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A Southern Spelling Bee


ISSUE:  Winter 1977

One afternoon in the late thirties, in Washington, D.C., a blond and handsome man who was to become a World War II hero, a fighter pilot of exceptional daring—that man got so irritated at a little girl of six, his daughter’s age, that he decided to get even with her by having a spelling bee. As he told this story over the years, which he often did, he forgot a lot that actually happened, including his own irritation which began it all, and how it ended. It became just a funny story about two little girls.

The man’s name was Cameron Lyons, and he was from Charleston, South Carolina, and he always spoke in those soft and unusually slow accents. His wife, Lillian, was from North Carolina, but more and more she spoke as her husband did. He was from a better family, with a better Southern name. Their daughter was called Helen Jane, plump and pretty and blond, and dearly loved by both her parents. The irritating other child was Avery Todd, and she was a distant cousin, or child of cousins, from Cameron’s side of the family; her father, Tom, was in a sanitarium in Virginia, drying out, and her mother was busy with Avery’s younger brother, a delicate boy, and with her bookstore. And so Lillian had said that they would take Avery for a while. That was like Lillian; she was always taking people in, even in their narrow Georgetown house, even in the Depression, providing food and shelter for stray relatives. She had a strong sense of family,

Avery was a dark, sharply skinny child, with large melancholy eyes and a staggering vocabulary. She was physically awkward, not good at jump rope or hopscotch or roller skating, but her mind was exceptional. She read all the time, read grown-up books from her mother’s store—more than was good for her, in Lillian’s opinion—and had been heard to describe Gone With the Wind as “boring.” The two children got along fairly well, but that was probably because Helen Jane had an extremely peaceable disposition.

But Cam, who was unexpectedly intuitive, and open to vibrations, felt waves of pure hatred that flowed toward his cherished daughter from small Avery. And why?

His irritation at Avery began to reach a peak at lunch when innocent Helen Jane said, “Oooh, macaroni and cheese! I just love macaroni,” and Avery said sternly, “Helen Jane, inanimate objects are not to be loved.” Cam also repeated that remark over the years, but again, as something funny that little Avery had said.

And so, while Lillian and the colored girl were clearing up from lunch, Cam took the two children into the living room and announced that they were going to have a spelling bee.

Avery looked very pleased, but Helen Jane pouted and said, “Daddy, you know I can’t spell anything.”

“That’s all right, honey, you’ll be all right.” He turned to Avery.” Mississippi.

“M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.”

To Helen Jane he said, “Helen.”

“H-E-L-E-N.”

To Avery, “Constantinople.”

“C-0-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E.”

“Jane.”

“J-A-N-E.” And so on, for quite a while.

(“I ran upstairs crying, of course,” said Avery, many years later, when asked what happened after that).

In the forties, while Cam was heroically in England and France, the two young girls continued in their divergent directions. Sexually as well as intellectually precocious, Avery had an early and violent adolescence; there was always some passionate involvement with a boy—her heart was often broken. Sheltered, passive Helen Jane never fell in love until she was 18, and then she fell in love with Stuart Claiborne, an exceptionally rich and handsome Southern boy, whom she married a year later, and to whom she bore four children, and whose secret ugly temper she endured until he was finally involved in a housing scandal during the Johnson administration.

In Avery’s case there was a rumor of a very early (annulled) marriage to a colored trombone player, but—to Lillian and Cam—this was so monstrous a thought that they loyally discounted it as slander. But she did get married several times, although never in church or even in her own home, so that silver could be chosen and presents sent, permanent addresses noted down. One husband (they believed) was a professor—a divorced man, a Jew. Another husband (they thought) was a poet.

Avery’s mother died (she of the bookstore), and her father remarried.

They had had only the briefest glimpses of Avery over the years, but Lillian, with her strong sense of family, had kept her newest name and address in the book, and so, when they came to San Francisco, where Avery was living, they telephoned. Somewhat surprisingly (“I could hardly believe it— she was so—well—gracious—grown-up,” Lillian reported to Cameron), Avery invited them to dinner. To meet her husband, Joseph. They were not sure what he did—some kind of a doctor? Although given Avery, anything so sensible was unlikely.

Over the phone, Avery had said to Lillian, laughing in a new (to them) dry, grown-up way: “You’ll see, he looks a little like Cam.”

At first glance neither Cam nor anyone else would have noticed a resemblance between himself and Joseph. But what Lillian and Cam did continuously peer at Joseph to find out (they did not know they were doing this) was: what is wrong with this one? why did she choose him? On the surface at least there was nothing wrong: he was blond, conventionally handsome, and polite, if a little quiet. The apartment was attractive. And Avery in her own dark way looked quite beautiful.

But being a Southern woman of a very definite kind Lillian withheld compliments, and instead she launched into a recital of their day in San Francisco. Adventures on cable cars, exotic stores.”Well, I just want you to know I found the most lovely brocade in this little bitty store on Grant Avenue, but instead of Chinese there were these Jews. You know, I just love the Jews. I think they’re absolutely marvelous. I don’t care what anyone says.”

Cam caught a startled glance exchanged between Avery and Joseph, but at least neither of them said anything. Years back, he knew, Avery would have lashed out at anything anyone said about Jews, even Lillian saying she liked them. But after all, Avery was Southern, and somewhere she knew what not to say.

Lillian had not stopped talking for a minute. “It’s for Mary Lillian’s wedding, in June,” she said.”That’s my oldest granddaughter. Not a speck of money but they’re both real smart so I reckon they’ll be okay.”

Then Avery announced dinner, and the four of them went in to her pretty table. Lillian cried out, “Avery, isn’t that your mother’s silver? I recognize it, I always said you should be the one to have it, even if some people thought your brother would appreciate it more.”

Cam had to admit to himself that Avery looked younger than Helen Jane did, probably because Avery was so thin. With her burning dark eyes and her long proud neck she had turned into quite a woman. Strange.

Lillian was telling about Helen Jane’s recent re-marriage. “The nicest man you’d ever want to meet. A widower, and he’d never had any children. Now, doesn’t that tell you something about the kind of man he is? to take on four not his own? He works in Washington, of course. In the CIA.”

Avery said, “The CIA?”

“Oh yes, the grandest job. They come down to see us all the time and we have the best old time.”

Cameron said, “Avery, this fish is delicious, just plain delicious. Whoever would have thought you’d grow up and learn to cook?”

“No one related to me, certainly,” Avery said.

And Joseph, “Actually, she’s a terrific cook.”

Cam noticed that Joseph drank a lot, lots of vodka before dinner, and now he was really pouring down the wine. To Cam this was an amiable and familiar weakness, more comprehensible than Jewishness or writing poetry, but for Avery, with all her father’s trouble with the stuff, it seemed an odd choice; it was as though she had made some sort of circle.

“What is it that you do out here, Joseph?” Cam asked.

“I’m a psychiatrist. Mainly children.”

“I married my doctor,” said Avery, as though she were making a joke.

Consciously refraining from telling any of the psychiatrist jokes he knew, Cameron said, “Well, if you’re interested in children you’ll like this story about this little old gal here, your Avery.” And he told the story about the spelling bee. And at the end in his gentle way he chuckled, and he said, “Helen Jane never did catch on, but of course Avery did.”

“What did you do then?” Joseph asked Avery.

“I ran upstairs crying, of course,” Avery said.

“Did you, old sweetheart?” old Cameron asked. “I didn’t remember that.”

By the middle of dessert, Joseph, who had indeed been drinking a lot, beginning with the vodka sneaked into his tomato juice, to cope with the hangover from the night before, slumped over in his seat. His unconscious face was no longer handsome, but swollen and coarse.”The ugliest old thing you’d ever want to see,” is how Lillian later, with considerable exaggeration, described Joseph’s passed-out face to Helen Jane and Ken, of the CIA.

But after one glance each of those Southern-trained people pretended that he was not there—what had happened had not happened—and none of them glanced a second time.

And after dinner Joseph was left snoring at the table; they all (those three Southern people) went into the living room, where Avery served coffee, and Lillian showed pictures of the grandchildren and of her daughter’s marriage to Ken. And then Lillian and Cameron got up to go, and to make their prolonged Southern ritual of farewell.

At last that was over and Cameron had bundled Lillian into their rented Mercedes and he stood on the sidewalk with Avery, in the cold San Francisco summer night. Avery’s arms were bare and she shivered, and at that moment Cameron was seized with an impulse toward her that was violent and obscure and inadmissably sexual. He reached toward her—surely he had simply meant to kiss her goodnight?—but as he stepped forward everything went wrong and his heavy foot bore down on the uncovered instep of her high arched foot, so that she cried out in pain.

“Oh my darling, I’m so sorry!” breathed old Cam, drawing back.

“It’s all right, I know you are,” she said.

(“But why did you ask them to dinner,” Joseph asked her sometime the next day.

“I don’t know, I think just the sound of their voices over the phone. When I was little I thought Cam was the most marvelous, glamorous man alive,” and she sighed. Then, “I thought they’d be nice!” she cried out.”God, don’t they know? How I must have felt about a little girl who could just smile to get love and not have to spell Constantinople?”)

“What took you so long? what on earth were you talking about?” Lillian asked Cameron, in the heavy, purring car.

“I — uh — stepped on her foot. Din’t mean to, of course. Had to say I was sorry.”

“My, you are the clumsiest old boy, now aren’t you.” And Lillian chuckled, quite satisfied with them both, and with the evening.

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