Dionne Love was my best friend from my earliest memory until I entered junior high. Her mother would later say she was named after Dionne Warwick the singer, not the psychic friend. I was jealous of her pretty name.
Despite her slight overbite, Dionne had the prettiest, most honest face of anyone I knew, and she could sing like an angel—although she didn’t understand most of the words coming out of her mouth. When the popular girls in our class compared themselves to Dionne, most of them came up lacking. The rest of us, myself included, were as flat as sheets of particle board; Dionne had the body of Dorothy Dandridge, but the mind of someone a fraction of our age.
Dionne’s mother Martha had her late in life. She was a single mother before they coined the phrase and worked as a lunch lady and janitor at our school. Because we were their closest neighbors and Dionne and I were friends, it often fell on my parents to look after Dionne while her mother was at work.
As pastor of the New Bethel AME Church, my Daddy said Dionne was born special, so we should be careful and treat her nice. "We should endeavor to be kind to those that are different, Gabriella, especially those less fortunate than ourselves." I think that was why Daddy let Dionne sing at church even though she missed parts of the lyrics and it came out nothing like the original song. Daddy said that was okay because God knew her heart.
Dionne was held back a lot before special education classes came along, and social promotion was still practiced in rural southern schools. Before I entered grade school where Dionne had been three years before me, one of our favorite things was to tickle each other until we laughed so hard we cried. Dionne always wore a ready smile and her laugh was so infectious, sometimes it bordered on maniacal.
“Stop tickling me, Gabby Ella,” she would say.
Even though she never pronounced my name right, I answered to it, because I know she meant well, and it didn’t matter to me until it began to matter to the neighborhood kids. As we got older, the other kids began to call her slow, touched—retarded.
The boys teased Dionne about her fully developed body, especially that high yeller, freckled ginger, Dennis Carter, and his posse of bullies. It was fleeting. Eventually they realized the girls they ridiculed as boys were attractive to them as young men.
When we were lectured about hygiene in home economics class, our teacher used Dionne as her example for everything we as young ladies should not possess—hairy legs and underarms, bust and buttocks unsecured by the proper undergarments, and un-manicured, dirty nails.
I told my parents about it, and my daddy went up to the school and gave the principal a piece of his mind. Dionne was not made an example of again.
I became short and irritated with Dionne as we got older. As I became more interested in boys, I often ditched her to hang out with the cooler girls. Early on, we included Dionne in our boy talks, but she wanted to do things that we considered childish, so we avoided her.
Finally, she figured out that our relationship had changed, and she began to hang out with the fast girls that my group of friends treated like pariahs.
When we were juniors in high school, Dionne got knocked up, and it was widely rumored she became pregnant by one of the bully posse. Paternity was never determined, but when the baby came out with sandy red hair, there was hot speculation regarding who the father was. If she truly understood who, Dionne wouldn’t tell.
I was ashamed to the point of sickness for the way I had treated my friend. I hurt her feelings worse than anyone. As much to assuage my guilt as to rekindle our friendship, I volunteered to sit with Dionne and her baby after school when they first came home from the hospital while Ms. Love was at work.
Dionne was so happy to see me; she forgot about the infant in her arms and tackled me like a linebacker. Her baby boy startled out of a nap and began to cry. I rocked and soothed him while we caught up. Dionne babbled incessantly for the next couple of hours. I knew it was highly unlikely, but somehow she seemed smarter, wiser.
“Mama said I have to stay in the house for six weeks,” Dionne said every time there was a lull in our conversation.
“That’s probably a good idea,” I said. “It’s really cold this winter.”
The day before we took our Thanksgiving break from school, Ms. Love left Dionne and the baby home and went to work. Mama was due to check on them midmorning, and when she stepped out of the house, she smelled smoke and saw thick, black clouds billowing from the Love house. The tiny house was too engulfed for anyone to enter safely. Frantic, Mama checked with the immediate neighbors to see if Dionne and the baby had gotten out safely, but no one had seen them.
The firemen found Dionne on the floor near the back door, clutching her baby to her breast. They’d been overcome by smoke inhalation long before the fire licked at their bodies.
Two weeks later, Dennis Carter had the audacity to ask me to the Winter Formal. I slapped his face so hard, my red handprint marked his face for days.
Beverlyn Elliott rekindled her passion for creative writing a few years ago. She has an MBA and has written business contracts most of her life. Her workshops with a group of writers on Zoetrope.com have yielded a growing portfolio of flash and short-fiction pieces. Flash fiction and short stories have become a near obsession. Her work will appear in "Yellow Mama" in April, 2012. She has also completed one novel, and is working on another. A Mississippian by birth, Elliott lives in the Florida Panhandle with her husband. They have three children who are old enough to know their mother spends most of her free time living in a fantasy world.