Martha King


Florence Greene

I loved Florence Greene. I bit her once in a passionate rage, clamping my teeth around the flesh above her wrist and holding on. I was horrified afterwards at the purpling circular print. I could see it as Aggie shook me and called me a mad dog. At Rye Springs Country Club in Charlottesville. I don't remember the rest. Florence and I were four.
     She was green with an e, like her several times great-grandfather General Nathanael Greene, not only famous but magically alive, even in the placid prose of schoolbooks. Like Florence, he had frizzy reddish hair and a wild imagination.
     Florence was the only child I knew who understood detachment. She had distance, a pocket of air, which enabled observation. Like me, she was shuttled among difficult adults and went along with odd things, life by life. I could rely on her responses, and she on mine. Instant. Assumed. We could escape together like Tom and Huck on a silver nightriver winding in broad daylight through the great backyard of the South.
     Every spring, Aggie's great white Persian Mehitabelle had more new kittens. Florence and I would try to coax the older ones who were wild in the bushes all over the neighborhood. They were feral creatures and knew better than to respond to chirrups of "kitty kitty" from the two of us. I'd been warned that Deke, her black German shepherd "snapped" and I was happy to stay away from him. Daffy, the black and white Border collie, was much more appealing, but Aggie mumbled Daffy might be "unreliable" so I stayed away from him too. When they were in the house I always wished they weren't. At meals they lunged under the dining room table and knocked into my legs while Aggie fed them and then pretended she had not.
     In Charlottesville, I learned discretion. The summer and fall at the end of the war when I was alone with Aggie I was given watered wine to drink at dinner. I was free to wear or read whatever I chose, but I had to adapt to life as her appendage. It was not like being a child. My parents said vaguely that I'd learn about art while I lived with her but while I often went with her while she did watercolors in the country, and I was given nice paper and plenty of paints, I never learned anything from Aggie about work. Enjoyment was her gift and her undoing, and interesting distractions kept her flitting through the course of a day. Reading interrupted by a phone call. Gardening abandoned to discuss housekeeping chores. Errands that turned into visits with friends. Tea time. Cocktail time. Long long mornings. Aggie was served breakfast in bed on a big wooden tray carried up by the silent Viola. She spent a lot time in bed in the morning, reading the Charlottesville Observer, and ordering groceries on her bedside telephone. It was the best time to get her into story telling. The Greek myths, Shakespeare's plots. Bible stories.
     And I learned other things. She showed me the difference between porcelain and pottery, between cherry and mahogany, between veneer and solid construction, between silver plate and sterling. She talked about the symbols used on hallmarks, and showed me that some of her silver was actually "fine Georgian" but unscrupulous dealers had cut the bottoms out so the precious hallmarks could be soldered onto larger but inferior pieces. Thus their authenticity was proved by the absence of hallmarks on her pieces and by the rough edged patches visible underneath.
     At Aggie's I could open any book I found - and I was allowed to use my watercolors on illustrations I fancied, or make my own paintings in the flyleaves. She taught me to notice the shadows of blue in red things and the glimmers of yellow in browns. I was to be her flesh-and-blood imaginary playmate, to be there when she wanted to be amused and to be occupied elsewhere when I was inconvenient. ("Go read." "Go play.") It was difficult, but I liked it. It was a bondage in which I had the faint foretaste of the power of a lover because winning an argument was possible; the power borders could shift instead of being fixed - child here, grownups there. I was allowed to be sophisticated, invited to try exotic food like raw oysters or brains sautéed in brown butter. Things that would have scandalized every child I knew.
     And I had Florence.      I used to forget her in the long school year months between visits to Charlottesville. But when we met again and ran together, her familiarity would flood over me.
     "Company's coming," Aggie would say. "Those biscuits are for company. This is the company whiskey. Tell Viola to wash the company plates."
     If Florence weren't there, I might sit on the floor, listening to company talk, but if she were, we'd go off. Play was easy to do. Florence would do anything. We'd fly down the hill into dangerous landscape-the empty lots at the bottom of Preston Place where abandoned foundations for an apartment building crisscrossed among wild honeysuckle. Only the row of garages had been completed when the Depression closed down the developers. Aggie kept her brown Ford convertible in one of them. The rest was a maze of walls, stuck full of half-grown trees and piles of odd building rubble. We'd been warned never to play there. Indeed, there were often signs of small cooking fires and weird piles of old clothes in the corners, but why should those invisible drifters have cared about us and our games? We weren't truly sure but I knew this was not like being bad in Lynchburg. A tingle of adult fear spiked our inventions. Florence and I were archeologists opening tombs, we were pirates, wild horses, deep-sea divers, and-the female delight of it-victims of earthquake, kidnap, or unnamable sicknesses. Book stories and movie stories amalgamated for the two of us and everything else faded.
     Lynchburg was a world away. In Lynchburg the elms grew in a high arch over the street. The sidewalks were wide, the houses spacious, clean, and proper, all the lawns were trimmed as Aggie's never was. Aggie's garden was a half wild jumble with curling brick pathways. There were no sidewalks on her street and you could see beyond her front hedge only by climbing the huge mimosa in her side yard. What I did when I was "playing outside," with or without Florence, was always my own business.
     In Lynchburg explanations were required. There was an acceptable way to do everything and no action was spontaneous. Miss Lot had no house animals at all. Cats were an abomination and dogs lived as dogs should in the dog houses at the bottom of their steep backyard. They were Big Minor's hunting dogs anyway, and not in anyway to be considered pets. In Lynchburg, the division between children and adults was absolute. Children sat at the little table, took naps after lunch, went upstairs to the toilet right after breakfast to do their duty, no matter what. We had to report on it too, before receiving permission to go outside.
     Outside there were almost a dozen kids on the uphill section of Woodlawn Avenue. The street took a deep dip just past the Davidson's house and plunged through an invisible border into terra incognito. Uphill kids didn't know or want to know anyone who lived down there. Except for one child, a girl of about ten, who was inexplicably targeted. The gang ran after her shouting "Priss-prot SU-zun, priss-prot SU-zun" from the time she reached the upper part of Woodlawn until she was almost at the corner of Elmwood. I once asked someone about Susan and was told, "She thinks she's so smart, she plays the piano." That was it.
     The gang accepted me just fine, my sister, my brother, and any Dandridge cousins who happened to be at the house, just as simply as they all called my grandmother "Miss Lot" and minded what they were told by Gracie. It was required by the rules of neighbor relationships. They didn't really care nor did I. We shared jacks, hopscotch, playing cards - all games with pre-set rules, not that Lynchburg games were devoid of thrills. In long buzzing late summer afternoons everyone gathered for hide and seek, capture the flag, and scariest of all, ain't no bears-ancient games in which the tribe divided for warfare or the hunt and victims linked magically with predators. They brought me hives, nosebleeds, and exaltation.
     Summer heat waves were inevitable in the South. In Charlottesville they were hallucinatory. Steaming air collected in a bowl over the whole town and Aggie's house was old and small. There might have been an electric fan in the kitchen, but otherwise, the only concession were the open screened windows. I slept in a room barely big enough to hold a bed, just off Aggie's painting studio. Winter or summer, the air there was always heavy with book dust and the sting of turpentine. When it was hot, the smell of her oils mingled with pollen from the untrimmed privet hedge. All across the back of house was a thicket of bamboo where Mehitabelle's offspring and who knows what else prowled. At night it emanated a mind-bending stink of cat pee while flocks of mosquitoes whined and breached the rickety screens. Sleep when it came brought night sweats and bad dreams. But no one cared if I stripped and turned on the light to read.
     During heat waves in Lynchburg we were allowed to run outside in our pajamas and scramble into the backseat of Big Minor's car. He would drive along the boulevards above the thick, dark James River until the breeze and motion knocked us out. Heat waves, like existential questions, had answers in Lynchburg: Cool sheets. High ceilings. Chilled water. God says.