Their wagons were painted with pictures of dancing girls, skirts billowed out, and of horses too, walleyed and prancing, sleek dark men astride their bare backs. The caravan was at the bottom of the hill when I first spotted it; the horses, stocky and short-legged, strained as they muscled the heavy wagons up the sloping road. I ran straight home to tell my best friend Sissy the news before somebody beat me to it. The gypsies were back. Every year they came, usually toward spring, and watching their caravan ride into town was almost as good as seeing the circus.
Like migrating birds returned to a favored nesting site, they camped in the same place each year, out in a field near Joe’s Grocery Mart. From my house it was only down the road a few houses to Sissy’s, then across the field to the 19-21 bypass, which we called the hard road. I wasn’t allowed to cross it and neither was she, so we watched from our side. The gypsies set up camp with practiced speed, and by nightfall they had a community of tents circled around the wagons and horses, a fire blazing in the center.
After a week or so, Carlotta appeared in my second grade class. I didn’t know how old she was, although she seemed older than the rest of us. She was a big girl, dark olive skin, hooded eyes that burned like coal, and heavy black hair that hung past her shoulders. When I stood next to her, I felt colorless, my pale skin and eyes and hair boring. But what made Carlotta irresistible to me was the way she dressed. Gold hoops threaded through holes in her ears, and colored bangles ringed both arms almost to her elbows. One skirt I admired to the point of it being a sin had tiers of red and purple and magenta, each gathered onto the next, with sequins, ribbons, and rickrack sewn in meandering rows. When she walked, gussets of lace flowed around her ankles, and tiny mirrors on her hem danced in the light. I wanted Grandma to make me a skirt like that, but she never would. She laughed and said she expected I’d be a sight to see, swarping around in a gypsy skirt.
Carlotta didn’t come to school every day, and she was way behind in most everything. Shy and quiet in class, she never answered a question or asked one either. I got to be her friend, at least sort of, because on the way home from school one day I told the boys who taunted her to shut up. She slowed, deliberately I thought, so I could catch up, and we walked all the way to my house together. Carlotta waited outside while I ran in to ask Mother if I could go to Sissy’s. I figured I would go to her house after I went to Carlotta’s gypsy camp, so I convinced myself it wasn’t lying. It wasn’t telling the whole truth either, but it was the best I could do.
Mother was sitting on the floor, stripping layers of white enamel from the baseboards in the dining room. She looked up, swiping her hair back with her sleeve.
“You can go, but make sure you get yourself home on time.”
I had the run of the neighborhood as long as I stayed within hollering distance; otherwise I needed permission. Mother and Grandma and Grandpa had to know where I was going, and who I was going with, and what I was going for, and who else was going to be there. I tried to back out of the room before she had a chance to add her usual warnings about now you be careful, and don’t you go anywhere else, and you make sure you are back in this house before suppertime, and don’t you be running on that red dog road.
She hollered after me, “I mean it now.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, crossing my fingers ahead of time for lies I would tell.
I was pretty sure I was the only liar in our family. Grandpa was a Pentecostal preacher, and he never lied, or at least I’d never caught him at it. He had caught me, though. Once he had handed me a nickel for the offering at church and one to spend at Beaver’s General Store, and then he asked if I’d studied my Sunday School lesson.
“Yes, sir,” I said. Grandpa allowed he didn’t believe that was possible without divine intervention; he knew for a fact my lesson paper had been on the floor of the Plymouth since services last Sunday, and here it was Saturday already.
“I was planning on reading it. Honest I was. It was just a little white lie.”
“I don’t care how you color it, a lie is a lie.”
Grandpa unpeeled the blue and white wrapper from a cake of Ivory soap. Although he had threatened to wash my mouth out before, this time he meant business. Hoping to wash the lying out of me once and for all, he ran the soap under the spigot to juice it up, then swiped it over my stuck-out tongue. I ran to the sink and splashed water in my mouth, sputtering and spitting bubbles. Seeing me froth at the mouth started Grandpa chuckling, and that got me and Grandma to laughing too. When we got over our laughing spell, I complained my mouth tasted like old dishwater.
“Lies,” my grandpa said, “should always leave a bad taste in your mouth.”
In church the next day Grandpa preached on “The Truth About Lies.” It could have been a coincidence. Afterwards we stopped for our usual cone of ice cream, and he didn’t mention lying a single time. One thing about Grandpa, he didn’t carry a grudge.
With the taste of soap hardly out of my lying mouth, I followed Carlotta through the field, then over the hard road, brazenly crossing the line I wasn’t allowed to cross. A small tent near the highway had a sign out that said “Fortunes Told Inside. Madam Vadoma Knows All, Sees All, Tells All.” A woman in a gypsy dress sat outside the tent, husking a bushel basket of corn while she waited to unveil the past, present, and future for anyone with a couple of dimes to spare.
Carlotta weaved us through a maze of tents and wagons and horses, and I tried not to notice the dark eyes peering at me. We ducked inside a tent that had the front flap part way open. A rug on the dirt floor was spattered with red and purple cushions. An old woman, dressed in a loose print dress like my grandma sometimes wore around the house, sat carving some small thing she turned this way and that in her hand. Rings covered her fingers—one was ivory with a skull carved in it, another a circle of dark wood, and others were of turquoise and silver. Carlotta told me the woman was her grandmother, and she was carving faces on citronella nuts to sell or trade for food. Carlotta spoke in words I didn’t understand, and the woman looked up and nodded, reaching out to touch my blonde hair.
The gypsies stirred up a fire in the center of the camp from embers left from the night before. A man appeared, holding chickens he killed and cleaned and cut into pieces with two knives he used at the same time. Grandma was good at cutting up chickens, but she could learn a thing or two from him. Others brought onions and carrots, and a man carried a burlap bag of potatoes thrown over his shoulder. A boy had a bunch of turnips that looked like they’d just been pulled out of the ground; one by one he tossed them in the air, and the chicken man sliced off the root with a chop of his knife, spearing the turnip before it could hit the dirt. Everything went into the pot, including Madam Vadoma’s corn, still on the cob, along with a generous amount of paprika and a handful of salt from a round box with a picture of a girl holding an umbrella, just like ours at home. A woman added something that looked like little onions, but Carlotta said it was garlic.
A boy, still wearing yesterday’s dirt on his face, ran by, hollering back over his shoulder, “Lotty, there’s a game over in the field.”
He ran off, all elbows and knees, while Carlotta and I followed the noise to a bunch of girls and boys playing kickball behind the camp. They played rougher than I was used to, cussing and elbowing to get at the ball. I didn’t let on I thought that was rude. Everybody’s got their own ways of doing.
As the aroma of the stew spread, the gypsies began to gather around the fire, bowls and spoons in their hands. Loaves of store-bought bread were stacked on a table next to the kettle. I watched as they put bread in their bowls, ladled stew on top, then added an ear of corn. A woman spooned a little into a bowl and handed it to me, motioning me to eat. It was different from anything I ever tasted; the ordinary vegetables and meat had lost all familiarity. A fire started at the back of my throat and burned down a wick to the bottom of my belly. My eyes watered, but I took another swallow. The woman laughed, tilting her head back to show off a mouthful of gold teeth.
It was time for me to start for home. I knew if I went to Sissy’s I’d be late. Instead I went up her street and touched the gate as I walked by so I could say I’d been by her house if anybody asked, although I hoped they wouldn’t. On the way home I started to think I’d make a fine gypsy. I liked Carlotta’s skirts, and I liked the music and the dancing, too. They had horses, and I had a taste for the heat of goulash stew. I’d decided to be a Methodist when I grew up, so I’d need to find out if they allowed gypsies, although I didn’t think it would be a problem. I pulled the last piece of Double-Bubble from my pocket and put it in my mouth to mask my gypsy breath.
When the gypsies were in town, things went missing. Pants and shirts disappeared off the Harvey’s clothesline. The Bledsoe’s strawberry patch was picked clean one night, and Sissy’s grandma, Ma Moles, had her garden plundered and her pawpaw tree stripped almost bare. But even worse, Grandpa said unless he was mistaken we were missing two white leghorns and a guinea hen. My heart flopped over. In my mind I could see white feathers flying as the man plucked the chickens for the stew. Caught in the web of my deceit, I couldn’t say a word.
One night someone dug up two potato hills in our garden and left several bunches of parsnips on the ground to ruin. Apples thrown at Queenie, our Border Collie, lay rotting near the doghouse, where she was tied. Grandpa was determined to catch the culprit. Nothing happened the first night or the second, but the third night I woke up to Queenie barking. I sneaked down to the porch and saw Grandpa softly snoring in the swing, a flashlight in his hand and his double barrel shotgun propped between his knees. He woke right up when I touched his shoulder. When he heard Queenie, he told me not to move or he’d skin me alive when he got back. I made sure to stay put until he disappeared from sight around the far side of the house.
Crouched behind the blue hydrangea bush at the corner of the porch, I was near the garden but could still scoot back to the swing if Grandpa headed in my direction. I saw his flashlight search over the cabbage and potatoes and rhubarb. Then it froze. Grandpa hollered, and two shapes took off toward the tall rows of corn. A shot blasted a hole through the quiet, and the shadowy forms toppled. My knees folded, and I sat down hard. I sucked in my first full breath when I saw one of the thieves get on his knees and start sobbing and begging Grandpa not to shoot him, while the other one cowered nearby.
“Why, the two of you are hardly more than babies,” I heard Grandpa say. He knelt next to them, telling them they didn’t have anything to be fearful of; he didn’t plan on shooting either one of them or calling the law on them either. At least not this time.
“I’m likely to do both if you boys come back here stealing out of my garden again. How old are you children anyway?”
The big boy said he was ten, but his brother was only seven and wasn’t supposed to be out at night. Grandpa took both boys by the hand and walked through the garden, the little one dragging a burlap bag behind.
“You tell me what you want, and I’ll show you how to harvest so it won’t damage the crop,” Grandpa said.
Soon the boys filled the bag with potatoes and onions and carrots and ears of corn. Grandpa showed them how to tie their sack in the middle of a long pole so they could share the heavy load on the way home.
“A load is always lighter if it’s shared. I want you to remember that. You want more, you knock and I’ll give you what can be spared. I want to show you something else before you leave,” he said, leading the boys over to where Queenie was tied.
He unhooked the leash and Queenie, grateful for freedom, ran toward the boys. Grandpa gave a hand signal and the dog sat down, watching Grandpa and waiting.
“This dog is part of our family, and I won’t stand for her being tormented. She wants to be your friend. Go on over there now and get acquainted with her.”
The smallest boy approached Queenie and put out a hand. Queenie closed her teeth over the dirty little arm, leading him around the yard and back to Grandpa.
“Her name is Queenie, and we’re right fond of her. She’ll do your bidding if you just ask her. Tell her to sit and she’ll sit right down.”
Recognizing the command, Queenie sat. The boys looked up at Grandpa wide-eyed.
“Okay, hold out your hand and she’ll shake hands with you.”
The older boy held out a hand and Queenie extended a paw.
“Now boys, I don’t want to hear tell of you mistreating this dog or any other living thing for that matter.”
Grandpa put Queenie back on her leash and led the boys out to the road. “You go straight home and don’t be dallying along the way. And you remember that we have us a gentleman’s agreement: You are welcome on my property anytime, as long as you knock on my door first. Get along with you now.”
I was wide awake after all the excitement, so I sat with Grandma and drank milk coffee while Grandpa told and retold the story of how he’d shot into the air to scare the boys.
“I hated like the dickens to have to scare ’em like I did, but them little hooligans needed somebody to get their attention. I’m hoping they’ll think twice next time, but there’s no telling. What they need is somebody at home to jerk a knot in their tail and straighten them out, but I expect that’s where they’re learning their thievery.”
“If you caught me stealing, you’d more than likely wring my neck,” I said.
“More than likely,” Grandpa agreed, “but that’s because you been taught right from wrong. Maybe them little fellows don’t know better.” He poured some coffee in his saucer to cool.
“Tell it again,” I begged.
“I figure you know it well as I do. You do the telling this time. My teller’s plumb wore out.”
Every week or so after that, always just before dawn, we heard a tapping at the front door, getting a little louder if Grandpa didn’t hurry down. He pulled pants and suspenders over his long johns and went out to help his new friends fill their bag. Grandma followed him downstairs and put a pot of coffee on to boil. Sometimes she gave the boys a sack of oatmeal cookies or a pint of damson preserves, and a time or two she gave them a basket of eggs. We never had another chicken disappear.
The gypsies lingered in their camp a while longer. Sometimes at night you could hear the music all the way to Sissy’s house, and we sat in her yard and listened until her daddy called us in. When Grandpa drove home from prayer meeting, I’d ask him to drive past the camp, although it was out of our way, so I could see the gypsies around the fire, drawn to the light like a flock of bright moths. One man played a little accordion Grandma said was a concertina. Others fingered guitars strung with many strings. The girls danced, lifting their chins and holding their arms up as they circled the flames.
Carlotta and I didn’t play together at school, at least not much, but one day at recess she joined me at the seesaw. When the girl on the other end hopped off, Carlotta caught the board and held it until my feet were on solid ground. I liked that about her; she wasn’t the kind of person who’d get off the seesaw and leave the person on the other end to hit the dirt. She held out her closed hand and passed something to me, folding my hand around it before she walked away. I opened my fist and saw a citronella nut like the one her grandmother carved that day.
Carlotta didn’t come back to school after that, and one night soon after, the camp disappeared. I never saw her again. But I still imagine myself dancing with her, chin up and eyes flashing, mirrored skirt swirling in the light of a gypsy fire.