I grew up in a family that couldn’t seem to sire any offspring that wasn’t a manchild. So apart from the matrons of the clan, we boys had little exposure to the strange ways of womenfolk. As it stood, I knew next to nothing about reading moods. Or even that moods were the sort of thing that needed interpretation. This is an area in which a passel of sisters may have proven helpful. I imagine that had I grown up with several yearling girls I would have learned to read female faces the way a farmer reads the weather writ in the skyline over the pasture, divining whether he ought to make hay or run for the barn. Or at least know whether a girl wanted me to ask her to dance, or if instead she nursed some deep-seated desire to burn my eye out with a curling iron.
This made dating in high school more difficult than it should have been. No doubt that is an awkward time for everybody, but there is another layer of discomfort spread over the whole enterprise when you live in the South. Here, dating is never as simple as boy meets girl; it is boy meets girl, and then the entire county somehow gets involved.
When I was a freshman I took a liking to this girl and got up the nerve to ask her to go to Skatetown. I went home and told my grandmother, who became both elated and nervous.
“Who’s her people?” Grandmother said.
“She’s a Craig.”
“She any kin to Lyin’ Ed?”
“I don’t know. Her Daddy’s name is Reuben.”
“Mmm hmm. He’s a nephew to ole Ed.”
“I don’t trust most of them Craigs. It was a Craig what stole one of daddy’s shoat hogs right out of from under the sow in 56’.”
“I don’t believe this girl has done any pig stealin’.”
“Well, I don’t know. They are cousins to those Stovewood Kelleys from over at Seed Tick. The whole bunch is meaner than a stung dog.”
“She don’t seem mean. She don’t bite or anything.”
“Better not be any bitin’ goin’ on! I ain’t raising no more babies!”
“I don’t believe that’s how you get babies.”
“What do you know about it?!”
“I’ve heard tell…”
“Boy, don’t you give me no lip.”
“I’m just tellin’ you she sounds suspicious.”
“Well I just want to take her to Skatetown.”
“What do y’all plan to do at Skatetown?”
“Don’t crack wise. I’ll knock fire from you.”
Finally, Grandmother relented, but insisted that I had to bring the Craig girl by the house before we went to Skatetown. Then she threw a wrench into the works.
“Your daddy will be home by then. He can meet her too.”
Now, I love my Dad. And he’s a decent man. But I never have liked bringing girls around to meet him. Either he would embarrass me or them so badly that the poor girl would never want to hang out again, or else they would end up liking him more than me and that was just uncomfortable for everybody.
Daddy has always had a way of flirting that borders on lecherous, innocent though it may be. Even at restaurants he would have the rest of the family in knots before we could even get our orders out.
“How are y’all doin’?” the little waitress might say.
“Fine as a frog hair split four ways. What’s your name, hon?” Dad would begin.
“Trina, Trina, bo-beena.”
“That’s what they call me.”
“I bet they call you a lot of things, cute as you are.”
“This boy of mine is single, btw. He’s almost as handsome as his daddy, ain’t he?”
“He’s pretty cute.”
“Why, thank you, Trina. I believe I’ll have some tea if it’s half as sweet as you are.”
And so it would go while me and my little brother would try to hide behind our menus. For the rest of the evening, we’d have to listen to Dad chide us for not also flirting with the waitress.
“Gals like it when you make em’ feel pretty.,” he’d say.
“Yeah, but you don’t have to tell them they look like they could crack a hickory nut with their thighs, Dad.”
“Haunches. I said haunches.”
So, I was reticent to bring the unsuspecting Craig girl over to the house where she too might be inspected like Uncle Jim’s prized mare. And Dad didn’t disappoint.
On the way to bring her around to meet my folks I cautioned her.
“No tellin’ what they may say. Don’t pay em’ no mind.”
She just laughed.
“Your people can’t be any worse than mine,” she said.
When we walked in, Grandmother was polite as always, but found a way to turn sweetness into a weapon.
“Girl, you ain’t big as a minute. Would you like to borrow one of my sweaters tonight? You’re bound to freeze in that flimsy thing you’ve got on.”
“No ma’am. I am warm enough.”
Dad was sitting at the kitchen table eating a piece of coconut pie.
“You must be Sharon’s daughter.”
“Yes sir. How did you know?”
“I went to school with you momma. You look just like her. Pretty blonde thing, legs all the way up to your eyeballs.”
“I’m not quite as tall as my mom.”
“Maybe not, but you’re every bit as cute,” he said. “You did good, son,” he said, smiling over at me.
About that time my Grandpa walked into the kitchen.
“I know your Uncle Ed,” he said, like he had uncovered some dark and terrible secret.
“Oh yeah?” she said.
“He used to do a little hog huntin’ on our place.”
“Oh! I love pork!”
“Mmm hmm…” Grandmother said to no one in particular.
“We best be goin’,” I said. “I have to have her home by 10 and it takes an our to get to Skatetown.”
“It’s only 5:30,” said Grandmother. “How many laps to y’all intend to make?”
“I just mean that we are meeting some friends and they are expecting us?
“Well, who are y’all meetin?” she said.
“Tim and Becky and, I think, Mark and Alice.”
“I don’t know them,” she said. “Who’s their people?”
And the entire cycle started all over again…