Chapter 01 1 Different Kinds of Smart
I am awake but I keep my eyes closed, letting only the smallest bit of light slip in. There’s just enough hot, heavy Louisiana breath coming through the window screen to fog up the pane with the promise of another hundred-degree afternoon. The bird dogs start in, barking at the chicken feathers floating in the air and running circles in the kennel, but I am only listening for the sound of her feet on the floor. The farmhouse groans as the humidity rises and the air conditioner sputters to life. Finally, I can hear her.
My mom pads barefoot across the hallway and the smells of face cream we can’t afford and Community Coffee settle on top of me. Her shadow crosses the threshold and I peek quickly at her glossy red toenails. Even at five years old, I know that she is beautiful, painted just the way a Southern woman should be.
“Mornin’, RuRu,” she sings.
I’m sprawled belly down on a trundle bed between my big brothers, a lanky, big-eyed doll with salty morning breath. She rubs up and down my back and scoops me up the way she always does, forearm in the crook of my knee, left shoulder a pillow for my cheek, and we walk. She knows I am awake, but she pretends so that I can, so that we can keep dancing our favorite dance.
Coffeepot steam and dust come to me in warm, sour clouds as we move down the stairs. I sniff hard and worry it will give me away. I am not ready to be done with our game yet and there are still a few more steps left to go, creak, creak, creak, down the stairs and past the kitchen.
Her feet sink into the plush rug and go quiet. We have arrived. She sets me in their bed next to the hearth that is my daddy. His big, warm body is a furnace you’d think I could never need in July, but that I cannot do without. I snuggle right into him.
“Pat, pat. Rub, rub,” he coos as his hand sweetly finds the spot between my shoulders. “God loves you. Daddy loves you.”
We wait together for a stretch of time that has never felt long enough. We wait until the bugs scream louder than the birds and the world comes calling for us. This is my most sacred space, where joy lives. This is where I begin.
St. Francisville is small, a half speck of a town. For a child, though, it is just the right size. In this place between the sticks and the swamp, joy is growing everywhere; it’s always within arm’s reach. You could hack away at it if you wanted to but it would always grow right back, bigger and fuller and wilder than it was before. Lots of things grow wild here. The live oaks are covered in mossy Muppet hair, palm leaves poke through the picket fences and tickle your legs when you walk, and love is the long, leathery vine that wraps itself around all of it. It’s comically Southern, but I don’t really know it yet. On Fridays, the boys play football and the girls wave cellophane pom-poms. On Saturdays, the women whisper about all of it, attaching scandal to every glance exchanged between daughters and sons. The men just smile and shake their heads. On Sundays we all slip into our church clothes and watch the hot sun shining in through the stained glass in Popsicle-colored laser beams. My daddy sits next to me in the pew and points out the dove in the stained-glass window.
“Every time you see the bird, know your daddy’s thinking about you, that he loves you so much.”
He snuggles me under his arm and I count the minutes until I get to ring the church bell, until my toes lift up off the ground from the weight of it and I feel like I’m flying, until my daddy walks me around and shows me off and I am delighted in by friends, strangers, and everyone in between.
Our little farm is only twenty minutes away from Grace Episcopal Church. We don’t have much money or any neighbors I can play with, but I have space here to be whoever I want to be, a Rockette, a fairy godmother, LL Cool J. I am loved ferociously in whatever costume I put on. We have hundreds of acres of land that my grandfather passed down to us, thick forests where the long blacksnakes move and wide-open fields where the deer tiptoe stealthily in the morning. My tap shoes sound like gunfire in the quiet of the country as I dance across our big, wide porch in my bathing suit. I dance everywhere I go, shimmying my shoulders for strangers in the grocery store and kids on the playground, for anyone who will watch me. I like the way music moves me. I keep dancing until little pearls of wetness drip down the hollow of my back, until I’m sick and dizzy from cartwheels, until fatigue wraps me up in its arms and brings me in for dinner.
My daddy is the principal at Wilkinson County Christian Academy across the border in Woodville, Mississippi. I go to school there. He is beloved and respected and cherished by everyone, from the lunch ladies to the teenagers he busts for cutting class. They delight in him and he likes being delighted in just as much as I do. He wears a bow tie and a sport coat and glasses with perfectly circular frames. I think he looks dignified, like Colonel Sanders disguised as Sherlock Holmes, and I get the biggest rush of pride when I see him. The second the bell rings at 3 p.m., he transforms back into Daddy: he rolls up his sleeves and undoes his tie, and he giggles and bops with me the whole way up Highway 61. When we get home, he leaves me to go play in the earth like a little boy, plowing the garden with his mule, running his dogs, and feeding the horses sweet-smelling scoops of grain. Our farm is his favorite place in the whole world.
The dogs follow him everywhere, to Texas for quail season, to the porch to read a book, to the back field to be relieved from their suffering when they’re old and sick. Vietnam follows him everywhere, too, but he tries never to look back at it; he never talks about it. Instead of remembering, he rebels against it with goodness. He shares vegetables from our garden and fish from our pond with his poor friends, and he does it with a graciousness that makes it seem as though they are rescuing us from our okra and watermelon. He tells us every day at breakfast, “I love you, remember your manners, always look out for the little guy.” I want to be just like him. Every time my Timex flashes something special like 11:11 or 12:34, I make a wish, and it’s always the same: Make me be good, make me love Jesus, make me like Daddy.
My middle brother, Tim, doesn’t have to wish for my daddy’s heart like I do—he has a heart like God’s, sure and unspoiled. He’s always sweeping porches, helping neighbors, and listening to the long, tiresome stories of people who have no one else to tell them to. He moves through his day quietly and thoughtfully, like a little granddad, and expects nothing in return for his goodness but for more people to experience God’s unconditional love. It’s infuriating. The grown-ups adore him. The first Sunday in December, my mom gives us dozens of pumpkin bread wrapped in tinfoil and ribbon to deliver to her friends in town. She gives me fifteen loaves to pass out but trusts Tim with just two, knowing he will spend hours sipping unsweet tea with the elderly, staring at their old photos, and holding on to each gnarled hand that greets him. He doesn’t even like unsweet tea but he’d never trouble a person by asking for sugar.
My older brother, Lile, gets a mountain of pumpkin bread—it seems to grow every year—and we deliver it all together. He’s different from Tim, his voice rings out loud and deep from his chest and he is almost always chased by the laughter of the sparkly-eyed high school girls who shadow him. He listens to Guns N’ Roses and cusses and makes my daddy so angry he screams, but he can also be a teddy bear and I get to see his very softest side. He says that from the moment I came home from the hospital, I’ve been his. He would sit with me in his lap for an hour and just stroke my fat baby cheek while his friends ran amok outside in the yard. He’s my protector, my safest place, and he lets me sleep in his room until he leaves to go to school at LSU in Baton Rouge.
I am the darling of our family, I know that. I am loved wholeheartedly and that’s the way I learn to love people back. I’m a doter, a gusher, and every time I leave my parents, even if I’m just going out to play, I tell them, “Bye! I love you! You’re my favorite, I’ll never forget you!”
I don’t know what hurt is until I’m six years old and in second grade. School is the first hurt, the one that makes shame creep up my throat and numb my lips. Nobody knows why I can’t spell animal or table, why my brain can’t seem to sit still even when my body does. The hot red rungs of the playground stare at me through the window every afternoon and warm my back when poor Miss Ashley is trying to teach me all the different types of clouds. An empty swing swinging or a Twinkie wrapper tumbling across the dirt are invitations to adventures that my imagination can’t pass up. I get itchy, I squirm, I chatter. “Ruthie! Miss Lindsey!” they call, but nobody can reach me in the little white room.
Even though my daddy is my school’s principal, he doesn’t care that my brain is different. He speaks a different language of learning than most people do. He knows how to reach me wherever I am.
I’m eight years old when he teaches me about Magnolia fuscata. I’m sitting near the leaf of our dining table sticking pencil shavings into the crevice and trying to memorize the names of Louisiana’s common trees and bushes. I study them hard in my science book, but they all look the same to me, shiny green images plopped down onto giant blocks of text. I read it over and over again, the information gets lost over and over again, everything in my brain gets scrambled. I cry and I wait for him.
“Come with me,” he whispers, gliding up beside me from nowhere and cupping his hand near my ear.
I look up at him, eyes halfway drowned, and he smiles at me. He takes my hand and we step out barefoot onto the thick green of the yard. The last strokes of pink stretch across the tree line. It’s dusk; there’s just enough light for our faces to glow.
“Take a deep breath, baby,” he says.
I count aloud, “One, two, three,” and have a big glug of the evening. He does it too. Then, he tells me the reasons the air smells like honey; he teaches me about all the good things that grow here.
“That’s a silver bell,” he says. The tree is gangly, with branches that shoot out from its middle and have more white flowers on them than leaves.
“This one’s a coral honeysuckle.”
He lifts a red, bugle-shaped cone to my face and I stick my nose into it. I expect sweetness but get pollen instead.
“It doesn’t smell like much, does it?” He shrugs. “The hummingbirds sure love it though!”
He leads me through the yard, pointing at his favorites as I squeal with delight. We run our fingers through a carpet of blue phlox in the garden, we lean against the smooth cypress bark at the edge of the forest, and I stand up to my waist in irises. Then he shows me his favorite one of all.
He likes to use the fancy words for things when he can.
We run around to the side of the house. The smell of fresh banana bread travels through my nose and becomes syrup at the back of my throat. The tree is young and skinny, covered in green buds waiting to become yellow flowers. The smell is everywhere; I sway in it and hope it gets stuck in my hair. He plucks off a bud and sticks it up his nose. I laugh so hard at the ridiculous sight of him that I stumble and scare the lightning bugs, which have just flicked on at our ankles.
“Now that’s what home smells like.” He smiles, raising his eyebrows high above his glasses; he knows he’s gotten me curious enough to try. I pluck two buds from the branch, wiggle them into my nostrils, and breathe the most delicious, unforgettable breaths of my life. We stand there doing nothing but breathing, giggling, and letting the smell of home sink to the deepest pockets of our bellies. I love him almost more than I can bear.
Magnolia fuscata. I put it in a part of my brain where I know I won’t ever lose it.
My mom loves me differently than my daddy does. She thinks I’m the prettiest thing she’s ever seen, even though I have giant hair and teeth like a donkey. She gussies me up in smocked dresses and big bows and shows me off wherever we go, twirling me around and bragging, “Ruthie makes friends wherever she goes. Her legs are longer than mine are.”
It makes my cheeks flush. My mom is from the city; she was set up with my daddy by a friend, and when he called her, they found out that their apartments were in the exact same building. She was a flight attendant and he worked at something she calls a “fat cat” bar in the French Quarter. They got married and he moved her out to the country. The glamour of New Orleans followed her, and so did the gin-drunk ghost of her dad. Just like my daddy, though, she tries not to look back at the things that haunt her. Mom is elegant, whether she’s brushing her teeth or baking a pie, and I feel clumsy and awkward when I stand beside her. She’s a big black-eyed swan who somehow ended up with a pelican baby.
The summer before third grade, she takes me shopping for school supplies at the Walgreens one town over, in Zachary. We go for frozen yogurt after, even though it’s only ten-thirty in the morning, and this is where I learn about different types of smart.
We are the first people through the door, and inside the air of the TCBY is so cold I get goose bumps on my arms. My mom waits for me in a little booth while I order; she doesn’t want anything, she’s only eating grapefruit right now. The girl behind the counter heaps Oreo crumble on top of my cup and smiles at me. She has a tiny stud in her nose and pink hair and I like her right away. Even though I am young, I know that it isn’t easy to be different here and I know that she is brave. I smile back at her as big as I can; she adds an extra scoop of black cookie dust and winks at me. I carry the heaping cup of yogurt across the room, plonk it down on the table, and nudge an extra spoon toward my mom. She grins, takes a few bites, and tells me I’m naughty.
“Baby,” she explains, lifting a big eyebrow, “there are different kinds of smart. Some people, like your daddy, are smart with books.…”
She continues explaining that there are all types of things people can be good at and I try to pay attention while the vanilla melts on my tongue. All I can think about is how pretty she is, hair swept over one eye like an exotic movie star who smokes cigarettes and drives on the wrong side of the road. She touches my arm to bring me back to her, bubble-gum-pink cheeks falling into perfect shadow valleys above her jaw.
“Ru, you are smart with people. Being people smart is a beautiful gift you have; everyone loves you because you know how to love them so well. I wish I had it when I was a young woman.”
None of it makes sense to me. I feel the yogurt dribbling down my chin onto the collar of the denim jacket she begged me not to wear and I wonder why she would want to be anything like me. She looks a little sad, she does that sometimes, but I don’t really understand why.
The electronic doorbell sounds as a pregnant lady shoves her sweaty shoulder into the glass. I jump up and hold it open for her, cooled air forming a smile on her face as she waddles inside. I tell her she looks pretty and she beams at me. My mother is right, I am people smart.
The yogurt turns to slop and I pitch it in the garbage can. I wave to the pregnant lady and the girl behind the counter and we leave.
When class begins that August, school becomes a place of learning again, because school is where I work on my people smarts. People need different things from me: this is my first lesson. Some people need a comedian who blows bubbles in her chocolate milk, others need a big sister to ward off bullies. Lots of people just need a safe place to stash their secrets, and though I can hardly ever keep them, they tell me anyway. I learn that almost all people need to feel like they belong to someone, so I let them know that they are important to me. By October I find myself belonging to nearly everyone: the basketball kids, the Bible study kids, even the teachers who wonder if they should really be telling a girl who still plays with Barbies about their husband’s “friend” Rita from work who is only twenty-nine years old. My mom is so proud of me for fitting in that she could bust.
My second lesson is in performing, summoning any version of myself that a person might like to be around. In between classes, I sit in a bathroom stall and wait, listening to the high school gossip about who is on their period, who got the water-filled bra from the Victoria’s Secret in Baton Rouge, and who is in love with Lile. When the last pair of sneakers has squeaked across the floor, I find my way to the mirror and try to be all the different things I’ve seen in people before. I try to be shy like Marlene Peek, the mysterious and beautiful girl in class. I try to be sexy like Cindy Crawford; I pull up my shirt and suck my belly deep into my ribs until my body looks like the number eight. I give up after just a minute, puff my tummy out, and do a silly dance. I’m really not any good at pretending to be someone else. What I am good at is smiling. Smiling is my third lesson—it can help you belong to just about anyone. I stretch my mouth so far that I can count seventeen teeth in the mirror and my eyes almost disappear into my cheeks.
How to belong changes with time and I don’t like it. One day in sixth grade a skirt gets folded over at the waist, the next day thirty skirts follow. Strawberry ChapStick becomes Revlon in colors called Toast of New York and Champagne on Ice, the girls become young women. The boys remain boys, but my friends begin to picture them as men; a few even declare to them that they are “boyfriends,” though a relationship born on Monday rarely lasts through lunch on Wednesday. The changes are scary. I have no desire to kiss a forty-eight-hour boyfriend or spend twenty minutes in the shower trying to shave the sable hair off my legs. I still want to play with dolls and get tucked in at night. Without the belonging, though, without my people smarts, I don’t know who I am. It makes people happy when I pretend and the pink lipstick looks pretty on me.
My mother loves the changes that have come with twelve. I am orbiting another inch closer to her than I was at eleven and it thrills her. My friend Susan’s birthday is just two days before mine, and to celebrate, our moms take us clothes shopping in New Orleans, where we stick our toes into womanhood. They drink orange juice and sparkling wine at lunch and let us order Shirley Temples and virgin daiquiris, though neither Susan nor I have any idea what a virgin or a daiquiri actually is. It all feels very important and grown-up, soaking our skin in the sun and stumbling sober over the cobblestones, but when the conversations about clothes and boys begin, I wander away the same way I do in social studies, back to the hot red rungs of the playground. Susan’s mind does not wander. The next phase of life has summoned her and she has arrived with wobbly wedge sandals and choker necklaces and CK One perfume that smells like the ocean. I’m just not ready. I plod along beside her with my shopping bag, terrified of being left behind.
After we return from the city, my daddy lets Susan and me drive his busted old truck over the cattle gap and down the dirt lane that leads from our little farmhouse to the road. We pull ourselves up onto the squishy vinyl seats and knot our shirts above our navels.
“Are you serious?!” Susan squeals when I turn the ignition. They don’t let kids drive much in the suburbs.
For her, stuck in the middle of town, bound by the rules of town living, it is the ultimate liberation. As she grins at me, two rows of braces gleaming, I understand that I belong to Susan and I understand who she needs me to be: an accomplice, a sister, a fellow traveler on the journey to thirteen. So I smile big like I always do. When I smile big, people like me, and even if I’m uncomfortable, I want to be liked. I join Susan, meet her and the other girls on the precipice of womanhood. It’s the last place I want to be. I’d rather be at home playing with dolls than trying to become one.
Black smoke flies from the tailpipe, making chemical waves in the air as we chug, chug, chug along, home and my daddy and twelve years old getting smaller behind us. Susan’s family owns a grocery store and she has brought us six plastic bottles of root beer in her backpack; we swig and cheers with them like beers as our bony bottoms bounce up and down, voices rattling through “Knockin’ Boots” by Candyman. We throw our heads back and cackle, candy cigarettes in hand, at the imaginary herd of teenage boys chasing behind. Of course, they want to make out with us. The idea of wet lips pressing up against mine makes me feel seasick and panicked. I can’t even say the word sex above a whisper, and every time I see a pregnant lady I blush, knowing exactly what she did to become that way. I don’t want to grow up but Susan does and the other girls do. I play along, smile big, and keep my youngness a secret. The lustful, make-believe boys chase us until the afternoon sinks into the ground. We don’t know it yet, but it will only be a couple of years before our silly game becomes real.
“GO FASTER,” Susan begs.
The truck lurches forward, soda splashes on our jean shorts, and she squeals, taking a long drag of her “Camel.” All I can think about is how happy she is, how she feels alive and loved with me. I wag a finger at the phantom suitors behind us and she almost doubles over.
“Ruthie!” she howls as we rumble along.
I am people smart, I tell myself again.
At the end of the day, when the edges of the earth turn Sunkist orange, Susan goes back to her house in Woodville and I sit alone in the hot, rubbery bucket of the truck drinking piss-warm root beer and smoking a stick made of sugar. The farther I grow from the ground, the more years I build on to my life, the more I will catch myself thinking about this place and this time, a time where I get swept up in the colors of the sky and where I burst into song and dance for reasons I can’t ever pin down. This is where I begin.