Downtown Malady©

Averyell A. Kessler

I couldn’t believe my mother was letting me go downtown by myself. My friend, Martha, was coming too. On Saturday afternoon, Mama loaded us into her Chevy Bel Air and headed downtown. I had two dollars in my pocket; Martha had three. We already knew what our first stop would be – Primos Restaurant for delectable brownies and fountain cokes. Fortified by this obvious sugar high, we’d spend the entire afternoon exploring. When Mama dropped us off in front of Woolworths, we were giddy with excitement.

“I’ll pick you up a four,” she said, pointing to our watches. “Right here.” My watch was a Dale Evans; Martha’s was a Cinderella. “Don’t make me come looking for you.”  She drove off slowly, with her eyes glued to the rear-view mirror. Eventually she disappeared around the corner.

Martha stared at each other in disbelief. We were standing on a wide sidewalk in the middle of Capitol Street, by ourselves, unsupervised and straining at the leash.

“Let’s go,” Martha said. We charged into Primos and slipped into a booth near the front door. Our brownies arrived on simple white plates and were accompanied by bubbling fountain cokes loaded with ice – total cost 55 cents. After five minutes of gobbling, we wiped our lips and headed to Woolworths. The store was a massive one story five and dime offering everything from makeup and inexpensive perfume (Midnight in Paris?) to toys, shoeshine kits, McCall’s dress patterns, Pepsodent, Hadacol, and edgy decals of women in lacy lingerie. (The decals were concealed in small alcove in the back of the store, but our friends told us where to find them).  If you needed it, Woolworths had it. There was also a long snakelike lunch  counter.

“Let’s buy a lipstick,” Martha said. She was almost twelve and possessed shopping skills.  I was ten and ready to follow along. We found the make-up counter tucked between ladies’ underwear and a display of glass encrusted broaches, rhinestone bracelets, and faux pearls. We were in Hollywood land. What seemed like a hundred lipsticks stood at attention in a stairstep display and winked at us like scarlet hussies. Best of all, there were samples. Martha tried first, coating her lips with a shimmering scarlet bright enough to blind a herd of wild mustangs. I picked shocking Schiaparelli pink. As our hands hovered over the display, we realized that a lipstick cost almost two dollars and would strain our budget. Sadly, we turned away.

“What’s next?” I asked.

“Let’s go to the lunch counter,” Martha suggested. “Banana splits are only 25 cents.”  We walked to the front of the store and sat near a massive ice cream freezer. It took longer this time, but we both polished off a whipped cream laden, cherry topped, three flavor beauty flowing with chocolate sauce, strawberry jam and pineapple chucks.  Bananas too!

“I’m full,” I said. Our dishes were empty, and I blotted my mouth carefully to preserve my lipstick.

“Me too,”  Martha replied. “But we’re only down 80 cents. Let’s go around the corner and see what playing the picture show. Maybe Ole Yeller is on.”   

We rounded the corner and stopped in front of the Lamar. Ole Yeller was not playing. Instead, we saw posters advertising Peyton Place. They featured a dark-haired man kissing the bare shoulder of a glamorous blonde.

“That’s Lana Turner,” Martha announced. “My mother doesn’t like her.” 

“Why?” I asked. I’d never heard of the infamous Lana, but she didn’t look like one of Mama’s bridge partners.

“She’s had five husbands,” Martha explained.

“At the same time?” I asked. Multiple husbands weren’t explained in the shorter catechism at First Presbyterian.

“I dunno,” Martha answered. “They won’t let us in anyway.  Don’t worry.  There’s a candy shop next door.”

 It pays to have a friend who knows the ropes. We abandoned the theatre and entered the Hollywood Sweet Shop. It was a sumptuous delight, smelling of sugar and warm chocolate.  I left with rock candy on a stick. Martha bought one too. We’d spent another nickel, and my lipstick had vanished. When we left the shop, my stomach fluttered. It was September, and the Mississippi sun was still ablaze. Small droplets of sweat formed behind my ears.

“I’m thirsty,” I said softly.

“Yeah, me too,” Martha said.  “Let’s go to Walgreens. They have a soda fountain too.” I’d eagerly swallowed my rock candy, but it was already dancing the samba with remnants of my  banana split. A powerful belch surfaced, and a prickle of heat swept up the back of my neck. 

“You ok?” Martha asked.

“Water,” I repeated. My mouth was dust dry. “I need water.”

I was in a full- blown sweat when we entered Walgreens. Once more, we found seats at the counter. The soda jerk smiled and gave us each a glass of water. I swallowed mine in one gulp. “Hot out there girls?” he asked.

“Yes,” Martha said.

 I was unable to speak. The samba in my tummy became a raging tap dance.  

“How about something icy to cool you off?” the guy asked.  Without asking, he produced two root beer floats. “Here ya go,” he said, smiling as he plunked straws into our glasses. “Drink up. On the house.” We did.

When Mama arrived at four, my knees were weak. She was not happy when we piled into the back seat, sweaty, chalk faced, and lipstick smeared.  We pulled to the curb twice on the way home, first for me, then Martha, as the remains of our three-hour extravaganza took revenge. Luckily, Mama had a box of Kleenex on the front seat. I returned home as quiet as midnight and limp as a wet towel.  Downtown taught me the perils of overindulgence, but I still had money in my pocket and couldn’t wait to go back. Somehow, somewhere a pink lipstick was waiting just for me. Maybe Lana was too.

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