Naked as a snake, Myrttie rises slowly from the pond. Water drips from her henna-red hair, runs along streambeds of wrinkles, gathers in the dimples of buttocks, breast and belly.
She steps out of the muck and settles herself on a towel, watching circles of moonlight dance across the dark water. This place has a ripe mushroomy smell that reminds her of sex.
Myrttie sighs and slides her feet back into the mud, letting it ooze between her toes. All around her, frogs belch frenzied songs like beer-soaked teenagers. Insects hum and buzz... It's odd but for some reason, mosquitoes never bite her. She thinks maybe the family blood debt was paid long ago by her great aunt, the one she's named after.
Aunt Myrtle Mae was a Pentecostal missionary nurse who went to Panama in 1904 to combat pestilence and Catholics. But, as luck and the Lord would have it, she died of mosquito-borne Yellow Fever before laying claim to a single convert.
To Myrttie's right, a pair of eyes shine from a clump of rushes. A muskrat? Or possibly a skunk? Whatever it is, it blinks a couple of times before slipping silently away.
She's seen eyes like that before. Del's eyes were bigger maybe, but just as shiny and round as ball bearings.
Myrttie remembers a fall evening in 1940 when he first showed up on Mama's porch. Long and skinny as a weasel, he wore a zoot suit and smelled like a roomful of violets.
"Evenin' Little Miss," he said.
"You want Mama?" Myrttie asked.
"Maybe I do." He grinned so she got a good look at his big gold tooth. "If she's half as pretty as you."
"Myrttie?" Mama called from the kitchen. "Who is it?"
"Delbert Brundine, Ma'am, " he yelled back. "Got a free gift for you here. If I can just have two minutes of your time to present the Olympus line of household essentials."
Before Mama even reached the screen door, Delbert had his black valise open and was lining things up on the porch swing.
"See? No fancy geegaws," he said, talking so fast you could barely understand the words. "Nothing overpriced. Pure practicality. Everything guaranteed for life. Labor-saving devices... get you out of the kitchen-"
"My husband's overseas, Mr. Brundine. We don't have much money," Mama said.
"Pardon me, Ma'am," he said, dipping his head a couple of times. "Please, call me Del. Forgive me for troubling you. Oh my. I'm just - it's such an honor to talk to a serviceman's wife. Gee willikers, I bet I'd give just about anything to be over there too."
"How come you ain't?" Myrttie asked.
"Bad ticker." Del smiled sadly and thumped his chest lightly with a fist. "Gosh, you know what, Mrs. uh-? "
"It's Jessup," Mama said. "Mrs. Walter Jessup."
"So pleased to meet you, Mrs. Jessup. Tell you what; I'm just going to go ahead and give you your free gift anyways. Here you go - see, it's the patented Olympus no-rust potato peeler. Works real good on carrots too and, by the way, it's got a full lifetime guarantee. Why, you'll be able to pass this on to your sweet daughter here."
Mama raised an eyebrow, glanced sidelong at Myrttie.
"I'll be on my way then," Del said. "But I want you to know, I'm going to say a special prayer for your husband tonight."
"Bless your heart, Mr. Brundine."
"Back at you, Mrs. J."
Del snapped his valise shut and turned to step off the porch.
"Hold on!" Mama said. "I got a pot of navy beans on. And cornbread. If you'd like to stay for dinner?"
Afterwards, while she and Mama washed the dishes, Del fixed a broken hinge on the ice-box and planed the edge of a sticky cupboard door. It was nice to see somebody using Daddy's tools again. Myrttie remembers how handsome Del looked in his rolled-up shirtsleeves and the maroon suspenders that kept his baggy pleated slacks from falling down his long grasshopper legs.
Mama seemed to be in a kind of trance. She giggled at nothing and a rosy flush crept up her throat and spilled onto her face.
Tucked away in Myrttie's mind is the image of the parlor where lamplight cast shadows over the splintery floorboards and the lumpy horsehair sofa. Where Del sat next to Mama, so close they must have felt the heat from each other's thighs.
Myrttie watched mesmerized while he hand-rolled a cigarette. When she passed him a copper ashtray shaped like a Mexican sombrero, Mama cleared her throat and said, "Off to bed now, Myrttie."
"But it's early, Mama, and there's no school tomorrow."
Del gave her a secret wink. "What grade you in?"
"Bet you give them boys fits too."
"She don't go with boys," Mama said.
Del stubbed out his cigarette. "Say, you ladies like a little music?"
Mama sighed. "Radio's broke."
"Got the cure for that right here," he said, taking a harmonica from his pants pocket.
"You like this one?" he asked and played "Lily Marlene" with such feeling that Mama got the weepies and Del offered his handkerchief.
"For the love a Pete," Myrttie said, "Let's hear something else."
Del obliged with a raucous "Old Dan Tucker." And then he played every song Myrttie knew and some she didn't. She finally fell asleep in the middle of "Shenanadoah".
Del came back at dinner time every night after that. The two females seemed to move around him in separate orbits like planets around the sun. They avoided each other's gaze and rarely spoke, except to him.
Mama fussed over the food more than she ever had before, baking eggless cakes and mock-apple pies. She also began wearing rouge and trying upswept hairstyles that made her look a little like Barbara Stanwyck or Betty Grable.
Myrttie took care too, combing out her schoolgirl braids so her coppery hair fell in lank waves over her shoulders.
Sometimes the three of them played Parcheesi at the kitchen table when dinner was over or they sat in the dingy parlor while Del entertained them with his harmonica or with stories of his travels.
He was a master showman, a Marco Polo, who used the contents of his black valise as props to enhance his tales of far off places. Myrttie still remembers most of the junk, especially the things Mama kept; the set of fake ivory-handled carving knives and the boar bristle scrub brush. The rolls of brittle shelf paper and the fruit decals that wouldn't stick.
The first time Del happened by and offered Myrttie a ride home from school seemed like mere coincidence. By the middle of the second week however, she'd begun to expect the sight of his old black Ford.
They took their time, bumping along rutted country lanes, gravel and dirt paths with no names. Past wheat and corn fields, meadows, rotting barns, and a ruined graveyard.
Sometimes they stopped to watch cows or sheep while Del smoked a cigarette or two.
All the while, he kept up a running commentary. "Wisht I had me a little farm like this. Wouldn't that'd be the life? Look at them sheep. You think they're dumb as folks say? I don't know... think maybe I like sheep better'n cows. Smaller for one thing. Cheaper. Don't take quality land to raise up sheep. You got the wool and the meat..."
"Yeah," Myrttie said. "But not the milk. Can I have a smoke?"
Del looked at her in surprise. "Okey doke," he said, "just don't tell your mama it was me led you down the path to Perdition. "
Myrttie shook her head.
Del rolled and lit a cigarette for her, watching without comment as Myrttie choked down the throat-searing smoke, stubbornly coughing her way to the end, as if it were some sort of test.
The next afternoon was hot and sultry for so late in the fall. They stopped by a pond and took off their shoes. Myrttie fanned herself with his hat.
Del lay back and said in a sleepy voice, "You know, sometimes I get to thinking if I could just find me the right girl... Shame your ma's already taken." He chuckled. "Guess I'll have to wait for you to grow up, won't I, Myrttie?"
"You makin' fun of me?"
He half raised himself up on one elbow. "No, I swear. I think you're just swell."
She licked her chapped lips and squinted into the sun. "I s'pose you think I'm just a kid, but I know about you and Mama."
Del blinked at her. "Uh...how's that?"
"I know what you two been doin'."
His jaw dropped.
"Ain't no point pretending, Del," Myrttie said. "I hear you two in there, after you think I'm asleep. If my daddy ever finds out…"
He swallowed a couple of times and blotted his forehead with his handkerchief. "Now, Myrttie..." He chewed his lip for a minute. "You got to try to understand how it is with me and your Ma. She's awful lonely, see-"
"Bulldust, " Myrttie said. "I hope you ain't thinkin' you're the first, 'cause you ain't, Buster Brown. Mama? She'll flirt with anything in pants."
Del frowned and tossed a pebble into the pond.
"You ought'nt to say such things about your own mother."
"It's the gospel truth," Myrttie lied. "Anyhow, she's way too old for you."
"She's awful pretty," he said.
"What about me?"
"Think I'm pretty?"
"You're just a kid." Del stared at his big feet and mumbled softly, "But, sure enough, Myrttie. You're pretty as brand new penny."
"That why you keep on taking me out driving like this?"
"Oh, I don't know." Del shrugged. "Guess maybe I just wanted to get to know you better. Somethin' like that."
Myrttie smiled. "That's kind of what I thought. But I wonder how come you drop me off a block away from the house? And I wonder how come neither of us mentions it to Mama?"
"Sweet Jesus, Myrttie," Del moaned, "how should I know?"
"Think I'm pretty as her?"
"Prettier," he said softly.
Myrttie put her hand on his thigh, squeezing slightly as if testing for ripeness. He flinched.
"Wouldn't you like to kiss me?"
Del turned his face quickly to hers. "I guess so," he hissed.
They fell together in a spidery tangle of arms and legs. The smell of him - the sweat and tobacco and violets -mixed with her own powdery perfume and with the odor of pond scum as they pulled at each other's clothes and tumbled down the grassy bank.
Their pale bodies writhed and flopped like just-caught fish. Myrttie's fingers slid from his hair to clutch handfuls of rushes, her heels pounded the mud as he, half sobbing, pushed himself into her.
Suddenly she screamed as if she'd been shot. Her body bucked and went rigid. Then it was over. She opened her eyes and laughed at the terrified pleasure that lit his face.
"Lord God, Myrttie," he panted. "Oh, Lord I shouldn't a done that."
"Didn't know it would hurt," Myrttie said. She shaded her eyes with a hand. "You love me?"
Del coughed and rolled away. "Well, sure. But some people might not...they might not see—"
"You know," Myrttie said with a lazy grin. "I been thinking... about farms? Sheep or cows, makes no nevermind to me."
"Uh huh..." Del nodded and sat up, staring across the water. After a couple of minutes he offered his handkerchief.
She grabbed his wrist. "Say it," she insisted. "Say 'I love you, Myrttie.' I need to hear how it sounds."
Del looked like he might start crying. "I love you, OK? It's just..." He pulled his hand away, dipped the handkerchief in the water and gently dabbed at the blood smeared on her thighs. "It's just.. you're awful young, Myrttie. I could get in such a mess of trouble."
"I ain't gonna tell nobody." Myrttie sat up and tapped his nose with a muddy fingertip. "But, from now on it's only us. You promise?"
"That settles it then. Let's go for a swim."
Del didn't show up for dinner that night. Myrttie and her mother ate in silence, embarrassed by the empty third plate at the table.
Afterwards, Myrttie lay in bed waiting for the sound of his car. She finally fell asleep listening to the squeak of the porch swing where Mama sat alone until long after midnight.
Weeks later, Mama had stopped wearing rouge. Some days she didn't even bother to comb her hair. The lines around her eyes and mouth seemed sharper.
"Tell me about my great aunt, Myrttle Mae," Myrttie said at breakfast one morning.
"She went to Panama," Mama said.
"I know. But why? Tell me what she was like."
Mama leaned against the sink and sipped from a glass of milk. "Everybody says she was a beauty. Could have married anyone she wanted."
"But why'd she go to Panama?"
"Maybe she just wanted some excitement. Change of scenery. Adventure…" Mama shrugged. "I didn't really know her. I was just a girl."
That's what I want too, Myrttie thought; adventure.
Mama turned and poured the milk into the sink. With her back still turned she said, "Myrttie, there's something I need to tell you."
"It's not Daddy!"
After a long silence Myrttie said, "Well, what then?"
"Some time in the summer, I'm going to have a baby."
"You're too old," Myrttie said.
Mama nodded and slowly turned around "It's true though."
"And who's the papa?" Myrttie said. "Is it the butcher? Baker? Candlestick maker? Maybe it don't even matter. Maybe it won't even live."
The blood drained from Mama's face. "What a horrible thing to say."
"He loved me too, you know. We done it three times in one afternoon."
"Oh, Myrttie..." Mama covered her mouth with her hands.
"First time was on the bank of this stinking stock pond. Then we done it in the water. He can't even swim. Did you know that? He almost drowned. He said he loved me more'n you. And when he comes back we'll go away together and travel to the ends of the earth. Maybe we'll even go further than Panama. Then he'll buy us a little farm-"
"No," Mama groaned.
"And the third time was in the alley behind the creamery. Right there in his car. Anybody could have seen us, but I don't even care!"
"He won't be back, Myrttie."
"You don't know that."
"Yes, I do. I know."
"He will," Myrttie sobbed. "He will too come back. He loves me."
Mama lost the baby in the spring. While she lay exhausted, Myrttie wrapped the tiny curled body in an old sheet and buried it along with a set of fake ivory-handled knives, a boarbristle scrub brush and a potato peeler, beneath an old elm tree in the back yard. The war continued. Daddy's letters came less and less often until finally he wrote to say he had a new family in Palermo.
The summer Myrttie turned sixteen, she hitchhiked all the way to San Francisco and spent the first night with a middle-aged sailor who drew diagrams to help her understand how the locks of the Panama Canal worked.
Unlike her great aunt, Myrttie has never been one to spend much time on religious matters. It's only a few practical things she really has faith in. Things like good whiskey, bad cops and penicillin. It's been almost ten years since she marked her unofficial retirement with the purchase of a camper van. A van in which she travels the back roads looking for a pond, looking for Palermo.
Appeared at Speaking of Stories, March 2008; Bosque (the magazine), November 2013