Short story winners in the annual Free Weekly Literary Contest

FIRST PLACE: Seventh Street by Cecilia Hitt
My daughter Dixie and I were living in one of those broken up old houses on Seventh Street when Caroline and Chad moved into the apartment next to us.  It was a hot Saturday afternoon even for a Little Rock August and nobody with any sense was stirring about.  I was sitting on the sofa doing a pile of mending, Dixie right next to me watching Sesame Street.  We heard the front door creak open downstairs, and then there was a scraping and dragging on the stairs, and a child’s voice, saying “Mama, this where we gonna be?”  The woman’s reply was too soft for me to catch, and then some more scraping and dragging on the stairs.  I  laid aside the shirt I was putting the button on, and went to the door we’d left ajar to give us a little air on account of the window fan didn’t do justice to the heat.  A young colored woman was standing just a few feet from our door, fanning her face with a piece of paper that I took to be the usual say-nothing lease that our shameless slumlord handed out to every new tenant. She was looking around her with the sort of expression that says, “Have we really come to this?”  A little boy about four years old was sitting on a large red suitcase, holding a small Tonka truck just like the one I’d given my nephew Billy for Christmas.
I cleared my throat and walked out into the hall. “ Evening, ma’am. Are you moving in? Before I knew what I was doing, I reached out to shake her hand and by the time I realized what I’d done, it was too late. After a moment’s hesitation, she reached hers out too.  Her hand was soft and warm, just like white folks’.  “Can I help you with that suitcase?” And together we hauled it over to the door of the apartment next to mine and Dixie’s. After a few seconds’ silence, she said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and not finding anything else to say myself, I said, “Well, have yourself a good evening,” and pulled Dixie, who was by then in the hallway staring at the new neighbors, back inside our apartment.
“Mama, they’re colored!” she said, after I shut the door. Well, yes, that’s so,” I said.  To tell the truth, I was having trouble digesting that fact myself. In l978 you didn’t find white people living in the same buildings as the colored. True, our street was one of those going-to-seed neighborhoods that were going black around the edges, but people still stayed apart in their own buildings, and we kept our kids apart too.
Even so, after the initial shock, Dixie took to Chad. It was a sight to see, Dixie riding him up and down the block on that big old bike that she could barely reach the pedals of herself, Chad holding on to those handle bars and giggling like all get out. Dixie had always wanted a little brother, but I tell her she needs to wait til a daddy comes along to complete the package.
Caroline and Chad turned out a welcome change after that dubious couple from Atlanta that lived across the way before them.  That bunch would haul in a case of beer and then I could hear them screaming at each other from across the wall until they made up with a bed-banging truce that made our own walls like to fall down.  They had the nerve to run up long-distance calls on my phone too. There she’d be just as bold as pie to my face, saying, “Ma’am, can I use your phone. It’s just a local call. Well, I suppose she considered the planet earth to be a local call because when the phone bill came that call was direct to Los Angeles, California. But then who was I to refuse, since I had the only phone in the house. So she was calling off to Macon, and Tallahassee and New Orleans, besides that call to the other side of the continent. Local calls. When Caroline and Chad moved in, it was a treat to have quiet, decent neighbors.
I was always trying to figure out a way to get me and Dixie out of that place. The bullet hole in the door – about the level of a security peephole, which we didn’t have anyhow –  reminded me how George, that old son-of-a-gun who talked to himself downstairs had gone on a rampage with that pistol of his once. Helen the manager lived next door to him, but she was so involved with her bottle of Jack Daniels that it took a couple of shots to rouse her. And the cockroaches – I’d never in my born days seen such creatures. I always knew when I had a new neighbor upstairs. The little buggers would all disappear at once – the whole horde moving over for a day or two to check out the cuisine at the newcomers’ place. I’m surprised I couldn’t hear the thunder of their tiny feet scurrying over the first time they heard the neighbors’ refrigerator open. But then they always came back.
My friend Ann had the nerve to ask if I kept my kitchen clean. I swipe up the slightest crumb with a sponge, I told her. It’s the popcorn that brings them, I said. It’s a good cheap snack for me and Dixie while we’re watching the tv, nights. But when it’s popping, a few kernels never fail to leap out the pan. The first time it happened was the night after we moved in, an amazing thing. Two huge cockroaches were on that popcorn kernel before it had time to bounce twice. I was so amazed I just stood there and watched. Got their little claws on it, and tore into that kernel something fierce.  It’s gotten to be a sort of game between the cockroaches and us now. Dixie says she thinks they hear it popping, and are getting ready to rush out, jostling each other to see who gets the first piece.
And the rats – just goes to show our place in the world right now.  One night Dixie was carrying her plate back into the kitchen after dinner and I hear this big crash.  Well there goes the last good plate, I think.
“Mama!” Dixie comes a-running back into the living room.
“I just saw the biggest rat! It was this big.”  And she spreads her arms out so far I knew she surely must be exaggerating.
But then the gnawing started, a hollow, echoing sound of teeth gnashing against wood, that we’d hear every night. Sometimes it would wake me at two or three in the morning. I’d lay there listening to those hidden teeth gnashing and grinding, and I’d think – no, Dixie was right, it’s that big.
At first we didn’t see much of our new neighbors – not like their phonebill-running-up predecessors. At first Caroline and I would meet on the stairs and she’d maybe say, “Hello, fine day isn’t it?”, and I’d answer something like  “Evening, sure a handsome boy you got there,” and Chad would cosy up to his mother and look up at her as though wondering, “What’s this white lady doing talking to us?”
I don’t know how it really came about but one evening I had cooked up a pot of stew and I heard Caroline and Chad coming up the stairs. They were a little later than usual, and there was a slowness to Caroline’s steps that made me think she’d had a long day. I heard the sound of packages being shuffled, and the key turning in her lock, and Chad’s voice saying, “Mama, when’s dinner gonna be ready? I’m hungry.”
And Caroline’s slow, low voice, “In a minute, child. Just give your mother a minute to rest.” Then the door shutting on their little world. I don’t know what made me do it, but I opened my door and went over to knock on theirs. Caroline opened the door a crack, for you could never be too careful at night in that neighborhood of ours, and then wider when she saw it was me.  “Good evening, Sarah,” she said. Then she smiled in the way people do when they’re tired, the lips curving up, but the cheeks still sagging with fatigue.
“Caroline,” I said. “Why don’t you and Chad come over for dinner. I’ve just cooked up some chicken and dumplings. More than Dixie and I can eat. Come on over in fifteen minutes, you hear?”
Funny thing it didn’t seem so strange as I’d thought it would. Caroline was just good people, and that little Chad, what a sweet little boy, once he warmed up to you.
That weekend I invited Caroline over for a cup of tea, and she brought a book of photographs with her. I could tell she was homesick – that’s usually when people bring out such things. “This is Chad’s daddy; he lives in Reno,” she said, pointing to a tall handsome colored man. “And that’s his girlfriend.”
“But she’s white,” Dixie said.
Caroline raised her eyebrows and looked at me sideways as she answered Dixie. “Why yes, child, she is.” I can tell you I was shocked too, but even more by Caroline’s acceptance. It seemed she was proud that her husband had a girlfriend, and especially, a white one.
Now my own track record has been spotted up a bit – goodness knows I’m a single mother too, and Jack and I weren’t even married when I had Dixie. So who am I to say?
“That’s right, honey. Sometimes colored and white folks get together in spite of it all.”
I gave Dixie a little hug and smiled at Caroline.
It was right nice having Caroline and Chad there. We were starting to become friends, I thought, with surprise.
Caroline started dating a man she’d met at the hotel where she was on the housekeeping staff.
“Sam’s a good man, and such a sexy fellow, Sarah,” she said one day. Then she twirled around my little living room. “Scuse me, Sarah,” she said. “It’s just been so long. I don’t know about you white women, but we colored women take our bodily needs seriously.”
“Oh, Caroline,” I said, laughing, and then sighing, “you just don’t know.” But I wished her good fortune with her new man all the same.
Good neighbors or not, I still was hankering to move out of that house. Nights when I had tucked Dixie into bed, and I was trying to sleep myself, I’d hear that rat chewing beneath us. It was beginning to sound louder, and closer. I could imagine those big white teeth just chewing and chewing and chewing through all the big old beams that kept this house together. I could almost see his long sharp claws over the beam, and his tail flicking as he chewed. One night when the gnawing started, I hid my head under the pillow, but then when I fell asleep, the rat followed me, chewing through the biggest beam of all, and finally Dixie and I tumbled down to the floor below, on top of crazy George and tipsy Helen.
One day when Caroline and I were watching “Dukes of Hazzard” together, Chad and Dixie both asleep, I said to her, “Caroline, why don’t we move out of here and get a place together? We could share the rent and get ourselves a much better place. What do you think?”
Caroline looked at me and smiled. “I think that’s a fine idea, but what do you think landlords are going to think?”
To be honest, I hadn’t thought of that. “We’ll figure it out,” I said.
Caroline and her beau had been walking out together for quite a while, but I’d never seen coming what did. One night, I’d watched over Chad while Caroline went out with Sam, and we were all asleep, Chad tucked under his blankets on the couch with his tonka truck. Suddenly I hear a ruckus downstairs and I run out onto the landing. Thieves, I think. I hear George down there, and Helen too. They’re both raising hell, and probably George with his gun again – first time I’m glad to know he’s got it.
But then I hear Caroline’s voice and looking over the bannister, I see that George and Helen are yelling at her and the tall colored man who is standing next to her. Before I know it, Chad is dashing past me and down the stairs before I can grab hold of him.
“Mama!” he says and rushes over to grab her by the leg.
Now I’m half-awake, and in a confused way, I see Caroline’s Sam – leastways that’s who I assume this man that George is shoving out the door is – his face dark with anger, but his hands held open in front of him, as if to ward off George’s waving pistol.  “And that goes for you too,” says Helen, giving Caroline a push toward the door, Chad holding tight to her hand.
I can still see myself now, like I was, standing there at the top of the stairs. And Caroline looked up at me, and I wish I couldn’t remember that look in her eyes. Why didn’t I go down and help her? It was George’s gun and the bullet hole in my door, I plead. And Dixie lying asleep in the other room.   Caroline turned her head away from me, and said to Helen, “I don’t let no ofay bitch push me around,” and she gave Helen a shove that sent her back through her own apartment door. Then Caroline picked up Chad, who was starting to cry, and with him on her hip, she turned and walked out the door.
The next day I came home from work , Caroline and Chad’s apartment was empty and the door stood open. She must have come to move her things while I was gone. I looked around, hoping she’d left me a note, but there wasn’t one. That night the rat was so loud he sounded like he was in the apartment and I couldn’t sleep

SECOND PLACE: Field Work by J.B. Hogan
We’d been pickin’ tomatoes for twenty, twenty-five, minutes when I looked up and saw Cassaday about half way down his second row. I was straight across from him a few rows over. He saw me and waved. I waved back and pointed up the field to where the Mexicans were already most of them pretty near finishing their fourth row. Cassaday saw them and shook his head. God, them braceros could work. They could work you right into the ground.
“Hey, Josh,” I yelled over to Cassaday, “get your cúlo in gear, cuñado.”
“Oh, man,” he called back. “I’m dyin’ already. My back’s killin’ me, cuñado.”
He drug out the cuñado. That’s what the workers always called us. Brother-in-law.  That was cuñado. It comes from a Mexican joke about your sister. The braceros called each other that, and Esé, but they really liked to call us cuñado. They were just joking around, most of them anyway. They knew we were working hard, just not as good as them. Shoot, the money was awful. A lousy dollar an hour for killing yourself in 120 degree heat. But they ate it up.
They wore blue jean jackets and long sleeve shirts and used their sweat and the wind – what little there was of it – as air conditioning. They had busted down, straw cowboy hats like we did except they would put a handkerchief or little towel underneath them so they draped down their backs like an Arab’s turban or whatever. They were the hardest working men I ever seen.
Me and Cassaday and some of the other boys, we did this the first part of every summer but only as long as it took to find something better, easier. We usually lasted two, three weeks, a month at the most. It was too hard. Most of the time we thinned cotton with short-handled hoes. That’ll kill you in this heat.
Or we weeded cotton with long-handled hoes – easier on the back but still plenty tough because of pounding the salty, hard ground. We formed up about four-thirty, a quarter to five, every morning at the bracero camp, loaded sleepy-eyed onto big covered flat bed trucks with some guy takin’ a leak off the back and usually got to the fields by five thirty so we could get done early in the afternoon.
We did it to make a couple of bucks. They did it to support their families in Mexico. American money meant a lot. They would save it and send it home to Mexico. The only thing they spent money on was a ticket to the dinky old Mexican theatre in Desert View, or a cheap radio or six-pack of beer. They lived cheap. The rest they sent home. They lived for the days when a farmer had to get a tomato crop or something in fast and let ‘em work by the piece. Then they could double, even triple their measly day’s wages. There was no stopping them then, nobody could keep up with them.
“Jesus, I can’t keep up with them,” Cassaday called over to me. Benjy was in a row on over and he stood up and laughed.
“They should have never told them it was piece work,” Benjy said. We all laughed. It was true. Christ, they were turning in crates of tomatoes so fast it made your head swim.
“Say,” Joshua said.  “Let’s go to the truck and get a drink at the end of this row. What do you say?”
“You got a crate load?” Benjy asked.
“About,” Joshua said. “How about you?”
“Pretty close,” Benjy said.
“Me too,” I said.
After our drink we kept on and it kept on gettin’ hotter and hotter. You figure it was clearing 115 by lunch time and well on its way to 120 or more. That’s the way the fields were during summer. It was like an oven in the valley and it felt like the heat hit you right around your nose so your whole head was baking. No matter what you did, it was just flat hot. But that didn’t stop us or the braceros from eating. When it was lunchtime, we ate.
The farmers always gave you a half hour for lunch and they fed you. Every day it was the same thing: beans, tortillas, and hot peppers. If you wanted something besides water you had to bring it yourself. But the food was pretty good, at least it filled you up. The beans were wrapped in the soft, warm tortillas and we’d scarf up three or four of them and maybe a Coke if somebody brought them and they didn’t get swiped.
Sometimes it was a kick to watch the Mexicans eat jalapeños. Each guy would down maybe half a jar by himself, practically, for lunch. They looked real good through the clear glass and when they ate them. But, Jesus, those peppers would kill you. Your heart would pound and sweat would pop out all over you. You’d be drinkin’ water for an hour if you bit straight into one.
Anyway, after lunch, all of us, us and the braceros, would lie on the side of the field, near some shade if there was any, and belch and fart while we rested. It sounded pretty gross if you weren’t used to it, but it was pretty funny, too. It was just the way things were out there.
In the afternoon we were slower yet, and stiff, and by around one-thirty we’d had it and were looking for more ways to not work than to do it. We were wanting three-thirty to come so we could get the hell out of that sun and lay around in our nice cool houses. Some of the braceros were slowed up in the afternoon, too, and when they saw us lagging back they started teasing us in Spanish and trying to stir us up to a tomato fight.
“Ay,” one of them said to Cassaday, “chico, mira.” He pointed to where Benjy was bent over in a nearby row slowly picking away.
“What?” Joshua asked. “Qúe?” The bracero made a throwing motion. “Oh,” Joshua said with a laugh, “Yo entiendo. I get it.”
Picking up a bad tomato, Joshua sighted in on Benjy’s rear end and let fly.  It made a big splat on Benjy’s jeans.
“Hey,” Benjy yelled, turning around mad. Then he saw who did it. “You’ll pay for that, buster,” he hollered at Josh, and fired a tomato back. It whistled by Josh’s head.
The braceros were watching us now and laughing, so I threw a tomato and hit Joshua in the side. Pretty soon it was a madhouse out there. It only lasted a couple of minutes but even some of the braceros got into it for a second. When it was over there were smashed tomatoes all over the rows around us and us gringos were pretty messy looking – our clothes anyway.
The day finally ended at three-thirty like usual and me and Joshua and Benjy went up and got our crates tallied and our pay. Benjy broke even, Cassaday had to take the hourly wage to get his dollar an hour, and I was just a little over the minimum.
“Who made the most out here?” I asked the field boss. We all wanted to know.
“One of the new guys,” he answered. “A kid from down below Mexicali. Alvarado or Alvarez, somethin’ like that.”
“How much?” I asked.
“He made thirty-two fifty,” the boss said.
“Jesus, these guys can kick ass,” Benjy said as we climbed on board the truck for the trip back to town.
“Don’t I know it,” I said.
“Ha,” Cassaday snorted. He was slumped down in his seat, completely worn out. “Ha, ha.”
Me and Benjy and the braceros near us on the truck looked over at him. You never knew when something, something just as regular as can be, would strike Josh as peculiar or funny.
“Thirty-two somethin’ bucks,” he said, laughing and shaking his head. “Crap. That ain’t no big deal. Anybody can do that. Ha.”
Me and Benjy looked at each other and busted up laughing. The braceros looked at us like we were a little crazy or something and then went back to whatever they were doing before Joshua had started talking. The old, rattle-trap truck jerked forward and banged along down the dusty road.
Next day we thinned cotton with short-handle hoes again. A week from that Friday we all quit the fields. It was the same every year. Who would want to do that kinda stuff for a living, unless you had to. We didn’t have to. So we didn’t.

THIRD PLACE: The Striped Overalls by Martha Hogan Estes
Elizabeth Cassady and her friend, Anita Kelly, wanted striped overalls to pick berries in. Mrs. Kelly approved the plan if Anita earned enough money to cover the cost before her mother purchased the garment. Elizabeth made the same proposal to her mother, but the nine-year-old received a stern lecture about appropriate dress for females.

“But Mama,” the little girl pleaded, “I need them to wear to the berry patch. Dad makes us pin our skirts so we can squat down without showing our bloomers and you let me wear Buck’s old overalls. I just want a pair that fit me and will be pretty, too.”

“It’s out of the question. You need summer clothes—shoes, a good Sunday dress and socks,” her mother countered.

“I don’t care. I don’t want no dress or shoes; I want some overalls. Anita said they have them in Springdale. They call ’em ‘coveralls’ and they’re for girls,” she retorted. “Mama, please. I’ll pick enough berries to pay for them.”

“Oh, I reckon. If you make enough money,” her mother sighed. “Get on outside and check on Helen and Leslie.”

Elizabeth felt like she had won a victory, though her mother had not given in as gracefully as the girl had hoped.

“Helen, Leslie,” she called, “where are you kids? Come on up here and we’ll play school. I’ll read you a book.” Her younger siblings came running to sit on the back steps and hear Elizabeth’s lilting voice reading fairy tales to them. She changed her voice to match the characters; Leslie laughed as she read the words of the villain in a phony bass.

When Anita came to the berry patch a few days later wearing her new ‘coveralls’, Elizabeth felt the blood rush to her face.  She had told Anita she, too, was getting overalls, but there she squatted with her worn dress tucked under her, a big safety pin holding the skirt together at the knees.

“What you doing with that raggedy ol’ dress?” her friend laughed. “I thought we were going to wear our new overalls to the berry patch.”

“Mama’s gonna order ’em and she ain’t decided what to get Helen and Leslie yet,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll probably get ’em next week.”

Taking her day’s earnings to her mother at the end of the day, the girl asked if her overalls had been ordered.

“Not yet,” was her mother’s reply. “I haven’t got around to it.”

“Can’t we just go to town with Alex and Bill and buy them at the store?”

“Elizabeth, they cost too much in town and we can’t afford to take time from berry picking to go to Springdale. Just be patient. Patience is a virtue, you know.”

Each day Elizabeth tossed her earnings into the small cedar chest on her mother’s dresser. By the end of the week, she had added several times the cost of the overalls. She understood that Helen and Leslie were too small to earn their clothing money and she didn’t mind adding her coins to the fund, but she really wanted those overalls to wear to the berry patch.

At last, near the end of the season, she found her mother sitting at the kitchen table with the Sears catalog open in front of her. The girl peered over the woman’s shoulder to see what she wrote on the order form. She saw fabrics, thread, buttons, lace and shoes, but only one pair of overalls—size three boys’ blue denim—for Leslie. The overalls cost seventy-nine cents.

“Well,” Mrs. Cassady said, counting the money in her cedar chest, “there’s just about enough left for the money order.”  Sighing heavily, the tiny woman laid her pencil down. She brushed a stray lock of auburn hair back into the bun at the back of her head.

“But what about my overalls?” Elizabeth asked, shocked that they were not on the order. “You promised.”

“I said ‘if you made enough’. There’s barely enough for the necessities,” her mother explained, brown eyes reflecting her poor health and the effect of years of hard work and poverty.

“You can take the voile off the order. I don’t like them fancy dresses anyway,” the little tomboy suggested, not noticing her mother’s condition.

“No. You need a Sunday dress,” her mother insisted. “Take this order to the store and ask Mr. Kelly to fill out a money order for it, give him the money and bring me the change.”

Elizabeth obediently followed her mother’s instructions, returning home with a nickel, which Mrs. Cassady dropped back into the little cedar chest.

At last, the mailman delivered the order; Mrs. Cassady carefully opened it and examined each item. There was no voile for the Sunday dress, but Sears enclosed a credit memo. The item was temporarily out of stock; cut yard goods could not be exchanged or substituted. However, the credit memo could be used later when the item was again in stock or applied toward the purchase of any item in the catalog.

“You can order the overalls now,” Elizabeth smiled happily.

“I’ll use the credit when I have time,” the woman said, carrying the new fabrics to the chest beside the sewing machine.

As the summer dragged on, Elizabeth was alternately angry and sad about the loss of her hard-earned money and the overalls she so desired. She looked at overalls in the catalog: 79¢ for sizes to six, 89¢ for sizes seven through fourteen. She might need a size seven, but everyone said she was ‘no bigger than a minute’. She decided a six was probably large enough. She also looked in the cedar chest at the credit memo. ‘Eighty-Five Cents’ was boldly written across the small coupon; beside it lay a nickel.

Turning back to the catalog, Elizabeth removed an order blank from the back pages and, picking up her mother’s ever-present pencil, filled in the catalog number, color and size for a pair of size six overalls. She folded the form carefully with the credit memo inside and tucked it into the pre-addressed envelope also from the Sears ‘wish book’.

A twinge of guilt caused her to stop before sealing the envelope. But I worked for that money; it’s mine, she thought. I asked Mama to get me those overalls and she didn’t do it. She ordered that ugly old fabric to make a stupid dress with lace all over it.  The credit is mine; it was for the material for my dress. She licked the flap, sealed the envelope and hurried to ask her mother if she could go to the store to see Anita.

“Yes, you can,” her mother answered from the kitchen where she was making bread, “if you’ll bring me back a small can of snuff. Tell Mr. Kelly to put it on the ticket. Joe will pay him on Friday.”

Elizabeth hurried the quarter mile or so to the store and post office, asked for the can of snuff, handed Mr. Kelly the nickel for a stamp, pocketed the change, licked the stamp, stuck it on the envelope and dropped it in the mail slot.  She hurried back home, snuff can in hand, relieved that Anita was not at the store.

By the time the girl had reached the house, her face was flushed and she was plagued by guilt. She knew she had to tell her mother what she had done; after all, the order would arrive within a few days and there would be no choice then.

She stopped at the well and drew a bucket of fresh water and, taking a long cool drink from the dipper hanging beside the well, she composed herself and stepped inside the kitchen where her mother was still baking bread.

“Mama, I saw you were too busy to fill out an order to Sears, so I did it myself; I ordered my overalls and mailed it at the store,” she blurted out in a continuous breath, her heart racing and her palms sweating.

“You what?” her mother asked very quietly.

“I ordered my overalls with my credit memo,” she answered, laying the pennies on the table beside the rising bread loaves.

“That was not your credit memo. I told you I’d use it for something later,” Mrs. Cassady said.

“But, Mama, it was my money. You got the coupon because they didn’t send the material you ordered for my dress. Remember?” Elizabeth asked.

“Yes, I remember. I also remember I told you I’d order the overalls if you made enough money to pay for them. We barely had enough to pay for the things we needed and you wanted a ridiculous, unladylike, unnecessary pair of overalls. You did not make enough money for silliness. The credit was mine and you stole it from my cedar chest. Wait until your dad hears about this. ”

“Mama, I didn’t steal it. It was mine. I wouldn’t steal,” the child defended herself.

“You are a spoilt, willful, selfish little thief. You are a disgrace,” her mother said.

“I’m not a thief, Mama. I didn’t steal it. It was mine,” she cried. “Maybe I was selfish and I should have asked you, but I am not a thief. You can send them back. Mama, please don’t think I’m a thief.”

“Go to bed,” her mother commanded her. “I don’t want to see your face again. You are a disgrace.”

Sobbing on her bed, the girl heard her mother talking to someone; she recognized the voice of her oldest sister, Thelma, answering.

“Mama, that’s awful,” Thelma said. “What are you going to do?”

“I just don’t know; I’ll let Joe deal with it,” Mrs. Cassady said.

Elizabeth cried harder. Mama will tell Dad I’m a thief, she thought. Dad knows I’m not, but he always believes Mama is right. I will send the overalls back and get Mama’s money back.

“She took the coupon out of my cedar chest. That girl is so willful,” Elizabeth heard her mother say. “She has been the most difficult to raise of all you children. Sometimes she’s almost uncontrollable. She did say I could send them back, but she stole from me. I hate to do it, but she has to learn a lesson.”

“I wouldn’t let her send them back,” Thelma commented. “I’d make her wear them to church so everyone could see what a disgrace she is, going to church in overalls, and stolen overalls at that.”

The back door opened as Thelma left; Elizabeth heard her father speaking to Thelma and then his routine “Hello, Mama. How’s my sweetheart?” She heard her mother’s voice murmuring to her father.

Oh my, she thought. Mama is telling Dad. I hope he knows I wasn’t stealing. I only took what was mine, but I wish I’d never asked for those old overalls. Thelma is ashamed of me and Mama says I’m selfish. Dad probably won’t call me his Tooter anymore.

Elizabeth tried to make amends the best she could. She avoided her parents and older sister as much as possible; she watched her younger siblings diligently. She did her chores without complaining and read her Bible every evening. She said her prayers and asked for forgiveness for her selfishness; she also asked that her father be made to understand, as God surely did, that she was not a thief.

When the package came a few days later, Mrs. Cassady brought it to the kitchen and opened it.

“Elizabeth, your order is here,” she called to the girl.

“Send it back. I don’t want it,” Elizabeth answered from her room.

“Come in here now and try these on,” her mother demanded.

The child listlessly tried them on. The size six was too short in the crotch and the legs were about two inches too short. She began to sob.

“Stop your crying,” her mother scolded. “You wanted them so much that you’d steal for them. You will wear them. Yes, you can wear them to Sunday school next Sunday since you have no nice dress. We’ll see how you like them when Anita and Helen and all your friends wear their pretty Sunday dresses. You know there are consequences when we break the commandments.”

Elizabeth wore the overalls to Sunday school; Anita laughed at her for wearing berry-picking clothes to church. Elizabeth didn’t care. She was disgraced in the eyes of the church and the family. While the preacher talked about the sin, penitence and forgiveness, the little girl looked straight ahead. She held her head up with dignity. She didn’t cry.

After church, she walked home with the family and held her small body as straight and tall as she possibly could, like Mama always did. Her father fell into step beside her. With a twinkle in his blue eyes, he gently laid his hand on her soft brown hair.

“Them’s mighty pretty overalls, Tooter, just a little short in the git-a-long.”

Categories: Legacy Archive