Justine Case You Didn’t Know

The three girls board the bus wearing tight tank tops and tiny short while they chew noisily on their gum.   Their hair is a tangled hair spray mess, and they giggle as they walk past.  One of them gives her a cynical look before sitting in the seat across from her in the front row.  Violet knows what they’re thinking–she’s been here before.

“Finish your green beans before you leave the table, Violet,” her mother looks at her knowingly, “You know the rules.”  But as soon as her mother turns around, she tucks them into a napkin on her lap, where she can dispose of them undetected. 

A knock at the back door alerts them as her mother stops washing dishes, “Come on in, Barbara and Patrice, she’s almost finished.”  Violet hurries to scrape her plate into the garbage as her mother peers gingerly over her shoulder to ensure all the vegetables are gone.  Watching her exit the back door, she hollers at her as the screen door swings shut, “Make sure you’re back by eight!”

The three are off to see a matinee, it’s a big production about New York’s entertainers.  They’ve seen it before, but it’s a great escape from their families and it only costs a few cents.  The pennies the mothers usually opt to sacrifice in exchange from having to host all three girls, in case their house is the choice for the gathering.

“I like movies about dancers because I’m going to be one when I grow up,” Patrice says with conviction.

Barbara offers her input, “I am going to own a huge department store like Nordstrom, and I’ll be in charge of everything!”

Patrice pauses and asks, “What are you going to do, Violet?  I’ll bet you would make a great clothing designer.”

The truth is, Violet has no idea what she wants to be, so she changes the subject.   “I got the popcorn this go round.”  She hurries into the theater and her friends are close behind.

What the mothers don’t buy is the soda and popcorn so the girls usually pool their pennies together and share the treats.  While they count their change, one of the girls from school comes in with her mother.  Justine Case has unusually green eyes, stringy hair, and her legs are so thin a gentle breeze could break them.   Her mother has the same coloring, but is physically the opposite; everything petite on her daughter is colossal on her.  The only thing the two of them have in common is the stringy black hair dingy with dirt, and the ratty clothing probably coming from the same homeless bin. The larger-than-large woman is so fat she uses a walker to help her get around. The girls nudge each other and point as the woman attempts to carry the small box of popcorn and use her walker at the same time.

“Hey, Justine!” Violet calls to her classmate with her hands cupped around her mouth, “Help your mom get to her seat so she doesn’t starve to death!”

“Yeah,” Barbara adds, “If she falls down you’ll have to drop the food in her mouth!”  Patrice chuckles and carries on by imitating her, squishing her cheeks with her hands.

“I’m chubby, my mama’s chubby and my mama’s chubby.  One day my mama took me for a ride and I screamed, ‘Slow down mama, slow down’!”  Pulling her cheeks back as hard as she can, her mouth stretches tight like a thick rubber band across her face.  Her friends break out in uncontrollable laughter.

Noticeably embarrassed, Justine bows her head in shame and leads her mother down the corridor.  “Hold on there, sweetie!” her mother calls, “You’re gonna cause me to trip and fall!”

Quickly, Barbara squats and covers her head, “Earthquake!” she squeals.  Her friends join her as passersby look quizzically before walking around them while they all laugh hysterically, “Earthquake, earthquake!”

They skip into the theater and Patrice nudges Violet when their eyes adjust, pointing out the humongous woman squeezed into the seat by the aisle.  Justine is sitting next to her, craning her neck around to watch the girls come in, knowing there is nowhere to hide. 

Violet sees her and waves, grasping the hand of Barbara with one hand and holding her popcorn in the other.  She tugs her friends along as Patrice follows them behind Justine and her mother. 

“Hi, Justine!” Violet smiles, “Glad we found you.  We’ve been watching for you and your…”

Her mother turns her chubby cheek toward her as much as she can, rotating her head as far as she can.  “Justine, you didn’t tell me you have friends at school,” she smiles, her cheeks bunching up over her collar, “Aren’t you going to introduce me to them?”

Mortification wins as a blushing Justine raises her head, “Momma, this is Violet, Patrice, and Barbara.  They’re in my class at school.”

“Oh, well as pretty as they are, I don’t understand why you never mentioned them to me before,” she sweetly adds.  “How come you never told me, honey?”  Justine is quiet for a second and the lights dim down, with the speakers blaring music indicating the beginning of the show.  Relief sweeps over her as she revolves in her seat to see the show.

Throughout the movie, the three continue to giggle, blow their cheeks out and make fun of Justine’s mother who either doesn’t notice, or is so accustomed to it she tunes them out. 

When the show is over and the lights come back on, Justine’s eyes are puffy and red.  She wipes at them with her hand and her mother soothingly puts her meaty arm around her daughter’s shoulders, “Honey, that was a happy ending.  Let me explain …” 

Struggling to get out of her seat and hold onto the walker for support, she begins at the beginning of the movie, explaining each scene.  Justine doesn’t see the girls making jokes, but her ears focus on their cruel words as her mother’s voice drones on.  All that keeps ringing in her ears is ‘stupid, retard, loser, and fat ass.’

“Time to pull the big trucks in and open the double doors, boys!” Violet shouts.  The joyful cheers resume as the people file out of the theater.

The next day at school, it didn’t stop.  If anything, matters got worse for Justine as the girls begin following her around the playground.  They are pushing their stomachs out as far as possible and telling her biscuits and grits were ready for her at home. 

It isn’t long before Justine refuses going onto the playground.  Instead, she sits in the pea rocks and scrapes at the dirt with a stick.  Sometimes other kids would come and taunt her, throwing handfuls of grass or dry crumpled leaves in her hair. One day a boy found dog feces on the lawn, picked it up with a leaf and flipped it at her, laughing with the rest of them.  Every recess the same thing happens until one day it stops.

The children in the classroom didn’t seem to notice until the teacher announced Justine felt unwelcome and left.  On the playground, Patrice runs over to Barbara and Violet, “Did you hear what happened?”  The two girls stop jumping rope when their friend approaches them, grinning from ear to ear with pride.

  “What are you talking about?” Barbara asks, standing with her hand on her hip. Violet is standing behind her with an identical expression of impatience. 

Violet hates it when Patrice knows something first because she makes such a big deal about it.  But the truth is she can hardly stand it as she leans in close.   “That girl we were teasing, Justine, killed herself,” she blurts out, “Can you believe it?” Her friends stare in disbelief.  “We’re powerful!”

“What do you mean?” Violet asks, “She killed herself because of us?”  She anticipates Barbara stepping in behind her and reflecting the shock she is feeling, but that doesn’t happen.

Barbara brushes her hands together as if she’s just thrown something dirty away, “That’s less trash we’ll need to worry about next year, right?  We’ll just need to keep up the good work now, so we don’t let our public down.”

Barbara and Patrice snigger as they put their heads together, but Violet doesn’t know how she feels.  Before she has a chance to say anything, the bell rings to go inside.

As the bell rings in her memory, the bus chord rings and the doors flip open to let a man get out.  The three girls sitting across from Violet are checking him out and smiling a Hollywood cage as the next group of people begins to enter.

The trio points and laughs while they gesture all sorts of rude hand signals.  The last person to enter is a woman appearing to be a bit younger than Violet.   Her lustrous black hair flows down her back, stopping at her shapely waist as it reflects a silky shine.  Since the bus is full and begins to move, she takes the seat on the far side of Violet, next to the window.

When her stop is in view, Violet reaches her arm toward the side to hit the buzzer, but can’t quite reach it.  “Here, let me help you,” the woman says, her clear green eyes shadowed by thick lashes, as she pulls the chord.   Her gaze careens around Violet, concerned, “Do you have help at home?”

“That’s sort of personal,” Violet states matter-of-factly for she hates it when people get into her business.  When people feign interest, there’s always a buck changing hands somewhere, and it generally turns out of her pocket.  Grabbing the post next to her, she pulls herself to her feet and the bus driver sets the brake before heading out the door to the front of the bus.

People throughout the bus begin to grumble and the three girls snicker as they indicate the driver setting up the wheelchair.  One of the girls cracks up, “Transfer!” while she nudges her friend.

“Wide load coming through!” another yells as Violet struggles to get to the door, losing her balance and nearly taking out a passenger seated to the side.  A couple of young men at the back begin to yell about being on a schedule and having places to be, heightening her uneasiness.  A sweat breaks out on her forehead and she can feel it trickling down her neck as her legs are barely able to hold her upright.  The railing seems so far away until the young woman stands to escort her.

Climbing out of the bus, she assists Violet into her chair and pats her hands with a smile.  “I’m leaving, miss,” he says as he climbs into his seat, “you coming?”

“One moment, please.”  The woman reaches into her purse, pulls out a business card and hands it to Violet.  Looking at it, Violet sees Dis your Disability and chuckles.  But then she sees the name and almost passes out in her chair Justine Thyme.  Her bladder almost gives beneath her when she manages the courage to speak.

“I used to know someone named Justine years ago,” Violet pauses, feeling the guilt seep in about someone she and her friends enjoyed making miserable.  “Her name was Justine Case.  Sort of funny when you think about you having the same first name.”

“Now,” the stranger smiles, “It’s Justine Thyme.  Hello, Violet.”  Although her words could have had an ‘I told you so’ ring to them, they did not.  Justine seems sincere.

The bus driver honks the horn and shouts, “Miss, you need to get on, the bus is leaving the station!”

“Let’s just say I like to help wherever I’m needed,” Justine smiles as she turns to get onto the bus.

“Thank you,” Violet says, her eyes welling with tears, “I’m so sorry.  I thought you were dead.”

“My mother said she couldn’t handle it anymore after that day at the theater.  You see, she knew, Violet.  That’s what made it so hard for me.  She knew everyone was talking and pointing at her, making fun.  What’s more, teasing her daughter because of her disability.  No one could guess she had been a blond knock-out once.  She was a physically fit marathon runner when after a race,  a drunk swerved over the sidewalk and hit her.  She was in traction for months, and it was right after I was born.  My dad left and she raised me on her own, refusing to quit.”

The horn honks, impatiently, and the driver motions to Justine to get on.

Dumbfounded, Violet watches the nimble woman board the bus and put the window down, “Just call me, Violet.  I think we can help each other now.”  And then the bus drives away.

Of all the days in Violet’s life, this day is the most thought-provocative of them all, and now she finally has a purpose; not a dancer, a retail owner, or even a clothing designer.  “That would have been too easy,” she smiles into the heavens.

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