Rena Davis, 1921

The closer she got, the worse she looked.

Shame is a fire, burning my core.

Her name was Rena Davis and I was the one who said she was dirty as a pig. Until then, she’d been anonymous, one of the group who came from the Buttermilk section, rows of shotgun houses facing each other on a narrow street, six feet apart. Dingy white, yellow, one painted an atrocious green. The people kept to themselves, except when there was drinking. Men fought out on the streets then, and forgot it by morning.

We were country kids, but we were clean. We had mothers who washed, patched, cut hair, and checked for nits in the spring.

Others didn’t.

That was the invisible line in our school. The clean versus the dirty. We didn’t harm one another, but we didn’t speak.

Until I threw the dart of “Dirty Pig.”

It was raining that morning and I watched as Rena entered the school, grappling with a pile books in one arm and a tin lunch pail in the other. The locker fee was two dollars; a one dollar refund came in June if your locker wasn’t damaged. The Buttermilk kids didn’t use lockers; they carried everything.

“Dirty as a pig!” I shouted, and this time Rena looked up. Rivelets of rain had run down her face, streaking the film of coal dust. She would have been pretty if she’d bothered to use a wash cloth or comb her hair. Actually, she bore a strong resemblance to my sister. Theodosia, furious with me, had hogged the umbrella all the way to school and I’d let her. I was wet, too, but without film.

“Whad’ja say?” She didn’t look embarrassed, just surprised that I’d spoken. The closer she got, the worse she looked.

“I said you’re as dirty as a pig.” Even as I said it, I hated myself, but the words came easy .”Take a look in the mirror. You look like you’ve been rolling in mud.”

Rena scurried away. She didn’t retaliate like Theodosia would have. Theodosia would have knocked me to the moon.

For all of five seconds, being mean to her made me feel better. It lifted the guilt I’d been feeling ever since dawn. It had been my turn to bring in the cow last night, but I’d put it off and then forgotten. Dumpling had gotten her rope wrapped around a holly tree, and had begun to bellow around four o’clock. Her bag was full. The calf was hysterical.

There had been nine of us in all, two still births and an older brother who’d broken his neck when I was three, and by this time Mommy had heart trouble. Her heart would start to pound when she got worried or overworked and when Dumpling woke her, she’d sat up in bed with a fluttering heart.

By the time I got downstairs, Pop had lit the lamp, and was heading out the door.

Mom pressed her hands to her chest and said, “That sound goes straight to my heart.”

She was saying this to herself. She talked to herself every time she felt the pressure. Then, she’d press the flat of her hands against her heart as if more pressure could make it stop. I was scared. Mom could drop any minute and it would be my fault.

So that morning I’d let Theodosia edge me out of the umbrella and punch me all the way to school. Why hadn’t I put the cow in the shed? Why couldn’t Rena wash her face? I felt a connection between us and felt hate.

Cruelty brings out the cruelty in others, and if you wanted to be friends with me, you had to yell out “Dirty Pig” at the sight of Rena Davis. I stopped after I stopped being angry with myself, but others didn’t.

Then, Rena was gone. Someone said she’d dropped out of school.

Had that been my intent? No, but I didn’t care. All I knew that one day she was there and the next she wasn’t and none of it had to do with me.

That’s what I told myself until I told Pop.

He told me that if I were younger, he’d give me a good switching and he still might do it. I was to march straight to her house and apologize to that girl.

“Is that it?” An apology didn’t seem enough to cover my guilt.

‘I don’t know yet,” Pop’s voice was gruff with emotion.

I ran all the way to the Buttermilk section. My legs couldn’t keep up with my heart. Would she forgive me? Would she come back to school? Would her family come outside and stare or would she invite me in? I couldn’t think. I was running too hard.

I was running to get to Rena.

She wasn’t there. The house was vacant; the yard bare but for a chain around a tree where a dog had been. Hardened dog turds were everywhere.

The front door, unlocked, cracked open in a wind. I walked in.

The house, a rental, had been stripped. They’d taken everything except what they hadn’t wanted. An eyeless doll’s head, a pile of rags that smelled suspicious, a badminton racket with the wires gone. Dust was everywhere but for the clean squares left by the mattresses.

I walked to the rear of the house and entered the kitchen. The sink had been pulled out and only an old coal stove was left. They’d taken the coal bucket, too, and dumped the ashes on the floor.

I plopped down and stuck my finger in the pile of coal dust. I began to write on the floor. I don’t remember what I wrote. I don’t remember covering myself with dust, either. But I do remember a voice, unrecognizable, entering every room of the house.

“Rena Davis,” It called, anguished. “Can you hear me? It’s Dirty Pig!”

Excerpt from That’s Not Love, copyright Joan Spilman

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