When meeting new people, you should always put your best foot forward—though, sometimes you need a little help from a friend
“Hey. My name is Caledonia Greengrass. Please-ta-meetcha.” Callie squinted at her reflection in the fly-specked, wavering glass. What she saw staring back didn’t fill her with confidence: baby-fine, mouse-brown hair skinned back in wispy French-braids; down-turned, apologetic, hazel eyes; and a small, pink, rosebud mouth, poised to beg pardon for whatever’d just passed its lips.
“Such a sweet li’l mouth — a perfec’ cupid’s bow,” her ma always said. Too bad cupid’s bows were last in style twenty years ago.
The girl in the mirror peered back at Cassie. Her lathe-thin body was enveloped in a worn but freshly-pressed pink-and-red-striped cotton dress printed on the skirt pockets with smiling cat faces. White knee-socks drooped on her skinny legs and balled up under too-narrow feet. Deep cracks in her leather saddle-shoes showed through their thick coat of polish.
The uneven hem of her hand-knit sweater sagged on one side, and the baggy left sleeve was over-long. Whoever’d knitted it had chosen a shade of crusty, festering, mustard-yellow, guaranteed to suit no-one on this earth.
Callie sighed. She knew Ma’d done her best to find something nice for Callie’s first day at her new school. But fifty-cents, though a considerable sum to Callie and her ma, really don’t go far, even in a church-basement jumble sale. And Ma’s color-sense was iffy on a good day. This hadn’t been one.
Maybe the teacher’d excuse her from introducing herself to the class. Take pity on the new kid. Fat chance.
Callie would’ve been fine staying at St. Mary’s. She was happy there. Though it served the poorest families in the parish, the school had a fine reputation. But Ma was convinced the only way her daughter’d have a chance at a college education was through a scholarship from Miss Lydia Farmer’s Academy for Young Women. And when her ma made up her mind, well, there was no getting around it.
So, with Callie’s excellent academic record, and a glowing letter of recommendation straight from the hand of the Arch-Bishop of the Diocese, the girl was admitted to Miss Lydia’s fall term as a Special Student. Only a few ‘special’ girls had ever been accepted in the long, proud history of the academy — three since its founding in eighteen-and-forty-seven, almost a full hundred years. Callie would be the fourth.
She stuffed her hand-painted, wooden pencil case into her satchel, along with six new scribblers. Now, that had been a find! A cellophane-wrapped pack for only a dime. Mind you, they were thin, and the paper was poor quality, but they were new and to Callie’s eyes, perfect.
She gazed around the room she shared with her mother at the top of the great house. Formerly the maids’ quarters, it had been refurbished for Callie and her ma. When they’d first moved in, Miz Carter’d been at great pains to explain as how her cook usually had a room off the kitchen, but she’d made this arrangement special for them. Callie was pretty sure the real reason’d been Miz Carter didn’t want a little kid underfoot downstairs.
The tiny bedroom alcoves under the eaves on either side could be closed off from the sitting room by privacy curtains. An ancient horse-hair-stuffed sofa squatted on carved, wooden feet under the oval, tilt-frame window. The sofa was sided by two elderly wing chairs — good, solid pieces but well past their prime, cast-offs from the downstairs parlor when Miz Carter had it ‘redone’ in a new style she favored, Danish Modern, or, as Miz Carter said, “Mo-derne.”
Callie privately thought it cold and severe, but it made her Saturday mornings easier. Wiping down a few tall, skinny lamps and dusting the sleek, bare, teak tables was nothing compared to hand cleaning each bit of china bric-a-brac which had cluttered up the old, Victorian-style parlor.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”
Callie hummed the popular tune as she clattered down the steep, back stairs to the kitchen. The bright fall morning poured in through high, multi-paned windows and drizzled butterscotch on the day. Fresh, oblongs of dough warm from the proofing oven marched in a neat, soldierly row across crisp, linen tea-towels on the scrubbed-pine table, waiting for Callie’s ma to punch them down one last time and pop them into the huge, shiny, black oven.
Her ma turned from the stack of bread pans soaking in the stone sink under the windows and raised a sudsy hand in warning. “Hush your racket, chile. Miz Carter’s still sleepin’ an’ Miss Claire ain’ come down yet.”
Callie grinned. In all the time she and her ma’d ‘done’ for the Carters, she’d never know either one to surface before ten. Miz Carter always took her coffee in the morning room, with its view of her beloved rose garden. And Miss Claire never graced the dinner table before luncheon.
Callie set her satchel by the door and hugged her ma. She’d tied up her long dark hair in one of her colorful turbans and she smelled of yeast and lemony dish-soap. A stray bubble tickled Callie’s nose.
Her ma took the girl by the shoulders, her sparkling brown eyes locked on her daughter’s timid gaze. “You ready, chile?”
Ma’s voice was warm and spicy, just like her Creole gumbo, thick with love and hot-peppers. “Jus’ put your best foot forward, an’ you’ll be fine.” She cupped a wet hand under Callie’s chin. “No slouchin’, now. Y’all stan’ up tall. Greengrass is a proud, old N’O’leans family…”
Callie thrust her shoulders back. “Yes’m. I remember… descended from Édouard Gingras, the Acadian, expelled by the British to roam the south ’til he found a home with Jean Lafitte, deep in the everglades.”
Ma nodded, pleased with her daughter’s recitation. Callie gazed at her mother’s petite frame, well-padded and womanly in all the right places. “I wish…”
“An’ what would your Nana Selina say ‘bout wishin’ yourself away.”
Callie giggled. Some of her favorite memories were of her tiny, wizened grandmother, rocking by a big open fireplace, dispensing hugs an’ home-spun wisdom in equal proportions. The saying her ma referred to, “If wishes were horses, the beggars’d ride,” in Nana Selina’s mouth, was more pungent than polite, but all the more memorable. “Weesh in one ’and, sheet in one ’and, clap zem, so! An’ what you ’ave?”
Her ma took two ham-salad biscuits, left-over from yesterday’s lunch, and wrapped them in waxed paper. She popped them in a brown paper sac and added slice of sharp cheddar, a jam-tart and a small apple. “That oughta keep you ’til supper. Scoot, now. An’ don’t go bangin’ the door. I got a seed cake in th’ oven.”
Callie closed the door soft as a fox slidin’ quiet past a sleepin’ hound-dog’s nose. She managed to keep her spirits up all the way to the old bridge at Fortnum Road. Once across, the dirt lane divided. One fork wound down through sunlit pastures towards town and dear, familiar St. Mary’s. The other climbed the hill where massive, white oaks cast their cool, dappled shade across the road to Miss Lydia’s.
Callie stared at the sunny lane, thinking how wonderful it would be to skip down it and join her friends at St Mary’s, where she wouldn’t have to face a room full of strangers—worse, a room full of strangers from fine homes where girls like Callie made their beds and picked up after them, washed their dirty laundry, cleaned their bathrooms.
Ma’s voice rang in her ears. Put yer best foot forward. Callie squared her shoulders, and trudged up the drive towards the wrought-iron gates.
Footsteps crunched in the gravel behind her. Startled, Callie swung round and eyed the approaching trio.
A sharp-eyed, raven haired girl loomed over Callie. “You lost?” Her friends snickered.
Callie shook her head.
“Well, then, you better git.”
“But — but I’m a new student, here.”
“Here?” The girl’s lip curled. “You don’t belong here.” She wrenched Callie’s satchel from her hands and threw it into the lane, then shoved Callie after it.
Callie tripped and landed hard. The dark-haired girl and her friends sauntered away. Their careless laughter floated back on the cool morning air. “Welcome to Miss Lydia’s, New Girl.”
Callie sat on the grassy verge and picked gravel out of her knee and wished with all her might she could just fly away to St Mary’s.
The blare of a car-horn made her jump. Miss Claire, a pale, chiffon scarf protecting her perfect auburn curls, wheeled her sleek, two-seater roadster to a halt beside Callie. “Get in.”
Callie fanned away the billowing dust and stared, bemused. “Who, me?”
“You see someone else sittin’ by the road? Get in, you’ll be late for class.”
“I‘m not goin’ to that school. I can’t.” To her horror, Callie’s voice trembled.
“Yes, you can. An’ you will.” Claire nodded towards Callie’s skinned knee. “You hurt?”
“Then get in.”
Callie retrieved her satchel and slid into the passenger seat, the smooth leather cool against her legs. Miss Clare put the convertible in gear and rocketed up the lane. The young woman watched Cassie from the corner of her eye, but the girl was too sunk in misery to notice her surroundings.
Lush manicured lawns surrounded the gracious, Georgian-style stone buildings. Beds bursting with vibrant mums, violas and purple asters lined curving walkways, and tall urns crammed with scarlet geraniums and English ivy framed the portico.
The sleek roadster swept up the broad, circular drive and rolled to a stop by the grassy common. Claire surveyed the clusters of girls on their way to class. “Who’s queen-bee this year?” She drummed long, scarlet nails on the steering wheel.
Her gaze sharpened. She pulled her sunglasses down and stared over the rims at a slim, blonde girl in a pale blue cashmere twin-set over a cream pencil-skirt, the epicenter of a fawning circle of younger girls. “Perfect.”
Claire poked Callie’s arm. “You hush, now, and learn.” She summoned a toothy smile and waved. “Yoo-hoo. Bootsie — Bootsie Warren.”
Callie stared but sat quiet.
Puzzled but curious, the blonde girl approached the roadster. Her little coterie followed at a respectful distance.
“Bootsie Warren, jus’ look at you. Las’ time I set eyes on you, you were all freckles an’ gangly knees — an’ those braces — my, my, my. You get them off yet?” Claire’s smile broadened. “You don’t remember me, do you, Bootsie. I’m Claire, Claire Carter. I went here with your older sister, Beckie. We were such friends. Why, we even dated the same boy, Roger Somebody… I forget now, Roger… what was his name?”
The girl stiffened. Her cheeks flushed bright pink. “I’m sure I don’t recall.”
“Well, no matter. This here’s our cook’s daughter, Callie Greengrass. Callie, say, ‘Hi,’ to Bootsie.”
Callie ducked her head in a shy smile. “Um…Hi, Bootsie.”
The blonde girl’s eyes glinted. “My name is Beth-Ann. Only my friends call me ‘Bootsie’.”
Claire flapped a careless hand, waving away Beth-Ann’s protest. “Oh, Bootsie, I jus’ know Callie’s gonna do real well here with you in her corner. Don’t you agree? Oh, an’ say ‘Hi,’ to Becky for me.”
The blonde girl smiled at Callie as if her face hurt. “Nice to meet you, I’m sure.” She stalked away, her back poker-straight.
Claire tapped a tailor-made against her enameled case and thumbed the wheel on her heavy, gold lighter. She sucked in a lung-full of smoke and let it trickle out her nose.
“Beth-Ann’s sister, Beckie? Roger Cunningham got her pregnant our senior year. I heard they sent her back east to an auntie or some such.” She flashed a stern glance at Callie. “Beth-Ann’ll be nice or, at least, ignore you as long as you don’t let on you know anythin’. So, forget what I jus’ tol’ you an’ don’t ever say a word about her sister. Understand?”
Callie shook her head. “No’m.”
Claire sighed. “Listen. Now Beth-Ann knows I’ve taken an interest in you, she an’ her bunch’ll leave you be. She doesn’t dare mess with me, but that only goes so far. The second you act like you have somethin’ over her, she’ll make it her life’s work to rid this town of you an’ your mama. Got it?”
“Good. Now get to class.”
“Yes’m.” Callie slid out of the roadster clutching her satchel and paused, her hand on the door. “Um, thank you, Miss Claire.”
Claire snorted. “Don’t thank me. Jus’ prove your mama right. Go to college. Use your brain for somethin’ besides holdin’ your ears apart.”
She spun the roadster round, spraying dust and gravel. Her cheeky horn blared, drawing every eye. Then Claire waved and shouted over her shoulder before she sped off. “See you tonight, Callie.”
Curious girls, including a tall, brown-eyed one with raven hair, stared after the sports car, wondering who this new student was to rate such attention from the stylish and much-envied Miss Claire Carter.
A tiny smile lifted the corners of Callie’s lips as she hurried to meet her new class-mates. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad First Day, after all.