I almost didn’t go to Charlotte. Reason being me and Ma had the biggest fight over that dumb dress. I put up all my best arguments for why I should wear my jeans but my mother isn’t persuaded easy. Stubborn as a mule, just like me. Difference is, she got experience on her side.
She folded her arms and fixed me with one of her stony looks. “This discussion is over, Marybelle. You can wear the green dress I pressed for you and accompany your father to the city. Or you can wear your jeans and stay home with me. I could use an extra pair of hands.”
It crossed my mind to call her bluff but I knew she would’ve done it. She’d make me stay home and do chores while the boys got to drive across the state with Pa. So I put on the damn dress and sulked all through breakfast. Nobody noticed.
Scott and Glenn had both been to the city of Charlotte before and spent the whole week boring me and Frank silly with their advice on what to do and where to go and what to watch out for. Today was the day and their excited hollering gave me a pain in my head.
When time came to get in the truck, the boys scrambled into the flatbed. Scott had swept it clean of straw for the trip but what with the rust and oil and dirt, it was no place for a dress. Ma said I should sit up front with Pa. No arguments from me. Saved me three hours bumping around, listening to my brothers jabbering. Ma stood on the stoop to wave us off, smiling. I forgot about my sulk and waved and smiled right back.
Charlotte was the most beautiful place I ever saw in my entire life. Parks with golden trees and shimmering fountains, buildings so tall you had to lean back to see the top, people dressed up as if it was Sunday, clean shiny cars driving down streets wider than Beaver Creek, billboards advertising everything from Cornflakes to eyelashes and a big ole courthouse so huge I swear you could fit the whole population of Oak Ridge inside.
My head was swiveling to and fro, telling Pa to ‘lookit’ every two minutes. He laughed and nodded even though he had seen it all before. He parked outside a diner and bought us each a hamburger with fries and a Coca-Cola. He told us to be back at the truck by five o’clock or he’d leave us behind. And off he went for his meeting with the bank.
Me and Frank had a map each, drawn by Ma. Scott and Glenn said they didn’t need one. Mine had a couple landmarks and stores and important sights to help me find my way, but there was only one place I wanted to go. I left the boys squabbling over ketchup and walked two blocks, checking my pocketbook one more time to make sure my dollar was still there.
Before I went in, I stood and gazed at it for a moment. Montgomery’s Bookstore. First time in my life I saw a store which sold nothing but books. Closest thing Oak Ridge had to a bookstore was Ling’s Provisions. Mr Ling kept a shelf at the back with paperbacks from all over the world. Every year, when Aunt Lilibeth sent me my birthday dollar, I’d pretty much decided which book I was going to buy weeks ahead of time. But this year, I was going to spend it in a real bookstore. My hand was trembling as I opened the door.
“Good afternoon to you,” said a voice. Behind the counter, a short bald man with a freckled scalp looked at me over his glasses.
“Good afternoon, sir. I’d like to buy a book today.”
“Would you now? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Do you know which book you want or should I leave you to browse?”
I turned to look at the bookcases, shelves, recesses and tables, all crammed to bursting with stories. “If it’s all the same to you, sir, I’d like to take a look around before deciding.”
He made a sweeping motion with his hand, inviting me to explore. I wandered in and out of all those racks for hours, picking up everything that caught my eye and making a shortlist in my head. Tell the truth in the face of the Lord, it wasn’t all that short. Over the doorway ticked a huge clock with Roman numerals, like something out of a storybook itself. I vowed to choose by half past four. Pa wouldn’t leave without me, I knew that, but he’d be cranky if I didn’t get my butt back to the truck by five.
Good as his word, the old guy left me in peace. Customers came and went, but nobody gave me a second glance. Who’d notice a fourteen-year-old girl sitting on a tea chest in a dusty corner with her head bent over a book? Even if she was wearing a pretty green dress.
Panic started to flutter when I glanced at the clock and saw it was five minutes to five. I picked up the first book on my list again.
“It’s not easy, making a decision.” The shop man leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets, his gaze ranging over the shelf behind me.
“Ain’t that the truth? I been at it for four hours but am still no closer to choosing.”
“Perhaps you’d like to sleep on it. Come back tomorrow?”
“No sir, I can’t. Heading back to Oak Ridge tonight. I got a dollar to spend on a book and I want to be real careful what I pick. Worst of it is, I never saw so many books. Feels like this room has a thousand doorways and I only got one key.”
He smiled. “Maybe I can help. What kind of stories do you like?”
I put Goldfinger back on the shelf. “Adventures. Danger and excitement and foreign places. Brave heroes.”
“We’ve got plenty of those. Anything else?”
I hesitated. “Well, sir, I’d like a hero…”
“A hero who is not a boy.”
He straightened up. “Not a boy? Hmm. You don’t like boys?”
“I got three older brothers. I don’t mean any disrespect, but there comes a time when you can have too much boy, if you catch my meaning.”
He blinked over his eyeglasses. “What’s your name, young lady?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Marybelle. My name is Mr. Montgomery and I own this establishment. Let’s see what we can find.”
I tried, the Lord will testify, to make it last as long as possible. But come Thanksgiving, I’d already read To Kill a Mockingbird twice. I wrote to Aunt Lilibeth and told her what I bought with her dollar and how much I liked it. She wrote back saying she’d read it too and I had ‘superlative taste’. Would you look at that? Miss Marybelle Calhoun has superlative taste in literature!
One afternoon in April, Frank and I trudged up the lane from the school bus, talking about our favorite characters who ain’t real. Mine was Scout. His was Linus from Charlie Brown. Sometimes, I think Frank is smarter than he looks. Then Scott and Glenn ran ahead making fart sounds with their armpits and Frank joined in. I sighed. I might be the youngest, but I swear I’m the most mature. Ma was shucking peas on the stoop in the sunshine.
“Marybelle, hurry now and change your clothes. Do your chores and come inside. There’s a package for you.”
I stopped dead.
Frankie’s half-lidded eyes sprang open. “A package? For Marybelle?”
“Who’s it from?” I asked.
Ma shrugged. “I don’t know but I’d sure like to find out. So change your clothes, feed the dogs and get the hens into the barn. Then we’ll open it together.”
Frank and I did our chores in record time and ran to the kitchen. There on the table was a brown paper package addressed in strong black penmanship. Ma pushed it across the scrubbed surface of the table.
I pulled the string, peeled back the scuffed brown paper and let out a little gasp. Inside, there was a big hardcover book, entitled The Adventures of Miss Georgia Green. The cover was all shades of sage and grass and emerald. The title and the author’s name, D. Montgomery, were picked out in gold. I wiped my hands on my jeans and opened it. Inside, there was a sheet of paper, folded in two.
Dear Miss Calhoun,
Further to our discussion last fall, I find myself in agreement with your assertion. One can indeed have ‘too much boy’. Therefore, I humbly submit this novel, of which I hope you will approve. It has adventure, danger, bravery and foreign lands, and a very special hero, who is definitely not a boy.
“The bookstore man in Charlotte! Look, he sent me a book!” I thrust the letter at my mother.
She was still leafing through the pages of my gift, shaking her head and smiling. “No, Marybelle. He wrote you a book.”
She pointed to the dedication.
To Marybelle, the girl who inspired Georgia Green
© JJ Marsh
Jill grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After graduating in English Literature and Theatre Studies, she worked as an actor, teacher, writer, director, editor, journalist and cultural trainer all over Europe.
Now in Switzerland, she writes crime and literary fiction to entertain readers with enthralling stories and endearing characters. Her Beatrice Stubbs crime series topped the Amazon best sellers in “International Mystery & Crime” in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.