Each fall it returns—the memory of a green purse and a girl with lavender eyes.
The first smell of fall did it, like it does every year about this time. Oh, some times a sound will bring it back too, but the smell even brings back the taste and the slippery sweetness. When it is in the air you look at the mountains early in the morning anticipating that first touch of white. The smell seems to bring back the sounds too. The big balloon tires on a Schwinn bike crunching the colors out of fallen box elder and locust leaves on the way home from school and Miss Wasden’s fifth-grade classroom. It’s a smell that is almost too full of pleasant memories, like the sound and the sweet gush of juice when biting into autumn’s first frost-touched apple with its golden, water-cored center.
The smell of fall also meant hunting seasons with rites of preparation by red-flannel-shirted practitioners of horseshoeing, gun cleaning, and sighting in. Closeted drill-sergeant voices would come out every fall along with the red shirts.
“Only three shots at a time; then adjust for windage and elevation. Hold tight and squeeze. Don’t pull?
I was too young that year to get in on much more than the sights and sounds of hunting preparations. I was feeling pretty bad about not going hunting and about school. It seemed time for something special to come into my life. I never doubted the fairness of life, and I was sure something good would finally happen to me. I’d waited for my first man teacher, and then on the first day of school our principal, Mr. Clayson (principal of both junior high and grade school and also the grand presider of the lunchroom), announced that Mr. Wall had gone to Provo, “had gone back to school to finish his degree.” He introduced a Miss Wasden who would be our teacher for the coming year.
After a week we all got to like her quite well. She was nice, and it’s hard for any young boy not to like someone who is nice to him. But she still didn’t know a bat spaulding from an aggie taw, and her voice reading Bomba the Jungle Boy wasn’t nearly as real as Mr. Wall’s would have been.
The school weeks began to blur by and run together in my mind, and I remember now that the beautiful frosty smell was in the air. The crisp stillness of it, the way it pinched the insides of your nose while you were doing chores so that the breakfast smells of oatmeal and bacon were even better than they really were. Each morning you were reminded that winter was approaching and in the afternoons again as the sun was going down.
One day Doug, Jimmy Peterson (there were two Jimmys and one Pete in our class already so at least one of the three of us had a known last name), and I were riding our bicycles home from school on this diagonal trail that cuts through the old Second Ward chapel lot. A good hard path was worn through the weeds and grass between the Church and the two old outhouses. They weren’t used anymore except to tip over on Halloween and to hide in so we could give girls walking by a good scare. They were still weathering and leaning more every year despite their repeated rerightings the week following Halloween. I could see the chrome fenders on Doug’s new red bicycle bobbing back and forth ahead of me several yards when he slipped sideways with all his weight stomping on the coaster brake and leaping off the bicycle all in one motion.
“Look what I found,” he said as he scrambled to his knees along the edge of the worn track. “A purse!”
“Let’s see it,” we answered almost in unison.
“Shh, someone will see us.”
Together the three of us scurried back up the path past our tangled, still-turning wheels and akimbo handlebars to the outhouses. The ladies’ door had been nailed shut, but the men’s was open, and we crowded together inside to examine the contents of the purse.
It really wasn’t much of a purse, looking back at it now. It was too shiny and too green and made out of some of the first plastic, the kind that they used when they were still trying to think of things to use it for, before the Korean War made them start putting it in automobiles and furniture.
There wasn’t much talk in the dim outhouse light. We found only about 50 cents in change in the purse and no name or pictures. The name card was shiny and new like the rest of the purse. If we had known who it belonged to, I’m sure we wouldn’t have done what we did with it. But as it was, in a flash we had the money—Doug carried it because he saw it first—and we dropped the purse down the biggest hole into the black undeniable bowls of the outhouse. Then we were out of there and on our bikes and down to LaRue’s Market like a shot. Mr. LaRue was busy with a man in a white shirt, so we went over to look at the comics. I’d found a couple of good “Tarzans” with the top third of the front covers cut off. Mr LaRue always did that to the comics that didn’t sell the month before, and then you could buy them for half price.
“Come over here, boys.” It was the man in the white shirt.
“I’m telling you, Jack,” he was talking to Mr. LaRue, “you won’t be able to keep them in once people get a taste. I’ve seen new products come and go, but this is a real breakthrough.”
The sewn-on picture of a loaf of bread kept bobbing back and forth on his short-sleeved white shirt, and he kept waving his arms.
“Watch,” he said.
“Here, boys, come and try a free sample.”
And he cut a dark brown, almost black, slickly frosted cupcake in half, and as he did, we saw that the middle was white and part of it stuck deliciously to his knife. The cake separated, showing its white insides as it rolled over on the tray.
“Here, each of you take a half.” Then he cut another one, making us wait a little longer before handing any of the pieces to us.
In turn he placed a rich brown half, exposed white center up, in our hands. We timidly took a smell as we held them up to our faces, our eyes still on the salesman waiting for his permission to go ahead. We were in his power. “Take a bite. It’s more delicious than you can imagine.” They were delicious, and all the while we were eating them, he went on talking.
“The combination of the devil’s food and our secret cream filling is without parallel in food merchandising.”
By then all the rest of us, including Mr. LaRue, were into the cream centers, and I have to this day not tried anything sweeter or more delicious or memorable to my taste than that first bite of moist marshmallow cream in the center of that devil’s food cupcake. It was as if a breath of heavenly pure white ambrosia was centered in the chocolate cake.
“Don’t you want to buy some, boys? How many, Jack? Think a gross will last you till next week?”
All of us nodded yes. What else could we do, now? He continued to fill out his order, then went out to the truck and brought in more cakes. For a good part of our allotted going-home time we stood in the corner of LaRue’s Market and read comic books, only the ones with the tops off, and ate more of the new cupcakes, bought and paid for with the contents of the purse we had found.
To this day I don’t remember whether I was really alone or not. Doug and Jimmy Peterson may have gone on before me. I was still deep in “Red Ryder,” “Little Beaver,” and “Tarzan,” sure that I could finish soon and catch them in a block or two if I had to. But I was reading, facing the magazine rack, when I heard other people come in behind me.
The lady seemed old to a fifth grader; she was probably at least 35. With her were two little girls, one small and the other one about eight. It seems funny now that I didn’t know them, because even then I thought I knew everyone who lived in Santaquin. One grade school, two small grocery stores, two wards, and two pages in the telephone directory pretty well took care of Santaquin and still does.
I had never seen the mother before. The younger child is still faceless in my mind, but the face of her older sister has remained vividly with me to this day. In her pale, delicate, almost china-fragile white face were set enormous lavender eyes. She had the lacy delicacy of a sego lily, one growing under a sagebrush in a marginal area where it has barely enough light to survive. Her eyes were out of proportion to the rest of her face. Their dark liquid presence made you look deep into her soul before you could take your own eyes away. You could look a long time and never be stopped by a light reflection in them. They were now rimmed with tears, and her soft, shoulder-length hair covered the collar of her blue woolen coat. Her hair was the lace that framed her china face. I even wonder now if this striking creature was really an older being inside of a child’s body. Yet, her eyes could not have looked more hurt nor mirrored any greater sadness than they did that day. She started to sob softly as if she were already exhausted from crying. “I don’t know where I lost it. I had it right here in my pocket when I left school.”
“Are you certain, Susanne?” the mother asked. And I remember the feeling of surprise to hear an ordinary mortal name attached to something so angelic.
“Yes, I’m so sorry I lost it, Mama.”
“Well let’s go back once more. Maybe if we walk clear back to school we’ll find it. Your father will feel so bad. He already felt terrible about missing your birthday. He sent you the purse, and now you have lost it and your birthday money. Look carefully now. I’m sure we’ll find it if we watch carefully all the way back to school.”
I stood there dumb and immobile. I wanted to blurt out the truth. I couldn’t. It was as if I had grabbed onto an electric fence and couldn’t let go. I didn’t want it to be true. If only I could have willed the purse back to the path, I knew they would be able to find it. But they wouldn’t now; they couldn’t and I knew it. Sickness came in a wave from my depths. I was suffering. Speechless and frozen and dying inside. My first experience of feeling that excruciating torture and hurt and conscience for someone else that is more severe, that is wider in range and deeper in feeling than you can possibly feel for yourself. For the first time I was living the pain of someone else, and what made it even worse, I had caused it.
I don’t remember the rest of the day—when I got home or what was said when I did. I don’t remember ever seeing that incredibly sad little girl with the haunting eyes again except in my mind. She is not a memory, thank goodness, that is too accessible now. She is hidden deeply in among the stretch marks and scar tissue of growing. However, she does come back annually with the smells of fall, and the many good memories of growing up. She is there like an old war wound that helps you tell the seasons, a part of you you’d rather not have but learn to live with and accept, another ache or heart murmur. Yet her memory and the burning feelings inside come together to remind me on mornings when this first smell of winter is in the air. Then I think of her again, and of that fifth-grade day many years ago, and of the first scorching of the taste buds of my soul.