Claudine, Nadine, and Pauline are walking up Hill Street and the oily black cargo train to Durham is rattling along the tracks behind them, the tanker cars of chemicals chatter almost as noisily as the girls. Yesterday was the last day of school for the summer and so now, June and July and August stretch before the three black sisters, triplets in fact, like the banks of an old and winding river. September is as far away as the moon as far as they’re concerned, what matters is now they have days and days to sleep and play and go to Mike’s Mart for candy.
Its the second week of June and already the pavement burns the bottoms of their bare feet as they walk in a wide formation up the left lane of the street. Nadine always walks on the yellow line, she insists its cooler, but Claudine says, “If Mama saw you walkin’ up the middle of the road, she’d skin you.” And so Claudine stays closer to the curb and Pauline always zigzags, sometimes she walks in people’s front yards and sometimes she’s far out on the street, past the yellow line where Nadine carefully lays each step down like she’s on a tight rope.
They are wearing their bathing suits from last summer and their ample asses and new breasts are bursting from the seams of the matching flowered suits. Their mother noticed this in the morning as the girls were playing in their front yard, just below the porch, where their father likes to sit in the evenings and smoke one cigarette and drink exactly two Schlitz beers in the can before he goes to bed. He meditates on the little glowing ash at the end of his cigarette and listens to the murmuring coming from inside the house—the quiet sounds of his wife putting his three daughters to bed. He imagines the girls all curled up in their white nightgowns hip to hip, knees to back of knees, their dark arms around one another as they begin to dream. He wonders what they will dream about as he sips his cold beer and looks at the few stars that are visible in the sky over the train tracks.
But Claudine, Nadine and Pauline don’t seem to notice or care that their bathing suits don’t fit them anymore, they are just so glad to be outside and walking with the yellow sun touching their soft brown shoulders. And besides, they are each wearing something of their own choosing to cover up just a little to go to Mike’s Mart, cause Mr. Mike doesn’t like kids coming into the store with only their bathing suits on -- he has a sign on the door that says No Shirt? No Shoes? No Service. But the girls never wear shoes in Mike’s and he never notices, he just hollers at them when they come in wearing nothing but their bathing suits. So Nadine wears her favorite pink stretchy mini skirt pulled up over her hips and even though its kinda old now and the hem is frayed, she still swings around in it like the day her mother gave it to her.
Claudine likes to wear her father’s work shirts, they are cadet blue and they have his name, Gerald, embroidered over the breast pocket in red cursive letters, and sometimes she gets one that her mother hasn’t washed yet and so it smells like her father—salt mixed with motor oil—the shirt hangs down almost to her knees and she likes how it covers her elbows with its short sleeves that aren’t so short on her. Claudine doesn’t like her elbows, they dimple when her arms are straight and they are as round as tennis balls when she curls her arms around her body to hug herself. She wants boney elbows like her cousin Leazy, who lives in Hurdle Mills on a cattle farm with their grandmother and grandfather. Leazy’s mother died five years ago, and so she had no where to go, except to her grandparents, but sometimes Leazy comes to stay for a night and she’s so thin that Claudine, Nadine and Pauline make fun of her and call her names like Olive Oil and say shit like, “Leazy, yer so skinny that no boy is ever gonna want to dance with you!” But really, Claudine wishes she were skinny like Leazy, she thinks it would be nice to feel more like a bird than a whistle pig.
Pauline is wearing a t-shirt over her bathing suit -- its faded, the color of a dandelion and is emblazoned with the Chiquita Banana logo. There’s a small tear in the back of the shirt that came from a fight Pauline had with a girl at school last year. The girl was a real tall white girl with blonde hair and she called Pauline stupid, so Pauline knocked her down on the playground, and Pauline thought she was done fighting with the girl, but she got up and came after Pauline and ripped her shirt and scratched her arm. Pauline turned around and was ready to deck the girl when a teacher came running and hollering and sent both of them to the Office. There they sat, next to each other waiting for the Principal to talk to them and Pauline was crying and the white girl just kept calling her stupid, cause she knew Pauline could hit her in the Principal’s office.
Pauline, Nadine, and Claudine hold the door for Mizz Pat when they get to Mike’s Mart. Mizz Pat lives in the yellow house with the green door right next to the tracks. She looks older than she really is, her skin looks like puddy against her blue grey hair that’s pulled back in a long braid. She comes to Mike’s everyday at lunch time to buy her twelve pack of Coors Light for her and Mr. Pat, a pack of Marlboro Lites, and she always spends a little time with Mike to talk about the neighbors and this gives her just enough time to heat up a ham biscuit in the microwave, which she eats before she walks home with her beer and cigarettes. “Thank you girls, your mama didn’t raise rude children, did she?” Mizz Pat always says that and the girls always reply, “No Mam!” Pauline watches Mizz Pat walk across the parking lot and she notices for the first time that one of her legs in bigger than the other -- she always knew Mizz Pat had a funny way of walking, but she never noticed that leg before.
“Uh Oh, here comes trouble in a three pack!” Mike says that everytime Nadine, Claudine, and Pauline come in the store and they giggle every time he says it, like he’s never said it to them before. “What’ll it be today girlfriends?”
“I want an ICEE, strawberry!” Claudine skips to the ICEE machine and presses her warm cheek against the picture of the polar bear, “Nadine wants strawberry too!”
“I do not!”
“I changed my mind. I want Coca-Cola flavored just like Pauline always gets.” Nadine is eyeing the candy shelves while she says this. Pauline skips up next to Claudine and draws an outline around the Polar Bear with one thin brown finger, “Its true, Nadine and I both want Coca-Cola flavored ICEEs, please.”
“Three ICEEs coming up!” Mike pulls out three large red and turquoise paper cups with the same smiling Polar Bear on the side. The machine grinds away at the ice and the strawberry and Coca-Cola syrup. “What else for my girlfriends?”
Pauline grabs a pack of Skittles and a handful of Fireballs, Claudine selects her Strawberry Twizzlers and two Tootsie-Pops. But Nadine is still thinking about her choice. She wanted Fireballs, but since Pauline got Fireballs, she decides she wants something else. But what? She decides that a handful of Double Bubble and a box of Lemonheads will be just right for the afternoon. The girls pile the candy on the counter next to Mike’s register and Mike sets their ICEEs down next to the sugar loot, “Is this for here or to go girls?”
“Mr. Mike, you know we always get it to go!” Says Claudine.
“But I gotta ask! One day, the day I don’t ask, you three are going to tell me its for here. That y’all are gonna sit at that table by the window and drink your ICEEs and stay all afternoon to eat that candy.”
“No way Mr. Mike. That table is for the old men to come in and shoot the breeze!” Says Pauline
“Shoot the breeze? Now where did you learn that?” Mike leans on his hands on the counter and laughs just a little bit at Pauline.
“My Daddy -- he says that about Mr. Pat and Mr. Darling, that they like to come up here and Shoot the Breeze and get away from their wives.”
“Pauline!” Claudine slaps Pauline on the shoulder/
“Well its true! That’s what he says!” Pauline slaps Claudine back.
“Girls, girls, stop, please. Your Daddy’s right, Mr. Pat and Mr. Darling come up here all the time to Shoot the Breeze and to get away from Mizz Pat and Mizz Darling. That table by the window is reserved exclusively for them. So, do y’all want to pay together or separately?”
“Together!” They all shout and put their dollars and coins up on the counter for Mr. Mike to sort out.
“Okay, so that’s three ICEEs at a dollar each, five fireballs, five Double Bubbles, one Twizzler, two Tootsie-Pops, and one Lemonheads . . . you got a dollar left over here. You want to buy something else?”
“Yessir.” Says Claudine.
“Well, what is it?”
“We want to buy something for our mother.”
“No. She don’t like candy.” Says Claudine looking sideways at Pauline and Nadine.
“How about some boiled peanuts?” Mr. Mike points to the barrel of Virginia Brand Boiled Peanuts. The girls mull it over, and then they all smile.
“Yes! She would love a bag of peanuts. Can we get a big bag for a dollar?”
“I think so.” Mike moves from behind the counter and scoops out the peanuts into a brown paper bag. He weighs them on the little red scale that has the Virginia Brand logo on it. He adds more peanuts to the bag and declares the bag to be a dollars worth, although he knows its more like three dollars worth, but he wants Josephine, the mother of Claudine, Nadine and Pauline to be impressed with her gift bag of boiled peanuts.
“Thank you Mr. Mike.” The girls take the bag of peanuts along with the three little paper bags he packaged their candies in, the girls peer in the bags and make sure that they get the candy of their choice. Then they each take their ICEEs, after Mike has carefully stuck a straw in each cup and they file out the door.
Nadine, Claudine, and Pauline start the walk back down Hill Street and they hear another train coming, its still outside of town, near the highway, they know its the big train, the one that goes all the way to New Orleans. It will be in sight just about the time they get to their front porch.