Thick-boned and freckle-faced, Barbara sat between Christy and me in our third-grade classroom. It was 1975, and our class was part of a cluster of four classrooms dubbed “The Beehive.” This pod design was based on a New Age concept of collaborative learning, so our rooms had no doors or walls, and it would have been hard to actually distinguish our pod from the library or the little theater across the hall if it weren’t for the giant hand-painted bumblebee over what would have been a doorway if, in fact, a doorway had not been deemed superfluous.
Barbara, Christy, and I were all termite cheerleaders. On Fridays before game day, we wore our uniforms — royal blue skirts and blue knee socks and Nikes. Christy was slender and delicate, with fair skin and a raspy voice, and when she and her twin sister performed Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” at the school talent show that year, they brought down the entire third-grade house.
On the last day before the winter break, Barbara filled Christmas stockings and brought them to school. Christy and I dumped the contents onto our table. There were miniature candy canes and flavored Tootsie Rolls and banana BB Bats. And in the very bottom of the stocking — wedged into the toe — was something else. I stuck my hand down and wriggled it around until I produced a large, smooth plastic egg tucked into a blue base — a pair of taupe L’eggs pantyhose.
We all knew the L’eggs commercial. But no one our age wore pantyhose, and filling a third grader’s stocking with pantyhose was unheard of, unprecedented. Christy and I were ecstatic. Now, instead of gangly, childish limbs, we would have taut, tan legs. We were women now. We had arrived.
That afternoon, when my mother picked me up from school, I raced out to the car.
“Look what Barbara gave me!” I said as I flung open the door.
The plastic egg balanced in the palm of my hand. My mother looked from me to the egg, then back at the road.
“She gave you pantyhose?” my mother said. “Barbara gave you pantyhose?”
“Yes!” I said.
I had unwrapped a candy cane, and the candy stuck to my fingers, which were now sticking to the egg. My mother made a single click with her tongue. Her mouth dipped to one side.
“Well, that will be a great thing for you to have once you are older,” she said. “So when you get home, you can just put those away and save them.”
“Older?” I said. “How much older?”
I was thinking New Year’s, Easter at the outside.
“Mmmm. Maybe about eighth grade,” my mother said.
“Eighth grade?” I screamed. “Why?”
Eighth grade was forever away and might as well have been never.
“You have plenty of nice tights you can wear,” she said.
Over the following days, I begged and pleaded. I wouldn’t necessarily need to wear them to football games right away like Barbara did, but I could begin with Sunday school where, when coupled with pleated skirts and ruffled blouses, my hose would impart me with an air of pious glamour. Like That Girl, only hipper. Then, the very next Sunday, my best friend Vicky, who had also received The Gift of the Pantyhose, wore hers to church with a beautiful green velvet dress her mother had sewn by hand.
“Vicky got to wear hers! Vicky’s mother let her!” I told my mother over and over.
Which I knew was a credible argument because my parents were good friends with Vicky’s parents, and my mother knew Vicky’s mother had sound judgment. Hence, I should be allowed to wear pantyhose. Which is what I was saying the following Sunday when, five minutes before church was to begin, my mother found me standing in my bedroom, holding the L’eggs in my outstretched hand.
“Why not?” I asked her.
My mother wore a red sweater, a short black skirt, black heels, and a sheer pair of L’eggs. She sighed.
“Just this one time,” she finally said.
Which was really a clever move on her part, because an hour later, while I was coloring Jesus’s robe a brilliant Oz green in my Sunday school pamphlet, I felt a prick on my right thigh. I jerked back from the wooden table, then watched, horrified, as two parallel lines began to creep over my knee, then down my calf, all the way to my patent leather toes. The problem of the pantyhose had solved itself, like a Nancy Drew mystery.
However, from that point forward, my mother was skeptical about the quality of guidance Barbara was receiving at home. The fact that Barbara’s mother let her bring us pantyhose without even asking if it were okay with our mothers meant she was defective in some way and likely incompetent — maybe even, well, loose. Plus, Barbara’s mother smoked, which was yet another sign of bad character.
Barbara’s mother was a nurse, and she worked the evening shift at the hospital. Blonde and slender and fragile-looking, Barbara’s mother looked nothing like Barbara, and we later heard that Barbara had been adopted, though she never told us this herself. One night, Christy and I spent the night with Barbara. We stayed up for hours, practicing our cheers quietly so as not to wake Barbara’s father.
Barbara’s father had been a sergeant in the army. He was tall and wiry with eyes that darted haphazardly about, and his hair was always cut like he was just about to lead a platoon into war. He walked that way too — long, purposeful strides — even when he was just taking his Dachshund for a walk. He pulled the dog along on the leash, his eyes fixed straight ahead, one arm swinging vigorously back and forth. He rarely spoke to us other than to tell us what not to do.
That night, about 2 a.m., Christy and Barbara and I decided we wanted a snack. Barefoot and wearing pajamas, we tiptoed through the living room. The room was dark except for the glow of the streetlight through the curtains, and suddenly we were aware of a slight movement. Barbara’s mother sat on the sofa, her bare legs stretched across an ottoman, a glass of gold liquid in one hand.
“Hey, girls,” she murmured, tapping her cigarette with a fuchsia fingernail.
A menagerie of small, sleeping dogs jostled against her. The room was stale and musty.
“Hey,” we said.
In the kitchen, we poured three glasses of Pepsi and grabbed a bag of Doritos, then rushed past Barbara’s mother with our stash.
“Sleep well, y’all,” she said, her voice a lazy pool.
My mother didn’t drink or smoke, and she didn’t let me drink Pepsi any time, much less at two in the morning. Barbara’s mother was refined, progressive. In fact, her very presence made Barbara seem even more interesting than the pantyhose had — that is, until the Milk Incident.
It was one day the following spring, and our class had just finished P.E. and returned to our classroom for snack time. A carton of plain milk sat at each of our places. I got out the apple slices and peanut butter on Ritz crackers that my mom had packed me and sat down at my table.
Barbara was late coming back from washing her hands, but Christy and I opened our milks and slid the paper off our straws. Christy began sipping her milk, a gentle slip-slurping, and I spread my crackers out on my napkin. I had just bitten into my first cracker when a yowling pierced the room. It was a desperate, agonized sound, the sort of sound I’ve heard only one other time in my life — when I witnessed a dog thrashing about with a fishhook stuck in its cheek.
“That’s my milk!” Barbara screamed.
There were a hundred kids in that room and at least four teachers, yet everything went completely still as Barbara’s screams echoed through the open classroom. Seconds later, Christy was pressed against the cement wall, Barbara’s white fingers clenched around her throat. Christy wore a light blue blouse and pedal pushers. Her feet dangled off the floor. Barbara pressed her face close to Christy’s.
“That was my milk!” Barbara screamed over and over.
The year before, Christy had cut her own bangs, but now they were growing back in, and her hair was pulled back in a hair band. Her cheeks were reddish purple, her eyes wild and strange. Somewhere behind me, a desk toppled over, and then our teacher Mr. Hodges bolted from the far corner. He was a heavyset man with bushy black hair and a broad, thick belly. On normal days, before we headed home, he would pull us into a group bear hug, and our cheeks would smash into his squishy, fatherly gut.
But now, suddenly, he was an athlete, lithe and smooth. In one single bound, he was there, peeling Barbara’s hands off Christy’s throat and lifting her into a lock hold just long enough for Christy to fall to the floor, limp and pale. Mr. Hodges hoisted Barbara onto his ample shoulders and hauled her down to the principal’s office while every single teacher within earshot hovered over Christy until she was able to stand. Long red welts covered her neck.
I had peanut butter stuck to my tongue, and I desperately wanted a drink, but it now seemed insensitive of me to enjoy my milk, so, instead, I waited until the spit was working in my mouth again and swallowed hard. Finally, someone determined that Christy should go home early, and I helped her gather her belongings and pack her book bag while she waited for her mom to pick her up.
The very next day, Barbara came back to school. Christy got to move to a new table across the room, and for the most part we all pretended the Milk Incident had never happened. In front of her, at least. We were all still nice and civil, but something had shifted, and Barbara was no longer invited to birthday parties or sleepovers. Of course, none of us would have been allowed to play with her anymore even if we had wanted to now that what our mothers had heretofore suspected was final and official: Barbara had bad parents.
And with Barbara a safe distance away, we were clever and emboldened. At slumber parties, we would reenact the Milk Incident, each girl taking a turn being Barbara.
“Go ahead,” we would tell Christy. “Take a sip of your drink.”
And then, just as soon as she lifted her cup, one of us would grab her by the arm and shove her against the wall.
“That’s my Coke!” we would scream, wrapping our fingers around her slender neck. “That’s my Coke!”
Christy would laugh so hard that tears ran into her mouth, and we would too. It was a joke that never got old, not even in middle school, or later, in high school, when I would see Christy across the room at a party and scream, “That’s my beer!” and we would laugh until neither one of us could breathe.
By then I had lost touch with Barbara completely, and though in the years that followed, we both, for the most part, remained in our hometown, I never heard any news of her. Then, a couple of years ago, I was out walking my dog early one morning. I was just up the hill from my old elementary school when I ran into Stephanie. Stephanie and I used to cheer together too, but now she was a cop, and today she had crossing-guard duty.
“Hey, Jennifer,” she said.
“Hey,” I said.
I glanced up the road to make sure my car was parked between the lines, then down at my dog to make sure she wasn’t defecating on the sidewalk like she sometimes did.
“Did you hear about Barbara?” Stephanie asked.
Barbara… Barbara… It had been over thirty-five years since the Milk Incident, and the only Barbara I could think of was the grandmother of a mutual friend. In fact, for the first ten minutes Stephanie was talking, I was picturing this other Barbara. But as Stephanie told me the story of the scene she had come upon in her coply duties, the details came together — the military father, the alcoholic mother who had died a few years before, the strange menagerie of dogs — and I knew which Barbara she meant.
Stephanie was greeting kids and urging them on and telling me the story all at once. Periodically, she leapt into the road, blew one sharp blast on her whistle, and threw up one hand. Barbara had been married, Stephanie said, and she had a child, a daughter, but recently she had divorced and moved home to live with her father, who still had several small dogs.
The night before, while her father was upstairs sleeping, Barbara had pulled her minivan into the basement and shut the basement door. Then she got back into her van, turned on the ignition, and waited. Hours later, when the car finally ran out of gas, Barbara, her father, and all of the dogs were dead. She left no note.
When Stephanie was finished with the story, I searched for something appropriate to say, perhaps how shocking it was, how totally unlikely and unexpected, but somehow that just didn’t sound true, even in my head. And so for a long time after that, Stephanie and I stood silently watching the children. It was early fall, and thick mist settled on their backpacks and dampened their tussled hair. We listened to their chatter, to the sounds of childish banter. High-pitched and eager, their voices cascaded down the hill and disappeared into the fog.
A native of Appalachia, Jennifer McGaha lives with her husband, five dogs, twenty-three chickens, and one high-maintenance cat in a tin-roofed cabin bordering the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina. Her creative nonfiction work has appeared in Brooklyner, Toad Suck Review, Switchback, Still, Portland Review, Little Patuxent Review, Lumina, Literary Mama, Mason’s Road, Now and Then, and others. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, running, mountain biking, sampling local beers, and playing with dogs.