Soda Springs: Chapter 8
Rick and Charlie set off Wednesday as if civil rights demonstrations were an Easter egg hunt. They found a gaggle of picketers outside Loveman's. Inside, whites four-deep jostled behind three Negro guys and two girls at the otherwise empty lunch counter. No one spoke, but the room pulsed. Shoes scuffling. Clothing brushing clothing. Sniffling noses. A mid-forties waitress, face flushed, busied herself at the register. One of the Negro girls called, "Ma'am, we'd like some lunch, please." The waitress glared. Shouts echoed from the street, and the crowd swarmed out. Police were snapping up picketers like loose change.
Rick and Charlie patrolled the streets, then whiled away the afternoon in a hole-in-the-wall Irish bar. They made it home by dinnertime, and Charlie bounded into the kitchen. "Umm, smells delicious. Are we too late to take my favorite mom to dinner?"
"Save the buttering up for the gullible. I heard where you two went last night."
Charlie got out a bottle of Finger Lakes wine, presented it with a flourish. "Mom, you misjudge us. We're journalists after a story. Let's drink to another great meal."
"Dispense with the charm, Charles. Sit. You, too, Mr. Colorado."
Charlie recited their outings. Sasha Johnson. Sixteenth Street Baptist. Shuttlesworth. Hibbler. Priscilla brought the wine to the table. Charlie went on. King. Abernathy. Pickets. Sit-in. Not bare bones, but observations as astute as the print on Sasha's dress. He remembered details in the same way that his photos caught shades of emotion in a girl's glance.
"That church is a foreign country, but no one hassled us. Wasn't hate, either, more like a Ramsay pep rally." Charlie mimicked Rick's stab at talking his way past three astonished Negro ladies outside the women's restroom in the church. He launched into a bogus shtick of them scrubbing the toilet with Clorox before they would use it. Priscilla laughed so hard tears fell.
"Splendid report," she said. "But you are down to your last two days. What about the rest of the story? The white citizens of Birmingham. Regular people -- people like us."
She had a point. "How? Go door-to-door like encyclopedia salesmen?" Rick said. "Excuse us, ma'am, how do white folks feel about civil rights for Negroes? And by the way, can you spare a dime for a cup of coffee?"
"Use your imagination, Mr. Smartass. We have friends. Charlie knows people."
"You're right, Mom. We lost sight of the big picture. After all, we came to see you." He threw his arm around her. "How about your week? What's new at Ramsay High?"
"You're patronizing me. That doesn't become you."
"No, seriously, I want to know. Scouts honor." He refilled their glasses.
She sighed. "I'm trying to stir up passion for poetry, but they're bouncing off the walls with their spring hormones."
"Try The Perfumed Garden. That'll fire their engines."
"Charlie, for heaven's sake."
"Okay, here's an idea. Poetry is spelled b-o-r-i-n-g. Remember Rick's series in the Sun on John Ciardi I sent you? Rick also does a mean impersonation. Have him do a lesson on 'How Does a Poem Mean?'"
"Better have another drink. You're getting punchy," Rick said.
Priscilla nodded. "Those stories were well done. Tell you what, you come teach Ciardi, and I'll round up some seniors, bright kids who worry about term papers and tests and prom, not Negroes and their protests. You can ask them about race. Fair enough?"
Rick thought of Sasha Johnson and her friends. Students were the core of the civil rights movement, but he hadn't even met a white student. He mimicked Ciardi's voice. "You're on, Ma'am. We'll give them poetry in excelsus."
"I'm gonna beg off. The thought of high school gives me a migraine," Charlie said
Thursday, in Priscilla's first-hour English, Rick recited Ciardi's poem as if it were a paean to this class alone. Why didn't this simple idea occur to the generations of English teachers who destroyed students' God-given love of poetry? They teach hair-splitting pedantry, force kids to troll for obscure symbols rather than merely rejoice in the music of words. He finished in a flourish, and Priscilla called from the back row. "So, Mr. Ciardi, you say that if we ask, 'What does a poem mean?' we destroy the very meaning of the poem? How then do we teach poetry? Ignore themes and motifs? Dance past the nuances of metaphor and simile and allusion?"
She seemed strident. "Well, Miss . . . Miss --"
"McPherson. And it's Mrs." She displayed her ring finger. Students chuckled.
"We need to quit doing autopsies on poems and let them speak to our hearts," he said.
"So, I'm a coroner, dissecting living words and drowning them in formaldehyde?" She looked to her students. "Is that what you think of my class?"
A girl defended Priscilla. Others chimed in. Then Priscilla was beside Rick. Someone read a sonnet, and the room buzzed with talk of how poetry expresses the agonies a guy feels when that perfect girl refuses a date, or a girl feels when her boyfriend pressures her to "prove" her love.
By third period, they had honed the lesson to a duet. Over the noon hour, Rick ate lunch with Priscilla and a handful of students culled from her morning classes.
"Mr. Sanders went to Sixteenth Street Baptist Tuesday night," Priscilla began. "He --"
"They didn't mug you?" a bright-eyed doll of a girl asked. She wasn't joking.
None of them had ever walked in Kelly Ingram Park. They resented the marches, but they didn't call the marchers niggers. We're different, they said, Negroes and whites; God's children were meant to be with their own kind, that's all. Any of them could have been valedictorian at Soda Springs High, Rick thought. They were polite and talented, but as parochial in their views as Sasha Johnson was in hers. Birmingham, Rick realized, was two worlds.
At the end of the school day, after the last student shuffled out, Priscilla collapsed into her chair, rubbed her eyes. Dark circles had appeared.
"Long day. How do you do it?" Rick asked.
"That's life with young minds. It's exhilarating. And exhausting. But enough with our daily travails. What say we recap the day over drinks and hors d'oeuvres?"
"Only if it's not the Irish pub. Charlie's lowbrow."
"You're on, hon. I'll show you Birmingham elegance."
Fifteen minutes later, they settled into padded antique chairs in a mahogany-walled alcove of the turn-of-the-century Tutwiler Hotel. Priscilla chose the wine, and the outside world faded away. By the time the waiter emptied the bottle, it was nearly seven p.m.
"Oh, my, we've got to run. I've got to make dinner," Priscilla said. They raced home and found a note on the fridge: "Ricky-boy: your date finked out, but I got an iron-clad promise for Friday. P.S. Deb insisted I eat dinner at her place. Mom: Dad called. He's tied up. Please do your best to entertain Ricko. Thanks. Chas."
"Looks like you've been abandoned. I'll do my best." Priscilla took out a bottle of wine. "On second thought, didn't I hear you've been hankering for a mint julep?"
"I heard that's all you drink in the South. I haven't even seen one."
"Mint juleps are elegant drinks. Let me shed this wilted dress and freshen up, then we'll rectify that." She started out but turned back. "Thanks for helping at school. You're a dear." She kissed his cheek. "Best you shower as well. You're the gentleman in this celebration."
Rick followed her into the hall, watched her disappear into her bedroom. He hadn't met Charlie's Deb, or the cheerleader roommate. No matter, no coed could top Priscilla McPherson. A mint julep would be frosting on the cake.
Rick bounded onto McPhersons' front porch as if the Ramsay High marathon had transformed him into a leading man. Priscilla -- showered, perfumed, in grey slacks and demure blouse -- occupied the swing like a raconteuse, recounting tales of Charlie growing up. At twelve, he climbed out his bedroom window, snuck home at two a.m., only to find every window and door locked; he had to sleep on this very porch. Once in junior high, he played hooky and lured his little girlfriend to his bedroom. "I burst in on them, and shrieked as if two stark naked, scarlet-faced kids were a two-headed monster from Mars. I pray he makes it to marriage without getting some young lovely pregnant." He would, Rick thought. Rubbers were as essential to Charlie's wardrobe as gloves in an Ithaca winter.
"I always imagined the South to be perpetual spring, fragrant with magnolia and lilac. You make it so much more. Captivating hostess. Stimulating conversation," Rick said.
"Why thank you, Prince Charming. That's worthy of a salute." She clicked her glass to his. "But as you should know by now, women are not always what they appear at first blush. These are my first mint juleps, straight from Joy of Cooking."
Night cloaked them in darkness, freeing Rick to bare his soul to this woman. Tightly held secrets flowed: pretzeling up to the knothole between the girls' and boys' church camp shower rooms to cop a salacious peek at Vicky Matthews' tawny pubes; riding bareback behind Ginny Sue Bennett, the skinny kid next door, so he could cling to her like a shadow and "accidentally" brush a hand across her budding titties. On and on, tales swapped one-for-one. Phil McPherson's first trip out of Birmingham to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, 1942. Priscilla met him at a USO dance and they married two days before he shipped out. "Phillip is a charmer. Oh, how he made my heart sing." She stared into her glass. "The damn department stole his life."
This was too intimate: not a memory swapped with her son's best friend, but a wrenching confession. Parents have problems, too, but a kid's role is to pretend he doesn't notice.
"But that's life today. Too many demands," Priscilla said. She raised her glass. "More?"
He held his empty glass aloft like a trophy.
"I know absolutely nothing about farming," she said when she returned from the kitchen.
He went on about plowing and planting and irrigating and baling and riding a combine. She fired questions like tennis balls. Rick finally called a halt. "Hold that thought, ma'am. Prudence demands a visit to the bathroom." He struggled to stand. His head spun. He toppled back into the porch swing.
"Dizzy?" She pressed a cool hand to his forehead. "It's the bourbon," she said, her face nearly touching his, her musky scent firing him. He didn't dare hold her gaze. "We have an old southern remedy guaranteed to conquer dizziness," she said, caressing his cheek. Before he could react, she kissed him. He froze. Her tongue met his. Too soon he was breathless. He broke off the kiss, but she hugged him, then guided his face to her exquisite breasts.
God, here was nirvana. Despite himself he whispered, "I really do need the bathroom. It's serious." He sounded like a prissy Little Lord Fauntleroy.
"We should never ignore nature's call. Get up slowly." She walked him into the house.
Safely in the bathroom, he touched his fingers to his lips, savored the taste of her. He had dreamed his first would be a woman skilled in the art, eager to guide him without laughing at his inexperience. But damn, she was forty years old -- and a mother. Honor demanded that he crawl out the window and disappear into oblivion.
"Rick, hon, you all right in there?"
He eased the door open, leaned into the frame. "I'd better lie down."
She felt his forehead again. He knew she knew he wasn't sick. "Prudent suggestion." She led him to his bedroom, pulled back the covers. "You get yourself undressed. I'll stir up a concoction that will knock that dizziness on its ear."
As soon as she left, Rick yanked off his clothes and tucked the sheet up under his chin.
Priscilla tapped at the door. "Decent?" She swept into the room before he could answer, turned on the lamp, set a tall glass on the end table. "Upset tummy?"
His mind churned. "No . . . it's that . . . this isn't right, you . . . I --"
"My, aren't we tense?" She massaged his temples, moved to his neck and shoulders, whisked the sheet to his waist. He tried to think of her as a physical therapist, all business, but when she circled below his stomach, he stiffened. She grinned, and he snapped his eyes shut.
"Too bright?" She switched off the lamp. "Better?"
"We shouldn't waste those drinks," he said. "We ought to --"
"You needn't be shy. Merely follow nature's instincts." Her voice dropped an octave. His heart pounded. She leaned into him, and naked breasts played at his mouth. God, somehow she had taken off her blouse and bra. "Just so," she cooed. Then they were together. Kissing. Suckling. Sheet flying. Hands everywhere. He helped her tug off his boxers. He went soft. She stroked him. He couldn't get it up. And he couldn't hide it from her.
"That's natural, too. Easily resurrected." She took him in her mouth, and he couldn't hold still. He spurted all over her. Shit, he'd done it yet again -- too soon.
"It's a mess, I'm so sorry. I --"
"Nothing to apologize for. Proves you're a roan . . . no, a bronzed stallion."
She cleaned him with something soft, a velvety cloth. He lay back, still tingling. With hands, breasts, skin, hair, mouth, she teased, and he stiffened again.
She wriggled out of her slacks, guided his hands into her panties, deftly rose on tiptoes. Rick tugged. "Delicately, sir. Take your time. It's not a race." She drew his hand up her thigh, cupped it between her legs. He tried to muster the will to push her away, but no sane man could resist. On the bed, he rolled atop, but she nudged him onto his back, straddled him, her hands flat on his chest. He arched to meet her. She pinned him to the bed, whispered, "Patience." Slowly, so slowly she teased, and he prayed that for once he wouldn't wither. Or lose it again. Suddenly, she tensed. "Damn it all, you hear that?"
Outside, tires crunched on gravel. She swept up her clothes. A car door slammed. "Don't say a word to him. You're asleep, you hear?" Moments later, Rick heard the hall toilet flush. The front door creaked open. "You still up, Mom?"
"Caught me in the bathroom, hon. Just a sec." A faucet gushed water.
"He's asleep," Rick heard Priscilla tell Charlie. "Too many mint juleps, poor dear."
"That's Sanders. More appetite than performance."
"You and Deb have a nice evening?"
"One-thirty, Mom. I'm wiped out. Let's talk in the morning."
Charlie's footsteps faded. A faucet gurgled in the kitchen. Glasses clinked. One by one, light switches clicked off. Outside his window, a street lamp penetrated the wispy mist. Inside, Priscilla's scent perfumed the air. Her image danced across the ceiling. She barely touched him and he shot his wad. What a cherry! Rick was hard again. At least he wasn't impotent. What if she were waiting for him to race down the hall to her bed? He wanted to, but in Soda Springs, he didn't dare enter his parents' room. Things went on there that kids shouldn't know about. Damn, he made it to Heaven's Gate again, only to wilt the moment she invited him in. How could he face her in the morning?