Perfect A

Every now and then old memories appear when you least expect them.

Fastidious footsteps on the pavement leading to Painter Hall on the historic campus of Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi. You’re late. As you take the brick steps and walk towards the door, your mind falls back to a time when Santa Clause was a real man who slid down chimneys with tons of gifts and life was centered around nursery rhymes, coloring sheets and recess. 

On the playground, you and your best friend Pumpkin sit on the steps in front of the school building. Keith Hampton, the cutest boy in the kindergarten class sits between you eating a green lollipop. Keith’s dark chocolate skin glistens with sweat as he sucks on his lollipop in silence. You and Pumpkin argue with each other like grown women. 

“He’s mine,” Pumpkin says threading her arm around Keith’s.

“I saw him first,” you say grabbing his other hand which clung to the sticky candy. Instantly you are covered in stickiness and green spit. You continue to hold on to him on general principle.

“He’s mine if I kiss him,” Pumpkin says with a toothless grin. 

She knows you’ve never kissed a boy before because you told her one warm evening under the Japanese Magnolia tree in your front yard. The both of you sit under the tree with your knees to your chest talking about boys.

“I have a boyfriend,” Pumpkin says.

“Really?” You say. You lean in close to hear more.

“Yep,” Pumpkin says, satisfied she has your undivided attention. She takes her time with the rest of the story, letting the words drop slow like thick Ketchup from a glass bottle. “He’s in the third grade.”

The sky morphs into a palette of heavy blues, soft pinks and slow, lazy whites. The pattern of tree leaves against the changing sky slowly turn to black. Night sounds in your ears all on various pitches interrupted by the loud engine of a passing car. You and Pumpkin turn your attention to the oncoming car. Mama would say it was going way too fast for this neighborhood. As quickly as it approaches, it’s gone. You lean back against the bark of the tree.

“Third grade?” you say as if Pumpkin had landed herself a billionaire or a handsome, rich prince. 

“Yep,” Pumpkin says with satisfaction. She stretches her legs and crosses them at the ankle. “Met him on the playground last week.”

You look at her in awe then you say, “I’ve never had a boyfriend. Mama says I’m too young.”

“Oh please,” Pumpkin says like s she’s just tasted something bitter. 

“You don’t listen to your mama?” you ask turning to face her.

“Nope.” Pumpkin reaches into her pocket and pulls out a pen. “Mama told me not to mess with her pens.” 

Pumpkin pushes the pen into your direction. It’s barely visible on the cool grass between you under the darkening sky. You take the pen cautiously and examine it. It is blue on the bottom and white on the top that feature three colors – red, blue, green. You look at Pumpkin bewildered.

“It writes in three colors?” You ask. All of your mama’s pens have either blue or black ink.

“Yep,” Pumpkin says. She watches you intently as you examine the pen.

“You stole it?” you ask after making a small mark in every color on your shoe. 

“Yep,” Pumpkin says with a satisfied grin.

The next morning you sit at the breakfast table while your mother cracks eggs and mixes them in a glass bowl. You make sure your mama is not looking before you remove the pen from your pocket. Soft gospel music plays on the stereo. The clink of the spoon against the glass bowl mixes with the lightly bubbling oil in the skillet on the front burner of the stove. You make a small blood red mark on the tablecloth with the pen then turn quickly to see if your mama’s attention is still on the eggs. It is. You turn back to the tablecloth. With red ink, you carefully make a capitol “A.” Your hand is steady as you hold the pen like your teacher Mrs. Woods taught you. The pen slides easily over the white cloth. Pride swells inside you like a balloon as the letter takes shape. The perfect red “A” right in front of you; right where mama sits your plate. You smile at your effort. You slip into a sea of superiority, arrogance and rebellion which all disappeared the moment the wet dishtowel comes down hard against your hand. You jump in response to the dishtowel. The pen digs deeper into the tablecloth. The result, a small puncture at the base of your “A” and a stray red line.

“What are you doing?” Your mama says. She pushes you aside and wages an attack on the stubborn red ink with the wet dish cloth. It doesn’t budge.

“I.. I was just writing my—”

“Where did you get that damned pen?” Your mama drops the towel and turns quickly to the bowl of eggs. You join her at the counter and watch as she pours the yellow mixture into the hot skillet. The sizzling sound fills the room drowning out the music on the radio. 

“It writes in three colors,” you say.

“Where did you get it?”

“Pumpkin got it from her mama,” you say as you watch the eggs take shape. 

“You mean she stole it,” your mama says.

You wonder how she knows but you don’t ask. “It’s not a big deal,” you say. “I’m gonna get another one for daddy for Christmas.”

“We don’t steal,” your mama says. “What Pumpkin does is her business.”

“What I do is my—”

You hear the wind before you feel the sting of your mama’s flat hand against your cheek. You don’t cry. You don’t even make a sound as you return to your seat. The pen lay on the white cloth beside your imperfect red “A.”

Your mama sets the plate of eggs in front of you covering the red mark. She slides a fork onto the plate then says, “Pumpkin is fast.” 

 

It would be six more years before you understand what she means. Pumpkin sits on the small concrete porch painting her nails when your dad stops the car in front of her house. The sun is so bright that it’s white and you try not to look at it directly. Your mom is in the passenger seat and you sit on the back seat. By now you have learned to not like pumpkin. Her thin frame drapes over a chair. Long, slim, brown crossed legs hang from a short skirt. Black hair laying neatly in a bob and slightly feathered in front framing her thin face covered in heavy makeup. 

Your mama gets out of the car taking the gift wrapped in pink paper with her. You sit in the back seat ashamed of your wide thighs and thick ponytails. You roll your window down with the hope that maybe Pumpkin will call to you and maybe invite you onto the porch. She doesn’t.  She takes the gift from your mama and lays it in an empty chair near her. She points to the front door then goes back to painting her nails. You watch as your mama disappear into the house to go and see the baby – a girl. You watch Pumpkin intently and wonder what it feels like to be a mother at twelve. You wonder if she is a shamed of getting pregnant out of wedlock. Mama says if she’s not ashamed, she’ll do it again. She did. 

“I love my babies,” Pumpkin says to you four years later one morning during high school English. The both of you sit near the window. The teacher divided the class into groups of twos. The assignment was to read each other’s work and discuss it. You and Pumpkin are one group. Her paper is about the mistakes she’d made in her life.  “I know I shoulda waited,” she says. “But I didn’t.”

You look into her pretty face and you are not sure what to feel. You love Pumpkin despite all the gossip you heard about her. You realize the value of your friendship years later when you all are adults. Your lives take different paths. Pumpkin has a job, husband and family. You are a college drop out with a job. There’s little time for you two to get together.

“Okay, so, once a year,” you say one day during a telephone conversation. 

“A movie,” Pumpkin says.

“A movie.”

And so it is. The next few years you and Pumpkin set a date to go to a movie. Each time you hope maybe more will come out of the movie date. Maybe a shopping trip or dinner or bowling. Somehow life continues to grow up around your relationship like an out of control mass of honey suckle. Always the one night in the dark sharing a bucket of popcorn, holding each other in dark screaming or crying or laughing until you pee – depending on the movie.  Then, as if directed to do so by a conductor, the movie dates stop.

You move forward with your life. You buy a house. You finish your degree. You get a new job.  All you know about Pumpkin is what you hear through the grapevine. You see Pumpkin at a wedding.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey.” You reach for her. She extends her hand. You see it. Beyond the pretty ivory suit, matching heels and pearls you see the faded beauty. A face, once full and vibrant, now hollow and lost. Ashen skin. Empty eyes. A shell of despair. She sees the shock on your face. She seems equally as shocked. You want to say more. You don’t.

The news of Pumpkin’s death comes by word of mouth.

“They found Pumpkin dead today,” your dad says over the phone.

Somehow you can’t get past the word “found.” To you it suggests she was alone and that grabs you and plants the seed of guilt that grows inside you daily. 

-Katrina Byrd

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Katrina Byrd, a native of Jackson MS, is a graduate of Millsaps College who is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women. Katrina, a recipient of several MAC Artist Minigrants, is a writer and playwright. Several of Katrina’s short plays have been performed by Vicksburg Theatre Guild, Fondren Theatre Workshop, MOJOAA Performing Arts Company and Bay Saint Louis Little Theatre. Several of her short stories have appeared in Black Magnolias Literary Magazine, In flight Literary Magazine, and Monkeycycle. 

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