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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DO IT YOURSELF FINISHING SCHOOL

By Debra Leigh Scott

 

 

 

 

It started because I couldn’t abide crudeness in my life. 

All around me I see crude and rude behavior, like our high school football players in their old pickups, blasting music in the middle of the night, waking up babies or old people who need their sleep.  Or like the men using foul language in public places, even when they haven’t been drinking.  Or worse than that, in my opinion, are the girls using the f-word everywhere and laughing like hyenas with their mouths open clear to their tonsils.  Why can’t people eat without gulping big bites or making loud noises?  Why is it so hard to walk without slouching? Nobody seems to care about how much crudeness has taken over our world. 

On TV, I watch people pushing and shoving each other at those Black Friday store sales, like they’re running away from Godzilla.  I’d say we act like a pack of wild animals, except that I watch a lot of animal videos on youtube and they all act way better than us.  That’s why I want to spend my life working with animals.  In their own quiet way, they’ve got a lot to teach us.

We aren’t polite enough.  We aren’t kind.   At least not from what I can see here in Horn Lake. Too much low living, and not much by way of class, except for maybe the Elvis Ranch, called the Circle G, where every year they’re supposed to be working to fix it back up.  People would like that, if there were better places to picnic, and maybe some rides, or new boats for rental on the lake.  It might give everybody a wanting to be more genteel, having things nice like that.

Anyway, there didn’t seem to be a reason to wait for Horn Lake to get much better in the area of general crudeness, so I started small to improve myself alone,  by always saying please and thank you, practicing that every day, and always holding doors for people, or helping moms with their baby strollers in revolving doors.  I try not to curse ever, except once in a while I will say foul words inside my own head when I am very, very mad.  If you ask me, even the most upright souls at the New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church couldn’t take offense at that.  And, in my experience, they are pretty easy to take offense.

I bought a steam iron over at Benzer Pharmacy and keep my clothes pressed – even the plain old jeans and t-shirts.  I only have a few dresses, and none of them fit very well, but I still iron them before I put them on, even though I never wear them anywhere but my bedroom, since they were my mother’s and I haven’t grown into them yet.  I bought some shoe polish at Publix and polish all my shoes, even the sneakers, just trying to keep myself orderly.  It seems only right that when people have to look at a person, you give them something pleasant to look at. 

Then all of a sudden on this one night, it was like a whole new way of seeing the world opened up to me.  Like usual, I was hunkered down on my bed, searching around youtube for more animal videos, and I found some clips of Jackie Kennedy riding a horse, making jumps around a ring.  It was beautiful to behold.  My uncle Trey told me a few years back that I was plenty strong enough to work at his stables, mucking them out, wiping down the horses.  So, that’s what I do every chance I get, and he pays me pretty fair.  I love horses probably more than any of the other animals I love.  My favorite is Bright Star, a really beautiful black stallion who’s taken some of the blue ribbons on the horse show circuit.  Sometimes I even get to go with Uncle Trey to the Eastern Tennessee horse shows, where we’d help the owners get their animals ready, and I’d watch from below the bleachers when they competed.  So I could tell when I watched the video that Jackie was a great rider, and that she and her horse loved each other. 

Up until then, though, the only thing I’d ever seen of Jackie Kennedy was that video clip of her in her pink suit, climbing onto the trunk of the car to get the skull and brains that got blown out of her husband’s head. 

But now I knew she was elegant in a way I’d never seen in my life before.  So I kept watching more videos about her, and found one I liked best called “A Tour of the White House”.  And that video changed the way I thought a person could be, because Mrs. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was the very opposite of crude. 

I watched that video over and over and over again, studying how she made her voice so soft, with all that good pronouncing.  I’d practice speaking along with her, almost like I was learning a foreign language.  Pretty soon, I’d memorized nearly all of her speech, even though I didn’t know what words like Smithsonian or Staffordshire meant, until I looked them up.   I knew then that I wanted to live in a world with people who knew about those things, and maybe even had some of the kinds of things that Mrs. Kennedy cared so much about.  Maybe when you live with Staffordshire on your mantel, even those teeny tiny black and white dog figurines,  you are not the kind of person to be rude or rough, or who would break things when you get drunk, which is what my father used to do all the time right  before he finally went away for good. 

Not that I blame him for leaving.  He and my mom both worked at the Newly Weds plant where they make seasonings, and what they call “coatings” to put on factory-processed foods.  Their website calls it “creating one of a kind flavor experiences.”  I call it making fake flavors to put into fake food to trick people into eating it.  Which is, of course, another crude thing to do to people, if you ask me. But that’s where they both worked, since Newly Weds employs most of the people around here.  My mom was in the office, and my dad worked 12-hour shifts as a supervisor in the plant.  That is, until the day my dad brought an official complaint that said the handling of food was being done by workers with bare hands, and that maybe the company would want to reconsider its sanitary policies.  Right after that, management told him that the line he supervised was being shipped to the Chicago plant. He tried to get reassigned, but the only thing they offered was working at the shipping dock lifting all day long, even though HR knew my daddy’s back had been bad for over ten years. So when he turned that down, he was denied unemployment. Then, matters got even worse since everybody on his line who lost their job blamed him for stirring up trouble.  So he lost most of his friends, even some from way back to his high school days.  People hold grudges really long here in Horn Lake, too.  It was hard on him, and that’s the truth.  He never broke a single thing in our home before that, but after, with him never finding work, and losing his friends, he’d sometimes just get to busting up on a rampage.  And I guess that’s where I got to feeling so strong about being polite, because I just couldn’t stand all the busting up and crying and mean talk in my home.

It came as no surprise that people made fun of me trying to be so genteel, and I tried not to care. I wasn’t ever popular anywhere in Horn Lake anyway.  In fact, I’d say I was the opposite of popular, where people would turn their backs when I walked by. So, anyway, I began to say “yes” instead of “yeah” or “yep”, and  I tried to remember to always stand up straight, to hold my hands folded in front of me, and to keep my head at an elegant angle.  And, even when people made faces behind my back, I tried to be the way I thought an aristocrat would behave.  “Aristocrat” was another word I had to look up at first.  I’d heard it before, but never really knew exactly what it meant.

I spent some time looking at books about Jackie in our library – I guess she became a kind of obsession -- and I learned that she went to Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut where she was given her excellent education, and was also trained in speaking and moving with beauty, in standing straight, and in knowing how to place her knife and fork just right, how to lift a tea cup like a proper person, how to choose the best china.  I knew from looking at the pictures of the students and reading about the kind of people who sent their children there that Miss Porter’s would never take on somebody like me.  But that didn’t stop me.  I searched the internet and found advice, and made a kind of at-home course of the sorts of things they taught at a finishing school:

Good Manners 
Table Manners
Etiquette
How to be Charming
Entertaining v. Hospitality
Flower Etiquette
Comportment and Deportment
The Importance of a Pleasant Voice

I printed out a saying from one of the online Etiquette sites and hung it over my desk:

“Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners.”

I had a scholarship to University of Memphis, to work on the BA requirements before I apply to Veterinary School, up at UTC in Knoxville.   But I was thinking that if I didn’t get all this finishing school work done by end of summer, I could always take a gap year to work on it.  No sense showing up on campus before I was totally transformed. Why just be my same old half-finished, unpopular self when I could turn this into a whole new time for me? 

When my daddy was doing his rampaging, mama packed up our most valuable breakables and moved them up to the attic.  So, one day, I went up searching for Great-Grandma Baylis’s Parisian china.  Those dishes were probably our greatest treasures, since the Baylis family was wealthier back then, and we are nowhere near what anybody would call wealthy now.  I found the china packed in a big double-thick cardboard box, wrapped in old newsprint.  I was sitting there holding one of the teacups, just sort of practicing the correct way to pinch your fingers around the teeny handle, when my mother nearly stunned me into dropping and breaking it, showing up like a bolt of lightning.

“Lee Avinger, what are you doing in this attic?”

I had to grab onto the cup with both hands to hold it steady, I was so taken back.  Her hair was flying all around her head with a bunch of static, too, which just a little bit of conditioner would have set right.

“Just looking, mama,” I said, holding the cup up for her to see.  “Can’t we bring them back downstairs now?”

Mama just shook her head.  “I packed them up so careful, they may as well just stay up here.  I never used them anyway.  We don’t know one person could be trusted not to harm them.” 

“Well, just for us, then,” I said.  It was only the two of us now that daddy was gone, anyway, except sometimes Uncle Trey would stop by for dinner now that Aunt Berta passed away. 

“I packed them for you,” mama said.  “For when you get married.  Same as my mama did for me, and her mama did for her.  You’re my only child, and I want you to have them.” 

“What makes you think I’m gonna get married, mama?”

I never had one date my whole life, for reasons of being the opposite of popular.  And those football players are about the only thing this town offers by way of boys.  Most of them have very low foreheads and a kind of beady-eyed stupidity. 

“You’re the last of my line, Lee.  Uncle Trey and Aunt Berta never had children.  I don’t want us dying out.”

It seemed unfair of her to put all the responsibility of an entire line of ancestors on me at that moment, when all I wanted was to bring some old china back to the dining room.  But it would have been impolite to be contrary, since she seemed to feel things in such a strong way just then. 

“Maybe we can just bring the tea set down,” I said. 

We could have tea time on the weekend afternoons, something my online classes talked about in great detail.  It could be just mama and me, and I’d buy some of those little teacakes with the pastel icing at The Cake Lady Bakery.  No china smashers would be invited. 

I turned the cup over, to show her.  “See that name? ‘Johann Haviland, Bavaria’?  That’s the name of the china makers, and where they made the china.” 

My mother leaned over and squinted since she didn’t have her reading glasses on.
“Your greatgrandmother Baylis told me she bought them on her wedding trip in Paris, France.” 

“Well, she may have bought them there, but they were made in Bavaria,” I said. “It’s very elegant.”

My mother squinted at me.

“Bavaria.  That’s part of Germany,” I said.  “And see here?  “Rajah”?  That’s the name of the pattern….the design.”

My mother kept squinting.  “Okay,” she said.  “Maybe just the tea set.”

 

Senior “Famous Person Day” was coming up, as one of the last big events before graduation from Horn Lake High School.  It was clear there was no one else I was called to be but Mrs. Jackie Kennedy.  I didn’t say anything to mama because she already told me this fixation on Jackie Kennedy was giving her the willies. 

“It’s gotta mean something, though,” I said to her.  “Jacqueline Lee Bouvier.  That was her name.”

“So?”

“And her sister was Caroline Lee Bouvier, but she was called Lee,” I said.  “Caroline, like you, and Lee, like me.”

My mother just squinched up her lips.

“And their mother’s last name was Lee,” I finished.  “Don’t you think that’s gotta mean something?  All those “Lee” names, and me being “Lee”?”

Mama just shook her head.  “Honey, you are always looking for signs and symbols and secret meanings.  There just aren’t any, and that’s the truth.  Things just are what they are.”

“If I thought that was true, I’d want to die,” I said.

But I knew better than to bring up Jackie Kennedy again, even though it didn’t stop my plans.

I’d already practiced enough of her speaking from the videos, and if I wrote a small speech, I could use some of what she herself said.  I knew it was risky with so many….shall we call them “Republicans”…..in Horn Lake.  And I know there are still families around these parts who believe that the country would have been set right forever if only Mr. George Wallace had been elected president. 

Of course, I didn’t look anything like her.  Jackie, I mean.  I was overly thin, with wheat-colored hair I pulled back in a pony-tail.  But I had a bunch of pictures I took off the internet that I stuffed into my backpack, and ditched school so I could take the bus bright and early up to Memphis, since I figured a  bigger city with some thrift stores might be the place to get help with the clothes and maybe even find a pillbox hat.  And the best thing?  Mrs. Jackie Bouvier Kennedy wore gloves all the time.  That is what made it the most perfect.  All elegant women wore gloves back then.  And I know mama says there are no signs, but almost right off the bat, I found the Junior League Repeat Shop on Summer Avenue.  It was run by the Ladies of the Junior League in Memphis, so I felt it was a good time to practice some of my finishing school manners.  Standing up straight and using my best speaking voice, I went up to one of the ladies and said, “Excuse me, ma’am, my name is Lee, and I’m from Horn Lake, Mississippi.”

She looked at little surprised, and I think it was because she wasn’t used to anyone with manners anymore.  She smiled at me and said, “Well hello, Lee from Horn Lake.  My name is Miss Ella.  What brings you all the way up to Memphis?”

I told her all about Senior Famous Person Day and how I needed to find something like Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit and pillbox hat, and some white leather gloves. 

“Do you also know, ma’am, where I might be able to find a wig that would look like the hairstyle she had in Dallas?”

Miss Ella didn’t speak right away, and I could see she was sizing me up.  “Did your teacher assign you this character, Lee?” she asked me.  “This is an awfully big project.”

“I know, ma’am,” I said, hoping she wasn’t Republican.  “But I came to it on my own.  I think Mrs. Kennedy is a very important figure in our history, and that she was brave and elegant and strong in a way we all need to be again.”

Miss Ella didn’t answer. 

“And she lived in the south,” I added, just for good measure.  “In Virginia.”

I handed her some of my internet photos.

Miss Ella nodded her head.  “Okay,” she said.  “Well, we will have to improvise.”

She led me to a back room of things not for sale, where, she said, some of the better clothes were held not to be put out all at once.  She told me that Jackie’s suit was a fabric called boucle, and after searching around a little, she found a suit made of boucle in a kind of light grey color.  Some more searching found us a light blue pill box hat with a few scraggly feathers sticking out of a big leopard print button on the right hand side. 

“No worries about that,” Miss Ella said.  “They can be removed no problem.”

We found shoes – black leather pumps with a small princess heel that fit only a little snug. And gloves.  Not white, though.  We had to settle for black.  But Miss Ella said it would match the shoes and that would be just fine. 

“You’re going to have to dye the fabric, honey, if you want it to be pink,” she said.  “Rit dye has a hot pink that should work.”

I guess my face must have showed it because I panicked.  Where would I be able to do that without making a mess and calling attention?  I didn’t want another give-up-on-Jackie conversation with my mother. 

Miss Ella stood there, holding the boucle suit and pill box hat, looking at me.  She sighed one of those long sighs the way older women sometimes do, because they’ve been through so much in their life and now here’s one more trial standing in front of them they have to go through. 

“I guess Jesus brought you to me for a reason,” she said.  “Come on.”

She rang me out and put my purchases in a big white plastic bag with handles.  She made a private call on her cell phone, and we walked a few blocks to a hair salon where she introduced me to her cousin’s son, Wade. 

He sat me down on one of his salon chairs, and told me to put the bag near his hostess desk. 

“I hear you need a wig,” he said.

We told him what my project was, and I talked to him a little about the not-wanting to be crude thing that got me to this point.  He was nodding, not saying much. 

“So you’re pretty sure this is the perfect project?” he said. “Jackie Kennedy’s a pretty dramatic choice for these parts.”

I nodded.   “I already bought the clothes,” I said.

“Which reminds me,” Miss Ella said.  “I’m going to run over to the hardware store and pick up some Rit dye, and a few other things before they close up.” 

She promised to be right back, and left me alone with Wade, which I figured was probably safe enough, seeing as how he was the cousin of someone in the Junior League. 

I showed him some of my photos of Jackie on that day in Dallas.  “It was a flip all the way around,” I said. 

Wade went into the back and brought out a few synthetic wigs in dark brown all on Styrofoam heads. 

“I know people will make fun of me,” I said, as I looked them over.  “People make fun of me all the time.”

“Well, sometimes that’s enough to stop us from doing what we’re led to do,” he said. “And sometimes it isn’t.  You just need to pick which time is which.” 

We picked a wig that looked closest to the color in the  pictures, and Wade plugged in a curling iron and started flipping the ends up all around the bottom. 

“You might need to hit this with a little more curling iron the day of the presentation,” he said. 

I told him I didn’t have one, and he said he’d lend one of his to me from the shop.  “Why don’t I just lend you the wig, too,” he said, “seeing as how you’ll probably never wear it again after this, right?” 

He told me I could just get it all back to him after Famous Person Day and we’d call it square. 

I know that my mama would disagree, but all this kindness just seemed like too much of a miracle to be anything but a sign. 

“When is this Famous Person Day, anyway?” he asked.  He tried to sound casual, I could tell.

“Next Monday,” I said.

“Mondays are my days off,” he said, handing me his card out of a little holder on the ledge. “That’s my cell phone.  You need some help, or need advice you call that number right there.”

Miss Ella came back in, a little out of breath.  She got the hot pink dye, she said, and a big Rubbermaid tub.  “I know her suit was strawberry pink,” she said, “but we have to cover the other colors in the fabric, so it needs to be bolder.”

I nodded, just believing her.

“But I’m afraid you’re going to have to do this yourself, Lee,” she said.  “Because the dying is going to need to soak a good while.  I can sit right here and take the feathers and button off the hat while Wade finishes up, but I don’t think we can help you with the dying.” 

I figured I might be able to do it in the tool shed.  Mama never went in there, since it was always filled with daddy’s saws and hammers and levelers.  I could make a mess and nobody but me would know.  It was a dank old place that still smelled of man sweat something terrible. 

“How do I dry it?” I asked. 

“No dryer, ‘cause it’s wool.  You soak it, like the directions say, at least overnight,” Miss Ella said, “and then you put it on a plastic hanger – that’s important because you don’t want rust marks from a metal hanger – and let it air dry. You’ll have to try and clip the hat up with a clothespin so that the air can circulate around it and dry it evenly.” 

Mrs. Ella drove me home, not because I asked.  She insisted that it was a long way to have to go on the bus with all the things I was carrying.  I worried the whole way that she would want to introduce herself to my mama, or that mama would be on the front porch, like she was sometimes having a beer after work, and see us.  But we got home before work at the Newly Weds plant was over for the day, so nobody was there.   Miss Ella patted me on the back and said good luck. 

“I suspect this isn’t the last time we’ll meet,” she said.  “I just have a feeling.”

I nodded because it seemed like she was right.  Sometimes people just appear in your life and you know they’ll be there a long time.  Besides, I’d be at the university in Memphis, so it would be my home for a while.  Maybe I could even volunteer at the Junior League store a few days a month.

She backed out of the driveway and waved goodbye.  I got busy right away with setting up the tool shed and soaking the suit and hat, trying to get it all done before mama got home.  The wig I hid in my closet, so bugs from the shed wouldn’t get into the hairspray Wade had doused it with, and the shoes and gloves I put in my underwear drawer, but then, on second thought moved them to under my computer desk, since mama does my laundry. 

I had it figured out that I’d ask permission to stay home from church on Sunday to finish up homework, and that’s when I’d get the outfit all set up in my backpack, and practice my speech.  I felt bad keeping this from mama, but she worries about people thinking I’m a weirdo, and thinks I take things too far sometimes.  Mama never likes to call attention. 

It all worked out, though.  The pillbox hat was a little deeper pink than the suit, but I figured it wouldn’t show since it was all the way on the top of my head.  By Sunday morning, after mama left for the 10 am service, I brought everything in from the shed and packed it into a brand new plastic bag from under the sink, before putting it all in my backpack.  I already knew my speech by heart, but repeated it in my head anyway. 

 

When the day of the presentation came,  I dressed in the ladies’ room, down from the old gym that isn’t used except during adult night class square dancing.  I did my best with the wig, trying to get the flip just right, and to balance the pill box hat, which was trickier than I realized, and probably should have practiced.   I put my regular clothes in my backpack in the locker.  Nobody else was anywhere around, so it wasn’t until I walked into the auditorium for my speech time that people started to laugh.  

Mrs. Benson hurried over to me.  “Lee, is this some kind of joke?”

I know the clothes didn’t fit perfectly, but I thought I looked as good as any of the others in their dress up costumes. 

“No ma’am,” I said.  “I think Jackie Kennedy is about the best First Lady we ever had, and I practiced my speech really hard.”

She nodded her head kinda slow, biting her lip, because people were still laughing at me.   But she hurried to the podium and gave them all her famous side-eye.

“You all are being very rude.  One more squeak from any of you and you’ll all get an F on your participation grade,” she said. 

So things got real quiet and I gave my speech.  I’d practiced so much that I think I sounded pretty much like Jackie, and I talked to them all about that horrible day in Dallas when I had to hold my husband’s brains in my hands, and I talked to them about how life is too crude and mean and nasty and vicious, and how we need to practice being more polite and polished with each other.  Kindness is a kind of art, I said, as I finished up the speech. 

Nobody clapped at first, until Mrs. B’s side-eye got them putting their hands together, but only barely. 

“That was excellent, Lee.   And I think we should be treating each other with kindness,” she said.  “Most people in here could take that lesson to heart.”

Mine was the last presentation, so after it ended, we all filed out of the auditorium.
I went to my locker to get my backpack.  No way I could wear my Jackie outfit home on the bus.  But Buddy Jakins, captain of the football team, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the old gym hallway where a bunch of his football player thugs were waiting, and there they started pulling at my wig and my suit and stomping on my high heeled shoes. I was trying to protect myself, but the boys were shoving and pulling at me, and somebody hit my nose real hard and blood was gushing everywhere.  Somebody stuck their hand up my skirt and tore my stockings down.   By the time they left me alone, there was blood on my suit, and the heel of one of my shoes was broken off.  My wig got pulled off my head and was thrown to the floor and stomped on.  I think somebody even peed on it, ‘cause it was lying in a yellow puddle. 

Everybody was gone, escaped so they wouldn’t get caught.  Except for Buddy.  He stood at the end of the hallway watching me trying to pull myself together. 

“How’s that for kindness, faggot?” he said. 

I pulled myself up, leaning on the wall to stop the dizziness. 

“Fucking faggot,” he said again.  “You ever set foot in this school again and I’ll go all the way to killing your fairie ass.”

 

I left out the cafeteria kitchen door, walking slow in my bare feet.  There was nobody there this time of day, since lunch time was hours ago and things were all cleaned and closed up until tomorrow.  There was a path that led down past the baseball field into the woods, near the creek.  There was an old fort there that nobody knew about but me and a few of my Avinger cousins.  That’s where I finally sat down and cried.  After a while, I stood up and pulled the suit off, got my old t-shirt and jeans back on.  I put these Jackie Kennedy clothes, folded neat, into my back pack.  The wig still smelled of pee, so I found an old plastic bag stuck to a tree, and wrapped it in that, trying to keep the smell off everything else. 

I wouldn’t be able to go home.  Somebody was sure to have called mama by now.  So, I figured it was time for the plan I’d been making since I turned 13.  I’d go to the stables to say goodbye to Bright Star, and get the stash of money I’d been saving there in that floorboard hole ever since I started working for Uncle Trey.  It should be enough to get me out of here.  I’d call Wade’s number from the card and tell him what happened.  He’d know what to do about the suit and wig – and maybe he’d help me get the blood out of the fabric.  Or maybe, like Jackie, I could just decide to keep it bloody.  My nose was swelling up pretty bad, and the crying made it hurt more.  But some ice once I got to the bus stop market would be enough to keep the swelling from getting any worse. 

When I got to the stables, though, my plans crumbled.  Mama’s car was there.  She and Uncle Trey were standing in the drive, and when she saw me, she ran up to me and trapped me in a bear hug.

“God-damn it, Lee!  You scared us to death!”

Uncle Trey sidled up beside us, saying nothing. 

“What were you thinking?  Why would you ever do such a thing?” 

I hated to see mama crying most of the time, but at that moment, I felt like I just wouldn’t explain myself to anybody.  I was too tired of trying for so long and not even knowing what I was trying for. Trying to be like everybody else?  Trying to be someone Horn Lake could be comfortable with?  Well, I guess I blew a great big hole in all that “trying” today, didn’t I?

Maybe, for me, that was what finishing school was for:  to help me be finished with all that trying. 

Mama was still hugging me.  She was whispering so Trey wouldn’t hear, “I knew about the dresses you took from me, Lee.  The ones in the back of your closet.  I never cared about that, I swear to Jesus. But a pink suit and black heels, in front of a whole auditorium of people, a week before graduation?”

 “Maybe I was running out of time,” I said. 

That felt like it might be true.  And I understood something, just then.  Mama had been counting the days until she could pack me off to Memphis, where I might have a better chance at things.  But I’d been feeling the days going by without me ever getting to stand up brave and true, to dare those people who always hated me anyway to deal with this.  To deal with me.

 “Mrs. Benson called,” mama said.  “Principal Walker wanted to suspend you.”

“I told your mama there’d be trouble if they tried to do that, because I would make sure of it,” Uncle Trey said.  “Not sure how, but I’d think of something.”

“Well, Mrs. Benson told Principal Walker there was no difference between what you did and the All-Girl Football Team charity event every fall that the fathers like to dress up for, stealing clothes from their wives’ closets and acting like idiots. She reminded Principal Walker that he was one of those in a dress, out there making women out to be a pack of morons, and that she had pictures.  At least you were being respectful of a woman from our history.”

“And that shut him up real good,” Uncle Trey said. 

I couldn’t help myself.  I started laughing, picturing Mrs. Benson squaring off against 300-lb Principal Walker, and beating him down. 

“Deal is, though, they’re not suspending anybody else either,” mama said, “even though they know sure as shooting who all was guilty of jumping you in that old hallway. Word spread like wildfire about that.”

I never expected that any of those boys would get into any kind of trouble.  They’ve been my torturers all my life in Horn Lake.  People always turned a blind eye. 

Mama said Mrs. Benson named me the winner of the Best Famous Person competition, and there’d be a plaque and a money prize at graduation.  She also said that they were giving me an excused absence for the last two days of school so I could get to a doctor and make sure my face swelling went down. 

“I’m not crazy about the whole dress-wearing thing, Lee,” my uncle Trey said.  “And I don’t feel all the way right about you maybe liking boys instead of girls, or whatever else all this means, I can’t lie.”

My mother was looking sideways at her brother, like she was waiting to see if she needed to hit him upside the head or not.  “Where’s this going, Trey?” she said.

“All I’m saying, Caroline, is that Lee is my blood.  And I got his back anybody comes at him ever again.”  He looked down at the ground for a second or two, and bent down to wipe some dust off his Frye boots.  “And, Lee, I’m sorry if I never stepped up before, after your father left,” he said.  “That was wrong, and I take responsibility.”  

The two of them standing there like that, showing with all their hearts that they had some mighty strong love for me, no matter what I just did, well, that was about the best thing that ever happened to me.  I never expected it, not in a thousand years. My heart felt like it might explode.  I figured I could talk to them later about how we who act more genteel won’t stoop to brawling with the likes of the Buddy Jakins of the world.  We rise above to show who we are. 

I don’t know that I needed a plaque, really, because things already felt like they were right in a whole new kind of way.  I was beat up and bloody with a pissed-on wig in my backpack, but I did what I’d set out to do.  And I learned how to be dignified and brave and crazy all at the same time and face whatever might be the consequences.  So after that,  there wasn’t much else left to do. Mama and Uncle Trey and I headed home to put ice on my face, unpack the tea set, and celebrate the way refined people do.  

Tomorrow, we’ll drive up to Memphis where they can meet Miss Ella and Wade, and maybe we’ll even take them to Corky’s BBQ for pulled pork sandwiches and banana pudding.  We can visit the campus at UofM and I might even start imagining my future, since, even though my eyes are swollen pretty bad right now, my vision’s more clear than ever before. 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Debra Leigh Scott

Debra Leigh Scott (www.debraleighscott.com) is a multi-discipline artist – a singer, writer, play-wright, documentary filmmaker as well as an activist whose work focuses largely in areas of education rights and economic justice.

 She is the Founding Director of Hidden River Arts (www.hiddenriverarts.com) Her fiction has appeared in such literary journals as The Oxford American, The Chattahoochee Review, River City, Words of Wisdom, TPQ, The Abiko Quarterly (Japan), Purnev (Portugal) and The Ashen Eye (Thailand).  Her collection of short stories, Other Likely Stories, was published by Sowilo Press in 2010.  She has since been at work on a series of plays about women’s lives in a dying American empire, a documentary/book project called ‘Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America, and has been performing with her singing partner, Jean Brooks, as "Cabaret Divas".

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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