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Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Miss Jane Dunphy

Milton Trachtenburg
copyright, 1988, 1998
Published in EWG Magazine, 1998

Not much happens of note in Breckinridge. Maybe that's why people take so much notice of really unimportant things.

Miss Jane Dunphy had a reputation as long as I've known her. The little boys in school lined up outside her house as far back as first grade because, on some hot afternoons, she'd no sooner get home than she'd take off all her clothes right there in plain sight. So, it was no surprise at all to the mighty Reverend Jim Canton of the First Baptist Church of Breckinridge, when she showed up in church one Sunday in a real show-stopper of a dress. You didn't have to be looking at her to know what she wasn't wearing under it. The look in some of the men's eyes told it all. Lord, I thought, Reverend Jim ain't thinkin' no holy thoughts right about now!

I've been Jane Dunphy's best friend, make that her only friend, for the better part of forty-five years now, and low cut dresses and see-through blouses are no way what she's all about, I can tell you that.

Maybe it's time somebody cleared the air once and for all when it comes to what Miss Jane is all about. I don't have to tell you, in a small town like Breckinridge, once you got yourself a reputation, you may as well have them carve it on your tombstone early if it'll get you a discount. Because, in Breckinridge, what was, is; and, what is, will be, forever.

I mean, see that old bald man sitting by the courthouse over there? He'll be Curly 'til the day he dies, maybe longer than that. Curly he was as a kid and Curly he'll stay.

I can't remember when they took to calling Jane 'Miss Jane'. Around these parts if you're female and not married before the sun rises on your 18th birthday, you're either an old maid or perhaps worse. Jane wasn't married by 18, nor 48, for that matter. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with her, either. Jane Dunphy had a mind of her own and always did what was right for her, even if it wasn't quite what the next person would've done.

If she'd grown up in New York City, or one of those places where being single is sophisticated, then Miss Jane would've been a sophisticated lady instead of "that pixillated old maid on Grand Street."

I met Jane when we were both in the first grade. I was kind of the outcast of the class because I was born with one leg shorter'n the other. Now, if I'd been born in New York City it wouldn't've been a problem. I'd've just walked with one leg on the sidewalk and one in the street. But, where we grew up, there was nothing but dusty roads, and when I walked I would clump along. Kids being what they are would tease me some. I got used to it after a while, but on the first day of school, the kids pushed me into a ditch by the roadside and threw my lunch all over the road. I was sitting there crying when along came this little fairie child. She looked down at me, my new dress all covered with dirt and she smiled. I'm waiting for her to make some kind of crack and surely I'd beat her good.

All she said was, "Gimme your hand, dear." I didn't expect that from the mouth of a six year old. I thought I was listening to my mamma. Except my mamma would've cuffed me good for getting my dress all dirty.

She pulled me out of the ditch and stood with her hands on her hips inspecting her find. I squirmed uncomfortably. I was used to getting stares from strangers what with my short leg and special shoes.

"You okay?" asked Jane.

I looked at her. She had a face that made you smile without her doing anything. She tilted her head to one side when she looked at you and her eyes got sort of squinty. I didn't know then that it was because she needed glasses and her family was too poor to get them for her.

She looked me over real serious-like and took a handkerchief out of her pocket and began wiping my face. Then, she brushed off my dress like a little mother taking care of her young.

"There," she said, standing back to review her handiwork. "That's much better. Let's go to school." That morning began a friendship, that, except for the year I was away in college, has continued on a daily basis until this very moment.

After school, Jane and I would hang out. Sometimes, we'd walk in the woods or let our feet dangle in the icy water of the stream. When I'd get to feeling sorry for myself because of my leg, Jane would look at me like I'd just come from Mars. You know, I don't believe Jane ever took notice of people's defects, only of their goodness.

Maybe it also explains why Jane took no notice about the effect she had on others. Jane did what came easy and natural. When she'd take off her clothes after school, it was because she was hot and dirty. She came from a huge family who took no notice of her no matter what she did anyway. There was about a dozen Dunphy kids and Jane was one of the youngest. Her mamma was pretty worn out by the time Jane came along. The kids grew up with just enough, if you know what I mean. No Dunphy ever starved to death. No Dunphy ever was known to owe anybody anything. They lived on a little patch of land and grew enough to eat and traded the rest for what else they needed. The Dunphys were proud people.

Jane was always different from the rest of the kids in town. I'm not one of those fancy city psychologist-types, so, maybe I won't explain it so good, but Jane always seemed to know what she wanted. For the rest of us, life seemed to just happen.

In school, Jane was a puzzlement to the teachers. She was likely the brightest in the class, though she'd tell you it was me, not her who should've gotten the scholarship to the state college. Jane always sat by the window and seemed to be looking over the horizon, like if she looked hard enough, maybe she'd get there somehow.

When the teacher would ask her a question, her answer would always be the same, "Huh?" It got so that when the teacher would ask Jane a question, the whole class would go, "Huh?". The teacher would get angry at Jane, but Jane'd just look at her with those razzle-dazzle eyes, smile, and say nothing.

When it came test time, Jane would show them all where her head was. She must've gotten more perfect papers than anybody in the history of the school. She'd always poo-poo it and say, "Just luck."

When we got to be teens, Jane blossomed into the prettiest girl in the county. Every boy wanted to make time with Jane. She'd tell me, "I guess I went through all of them, but none of them've been through me."

As you might expect in Breckinridge, the first boy who went out with Jane had a story about how he got into her blouse. Next one, not to be topped, told as how he got into her pants. After that, the boys just naturally told each other that Jane was doing things we never even read about in those girlie magazines Jane would pilfer from her brothers.

"You ever think of doin' some of those things?" I asked her one day when we were sitting out back on my porch swing.

Jane kicked her legs out to get the swing going higher and mused for a minute. She rubbed her forefinger up-side her nose and smiled. "Not likely with this sorry bunch."

"Think you'll get married someday?" I asked with the earnestness only a fourteen year-old can know.

"Why, whatever for?"

"Well . . ." You know, what she said made me think about that. I was going to say, "`Cause you're s'posed to." Instead I sat quietly and looked at Jane.

Most people can't rightly say when they cross over from being a child to being an adult. Some would say it's when they have sex for the first time. For others, it's when they have a baby. Some, especially amongst the folks we grew up with, will never cross the line and become adults.

For me, it was that moment on the unpainted swing with its rusted chains. At the moment it was happening, I couldn't put what I was feeling into words; I just knew I would never look at the world the same again. I remember reaching out and taking Jane's hand in mine. She taught me so much that sweltering day that I forgot all about the heat.

"Then," I said, "we'll just be single together."

"Nope, you're gonna get married and have kids because that's what right for you."

"Yeah, sure, and I'll just wish this leg away, now won't I?"

"Lynnie," she said, her eyes for once not laughing, "you're gonna get married because it's what's right for you. The right guy'll never notice a little thing like that. He'll see you the same's I do -- a beautiful, special person. I mean, it's not like you have two heads or anything."

Jane had a way of putting things that made it so . . .

Right. As always. When we graduated high school, Jane was granted the school's state scholarship. "Ain't nothin' I need to know school can teach me," she said. I was second in line and it was offered to me.

"Damn, woman, you're takin' it!" she said.

"It isn't fair. It's yours."

"I'm not hearin' any of that. What do I want with their college? Just more windows to stare out of. You're gonna get an education and meet your special man."

As it turned out Jane was half right. I met Brian and he didn't care about my leg. He was in medical school, but he wasn't your typical fancy pants who wanted to make millions with an exclusive practice. "I just want to help people, that's all. Maybe I'll come back to your home town and open a practice there," he'd say. For a doctor, he was pretty dumb about some things, though. After we were going together a short time, I got pregnant. I really didn't know much about sex, except that with Brian, I sort of enjoyed it. You'd think a doctor . . .

"So, what are you going to do?" he said.

All of a sudden, he goes from, "We're going to have such a beautiful life." to, "So, what are you going to do?"

"I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm going home to raise my baby."

"Don't I have any say in this? I mean, I feel responsible in a way."

"And, in what way's that?"

"Well, the least I can do is help you pay for . . . you know."

"I think not."

"I'm not ready to face the responsibility of a baby. I have to finish school."

"And I don't?" I think I saw the real Brian for the first time. Sometimes, it takes a crisis to bring out the worst in people.

I did learn something important in college. I learned who my real friends were. I went back to Breckinridge after the baby was born. Mamma said, "Why don't you make up some kind of a story like, `Your husband died?' "

I told her, "Mamma, there's no use to deceiving ourselves. Everybody knows." I believe mamma saw me for the first time as a person, not just her poor, crippled daughter.

"So what're you gonna do?"

"Why, what everybody with children does, of course. I'm gonna raise my son."

I'd hardly had a chance to unpack, when I heard that smoky, sarcastic voice that was almost part of my very being.

"So what're you up to girl?"

"Not much. I brought back a little company. Wanna see him?"

Jane picked up Timmy and for the first time ever I saw, she was crying.

"Beautiful, ain't he?" I said.

"As special as his mamma."

It was almost natural it should happen. Jane and me saved our money for a few years and told our families we were getting a place of our own.

"What'll people think?" asked daddy.

"People'll talk," said mamma.

"Hell, people been thinkin' an' talkin' about us for a long time now. So, are we supposed to do what's right for us, or what's right for them?" said Jane.

That finished it. We bought the old Dresher place on the hill. It had everything we needed. There was a big oak tree in the yard with branches strong enough for a swing for Timmy. The kitchen would accommodate two chefs. There was plenty of room for togetherness and separateness. Yes, sometimes in the hot weather, Jane would wander around in her birthday suit, but only because it was so damn hot in the house that the rest of us who didn't do it were the fools.

Timmy grew up free and happy, with two people who loved him very much. As for Jane, she seemed to find what was important for her. She didn't stare out the window at someplace beyond the horizon any longer.

Timmy went off to college when his time came. Jane told him that he was going to be the first in either of our families to graduate.

"If you don't get that degree, I'm gonna haunt you for the rest of your days, Timothy Warren," said Jane. When he came home with his degree four years later, Jane was the first to hug and kiss him.

After mamma and daddy passed on, I took our old porch swing down before we sold the house, and Jane and me spent a day putting secure bolts into our porch ceiling beam so we could hang it. I wanted something special to remember from my childhood.

Since Tim's grown and gone, life's been kind of quiet for Jane and me. Sometimes, we like to sit on the porch swing and take in the morning sun or the evening breeze. Some Sunday mornings, we even go down to the First Baptist Church to hear Reverend Jim spouting hellfire and damnation, most likely aimed at us in particular. I can't figure out how that church stays so clean and white with all that sulphur and brimstone Reverend Jim spouts.

Not much happens of note in Breckinridge, but Jane and me find plenty to occupy our time. And, as for the gossip, most of the gossipers from our childhood died, grew old or moved on. The new folks don't seem as interested in what's going on around them. In a way, it's too bad. As small minded as the old crowd could appear to be, at least those folks cared, really cared.

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