Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 The Romantic Life of Babette Jenkins

 

 

Babette Jenkins wore thick glasses and waistless housedresses. She kept her gray and black hair cut short so she wouldn’t have to brush it. She took very good care of her aging parents, even though Babette was beginning to feel the effects of age herself as she approached her sixtieth birthday. Bookshelves holding novels with titles like Windless Summer or Save the Last Dance lined the walls of Babette’s room, the same room she slept in since she wore glasses shaped like cat’s eyes and colored her lips in Ruby Splendor. The covers of her books showcased women whose long brown locks tangled and tumbled over milky shoulders and ripped bodices. Most nights were warm and fragrant, and even in late autumn Babette slept with her window open so the breeze could whisper against her skin and hair.

She had worked steadily at Hudson Wire as an inventory clerk since the week after she graduated from high school, but few options presented themselves in Rising Fawn, Georgia, other than the Baptist churches, the bank, or the dime-store.  There weren’t even many waitressing jobs since it isn’t legal to serve or sell liquor in Dade County. She never took off work other than during the factory-scheduled holidays. Once, Babette had gone as far away as Myrtle Beach with her sister Dinah during the July holiday. Although she didn’t own a swimsuit, she walked barefoot on the beach under cover of a big straw hat every morning before Dinah awoke. She liked the way the sand gritted against her toes, and she didn’t complain about the perpetual burr of sand on the floor of the little yellow house Dinah had rented from a friend. The sound of the ocean and the college kids renting the house next door rumbled together long into the nights all week, even though she slept with her window closed since she wasn’t at home.

Babette never went to church, although everyone else in Rising Fawn did. On Sunday mornings, she made dinner for her parents and for her grown brothers and their families. She grated cabbage and carrots by hand for coleslaw, cooked the ham a little too long, and simmered butter beans on the stovetop. She skinned and sliced tomatoes onto a white plate edged in blue flowers, and in the summer she fried okra. She refused to bake, but Nellie, her mother, prepared lemon cakes and yeast rolls before she left for church. Nellie and Jack’s grandchildren and cousins dropped by for lunch or to while away the afternoon. Not even the dime-store was open in Rising Fawn on Sunday afternoons, although the family could hear the train’s afternoon whistle as it wound its way around the foot of the mountains where Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee meet. Nellie had raised three boys and a girl. Nellie once told her hairdresser that she never thought of having raised Babette, since it seemed Babette raised herself. Dinah, the youngest, ran off to Pensacola with a Vietnam vet before she finished high school, but Nellie’s sons lived with their wives and children in town or just across the state line in Alabama.

Babette was never slim, but in her teenage years the ruby lips and hair as black as a locomotive gave her a movie-star quality contradicted only by the thick dark rims of her glasses. As she had grown older, and as her ruby lipstick was replaced by a gray shadow on her upper lip, some of her cousins and the women at the bank assumed she didn’t care for men. When her friend Patty, who ran the used bookstore, asked why she never married, Babette said she had waited on men and boys her whole life, so she didn’t need to get married to do that. Patty had closed the bookstore and moved to Florida with her husband the winter before Babette turned forty. On her birthdays, Babette thought about how Patty would have baked a cheesecake and made a fuss over her.

Babette called her nieces and nephews “Kid” because she claimed she couldn’t keep their names straight. Sometimes she summoned them by their parents’ names. None of them crossed her, just as their parents had not. She went to the movies alone or, sometimes, with a niece or nephew in tow, but she never went to comedies and seldom to dramas. Unlike her taste in books, in films she preferred action, adventure, and science fiction. She once told her favorite niece she would sooner wear high heels to work her twelve-hour shift at Hudson Wire than see anything starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Even the young niece knew high heels had never graced Aunt Babette’s small closet.

The men at the plant liked her because she was one of them, and the women liked her because she was not one of them. Babette was steady and did a man’s share of the work, and although she was stout, she wasn’t ugly. When they had company picnics or lunches, Babette brought crackling cornbread or a pot of over-salted pinto beans that reminded Austin, one of the divorced men at the plant, of the way his mother used to cook. One afternoon when she was about 48, he asked her out for coffee. Babette pushed her glasses up onto her head the way she did when she was reading the fine print. She said, “No, I don’t date, but thanks anyway.” She took her glasses off and polished them against her graying smock. On her way from work, she bought two books at the store Patty had once owned and she read them straight through that night. The curtains fluttered in the breeze of her open window as her parents snored in their separate rooms and she remembered the gritty caress of the sand on her toes that time she went to Myrtle Beach. The train whistled as it raced through town without stopping.

 

 

Gwen Mullins earned her B.A. in English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and completed her M.F.A. through Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is an Assistant Editor of the writing blog at Hunger Mountain. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Eclipse, PANK, descant, Numéro Cinq, Monarch Review, Talking River, and Medulla Review. She lives in Chattanooga with her husband, two children, and three dogs.