Alma was fixing her mother’s hair. They were sitting on the front porch where it was cooler and Iris could wave to folks passing by. Alma pulled the brush through a long strand of hair, lifting it from Iris’s temple, then smoothing it out with her free hand. Iris’ head bobbed forward at the end of each sweep as Alma’s arms moved steadily, unhurriedly, like a conductor leading an orchestra in slow, drawn-out motions.
The screen door slammed behind them and her Pa ambled across the porch wearing his coveralls. Alma noticed how the folds of skin around his elbows were pale and drooping in contrast to his rough, chapped hands.
“Going down to the store, Sister,” he said, nodding to her, “see what’s doing. Be back around noon in plenty time for dinner.”
Whitaker’s store was about half a mile down the road toward town, a gathering place for the men who were between jobs since the cotton mill started laying off. Pa had worked in the mill for years, ever since dropping out of school, but had to quit when his asthma got so bad from lint dust, he could hardly breathe. He was handy with tools, though, and in demand for doing odd jobs around town. Folks reached him by leaving a message with Lon Whittaker at the store who passed it on—when he didn’t forget.
He reached down and patted Iris roughly on the knee.
“Be back t’rectly, Mama. Alma’ll see to you. Louis’ll probably be here, too, if the service station ain’t too busy. That boy don’t like to miss a meal.”
Louis, the youngest of the Ferry brood, was a likeable, easy going boy who had no trouble getting a job in their small town; his trouble was in keeping it. He was slow-moving and didn’t catch on to things very fast. This was the third job he’d had since May graduation.
Iris sighed and gave her husband a weak smile. Alma nodded and kept on with her brushing, her hands moving deftly, soothingly. But there was a great brooding stillness about her—the stillness of elephants, of buffalo listening, sniffing the wind, waiting for a sign, for some instinctual signal to start their slow march across the plain.
Iris sighed again and Alma looked down.
“This’ll make you feel better, Mama, relax your head.”
“Sometimes I think I’m nothing more’n a magnet,” Iris said, “pulling in pain and suffering, whatever trouble’s out there weighing me down.”
“True, Mama, you had more’n your ration. Pa might oughta stay here more. Keep you company. Cheer you up a bit.”
Alma spoke rapidly in little spurts that contrasted with the steady movement of her arms, as if talking was uncomfortable for her, something she hurried to get done with. She was a plain woman in her twenties, big-boned and strong. She had the high broad cheekbones and beaked nose of Grandpa Ferry, a lumberman, part Cherokee, and eyes that made people look away, stare at the ground, eyes too small for her face, but bright and intense like an animal’s.
The oldest of six and the only girl, she had been taking care of things as long as she could remember. Iris always said the only good break the Lord ever give her was to send Alma first. Buford came along when she was almost three, a hard birth, and Iris was laid up for several weeks after. Alma would crawl up on her bed, the baby between them and keep the bottle in his mouth while Iris slept.
Clayton came two years later, sending Iris to bed for more than a month. Alma could change a diaper by then, but two was a nuisance so she potty-trained him before he could walk. By the time Daryl arrived, Alma was just about running the house. If they needed to find anything, they asked Alma. Iris would ask her what was wanted from the store, and when Pa walked in with a basket of tomatoes or half a ham someone had paid him off with, Alma was the one he held it up to show.
She was not burdened by this situation. To her it seemed natural. The girls in her class all liked to play house; Alma did it for real. Sensible by nature, she liked being in charge. She liked the responsibility—and her authority was seldom challenged.
School was another matter. School and Alma were a poor fit. She was hefty, even as a child. The desks on the girls’ side of the room were too small. She felt squinched into the seat; there was not enough room for her legs. The girls played their housekeeping games at recess; Alma played ball with the boys. She was bigger and stronger than most of them and always got chosen for a team. But they snickered to each other in a way that made her uncomfortable, although she could never make out anything they were saying.
Alma’s stamina grew as Iris weakened. “I was well-named,” Iris said. “Seems like I’m no hardier than a flower in the early spring.” “You’re delicate, that’s all.” Pa would pat the top of her head. “You just take it easy, build up your strength. Let Alma handle things.”
Pa had always wanted twelve, but when Ernest was born on the scrawny side, he saw that Iris’ stock was running low. “We’ll settle for a good half-dozen,” he said, “the next ‘un’ll be Louis, like we planned the last to be.”
Iris spent most of the nine months in bed. Pa seemed to get a spurt of jobs and Alma, now twelve, spent more time at home than at school.
Louis came out robust and hungry, as though he was Iris’s last burst of life. She seemed to wilt after delivering him and was low in her milk. They brought in a wet nurse, Aunt Hannah, a large Black woman who lived behind the store.
Alma watched her nurse her own child, Buster, who was almost two, and then nurse Louis. She would switch them back and forth from one breast to the other, sometimes nursing them both at the same time, pale milky dribbles running down her dark skin. The babies made greedy little noises as they sucked.
Alma felt her own nipples tingle as she watched. Most of the twelve-year-olds were just sprouting, but she seemed to have skipped the upturned, tentative stage and swelled out overnight like two squashes. When no one was around, she offered them to baby Louis. She waited till he was hungry and squeezed them as she had seen Aunt Hannah do. She felt serene, beatific, but after a few minutes, the baby got red-faced and angry. Alma covered her breasts with a sigh and carried him to the nurse.
Developing early had not embarrassed Alma at all; it had seemed natural. When she looked in the mirror above her dresser, it was not to primp her hair or smooth her eyebrows, but to smooth down the material over her bosom, to lean forward and resettle the cups of her bra, to turn sideways and adjust the fullness of her blouse. Boys began to treat her differently, to widen their eyes, blush, and then look away.
There was a time during her early teens when they asked her out—not to parties or ball games. Alma was not comfortable in groups; she wouldn’t have liked that anyway. They asked her to sit with them in the back seat at the movies, or they walked her home the long way through the fields. That was fine with Alma. She accepted their admiration and she was generous. She let them stroke and fondle and nibble. She offered one breast, then the other, then both squeezed together. But she held onto her virginity—not from shyness or fear, but from some kind of instinct. The time wasn’t right yet. These boys seemed too doughy, too unsubstantial next to her solid form. They may have sensed it, too, for they never argued, content to lose themselves in her ample bosom.
Over time Alma got stockier and bigger. The rest of her thickened and grew as though trying to catch up with her breast-heavy shoulders, beefy hips, elephant legs. The boys found other girls, willing if not as generous, that they didn’t mind being seen with, and Alma turned toward her household where it seemed no end of nurturing was needed.
Now Louis was eighteen and the only one left. The others had all gone away to marry, to join the army, to work here or there. Louis lingered, preferring the comforts of home, but Alma’s work was light. The house felt empty.
“Well, I’ll be a’going,” Pa said, then stopped on the last step. “Alma, Miz Shoaf out on West Liberty’s looking for someone to care for her young’uns this summer. I could put in a word for you next time I’m over there. That old house may be what they call historic, but it needs enough work to keep me busy till kingdom come.”
Pa went off down the road and Alma stood there for a while, not moving, staring off into space. Something had shifted inside her at the mention of those children. She looked down at Iris’s thin hair, pulled it into a bun, pinned it and said she was off to town.
Iris jerked up her head, startled. “In the morning? You never go till after noon.”
“Today, I’m needin’ to go early—don’t rightly know why. Don’t you fret now. I’ll send Pa up from the store, and Louis’ll be along. Dinner’s setting on the stove.”
She headed down the road, a rectangle of starched yellow that shifted from right to left as she plodded on. She looked straight ahead, moving at her same steady pace as though she would not slow down or speed up for anything—not flood, fire, or windstorm. Trucks passed, a few cars, but no one stopped to offer her a ride. Maybe it seemed inappropriate somehow, like offering a lift to a lumbering bear.
When she reached the town limits, she kept to the street, walking along the edge as though the sidewalks were too small to accommodate her. She passed shacks huddled close to the road, then larger houses set back from the street. She passed the school yard and the library. Alma had no shopping list today, no set destination. She reached the town square—County Courthouse in the middle and small businesses on either side. She walked past the First State Bank, the PigglyWiggly, the Coffee Cup Café; then crossed the side street and went down the west side—Ropers Drug Store, Roe’s Jewelry, the pool hall; then made another turn past Walker’s Hardware—making her slow expressionless way as the few morning shoppers walked around her.
She stopped abruptly at Ben Franklin’s Five &Dime, in front of its big dusty window, as fixed as a concrete block, her eyes set on a handwritten sign that leaned crookedly against the backdrop of the Easter display: HELP WANTED.
Alma said the words out loud and continued to stare. She repeated them slowly like someone just learning to read, decoding sounds and waiting for them to sink in. She could read all right, but she was waiting just the same, for the full sense of a message that was about to make itself clear.
Although Easter had passed a couple of weeks ago, a half-deflated plastic bunny was still attached to a post. The limp ears, the distorted grin on the drooping head made him look like a simpleton. Scraggly green plastic grass was bunched here and there with a few cardboard chicks propped up as though they were waiting till the next pre-holiday season. It was too early, though, to start touting the Fourth of July.
Alma knew what should be in that window now. She saw it plain as day: peat moss covering the floor; a green hose coiled on one side; shovel, hoe, and trowel propped along the back, and clay pots holding packets of seeds—green lettuce, yellow squash, zinnias and sweet peas, all turning their bright-colored faces towards the sun-filled window, towards the shoppers strolling by.
She felt a twinge in her chest as though the sign was speaking directly to her. “Help, Help,” it seemed to call out in a frail and desperate voice. She turned towards the door and walked in.
Stale popcorn smell was the first thing that hit her. A gawky, pimply-faced boy in a white shirt blotched with grease was scooping butter corn into boxes. A customer with three fussy children was standing by the check-out. The cash register woman, whose smock was embroidered with the name Ethel, spoke to the mother in a loud whiney voice.
“I wouldn’t know, dearie,” she said. “We might be out of that color. You’ll have to look for yourself. You can see I can’t leave the register.”
As the woman turned wearily back down the aisle, “Ethel” looked over at the girl in cosmetics and rolled her eyes upward. The girl wore a tight sweater the color of Easter grass. She was chewing gum and picking the polish off her nails.
Alma walked slowly down the aisle past the jumbled showcase of lipsticks and face powder, mascara and perfume. The cosmetic girl glanced up at her, then returned to her nails.
“Need some beauty products, hon?” she asked, smiling down at her fingers. Without waiting for an answer, she turned toward the cashier. “I ain’t working Saturday night. I got a chance to go dancing in Jackson but don’t tell him.” She nodded towards the office at the back of the store.
“Humph!” said Ethel, folding her arms across her chest. “Well, if he thinks I’m working it again, he’s got another think coming. Not unless he wants to pay extry. I ain’t doing this for my health.”
“Cosmetics” sniggered. “I think he’s scared to death of us both.”
Alma walked on through the store, taking it in. The scented soap looked dusty, as though it had been there a long time. The paper doilies were yellowing, and the cellophane was broken on several packs of crayons. The underwear section was a jumble with bras, panties and slips of all sizes tossed in a pile together—and right next to the tool display.
Nothing seemed to be placed where it should be. If a customer wanted wrapping paper, he had to go to the stationery counter up front, but the ribbon was in with hair stuff all the way to the back. Toys were in the middle, which was bound to bring lots of kids in the aisles right next to figurines and milk-glass vases.
Alma walked down one aisle and up the next until she had covered the whole store. The only thing that stopped her was a large glass jar shaped like a pineapple. It was filled with rose water cologne and had green plastic pineapple leaves coming up out of its stopper. Iris would love it.
She ended up in oilcloth, up front and across from the popcorn. She stood there a minute looking at the long tubes of checkered and printed oilcloth leaning every which way against the wall. Then she shifted her bag up on her arm, strode resolutely to the display window, and reached for the sign.
Ethel looked startled, then frowned. She opened her mouth to speak, but there was something in Alma’s manner—the set of her shoulders, the stony jaw—that kept her quiet.
Alma headed down the aisle towards the glassed-in office at the back. She had seen the little man in there leaning over order books, wiping his brow with a handkerchief, pushing glasses back up his nose. She stood in front of his desk, and he looked up, startled, into Alma’s enormous bosom just inches away.
“I’m Alma Ferry,” she said as she thrust out the HELP WANTED sign. Her voice was flat and carried up the aisles of the store.
“Them candies is all out of order and everything needs dusting. You look spare, like you ain’t eating right. I can start this morning.”