CREATIVE Cherish D Smith

NWR Issue r18

The Trees Won’t Tell

‘You quit followin’ me, Erroll Harris!’ I call over my shoulder, clutching my books to my chest. The girls told me over lunch, fellas like a chase and you can’t let them know you got eyes for a while. I think I messed that up already, but I’m gonna fix it.
‘You quit followin’ [ital:me]!’ he shouts back. ‘I’m on my way home, same as you. Or did you forget, Gussie?’
Gussie. Ugh!
Mama sent me to live with my big sister Flora for the summer up in New York City. When she introduced me to everyone she called me by my official name, Augusta. After three months of being Augusta, ‘Gussie’ sounds odder than a barking cat. Even more now that his voice went and changed.
‘I ain’t forget,’ I tell him. Since we been going to school, he’s been trailing behind me. ‘But we ain’t kids no more. Call me by my real name.’
I hear him click his teeth. ‘I see how it is. You spend some time in New York City and now you too good for a nickname. Flossie teach you that this summer?’
It’s just New York.’ That’s what Flora and her office girlfriends told me, at least. ‘And she goes by Flora these days.’
‘Someone went and got all fancy.’
‘Someone went and got all tall.’
‘He must have grown nearly a foot over the summer. I think now he could peek into all the windows of the skyscrapers without the need to jump or nothing. And ’cause just before I left, we walked this same dirt road, looked each other eye to eye and he kissed me. Now, I’d need to climb one of these trees to reach his face.
I steal another glance at him over my shoulder. He looks real good in his crisp white shirt, bowtie, and cap.
‘Your leg hurtin’?’ Erroll asks, strolling up to me. His skin tickling mine.
‘No, what’d make you think that?’ I press my books closer to my breast. As close as they can go. Erroll wasn’t the only thing that grew over summer. It seems to help with the juke-joint that’s open for business in my belly.
‘Walkin’ funny is all. Here, hand ’em over.’ He takes the books from my arms like they don’t weigh more than a feather.
‘I can carry my own books.’
‘I know you can, but you don’t got to long as I’m here. You hear me?’
‘Why?’ I ask, suddenly real conscious of how my body is swaying in my new skirt. Flora bought it, and it hugs my new curves like it wasn’t purchased at a store but made ’specially for me.
Erroll stops short, so I do too and bite my lip.
‘’Cause I want you to be my girl, Gussie,’ he declares, showing that dimpled chin. Same as he did last time we stood like this, but now I know what’s coming and I promise not to take off like a spooked horse with a snake at its feet. I promise this time I’ll kiss him back. I won’t go running home over a silly peck on the cheek, only to realize how stupid I was every night since then.
‘It’s Augusta.’
’Okay, Augusta.’
‘You want to kiss me, Erroll?’
‘Something awful, Gussie.’
‘Then do it proper.’
He drops his book strap behind him and my books at his side. They send a dusty fog around our ankles. As far as I can tell at least, my eyes ain’t never left his all this time. They’re black and shiny like the marbles him and all the others boys used to play with. I study his sharp jaw and the Adam’s apple poking through his neck. It bobs while he swallows. He’s come a long way from that chubby-cheeked boy who chased me down this road. I loved him a lot back then too. I can’t remember not loving Erroll Harris.
I catch myself helping him out, rising more and more on my toes to give his neck a break from staring down on me so. And to get my lips closer to his. If that juke-joint in my stomach was real, it’d be the talk of the town and Erroll wants an invite! He puts his arms around me. Pressing me to him till I can’t get no closer. If we was at a school dance, why ol’ Mrs. Hughes would have both of our hides and ears.
‘I’ll be grey waiting for you to kiss me,’ I whisper to him. ‘The trees won’t tell.’
‘I ain’t worried ’bout no trees. I’m tryna get it all right.’
‘Get what right?’
‘How many eyelashes you got on each eye. Which way the wind is blowing. What you smell like.’
‘And why you got to know all of that?’ I ask.
‘For our grandkids one day,’ he says. His words like to rob me of my air. I go to grab some, but I’m stopped by his lips. My eyes close, and my knees quiver and shake from the party going on inside my body. If it weren’t for his arms holding me up, I’d collapse into a heap at his feet. It feels like he’s kissing me for every day that went by and he couldn’t. Like he’s been waiting all summer. Finally I can’t take no more and pry myself from him.
‘You kiss me anymore before we’re official and my daddy will fix you, Erroll Harris.’ I try to remain tightlipped, but my top one can’t help but curl back into a smile. ‘What kind of girl do you think I am?’
‘My girl,’ he says.
[PAGE 2]
I’d like to put the gasp all the other girls make on a record. That way radios can play it all over the country and I can listen to it over and over. Even better, I wish someone was passing through with a camera so I could have a picture of all the girls’ faces when me and Erroll come into the schoolyard. Their arms are all filled with books while mine are free, unless you count me holding on to Erroll.
I spot Alice Walker over by the bell. In a short while Mrs Hughes will ring it and class will start, but for now, Alice is keeping it company. She and Jeremiah Jones. Although it don’t look like Alice knows Jeremiah is even there. She’s busy playing with one of her braids. Alice got the longest hair I’ve ever seen on a girl so black. Today she got them in two braids, as thick as her daddy’s wrist, with tiny lavender ribbons at the end. Makes her look so innocent, but she’s not. All the boys love Alice. Some men too. It's like they see her and go back to being little boys, wanting every sweet in the store. And I couldn’t ask for a better friend.

My mama would probably faint if she saw me do this, but I lift up on my toes and give Erroll a kiss on the cheek. ‘I’m gonna go catch up with Alice,’ I tell him, grabbing my books and leaving him in his spot. I bet he’s watching me walk away.
‘Gussie,’ Alice says once I’m close enough.
‘Mornin’ Alice,’ I half sing. ‘Pretty dress.’
She makes a face like I offered her sour milk. ‘It’s a pretty colour. You know how much I love lavender, but I don’t care for the style. Makes me look like a child.’
‘It is kind of plain, but you are your mama’s child.’
She looks at Jeremiah, who’s been leaning in like he’s getting ready to lick her. ‘Jeremiah, can you leave us alone to girl talk?’
‘Oh, right. Sorry.’ He wags his head from side to side, just like a dog. ‘Hey, Gussie,’ Jeremiah says, like he just now realizing I’m here.
‘Hi,’ I offer before he starts shuffling away. When he’s gone, I speak again. ‘He still buzzin’ ’round you like a bee?’
‘More like a fly. At least bees got a purpose and pretty to look at.’
‘Jeremiah’s nice lookin’.’
‘Yeah, but he ain’t Erroll Harris, is he? How’d you get so lucky?’ Alice asks.
My cheeks creep up like God’s pulling on them. There’s not much for Alice to be jealous of. Her daddy is the richest man in town, I guess, what with him owning the grocery and dry goods store. And Flora only recently started sending me new clothes. Me and Mama both. From Macy’s. Sometimes she sends Daddy something too.
We look over to where some of the boys are all huddled together. Erroll’s head is inches taller than all of them. I wish I was over there holding his hand some more. Three weeks we’ve been going steady and I’m still not the only one who can’t believe it.
‘Would you ever think me and Erroll Harris would have eyes for each other?’ I ask Alice.
‘I reckoned sooner or later something would happen. All that time you spend walkin’ that country road together.’ Alice’s cheeks start to creep up too. Like maybe in her head she’s thinking of me and Erroll dancing between the trees. ‘You been havin’ any fun?’
‘Alice!’ It’s all I can get out.
‘Fine, don’t tell me.’ She picks up one of her braids and starts messing with the ribbon. I keep expecting her to rip it out of her hair. Alice been having her fun for a year now. I don’t bother her about all the details, but I know Mama calls it ‘trouble’. Alice says it’s only trouble if you get caught.
‘Me and Erroll don’t have the time,’ I tell her. ‘He’s got his baby sister… and his mama.’
‘She goes putting her arm on my hand like I told her my nana died or something. The both of us together kind of reminds me of a campfire s’more. I’m the graham cracker, Alice is the chocolate, and all this talk about trouble is the marshmallows.
‘My mama too,’ I add. ‘I got to tell her where I’m going, what I’m doing, and with who, all the time.]
‘Well, if you ever think you find the right time, tell her you’re visitin’ with me. I’ll cover for you. Girls got to have their fun too.’
I laugh. ‘You and Jeremiah ever –?’
She sets her hand on her hip. ‘Please, I’m a woman now, Gussie. I can’t be foolin’ ’round with little boys.’
‘But he likes you.’
Alice shrugs. ‘Don’t remind me.’
‘I can see right through you, Alice Walker. I know you think something of him. I can hear it in your voice. Kind of like me when I think of Erroll.’
Everything about Alice just freezes. She doesn’t blink, in fact, her eyes open farther than I ever seen anyone’s eyes do. Then she points a finger at me. ‘You don’t hear nothin’ except Jeremiah’s church tambourine. His daddy’s the preacher. I won’t have no fun messin’ with him. And if I did, it’d have to be with him only. Can you imagine havin’ fun with the same boy?’
I look back over at Erroll at the same time he happens to be lookin’ at me. We lock eyes for a little bit, before I can’t bear it no more and have to look away. It takes every prayer I know to keep my lips over my teeth. Truth is, I’d be an old spinster before I got into trouble with anyone but Erroll. He’s the only boy for me.
‘Ladies,’ Mrs Hughes says, shuffling out of the door behind us, hair looking whiter than it did last week.
‘Mornin’, Mrs Hughes,’ Alice and I say back.
For a little while, I get nervous she might have heard us, but then I remember Mrs Hughes is about as old as the earth. She was born a slave on a plantation in Alabama somewhere and don’t hear nothing unless it’s back talk. Her husband and sons built the school way back when. Both this one and the little school, when folks started letting their kids learn. Somehow she got Erroll’s mama to let him come to school. Thank God too, or else I’d never see him.
Old Mrs Hughes whips the rope inside the bell. Everyone looks up at the sound and starts toward the schoolhouse. Alice goes in first. She always does. I usually follow her, but not since me and Erroll been going steady. I wait for him to pass me, stick my arm out a little, and let his hand graze mine.
Mrs Hughes does have good vision.
But it’s like Alice says, it ain’t trouble unless we get caught.
[PAGE 3]
I’ve come to hate the fork in the road. When we get to it, Erroll has to go his way and me, mine. And we don’t go easy. I hold onto him like he’s leaving town for a year. Squeezing his neck ’til my feet barely touch the ground. Then I make him feel bad about leaving me.
‘Mama been askin’ me ’bout you.’ I let him know.
‘Tell her I said, ‘hello’ then.’
‘Tell her yourself.’
‘Gussie, you know I can’t do that. I –’
‘Got to be gettin’ home. I know….’ Erroll got a way of making me feel like a little girl sometimes. It don’t help none that he insist on calling me by my little girl name. I tell myself not to pout.
It’s Friday. If we’re lucky, Erroll and me can meet up at our ‘house’ in our secret spot before Monday rolls around again. Only the trees know where it is, but with Flora gone off to the city now, all eyes are on me these days. Mama and Daddy say they don’t want me finding any ‘trouble’ so it’s hard to get away. And Erroll, his mama got issues. Them are his words not mine. That’s all he really says about her.
Monday don’t never come soon enough.
‘Let me come with you then,’ I say. ‘I’ll help you with your algebra. I got the better book anyway.’ The coloured school get all the old textbooks from the white school. Some be missing pages, got the words inked out and water damaged. I got one of the nicer ones though.
‘No?’ Did I hear him right? ‘What you mean, no?’
‘It means I’m tellin’ you not to waste your time. I’m quittin’ school.’ I feel his body stiffen when he says this. His insides hardening like old bread.
I back away from him, letting his words fill the space between us.
‘Don’t be like that, Gussie. Tenth grade is plenty good.’
Plenty good? Sure, when you think most around here don’t make it past the sixth grade, like my daddy, but not good enough for Erroll. And what about me?
‘But how I’m gonna see you if you ain’t at school?’ I try to imagine mornings without his yawning or afternoons without his stories of the day. His shadow won’t walk alongside mine. Erroll’s eyes drop. I think he’s trying to picture it too.
‘I can walk you in the mornings. Besides, Mama needs my help. She can’t be left alone all day.’
I’ve come to hate Erroll’s mama too. Maybe even more than the fork in the road. I ain’t never met the woman properly, but I hate her. Ain’t that something? She’s lived down the road from us all my life and I’ve only seen her maybe twice. Daddy says she only comes out at night. Mama says she’s loose. But that ain’t why I hate her. It’s ’cause she’s keeping my Erroll from me. It’s ’cause she don’t deserve my Erroll’s love. The less Erroll tells me about her, the more I know I’m right.

Cherish D Smith is a Brooklyn native and Queens resident. She is also a lover of historical fiction and romance. Her debut poem, ‘Tabitha’s Babies’, was published in the Quarterday Review earlier this year. In her spare time, Cherish can be found working on her historical YA novel, singing showtunes and occasionally writing her blog. This is a preview extract from ‘The Trees Won’t Tell’ which will be published in full by Kweli Journal (New York City) in October. @icherishwriting


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