The South |


by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

edited by Michelle Lyn King

Krystal has the most beautiful dive I’ve ever seen. I pull out the radio from the storage room and put it on the bucket behind the diving board. I don’t turn it on because when Krystal gets in, she’ll put it on 97.5, Today’s Country Hits. She knows all the songs. And she sings and does her head from side to side like a real star. Sometimes she’ll mess up, but then she’ll just laugh. She’s sixteen.

Sixteen is when you go to prom. I like thinking about prom. I didn’t go to prom but Mother took me to Belk’s anyway to try on dresses. The dress I picked had big poofy layers of blue chiffon and Mother brought me long white gloves to try on with it. And I spun around in that big floor to ceiling mirror. And then Mother laughed at me and told me not to be silly. She said that no one would ever ask me to prom, no one would ever ask me to anything. Mother was always right. She said the only thing I could do was ride a horse.

Norma was my best and only friend until she died. I have a picture of us on my nightstand. It’s from when we won best in dressage at the state championship in ‘58. Mother made us matching color bows, peach colored! That picture is my favorite.

Sometimes I can hear Norma tell me things from heaven. She’s been trying to get me to talk to Krystal. She says that Krystal will be a good friend for me. She thinks that Krystal’s favorite animal is horses too. So today I’m going to try to talk to her. I’m just so shy!

The sun’s not out yet. But I put on my first layer of sunscreen. UV rays can come through the clouds. And then I set up my green chair next to the picnic table. And once I do that my first layer of sunscreen has dried, so I put on my second. And then I put on my big favorite sun hat and take out my water bottle and get settled in my chair.

The pool looks pretty and clean and I am proud of myself for doing a good job. I am happy that the town lets me be the custodian for the pool. It’s a nice job for someone like me, my age of 60. I think that maybe later when it warms up, I might go for a swim. I go sit at the edge of the little end and stick my legs in the water. I’m moving them around making swirls when I hear the front gate open and close. And I look up and Krystal’s there in a big old sleep shirt. Her hair is piled up on her head like she just woke up. And she’s alone. She doesn’t have the twins she’s been watching all summer. They must be at the beach or somewhere on vacation. It’s just me and her here at the pool today.

“Hey, Miss Shirley,” she says.

I get up and go back to my green chair. And she puts her bag down on the picnic table. I can see her legs have goosebumps.

“Hey,” I say.

She steps out of her flip flops in a turn and then goes to the pool to dip her foot in the water. She always tests the pool like that before she gets in. And then she walks back over to the picnic table and asks me if I put the chemicals in the pool the first thing in the morning when I get there or before I leave in the afternoon. She says she read in Seventeen magazine that the chemicals make your hair less shiny.

I want to tell Krystal the truth, but I also want her to stay.

“A little white lie is okay,” Norma says to me from heaven.

So I tell Krystal I put the chemicals in it in the afternoon.

“Good,” she says and she takes off her sleep shirt in one graceful sweep.

And oh my gosh! She’s wearing a bikini I’ve never seen before. It’s peach!

Norma says, “Just like our bows! She’s got style!”

She heads to the radio and bends down in front of it instead of crouching. She puts it on the country station and after she gets the volume just like she likes it, she spins back around singing. She comes back over to the picnic table and takes the bobby pins out of her hair and it uncurls in this one big amber fall down her back. She’s got pretty hair. I’ve always thought so. She shakes it out a little and pulls her peach bathing suit out of her butt cheek as she goes to the diving board. And then she runs to the end of it and bounces and dives. It’s so quick and perfect. Don’t even make much of a sound.

When she comes up her hair looks very long and soft and she smooths it back with her hands. And then she wipes her eyes. I can see her class ring glittering above the water. It must be from her sweetheart. He’s probably very handsome. I bet he’s the quarterback.

“I bet he’s in the Volunteer Fire Department,” Norma says.

Krystal pulls herself out of the pool instead of using the ladder. The water trickles down her legs. And her hair runs straight down her back. She turns towards the diving board so fast that water spins out from her. I want to tell her how wonderful of a dive that was. I have to tell her. Norma would want me too. After Krystal passes I tell her, “That was a beautiful dive.” She turns her head around quickly and she’s smiling. “Well, thank you,” she says. And then she joins in with the chorus of the song.

Krystal dives again and it’s more beautiful than the last. It seems that every one of them is that way. And I think I could watch her for hours.

By the time Krystal takes a break, it’s the afternoon and the sun is right on top of us. She puts big fancy sunglasses on and spreads out her big zebra towel next to me. She gets some quarters out of her big pool bag and heads to the drink machine. She asks me if I want a Pepsi. And I say, “No thank you.” But I am glad she asks.

She comes back from the drink machine drinking her Diet Pepsi. And by the time she gets to me, she’s already finished it. She takes her suntan lotion out and starts smoothing it on her shoulders and arms, then her belly and legs. And I wonder if I should ask her if she’d like me to put some on her back. If I was Krystal’s best friend, I could put suntan lotion on her back.

She puts the lotion back in her bag and pulls out a pack of Virginia Slims and a lighter.

“Can you keep a secret, Miss Shirley?” she says.

I nod and pull down my sunhat.

“Don’t want my folks to know I smoke,” she says as she lights the cigarette. She sits Indian style, facing the pool, and flicks the ashes in the Diet Pepsi can like an expert. “It’s nice not having those twins today,” she says, with her back to me. “I’ve been needing a break real bad,” she says. The smoke slowly comes out from her. And it doesn’t smell really strong and nasty like most cigarettes. And her hair starts to dry in the sun. I bet her hair doesn’t tangle.

Norma’s hair never tangled. She loved me to wash it behind the barn. I special ordered her strawberry shampoo. It made pink bubbles. And nobody believed me, but sometimes when we’d ride together in the summer, Norma’s hair would shine pink.

“Oh, I forgot to ask,” Krystal turns around to me. “Would you like one?” She leans her head towards her cigarette.

Norma says, “Yes, try it Shirley! Don’t be a square!”

But I say, “No, thank you.”

“That’s okay,” Krystal says and she lifts her hair off her back. She’s starting to sweat, I can see it sparkling on her. She’s so tan. I’ve never been that tan in my life. “I didn’t think you smoked,” she says.

Norma says, “Talk to her some more! Be her friend!” I can almost feel her nose nudging me.

So before Krystal turns around from me again, I ask her if she likes horses.

“They’re my favorite animal,” she says.

“I told you so,” Norma says.

“My mama said you used to be a champion horse rider. That’s so cool,” Krystal scooches closer to me on her towel, “How many horses did you have?”

So I tell her how my family always had them, but never more than four at a time. But that Norma was the best, the prettiest, the fastest, the most graceful.

Krystal blows out smoke like an angel, like she’s puckering up for a kiss. She asks me what color Norma was.

And I tell her sable brown, and how she was a direct descendant of Sir Archie, the father of the American thoroughbred. And how I started training her when I was twelve and how by the time I got to be her age we were making the papers. And I probably tell her a lot of other things that I can’t remember. Then I stop and see that I’m talking with my hands like Mother always makes fun of me for doing. So I put them together on my lap like a nice young lady.

Krystal takes a last drag and stubs out her cigarette on the top of the Diet Pepsi can and sits it off her towel.

“Norma sounds beautiful,” she says and she scooches closer. “To tell you the truth, even though they’re my favorite animal, I really don’t know that much about horses, but I’ve always wanted to ride one.” She starts biting at a hangnail. “I guess because they always look so free when they’re running fast. Or maybe it’s just a little girl fantasy, you know?” She rips the nail and spits it beside her and then looks up to me. “I used to have horse posters all in my bedroom.”

“I know you’d be a natural rider,” I say. “I bet Norma would have loved for you to ride her.” I think that Norma would have loved for Krystal to ride her fast in the fields in the morning mist.

Krystal puts her legs under her and straightens her back and asks me what kind of necklace I’m wearing. “I love jewelry,” she says.

And I can’t believe I’ve forgotten, but I suppose I do wear it every day and I never take it off. I’m wearing the locket Mother gave me when Norma died. It has her hair in it. But I just tell Krystal it’s my special locket.

“Cool,” Krystal says, “Can I see it?”

I have never shown it to anyone. I get a little afraid.

“Well, I would but the clasp is so small,” I say, “It’s really hard to get off. My arthritis as it is.”

And before I know it, Krystal hops up and she’s behind me taking off my favorite sun hat. Krystal’s fingers feel warm and soft on my neck. Her fingernails almost make me tingle. I close my eyes and feel the locket come off my chest.

When I open my eyes, Krystal is standing in front of me, holding the locket open in the sun.

“Hey Shirley, look over here,” Norma says.

I turn and look in the yard beside the pool and Norma is there in the sun. I can’t believe it! Her hair is blowing so pretty. I smile at her and she smiles back at me like she’s proud.

“What you see?,” Krystal says.

I turn around and Krystal’s standing there moving the locket different ways in the sun.

“Oh, nothing,” I say. I wish Krystal could see Norma behind me, but I know she can’t.

But I do tell Krystal that she can borrow my locket anytime.

“Really?,” she says and she holds it next to her heart, “Gosh, Miss Shirley I’d love that. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is really something special.”

“Anything for a friend,” I tell her.

And me and Krystal stay all afternoon at the pool. She dives and dives. And we get hot dogs from the Duck Thru across the street! We both get just plain with ketchup! And Norma watches us from under a tree. And I’m happy to be there with all my friends. And when Krystal leaves she waves goodbye to me and then touches my locket on her chest. And then I wave goodbye to Norma under the tree and she walks down the street towards the cafe. “See you later,” I say.

When I walk into the door at home I feel like I am beaming, like my smile is so happy that the whole world can tell. Mother is sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me to make her tomato soup. She eats tomato soup at 4:30. She eats early because she is so old.

“Why are you grinning so dumb, child?” Mother says to me.

But I don’t want to answer her.

“You don’t have to,” Norma says.

“The low sodium kind, and don’t put any pepper, you know I can’t stand spices,” Mother pulls her sweater around her tighter. She struggles a little with the collar. I reach to help her but she pulls away.

I tell her I only buy the low sodium kind, and that I never use any pepper. The last time I did she coughed all night. I grab a can from the pantry and open it, pour it in the pot and turn the eye on.

“Put that eye on 3, Shirley,” Mother coughs and reaches for the tissue box in the middle of the table. “How many of my fine French cooking ware have you ruined using that high heat.”

“But I’m only thinking of you, Mother,” I say, “The hotter it is, the quicker it gets done and then you can eat.”

I look outside the window and see another horse I have never seen before! It’s an Arabian horse with a shimmering black coat. It’s mane is decorated with beads! It’s digging at the roots of the crepe myrtle with its hooves. I gasp.

“What’s wrong with you, girl,” Mother says.

I look down and I’ve already burned the soup.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m sorry.” I don’t want Mother to yell at me.

The black horse is watching me be afraid.

“Where is Norma?” I ask it.

“You idiot,” Mother says behind me, “She’s dead.”

I get so mad that I take the pot of soup and throw it on Mother. She screams and I go lay down in my bed and listen to her screaming until it turns to coughing again. I put my pillow over my head, hold it against my ears. But I can still hear Mother start to call, “Help me!” she screams.

When I get up the black horse will still be out there digging. I’m afraid to ask it again where Norma has gone. But she can’t be too far.

I’ll tell Krystal about it tomorrow. She has to understand.