Bertie lived with her mama Lilly Mae and six younger brothers and sisters. The youngest was an infant, which accounted for the smell of urine that hit you like a wall when you walked into Bertie’s apartment. I got used to it after a few breaths.
Bertie and I were the same – only she was prettier. Her hair was straight and Lilly Mae let her wear makeup. But Bertie smelled poor – just like me – and when we got on the school bus together, the “others” could smell the poverty on us. We sat together and talked about other places and other people – the ones we saw on television mostly. Our favorite shows were Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey. She loved Richard Chamberlain. I preferred Vince Edwards.
On weekends we rode the city bus down town where we shopped for clothes we couldn’t afford. Sometimes we put them on lay-away but we never took them home. In the summer we rode the bus to Ocean View Amusement Park. Bertie flirted with the boys on the boardwalk and they flirted with her. I watched. They ignored me.
I saw Bertie for the last time on a Saturday in the summer of 1963. We took the bus downtown to see a movie and Bertie insisted on seeing two.
“Let’s go see one more. I want to see Bye Bye Birdie.” It was playing just across the street.
“Bertie Mae, that will make us late getting home and besides, I’ve got just enough money left to get home.”
“Come on. I’ll pay for it. You can pay me back.”
We went to the second show. When we walked out of the theatre onto Granby Street it was dark.
“We should have been home hours ago,” I moaned. “I hope mama and daddy aren’t worried.” I couldn’t call them because we didn’t have a telephone.
“Hell. Lilly Mae won’t even know I’m gone,” she said as we boarded the bus.
When I got home all hell broke loose.
“Where have you been?” mama screamed. “We thought you had been murdered.” Daddy nodded. He was awake and sober. That was unusual, I thought. They must really have been worried.
They had called Aunt Gladys from the payphone at the rental office and she was there too.
“Don’t you know any better than to go traipsing around downtown Norfolk at night by yourself?”
“I wasn’t by myself. Bertie Mae was with me.”
Addie and Willis were sitting there quietly – but they had been crying. I knew I was in trouble but at the same time I was pleased that my absence had created such drama. I wondered how Bertie was making out.
Mama and Aunt Gladys took turns yelling at me for a while. They seemed to enjoy being on the same side of an argument for a change. Daddy went to bed without saying much. Willis and Addie fell asleep on the couch – both sucking their thumbs – ok for Willis – He was only two, but Addie was almost 11.
Aunt Gladys finally changed the subject. “Well, Frankie Mae, I’m going to go down to Belhaven tomorrow to check on Mama and Blanche.”
“Can I go, Aunt Gladys? I haven’t seen Grandmama in ages.”
Before Mama could object, Aunt Gladys nodded.
“We’ll be back Monday or Tuesday.”
I ran to grab a few things from the room I shared with Addie, returned to the living room and sat quietly in daddy’s chair hoping Aunt Gladys would be ready to leave before Mama changed her mind or Addie woke up and insisted on coming along.
I don’t remember the trip to Belhaven but I remember the day I got back. As soon as I could I ran over to Bertie’s to see it she had gotten into trouble for being late.
I knocked. When no one answered I pushed open the door and walked upstairs. The apartment was empty – only the smell of urine remained. The furniture was gone.