Rhoda Honeycutt had been saving herself for anyone. She daydreamed of love and buried herself in worn-out copies of True Romance passed from one set of desperate hands to another. At school Billy’s crowd passed by her as if she were a knotty pine. Like her parents, she had few realistic hopes of climbing out of poverty and seemed destined to a hard life of working to get nowhere. She always ate in the back corner of the lunchroom and sat under the silver maple at the corner of the playground with Olive Denny, her only friend in loneliness.
Olive was short, fat, and usually smelled like fish. Billy’s friends were part of the in-crowd, sons and daughters of farmers of sprawling bottomland, of railroad workers, and of merchants. Even those who worked in the local factories were grounded by inherited land ownership and family prestige. Rhoda and Olive, however, were the children of poorly paid workers who had to drive from their small hollows to work in the furniture factories and cotton mills of Oak Hill.
Rhoda was tall and thin. Her hair, which she combed constantly, was dull brown, long and stringy. Her hands were large for her frame and showed wear from hard work. Her clothes, which she made from material bought at Roses five and dime, didn’t fit quite right, and nothing ever matched. She was shy and knew she was poor, making every effort to walk unnoticed on the black-oiled floors of the school or to lose herself in the magazine world of beauty, romance, and beauty-enhancement advertisements.
She was a little older than most of her classmates since she had repeated the second and fourth grades. Often, she missed school to take care of younger brothers and sisters. Sometimes she returned with bruises on her arms and face. Her father was a binge drinker who would disappear for a few weeks each year, then show up sober, begging for forgiveness, which her mother always granted. He habitually got fired, moving from factory to factory, drinking up and gambling away what little money the family had scraped together. Rhoda had been taught by her mother that a good woman agrees to take her man to be her lawfully wedded husband, no matter how much of a son-of-a-bitch he is or becomes, so help her God. Her mother loyally attended church, testifying that tolerance and faithfulness would someday cure her husband’s intemperance. She earned a little money working at home pairing socks for the local hosiery mill, which still paid for home piecework.
Rhoda yearned to get away from her life. The family lived in a hollow, in a typical little rectangular house with grayed lap siding. If it hadn’t been so poorly kept, the house, with its little front porch stoop supported by drunken-seeming stacks of flat rocks, would have been considered quaint by summer tourists. It sat alone at the end of a half-mile dirt driveway at the head of Bobcat Creek near the railroad track. It was surrounded by hulks of dead cars, a little patch of land, and a lean-to barn. The family had a cow and a few chickens.
Billy drove bus number twenty-eight on Rhoda’s route. Bobcat Creek Road ended abruptly at her driveway, where Billy picked up Rebecca, Ruth, Roman, and Rhoda, the ones old enough to go to school.
About halfway up the steep switchback road, he picked up Jake Bartlett, a tall, lanky boy about Rhoda’s age. Jake, like most of the boys, had to ride the bus. Sycamore Cove fathers drove the family cars to nearby factories. The bus rides provided daily social initiation, including the frequent fights among rutting boys.
Jake’s hair was as black as the grease ground into his knuckles and fingernails. His face was long and narrow and his head blended into his neck about as well as that of a chicken. With his wide set eyes and his beaklike nose, he looked as if he were always going forward, even leaning his long body into his walk. His grease-stained jeans and worn plaid shirts hung loose on his lean frame.
Jake helped his father restore brief lives to cars that by all rights should have been laid to rest in a junkyard. As with Frankenstein’s monster, the cars they fixed were stitched together assemblages of the dead. And as with the monster, they were dangerous and unpredictable.
Jake talked about moving to Detroit and spent most of his time arched over his desk in the back of the classroom near Rhoda, drawing sleek cars with huge swept-back fins. He seldom smiled or turned his head, only cutting his eyes occasionally in the hall when Rhoda raised her head from a passionate scene in True Romance and gave him a glance. Those interactions became more frequent, their desks creeping closer together each day. Jake passed Rhoda pictures of big cars with long, pointed hood ornaments, two bulging headlights and high rounded fins. She blushed and quickly handed them back to him across the narrowing aisle.
They began sitting together in the lunchroom, seldom looking at each other at first, then wallowing in each other’s gazes. At recess each day they began disappearing. Poor little Olive looked like a lonely Buddha squatted under the silver maple.
The school ground was beside the creek, which was hidden by about a hundred yards of doghobble, alder, peeling sycamores and river birch. Little paths formed a maze in the bushes and trees where years of school kids had dared to venture beyond the playground boundary, the mowed grass behind the baseball field’s chicken-wire backstop. Called by bodily needs or by boredom, they had created little trails of defiance.
The cold winter had passed, and the first lush green of the valley promised a new season of baby birds, new calves and bare feet. Flowers burst from their buds, and honeybees moved with purpose over locust flowers, yellow poplar and clover. Baseball season was beginning, and Billy Fletcher, the manager, who took care of the equipment and kept score to make himself eligible for a coveted letter jacket was on the newly groomed diamond. That day before practice and after a greasy lunch of green beans overcooked in fatback, mashed potatoes and fried livermush, the call of nature pulled Billy’s attention away from laying out the lime diamond. He took the path into the thicket toward the creek. Moving into the woods toward a properly obscure place behind a patch of laurel, he heard what he thought was an injured animal, maybe a hawk making its kill. High squeals, low moans, and the thrashing of leaves said something was bigger than a rabbit. As he stepped around the thick foliage toward the sound, a skinny, pale butt rose and fell above the low bush leaves. Jake’s pointed face pressed into one of Rhoda’s small round breasts nuzzled by his beak from beneath her stiff wired and heavily padded bra. Her cotton print dress, unbuttoned to the waist and pulled up, was wrapped like a rope around her bony hips. Jake’s ankles argued with each other as he tried to get his jeans over his brogans. Rhoda’s panties clung to her ankle wrapped around his waist. He heaved his thin arch of a frame above her, moving with amazing speed and rhythm.
“More, come on Jake, deeper, harder, push!” Rhoda squealed. She arched her head back into the purple sweater she used for a pillow. Never having seen the sex act before, Billy crouched in silence and wonder.
“Oh, oh, oh,” Jake was muttering in rhythm with his body. He moved faster and faster as he shoved himself forward on Rhoda’s pale curves. Suddenly, she raised her legs toward heaven on either side of him, waving her panties like a white flag. Making grunting sounds, he turned beet red and collapsed on top of her, her leg fell limp. They lay still, both heaving deep breaths of the spring air.
“I love you. I love you, Jake,” Rhoda panted into Jake’s over-sized ear.
Jake said nothing. Billy eased his way back toward the baseball field. Any sound had been covered by their pounding hearts and wheezing breath. Billy’s call of nature could wait. Jack Holtzclaw, the school’s best athlete, had just finished his practice pitches and was ambling back toward the building, tossing the ball into the air. Billy caught up with him.
“They were doin’ it,” he said to Jack.
“Who was doin’ what?”
“Rhoda and Jake, in the woods by the creek.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Rhoda and Jake; they were screwing in the woods. I saw them.”
Jack stopped. “You’re joking, right?”
“No, they were doin’ it right there behind the bushes, not far from the creek. He was on top of her. You watch, they’ll come out in a few minutes before recess is over.” They sat on the school steps at the back door, watching. Jack kept throwing the ball in the air.
“Well, what have we got here? There’s half the truth of your story,” said Jack.
Rhoda, smoothing down her dress, was easing out of the woods well beyond third base into left field. The boys crouched and looked over the top column of the steps. Rhoda paused, glanced around, and ran quickly among the red oaks shading the perimeter of the playground. Making her way toward the building, she disappeared around the corner, heading to the other school door. Jake came ambling out of the woods behind the backstop, hands in his pockets, kicking the dirt and whistling through his tubular lips. Looking nonchalant, he weaved his way back toward the steps where Jack and Billy intentionally sat in his way. Jake stopped momentarily to survey a way around them.
“Whatchee doing, Jake?” asked Jack.
“Aw, nothing, just took a crap in the thicket.”
“You better watch out. Mr. Mitchell will make you write on the blackboard a hundred times, that you’ve been messin’ around in the woods. They say he knows everything that goes on down there anyway,” Jack said, as he slipped aside a little. Jake looked nervous, not replying, as he went inside.
The lovers occasionally continued their ventures throughout the spring. Sometimes the boys took turns watching. Everyone knew of their frolics. Finally, it seemed as if just knowing wasn’t enough. Yet, no one would tell, not even Sarah Cox, who went to Deep Cove Free Will Baptist.
“I’m gonna’ fix ’em,” said Cecil Pentland. “They shouldn’t have all that fun without paying for it.”
Cecil didn’t like Jake. They were both near the academic bottom of the class, but Cecil was coarse and irreverent, always getting his way through intimidation, while Jake was shy and withdrawn. Cecil was ruddy and blond, lean and muscular from working in his dad’s apple orchard. He had his own car, a big, powerful red-and-white Olds 88 coupe, the envy of every other boy. Wherever he was, life was interesting.
“You’ll get them caught and get yourself into it too if you go down there causing some kind of ruckus,” Roy Holifield, the class genius said. Jack and Cecil payed him no attention.
“You just watch me. I’m gonna make that bean-pole’s little pecker shrivel up, and Rhoda pee all over herself and him too, the little slut.”
“Whatever it is, you’re doin’ it by yourself,” Roy said.
Jack said, “If you’re going down there, we’ll stay on the field and look out for you. I’ll whistle if anybody heads that way.” He let loose a shrill whistle by tightly tucking his lips inward. “Even a hollow head like you can hear that, can’t you?”
A few days later, Cecil followed Rhoda and Jake into the woods, staying just far enough behind. Well concealed by the thicket, he waited until they were improperly entangled before rushing toward them through the thicket. “Git, git out of here dog! You don’t come a growling at me like that!” he shouted. “Git on, heah. If I git a holt of you I’ll beat you’re head into a pulp! I’ll bring my shotgun down here and fill your ass full of buckshot if you ever bare your teeth at me like that again!”
Rolling off Rhoda, Jake jumped to his feet, pulling his underwear and pants half way up. He thrashed away toward the creek, his bare butt bouncing, wobbling and glowing in the dark, dense foliage. Rhoda lay panicky on the ground, reaching desperately for her panties with one hand as she pulled at her bra and dress with the other, trying to reassemble herself.
Cecil parked himself against a leaning sycamore tree and said, “Why, hi Rhoda. It’s a little cool to be dressed that way, ain’t it?” Something splashed in the distance.
Rhoda was groping for her shoes and tugging at her clothes.
“A little,” she said.
“Did you see that dog go by here? Why, I thought that thing was gonna tear me apart over there where I was, uh, watering the ground.” Cecil pointed in some vague direction, then calmly walked back toward the baseball field, broke into the open, and strolled past Jack, Roy and Billy without saying a word. They ran after him, pulling at his shirt and arms.
Rhoda had pulled herself up, straightened her clothes, brushed away a little of the evidence, and followed Cecil’s path straight back into the open grass and blue sky She stood momentarily on home plate, then walked a straight line across the pitcher’s mound and second base, through center field and up the steps, slamming the door behind her.
Jake and Rhoda did not return to school in the fall. They got married at Sycamore Cove Methodist in July and moved into a trailer beside the creek just upstream from Jake’s dad’s garage. Jack, Roy, and Billy went to the wedding since almost everybody attended all church functions at Sycamore Cove Methodist: weddings, funerals, reunions, Bible school, Methodist Youth Fellowship and Boy Scout meetings.
Preacher Henley conducted the wedding, devoting much of his time to warning about the wrath of Hell for those who break their vows. Jake wore a narrow black knit tie, a new short-sleeved white shirt, polyester brown pants, white socks, and Salvation Army black lace-up shoes that had been somewhat polished. He did not smile, his narrowed eyes always shifting. Rhoda wore her homemade long white organdy dress, a droopy blue bow pinned above her heart near the high lacy neckline. Her face was thin, her cheeks blushed bright red from too much makeup, but her blue eyes sparkled and the corners of her narrow mouth turned up.
The eighteen remaining class members returned to school in the fall. Cecil provided a continual stream of entertainment all year. Jack carried the basketball team to a district championship. Roy kept making straight As and was hell bent to join the Air Force. Billy worked the cornfields and wheat fields on the farm, went to the Methodist church, and lived and watched the slow pace of Sycamore Cove life.
On Christmas Day. Rhoda had a nine-pound baby boy. The last time Billy saw her, she was in Homer Waycaster’s store with the baby balanced heavy on her hip. She was buying Lava soap, Camel cigarettes, and a copy of True Romance. The crying baby wore a heavy yellowed diaper. Rolls of fat hung from his arms and legs, pasty, like piles of mashed potatoes. Billy thought he saw a bruise on Rhoda’s forearm as she extended it from her sleeve and reached out to sign the note Homer placed before her. Jake, in his plaid shirt, was waiting. He was leaning against a rusting, black 1950 Pontiac Chieftain with gray primer paint on the right front fender. He was resting one arm on top of the car, pumping high test gas with his other grease-stained hand, and squinting his eyes away from the smoke of a short cigarette stub clinging to his lips.
Les Brown is Professor Emeritus of Biology, his poetry and short stories have been published in journals including: Pine Mtn Sand and Gravel, Kakalak, Moonshine Review and Pinesong. Two of his poems won first prizes in the 2019 North Carolina Poetry Society’s competition. One of his stories was a winner 2019 The Charlotte Writer’s Group short story contest.