by Diane Thomas-Plunk
Lunchtime. The one hundred seventy-three students at Warren County Consolidated High School were in the cafetorium. They’d gone through the cafeteria line or brought their lunches from home and settled at the long tables with their buddies for the forty-five minute lunch break. Jocks sat together. Cheerleaders and their pretty wanna-be friends were at a different table. “Nerds” were in one group because no one else understood them. Kids who didn’t know where they belonged formed loose, shape-shifting groupings. Alvaline Turner never fit in anywhere and she didn’t care. As usual, she made her rounds of all the tables, eating chips at this table, part of someone’s sandwich at that one, some fruit at another. She never bought or brought her own lunch and no one ever denied her.
She was only in the eleventh grade, but she’d been the talk of the school since the ninth grade when her figure bloomed. The good girls wore skirts that brushed their mid-calves. They topped the skirts with white, puffed-sleeve blouses. A few, from families that couldn’t afford decent clothes, wore dungarees, loosely fit, with blouses or sweaters that barely acknowledged their femininity. On the other hand, Alvaline’s dungarees clung to every curve and cleft of her beautifully rounded body. Her blouses and sweaters did the same. The female teachers clucked at her appearance and regularly requested that she be sent home to change, but the principal was a man and her mode of dress was never officially questioned.
Alvaline’s curly, copper-colored hair touched her shoulders and always looked as if she’d just climbed out of bed. She gave wet dreams to all the boys in school. Everyone thought she put out. Some boys claimed to have personal knowledge, but no one could really prove it.
When the bell rang for fourth period, Alvaline walked out with the rest of the students, but sneaked out a side door. She ducked down and rushed through the gravel parking lot, keeping a low profile. She sprinted across the track field and only slowed when she entered the tree line. On the other side, she found the dirt fire road and Carl Ed’s blue pick-up. He was on the other side of the road, on the bank of the big, muddy stream. Not a river; not a creek; just – a stream. He was trying to pick out a new song on his beat-up guitar, repeatedly humming the same tune ‘til he got it. Alvaline laughed at him, shoved the guitar aside, and straddled his lap. Carl Ed gave her a quick kiss and pushed her off.
“Can’t you see I’m working here?”
“Yeah? Workin’ on what? You gonna be a Johnny Cash or something?”
“I’m gonna be something for sure, but today I’ve been waiting for you to leave school.
“It’s easiest to leave out at lunch. They see me, then they don’t. Everybody thinks I’m some place else. They usually don’t tell momma. Yeah, you be Johnny Cash. I’ll be somethin’ else, too. Maybe Miss America.”
Carl Ed laughed.
“You know I’m the prettiest girl in school. Why couldn’t I be Miss America?”
Carl Ed laughed again. “Yes, little girl, you’re the prettiest in that little school, but I’m afraid you’re not Miss America. No offense. Is your mom at home?”
“No offense at you bein’ so wrong. I suspect that momma’s at the house. She traded for an early shift today at Wal-Mart. This evening’s the first night of that tent revival over at Beederville. She’ll be getting all gussied up to go there and carry on with them snake handlers.”
“I’ve got a blanket and a bottle in the back of the truck.”
The sun was considering the horizon when Alvaline trailed into the little house she shared with her mother. Momma was already dressed up in her Sunday-go-to-meeting finery. Alvaline suppressed a laugh.
“Where have you been, child? School’s been out for hours and I suspect you weren’t there anyway.”
“I was at school today. Just ask. Don’t you look just fine?” Alvaline’s taunting grin was lost on her mother.
“Get out of those nasty clothes,” said her mom. “Put on something decent. We’re goin’ to the revival.”
“You can go. I’m really tired. I think I’ll get some sleep.”
“What you need is salvation. Don’t you doubt for a minute, daughter, that I know the sort of things you do and why you’re so tired. I need you to go with me tonight. Your soul is in peril, and it’s my obligation to help you get redemption.”
“When precisely did you get so holy, momma? Was it when you dropped out of school in eighth grade? Was it when you got knocked up with me? So where is my dear daddy anyway? Did you say he died? Or maybe you didn’t know which one he was? You’re a piece of work – all middle-aged and fat and holy now that nobody wants you. Well, I got people who want me, so leave me the hell alone.”
Alvaline was almost out the door when she felt the pull on her hair. Momma grabbed those plentiful curls, twisted her around and slapped her hard. Alvaline managed to remain standing, laughed and walked out the door, her face stinging.
“Just as I am, Lord, just as I am.”
It was a country choir, but the tones were rich and the emotions full. Three singers and the director traveled with the evangelist and they filled out the choir of locals. The preacher was from Oklahoma and on tour through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. He and those few singers depended on food and housing from the local church members in addition to the revenue-producing offerings. He was fervent in his desire to bring lost lambs to Christ. Momma was baptized when she was twelve, but she felt the magnetic pull to this man. Maybe she should confess her sins again and beg forgiveness and another baptism by this godly man.
Alvaline walked to the tourist court two miles from her house. She saw Carl Ed’s truck and heard his guitar, so she knocked. He opened hesitantly, and she saw another girl – younger than she was – beyond his shoulder.
“What are you thinkin’ with that jail bait in here?” she screamed and punched him in the face. He staggered backward. She had a mean right hook. Alvaline resisted the impulse to slug the girl too, so she stormed off.
Momma sang every song. Waved her arms in the air. Put half of next month’s rent in the collection basket and made lots of eye contact with the traveling preacher. She wasn’t nearly as ugly as her daughter thought.
Carl Ed found Alvaline throwing rocks and crying down by the stream. When she heard him, she turned and hurled a rock at his head. Fortunately, she missed.
“Whoa! Slow down. You got it wrong.”
“Sure. There’s a half-nekkid, under-age girl in your motel room and I’m the one that got it wrong. I ain’t nearly as stupid as you think I am. I don’t do much with school books, but I know about boys.”
“For starters, I’m not a boy. And, if you hadn’t noticed, you’re under age yourself.”
“She was there for a guitar lesson. That’s how I make my living. You know that. I don’t know why she took off her shirt. I was telling her to put it back on when you knocked. There was nothing to it. Come over here to me.”
“How long do you plan to stay all bowed up like this?”
Alvaline picked up another rock and cocked her arm. “I’ll stay all bowed up as long as I please, and I’ll let you know if I change my mind.” She threw the rock so it whizzed just past his head.
Momma made sure she was last in the line to congratulate or otherwise speak to the traveling preacher. There were dramatic streaks of silver in his hair and his eyes were iceberg blue. She continued to let the faithful line up in front of her. When she was finally the very last, she made certain that her eyes brimmed with tears as she looked up into his. She began to sob and he cradled her in his arms. It was several hours later before she disclosed her concerns about her daughter.
Carl Ed didn’t go far after dodging the rock. He liked a girl with spunk and she wasn’t as bowed up as she thought. The sunrise woke them in the bed of his truck. Carl Ed produced two warm beers and some stale saltines.
“You never told me,” he said. “Where did you get such a crazy name like Alvaline?”
“It’s not so crazy.”
“Sure it is. What’s the deal?”
“Okay. My mother didn’t pay much mind to when I was gonna get born. It was her first – and thank somebody’s lord — her only pregnancy. When she finally figured out that she was in serious labor, daddy – or someone – put her in the car and started for the hospital. Problem was that I was in a big hurry to get born. Pretty soon there was no stoppin’ me. Daddy – or whoever – pulled into a gas station to help her deliver me. All the time she was pushin’ me out, the only thing momma could see out the window was a sign – Valvoline. Thank god, she changed it just a bit. She might have totally given me the whole name.”
Carl Ed rolled over, laughing more than he could control.
“You think you’re funny. What kind of name is Carl Ed? You Carl or you Ed? What are you?”
“I’m just a transient. You know what that means? I don’t think you do. I’m not your escape or salvation, Alvaline. I’m just passing through. This is nice for now.”
“Go to hell.”
Momma smiled as innocently as she could and gently kissed the lips of the travelin’ preacher. He kissed her forehead and rose to get dressed.
“Sister, I’m as concerned as you about your daughter. We must pray together, get down on our knees and plead to our Lord in order to procure the girl’s salvation. Leave me now so I may pray about tonight’s message. I’ll see you after the meeting. It will be for your salvation and that of your daughter. Trust in me and the Lord, sister.”
Momma and Alvaline arrived at the front door about the same time.
“Why did you name me after a gas station sign?”
“Why are you stayin’ out all night at your age?”
“I’ll ask you the same thing, old woman.”
It was a face off.
“I’ve been prayin’ with the preacher for your soul.”
“That what they call it, momma? That’s not what I call it. That’s not what I’ve been doin’.”
“Hush your nasty mouth. I don’t want to hear it.”
“You never have, momma. You looked the other way all my life and did what you wanted. You never paid no mind to what I was doing. Did you think the wolves were gonna raise me? Why didn’t you just give me away?”
Momma started a pot of coffee and looked into the mostly empty refrigerator. Her head ached.
“I guess I did give you away. There just wasn’t no one on the other side of the givin’.”
“Listen, Momma, I like the attention I get at school, mostly from boys. I don’t care if they think I’m a slut. Carl Ed’s the only boy I’ve ever been with. I just tease the others for fun. If I act bad enough, maybe you’ll notice me. If you think I’m no good like you, at least you’ll be giving me a thought. But you never did.”
Momma poured two cups of coffee and added milk and sugar. She found the container of cinnamon and put a pinch in each cup. It was a bit like Christmas.
“You ain’t a tramp. Me neither. But I have to take the blame for letting you go wild. Will you go to the revival tonight and get saved?”
“Momma, that won’t save neither one of us. This might be all there is for me and you.”
Diane Thomas-Plunk, a native of Memphis, is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was recognized by NPR when her entry was selected as a “favorite” in their Three-Minute Fiction contest. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in Belle Reve Literary Journal, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and China Grove Magazine. Read her past stories in Deep South here.