Big City Girl

byCharles Williams




Eighty-nine, ninety, ninety-one, Joy counted, tilting her head over to one side and putting the brush down through the shining cascade of her hair. Why? she thought. My God, why?

From where she was sitting in the stifling kitchen she could look out the door and across the sun-blasted, sandy yard of the clearing to the encircling pines. Jesus, she thought, how did I ever get into this mess? And what am I brushing my hair for? If I was as bald as the first row in a burlesque house it wouldn’t make any difference here.

Ninety-two, ninety-three. Oh, that awful ape, laughing right in my face. I could scream! Or die. Or kill him.

She was sitting before a small mirror propped up against a sirup pitcher on the kitchen table. Her hair was naturally blonde and quite silken and long, sweeping down lo her shoulders in a sort of golden torrent, and she spent a great deal of time working on it and looking at herself in the glass. The mirror was a pool from which she drank and restored her confidence, a refuge from a terror that had begun to take hold of her in recent months. She had been born thirty years ago in New Iberia, Louisiana, and was a soul-searching and self-pitying twenty-eight when the black depression and the fear were upon her, but the mirror or an admiring glance could restore her happy belief in twenty-five as her correct age, because she had retained a large measure of the striking beauty of her teens and early twenties.

She had been at the farm for nearly three weeks now, and the fear had become an even more frequent visitor in the night. It was panic that had brought her here in the first place, though the others had no way of knowing this. For the first time in her life she had been thoroughly terrified and had lost faith in herself.

In the three years she had been married to Sewell Neely she had never met any of his family, and she really thought—she had announced upon her arrival—she really thought, didn’t they, that in this trying time they ought to all be together. It was terrible about poor Sewell, she had said to Cass, who was Sewell’s father, still trying to drive out of her mind the way poor Sewell had laughed brutally in her face that last day when she had visited the jail and told him she didn’t have any money left. She had been in one of her twenty-eight-year-old depressions anyway, and when his heartless laughter had ripped away the last of her sagging faith in her looks she had gone to pieces in panic and fled, spending her last six dollars on a bus ticket to Riverview, where, she had some vague idea, the Neelys lived. She couldn’t go anywhere else on six dollars.

Jessie Neely, who had been watching her with rapt attention, turned and looked out the window. Hot sunlight struck vertically into the clearing and she could see Mexico, the big hound, walking across the yard with his shadow sliding along over the sand directly under his belly like a black pool of ink. I guess I ought to see if the butter beans are about done and put in the corn bread, she thought. They’ll be up from the field pretty soon and we ought to have dinner ready.

Jessie got up from the table and went over to the stove to look into the pot of beans. They were all right, she thought. She slid the corn bread into the oven and straightened up with the simple and unstudied grace of a child, her face slightly flushed with the heat and the ill-fitting cotton dress hiked up above her knees. Her legs were bare, as they always were, and quite tanned, with a faint tracery of vine scratches here and there that only contrasted with and accentuated their smoothness. She saw Joy looking at her, and smiled. Joy was so pretty, and she was awful nice to a fifteen-year-old girl who’d never been any of the places she had.

She began to set the table. Joy looked up at her, with her head tilted over as she pulled the brush downward in long strokes.”Do you want me to move, honey?” she asked.

“No, you go ahead,” Jessie said. “I’ll put the plates down at this end.”

“I don’t want to get in the way. I wouldn’t be a bother for anything.” She bent forward to the glass, turning her head slightly. “Oh, honey, if you’ve got a minute, there’s a ribbon in my suitcase, a blue one. Would you be a lamb and see if you can find it for me?”

“Of course,” Jessie said. She put the plates down and went into the bedroom and came back in a minute with the ribbon. She watched Joy admiringly.

Joy worked the ribbon under her hair in back and tied it in a jaunty little bow just slightly off center on top of her head. She examined the result in the glass. There, she thought.

“My, that’s pretty, Joy,” the younger girl said.

She is a lamb, Joy thought idly. Though how she ever had two such ugly apes for brothers is more’n I’ll ever know. Imagine that bastard laughing in my face like I was some old bag. But think of letting it scare me like that. Why’d I ever let it bother me? I can see right here I haven’t changed a bit. I look just like I always did.

And as for that hard-eyed Mitch, always looking at me like he was looking at something on the other side of me and I was just standing in his way, I could show him. If it was worth the trouble.

* * *

The land fell away here in a series of long hillside fields going down toward the bottom. The fields were terraced to protect them from erosion, but it had been done too late to save much of the topsoil, and it was poor, very thin ground that was badly washed in places and worn out from too many years of cotton. Now, in late June, the cotton was less than knee-high and of a poor color because there was little to feed it. There had been too much rain and it was being strangled by grass.

Down below, where the fields flattened out into the bottom itself, the ground was black and quite rich and the cotton had a good healthy color, sweeping out like a dark green carpet toward the fence and the wall of trees where the heavy timber of the river bottom began. Though it could not be seen or distinguished from the cotton itself from up on the hillside where the men were working, there was far too much grass in the bottom field also, and it was badly in need of cultivation.

The morning had been clear and very hot, with an oppressive humidity from the rain of night before last, but now in the stillness of midday an ominous black ferment of thunderheads had begun to push up over the horizon in the west, out over the river bottom. One of the men who was working up on the hillside stopped his mule at the end of the row and turned to watch the bank of clouds while he bit off a chew of tobacco.

He was a colorless, leached-out man like a sand-hill farm, dressed in a sun-bleached chambray shirt that was soaked with sweat. His name was Cass Neely, and fifty years of living had run through him, taking away more than they had given, and the emptiness they had left behind was stamped on the slack, rather pudgy face and the slumped tiredness of his shoulders. His eyes were a faded blue and there was about them an odd compounding of hopeless futility and hangdog friendliness, like those of a dog that has been kicked but still hopes to be liked.

At one time he had owned all this land, but in the fourteen years since the death of his wife he had sold it off a parcel at a time until nothing remained of his original property except the house and the few acres of timbered ground running down toward the bottom, and now for the past six years he had been engaged in the grotesque joke of working his own former land on halves as a share-cropper. The bitter mockery of this had long since ceased to

Вы читаете Big city girl
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату