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 Priorities

                                                                          PRIORITIES    

 

      It was twilight in the small town of Lawsonia, Maryland. From across the Massapequa River swept a cool September breeze. It blew gently over harbor and packing houses, up Main Street toward Cove, and stirred the big oaks lining the driveway between the Rosenbergs and the Pruitts. 

     "Bil-lie!..." Mom Pruitt called, her high-pitched twang echoing like a song. "Time for sup-per!" 

     Next door at the Rosenbergs, fifteen-year-old Jenny watched the pink sky fade to gray. In her bicycle basket, she put a small suitcase, around which she tucked a taffety evening gown, tied her tap-dancing shoes to a handlebar, and debated where to fit the yellow topper--a belted jacket her mother had given her. Shrugging, she finally tugged it on over her bulky sweater and jeans. Around the other handlebar, she slung a plastic pocketbook containing twenty dollars; she was ready. 

     The thirty-five mile trip to Allerton didn't worry her; she'd been there often, the most memorable time being the change at the bus terminal en route to New York to visit her mother. In Allerton, she would get a waitress job and save her money for New York. Heart pounding, she peered anxiously through the oaks at the Pruitt's kitchen window; they were busily finishing dinner--probably friend chicken and spaghetti. Jenny sighed and wheeled her bike along the driveway, past the rose-covered semi-circular porch. Her grandparents were working in their store and wouldn't return for several hours. Cautiously, she hesitated and scanned the empty backyard of the chemistry teacher across the street. The Baroness Idella Von Ledendorf was Lawsonia's only true celebrity. Her husband, the Baron, had died during World War II.

     Jenny then glanced along Cove Street at her neighbors' white clapboard houses with flower-trimmed yards. Some of the occupants were rocking on their columned porches. She'd have to be careful.

     It was a lovely fall evening; the dusky sky edging into black velvet, the salt air deliciously cool after the summer's heat. Taking a deep breath, she began pedalling...past Mrs. Georgia Walters of the magnificent white hair who chatted with miniscule Mr. Walters...past dear shy Mrs. Cooper hurrying by with a covered basket for the Emmanuel Methodist supper...past old man Carey busy with garbage chores. At the corner, the Marshalls' five dogs barked furiously as she sped by. She passed the small bus depot, Holy Roller Church on Chesapeake Avenue, and finally reached the main highway. Nobody had stopped her! 

     From Jimmy Ward's candy store beside the church, she heard a familiar hillbilly tune, "Now There's a Green Light," that she sang as she pedalled along. 

     Beyond the Texaco gas station and the large sign; WELCOME TO LAWSONIA, she glanced back wistfully at the lights of the town melting behind her. Already it seemed far away; would she ever see it again? When I die, she thought dreamily, I'll have my ashes spread over the Massapequa River. That way I'll never really leave Lawsonia. 

     Blackness enveloped her. Too preoccupied now for nostalgia, she hastily switched on her bicycle light and veered onto the old paved road called Mariners that paralleled the main highway. Over the bumpy, seldom-used road, the suitcase jogged up and down, the dancing shoes swayed to and fro, and the pocketbook slapped hard agains the stem of the bicycle. On either side stretched marshy fields of crab grass, where unseen animals scurried about, and frogs signalled throatily chirr-up, chirr-up, chirr-up, while the distant lights of infrequent houses twinkled past her in the dark. 

     How strange, how eerie it seemed! Despite the topper's warmth, she shivered. Never had she felt so totally alone, as though she were journeying through unmapped space--just she and her bicycle, its pinpoint of light following the white dividing line of the road. Occasionally, she heard a mother calling her children to bed. Thank goodness, she wouldn't have to endure that anymore, she thought with relief.

     As she bounced along, the breeze whipping through her short black curls, she pictured her grandmother's sad expression when she found the tear-stained note on the living room mantel.

     "Dear Grandma and Grandpa," read the note. "I can't stand the fights no more so I'm running away to become a famous actress. You needn't send Sheriff Dize after me because I'm never coming back! I'm sorry but I really think this is the best thing to do. Your granddaughter, Jenny."

     Grandpa would be especially angry, she thought with satisfaction. Thin and stooped with tiny oriental eyes, he'd tell the sheriff she'd run off to spite him. Jenny sighed in bewilderment. How many times had she begged her grandparents not to embarrass her by speaking Yiddish before her friends. How many times had she reminded them that she was a southerner; that Gentile boys were the only ones available. But the worst fights were over her divorced parents. Just last night, before dinner in the big kitchen on Cove Street there had been another argument.

     "If your mama had listened to us and not eloped with your fadder," her grandmother had said, "she wouldn't become a dime-a-dance hostess and catch TB."

     Her grandfather had shaken his gray, balding head. "I kept telling her and telling her dat Mickey was a bum, never accept responsibilities. Well," he shrugged, "she eloped with him anyway. Now you see the trouble that can happen when you don't listen to us."

     "Stop calling my father a bum!" Jenny had retorted, blinking back tears. "He's not! He's not!"

     "Then why does he keep disappearing?" her grandfather asked, and answered his own question. "Every time we write him a letter, it comes back. He moved. So he doesn't have to support you."

     "You keep on talking like that and I'll...run away. I don't need you...I can take care of myself." 

     "Run away, ha!" snorted her grandmother, busily stirring potatoes and onions in the big white pot. "Her mama's in New York, worried about boyfriends, and God only knows where her father is. So? We take her in. We raise her. And she keeps crying she wants to be with her mama in New York. Jennala, we love you--not her!"

     If they loved me, she thought, biting her lower lip, they wouldn't talk about my parents that way.

     When she tired of pedaling, she walked, wheeling the bicycle slowly to conserve energy. Stanton, the next town, loomed ahead, and she mounted her bicycle, thinking about the retribution her grandparents' harsh treatment would finally reap. Everybody in Lawsonia would answer their complaints with reproach, hinting in coldly polite tones: "Well, if you'd treated her decently, she wouldn't have left." Then, too late, her respectable merchant grandparents would realize their terrible mistake--sending their only granddaughter fleeing from them in the middle of the night toward some unknown destiny. Oh, how sorry they'd be then!

     Teeterville arrived surprisingly soon. Picking up speed, she whizzed past Senator Reese's used-car lot at the junction stoplight, and passed the fire department building, her stomach rumbling from hunger pangs. If only she'd remembered to bring potato chips! Well, she could buy some in Allerton. 

     Outside Phillipsburg, she noticed a cute little church with a cemetery behind it--a good place to rest. The marble tombstones glittering in the fuzzy light from the church windows didn't bother her. Grandpa, alive, was a more realistic danger.

     She wheeled the bike behind the church, intending to sit on a grave, when suddenly the ground beneath her parted. For a horrifying moment, she feared she'd misjudged the corpses, but she'd simply slid into a ditch. Scrabbling in the embankment's soft wet clay, she struggled frantically to extricate the bicycle before the mud ruined her evening gown and dancing shoes. Finally, she managed to heave the bike over the embankment, and pull herself out. 

     Panting for breath, she leaned the bike against a nearby tombstone:

     MRS. SARAH FORBUSH...BORN JANUARY 8, 1880. PASSED AWAY NOVEMBER 12, 1948...DEVOTED WIFE OF EPHREM...MOURNED BY LOVING DAUGHTER MARYLEE.

     Jenny gratefully collapsed over the deceased Mrs. Forbush. Shutting her eyes, she imagined her grandfather's encounter with fat Sheriff Dize, after he read the note.

     "Waall now," the sheriff would drawl, tilting up the brim of his straw hat. "Why'd she go and do a thing like that for?"

     Her grandfather, his eyes fastened on the trousers he was mending at his store, would shake his head angrily. "We treat her like our own daughter. And look how she repays us--nothing but trouble." 

     "Yah, yah," her grandmother would sigh at the hot plate where she fixed lunch. "Does it pay to raise a child? I tell her: Don't stay out late because we worry about you. She comes home two in the morning. I ask her to help in the store when it's busy on Saturdays. She says she needs time to meet boys. What boys? She's only fifteen--a baby! How can she get along without us to take care of her."

     Frowning, Jenny decided she'd rested long enough, and wheeled her bike onto Mariners Road. I must look awful, she thought, noticing her mud-caked topper, and wiped her dirty hands on a clean spot on her jeans. In Allerton, she could wash up at the bus terminal's Ladies Room.

     Her plump thighs ached from long hard pedalling and the struggle in the ditch, but she rode at a brisk pace her head swivelling about to spot traffic. It had grown colder; thank goodness for the topper. As she pedalled along mile after monotonous mile, she grew bored. All alone on Saturday night! 

     Shugie and Janet Rae, her best friends, were probably at The Sweete Shoppe, gorging themselves sick on hamburgers and french fries. Had they met any cute sailors from the new ship in the harbor? For a moment, she wished she were at the Sweete Shoppe to find out. Chuck Pruitt from next door had finally promised to take her dancing at the Plantation Nightclub, and she'd miss the big Junior Prom in November. She shook her head grimly. Well, Gordie would have to find someone else! After his little flirting with Natalie Ann last week, she wasn't sure she still loved him anyway. 

     Absentmindedly she'd ridden through Fairfield without realizing it. She sighed. Gee, she'd miss Lawsonia: summers at the beach and the big barbecues at night, Chinese Checkers games at the Pruitts' while Hank Williams sang on the Philco Radio, If You've Got the Money, Honey, I've Got the Time, and Charlotte Pruitt stuffing everybody with fried bread and molasses. Dancing lessons. Cheerleading. Books she hadn't returned at the Wooster Memorial Library...Would Shugie and Janet Rae miss her very much? When Janet Rae heard the news, she'd probably worry. But Shugie, who'd been a close friend for many years, would just nod and say in her abrupt fashion, "Yup, that's Jenny, all right. Always up to something! She'll be back."

     "I won't!" Jenny reassured herself aloud.

     Tired, she dismounted and wheeled the bike, the handlebars cold against her palms. Beyond Taylorville, the evening's first car dazzled behind her. She guided her bike onto the grass beside the road, the dampness creeping into her sneakers. The lights of the battered Chevy blinded her temporarily so she couldn't see the occupants.

     "Hi, there, honey." He sounded middle-aged with a heavy, rasping voice. "Want a lift?"

     "Nope." Jenny stared straight ahead so as not to encourage him.

     "What's the matter? Don't you trust us?" This one sounded younger and sneering. "Where you headed?" 

     "Allerton." She continued staring ahead, her hands tightly gripping the handlebars.

     "Why, that's just where we're going!" the younger one said. "C'mon, get in. We'll stash the bike in the trunk."

     She shook her head.

     "How come you're walking the damn thing 'stead of riding it?" rasped the older one.

     "Because that's how I rest!" she snapped back, wishing they'd leave her alone.

     "Well, you're gonna be a whole lot tireder by the time we get to Allerton," said the younger one. "'Cause we'll just keep following until you get in."

     The men were silent after that, offering Jenny cigarettes which she refused, or occasionally remarking about the repercussions of stubbornness. They travelled this way for several miles until Allerton's first cluster of lights twinkled on the horizon. Her entry into a big city wasn't at all what she'd expected. Her arms and shoulders ached from leaning over her bicycle, and there was the additional problem of the men, her mind too fuzzy from weariness to resolve it. 

     From the corner of an eye, she stole a glance at her tormentors. The older one, driving, wore a funny Panama straw hat. The way the crown flattened over his fat, round face made him look like a pig with a cigarette stuck in its mouth. His companion had a mean, ugly look: high cheekbones, narrowed hazel eyes, and a whitish scar along his right cheek. Maybe a gangster, Jenny thought. Maybe a killer. She turned away, frightened.

     The younger one, catching her reaction, leaned out the window. "Honey, in case you're wondering, I got the scar fighting in Vietnam--defending our country and girls like you with your precious virginity. So don't you turn up your nose at me!"

     Sympathy produced a faint smile. She wished she could say something to cheer him up.

     He grinned, revealing yellowish, decaying teeth. His arm motioned her into the car. "Well, now, c'mon, get in. We'll all have some fun!" 

     Turning abruptly, she concentrated on the darkened houses and empty shops as they passed the outskirts and approached the main intersection. The town, wrapped in heavy sleep, was as still as Mrs. Forbush's tomb. Jenny anxiously scanned the deserted streets for a policeman. None was in sight. Neither a milkman, nor a newsboy, nor even a late-night carouser. A train sped toward the overpass ahead, its whisle piercing the stillness. Whee-ee, whee-ee, whee-ee! It roared past disdainfully, leaving a filmy white reminder against the night sky.

     Exhausted, Jenny mounted her bicycle amidst jeers from her companions, and forced her numb legs to pedal through the overpass and out toward the intersection. It seemed as though she must be asleep at home, like other sensible folk, and having a nightmare; the swaying, creaking stoplight ahead; the dark buildings whose windows flashed coldness under the sweep of the car lights, and the old Chevy chugging beside her into eternity. Like death, she thought. Going on and on without ever stopping. As she pedaled along, she tried to blank out the men by picturing death, imagining herself lying lifeless beneath the earth:unseeing, unfeeling, unthinking--a deeply moving epitaph marking her lonely grave. The idea seemed too remote. She finally shrugged it from her mind. 

     Near Allerton High School, a police car finally cruised by. "Hey, Miss," the driver yelled. "They giving you any trouble?" 

     The Chevy immediately shot of in the opposite direction.

     Relieved, Jenny paused as the police car idled at the curb. Her pulse quickened when the two policemen scrutinized her suspiciously. Smothering her anxiety, she looked them straight in the eye.

     "Where you headed?" asked the driver, yawning.

     "My aunt's sick," Jenny said impatiently. "I'm going to stay with her a while. Other side of the park. If I don't get there soon, she'll be awfully worried."

     Her heart pounding with anxiety, she waited while the men sleepily analyzed her rely. She was sure they'd pick her up as a runaway. Instead, with another yawn and a brief, 'Hurry along, then," they drove off.

     Her energy renewed, she pedalled vigorously toward the park where she could sleep undisturbed, and next day hunt for a job. She wheeled the bike carefully down the steep incline, her sneakers thoroughly soaked, and chose a thickly-wooded spot hidden from prying eyes on the street above. She leaned the bike against a tree and folded the topper inside out as a substitute blanket. Huddling on it, she shivered in the damp early morning cold. She'd assumed she'd fall asleep immediately. To her surprise, she lay there wide awake, still seeing the old Chevy pursuing her down empty streets, her tired legs pumping the pedals up and down, up and down. Maybe if she thought of something nice, she might fall asleep.

     In imagination she was back at the beach in Lawsonia. She felt the hot sun warming her back and thighs, heard giggles from Shugie and Janet Rae as handsome Gordie flopped onto her blanket for the first time. Then, donning roller skates, she practiced the two-step at the Teeterville Rink, glancing occasionally at the entrance to spot any cute boys. She jitterbugged with Shugie at the Sweete Shoppe, the air foggy with cigarette smoke, and then snuggled against Gordie as they watched a Roy Rogers  western from the movie theater balcony. Her lips tingled now at the memory of his kisses when they parked later in Lovers Lane near the beach. Finally, she was back in her grandfather's store. Her legs propped on the potbellied stove, she watched him bent, as usual, over his sewing machine, while her grandmother shrewdly questioned some recently-arrived, good-looking sailors from the harbor ship.

     "You really want to buy something?" her gandmother said, eyeing them suspiciously. "Or you just want monkey business with my granddaughter!"

     Jenny smiled wistfully at the sky tingeing pink again. Her mother had promised that after high school graduation, she could study acting in New York. There were only three more years of high school and Lawsonia. All her friends were there. The good times. Everything she thought about. In her mind, she pictured Cove Street, the beach, the Sweete Shoppe, and suddenly she yearned to return to the town she loved.

     Maybe...she thought hesitantly, maybe her grandparents weren't so bad. Coming from another country, they were old-fashioned and stubborn, but they took care of her, worried about her...Surely, she could stand them for another three years...

     Wearily she arose, tugged on the grimy topper, and hauled her bike up the incline. In the small bus station across the street, she bought a one-way ticket stamped: LAWSONIA, MARYLAND. Home. 

                                                       --THE END--