First Date

by James Lineberger

In the sixth grade I asked
Sissy Morgan
if she would go to the picture show with me
on what was supposed to be
my first date but when I said it her eyes got wide
and her mouth fell open and she just backed off till she ran into
a chair and had to sit down and didn’t say a word.

But during recess I could see her at the swings
giggling and whispering to her girl friends
and all of them staring at me
but if it was a trick or what I didn’t know
cause while I was waiting for the school bus
she came up to me and said
well all right but she would not go to
the Paramount which all
they showed was double-feature westerns with people like
Sonny Tufts or Charles Starrett
and if there was anything she could not abide it was Charles Starrett doing
The Durango Kid.

But when I told mama she said not
to worry because
we could go see Forever Amber at the Visulite
with Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde
which was kind of like Gone With The Wind mama said
and the name was because of the color
of her eyes which ought to be just the kind
of story that a little girl would go for
and what we will do
mama said was I will drive y’all to the Visulite
and meet you out front again when
it is over.

So mama called Sissy’s mama and they
agreed on the details
except where Sissy’s mama said they would
pay for her part
but mama put her foot down saying
Jimmy does not go dutch on his dates so we decided
on the Saturday matinee but then
mama got called in to work overtime at the bomb plant in Steele Creek
where her and grandma made 40 millimeter shells
for the navy so daddy was elected to be our driver
and don’t ask why he didn’t get drafted
in the army because I never got it straight except it had something
to do with his thyroid
which he wouldn’t talk about so he worked as a lineman
at the bomb plant until he fell off a pole
and hurt his back and then mostly
sat on the porch with his air rifle and a bottle of Jim Beam
shooting at squirrels like
they were Jap Zeros
and also he was on disability and not supposed
to be driving
at all so things did not exactly start out on the right foot
and before we had even got on
the main road he had run off in the ditch and knocked over somebody’s mailbox.

But that wasn’t the worst part the worst
was when we got to Sissy’s
house and I went up on the porch carrying a yellow rose that mama
had picked for me and I knocked on the screen door
and had to wait and wait and knock some more
until finally Sissy’s mama came out in the hall and stood there kind of
in the shadows so I couldn’t see but half her face
and she said uhh Jimmy boy I hate it
but Sissy has come down with the Flu or else it might be Polio
and she will have to take a rain check and she said
she would tell you so herself
if she didn’t keep throwing up and have to carry a wash pan around with her.

So maybe it was because I thought she might die
but I started crying and held the stupid rose out until Sissy’s mama said oh how sweet
let me take it and don’t cry honey cause
I know how this will touch Sissy and she will hold it to her heart
and she opened the door just a crack to stick out
her hand and I was staring at her little
white fingers and her nails that were so red until I backed up
and backed right off the porch into
her tiger lilies and she flung the door open and came outside saying oh no oh no
Sissy damn you Sissy get out here and then there she was

Sissy herself

stepping out of the shadows
and holding her wash pan down by her side and kind of shaking it like a tambourine
saying mama I don’t care no more
what you think mama
me and Jimmy is going to the picture show and I don’t care neither if it is nothing
but The Durango Kid
and she took the rose from her mama and handed her
the wash pan
and floated down her brick steps
like they were made out of alabaster from a geography book and even daddy
must have been impressed because he got out of the car
and opened the backseat door
like he was somebody’s chauffeur.

Sissy leaned over and told me
the reason they didn’t want her to go with me was her daddy said we were still white trash
no matter if my mama and grandmama thought
they were Queen City queens now that they were making 40 mm’s
and my daddy well everybody and his brother
knew my daddy was just a drunk like his daddy before him
and me he did not want to get started on me who had buck teeth and wore knickers
instead of overalls
but Sissy smiled and looked me right in the eye
and said I aint sceerd and oh lord I thought my skin was going to catch on fire
but then she kissed my rose and stuck her nose in it
and said she had seen somebody wearing knickers in a history book and he had been
Duke somebody and did my ancestors come from England or what.

But then daddy said huh oh
and reached his Jim Beam back over the seat and said Sissy girl
stick this under your pinafore
and sure enough it was a road block ahead and Deputy Lloyd Coggins was holding up his hand
to stop us in front of the River Bend dance hall pavilion
and he said hey Jit which was
my daddy’s nickname cause when he was my age
he used to run errands for a nickel
but it was not like him and Lloyd were ever friends even like now when Lloyd said afternoon y’all
and tipped his hat to be respectful cause daddy knew Lloyd from way back
from high school and knew him too
for a sneak and somebody that one time when Lloyd was taking up tickets in the colored balcony
at the Paramount had got caught in a scam where him and the ticket woman was selling
tickets all over again
so daddy was always on his guard
when it came to Lloyd Coggins
but this time Lloyd said Jit we got a ‘mergency here I need to deputize your boy
for some piece work won’t take long
and if he is a Wolf Cub the department will write a special letter to his Akela.
Eat shit and die Lloyd daddy said I am taking these youngins
to the movie theater and if they
have to miss The Durango Kid they won’t never forgive me
Amber daddy I said Forever Amber
but Lloyd squinted his eyes and put his hand on his pistol grip
and said Jit this is official business I can’t raise
the amblance on the radio and what
we got here is some fool
fell off the pier last night and drowned his self
and all I need your boy to do is dive down there and hep us find the body
which I suspect is trapped
under the pilings whatchu say the county will pay him or his responsible party
three whole dollars
or else i got to investigate that little girl
back there for playing
wif hersef wif a fif a Jim Beam tween her legs har har.

And Sissy shut her eyes tight
and held out the bottle
like she had got caught peeing beside the road
and daddy looked at me like
when you beg God for a miracle but you know the answer already
so I got out and went down to the pier with Lloyd
and daddy sipped on his bottle looking on while Lloyd told me I better take off
my knickers what kind of boy wears knickers anyway he said
but lordy when I got down to my jockeys
wouldn’t you know there was a hole in ’em and here
came Sissy running toward us yelling last one in is a Nazi Jap
and she held her nose and jumped right in without even taking off her Mary Janes
so here I was second already on my first date
but if you never been there the Catawba River next to the pavilion
is so muddy it looks red
from one side to the other and if you are underneath you can’t see squat
which is no wonder that man had disappeared
and I don’t know where Sissy got to but when I waved my hands out
in the blackness it
was nobody there at all
except one time we came up together to catch our breath
and she had this expression like a Iroquois Indian
from The Lost Colony like she was not afraid of nothing and then whoosh
she was gone again back into the deep
and I had to dive after her time after time
until finally Lloyd Coggins looked at his watch and said his shift was up fuggit
let Buford handle it
and he give daddy a piece of paper that when we turned it in to the Register Of Deeds
they would give us three dollars to split between us
because he be damn if he was paying equal wages for some little girl and y’all
didn’t find him anyway
which made Sissy so mad she could spit
but what can you do against the law or when the whole system is
stacked against us which even grandma said was true
and now Sissy Morgan had to learn it too.

But daddy said don’t y’all worry the war has changed everything
and crooks like Lloyd Coggins
might not know it yet but a dollar is not what it used to be so take this he said
and give us each a two dollar bill which shows you
the kind of man my daddy was and Lloyd Coggins would never be
only I was still worried about what Sissy’s mama would think about the way she looked
all muddy and her pinafore still dripping
but when we got to her house and I walked her to the door
she turned and kissed me right on the mouth
and she said she wanted to thank me for the best matinee show
she ever went to in her whole life and if I could keep a secret she would tell me
that on her third dive
she had grabbed hold of the dead man’s hand and tried to pull him to the surface
except she run out of breath
and had to leave but Jimmy Jimmy it was better than The Bride
Of Frankenstein you won’t tell anybody will you
and I did not and for all these years I didn’t mention a word
until I saw the other day where Sissy
had died from Alzheimer’s at the age of 78
in the nursing home in Mt. Holly
and I never got to tell her the dead man was really me but then I thought what the hell
she would meet up with him again soon enough.

 

_______________

 

James Lineberger’s work has appeared previously in Prairie Schooner, Hanging Loose, Ontario Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pembroke Magazine, Boulevard, Sonora Review, Seneca Review, The Cortland Review, Texas Review, The Main Street Rag, UCity Review, Natural Bridge, Free State Review. His poems have appeared in multiple issues of New Ohio Review, and he won NOR‘s 2017 Poetry Contest, judged by Rosanna Warren.

Illustration by Devan Murphy

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