his gaze with a confident grin.

“Hey, there, Mr. Robbins,” 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 tone was cold. Hank’s tone was cavalier and sing-song.

“Well, no sir. Blanche has been helpin’ me jus’ fine.”

I couldn’t even look at Daddy. I looked at 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,” Daddy said tightly, not even looking at me.

His eyes were boring into Hank.

“Good night, Hank.”

Hank grinned and picked up his glass of punch.

“You have a good night too, sir,” he said with a sardonic chuckle. “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 real soon,” he whispered against my ear.

Daddy seethed when Hank left. He stood close to me, practically towering over me, his eyes flashing with anger. Redness had rushed into my Daddy’s face and across his ears.

“Blanche Robbins, don’t you ever talk to that boy again. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” I said quietly and hurried toward the kitchen, touching my hand to my cheek where Hank’s lips had grazed it.

I looked up and saw Edith looking out the door of the kitchen, that familiar smirk twisting her mouth. I scowled at her.

The car ride home that night was quiet, but 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? I heard Mama’s sharp intake of breath and could practically feel waves of anger shooting from Daddy in the driver’s seat.

“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. And I don’t want you talking about him either.”

Edith sighed and then looked at me and winked. I wanted to sock her straight in the teeth. I felt heat rush through me and hoped I never saw Hank Hakes again.

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