The only women I knew growing up who never married and never had children were nuns. That a woman would choose a single life was strange to me, akin to something like a black walnut tree. Other trees—pecan, pear, persimmon—were all useful. But black walnut trees were nothing but trouble. They grew all around our twenty acres off Highway 90, but we couldn't do a thing with the nuts except kick them for fun while trying to avoid rolling an ankle by stepping atop one.
So when Gwen Potter moved in just north of our property line, into the house that was vacated after Widow Lawrence passed, I wanted to know whether she'd be a useful neighbor.
My daddy wanted to know too. He muttered words under his breath every time we passed the homestead going into town, a string of degradations disguised as curiosities.
Gwen had moved in June during a week when triple-degree temperatures set records all across the state. The calendar said summer wasn't supposed to start for a week, but somehow the sun didn't get the memo.
It only took a couple of hours on Tuesday afternoon for Gwen to unload one pickup truck bed of furniture along with a cab full of loose clothes, one suitcase, and several garbage bags full of who knows what. We watched her from our porch, our house close to the road and just across the fence line. She hefted bags over her shoulders into the little house like she was some kind of Santa Claus.
I kept waiting for someone else to arrive that day since no woman I knew would ever dare to live alone. "Is she by herself?"
"You see anybody with her?" My daddy didn't take his eyes off her movements.
"Why don't we help her?" Gwen looked to be struggling with a mattress. Unloading it from the back of the truck would have been smoother with an extra set of hands. She wouldn't have had to slide it across the gravel, stirring up dust like she did.
"A woman like that don't need no help." He didn't make a motion in her direction, and I didn't ask any more about it.
I still didn't know what type of woman she was, so I wondered how my daddy could know.
A few days later, she came up the gravel drive onto our property near the evening as the sun set low against the fields. My daddy and I were both sitting on the porch eating supper so we could try to catch a breeze that didn't want to come.
As she approached us, she raised her hand to wave, and I yelled out "Hi there" while my daddy just sat and chewed with his mouth open.
That's how we found out her name, and when I told her mine, she said Marilyn was a pretty name, "like a movie star."
But my daddy just grunted and said, "She's named after her mother." I didn't know much about her, only that she ran off when I was two but not to make movies.
One thing I noticed about Gwen that summer was that she always dressed in layers. A half-closed button-down shirt over a ribbed tank. A tight t-shirt beneath a cottony tunic. A dress so threadbare anybody could see the outline of her slip right through it. Her clothes must have been worn and washed and dried and worn again with more regularity than my father's prayers.
That first evening we met her when she reached her hand out to shake ours, the sleeve of her shirt inched up. My daddy was the first to ask, "Where'd you get them scratches at?" The corner of his mouth curved into slyness that I didn't understand yet was uncomfortable to see.
She withdrew her hand and pushed down the fabric, tugging at the fraying hem as if covering the marks would make them disappear from the conversation. "I was picking some dewberries."
But her skin was bruise-colored in all the wrong places, and berry season ended in May. My father grunted as I bit my tongue.
We didn't see Gwen too much after that, at least not up close. She never hung her clothes on the line to dry, even though there was a good one stretched taut between two poles on the side of the house. I saw her walk to the mailbox now and again, but I don't even think she did that every day.
Sometimes, if it were real early in the morning, she'd be at the fence line reaching her hand over to touch our cows. They weren't much of anything. Around Texas, only poor people had the kind of herd we had, a Heinz 57 mixture of beef just to help pay the bills. On fancy ranches, owners had angus. The dairy farmers had Jersey. Brahmas were kept for 4-H projects. Longhorns were only for people who had too much money to spend. Our cattle were held like city people held stocks. Just like they watched the stock market, we watched auction barn prices, hoping to time a sale just right. Sometimes we did. Mostly we didn't.
But when I turned thirteen that summer, my daddy did give me twenty dollars. There wasn't cake, but that money was as sweet as any slice of one.
I stowed the money under my mattress until I could spend it all. I wondered how Gwen got her money and what she spent it on since she didn't have a man around to tell her how. One day when my daddy was in town and I saw her walking to the mailbox, I met her and asked. "So what do you do all day?"
She answered, "Same things as you," but I doubted that was the truth.
Still, that little bit of contact between just the two of us started a chain of loose encounters that stretched throughout the summer like a string of pearls, little gems of conversation that I latched onto because I had never heard words like what she was telling me.
Her advice to me started with boys. She warned, "Don't marry the first one you ever kiss."
I had to admit "I never kissed a boy," but I sure wanted to.
She also told me about womanly things that my daddy never did. "Keep one good bra at all times, one that don't get stretched out in the wash. You'll need it when you go out. Or want to get a job." She counted the reasons on her fingers. "Or need to impress somebody's momma."
I wasn't sure about the wisdom of the last part of what Gwen said, but she didn't give me time to ask questions because she kept right on dishing.
"Don't ever let no man tell you how to spend the money you earn." I had some restrictions from my daddy, since he was the one who had to drive me to any place to spend my money anyway. But I registered the tip in my mind just the same.
Gwen also told me, "Only share your sweets when you're ready." If that had a double meaning, I wasn't quite sure. Either way, I chose to think of it as a twist on what I heard from my kindergarten teacher that sharing is caring.
Regarding my appearance when I went out, Gwen told me, "Never forget to wear mascara." Geez, I wanted to buy a tube so bad, but my daddy said I was too young for it. When I could buy some, Gwen told me how. "You don't need the fancy stuff. Pink package drug store kind will do just fine. But slather it on, thick as sheet cake frosting." She pulled down the skin under her eye with the finger pads of one hand while she mimed with the other.
"So that's how it gets on there." I was thunderstruck, never thinking that each eye's application was a two-handed job.
I learned more from Gwen that summer than I did from any teacher. I liked to think she was brought to the rental property just for me, to give me these bits of advice that I could use and stow and learn from in ways that I never had before.
But one day, her pickup wasn't in the driveway, and the potted plant of aloe vera she kept on the front porch had been turned over, the juice-rich spindles kicked into the dust below. I asked my daddy if he had seen Gwen, but he just said she was gone, moved on to some other place. "You never know what's up with women like that," he concluded, but it was no sort of conclusion for me.
Notes from the Author
Dewberries are a vine-growing Texas fruit that flowers in the spring and produces purple-to-black berries that ripen in early summer. They grow in dense, thorny thickets, which I thought was a perfect metaphor for Marilyn's coming-of-age story.