Today Miss Essie was glad to let us go at 3 o'clock, I believe. I could tell she was hotter'n a six shooter. That's what my grandmother Martha Belle would say. It must've been 100 degrees in that ol' classroom. Too hot for learnin'! Miss Essie's face was so red and she had taken to fannin' herself with a workbook and hopin' for a coolin’ spring rain.
I been pullin' at this ol' brown dress all day. Nobody wears a brown dress on a hot day! The sun has all but burnt a hole right through it! I don't know why my mommy sews these old dark dresses, all with the same white collars like Little Orphan Annie wears in the comics. I guess cuz people always say that I look good in brown. It does go with my brown eyes and light brown hair. But brown! It's as interesting as dog poo to be all brown.
When I come out of the Coaltown Elementary School and went down the front steps today here come L. M. Thomson, fast as he could run. I'd seen him once before roundin' up all them Thompson young 'uns to walk 'um home. There's nine of 'um in all and L.M.'s the oldest. His sister Wanita is in the fifth grade with me. She talks about her house sometimes. It's full a little 'uns. She especially likes the baby they call "Beano" cuz he likes beans so much. He'll set in his high chair smashin' pinto beans, eatin' a few and plantin' a few in his hair. She says he's funny. They got no Daddy at their house. Just a mammy who gets 'um a baby about every year. I'm glad Wanita likes them babies cuz that's about all they got.
So here come L.M. towards me. I don't know why his name is L.M. Wanita says that at home he's called "String Bean", him bein' so tall and bony. He's about full grown in the eighth grade, got him a full head a blonde hair and a really bad chopped up hair cut and a dirty neck. I don't like a dirty neck on anybody. I reckon if you can't get your neck clean and it stickin' out right where people can see it then what about all those other parts you ain't washed that people can't see.
L.M. put a little rolled up note in my hand and loped off like a deer across the playground. It was a sweaty little paper, dirty with fingerprints. I unrolled it without much wantin' to touch it. "I'm claimin' you" was all it said. And it was signed, "L.M."
What was "claimin'?" It was written in pencil and spelled all funny. I didn’t know what it meant so I tossed the note over the side of the school house hill and headed for the opening in the bushes that lead down off the hill towards the creek. Martha Belle’s house was at the bottom of the hill.
Right before I got to the bushes, here come Wally Bullock from my class. Wally was too old for the fifth grade and too old for his pants and shirt too. He always wore a red and grey flannel shirt, even in this hot weather with the cuffs buttoned just below his elbows instead of at his
wrists. He had greasy hair and no shoes and smelled like yellow mustard and a old onion on a hamburger bun and even the old hamburger meat too, left out about a week on the kitchen table.
He pushed a little wadded up paper into my hand, said nothin' and run off with a bright red face, just like L.M. had done. I waited till I had slid down the slick, worn path off the hill towards the creek, towards home, to open up the dirty little paper. And what if it didn't say the same thing! "I'm claimin' you." It was signed, "Wally B."
I threw that one in the creek and watched it float away with the leaves down stream. What's "claimin?" I wiped my hands of that dirty note on my brown dress and skipped across the slick rocks in the creek hopin' not to fall in today in my dress and school shoes. I was home unlatchin’ the gate in no time and openin' the kitchen screen door where I knew Martha Belle would be workin' on supper.
"What's 'claimin?'" I asked, not even sayin' hello first. She didn't even look up from her bean snappin' job at the table.
“Well, hi-dee to you too! Wash your hands and let’s see what there is in here for a snack. You hungry?”
“Not too hungry. But what’s claimin?”
"Claimin' is ownin’ somethin’, I reckon. What you claimin'?"
"I ain’t claimin’ nothin’ but why would that ol' dirty neck L.M.Thompson hand me a note sayin' he's claimin' me? And why would I get the same kinda note from ol' stinky Wally Bullock sayin' he's claimin' me too? "
“Well, I reckon they know a pretty girl when they see one," she said, puttin' the big peanut butter jar on her prized vinyl Last Supper tablecloth.
"They can't claim a person, can they? They don't even know me and I'm not goin' anywhere with L.M. Thompson or Wally Bullock! They are dirty and dumb!" With angry swipes of the knife, I spread some peanut butter on a slice of Mead's Fine White Bread and helped myself to a cold co-cola from the General Electric.
"Them Thompsons and Bullocks don't need to be claimin' no little fifth grade girl. But they'z ol' Black River people. They'z no count, no how. Their mammies grew up over at Black River and they'z raised their young 'uns on ol' Camel cigarettes and co-colas for breakfast. They never heard a bed time or supper time. Probably never seed the inside of a church. They'z just foolish and wild actin'. I wouldn’t give Œum another thought if I was you. You got other things to spend your time on, like helpin’ me clean this corn for dinner.”
While Martha Belle carried on about the Black River folks, I could feel my daddy listenin' from the next room to what we were talkin' about. He was surely settin' in the livin' room ponderin' his next move towards gettin' a job or just settin' there bein' gloomy, which he is even on a good day.
I read his mind right then. All kids who have gloomy parents can read their minds. I could even picture his grip tightenin’ on the arm of the stuffed flowerdy chair as he listened to us talk. It was one of those times when I knew somethin’ I wouldn¹t like was gonna’ happen.
He was doin' that dark, heavy thinkin' in the next room, the kind of dark thinkin' that leads to him makin’ some kinda proclamation. He'll never mention that he don't want them ol' Black River boys claimin' me but he'll just set in the livin¹ room and get all scowly and pout for days. It always makes me wonder what he thinks is so bad about life that he don’t want me to live any piece of it for myself.
He was thinkin' mighty nervous thoughts about me getting’ them little notes. Plenty of girls around here have done that “takin’ up” thing or run off and married when they was fourteen, but I don¹t care nothin' about them two boys!
Just the same, I learned me something today about this 'claimin' thing! I wonder if you always get claimed in the spring, sort of like it’s huntin’ season for girls or somethin’. Why, some of them fifth grade girls would be proud to be claimed by two boys on the same day and one of Œum a big eighth grader almost ready to shave!
I'll bet with the daddy I got it’s goin' to be just like the time me and my little brother took our roller skates up to the school sidewalk one Saturday. As soon as I told everybody at supper that night that we was up on the hill skatin' round and round the school and that there had been some boys from school skating' there too, that was the end of roller skatin'. Which is too bad for us cuz that little bit of sidewalk is the only cement in the whole town big enough to skate on!
Things about boys are always enough to make my daddy brew and churn and pout for days. For him I guess he thinks boys are like them horseshoe magnets you run across the dirt and the iron shavin’s come right out of the ground and stick onto the magnets. He must think claimin’s like that.
But I ain’t no iron shavin'! I got a mind of my own, and I don't care nothin' about them ugly ol' school house boys. But somethin'll happen soon. You can count on it, like when you smell the rain comin’ and then you see the lightnin’ and you know that the thunder is right behind. I don't know what it is he’ll do, but thunder is due to come rumblin’ out of the sky any minute now.
Coaltown could use a good storm to cool us off on this scorchin’ day but I’d rather it just stormed outside.
"I'm Claimin' You" is one of many creative nonfiction stories written by Pamela Bradley, an East Tennessee native, who is working to complete the coming of age tales of her 1962-63 school year spent in the hills at the home of her great grandmother. Pam writes about life in a small coal mining town.
E-mail Pamela Bradley at: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2002, Pamela Bradley, All Rights Reserved