Below the Southern fall line, that place where the hard, as I imagine it, soil of the North meets the silty coastal plain I lived on, stream bottoms are pure white sand. A stream bed, so beautiful when dry—the meandering course patterned with the shimmers of flowing water. In droughts, I walked them, looking for flint arrowheads and quartz crystals, which once I found in handfuls. I walked, too, for the pleasure of the white sand under my feet, powdery soft in places, grainy as ground glass in others, and for the occasional clear pool; I was following the idea of water.
The summer I was 20 was the longest August in the history of the world. No sign of rain. No dream of the dead, no peacock screaming, no sweat on a glass of cold water. It has to come sometime.
“Suffocating” people say, “the heat is suffocating.” But really, I feel more like the turtle must in its carapace, the whole atmosphere weighing on my body, and I carry the heavy air step by step.
“It’s going to be a scorcher,” my grandfather says at breakfast every day.
“Sweltering,” Fanny Brown agrees, as she breaks a raw egg into his shot of bourbon. My grandfather believes in high octane breakfasts. He takes it in a gulp.
Willie used to fix cinnamon toast and hot chocolate for me. I got up from the table every morning to see if she mixed the proportions of cinnamon and sugar right because I wouldn’t eat if she missed and I had to look at toast with sugar crystallized on top. Willie is gone and her kitchen taken over by Fanny, a big knobby woman with skin the color of a room when the lights suddenly go out. Willie’s long gone, moved to Chicago or Detroit, no one can seem to remember which, both being equidistant to the moon. “Up and left six days before the bridesmaids’ luncheon Margaret and I were having for Dottle Richards,” my mother had written me at school. At our house, her exodus has raised what my grandfather calls “The Nigra Question.” My mother and I aren’t interested. Mother thinks anybody with half sense who can walk out of Fitzgerald should. I just miss Willie. She was part of the huge and, as we later understood it, historical black migration out of the South in the sixties. She got a job cooking in a pool hall, Willie, who’d specialized in the freshest lady peas, just shelled, butter beans, fried tomatoes with tomato gravy, watermelon rind pickles, brown-sugar muffins, pressed chicken, tarragon beans, airy biscuits.
“She won’t last up there in Yankeeland. She’ll be back begging for her job before Christmas,” Daddy Jack predicts. “Nigras don’t know when they’re well off.” He unfolds the Atlanta Journal and blessedly covers his face. We dread the news. My grandfather recently had cast the first Republican vote of his life. My mother had not. She thought John Kennedy was very attractive and Nixon’s nose looked like it was carved from a baking potato. Daddy Jack, therefore, held Mother personally responsible every time Kennedy or his upstart fool brother Bobby made a move. “Where do you think the Nigras are getting these big ideas of theirs?” he shouted at her frequently. The words “march,” “demonstration,” and “freedom riders” were beginning to be heard. When he read that Bobby asked the freedom riders to cool off for awhile, he railed, “Why don’t they have the fortitude to call out the tanks? What are tanks for?”
The head of the freedom riders, James Farmer, had said, “We have been cooling off for one hundred years. If we got any cooler, we’d be in a deep freeze.”
At that, Daddy Jack ripped the Journal in half, staring at Mother, Fanny, and me as though we’d caused the whole thing. “Fanny, you know sure as you’re born, anybody who works for me, colored or white or speckled, gets a fair deal.”
“Yassuh, Capn’,” she replies. They don’t see her mouth twist down when she turns back to the sink.
I cross my eyes at Mother and she rolls hers. My mother looks at her arms. “My skin is on fire,” she says every day. She gets hives by August and wonders what she’s allergic to. Citrus, maybe. Sugar. Heat. Fanny tells her the only cure is to find a man who’s never seen his own father and to have him blow in her face. Soon Mother excuses herself and heads toward the bathroom, where she has a bottle of gin hidden at the bottom of the wicker clothes basket.
Willie called a few times. “You’ve got to come back,” I say, “the recipe for fudge cake isn’t even written down anywhere.” She’d laugh. She was elusive on the subject of returning. Once she said to me, “I just had to take a chance, Miss Frances, you know nuthin’ wasn’t ever going to happen down there.” Within months, she’d disappeared from us forever, swallowed by the North.
After dorm food all year, I am unusually picky at home. This summer I put up with Fanny’s cooking. Her idea of summer vegetables is boil them to death with a hunk of salt pork. The barbecue practically catches fire, with sauce so hot you have to go sit in a creek. Her pound cakes always have gooey sad streaks in the middle. Bud, her husband beats her every day, until my Grandfather has him put in jail. I have to drive her home in the afternoons, and she cries and makes me go by the jeweler’s so she can pay a dollar on a lay-away Bible for her son in the penitentiary. Alarming to have two family members locked up. She lives in a board house, silvery with age, near Willie’s old place. What had her son done? She won’t say. What she does say as we pull up is, “I hear tell Willie’s doin’ fine up there. You can bet your bottom dollar Willie won’t be back.” She doesn’t quite slam the back door.
“Hey, Fanny, you think I’m thrilled to be here in the garden spot of the South?” When I let her out, she always stops to water her scraggly purple petunias growing in lard cans on her front porch.
It was bad enough to be imprisoned in Fitzgerald; my college friends got jobs as waitresses in exotic places like Ogunquit, Maine or Yellowstone Park. My grandfather would not allow me to work at something demeaning like that. “A waste of time. You study Greek, of all things, and you want to wait on tables for people who have no manners at all?” He was similarly enlightened about scholarships: they were fine for people who did not object to welfare, which he did. No one in our family was going on the dole. He was beyond response. He wiped his damp bald head with a Kleenex and it left wadded balls of paper on his peeled skin. I just leaned on my fist and stared at him when he went on and on. From excerpts I read in Philosophy 101, Marx was dead on, I thought, about the idiocy of rural life. Heavily annoyed, I tuned out everyone on the home front.
But I did come home for summers. I knew he would not send me to college except on his terms, and I didn’t want to end up as a clerk in the dime store selling nasty pond slider turtles all my life. I was supposed to do what, languish at home polishing my toenails and going to brides’ showers? Read one thousand books? He didn’t seem to approve of that either, or of anything, especially any boyfriend. He called them all 2 × 4’s, the most common piece of wood.
My last years of college were coming up. What did I plan to do? All I desired was to go to Greece. I wrote freighter lines with ships named Hellenic Destiny and Elysian Fields, Daddy Jack tore up the brochures that described tonnage and Libyan crews. “You’ll find out, young lady, that the world is under your nose.” Under his nose was Drew, our yard man who had to cut Daddy Jack’s toenails when they got long enough to curve down and click on the floor. Fanny came over with the broom to sweep up the curls of horny yellow clippings that looked like curls of old wax or buzzard talons.
My only goal was to memorize poems. I cauterized the memory of my lost romance with John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. I copied them on index cards and stuck them around my dressing table mirror. While I daubed Sortilège perfume on my pulse points, rubbed my gleaming just-shaven legs with baby oil, plucked the three tiny hairs from between my eyebrows, outlined my lips with the sable lip brush, I repeated over and over, “I am a little world made cunningly . . .” and:
It was the time of Donne and Dostoyevsky, Lawrence, Faulkner, and Yeats. All the books I’d charged at the Randolph-Macon bookstore, and Daddy Jack had sputtered over, now stood in the heavy revolving bookcase in my bedroom, my name on the flyleaf and black ink underlining the significant parts. I read for six or seven hours a day. “Would you get off that bed so I can make it up?” Fanny said. “Do something!” my mother shouted. I looked at them from Russia or New York or Spain.
At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
ye trumpets, Angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go. . . .
Early in the summer, I’d fallen in love. Banks was the older brother of one of my best friends. I’d met him twice before I visited her in New Orleans, but he’d never noticed me among the throng of friends we traveled in. Brilliant like Grace, he finished college at 20 and now, at 23 was just out of the Navy, where he’d been a jet pilot. Also, he was engaged. His fiancée sailed for Europe in June. When school ended, Grace visited me in Fitzgerald, then we took the Southern Crescent to New Orleans. We love the train, the long hours of confidences. Someday we’ll take a train from Moscow to Novosibirsk, reading Chekhov aloud and eating cold potatoes with vodka. For now, shuttling through Alabama, we discuss what we want on our tombstones. Grace decides on Swinburne:
A bit dreary, I thought, but Grace was Roman Catholic; maybe that explained it. I liked Lawrence’s
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never,
That even the weariest river
somewhere safe to sea.
The Magic Mountain gets us across Mississippi.
. . . beauty is a thing beyond the grave,
That perfect, bright experience never falls
To nothingness, and time will dim the moon
Sooner than our full consummation here
In this odd life will tarnish or pass away.
Grace told me she had a summer job in her father’s office, but that she really had to go to work while I was visiting stunned me. At first I lay around in Grace’s room, reading all day and copying Rilke and Larkin quotes in a notebook. After a few days, Banks asked me to go to the French quarter to his favorite bar, Lafftes in Exile. It rained just after noon, when the heat hit the unbearable point, rained just enough to steam the streets. We talked books. We ran from bar to bar and sat in doorways getting wet. He looked like the photos of the young Hemingway, and I’d heard he and a friend got smashed at the officers’ club, then took a Navy plane up without permission, and had landed it with the wheels up, laughing and oblivious to the red lights and rage that greeted them. So Lawrentian, his black curls and terse humor. We began to go out every afternoon. Some of the bars opened into rainy green courtyards. Strangers began to make corny remarks, “Ain’t love the damndest thing?” and “Enjoy it while it lasts.” One bartender translated a sign in Italian: Love makes time pass; time makes love pass.
Now when Grace came home at five, it was plain that I had not been bored and waiting for her. No one said anything because the family was wild about the fiancée. Lovely girl. Sweet and innocent. Sweethearts since she was 12 or something. I thought I should go home.
My mother called and asked if I’d worn out my welcome. Banks inched behind me in the hall and whispered, lips against my ear, “Don’t go. I want you to stay.”
Grace arranged a blind date for me for her friend Ginger’s party. A chartered bus dropped us at her house across the lake where we walked up the oak alley behind a band playing “Saints.” Soft shelled crab gave me the creeps to eat, and the lake bottom felt mushy and dark to my feet. My date couldn’t dance and wanted to talk all night about Dorothy Sayers’ sense of religion. Somehow we got home early. Grace had a late date with Jimmie, and they asked Banks and me to go listen to jazz. We bar-hopped, laughing all night. Just at dawn we drove to the river, and Banks and I walked along the levee. Mythic river, the ruined plantations, the lilt and roll of Mark Twain, the brown swirling color of the old meandering looping wide river. A big gold sun hoisting out of the dark spread munificent light over the Mississippi. He picked blue morning glories and strung them in my hair then slowly leaned to me, so slowly that time seemed to wind down and suspend. We kissed, then again. After all the kissing I’d done, this was the first time I felt passion like knock out drops. Like in books, I thought. Ecstasy, the word ecstacy, I thought. So it’s true, I thought. Kisses that I could feel along the backs of my legs, in the hairs on my arms. “This is not the last time, hear?” Down the levee, I sensed Grace’s shocked face. What would happen?
As we turned in the driveway at 6:30, Grace and Banks’ father in his bathrobe, a work day coming up, walked outside to pick up the newspaper. He looked at us with eyes hard as nickels and didn’t speak, just slapped the Picayune against his thigh and walked in.
I slept until two. Grace staggered out to work early, practically whimpering with fatigue. When I woke up, Grace’s mother was out. I washed my hair and put on a straight black skirt, striped blouse, and a red belt that showed how small my waist was. I tried not to remember overhearing Banks ask Grace when I first arrived, “Is your friend old enough to drive yet?” In front of the full-length mirror, I danced the way we’d danced last night. So sexy, his tight turns. I think I look 21. He can really dance; they don’t know anything in Fitzgerald. Banks is reading in the living room. He tells me he’s looked in the bedroom four times to see me sleep. He says he can’t break his engagement. I am too interesting, unspoiled. He loves her. Could he read The Hound of Heaven to me? He can’t understand how he’s become attracted to his little sister’s friend. He wants to show Lisbon to me and a small village somewhere. His fiancée is the sweetest person imaginable. Shall we go to the Quarter now?
That live current in the air, no one escapes. Even dogs and cats feel it. Looking at him is more satisfactory than talking to most people. Holding hands, I’m conscious in my tendons, hair, shoulders, of exquisite happiness. Even looking at the rain together feels like an event. The house was zinging, this Catholic-to-the-core house where the Latin words for guilt and responsibility should be emblazoned on the family crest in the foyer. When Grace came home, I heard whispering in the kitchen. Would she defend us? She, the soul of justice, felt confused and righteous at the same time. The fiancée was her friend, too, poor thing off in Vienna with a busload of Newcomb girls. How could Banks?
I wore to the country club dance a white eyelet dress with a ribbon sash woven of three deepening shades of red velvet: rose, scarlet, burgundy. Banks was not a boy, I realized. He had an edge I liked; he was complex enough, and gorgeous, in a dark way, a movie star from my mother’s era. We danced under the enormous chandelier until no one else was dancing. As I looked up at him, brilliant shards of light whirled behind his head. The night bloomed, deep tropical night I’ve always loved, as fragrant as the word frangipani, with a breeze the same temperature as flushed skin. Even Paris, I thought, couldn’t be better. We went to three A.M. fishermen’s mass in the cathedral, then had beignets and chicory coffee at dawn. The gray air and lambent light of the French Quarter gave the iron balconies and faded pastel walls, and even the people, a tawny sepia tone.
Grace was torn. Her boyfriend told her not to worry, everyone has a last fling. He drove us to Lake Ponchartrain because I’d never been on carnival rides. In Fitzgerald, they were always breaking, leaving someone stranded for hours on top of a rickety Ferris wheel. Grace was annoyed when I screamed on the swings that threw us out with such strong centrifugal force that I felt we’d be flung to the lake. Banks, a pilot after all, laughed. We rode the streetcar named Desire, walked in Audubon Park. We ate turtle soup and played gin on rainy afternoons at the country club. We ordered mile-high ice cream pie in an old hotel, ate dinner at Antoine’s with the Staffords, Banks’s knee pressing mine while his father inquired what the news was from our little world traveler.
After driving the Staffords home, we went out to a bar near Tulane. Banks alone, dance floor dark and cool, the smell of beer and, what, something sweet, damp gardenias, heartbreaker, that song, whereever you’re going, I’m going your way, two drifters, that’s what we wanted, just drift off, read Russian novels aloud to each other forever. Then kissing in the car, sliding down, rubbing our faces hard together. Good animals, soul though. I want to say I want, so this is giving, giving. I never have. “I don’t know about you all,” Grace opens the car door, “but tonight I have to get to bed. These hours are getting ridiculous.”
Everyone’s asleep at the house, and she tiptoes down the hall while we stand in the living room door. All quiet, except for the cool whir of the air conditioner. I almost can feel Mr. and Mrs. Stafford’s breathing in their room just a wall away. “Wait here,” Banks whispers. He comes back with a bottle of wine. “I bought this in Portugal. I was planning to have it on my wedding night.” He opens the bottle and pours the burgundy into a glass. Our eyes hold. Imagine such brown eyes; I’ve always liked green or blue. I take a sip and he kisses me, pressing his tongue into my mouth and I give him the wine in mine. He drinks and I take his wine. We’re falling into the down sofa. Grace of dissolving time, boundaries, the bloodstream a brush fire started by children. He lies on top of me and through our summer clothes I feel the entire velocity of his body on mine, feel my bright holy skin and his, a swarming fierce right, “Love,” I say, “Love.” We begin to laugh, he licks my face, throat. His hands, my blouse, over. “I always knew it,” he whispers, “I can love this way. I’m going to be the one to teach you everything there is to know about passion. I’m going to make love to you for the rest of my life.” When I got up the next day, three letters with big foreign stamps had arrived from Italy, Austria. Grace, with particularly aulic posture, I thought from my pillow, had left for work without waking me to make a plan for later. Mrs. Stafford was cordial but looked troubled, and I called the Southern Crescent for the schedule to Georgia.
En route home, I stopped in Atlanta. I had a sudden wild idea that I would not go home. I would not go to college. If he was going to marry what’s her name, I’d just take off for . . . where? My sister Nancy picked me up at the Peachtree station. At her house, I looked in the want ads and saw that TWA was hiring stewardesses. Maybe I should fly like Banks. The next morning I went downtown to a hotel suite where a lot of girls waited. We were all weighed and measured and some were dismissed. I thought of Rome and the little house where Keats died, the pyramids, Ireland; the interviewer talked about evacuation procedures, safety chutes, loss of cabin pressure—a training program somewhere in the mid-west then six months of routes starting in Des Monies or Kansas. I saw myself in slow motion, emptying trays in people’s laps. Why did I want to fly? “To see the world,” I said, thinking of Banks in the Navy. How soon could I start? The interviewer looked raw somehow, and his Adam’s apple dipped and rose. Planes taking off made me sick, especially if the pilot banked so steeply that I looked sideways down at the receding red clay earth. Dr. Fogle was going to be teaching Modern Poetry in the fall. I wanted to read Chaucer in Middle English. I didn’t want to be a glorified waitress, even if I eventually could go to Paris that way. I wanted to go to Paris in black, with sandals and big sunglasses and write on a tiny iron table in the Tuileries while little boys with French maids sailed toy boats. I fled.
In August, no one is reasonable, as if anyone ever was. If it rains, it’s too fast to cool anything down. The only thing that comes down here is heat, heat descending in sheets. Always summer rain begins as a trapezoid of gray lines slanting against the horizon. I watch it “walk” across the field, pushing cool air toward me, until surprisingly warm, it hits, a hard pelting. I lie in the sharp St. Augustine grass and let it soak through me. In August, my skin feels permeable. The sky just cracks, lightning darts down so close I instinctively draw back. Then more sweet rain. Just as quickly, it stops and the sun makes an angry comeback, pulling clouds off the hot streets, wilting the dresses of ladies who have risen from their naps, blistering the glaring white sides of houses. The rain, for all I know, walks somewhere else, walks all over the South. The current of heat purrs in my body with only one relief.
To get away, I drive out to Crystal Lake. Local legend says it’s the devil’s winter home. To get there, you turn at the lynching tree. Who was ever lynched I don’t know but I have the old Southern nightmares, those feet swinging in our minds like smoke of death camps must float through Germans’. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” the song goes, “blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”
The long black stream widening at the boils is glazed like a sequined sleeve. As I lower myself into the water, I forget if I am hot or cold. At first, I seem to heat the water with my body, then the hard shock of cold, a flash freeze to the blood. With my feet, I feel the sandy bottom until I find the cold springs, spurting pure as Easter water. I am so cold I was never hot before, I was always ice, always a body carved from quartz, a melting swan.
The lake itself is flat, lit from inside like white jade. To swim, as a child again. To be one with the brown and violet fish, the deep water gars that look as if they oozed up from prehistory. I let myself be the fish, the soul is a swimming animal. Let it scrape the bottom, let it grow gills. Water, so perfectly itself and without question. When the body floats. The soul, flagrant and fishy. Let the soul dive for the lost herb, silvery and invisible; the soul is five hundred years old in August and all the dreams of August pull me under. Let the cool mud settle. For there is no great dog in the heavens, only an abstract constellation and who will connect the fiery dots? Let the soul somersault in clean water. Let me be still, my body a long slim amphora underwater since the seventh century B.C.; let my body be buoyant. Let me swim a psalm.
I climb out in my cleanest skin, burning with cold, and taste the sun all over.
Once I asked Willie what Dog Days meant. “It means dogs go mad from the heat and run us up and down the street, foaming at the mouth.” But that was in childhood on the sweltering back porch where the lattice cut the sun to bits. “This time of year, you better watch out.” I was keeping Willie company while she shelled peas into a brown bag, keeping quiet while Mother and her friends played bridge in the dining room. We could hear the shuffling of cards and the click of ice in their tea glasses. Mother’s friend Alicia was back home from Asheville where she went for shock treatments almost every August when the year got to be just too much. “Bull dogs are the worst. They sink their teeth in your leg and they won’t let go till it thunders. Just like snappin’ turtles.”
Alicia never forgot a card, could bid baby slams and make them all the time; Mother said it had nothing to do with diamonds and hearts. The treatments just erased life’s unpleasant moments. Unless they singed you with too many volts, then everything went haywire; you could lose the whole Spanish language, if you ever knew it. When Willie and I took in the chilled plates of frozen fruit salad, I saw Alicia looking at little rolls of paper she took out of her purse. Willie told me she saw Amy, Harper, the names of Alicia’s children, and 4469, her own telephone number, her address and where she was born. Mother said that was all there was to it. She said the treatments are like reshuffling the cards after the hand. Our dog Tish lies near the cool brick foundation all day, tongue dripping. Dog days; Willie said if one bites you, you’ll foam at the mouth, too.
Cicadas, the deep end of summer, this is how night sounds when it breathes. Looked at one way, there is much madness. The chthonic spirits have it in for my family. Another way, everything evens. Out of the absolute fullness of nothing to do, on Wednesday nights I go to the country club with my mother and grandfather. Michael Wright, the only boy my age whose parents are members, always goes there, too. “Well, Mayes, you’re gracing us with your presence. How about giving me a little sugar?” He pushes out his cheek, and I give him a big pink pursed-lips kiss, which he wipes off with a handkerchief. Michael is polite to all the adults, each of whom he hits with a mocking remark as soon as he or she walks away. “Notice how Ellen had her sweater turned over her arm so we could see the J.P. Alien label?” I’d noticed. She told us how beautiful, how handsome we were, had asked about college, how we were enjoying the summer, and Michael had said we were both going insane, and she’d said how nice and drifted on.
He and I have known each other since we were born. At 13, his parents sent him away to a boys’ school in north Georgia, the only person in memory to escape so early. This made his old friends uneasy. He must be a sissy; something must be wrong. My high school boyfriend was his best friend; and his high school girlfriend was my best friend. Our old loves probably are at the drive-in with their dates right now, struggling around on sweaty vinyl seats. Over the years of our parents’ friendship and our double dating, we have a habit of saying absolutely anything to each other.
We load our plates with ham, corn, potato salad, and hard rolls at the buffet and take our plates and iced tea out by the pool. No one else leaves the air conditioned dining room. I pull my dress up and sit with my feet on the first step under water. Hot piney air and a great moon, which must radiate heat, too. Only the wet calls of the pond frogs cool the air. Both of us still half think we’ll marry our old loves. We’ve been to college in other states but, even so, the idea that we can actually leave Fitzgerald forever, simply invent a new life, doesn’t have a firm hold. We’re rooted down to the tap here, both of us. He has the powerful pull of his father’s, father’s law firm. I have my grandfather constantly telling me I have my head in the clouds and I’m in for a rude awakening. I have my mother, too. She’s a fox gnawing through her own limbs but won’t get free. She has her own vatic litany, only she says, “This is the end of the earth. There’s one road in and one road out. We are at the end of the earth.” I’m sure Michael will stay; I’m sure I won’t.
“Heard you had a little fling in New Orleans,” he begins, “Is there a deflowering scene?”
“Oh, sure. Would that there were.” I keep chewing the salty, under-cured ham and lower my eyelashes mysteriously.
“Is he rich? I’m sure Daddy Jack’s first question was what his old man does, right?”
I tell him I haven’t heard from Banks since I came home, except for one note I memorized: “When I think how I’d like to spend my life, it is with you. Great sunset clouds at evening, rose, pink, and for Frances blue. A sky clean with light over the river. Thoughts of you, always beautiful. My love, Banks.”
“Pretty juicy, Mayes.”
“Michael, how do you see yourself in five years?”
“In cords from Abercrombie’s, hitting the links. You’re serious? Christola, I don’t know, not in this God-forsaken place. Oh, I don’t know; maybe if you’d. . . . Hey, they’re shaking up the corn for Bingo. Big night at the FCC.” There, he hasn’t quite said it again. We each wish, in a fleeting way, that we’d fall in love. Wouldn’t our parents be thrilled? We’ve sat in his Mama’s black Cadillac a few times and kissed arduously, but neither of us ever felt inspired.
Through the glass wall we see our families and friends laughing and settling down with their cards. Harmon Griffin calls out, “Under the I, 75.” Everyone pays; the winner takes the proceeds. That’s not the only kind of gambling. In the bar, which has no windows, illegal slot machines line the walls. Daddy Jack buys a stack of silver dollars. No one minds that Michael and I sit in the bar. Mother wanders in from Bingo after a while; she can take only so much. Late, the bar gets smoky and loud. I’m long past ready to go. Michael’s sensible parents leave early and I’m left to wait for Daddy Jack and Mother to exhaust whatever it is that drives them. By the time we go, almost everyone has long since abandoned the place. Mother and I stop at the Ladies, then follow Daddy Jack through the pines to his green Oldsmobile. He sways like an Easter Island stone on wheels. Too many Stingers. We see him take out the keys, then open the back door and get in. “Look at the old fool,” my mother says. Tipsy herself, she grabs my arm. We watch him groping, then poking the back of the seat, searching for the ignition. “Where does he think the steering wheel is?” I shout. We start laughing and can’t stop. We’re shrieking, doubled over. We knock on his window. “You’re in the back seat! The back seat!”
“Godammit, why don’t they put some lights out here.” He harumphs to the front and roars out the drive onto 129. Three miles of utterly straight road home. This time he keeps it between the ditches.
At home, all silent, I take my lotion out of the refrigerator and sooth my whole body with the chilly jasmine fragrance. Where will I be? The icy voice of a night bird spumes out of the pecan trees. I play Ravel, galloping an Andalusian pony through the music, my cape flying, across dusky heath toward Barcelona. Do they have heaths in Spain? Why do the cicadas sing together? I am 12, but I am 20. Writing in my blank book, I am 20, but I am not. I copy:
Thou my sacred solitude
thou art as rich and clean and wide
as an awakening garden.
My sacred solitude thou—
hold shut the golden doors
before which wishes wait.
I write letters, placing a lined sheet beneath the thin blue paper to keep my writing from slanting upward like a nine year old’s. I am waiting for the fiancée to return so Banks will tell her. I am waiting to hear that Banks will marry at Christmas. I write a sonnet entitled “Preface” about rain in the Quarter, drumming the iambs on my knee. I read about eternal return in a philosophy book. Everything, philosophers have thought since the Greeks, will come back again, exactly as it is. And what is happening has already happened hundreds of times. A fated plot. My time, the Holocaust raging as I was born, the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane football team’s number 35 standing out on the field under the misty lights, gigantic bombs on the Japs, my mother’s camellias, our street islands a dogwood fairyland in spring. Each blossom and blast coming around again in ten thousand years? My mother, a star losing her heat. How slowly the dead cool off. My father, ingenuous still. What, in all this, is will? I know I have that, I feel the force of it in my chest humming like an electrical tower in a cotton field. Will, yes, but to power?
Time for the back-to-school dream. I have not bought the book, the exam is today, the teacher is speaking another language, where is my blue book, my number two pencil, what is the subject everyone else is so intent on, I am in the wrong class, perhaps the wrong cosmos.