Li'l Bit scratched her hip. Her dress rose up above her knee. She put a finger in her mouth. The finger was chewed to the quick, but Bill didn't mind. He stared at the tan line on her thigh.
"So what you doin' today?" he said.
Li'l Bit slid a flip flop forward. She looked down at the sidewalk, tilted her head to one side and looked at up at him. Her hair was the color of winter honey.
"Just pickin' up a few things for Mamma," she said.
Bill was a senior at Robert E. Lee. Li'l Bit was in her last year at Jackson Junior High. Bill was a halfback for the Rebels. Li'l Bit played clarinet in Mr. Stoskopf's concert band. Bill had gone to hear her last week. Her performance made his penis burn and his stomach twitch; the same burning and twitching he felt right now.
Li'l Bit chewed her lower lip until it turned red. She tossed her hair back, put both hands on her hips, and thrust them forward. Bill was going commando again. Pearl, the Judge's maid, had told him a thousand times that it would give him an infection.
"You just keep on doing that Mr. Bill," she would say, "And you'll get a rash or a blister or somethin'. Just see if you don't."
Bill shifted his stance causing his jeans to rub against his pecker. The rough stimulation and Li'l Bit's flirting almost brought him to climax. To calm himself, he inhaled deeply and blew out an airy whistle.
Li'l Bit leaned forward to within an inch of his face. "So you just gonna stand there huffin' and blowin' like a furnace, or you gonna offer a girl a soda?"
Bill slouched, stuck his hands in his pockets and squinted. He hoped he looked like James Dean or at least Montgomery Clift.
"Maybe I will, maybe I won't. What's it to ya?"
Li'l Bit threw her head back and laughed. Bill stared at her throat. The skin shouted for a hand to caress it.
"It's just me Bill. Who you tryin' to kid? You look like you got gas."
She grabbed Bill's arm and began pulling him toward Hinckley's Creamery. "Let's go. Mamma will worry if I'm too late."
The sun shone through her cheap cotton dress. The straps of her training bra peeped from beneath the collar. Bill heard that she let some boys play with those straps; maybe even more than play.
She said, "Come on slowpoke. They close in a half hour, and like I said Mamma will be worried."
Sitting across from her inside Hinckley's, Bill watched her take the straw from her vanilla shake, lick it clean and suck the malt from it before laying it on the table. She took a huge gulp of malt leaving a cream moustache. Her eyes closed and tears formed.
"Damn. Ice cream headache," she said. She banged her forehead with the heel of her hand.
Bill leaned over, took her hand and put it on her throat. She pulled back; her eyes round, her mouth open. Bill jerked his hand away.
He said, "Judge told me it helps if you put your hand on your throat. Says it warms the blood."
"Oh," said Li'l Bit, "My blood is warm all right. I thought you was…"
"You know I would never do nothin' to hurt you Li'l Bit."
Li'l Bit leaned forward, her voice a whisper. "Course I know that. That's wasn't it. It was how you touched me. Like you thought you and me was…"
The smell of vanilla malt made Bill's face warm. He felt like he was wearing an oven instead of pants. He could not look at her.
They stared at the table top and drank in silence.
Li'l Bit said, "Aww… Look at you. You embarrassed? Think you did somethin' wrong or somethin'? Don't worry, you silly willy. It was nice. Real nice."
She reached out a tiny hand and raised Bill's head. He looked into eyes that he was sure could hold the universe with room to spare. They held his gaze then crinkled into a smile. She punched his shoulder.
"Silly willy", she said.
He said, "I ain't no silly willy."
She giggled. "Yes you are. You're my little silly willy."
"No you're the silly willy."
"I bet you remember this one," she said. "Silly willy, bo billy, bonana fanna fo Filly…"
She stood and began shimmying as she sang. She raised her arms and snapped her fingers for the chorus.
"Come on everybody! I say now let's play a game. I betcha I can make a rhyme outta anybody's name…"
She grabbed Bill's hands and tried to pull him up. He refused, but began to clap in time to her dance. Li'l Bit increased her tempo. Mr. Hinckley came over and stood behind her.
Ignoring Bill's pointing finger, Li'l Bit grinned, winked and sang on. "Chuck, Chuck, bo buck, bonana fanna fo…"
A meaty hand spun her around.
"Now just see here Missy, there'll be none of that in here," said Mr. Hinckley.
Robert Hinckley was a tall man. Like Bill, he had played for the Rebels – an all conference tackle, but years of "tasting" new flavors and "cleaning up" leftover ice cream had given him a gut that would frighten a Chinese Buffet. He was a Deacon in the local church and taught a Bible Study about the Old Testament prophets. He was not known for his sense of humor.
Li'l Bit pushed Mr. Hinckley's hand off her shoulder and sat down. The universe's eyes narrowed to lasers and beamed red fire in Mr. Hinckley's direction.
Mr. Hinckley loomed over the table - arms crossed, his tiny mouth frowning atop its triple row of chins. "Just what the heck is going on here?"
Li'l Bit said, "Just folks tryin' to live a little fun you old coot."
"I've had just about enough out of you missy," said Mr. Hinckley. He pulled back a hand to slap her, paused, and slapped the table instead. He turned his ox like head to Bill.
"You're from a respectable family son. Your Father's a Judge and your Mamma's President of the Eastern Star."
He jerked his thumb toward Li'l Bit. "What the hell are you doing with this tramp?"
Bill looked at Li'l Bit. The eyes of the universe rounded into the eyes of the deer he had shot last month. It was on Warren's Ridge; his first time with a rifle. The Judge had decided it was time for Bill to take up "a civilized man's weapon" and put down the scatter gun, a tool of poor white trash, colored folk, and others of low birth and questionable means. Bill winced when he missed the kill shot and hit a lung. When Bill and the Judge finally caught up, the dogs lay gasping outside the thicket where they had run the deer to ground. Bill and the Judge pushed through the brush. The deer lay with its legs sprawled but its head held high. Its breath was hoarse and watery. Its eyes begged for help, but seemed to know none was to be had. The Judge carefully placed the barrel of his revolver over its heart and fired. The eyes faded.
Like the deer, Li'l Bit's eyes begged for help. Like the deer, she knew none would be coming.
Bill said nothing. Every word Mr. Hinckley had said might just as well have come from the Judge's own mouth. The Judge would skin Bill alive if he heard of him hanging out with one of the Tuckers. Everybody knew the Tuckers were trash. They lived in trailers. Tucker women had babies from so many different fathers that keeping track would have required an army of accountants. Tucker men drank, fought and gambled; never holding a job for more than a few days.
"None of you Tuckers will ever own so much as a pot to piss in," the Judge once said to Eustus Tucker, Li'l Bit's Uncle. Eustus wanted to join Shady Grove Baptist Church, where the Judge was head deacon.
"My answer is no of course," said the Judge. "Frankly, I'm surprised a drunk and no account like you even has the nerve to ask."
No, Bill knew he could never be with Li'l Bit, but Li'l bit had a special power. Boys and men she had never met offered to carry her books or brought her flowers. Last Christmas, her Uncle Eustus spied on her while she was in the shower. Afterward he went to her Mamma and his sister, Ms. Ora.
"Watch that one Ora," he said. "She has body that will put her in Hollywood or Hell 'afore she finishes high school."
"Probably," said Ms. Ora "But I'm tellin' her to get it while the gettin's good. She needs to catch a rich man, a respectable man, while she still has your looks. Otherwise she'll end up just like me, with a trailer full of kids with no last names."
Bill wasn't sure if Li'l Bit had ever slept with anyone. He hadn't. He lied about it to avoid getting teased in the locker room. He was afraid of how he felt about Li'l Bit. She made him laugh. He felt truly alive when he was with her, but he knew he could never face the Judge.
The Judge was clear about his plans for Bill's future. He would study the law, like the Judge, like his grandfather and his grandfather; on and on back to Judge Watkins Jenkins, head of the first white family to settle in Silsbee. His family honor and responsibility ran deep, much deeper than his feelings for Li'l Bit. No. It was clear. Bill must go along with Mr. Hinckley.
Li'l Bit knew it before Bill. She looked down at the table top and ran her hand over it, wiping away some unseen speck of dirt.
Bill said, "Sorry Mr. Hinckley. We didn' mean no harm nor nothin'. Did we Li'l Bit?"
Li'l Bit continued polishing the table. "No. We didn' mean no harm. We was just gettin' ready to go anyways. I gotta get home to Mamma."
Bill said, "Yeah. That's right. I expect you're ready to close up anyhow Rob, uh I mean, Mr. Hinckley."
"Yes," said Mr. Hinckley. "Yes I was. Can I call the Judge and tell'im you're on your way home?"
"No need. I'll be home soon enough," said Bill.
Outside he tried to take Li'l Bit's hand. She yanked it free.
"Don't. You best not touch me. I'm a 'tramp'." She crossed her arms and glared at him.
"You might catch somethin'. Worse, somebody might see you. Might get the wrong idea. Ruin your reputation, your family, your…"
Bill held her shoulders. "Li'l Bit please… You know it ain't that way. I'll make it right. You know I will…"
Li'l Bit shook herself free. "All I know is you'll shit and fall back in it,"
She started crying. "How could you Bill? What was you thinkin'? I thought you liked me. Don't you like me? Don't you like me even a little?"
The deer eyes returned. Bill stood mute. Li'l Bit turned and ran picking up speed with every step. Bill ached to follow but remained rooted where he stood. He was an oak, from a long line of oaks that sheltered and supported the little town of Silsbee. Li'l Bit disappeared around a bend in the road.
"She's a deer - born yesterday and likely dead before tomorrow," said Bill. "Trees stay put. Deer run wild."
Bill came home to Silsbee during breaks from Rice. He visited Hinckley's Creamery every time. No one was there to sip a vanilla shake. He went to High School reunions despite his hatred for them. No one was there to shimmy or play the Name Game song. He even visited Ms. Ora.
"She just high-tailed it out of here after graduation," said Ms. Ora. "Ain't nobody seen hide nor hair of her since then. Say, ain't you that Jenkins boy she was seeing?"
"Well, we never really 'saw' one another formally. I mean we never…"
Ms. Ora laughed. "Yeah, I know you never. I taught her good. I may not know where she went, but I do know how she went."
"How she went?"
"Yessir. That girl was pure when she left. And I know that for a fact."
"Uh, if you don't mind my asking, how could you possibly know a thing like that? I mean daughters tell their mothers most anything they want to hear. Don't they?"
"Maybe some do. Not Li'l Bit. I know 'cause Doc Weber tol' me when he treated her for cancer down there," said Ms Ora pointing to her groin.
"Oh my God. She had cancer? How?"
"Doc says it was from them pills I took while I was pregnant."
"Jesus. Why didn't anybody tell me?"
"Oh don't worry honey. They caught it early and just cut it right out. She was up and around in a week. Good as new in a couple of months."
"Thank God for that much. So Doc said she was a virgin?"
"That's what he said. She stayed that way as far as I know. Doc had to check her every month during her senior year."
"I'll be tied…"
"You look as shocked as Doc was," said Ms. Ora.
"Why would he be shocked?"
Ms. Ora cackled. "Lordy, lordy, you fancy folk sure do lie a lot. Mostly to yourselves. Child, he was shocked because of what you 'n everybody else in this shithole been sayin' and thinkin' 'bout her since she was twelve."
Bill returned briefly to Silsbee after getting a law degree from Virginia. He rented offices over the bank and tried starting up the Judge's old practice. He married Helen McGregor. She didn't shimmy but she made a nice home for Bill and gave the Judge two grandchildren, Sandy and Bruce.
After a few years of chasing ambulances and writing wills Bill decided Houston offered better opportunities.
"I wish you would stay here son," said the Judge. "You know you don't really need to work. I can…"
"I can't live that way, Judge. Sorry. I just can't," said Bill.
"I know son. I guess you wouldn't be my son if you could."
Bill joined Brevers, Drew and Wilkins, and settled three multimillion damage suits against Aramco. He became one of the Firm's youngest partners. He bought a small ranch outside of the city and hired a private tutor for the children and sent them to academies. He took an apartment in the city to cut down on the commute. One evening he was eating linguini at Da Marco's and there she was.
Li'l Bit wasn't little anymore. The packaging was marvelous –understated hair and makeup, a black dress and heels spiked high enough let her change light bulbs without a ladder. Bill put down his fork and watched in fascination.
She sat with two other women Bill was sure he recognized from an ad somewhere. The women were chatting with each other but they stopped immediately whenever Li'l Bit spoke, nodding at everything she said.
Bill rose when Li'l Bit went to the restroom and positioned himself at the end of the bar near her table. When she returned she saw him and stopped for a moment before walking over. Bill thought he saw a tremble in her step, but he decided he was mistaken. A woman as beautiful as the one before him must have the self confidence of Cleopatra.
"Bill? Is that you?"
"One and the same," said Bill.
Once more eyes that held the universe with room left over swallowed Bill. She said, "Oh my lord. It is you."
"I am indeed Bill Jenkins. Bill the barrister at your service. Would you like a business card?"
The scent of vanilla beans washed over him; vanilla, and something else. Something exotic. Sandalwood? Cinnabar? No. Not exotic. It was something familiar, a scent made exotic by his distance from it. Vanilla ice cream melting in Silsbee sunshine? Yes that was it. He had left that scent somewhere in years of dusty libraries and numbing domesticity. He realized Li'l Bit had been talking for several minutes. He had no idea of what she had said.
"…and then I met Jared," said Li'l Bit.
"Jared Harris? The hedge fund manager?"
Li'l Bit put her left hand on Bill's arm. The ring finger bore a diamond big enough to be fake.
"Looks like somebody's doing well," said Bill.
She said, "You should talk. Are those slacks Dormeuil?"
Bill laughed. "Yeah. A long way from the jeans I wore the last time we were together. The ones I wore when I cured your ice cream headache."
"I remember. We were singing that song. What was it? Silly willy, bo billy, bonana fanna fo Filly…?"
"Actually, I believe it was more like – Chuck, Chuck, bo buck…"
She joined him for the finish. "…bonana fanna, fo FUCK…"
"I'm pretty sure that's the one," said Bill.
The head tilted back and the neck cried for his touch just as it had all those years ago. Li'l Bit let out a laugh straight from Silsbee. Diners at nearby tables stopped and looked around to see if someone had been injured.
Bill felt happier than he had in years. He wanted to keep the laughter going forever.
He said "Careful Li'l Bit. You don't want to get us thrown out of here like you got us thrown out of Hinckleys."
The eyes of the universe turned black.
"The name is Florence. Florence Tucker. Soon to be Florence Harris."
"I guess I never knew your real name."
"Your kind never does."
"Christ. You know that I didn't mean any offense L'il, er Florence."
"You did not offend me Mr. Jenkins. You simply reminded me of my place. A place and a time I have long ago excised from my memory. Please excuse me. I must return to my friends."
"But I'm your friend. I've always been your friend."
"I'm afraid that word is not in your lexicon, at least not in its traditional meaning."
"Come on. Li'l, er, Florence. I'll make it up to you. I'll…"
She turned on a single stiletto to face him once more. "You'll what Mr. Jenkins? You'll be my friend?" Scarlet lips parted in the smile of a Great White.
"I can think of no better rejoinder than the one I gave the last time you sputtered your kind intentions toward me – 'You will shit and fall back in it Mr. Jenkins.' That is precisely what you will do. That is the full extent of your kind's ability to care about others."
"It is impolite to begin a sentence with a conjunction Mr. Jenkins. Surely even lawyers know this simple rule."
As she walked away, Bill could see that the perfection of her neck continued down her back. The line of the black dress dipped to the top of her ass. It was the finest ass Bill had ever seen. It's hemispheres danced in unison and Bill felt the burning he had felt when pretending to be James Dean for a girl in Junior High.
Bill gave up the apartment in the city. He told Helen he needed to spend more time with the family. Delighted, she made sure he had a hot meal to come home to, no matter how late he arrived.
Bill's life settled into the routine dream of suburban life. Work, softball, soccer, graduations, and beige colored love with Helen. On holidays, he would take the children to hear the Judge tell stories of the Jenkins clan. They especially liked the one about Wilhelm Jenkins fighting with Sam Houston. Bill pretended to listen while sipping century old Scotch. The Judge sensed his boredom.
"Let's go get us a deer son. We'll head on up to Warren's Ridge and get us a big old buck. That'll lift your mood. I still have your old rifle around here somewhere."
"No Judge. I'm sorry," said Bill.
"What's the matter son? Are you sick? Should I call Doc Warren?"
"No, I'm not sick", said Bill.
"Well what then?"
"Truth is I don't like hunting deer. Never have really."
The Judge snorted like an old tired bull. He said, "Now that's just crazy talk. We Jenkins have hunted deer before God named grass. Are you gonna' stand there and tell me, after all this time, that you never liked hunting deer?"
"No sir. I never have. Not one little bit."