Of Strawberries and Girls Named Alice
He’d never forget the day he heard for the first time, the words “Ichy, Ichy” from Alice, the cute girl with yellow curls and strawberry lips who sat beside him on the school bus. She lived with her grandmother in the old house with scattered, drooping gingerbread trim. The house opposite the one back in the woods with the crimson car parked in the drive.
“Alice Ammons,” she said that day at the strawberry patch the summer before. He’d thought of the book immediately. “’Alice‘, as in ‘Wonderland’,” she’d said. Her lips were bright red and her eyelids shaded blue. His mother frowned, mumbling something about her being fast, and pulled him down the rows, green with lush spatters of red: opportunity for a little extra cash.
Baby had picked behind his mother until his legs gave out and the sun seeped through his straw hat, squeezing out all the moisture in his body and boiling the blood in his face. Then he sat with Sister under a tree at the edge of the field to cool down.
“You look like a strawberry yourself.” It was the first thing the girl said when she came out of the house and plopped down beside him, leaning so close he could smell some kind of perfume as sweet as vanilla extract. “And you look like a fried egg.” It was the first thing he’d thought of. He didn’t like fried eggs, and he liked the girl and her yellow hair challenging the sun for brightness. She’d been pretty fast, like his mother said, chunking the strawberry, smashing it into his back. But, now, they sat and glared at each other until she pulled out a second strawberry from somewhere and threw it, hitting him in the face.
“I’ll get you.” He chased out after her and all her giggles. Caught up with her behind a stand of honeysuckle and grabbed her. Then his legs, grown, lengthening out of control, buckled under him and he fell, knocking her to the ground, with him on top. She struggled under his weight and managed to turn onto her back. He pushed up on his elbows, stared into her face, noting the blue of her eyes and the freckles across her nose that reminded him of red pepper on cream gravy. I must be hungry. He liked red pepper on cream gravy. His father said wimps put black pepper on theirs.
“I’ll give you a strawberry if you’ll let me up.” Her eyelids fluttering, she touched her upper lip with her tongue.
“Yeah, you’ll let me have it right in the kisser.” He hoped he sounded tough. Like a mobster in the movies. Edward G. Robinson.
“No, I won’t.” She continued the tongue movement. She paused and then her words came out coarse like gravel, “I’ll be gentle; put it between your lips like Ingrid Bergman would do Cary Grant.” He didn’t know who they were but he liked the way she licked her lips. She worked her hand free enough to slip it to her side and pull a strawberryÑmiraculously wholeÑfrom her pocket. She bit it into and then, with slurping noises, slid half into her mouth and held it on her tongue as she gently, first touched his lips with the other half of the moist berry and then slipped it onto his tongue. She began to chew slowly and then with lots of contortions and eyes closed to slits, touched his mouth with hers and let her strawberry-laden tongue slip onto his. Baby’s head whirled and he was sure afterward that the two halves of the strawberry had become one.
He dreamed of her all summer and then on the first day of school, when the bus stopped at her house, Alice, of strawberries and vanilla, slipped uninvited, onto the bench beside Baby, setting off a tornado inside him. She sat there every day. The bus rides with Alice kept his mind off all his problems. School and the name calling. His body totally uncooperative. Legs that didn’t work right. Arms with minds of their own, knocking stuff off tables. And his hands. Sometimes on the bus they wanted to touch Alice’s golden ringlets and her hands. Maybe they brushed against her blouse where it was beginning to fill out. He was just curious and she didn’t seem to mind.
Then when Bubba and Brother’s lies about him worsened the recess chants from “Ichy Bod” and “Ichy Baby,” things changed with Alice. He didn’t know what to think the morning Alice, with the golden ringlets and strawberry breath, moved to the back seat on the bus and wouldn’t speak to him. The bus was loud. Had she said she had a cold or some deadly disease she didn’t want him to catch? Hadn’t she whispered to him just last week that he was the “love of her life”--something she’d heard on her grandmother’s soap opera? His heart was still turning flips in his chest and his hands were all sweaty when he moved to the seat beside her. He could hardly breath. “You’re not going to die, are you?” He held out one of the strawberry candies Joe Joe had brought him from town. Alice had always accepted before. He’d been pleased at Joe Joe’s tease, “You really must like this girl to spend all that money on her.”
Then Alice wrinkled up her face and tears welled up in her eyes when she turned her back to him and stared out the window. Then he knew. She was angry that he had touched her, but hadn’t she touched his leg, searched his pocket for a candy when he’d pretended he didn’t have one?
They sat that way, her staring out the window, tears running down her face and him, shoulders slumped, staring at the floor. A final gesture, he pulled a candy from his pocket, wiped the lint from it, and thrust it around her shoulder. “Here,” he whispered, his voice full of hurt, “I have a candy for you. Strawberry, remember?” Remember the time I chased you? Remember us lying together, me on top of you? You putting the strawberry in my mouth and then our tongues touching?
All in one motion, Alice looked at Baby’s outstretched hand and turned toward him. Her face said she forgave him for whatever infraction and she took the candy. Then Baby’s body took matters to itself, one arm going around her shoulders, one hand touching the soft swelling under her blouse. They were that way mere seconds when he felt her body stiffen and then pull away. Her face was all distorted and Baby felt his life rush from him when she cried, “Ooh, Ichy, Ichy. You’re really nasty. What they say about you is true.”
Baby didn’t get off at school. He rode the bus to the bus barn, and Joe Joe came and picked him up there. He lay crumpled up in bed for a week and then school was out. Sometimes he spied on the house with the strawberry patch, the one down the road and across from the house back in the woods. Baby wondered what Alice would think if she knew he was out there in the dark. Would she come out if he chunked a rock at her window? But he didn’t know which window was hers. And what would the two of them do if she came out?
In the fall, Alice didn’t come to school. He heard that her grandmother had died and she’d gone to the city to live with her mother.
The time of the picking: the sweetness, the delicate flavor of the strawberries, Baby rolled the memory around in his mind late in life. For him, no fruit had grown so sweet again.
Rena McClure Taylor holds Bachelor and Master degrees in education, has taught school and owned an antiques shop. She has studied creative writing at SMU and is a member of Writer’s Garret in Dallas. “Of Strawberries and Girls Named ‘Alice’” is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, titled A Steeple.