Brenda Wilson Wooley
Continued from May 2, 2009
She was wearing a blue, dress with a circle skirt, and on her feet were black spike heels. He was dressed in a pair of black pleated trousers, topped with one of those pink nylon shirts all the boys were wearing. I had always hated pink nylon shirts; I thought they looked sissy. But I was quickly changing my mind.
“Effie,” she said in a husky voice, “Do you have any sling-backs?” She studied her long, red nails as Red Hawk ran his hand up and down her back, obviously enjoying its silky feel.
Effie gazed around the room, her chubby face thoughtful. “I believe we have a pair or two just above those flats over there, hon,” she said, pushing her way through the crowd.
Virginia Mae Stowers followed Effie across the room, spike heels tapping, silky dress swishing. Red Hawk leaned against a rack of loafers, his half-closed eyes never leaving her slim form. He lit a cigarette and inhaled, twin plumes of smoke rolling from his nose. Several young women gazed at him, but they needn't have bothered. Red Hawk only had eyes for Virginia Mae Stowers.
“Let's go, girls,” Maw Maw said, as Virginia Mae Stowers walked past us in a wave of perfume, the sling-backs hooked over one finger. Her nail polish was the brightest red I had ever seen.
Red Hawk removed two dollars from his wallet and paid for the shoes, and they left the store, arm-in-arm.
Later, we spent a long time at the Ben Franklin where Pitty Pat and I bought a set of false finger nails. Then I began looking at the nail polish. There was Fiery Red, Deep Red, Light Red, Red Red, and all kinds of others, but when I came to Fire Engine Red, I knew I had found the shade.
That night, we opened our false nails and began. The glue was sticky and messy, and we had a hard time keeping our little brothers and sisters out of it. Pitty Pat began sticking hers on haphazardly. She soon got tired of it all, ripped them off and went out to play baseball. I finally got mine stuck on, and after I polished them, they looked pretty good.
The following Saturday morning, Maw Maw called to tell us she was treating us to dinner in town. Dining out was rare, so Pitty Pat and I dressed carefully for the occasion. I brushed my hair a hundred strokes and put a bow in it. We both put on our Sunday dresses and patent leather shoes, which we shined with leftover breakfast biscuits.
The Dinner Bell was hazy with cigarette smoke and packed with customers, Hank Williams belting out Honky Tonk Blues from the jukebox. The blender whirred, cranking out one milkshake after another, and the aroma of sizzling hamburgers made my mouth water. We recognized just about everyone in the place, so Maw Maw was busy talking to first one and then the other as we seated ourselves on the red, plastic-covered chrome chairs.
I looked up into the face of Virginia Mae Stowers.
Her hair was tucked into a net, and she was wearing a red-and-white checked uniform. Up close, her face didn't look as good as it did far away; her green eyes were hooded and kind of sad looking. There was a sprinkle of freckles across her nose, and one of her front teeth was chipped. But she was still pretty.
“Our special today is ham hocks and white beans, with cornbread on the side,” she said, pencil poised in the air.
After we ordered, I watched her walk to the next table. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't walk like she did. One hip moved, swirled up and jiggled; and then the other side moved, swirled up and jiggled. I was not the only one looking. Every man in the restaurant stopped eating and watched her.
Maw Maw looked at Virginia Mae Stowers and rolled her eyes. “That country fried steak's gonna taste mighty good, girls.”
While her customers were busy eating, Virginia Mae Stowers settled herself on a stool at the counter. She crossed her long legs and lit a cigarette, talking to first one customer and then the other. And after we finished our meal, she strolled back to our table, “Would y'all like some pie? We have sweet potato, blackberry cobbler, chess, banana crème, cherry and fresh apple.”
Maw Maw ordered blackberry cobbler, and Pitty Pat and I ordered banana crème. .
“I bet y'all want that a la mode,” she said, winking at Maw Maw.
She came back in a cloud of that wonderful perfume when she served our pie and ice cream, and I vowed to make a trip to the dime store and find that fragrance, no matter how long it took or how much it cost.
As we were leaving, a black coupe pulled up in front of the Dinner Bell, Red Hawk at the wheel. He propped one elbow on the open window, revealing a tattoo of a coiled snake on his forearm, and pulled a pack of Camels from his rolled-up tee shirt sleeve. He was flipping open a lighter, but he stopped and sat up straight as we approached.
“Well, hello there, Red,” Maw Maw said.
“Hello, Miss Muriel,” he said, smiling, “These pretty girls your granddaughters?”
He looked even better up close, deeply tanned, his eyes a brilliant blue. What a lucky girl Virginia Mae Stowers was!
Papa came home from the plant that night in a bad mood. I hated it when he was that way. First, he got mad because he couldn't find the newspaper. We had all read it, and someone put it where it didn't belong. Then he got onto my little brothers for making too much noise, and when we sat down to supper, he got mad because we were having meatloaf.
“What are you looking at,” he said to me. I put my head down and continued eating.
Pitty Pat and I spent a long time discussing it after we had gone to bed. “It's not supposed to be this way,” I said, “When people get married, they're supposed to love each other and not make a big deal about what's for supper.”
After Pitty Pat went to sleep, I lay awake, imagining Virginia Mae Stowers and Red Hawk married and in a home of their own. They were really in love, and I just knew he would never get mad if she made meat loaf for supper.
The summer was coming to an end and it was only a couple of weeks before school began. Momma ordered me my first bra from Sears & Roebuck, size 28AA. I was really excited, but I soon learned it was really hard to get used to. On the one hand, I wanted to wear a bra, and on the other hand, I didn't want to bother with it. I wanted to run and play and be a kid, and I wanted to stand in front of my mirror and admire myself in my new bra.
The following Saturday afternoon, Pitty Pat and I went to The Strand to see How to Marry a Millionaire, starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall. It was the first movie at The Strand that was in Cinemascope, and everything looked bigger than life.
Not long after the movie began, Virginia Mae Stowers swept down the aisle, the scent of her heavy perfume wafting behind her. She sat down right in front of us. As Marilyn Monroe talked in her sexy voice, Virginia Mae Stowers turned around in her seat, like she was looking for someone, and as Marilyn and Betty were dressing for their dates with millionaires, she turned around again, craning her long neck, looking first one way and then the other. I watched her, and even quit eating my Milk Duds to look around myself, but nothing unusual seemed to be happening back there. I assumed she was looking for Red Hawk; maybe he was finishing up farming and would be there later.
As Marilyn's and Betty's dates arrived, Virginia Mae Stowers turned and waved at a short stocky boy, motioning him over. He smiled, sat down next to her, and put his arm around the back of her seat.
I hardly noticed what was happening during the rest of the picture show. Virginia Mae Stowers looked lovingly at the blond boy exactly as she had looked at Red Hawk, and the blond boy was treating her as nicely as Red Hawk had.
“Boy, I hope I can have nice clothes and an apartment exactly like those girls when I grow up,” Pitty Pat said as the blinding sunlight hit us outside the theatre, “Don't you?”
I couldn't think about the movie just then. I had just spotted Red Hawk's coupe.
It was just across the street, tucked between a large Buick and a pick-up truck. He was slumped in the seat, staring at the doors of the movie theatre, where Virginia Mae Stowers and the blond boy were departing, holding hands. She was wearing a deep green dress and the sling-back spike heels Red Hawk had bought for her at Effie's.
I wanted to watch and see what happened, but Maw Maw pulled up just then and we had to go.
When we got home, my brothers and sisters decided to play baseball. They begged me to play, but I was getting too old for such things. Young ladies put on lipstick and polished their nails. They washed their hair and rolled it up in pin curls. They did a lot of things, but one of them was not playing baseball. I had an odd feeling, though, when I heard the smack of the bat and everyone cheering.
The following Saturday dawned bright and hot. Pitty Pat and I rose early, anticipating our Saturday afternoon in town with Maw Maw. Momma made pancakes and sausage, as she always did on Saturdays, and the little ones squabbled as usual.
Pitty Pat and I decided to wear our matching checked dresses with square necks; mine was green; hers was red. I had just enough time to buff my long, red nails on the hem of my skirt before Maw Maw drove up.
It was so hot in town that the sidewalks seemed to shimmer. Everyone coming out of Petrie's with ice cream cones had to lick furiously to keep it from dripping. Tootsie wasn't walking so fast, and she wasn't wearing her tam. Shorty High, his bald head beaded with perspiration, tripped on his apron as he came out of the Kroger store with two huge bags of groceries, but he quickly steadied himself and loaded them into the trunk of Taylor Todd's Nash.
We were sitting in the Chevrolet, waiting for the picture show to begin, when we spotted Virginia Mae Stowers.
“She doesn't look so good,” Pitty Pat said.
She was wearing a red dress and red spike-heeled sandals and carrying a Ben Franklin sack. It was the smallest Ben Franklin sack I had ever seen, and I wondered what was in it.
She was in front of the car now, and she did look bad. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her hair wasn't curled like it usually was. The burnished coppery color was still beautiful, though; the sun was shining on it, and it looked sparkly.
Later, I looked at the Nestlé's Hair Tint at the Ben Franklin, but couldn't find one the same color as Virginia Mae Stowers's. I must have sniffed at least a dozen bottles of perfume before I found the kind that smelled like hers. I couldn't buy it though; even combining what both Pitty Pat and I had left, we didn't have the thirty-nine cents.
As we came out of the Ben Franklin, Virginia Mae Stowers and Red Hawk were standing on the corner in front of the Kroger store. He was wearing his pink nylon shirt, standing with his hands on his hips, his face close to hers. Her eyes were red, and she was shaking her head.
The clutches of old men along Front Street were quieter than usual, and the sky had taken on a yellowish glow as we walked to the car. I looked up at the sky, and when I looked back, Red Hawk had disappeared. Virginia Mae Stowers was standing, head down, the moist warm wind lifting her hair off her neck and blowing it in ringlets around her face. She looked up and down the street as she tried to light a cigarette, but her lighter kept going out, so she dropped it into her purse. She started to come down the street our way, then she turned and walked back to the corner. By the time we got into the car, she was gone.
Suddenly, the wind picked up.
“It's coming up a storm,” Pitty Pat said, rolling the window down and looking up at the sky.
The old men were holding onto their hats, some hurrying to their cars, when a black coupe rounded the corner. Red Hawk was at the wheel, moving at a snail's pace, and he was looking toward Front Street. He almost stopped in front of the Kroger Store, but he gunned the motor and sped out of sight.
The wind stopped blowing, everything becoming still, and lightening streaked across the sky. A loud blast of thunder shook us to our toes. I wondered if Pitty Pat was right; maybe a storm was coming.
The scream came out of nowhere.
Pitty Pat and I looked at each other and then back at the street, where people were stopping and looking around.
“Help! Help me!”
Virginia Mae Stowers suddenly appeared at the corner and began running down Front Street, “Help!”
Before we could say anything, Red Hawk materialized, grim-faced and pale. He lifted something, and Pitty Pat and I gasped. He was holding a shot gun.
He stopped, looked around, then he took off after her, barrel in the air, finger on the trigger.
“Help!” she screamed to a bunch of old men, “Help!”
Several scattered, and one stepped away, hands in the air. Tootsie, coming down the street, backed up and flattened her body against the bank building.
“Help me,” she screamed at Shorty High, “He's gonna kill me!”
Shorty stopped, dropping both bags of groceries. People ran in all directions as cans of stewed tomatoes, creamed corn and green beans rolled toward the curb.
She slowed in front of Petrie's, dropping her Ben Franklin sack and losing one of her high heels, still screaming, “He's gonna kill me! He's gonna kill me!”
She cut through the people in front of Effie's, the crowd moving back as she darted into the store, backing farther away as Red Hawk followed her inside, and swooping back in, horrified looks on their faces.
The ear-splitting crack of a gun shot pierced the air.
“No, no no,” she screamed, “No, Red, please!”
There was another gun shot. And then another. And another. And another.
For a second or two, everything became still; nothing moved. Pitty Pat and I stared at each other, unable to say a word, as the rain swept in.
Harsh, angry splats hit the sidewalks as people began screaming and running in all directions. Tootsie tripped on Virginia Mae Stowers's Ben Franklin sack, sending it skittering down the street, its lone content, a tiny bottle of Blue Waltz perfume, tumbling out of the sack, rolling and bumping along, and finally landing right-side-up. Rain hammered the overturned red high heel as people scuttled over it, kicking it here and there, but the bottle of Blue Waltz sat, unmoved, in the middle of the street.
I don't remember much after that. I know I felt like I was at the picture show, seeing the same movie over and over again. I know Maw Maw thanked the Lord that we were okay, and said those people who crowded into the alley just to look at Virginia Mae Stowers's dead body should be ashamed of themselves, and I remember the look on her face when she told Momma and Papa about it as Pitty Pat and I sat stiffly on the sofa. All I could think of was the lone red high heel sandal lying on its side, the Blue Waltz sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, and the relentless rain pounding them both.
It was in all the newspapers, even The Paducah Sun-Democrat. The first shot blew off one of her fingers, the second hit her shoulder as she ran out the back door. In the alley, he shot her three more times, killing her instantly.
Everyone said he didn't look like the Red Hawk they knew, and Shorty was quoted in the Paducah Sun-Democrat, “He looked like the devil had took over his body.”
The manhunt went on for two days and nights, and the sheriff and a bunch of deputies even stopped by our house. “He could be anywhere, we've got deputies all around the county,” Sheriff Bill Bowes told Papa, “Ballard and McCracken law enforcement are joining up with us, and we're bringing in the blood hounds.”
I kept imagining Red Hawk running around somewhere, maybe the Mississippi River bottoms just below our house, the hounds hot on his heels, wing tips caked with mud, pink nylon shirt in shreds. In bed, pressed close to Pitty Pat, I lay awake, unable to sleep, fearing I might see him peering through our bedroom window and wondering if he might be hiding in the woods nearby.
It all ended when they found him in Billy Reeve's abandoned barn, hanging from a rafter. His suicide note had three words scrawled on it: I'm sorry Momma.
Virginia Mae Stowers's funeral was held at First Baptist. We heard that most of the county attended; they had to borrow chairs from every other church in town to accommodate them. They said her sister sang Standing on the Promises, and everyone in the congregation was all torn up. They had to pull her mother off the casket.
The next day, a graveside service was held for Red Hawk. Maw Maw went, and she said only three people were there, besides his mother.
That night at supper Papa gave us a talking-to. “We don't know why these things happen,” he said, “Y'all will just have to put it out of your minds,” and things like that. Momma served meat loaf, and Papa didn't even complain. After supper, he hugged her and put his arm around her.
I gazed at Momma and Papa as they walked into the living room. They were still here, loving each other, and Virginia Mae Stowers and Red Hawk were dead.
We went to town with Maw Maw the next Saturday, and the next. We bought our movie magazines, went to the picture show and sat in the Chevrolet, watching the people walk by. I turned twelve just before school started, and I finally got used to wearing a bra, but I couldn't stand to even look at false finger nails or Nestlé's Hair Tint, and for a good long while, when a girl walked past me wearing Blue Waltz perfume, it all came back and I saw Virginia Mae Stowers and Red Hawk arm-in-arm, her bronze hair swirling in ringlets around her face, his smiling blue eyes, the look of pure love on his face, as they walked down Front Street those warm Saturday afternoons.
More information on Brenda HERE