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It was good to have people talking about you, but not when they said what on earth is wrong with Nadine Lee?
They were in the kitchen after dinner, on the night before Nadine was to go away to Oxford. Nadine’s mother, Vivette, sat at the table and polished the silver, glancing up at her daughter, who stood at the sink washing dishes. Nadine was just nineteen, and acknowledged to be the most beautiful girl in Hattiesburg: fair-complexioned with very dark hair and eyes, and fine features that gave her every expression a sharpened edge. Vivette was a narrow woman in her forties, shorter than her daughter and graying. It was good that Nadine was so attractive, thought Vivette, and that the girl had learned to cook and clean house. Those were part of what made a good wife. As for the rest – a mother could teach only so much. But that unteachable portion was just what Nadine would need to find a husband, and it was the very thing that she lacked – warmth, charm, or at least interest in the boys who buzzed around her.
The girl handled the dishes with a troubled expression, stopping every few minutes to sigh and cover her mouth to stop whatever words she was about to say. When there were no more dishes to wash, Nadine turned to her mother.
“I can’t do this, Momma.”
“Don’t bring that up again. It’s all decided.” Vivette rubbed the tines of a fork with a cloth held between her thumb and forefinger.
“I’m not saying I won’t go. I’m just saying it’s not going to work.”
Vivette had decided to send Nadine off to the University of Mississippi in Oxford to find a husband. The best sons of the Magnolia State would be gathered there, and Nadine would be a glamorous novelty. The arrangements were complete. Nadine’s bus ticket hung on the refrigerator door, held fast by a tooth-shaped magnet bearing the address and phone number of her father’s former dental office. As usual for these days, Oscar Lee was not to be found in the house.
“Of course it’s going to work.”
“What does Daddy say?”
“What do you think? He doesn’t say anything. He agrees with me.”
Nadine flailed one hand in a gesture of frustration. “There are boys here. I could marry one of them if it’s so important.”
“Who? Who would you marry?” Vivette put her fork down on the table with a sharp click. It was far too late for Nadine to start thinking about this.
“John Stuckey. He left all those flowers and poems, don’t you remember? He left them on the front porch, on the rocking chair?”
“John Stuckey?” Vivette shook her head in sadness, thinking about the boy whose father owned three grocery stores. The young man had an extensive morning paper route that included the Lee house, and for a time had left Nadine presents and admiring notes along with the Clarion-Ledger. “John Stuckey would have been a fine husband for you, Nadine. Just fine. Except, what did you say to him? I forget.”
Nadine chewed on the inside of her lip. “I asked him to stop leaving the notes. He’d been doing it for a while. I got tired of it.”
“You gave them all back to him and said, you must be stupid to think I want these. In front of everyone.” Vivette had noticed that Nadine collected the notes in a box in her room, and had mistaken that tidiness for sentiment. Instead, Nadine had waited for the box to fill up before delivering it to the boy at his desk at school. Vivette was crushed to learn of this after it happened, and now Gwendolyn Stuckey would not speak to her at church.