It is a golden day in May 1948. The air fairly sparkles with sunshine. The sky is hard and glassy like a marble, and the new green of the hills is emerald. I am eleven years old, but in November I will be twelve, which is nearabout grown up. I am in the sixth grade, and I am walking home from school with Virgil. He is the new boy, just moved here from Kentucky.
"I like the color of your eyes, Audrey," he says to me.
"Which one?" I ask him.
"What do you mean?"
He is stumped.
"One of my eyes is blue, Virgil, like my mommy's and daddy's and the three little pigs', but the other eye is gray like nobody else's in the family."
He leans in close to look under my glasses. I don't know another kid in the world besides me who has to wear glasses. Mommy says it was the scarlet fever. It settled in my eyes. And it made me skinny.
Virgil is so near, I can smell the starch in his clothes. His mommy keeps him nice.
"Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle," he says. He's always throwing in a monkey somehow or other. Virgil says he likes animals better than most anything, but he has a peculiar soft spot for monkeys, even though he's never met one face-to-face.
"Which color do you like, Virgil?"
"Both of them. They're pretty. You're pretty."
That makes me smile. Virgil is nice to everybody. He knows a hundred jokes, and all the girls want to hang around him, but he likes me better than anybody else. He wanted to walk home with me, not with Hazel or Grace or any of the boys either.
We are walking on the dirt road in Jewell Valley, which is a coal camp in southwest Virginia. Jewell Valley is set in a deep valley with mountains rising up on either side of us.
There's a creek at the base of one mountain. The road is in the middle, and a row of houses is against the other mountain. The black winter mud is dried up on the road. Soon it will be time for the black dust. But it's nice now, without mud or dust.
"What--who's the three little pigs?" Virgil wants to know.
"My sisters. Yvonne is eight, Eleanor is seven, and Ruth Carol is six. I call them the three little pigs 'cause they hog all the food."
"I know what you mean," he tells me. "I have a little brother."
He's right about that. I have wondered lots of times why Mommy and Daddy just kept on getting babies even after they knew there was not enough of anything to go around.
"Speaking of pigs," Virgil says, "do you know what happened when the pigpen broke?"
"The pigs had to use a pencil!"
We laugh. "I like you, Virgil," I tell him. "You're funny and smart."
He glances behind us.
"Uh-oh, here they come," he says, and I know he's talking about Thurman and Ron Keith, two real mean boys from our class. I take a deep breath.
"Well, if it ain't Little Audrey and the prissy boy," Thurman calls out.
We turn to look at them, but go on walking.
"What do y'all want?" I say. They are right on our heels.
"We got a dare for you, Little Audrey," Ron Keith says.
It's always a dare with these two. I dare you this. I dare you that. In Jewell Valley, when you get dared to do something, you have to do it. There's no way out of it. 'Cause if you don't do it, you will be made fun of for the rest of your life.
But after you do the dare, the one who dares you has to do it, too. Last summer Thurman and Ron Keith dared me to rub poison ivy on my face. And like a moron I did, then they did. A few dayslater we were all laid up with our eyes swole shut.
"You two are exasperating!" I say. It's a word our teacher, Miss Stairus, uses all the time, and I adore her with all my heart. Everybody adores her, even mean boys like Ron Keith and Thurman.
"You kids are exasperating," Miss Stairus will say to us, but she is smiling when she says it. I like the way she calls us kids instead of young'uns, like all the other grownups do.
But when that word exasperating comes from me, it tickles Ron Keith's and Thurman's funny bones.
"His--ass--what?" Ron Keith hoots, and they go into hysterics.
Did I say they also have dirty minds? Well, they do.
"You're not so smart!" Ron Keith says. "Fancy words don't make you smart!"
"Smarty, Smarty had a party!" Thurman chants. "And nobody came but Smarty, Smarty!"
He thinks he's being clever, but everybody has heard that old rhyme a thousand times.
"What's the dare?" I say.
"The prissy boy has to do it, too," Thurman says, and punches Virgil pretty hard on his arm.
They grin at Virgil, waiting for an answer. Virgil's face goes red. I don't think he's used to bullies. Maybe they didn't have them in Kentucky.
And now I don't know what has got into me. I stop in the middle of the road and start acting like John Wayne. "Spit it out! What's the dare?"
Everybody stops walking. We face each other.
"Climb the water tank," Thurman answers.
"That's no dare!" I holler. "I've done it lots of times. Everybody has."
I say nothing.
"All the way to the top?"
"And walk around the rim?"
They grin some more. Both of them have rotten teeth right in the front where you can see them plain.
I turn to look at the giant silver tank built high on the hillside. It glints in the sun, and my eyes burn. The tank holds the water supply for the coal camp, and kids like to play there. No one has ever gone more than halfway up the thousand steps. But I exaggerate. One hundred steps maybe.
"You're a skarity-cat," Ron Keith says to me.
"I am not! I'll climb your old water tank, and I'll do it at night, too."
Maybe I am addled in the head.
"When I get good and ready, that's when!"
Ron Keith winks at Thurman. "She won't do it."
"I will so do it!"
But my mouth has gone dry.
"And what about you, prissy boy?" Thurman says to Virgil.
Virgil says nothing, and we hurry away. We can hear Ron Keith and Thurman following us, hollering and laughing, calling Virgil a baby.
Then they reach their house and go in. In Jewell Valley all the houses are exactly alike--square brown wooden boxes--but we know which one is which. Thurman lives in the right side of the seventh house, and Ron Keith lives in the left side. That's how these houses are made--two families in each one, with a wall down the middle to keep you private. But let me tell you something: voices go right through that wall.
Me and Virgil walk on. I don't say anything. Mymind is back there hanging on to that conversation with Ron Keith and Thurman.
"We don't have to be scared of them," Virgil says to me.
"I'm not scared," I lie.
"I bet we can outsmart them," he says.
I don't say anything.
"In fact, I bet a monkey could outsmart those two," he goes on.
He's got me laughing now, and I am thinking how different Virgil is. He's not like anybody else I know. Something surprising comes out of his mouth every time he opens it.
We come to the eleventh house, where I live in the right side. Mr. and Mrs. Church live with their teenage son, Dwight, on the left side. Our front door is open to let in the spring, and we can hear chattering from in there.
"Is that your mommy and your sisters talking?" Virgil asks me.
"Just my sisters," I say. "Mommy's away."
"Away? Where at?"
Away is not the right word, I reckon. Mommy is not really gone, but she might as well be a millionmiles from here. She's all caught up in her own secret world inside her head.
That's too hard to explain, so I just say, "I'll be seeing you, Virgil."
"Can I walk you to school tomorrow?" he says.
"Tomorrow is Saturday."
"Oh, I mean Monday. But I'll probably see you before then."
I nod my head and wave. He waves and goes on up the road to the last house in the row.