There wasn’t very much of me back then. I was a tiny girl, just big enough to reach up and grab hold of the wooden counter top in that old country store. I would lift my chin enough to peer in quiet fascination at the man who rang up the items that Mama had laid down.
Though there wasn’t a lot I knew at 6 years old, this much I did know: The man ringing up the groceries was handsome with an easy smile. He patted my head and winked and I suppose it was my first fleeting brush with a crush.
Adults talk. They forget that children with big ears are around so they carry on whatever conversation they please as though there is no loss of innocence at stake. On the way home, I tucked into the back seat of the white Pontiac sedan, and began combing the hair of my Barbie doll that was close to bald for all the combings and cuttings she had taken.
“He looks good, don’t he?” Mama asked in a way that didn’t require a reply, talking to a friend who was in the front seat with her. “All those years in the chain gang didn’t do him no harm, I don’t reckon.”
I would grow up, hearing my parents refer to people who went to prison as being “on the chain gang,” a throwback to the days when prisoners, primarily in the South, were chained together in order to do hard labor in the hot, relentless sun. Judges often pronounced in their sentencing, “Five years of hard labor.”
But by that point in late 1960s, the chain gang had been abolished for a good decad. Yeet for some reason, Mama and Daddy hadn’t gotten the memo. They would continue to refer to hard prison time as the “chain gang.”
As Mama talked on about the winking man, a riveting story unfolded, so mesmerizing that I stopped combing Barbie’s hair. It sounded like the story from that television show, "The Fugitive," the one that Daddy watched every week.
That handsome boy had once been in love with a beautiful girl. A beauty queen, no less, and that’s easy to imagine because heaven knows the South loves pretty girls and pageant queens. He had caught her with another man. Not that I knew what that meant but I was pretty sure it was bad. And, then, in the flash of an angry moment, the kind of moment that a man pays for every day for the rest of his life, he shot her dead.
I put the Barbie doll down. I slid forward and stuck my head across the seat. “He killed her?” I asked.
“Yes, he did,” Mama replied, unconcerned over any loss of childhood innocence. Mama always thought that the best way to deal with life was to meet it head on. She didn’t shelter me. She taught me the reality of life.
I was fascinated. That boy was handsome. He winked at me. But he had killed someone and that someone was a beautiful woman. The next time we went to the store, I peeped around stacks of pork and beans and stared at him. I selected an orange push-up from the ice cream box then wandered over to the counter where Mama was paying.
He smiled. “Hi pretty girl.”
That was probably the beginning of my intrigue with men who carry trouble around with them like it’s a cozy, favorite sweat shirt. I’ve thought of him hundreds of times. That old store is long closed down but I wonder about him. Did he ever love again? Did he ever forget her?
I wish I knew how his story ended.