Southern but not Gothic

(I’ve often imagined that I could write a complex novel about relationships, prejudice, and sexism set in the deep South like Harper Lee or Fannie Flagg. Sadly, I tend not to make very far with stories that don’t have lots of dead bodies or supernatural fun. This opening is one of my favorites from the pile of never-was.)

I’ll never forget the day Miss Josephine arrived. She wore white linen to direct the movers as they worked around unloading the van. White linen and we were miles away from Labor Day. One of the neighborhood ladies ran over right away to tell her her mistake but she just laughed. She knew. She knew all our rules and she plain didn’t care. That was when we knew we were in for a summer no one would ever forget.

“Well call me Josie, everyone does!” she said with a laugh, but every child on the street knew better. Adults were Mr. and Mrs. After they insisted; they were Mr. and Mrs. with their first name. Rules like that made our world spin in the right direction but Miss Josephine had come to knock it off kilter. Later, much later, when I was older and jaded, I loved her for that but at the time I was just as scared and confused as everybody else.

She’d bought Mr. Walter’s bookshop downtown, bought it lock stock and barrel according to my grandfather. All she had to do was turn the key and it could be like Mr. Walter was there himself, nothing would have to change. But she didn’t. She covered the windows with thick brown paper and closed up shop for a week. We all wondered about what went on behind that brown paper. The drug store sold our comic books, ordering just a handful of copies so we all had to rush there or be left out. They sold candies too, nail polish that peeled off in long strips and makeup that my sister seemed to think I’d want some day. I didn’t know what I wanted. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to that brown paper wrapped Christmas present of a store, because it could have what I wanted, what I’d been searching for all along without knowing quite what it was.

I was fifteen that fall, with long legs that were finally growing out of their bony knees. Fifteen and at odds with the world, my body was pulling me one way and my mind was pushing me another. My mother had declared that fifteen meant no more playing with the boys, whether it was baseball, fishing, or shooting it didn’t matter. She’d shipped me off to stay with my Aunts for the summer and I guess the boys in the neighborhood found someone else to cover second base. When I got back they invited me along a few times, maybe for the sake of the games we’d played the year before, but my mother was true to her word. Fifteen was time to be a lady. Ladies didn’t play second base.

There were lots of new rules for me that year, rules that didn’t make a bit of sense. My months with my elderly Aunts had been time without time, there were clocks and calendars but no sense of moving forward. They knit sweaters for me even though it was Georgia in July, hotter than any hell ever described – sweaters in patterns better suited to a seven year old. I was a child there, like I’d been a child at home before I left, but walking back into my front door that September I was suddenly something else, some woman-girl trapped between two worlds.

I missed second base the most, missed the easy camaraderie of my teammates after a game. I wasn’t ready to join the Eastern Star with the other girls, I didn’t want to giggle and lick ice cream like a fool all summer, worried about my nails or whatever Seventeen magazine told me to worry about. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I was a lot like that store, wrapped up and waiting to show the world what I would be.

 

Miss. Josephine found me outside her shop. I should have been in school or maybe I should have been home with my mother. I should have been lots of places but I was there, throwing a baseball up in the air and catching it, wearing a pair of blues jeans rolled up against the heat and a shirt my brother had outgrown a summer ago. Mother had bought me a slew of dresses for the school year but I didn’t care for them. I dug Tommy’s shirts out of the goodwill box by the door and changed after she’d stopped looking.

Miss. Josephine snatched the baseball out of the air on a good up-throw. Snatched it with a pitcher’s gripe and looked at the ball not me.

“You can’t have played with this one for more than a week,” she said, examining the stitches. “Lord knows it still feels like summer, why not round up a game?”

My jaw dropped open and I just looked at her. The answers were myriad: because my mother wouldn’t approve, because the boys I’d played with had moved on, because honestly at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of September everyone else was following the rules. She didn’t pay any mind to my silence.

“Well if you aren’t looking to play, maybe you want to work. I’ve got boxes that need to be unloaded, follow me.”

“But-” I was talking to thin air. She’d gone on ahead, opening the door to the shop without looking back, not noticing if I was following.

I stepped inside the door and the world went dark. Not pitch black but dusty golden stripped dark. The sunlight was coming in a few holes in the paper here and there, punching through the inside like a ribbon. The shelves that Mr. Walter’s had kept so tidy were in a disarray, half empty here, over stuffed there. In one corner of the giant square room three empty shelves leaned against each other, locked together in a dozen different mazes of plastic coated wire.

“Those shelves.” She pointed to the ones my grandmother liked to browse on weekends. They were tall spindles filled with devotionals, “Serve the Lord in a Woman’s Way” and “Southern Prayers for Southern Souls”, entreated me to turn my troubles over to the Lord. I didn’t tend to listen. I didn’t really have any trouble except for losing my spot on the team and I suspected God had bigger problems to deal with.

“They need to be emptied. Take the boxes over there. Keep track of how many go in each box and pack them tight.” She dispensed the instructions and walked away again.

“Don’t you want to know my name?” I shouted to the empty store.

“I know you,” she said, poking her head in from a back room. “I know every body. They just don’t know me yet. Those shelves, then we’ll take a break, huh, May?”

And there it was, she knew me, she knew my name, and I had a job.

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