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I should have known that summer of 1961 was gonna be the biggest summer of our lives. I should have known it the minute I saw Freeda Malone step out of that pickup, her hair lit up in the sun like hot flames. I should have known it, because Uncle Rudy told me what happens when a wildfire comes along.
We were standing in his yard, Uncle Rudy and I, at the foot of a red pine that seemed to stretch to heaven, when a squirrel began knocking pinecones to the ground with soft thuds. Uncle Rudy bent over with a grunt and picked one of the green cones up, rolling it a bit in his callused palm before handing it to me. It was cool in my hands. Sap dripped down the side like tears.
“Here’s somethin’ I bet you don’t know, Button,” he said, using the nickname he himself gave me. “That cone there, it ain’t like the cones of most other trees. Most cones, all they need is time, or a squirrel to crack ’em open so they can drop their seeds and start a new tree. But that cone there, it ain’t gonna open up and drop its seeds unless a wildfire comes through here.”
“That’s right,” Uncle Rudy said, scraping the scalp under his cap with his dirty fingernail. “See them little scales there, how they’re closed up tight like window shutters? Under- neath ’em are the seeds—flat little things, flimsy as a baby’s fingernails—with a point at one end. If a fire comes along, the heat is gonna cause those scales to peel back and drop their seeds, while the ground is still scorching hot. Then that tiny seed is gonna burrow in and take root.”
I was nine years old the summer Freeda and Winnalee Malone rushed across our lives like red-hot flames, peeling back the shutters that sat over our hearts and our minds, setting free our sweetest dreams and our worst nightmares. Too young to know at the onset that anything out of the ordinary was about to happen.
I was sitting on my knees behind the counter at The Corner Store playing with my new Barbie doll, her tiny outfits lined up on the scuffed linoleum. It was the first day of summer vacation, and Aunt Verdella was watching me because my ma was working for Dr. Wagner, the dentist, taking appointments and sending out bills and stuff like that. Aunt Verdella didn’t work, like my ma, but she’d been filling in at the store for Ada Smithy (who was having a recuperation from an opera- tion, because she’d had some ladies’ troubles). It was Aunt Verdella’s last day, then Ada was coming back, and we could stay at Aunt Verdella’s while she looked after me.
Aunt Verdella was standing next to me, the hem of her dress like a blue umbrella above me. She was talking to Fanny Tilman about Ada, and Aunt Verdella’s voice sounded almost like it was crying when she said, “Such a pity, such a pity,” and Fanny Tilman asked her what the pity was for, anyway. “Ada’s well past her prime, so seems to me that not getting the curse from here on out should be more of a blessing than a pity,” she said, and Aunt Verdella said, “But still . . .”
While they talked, I was trying to get Barbie’s tweed jacket on, which wasn’t easy because her elbows didn’t bend, and that tiny hand of hers kept snagging on the sleeve. While I was tugging, I was itching. I was looking at the little clothes spread out and trying hard to remember if she was supposed to wear the red jacket with the brown skirt or the green skirt. I cleared my throat a few times, like I always did when I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next, and Aunt Verdella looked down at me. “Button, you’re doin’ that thing with your throat again. What’s the matter, honey?” Aunt Verdella’s voice was loud, so loud that sometimes it pained my ears when she wasn’t even yelling, and her body always reminded me of a snowman made with two balls instead of three. The littlest ball was her head, sitting right on top of one big, fat ball.
I stood up. My knees felt gritty and I glanced down at them, hoping they weren’t getting too dirty, because I knew Ma’s lips were gonna pull so tight they’d turn white, like they always did when Aunt Verdella brought me home looking all grubby. “I can’t get her jacket on,” I said.
I handed Aunt Verdella my Barbie, the tweed jacket flapping at her back. Aunt Verdella laughed as she took it. Fanny Tilman peered at me, her puffy eyes puckering. “Is that Reece and Jewel’s little one?” she said, like Aunt Verdella could hear her but I couldn’t. I put my head down and stared at a gouge in the gray countertop.
“Yep, this is our Button,” Aunt Verdella said. She wrapped her freckly arm—stick-skinny like her legs—around me and pulled me to her biggest ball. It was soft and warm, not snowman-cold at all.
“She looks like Jewel,” Mrs. Tilman said, and she sounded a bit sorry about this. I saw her looking at my ears, which were too big for my head, and the face she made made me feel smaller than I already was. Aunt Verdella thought that long hair would hide my ears until I grew into them, but Ma said long hair was too much work to keep neat and she already had enough to do. Every couple of months, she’d snip it short, thin it with those scissors that have missing teeth, then curl it with a Tony perm. When she was done, my hair was bunched up in ten or eleven little pale brown knots. I wanted hair long enough to hang loose past my shoulders and cover my ears when I was around people, and to put up in a ponytail that swished my back when I wasn’t. But, shoot, I knew I’d never have anything but those stubby knots.
Aunt Verdella finished dressing Barbie, then handed her to me. I stood there a minute, wanting to ask her which skirt matched, but I didn’t want to talk with Fanny Tilman still looking at me, so I sat back down on the linoleum and stared at the two skirts some more.
Aunt Verdella had the door propped open with a big rock, because it was nice outside and the store was too hot with the sun beating through the windows. I was staring at the doll clothes when the sound of metal scraping on pavement filled the store.
“Uh-oh, somebody’s losing their muffler,” Aunt Verdella said. The racket from the scraping muffler got louder and sharper before it came to a stop. Aunt Verdella got up on her tiptoes, the tops of her white shoes making folds like Uncle Rudy’s forehead did when she brought home a whole trunkload of junk from the community sale.
“Good Lord, look what the cat’s drug into town now,” Fanny Tilman said. “Just what we need, a band of gypsies.”
“Oh, Fanny!” Aunt Verdella said.
I heard a door creak open, then slam shut. A lady’s voice started talking, but I couldn’t make out what it was saying. I heard some banging and then, “Jesus H. Christ! Is anybody gonna come pump my gas or not?” Folks who got gas at The Corner Store pumped their own gas, except for a couple of old ladies and the outsiders. Aunt Verdella called out, “I’ll be right there, dear!”
“Excuse me, Button,” she said as she stepped over me and hurried around the counter. I put my fingertips on the counter and pulled myself up to take a peek. Mrs. Tilman was standing in the open doorway, her purse clutched in her arms like she thought the “gypsies” were going to try swiping it. She was busy gawking, so I stood all the way up and peeked out between the handmade signs Scotch-taped to the window.
The bed of the red pickup truck at the pumps, and the wagon towed behind it, were piled high with junky furniture I knew didn’t match and boxes stuffed with bunched-up clothes and dishes that spilled out over the tops.
My eyes almost bugged out of my head when I saw the lady who was standing next to the truck while Aunt Verdella pumped her gas. She had the prettiest color hair I’d ever seen. Red, but like a red I’d never set eyes on before: shiny like a pot of melted copper pennies. Not dark, not light, but somewhere in between, and bright like fire. She stretched like a cat, the sleeveless blouse tied at her waist riding up a belly that was flat and the color of buttered toast. She was made like my Barbie doll, with two big bumps under her blouse, a skinny waist, and long legs under kelly-green pedal pushers. She was wearing a pair of sunglasses with a row of rhinestones at the corners that shot rays into my eyes when she turned toward the store. There was something about the lady, too, that shined just as bright as her hair and those rhinestones. Not a warm kind of shining, but a sharp kind, like bright sun jabbing through the window and stinging your eyes.
Aunt Verdella cranked her head toward the store and yelled, “Button, bring Auntie the restroom key, will ya?”
I stepped up on the wooden stool and reached for the key, which was taped to a ruler so it couldn’t get lost easy, and I hurried it outside. As much as I hated meeting new people, I wanted to see the pretty lady up close.
The Barbie lady took off her sunglasses and poked them into her fiery hair, which was piled high on her head in a messy sort of way. She had green eyes like a cat’s, and her eyelids were sparkly with the same color, clear up to her eyebrows. She had real nice ears too. Tiny, and laying flat to her head like ears are supposed to. I handed Aunt Verdella the key, and she gave it to the pretty lady, who was glaring at the truck, a crabby look on her face. “The ladies’ restroom is right around the west side of the building, honey,” Aunt Verdella told her.
The pretty lady tapped the ruler against her thigh. “Winnalee Malone, I’m gonna blister your ass if you don’t get out of that truck this instant and go pee. You hear me?” I’d never heard a lady swear before, so I know my eyes must have stretched as big as my ears.
The windshield of the truck was blue-black in the sun, so I couldn’t see who she was talking to. Aunt Verdella put the gas handle back onto the hook alongside the pump, then headed over to the driver’s door where the Barbie lady was standing, still tapping the ruler on her leg. “Oh my,” Aunt Verdella said. “Ain’t you the prettiest little thing! You’ve got a face like a cherub.” Aunt Verdella said “cherub” more like “cherry-up.” “Why don’t you come out here and say hello? I got Popsicles inside. A free one for the first pretty little customer who uses the restroom today.” Aunt Verdella looked at the lady and winked, then turned back to the truck. “Come on, now, honey. We don’t bite.”
The Barbie lady lifted her arms and slapped them against the sides of her thighs. “Ah, to hell with you, Winnalee. If you’re gonna be stubborn, then sit there till your bladder bursts, for all I care. I’m too tired to argue with you.”
“Winnalee? Now, ain’t that the prettiest name. Where’d you get a pretty name like that?” Aunt Verdella asked.
“From my ma,” said a voice from inside the truck. “It’s a homemade name.”
The lady cussed again, like ladies aren’t supposed to do, then she said, “Winnalee, I’m not going to stand here and piss my pants waiting for you. You coming or not?”
Aunt Verdella cranked her head around. “You go on to the restroom, dear. I got a way with children,” she said, then she winked again. The pretty lady made a growly sound in her throat, then she headed toward the building, her heels clacking against the pavement.
It took a while, but finally Aunt Verdella coaxed Winnalee out. When I saw her, I could hardly believe my eyes: She had long, loopy hair the color of that stringy part inside a cob of corn, but with some yellow mixed in too, and it hung clear down to her butt. It didn’t have any rubber bands or barrettes in it, so it floated in the breeze like a mermaid’s hair under water. Her face was round and pink, with little lips that looked like they had lipstick on them. She was wearing a lady’s mesh slip, and it was rolled up at her round belly to keep it from falling down. She had on a white sleeveless blouse that belonged on a grown-up too. One side of it slipped down her arm and she crooked her elbow to keep it from falling all the way off. She didn’t look at us but turned to reach for something on the seat. I scootched over by Aunt Verdella to see what the mermaid girl was getting.
“Well, my, what do you have there, Winnalee?” Aunt Verdella asked as the girl slid out of the truck holding a capped, shiny silver vase in her arms, cradling it like it was a baby doll.
“It’s my ma,” Winnalee said.
“Your ma?” Aunt Verdella asked, suddenly looking a bit shook up.
It was like Aunt Verdella didn’t know what to say—which I was sure was because she was thinking the same thought as me. That there wasn’t a lady anywhere small enough to fit into that vase. Either Winnalee was funning us, or else she was just plain nuts. Instead, Aunt Verdella asked her about the thick book she had tucked under her armpit. “Button likes to read big books too, don’t you Button?” she said, putting an arm around me.
“It’s her Book of Bright Ideas,” said a voice behind us in the same tone that the snotty big kids who picked on us little kids at recess used. I turned and saw the pretty lady standing there, her hands on her hips, her legs parted. She was looking up and down the street.
It was like Aunt Verdella didn’t know what to say again, so she said nothing except that if Winnalee was a good little girl and went potty, she’d give her a Popsicle or an ice cream bar.
The lady grabbed a big black purse off of the seat of the truck and we all headed toward the store, Winnalee’s loopy hair dancing, her mesh slip flapping in the breeze like fins.
Fanny Tilman backed out of the doorway and slipped behind a grocery shelf, where I knew she was gonna stay hid, like a mouse waiting for somebody to drop some crumbs.
“Where you people from?” Aunt Verdella asked as she scooted behind the counter. The pretty lady took a bottle of RC Cola and one of root beer from the cooler, then set them down on the counter alongside her purse. Winnalee was behind her.
“Gary,” she says. “Gary, Indiana. We drove straight through.”
“Yeah,” Winnalee said. “We had to leave in the middle of the night. All because Freeda went dancing with some guy from the meat factory, when she was supposed to be Harley Hoffesteader’s girl. Harley got so pissed he was coming after her with a shotgun. Probably would have killed both of us dead if we hadn’t gotten out of there fast. It don’t matter, though. Freeda would’ve moved us anyways. She always does.” The lady cuffed her on the top of her head and Winnalee cried out, “Ouch!” Aunt Verdella flinched and told Winnalee that maybe she should go potty now, and would she like me or her to go with her. Winnalee’s nose crinkled. “I’m not a baby,” she said, then she grabbed the key from the counter and marched out the door.
“Oh my. Gary. That’s quite a drive. That must be, what, a good three fifty, four hundred miles from here?”
“I don’t know.” Freeda shook her head so that wispy strands wobbled against her long neck. “Hell, I don’t even know where we are.”
“You’re in Dauber, Wisconsin, dear. Population 3,263,” Aunt Verdella said proudly. “You thinking of settling here, or are you just passing through?”
Freeda shrugged. “I guess one place is as good as another. There any places to rent around here?”
I swear I heard Fanny Tilman (who was peeking up over the bread rack) gasp.
Aunt Verdella squeaked her tongue against her teeth as she thought. Then her puffy lips made a circle like a doughnut. “Ohhhh, well, actually, there just might be! Well, if you don’t mind living in a place that’s being fixed up, that is. You see, my husband, Rudy, and his brother, Reece, their ma passed away a couple a years ago, and we’ve been talking about renting her place out once Reece gets it fixed up. I keep saying that a house that sits empty falls to ruin fast, but you know how men are. Reece—that’s Button here’s daddy—he ain’t gotten around to the repairs yet, but if you don’t mind him coming and going, I don’t see why we can’t rent it to you now.”
Winnalee came back in and held the key out to me, but looked at Freeda. “Hey, you said we were going to Detroit! She lies,” she said to me, her thumb jabbing toward Freeda. Then she leaned over and peered at the mesh slip she was wearing. “Can you see my undies through this thing?” I looked, saw a bit of white, and told her I could. She rolled her big, lake-on-a-sunny-day-colored eyes and sighed. “I tried to tell Freeda that I was in my underwear, but she went and packed up my clothes anyway.”
Freeda grunted. “Like it matters. You’re in dress-up clothes half the time, anyway, Winnalee.”
Aunt Verdella talked about Grandma Mae’s place, bragging about the nice closed-in porch with good screens (all but for the one a barn cat shredded) and about the flower garden that was already shooting up daffodils and hyacinths, while she went to the freezer so Winnalee could pick out a treat. She called me over to have something too.
“Oh dear, where are my manners,” she said all of a sudden. “I didn’t even introduce myself yet. I’m Verdella Peters, and this here is my niece, Evelyn Mae, but we all call her Button. She’s nine years old. How old are you, Winnalee?”
“I’m gonna be ten on September first,” she said.
Freeda smiled for the first time, and her smile was as pretty as her hair. “I’m Freeda Malone, and you already know the sassy one. She’s my kid sister.”
Things happened fast then. While Freeda Malone was paying for her gas and the pop, Aunt Verdella told her they could get something to eat at the Spot Café. “You girls come back after you’re done eating,” Aunt Verdella said. “I’m closin’ up in an hour, and you can follow me then.” While Aunt Verdella chattered, I watched Winnalee eat her grape Popsicle. She didn’t seem to have one bit of worry about the purple dripping down her hand and streaking her arm. I had my wrapper cupped around my stick, like you’re supposed to, so I didn’t have to worry about getting all sticky and stained.
The minute the Malones left, Aunt Verdella got as light and floaty as bubbles. Fanny Tilman came out of her hiding place then, looking like a gray mouse in her wool coat, even though it was too warm for even a little jacket.
“Verdella! Jewel is gonna be fit to be tied, you offering Mae’s house like that! And to some gypsy drifters, to boot!”
Aunt Verdella waved Fanny Tilman’s comment away. “It’s gonna be real nice having people in that house, Fanny. I get so lonely when I look across the road and see that big, empty place. Mae didn’t take to me much, but still, it was just nice knowing someone was there.” She looked down at me and grinned. “And Button here sure could use a little friend, couldn’t you, Button?”
Mrs. Tilman’s mouth pinched. “Good heavens, Verdella. It’s not like bringing home a litter of abandoned kittens, you know. These are strangers, and most likely trouble, by the looks of them.”
When the Malones came back, Winnalee had ketchup splotched on her blouse, right over one of those points sticking out front like two witch’s hats. Her eyes were a little red, and her cheeks had white streaks on them where a few tears had washed them. She didn’t look unhappy at the moment, though, as she squatted to examine the tops of some canned goods where rainbowy shadows made by something shiny hanging in the window were flickering.
Aunt Verdella took her pay out of the till like she was told to—one dollar for every hour she worked this week—while I packed up my doll. She folded the envelope in threes and tucked it into her bra to take home and put in her jewelry box, where she kept all the money that was going toward the RCA color television set she wanted. A magazine ad of it was tacked to her fridge door, where it had hung since I was in the first grade. When she first came over with that ad, saying she was gonna save up and buy it even if it took her a lifetime, Ma had taken the TV Guide and showed Aunt Verdella how, at best, she’d only get three hours of color TV time a day. Mom repeated this story whenever she wanted to make Aunt Verdella look foolish. “I told her, look here, on Mondays, you’ll only get forty-five minutes!” But Verdella just laughed and said, “Long as two of those hours are used up by As the World Turns and Arthur Godfrey, I’ll be happy. Besides, by the time I save up $495, who knows, they might all be in living color!’ ” Aunt Verdella had no idea how much that TV set was gonna cost her once she finally saved up enough, but she still faithfully put away every spare dime she had to buy it.
Aunt Verdella locked up The Corner Store and we climbed into her turquoise and white Bel Air, which was cluttered with junk. A Raggedy Ann and Andy—bought from the community sale last summer, just because they were cute—were propped on the bag of romance magazines that somebody gave her weeks ago, and wadded-up candy and chip wrappers littered the floor. Aunt Verdella checked my door three times to make sure it was locked, so I wouldn’t lean on it and fall out, then made me set down my Barbie case and climb over the seat to watch out the back window as she backed out, so she didn’t run anybody over.
“It’s okay,” I said.
Once we got going, I climbed back into the front seat. I sat close to Aunt Verdella, her arm warm against my cheek. Aunt Verdella kept looking in the rearview mirror, making sure that the Malones were still following us.
The shortest way home was down Highway 8, but Aunt Verdella wouldn’t drive on the highway, so we kicked up dust down one county road after another, driving for what seemed forever. By the time we got out of the city limits the insides of my arms were splotched with the red, pimply rash that sprouted up on them whenever I got rattled. I knew Ma wasn’t gonna be happy. Not about my dirty knees, and not about the Malones. I slid my jaw over a bit so my teeth could grab at the bumpy clump of skin inside my cheek, even though Dr. Wagner told me that if I kept up the nasty habit, I was gonna bite a hole clear through my face. Aunt Verdella wasn’t worried like me, though. She sang lines from one of those country songs she always played on her record player and grinned like she was bringing home Christmas. The rash itchin’ my arms, though, told me that maybe this was a package we weren’t supposed to open.