It was hard to do things like a family with her father gone. Some nights when it was too hot to sleep and the steamboat was docked down at the Tennessee River, Louann and her mother would walk the younger children down to see it. The little ones would run on the dock while her mother sat on the riverbank, not caring that the grass was wet with dew, and leave it to Louann to make sure her brothers and sisters didn't fall into the river and drown.
Louann was seeing Billy before her father ran off. Billy took her to the movies or they walked down to the Seventh Street Drug Store and he'd buy them both a cone of chocolate malted ice cream. He'd hold his up and say “Call me Billy Sunday” even if it made no sense because he wasn't eating a sundae and the names weren't spelled the same. Everyone in town said Billy was a sweet boy and a good worker and they thought he and Louann were on their way to getting married. Louann didn't go to school anymore. She got a job at the Krystal Burger. It was the first time she'd ever earned her own money.
Louann first saw Tommy at the Krystal Burger. He'd come in and while she took his order she'd look at his hands. He worked in an office instead of at the plant and his hands were soft and almost as pretty as a rich girl's. Tommy finally asked Louann to go out with him and soon they were a steady item. Sometimes they'd meet during his lunch hour and walk over to the park and sit beside the star magnolia. He'd tell her about fancy restaurants that sold roasted duck and Russian tea and different kinds of fish with foreign names. Louann made sure she had the day shift on Fridays. At five o'clock she'd hurry home and wash the meat grease off her skin and put on some perfume. She bought some colorful dresses that had frills on them. Tommy always showed up before she was ready. He'd sit at the kitchen table and talk to her mother and she would talk back to him. She seldom talked to anyone since Louann's father left. When Louann and Tommy were leaving her mother would hold her arms up like a child wanting to be picked up and Tommy would give her a long hug.
Tommy started taking Louann to his favorite club. “The Palace” had a Cuban band. He already knew how to dance and soon she was as good a dancer as he was. The guys in the band said she looked Cuban because of her dark skin and long black hair. They'd stay at the club until the band stopped playing, then walk to their favorite hotel down near the dock and make love until they were exhausted. Afterward, Tommy always told her he loved her and she'd say, “You're too smart to have to ask me if I love you.” He would lay his head on her lap and ask Louann to stroke his hair. When he fell asleep she'd lift his thin shoulders and put his head on the pillow and cover him with the hotel's thin blanket. Billy came by the Krystal and told her he was going to Detroit to live with his cousin. Louann didn't go down to the bus station to see him off.
One night at “The Palace” a couple they hadn't known for long sat down at their table. The man's name was Joseph, not Joe, he said. His wife Betsy was well on her way to being drunk. After the introductions, Joseph ordered drinks for everyone and waved his hand toward the dance floor and said, “What are you waiting for? Go dance.”
Louann took Tommy's left hand in her right and they began to slow dance to “Embraceable You.” Before the song ended Joseph tapped Tommy on the shoulder and said it was his turn. Joseph was big and his beard was thick and scrapped against Louann's face. He wouldn't let her leave the floor when the song was over and when Tommy tapped him on the shoulder Joseph shrugged him off and pulled Louann against him even tighter. Tommy turned away without a word. Louann watched him walk back toward the table. “Please come back,” she thought as hard as she could, hoping Tommy would feel the force of her thoughts. “Come back for me,” she thought and was the only one to hear her plea.
Louann didn't know how long she and Joseph danced. It was hard to keep up with time in “The Palace.” She finally grew so exhausted she rested her head on Joseph's shoulder and he spun her through a final song. Tommy wasn't at their table. Betsy shrugged her shoulders and her head lolled from side to side when Louann asked where he was. Louann waited over an hour but Tommy never returned. Betsy continued to drink and Joseph took Louann's hand and held it under the table. He talked about how much he enjoyed taking vacations in Florida and Mexico. Louann watched him talk until he left to go to the bar and she grabbed her new handbag with the clasp decorated with pieces of ruby-colored glass and hurried out of “The Palace.”
It was nearly a two-mile walk and Louann's feet were worn out. Standing on her front porch under the yellow bug light it took a minute to find her key. When she finally got the door open Louann saw her mother sitting on the couch. She wore her old house dress. Tommy's head was on her lap. She stopped stroking his hair and looked up and smiled and said, “Shh. He's a light sleeper.”
Then she whispered, “You've broken his heart.”
Louann didn't say a word. She went upstairs and sat on the side of her bed. Later she heard her mother come slowly up the stairs and go into her bedroom. Louann wanted to go out and take her by the shoulders and say that the more a person needed from another person the crueler they were. Instead, she sat on her bed all night and thought about what should be questioned and what should be accepted the way it was. She thought about the money she'd spent on frilly dresses. She thought about Billy, poor dumb Billy, who had gone to Detroit to escape her. She took a deep breath that hurt her chest and wondered how much Billy had paid for his bus ticket.