The child Charlotte sat on the narrow curbstone, her cheek against one knee, drawing idly in the dust with a stick. She sniffed at the flesh of her leg, smelt the dust and the sweat on it. Then she sighed and threw away the stick.
“Em’lie,” she said.
Emilie, age nine, was standing behind her, with her back against the sun-warm wooden post, her toes braced on the edge of the sidewalk.
“Huh?” Emilie breathed.
“Play like I’ve got a store. Play like I’ve got a grocer store an’ you’ve gotta buy stuff. . . . Huh, Em’lie?”
Emilie was so bored and sleepy she did not reply. Her gray sullen eyes looked out across the road and the whole scene was yellow to her, the dirt of the road, the squatting house just beyond, the dry fields: yellow pulsing heat and silence.
“Em’lie! You crazy? . . . Answer me!” Charlotte turned around on the curb and glowered at her.
“Wha’?” said Emilie, and pushed herself away from the post.
“I’ve gotta store an’ you must buy stuff.” She reached for the tiny red truck that was their common property and began filling it with pebbles. “An’ then I must deliver it. You gotta go home first an’ then you must telephone.” She clutched the truck in one dirty hand as she scowled at Emilie.
They heard footsteps in the grit of the road. Charlotte forgot her game and they both looked up the slope. Emilie brushed the mottled blond hair out of her eyes and squinted. Her left eye was cast, and she twisted up that side of her face whenever she looked at anything.
“I betcha it’s a boarder from Mrs. Osterman’s,” Charlotte said. “I betcha he’s from New York, too.”
He turned onto the sidewalk that began half a block from Charlotte’s house. Emilie could see him now, a short figure in unpressed white trousers. He saw them, too, and began whistling a tune.
“Hello,” he said, taking in both of them.
“H’lo,” they replied in unison.
He stopped a minute, looked about him. “Gonna be here when I get back?” He spoke quietly, smiling. “I’ll bring you some candy.”
Charlotte and Emilie surveyed him silently.
“I like . . . I like any kind of candy,” Charlotte told him.
He laughed, winked at them and walked on down the sidewalk. Once he turned and waved, but only Charlotte saw that. They were both motionless a long time, watching.
“Reckon he’ll come back, Em’lie?”
“Reckon he’ll come back this way?”
“I sed . . . reckon he’ll come back?”
But Emilie moved off without a word toward her house and Charlotte sat on the curb, resting her face against one knee as she traced in the dust. Soon the screen door to Emilie’s house screeched, closed with a double slap, and Emilie’s bare heels thudded across the porch.
“Huh,” said Emilie, and handed Charlotte a small pale peach. Charlotte took it silently, bit into the fruit with darkish baby teeth.
“Betcha that man’s got a car.”
“I sed”—she took a deep breath—”I betcha that man’s got a ca-ar.”
“That ma-an . . . what just passed.”
Emilie licked her peach-stained fingers. “He ain’t comin’ back.” She sighed, looked across the hot road to the blurry yellowish fields. The bugs in the grass, in the trees, were singing rhythmically. Two clicks and a long buzz. Down the road where it met the street that led into town they heard Mr. Wynecoop’s station wagon. They knew it from all the other cars in the neighborhood. Charlotte and Emilie sat on the edge of the curb and looked.
As he passed, Mr. Wynecoop waved a stiff-fingered hand at them, and they chanted, “H’lo, ol’ man Wynecoop.”
The car pulled up the hill, reached the top, sighed as it hit level ground. Charlotte kept watching for the man in white. She stood up once and looked toward town, but the view was mostly shut out by the trees along the sidewalk.
Emilie smirked and grunted contemptuously.
Charlotte held the empty truck in one hand and stared down the walk. “You cou’nt see him if he was comin’.” Suddenly she drew in her breath. “He’s comin’, all right,” she whispered, and ran stooping over to Emilie by the curb. She began stabbing in the dust, her heart beating fast.
Then Emilie heard his footsteps and twisted around and peered into the yellowness. He was whistling again. The blur of white came closer.
“He’s got candy!” Charlotte said.
The man took his cigarette out of his mouth and threw it down.
“Hello,” he said quietly, then glanced at the houses and back at the two little girls on the curb. He handed the bag to Charlotte. Two licorice sticks stuck out of the top, and she was disappointed to see that it was all penny candy, unwrapped caramels and sugar hearts that sell five for a cent. Once an old man from Mrs. Osterman’s had brought her five-cent candy bars.
Slowly she put one end of a licorice stick into her mouth. The man shuffled uneasily, leaned against a tree and lighted another cigarette. “You didn’t tell me your name,” he said finally.
She told him, and he said his name was Robbie.
“I’ve got a car. . . . Want to go riding sometime?” He kept shifting and taking his hands in and out of his pockets. “I bet you like riding, Charlotte.”
“I sure do,” she said, and a dark stream of licorice juice ran down her chin.
The man leaning against the tree sprang toward her, drew a wadded handkerchief out of his hip pocket. He put one hand back of her head and wiped her face hard. “You’re . . . pretty messy.” Then he stood up again and put the handkerchief back. Emilie was watching him steadily, curiously. He felt the hostility in her twisted mouth.
He drew viciously on his cigarette. “How’d you like to go riding this evening?” he whispered. “After dinner.”
“I’d like that,” Charlotte said.
Then he went off quietly, looking back at them, smiling and friendly.
Charlotte was proud of herself. She leaned back on her hands and the thin muscles in her thighs showed under the dirt-streaked skin.
“He didn’t ask you to go.”
Emilie sighed. “He ain’t comin’. You wait an’ see.”
So Charlotte waited. She finished the candy alone, picked at her noon meal, and brooded happily in the shade of the house, humming to herself. Then she lay in the patched-up hammock on her front porch and looked at the pictures in a frayed funny paper book. The afternoon was hot and long and silent.
After supper Charlotte went out to the road and stood by the tree. Her mother had given her a sponge bath, and she had a cotton dress on instead of the thin romper suit she wore all day. She had told her mother nothing about the man from Mrs. Osterman’s. The fast-setting sun sent hot horizontal rays into her face. She was sure he would come. She tried to picture the car, like the ones she had seen in the movies. That was the kind of car he would have. And she would step into the big front seat and they would drive away with hardly a sound. They would drive fast.
But after a while she got tired and came in to the front porch. The wood was hot to her bare feet. She leaned on one side of the hammock, pushed herself into it. Still she listened and there was no sound of a car. Then the screen door to Emilie’s house shrieked, stopped and shrieked again. Emilie appeared, unwashed and tousled, eating the remains of a slice of bread and butter. She came deliberately onto Charlotte’s porch, stood chewing reflectively as she stared at her in the hammock. Charlotte disdained to look at her.
“Oh . . . he ain’t comin’,” she said, and turned around and walked to the steps. She heard something down the walk. “That your mother comin’? She don’t know, I betcha.”
Charlotte bounced out of the hammock. “Listen, Em’lie . . .” She frowned furiously. “If you . . . if you say to her . . .” She clenched her fists at her sides and Emilie gazed at her solemnly.
But Charlotte had won.
There was no more sun, but it was still light. Charlotte’s mother came back from the store. None of them said a word. The woman went into the house and Charlotte could hear her drawing water for the baby. Finally Emilie went hop-skipping across the front yard, into her house.
Charlotte lay in the hammock and listened for him. Someone was walking, whistling. She ran down to the sidewalk and saw him coming. He was dressed in white again with his jacket unbuttoned. He stopped when he saw her, smiled and beckoned. And she glanced once at her house, then ran up the warm pavement to where he stood.
“Where’s your car?”
He looked about him, grinned and jerked his head. “Up the road. . . . We don’t want nobody to know. You didn’t tell nobody, did you?”
They walked together. She could hardly keep up with him, so he took her hand. The fields opened up on either side after the pavement stopped. Charlotte strained up to see the car, and then the road turned suddenly and they came upon it parked by the roadside. It was big, but not so bright as those in the movies. He opened the door and lifted her in, her feet dangling over the edge of the seat. Then he came in from the other side.
“Uh-huh.” Charlotte was looking at the car inside.
“Like it?” he asked, and wiped his nose on the back of his hand.
They didn’t drive off immediately. Charlotte was examining the gaudily colored dashboard, its clock with green numbers and silver hands. The other circles she did not understand, but they were all beautiful, colored and shining. The man caught her hand suddenly and she felt his fingers warm and moist, felt her mouth twist up as though she were about to cry. Then she wished that she had not come, wished that she were back on the front porch with Emilie. But he was smiling, laughing, even, as he started the car.
“You like to go fast?”
Charlotte tried to answer, but her lips were stiff. He squeezed her hand again.
“I like a lot of speed.”
Then through the engine’s noise she heard someone calling her name. The man heard it, too, and released her hand. But the car was moving on toward her house.
“That’s my mother,” Charlotte said quietly.
Charlotte noticed that he frowned and that his hands tightened on the steering wheel. She felt the cool breeze in her face and she wanted to go on riding, but they were not going fast and she wanted to go fast. As they came near the house, she pressed herself against the seat, hoping her mother would not see her.
The woman stood with one foot on the curb, her apron hanging almost to the ground. She waved at them and he slowed the car. She came nearer, hiding her hands under her apron.
“Charlotte.” She grinned, but she looked at the man almost flirtatiously. “Em’lie said you were out ridin’. I just wanted to make sure where you was . . . an’ I need you to help with the baby now.” She pushed some strands of hair behind her ear.
The man at the wheel smiled broadly and said, “How d’you do?”
Charlotte’s mother nodded to him. “I allus have Charlotte help me with the baby ’bout this time after supper. . . . It’s awful nice o’ you to take her out ridin’, mister, but she didn’t say nothin’ to me about it.” She laughed nervously.
“Sure, I know,” he said. He stretched one arm across and opened the door gallantly. “Maybe tomorrow, then. I’ll be around for a few days.”
The woman looked in awe at the shiny dials and knobs, the upholstered seats. “Why . . . I’d like you to take her ridin’ . . . most anytime.”
Then Charlotte and her mother walked hand in hand down the sidewalk. Once the woman cast a timid glance back at the car. “He’s a mighty nice man for a city fellah, Charlotte. Where’d you meet up with him? . . . An’ say, ain’t that a pretty car?”
Charlotte watched the ground pass below her bare feet. Her free hand brushed along the coarse grass that grew high.
“Maybe he’ll be around tomorrow,” her mother said.
One blade of grass Charlotte caught convulsively and the edges jerked through her fingers. As she looked at her thumb, two thin red lines came out of the flesh.
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