Penetrating a windshield blotched with decalcomanias of every tourist attraction from Luray Caverns to Silver Springs, Miriam read the road sign.
“It’s Babylon, Georgia, Momma. Can’t we stop?”
“Sure, sweetie. Anything you want to do.” The little round, brindle woman took off her sunglasses. “After all, it’s your trip.”
“I know, Momma, I know. All I want is a popsicle, not the Grand Tour.”
“Don’t be fresh.”
They were on their way home again, after Miriam’s graduation trip through the South. (Momma had planned it for years, and had taken two months off, right in the middle of the summer, too, and they’d left right after high school commencement ceremonies. “Mr. Margulies said I could have the whole summer, because I’ve been with him and Mr. Kent for so long,” she had said. “Isn’t it wonderful to be going somewhere together, dear?” Miriam had sighed, thinking of her crowd meeting in drugstores and in movies and eating melted ice cream in the park all through the good, hot summer. “Yes,” she’d said.)
Today they’d gotten off 301 somehow, and had driven dusty Georgia miles without seeing another car or another person, except for a Negro driving a tractor down the softening asphalt road, and two kids walking into a seemingly deserted country store. Now they drove slowly into a town, empty because it was two o’clock and the sun was shimmering in the streets. They had to stop, Miriam knew, on the pretext of wanting something cold to drink. They had to reassure themselves that there were other people in the town, in Georgia, in the world.
In the sleeping square, a man lay. He raised himself on his elbows when he saw the car, and beckoned to Miriam, grinning.
“Momma, see that place? Would you mind if I worked in a place like that?” They drove past the drugstore, a chrome palace with big front windows.
“Oh, Miriam, don’t start that again. How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t want you working in a drugstore when we get back.” Her mother made a pass at a parking place, drove once again around the square. “What do you think I sent you to high school for? I want you to go to Katie Gibbs this summer, and get a good job in the fall. What kind of boy friends do you think you can meet jerking sodas? You know, I don’t want you to work for the rest of your life. All you have to do is get a good job, and you’ll meet some nice boy, maybe from your office, and get married and never have to work again.” She parked the car and got out, fanning herself. They stood under the trees, arguing.
“Momma, even if I did want to meet your nice people, I wouldn’t have a thing to wear.” The girl settled into the groove of the old argument. “I want some pretty clothes and I want to get a car. I know a place where you only have to pay forty dollars a month, I’ll be getting thirty-five a week at the drugstore–”
“And spending it all on yourself, I suppose. How many times do I have to explain, nice people don’t work in places like that. Here I’ve supported you, fed you, dressed you, ever since your father died, and now, when I want you to have a nice future, you want to throw it out of the window for a couple of fancy dresses.” Her lips quivered. “Here I am practically dead on my feet, giving you a nice trip, and a chance to learn typing and shorthand and have a nice future–”
“Oh, Momma.” the girl kicked at the sidewalk and sighed. She said the thing that would stop the argument. “I’m sorry. I’ll like it, I guess, when I get started.”
Round, soft, jiggling and determined, her mother moved ahead of her, trotting in too-high heels, skirting the square. “The main thing, sweetie, is to be a good girl. If boys see you behind a soda fountain, they’re liable to get the wrong idea. They may think they can get away with something, and try to take advantage…”
In the square across the street, lying on a pallet in the sun, a young boy watched them. He called out.
“…Don’t pay any attention to him,” the mother said. “…and if boys know you’re a good girl, one day you’ll meet one who will want to marry you. Maybe a big businessman, or a banker, if you have a good steno job. But if he thinks he can take advantage,” her eyes were suddenly crafty, “he’ll never marry you. You just pay attention. Don’t ever let boys get away with anything. Like when you’re on a date, do you ever–”
“Oh, Momma,” Miriam cried, insulted.
“I’m sorry, sweetie, but I do so want you to be a good girl. Are you listening to me, Miriam?”
“Momma, that lady seems to be calling me. The one lying over there in the park. What do you suppose she wants?”
“I don’t know. Well, don’t just stand there. She looks like a nice woman. Go over and see if you can help her. Guess she’s sun-bathing, but it does look funny, almost like she’s in bed. Ask her,
Mirry. Go on!”
“Will you move me into the shade?” The woman, obviously one of the leading matrons of the town, was lying on a thin mattress. The shadow of the tree she was under had shifted with the sun, leaving her in the heat.
Awkwardly, Miriam tugged at the ends of the thin mattress, got it into the shade.
“And my water and medicine bottle too, please?”
“Yes Ma’am. Is there anything the matter, ma’am?”
“Well.” The woman ticked the familiar recital off on her fingers: “It started with cramps and– you know– lady trouble. Thing is, now my head burns all the time and I’ve got a pain in my left side, not burning, you know, but just sort of tingling.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“Well, has your mother there ever had that kind of trouble? What did the doctor prescribe? What would you do for my kind of trouble? Do you know anybody who’s had anything like it? That pain, it starts up around my ribs, and goes down, sort of zigzag…”
“Momma, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want a popsicle. Let’s get you out of here, please. Momma?”
“If you don’t mind, sweetie, I want a coke.” Her mother dropped on a bench. “I don’t feel so good. My head…”
They went into the drugstore. Behind the chrome and plate glass, it was like every drugstore they’d seen in every small town along the East Coast, cool and dim and a little dingy in the back.
They sat at one of the small round wooden tables and a dispirited waitress brought them their order.
“What did Stanny and Bernice say when you told them you were going on a big tour?” Miriam’s mother slurped at her Coke, breathing hard.
“Oh, they thought it was all right.”
“Well, I certainly hope you tell them all about it when we get back. It’s not every young girl gets a chance to see all the historical monuments. I bet Bernice has never been to Manassas.”
“I guess not, Momma.”
“I guess Stanny and that Mrs. Fyle will be pretty impressed when you get back and tell ’em where all we’ve been. I bet that Mrs. Fyle could never get Toby to go anywhere with her. Of course, they’ve never been as close as we’ve been.”
“I guess not, Momma.” The girl sucked and sucked at the bottom half of her popsicle, to keep it from dripping on her dress.
In the back of the store, a young woman in dirty white shorts held onto her little son’s hand and talked to the waitress. The baby, about two, sat on the floor in gray, dusty diapers.
“Your birthday’s coming pretty soon, isn’t it?” She dropped the baby’s hand.
“Yeah. Oh, you ought to see my white dress. Golly, Anne, hope I won’t have to Wait too long. Anne, what was it like?”
The young woman looked away from her with the veiled face of the married, who do not talk about such things.
“Myla went last week, and she only had to stay for a couple of days. Don’t tell anybody, because of course she’s going to marry Harry next week, but she wishes she could see Him again…”
The young woman moved a foot, accidentally hit the baby. He snuffled and she helped him onto her lap, gurgling at him. In the front of the store, Miriam heard the baby and jumped.
“Momma, come on. We’ll never get to Richmond by night. We’ve already lost our way twice!” Her mother, dabbling her straw in the ice the bottom of her paper cup, roused herself. They dropped two nickels on the counter and left.
They skirted the square again, ignoring the three people who lay on the grass motioning and calling to them with a sudden urgency. Miriam got into the car.
“Momma, come on! Momma!”
Her mother was still standing at the door by the driver’s seat, hanging onto the handle. Miriam slid across the front seat to open the door for her. She gave the handle an impatient twist and then started as she saw her mother’s upper body and face slip past the window in a slow fall to the pavement. “Oh, I knew we never should have come!” It was an agonized, vexed groan. Red-faced and furious, she got out of the car, ran around to help her mother.
On their pallets in the park, the sick people perked up. Men and women were coming from everywhere. Cars pulled up and stopped and more people came. Kneeling on the pavement, Miriam managed to tug her mother over onto her back. She fanned her and talked to her, and when she saw she wasn’t going to wake up or move, she looked at the faces above her in sudden terror.
“Oh please help me. We’re alone here. She’ll be all right, I think, once we get her inside. She’s never fainted before. Please, someone get a doctor.” Then, frantically, “I just want to get out of here.”
“Why, honey, you don’t need to do that. Don’t you worry.” A shambling, balding, pleasant man in his forties knelt beside her and put his hand on her shoulder. “We’ll have her diagnosed and started on a cure in no time. Can you tell me what’s been her trouble?”
“Not so far, Doctor.”
“I’m not a doctor, honey.”
“Not so far,” she said dazedly, “except she’s been awfully hot.” (Two women in the background nodded at each other knowingly.) “I thought it was the weather, but I guess it’s fever.” (The crowd was waiting.) “And she has an open place on her foot– got it while we were sightseeing in Tallahassee.”
“Well honey, maybe we’d better look at it.” The shoe came off and when it did, the men and women moved even closer, clucking and whispering about the wet, raw sore.
“If we could just get back to Queens,” Miriam said. “If we could just get home, I know everything would be all right.”
“Why, we’ll have her diagnosed before you know it.” The shambling man got up from his knees. “Anybody here had anything like this recently?” The men and women conferred in whispers.
“Well,” one man said, “Harry Parkins’s daughter had a fever like that, turned out to be pneumonia, but she never had nothin’ like that on her foot. I reckon she ought to have antibiotics for that fever.”
“Why, I had somethin’ like that on my arm.” A woman amputee was talking. “Wouldn’t go away and wouldn’t go away. Said I woulda died if they hadn’t of done this.” She waved the stump.
“We don’t want to do anything like that yet. Might not even be the same thing,” the bald man said. “Anybody else?”
“Might be tetanus.”
“Could be typhoid, but I don’t think so.”
“Bet it’s some sort of staphylococcus infection.”
“Well,” the bald man said, “since we don’t seem to be able to prescribe just now, guess we’d better put her on the square. Call your friends when you get home tonight, folks, and see if any of them know about it; if not, we’ll just have to depend on tourists.”
“All right, Herman.”
“See ya, Herman.”
The mother, who had come to during the dialog and listened with terrified fascination, gulped a potion and a glass of water the druggist had brought from across the street. From the furniture store came the messenger boy with a thin mattress. Someone else brought a couple of sheets, and the remainder of the crowd carried her into the square and put her down not far from the woman who had the lady trouble.
When Miriam last saw her mother, she was talking drowsily to the woman, almost ready to let the drug take her completely.
Frightened but glad to be away from the smell of sickness, Miriam followed Herman Clark down a side street.
“You can come home with me, honey,” he said. “I’ve got a daughter just about your age, and you’ll be well taken care of until that mother of yours gets well.” Miriam smiled, reassured, used to following her elders.
“Guess you’re wondering about our little system,” Clark said, hustling her into his car. “What with specialization and all, doctors got so they were knowin’ so little, askin’ so much, chargin’ so much. Here in Babylon, we found we don’t really need ’em. Practically everybody in this town has been sick one way or another, and what with the way women like to talk about their operations, we’ve learned a lot about treatment. We don’t need doctors any more. We just benefit by other people’s experience.”
“Experience?” None of this was real, Miriam was sure, but Clark had the authoritative air of a long-time parent, and she knew parents were always right.
“Why, yes. If you had chicken pox, and were out where everybody in town could see you, pretty soon somebody’d come along who’d had it. They’d tell you what you had, and tell you what they did to get rid of it. Wouldn’t even have to pay a doctor to write the prescription. Why, I used Silas Lapham’s old nerve tonic on my wife when she had her bad spell. She’s fine now; didn’t cost us a cent except for the tonic. This way, if you’re sick we put you in the square and you stay there until somebody happens by who’s had your symptoms; then you just try his cure. Usually works fine. If not, somebody else’ll be by. ‘Course we can’t let any of the sick folks leave the square until they’re well; don’t want anybody else catchin’ it.”
“How long will it take?”
“Well, we’ll try some of the stuff Maysie Campbell used– and Gilyard Pinckney’s penicillin prescription. If that doesn’t work we may have to wait until a tourist happens through.”
“But what makes the tourists ask and suggest?”
“Have to. It’s the law. You come on home with me, honey, and we’ll try to get your mother well.”
Miriam met Clark’s wife and Clark’s family. For the first week she wouldn’t unpack her suitcases. She was sure they’d be leaving soon, if she could just hold out. They tried Asa Whitleaf’s tonic on her mother and doctored her foot with the salve Harmon Johnson gave his youngest when she had boils. They gave her Gilyard Pinckney’s penicillin prescription.
“She doesn’t seem much better,” Miriam said to Clark one day. “Maybe if I could get her to Richmond or Atlanta to the hospital–”
“We couldn’t let her out of Babylon until she’s well, honey. Might carry it to other cities. Besides, if we cure her she won’t send county health nurses back, trying to change our methods. And it might be bad for her to travel. You’ll get to like it here, hon.”
That night Miriam unpacked. Monday she got a job clerking in the dime store.
“You’re the new one, huh?” The girl behind the jewelry counter moved over to her, friendly, interested. “You Waited yet? No, I guess not. You look too young yet.”
“No, I’ve never waited on people. This is my first job,” Miriam said confidentially.
“I didn’t mean that kind of wait,” the girl said with some scorn. Then, seemingly irrelevantly, “You’re from a pretty big town, I hear. Probably already laid with boys and everything. Won’t
have to Wait.”
“What do you mean? I never have. Never! I’m a good girl!” Almost sobbing, Miriam ran back to the manager’s office. She was put in the candy department, several counters away. That night she stayed up late with a road map and a flashlight, figuring, figuring.
The next day the NO VISITORS sign was taken down from the tree in the park and Miriam went to see her mother.
“I feel terrible, sweetie, you having to work in the dime store while I’m out here under these nice trees. Now you just remember all I told you, and don’t let any of these town boys get fresh with you. Just because you have to work in the dime store doesn’t mean you aren’t a nice girl and as soon as I can, I’m going to get you out of that job. Oh, I wish I was up and around.”
“Poor Momma.” Miriam smoothed the sheets and put a pile of movie magazines down by her mother’s pillow. “How can you stand lying out here all day?”
“It isn’t so bad, really. And y’know, that Whitleaf woman seems to know a little something about my trouble. I haven’t really felt right since you were nine.”
“Momma, I think we ought to get out of here. Things aren’t right–”
“People certainly are being nice. Why, two of the ladies brought me some broth this morning.”
Miriam felt like grabbing her mother and shaking her until she was willing to pick up her bedclothes and run with her. She kissed her goodbye and went back to the dime store. Over their lunch, two of the counter girls were talking.
“I go next week. I want to marry Harry Phibbs soon, so I sure hope I won’t be there too long. Sometimes it’s three years.”
“Oh, you’re pretty, Donna. You won’t have too long to Wait.”
“I’m kind of scared. Wonder what it’ll be like.”
“Yeah, wonder what it’s like. I envy you.”
Chilled for some reason, Miriam hurried past them to her counter and began carefully rearranging marshmallow candies in the counter display.
That night she walked to the edge of the town, along the road she and her mother had come in on. Ahead in the road she saw two gaunt men standing, just where the dusty sign marked the city limits. She was afraid to go near them and almost ran back to town, frightened, thinking. She loitered outside the bus station for some time, wondering how much a ticket out of the place would cost her. But of course she couldn’t desert her mother. She was investigating the family car, still parked by the square, when Tommy Clark came up to her. “Time to go home, isn’t it?” He asked, and they walked together back to his father’s house.
“Momma, did you know it’s almost impossible to get out of this town?” Miriam was at her mother’s side a week later.
“Don’t get upset, sweetie. I know it’s tough on you, having to work in the dime store, but that won’t be forever. Why don’t you look around for a little nicer job, dear?”
“Momma, I don’t mean that. I want to go home! Look, I’ve got an idea. I’ll get the car keys from your bag here and tonight, just before they move you all into the courthouse to sleep, we’ll run for the car and get away.”
“Dear,” her mother sighed gently. “You know I can’t move.”
“Oh Mother, can’t you try?”
“When I’m a little stronger, dear, then maybe we’ll try. The Pinckney woman is coming tomorrow with her daughter’s herb tea. That should pep me up a lot. Listen, why don’t you arrange to be down here? She has the best-looking son! –Miriam, you come right back here and kiss me goodbye.”
Tommy Clark had started meeting Miriam for lunch. They’d taken in one movie together, walking home hand in hand in an incredible pink dusk. On the second date Tommy had tried to kiss her but she’d said, “Oh Tommy, I don’t know the Babylon rules,” because she knew it wasn’t good to kiss a boy she didn’t know very well. Handing Tommy half her peanut-butter sandwich, Miriam said, “Can we go to the ball game tonight? The American Legion’s playing.”
“Not tonight, kid. It’s Margy’s turn to go.”
“What do you mean, turn to go?”
“Oh.” Tommy blushed. “You know.”
That afternoon right after she finished work, Tommy picked her up and they went to the party given for Herman Clark’s oldest daughter. Radiant, Margy was dressed in white. It was her eighteenth birthday. At the end of the party, just when it began to get dark, Margy and her mother left the house. “I’ll bring some stuff out in the truck tomorrow morning, honey,” Clark said. “Take care of yourself.” “Goodbye.” “B’bye.” “Happy Waitin’, Margy!”
“Tommy, where is Margy going?” Something about the party and something in Margy’s eyes frightened Miriam.
“Oh, you know. Where they all go. But don’t worry.” Tommy took her hand. “She’ll be back soon. She’s pretty.”
In the park the next day Miriam whispered in her mother’s ear, “Momma, it’s been almost a month now. Please, please, we have to go! Won’t you please try to go with me?” She knelt next to her, talking urgently. “The car’s been taken. I went back to check it over last night and it was gone. But I sort of think, if we could get out on the highway, we could get a ride. Momma, we’ve got to get out of here.”
Her mother sighed a little, and stretched.
“You always said you never wanted me to be a bad girl, didn’t you, Momma?”
The older woman’s eyes narrowed. “You aren’t letting that Clark boy take advantage–”
“No, Momma. No. That’s not it at all. I just think I’ve heard something horrible. I don’t even want to talk about it. It’s some sort of law. Oh, Momma, please. I’m scared.”
“Now, sweetie, you know there’s nothing to worry about. Pour me a little water, won’t you, dear? You know, I think they’re going to cure me yet. Helva Smythe and Margaret Box have been coming in to see me every day, and they’ve brought some penicillin pills in hot milk that I think are really doing me some good.”
“But Momma, I’m scared.”
“Now dear, I’ve seen you going past with that nice Clark boy. The Clarks are a good family and you’re lucky to be staying with them. You just play your cards right and remember: be a good girl.”
“Momma, we’ve got to get out.”
“You just calm down, young lady. Now go back and be nice to that Tommy Clark. Helva Smythe says he’s going to own his daddy’s business some day. You might bring him out here to see me tomorrow.”
“I’ve decided. They’re making me better, and we’re going to stay here until I’m well. People may not pay you much attention in a big city, but you’re really somebody in a small town.” She smoothed her blankets complacently and settled down to sleep.
That night Miriam sat with Tommy Clark in his front porch swing. They’d started talking a lot to each other, about everything. “…so I guess I’ll have to go into the business,” Tommy was saying. “I’d kind of like to go to Wesleyan or Clemson or something, but Dad says I’ll be better off right here, in business with him. Why won’t they ever let us do what we want to do?”
“I don’t know, Tommy. Mine wants me to go to Katherine Gibbs– that’s a secretarial school in New York– and get a typing job this fall.”
“You won’t like that much,will you?”
“Uh-uh. Except now I’m kind of anxious to get back up there– you know, get out of this town.”
“You don’t like it here?” Tommy’s face clouded. “You don’t like me?”
“Oh Tommy, I like you fine. But I’m pretty grown up now, and I’d like to get back to New York and start in on a job. Why I got out of high school last month.”
“No kidding. You only look about fifteen.”
“Aw, I do not. I’ll be eighteen next week– oh, I didn’t want to tell you. I don’t want your folks to have to do anything about my birthday. Promise you won’t tell them.”
“You’ll be eighteen, huh. Ready for the Wait yourself. Boy, I sure wish I didn’t know you!”
“Tommy! What do you mean? Don’t you like me?”
“That’s just the point, I do like you. A lot. If I was a stranger, I could break your Wait.”
“Wait? What kind of wait?”
“Oh”–he blushed– “you know.”
A week later, after a frustrating visit with her mother in the park, Miriam came home to the Clarks’ and dragged herself up to her room. Even her mother had forgotten her birthday. She wanted to fling herself on her pillow and sob until supper. She dropped on the bed, got up uneasily. A white, filmy. full-skirted dress hung on the closet door. She was frightened. Herman Clark and his wife bustled into the room, wishing her happy birthday.
“The dress is for you.”
“You shouldn’t have,” she cried.
Clark’s wife shooed him out and helped Miriam dress. She started downstairs with the yards of white chiffon whispering and billowing about her ankles.
Nobody else at her birthday party was particularly dressed up. Some of the older women in the neighborhood watched Tommy help Miriam cut the cake, moist-eyed. “She hardly seems old enough–” “Doubt if she’ll have long to Wait.” “Pretty little thing, wonder if Tommy likes her.” “Bet Herman Clark’s son wishes he didn’t know her,” they said. Uneasily, Miriam talked to them all, tried to laugh, choked down a little ice cream and cake.
“G’bye, kid,” Tommy said, and squeezed her hand. It was just beginning to get dark out.
“Where are you going, Tommy?”
“Nowhere, silly. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks. May want to talk to you about something, if things turn out.”
The men had slipped, one by one, from the room. Shadows were getting longer but nobody in the birthday-party room had thought to turn on the lights. The women gathered around Miriam. Mrs. Clark, eyes shining, came close to her. “And here’s the best birthday present of all,” she said, holding out a big ball of brilliant blue string. Miriam looked at her, not understanding. She tried to stammer a thank you. “Now dear, come with me.” Clark’s wife and Helva Smythe caught her by the arms and gently led her out of the house, down the gray street. “I’m going to see if we can get you staked out near Margy,” she said. They started off into the August twilight.
When they came to the field, Miriam first thought the women were still busy at a late harvest, but she saw that the maidens, scores of them, were just sitting on little boxes at intervals in the seemingly endless field. There were people in the bushes at the field’s edge– Miriam saw them. Every once in a while one of the men would start off, following one of the brilliantly colored strings toward the woman who sat at the end of it, in a white dress, waiting. Frightened, Miriam turned to Mrs. Clark. “Why am I here? Why? Mrs. Clark, explain!”
“Poor child’s a little nervous. I guess we all were, when it happened to us,” Clark’s wife said to Helva Smythe and Helva nodded. “It’s all right, dear, you just stand here at the edge and watch for a little while, until you get used to the idea. Remember, the man must be a stranger. We’ll be out with the truck with food for you and Margy during visitors’ time Sunday. That’s right. And when you go out there, try to stake out near Margy. It’ll make the Wait nicer for you.”
“The Wait of the Virgins, dear. Goodbye.”
Dazed, Miriam stood at the edge of the great domed field, watching the little world crisscrossed by hundreds of colored cords. She moved a little closer, trying to hide her cord under her skirts, trying not to look like one of them. Two men started toward her, one handsome, one unshaven and hideous, but when they saw she had not yet entered the field they dropped back, waiting. Sitting near her, she saw one of the dime-store clerks, who had quit her job two weeks back and suddenly disappeared. She was fidgeting nervously, casting her yes at a young man ranging the edge of the field. As Miriam watched, the young man strode up her cord, without speaking threw money into her lap. Smiling, the dime-store girl stood up, and the two went off into the bushes. The girl nearest Miriam, a harelip with incredibly ugly skin, looked up from the half-finished sweater she was knitting.
“Well, there goes another one,” she said to Miriam. “Pretty ones always go first. I reckon one day there won’t be any pretty ones here, and then I’ll go.” She shook out her yarn. “This is my fortieth sweater.” Not understanding, Miriam shrank away from the ugly girl. “I’d even be glad for old Fats there,” she was saying. She pointed to a lewd-eyed old man hovering near. “Trouble is, even old Fats goes for the pretty ones. Heh! You ought to see it, when he goes up to one of them high-school queens. Heh! Law says they can’t say no!”
Choking with curiosity, stiff, trembling, Miriam edged up to the girl. “Where… where do they go?”
The harelip looked at her suspiciously. Her white dress, tattered and white no longer, stank. “Why, you really don’t know, do you?” She pointed to a place near them, where the bushes swayed. “To lay with them. It’s the law.”
“Momma! Mommamoommamomma!” With her dress whipping at her legs, Miriam ran into the square. It was well before the time when the sick were taken to sleep in the hall of the courthouse.
“Why, dear, how pretty you look!” the mother said. Then, archly, “They always say, wear white when you want a man to propose.”
“Momma, we’ve got to get out of here.” Miriam was crying for breath.
“I thought we went all over that.”
“Momma, you always said you wanted me to be a good girl. Not ever to let any man take advan–”
“Why, dear, of course I did.”
“Momma, don’t you see! You’ve got to help me– we’ve got to get out of here, or somebody I don’t even know… Oh, Momma, please. I’ll help you walk. I saw you practicing the other day, with Mrs. Pinckney helping you.”
“Now, dear, you just sit down here and explain to me. Be calm.”
“Momma, listen! There’s something every girl here has to do when she’s eighteen. You know how they don’t use doctors here, for anything?” Embarrassed, she hesitated. “Well, you remember when Violet got married, and she went to Dr. Dix for a checkup?”
“Yes, dear– now calm down, and tell Momma.”
“Well, it’s sort of a checkup, don’t you see, only it’s like graduating from high school too, and it’s how they… see whether you’re any good.”
“What on earth are you trying to tell me?”
“Momma, you have to go to this field, and sit there, and sit there until a man throws money in your lap. Then you have to go into the bushes and lie with a stranger!” Hysterical, Miriam got to her feet, started tugging at the mattress.
“You just calm down. Calm down!”
“But Mother, I want to do like you told me. I want to be good!”
Vaguely, her mother started talking. “You said you were dating that nice Clark boy? His father is a real-estate salesman. Good business, dear. Just think, you might not even have to work–”
“And when I get well I could come live with you. They’re very good to me here– it’s the first time I’ve found people who really cared what was wrong with me. And if you were married to that nice, solid boy, who seems to have such a good job with his father, why we could have a lovely house together, the three of us.”
“Momma, we’ve got to get out of here. I can’t do it. I just can’t.” The girl had thrown herself on the grass again.
Furious, her mother lashed out at her. “Miriam. Miriam Elise Holland. I’ve fed you and dressed you and paid for you and taken care of you ever since your father died. And you’ve always been selfish, selfish, selfish. Can’t you ever do anything for me? First I want you to go to secretarial school, to get a nice opening, and meet nice people, and you don’t want to do that. Then you get a chance to settle in a good town, with a nice family, but you don’t even want that. You only think about yourself. Here I have a chance to get well at last, and settle down in a really nice town, where good families live, and see you married to the right kind of boy.” Rising on her elbows, she glared at the girl. “Can’t you ever do anything for me?”
“Momma, Momma, you don’t understand!”
“I’ve known about the Wait since the first week we came here.” The woman leaned back on her pillow. “Now pour me a glass of water and go back and do whatever Mrs. Clark tells you.”
Sobbing, stumbling, Miriam ran out of the square. First she started toward the edge of town, running. She got to the edge of the highway, where the road signs were, and saw the two shabby, shambling men, apparently in quiet evening conversation by the street post. She doubled back and started across a neatly plowed field. Behind her, she saw the Pinckney boys. In front of her, the Campbells and the Dodges started across the field. When she turned toward town, trembling, they walked past her, ignoring her, on some business of her own. It was getting dark.
She wandered the fields for most of the night. Each one was blocked by a Campbell or a Smythe or a Pinckney; the big men carried rifles and flashlights, and called out cheerfully to each other when they met, and talked about a wild fox hunt. She crept into the Clarks’ place when it was just beginning to get light out, and locked herself in her room. No one in the family paid attention to her storming and crying as she paced the length and width of the room.
That night, still in the bedraggled, torn white dress, Miriam came out of the bedroom and down the stairs. She stopped in front of the hall mirror to put on lipstick and repair her hair. She tugged at the raveled sleeves of the white chiffon top. She started for the place where the virgins Wait. At the field’s edge Miriam stopped, shuddered as she saw the man called old Fats watching her. A few yards away she saw another man, young, lithe, with bright hair, waiting. She sighed as she watched one woman, with a tall, loose boy in jeans, leave the field and start for the woods.
She tied her string to a stake at the edge of the great domed field. Threading her way among the many bright-colored strings, past waiting girls in white, she came to a stop in a likely-looking place and took her seat.