Her Enviable Braids

28 February 2019 in Writing

K died the summer before sixth grade. She’d been walking on the side of the road when a car clipped her.

Months later, during the short dark days of basketball season, a grown-up would remark, “Pedestrians are supposed to walk opposite the direction of traffic. That way, you see ’em coming.”

At the funeral, some of them were already reckoning with this, as if it were a true or false question: You are flirting with death if you choose to walk on the right hand side of the road. True or false. A driver is absolved of wrong-doing if all they can see is the back of your giggling shoulder. True or false.

In these summers before they could drive, the classmates were separated by miles out of town in different directions. Fields turned from green to gold and then were shorn. That was the extent of time between late May and early September. They heard about K’s death one by one and wondered what it meant. What were they supposed to do? This was the first intrusion on a summer since they’d started school together six years ago.

The mothers rallied the classmates, driving them all to the small cemetery at the edge of town. They were agog at seeing each other outside of school, outside of three-minute multiplication quizzes and the spring bookfair and some girls starting to wear bras. They were agog at seeing K’s fifth-grade school picture propped on the coffin. Some of them realized they would not see her again.

The minister said prayers. A few others offered remembrances. For the classmates, the familiar school picture said enough. K had silken hair that she wore in two long enviable braids. Her smile was easy like an apple.

Two friends couldn’t help themselves. They whispered to each other during the service. “How’s your summer going?” “Ok, how’s yours?” “My little brother is a pain in the ass!” Eyes widened. So this was going-on sixth grade, saying “ass” with confidence. “I can’t believe we’re here.” “I know!” The whisperers trailed off, caught by the scowl of another classmate whose whole body shook with rage as she put her finger to her lips in admonishment.

One girl giggled. She covered her mouth with her hand and turned to look at her whisperer in arms, who giggled back. They couldn’t stop. They whisper giggled until someone’s mother said, in gentle reprimand, “Girls.”

They quieted themselves, one looking at the two roads leading out of the cemetery into the distant horizon of swaying wheat fields. The other observed the school picture propped on the coffin, aware that–all but one–they’d soon be sitting for new ones. Sixth grade.