Soda Springs: Chapter 1
They made it safely through Anniston. No worries now. Nevertheless, Rick Sanders stalked U.S. 78 toward Birmingham as if he had infiltrated enemy lines.
Beside him, Charlie McPherson probed for clues in their yellowed New York Times photo of a bombed-out Greyhound Freedom Rider bus, tires shredded and black smoke billowing.
Some highway: two lanes, no shoulders, more a twisty bootleggers' track through a jungled no-man's land. No crossroads, pull-outs or passing lanes. No farmhouses. Rick had been pound-foolish to patch, not replace, his Studebaker's balding left rear tire.
Charlie thumped the dash. "If we find the damn grave site, we stay five minutes. Not a second more."
"Anyone hassles us, we say we're on assignment. Freedom of the press and all."
"Damn, Colorado-boy, you don't get it. This is Alabama." A scowl replaced Charlie's normal devil-may-care grin. He plucked a jerky stick from their dwindling stock, scratched his two-day stubble. Suddenly, he stiffened. "That's it. Forsythe & Son."
Rick swerved into the gravel. Charlie framed his shots to match the two-year-old Times photo from May 1961: Forsythe & Son sign at the left, a low-slung white store across the road at the right. Rick tramped the weed-choked berm where the civil rights bus had been etched into history. He found no skid marks, no shards of vitrified terror. Yet, an evil presence made them both jumpy. Still, the stop was worth the risk. Rick could beef up his series in the Cornell Daily Sun with irrefutable evidence of history ignored.
On the road again, the byway crested a hill, zigzagged left. A siren shredded his frazzled nerves. Charlie whirled. "Shit! State trooper."
A grill loomed in the rearview mirror, but Rick saw no place to pull over. The trooper roared abreast and waved them off the road, thumb and index finger cocked like a gun. Rick braked. The cop swerved in behind. "Jesus. Where'm I supposed to go?"
Charlie pointed. "There. Anywhere. And quick. Those guys don't fuck around."
Rick veered into a weed patch, half the car on the highway. "What the hell'd we do?"
"Colorado plates, Ricky-boy. Play it cool."
The trooper sauntered up. "Out of the car, boys."
"Jeez, sir, what's up? I wasn't--"
"You deaf? Outta the car!" He snapped his hand to his holster.
"The gentleman's only doing his job. Nothing to worry about." Charlie's voice dripped the Alabama accent he had worked so hard to erase at Cornell. He was already standing beside the car, hands outstretched, palms up. Rick slid out.
"Turn around slow. IDs on the hood. Arms flat beside 'em."
Rick offered up his driver's license, and braced himself. Welcome to the South: get yourself beat to shit by a redneck cop on a back country road. Footsteps crunched through the gravel and stopped behind him. A scarred hand snatched up his driver's license. "Long way from home, Mister. I heard you two was poking around at Forsythe. You here to stir up the niggers?"
"We stopped to take a leak," Charlie called. "Too much coffee."
"Piss stop, eh? Spread your legs." The trooper clamped his hands onto Rick's thighs. Then, "umph," Rick's breath belched out. Pain surged through his gut. His knees went weak. He shot upwards, then bashed face-first onto the hood. A steel vise had his nuts in a death grip, squashing them to pudding. He tried to suck in air, heard his voice whimpering.
"Listen up, Colorado . . ." The trooper's spitty breath spewed into Rick's ear. "You keep these in your pants, or you're gonna lose 'em. No pissing the flowers. No fucking the niggers. You got me?" The vise gave way, and Rick crumpled to his knees. Footsteps crunched around the car. "How about you, boy? You in Alabama to piss the flowers?"
"No, sir. Just heading home for Easter."
"Izat so?" The voice didn't invite an answer. Then, "This ID better not be a fake, boy. McPherson's a good cop's name." Rick struggled to his feet.
Charlie snapped out a quick synopsis: college roommates, spring vacation, Rick's first visit to the South. "My dad's Phil McPherson, Birmingham police."
"No shit." The trooper studied Charlie's ID. "You Phil's boy?" He nodded toward Rick. "And long-haired Colorado here a bastard cousin?" He returned the ID. "Well, no harm done. You say hello to your old man for me . . . and your darlin' Ma."
The trooper strode past Rick. "Drive careful, ya hear? We don't want no accidents."
God, maybe Charlie was right about Lauderdale, Rick thought: We need babes and beaches, not a quixotic hunt for the Old South. But Martin Luther King's civil rights marches dominated the news; Rick had committed himself to covering them firsthand. If this was a taste of Birmingham, how could he survive a full week?
After twenty hours on the road, Rick and Charlie staggered up to McPhersons' two-story Colonial in Birmingham Friday at dusk. The screen door flew open. A petite beauty, chic as a debutante, bounded down the steps, her auburn hair flouncing like a starlet in a shampoo ad.
"So you're Rick? Let me feast my eyes." She seized his hands and flashed a smile that nearly buckled his knees. "Why, you're handsome as an Arab sheik." Mouth puckered, she stretched toward him.
"Mrs. McPherson?" Women back in Soda Springs weren't so forward, not women his mother's age, and they would never flaunt such delicious cleavage. Worse, her femme fatale perfume aroused him. Only a pervert would lust after his best friend's mom. He twisted away, and her lips glided past, kissing air, her cheek brushing his.
"Aren't we shy," she said. "Call me Priscilla, hon. You're family here."
"Pretty spiffy outfit, Mom. You going out tonight?"
"I'm hosting a pair of good-looking college men . . . if they clean up for dinner. They're a tad grungy." She waved them inside. "Charlie will show you to the guest room."
"Dad home? I brought some Finger Lakes wine."
Her eyes tightened. "Don't expect him. He's in and out these days."
Priscilla McPherson had created an intimate dining salon in the living room. Fluffy cushions ringed a low-slung coffee table draped in lacy cloth. Matched copper pots over blue-flamed Sternos formed a centerpiece, one filled with bubbling cheese, the other fragrant with sizzling oil. Charlie speared a piece of meat, but Priscilla laid her hand on his arm. "Don't rush, hon." She poured a dash of wine, swirled, sniffed, tasted. "Ah, just so." She filled their glasses, raised hers. "Palm Sunday is two days away. May Easter be joyous, inspiring, and insightful." She nodded to Rick. "And this new friendship fruitful."
Charlie plunged his skewer into the pot. "Amen."
Priscilla gestured for Rick to try the cheese and asked, "Tell me, Mr. Rick, is Colorado really cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey?"
Rick blanched, and Charlie hooted. "What's this, Ricky-boy? You look like you're on Candid Camera . Round one to you, Mom."
Priscilla lifted her glass. "We need to loosen those inhibitions. Drink up, hon."
Priscilla chattered as if she were a third roommate, and Rick subtly listed toward her, devouring her fragrance, relishing each swish of her silky hair. When she uncorked a new bottle, Charlie pushed himself up. "Long drive. I'm pooped."
Priscilla arched her eyebrows. "No Spanish port?"
"No can do. Cover for me, roomie." Charlie shambled away.
Priscilla lofted the bottle. "No pressure, not if you're exhausted."
The night pulsed of spring on a planet far from icy Ithaca. Rick didn't want the magic to end. "Charlie says you majored in English lit, that you're a pro at Shakespeare."
She filled their goblets and locked onto his gaze. "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They . . ." Her mellifluous rendering whisked him to Stratford-on-Avon. Later, she read from a long poem, Roan Stallion. Her voice fell to a breathy rasp, and Rick thought he heard her say the horse violated the woman. She closed the book. "Powerful imagery, wouldn't you say? And just deserts for husband and horse both."
"But the poor woman. How horrible. And the stallion was innocent. Why him?"
"I'd be saddened if it didn't leave you unsettled. Humans make choices. Literature forces us to confront them. Take Nabokov and D. H. Lawrence. Men fantasize for a child cocotte like Lolita, but it's Connie Chatterley they want, a lady with desire and grit."
"Some, I guess. But more of us dream for a soul mate, for a woman with a mind."
"A-plus answer. How about Anaïs Nin? Does she spark your zazzle?"
Rick didn't know a Nin, not one. His brain was mush. And somehow, the house had gone dark. He wondered how he ended up naked in a canopied bed, tender lips kissing him good night, Priscilla's scent permeating his every pore. Rick had never met a woman like Priscilla. A kindred soul. Elegant, not giggly. But married and a mother. After months of resorting to fantasized Playboy trysts to liven up his pathetic nights, he prayed he hadn't embarrassed himself.