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About the Author
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By John F. Lavelle
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 John F. Lavelle
All rights reserved.
The late summer beyond the kitchen window lay heavy on the Allegheny Mountains. Cassie slid the last of the heavy earthen dinner plates into the brown-gray water, wanting to get at the fry pan and be done with the supper dishes. Life seemed to overflow outside, the birthing and seeding, fruit ripening, the corn crowned with small golden rainbows, pregnant with large bulbous ears, their silken hair browning in the sun. The sticky sweet odor of it, the sour-sweet taste of the drying hay, and the scent of the cows freed from their maternal burden of milk, plodding to their night pasture, drifted through the window on the warm evening breeze.
Cassie's fingers had turned pink and wrinkled from the washing. The small calluses dotting her palms, earned from hoeing and weeding the garden, were now white. The tepid water smelled of detergent and pepper. She twisted the dishcloth to get the food scraps out of it and plunged it into the water to the top of the sunken plate.
Cassie's mother swayed next to her with the rhythm of the work, taking dishes from Cassie, drying them, and putting them away in the cupboards. She said, as if speaking to no one in particular, "I think the corn might just be about ready," her voice absentmindedly soft. Her mother always spoke quietly when she'd caught the tempo of work, but still, her voice carried a raspy texture like rough cloth, the sound of a life lived outdoors. Her words rolled with the cadence of a song.
The heat from the day and the cooking lingered in the kitchen of the small, unpainted, and weathered-gray house that sat on a thin strip of bottom-land that twisted between two steep mountain ranges. Cassie had long ago settled into the summer, putting away the duties of school with her school clothes, now living as her mother did, tending the garden and the house, also picking up the rhythm of the days, the weeks, the months out of school while her father and Ben tended the farm and picked up work as carpenters during the good weather, and during their free time splitting and stacking wood in the shed that leaned against the rear wall of the house where they also kept a porcelain-white wringer washer and an old chest freezer.
"Yes'm," Cassie replied repeating the absentminded lilt, not so much caught up in the dance of her work but in the possibilities of the evening to come. Past the kitchen window, the bread-crust-brown curtains, the two little blue and brown glass bottles sitting on the sill, a newly potted philodendron reaching its way across the ledge, past the lilac bushes, the tractor-tire flower garden overflowing with impatiens, her brother Ben leaned against the open door of Jimmy Marshall's old station wagon parked on a dusty patch of driveway in a square of sparse lawn surrounded by a green wall of corn. The sun rested low in the sky casting long shadows of the boys waiting in the bronze tint of the August summer's evening as they listened to the radio. Cassie could make out the tune to "Carrie Anne" but not the words.
Jimmy said something. Purdy, sitting on the passenger's side smoking a cigarette, flicked the ashes between his feet. He glanced down at his watch. Ben turned toward the window, cupping his hands around his mouth. "Cassie, you about ready? We got to get going here pretty soon."
Cassie leaned across the sink toward the window pressing against her mother. "I'm coming, Ben. It'll be just a minute."
Her mother nudged Cassie away from the window. "Just hold your horses. You got plenty of time before you got to be going. If you were so worried about getting there early you'd of ate faster."
"Ma." Cassie handed her mother the washed dish. She rubbed her nose against her upper arm still smelling of the lilac soap from her bath. Ben and the boys would be angry and never take her along again.
"Now, I'm just teasing," her mother said. She held the plate tilted like a church tambourine, running the towel over the rim, then the front, then the back, the same each time. "You're so fired up about going to that dance, you ain't coming close to getting these dishes washed right. I had to dry most of them clean."
Cassie plunged the large black skillet she'd used to fry the pork chops into the brown water. "What if Darlene gets there early and I ain't there? Ceilia's boyfriend's going to drop her off."
Her mother still watched her son. "That girl ain't been early to nothing in all her life. Neither was her sister, excepting maybe her first birthday."
Cassie scrubbed at the crusted-on remnants of the pork chops with a pad of steel wool, feeling for the baked-on food in the brown water. "I'll be making everyone late."
"Ain't no dance going to be starting without no band." Her mother held the plate up toward the window, squinting across the surface. "Why you want to ride all the way across the county just to listen to your brother sing? Don't you hear enough of him here? Lord knows I get tired of that caterwauling. Now country music, that's music — Patsy Cline, Hank Williams." Her mother lowered the plate to look across the summer-ripe fields.
A muscle knotted in Cassie's upper arm as she scrubbed. "Kids don't pay to hear country music. Besides, most places Ben plays, I can't go." Cassie stretched her arm above her head, working out the cramp, letting streamlets of water run down her arm, dropping her arm before they reached her elbow.
The heavy ceramic dish clanged against the others as her mother slid it onto a stack sitting in the open cupboard. "Well, most of the places they play ain't fitting for a good woman."
Cassie turned the skillet and scrubbed the bottom, then handed it to her mother. Her mother pursed her lips and passed the skillet back to Cassie.
Cassie dunked the pan back into the water and began to re-scrub the spots still dirty, splashing water onto the counter and her clothes. "I know, but Ben won't ever take me anywhere if I make him late."
Her mother nudged her away from the sink. "Go. Lord knows you're getting more useless by the minute."
Cassie ran up the stairs into her bedroom squeezing between her bed and dresser. The house had been divvied up into six cramped rooms: three minuscule bedrooms, Cassie's and Ben's upstairs with a bathroom just big enough for a toilet, bath, and sink. The kitchen where they ate, a small living room with a potbelly stove to heat the house, and their parents' bedroom filled the downstairs.
She slipped her blouse over her head then wiggled out of her denim cut-offs, carefully pulling on her stockings, attaching them to her garters. Stockings were expensive. She'd only been allowed to wear them since her fourteenth birthday that past January. She slid the dress she'd sewn three weeks before over her head. She'd made it from a bolt of burnt-orange cotton cloth she'd bought with extra money from picking berries. She'd fashioned a small collar and covered the buttons, four of them up the front, and stitched two breast pockets. The hem was the shortest she'd ever worn, a full three inches above the knees. Cassie leaned over her dresser to brush on mascara and pencil on eyeliner. She'd had to talk her mother into letting her wear this much makeup. Her father was still not happy about it. She pulled the clips out of her hair and let it fall down halfway to the small of her back, brushing it quickly, grabbing her small purse and shoes, then running down the stairs and out onto the kitchen stoop to slip on her shoes, rushing to the boys and climbing into the station wagon.
The band was playing at a large state-run campground in the mountains surrounding a man-made lake. At seven o'clock they opened with "Light My Fire." Cassie sat on a stool she'd found in a corner of the dance hall while she waited for Darlene and watched people dance. She'd placed the stool next to Guy, their drummer, so people would know she was with the band. The dancers were mostly campers from the cities dressed in bright new store-bought clothes and smelling of expensive perfume and cologne. They generally danced with others from the cities. Maybe it was her clothes, or her hair, or makeup that gave her away, though boys asked her once in a while, especially when she danced with Darlene. But she really had nothing in common with boys from the city, nothing she could say to them, nothing they'd understand.
Almost an hour after the band had started, Darlene appeared standing next to the doorman, still a bit little-girl gawky, though she swore her long thin legs were her most attractive feature. She wore her favorite corduroy skirt, too short for Cassie's taste, and a white sleeveless shell. Darlene twisted a thin gold chain attached to a crucifix around her finger. She always wore it around her long neck, which Darlene thought to be her second-best feature, the reason she kept her bleached-blonde hair short. She argued with the doorman.
As far as Ben was concerned, Darlene wore too much makeup and not enough skirt, flirted too much, and there were rumors she'd gone all the way. Everyone knew her big sister had. He'd told Cassie he wouldn't be surprised if Ceilia ended up shacking-up with that man she'd been going with.
Cassie grabbed Darlene's hand, pulling her into the building walking her over to a small picnic table sitting under the low eaves. "Late again." Cassie sat on the table so she could see over the heads of the dancers, using the bench as a footstool, pulling the skirt of her dress down below her knees.
"Aren't we testy." Darlene reached for Cassie's hand. "Come on, let's dance." She pulled Cassie out onto the floor finding a spot in the middle. Darlene took stock of the room as they danced, scrutinizing the small groups of boys holding close to territory they'd staked out in the slowly filling building.
The band played "Mustang Sally" and "Strange Brew" to finish the first set. They set down their instruments and switched the amps to standby, then walked away to the concession booth at the other end of the pavilion as people worked their way toward the exit as if on cue.
"Aw," Darlene said. "I just got here. Make them play more. I ain't even stinky yet."
"Darlene." Cassie turned to walk toward the picnic table.
Darlene followed, catching Cassie in two strides. "I'm going to get a drink. You want one?"
Cassie had a dollar in her purse that she'd saved from berry picking, selling the blueberries to a roadside stand. Usually her father took the berries to the stand and she never asked for the money unless she wanted to buy cloth for a dress or blouse, but she'd been with him when he'd stopped and he'd been talking to the owner and had let her conduct the transaction. The owner's wife had given her a dollar extra that Cassie had hidden. She'd felt guilty about hiding the money and almost told her father, but he didn't understand how hard it was to be a girl nowadays. "No." If she saved it she could buy some new makeup, or a new pair of stockings.
Cassie walked over to the open window behind the drums to let the late-evening breeze cool her while Darlene went off to the concession stand. The reddened sun had begun to slide behind the western mountains, the sky bleeding blue through red to purple, the eastern sky fading into black.
A motorcycle barked as it slowed, the driver dressed in jeans and a denim jacket leaned the bike into the parking lot, the crack of its exhaust echoing off the surrounding hills. Once he'd parked, several of the local boys meandered over to him and the bike. Ben called them lot flies. They sat in their cars, or on them, listening to the music rather than pay the dollar admission. Their type had always been there, he'd said. Now a new type of person sat in the parking lot with them or on the lawns, a type who also didn't pay the price of admission. They wore beads and tiny sunglasses and let their hair grow long. Ben called them hippies. Cassie really didn't believe that. Real hippies didn't live in West Virginia.
As the boys scrutinized the bike, a small pain pulsed beneath Cassie's breastbone, the same feeling she got when she thought she'd forgotten her homework or lost her purse, but it was for something different, something far off and distant.
"What're you looking at?" Darlene asked coming up behind her.
Cassie jumped away from the window, partially because Darlene had scared her, partially because she didn't want Darlene to know who she'd been staring at or what she'd been thinking and feeling. "Oh, nothing, really."
Darlene inspected the parking lot. "Nothing, my ass. Them's a bunch of local boys. Mighty fine bunch I might add too, except for maybe Chad and Hank."
Cassie peeked through the screen again. The driver was buckling his helmet to the front forks. "Which one's Chad? Which one's Hank?"
Darlene stepped back. "Then there's Hank's little brother, Terry. He's the worst of them all because he's so good looking. He's the big tall one with all the muscles. But he's a love 'em and leave 'em sort of guy." Darlene smiled and shrugged. "So they tell me."
"Which one's he?" Cassie asked. A boy passed around a pack of cigarettes. Several boys gently picked one from the pack as if they were sticks of brittle sugar candy. Another boy held up a silver lighter. The ones with the cigarettes took turns dipping the tip of the cigarette into the flame, smoke blowing out the sides of their mouths like an old tractor trying to start.
Darlene swatted Cassie's arm. "God, Cassie, I swear your folks found you under a cabbage patch."
Cassie rubbed at the pink spot on her arm from Darlene's slap. "Darlene McAlester, what are you implying?"
Darlene stuck her face near Cassie's and wrinkled her nose. "I'm implying you're too sweet a thing to be messing around with the likes of those boys."
Cassie nodded toward the parking lot. "Who's that boy there, the one's got the motorcycle?"
Darlene leaned her head near the screen and studied the boy. "I don't rightly know. I seen him once or twice around, I think. Bike seems pretty new. It means he's a working-saving sort of guy. His clothes don't look like his pa's rich."
Cassie edged closer to the screen. It smelled ashy of long-sitting dust. He wore a navy-colored button-down shirt. "You can't tell all that just from looking at him?"
The motorcycle rider and two other boys started up the path to the pavilion. Cassie backed away from the window. "Oh, God, they're coming this way."
Darlene grabbed Cassie's sleeve, pulling her back to the window. "Not yet, honey. They're too far away to see us. Let's get a good look."
Cassie clung to the windowsill as they walked by, a warm watery wave flowing from her head down her body as the boy with the motorcycle came into better focus.
The boy Cassie thought to be Hank spoke to the owner of the motorcycle. "You getting something to drink, Jake?" Jake nodded as he stepped around the corner of the building.
His name was Jake and he smiled openly and had clear eyes. The other two boys appeared to be Darlene's kind of men — dangerous. Terry worried Cassie. She'd seen boys like that in school, but she wondered what it would be like to be his girlfriend, to know your man could take care of himself, to not have to be afraid for him. Then again, a man like that wanted a certain kind of woman.
Jake paid his money and walked into the building. He looked at least Ben's age as he scrutinized the room as if searching for something, his gaze lighting on Cassie and Darlene for a second.
"He noticed you," Darlene sang.
Cassie brushed nonexistent crumbs from her dress. "I'm sitting down. Darlene, you sitting or not?" Cassie sat on the bench of the table opposite the dance floor now not feeling so pretty. Darlene followed, glancing boldly back at Jake, who watched her and Cassie. Cassie sat her purse on her lap staring at her hands. They seemed so small. "There ain't no reason he'd be interested in me."
"Why not?" Darlene sat down on the table, hiding Cassie from the rest of the people in the pavilion. "You ain't exactly a wilting flower." Darlene took a slow drink of her soda and seemed to think about it for a minute. "So? What kind of girl you think he wants?"
Excerpted from Oreads by John F. Lavelle. Copyright © 2015 John F. Lavelle. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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