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In Jackson, the "beautiful people" were separated from the great unwashed by a short strip of blacktop called Yazoo Road. If you lived north of Yazoo, like Marcy Stevens did, you peed champagne and blew your nose in silk. If you lived south -- as I did -- you peed Dixie Beer and blew your nose in burlap. We were shit. They were Shinola.
By my junior year at Peebles High, I had finished metamorphosing and was looking just fine, pretty even, when I was stopped in my tracks by a veritable vision. There, in the halls of my humble high school, stood the woman who, if God had loved me just a little bit better, would have been reflected in my mirror every morning. The tiny creature had a massive mane of red hair and big breasts. I still covet it all -- the tits, the tininess, and oh, mercy, that fabulous hair. All of her wondrous voluptuousness was supported by the most precious little feet you could ever imagine. She was so pretty and delicate I figured she likely hailed from the snooty part of town.
Red hadn't noticed me gaping at her, because she was struggling mightily with her locker. She gave the combination lock one last turn and when she couldn't open it, a not-so-nice word spewed from her Cupid's-bow lips.
"Durn" and "heckfire" were two acceptable cusswords for all but the overly Baptist kids. There was also the frequently used "shoot," which Southerners drawl into the longest word in the English language (shooooooooooooooooooooooooooot!). And even though most folks knew that "shoot" was just "shit" with eyeglasses on, you could get away with saying it during those innocent times as long as your granny wasn't in the same room.
But little Miss Tiny Feet wasn't "durning," "heckfiring," or even "shooting," she was using the granddaddy of all curse words. (The one we solemnly referred to as the "fire truck" word because it started and ended with the same letters.)
Even a potty-mouth like myself respected the F-word as cussing's fine china: I only drug it out for very special occasions. But Little Miss Redhead was saying it over and over. Maybe she wasn't quite the rich-girl-china-doll she appeared to be at first glance.
As I got closer, I also noticed her clothes were completely wrong. She wore the snob-city uniform of a twin set and skirt, but her sweater was a bit too tight and there were picks and pulls -- signs of repeated wearings -- in the Banlon knit. The silver-spooners wore perfectly smooth Breck girl flips and pageboys, but her hair was big -- too big, and teased up like a red space helmet -- and her blush and powder was a half inch thick.
"You new here?" I asked her. "Seems like you're having some trouble."
"I can't get in my fuckin' locker," she said with a sigh when she saw it was just big ol' me. "I tried, and now I'm fucking late for home ec."
"Why don't you let me give it a spin?" I offered, marveling at the fire trucks flying out of her lacquered lips.
She gratefully handed me her combination, and I took to twirling the dial until the locker popped open. Inside was a photo of the Beatles, a smiley-face sticker, and a textbook calledAdventures in Home Living.
"Thank you so much!" she said. "My name's Tammy."
"Nice to meet you, Jill. I just moved here from Killeen, Texas, and don't know a fuckin' soul." She pointed to a poster on the wall that read "Key Club Information Meeting at 2 p.m. today in the gym. Open to All Interested High School Girls." "I was thinking I'd join this. Are you going?" she asked with what would have been a beautifully executed hair toss except that not a single one of her heavily Aqua-Netted hairs moved from its appointed spot in her coiffure.
"No," I said, quickly.
"I wouldn't fit in. It's mostly for girls who live north of Yazoo Road," I said, hoping she'd take the hint.
"It says it's 'open to all high school girls,'" Tammy said.
"They have to say that 'cause the first meeting is held on school property, but they're very particular in their membership. Their favorite activity is listing all the people who they WON'T let join."
"Well, lucky for me Idolive north of Yazoo Road," she said with a smile. "Guess I better get to class. Thanks so much for helping me, Jill."
I'd heard they had some mighty big hair out in Texas, but a style like Tammy's wouldn't get her into the Key Club. And the first time she let fly with a fire truck, they'd fall over in a faint -- or pretend to, anyway.
Our lunch group was no Key Club. We ate outside on the steps of the vocational building. I settled beside Mary Bennett, who had a pronounced Southern accent. Where one syllable would do, she used three, saying my name so it came out like "Ji-ay-all." Bennett wasn't Mary's last name. It was part of her first name, kinda like Billie Sue or Betty Lou.
Unlike the rest of our lunchmates, Mary Bennett lived north of Yazoo Road in a sprawling English Tudor, and if it weren't for a tiny little problem of hers, she'd be having her pimento cheese sandwich (or "sammich," as we say in the South) and bottle of grape Nehi under the cool shade of a large magnolia tree with the other silver-spooners instead of shuffling around in the red dirt with us.
Back then, when people talked about Mary Bennett -- and Lord knows they did -- they would say (with an appropriately breathless whisper) that she had a rep-u-tay-shun: She was Fast -- which, by the litmus test for Whoredom at Peebles, meant she'd made out with more than five boys and not only KNEW what all the Bases were, it was rumored that she'd been to some of them. Plus, she had pierced ears, and our mamas assured us that "only whores had pierced ears." We all wanted them, naturally.
"Can I help it if I have a strong sex-shu-al appetite?" she'd say, hand pressed against her chest in an aggrieved manner.
I was unwrapping my sandwich when Mary Bennett sniffed her armpits.
"I think I need to have me a little whore's bath."
"Every bath you take's a whore's bath, Mary Bennett," Gerald said, nibbling primly on the last bit of his PB&J on white bread. Gerald had unruly, wiry hair, which he slathered with a combination of hair relaxer and Brylcreem; his attempt at a "hairstyle" looked sorta like Buckwheat's -- with a side of scented Crisco.
Mary Bennett grinned. She had one of those lazy, sexy smiles, which opened slowly like a bud blooming in slow-motion photography.
"Aren't you sharp on the uptake this afternoon, Geraldine," she said with a low chuckle. "Maybe you'd like to give me that bath?"
"I'd be honored," Gerald said, blowing her a kiss. He had the longest eyelashes I'd ever seen on a boy.
That was part of their routine. Mary Bennett propositioned Gerald, and Gerald acted as if he were happy to oblige her. Nothing ever came of it.
Mary Bennett opened her sandwich and poked her nose inside. "I'm so tired of pimento cheese. Whatcha got, Jill?"
"BLT," I said, holding my bag close to my body. "But you'll have to kill me for my bacon."
She jerked her head in Patsy's direction. "Hey, Swiss Miss! You got anything edible in that sack?"
"Sardines," Patsy said with a nod. Patsy still possessed the same round face she'd had since we were in first grade, with porcelain skin, enormous blue eyes, and genuine natural-blond hair, courtesy of her Scandinavian mama.
"That ain't nothin' to be braggin' about," Mary Bennett said.
"By the way," Patsy said. "Have you guys -- "
"How many times do I have to tell you? It'sy'all." Mary Bennett stretched out the last word so it lasted several seconds on her tongue. She cupped her smallish breasts. "Do I look like a guy to you? What in the hell is going on up there in Montana? They think everyone is a guy?"
"My daddy's a guy and he's from Hot Coffee, Mississippi," said Patsy, in a huff. "My MAMA is from MINNESOTA."
"Same damn thing," Mary Bennett said.
"Would you just let the poor girl talk?" Gerald said.
"Chirp away," Mary Bennett said with a bored wave of her hand.
"I was wondering if you guys . . . I mean,y'all, have met that new girl, Tammy," Patsy said. "I was going to ask her to have lunch with us tomorrow."
Her "y'all" came out as "yuall," a mispronunciation Mary Bennett acknowledged with an aggravated eye roll.
"I talked to her for a minute," I said, brushing crumbs from my skirt. "Says she just moved here from Texas, and that she lives north of Yazoo Road, but she didn't seem the type."
Gerald rolled up his brown paper sack into a small, neat package and gently placed it in a nearby wire trash can. "Oh, she lives north of Yazoo Road, all right," he said, his lips pursed as if holding in a delicious piece of gossip. "I overheard Marcy talking about it in study hall. I sit right next to her, and get to eavesdrop on all her conversations."
That wasn't hard to believe. Marcy and her friends wouldn't pay any attention to a skinny Jewish boy like Gerald.
"It just so happens that Tammy lives with her mother, who is the new housekeeper for the Peterson family on Marcy's street," Gerald said, in a low, secretive voice. "She lives in the converted carriage house behind the main house."
Tammy was the daughter of a maid? There was no lower ranking in our school's social strata.
"Oh Lord," I said, biting my bottom lip. "She mentioned she was going to try and join the Key Club today. I tried to discourage her, but she insisted."
My news stunned us into silence, as we all imagined Tammy's dreadful fate.
"She was such a pretty girl," Gerald said solemnly, as if delivering her eulogy.
Mary Bennett fanned her face with a napkin and said, "Those monsters will eat her alive. Her ass is grass."
The next day I nearly fell out when I spotted Marcy and Tammy in the hall, walking arm in arm like sisters.
"Hey there, Jill," Tammy said. I noticed she was wearing the same skirt as yesterday, which is a fashion felony with Marcy's crowd. "I wanted to thank you again for opening my locker for me. You saved my life." She turned to Marcy. "Do you and Jill know each other?"
"Of course we do," Marcy said. Her smile was blinding, her hair gleamed platinum, and even the whites of her eyes seemed brighter than the average person's. "Jill and I go back alongtime, don't we, hunny? We're like this." Marcy crossed her fingers together.
She sounded so sweetly sincere that I was momentarily caught off guard. But when I looked at her face, her blue eyes held a reptilian coldness that seemed to say, "Go ahead and contradict me, little missy. I dare you."
I felt my shoulders slumping, an automatic reaction to being in Marcy's presence.
"Hey, Marcy. Good to see ya," I mumbled.
"I better get to class," Marcy said. She reached out to squeeze Tammy's wrist. "See you at lunch?"
"I'll be there," Tammy said.
I winced at her familiarity with Marcy.
"Everyone is so friendly here," she said to me after Marcy left.
"It does appear that way," I said, not meeting Tammy's eyes.
"And you were wrong about the Key Club. They welcomed me with open arms. If you're interested I could put in a good word for you. There's supposed to be a reception at Marcy's house tomorrow night. Maybe you could come?"
"I have to wash my hair, but thanks."
"Too bad," Tammy said with a pout. "I bet it's going to be a blast."
"Now, let me get this straight, y'all only use the first few books of the Bible?" Mary Bennett said, propping her elbows on the Formica table and cocking her head quizzically at Gerald, who was sitting across from her.
"You're not supposed to talk about religion or money or politics in polite company," I said, sliding across the high-backed vinyl booth. Most days after school the four of us gathered at the lunch counter at Brent's Drugstore about three blocks from the school.
"Who says we're in polite company?" Mary Bennett said. She pointed to Patsy, who was sitting next to Gerald. "Look at Swiss Miss over there picking her teeth."
"Oh, sorry," Patsy said, dipping her blond head in embarrassment.
"Anyhoo," Mary Bennett said. "What do y'all do? Read the Bible and ignore the parts you don't like? Does the preacher say, y'all don't read ahead 'cause we don't believe in that mess coming up?"
"It's called the Torah, Mary Bennett," Gerald said patiently. "And it has only the first five books of the Bible. And Jews have rabbis, not preachers."
"Youdorealize that y'all are missing out on the best parts?" Mary Bennett said, wagging a finger at him. "The Christmas story, Sermon on the Mount, and getting saved."
"Jews don't get saved," Gerald said, bemusedly shaking his head. "We don't believe in an afterlife."
Mary Bennett's mouth dropped wide open. "How does your rabbi get y'all to do anything without threatening you with eternal damnation? I bet the collection plate is flat-out empty come Sunday morning."
"Friday night. That's when we have our services."
"Crazy," Mary Bennett said, twirling a finger beside her temple. "What kind of church was it your mama went to up there in Michigan, Swiss Miss?"
"Minnesota," Patsy corrected. "And Mama was Lutheran. They didn't have a Lutheran church in Hot Coffee and Daddy was brought up Baptist, but the only church within walking distance of their first house was Presbyterian, so apparently we were predestined to be the Frozen Chosen."
Mary Bennett's brow bunched. "Lutheran -- is that the one with snakes?"
A weary-looking waitress with a messy topknot of hair sidled up to us, pencil poised over a pad. "What'll y'all have?"
"A Big Orange for me," Patsy said, handing the waitress the plastic menu.
"We're out of orange," the waitress said.
"Oh," Patsy said in a disappointed voice. "What other kind of pop do you have?"
"Did you just saypot, missy?" the waitress said, raising an accusing eyebrow.
"Oh for pity sakes, just bring her a Co-Cola," Mary Bennett said. She pointed at Patsy and whispered to the waitress. "Her mama's a Yankee. 'Pop' is what they call Co-Cola up there in Milwaukee. God only knows why."
The rest of us gave our orders for homemade lemonade or milk shakes and burgers; then I told them about how Tammy had been invited to a Key Club reception at Marcy's house.
"What do you suppose is going on?" I said, directing my question to Gerald. If anyone knew the dirt, he would.
"Nothing good, that's for sure," Gerald said, shaking his head. "They were all gathered around Marcy's locker, whispering and giggling before study hall. I was only able to catch a snippet. Marcy said something like, 'Don't worry, I made sure Mother would be out of the house tomorrow night.'"
"I'll bet she's talking about the reception," I said. "And obviously, she doesn't want her mama to know about the horrible things they've got planned for Tammy."
"I don't know why we're all worked up about this Tammy person," Mary Bennett said. "Who is she to us, anyway?"
"I like her," Patsy said, her normally placid forehead rumpled. "It frosts my butt that those girls want to be mean to her."
Mary Bennett's nostrils quivered at the blatantly Yankee "frost my butt" expression. In Mississippi, one's hindquarters would get "chapped" -- it's rare we get a frost on the punkins, let alone our asses.
The waitress plunked our drinks down on the table.
"She is really nice," I said. "Our kind of people, if you know what I mean."
"Well, good gravy, if you're so wound up over her, just tell her not to go to that stupid reception," Mary Bennett said, throwing her hands out, palms up. "What could be simpler?"
"Yeah, Jill." Gerald shook his straw loose from its paper wrapper. "You're the closest to her, why don't you explain to her the social food chain around here?"
Three pairs of eyes looked at me expectantly.
"Me?" I said, pointing at my chest. "What if she doesn't listen to me?"
"Then get strong with the girl," Mary Bennett said, leaning forward. "Have a come-to-Jesus meeting with her. Tell her Marcy and the rest of them never hang out with the hired help unless they want someone to clean up their messes."
"I just hate to hurt her feelings," I said, a knot of dread forming in my throat.
"Just remember," Gerald said. "Whatever you say to her will feel like a mosquito bite compared to what Marcy and those other haints will do to her if she goes to that reception."
All of them were staring me down so hard I knew I couldn't refuse. The trouble was, I wasn't yet accustomed to shifting the direction of my own life, much less anybody else's. (This would, of course, change, and now I'm quite comfortable directing others' lives.)
"Okay," I said, with a sigh. "I'll talk to her before tomorrow night."
The next day I tried to catch Tammy, but she was like a new cult inductee constantly surrounded by its members. Finally, I saw her dart into the girls' restroom just before last period. I followed her and was hit in the face by a blue shelf of smoke. Three sophomore girls were passing around a Marlboro Red. Tammy was at the mirror, her mouth a round O as she applied pink lipstick.
"You hot-boxed the hell out of this thing," said a girl with hair the color of bright brass from an overdose of Summer Blonde as she pinched the burning cigarette between her fingers.
The bell rang and she tossed the butt into the sink, where it made assssssound. The smokers all scattered, and Tammy smacked her lips together and turned away from the mirror.
"Hey, Jill," she said. "Whatcha doing?"
I snuck a glance behind me to make sure none of the Key Club bitches were around and whispered, "I have to talk to you."
"I'm going to be late for P.E.," she said, pointing to her wristwatch.
"This is your first week here. You can pretend you got lost. Coach Ryan won't mark you tardy." I head-gestured to a corner of the restroom near a broken Kotex dispenser. "This is important."
"If you say so," Tammy said, a questioning look in her eye. She stood under a scrawl of graffiti that said "Mary Bennett is easy." The handwriting on the pale green cinder block looked suspiciously like Mary Bennett's.
"Look," I said nervously, pushing my glasses up on my nose. "You shouldn't go to that reception tonight."
"Why?" Tammy said, with mild curiosity.
"You shouldn't go is all," I said. "You gotta trust me on this."
She paused a moment, a look of disappointment in her eyes. "Marcy warned me you might say something like that. She said the two of you had a falling-out in fifth grade, and although she's apologized to you profusely, you've continued to hold a grudge."
"Tammy," I said, measuring my words carefully, "she's lying."
"She said you'd say that, too," Tammy said, a pained expression on her face.
Danged if that Marcy hadn't covered all the bases. I didn't think there was a thing I could say to stop Tammy from going to that reception.
"Does 'Hang on, Sloopy' meannothingto you?" I said, bumping my hip on the sink as I awkwardly turned away from her. "You know -- how she lived on the very bad side of town and everybody, yeah, tried to put her down?" Willfully blank, she looked at me. I gave up. "Okay. Fine. Have a good time."
"I could speak to Marcy. She and I are getting to be good buddies," she said, taking a step toward me. "Maybe the two of you can patch things up?"
Her expression was so earnest I had to look away. I weakly shook my head and then hitched my purse higher on my shoulder. Just before I pushed open the door I heard her call out, "I hope one day all of us can be friends."
Copyright © 2007 by SPQ, Inc.
Excerpted from The Sweet Potato Queens' First Big-Ass Novel: Stuff We Didn't Actually Do, but Could Have, and May Yet by Jill Conner Browne
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.