A Case of Mistaken Identity
Monroeville, Alabama—Summer, sometime in the Great Depression
When Truman first spotted Nelle, he thought she was a boy. She was watching him like a cat, perched on a crooked stone wall that separated their rambling wood homes. Barefoot and dressed in overalls with a boyish haircut, Nelle looked to be about his age, but it was hard for Truman to tell—he was trying to avoid her stare by pretending to read his book.
“Hey, you,” she finally said.
Truman gazed up from the pages. He was sitting quietly on a wicker chair on the side porch of his cousins’ house, dressed in a little white sailor suit.
“Are you . . . talking to me?” he said in a high wispy voice.
“Come here,” she commanded.
Truman pulled on his cowlick and glanced across the porch to the kitchen window. Inside, Sook, his ancient second cousin (thrice removed), was prepping her secret dropsy medicine for curing rheumatism. Sook normally kept a close eye on Truman, but at that moment, she was humming a song in her head, lost in thought.
Truman stepped off the porch because he was curious about who this little boy was. He’d made no friends since arriving at his cousins’ house two weeks ago. It was early summer and he yearned to play with the boys he saw making their way to the swimming hole. So he straightened his little white suit and wandered slowly past the trellises of wisteria vines and japonica flowers until he came upon the stone wall.
Truman was taken aback. He scrunched up his face; he’d been confused by Nelle’s short hair and overalls. “You’re a . . . girl?”
Nelle stared back at him even harder. Truman’s high voice, white-blond hair, and sailor outfit had thrown her for a loop too. “You’re a boy?” she asked, incredulous.
“Well, of course, silly.”
“Hmph.” Nelle jumped off the wall and landed in front of him—she stood a head taller. “How old are you?” she asked.
“You smell funny,” she said, matter of fact.
He sniffed his wrist while keeping his eyes glued on her. “That’s from a scented soap my mother brought me from New Orleans. How old are you?”
“Six.” She stared at the top of his head then put her hand on it, mashing down his cowlick. “How come you’re such a shrimp?”
Truman pushed her hand away. “I don’t know . . . How come you’re so . . . ugly?”
Nelle shoved him and his book into the dirt.
“Hey!” he cried, his face bright red. His precious outfit was now dirty. Seething, he jutted out his lower jaw (with two front teeth missing) and scowled at her. “You shouldn’ta done that.”
She grinned. “You look just like one of them bulldogs the sheriff keeps.”
He pulled his jaw back in. “And you look like—”
“Just what on earth are you wearing?” she asked, cutting him off.
It should have been obvious to her that he was wearing his Sunday best—an all-white sailor suit with matching shoes. “A person should always look their best, my mother says,” he huffed, scrambling to his feet.
She giggled. “Was your mother an admiral?”
She glanced at the discarded book on the ground and started poking at it with her bare foot till she could see its title—The Adventure of the Dancing Men: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.
“You can read?” she asked.
Truman crossed his arms. “Of course I can read. And I can write too. My teachers don’t like me because I make the other kids look stupid.”
“Cain’t make me look stupid,” she said, snatching the book off the ground and scanning its back cover. “I can read too, and I’m only in first grade.”
With that, she turned and climbed back up the wall.
“Hey, my book!” he protested. “I didn’t say you could take it!”
She stopped and considered Truman until something behind him caught her attention—Sook was fanning smoke out the kitchen window. Nelle squinted at Sook, then back at him. “Say, Miss Sook ain’t your mama—she’s way too old. And I know her brother, Bud, ain’t your pa neither. Where your folks at?”
Truman looked back at the house. “She’s my older cousin on my mother’s side,” he said. “So’s Bud and Jenny and Callie too.”
“I always thought it strange that none of ’em ever got married or nothin’,” said Nelle, watching Sook. “And now they’re still all living together just like they did when they was kids—even though they’re as old as my granny.”
“That’s Cousin Jenny’s doing. She’s the boss of all of us, what with running the hat store and the house at the same time—she makes sure we all stay family.”
“Well, why do you live here?” she asked.
“I’m just staying here for the time being. My daddy’s off making his fortune. He’s a . . . entre-pren-oor, he calls it. I was working with him on the steamboats that go up and down the Mississippi, but then the captain told me I had to leave. So Sook and them are watching me for now.”
“Why’d they kick you off a steamboat?”
“Because . . .” He weighed his words carefully. “Because I was making too much money,” he said finally, fiddling with his oversize collar. “See, my daddy brought me onboard to be the entertainment. I used to tap-dance while this colored guy, Satchmo Armstrong, played the trumpet. People were throwing so much money at me, the captain got mad and told me I had to git!”
Nelle seemed skeptical. “You’re lying. Let’s see you dance, then.”
Truman looked at the soft dirt he was standing on. “I can’t here. You need a wood floor to tap on. And besides, I don’t have on my dance shoes.”
Nelle stared at his clothes. “Who gave you them funny clothes anyways?” she asked.