Summertime | Teen Ink

Summertime

March 17, 2019
By urvashi_d BRONZE, Houston, Texas
urvashi_d BRONZE, Houston, Texas
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Walter Henson and his friends have settled into the dry and deserted yellow field across the drugstore with great comfort as the older generations bake on the front lawns of their Gothic abodes. Walter is grinning at his latest teen-aged victory; he has convinced yet another girl to go out with him on account of his fabulous watch collection.

“Those girls are gonna catch you someday,” Walter’s friend says, picking at the shriveled grass beneath his loafers.

Another friend laughs. “Yeah, Walt, stop whorin’ your wrist-watches out to get girls to like you.”

 “Shut up,” Walter says distantly. He traces a finger on the goldenrod dial and the braided sheep-leather strap of the watch on his own wrist.

“Y’know, I heard Missus Wesley say at the general’s funeral she’d like to maybe donate some of her husband’s timepieces to you.”

Walter looks up. “She’s rich.”


“Richer than your mama even.”


The three boys sit still for a moment, marveling at the idea that there even is a woman richer than Walter’s mother.

“Gee it’s gettin’ warm,” Walter says. He takes out his handkerchief, and when he moves his hand to the base of his neck he jumps. “What in hell...”

His friends cackle.

“Y’all oughtta be ashamed of yourselves.” Walter plucks an ox beetle off his neck, its small legs moving desperately in his palm. He tosses it beside him and grounds it into the dirt with his shoe.

The boys sit silently again, content with their little prank, while Walter is still shifting about uncomfortably in the grass beside them.

Walter shoots up suddenly. “Say, Jimbo, dintcha say you found a short cut to the Negro cabins?”

Jim regards him suspiciously. “I did. Why?”

 “Let’s have ourselves an adventure.” Walter gets ready to leave.

“Whaddya wanna go there for?”

Walter points to his watch. “We been sittin’ here for close to a goddamn hour doin’ nothin’.”

After some resistance, his friends levitate off the grass, and float along behind Walter; there is nothing better to do.

 

The sun softens slightly as the afternoon passes, but the clouds are still thick with heat. Days of relentless summer exploration have worn the soles of the boys’ shoes, and they can feel the hot gravel burning their feet.

The other two boys eventually flop over onto a wooden log, breathing heavily. Walter waves them off as he progresses further. “Y’all are just little girls. I’m gonna keep goin’.”

“Don’t bring none of that voodoo back with you!” they yell.

 

The woods are denser, here at the edge of town, the grass a little taller, and the weeds a lot wilder. Walter keeps his britches rolled down, for he does not know what bloodsucker might breed beneath the ground, there in the cooler earth. The bluebonnets of spring have merged with the soil, and the once-scarlet Indian paintbrush blossoms are turning tawny with the advance of

summer. Walter proceeds quietly—he remembers what his father told him about the Negro knowing when a stranger is near—and his footsteps produce a muted swishing sound in the rye.

Soon he is far beyond where he left his friends; their heaving breaths become inaudible. He leans against an oak tree, pausing to wallow in the shade.

“Who are you?”

Walter feels the air catch in his throat. He does not know this voice. It is a girl’s voice, smooth and quiet through the breeze. He coughs.

“Who am I?” he asks loudly. “Who am I?” he asks again to no one in particular. He turns around carefully to find a girl who is slightly younger than him, but just as tall. Both dark arms are clutching the branch of another tree a few feet away, and her white scalloped dress is swaying gently in the wind. Her eyes are wide; she was not expecting to see someone like him.

“Why, I should like to ask you the same question,” he says, his voice a little softer than before, but with the same artifice of superiority.

The girl mumbles an apology as she starts walking away.

“Wait!” Walter calls. He jumps forward and catches the girl’s arm. Her shock turns to extreme panic and Walter can feel her shaking under his grip. His mind draws a blank as he wonders why or how he came to be holding the girl like this. He realizes how tan he is – hours in the sun have rendered his limbs uneven and peachy – and the girl! well, the girl is darker than a silhouette in moonlight. Walter blinks again, puzzled as to why her arm is still in his hand; it is

like seeing snow in July – it just doesn’t happen often. His fingertips are bloodless and the girl is wincing. He lifts his hand.

“Woah there,” Walter says. “I’m not gonna hurt you.” He stares at her for a moment. “Now why are you still lookin’ so goddamn scared? I said I’m not gonna hurt you, didn’t I?” Walter sits down and laughs. “Christ, you’d think I was about to take advantage of you or somethin’.”

The girl rubs her arm. “Sorry, suh,” she says quietly.

“Sit down,” he says, patting the ground beside him. “Come on now.”

She obeys, keeping some distance between them.

“Now I’m Walter,” he says slowly, enunciating each word. “W-A-L-T-E-R. Walt, to my friends.” He thinks for a moment. “What’s your name?”

“Mary,” she says. “M-A-R-Y.”

Walter furrows his brow. “Yeah I know how to—” He stops. “Sorry,” he laughs. “Guess you can spell.”

“I hafta go. My family’ll be wonderin’ where I been, suh.” She looks at him directly now.

He blinks quickly and looks away into the woods. “It’s Walt, Mary.”


“Yes, Walt.”


“Listen,” he says, getting up and gently holding her wrist this time, “remember this never

happened. I mean I’ve never seen you before in my life, Mary. Got that?”

Mary nods.

“Now go on, get outta here,” he says, releasing her. He watches as she stumbles through the grass in her hurry to get away from him.

 

The walk back to his friends is shorter than he expected, but the two boys are asleep on the log. Walter tries to remember how long he has been gone.

The boys rise when they feel Walt standing over them. “Well, what’d you find?” they ask.

Walter sits down. “Nothin’,” he says after a second.


“Not even one?”


“No,” he says distantly. “Not a soul.”
They listen to the sounds of the crickets getting louder and the birds settling in for the night, when one of them rises and says, “My mama’s gonna kill me if I don’t get back now. Let’s go, boys.” The others nod and begin the trek home.

 

The paneled terracotta gables, the engraved cornices, and the two towered staircases that bookmark the front and back ends of Walter’s striking home are a reminder of the town’s former wealth, which now lies solely in the hands of Miss Henson, Walter’s rapidly aging mother. The gate that surrounds the house, however, is shabby and physically useless–the gate is so low anyone can climb over with considerable ease - but the symbolism does not go unnoticed. There is no need for a fence in this town.

Miss Henson is not home this evening. The town council meeting is usually a weekly affair, and most days it is just tea and biscuits and gossip. Louise, their housekeeper, is also gone for the weekend. Walter lays down on a bench in the foyer, relishing being alone in the great big house, but his enjoyment is interrupted by someone at the door. He swings open the giant oak slab and his face brightens.

Walter’s father steps in hesitantly. “Your mama home?” he whispers.


“No sir.” Walter grins. “Gee, I’m glad you’re here.”


Walter’s father, Mister Roberts, is a portly penny-pincher of fifty-seven years. The last vestiges of hair are vanishing from his freckled head, and his skin is orange after months of gallivanting through Arkansas and upper Texas in search of money. His presence is permanently unwelcome at Miss Henson’s residence, and speculation about the terms surrounding their mysterious relationship is usually quashed due to Miss Henson’s respected council position. This month, the rumors have been running particularly high about him returning to cause trouble, with four Mister Roberts sightings in the last week alone. But Miss Henson has no interest in confronting the man who swindled her of her reputation.

“It’s a thrill to see you, Walt. You’re growin’ to a fine young man,” Mister Roberts says, gripping his son’s shoulders. He wanders further inside, surveying the house. “Walt, ol’ boy,” he says, “last time you said you’re gonna show me your timepieces. Where the devil are they!”

Walter laughs; he is eager to please. He leads his father to his room, which is dark but noisy; upon the walls are large, flat display cases with neatly organized wrist-watches and

pocket-watches and wall clocks, and in the corner near his bedstead is a broken grandfather clock. Walter opens the curtains and his father gapes at the collection.

“Say, I know some...people,” Mister Roberts says craftily. “Gimme your boxes and I swear on your mother’s head I’ll try to double your collection.”

Walter beams. They take down the boxes off the nails, and Mister Roberts is sweating when they are finished. “Walter,” he breathes, “think I should get goin’. Remember–”

“–I know nothin’ about you bein’ here.”


Mister Roberts pats him on the back. “Attaboy.”

“D’you hafta go so soon?”

Mister Roberts nods sadly. “Don’t worry, Walt. I’ll be back.” He piles the display cases in his arms and proceeds down the stairs to the back door. Walter suddenly has a flash of discomfort and stops his father.

“Please...take care,” he says weakly, pointing to the boxes.


“Sure,” his father says, and he is out the door as if he had never been there.

 

The summer heat reaches a peak, and even the most adventurous have retreated to their front porches with sun-hats and iced jugs of lemonade. They pass lazy mornings under their wooden awnings with books and naps, and when they finish their naps they read again.

Walter is bored, so he ventures out to the woods alone this time, for not even his best friend in the whole world would want to join him. He sneaks out in the early morning, when the sun is not yet a violent presence in the sky.

 

Walter’s absent-minded wandering leads him to bump right into Mary. She lets out a little scream.  

“Mary!” Walter says. He had not considered the possibility that he would have to talk to her again.

They stare at each other, unsure of what to do. Finally, Walter says, “Whatcha doin’, Mary?”

“Collectin’ flowers, Walt suh.”

“Just Walt,” he corrects her. “Why?”

She steps back. “For church. I can’t find none closer to home so I come here sometimes. Then I go home to do the cleanin’, us kids do our lessons, then I go work for the neighbor.”

“Hm.”

“And you, suh?”

Walter narrows his eyes. “Why am I here? Gee,” he says indignantly, “just exercising my right to be in the woods, that’s all.” He leans forward. “Why, does it bother you?”

She looks at her feet. “No, sorry. Just makin’ small talk,” she says quietly.

“Ah.” He looks at her face, which is dotted with shiny beads of sweat. “Well, I’ll leave you to it then,” he says, turning away as she stares at him, bewildered.

 

The next few times he goes to the woods it is not an accident.

“Do I make you nervous?” Walter asks her.

“No.”

“Good.” He sits right next to her in the grass and continues. “And we’re friends, yes?”

Mary pretends not to hear.

“Yes?” Walter presses.

“Yes.”

“Good,” he says. “I don’t even have to tell you to relax anymore,” he laughs. “I like that.” He observes her again as she looks away. The chain around her neck is tucked into the collar of her cotton dress, and the tip of what looks like a cross is visible above the fabric. He smiles.

 

“Everyone’s such a bore, I go crazy,” Walter mumbles one day. “Everyone’s sayin’ the same goddamn things every two seconds.”

“That why you come here?” Mary asks.

 Walter considers her question. “I come here ‘cause I like the woods,” he says. He looks at Mary and then at his watch, and says, “I want you to have this.” He stares as his hands move independently of his mind, unfastening his own watch and holding it out for her. “To keep time while you work.”

“I can’t...”

He looks at her curiously and then gently puts the watch around her wrist.

 

Some time goes by and there is no sign of Walter’s father or his watches. His meetings with Mary are frequent until the town begins to recover from the heat, and he uses his time with her sparingly.

One day Walter lifts Mary’s wrist to see how the watch looks on her, but there is nothing there.

“I been wantin’ to talk to you ‘bout that.” She opens her little drawstring purse and hands him the watch. “I cracked it ‘cause I tripped...it still ticks but I’m awful sorry about the glass. I’ll do anythin’, I’m sorry...” Her eyes go wide just like the first day they met.

Walter scratches his brow and looks at Mary. He takes the watch from her delicate hands and tries to fasten it to her wrist.

“No,” she says, moving her hand away. “I’m goin’ away... I can’t keep it.”

“Where to?”


“Away.”

“Hey what’s this?” he asks as he grabs her wrist. “Somebody hurt you?”

She tries to free herself of his hand. “No, nobody...I didn’t-”

“Who did it?”

“It’s my fault...I shouldn’t a talked to you...”

Walter swiftly pulls her into his arms, burns the image of her smooth face into his mind, and kisses her roughly. How strange that he should find himself like this again, here with this girl, this destitute little creature, locked in this shameless embrace. She smells of sandalwood and rosemary, as if she were born in a bed of herbs, and her hair is freshly oiled. He breaks the kiss and hugs her, burying his face into her shoulder. He does not know what he is doing but he is doing it.

Mary pulls away and says simply, “I got to go, Walt.” She lifts his head and turns to walk away. She leaves Walter standing near the tree, and his eyes are suddenly flushed.

Walter itches to grab her once again but she has already disappeared when the tears have cleared from his eyes. He stares at the watch in his hands; it is cleaner than when he gave it to her. He waits momentarily and then begins to walk home.

 

The last two weeks of summer pass with great lonesomeness, for Walter’s friends have gone to visit their rich aunties and uncles up in Dallas, the girls in town are insufferable, and Walter’s mother has been spending more time with her social clubs in order to eliminate any possible discussion about her private affairs.

And Mary has not returned.
He goes to the cabins one day and asks for her by name.


“They’re gone,” somebody says. “‘Cause their little girl had stole a white man’s watch.”

Walter doesn’t believe it. “But I gave that her that watch. She returned it.”

The people speak carefully, but there is ice in their words. “A man came ‘round and he saw her wearin’ it. Said it was his son’s an’ she’d better give the watch back to the son, pay up for damages, an’ said he would sure be back for blood later. They was scared for they lives. So they paid and got outta town.”

Walter shakes his head and turns away.

 

His home is quiet once again, except for Louise, who is wiping down the keys of the piano. Walter sneaks into his room and waits until she has left the house to take a deep breath.

He sits down on his bed, and observes the wrist-watch. There is a spot of glue on the glass casing; somebody has tried to fix it.

“Oh Mary,” he says. He stares at it until he hears someone at the door. Walter rushes to his window and sees his father, plumper than usual, at his doorstep. Walter hurriedly stuffs his –Mary’s– watch into his pocket as he goes downstairs.

“I’m back!” Mister Roberts hollers. “Son, my friend told me he can’t do nothin’ till he gets more watches! C’mon, Walt. Boy like you probably been collectin’ since you were born.”

“Yes...” Walter says remotely.


“Well, where are they, son?” He yanks open the drawers in Walter’s room, poking around for something of value.


Walter feels the watch in his pocket, and says, “I haven’t got any.”

His father huffs, annoyed. “Alright, boy. If you say so.”

 

The next afternoon, Louise pokes her head into Walter’s room. “I found this in the washin’.” She is holding his brown watch in her soapy hands.

He takes it from her, shutting the door. He had forgotten it in the pocket of his trousers. The leather straps are soaked, water has seeped through to the dial, the hands are stuck, and any sign that Mary had once worn it has now been washed away. He shakes it helplessly, but the watch is properly broken this time.

Outside, the sun has not quite yet sunk below the rooftops, but there is a purple-orange tint to the clouds, and suddenly Walter realizes he does not know what time it is.

There is nowhere to look; the only watch remaining in his room is his own –Mary’s watch– which now lies limp across his fingers, soggy and defective.

He lays back on his bed and closes his eyes for an eternity until the bell rings sharply for dinner.


The author's comments:

This piece was inspired by works like William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Alice Walker’s “The Flowers”. I wanted to capture the Southern Gothic style and explore the theme of how feelings of guilt, responsibility, and stringent social rules can be initiated or upset by personal experiences, but also to show how people can snap back to their old ways just as quickly. The Southern Gothic genre lends itself to these ideas of decay and moral gray areas, and I hope readers will not only  be transported to a different time and place in this story, but also that they will see its relevance to modern times and how we sometimes allow unspoken societal rules to destroy our ability to love freely and treat everyone equally. 


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