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From Part I, Higher Ground
By Meredith Sue Willis
|Carmell Odell's mother told me Carmell
and her cousins were in the back. I was shy of looking at the Odell rooms
as I passed through because I didn't want to be like Carmell, sneaking
into people's drawers and cabinets. Just the same, I couldn't help noticing
that each room had a bed, even the one with a couch, and coal fire grates
in each room, and yellow linoleum on the floor.
When I got to the back, I stopped at the door to get a look at what was happening. It was a screened porch with a washing machine and a table. They had a light on so that the barn and hills were just bulky shadows behind them. Carmell was sitting on a stool beside a sway-back old wooden table. On the table was a red and yellow Mickey Mouse record player with Mickey's gloved thumb pressing the needle into the record.
But the center of attention directly under the hanging bare bulb, was a red-headed boy and girl dancing together like teenagers. The boy wore glasses and a long-sleeved, white dress shirt, and his hair was greased back in a long, curved plume like Elvis Presley's. The girl was in black and white too, except she had a pink felt poodle appliqued to her circle skirt. When she whirled you could see a sold disk of crinoline slips, charms jangling on two separate bracelets. Her hair was even redder than Carmell's and she wore it in many tiny red curls in a puff on her forehead and then another puff in the back. I didn't like the song; it was about parts of the body, a piece of bone, a hank of hair.
Carmell waved me out and shouted, "They're my cousins."
I shouted, "I can tell," meaning the red hair. I had never seen so much in one place; it made me feel like a little dark foreigner in a place where the rules were unfamiliar. I did not, for instance, know any boys my age who would admit they could dance. I knew boys who would clump around as if they had buckets on their feet and make fun of dancing, but they would never get wrapped up in it the way this boy was. He seemed to be concentrating even more than the girl. He stopped her once and held both of her hands and counted the beat and made her start over. I didn't care much for boys altogether, but I always thought that if I ever did end up liking one, it would be someone athletic who disdained indoor activities.
The record trailed off, and the boy said, "Start it again, Carmell," but the girl gave me a big smile and walked over. I decided she was pretty in spite of the poodle puffs of hair and teen- age clothes.
Carmell said, "This here's Blair Ellen. She's the one with the pink bathroom. That's my cousin India and his name is Garland but he's a boy anyhow. I bet you thought it was a girl."
Garland sneered, just the way an ordinary boy would have, and put his hands in his pockets. He took a couple of short steps in my direction. "You like Elvis?"
"I hate him," I said.
India looked anxious. "Don't they play his records in town?"
I was embarrassed. I didn't know why I had been so vehement. I didn't really hate Elvis anyhow, I just didn't like the way he looked. "I suppose they do. I don't pay much attention to that stuff. I'd rather read."
"Blair Ellen's real smart," said Carmell. "Her daddy is a teacher and her mom too."
Now I felt like I should explain that reading was just one thing I liked to do; I also liked to swim and play chess and all kinds of normal things. But Carmell wanted to do the explaining.
"Garland and India live up Odell hollow. They live so far up on top of the mountain they have to drop groceries in by parachute." Garland sneered some more, and India turned away. "And they don't have a radio or television, and they don't even have electricity."
"We're getting it," said Garland. "We'll be getting it soon. On top of a mountain you get the best television reception anyhow. Did you know that?"
Carmell said, "Whenever they get a new record, they have to come down here to play it."
India asked me, "Do you like to dance?"
"No, I'm more interested in outdoor things. Do you have horses."
Carmel said, "They don't have horses up Odell Hollow! If they had horses up there they'd have two legs short and two legs long because it's so steep!"
I wondered why they let her get away with the teasing. I supposed it was because she had the record player. "You two come all the way down here just to practice dancing?"
"Our floor's no good," said India.
"And you don't have electricity!" Carmell hooted.
India said, "We have an old-time Victrola you can crank up."
"That old thing; it just plays moon-and-June songs. You have to have my record player." Carmell laid one hand on Mickey Mouse's arm. Garland was looking at her hand too. He had these yellow hazel eyes that kept moving all over the place most of the time, but for now they stayed on her hand.
"Boy, you have fat fingers, Carmell," he said. "You have just about the fattest fingers I ever saw. How do you pick things up with fingers that fat?"
Carmell rose. "I'm not going to break your record," she said. "But I'm telling Ma to send you home for calling me fat."
"I never," said Garland. "I never said anything except about your fingers, and boy, Carmell, they are sure fat."
Carmell's mouth and nose and eyes all tightened up close together in the middle of her face and she stomped out of the room.
"She'll go lie on the bed and cry," said Garland. "That's all she ever does."
"You're too mean, Garland," said India.
"She started it. She always gets too big for her britches." He grinned. "And that is big."
"Would they send you home?"
"Naw," said Garland. "There's a storm coming. The bridge might wash out."
I was full of questions. Had it ever happened, had they ever been stuck up there with no food, or down here, or in a snowstorm? But India stared asking questions first.
"If they don't dance to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis," she said, "who do they dance to?"
I was going to explain that I couldn't possibly know because I didn't waste my time watching American Bandstand and all that nonsense, but, instead, this pitiful little voice came out of me saying, "I don't know what they dance to because I never learned to dance yet."
"We'll teach you, won't we, Garland?
"Sure. Want to dance?"
I said no, but India was already putting the Mickey Mouse arm down, and this time I heard the bizarre words more clearly, about a girl like honeycomb. A hank of hair, and a piece of bone, and a walking, talking, honeycomb. I stiffened at the strangeness of the song, and I got even more rigid when Garland's hands touched mine.
"Can't you just go with the music?" he said, and I stumbled.
I was accustomed to being good at things, too. I could swim, and jump off the high board at the pool, and I was intending to dive off it next summer. I had more badges than any other scout in my troop, and I could sew my own skirts with matching kerchiefs, and I was the only girl I knew who could play chess. But Garland shoved me into a spin that made me dizzy and lurching and I had a vision of myself as the formless thing with gaping pores, oozing honey. I tried to outguess him and be ready, but I never knew where the next prod would come from. It seemed to me the lights were dimming, maybe it was the storm, and I jumped free and pulled the arm off the record player.
Garland finished a turn as if there were still music, one hand extended to an imaginary partner. It is going to storm, I thought, so I wouldn't cry, and I pressed my forehead on the screen and watched the wind blow against the barn. A purple tinge to the air, a rushing in the grass along the creek. It's going to storm and they're dumb hillbillies and on top of being a hillbilly Garland is a sissy.
"You made it hard for her, Garland," said India.
I said, "Oh, it isn't his fault, I simply don't have any interest in dancing. Unlike everyone else, I am not in training to be a teenager. I have better things to do with my time."
India said, "I think she needs to learn the steps first. You just stand here beside me, Blair Ellen, and I'll show you what to do with your feet."
"And the songs don't make any sense," I said. But India was moving me over a little so I couldn't see Garland, just her, and she was demonstrating a simple two-step business with no music, over and over. "Well, I can do that," I said. "I just never bothered."
After a while, Garland came and stood with us, making a little chorus line, only he kept elaborating on it, moving forward and back, turning and dipping. Once or twice he tried to get India to dance with him, but she stayed by me, holding my hand; how cool and patient her hand was, longer than mine, and the reassuring slow jingle of her charm bracelets keeping the time. Plenty of time for me to get the step right.
"If that's all there is to it," I said. "I just get confused about turning and all that stuff."
Garland put on the record and India turned to face me and held both my hands and we did our two-step for a long time to the music. The girl in the song was as sweet as honeycomb now, and in the stormy air India was as white as a glass of milk.
"Okay, Blair Ellen," she said, "Here we go!" and she turned me with both hands and when I came around again she was waiting for me. Ha, I thought, did you see that, Garland?
Carmell had come back and was sulking in the doorway sucking on a Sugar Daddy stick candy, and Garland danced over to her and took her free hand, and they danced together. She wasn't bad either, not as good as India, of course, and she didn't do anything very active, but she kept the beat, and Garland did all the fancy turns he wanted while she moved her feet sturdily and sucked her candy. The next time round India went back to Garland and I danced with Carmell, and that proved I was doing it myself, not just because of India.
I decided I was even beginning to like