Opal Springs, Kentucky
A song played in my head as I trudged down the dusty path toward the highway to catch the school bus—Kay Starr’s “Wheel of Fortune.” You couldn’t turn on the radio these days without hearing it at least once or twice an hour on any halfway decent Top 40 station. It always made me think of Chad , and the sweet kisses we exchanged just about every Friday or Saturday night parked down at Rock House Bottom. Lord, if Mother and Daddy knew about that, they’d set my pants on fire. Good thing they believed I was spending the night with Daisy.
A muted roar broke through my thoughts, and with a start, I realized a car was coming from up the ridge. My heart started pounding–because I knew who it was. I stopped in the middle of the road and began digging in my pocketbook for my compact and lipstick. My hand trembling, I applied a fresh layer of Revlon’s “Fire and Ice” to my lips and smiled into the mirror to make sure I hadn’t got any on my teeth.
The roar of the approaching car grew louder. I hurriedly ran my fingers through my hair and tweaked the spit-curl in the middle of my forehead with a moistened finger.
Gears shifted into low as the car approached from behind. I knew that meant Jake had seen me. I kept walking, swinging my pocketbook as if I hadn’t a care in the world, and gazing off into the brambles at the roadside like it was the most fascinating sight I’d ever seen.
The car pulled up next to me and stopped, a powder-blue Plymouth with suicide doors and fancy chrome hubcaps on white-walled tires. A stranger seeing Jake Tatlow’s car would think he had money to burn, but that was far from the truth. Jake had worked full-time at the Gulf station in Russell Springs since he’d dropped out of school at 16, and that Plymouth was the only thing he owned worth a plugged nickel. Rumor had it that the only reason he had that much was because his older brother, Tully, had returned from the Korean War, flush with discharge pay from the army, and had helped Jake buy it second-hand. But nice car or not, Jake Tatlow was still trash. No getting around that.
I kept walking, pretending not to notice him, even though his radio was turned up loud enough to wake the dead with Hank Williams singing “Honky Tonk Blues.” The music cut off abruptly.
“Hey,” he said.
Impossible to ignore that. He’d think I wasn’t right in the head or something. I turned and met his gaze, raising my chin a notch to let him know I wasn’t at all impressed by him and his fancy car. But beneath my blouse, my heart was racing, and I sensed he knew it.
“Mornin’, Jake,” I said stiffly, and kept walking. My quick glance at him confirmed it. Jake Tatlow was simply the best looking boy I’d ever seen in all my born days. Yes, even better looking than Chad .
He stared at me now, one brawny, suntanned arm draped over the steering wheel, his cornflower blue eyes scanning me from top to bottom, lips quirked in a way that resembled a smirk more than a smile. It was the only thing about him that reminded me of the boy he used to be, back years ago when the two of us played in a swimming hole on Tucker Creek one summer.
I was a few yards away from the front of his car when he let out the clutch and pulled up next to me again. “Want a ride to the bus stop?” he asked in his slow drawl.
“No, thanks.” I kept walking, eyes straight ahead. I could feel his gaze on me as I went on down the road. One more little hill, and the highway would be in sight. I put a little sway into my walk, just the way Marilyn had in “ Niagara .”
He pulled up next to me again. “Hey, Lily Rae, what time does the bus come?”
“7:40. What’s it to you?”
He gave a shrug. “Nothing to me, I reckon.” He grinned in a way that never failed to make me weak in the knees. “But you might be interested to know it’s…” He turned his wrist so he could glance at his watch. “…seven forty-five right now.”
“What?” I stopped in my tracks and stared at him. “It can’t be!”
“Well, it is. And you know as well as I do that old man Thornton ain’t never been late a day in his life, so you’ve done missed that bus.”
I knew that was the truth. Even on the snowiest days, if school wasn’t canceled—and it rarely was—Wallace Thornton prided himself on being on schedule.
Jake leaned across the passenger seat and opened the door. “Come on, hop in. I’ll drive you to school.”
I hesitated. I knew I’d catch heck if word got back to my kin about riding in Jake Tatlow’s Plymouth . But what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t go back home and ask Daddy to drive me in. He was probably already out in the fields with Landry and Edsel.
I knew I’d just die if I couldn’t go to school and see all my friends one more time. Tomorrow was graduation day, and we’d all be separating soon, some going off to college, others like me, going to the big city to learn a trade. And Chad ! Dear Lord, it just killed me to think about it, but in another week, he’d be heading off to England , of all places, where he’d be spending the whole summer with cousins he’d never laid eyes on.
Jake leaned toward me, his eyes admiring, grin cocky. “Well, are you gonna get in or you gonna just stand there looking like the cat’s got your tongue?”
I cast a desperate glance up the ridge, then before I could change my mind, scrambled into the passenger seat of the Plymouth . I’d barely got the door closed before Jake shifted into first gear and gave it the gas. We flew down the road at 35 miles an hour–way too fast for a dirt road–with me holding tight to the strap above the door as my bottom bumped up and down on the vinyl seat.
“Lord, Jake!” I exploded when he reached the highway and slowed to a stop. “Get me to school, but you don’t have to kill me doing it!”
Jake glanced down the road heading toward Adair County , and then turned left. “See? Bus is long gone. Good thing you decided not to be so stubborn.”
He floored the accelerator, and immediately the rush of wind made a mess of my hair. I quickly rolled up the window.
“I still don’t understand how it got to be so dad-blasted late,” I muttered, staring out at a pasture of Guernsey cows near a pond covered with kelly-green water lilies.
Jake kept his eyes on the road and didn’t respond. He reminded me of somebody I’d seen recently, the way he was dressed in blue jeans and a snug white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Then I remembered. Chad had taken me to the Star Theater on
a few weeks ago, and we’d seen this movie with Dean Martin called “Sailor Beware.” Silly movie--forgettable, really, except for this young actor named James Dean who’d appeared in a boxing scene, immediately reminding me of Jake. If Hollywood took a notion to make a movie out of Jake’s life, this James boy would be perfect for playing him.
Look at him. Sitting there so cool and cocky, like he thinks he’s chocolate on a stick! Jake stared at the road, one elbow resting on the open window frame and his other hand cupping the gearshift with strong, tanned fingers. The way a man would cup…
I blushed at the thought and jerked my gaze away. Lord, what was wrong with me? The things that came into my mind sometimes…well, no decent girl ought to be thinking like that. At the revival meetings last summer, the preacher had ranted and raved about how the devil lay in wait for the weak and sinful of heart, and if I kept thinking about stuff like that, I’d surely burn in hell-fire once Judgment Day arrived.
Still, I took some consolation in remembering how I’d pushed Chad ’s hand away Saturday night when it had briefly grazed my bosom through my blouse. But even as I’d done so, a tiny part of me had thrilled to the caress. I frowned. Maybe I was just born bad.
Jake cleared his throat, and I realized he’d taken his eyes off the road and was staring at me. He grinned when I met his gaze. “Course, there’s every possibility that my watch might be running about five minutes fast,” he said, then waited for my reaction.
I stared at him. His eyes danced and his grin widened.
“Why, you…” I finally managed to say. “Jake Tatlow, you are so ornery!”
He laughed, his straight white teeth gleaming, then looked back at the road.
One thing about Jake--he might be trash, but at least he kept himself cleaned up. Even now, I could smell the spicy scent of homemade lye soap, and maybe even a hint of Pepsodent toothpaste. And he had good teeth—something kind of rare here in Russell County .
“Darlin’…” He threw me a quick glance. “Got news for you. It’s fun to be ornery.” He gave me a slow smile that made me all hot inside like my body was a pot-bellied stove and somebody had tossed a big hunk of coal into its flames. Was this how Mother felt when she had one of the “hot simmers” she sometimes complained about?
“Tell you what, Lily Rae. Get rid of Nickerson, and go out with me. I’ll teach you a thing or two about being bad, and you’ll never want to be good again.”
My face grew hot, and I looked away from him in confusion. “Just drive me to school.”
His mocking laughter rang out. Clearly, he was having fun at my expense. Clean or not, Jake Tatlow lived up to his family’s reputation of hillbilly trash. From the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I’d heard the name Tatlow being talked about in ugly terms around the county. For years, I’d thought tatlow was an adjective that meant dirty and filthy and worthless. It wasn’t until I’d played with a young boy named Jake down by the creek for an entire summer that I found out Tatlow was his last name.
And that was after Daddy had caught me playing “house” with him on a sultry afternoon in August. I’d been serving “my husband” one of my famous mud pies just after he’d returned from killing a whole tribe of wild Indians when Daddy appeared out of the woods, his eyes burning like two hot coals. In his callused, work-hewn hand, he held a long, vicious-looking switch that I knew had been cut from the hickory tree at the back of the house. I’d learned my lesson that day, and from that time on, I’d done my best to steer clear of any of the Tatlows, especially Jake.
So, what on earth had possessed me to accept a ride with him this morning? I tried to tell myself it was because it was the last day of school, and I’d believed I’d missed the bus. I had to get there! We had rehearsal for graduation this afternoon, and I had to know what to do, didn’t I?
But my cheeks were still hot, and even though I didn’t dare turn my head and look at Jake again, I was so very aware of him, sitting there next to me.
Maybe I am bad. Maybe it was the very fact he was forbidden that made me so fascinated with him. How else could I explain the way I felt when he pulled up in front of Russell Springs High School and waited for me to get out?
Disappointed…and wondering why the trip into town, which usually seemed to take an eternity, seemed this morning to be way too short