"Whatcha gonna wear on your wedding day? A dress, a gown, bikini or nothin…a dress, a gown, bikini, or nothin…a dress, a gown, bikini or nothin…"
Lila Mae Barnes smiled as she watched the circle of girls across the field twirl a jump rope around and around to the rhythm of the playful chant, shaking her head with a small sigh at its innocence but couldn't help but sigh at the actual question of the game. Lila Mae might have only been eighteen years old but it was one she actually wished she could answer—and even more surprising, it was one she knew the exact answer to. She had for quite a while now. This wasn't just because in the Pelahatchie, Mississippi neighborhood she lived in marriage was something that was generally expected of girls after high school. Lila Mae's mind was unlike most of the other girls she knew in that it was hardly, if at all, focused on marriage for its domestic aspecrs. She was focused on it for one thing and one thing only;
For as long as Lila Mae could remember, she'd wanted to fall in love. It might have been because she played Knights and Princesses with her brothers and sister day in and day out when they were little, because she'd watched Disney movies so many times over the years the family's VCR had broken twice, because she and her sister read Grimm's fairy tales so many times they could quote the story collection from cover to cover, or maybe because her daddy's favored nickname for her had been 'princess'. Lila Mae didn't know. All she was sure of was that the infamous four letter word was always present in her mind.
"A gown," She murmured to herself with a small smile in response to the game continuing several feet away. When she got married Lila Mae was certain it would be in a glorious, white gown fit for a queen. Lying back in the grass so that she could look up at the blue sky above her, she (for probably the thousandth time in her life) imagined what that day would be like.
Spring. It would be in the spring, just when all of the flowers bloomed in the gardens and the summer heat of the south hadn't returned just yet. The sun would shine all day long, not too hot but would also never be hidden by the clouds. And the night would be cool and crisp, perfect for—
Lila Mae started at the sound of her name being called, then sat up and looked to see her younger sister running towards her from where she'd been playing with the girls twirling the jump rope. "So are you finally ready to go, Liza?" She asked with a playful smile.
Liza Ann clicked her cheek and smiled back with a shrug, "Well you couldn't expect me to leave before findin' out what I'm wearin' for my wedding, could you?"
Lifting an eyebrow, Lila Mae asked in feigned surprise, "And let me guess, was it a bikini this time?"
Laughing, Liza Ann replied as Lila Mae stood up and began walking alongside her on the path to home, "Oh hush, you know Mama would never even let me look at a bikini in a magazine, Lila Mae! Besides, it wasn't too long ago you were right over there with me jumpin' to see what you were gonna wear on yours!" Liza Ann (who Lila Mae just called Liza) may have only been fourteen, but it didn't make her any less in love with love than her sister was. If anything Lila Mae sometimes thought that Liza was even more taken with it than she was. But in all fairness, she couldn't pretend she hadn't had a little something to do with it. After all, she was the one who'd started telling Liza love stories at night in their bedroom when they couldn't sleep, the one who'd started playing games with her portraying the two of them as princess awaiting their princes or knights-in-shining armor, and the one who was responsible for causing her to believe the same naïve notion that she herself had ever since reading the words 'happily ever after' for the first time;
That there was only one person she was meant to be with for the rest of her life.
As a result Liza could almost be called a clone of Lila Mae, not just in looks (which were close enough), but in everything else as well. She might have been four years younger than she was, but Liza was and always had been Lila Mae's best friend, and it was something she didn't think she'd get tired or be ashamed of even if she tried. "Well maybe I grew up, Liza," Lila Mae replied with a wry smile. "Maybe I just up and decided one day that I don't need a rope to tell me what I'm gonna wear on my wedding day."
"Oh really? You and Harry have that and everything else all figured out then?" Liza retorted in an identical tone, only this time laughed when she saw Lila Mae blush and purse her lips together in a small pout. "Don't act like you don't know what I'm talkin' about! I saw the way he was lookin' at you on Saturday at you and Tucker's graduation party; like a hungry puppy staring at a bone." Here Liza relaxed her face into an expression obviously meant to mimic the one on the boy's face she was referring to, only laughing harder at the tighter pout of her older sister's lips. "Oh come on, Lila Mae, don't get mad—'sides, I thought you liked Harry!"
Lila Mae clicked her cheek, shrugging once and looking down at the grass with her slender arms crossed as she replied, "I never said I didn't like him, Liza. I just…wish you and everyone wouldn't think me 'n him are gonna jump a broom any day now." She finished at last, a soft but stubborn undertone to her voice.
"Well," Liza began after a brief pause of silence in noticing her sister's solemnity, offering gently, "You can't act like you don't at least know he's had it real bad for you for forever now."
"'Course I know that, Liza," Lila Mae sighed heavily, her arms still crossed and her gaze still averted to the grass.
"Or that with him workin' in his daddy's auto shop so much everybody says that he'll be a real good catch for whatever girl gets him—'specially with him taking it over when Earl retires."
"Yeah, I know."
Pausing one last time with a side glance at Lila Mae, Liza added, this time more cautiously, "And…y'know, with Earl and Daddy having been such good friends for so long…people say that—"
Here Lila Mae let out a final heavy sigh of frustration, "Yeah I know, Liza, okay? I know all that!"
"Geez Lila Mae, then why are you gettin' so upset about it?" Her sister, puzzled and somewhat taken aback by the sudden harsh tone of voice, asked bewilderingly.
"'Cuz maybe I don't wanna pay attention to what people say, or what they think, or what they expect from me when it comes to Harry," Lila Mae snapped, her ordinarily cheerful face with the beginnings of genuinely annoyed scowl in its expression. "Maybe I wanna have something to do with who I end up marrying one day!"
"All right, all right, all right," Liza reassured quickly, obviously wanting to get both the subject and the mood her sister was entering into changed. "Forget about Harry then, let's talk about somethin' else, huh? Liiiike…" Her wide, Barnes-dark brown eyes averted upwards momentarily in thought, then her pink full lips curved into another playful smile, "How about the Fourth of July party in two weeks?"
Though an instinctive smile threatened to turn up the corners of her lips at the reminder of the Independence Day party practically every person in town came to, Lila Mae asked curtly, "What about it?"
Undeterred by this for even a second, Liza continued with her bright smile, "Well yesterday Mama was telling me about all the food her, Gail and Pearl are plannin' on makin' for it this year; roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, peas 'n carrots, cornbread—and she said that Stan was gonna take his grill out back and cook up some BBQ too!"
"What, you mean the way he does every year?"
"Well, so what if he does?" Liza asked, her tone somewhat defensive. "He also makes the best BBQ in the county every year…and I don't hear you bein' so snooty about it when you lick your plate clean every year either!"
Here Lila Mae was unable to withhold a giggle with her sister, but once they subsided sighed, "Oh all right, so what if do? All I meant was that it's the same every year, Liza. The same thing year after year after year after yeaaar!" She groaned, rolling her eyes dramatically.
Liza laughed, but said, "Well yeah, but what's so wrong with that? That's what makes it so fun, isn't it, Lila Mae?"
"Ugh, fun?!" Lila Mae exclaimed exasperatedly. "Liza that's just what I mean; everything's always the same in this town! Nothin' ever changes, nothin'! Aren't you sick and tired of that, don't you just wanna get, go somewhere else, see somewhere else, do somethin' else?!"
"Well, gosh I dunno, maybe sometimes," Liza laughed a little with a small shrug. "I mean, it's fun talkin' and dreamin' about it when you n' me tell stories and stuff, but really leaving home and goin' somewhere else…? I mean…what for? What'd we even do once we got to…wherever we were goin'?" She laughed again.
"Anything, Liza, anything we wanted!" Lila Mae gushed emphatically. "That's the point, if we could just get outta Pelahatchie and go some place in the world that really matters and really has something in it that really matters, then you n' me could do anything! But as long as we're stuck here, where nothing ever happens and no one ever does anything, we'll never know!" She said glumly, kicking at a clot of dust on the road they were walking on towards home.
"Well," Liza began lightly after a brief moment of silence. "Maybe you're right. Maybe there is somethin' better for us out there somewhere else. But…'til I find it, Pelahatchie, Mississippi will do just fine for me, thanks!" Her sister declared proudly with a grin, then playfully elbowed Lila Mae, "And it should do just fine for you too, missy!"
Reluctantly giggling, Lila Mae gave her a light shove back but a second later wrapped an arm around Liza in a playful embrace against her and remained that way until they were walking into town.
Pelahatchie was a small town, so small in fact that the actual 'town' aspect of it was made up of only several blocks of pavement, streetlights and large stores. The biggest building was the factory on the edge of town that practically every male who wasn't too young or too old for manual labor was employed at. The community was also a small one, one that no matter how hard one might to avoid it, was incapable of not keeping any and every connected to any and every one. Lila Mae knew who everyone who lived in Pelahatchie was and everyone who lived in Pelahatchie knew who Lila Mae was. This of course, made the lives of all the women in the town that were occupied with taking care of house and home practically live and breathe around gossip, but for Lila Mae the effects of this weren't things she had to deal with. Save for the occasional embarrassing insinuations about her and Harry, secrets were never in whispered in matron's or teenagers' ears about her and her life.
In the meantime, the girls had since walked into the town, smiling and waving in response to the scattered residents of Pelahatchie standing around and outside the various stores,
"Hey girls, how's it goin' today?"
"We're good, thanks, Chip. How're you?"
"Lila Mae, Liza Ann, you girls are gettin' prettier every day!"
"Aww thank you, Stella. But you know Lila Mae's the only one who actually likes people callin' her by her full name!"
"Lila Mae, honey, tell your mama I have the recipe for that casserole she was askin' me about last night. Just tell Becky I'll be bringin' it around sometime this weekend."
"I'll do that Miss Carson, thanks."
"Hey Lila Mae, Harry's been askin' after you to Tucker a lot these past few days, so why don't you put my boy outta his misery and drop by the shop sometime?"
This made Liza and everyone else around them close enough to hear laugh amusedly, so Lila Mae--briefly ducking her head and flushing bright pink--answered with a small polite smile, "I'll um…I'll try, Mister Peterson." Then when they were a good distance away from everyone, poked Liza in the ribs with a mocking scold, "And what are you laughin' at?"
"Nothin," Liza smiled knowingly. "Nothin' at all."
At long last they reached the edge of the town and approached the road going back into the woods towards home. Minutes later they were walking up the lawn to the family's house just as the sun had started to go down. After a brief sniff in the air both sisters looked at each other instinctively with eager smiles on their faces.
The smell of mouth-watering food was heavy in the breeze.
Their pace quickened until they simultaneously decided to enter into a full-fledged race to the front door, giggling playfully then squealing as they pushed each other on their way up the porch. With a last squeal Lila Mae finally reached the door first, collapsing against it half a second before Liza did, then through her giggles and gasps for breath, said, "And whatever happened to being younger makin' you faster than most folks?!"
"Oh don't even try it, Lila Mae, you know you cheated on your way up the porch by trippin' me with your foot!"
"Mmhmm, and that shove you gave me was just an accident, I guess?"
"Complete and total accident!"
"Yeah, now both of you get in this house before this food gets cold." Looking forward, both Lila Mae and Liza smiled sheepishly as they saw their mother standing behind the screen of the door, a mockingly scolding expression on her face as she looked down at her daughters.
Becky (Rebecca) Barnes was a good woman. A strong woman. If anyone in Pelahatchie could have pegged her with any two adjectives, Lila Mae knew those would be it. Since her husband, Bobby Ray Barnes had died several years ago, she'd had to raise and take care of all six of her children by herself, but she'd been just as strong before that anyway. Becky was what could be a considered a pillar of the Pelahatchie community, a woman who treated and spoke to everyone with the same motherly, no-nonsense care and concern regardless of their gender or age. Because the entire town had adored Bobby Ray, when his widow died they'd been concerned for how she'd fair without him—especially with the two twin babies she'd just given birth to and the other four children she had as well. But Becky had managed, more than managed. In fact many were perplexed by just how well she'd handled the whole thing, as if nothing had changed or needed to be worried about at all. Lila Mae knew she had (and still did) miss their father terribly, but Becky had moved forward, her drive being motivated by the determination never to give up or fail no matter what the situation was. Lila Mae thought she was amazing. The two of them didn't really have that much in common personally-wise (everyone knew Lila Mae took exactly after her father when it came to that) but she could and did still appreciate the fact that her mother was a remarkably strong woman who loved her family and friends unconditionally.
Stepping inside the house, Lila Mae smiled with a sly look back at her sister, "Sorry Mama, we wouldn't have been so late if Liza hadn't wanted to make a little stop on the way home with her friends."
"Doesn't matter now, Lila Mae, just both of you go upstairs and wash up for dinner. Liza after you get done, go and wake up B.J. and Chrissy from their naps and put 'em in their chairs so they can eat. Lila Mae, come on back here with me and help set the table so we can eat."
"Yes Mama." Both of them replied in unison. Coming back downstairs 3 minutes later, the aroma of Becky's cooking filled her nostrils, making her stomach growl in ravenous hunger. "Mmm…." She smiled, coming up behind her mother where she stood in front of the stove to wrap her arms around her neck in a warm hug. "It smells wonderful in here, Mama, what are we havin'?"
"Pork chops, mashed potatoes 'n gravy, sweet corn and bread." Becky replied distractedly, busying herself with giving the gravy a final stir then after tasting it once more for good measure, nodded, then gave Lila Mae's arms a brief pat and reminded her, "Table, honey."
With that, Lila Mae broke away and opened the cupboards and drawers containing the silverware and dishes to set the table with. As she did so she asked her mother casually, "So where are Bobby Ray and Tucker at?"
"Bobby Ray's up at Megan's house, it was her mama's birthday today and he wanted to drop by and pay his respects—you know, with him practically bein' her son-in-law anyway," Becky added with light, wry chuckle. "But he should be home any minute now. And Tucker…well, you know how he is; the boy's probably gone and cracked his head open from jumpin' out of a tree."
Lila Mae laughed and shook her head, still somehow finding a way to be amazed by just how different her two eldest brothers were from one another. Ever since their father had died when he was just a teenager, Bobby Ray Jr. had been the primary provider for the Barnes family. He'd taken care of all of the arrangements of their father's funeral, then had taken on a part-time job at the town's factory while finishing high school. Even now that he was 25 years old, he'd still chosen to stay at home and help take care of his family despite being engaged to his high school sweetheart for years now. When it came to paying bills, making repairs on their house or doing anything else he could help Becky with, Bobby Ray did everything—which was probably why he was Becky's favorite child. He was the most attentive, caring, and capable young man Lila Mae knew.
Tucker, on the other hand,was another story. Being the same age as her, Tucker Lee was the exact opposite of Bobby Ray; he was wild, unrestrained, and mischievous. However, this didn't necessarily make him a bad kid. Tucker had the type of personality that was so charismatic, full of life and energy that it automatically pulled almost everyone he met in hook, line, and sinker. His pranks were never malicious and more often than not he was always able to make someone inclined to be indignant or exasperated with him forget about it in a second with some kind of joke. When Liza had still been too little to play with when they were young, it had been Tucker Lila Mae had ran around with for hours and hours on end, playing pranks and doing dares even with his friends. Now they fooled around occasionally, but usually Lila Mae tended to keep clear from Tucker and the boys he hung around with…primarily because the main one he hung around with just happened to be Harry Peterson.
No sooner had Lila Mae set down the last plate on the table did she hear the screen door bang and look up to see Bobby Ray enter the small dining room, Megan directly behind him with a small smile on her round face. "Hey there you, where'd you disappear to today?" He asked playfully, coming over to Lila Mae to him in a brief side hug.
"I was around, here and there," She replied with a shrug. "Mostly me 'n Liza just played around."
"Oh yeah, and what else is new?" Bobby Ray asked with a good-natured sarcasm, then called out towards the kitchen, "Hey Mama, I'm back!"
A second later Becky came into the dining room, a plate of pork chops and a bowl of corn in her hands as she replied, "I thought I heard your voice, baby. And—Megan, honey how're you doing? Your mama have a happy birthday?"
Nodding, Megan replied, "Yeah, thank you Miss Becky, her and Daddy are goin' out actually; he's takin' her to some fancy restaurant in the town a few miles from here." She shrugged with a brief roll of her eyes, "And I figured I'd better let 'em go on their own so's not to be a third wheel or anything."
Taking both the plate and bowl from his mother's hands and setting them down on the table himself, Bobby Ray asked, "I told her she could come and eat with us tonight, Mama, would that be okay?"
Becky clicked her cheek, waving her hand as she walked back in the kitchen , "Oh 'course you know it'd be okay, Bobby Ray, Megan's welcome whenever she wants in this house, now take her coat and get her somethin' to drink before we sit down to eat. Lila Mae, why don't you run upstairs and see what's taking your sister so long with—"
"I'm comin' Mama, I'm comin'," Came Liza's voice from the living room before she too entered the dining room, one of the twins on her hip and the other being led gently by the hand. Seeing Bobby Ray and Megan, she smiled as she put one of the twins in a high chair adjacent to the table, "Hey Megan! I didn't know you were goin' to be comin' tonight."
As Lila Mae immediately went to help B.J. into his high chair, Megan, replied, "Yeah, my parents went out to eat, so Bobby Ray just said for me to come over here."
"Oh good, well d'you think you could show me how to French braid my hair again before you leave? I tried to do it like you showed me before last week, but I ended up just putting my hair into one huge knot! Mama was afraid we were goin' to have to chop it all off before Lila Mae finally got it untangled with those long nails of hers!"
Laughing, Megan replied, "Sure I would, Liza. This time we'll just have to stay away from Tucker though, so he won't put honey on the comb this ti—"
"Iiiiiiii was thinkin' more like syrup this time, seein' that Liza's probably a hundred times more sweeter than honey."
The sound of Tucker's voice made all of them turn in the direction of the dining room entrance with wry, knowing smiles. Lila Mae's however, faltered when she saw who was with him; Harry. Their eyes immediately met, but hers were the first to look away, a tense knot forming in her stomach at the expression in his.
"Oh shut up, Tucker," Liza was saying in the meantime. "That 'sweet' little mouth of yours isn't gonna be enough to let you off the hook about that stunt you pulled!"
"Still plottin' your revenge on it, huh?" Tucker asked amusedly, not at all intimidated.
"I'm warnin' you; me 'n Lila Mae are gonna get you right when you don't expect it!"
"Oh, well in that case, I guess we better watch our backs then, huh Har? Cuz, while I'm pretty sure we could take Liza, I'm not too sure Lila Mae would be so easy to beat, would she?"
"No, Lila Mae would be a little bit harder for any guy to come against, I think," Harry replied, keeping his gaze fixed on her as he added with a smile, "But hey…I guess that's just what makes her so special."
Trying to ignore the pointed smiles and looks that this comment caused amongst her family, Lila Mae made her lips turn up into a light smile as she said, "Hey Harry, how's it goin'?"
Coming forward so that he was closer to her, Harry leaned up against the wall as the rest of them started in on their own small talk and replied with another smile, "I'm not too bad, Lila Mae, not too bad. Was kinda wonderin' what happened to our little plan to go to the movies after church this past Sunday, but," He shrugged and added with a lift of his eye brow, "I guess I'll just have to make do with the fourth of July party in two weeks, huh?"
Sighing as she looked away and smiled sheepishly, Lila began, "Yeah, I know, I'm…I'm real sorry about that, Harry. I-I would've went to the movies with you, it's not like I didn't wanna…" She lied, then hurriedly answered, "Mama just needed help with somethin' back here, and Bobby Ray wanted to spend time with Megan. Let's um…let's see what we can do at the party."
Harry nodded also, the same light smile on his lips, as he assented, "Let's see."
Uncomfortable under the frank admiration in his gaze, Lila Mae looked from side to side for a moment, then laughed nervously and said, "Well, I…I better go see if Mama needs any more help with the food." She turned and went back into the kitchen just as Becky was taking a large bowl of banana pudding out of the refrigerator. "Here honey, take this." Her mother said, then as she took a pitcher of lemonade out, asked, "Wasn't that Harry's voice I heard out there a minute ago?"
Nodding, Lila Mae sighed, "Yeah."
Looking back at her, Becky paused, then smiled lightly, "Well don't sound so excited." When Lila Mae only looked down into the pudding, she sighed and said simply, "The boy can't help the way he feels, honey. You're a good, pretty girl and he's only admirin' that."
"I know, I know that, Mama…" She sighed again. "I'm just…tired of it, y'know? The attention, the laughing, the expectation from everyone when it comes to Harry. Every time it happens I just wanna crawl under a table and die!"
"Well I'm not expectin' anything outta you, and I'm your mama. So just ignore what anyone else has to say about it, honey; it's none of their business."
"But I just…I just want to fall in love on my own, Mama," Lila Mae said after another pause. "I want to be able to see him and know—and feel that we're supposed to be together…not have all my family and friends tell me that."
Smiling and chuckling softly, Becky looked at Lila Mae and shook her head, "I declare, sometimes I think instead of me givin' birth to you your daddy must have just spat you out of his mouth, you sound so much like him, Lila Mae."
"But that's why you fell in love with Daddy though, right Mama? Because he was so romantic, because he believed in love?"
"Well…yeah, yeah I guess I did. That and 'cuz he was the best man I'd ever hopped in b—" Here Becky caught herself, chuckling again and finished, "Well, he was the best man I've ever known, let's put it that way. But Lila Mae, love don't always work like that. It ain't fireworks, rainbows and pretty songs for everyone. You could meet the man meant for you one of these days and feel absolutely nothin' when you first look at him, you probably wouldn't even know he was the one you was supposed to be with. But that don't mean the love you have wouldn't be real. Or that it's any less real of a love than one that does come with all those pretty things. Love is love. And that's more real than anything." Becky was silent for a moment to let her words sink in, then continued briskly, "All right now, get another plate and silverware to take out for Harry so we can finally eat all this food."
Groaning and shaking her head urgently, Lila began to protest, "Oh Mama no, please no—"
"Just do it, Lila Mae. It's not gonna kill you." Becky interjected firmly. "Besides, if Megan's gonna be our guest tonight, then I'm certainly not gonna turn away Harry. God Almighty, you act as if sitting next to the boy at a dinner table means you've gotta marry him!"