Their mother knocked on the door and leaned inside quick enough to catch Susan swaying to “The Wallflower” playing on her transistor radio. Elyse, lying across her bed paging through movie magazines, pretended she hadn’t been humming along too, and left Susan to take the brunt of their mother’s alarm.
“Susan! That song is dirty!” Their mother whispered the last word the same way she whispered Negro, as if new music was newer in 1955 than it had been in 1930 when she’d started high school, or even in 1951 when Elyse had. She seemed to blame jazz for every temptation Susan faced in high school hallways and in romance novels she snuck from the library and in cloak rooms after dances when she fantasized about Herman Neville swooping in for one last one-two-three waltz step, a dip, then a kiss that melted into her the same as James Dean with Julie Harris on the movie screen.
“It’s not dirty just because it has a good beat,” Susan said. She stiffened her posture and plopped to a seat on her own bed, resisting the urge to scissor her legs to the music.
Freshman year kicked off a handful of weeks earlier, and their mother had treated Susan’s every behavior since as suspect. She might as well have overheard the other freshmen girls trading tales of sneaking into University mixers and stealing first kisses from rough-shaven, clumsy young men they never saw again. Fast as a light switch, Susan’s years of cotillion memories splintered into a slide reel of stupid moments drinking lemonade from crystal goblets and waltzing and foxtrotting with sweaty-handed preteen boys. Lessons for a world that didn’t exist anymore. Susan wondered if Elyse had felt the same way her freshman year.
“It’s the words, Suzy,” her mother said. “All that rolling about with Henry.”
“You’re so old-fashioned, Mother,” Elyse said, as if she knew all about rolling around with boys and thought very little of it.
“That’s what every girl says to her mother, thinking she knows better.” Their mother’s tone was smug, her face set tight.
Elyse leveled her gaze with their mother’s. “I bet you knew better than your mother sometimes.”
“Back in the Dark Ages,” Susan added, and the sisters snickered together, savoring their fleeting moment of sharing a target.
Defeated, all their mother could say was, “Turn it down, at least,” before she pivoted on her heels and left.
Susan tugged at a loosening button on her cardigan and worked up the nerve to ask Elyse a question she was too afraid to voice in front of their mother. “Don’t you think she gets squirrelly anytime it’s a song by a Black person?”
“You’re always on about that.”
“Black people and white people. Like a month in high school makes you an expert on how the whole world works.” Elyse huffed her magazine closed and rolled over to sit up.
Susan hadn’t realized she’d been on about anything, but ever since the start of the school year she’d been noticing things she hadn’t noticed before. At the cafeteria over lunch with a group of new girls the first week of school, one of them mentioned that she never used her back door because it was for the help. A drop of bright yellow mustard flashed at the corner of her lips as she spoke. That, and the snooty sound in her voice, made Susan edge away from her, but what she’d said came back to her later. Susan’s family used their back door anytime they felt like it, but she hadn’t thought about how it was the only door Miss Francine came or went through. Or how Miss Francine tended hers and Elyse’s scraped knees and stomachaches and put dinner on their table, but, sometimes after she’d left for the day, their father nattered about Black people needing to keep their places while he ate the food she’d made him. Before that day with the mustard-lipped girl, Susan had thought little about what he meant when he said things like that, but now she pictured rows of people lined up in order like items on grocery store shelves. An image that made her understand her father even less and summoned a new whirl of questions.
“Don’t you feel like people tell us what’s easy rather than what’s real about the world? Or do you think they really believe everything they say?”
Elyse moved to the mirror over their dresser. Her hairbrushes and makeup and body powders crowded the surface. At fourteen, Susan was only allowed to wear lipstick. Elyse fluffed a comb through her hair.
“What difference does it make?” Elyse said. “Things are the way they are, no matter what people say.” Now she smeared rouge onto her cheeks. Gazing into the mirror, she puckered her mouth into an o to better examine the effects.
“I think it matters what people say,” Susan said.
“So prove it,” Elyse said.
“Prove it how?”
A noisy mist of hairspray intervened. “Do more than talk.” More hairspray, and Elyse bounced a hand where her hair belled at her shoulders, checking its shape. “How about this—we’ll go downtown together, only I’ll head to Timberlake’s for ice cream, and you’ll run up to Vinegar Hill. Go walk down their street and buy something from their store and bring it back to me.”
Two years older and busy with boys and dance committees, Elyse rarely offered to do things with her, so Susan said yes before she could change her mind. When Elyse was satisfied with her reflection, she dragged Susan with her to ask permission to ride the streetcar into town for an ice cream. Every kindness between them seemed to flatter their mother, as if each one certified her success as a parent, so she let them go and even gave them extra spending money for the trip.
Outside Timberlake’s, Elyse pointed backward toward Vinegar Hill. “Off you go,” she said. “Prove how high and mighty you are.”
Going to a store she’d never been to hardly seemed high and mighty. It hardly seemed like anything at all. The day was bright and sunny. Mountain ridges shone purple-blue in the distance. The clerk at the Men and Boys’ shop stood in his wingtips smoking at the curb, his Brylcreemed hair glistening in the sunshine. Cars bustled past, streaming snippets of music. “Cherry Blossom Pink and Apple Blossom White.” “Unchained Melody.”
She felt eyes on her as soon as she approached the intersection to cross into Vinegar Hill. White men her dad’s age scolded her with their expressions. One went so far as to grab her upper arm when it came time to cross. “Ain’t no street for white girls,” he said, his breath foul with chewing tobacco. She shook herself free and kept going. Once she reached the opposite side of the street, hers was the only white face.
Through the open window of someone’s house, she could hear the same radio station she listened to playing the next hit. Wash drying on lines waved in sunlit backyards. According to her parents, or the news, or wherever authority came from, the instant she crossed onto this street she was in danger, but she felt more unwanted than threatened. Children playing in front of their houses stopped when she walked by. Adults peered at her from under hat brims, but their expressions remained still as death.
The pavement and sidewalk were rutted and muddy here, unlike the rest of downtown. Watching her step helped Susan dodge the stern glances. When Inge’s store came up on her right, she greeted the sign with relief. A bell jangled as she opened the door. Inside, everything was spotless and orderly. Ranks of newspapers and magazines stood in front of the register. Along the counter, glass jars of colorful penny candy shone like gems. Nearby, apples and oranges gleamed in perfect piles. She could smell the coffee grinder though she couldn’t see it.
The man behind the counter looked up when she walked in, obviously not expecting her. He tried to hide his surprise with a polite nod, but his gesture also carried a warning. She felt conspicuous, as if it were plain as words on a sign around her neck that she wouldn’t be here if her sister hadn’t dared her to come.
Three boys her age crowded through the doorway after her. One bumped into her, then leapt backward when he saw her, hands up like at a bank robbery. She bowed her head and stepped out of his way, embarrassed beyond what she normally felt around Herman Neville or other boys at her school.
The clerk asked, “How can I help you?” and threw even more attention her way, so she chose hastily, pointing at the jar of jawbreakers, half as big as her fist. She signaled the number with her fingers, then felt foolish for not speaking.
“Two please, sir,” she said.
Behind her, the boys jostled along the candy aisle. One picked up a Hershey bar, another a roll of Lifesavers, while the other picked up one thing after another, not able to decide. Their near presence flustered her. One angled his cap over his eyes in a jaunty way. Another wore an Argyle knit vest exactly like one of her father’s. Her skin was so pale every emotion showed on it, so she was sure they could read her inexperience and awkwardness in her blush. She stared at her feet, checking the neatness of her bobbysocks, and noticed a red clay streak on the white toe box of one of her saddle oxfords. Her mother would have a fit and make her polish it tonight before bedtime. She would ask Susan where she was walking with a clay mud puddle, and she didn’t know what she would tell her.
The clerk popped a tiny paper bag open with a snap of his wrist and lowered two jawbreakers inside. They made satisfying plops as they landed. She would eat one and save the other for her sister. Proof.
Something thudded to the ground in the produce aisle and a woman let out a gasp. “Oh, Mr. Inge, I’m so sorry,” she said. She clutched a hand to her chest, and they all beheld a cracked cantaloupe, its guts gushing forth onto the floor.
“Excuse me,” Mr. Inge said to Susan. “I’ll be right back to ring you up.”
The last boy had chosen his candy by now, and the group fell into line after her while Mr. Inge fished a mop and bucket from a closet and clattered to the mess in the produce aisle. In this unexpected extra moment, Susan second-guessed herself. Elyse would expect something more specific than penny candy, so Susan browsed the magazines and selected one she’d never seen before. Behind her, one of the boys took a sharp breath, the way Elyse often did when they were in public together, overreacting to the littlest things, treating her like a child.
The mop sloshed in the bucket of water. She could smell melon from here. She felt more and more conspicuous with each passing moment and had to steady herself with a long, deep breath. Soon enough, though, the cantaloupe would be cleared away, the floor sparkling again. Mr. Inge would take her money and give her change, and she would be on her way, back to her own familiar places, where her sister would be waiting for her, sipping a root beer float and flirting with Larry Tucker, the soda jerk she was sweet on.
Another deep breath and she flipped the magazine open to give herself something to do. She could feel more than see the boys behind her backing away, making room. For what, she didn’t know. If she were braver, she would whip around to face them, ask them what the trouble was and why they cared what she did, instead, all the senses of her body brought her back to a time years before when she’d opened the bathroom door too soon and glimpsed her mother wrapping herself in a towel after a bath. She could feel the moisture of the air, the curdle of her belly, and that same sudden urge to shut a door she shouldn’t have opened and run away. Instead, she looked down at the magazine in her hands.
Images punched at her from the page. A boy, her exact age. Visiting family in Mississippi. He went into a market. A white woman complained about him. She remembered a fragment from a radio news story that her father had leapt halfway across the kitchen to switch off before it could finish. Letters in the photo captions joggled in and out of sensible words. Emmett Till. His mother wanted everyone to see what they did to her boy.
Her knees gave, but she wouldn’t let herself stumble. That’s why the boys had backed away from her. They must have seen these pictures already and would have known she hadn’t. She smoothed the pages and slid the magazine back into its holder. She wanted it to look as if she hadn’t touched it at all.
If Mr. Inge hadn’t returned at that moment, swiping his hands against his clerk’s apron and saying, “Five cents, please,” she would have rushed out the door without the bag of candy. But she dug a quarter from her pocket and held it out to him, then waited impossible seconds for her change. Before she slipped outside again, she stole a last backward glance at the boys in line behind her. All their eyes pointed away from her.
On her way back to Timberlake’s, she looked at nothing but sidewalk. Everything else blurred and hushed, like after-hours static on television. At the door of the shop, she hovered, the candies in their little paper sack swaying from her hand. Inside would smell like sugar, and all the kids would be singing along with a song on the radio. When she joined them, Elyse would twirl her stool to face her and make her tell everyone where she’d been. As if she’d visited a carnival. Then she’d laugh at her for picking jawbreakers, something she could have bought right there in Timberlake’s. Susan spun away from the entrance and hurried home, the whole way on foot. She snuck in through the back door and tiptoed up the stairs to her bedroom. Door closed tight behind her, she tucked both candies under her sister’s pillow, then lay on her own bed, closed her eyes, and tried not to see Emmett Till’s head, broken open like a melon. She squinted her eyes as tightly closed as they would go and tried to picture something else, but nothing else would come.