by Lois Sockol
Samantha's new diary lies open on her desk. It arrived two weeks ago in time for her thirteenth birthday, a gift from her Aunt Flora, who lives hundreds of miles away in a trailer camp outside of Ocala, Florida. Although it's stamped indelibly in her mind, Samantha hardly thinks anymore about what happened in Ocala.
Packed in a cardboard carton, the diary took four dollars worth of stamps to send . She was hoping for an iridescent two-piece bikini, like the one she saw last winter dangling from one of the trailer's clotheslines. "Gosh, I'd die for one of those," she'd said, pinning up her own drab navy blue suit.
"Time enough for that," her aunt had answered in a tone so much like her mother's that Samantha spun around to look at her. Her mother is beautiful: tall and slender and fair skinned with a flow of thick auburn hair. Flora looks no more like her than a thistle does a rose. Aunt Flora is plain, short and stout with a round almost flat face. Her mouse-brown hair is fading to gray and cut short with a wispy fringe across her forehead. Yet at that moment Samantha saw something of her mother in her aunt's narrowed eyes.
Sealed in plastic is the diary's miniature brass key, like the one to the trailer's spare bedroom, a thought that causes Samantha to feel uneasy. Her own bedroom door has a lock, too, although she never remembers using it, and has not the slightest notion of where its key might be, maybe in her mother's bedroom dresser or in the metal box in the basement where all the unused things too important to discard are kept. It makes no difference because Samantha doesn't lock her door. That would put her mother's back up. She knows all too well what sets her mother's imagination whirling. And whom would she be shutting out? Her mom and dad never enter without knocking, and there is no one else. Better to keep the door open and the diary locked; that would fall into her mother's idea of acceptable privacy.
Aunt Flora is her mother's unmarried older sister. She moved to Florida the year Samantha was born, and as far back as Samantha can remember she and her mother climbed aboard a Delta jet for a ten day vacation at Pompano Beach. But that was before her aunt married Stanley two years ago, before they moved inland to the Heaven's Acre Trailer Park outside of Ocala, and before her mother decided there wasn't room enough for them all and, instead, sent Samantha on the jet by herself. "I'd feel like a sardine in a can." she'd said in her sensible voice. "You're a child. . . no reason for you not to visit."
The land around the trailer park vanished into a dull flatness. There were no gardens, no grove of trees or cooling ocean. When she walked to the rear of the trailer, there was a sawgrass field with sunlight dazzling across it, creating the illusion of a vast green sea. Aunt Flora's trailer was at the end of the row like a disconnected caboose. "We'll plant shade trees. . . soon," she'd said.
Taped to the front of the avocado colored refrigerator were four slightly dissimilar layouts for a garden Stanley talked about planting between the rear of their trailer and the edge of the sawgrass. The plans showed a gravel pathway, a stone bench for sitting, orange trees and two flowering hibiscus.
Stanley knew a lot about planting trees. After high school he worked in the Everglades National Park. His life's dream was to be a forest ranger, but that didn't work out so he went to work for a company that owned hundreds of acres of orange groves. The orange company had a small fruit stand on I-95 where it sold bags of oranges and freshly squeezed juice. That's where Flora first met him when she stopped to buy a quart of juice and he held a sliced orange out to her. He quit the grove when they married. Now he puttered and did handyman repairs while awaiting a job at the Ocala National Forest.
Most mornings, after breakfast, Flora strolled with her in the field. Even in the early morning the smell of heat rose up from the sawgrass, which felt tough beneath her feet, and stung at her ankles, not like the lawn grass at home. "It's not true sawgrass, you know," her aunt said. "It's just tough, so they call it that. True saw grass has got quite a bite, and isn't even grass. It's a sedge with edges like sharp teeth. Stanley told me that, and Stanley knows his plants," she said with pride. They walked, sometimes talking, sometimes silent, until Stanley called for Flora, who smiled with pleasure at the sound of his voice.
Stanley looked younger than Flora, was lean-bodied with heavy dark hair and a pointed nose on a mostly unlined face. He wore tight jeans with sleeveless tee shirts. He also wore a floppy straw hat and black leather boots. The first time he smiled at Samantha , she thought his eyes beautiful: startling green the color of sawgrass. Now she remembers them without their smile, glassy with deep lines etched at their corners. She thinks them the most sinister eyes she ever saw, especially when viewed in the flickering overhead light, up close to her own face.
It was about two o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon during the first week of her visit, and outside the trailer a merciless sun beat down on the treeless park. Her aunt had driven to Ocala, and Samantha, at a loss for something to do, strolled through the sawgrass in search of arrowheads. She found none and switched to collecting small stones, particularly ones with a glint of mica. Soon, when she grew tired of the heat, she stuffed the stones into the pocket of her sundress and headed back to the trailer.
Inside, the air was still hotter. At the end of the hallway, near the bathroom, Stanley stood barring her way. "Hello," she smiled, trying to squeeze by him, and then he startled her by pushing her back against the wall, his hot breath washing over her face and in her mouth. Words were mumbled, a cry begun. Then suddenly it was over, and when he slid his heavy wet mouth off her, her choked scream was a whimper.
Samantha thinks of Stanley sitting at the plastic covered table, tilted back in the wooden kitchen chair, his eyes always on her, pinched half shut. There was a perceptible wince on Flora's face as she caught sight of Stanley's gaze. And after that her aunt looked at her warily, as if she were a stranger.
Aunt Flora called Samantha's mother and explained that Stanley was to captain a charter boat out of Key West in two days, and that she would go with him and that it wasn't proper for Samantha to stay. Word would spread that a thirteen year old girl was in the trailer alone. "There was her safety to consider," she'd said, her voice carrying a this-is-serious tone. Aunt Flora didn't discuss it with Samantha, just booked her on Delta jet a week earlier than planned, but Samantha knew there was no charter boat.
That night before going to bed she packed her suitcase, leaving out the clothes she'd need for the morning. She took the pebbles she'd collected at the rim of the sawgrass field and spelled out the word Goodbye on the small table beside her bed where her aunt would be sure to see it.
During the hour drive to the airport, Samantha said little. She answered her aunt's questions in a tone she hoped sounded calm and natural, and sat in the back seat with her spine straight and her head up, staring out the window at the flat landscape and patches of green sawgrass as if she'd never seen them before. At noon, when they reached the Tampa airport, Stanley parked the car in the visitor's lot, took hold of Samantha's suitcase, and walked ahead of them in the dazzling sunlight as cars and buses droned around them. Flora avoided her eyes, and a heavy silence remained like a dense fog between them. Stanley waited in line to check the suitcase. Flora stared at him. A tired expression dragged at her eyes and mouth as he headed toward her. His approach seemed to compel her to speak, and her words came at Samantha like puffs of steam.
"You're a big girl now, almost a woman. . . gotta lighten up, not take things so serious."
"Hush, enough said. You'll be just fine," And she gave Samantha's shoulder a quick squeeze. Stanley was beside her now and Flora reached for his hand, and turned away, while Samantha's eyes followed their retreat through the long narrow hall and out of the terminal.
- - -
At her desk she sits, leaning over her diary, feeling more alone than she ever had--even when she'd come home and instinctively knew she must tell her mother nothing. As she feels herself fall back in time, isolated flashes come to her: Stanley's dark coarse hair, the heavy weight of him pressing against her, the sound of a cry, the sour taste of his mouth, the soreness on her chest where his hands had pressed, how in the narrow space the paneling on the walls of the hallway seemed to lean out against her.
Thin black stripes track across the paper, which swallows in the ink like parched earth. A lopsided heart lies on the right hand corner of each page as if in expectation of something romantic, or sweet or joyous. With her fingers pinching the pen she fills one page with jagged lines and spiky boxes, then moves on to the next. What does she want to write? How can she say it? Lately, her thoughts seem to ramble beyond her control. After a few minutes she closes the diary and locks it away, her mind aching with confusion. She looks up from her desk and switches off the light, then walks over to her bed and sits down.
The moonlight shines in through her window, reflecting off the mirror above her dresser. It spills onto the carpet and up over her legs and under her skirt. Sitting there, she grows restless. She stands up, and moves to the window, pushing aside the curtain. Out on the street two teenage boys pass through the light of the street lamp below her, singing as they move along. Their voices wrap around the words of Bobby McGee, and all at once a sad melancholy settles over her. Her hands rise to her chest and she pivots around and stares into the mirror.
From downstairs she hears her mother and father laughing along with a television soundtrack. She shuts out the sound of them, instead concentrates on the moonlight, streaked like silvery bands across her body. She has never seen herself quite like this before, half enshadowed, half aglow.
She unbuttons her blouse, lifts it from her shoulders and lets it slip silently onto the rug. Her slender hands shed her bra. She finds herself leaning forward to stare at her nakedness. Both hands pass lightly over her breasts, the fleshy tips of her index fingers slowly circling her nipples. How alive they are. Sweet cherries, Stanley had called them.
About the author:
Lois Sockol is a retired teacher of grade-school-age children, having taught in the city of Newton, Mass. for twenty-two years. She raised four sons, who have given her eight grandchildren. She is active in the town of Needham, Mass. where she is a Library Trustee and Town Meeting member. She devours words, reads fiction avidly, her favorite living writers being Wiliam Trevor, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, and Margaret Atwood. She has been writing short stories for ten years, had one published in a South African literary journal, and published her first novel with 1st Books Library last August. Lois and her husband live happily in Needham.