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By Jennifer McGaha. T hick-boned and freckle-faced, Barbara sat between Christy and me in our third-grade classroom. Barbara, Christy, and I were all termite cheerleaders. On Fridays before game day, we wore our uniforms — royal blue skirts and blue knee socks and Nikes. On the last day before the winter break, Barbara filled Christmas stockings and brought them to school. Christy and I dumped the contents onto our table. And in the very bottom of the stocking — wedged into the toe — was something else.
Christy and I were ecstatic. Now, instead of gangly, childish limbs, we would have taut, tan legs. We were women now. We had arrived. That afternoon, when my mother picked me up from school, I raced out to the car. The plastic egg balanced in the palm of my hand. My mother looked from me to the egg, then back at the road. I had unwrapped a candy cane, and the candy stuck to my fingers, which were now sticking to the egg. My mother made a single click with her tongue. Her mouth dipped to one side.
Over the following days, I begged and pleaded. Like That Girl , only hipper. Then, the very next Sunday, my best friend Vicky, who had also received The Gift of the Pantyhose, wore hers to church with a beautiful green velvet dress her mother had sewn by hand. Hence, I should be allowed to wear pantyhose.
She sighed. I jerked back from the wooden table, then watched, horrified, as two parallel lines began to creep over my knee, then down my calf, all the way to my patent leather toes. The problem of the pantyhose had solved itself, like a Nancy Drew mystery. However, from that point forward, my mother was skeptical about the quality of guidance Barbara was receiving at home. One night, Christy and I spent the night with Barbara. He was tall and wiry with eyes that darted haphazardly about, and his hair was always cut like he was just about to lead a platoon into war.
He walked that way too — long, purposeful strides — even when he was just taking his Dachshund for a walk. He pulled the dog along on the leash, his eyes fixed straight ahead, one arm swinging vigorously back and forth. He rarely spoke to us other than to tell us what not to do. That night, about 2 a. Barefoot and wearing pajamas, we tiptoed through the living room. The room was dark except for the glow of the streetlight through the curtains, and suddenly we were aware of a slight movement. A menagerie of small, sleeping dogs jostled against her. The room was stale and musty.
In fact, her very presence made Barbara seem even more interesting than the pantyhose had — that is, until the Milk Incident. It was one day the following spring, and our class had just finished P. A carton of plain milk sat at each of our places. I got out the apple slices and peanut butter on Ritz crackers that my mom had packed me and sat down at my table. Barbara was late coming back from washing her hands, but Christy and I opened our milks and slid the paper off our straws.
Christy began sipping her milk, a gentle slip-slurping, and I spread my crackers out on my napkin. I had just bitten into my first cracker when a yowling pierced the room. Christy wore a light blue blouse and pedal pushers. Her feet dangled off the floor. The year before, Christy had cut her own bangs, but now they were growing back in, and her hair was pulled back in a hair band.
Her cheeks were reddish purple, her eyes wild and strange. Somewhere behind me, a desk toppled over, and then our teacher Mr. Hodges bolted from the far corner. He was a heavyset man with bushy black hair and a broad, thick belly. On normal days, before we headed home, he would pull us into a group bear hug, and our cheeks would smash into his squishy, fatherly gut.
But now, suddenly, he was an athlete, lithe and smooth. Long red welts covered her neck. I had peanut butter stuck to my tongue, and I desperately wanted a drink, but it now seemed insensitive of me to enjoy my milk, so, instead, I waited until the spit was working in my mouth again and swallowed hard. Finally, someone determined that Christy should go home early, and I helped her gather her belongings and pack her book bag while she waited for her mom to pick her up.
The very next day, Barbara came back to school. Christy got to move to a new table across the room, and for the most part we all pretended the Milk Incident had never happened. In front of her, at least. We were all still nice and civil, but something had shifted, and Barbara was no longer invited to birthday parties or sleepovers. Of course, none of us would have been allowed to play with her anymore even if we had wanted to now that what our mothers had heretofore suspected was final and official: Barbara had bad parents.
And with Barbara a safe distance away, we were clever and emboldened. At slumber parties, we would reenact the Milk Incident, each girl taking a turn being Barbara. And then, just as soon as she lifted her cup, one of us would grab her by the arm and shove her against the wall. Christy would laugh so hard that tears ran into her mouth, and we would too. By then I had lost touch with Barbara completely, and though in the years that followed, we both, for the most part, remained in our hometown, I never heard any news of her.
Then, a couple of years ago, I was out walking my dog early one morning. I was just up the hill from my old elementary school when I ran into Stephanie. Stephanie and I used to cheer together too, but now she was a cop, and today she had crossing-guard duty. Barbara… Barbara… It had been over thirty-five years since the Milk Incident, and the only Barbara I could think of was the grandmother of a mutual friend. In fact, for the first ten minutes Stephanie was talking, I was picturing this other Barbara.
But as Stephanie told me the story of the scene she had come upon in her coply duties, the details came together — the military father, the alcoholic mother who had died a few years before, the strange menagerie of dogs — and I knew which Barbara she meant. Stephanie was greeting kids and urging them on and telling me the story all at once. Periodically, she leapt into the road, blew one sharp blast on her whistle, and threw up one hand. Barbara had been married, Stephanie said, and she had , a daughter, but recently she had divorced and moved home to live with her father, who still had several small dogs.
The night before, while her father was upstairs sleeping, Barbara had pulled her minivan into the basement and shut the basement door. Then she got back into her van, turned on the ignition, and waited. Hours later, when the car finally ran out of gas, Barbara, her father, and all of the dogs were dead. She left no note. And so for a long time after that, Stephanie and I stood silently watching the children.
It was early fall, and thick mist settled on their backpacks and dampened their tussled hair. We listened to their chatter, to the sounds of childish banter. High-pitched and eager, their voices cascaded down the hill and disappeared into the fog. A native of Appalachia, Jennifer McGaha lives with her husband, five dogs, twenty-three chickens, and one high-maintenance cat in a tin-roofed cabin bordering the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.
In her free time, she enjoys hiking, running, mountain biking, sampling local beers, and playing with dogs.Pantyhose stories
email: [email protected] - phone:(930) 289-8433 x 2404
The Gift of the Pantyhose