She wondered if it hurt. When you stabbed with a spade into the tender earth, she wondered, did it bleed?
But she stabbed the ground anyway, because it is what she was asked to do and you always did what you were asked to do around here or else you'd pay. And besides, she loved the roses. Those dewey, sweet blushing, smiling roses.
She didn't like to pick them. She wondered if that hurt. But she liked to look at them, and think. Think how a smile hid thorns underneath. Think how the thorns pricked into her tender, pudgy flesh that time when she was four, and how it bled, and how she pinched her finger and squeezed out the blood and watched it in awe, trickle back down to the tender earth that produced the rose, produced the thorn. And how it hurt.
But never mind. Never mind last year. Never mind if the earth shuddered at being broken and took out its revenge on her curious finger. She had a job, and she was going to earn ten whole dollars if it was done properly and besides, she liked the roses. So she knelt down in her grandma’s backyard and turned over soil with a spade beside her and a potted rose bush in front of her.
Her blue dress was starched and ironed and had to be kept clean. She covered it with her grandma's apron, just in case. She always had to keep clean - Aunt 'Melia was coming for a visit. Aunt 'Melia liked little girls to be kept clean. And who did what they were asked. It didn't matter so much with boys, she guessed.
Her cousin Jameson was regularly covered with mud and sweaty - foul, repugnant sweaty - like he never stepped foot into a blessed shower for heaven's sake sweaty. But she guessed boys were different. Girls kept clean and tended roses. And she was okay with that.
The earth smelled soft that morning, filling up the undersides of her fingernails when she tucked the roots of the potted rosebush under the earthy blanket. Even when the earth was hurting, it protected those roots. She guessed that was why they called it Mother Earth, but wondered if a Grandmother Earth would be a better earth. Some mothers, like hers, were "that child's mother who ought to be spanked for abandoning her girl like that and leaving her for poor Mrs. Sawyer to care for when she already done raised five children and should be allowed to live out her last years in peace and quiet." Still, they figured at least this time she was with her grandma and not some strange family like last summer.
She tried to be good. Maybe if she was good her grandma wouldn't get so wore out and the church ladies wouldn't talk so bad about her mama. Maybe if she stabbed the earth and covered her blue dress with an apron like she was supposed to, her mama would decide it was time to come pick her up and have some bonding time. She wondered what bonding time meant, exactly, but she knew that her friend Mary was always having it with her mom, and that for them it meant chocolate ice cream with rainbow sprinkles and movies and lots of laughing.
She was smoothing the earth back over the hole, comforting its wounds, when she heard Aunt 'Melia's car. Aunt 'Melia's car had a distinct "haven't you gotten that thing fixed yet - no, the mechanic is a darned crook and wants to cheat me out of my money so I’ll just use duct tape" sound. It sputtered and screamed and limped like the old lady down the street into grandma's driveway, kicking up loose gravel and giving it what-for for getting in the way. Like I do, the girl thought. She was forever getting in the way and for goodness sake she should learn to play quietly in her room and read her fairy tales and not disturb nobody. She stood up and wiped her grubby hands on her apron. Aunt 'Melia would have something to say about that but at least it wasn't her blue dress.
Aunt 'Melia plopped with all her weight out of her falling-apart Toyota and thundered, "Good Lordy girl, that apron is filthy."
So the girl took off her apron and told her aunty, "See here, Aunty! My dress is clean and I planted these here roses for Grammy real good."
Auntie guffawed, "I guess you did, but if you're anything like your mama you won't stay that way for long!"
The girl didn't know if Aunty meant keeping the dress clean or planting the rosebush and didn't know if she was anything like her mama. She would if she hadn't asked about the man. Not her daddy. It was a different one that she saw in the car with her mama. The month before, she had been living with her mama when she asked about the man and her mama wupped her good and yelled about how her little girl was a liar and an abomination to God and a disgrace. Lots of things were an abomination and a disgrace, she guessed. At least lots of things she did. The day after she asked about the man, mama packed up her things and left like before and this time the girl was making a PB and J for her baby brother when the state showed up at the door and that was how she ended up at her grandma’s where she was planting roses now.
Nobody would say when mama was coming back. No, she thought, she wasn’t much like her mama. She never yelled and whenever she went to play with Mary down the street, she always told her grandma when she was coming back.
She heard another car door open. James. James was 13 years old and he knew things - things'd make you cringe and must have been funny because he laughed whenever he said about how he knew them. James strutted like a rooster over to her and put his arm around her, pulling her shoulder into his sticky, wet armpits and making her squirm. She was hot. The sun was probably more sticky than anything, she supposed. So sticky just being around it hundreds of thousands of miles away made you sticky too. She wondered if one day she would jump up and instead of coming back down, she would just keep going up up up like a balloon until she could touch the sun and then find out for sure.
"See here, Ma, you go in an' visit with Grammy and I'll help our Becky here with the roses." He beat his chest with a confident fist. The balloon popped.
She pulled away. She didn’t like being alone with James and she had her reasons and started to protest but it didn’t matter because Aunty was dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief, murmuring about how her boy was such a sweet young man to offer to help to his poor little cousin. It was a pity no one else would help her, Aunty said. The girl didn't know what a pity was, but she knew she was one. People were always saying it was so. And she didn't think she liked it.
Aunty went inside the house.
The girl looked up at James, who was flushed red in the heat and grinning.
He looks just like a tomato, she thought. Only not a good one, fresh-picked. Like a rotten one fallen on the ground and squashed on the bottom of your shoe. He smelled like one of those too. But she was supposed to be polite, "patic'rly to famly," grandma said. So she smiled back.
"Like your blue dress," James said. But the way he said it, she figured he didn't like it much at all. "Good thing you keeped it clean. Nobody wants no girl with a dirty blue dress." He slapped his knee. "'Cept'n me. I should know. I'm 13." He leaned over and whispered in her ear so it sent an uncomfortable tickle down her back. "I love me a girl with a dirty blue dress."
She wished he would stop. She figured he'd like her to get her dress dirty. She pointed to the rosebush.
"See that there rosebush? I planted it and it's mine."
He laughed and laughed and sounded just like Aunty cause that laugh ran in that side of the family.
"Little girl, that rosebush don't belong to you. Nothing here does."
He picked up the spade. She figured he didn't think about the earth, and whether it hurt, so
she tried to pull it away from him.
When she grabbed hold of his arm, his laughter turned to a roar. His face got even redder, if that was even possible. That side of the family also had a temper streak.
James clutched the spade harder and slapped her good with it across the face. She felt a warmth, and then a mean sting and she lifted up her hand and felt hot wet blood.
"Leave my roses alone! Grammy! Aunty!" She cried, but they were inside talking about how the neighbors needed to clean themselves up and get back in church or else they were bound for hell, probably. That was what they always talked about. She figured heaven was full of sour old gossips and hell must be full of those folks who minded their own business.
James fumed now, steam visibly rising off his tomato-red head. "They's my roses now!"
He stabbed meanly into the ground and broke up the roots and pulled the roses violently up from the ground while she sobbed.
"Stop! Stop!" She yelled. She figured she must be just like her mama to deserve this.
James laughed and laughed as he threw torn roses all around the yard. "I'm 13 and I know things, things'd make you cringe," he taunted. "And I know I like me a girl in a dirty blue dress," he laughed at her, and drug her into the toolshed, pushing her into the dirt floor, rolling her around in the mud while she struggled. Her apron came untied and fell off. She closed her eyes and went to the nowhere place in her head. Everything went dark. Then it
came back to light.
James stood up and threw the spade down beside her, suddenly serious. He wiped off his hands on his jeans, dirtying them. "I'm going inside, get me some milk." He narrowed his eyes and stormed inside.
She lay motionless on the ground, wondering what just happened. She felt something wet under her and realized it was blood, soaking the earth he had stabbed with the spade. Not to plant roses, though. She wondered if it hurt like she hurt. She lay there for a while, and the sky got dark and the trees outside got blurry and a light rain began to fall. A rain that would be good for my roses, she thought, until she remembered. She stood up shakily and walked into the house.
Her grandma and Aunty and cousin were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking milk and chatting. They stopped talking and looked at her like "what in the world have you been doing, child?"
She didn't say anything except, wavering, "he tore up my roses."
Aunty stood up and thrust her finger in the little girl's face. "My boy didn't do nothing," then turned around to grandma. "Just like her good-for-nothing mama," she shook her head.
The little girl looked to grandma for some relief but grandma was mad too. "Girl, look at you, all dirty."
It was true, she was all dirty, then she looked at James who was all sweaty and sticky and red-faced and dirty too.
"Nobody likes them a girl in a blue dress" he snickered.
She thought to point out how he was dirty too, but she figured it was different for boys because grandma and Aunty could see that very well for themselves, couldn't they? She glowered at her cousin, "it's your fault I'm all dirty," she said. Out loud for once.
Grandma came over to her and slapped her hard on the bottom. "Girl, don't you blame him. It's a girl's duty to keep clean and care for roses, not his. Go take off that dress. You done lost the privilege to wearing it now."
James smirked and she cried. Aunty sighed. "She's trouble, that one. Already trying to stir up things in the family. Just like her mama."
The girl thought about how her Aunt 'Melia was right, how she hadn't kept her dress clean and how she ruined things for first her mama, now her grandma, and for goodness sake how she never should have asked about the strange man and how she didn’t do what she had been told and how now she was going to pay. And she realized how those roses had been mad at her when she was four and pricked her finger on purpose to get back at her for stabbing the earth. She wondered what they would do to get back at James.
Later she heard her grandma call her mama to tell her that Becky was trying to start something in the family and how she was going to see about sending her to the yellow house with her Aunt Amelia who can raise her right like that good boy James.
And the next day, grandma made the little girl pack up all her things in a black trash bag, and the little girl crawled in the burning leather seat behind that good-boy James who kep' looking at her in the rearview mirror and whispering, "Ain't nobody like a girl in a dirty blue dress."
"Or a girl who can't keep clean and look after roses when she's told," Aunty added.
The little girl pressed her forehead against the cracked, dusty window and watched all the churches as they passed by and figured she was headed for hell, like all those neighbors who wouldn't clean themselves up. Churches probably didn't like girls who couldn't protect rosebushes or keep their blue dresses clean either. Because after all grandma said Aunty was a good Christian woman and Jameson a godly young man and so, the little girl thought, she would end up in hell.
And she decided she would never plant a rose or wear a blue dress ever again.