I was a child with a peculiar and passionate hunger for the peppermint in toothpicks when I went on a lion hunt with Opal Lavender, who was my favorite person and one of my own people. We were underneath a giant maple tree, sitting on the crab grass of our lawn, and I was trying not to sit too close to a planter containing a cactus. She said, “Irene, do you know what a lion hunt looks like? Would you like to go on a lion hunt with me? Kiss your mother goodbye. (Just smack your lips.) Now, shut the door. (Clap your hands one time.) Let us start walking. (Hands on your knees, pat first one, then the other.) You start walking and you come to a big ditch and you raise your arms and jump right over. (Raise your arms, Irene.) Then you walk right on and you come to a river. There is no bridge, so you wade across. (Slip your fingers together and clasp your hands, making a slush sound.) I think there are some crocodiles and alligators, too. Now, walk right on. (Pat your knees.)
“Oh, see all the tall grass! We will walk through it. (Rub your hands together, with a swish sound.) Now, we will walk right on. (Pat your knees.) Listen! I hear something! Yes! I hear something!” She cupped her hand back of first one ear, and then the other. “We must get home! (Reverse your action very fast.) First, the tall grass! (Swish very fast.) Walk right on very fast. (Fast pats on your knees.) There’s the river! (Wade across. Remember the alligators and crocodiles! Make a slush sound.) Walk on fast. (Pat your knees a little more.) Then, HOME! (Slam the door with a loud clap.) Did the lion get you? He didn’t get me!”
And the lion didn’t get me for quite some time.
Ruby Lavender, Opal’s much younger sister — I could never understand why she could not be my sister, too — was drinking king-size Pepsi right from the bottle, and sitting in a lassitudinous, after-dinner haze at the kitchen table, splaying out her fingers, like two fans, waiting for her blood-red polish to dry. Fumes from salty ham, fried apples and green beans lingered undesirably, making her sleepy. They interfered with her perfume, which attracted Baby, the cat, mightily. He kept trying to lick her inner wrists, and kept sneaking up on her, pouncing up to the table, over and over. She said, “Opal! Get this old cat out of here!”
Opal stood at the sink, squirting Lux at the white porcelain; she wore the prettiest blue pinafore apron I ever saw, but she had nearly ruined it by cooking in it. “Going somewhere?” she asked Ruby, and plunged her lobster hands into scalding water.
“Well, maybe I am, and maybe not,” Ruby murmured. She stared dreamily out the kitchen window, which floated above the sink through waves of suds and steam. Twilight was coming through it. Everything out there looked blue. Opal dried our glasses with a linen calendar tea towel.
I said to Ruby, “Ruby, let me see your hope chest again, please? I love looking at your stuff!” I was wearing a tiny pink dress, which stuck out all around my body, like the shade of a boudoir lamp, and I glowed, just like a little pink lamp, basking in Opal and Ruby’s hospitality. They were so sweet to me. Always.
Ruby looked at her diamond watch, and said, “Well, awright, let’s go up.”
There was such mystery in Ruby’s room. Here, so many thoughts came into my mind and I couldn’t seem to actually form them into questions. When I did manage to halfway ask some things, answers just made me wonder more; but Ruby was not at all impatient with me, and that was good. She was just naturally sympathetic.
“Ruby,” I said, “tell me about the hope chest again.”
She opened its lid, and we both smelled all the rose and carnation sachets lining it in small, pink satin pouches.
“Talk about it, OK?” I begged her.
“Well. . . .” She took a very deep breath and began. “I am saving these things for when I get married. I am going to wear them on my honeymoon. I’ll carry this white Bible on my wedding day up the aisle. I’ll wear this white see-through nightie on the wedding night. This scarf is for riding with him in the car.” She let me slide the white and fuchsia polka-dot scarf over my shoulders, and I felt shivery, like I was going out. Then a car pulled up in the driveway and honked.
On the way down the stairs, I held on to the bannister, walking backward, and looked at Ruby. I said, “What do you call those!” I pointed right at her chest.
“Bosoms,” she answered, without batting an eye.
When she had left, I went back upstairs and looked at her collection of miniature perfume bottles, all arranged on a black tray with a red rose pattern. I wanted them so much for my own, but I never told her. They were her hobby.
I went back downstairs, and, seeing that Opal was still occupied in the kitchen, I went into the dining room to look at my favorite picture. It was called “The Five Senses.” I had learned them, but the picture made them come alive. It was a group of five white kittens. One looked at itself in a mirror. One listened to a china clock. One licked cold cream from a glass jar. One stood up on its back legs, sniffing a spray of pink peace roses. One lay on its back with its feet in the air, clutching the lace on a pin cushion.
Then the lion got me, sort of. I woke up one morning and I saw a zipper on me. I unzipped it and I saw a big tiger. I unzipped it all the way and I had become a tiger. I got kicked out of the house. That night I couldn’t sleep. I could talk the way I usually did and I could roar. It felt so bad to take my skin off, but one good thing about it was I didn’t have to go to school.
One day one of my school friends named Jello Belcher came looking for me, and I said, “I am right here.” She said, “Where? All I see is a tiger.” I said, “That tiger is me.” Jello said, “That is ridiculous. You could not have turned into a tiger. That is impossible.”
That night after Jello fell asleep, she woke up immediately. She saw a zipper on her. She unzipped it. She changed into a tiger like me. When Jello’s mother came into her room to check on her, she saw the tiger and kicked her out of the house, too. So Jello came to stay with me, knocking loudly on my door. (I built me a house.) I asked her who it was and she said, “It is me, Jello!” I said, “You don’t want to see me like this.” She said, “Just open the door.” I looked at her, so surprised. She was a tiger, too. I said, “Come on into my slum.” The next day we saw a zipper. We unzipped it and we were cougars. The next day we were leopards. The next day we were lions.
The house I built was made of old window sashes, tied together with Opal’s tomato-staking rags. It was high up on a grassy hill, next to a billboard that said: “Jesus said, ‘Come unto me and I will give thee rest.’ ” It showed two hands, palms up, outstretched. Each palm had a drop of blood on it. The rest of the sign was just a quilted-looking sky.
My house overlooked a car graveyard. Jello and I talked to all the silent people behind the wheels of their wrecked cars. Jello was bold and loud. She said, “Y’all hungry? Let’s all sing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic!’ ” Then she and I sang. We really could see them, but they never tried to communicate with us in any way. Maybe they couldn’t see us for the kudzu and creeper. They numbered in the hundreds. Then I said, “You all got any cats at home? Anyone here from China or Paris? Anyone ever been to Hawaii?” (I put that in because Jello had been to Hawaii.) Then Jello sort of closed out the conversation with, “Well, y’all drive carefully. Use a safety belt next time you’re in an accident!”
Then I happened to look down the hill at our house — I mean Ruby and Opal’s — and an old man in work clothes was waving back. He was standing on our porch. He looked so good. But I knew we did not breathe together. Then he disappeared, and I saw that the house, with its white aluminum siding, had all these leafy vines moving over it. When I squinted my eyes, it looked like something was written there. Then Jello got impatient with the way I was standing so still, and she had to have my attention, so she did a perfect cartwheel. She couldn’t stand to be ignored, ever. She was extremely pretty and she had some good ideas.
Her best idea was so evil and wicked, I can’t stand to talk about it. It had to do with Ruby’s hope chest. Well, we snuck upstairs one day when Ruby was at the funeral home playing a funeral. (This is what she did for a living.) We closed her door very softly. Then, we opened the hope chest, and the smells of the sachets filled the room, like the kind of smell that would come out of an Egyptian sarcophagus. And we broke into it. We each tried on her see-through nightgown with our clothes off. It was wicked. I could see why it was being saved for later. Then, we heard Opal come in from the orchard, because the kitchen screen door slammed, and we got out of there very fast, but I saw something I regret having seen: Jello putting one of those beautiful little bottles from Ruby’s perfume collection into her pocket. It made me heartsick.
Jello was becoming obnoxious. She was bored with the house I built, for one thing. We had to play up in her room, if I wanted to see her at all. Her house was extremely perfect. All her chairs were upholstered in ice blue velvet to match the wall-to-wall carpeting. When you ran in her house, you made no sound. Jello had recently been to Bermuda, so we spent whole afternoons talking about it. She had a big fruitwood dresser, and its mirror was framed in postcards of all her vacations. “What did you wear in Bermuda?” I asked politely. I knew this was just the right thing. “I wore some of these outfits in here,” she said, gesturing toward a big closet with sliding doors. Inside, every pastel shade was fully realized in cloth. There were at least ten Stride Rite shoe boxes up on the top shelf. I thought of my closet at home — a dark wooden wardrobe with a large mirror on it. Inside it were drawers for my socks and underwear on one side, and a rack for my coats and dresses on the other. I looked better here in Jello’s mirror — I think because of Jello. I gave her a big hug.
Then, everything got really terrible, somehow. I was still a lion, but Jello had changed into Jasmine, and everyone had to call her that. She said her nickname made her sound babyish. Then, she had a really terrible birthday party. She invited the snobby Porterfield sisters (there were four) who could all do splits and backbends with perfect ease, and she had party favors at each of our place settings. (It was her mother’s best china: pink with green leaves.) The party favor was a small, square white ring box, and in it was a phony engagement ring.
By the time I had walked home from her party, I had lost the stone out of its prongs somewhere in the weeds. Then I entered through the pantry door and could sense there was trouble. A burned apple pie smell filled the downstairs. Ruby sat at the kitchen table in the dark. She was clicking the table top with her long fingernails: click, click, click. She said, “You are a dirty little thief, Irene. Where is my atomizer of Charisma, I’d like to know!” My face turned so red, I nearly fainted. I was so glad the room was dark. “Jello took it,” I replied, and I just did not feel sorry I had betrayed her at all.
Then Ruby told me about playing a funeral that afternoon for a little girl about my age. “What did she have on?” I asked, very interestedly. “She wore her pink Sunday school dress,” Ruby said. “Children are so precious when they’re dead.”
“What songs did you play for her, Ruby?” I asked.
“ ‘In the Garden,’ ‘Little Brown Church in the Dale,’ ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer,’ and ‘Theme from Love Story.’ ” All my favorites.
Ruby finally got engaged to a man named Earl who wore Old Spice aftershave and was about fifteen years older than she. Opal and Ruby forced me to get a hairdo for the ceremony. Opal bought me a really tight tan satin dress, trimmed with morbid black ribbons, and new black patent leather pumps. I walked over to show myself to Jello — I mean Jasmine — about an hour before the wedding, and she said something really mean. She said, “Your bosoms are sticking out!” Then she showed me her beautiful new underwear: a fresh white training bra and a garter belt and hose. She had shaved her legs! I was wearing white anklets, and the hair on my legs was pretty dark. Then she poked fun at my hairdo. Well, wedding or not, I went home and immediately stuck my head under the faucet, and rinsed out every bit of pincurl set and White Rain hair spray. Then, I locked the bathroom door and got out Ruby’s gold razor and took all the skin off the shinbone of my left leg.
This appeared in the paper. Opal gave it to me to save forever:
MISS LAVENDER IS MARRIED TO EARL DORSEY
Miss Ruby Earline Lavender of Pinetop and Earl Benedict Dorsey of Bluefield were united Saturday evening in Pinetop Lutheran Church with the Rev. Leonard G. Boggs officiating at the ceremony.
The bride is the daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. H.A. Lavender. The bridegroom is the son of the late Rev. and Mrs. Cameron Dorsey, who lived in Raphine.
Traditional wedding music was presented by Mrs. Bell, organist.
The bride wore an avocado French wool costume with a matching beaver collar. The sheath dress had a yoke of Alençon lace. She wore an off-the-face calot of taupe satin beaded with pearls and rhinestones, with a matching circular veil. She carried a white Bible, centered with a white orchid showered with Stephanotis.
Ushers were Garlin E. Dorsey of Clay Pool Hill; Bayley Johnston of New York; and Ray Ramsey.
The bride and groom left for a wedding trip to Natural Bridge, Virginia, following the ceremony.
They moved far away, and I got Ruby’s room, and Opal filled the hope chest with quilts and blankets. Ruby gave me her whole collection of perfumes, she was so happy. She gave me a little miniature Lane hope chest, too. I was entirely miserable now. She and Earl were gone and I felt deprived of glamor. Opal and I were all alone. Jasmine had turned to the Porterfields, and totally ignored me. But first, she humiliated me. She took them to our playhouse up on the hill, and I happened to be up there, talking to the dead people, and, as they approached, I heard Angela Porterfield say, “What is all this mess? Is this where someone used to keep a rabbit?” Then my marvelous zipper shrank down to a tiny red one low on my body. Everything was so lonely and boring. I started walking. I walked and walked until I came to what had once been a Holiday Inn. I walked by a fallen sign of a lady in a bathing suit and bathing cap, doing a jackknife dive into thin air. Then I walked toward the motel units, and saw an old woman rocking back and forth in a rocking chair on the porch of the string of units that had a peaked roof and a sign that said “OFFICE.” She said, “Hello, little girl.”
I said, “Hello,” and went and sat at her feet on the concrete stoop. It was a fall day in the mountains. The sky was so blue it made me cry. She told me a story, as smoke curled out of the pipe she was smoking:
“Long, long time ago, whar ’at car gravyyard sets over across the road, was a Indian burial ground. And whar ’at billboard sets, was nuthin’ but a field.” (Where I played.) “Thar was woods full of deers and owls and skunks and rabbits, and sometime the deers would cross the road so fast, it looked like a piece a carboard blowin’.
“But they come and cleared it, burnt it off and left it set in the open bare. Whar did the animals go, I wonder? Sometime the deers would cross the road so fast, it looked like a piece a cardboard blowin’.
“And then this road became a major highway, with glamorous motels with swimming pools, and TV in the rooms, and thar was a drive-in movie, and bands would stand on the flat roof of the snack bar and play before each feature show, and thar was a swimmin’ pool right in front of the big screen, with a high dive and a low, and I used to go thar.
“And thar was a Stuckey’s near us, but when 81 cut through, the kudzu and creeper tuck it over. And thar was a mink farm, with minks in little cages, and I used to go thar and try on sample furs. And thar was an amusement park, with the first rolley coaster in Virginia right over that ridge. You didn’t have to go nowhar, but you could do somethin’ fun.
“Now, looks like we’s back at the beginnin’, and all the people ridin’ 81’s got to look at is the place where they blasted straight through shale to make ’at road, and fallin’ rocks and landslides, too, whar they didn’t plant no ground cover, nor trees, and this road is just parallel to that’n, but you’d think it was a million mile away, like the gov’ment wants to forget us here, whar oncet they was twistin’ air arms offerin’ bribes on us to sell them the best fields, so they could make ’at first road with their restrunts dedicated to famous sett-lers and presidents, and one had a windmill, like in Holland.”
She talked and talked until it was dark outside and I had to go home to dinner.
Why does everything change, I wonder? Why does it have to change? Opal died. Ruby gave me the picture of “The Five Senses,” but I had to go live with some other people in town, where everything seemed like it was inside, even when you were outside. They were religious, and it seemed like we went to church all the time. They were an old man and his old wife. I still remember the man standing in front of my window, backlit by the sunshine. He was holding my World History book in his left hand, and holding my white Bible (Ruby’s) in the other. He said, “Don’t trust those aca-demons!” This made me determined to always make good grades, so I could go to college on a scholarship.
Then Ruby died, too. I inherited the house on the mountain and went back to claim it. Jasmine Belcher Lee was home visiting her mother. I made myself go over and see her. The house was still perfect inside and still ice blue. She had the biggest baby on her lap I ever saw — a great big head in a frilly bonnet, hands as big as my own. (Mine are wide.) She said, “I’m so sorry about Mrs. Dorsey,” in an affected, grown-up voice. Then we tried to talk of old times, but she had absolutely no recollection of the house I had built in the time when we were lions.