That summer it rained a lot, and then in September the nights became cool, and then with the cool days the leaves on the trees began to turn. And I knew the summer was gone.
And I said goodbye to a friend. I really hadn’t known her very long, just that summer. Our encounters were brief and very controlled (because of the colonizing effect of where we were, of course), so that there were only short moments to work on something more permanent and deep.
But there was an additional impediment––she couldn’t talk about a lot of things, so she didn’t. To me, it was so astonishing that someone so young, only nineteen, was able to keep quiet because I can never keep my mouth shut, especially at times when I should.
There is a fixed capacity for the mind to fill itself with things that are creatively useful and leave out the rest. Looking back now, I try to remember some of the things about her. One time when I was over there, she said, “I’ve treated myself to a new nightgown––a lavender one.” It was her birthday, and she was wearing a new shirt that matched her eyes, jade green. If I were to give her a color, it would be jade green.
The first time I saw her, I was careful not to stare. Still I noticed, you know, that she had a full, sensuous mouth and a fresh coolness about her, like cool green leaves. Her hair was a grain brown, like sorghum, and she had smooth skin, the kind that welcomes the sun and turns golden because of it. It was easy to imagine a man holding her in his arms, finding her fresh and new, and smooth and young, and lovely––cool as lavender. I think that’s why she got the nightgown, so she could imagine that.
Another time when Reverend Stone (whom I accompany to play for Sunday night services there) and I came in the door, she and Chris, who is also nineteen, were racing down the stairs. I mean they were seeing who could beat whom––and I thought that was so, well, neat, you know, actually more than neat, because none of us is really supposed to have fun. And for that one moment the god of mirth was tripping down the stairs, saying, “I will go where I please, world. And tonight I prefer to dance down the stairs with these two young women.” You should have been there––it was the kind of moment that would make you regret that you weren’t.
Lisa––that is her name––is pretty, pretty in the wholesome-looking way of freshmen at state. Another thing I noticed the first time I saw her was her teeth. They were very straight and white, and I knew that she had had a good orthodontist and that she had not come from the kind of family that many women here ordinarily come from––because of the teeth, you see, well, that and the politeness about her, the undeniable refinement.
There were other differences. She played the piano very well. I suggested that she play for the services, but for some reason she didn’t want to. “You come back,” she told me. “I want you to.” And I thought she meant it, so I kept coming.
There were others who joined our group from time to time, but with Lisa and me and Reverend Stone, it was self-contained, our small world. Maybe we were like people who associate with those of their own calling––painters hobnob with painters and musicians with musicians, you know how it goes. One night when it was just the three of us, Reverend Stone said, “Don’t you like it better when we’re alone?” And Lisa replied, “I feel lonely when they’re all here.” I liked it because I liked Lisa, and I like Reverend Stone because he is a Yeley, and he is smart and fun, and he admits that he’s not sure what God is.
We always met at twilight. All summer long we would sit in a gray-walled room with a dusty carpet, the sun going dark and a creek frisking down the hill a little ways off. One evening with the shadows cast by the setting sun angling through the windowpane, Reverend Stone said, “It looks like a cross.” And Lisa said to me, “Oh, don’t you see it?” I said I didn’t, and then Lisa said that she thought she might like to paint it. I knew I wouldn’t.
Tonight––although, honestly I’m not all that religious––we were reading out of Exodus about the fatted calf and what I know about all this you could put in a thimble, being raised Catholic and reading the Bible was disapproved by the Church, which I probably wouldn’t have done anyway. I guess Moses hung around up on Mount Sinai so long that the people needed some sort of sign, so God gave it to them. I could’t keep my mind on the reading, and I glanced sideways at Lisa, then quickly past her to the fat one with her chin hanging in double folds, fat all the way up to her ear, with no neck and a blanched complexion. She is the one who is always rubbing the itch of her opinion: “I’ll be out in two months.” And I can’t keep my mind on her either, and I glance back at Lisa. Her face is calm, set, though her mouth hints of contempt. Everything about her is cat quiet, except for her foot. I don’t know if Reverend Stone ever noticed––I always did––and tonight like always her foot taps the floor in faint, incessant staccato.
I had something special to play for Lisa tonight at communion. One night she played “Für Elise” for me, her neck swan-curved over the piano, her slender arms moving up the keys and the silver notes of Beethoven transforming that drab room into an elegant salon. Tonight I said, “Oh Lisa, I want to play ‘Ave Maria’ for you.” I knew she would like that, even with the mistakes and even more now because I want to cry and I am losing it and my eyes are getting wet and it is hard to see the music, that incredible, beautiful Schubert music swimming in my head. And like Lisa herself, a lovely maiden with her sad face and passionate mouth. Suddenly I was hugging her.
In a little while, Reverend Stone says that we have to go. As I walk past the landing, I see in her packed boxes that there is a stuffed animal with its foot hanging out. Tomorrow the Arkansas authorities are picking her up. She will be tried on murder charges. (Arkansas carries the death penalty).
The writer Solzhenitsyn said, “If you have to remember the size the size of your collar, you have to forget something, something very important.” And I guess I forgot to tell you about the teeth. You see, a lot of women here have missing teeth, and, when I first came (because that was before the influx of the drug crowd), I didn’t understand that until somebody told me that they were prostitutes and their pimps knocked them out, and then I started noticing. A lot of them have missing teeth. I forgot to tell you that.