She didn't begin first grade with us, but somewhere along the line Bobbie Jean appeared in our class. Slim, with deep brown hair that matched her impish eyes, she had a tiny black dot smack in the center of her bottom lip.
"I did it when I was little," she told us, "I just kept sharpening a pencil and sticking it there every day 'til it stayed."
We didn't know what to think; you never knew about Bobbie Jean.
Though she was only 11 or 12, she wore deep red lipstick and matching nail polish. I'm sure she wore a dress on occasion, but I can't remember seeing her in one. In my memories, she wears a checked shirt, tucked into blue jeans rolled to her knees, a scarf around her neck. Scuffed Penny Loafers on her small feet.
Bobbie Jean rarely got her lessons; she sat in class doodling or gazing out the window. When the teacher called on her, she acted as if she hadn't heard a thing. She just didn't answer. But as soon as the teacher turned her back, she smirked. And we snickered.
I admired her fun-loving ways, her spontaneity, devil-may-care attitude. Sarah Mae and I were fascinated, and we hung out with her for a time in fifth grade. Or maybe it was sixth grade.
Bobbie Jean was a year or two older than us and wise beyond her years. She knew about things. Like sex. She filled us in on the sordid details one afternoon during recess down in the bowels of Bardwell School. It was the day the circus came to town, and we were all excited, planned to go as a group the following Saturday.
But this news put the circus on the back-burner.
"Come on," she said, "I got something to tell y'all."
We all followed her down to the washroom, a dank, dark place where all the kids washed their hands before marching single file to the cafeteria for lunch. It seemed strange down there at that time of day, no other kids around. The only sounds were pots and pans clanging, low murmurings of the cooks as they cleaned up for the day. Hank Snow's I'm Movin' On was playing on a radio far away. Probably in the janitor's tiny apartment, down one of the shadowy corridors of the basement.
"My mother and daddy don't do that!" I said.
"Mine don't either!" Susie Jane said.
Sarah Mae and Mignon were frozen, apparently unable to respond to this ridiculous revelation.
"Well, pray tell," Bobbie Jean said, "How do y'all think you got here?"
She reached into her jeans' pocket, removing a crooked cigarette and a book of matches. "Well," she said, "All I can say is y'all got a lot to learn." She clenched the cigarette between her teeth and struck a match on the concrete floor.
"Where'd you get that?" Mignon said.
"Mom's purse," she said, twin spirals of smoke rolling from her nose, "She'll never miss it." She tossed the match into a corner and leaned against the wall. "Besides, I'm thinking about running away with the circus."
We looked at her in disbelief.
"I met the cutest boy helping put up the tents, and he said he'll get me a job and I can go with them when they leave town."
"What kind of job?" Susie Jane said.
"Oh, maybe feeding the elephant, cleaning out the monkey's cage. Or something like that."
We were speechless. Sarah Mae shook her head.
"Well, y'all can believe it or not," Bobbie Jean said, "But I'm movin' on."
As we got up and headed toward the door, she flipped her cigarette to the floor and ground it flat with the heel of her loafer. "Y'all are a lost cause!" she laughed.
Bobbie Jean didn't run away with the circus, of course. And not long thereafter, Willie Mae appeared in our class, just as Bobbie Jean had. She didn't much care about schoolwork either, so she and Bobbie Jean became good friends.
Sarah Mae developed asthma and had to miss the rest of the school year. Karen also arrived that year, so she and I immediately became best friends. She was as ignorant as I about the facts of life and boys, so we were a good match.
Willie Mae and Bobbie Jean drifted along together after that, always laughing and having a big time. We often saw them leaving school early, oblivious to Mr. Petrie's office which faced the street. He could have glanced out the window at any time and seen them leaving. But they never looked back. Both quit school after we finished eighth grade and got married.
I never knew who Bobbie Jean married or what happened to her. Until yesterday.
Pitty Pat called to tell me she passed away a few days ago in a town out west somewhere, over a thousand miles from Western Kentucky.
I was surprised how hard it hit me; I've been thinking about Bobbie Jean all day, hoping she was surrounded by family and friends; that life had been good to her.
Farewell, my old friend. May you rest in peace.