Chapter FourBy John Yager
This is a story of hope. It is the story of a young man coming of age in a culture of prejudice and misunderstanding. It is a story which deals with difficult and often disturbing issues but, nonetheless, issues which must be confronted in today's world.
Again, special thanks to Andrew for proofing and editorial help.
This is a work of fiction and in no way draws on the lives of any specific person or persons. Any similarity to actual persons or events is entirely coincidental.
This work is copyrighted © by the author and may not be reproduced in any form without the specific written permission of the author. It is assigned to the Nifty Archives under the terms of their submission agreement but it may not be copied or archived on any other site without the written permission of the author.
If you wish to receive e-mail notification of subsequent posting, please let me know by sending your request to the e-mail address below.
I walked down Elm Street thinking that Spring River was probably one of the prettiest towns in the world. It was late summer and the fall term was starting in a few days. It would be my senior year at Spring River High School and I had already begun to realize that it would be my last year, not only in the local schools, but in the town as well. That realization filled me with a mixture of sadness and relief.
Spring River had been the only home I'd ever known, but I knew, after the summer which was just ending, that I could no longer expect to make any sort of a life for myself there. Within a year I would be gone. I knew that now. It was, ultimately, a liberating thought. In some sense, I realized, my life would only begin when I had put this lovely little town behind me.
But the problem that confronted me that day was not how to plan out the rest of my life. Who could do that? I knew I couldn't.
I knew I wanted to go on to the University in Oxford, Mississippi, but I still had no idea what I would study. Anything other than business or engineering would be unacceptable to my father, but my father still saw me living my entire life in Spring River and could only think in the terms it dictated.
The present problem was how to get through the next nine months and finish my high school education while not revealing my true nature to my family or friends. It had begun to dawn on me that I needed a girl friend. Such a relationship would give me cover. It would give me legitimacy in the eyes of my parents and my high school friends.
I knew it would be wrong to start dating a girl and not be honest with her. She might want our relationship to become more serious than anything I could offer her. She might see it as the first step to going steady, getting engaged and ultimately even getting married. What would I do if she wanted our relationship to become sexual? The idea of a girl friend might work, but it was not without potential complications.
My academic record was very good. In fact, I stood a very good chance of being valedictorian. My sports record was also good. I seemed, in the eyes of all who knew me, to be a normal, happy, successful teenage guy. But in Spring River that wasn't enough. Whenever I was with family or my parents' friends, they asked about sports first and then about my grades. The third question was always about girl. Did I have one? Was I dating anyone seriously. Was I going steady?
What to do? As I walked along the tree shaded street I began to think that there must be some girl out there, someone I already knew, who was in very much the same situation I was in. Could I find such a girl, one who would welcome a purely Platonic relationship? I began to think about the girls I knew, which in itself was a novel experience. I often thought about boys but rarely about girls.
Pam Carter was very attractive and she never seemed to date much. Joyce Lynn was certainly a possibility. She and her family had just moved to Spring River a year earlier and, so far at least, she didn't have a steady boyfriend. There were also the Logan sisters, Becky and Tracy, but by all accounts their parents were very strict and they probably weren't even allowed to date.
My thoughts came back to Joyce. She was one of
the brightest girls in our class. She certainly planned to go on to college
and, besides, she really was beautiful. If I was going to move in this
direction, I might just as well try for the best.
It was Thursday and I had Friday off from work at my father's lumber yard. I had Friday off because I had to work Saturday until the yard closed at 3:00 PM. I made a pact with myself to take action.
The next morning I showered and shaved, put on a clean pair of jeans and a clean white T-shirt. It was my usual summer uniform, but this time chosen to make the best possible impression. The jeans were almost new, washed maybe half a dozen times, so they looked properly broken in without being frayed. The T-shirt was the best one I owned. At first glance it looked like any T-shirt, but under closer examination, it was clear that the fabric was heavier and the fit was snugger. The short sleeves were banded with elastic so they hugged my arms, showing off my well defined biceps. The tight fit accentuated my torso in a very flattering way.
Even before the summer, I'd been in good shape from sports, but working at the lumber yard had given me much a more impressive body as well as a glowing tan from all the hot afternoons loading lumber. The other guys in the yard worked in as little clothing as possible and I had followed their lead, usually wearing old cutoff jeans or khaki shorts and no shirt. There had also been a good bit of skinny dipping at the lake with some of my teammates, so my tan was not only deep, it was more or less uninterrupted.
I considered phoning the Lynn house but decided
a more direct approach was needed. Joyce's father was a doctor and I knew
he worked long hours. Her mother was usually home, as was her younger brother.
I walked over to their house, which was only a few streets away and went
straight to the front door. I gave myself no opportunity to lose my nerve.
When I rang the door bell, a black lady answered, followed almost at once by Mrs. Lynn.
"That's good, Mary," she said as the housekeeper turned to go back into the rear of the house. "Good morning, Rob," she continued. I was surprised she knew my name.
"Good morning, Mrs. Lynn. I wondered if Joyce might be home." I realized that I sounded a lot more confident than I felt.
"Yes, she's reading in the back room. Just wait here and I'll get her."
"Yes, Ma'am," I said, always the well mannered Mississippi yourg man.
I looked into the room on my left. It seemed to serve as a library with a huge number of books in the glass front shelves. There were sets of 18th and 19th British and American poetry and novels bound in bright red leather as well as hardback copies of more recent works. It was, I realized, a very impressive collection and it looked well used.
Within a few minutes Joyce joined me. She was wearing khaki shorts and a pale green polo shirt. She looked cool and relaxed, and I realized, quite lovely. Under her left arm was a red leather bound book. So she was spending her summer with her parents' library, I thought.
"Good morning, Rob," she said, "how's your summer going?" She was so poised it almost shook my own confidence but I held in there, wanting to make the best possible impression.
"Not bad. I've been working for my father at the lumber yard."
"It seems to have agreed with you."
"Well, I guess so. It's a good summer job but it sure isn't what I want to do for the rest of my life."
She laughed and the sound of it was golden. There was no pretense. "Are you telling me Spring River isn't the place you want to make home?"
I smiled, realizing how is a few moments and even fewer words, Joyce had cut to the very issue confronting me.
"I guess not. In fact, I was just thinking yesterday afternoon, it really is a pretty town but this will probably be my last year here."
"Yes, I know the feeling." She paused and looked back over her shoulder in what I assumed was the direction of the kitchen.
"Mother is making lemonade. Why don't we sit on the back porch and let her feel needed." There was a lilt in her voice. I liked it.
We went back through to the kitchen where Mrs. Lynn was just pouring fresh made lemonade into tall glasses.
"Rob and I are going to sit on the back porch, mother."
"Oh, take these with you," Mrs. Lynn said, handing each of us a glass. "Mary has cookies in the oven. I'll bring you some as soon as they're out."
"Thank you," I said and hurried to catch up with Joyce. The back porch was not at all what I expected. It wasn't opened or screened, as was normal in Spring River in those days. Instead, it had been enclosed with glass and air conditioned, a rare thing in Mississippi in the late 1960s. The furniture did look suitable for a porch, though. It was white painted wicker and covered with flowered cushions. It was a very comfortable room.
"Some porch," I said as we sat in facing wicker arm chairs with a low wicker table between us. On it, I noticed, were stacks of magazines, the kinds I only saw in the public library; The Atlantic, the New Yorker, Harpers.
"My folks had it enclosed right after we moved here so we can really enjoy it all year around. But we still call it the porch." She looked at me over her glass as she sipped the lemonade. Joyce was the kind of person who seemed to cut to the quick of matters, I was learning. As she put her glass back on the table she said, "I'm glad you came by, Rob. Is this just a social call?"
"Well, I guess so," I said. The abruptness of her question caught me off guard.
"I enjoyed being in classes with you last year."
"Yes," I said, "me, too."
"I was sort of hoping I'd get a chance to get to know you a little better."
"Yes," I said, working up my courage. "I'm really sorry I haven't been by sooner. I've had a busy summer."
"I gather." She seemed to be looking me over rather closely and I wasn't sure how comfortable I was with her examination. "Actually, your timing was very good," she continued. "Mother and I just got home last week."
"You were traveling?"
"Visiting mother's sister in Connecticut. Mother was from there originally."
"Really? She doesn't have a Yankee accent."
"She'd love it if you told her that," Joyce laughed. "My grandfather was in the Navy. They moved around a lot but mother spent her high school years in Mobile."
"Is that where your father is from?"
"He grew up near Gulfport. They met in college in Hattiesburg."
"Yes, do you know it?"
"Not really. I have friends who have gone there. In fact, Jimmy Toll in our class is planning on going there next year."
"What about you?"
"Oh, Oxford, I guess. They have been after me to play football. But my SAT scores were good so now they are beginning to think of me as more than just another dumb jock."
"You don't sound too excited about the University of Mississippi. Have you looked at other schools?"
"Not really. I've been getting letters from a bunch of them, though, especially since I scored high on the SATs. But my brother is at Oxford and I guess I'll probably end up there, too."
"Dad went to the University of Mississippi Medical School, but it's in Jackson, of course, not Oxford."
"Yeah. Didn't you move here from Jackson?"
"My, my, Rob. You've been doing you homework."
"I just heard kids at school saying you came from there."
"Dad stayed on to do a residency in Family Medicine and then went to work at a clinic there. But he'd always wanted to have a practice on his own, and when Dr. Sparring retired, dad took over his practice here in Spring River."
"But you don't see yourself staying around Spring River long either."
"No, not after high school."
"Where are you planning on going to college?"
"Trinity, in Hartford, Connecticut. I'll be near my aunt and my grandmother."
"Do you have any idea what you want to study?"
"Absolutely, Classics and Art History."
I'd never heard of Classics as a college major and I'd certainly never known anyone who'd majored in Art History.
"Wow," I responded.
"You really should figure out what you want to study, Rob. I've been reading the syllabus for the last two years. It really gives you an extra advantage."
"Yes, you know, Greek and Latin, both the languages and the literature. It's a very good complement to Art History, which is what I really want to do. I hope I can go on to graduate work in Art History but the second major in Classic will be a big help. If I'm lucky it will get me into graduate school at Yale."
"Gee, Joyce, I'm really impressed. I wish I had everything figured out as well as you do."
"Oh, it wasn't any effort on my part. I've known since I was about thirteen what I wanted to do."
"But, if you don't mind my asking, what will you do with majors like those?"
"I want to work in a museum. I really want to specialize in classical sculpture but that may be too ambitious."
"In an art museum?"
"Art or archeology."
We sat on the porch for another hour. I was amazed by her poise and by the certainty she exuded. Mrs. Lynn came out with cookies and to replenish our lemonade. The morning sped by and I was amazed when Joyce's mother came back again to ask if I'd like to join them for lunch.
"It will just be us three women, if you think you can stand it."
"I'd love to, if you really don't mind."
"Please do, Rob," Joyce said, which made me feel as if she really wanted me to stay longer.
"Okay, great," I replied, standing. "I guess I'd better call my mom."
"Certainly, dear," Mrs. Lynn said. "There's a phone in the kitchen."
When I came back out, Joyce and Mary were arranging a little round table for lunch. I was told to sit, and did so, protesting that I should help bring out the food.
"No, the men folk sit in this household," Mary chuckles. "Otherwise they just get in the way."
It was a simple lunch, but very good, a cold chicken salad and fresh, hot, homemade bread. There was iced tea with lunch and hot, strong coffee with lime sherbet for dessert. I was especially impressed that Mary joined us, not a small thing in those days in Mississippi.
"Are you from around here, Mary?" I asked as she returned from the kitchen with the coffee pot.
"No, I moved up with the Lynns from Jackson last year. My family is gone. I was alone."
"Well, the truth is," Mrs. Lynn said, "Mary came to work for us when Joyce was born and at this point I don't think we could survive without her."
"Lies, lies, nothing but lies," Mary laughed as he poured the coffee. "They're just too nice to make me go looking for a new job."
When lunch was over I rose to leave. I had already been there far longer than I had intended and didn't want to overstay my welcome.
"This has really been great," I said, thanking the three of them, but Mrs. Lynn, especially. "I can't thank you enough."
"Well, Rob, you are certainly welcome," Mrs. Lynn said. "We hope you'll come again."
At the front door Joyce told me good-bye and added, "I agree with mother. I hope you'll come again."
"Thank you." I stopped, feeling suddenly awkward. "Look, Joyce," I blustered on, "I have to work tomorrow until we close, but would you want to do something with me tomorrow evening, a movie or something?"
"Sure, Rob, that would be great. A movie sounds like fun."
"Can I pick you up about seven?"
"I'd say we have a date."
I found myself blushing, smiling and whistling a tune, as I walked down Pine toward home.
To be continued.