Jenni L. Walsh
But I, being poor, have only my dreams.
Hands in my hair, I look over the words I wrote on the Mason jar atop my bureau. I snigger, almost as if I’m antagonizing the sentiment. One day I won’t be poor with dreams. I’ll have money and dreams.
I drop my hair and swallow a growl, never able to get my stubborn curls quite right.
My little sister carefully sets her pillow down, tugs at the corner to give it shape, the final touch to making her bed. “Stop messing with it.”
“Easy for you to say. The humidity ain’t playing games with your hair.”
And Little Billie’s hair is down. Smooth and straight. Mine is pinned back into a low bun. Modest and practical.
Little Billie chuckles. “Well, I’m going before Mama hollers at me. Church starts in twenty minutes and you know she’s got to watch everyone come in.”
I shake my head; that woman always has her nose to the ground. Little Billie scoots out of our bedroom and I get back to taming my flyaways and scan my bureau for my favorite stud earrings, one of our few family heirlooms. Footsteps in the hall quicken my fingers. I slide in another hairpin, jabbing my skull. “I’m coming, Ma!”
A deep cough.
I turn to find my boyfriend taking up much of the doorway. He’s got his broad shoulders and tall frame to thank for that.
I smile, saying, “Oh, it’s only you.”
Roy’s own smile doesn’t quite form. “Yes, it’s only me.”
I wave him off, a strand falling out of place. Roy being ’round ain’t nothin’ new, but on a Sunday morning … That gets my heart bumping with intrigue. “What ya doing here so early? The birds are barely chirpin’.”
“It ain’t so early. Got us less than twenty minutes ’til—”
“Thought I could walk you to church,” Roy says.
“Is that so?” My curiosity builds, ’specially with how this boy is shifting his weight from side to side. He’s up to something. And I ain’t one to be kept in the dark. Fingers busy with my hair, I motion with my elbow and arch a brow. “That for me?”
Roy glances down at an envelope in his hand, as if he forgot he was even holding it. He moves it behind his back. “It can wait. There’s actually something else—”
I’m across the room in a heartbeat, tugging on his arm. “Oh no it can’t.”
On the envelope, “Final Notice” stares back at me in bold letters. The sender is our electric company. Any excitement is gone.
“I’m sorry, Bonnelyn,” Roy says. “Caught my eye on it in the bushes out front.”
My arms fall to my sides and I stare unblinking at the envelope, not sure how something so small, so light, could mean something so big, so heavy, for our family. “I didn’t know my ma hadn’t been paying this.”
Roy pushes the envelope, facedown, onto my bureau. “I can help pay—”
“Thanks, but we’ll figure it out.” I sigh at my hair, at our unpaid bill, at the fact I’m watching my sister after church instead of putting in hours at the diner. Fortunately, my brother’s pulling a double at the cement plant. Ma will be at the factory all afternoon. But will it be enough?
I move in front of the wall mirror to distract myself. Seeing my hand-me-down blouse ain’t helping. I peek at Roy, hoping I don’t find pity on his face. There he goes again, throwing his weight from foot to foot. And, sure, that boy is sweet as pie, but I know he ain’t antsy thinkin’ my lights are suddenly going to go off.
“Everything okay, Roy?”
That yeah ain’t so convincing.
“You almost done here?” he asks. Roy shifts the old Mason jar to the side, holds up the earring I’d been looking for.
I nod—to the earring, not to being done—and he brings it to me. Despite how this morning is turning out, I smile, liking that Roy knew what I was looking for without me having to tell him.
“Ready now?” he says.
I slide another pin into my hair. “Why’s everyone rushing me?”
Roy swallows, and if I had five clams to bet, I’d bet he’s nervous ’bout something. He edges closer to my bureau. He shakes the Mason jar, the pieces of paper rustling inside. “When did you write this on the outside?”
But I, being poor, have only my dreams.
I avert my eyes, being those words weren’t meant for Roy’s. “Not too long ago.”
“Ya know, Bonnelyn, you won’t always be poor. I’ll make sure of that.”
“I know I won’t.” I add a final pin to my hair. I’ll make sure of that.
“So why’d you write it?”
“I didn’t. William Butler Yeats did.”
Roy shoves his hands in his pockets. “You know what I mean.”
I shrug and stare at my reflection. “It inspires me, wanting to be more than that line. And I will. I’ll put a white picket fence in front of my house to prove it.”
I turn away from the mirror to face him. His voice sounded off. Too high. But Roy ain’t looking at me. He’s staring at the wall above my head. “Our house,” I correct, a pang of guilt stabbing me in the belly ’cause I didn’t say our to begin with. “That jar is full of our dreams, after all.”
Really, it’s full of doodles, scribbled on whatever paper Roy had on hand. Napkins. Ripped corners of his textbook pages. The top flap of a cereal box. He shoved the first scrap of paper in my hand when we were only knee-high to a grasshopper: quick little drawings of me and him in front of the Eiffel Tower, riding horses with dogs running ’round our feet, holding hands by the Gulf’s crashing waves.
Our dreams. Plenty of ’em. Big and small. Whimsical and sweet.
But this here is the twenties. Women can vote; women are equals, wanting to make a name for themselves. I’m no exception. Sure, I’ll bring those doodles to life with Roy, but I would’ve added my own sketches to the jar if I could draw. Standing at the front of my very own classroom. At a bank counter, depositing my payroll checks. Shaking hands with a salesman, purchasing my first car.
Call it selfish, call it whatever ya like, but after struggling for money all my life, my dreams have always come before ours.
Still, I link our hands. “I’m ready to go.”
* * *
The congregation mimics my pastor’s booming voice. The women flick their fans faster with excitement. Pastor Frank shuffles to the right, then to the left, sixty-some eyes following his every movement. From the choir pews off to the side, I watch his mesmerized flock hang on his every word, myself included. My ma is amidst the familiar faces. She prefers to use Daddy’s brown hat to cool herself, holding on to him even after he’s been gone all these years. I can’t say I blame her.
“Amen!” we chime.
Pastor Frank nods at me, and I move from the choir box to the piano. I bring my hands down and the first chords of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” roar to life. Every Sunday, I sit on this here bench, press my fingers into the keys, and let the Lord’s words roll off my tongue. Ma says Daddy would be proud too. I sure hope that’s true.
It’s another reason why I’ll make something of myself. In our small town or in a big city, it doesn’t matter much, but Bonnelyn Parker is going to be somebody. Wherever life takes me, whatever final notice stands in my way, my daddy will look down on me and smile, knowing I ain’t struggling, I’m thriving. I’m more than poor.
I push my voice louder, raise my chin, and sing the hymn’s last note, letting it vibrate with the piano’s final chord.
The congregation shouts praises to the Lord as Pastor Frank clasps his hands together and tells us all to, “Go and spread His word.”
Voices break out, everyone beating their gums at once. I slip off the bench, weave through the crowd. A few people are always louder than the rest. Mrs. Davis is having a potluck lunch. Mr. Miller’s best horse is sick. He spent his early morning hours in his barn, from the looks of his dirty overalls.
Ma’s got more pride than a lion and makes certain we’re dressed to the nines, even if our nine is really only a five. Still, my older brother’s vest and slacks are his Sunday best. And even though we’ve got secondhand clothes, my sister’s and my white blouses are neatly tucked into our skirts. We may be pretending to look the part, but our family always gets by. We find a way, just like we’ll make sure that electric bill gets paid. Though I don’t like how Ma let this bill get so late.
I rush through the church’s double doors, sucking in fresh air, and shield my eyes from the sun. A laugh slips out. There’s my brother, playing keep-away from my little sister with one of her once white shoes. Buster tosses the shoe to Roy. Roy fumbles it. No surprise there, but part of me wonders if his nerves from earlier are sticking ’round. On the way to church, he wouldn’t let me get a word in, going on nonstop ’bout the weather. I reckon the summer of 1927 is hot, real hot, but not worth all his fuss.
“Little Billie, those boys picking on you?” I call, skipping down the church steps, keeping my eyes on Roy.
He takes immediate notice of me, missing my brother’s next throw. “Say, Bonnelyn.” Roy wipes his hairline. “I was hoping to do this before church, but you were having trouble with your…” He gestures toward his own hair, then stops, wisely thinkin’ better of it. “I’ve a surprise for you.”
“A surprise? Why didn’t you tell me so? I could’ve hurried.”
He also wisely doesn’t comment on my earlier irritation at being hurried.
“Follow me?” Roy asks, his brown eyes hopeful.
“Not today, lover boy,” Buster cuts in. “Bonn’s watching Billie.”
Billie hops toward me on one foot, her voice bouncing as she proclaims how she’s eleven and doesn’t need to be babysat no more. I bend to pick up her lost shoe, letting out a long sigh. Roy sighs too. But Roy also looks like a puppy that’s been kicked.
“Will the surprise take long?” I ask him. “Buster doesn’t need to be at work for another two hours.”
“Actually an hour,” my brother says. “But Roy here probably only needs a few minutes, tops.” He winks, and Roy playfully charges him.
My cheeks flush, and not ’cause Roy and I have done that. Roy hasn’t even looked at me in a way that would lead to that.
“Let’s go.” I bounce on my toes and push Roy down the dirt-packed street, then realize I don’t know where I’m going and let Roy lead. Buster’s laugher trails us.
We go over one block, passing my house, nestled between the cemetery and the library. An old picket fence that Ma’s been harping on my brother to paint for ages stretches ’cross the front.
Cement City is barely more than an intersection, and there ain’t much farther to go; just the cement plant, a few farms, and the river. Then there are the railroad tracks, separating us from Dallas.
I glance up at Roy, confused, when we stop at a home just past the library.
He motions toward the house, his sweaty hand taking mine with his. He swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
“What is it?” I ask him. “Why’re we here?”
“My father said they are going to tear down this old shack.”
With its crooked shutters, chipped paint, caved-in roof, I can understand why. No one’s lived here for years, and Ma doesn’t go a day without complaining ’bout its drab looks and how it’s bad for our little town.
I nod in agreement.
“But,” he says, “I’ve been squirreling away my pennies, and I’ve enough to save her.”
A cool heat rushes me, but I’m not sure how that’s possible. I wipe a strand of hair from my face. “You’re buying this here house?”
“I am,” he says, his Adam’s apple bouncing again. “For you and me. Our house.” Roy keeps talking before I can get a word—or thought—in. “Bonnelyn…” He trails off, digs into his pocket. “Here’s another one for your jar.”
My eyes light up, recognizing one of Roy’s infamous black-and-white doodles.
It’s our church.
It’s me, in a puffy dress.
I look up from the doodle. It’s Roy no longer standing in front of me but down on one knee.
“Bonnelyn Elizabeth Parker,” he says, “I’m fixin’ to take you down the middle aisle.”
I knit my brows. “Are you proposing?”
“Well I ain’t down here to tie my shoe.”
I’d laugh, but I’m stunned. Marriage? With Roy? I swallow, and stare at the drawing, his lovely, heartfelt drawing.
Sure, marrying Roy has always been in the cards. But … I’m not sure I’m ready yet. Some people wait ’til their twenties to get married, in today’s day and age, giving ’em plenty of time to make their own mark.
Roy taps the underside of my chin, forcing my gaze away from his doodle and down to him.
“I … um … I’m flattered Roy. I am. But we’re only seventeen—”
“Not now.” He stands slowly and palms my cheek that’s probably as flushed as his own. “We’ve got some growing up to do first. I know you got dreams for yourself.”
I sigh, in a good way. Hearing him acknowledge my goals relaxes me. Those jitterbugs change a smidge to butterflies. “You really want to marry me?”
“I do, Bonn.” Roy leans down, quite the feat to my five-foot-nothin’ height, and presses his lips lightly to mine. “When we’re good and ready. You tell me when, and that’ll be it. We’ll create a life together. How does that sound?”
I smile, even while my chest rises from a shaky breath. I curse my nerves for dulling my excitement. My boyfriend declaring he’s ready to build a life with me shouldn’t give me the heebie-jeebies. It doesn’t, I decide.
“We’ll finish school,” Roy says.
I force my smile wider.
“I’ll get a good-paying job as a reporter,” he goes on. “You can become a teacher, like you’ve always wanted. You can lead the drama club, be onstage, do pageants with our little girls.”
Now my grin is genuine. “We’re going to have little girls?”
“Of course. A little fella, too. ’Til then, I’ll fix this house up. She’ll be spiffy when I’m done with her, white picket fence and everything.”
“I know it.” He dips to my eye level. “You’re happy, right?”
Am I happy? I roll those five letters ’round my head. Yes, I’ve been stuck on Roy for ages. He made me happy when we were seven and he picked me dandelions, when we were ten and he stopped Buster from making me kiss a frog, when we were thirteen and he patched up my knee after I fell off my bike. The memories keep on coming, and I don’t want that happiness to stop. His proposal caught me off guard, that’s all. But, yes, we’ll make something of ourselves, and we’ll do it together.
I lean onto my tiptoes and peck his lips with a kiss. “Roy Thornton, I’d be honored to be your wife one day.”
He hoots, swooping his arms under me. Before I know it, I’m cradled against his chest and we’re swinging in a circle.
I scream, but it’s playful. “You better not drop me, you clumsy fool.”
He answers me with a kiss on the side of my head, and then another and another, as he carries me toward my ma’s house.
Freeze, I think. I don’t want the secure way he holds me, the way the air catches my skirt, the hope for what’s to come, to stop, ever.
Copyright © 2017 by Jenni L. Walsh
A Trade Hardcover
$25.99 | 304 pages
On Sale May 9, 2017