- Ellen and Thelma -
Ellen was happy when another school year had ended because she knew Thelma would renew their close friendship.
The girls had a favorite swimming hole at an ample-flowing creek not far from where they lived and they had already been swimming there. The swift current, from when the creek flooded, had enlarged the pool to a twenty-foot oval. It was about fifteen feet deep and the diving board they used was a smooth, rock ledge. The overhanging ledge jutted out just enough to enable them to plunge into the middle of their seemingly bottomless, water-enclave.
On the opposite side of this pictorial setting was an immense oak tree leaning
out over the water, with its branches stretching out to seclude and camouflage. Last summer, Jimmy and Tony had found an old tire and had tied it on one of the gnarled tree-branches that hung out over the swimming hole.
For the past two summers both girls had shared their swimming hole with Jimmy and Tony. But this summer was different, because Jimmy and Tony were spending their days at the lake in Tony's new boat, and Kelly was still in reform school. And besides all that, some neighborhood boys had discovered the swimming hole and wouldn't let the girls swim in it.
One day Thelma was spying on the neighborhood boys when they tied the tire, that she and Ellen had cut down, back onto its branch. She watched as the boys wandered about, talking, pointing, and laughing. Before long the boys left and Thelma thought they had changed their minds about jumping in. So she decided to get Ellen and spend the day swimming.
"Hey, Ellen!" Thelma yelled as she bounded up the stairs two at a time. She was nearly out of breath as she rushed into Ellen's bedroom and fell in a heap on the bed.
"Let's go swimming this afternoon. That Jim Baker and his gang of hoodlums tied the old tire back up and it looks like we can swing out even farther. You’ve already got your bathing suit on so let’s go!"
But Thelma had caught Ellen in one of her, "I'm not a tomboy anymore moods". And to top that off, Ellen had been standing in front of her mirror sick at heart at what she saw.
"My mouth is too big and my nose turns up funny on the end,” Ellen mourned as she turned away from the mirror and fell across her bed beside Thelma. She rolled over on her back and stared at the ceiling.
"Ellen, you're crazy!" Thelma retorted. "I just wish I had your looks. I like your eyes - they laugh when you laugh and look sad when you're unhappy.
"Really?" Ellen inquired. Then added, "but look at the color. Could I have blue eyes? No! Could I have green eyes? No! I have to have these yucky, hazel eyes."
"Well at least you have natural, wavy hair," Thelma said, trying to assure Ellen that nature had not Played a terrible joke on her.
"Yeah, I'm glad about that. But the color - I hate it! Why couldn’t I have golden-blond hair? It’s not even a nice, soft brown. I’m stuck with being a mediocre, dishwater blond."
"Oh, Ellen, you're hopeless. Why if I had your figure I wouldn't complain one bit," Thelma laughed. "Even if my face looked like Frankenstein's, you wouldn't hear me say a word of complaint."
"My figure?" Ellen exclaimed and jumped up to stand in front of her
mirror. "This mess you mean," she added dejectedly
She looked in her mirror at Thelma's reflection and noted that, in spite of what had been said, Thelma was beautiful. Although Thelma was a slender girl, she had a full figure that beckoned a second look. She walked with a graceful rhythm that gave her an air of gentility. Her sultry, deep-gray eyes and full, supple mouth had been placed upon an aristocratic looking face. But Thelma was perfectly unaware of the attention she drew.
Ellen turned back to look at her own figure trying to see what Thelma saw to compliment. She turned sideways and her mirror reflected a slender, five-foot-five, fourteen-year-old with an ample bust line that Ellen hated. As she slowly turned and examined her waistline she decided she was satisfied with how small it was. She was also happy that she only weighed one hundred and five pounds and could eat anything she wanted. "But what horrible legs," she whispered to herself.
"Thelma I'm bow-legged," Ellen cried. "It's just awful! Just look at me. I look dreadful in a bathing suit."
She turned to show Thelma the deformity of her limbs and Thelma started laughing.
"Ellen the only way anyone can tell that your legs are slightly bowed is for you to put them close together and stand still for at least ten minutes. Now will you please say you are ready to go swimming with me?"
"Oh well, all right," Ellen gave a sigh of resignation. Once Ellen started thinking about going swimming she became excited. She loved to grab hold of the tire and swing out over the water and drop off.
"Did those boys really tie the tire up good?" Ellen asked as she laced up her old saddle shoes.
"Oh sure. It looks like they've got it tied real tight."
"Great! Now if Jim Baker and those no good boys come around, we’ll…,” Ellen hesitated, “…we’ll just rock them off!”
“Yeah, just let them come around and see what they get,” Thelma’s eyes were flashing. “We’ll cut that old tire down again.”
"Oh, Thelma, do you think they know...that it was us who cut the tire down?" Ellen was suddenly full of apprehension.
"Aw-w-w, who cares? If that Jim Baker gives me a very bad time I'll take a bat to his old pickup. He just better leave us alone.”
"Yeah." Ellen's courage returned, "he better leave us alone."
"Let's go!" Thelma squealed as she jumped up from the bed.
The girls ran for the door at the same time trying to see who could beat the other out. Thelma won, as usual, because she was stronger and pushed Ellen out of the way.
When the girls arrived at the swimming hole there wasn't anyone in sight. A slight thrill ran through Ellen as she grabbed hold of the tire and swung out. But, something was wrong, she was falling! The tire and Ellen hit the water about the same time. Ellen touched bottom and launched herself upward. As she surfaced she saw Jim Baker standing on the rock ledge. Behind Jim were several other boys and they were laughing at her.
"Cut our tire down will you?" Jim yelled at her.
At first Ellen was angry, then she thought how funny it was, and started laughing with them. Thelma was ready to start throwing rocks, but when Ellen started laughing, so did she. The girl’s reaction was a surprise to Jim. He started smiling and reached out and helped Ellen out of the water. The boys pulled the tire out and tied it back on the tree limb. Afterward the boys accepted Ellen and Thelma as part of their gang and everyone banded together for the summer.
One evening Jim suggested everyone get together and try to steal a watermelon from old man Kennedy's place. Most farmers around the area knew teenagers stole watermelons from them, but Mr. Kennedy was the only one who was upset about it. He made it clear to everyone that he had a shotgun full of rock salt and wouldn’t hesitate to use it on watermelon thieves. Jim and his “gang” considered Mr. Kennedy’s threat quite a challenge.
There were nine kids in the gang now; five boys and four girls. Two of the girls, however, were Jim's younger sisters. None of the kids considered themselves boyfriend and girlfriend, although Ellen thought Jim liked Thelma an awful lot. The only problem they had was with Tony’s folks,
who wouldn’t allow Tony to hang around Jim Baker. Tony did try to keep from being alone with Jim, but he was usually there when the gang was together.
"Now ever one go tell yer folks thet yer gonna be atta friends house, or a movie, hear?" Jim ordered in his deep, south-Texas drawl. "We'll all meet here 'round eight."
This was to be Ellen's first time going with the gang to steal a watermelon. She had never stolen anything in her life, or ever told what she called a bald-face lie. She was feeling uneasy and would have backed out in a split second but Thelma convinced her it was all just fun and games.
"You won't have to do the talking, Ellen," Thelma assured her. "I'll tell Mom, and Aunt Nora, we're going to a movie."
"But what if they ask us what's playing?" Ellen inquired, doubtful that they could get away with lying.
"Shoot! I know what's playing. It's Grand Hotel with Helen Hayes and Fredric March," Thelma quickly answered.
"Really! I like Fredric March," Ellen said. "Did you know his real name is, Fredric Bickle, and he's thirty-five years old?"
"Aw-w-w, who cares?" Thelma's reply dampened Ellen's enthusiasm about the movie.
Thelma told their parents she and Ellen were going to a movie. Ellen told Gennieve and Carrie they couldn't go but she agreed to play dolls with them the next day. Since Jimmy was spending the night at Tony's house he wouldn’t be there to “spoil the fun” , as Thelma called it.
Ellen knew Nora would never question her but Aunt Mona always gave Thelma the third degree. So Thelma decided to play it safe and go ask at the theatre how the movie ended. The woman selling tickets looked at them strangely but she told Thelma all about the movie. Afraid they were late both girls ran to the meeting place.
"You-all ready?" Jim asked.
"Sure are," Thelma answered.
"Now listen up," Jim motioned everyone into a huddle. "Tha gals stay by tha fence and lift it fer us boys, and hold it up until we all get under…” he paused and gave the girls a hard look, "…now don't go and chicken out.”
"All right," the girls agreed in unison.
Ellen and Thelma climbed into the back of Jim’s pickup with the other girls and two of the boys. Jim floor-boarded the pickup, stirring up a heap of dust. The boys laughed at the girls for screaming, but they had sucked in their breath at the sudden thrust of the pickup.
At dusk the countryside was ghostly looking. On both sides of the road tree branches reached out to each other, making tunnels that splattered Ellen with darkness. A pale, full moon rose gently projecting a soft light that made prominent bushes cast eerie shadows over the open fields. Tingling with a delicious feeling of fear and excitement, Ellen allowed her imagination to conjure up all sorts of mystical-looking creatures from the shadows.
Soon they arrived at their destination and Jim parked at the edge of Mr. Kennedy's field. It was a rural area of gently rolling hills except for this particular field that lay flat and open. Ellen could see Mr. Kennedy's house at the other end of the watermelon patch. One lonely light was shining out from a window of the small, frame house.
"Ever one out," Jim called in a low, soft voice. "Now, 'member what I said. You gals stay near tha fence and hold it up fer us.”
The boys slipped under the fence and started walking, bent-over, toward the watermelon patch. Ellen watched them scatter into the field and she hoped it wouldn't take long. The first one to find a ripe watermelon was supposed to signal with a Whippoorwill call. At the first sound of warning everyone was supposed to run for the pickup. Ellen heard a whistle and could see the boys’ running back toward the pickup.
Mr. Kennedy's dogs started barking and Ellen saw his back-porch light flash on. The boys scrambled under the fence and everyone climbed into the pickup. The minute Jim's pick-up started down the road they began to whoop and holler, because everyone wanted Mr. Kennedy to know they were there. Speeding down the road, free and happy, everyone seemed drunk on the thrill of the event. Back to the swimming hole Jim raced. As soon as everyone had settled down by the creek, the boys started bragging about how brave they were.
"Ole man Kennedy couldn't of hit tha broadside of uh red barn so I weren't scared," Jim boasted as he laid the watermelon on a rock.
Jim had brought one of his mother's knives and he sliced the watermelon in half.
"Jest uh seck now," Jim reasoned, "let's draw straws ta see who gets tha heart of tha melon."
"Naw," Thelma spoke up. "Let's just divvy it up between us."
"Oh, all right," Jim reluctantly agreed as he started cutting it up.
While everyone was eating, a police car drove up and parked beside Jim's pickup. Ellen nearly choked on her watermelon and it was obvious the others were just as scared.
"Thelma?" a well fed whale-of-a-policeman called out her name as he exited, somewhat laboriously, from his car.
"Yes Sir?" Thelma acknowledged his inquiry.
Knowing they were caught each one held his breath. When everyone recognized Mr. Burns, one of the better policemen on the force, the sounds of relief were loud.
"Were you supposed to be at a movie, Thelma?"
"Well yes sir.” She gulped down her uneasiness.
"You better get on home then, because your mother's looking for you."
"Yes sir. Right away, Sir,'' Thelma answered quickly.
"Sa-a-y what have we here?" Mr. Burns leaned over and chose a piece of watermelon. No one answered as Mr. Burns ate the watermelon then chose another piece.
"Yep, old man Kennedy has always had the best tasting melons around. Used to steal them when I was a kid. One time I got caught and my pa made me work for Mr. Kennedy to pay for it. I never did steal another one. I reckon you kids are going to pay Mr. Kennedy for this one, aren't you, Jim?"
"Yes, Suh," Jim agreed.
"Well gotta go. Behave yourselves now, and stay out of watermelon patches at night, okay?" Mr. Burns turned to go without waiting for an answer.
"Yes, Sir!" Everyone answered in unison.
"By the way, Jim, would you tell your dad something for me?" Mr. Burns stopped and looked at Jim.
"Yes sub," Jim answered weakly.
"Well I told your dad the other day that old man Kennedy was out of town and wouldn't be back for a week. But I saw his wife this morning and she said he had come home early. If your dad wants to he can get his business settled with Mr. Kennedy tomorrow.
"All right, Mr. Burns," Jim acknowledged. "I'll be sure ta tell 'em."
Everyone remained silent as Mr. Burns stuffed himself into his police car and drove away.
"Come on, Ellen," Thelma pulled Ellen's arm. "Let's go home. By the way Jim you sure are brave when you know someone isn't home.” Everyone’s laughter eased the tension.
Thelma's mother was angry and Ellen could still hear her yelling at Thelma after the door was closed. Ellen shut out the sounds and started walking home. Taking a short cut, she passed the bottom apartment where Mrs. Sneed used to live, and as always she thought of Kelly. Mrs. Sneed had moved last fall. Kelly's step-dad was killed in an automobile accident, and Mrs. Sneed had moved in with Kelly's now, twice-widowed mother.
Kelly was still in "the home", as Mrs. Sneed always called it, and Ellen often wished they were still writing each other. She wondered how Kelly felt now, with her step-dad gone. She remembered their pledge to be forever friends and she was certain Kelly wasn’t purposely breaking her vow. She was sure Kelly was afraid to write because she was in trouble. Ellen wished she could reassure Kelly of her loyalty. She promised herself to never forget their commitment to one another. Saddened, and burdened with these thoughts, Ellen climbed the stairs to her family’s apartment.
"Sister," Nora was sitting by the window and called Ellen to her side. "I had company tonight. That nice policeman, Mr. Burns, told me about your evening."
"Mother, I..., I...," Ellen hung her head.
"Now, don't interrupt," Nora continued softly. "I have always trusted you to be on your honor wherever you went. I've been informed that tonight, not only have you lied, but you helped steal a watermelon. What have you to say for yourself?"
"Mother, I'm sorry. It seemed like innocent fun and I didn't mean to hurt anyone."
"I'm sure you didn't," Nora had tears in her eyes. "But, Sister, to lie or steal should never be taken lightly." Nora lowered her voice and Ellen heard her mumble, “Guess I'm getting paid back."
"What do you mean?" Ellen fell on her knees beside Nora and looked into her troubled eyes.
"Oh, Sister, I once told an awful lie about your daddy's death. At the time I thought I had to lie. But, afterward, I felt I had betrayed an honor."
"Mother," Ellen's heart broke from hearing the hurting words, "I know Daddy would never hold that against you. Everyone knows you really had no other choice. You were the only witness and if you had persisted in blaming Mr. Thornton, he may have tried to kill you. If you'll please forgive me for tonight, I'll try to make it up to you."
Nora reached out for Ellen and they cried in each other's arms. When Nora could trust her voice she told Ellen to go to bed.
"Good night, Sister. And I wasn't angry with you about tonight. I was just disappointed. You've always had such good judgment that I found it hard to believe you could lie. I'll try to keep from doubting you in the future. You may have to forgive me when I check up on you though.
"Thank you, Mother," Ellen stood up to go. "I'll try not to disappoint you again and I'll apologize to Aunt Mona first thing tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," Nora nodded her head as she said the word. "Tomorrow holds the promise of better times,” she softly said.
Ellen lay awake for awhile and thought about Grandma McGee. She remembered Grandma telling her how Mr. Thornton had lost everything he loved. She wished she could go to Grandma and talk with her about what had happened tonight. She had always relied on Grandma McGee for assurance and advice about life. For many years Ellen was convinced that her grandmother was the smartest person in the whole world. Lately, though, she had seen subtle changes in her grandmother. Ellen had once overheard her mother telling Aunt Mona how glad she was about her being there for Grandma because of her senility.
Ellen finally admitted to herself that Grandma McGee would never be able to talk over problems with her again. The fact of her grandma no longer offering sound advice, or comfort, was a fearful reality to Ellen. She cried for the loss of comfort and security. She was tired, and the pain of remembering about her grandmother tore at her heart. She forced her mind to think of more pleasant things and soon she fell asleep. When she awoke, she went straight to her Aunt Mona's to apologize.
"Well," Aunt Mona admonished; "both of you girls needed a spanking. However, Ellen, I realize you're too old for that. I've decided to punish Thelma by keeping her in her room for the next week. What did Nora do to-you?"
"Uh..., she wanted me to apologize to you and I promised not to lie to her again." Ellen felt uneasy.
"Hmmmm..., figures," Mona frowned. "Well, if you want to see Thelma, she's in her room."
Ellen ran quickly to Thelma's room. She knew from her Aunt Mona's tone of voice that she didn't approve of her mother's discipline.
"Thelma," Ellen sympathized with her, "I'm sure sorry about your getting into so much trouble."
"Ahhh…," Thelma dismissed it, "…big deal. After bedtime I can crawl out the window and she'll never know."
"Yeah, but what about this weekend? To have to stay in all day long!" Ellen could imagine the boredom.
"Hey!” Thelma had an idea. “What about church? Mom wouldn't say no to me going to church. Why don’t you pretend you want to go to church and ask my mom if I can go with you?"
"I don't know about that, Thelma." Ellen didn't want to get caught in another of Thelma's schemes. "I promised my mom...,"
"No, no," Thelma interjected, "I mean us really going to church this Sunday. Let's go to that Holier-than-thou church, across the street from Jim Baker's. You know the one Kelly's mom always went to."
"Wel-l-1," Ellen hesitated.
"Aw-w-w, come on! Say you'll do it.”
"Okay. But, only if we really do stay for church."
“Sure,” Thelma laughed, “I’d love to sit there and make fun of those Holy-Joe people.”
When Sunday morning arrived, Mona wanted to make sure the girls were going where they told her, so she had Thelma's dad drive them to church.
Once inside the two-story building, the girls were ushered into a Sunday school room where other young people were waiting. Thelma and Ellen went to school with these teenagers, but they weren't friends with them.
Feeling a bit awkward, the two girls sat down at a table and were given a small church-inquiry to fill out. Both girls occupied themselves with the questionnaire, while the other youth talked and laughed among themselves. Soon, a woman entered the room and told everyone to be quiet. She started reading from the Bible, and when she was finished, she tried to explain what she had read.
"God," She said, "demands us to walk clean, holy lives and that means attending church. If you don't belong to a church, you're a sinner and on your way to hell. Of course, I believe our denomination has the correct interpretation of the Bible. At any rate, God's word is plain here, that we must be members of a church."
Ellen and Thelma felt the condemnation of not belonging, and by whispering to each other, they avoided hearing what else was being taught. The teacher frowned at their murmuring campaign, but she didn't say anything.
After Sunday school, Thelma and Ellen followed their contemporaries downstairs, to a large auditorium, where the teenagers found a seat in the back of the chapel. Everyone openly conversed with each other, until the pastor stood in the pulpit to preach. Then, the teens started writing notes to each other.
Thelma and Ellen were relieved not to have to listen to a boring sermon, and joined in the note writing. Once, Ellen heard the preacher yell something about people not cooperating at the last business meeting. He was trying to work his frustrations, of not getting enough votes for a pet project, into a sermon. His welding God's word as a weapon against his congregation caused the youth to ignore him completely.
After church, Thelma’s parents picked up Ellen and Thelma. When Ellen was let out at her home Thelma gave her a victory sign; the symbol American soldiers had used in World War One. Ellen smiled about Thelma's obvious triumph over
not having to stay in her room all day.
Ellen sat on the apartment building's front porch and thought about the church she had been in.
She wasn't impressed and wasn't encouraged to return.
She decided all churches were the same and not worth her time.
Ellen's first experience in church left an indelible mark on her heart about God.