“Are you warm enough, Julia?” Mom asked. “I can turn the heater up.”
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” Julia said.
Laurie stared at the silhouettes of their heads from the back seat of the old Dodge, as he had been since they left the train station in Harrisburg. Polite, he thought. Ok, polite is good. Can’t expect them to warm up to each other right away just because Julia and I did. But the strength of his yearning for them to like each other surprised him.
He and Julia had seen each other every possible minute since that coffee shop conversation. They hadn’t spoken of the fact that they kept seeking each other out; Laurie hadn’t even examined his own feelings much. He just wanted to be with her—it seemed natural, easier to be with her than without her. Yet the ways they were different, her urban savvy and acerbic attitude, piqued and delighted him. It’s like she’s got Linda’s heart and Sydney’s edge, plus her very own brilliant mind, all in one gorgeous package.
“It’s supposed to be much warmer tomorrow,” Mom said.
Julia half turned in her seat to face Mom; Laurie admired the way passing headlights shone across her profile, glinting on her cheekbones. “Laurie tells me you’re a psychologist, Dr. McAlister?” she said, cutting off the weather chitchat.
“That’s right. And please call me Martha. Are you interested in psychology?”
“Not really, Doctor.” Laurie winced and braced himself. “I’m more interested in what motivated you to adopt a Negro child. Weren’t there any black families who could have taken him?”
He should have known Mom would be up to the challenge. He could hear the smile in her voice as she said calmly, “Very likely. My motive was pure selfishness, I’m afraid.”
“I loved him the minute I saw him. Do you know what I mean?” She turned her head toward Julia for a second, then back to face the road. Julia breathed sharply in but didn’t answer. Mom went on, “I couldn’t bear the thought of letting anyone else have him. Here we are.”
They pulled into the driveway; Mom stopped the car in front of the opening garage door. “Why don’t you two get out here while I put the car away,” she said.
By the time Laurie had gotten their weekend bags out of the trunk, Julia was standing on the walk to the front door, staring at the big white house.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s meet my family.”
As they stepped into the foyer, Joy yelled, “They’re here!” from the top of the stairs and hurtled down toward them. Robbie beat her to them, careening around the staircase from the TV room. He flung his arms around Laurie’s neck, kissed his cheek, then turned to Julia as Joy crashed into Laurie and climbed him like a tree.
“Hi,” Robbie said, “I’m Rob, the cool brother. Gimme five?”
Julia slid her fingers along his proffered palm and arched an eyebrow at him. “I can see that, cat,” she said. “What’s buzzin?”
“Yow!” Robbie yelped, and dropped to the floor.
Celia stood in the living room opening, shaking her head. “Don’t mind him,” she said, stepping over Robbie and shaking Julia’s hand more conventionally. “He’s not really any crazier than the rest of the family, he just shows it more. I’m Celia, by the way. Welcome. Hey, big brother.” She moved on to kiss Laurie on the side not occupied by Joy.
Mom came in the door from the back walk just as Dad appeared from the study. “Judging by the noise, either the Russians have landed or Laurie’s home,” he said. He pulled Laurie into his arms while Joy jumped down and Celia stepped away.
Laurie hugged him back, then turned towards Julia. “Dad, this is my friend Julia Hawkins. Julia, my father, Sean McAlister.”
“How do you do, Mister—oh, it’s Commander, isn’t it?”
“Just call me Sean,” Dad said warmly. “So happy to meet you.”
“Let’s let the poor girl all the way into the house before completely swamping her,” Mom said.
Laurie helped Julia out of his own high school letter jacket and hung it along with his windbreaker in the closet. He eyed her appreciatively as she moved toward Celia. She was wearing a red sweater and a navy blue straight skirt, and she looked like a million bucks. He was proud of her, and proud of his family. They have to like each other. They have to.
They all crowded into the living room and Mom motioned Julia to a seat, but Laurie said, “Make yourself at home, Julia, and excuse me for a minute—I have to say hi to Ruby.”
He realized she’d followed him into the dining room when Steve, who was helping Beth put the finishing touches on the table, shied back from Laurie’s one-armed hug. “Hi,” he said shyly to Julia at Laurie’s introduction, while Beth came around the table with both hands stretched out.
Laurie touched Beth’s shoulder to turn her more toward Julia as he bent to kiss the top of her head. Julia took Beth’s right hand in hers; Beth laid her left over both of them, beaming.
The door to the kitchen swung open and Ruby came through, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Thought I heard ructions out here,” she said, flinging the towel over her shoulder and reaching up to cup Laurie’s face in her hands. He pushed his head forward to lay it on hers and squeezed her around the waist.
She shoved him off after a second. “Enough of your soft-soddering. I have to see to the brisket. I’m Ruby Jones,” she added, patting Julia on the shoulder.
“Julia Hawkins,” Julia said before Laurie could speak. “Your brisket smells heavenly, Mrs. Jones. May I help you with it?”
“Thank you, child, but I have Beth and Steve to help me tonight. You go on out and relax with Laurie and the others; I’ll see you at dinner.”
Julia looked disposed to argue, but Laurie said, “No use resisting, Ruby’s word is law around here,” and ushered her back to the living room, where Rob was playing guitar and singing.
“Sure, she’s just like one of the family,” Julia said in a sarcastic undertone as they squeezed onto a settee next to Celia and Joy.
“She is one of the family,” Laurie whispered back.
“If you say so.”
Later that night, he brought her overnight bag into the larger guest room and set it on the dresser. “Bathroom’s through there,” he said, pointing. “Extra pillows and blankets in the closet. Is there anything else you need?”
“No, thank you,” she said. “It’s a very nice room. Bigger than mine at home.”
Something in her tone made him say, “My mother died in this room. My birth mother, I mean.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “You knew your birth mother?”
“My parents tracked her down for me, but she was already dying. She’d been a maid and a clerk and a cleaner, lot of low-level jobs. My father was a Pullman porter, though.”
She perched on the end of the bed, looking around the room again. “So you do know something about your black roots. Sitting there at the table tonight, watching all of you say those Jewish prayers when your Jewish brother isn’t even home, I wondered just what connected you to the world I live in, the world where being black is the single biggest fact of life.”
“Well, I guess for the past month that connection has been you.”
She huffed at him. “You know that’s not what I’m talking about. Hearing them go on tonight about the NAACP and getting laws changed and all that nice liberal stuff: it’s black people, the Negro communities, that are going to make real change happen, organizing and working together and standing against the oppressors. You can’t be part of that unless you connect to those roots.”
“Ok,” Laurie said. “Point taken. But just remember, these are my roots, too: this family, these people—they hold me to the earth, they’ve fed me so I could grow.”
“If you say so,” Julia said for the second time that night.
Leeds Hall, the newest Haverford dorm, was Laurie’s sophomore home; he had a single this year, though he still often had lunch with Clai. Leeds was farther from the Gest Center than Barclay had been, but Laurie enjoyed strolling under the trees to his first class in the warm fall sun.
He was taking Dr. Reid’s course on the family this year. Being in college, talking with students from other parts of the country and other social backgrounds, had made him think more about his own family: what made it work, how they coped with challenges from outside, how all that might relate to the larger society. He was hoping this course would shed some light on that and help him interact with people from different kinds of families.
Coming into the classroom, he noticed there were a couple of Bryn Mawr girls taking this course, as well. What’s more, one of them was the girl he’d taken to thinking of as the African Queen. He quickly snagged a seat near hers and smiled across at her as she sat down. She answered with a cool nod.
Professor Reid walked into the room, tall and slightly bent, with an armful of books in one arm and his notes under the other. The students settled down as he stood before them, slight sneer on his dark face. That disdainful look had intimidated Laurie at first in the intro course last year, but he’d soon learned the man knew how to smile, as well, and started striving to earn those smiles.
“This will be a course in which we will study the institutions designed to guarantee the perpetuation of the group and its cultural heritage in comparative societies. We will analyze functions, forms, and processes of the institutions of marriage and the family…”
Laurie focused on the paper in front of him and started taking notes. He quickly got absorbed in the topic, but he stayed aware of the girl in the next seat over. When she ventured an opinion that got one of Dr. Reid’s patented, “I’m so sorry, but…” mildly negative responses, he flashed her a sympathetic grin. This time the corners of her mouth twitched a little, as though she wanted to smile.
That gave him enough encouragement to speak to her after class. “I’ve got a break before PoliSci,” he said. “May I buy you a cup of coffee?”
“Are you taking that course in government and public policy, too?” she asked.
“With Professor Somers, yes.”
“At Bryn Mawr, we call our professors ‘Miss’ or ‘Mister.’”
“They do that here, too, but I don’t like it. Especially for a Negro like Professor Reid; he’s earned that title.”
She gave an approving nod. “Julia Hawkins,” she said, offering her hand.
He took it. “Laurie McAlister.”
They made their way to the coffee shop in the Dining Center in silence. This should feel awkward, but it doesn’t, Laurie reflected. She seems completely self-contained, unselfconscious. She didn’t even make a crack about my name. He bit back an inane remark about the weather and relaxed.
The silence between them held till they were settled at a table with their coffees. Then she put down her spoon and looked at him. “I was wondering when you were going to speak to me,” she said. “Ever since that rally last spring.”
“Why didn’t you speak to me?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes slightly. “Because I was wondering when you were going to speak to me,” she said with exaggerated patience.
“What, ladies don’t speak till they’re spoken to?” he said. “I thought it was the other way around, a gentleman waits for the lady to indicate interest.”
She looked at him for a long moment, head on one side. Then she said, “What’s it like, living inside a nineteenth century novel?”
“Pretty boring, sometimes,” he laughed. “What kind of novel do you live in?”
“Oh, no fiction for me. And nothing so retrograde as the printed word. My life is cinema. I live in a gritty urban documentary.”
She picked up on the Latin without a hitch. “Philadelphia,” she said. “Philos Adelphi, City of Brotherly Love, so they tell me. You?”
“Villa for me. A little town called Pine Springs, west of Harrisburg.”
Her eyebrows rose. “How many black families are there in a place like that?”
“Not many,” he said, “and mine wasn’t one of them.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m adopted; the rest of my family is white.”
Now her eyes widened beneath the raised brows. And they were huge already. And so dark and lustrous, like liquid jet. “What was that like?” she asked.
“Wonderful. They’re wonderful.”
She said nothing, just kept looking at him with those swimming eyes. That was all right with Laurie for the moment. He was happy sitting there, drinking in the sight of her: her full mouth, the way the planes of her cheekbones emphasized her broad sculpted nose, her long slim fingers with their carved silver rings, the darkness of her skin glowing against the deep aquamarine of her blouse, taut against her high small breasts.
He raised his eyes back to hers to find her looking at him sardonically, nostrils flared a little, head still at an angle. “‘Wonderful’ like your nice white girlfriend, that strawberry cream bonbon I saw you with in Washington?”
“Ex-girlfriend,” he said. “And don’t let that soft creamy look fool you. She’s tough and she’s smart. She told me I should talk to you, for instance.”
“Did she, now? So you always do what women tell you to do? Or is it only white women?”
He grinned, thinking fondly of Roscoe. “I always do what smart people tell me to do,” he said. “Who do you listen to?”
She looked down at her thick white pottery coffee mug, turning it slightly from side to side on the table. “I listen to my heart,” she said softly.
Laurie gulped. “And right now your heart is telling you—?”
“That ‘the problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’” She gave him a sideways smile. “We should be getting to class.”He rose and held his hand out to help her to her feet. It was perfectly unnecessary, but she accepted it. As they turned for the coffee shop door he tucked her hand under his elbow and, picking up on her Casablanca quote, said, “Louie, I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.”
And there was still plenty of time for swimming off the shores of the little island, small enough to fit into a football field, that the cabin stood on, or canoeing on Raquette Lake, or paddling a shallow-bottomed guide boat around or an aluminum canoe to shore to hike in the wooded mountains. One day they’d taken the motor boat over to the Great Camp Sydney’s family owned; the Thatchers were still on their mysterious Latin American venture, but Linda had showed Laurie the fancy boathouse and guest houses, the game room building with its handmade bowling alley and giant stuffed bear, the furniture made from tree trunks and branches with the bark still on them they could glimpse through the windows of the main house.
Laurie’s chief worry in accepting the invitation to come here was that he’d feel uncomfortable in such close proximity with Linda’s family, but he slept in one of the guide rooms appended to the main cabin, listening to the lake sloshing against the dock a few feet from his window and the creak-squeak of the boats as their hulls scraped against it. During the day, everyone pursued their own activities and left Laurie and Linda mostly to their own devices. In fact, Laurie found it a little odd, how much they were left alone together. At the same time, Mrs. Marks kept shooting him significant glances he couldn’t interpret, while Mr. Marks avoided his eye altogether.
Tonight the two of them had stayed in the “open camp,” a three-sided low shelter at the edge of a big flat rock at one end of the island, after the others had gone back to the cabin. They’d been here to watch the stars: Venus occulting Regulus, a sight that wouldn’t appear again till 2044. Scientists were all excited about using the event to determine the density of Venus’s atmosphere. Here at Raquette, all they’d really been able to see was a dimming of the bright star in a blue haze as the planet passed before it.
“I suppose we should go to sleep,” Linda said quietly after her family had gone back to the cabin. “It’s almost midnight.” They were lying back on a bed of pine duff, heads propped against their blanket rolls.
“I suppose,” Laurie agreed. Neither of them moved. Gradually the faint sounds of the others getting ready for bed, visiting the privy, brushing their teeth in the little natural cove the family called “Grandmother’s bathtub” or at the creaky pump in the kitchen, faded away. A soft breeze soughed in the scrub pines and the water gurgled against the rocks below them. Laurie’s eyes drifted shut.
Who’s shining that light in my face? he thought with irritation. And is that a fly I hear buzzing? He opened his eyes. It was full daylight; beside him, Linda was just starting to stir. The Markses’ runabout putted past the point of the island and idled just off it; Laurie realized it was the sound of its engine firing up that had awakened him. “We’re headed to Big Osprey for water,” Mr. Marks called. “Going to look around a little. We’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“There’s oatmeal on the back of the stove,” Mrs. Marks added.
“Ok,” Linda called back. “See you later.” Then she turned to Laurie. “Let’s eat up here. I’ll go get myself squared away and bring it to you.” She dashed off toward the privy at the other end of the island.
Laurie found a patch of bushes to pee in, carefully avoiding the places where the wild blueberries grew. He rinsed his hands in the lake and got back up to the open camp just as Linda arrived with the oatmeal in two tin bowls, already garnished with brown sugar and milk from the gas-fired fridge.
They ate in silence for a while, then Laurie said, “I’m surprised your folks left us up here alone last night, and then going off today like that…”
Linda put her bowl and spoon down, not looking at him. “They’re giving me time to break up with you,” she said.
Laurie felt no surprise, just great sadness and a little bit of relief. My first love, he thought. He gazed at the water and the thickly wooded hills beyond. All this beauty, and I’ll never be here again. I’ll never be in love for the first time again. It was a dream, and now it’s over. “But you don’t have to break up with me,” he murmured.
“No,” she agreed. “I could feel that. It’s already happened, hasn’t it? Ironic that they should finally invite you up here just when we’ve—what, outgrown each other?”
“Not each other, just this part of the relationship. I’ll always love you, Linda.”
She nodded, arms hanging loose on her upraised knees, head down. Then she shifted back to lie against her blanket roll again, and Laurie sank to his beside her. “I saw you looking at that girl at the rally,” she said. “That tiny one who looks like an African queen. I knew then it was over between us. I mean, I sort of knew it already, that just made it come clear in my mind: you were moving on, and I realized I already had, too. Is she nice?”
“I haven’t spoken to her,” Laurie said.
She elbowed his ribs. “Well, get on the stick, what are you waiting for? Girl like that, she’s not going to just hang around hoping you’ll notice her.”
Laurie laughed. “Roger, wilco,” he said, snapping a salute. “And you? Someone you’ve been looking at?”
“More than looking at, actually,” she admitted. “Guy in my freshman lit class: Ned Goldstein, his name is. He’s a writer, too. We’ve been talking a lot about what we want to do.”
“So it’s writing for you for sure, then?”
“Yeah, it’s what I do best, and I think I can make a difference, writing about stuff like what King talked about at the rally, working for civil rights using non-violent techniques. And speaking of violence,” she said, rolling to her side and starting to get up, “I’d better get down to the cabin and do the breakfast dishes before they get back and my mom goes bananas.”
Laurie put a hand out to stop her. “I’ll go with you and help in a minute; it won’t take long with two of us. But there’s something I want to talk about while we’re alone here.” She subsided and looked back at him questioningly. “I’ve never been quite sure how to bring this up, but I’ve been worried about you, ever since you told me about her that night years ago. I know you didn’t want me to stick my oar in, but I’ve been on the lookout in case you seemed to need help. After a while it seemed like you’d figured out how to cope with it. So how do you? It’s about the violence; how did you turn out so sweet and gentle?”
Linda reacted with annoyance, to his surprise. “Just because I’m sort of pink and plump and have this baby face, people think I must like kittens and get all fluttery when something upsetting happens. I thought you knew me better than that.”
“I do!” he protested. “I know how strong you are; God, I can still see you that night after the prom in the parking lot, ready to take on those hoods and protect me from them.”
She smiled ruefully. “Instead, I fell for the oldest trick in the male-dominant book: you sent me off to ‘get help’ and by the time I got back, our dads were there and it was all over. I was so jealous of Celia when I saw her standing there with Varner’s chain in her hand; she got to be part of it.”
“It wasn’t fun, Linda.”
“I know that. But it was important—something big that happened to you. And I wasn’t there for it. I feel like that’s happening more and more.”
“I guess it is,” he admitted.
She sighed and sat up. “That’s part of why I knew we were over. As far as my mother’s concerned, I guess I started to feel more on top of the situation when I got old enough to see her as a person.” She steepled her hands over her nose and mouth for a second and huffed a humorless laugh. “Actually, when I realized I was taller than she was. It was not long after I first told you about her, actually. I’m sorry you were worried; you were all caught up in what was happening between you and your father at the time, so I didn’t bring it up.”
“She’d been after me about my grades, as usual, standing in a doorway glaring at me—an old trick of hers, making me edge past her. But instead of being intimidated, I shoved her out of the way. She never tried that again.” Linda spread her hands out over her lap and stared at them. “Once I stopped being physically afraid of her, I started to think about her as though she were just some woman I’d met or read about. Did you know she used to be in newspaper advertising?”
“I think you mentioned something about that once, yeah.”
“Well, when I was, I guess, around nine, so Lisa would have been six, she got an offer to work full time running the advertising department for one of the new television stations, an ABC affiliate, I think it was. We were at Fort Benning then; Dad was still in active service. We went to a school in Columbus, Georgia. And the principal wouldn’t let us stay at school for lunch. He said my parents didn’t need my mother’s paycheck with Dad in the army. And the post commandant told my father that his wife’s place was with her children. So she couldn’t take the job. Can you imagine what hell those lunchtimes at home with her were?”
Laurie rubbed Linda’s hunched-over back sympathetically. She went on, “So when I got older I started to think about that, but from her perspective: what it must have been like, knowing she’d never have an effective career. It’s too late now; she’d never find a job like that again. Instead of this all-powerful angry mother, she suddenly became just a frustrated woman, someone with talent and energy who’d been thwarted through no fault of her own.”
“It wasn’t your and Lisa’s fault, either,” Laurie pointed out.
“No, and obviously she could have handled it better, but understanding what she’d been through helped me deal with it.” She looked at Laurie over her shoulder. “Did you know Tom Varner can’t read?”
Laurie sat up beside her. “Can’t read? But he graduated from high school! Took him five years, but…”
“They pushed him through. I overheard a couple of the teachers talking about it once. One of them, your friend Miss Palmer, had tried to get him into a special remedial class, but his parents evidently went crackers, said their kid wasn’t ‘a retard’.”
“So Varner gets a pass on being a bully?”
“No, nobody gets to act like that. Bullies and bigots, they have to be stopped. I’m just saying, if you understand what makes them tick, why they’re so scared, you can move against them without being caught up in their hate. You can—this is going to sound nuts—you can love them.”
“I can’t see loving Tom Varner. Much less some bigot with power like Orval Faubus. Not that either one of them would be interested in ‘love’ from the likes of me, anyway.” He gave a bitter chuckle at the thought.
“I’m not talking about sending Governor Faubus valentines,” Linda said. “It’s like what C. S. Lewis said about loving your neighbor as yourself. You don’t look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, I’m just so wonderful, I love me to bits. I go all googly just looking at myself.’ You don’t if you’re normal, anyway. But you do put the best construction on what you do, and try to understand yourself and give yourself a break when you fall short, right?”
“I guess,” Laurie said.
“Sure you do. That’s loving yourself. And I really think that to get anywhere with people who hate you, you have to try to get inside their heads, to understand what scares them. That’s how you love them.”
Laurie leaned over and gathered her into his arms. “And how do I love you?” he said. “Let me count the ways. You tell this Goldstein guy, if he doesn’t treat you right I’m going to come and kick his ass. Because breakup or no, I’m going to love you forever.”
“Me, too,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Forever.”
On the bus they’d been singing leftist songs like “This Land Is Your Land” and Spanish Civil War ballads. Here, some nerdy-looking guys were clumsily morris dancing on the lawn.
Now a few white Haverford students who’d come along stepped on to the drive and went their ways in silence, tired or overwhelmed by the day’s excitements, Laurie supposed. He’d half-hoped a particular female student he’d noticed in the crowd and on the bus would get off, too. Why would she, though? She’s sure to be a Bryn Mawrter; she’ll be going on there.
It only now occurred to him that he could have stayed on the bus to chat her up a little, and walked back. No, that would have been pretty transparent. Besides, Linda…
It had been good seeing Linda today in the delegation of students from Dickinson. They were all white, though, and some seemed nervous in the big crowd with so many black faces. It had been hot and clear, a beautiful day, and Linda’s face had been pink from sun and excitement. He’d kissed her, and her familiar lips had felt like home.
But her Dickinson friends were staring, and Henry and Jeff Still had been there demanding Laurie’s attention. Turning toward them with his arm over Linda’s shoulder, Laurie had noticed the Bryn Mawr student standing a little apart. She wasn’t looking their way, but Laurie had the feeling she had been just before.
She was petite and slim, not buxom like Linda, but she held herself with the regal air of a much taller woman. Her skin was the color of old bronze, her hair pulled back severely from her face, throwing her strong African features into sharp relief. She looked like the profile of a queen on a coin. As the day progressed, her steadfast ignoring of Laurie started to seem like a statement in itself.
You’re imagining things. Laurie started down the drive toward Barclay.
He hadn’t spoken to her today, partly because Henry was talking to him about plans for doing some civil rights work over the summer, and partly because just as he was making up his mind to do it, a familiar voice had drawled behind him, “Funny, I used to know a guy looked a lot like you. But he’d never get caught hangin around with other spades, you must be someone—hey!”
Roscoe’s rant had broken off as Laurie grabbed him around the shoulders and crushed him to his chest. He’d struggled to get loose as he said across Laurie to Henry and Jeff, “Get him off me, will you?”
Jeff had snickered, and Henry laughed. “If you know him, you’ve just gotta know he’s gonna paw at you sooner or later. Might as well let him get it out of his system.”
It turned out that Roscoe had gotten that scholarship to Cheyney after all. Laurie was so happy about that, and so glad to see him, he’d refrained from reproaching him about the fact that he hadn’t told Laurie what was going on. He’d spent the rest of the day with Laurie and Linda and the Still brothers.
Now Laurie set off down the driveway into the Haverford campus, smiling at the memory. His sociology professor, Dr. Ira DeA. Reid, who’d gotten off the bus before him, nodded as he passed. Laurie slowed his pace and fell into step beside him. With his wire-rimmed glasses and toothbrush moustache, the professor reminded Laurie a little of his old high school biology teacher, Dr. Barrett, except that Dr. Reid’s face was brown.
Laurie said, “Quite a day, wasn’t it, sir?”
“It was, indeed. Among other reasons, it’s always gratifying to see one’s students excel.”
Laurie looked at him questioningly.
“I’m speaking of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior.”
“Dr. King was your student?”
“At Morehouse, before the Haverford students petitioned President White to hire me after they heard me speak here. In 1948, that was. I brought young Martin and a classmate here for a couple of weeks that summer after they graduated to train them in research techniques.”
“You’re the first tenured Negro faculty member at Haverford, aren’t you, sir?”
“Mmm,” Dr. Reid agreed. “There have been a few black students, starting back in the twenties—a couple of Jamaicans—and an African was admitted the year I arrived, along with the first American Negro. The first of us to graduate from here was in 1956. Sociology student, Norman Hill. I expect great things of him.”
“I’ve heard of him. He’s the reason the campus barber will cut my hair, right? Because he complained to President White about one who wouldn’t?
“That was actually a Jewish student, who saw him being discriminated against. You mentioned in one of your papers for me that you have a Jewish adopted brother, is that so?” At Laurie’s nod, he went on, “There’s an historic bond between blacks and Jews in the struggle for equality, of course. Was he at the rally today?”
“Yes, he came down from MIT. Boston would be too far away to come for just one event, usually, but with Passover coming up in a couple of days, our parents decided to spring for the flight so he could be at the rally and then come home for the holiday.”
Professor Reid nodded. “And what did you think of young Martin’s speech today?”
“Powerful,” Laurie said. “Even stronger than the one I heard two years ago. That part about Southern Negroes turning their experience of degradation into non-violent resistance, though—I’m not sure how that applies to the rest of us.”
“You go to Fifth Day Meeting for Worship, don’t you?”
“Every Thursday,” Laurie said, puzzled at the seeming change in subject. “They don’t give us any choice. Some of the guys use it as an excuse for pranking and goofing around, but I have a Quaker sister; I like the quiet.”
They had arrived in front of Barclay. Dr. Reid paused by the steps to one of the entryways. “Quakers understand what Martin was talking about. They’re historically pacifists, of course, but there’s a tension that runs deep. It’s a constant challenge to the Society of Friends, the dynamics of peace. It’s vital to keep a balance between the world-you-believe-in and the world-you-live-in. Failure to achieve this balance can do us in.” He tapped Laurie lightly on the elbow in farewell and went on his way.
Laurie moved into the residence hall pondering what the professor had said.
A bunch of guys and a few girls were sitting around the suite living room in near-darkness, drinking beers and Cokes, leaning against each other. Clai Barringer, sprawled on the floor near the door, waved his can of Schlitz at Laurie in greeting and gestured toward the ice chest in the corner.
Laurie grabbed a beer for himself and popped it with the church-key opener on the nearby table, then collapsed onto the floor himself.
“But Narnia’s just as well realized a world as Middle Earth,” one of the girls was saying. “It’s got a history and different peoples and religions.”
“Tolkien didn’t think so,” someone else said. “He thought Lewis had made a hodgepodge of motifs and images from different cultures—you know, fauns and centaurs and a divine lion and Father Christmas all lumped together. ‘It won’t do,’ he said.”
“And no language,” Laurie put in. “Middle Earth works as a believable universe because Tolkien started with the languages and built the cultures from there.”
A couple of people looked at him in surprise. “You read fantasy literature?” someone said.
“He reads everything,” Clai remarked.
“My mother used to read both Tolkien and Lewis aloud to us, growing up,” Laurie said. “Why, did you think I’d only read civil rights manifestos?” The silence in the room said that was pretty much the case.
Clai cleared his throat. “You went to that rally today, right? How was it? Did that black preacher, King, speak?”
“It was great,” Laurie said, hauling himself to his feet. He’d take his beer and finish it in his bedroom; he was suddenly very tired. “He said we’re not the ‘beat’ generation, we’re the generation of integration. He said that whether we become doctors or lawyers or teachers, the struggle for equality should be central to our lives, that it would make us better at whatever else we do. ‘Make a career of humanity,’ he said.”
“Doesn’t sound that special,” Clai said.
“You had to be there,” Laurie told him. Clai’s hand reached out and grabbed Laurie’s ankle as he passed on the way to his room. Laurie looked down at him.
“I shoulda been there,” Clai said.
“Yeah, you shoulda,” Laurie agreed, and went on to bed.
Walking into the house felt odd. On the one hand, Laurie felt subtly stretched and squeezed so that he didn’t seem quite to fit into the space in the same way. On the other hand, the sight of the familiar front hall; the aroma of Ruby’s frying chicken overlaying the decades of damp wool carpets and astringent furniture cream—spiked with pine from the Christmas tree in the living room; the sounds of his brothers and sisters chatting and thumping and playing music upstairs; the very way the air pressed on his skin: it was all as familiar as his own coat. And like his coat, it felt a little constraining, like the combined comfort and chafing that came over him as Dad’s solid presence loomed behind him in the doorway, stomping the wet off his shoes.
Then Mom and Ruby were jostling each other to be first to get their arms around his neck and Joy was squealing as she hurtled down the stairs and the dissonances shook themselves into harmony and he was home.
That sense of fitting back into place alerted him to undercurrents of tension at the dinner table. Steve was acting unusually bratty, sighing impatiently during the grace and grabbing the basket of rolls just as Beth reached out to them. Mom and Dad’s reactions were, conversely, unusually mild. Cutting him some slack because of the hearing scare, Laurie realized.
It had been horrible for Laurie, seeing pictures of the damage Steve’s cousin Bert had done to his body, seeing Bert’s own dead body lying tumbled in a pool of blood. Laurie could only imagine what it must have been like for Steve. He was exonerated, but that doesn’t mean the hearing didn’t damage him. Robbie, beside Laurie, looked at him as though worried about what he was thinking of Steve’s behavior. Laurie gave him a resigned grimace and turned to his dinner.
It took a few minutes before he actually got to eat; people were peppering him with questions about college. They’re not asking Jamie anything, he noticed. Maybe because he’s already been here a day. Then Laurie sat back with a moan of pleasure as the first mouthful of Ruby’s au gratin potatoes slid down his throat. “Hey, Hymele, what’s the food like at MIT?” he asked, craning past Robbie. “It’s ok at Haverford, but nothing like this.”
Jamie shrugged. “Food’s food,” he said. Then he flicked a wary glance at Ruby. “Though this is great,” he mumbled. “No offence, Ruby.”
“None taken,” she said mildly, helping herself to some glazed carrots.
Jamie hunched over his plate and attacked his chicken, keeping his head down.
Laurie might have thought nothing of the brief exchange, except for Mom and Dad trading worried looks across the table. That crystallized a vague feeling he’d been having. Something was wrong with Jamie. He’s been back since yesterday, Laurie thought again. So why is he still so uncomfortable? It seems like more than his usual stiffness.
After dinner, Linda came over, and Laurie got distracted from thinking about Steve and Jamie while trying for that old feeling of comfort with her. It was slow in coming. Jamie had disappeared into the upper regions of the house and the others were still clearing up and settling down in the living room.
Laurie dumped a platter onto the counter and pulled on her elbow. “I just want to snag a minute with you alone,” he said, drawing her with him to sit on the back staircase.
“God, I’ve missed you,” he said into her hair.
“I’ve missed you, too,” she said as he dipped down to nuzzle the spot where her collarbone met the top button on her blouse.
There’s an odd resonance, he thought. “But?” he said, pulling back to look into her face.
She settled against the stairs, one elbow on the step above where they sat, and sighed. “You know me too well,” she said.
Laurie’s heart sank. “You met somebody else already?”
“No, no, Mr. Dramatic.” She pushed at him playfully, and he relaxed a little. “No, it’s just that… I don’t know, I feel different. It’s like I’ve started a new life; I’m turning into a new person, and you’re not there to turn with me. You’re turning out there on your own, where I can’t see or follow. Know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I guess I do,” he said reluctantly.
“And I am meeting new people,” she said. Then she snuggled in next to him again. “None as handsome and sexy as you,” she murmured into his chest.
“Now there’s something you never would have said before,” he laughed as he bent to find her lips again. “Not that I’m complaining.”
They sat tangled on the steps, kissing and stroking till their breath quickened and Linda made a little squeak that sounded somewhere between pleasure and longing. Unbidden, the thought of little Fuzzy Simpson and Hanover Thompson sitting in some North Carolina reform school came into Laurie’s head. Then the sound of Jamie playing the piano in the attic music room drifted down the stairwell, further breaking the mood, and Laurie pulled away.
“We should go up to my room or down with the others,” he said. “These sharp edges are killing my back.”
“Downstairs,” she said with a regret that lifted Laurie’s heart. “I have to get home soon, anyway, and it’s rude for us to hide out from your family.” As they crossed the darkened kitchen she whispered, “After all the uproar around the country and abroad, they’re letting those little boys out in time for Christmas, did you hear?”
“Yes, I did, mind reader,” he said, squeezing her hand.
So they moved into the living room, where Robbie and Steve perched in front of the fireplace with their guitars, singing “All in the Game.” The words struck a chord with Laurie’s mood: “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all… in the game; all in the wonderful game that we know as love… But these things your hearts can rise above… ” Steve’s face had lost the pinched, discontented look he’d worn at dinner. Music is magic for him, Laurie reflected, pressed against Linda on the long couch beside Ruby and Celia.
When the song ended with “And your hearts will fly away,” he called out, “Hey, give us ‘The White Cliffs of Dover,’ Stevie, like you did at Mom’s birthday last spring.” Rob shot him a grateful look as Steve grinned shyly and went into the song that marked the first time he’d felt able to contribute something to the family. This time, they all joined on the last chorus.
When it was done, Beth called for ‘Black Is the Color’ and a family sing was in full swing. Except Jamie’s not here, Laurie thought uneasily. Is anyone noticing that but me? Then he looked at Mom’s face. Yeah, I guess so.
An hour later, he stood in the front doorway brushing new snow off his sleeves. He’d just seen Linda to her car. They were onto novelty pop tunes in the living room, to the adults’ laughing protests. Laurie listened for a minute to Joy lead a rousing rendition of “Purple People Eater,” shook his head fondly, and headed up the stairs.
He went into his bedroom and spent a few minutes unpacking his duffel bag. The sounds of singing and laughter filtered up to him, but there was no piano music coming down from the attic now, and no sound from Jamie’s room, though he could see through the shared bathroom that the light was on.
Laurie used the john, then took the opportunity to stick his head in the other room. Jamie lay on his bed, arms behind his head, staring at the ceiling. When Laurie looked in, he brought his arms down to fold over his chest.
“Did you want something?”
“Yeah,” Laurie said. “I want you. Where are you?”
“Where am I? Who am I? What am I?” Jamie mocked. “Very deep, Existentialist Man. They teach you that in the Ivy League?”
Laurie had forgotten how cutting Jamie’s casual sarcasm could be. And he was tired, and feeling unsettled over Linda and worried about Steve. I don’t need this, too. “No,” he snapped. “Haverford’s not an Ivy, for your information. And I don’t go to a school where they actually teach things, oh-so-important stuff like math and technology. We just sit around talking about our feelings all the time. You know, the meaning of life and the search for love and the nature of humanity? You wouldn’t know about any of that.”
He wheeled away without waiting for a response and went back down to join the others, feeling only a little guilty about the questioning look Mom gave him, and her disappointment when he only shrugged in response.
That night, Jamie woke the house screaming from one of his concentration camp nightmares. It was a bad one; he’d vomited all over the bed. By the time Laurie got into the room, having gone around through the hall because Dad had Jamie in the bathroom helping him clean up, the girls and Mom and Ruby were busy changing the sheets. Steve had hidden under his blanket; Rob sat next to him, leaning down to talk quietly at the lump where his head was. Laurie headed downstairs and made some chamomile tea.
By the time he brought it up and pressed the steaming mug into Jamie’s hands, Jamie was back in the clean bed and most of the others had disappeared to their rooms. Rob was still next to Steve, whose head was out of the covers but turned away; Robbie gently stroked his hair.
Mom and Dad sat on either side of Jamie, arms around his shoulders. He wouldn’t look at Laurie as he took the tea. When Laurie leaned forward to kiss him on the forehead, he flinched and almost spilled it. Discouraged, Laurie went back to bed.
Of all the concerns occupying his mind in church the next day, Jamie was uppermost. God, show me what to do, he prayed. I can see what Steve needs, and I know Linda and I just have to keep sharing what we’re thinking, but I don’t have a clue about Jamie.
It was the fourth Sunday of Advent. The readings focused on the coming of Christ, the bridge to God. Laurie repeated the prayer of St. Francis to himself. Make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love… and then the kicker: where there is injury, your pardon, Lord—he’d done it to Jamie again; he dropped his forehead onto his clasped hands to continue—… grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. He drew a breath that seemed to come up from the core of his belly and waft out to the soaring, painted arches above him, and come rushing back like a wind.
“Are you ok?” Celia whispered beside him. He squeezed her shoulder.
That afternoon Mom suggested they all go to see the new Cary Grant film, a romantic comedy called Houseboat. Laurie couldn’t think of anything he’d less rather do, especially since he knew Linda was spending the day with her grandparents in Baltimore. When Jamie declined, too, he knew he’d made the right call.
He finished cleaning the pancake griddle as the rest of them flapped around and finally got out of the house. Then he went upstairs to find Jamie in the larger spare room, working at the desk.
“Holiday homework?” he said, leaning against the doorframe with his ankles crossed.
Jamie’s hand slowed and stopped over his notebook. There was a brief silence, then he put down his pen and swiveled around in the desk chair. “Not really,” he said. “I’m having a hard time concentrating.”
Laurie came into the room and perched on the bed across from him. “Still a little shaky from last night?”
Jamie scratched an ear and glanced away, tilting his chair back against the desk. “Maybe. What about you? You didn’t want to see the movie?”
Laurie shook his head. “Too much on my mind. Though I hate to pass up the chance to sit in the dark for an hour and ogle that Sophia Loren. Have you seen her yet? Va-va-voom!”
Jamie let the front wheels of his chair clank back down onto the floor. “So, you like Haverford all right, then?” There were two slashes of red across his cheeks and his narrow, intelligent face was taut with tension.
Don’t push him, he’ll run, Laurie told himself, and launched into anecdotes about his first semester.
Ten minutes later he was in full spate. “So I went back to the sidewalk where this guy had been selling the stuff in jars, and said, ‘That gingko fruit tastes like vomit,’ and he gets all righteous and says, ‘I never said it was any good!’” Laurie laughed and looked for an answering smile from his brother.
Instead, Jamie closed his eyes and said abruptly, “I’m queer.”
Laurie’s mind went completely blank. He could feel his mouth still open in a stupid grin but somehow couldn’t react enough to close it. It was like being hit in the pit of the stomach; you knew you would start breathing again in a minute, but right now there was no air.
Then, gradually, function came back and he snapped his mouth shut. Then stray thoughts started bobbing into his head like little fish. He caught one at random and tossed it out.
“Marla?” he croaked.
“Denial, Mom says.” Jamie was poised on the edge of the desk chair as though he might jump up and run out of the room any second.
Laurie scrubbed his hands over his short-cropped hair and tried to think of the right thing to say. Or the wrong thing not to say. “So Mom and Dad know?”
“I told them last summer, before I went away.”
“Oh, God, Jamie, so you went off to college and had to deal with it all by yourself?”
Jamie looked at him curiously, as though what Laurie was saying was unexpected. “I’d been trying to deal with it on my own for a while. It was actually a relief to know that they knew, and that they wouldn’t—”
“Wouldn’t what? You didn’t think they were going to give you a hard time about it, did you?”
Jamie gave a bark of a laugh and put his long hands over his face. “Hard time, yeah, that’s one way of putting it.” His voice was muffled behind his hands, then he dragged them down to knot in his lap. “And you?”
“That time with the Playboy!” Laurie exclaimed. “What was that about? You stared at that centerfold with me for an hour. You remember, the time Ruby caught us and got so mad.”
“I remember,” Jamie said. “I was still trying to figure it out, trying to make myself feel what boys are supposed to feel when they look at pictures of naked women.” He made a dismissive gesture and locked his fingers together again. “And you?” he repeated.
Laurie gathered his thoughts. “And me, what? What do I think about it, you mean? Hell, Hymele, I don’t know anything about this. Have you talked to Uncle Kevin?”
“On the phone once, and he’s been writing to me all semester. So you know about him?”
“Sure I know. He told me that first day when I went to get him in Chicago.” Laurie bit his knuckle, looking worriedly at Jamie. “He says it’s a hard life.”
Jamie shrugged. “That’s what the folks say, too. Can’t be helped; my life is my life. Mom wants me to get therapy, but I don’t feel like I’m sick, I just feel scared.”
“Mom doesn’t think homos are sick.”
“Everybody else in the world does. Sick or criminal. Or both. That’s what she thinks therapy will help, dealing with how people are going to look at me.”
“Man, I’m sorry about that. Is there anything I can do to help? No, stupid question. Well, maybe I can stop making sarcastic remarks that tip you into nightmares. You’d think I’d’ve learned that by now.”
“Yeah, always about you, isn’t it? Don’t you think you’re a little dark to be the fair-haired boy?”
“Now, there’s the snideness I like to hear.” Laurie stood up and took a step toward Jamie. “Hey, this’ll give you a chuckle. My suitemate at Haverford thought you and I were a couple ’cause I kissed you goodbye.”
Jamie stood, too, and moved away toward the window, showing no sign of chuckling. Laurie followed him and stopped a couple of feet away, watching for cues as to what Jamie wanted. Or what he doesn’t want but needs anyway.
Jamie’s face was shuttered; he was raising his usual protective wall. “At least no one around here will want to touch me again, that’s one benefit.” But Laurie heard a note of uncertainty in his voice.
“No such luck, bubeleh,” Laurie said. At Jamie’s skeptical look he went on, “So because I’m heterosexual, you think when I kiss, say, Cissy, I’m coming on to her?”
“It’s not the same thing,” Jamie said. “I don’t know how to explain it to you.”
“Lucky for you, you don’t have to,” Laurie said, grasping the back of his neck and firmly pulling him into his arms. He kissed Jamie’s temple and said softly into his ear, “You are my brother. I love you. If it makes you nervous to be close to me, get over it. If it makes you hot, get over yourself. I draw the line at incest.”
Jamie gave a snort that was half a sob, then buried his face in Laurie’s shoulder.
He’d spent Thanksgiving in Philadelphia with the Rucker/Still family. Miz Pearl’s turkey stuffing was just like Ruby’s, surprise, surprise, but her gravy was milky instead of brown and there was ham to go with it and sweet potato pie instead of pumpkin. The conversation had mostly been of politics, though, which was familiar enough to Laurie, and he was interested in Henry’s description of Lincoln University. Still, it had been his first Thanksgiving away from home, and he’d resolved not to repeat the experiment if he could help it.
Now, after a desultory day of post-holiday classes and a night alone in the suite, Laurie came out of his room, passing the open door to Clai Barringer’s on the way. His suitemate was unpacking, back to the door. Laurie thought his back stiffened a little when he heard Laurie, but he didn’t turn around.
“Hey, Barringer. Just getting back from Thanksgiving?”
The muscular blond turned slowly. “Yeah,” he said. “Takes too long to come up from North Carolina.” No’th Cah-lina. “I told my folks, next time I don’t make the trip for shorter than a week. You?”
Laurie shrugged. “I just went to Philly, spent it with some cousins. But I’m going home next time; it’s only two hours from here, and I was homesick. Hey, maybe next year you could come with me, meet my family. Oh, and my girlfriend; she’ll verify that I’m not queer.”
Barringer leaned back against his battered school-issue dresser. “She white, your girlfriend?”
Laurie swung his book bag to the floor. “You’ve seen the picture in my room, you know she is. That bother you?”
“Not me. Or maybe a little, tell the truth. It’s just—” He nibbled on a thumbnail, staring at Laurie. Then he said, “You heard about those little kids?”
It took Laurie a second to catch up with the change of subject. “In that school fire in Chicago? Yes, awful. Almost a hundred dead, and some nuns, too. Can’t imagine what their families are going through…” He trailed off at the uncomprehending look he was getting.
Then Barringer pushed himself up from his dresser and stood awkwardly, half turned from Laurie, hands knotted in front of him. “Oh, those kids. Yeah, that’s bad, too.”
“Too? What else has happened? Barringer, what’s going on?”
“You haven’t heard about it up here yet? What they’re callin The Kissing Case?”
Laurie shook his head, and stepped forward into the room to take a seat on the bed at the other boy’s gesture. He’s never invited me into his room before. Something’s really bothering him.
“They’re only seven,” Barringer began in a low voice. He perched on his windowsill facing Laurie but kept his eyes on the floor. “Two little colored boys, down home in a place called Monroe.” MON-roe. “Happened back in October. Some party, they were in a game and kissed a little white girl on the cheek. Or no, she kissed them, I guess. Or one of them, anyway.”
It felt like all Laurie’s blood had left his face and pooled in his stomach, surging and roiling there. “What happened?” he whispered.
“Little girl told her mama, mama called the sheriff. Sheriff arrested those chil’en for attempted rape.” He nodded at Laurie’s gasp and went on, “Six days in jail, then they sent ‘em to reform school. Till they’re twenty-one. Seven-year-old kids.” He finally met Laurie’s eyes. His own were bleak, his pale face blotched with red. “NAACP’s gettin in to it. Guess the news’ll be all around pretty soon.” There was a long pause, then, “Never thought I’d be ashamed to be a Southerner.”
“Emmet Till wasn’t enough to tip you off it wasn’t all moonlight and magnolias?” Laurie said bitterly.
“Miss’ippi.” Barringer seemed to think he’d answered the question. When Laurie cocked his head at him, he went on, “Bunch a redneck trash. Not the real South. Cah’lina, we treat our colored right.”
“Shit, Mac, don’t take me up every word. I don’t know what to say. There’s no right thing to say.”
“No,” Laurie agreed.
There was a knock on the suite door and a voice called, “McAlister, phone for you.”
Laurie leaned forward and clapped Barringer on the shoulder as he got up. “I appreciate you telling me about it,” he said.
Out in the hall, he picked up the dangling receiver, wondering whether it would be Linda or someone in the family. Maybe they heard about this business and are worried I’m upset. “Hello?”
“Laurie?” It was Mom’s voice. “Sweetie, how are you? How was your Thanksgiving?”
“It was fine, Mom. Like I told you on Thursday when you called, the Ruckers and the Stills said to say hi. They were nice, but I missed being home.”
“Well, be sure to write them a nice thank-you note.”
He could hear the strain in her voice and sighed before he said, “Mom, you didn’t call to remind me of my manners. It’s about the news, this court case, isn’t it?”
“It’s in the news?” she said, aghast. “How did they—oh, honey, I’m so sorry you had to find out that way.”
“Actually, I found out from my suitemate. He lives down there.”
“North Carolina. Where it happened.”
“Laurie, what are you talking about?”
“Those two little boys who got arrested because a white girl kissed them. Isn’t that what you’re talking about?”
“No, I’m talking about Steve.”
“Steve!” Laurie could feel his brain almost physically changing gears. “Did something happen to him? What’s going on? Tell me!” Shut up a second so she can, he told himself.
Mom took a breath. “My supervisor, Marty Henderson, got his nose out of joint because I was pushing for fosterage reforms. And he never thought we should have taken Steve out of the system. Now he’s forced a hearing; he wants Steve charged for killing his cousin.”
Laurie’s body seemed to understand what she was saying before his brain did. His stomach was already twisting, his head spinning as the blood left it for the second time that morning. “But—but it was self defense! That monster had tortured him for years, he was going to kill Steve!”
“We know that, sweetie, and I’m sure—well, almost sure—the judge will see it that way, too. I think even Henderson understands that on some level. He just doesn’t seem to understand this is a real person he’s playing politics with.” Her tone was bitter.
“How’s Steve taking it?”
“Not well. He’s terrified, of course—and furious, thank God. I’m hoping his anger will get him through this. But it’s set him back considerably. I could strangle that man.”
“When’s the hearing?”
“On Monday. Your birthday. I’m sorry, sweetie.”
Laurie shrugged that off. “I’ll call you when I know what train I’m taking. Someone can meet me at the Harrisburg station, take me over to the courthouse?”
“Of course. If you’re sure you can take the time off.”
“Of course I’m sure. Give Steve my love, will you?”
“I will. Try not to worry. It will be all right, I’m sure.”
“I’m sure, too.”
And he was. Only standing there after he hung up, leaning his forehead against the wall of the dorm corridor, he let despair wash over him. He thought of the fear his fragile new brother must be feeling, and the torment he’d already suffered as the captive of a drunken, sadistic psychopath. He thought of the agonies of those school kids who burned to death in Chicago. And the uncomprehending terror of two little boys in North Carolina, locked up with criminals, torn from their families for a crime they didn’t even know the meaning of, because a little girl had kissed their innocent cheeks.The phrase Mom had wailed the night poor David died came back to him. “Oh, all the children,” he whispered.
At least I’ll have a place to get away to if things get tough. He sighed on that thought. Everybody pretended not to stare at me last night, but I saw them looking when they thought I didn’t see. Is that better or worse than glares? Will I find anybody here who’ll just treat me like a person, instead of a black person—for better or worse?
Arching his back, he looked up through the sash window behind his head. Sunny day, already warm. Hmm, already late, judging by the light. Hope I haven’t missed breakfast. Dinner last night had been good, but in the whirl of first impressions he’d lost track of where he’d eaten it. He remembered the rank of white-suited black men behind the steam tables well enough, and the way they avoided his eyes, but not where they’d been. Maybe that other guy knows.
He levered himself out of bed and made his bleary way to the suite's private bathroom, a rarity for freshmen. Coming out, he almost ran into his suitemate, Claiborne Barringer, a muscular blond guy with a heavy accent—North Carolina he’d said last night. He circled around Laurie to get to the bathroom door, leaving a wide berth, without responding to Laurie’s “Morning.”
Great. They’ve given me The Flower of Southern Manhood for a roommate. Well, better deal with it sooner rather than later. Laurie dressed quickly and got back out into their suite’s common room while Barringer was still in the john. He sat on the faded chintz-covered couch and waited.
When the other boy, still bare-chested, came out and saw him, he hesitated for a second, then settled on the arm of the threadbare upholstered chair opposite, arms crossed and jaw jutting, waiting.
“You have a problem with me?” Laurie said directly.
“I do,” he said. Ah doo.
“All the rooms in all the dorms at Haverford, and you have to walk into the only one with a spade first-year, huh?”
Barringer flushed deep red. “It’s not that you’re a Negro,” Nigrah, he said. “I don’t mind that. I said so, on that residential sign-up form. I know plenty of y’all back home.”
“People who work for your parents, you mean.”
“Maybe. So what? The point is, just because I’m Southern doesn’t mean I’m a racist. You’re the racist, if you think that.” He shook his head at Laurie’s expression. “You don’t believe me?”
“No, I don’t. We barely exchanged ten words last night. If it’s not that, what could make you turn against me without even knowing me?”
Barringer slid down onto the seat of the chair and looked away, rubbing his upper arms. Then he planted both hands on his sturdy thighs and leaned forward aggressively. “I can’t be livin with no fag,” he said.
Laurie’s yelp held both amusement and disbelief. “You think I’m homosexual? And then I’m automatically some threat to you? Full of yourself, aren’t you?”
Barringer scowled. “I know you got a boyfriend, but I can’t have it get around that I’m livin with… ”
“‘Boyfriend’? What the hell are you on about?”
“Don’t try to deny it. I saw you.”
“You saw what?”
“You… ” Barringer turned red again and mumbled so that Laurie could hardly understand him, “kissin that guy.” As Laurie continued to stare, Barringer’s face hardened again. “In the parkin lot.”
“Parking… Oh. Oh, God, you idiot, that wasn’t my boyfriend, that was my brother!”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“You mean because he’s white? We’re adopted; yes, he is.”
“Anyway. Doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean, ‘doesn’t matter’?”
“You still kissed him. Another guy.”
“My brother,” Laurie repeated patiently. “Don’t you have brothers?”
“One. But I sure as hell don’t kiss him.”
Laurie sat back. “Oh. What about your father?”
Now it was Barringer’s turn to yelp a laugh. “Not since I was about three. He’d have a stroke.”
Laurie shrugged. “Well, in my family we kiss. My mom says it’s a cultural thing—she’s a psychologist. And she’s Italian, so we kiss.”
“Italian, huh? That’s what Yankees call it?” But he was looser now, grinning companionably.
Laurie shook his head, chuckling, as he got up. “Come on, put your shirt on and help me find some food, I’m starving. Don’t forget to wear blue.”
“So now you’re giving me fashion advice? That ‘Italian’ too?”
“It’s because we live in Barclay, meathead. Dorm colors for Customs Week, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, right. Customs Week. I heard they throw freshmen into the Duck Pond.”
“In this heat, I almost wouldn’t mind.”
“You’ll dry fast, burrhead.”
Laurie froze. Barringer, on his way to his room, faltered. “You called me ‘meathead,’” he said defensively.
“Not the same thing.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Laurie could sense that was true. Give him a break, he told himself. He shrugged. “We Italians are sensitive,” he said.
“I can see that,” Barringer said, venturing an uncertain smile. His expression turned earnest. “I’ll be more careful.”
“Me, too,” Laurie said. “Listen, there must be someone down in the lounge who knows where we can get breakfast. Come on, let’s get going.”
The Intercultural Council Labor Day picnic was almost over, but Laurie was reluctant to rendezvous with his family and go home. He’d just said goodbye to Linda—goodbye, not goodnight, since he’d be leaving for Haverford tomorrow. They’d both cried a little and kissed a lot, but there had been a hesitation, a distance between them that left him on edge. I’ll call her tomorrow, he told himself, wandering moodily through a thicket on the edge of Laurel Lake.
The air was heavy with impending thunder, lightning flickered on the horizon, but people were still swimming in the shallows by the light of the dying bonfires. Listening to the splashes and shouts, Laurie almost missed the sound of rustling to his left. “Who’s there?” he asked sharply, suddenly aware of how far he’d strayed from the others. He breathed out in relief as young Jimmy Hodge’s face appeared through the branches.
“What are you doing in there?” he asked, half laughing. “Were you following me?”
Jimmy extricated himself from the underbrush, shyly averting his head. “Guess I was,” he said. “I, uh, I wanted to talk to you about those sit-ins in Oklahoma City some more. I mean, I know they said today that teacher, that Clara Luper, is pretty much running it there. But my moms says it spread to other states, too.”
“That’s right,” Laurie said, leaning against a pine tree. “The drugstore they started with is a chain; when they decided to integrate, they did it everywhere they have stores.”
“Was that part of the plan?”
“Probably. Mrs. Luper is an old hand at this; she helped integrate the state university back in 1950.”
“So now she’s going after the banks and the drive-ins and everything?”
Laurie peered at the younger boy through the gloom of the overcast evening. “Jimmy, we hashed this all over at the meeting earlier today. Why did you really follow me?”
Jimmy shuffled his feet and looked down again. “I was worried about you.”
“Worried about me?”
“Yeah. I, uh, I saw you saying goodbye to your girlfriend, and you looked pretty browned off.”
“I wasn’t mad, I was… I don’t know, sad, I guess.”
“Not even a little mad?”
Laurie slid down to sit cross-legged in the pine duff at the base of the tree. “It’s hard to put into words exactly what I was feeling,” he admitted. “That’s part of the reason I went off by myself, to figure it out. It’s ok—” he reassured the boy, “—I wasn’t getting very far on my own; maybe talking to you will help.”
He shifted around to get more comfortable, feeling the sticky sap from the bark on the pads of his fingers. Jimmy squatted by the bush in front of him. “See,” Laurie went on, “in the back of my mind, I guess I thought someday I could just marry Linda and be a lawyer and have a normal life. My family still thinks that, it seems to me. But since that kerfuffle at the prom, I’ve realized I’ve got to think again.”
“I heard about the prom,” Jimmy said. “Hell, I guess everybody did. How you went with your sister and switched over when you got there, but there was still trouble.”
“Right,” Laurie said. “I don’t know how could we have been such idiots, to think that dance scheme would solve everything. Even our parents are saying now they should have known better. But we were lucky; it was just a little bit of trouble. Could have been a lot worse.”
“You spent a lot more time with me and my friends this summer than you did last year.”
“You’re right,” Laurie said, answering the implied question. “I’m not going to let racists run my life, but the dance did make me feel more than ever that I need to be part of the black community. Even if it does mean hanging around with you snot-nosed brats.”
“Ha, ha,” Jimmy said. “I’m going to be a junior this year, for your information.”
“Mm, mm, mm,” Laurie wagged his head in mock admiration. “A junior! Imagine that!”
Jimmy flung a little piece of bark at him. “Yeah, I know, you’re Super College Guy.” He sobered. “Are you scared?”
“A little,” Laurie admitted. “But that’s not so much about the race thing. I remember you told me once that before you went to County High you’d never been in a room where you were the only black face before. Me, I’m used to that. But I’ve always had my family around me, sort of running interference. And Linda—being with her has caused some trouble for both of us, but it’s also meant that I didn’t have to think about dating or meeting new girls; we always had each other. So I’ll be doing without my family and my girlfriend. I have to figure out how to act without them to lean on.” Laurie’s voice went low and he rubbed the back of his neck as he said, “How to be a man.… How to be a black man.”
Jimmy picked up another piece of bark and fiddled with it, looking down at his lap. “That’s how I feel, too,” he said. “You’ve really helped me out these last couple of years.”
“I don’t know that I’ve done so all-fired much. I feel guilty, actually, that I haven’t been more help to you and the other guys.”
“Just your being around helps. Having somebody there who’s been through it, even though it’s different for you because of your family. But that’s it, you’re different. I think that’s why you don’t have to pretend to be all hard and not caring like some of the older guys in The Neighborhood do. We can feel scared or lonely and you won’t make fun of us or tell us we have to toughen up.”
There was a lump in Laurie’s throat. “Jimmy, Jimmy, that’s one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me.” He reached forward and grasped Jimmy’s sneaker, shaking it a little. “But don’t kid yourself, you’re plenty tough where it counts. You’ll do fine.”
There was a crashing, crackling noise behind Laurie; Robbie pushed through into the little clearing. “There you are! Hey,” he nodded at Jimmy then turned back to Laurie. “We’ve been ready to go for fifteen minutes, trying to figure out where you got to. Mom and Ruby are having conniptions, and Dad’s standing by the cars tapping his foot with That Look on his face.”
“Uh, oh,” Laurie said, pushing to his feet. “I’m coming.”
“I think your folks are looking for you, too,” Rob said to Jimmy.
As the boy moved past him, Laurie caught him in a quick one-armed hug. “I’ll be visiting home pretty often,” he said, “and I’ll write you, too.”
“That’s great,” Jimmy said. “You better get back to your family now.”
“Right,” Laurie said. “Right.”
Laurie stood in a fine drizzle dressed only in a pair of khaki shorts, hosing out the garbage cans. His bare toes squelched in the wet grass as he moved.
He turned to get a better angle on some gunk stuck in one of the cans and saw that Linda stood just inside the porch, watching him. Through the shadowy screen, he couldn’t identify the expression on her face. He turned the hose aside and twisted its nozzle to shut off the flow of water. “Hey,” he said.
She stepped out the porch door onto the covered walk to the garage. “Why are you doing that in the rain?” she said.
“I was going to get wet doing this anyway, didn’t seem to matter. Besides, I like doing outdoor work in the rain; it’s cooler and there are no bugs.”
She nodded. “That makes sense.”
The stilted interchange broke off and they both just stood there without speaking. Think of something to break the silence before it gets so deep there’s no getting out of it, Laurie told himself.
“Uh, have you recovered from last night?” he blurted, then wished he’d left the silence alone. Stupid thing to say.
Linda seemed to think so, too. “No,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever recover from it.”
The silence fell again as Laurie coiled the hose and hung it on the outside wall of the garage. Still, when he started to wrestle one of the garbage cans over to the picnic table so he could turn it upside down on a bench to drain, she stepped out to roll the other one after him. He took it from her with a nod of thanks, upended it on the bench, then turned to her again.
“Did you go to church today?” he asked.
Clearly she hadn’t been expecting that question. “No, my folks let me sleep late. I think they were so relieved the dance was past, they’d have let me do anything I wanted today.” She peered at him from under the brim of her rain hat. “You always go no matter what, though, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Catholics, you know. Don’t want to burn in hell on top of everything else.”
“Everything else?” she said as they started back to the house.
“‘Wonder not if the world hate you,’” he quoted from the day’s epistle. “When the priest read that today, I felt like St. Teresa being pierced by heavenly arrows. And the psalm for today: ‘Save me from all them that persecute me.’”
While Linda took off her raincoat and hat and draped them over one of the rattan porch tables, Laurie ducked into the mudroom that backed onto Ruby’s bathroom and got out some towels. Before he could start to use them, though, Linda took them out of his hands.
“Let me,” she said. She laid one onto the seat of a wicker chair and gestured at him to sit down. Then she took another towel and rubbed his face and head with it. As she shifted down to dry his upper body she said, “Religion means a lot to you, doesn’t it? You almost never talk about it, so I forget that. We’ve never even gotten into the fact that I’m a Protestant and your church won’t even let you visit mine.” She started to swab his chest, where wiry strands of hair had recently spread down to meet the bristles growing up his abdomen.
Acutely aware that this was the closest to naked he’d ever been around her except at the pool, he tried to focus on the conversation. “It does mean a lot to me,” he said. His voice seemed a little hoarse; he cleared his throat. “For one thing, I feel safe in church. I remember when I was little, when it was just Mom and Ruby and Celia and me, we’d sit there together and I’d let this incomprehensible Latin wash over my head and feel like nothing bad could ever touch me there. Now that I’m older, it’s as though I can carry a little bit of that safety, that shelter, away with me when I leave the church—hold it over my head, wrap it around me. That sense that God is with me somehow.”
She draped the towel over his shoulders and picked up the third one. She knelt in front of him and took his feet into her lap and started to dry them, toe by toe. “Did you feel that sense last night?” she asked, head bent over her task.
“I think I did. Even when I was scared, or furious at those guys, or later at Lebo, and then in the parking lot—God, Linda, we came so close to getting tipped over into real violence last night, you know?”
She stopped drying his calves and dropped her forehead to his knee for a second. “I know,” she said softly. Then she went back to rubbing his legs with the towel.
“But somewhere, on some level, God was still there, keeping me from going off the deep end. God, and you.” She was working on his thighs now. It was the most incredibly erotic sensation he’d ever felt. Getting turned on while talking about God, great idea, Laurie, he chided himself.
His lips parted and he took a long slow breath through his mouth. He squeezed his thighs together, hoping she wouldn’t notice what was happening there, but she looked up sideways at him, mouth cocked at an angle.
“Another county heard from,” she said in a gently teasing tone. “Let’s draw a tasteful veil over this, shall we?” She doubled the towel and spread it over his rain-damp shorts, then pulled herself up by the chair arms and plopped herself into his lap.
Laurie thought his heart might pound right out of his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and bent to her upturned face to capture her mouth in a deep, searching kiss. When it ended, he buried his face in the soft flannel shirt over her breasts. Her own heart was thrumming in counterpoint to his, as strong but faster and somehow lighter.
Then she whispered, “Except when we’re alone, I’m afraid all the time I’m with you now.”
It was as though she’d plunged him in cold water. He raised his head with a strangled gasp. Her expression was at once shamefaced, resolute, and inexpressibly sad.
“I have to be honest with you,” she said. “I need you to know the truth. Oh, Laurie, I love you, I love you so much, I’ll love you forever.”
“But?” he croaked. She’s breaking up with me.
She shook her head at the look on his face. “But I’m scared, that’s all,” she said. “That’s what I wanted you to know. I love you as much as ever. I just have to find a way not to be scared.”
She put her head down on his shoulder and he held her, thinking hard. Then he said, “No, I think what we have to do—what I have to do, anyway—is to find a way to live with being scared. To work through it, like running off a cramp. To go forward, even afraid.” He brought his hands up and gently lifted her head so he could look into her eyes. “I’ll understand if you can’t do that. I love you, too, and I don’t ever want to hurt you. You shouldn’t have to live in fear.”Tears spilled out of her eyes and down her cheeks. He lifted one end of the towel she’d put around his shoulders and dabbed at them. When he finished, she put her head back down and they sat there without speaking. Laurie’s mind went back to the morning’s Mass. “The Lord became my protector, and He brought me forth into a large place,” he thought.
The county high school was a darker hulk at the edge of the dark parking lot, with only the gym spilling light and noise out its door. As they walked toward it, Laurie found himself pulling his senses into his body the way he did before a race, feeling himself as a construct of muscle and breath and bone, focusing on the challenge ahead and letting all other thought and feeling fall away. Celia rubbed his arm comfortingly. In front of them, Linda’s pink skirt swung like a big flowery bell as she walked beside Jamie.
They mounted the steps to the outside gym door. Here we go. Jamie and Linda walked in, paused a second, then moved into the crowd. Laurie and Celia stood poised in the doorway. It felt at first as though everyone was staring at them. No, it’s just a few people near us. And someone—ah. From across the room where the faculty chaperones stood by the punch bowl, Dean Dunkelman glowered at him.
Laurie gave her a beaming smile and swept Celia onto the dance floor. See, old witch? I’m here with my sister. Try to make a federal case out of that! “Let’s try some of those jitterbug moves Beth has been teaching me,” he said to Celia as the band swung into Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Breathless.” Jamie was already there, pretending to be Linda’s date, dancing stiff and steady on the beat as a metronome while Linda swirled and frothed around him, moving easily but with strain in her smile that it hurt Laurie to see. Hang on, baby, he thought at her. I’m coming for you.
Two hours later, Laurie and Linda had danced together several times. In between Laurie had danced with Celia almost as much and with a couple of other girls, as well—Marla’s friend Mary and some junior who’d come with another of Laurie’s old track teammates. That girl had kept looking around nervously, stumbling a little as Laurie propelled her through “At the Hop”; Mary, on the other hand, had been if anything too chummy, wrapping her arms around Laurie’s neck and slowing her feet till they were more swaying than dancing to the soupy strains of “April Love.” Laurie’s back hurt from trying to keep from full body contact with her while keeping on the watch for someone who might object.
He brought her back to the sidelines with relief. This is more an ordeal than a party, he thought. Do I actually wish we hadn’t come? More to the point, does Linda?
But she seemed content in his arms doing a sort of R&B flavored foxtrot to the Everly Brothers’ latest hit, “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” As the song’s verse gave way to the bridge, Laurie swung Linda out into a twirl and suddenly realized they were alone on their part of the dance floor; a circle had formed around them. A lot of teeth showing there. Smiles, some, and grimaces and nasty grins, too. And why are they watching us, anyway? We’re not that good, they’re just pretending we are.
At the end of the song, he made a show of escorting her to Jamie, but by now their little ruse had run its course; he didn’t even know where Celia had gotten off to at the moment, Mary was giving them a knowing grin, and Dunkelman had ostentatiously turned her back on them. “Never mind, what can she do to us now?” Linda whispered.
The next dance was a slow one, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Linda melted into Laurie’s arms, sweet fluffy pink cotton candy with a warm, strong center. She’d kicked her high heels off earlier in the evening, so her head only came up to the middle of his chest. Laurie was glad he’d loosened his tie and shucked his jacket himself so he could feel her better: the way her breath moistened the breast of his shirt and the hinge of her jaw moved against him when she softly sang along. He lost himself in the swing of the tune, loving the way their feet moved effortlessly in tandem. He fought off a little shiver of uneasiness as Don Gibson’s smooth country tenor twanged, “I’ll just live my life in dreams of yesterday.”
No, he told himself. This is now, tonight, and everything is going fine. Then Linda’s feet faltered. For a second he thought she’d just pressed up to be closer to him, then he realized she’d been jostled by another couple. A few bars later it happened again, from the other side. Laurie raised his head and glanced around. Two guys whose faces he vaguely recognized from around the halls flanked them, scowling. One’s partner was already pulling away from him, embarrassed, but the other was bright-eyed, literally licking her lips in anticipation.
Ignore them, Laurie thought, just as Linda said the same thing aloud. He stepped backwards, trying to guide her to another part of the floor. The two couples followed and bumped into them again, harder this time. Laurie stopped dancing and tried to push Linda behind him, though she resisted. From the corner of his eye he could see Celia and Jamie start toward them. Other couples had noticed something going on and milled around uncertainly. Laurie saw someone he knew, a fellow runner, leave the floor.
Thanks for the support, buddy, he thought bitterly, but a second later the guy was back, with Coach Perkins in tow; Laurie hadn’t even noticed that his old track coach was a chaperon. Dean Jumper was with them. The two toughs tried to fade back into the crowd, dragging their girls with them, but people avoided them and left them stranded. The uncomfortable girl pulled away and disappeared; the excited girl clung to her partner’s arm but the expression on her face had slipped from anticipation to wariness.
She flounced along with him out of the gym when Coach Perkins and Dean Jumper ejected the boys. Laurie was half inclined to slip out into the parking lot after them, but stifled the impulse. Getting in a fight tonight will not help. The crowd buzzed with speculation and gossip; Laurie couldn’t tell whether the chatter was hostile to him and Linda or to the troublemakers. Shaking, he guided Linda to the refreshments table. His former teammate followed them.
“Thanks, Burba,” Laurie said. “That could’ve gotten real ugly.”
The other guy shrugged, looking away. “You got a right to dance, same as anybody else,” he said awkwardly. He turned his head back but kept his eyes down, as though he were somehow ashamed. “Um, I better get back to my date. See you around, Mac.” He nodded at Linda and disappeared.
Coach Perkins and Dean Jumper rejoined the chaperones behind the table. Laurie turned to thank them, but the coach looked sour. “I thought better of you,” he said to Laurie. Laurie felt as though he’d been slapped. People act hateful and it’s MY fault? Over Dean Jumper’s shoulder, Dean Dunkelman gave him a triumphant sneer.
“Jamie, I need to sit down,” Linda said. Jamie gave her his arm; Celia took Laurie’s hand as they followed back to the chairs on the sidelines.
They all sat together without speaking for a couple of songs, then Jamie took a breath. “I think we should give things a chance to cool off a little, put on our little show again. Ready to brave the ravening horde again, Linda?”
Linda smiled grimly. “Sure,” she said. “Music hath charms, right?” Laurie reached for Celia and the four of them took the floor again and danced to “Jailhouse Rock” without incident.
Celia and Jamie sat the next one out. It was “The Stroll,” and as Laurie led Linda between the two lines of dancers when it was their turn to solo, he thought it might have been wiser for them to skip it, too. But Linda had her head up and a combative look in her eye; friends and classmates clapped and nodded at them as they passed. Still, Laurie was sweating and taut with nerves by the time the number finished.
When they got to where Jamie was standing, in a far corner of the room, Laurie was starting to let relief that “The Stroll” had gone all right overtake his tension. Then he saw his old nemesis, Tank Lebo, there with Jamie. He had something half-concealed by his metallic blue jacket. As they got closer, Laurie saw it was a pocket flask. “Come on, egghead,” he was saying to Jamie in an undertone, “live a little, why doncha. It’s only a buck a shot. Whaddya have ta lose?”
“Hm,” Jamie said sardonically, “what do I have to lose? Let’s see, my equilibrium, my good sense, my reputation, my freedom if I get arrested, in which case my early acceptance to MIT might be at risk—seems like I’ve got quite a lot to lose, actually. Look at it logically: the risks far outweigh any potential benefit.”
Laurie recognized Jamie’s tone of voice: it was the half-mocking, half-self-deprecatory one he used when he was actually trying to be friendly. Lebo, obviously, didn’t recognize it. He turned away from Jamie with a disgusted grimace, made a slight gesture with the flask at Linda, then, at her headshake, shot a sideways glance at Laurie. “How about you, King Kong?” he snarled. “You can have a shot if you have a buck—and your own glass. You’re not putting those gorilla lips on my flask, even if Miss Pinkie here lets you put them on her.”
“Get lost, Lebo,” Laurie said, trying to keep a lightly dismissive tone to cover his fury. This is why I should have gone after those other guys.
Lebo smirked and melted away into the crowd as Celia joined them. “What’s up with the Apollo Belvedere?” she said, looking after him.
“The what?” Linda screeched. “That creep, you think he’s a Greek god?”
“I think he’s like a statue of a Greek god,” Celia corrected her with a grin. “Gorgeous body and a completely marble head.”
Linda laughed, Jamie snickered uneasily, and Laurie just shook his head. The floor was emptying out as people started to leave; the dance was coming to an end.
Celia huffed a little sigh through her nose. “Well, I guess this is where Jamie and I turn back into pumpkins—or are we the mice? Anyway, if you guys can drop us off home before you go to the after-prom party at Mary’s, I’d appreciate it. I know it’s way out of your way, but—”
“Mmm,” Linda broke in, stooping to retrieve her pumps from under a chair. “I hate to be a party pooper, but—Laurie, would you mind a lot if we skipped the party? I feel like I’ve had about all I can manage for tonight.”
Laurie wasn’t sure whether he felt disappointed or relieved at not going to the party, but he knew he felt relieved at having the decision taken out of his hands. And he was relieved to be getting out of the hot, stuffy gym with its decorations that had looked so festive now tattered and tawdry as the chaperones turned the lights up.
Outside, he was glad he’d put his jacket back on. The cool, clear night air in the parking lot was as invigorating as anything out of Lebo’s flask would have been. They all stopped on the steps for a minute to drink it in. The moon was up, a silvery gibbous waning from the full, and yesterday’s rain had washed the asphalt and the surrounding trees free of dust. Laurie could have stood there for an hour, but the others moved on toward the car and he went along.
They were almost at the car when the two toughs who’d been ejected earlier stepped out from behind it. Tom Varner, Laurie suddenly remembered, and that other hood who harassed Steve in the playground last summer. Varner was swinging that chain he liked to wear hanging off his belt. He hadn’t been wearing it in the gym. They planned this.
The realizations flashed through Laurie’s head even as he reflexively crouched and pulled at Linda to get her behind him. She resisted, as she had on the dance floor. “Get help,” he hissed at her. She nodded and ran for the gym door. No one would get here soon enough, but at least he’d gotten her out of harm’s way. Now for Celia…
But his sister knew him too well. “Don’t even think about it,” she growled. She and Jamie had closed up the space between themselves and Laurie and now stood back-to-back-to-back in a defensive triangle. Somewhere a car engine started up. If they’ve got reinforcements, we’re cooked.
“What’s the matter, jerks, your dates finally wise up and beat it out of here?” Celia said.
“At least our dates are white,” Varner jeered.
“Is that supposed to be a witty riposte, ape-man?” Jamie said. “How proud your parents must be.”
Varner roared and leaped at Jamie, just as his buddy lunged at Laurie. Laurie lowered his head and ran his shoulder into the guy’s sternum; his skull hit the middle of the hoodlum’s face with a crack and a sickening squelch of breaking nose. Suddenly there was blood everywhere; Laurie didn’t think any of it was his, but he wasn’t sure.
The car he’d heard starting up rolled into the lane behind them. No, two cars, he thought despairingly as he heard the thunks of two doors slamming. We should run, Laurie thought, but somehow knew that he’d literally rather die here.
He almost thought he was hallucinating when he heard his father’s voice, calm and firm, with a snap of command. “That’s enough, boys. The police are on their way.”
Through a haze of adrenaline, Laurie saw that Varner was bent over as though Jamie had punched him in the stomach, while Celia triumphantly coiled up the chain she’d snatched out of his hand. Linda came pelting down the gym steps toward them; a gaggle of teachers and students crowded the doorway behind her.
From Laurie’s other side, Mr. Marks stepped toward their attackers, lips drawn back from his teeth in a wordless snarl. The hoodlums ran.
“Daddy!” Linda cried, and flung herself into her father’s arms.
“I let you down,” Laurie said to him over her head, panting as though at the end of a race.
“No, you didn’t,” Mr. Marks said. “You looked out for her. But I think I’ll take her from here.” He turned her toward the Markses’ brown Ford, but she whispered briefly in his ear, pulled away, and came back toward Laurie.
“Linda, I’m so—”
“Don’t you dare blame yourself for this,” she said, and kissed him fiercely. Then she went with her father.
Jamie was helping Celia into their Buick; her knees were buckling in reaction, but Jamie’s face had hardened in a way Laurie had seldom seen it. There was a gash on one of his cheeks, as though the end of Varner’s chain had caught it.
Before Jamie ducked after Celia into the back seat, he looked across the top of the car at Mom’s old Dodge that Dad had come in. “Funny, doesn’t look like a celestial chariot,” he remarked.
“Yeah,” Laurie agreed. “How did you two show up here in the nick of time, anyway?”
“We’ve been here all evening,” Dad answered. “Just in case. Did you think we were going to just sit home wondering what was going on? We knew there might be trouble.”
By now the adults from the gym had reached them. “I knew something like this would happen,” Dunkelman began shrilly.
Dad cut her off coldly. “A self-fulfilling prophecy, Dean Dunkelman. You helped create the atmosphere that made this possible. My wife and I will be speaking to the school board about this situation. We have four other children who are or will be students here, and we’d prefer they not be subjected to bigotry and bullying.”
Then he turned away, ignoring Dunkelman’s indignant squawks, and said to Laurie, “Are you all right to drive, or do you want to come with me in your mother’s car?”
“I’m all right,” Laurie said, hoping it was true. “Shouldn’t we wait for the police, though?”
Dad looked puzzled for a second, then said, “Oh, I was bluffing. No police.”
They smiled briefly at each other till Laurie said, “Thank you for coming.”
Dad’s smile disappeared. “Never thank me for something like this. Never. I’m so sorry, son.” He gripped Laurie’s shoulder. “I’ll see you at home.”
“Yes,” Laurie said.