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Philip Hall likes me. I reckon maybe.
Mama set my morning bowl of steaming grits on the flowered oilcloth. "I don't want no daughter of mine filling up her head with that Hall boy today. You get yourself some learning, Beth."
I sprinkled some sugar on my grits and skimmed a spoonful from the top.
"You hear me a-speaking to you, girl?"
"... Yes'm. But Philip Hall is my friend and—" Mama shook her head like it almost wasn't worthwhile explaining it to me. "Beth, honey, you is so smart about most things. How come the good Lord made you so dumb about Philip Hall?"
"He didn't!" I said.
"Sure enough he did," argued Mama. "Don't you see he only wants your company if Gordy or one of them Jones boys ain't around and when he runs out of mischief to fall into?"
"Now that's not true," I said, dropping my spoon noisily into the grits. "'Cause Philip Hall likes me. I reckon maybe. He's always inviting me over to his very own farm, now ain't that the truth?"
Ma pressed her hands against her wide waist. "That is the very thing I is speaking about," she said. "He's got you cleaning out his dairy barn—doing his work!"
"Well, I don't mind a bit," I told her. "He strummed some songs on his guitar while I worked. It was nice."
"You and your big sister better get on out of here, girl!" said Mama, wrapping her strong, dark arms around me. "Or you both going to miss the school bus." Her kiss made a smacking sound against my cheek. "Now get!"
Outside, my pa was throwing slop into the pig trough from a battered tin bucket. When he saw Anne, he called out, "EuuuuuWheee! Who that coming down the road in the starched-up dress?"
Annie smiled in that shy way she always does when she is being teased by the opposite sex. "Oh, Pa ..."
Then Pa looked at me and asked, "Then somebody tell me who it is coming down the road in the faded jeans?"
"I reckon it's one of your two girl children. Want any more hints?"
"Oh, give me another little hint," said Pa, letting his good, strong teeth show.
"I'm only the daughter that's the second-best arithmetic solver, the second-best speller, and the second-best reader in Miss Johnson's class."
Pa wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his denim shirt. "That Hall boy again? Don't go telling me he's number-one best in everything."
"Everything," I said. "Just everything." And yet Pa's question started me wondering something I never wondered before. Is Philip Hall number one only 'cause I let him be? Afraid he wouldn't like me if I were best? Shucks no! And that's too silly to even think about.
The wind was a-blowing up the dust on the dry dirt road that ran between our pig and poultry farm and Mr. Hall's dairy farm. A long time ago my mama showed me what to do when the road is dry from lack of rain and the wind comes up to make matters worse. Secret is to walk along the grass at the very edge of the road. Takes longer, but at least you can get to the highway clean.
Long after I had walked halfway, I spotted his shirt as red as dime-store lipstick. Up there where the dirt road meets up with the blacktop.
"Hey, Philip! Hey, hey, Phil-ip!"
He heard me because the shirt could be seen suddenly going down then up, down then up. He called out, "Run! Run! Run!" As I came closer, I could see a coffee-colored arm pointing down the road in the direction that the bus comes. "Hur-ry, Hur-ry, the bus! THE BUS!"
"Let's run, Annie," I said, hugging my lunchpail and books against my chest and taking off like a turkey on Thanksgiving Eve. My sister wasn't running with me. Well, let her miss the bus if she wants to. I ran even faster down the middle of the dusty road. Five miles to school is a heap of walking. Faster, I ran faster. Running made the dust rise higher and higher. I held my breath. But suddenly my mouth opened and I sucked in air—Ah-hm, Ahhh-hmmm—and dust.
Philip's arms made wide circles. "Come on, Beth. Come on. Come on!"
I had to go on. Couldn't disappoint him, not sweet Philip. Uhh chmm! Uhhhh chm! Made myself go. Made myself run. Uhhh hmm. Dust in my nose. My throat. Uhh uhhh!
As he wildly waved me on he shouted from the loudest part of his voice, "BUS IS COMING! ALMOST HERE!"
Not much farther. I was going to make it. I had—"Ohhhhh!" A speck of something struck my right eye. If only I could lie down in the fresh grass by the side of the road, wipe the speck from my eye, and breathe country air again. But I didn't lie down, didn't stop. Kept going ... kept running until I reached ... reached blacktop!
After I wiped the speck from my eye, I looked down, straight down that long, blacktopped road, but I didn't see anything. "Where ... where's the bus?" I asked Philip while struggling to get back my breath.
Philip looked very serious—no, he didn't. He was biting his lip, trying to hold onto a straight face. Suddenly his lip came unbit. "Ah ha ha ha. Did I fool you! You just a-running down that road. Ah ha ha ha!"
"Why! Why! ... You ... you no good, low-down polecat!"
Philip looked surprised. "Can't you take a joke?"
I thought about shoving him into the gully at the side of the road. "That's not one bit a joke, Philip Hall. What that is is mean. Low-down mean!"
"Awww, I thought you was one girl could take a joke."
"I can!" I said, brushing the dust off me as best I could. "Just as good as anybody."
Philip nodded. "For a girl, you take jokes better than anybody." Suddenly he pointed down the road and this time the yellow bus was really on its way. He smiled a dimpled smile and I remembered why he's the cutest boy in the J. T. Williams School.
Mr. Barnes squeaked the bus to a stop and opened the door to let Fancy Annie first on board. When I got on, my friend Bonnie called, "Sit next to me, Beth."
I was just about to tell her that I had already promised to sit next to Philip Hall when I saw him slide into the seat next to Gordon. The dumb bum.
"Hey, Phil," said Gordon. "First thing this morning old Henry brought your invitation."
"Philip must be having another birthday party," whispered Bonnie. "Reckon he'll invite us?"
"Philip Hall likes me," I told her. "Most every day after my chores, I go over to his farm and he sings and just plays his guitar for me. And later this day, when old Henry gets around to our house, I reckon I'll have my invitation too."
Then Bonnie, who mostly acts as though she invented talking, stopped talking. Something had to be upsetting her, and I knew what it was. "Now don't you fret," I told her. "Maybe Philip Hall will invite you too."
"But what if he doesn't?" she asked, becoming more upset.
"Then, in that case," I told her, "don't you worry none. 'Cause you is my friend and he is my friend and I'll just tell him to invite you 'cause you is my friend."
At recess I told Susan, Ginny, and Esther about the invitation that was waiting for me. They all said that they wanted one too, and I told them all not to fret. 'Cause if they wanted to go, then I'd only have to ask Philip to invite them.
When the last bell of the day rang, I was the first one out of the classroom and third in line for the bus. Mr. Barnes isn't too good about waiting for kids and, anyway, Philip likes me to save him a place.
"Hey, Philip," I called, at the first sight of red shirt. "Over here."
Gordon looked at Philip as though he was clear out of his mind. "You let a girl save places for you? She your girl friend, Phil?"
His face crinkled into a dark frown. "She's not my girl friend. And I hate girls!"
I climbed on the bus, without once even looking at that dumb bum who spent the whole trip back laughing with Gordon and telling him about the food they were going to eat and the games they were going to play at his birthday party. And Philip Hall is not one bit the cutest boy in school either, and that's for sure.
Where our dirt road meets the blacktop, Mr. Barnes brought the bus to a stop and Anne, Philip, and I jumped off. As my boy friend no more and I poked along the dirt road together, I wasn't saying one word to him. Finally, he said something to me, "Afternoon shower dampened the road down. Ain't one bit dusty now."
"Reckon I'm not going to talk to you about any damp roads or any dusty roads or any kind of roads at all."
Philip dimpled a smile. "Oh, you is mad, Beth Lambert. You is mad, Mad, MAD! Ain't that right?"
"That is right, Mister Philip best-in-the-class Hall. You all the time rather be sitting with Gordon and laughing with Gordon and telling him that I'm not your friend. And that makes me mad. Mad. Mad. MAD!"
Philip reached up and pulled a leaf from an elm. "You is my friend all right."
"I am ... truly?"
Philip looked down at his shoes and nodded. "Sure. 'Cause after you finish up the chores on your farm, I'm going to let you come visit. I'm going to let you brush down my cows."
"See you directly," I called as I started running to catch up with Anne. My chores shouldn't take long. And then probably I could go over to Philip Hall's. Sweet Philip. I had to get him something very special for his eleventh birthday. What?
Suddenly I knew. A pick for his guitar just like they sell at the Busy Bee Bargain Store. And with the nickel I had saved from not buying ice cream last Saturday, together with the nickel that Pa will give me this Saturday, then I'd have a whole dime to spend on a guitar pick for sweet Philip Hall.
Mama was sitting on her porch chair, rocking away. Near her feet was the big sewing basket and in her lap was Pa's old overalls that was getting fresh knee patches.
"Hey, Ma, old Henry brought the mail yet?"
She looked up from her sewing. "Mail's on the kitchen table."
Behind me, I heard the screen door slam. Mama don't like no screen door slamming. On the oilcloth-covered table was a platter of fried chicken, a pot of still warm black-eyed peas, and a catalog for mail ordering. This ain't all the mail. Can't be!
I went back into the living room, which is also my brother Luther's bedroom, and hollered through the screen door, "Ma, this ain't all the mail ... is it?"
She was quiet for a moment and I thought she was about to say that was all there was when, "No-o-o," she called back, "reckon not. There's something else on my bureau."
I knew it. I just knew it! But when I looked the only piece of mail I saw was a circular announcing bargain day at the Busy Bee. Maybe the invitation is underneath. Sure. My hand touched the sheet of advertisement without really moving it. I hope, I hope. I lifted the circular. And there was—nothing! Absolutely nothing.
I tiptoed out the kitchen door, closing it without a sound. Crossed the dirt road, shortcutted through the cornfield and past the mailbox where the sign read: HALL'S DAIRY. Inside the barn Philip was sitting on a bale of hay, picking out a tune on his guitar.
Without even looking up from his guitar strings, he said, "You better get busy, Beth. You got eight milk cows to brush down today."
"You didn't send me one." My voice sounded right next door to tears.
Philip took notice. "What? Send you—"
"A birthday invitation," I said. "Sent one to Gordon, but not to me."
"Oh," said Philip. "That. That's what you mad about?"
I nodded while tears stung at my eyes. "I was going to buy you a special present 'cause I thought you was my friend, but you're not my friend at all."
"Don't be like that," he said. "I didn't invite girls, only Gordy, Bobby, and Jordan and Joshua Jones—the brave members of the Tiger Hunters' Club. We're the boys ain't afraid of nothing. Not even roaring mad tigers."
"Well, why couldn't you invite me too? I'm not even a little bit afraid of tigers either and you said ... this very day, you said I was your friend."
Philip nodded his head yes.
"So why didn't you invite me too?"
"... I can't."
"Well why not?"
"Just can't do it."
"'Cause ... 'cause I was afraid they'd call me sissy. Then they'd go 'round saying I liked you and that you was my girl friend, stuff like that."
"And you the president of the Tiger Hunters?" I asked. "That the club ain't afraid of nothing, not even roaring mad tigers?" I began to laugh.
Philip looked frightened. "What you laughing at?"
I only laughed some more.
"Are you laughing at me?"
"Reckon I is 'cause you is funny, Funny, FUNNY, Mister Philip Hall."
"I'm not! Not! NOT!" shouted Philip, jumping off the bale of hay.
"Oh, yes you is. You say you ain't afraid of tigers. Well, I don't know a soul ever seen a tiger, not in all of Randolph County. But you is afraid of a word, and everybody knows that words can't bite and words can't scratch. So you're not a tiger hunter, Philip Hall. What you is, is a 'fraidy cat. And that's a whole lot worse than being a sissy."
The next day was Thursday and Ma said I looked sickly so she kept me home from school. And on Friday she said the same thing and kept me home again.
On Saturday Philip had his birthday party. I saw the Tiger Hunters being driven over by Gordon's pa in their blue pickup truck. I kept telling myself to be happy. After all, I wouldn't have to spend perfectly good ice-cream money on a stupid guitar pick for that low-down dumb bum of a polecat. But truth of the matter is, I wasn't happy. Wasn't happy at all.
By noontime, Ma, Pa, my brother Luther, my sister Anne, and I had all eaten, washed, and got fancy dressed for town. At the Busy Bee, I saw Bonnie, who turned her head the moment she saw me, just as if she was mad.
"I'm not about to speak to you," she said, turning to face me. "You promised you'd get Phil to invite me to his birthday party, didn't you? Didn't you promise?"
"He didn't invite me either," I told her.
Bonnie's eyes grew big and round. "But you is his best friend."
"No more," I said. "I haven't been over to his farm for three days."
"After school on Monday," said Bonnie, "you come on over to my farm." Suddenly she pointed a finger at my nose. "You can be my friend, OK?"
"OK," I said. "OK."
When the last school bell of the day rang on Monday, Bonnie and I grabbed hands and ran out of Miss Johnson's classroom. Philip and Gordon were already waiting in the bus line.
"Hey, Beth!" called Philip. "Over here. I saved a place for you."
Gordon looked shocked. "What are you saving places for girls for?"
Philip looked Gordon straight in the eye. "Because I want to—that's what for."
"Is you a sissy?" asked Gordon, suddenly putting his hands on his hips. "With girl friends?"
"Something worse than being a sissy," said Philip, "is being a 'fraidy cat. And from this day on, any Tiger Hunter who is afraid of girls ain't going to be called a Tiger Hunter anymore." Then Philip stuck his face so close to Gordon's that their noses touched. "And do you know what we're going to call them kind of Tiger Hunters?"
Gordon moved his face away while shaking his head no.
"Them kind we call 'Fraidy Cats," said Philip, looking from Gordon to me. It was as though he wanted to know if I liked what he was saying.
I felt myself smiling.
Gordon took a couple of steps backward, opening a large space in line. "You girls can get in front of me," he said.
Philip smiled his happiest smile. Sweet Philip. The cutest boy in the J. T. Williams School and the bravest Tiger Hunter of them all.CHAPTER 2
Case of the missing turkeys
Miss Johnson was telling the class that never in the whole history of schoolteaching had there ever been such a perfectly wonderful number-one best student as me. Philip Hall rushed to congratulate me, "I likes you even better now than I did when you were only number two."
So much happiness rushed to my heart that it had to expand to mite near twice its usual size just to take it all in. Then Bang! Bang! Bang! My eyes snapped open at the early morning noise outside my bedroom window while at the same moment, Miss Johnson, Philip Hall, and my dream—my beautiful dream—dissolved like a raindrop into a freshly plowed field.
Minutes later I carried my breakfast of a cup of sweet milk and a slab of cornbread to where Pa was hammering one of the steel fence poles deeper into the ground. Even though December had been around for better'n a week, Pa was sweating under the Arkansas sun. His face looked as polished as black shoes on a Sunday morning.
He didn't answer to "Morning, Pa." Only muttered that he didn't know how it was happening, but he didn't intend for it to continue.
I said, "None of your turkeys disappeared during the night." But when Pa still didn't answer, I made a question out of it. "Did any of your turkeys disappear during the night?"
He wiped his forehead with a red bandanna. "Another ten, maybe more."
"Oh, Pa," I said, taking on some of the burden. "We were so sure that all those strips of cloths flapping from the fence would scare off the chicken hawks."
"Ain't no hawk with the sense God gave him gonna mess around with no twenty-pound turkey."
I had another idea. "If a hawk won't, a fox will. And we got plenty of red foxes slying around these parts."
His forehead furrowed. "That fox would have to crawl under this fence, which is pretty dang smart seeing as there ain't no crawl-through space."
"Maybe he went over?" I suggested.
"Over six-feet-high fencing? Not unless them red foxes is taking flying lessons."
Excerpted from Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. by Bette Greene. Copyright © 1974 Bette Greene. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 25, 2013