The Last of the 14-Year-Old Virgins
Laura Lippman, author of SUNBURN, recommends “Music” by Ellen Gilchrist
AN INTRODUCTION BY LAURA LIPPMAN
The bookstore in Austin, Texas where I bought my now-falling-apart copy of Victory Over Japan doesn’t exist any more and I can’t even remember its name. This was at least 35 years ago and I was a young reporter in Waco, Texas. One hundred miles down the road, Austin had so much more on offer — better movies, better food, better music, and, yes, better bookstores. It was common for my friends and me to make day-trips there, shopping for vintage clothes, picking up exotic treats — croissants! blue cheese! — at this idiosyncratic grocery store called Whole Foods.
Did we worry about unlikable characters in 1982? I can’t recall. I was making my way through John Updike’s Rabbit books, so clearly it wasn’t something that concerned me too much. Perusing the bookstore, I glimpsed a paperback whose cover appeared to be a detail from an oil painting. The book had won a National Book Award, a prize unknown to me. Jonathan Yardley, a critic whose name I did recognize, had praised it to the skies. So I bought it.
The book is full of what I would come to learn are Ellen Gilchrist’s hallmarks — strong women, a vivid sense of place and, most of all, an inimitable voice, confident and sassy and bold. It has many of her best stories, but pressed to pick a favorite, I have to choose “Music,” the story in which Rhoda Manning, only 14, has her first sexual experience. I suppose most writers would treat this as a tragedy, or at the very least a cautionary tale. The young man who takes Rhoda’s virginity — with her very clear consent — does end up taking quite a bit of money from her, too, which he uses to underwrite his journey toward the woman he really loves.
It made me yearn in all the right ways — to find my voice, to write stories that only I could write, about women who may not be likable, but were certainly indomitable.
But “Music” is a story about being a teenage girl, generally and specifically. It is “a holy and terrible age,” Gilchrist reminds us. A time of yearning and reading — Rhoda is falling in love with the verse of Dorothy Parker. “Music” is also about the terrible self-centeredness that keeps adolescents from realizing what’s going on with their parents, something they have no desire to know. Rhoda smokes, she lies, she struggles with her appetites. Her spirit cannot be crushed, not even by her father, whom she worships and detests.
I can still see the day I bought the book, a brilliant autumn Sunday, the Texas sun warm on my shoulders. It made me yearn in all the right ways — to find my voice, to write stories that only I could write, about women who may not be likable, but were certainly indomitable. Was redheaded Rhoda on my mind when I imagined redheaded Polly from my novel, Sunburn? I think so, I hope so. I do know this: I was almost a decade older than the Rhoda Manning of “Music” when we first met, but she had so much to teach me.
Author of Sunburn
The Last of the 14-Year-Old Virgins
by Ellen Gilchrist
Rhoda was fourteen years old the summer her father dragged her off to Clay County, Kentucky, to make her stop smoking and acting like a movie star. She was fourteen years old, a holy and terrible age, and her desire for beauty and romance drove her all day long and pursued her if she slept.
“Te amo,” she whispered to herself in Latin class. “Te amo, Bob Rosen,” sending the heat of her passions across the classroom and out through the window and across two states to a hospital room in Saint Louis, where a college boy lay recovering from a series of operations Rhoda had decided would be fatal.
“And you as well must die, beloved dust,” she quoted to herself. “Oh, sleep forever in your Latmian cave, Mortal Endymion, darling of the moon,” she whispered, and sometimes it was Bob Rosen’s lanky body stretched out in the cave beside his saxophone that she envisioned and sometimes it was her own lush, apricot-colored skin growing cold against the rocks in the moonlight.
Rhoda was fourteen years old that spring and her true love had been cruelly taken from her and she had started smoking because there was nothing left to do now but be a writer.
She was fourteen years old and she would sit on the porch at night looking down the hill that led through the small town of Franklin, Kentucky, and think about the stars, wondering where heaven could be in all that vastness, feeling betrayed by her mother’s pale Episcopalianism and the fate that had brought her to this small town right in the middle of her sophomore year in high school. She would sit on the porch stuffing chocolate chip cookies into her mouth, drinking endless homemade chocolate milkshakes, smoking endless Lucky Strike cigarettes, watching her mother’s transplanted roses move steadily across the trellis, taking Bob Rosen’s thin letters in and out of their envelopes, holding them against her face, then going up to the new bedroom, to the soft, blue sheets, stuffed with cookies and ice cream and cigarettes and rage.
“Is that you, Rhoda?” her father would call out as she passed his bedroom. “Is that you, sweetie? Come tell us good night.” And she would go into their bedroom and lean over and kiss him.
“You just ought to smell yourself,” he would say, sitting up, pushing her away. “You just ought to smell those nasty cigarettes.” And as soon as she went into her room he would go downstairs and empty all the ashtrays to make sure the house wouldn’t burn down while he was sleeping.
“I’ve got to make her stop that goddamn smoking,” he would say, climbing back into the bed. “I’m goddamned if I’m going to put up with that.”
“I’d like to know how you’re going to stop it,” Rhoda’s mother said. “I’d like to see anyone make Rhoda do anything she doesn’t want to do. Not to mention that you’re hardly ever here.”
“Goddammit, Ariane, don’t start that this time of night.” And he rolled over on his side of the bed and began to plot his campaign against Rhoda’s cigarettes.
Dudley Manning wasn’t afraid of Rhoda, even if she was as stubborn as a goat. Dudley Manning wasn’t afraid of anything. He had gotten up at dawn every day for years and believed in himself and followed his luck wherever it led him, dragging his sweet southern wife and his children behind him, and now, in his fortieth year, he was about to become a millionaire.
He was about to become a millionaire and he was in love with a beautiful woman who was not his wife and it was the strangest spring he had ever known. When he added up the figures in his account books he was filled with awe at his own achievements, amazed at what he had made of himself, and to make up for it he talked a lot about luck and pretended to be humble but deep down inside he believed there was nothing he couldn’t do, even love two women at once, even make Rhoda stop smoking.
Both Dudley and Rhoda were early risers. If he was in town he would be waiting in the kitchen when she came down to breakfast, dressed in his khakis, his pens in his pocket, his glasses on his nose, sitting at the table going over his papers, his head full of the clean new ideas of morning.
“How many more days of school do you have?” he said to her one morning, watching her light the first of her cigarettes without saying anything about it.
“Just this week,” she said. “Just until Friday. I’m making A’s, Daddy. This is the easiest school I’ve ever been to.”
“Well, don’t be smart-alecky about it, Rhoda,” he said. “If you’ve got a good mind it’s only because God gave it to you.”
“God didn’t give me anything,” she said. “Because there isn’t any God.”
“Well, let’s don’t get into an argument about that this morning,” Dudley said. “As soon as you finish school I want you to drive up to the mines with me for a few days.”
“For how long?” she said.
“We won’t be gone long,” he said. “I just want to take you to the mines to look things over.”
Rhoda French-inhaled, blowing the smoke out into the sunlight coming through the kitchen windows, imagining herself on a tour of her father’s mines, the workers with their caps in their hands smiling at her as she walked politely among them. Rhoda liked that idea. She dropped two saccharin tablets into her coffee and sat down at the table, enjoying her fantasy.
“Is that what you’re having for breakfast?” he said.
“I’m on a diet,” Rhoda said. “I’m on a black coffee diet.” He looked down at his poached eggs, cutting into the yellow with his knife. I can wait, he said to himself. As God is my witness I can wait until Sunday.
Rhoda poured herself another cup of coffee and went upstairs to write Bob Rosen before she left for school.
Dear Bob [the letter began],
School is almost over. I made straight A’s, of course, as per your instructions. This school is so easy it’s crazy.
They read one of my newspaper columns on the radio in Nashville. Everyone in Franklin goes around saying my mother writes my columns. Can you believe that? Allison Hotchkiss, that’s my editor, says she’s going to write an editorial about it saying I really write them.
I turned my bedroom into an office and took out the tacky dressing table mother made me and got a desk and put my typewriter on it and made striped drapes, green and black and white. I think you would approve.
Sunday Daddy is taking me to Manchester, Kentucky, to look over the coal mines. He’s going to let me drive. He lets me drive all the time. I live for your letters.
She put the letter in a pale blue envelope, sealed it, dripped some Toujours Moi lavishly onto it in several places and threw herself down on her bed.
She pressed her face deep down into her comforter pretending it was Bob Rosen’s smooth cool skin. “Oh, Bob, Bob,” she whispered to the comforter. “Oh, honey, don’t die, don’t die, please don’t die.” She could feel the tears coming. She reached out and caressed the seam of the comforter, pretending it was the scar on Bob Rosen’s neck.
The last night she had been with him he had just come home from an operation for a mysterious tumor that he didn’t want to talk about. It would be better soon, was all he would say about it. Before long he would be as good as new.
They had driven out of town and parked the old Pontiac underneath a tree beside a pasture. It was September and Rhoda had lain in his arms smelling the clean smell of his new sweater, touching the fresh red scars on his neck, looking out the window to memorize every detail of the scene, the black tree, the September pasture, the white horse leaning against the fence, the palms of his hands, the taste of their cigarettes, the night breeze, the exact temperature of the air, saying to herself over and over, I must remember everything. This will have to last me forever and ever and ever.
“I want you to do it to me,” she said. “Whatever it is they do.”
“I can’t,” he said. “I couldn’t do that now. It’s too much trouble to make love to a virgin.” He was laughing. “Besides, it’s hard to do it in a car.”
“But I’m leaving,” she said. “I might not ever see you again.”
“Not tonight,” he said. “I still don’t feel very good, Rhoda.”
“What if I come back and visit,” she said. “Will you do it then? When you feel better.”
“If you still want me to I will,” he said. “If you come back to visit and we both want to, I will.”
“Do you promise?” she said, hugging him fiercely.
“I promise,” he said. “On my honor I promise to do it when you come to visit.”
But Rhoda was not allowed to go to Saint Louis to visit. Either her mother guessed her intentions or else she seized the opportunity to do what she had been wanting to do all along and stop her daughter from seeing a boy with a Jewish last name.
There were weeks of pleadings and threats. It all ended one Sunday night when Mrs. Manning lost her temper and made the statement that Jews were little peddlers who went through the Delta selling needles and pins.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rhoda screamed. “He’s not a peddler, and I love him and I’m going to love him until I die.” Rhoda pulled her arms away from her mother’s hands.
“I’m going up there this weekend to see him,” she screamed. “Daddy promised me I could and you’re not going to stop me and if you try to stop me I’ll kill you and I’ll run away and I’ll never come back.”
“You are not going to Saint Louis and that’s the end of this conversation and if you don’t calm down I’ll call a doctor and have you locked up. I think you’re crazy, Rhoda. I really do.”
“I’m not crazy,” Rhoda screamed. “You’re the one that’s crazy.”
“You and your father think you’re so smart,” her mother said. She was shaking but she held her ground, moving around behind a Queen Anne chair. “Well, I don’t care how smart you are, you’re not going to get on a train and go off to Saint Louis, Missouri, to see a man when you’re only fourteen years old, and that, Miss Rhoda K. Manning, is that.”
“I’m going to kill you,” Rhoda said. “I really am. I’m going to kill you,” and she thought for a moment that she would kill her, but then she noticed her grandmother’s Limoges hot chocolate pot sitting on top of the piano holding a spray of yellow jasmine, and she walked over to the piano and picked it up and threw it all the way across the room and smashed it into a wall beside a framed print of “The Blue Boy.”
“I hate you,” Rhoda said. “I wish you were dead.” And while her mother stared in disbelief at the wreck of the sainted hot chocolate pot, Rhoda walked out of the house and got in the car and drove off down the steep driveway. I hate her guts, she said to herself. I hope she cries herself to death.
She shifted into second gear and drove off toward her father’s office, quoting to herself from Edna Millay. “Now by this moon, before this moon shall wane, I shall be dead or I shall be with you.”
But in the end Rhoda didn’t die. Neither did she kill her mother. Neither did she go to Saint Louis to give her virginity to her reluctant lover.
The Sunday of the trip Rhoda woke at dawn feeling very excited and changed clothes four or five times trying to decide how she wanted to look for her inspection of the mines.
Rhoda had never even seen a picture of a strip mine. In her imagination she and her father would be riding an elevator down into the heart of a mountain where obsequious masked miners were lined up to shake her hand. Later that evening the captain of the football team would be coming over to the hotel to meet her and take her somewhere for a drive.
She pulled on a pair of pink pedal pushers and a long navy blue sweatshirt, threw every single thing she could possibly imagine wearing into a large suitcase, and started down the stairs to where her father was calling for her to hurry up.
Her mother followed her out of the house holding a buttered biscuit on a linen napkin. “Please eat something before you leave,” she said. “There isn’t a decent restaurant after you leave Bowling Green.”
“I told you I don’t want anything to eat,” Rhoda said. “I’m on a diet.” She stared at the biscuit as though it were a coral snake.
“One biscuit isn’t going to hurt you,” her mother said. “I made you a lunch, chicken and carrot sticks and apples.”
“I don’t want it,” Rhoda said “Don’t put any food in this car, Mother.”
“Just because you never eat doesn’t mean your father won’t get hungry. You don’t have to eat any of it unless you want to.” Their eyes met. Then they sighed and looked away.
Her father appeared at the door and climbed in behind the wheel of the secondhand Cadillac.
“Let’s go, Sweet Sister,” he said, cruising down the driveway, turning onto the road leading to Bowling Green and due east into the hill country. Usually this was his favorite moment of the week, starting the long drive into the rich Kentucky hills where his energy and intelligence had created the long black rows of figures in the account books, figures that meant Rhoda would never know what it was to be really afraid or uncertain or powerless.
“How long will it take?” Rhoda asked.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Just look out the window and enjoy the ride. This is beautiful country we’re driving through.”
“I can’t right now,” Rhoda said. “I want to read the new book Allison gave me. It’s a book of poems.”
She settled down into the seat and opened the book.
Oh, gallant was the first love, and glittering and fine; The second love was water, in a clear blue cup; The third love was his, and the fourth was mine. And after that, I always get them all mixed up.
Oh, God, this is good, she thought. She sat up straighter, wanting to kiss the book. Oh, God, this is really good. She turned the book over to look at the picture of the author. It was a photograph of a small bright face in full profile staring off into the mysterious brightly lit world of a poet’s life.
Dorothy Parker, she read. What a wonderful name. Maybe I’ll change my name to Dorothy, Dorothy Louise Manning. Dot Manning. Dottie, Dottie Leigh, Dot.
Rhoda pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes out of her purse, tamped it on the dashboard, opened it, extracted a cigarette and lit it with a gold Ronson lighter. She inhaled deeply and went back to the book.
Her father gripped the wheel, trying to concentrate on the beauty of the morning, the green fields, the small, neat farmhouses, the red barns, the cattle and horses. He moved his eyes from all that order to his fourteen-year-old daughter slumped beside him with her nose buried in a book, her plump fingers languishing in the air, holding a cigarette. He slowed down, pulled the car onto the side of the road and killed the motor.
“What’s wrong?” Rhoda said. “Why are you stopping?”
“Because you are going to put out that goddamn cigarette this very minute and you’re going to give me the package and you’re not going to smoke another cigarette around me as long as you live,” he said.
“I will not do any such thing,” Rhoda said. “It’s a free country.”
“Give me the cigarette, Rhoda,” he said. “Hand it here.”
“Give me one good reason why I should,” she said. But her voice let her down. She knew there wasn’t any use in arguing. This was not her soft little mother she was dealing with. This was Dudley Manning, who had been a famous baseball player until he quit when she was born. Who before that had gone to the Olympics on a relay team. There were scrapbooks full of his clippings in Rhoda’s house. No matter where the Mannings went those scrapbooks sat on a table in the den. Manning Hits One Over The Fence, the headlines read. Manning Saves The Day. Manning Does It Again. And he was not the only one. His cousin, Philip Manning, down in Jackson, Mississippi, was famous too. Who was the father of the famous Crystal Manning, Rhoda’s cousin who had a fur coat when she was ten. And Leland Manning, who was her cousin Lele’s daddy. Leland had been the captain of the Tulane football team before he drank himself to death in the Delta.
Rhoda sighed, thinking of all that, and gave in for the moment. “Give me one good reason and I might,” she repeated.
“I don’t have to give you a reason for a goddamn thing,” he said. “Give the cigarette here, Rhoda. Right this minute.” He reached out and took it and she didn’t resist. “Goddamn, these things smell awful,” he said, crushing it in the ashtray. He reached in her pocketbook and got the package and threw it out the window.
“Only white trash throw things out on the road,” Rhoda said. “You’d kill me if I did that.”
“Well, let’s just be quiet and get to where we’re going.” He started the motor and drove back out onto the highway. Rhoda crunched down lower in the seat, pretending to read her book. Who cares, she thought. I’ll get some as soon as we stop for gas.
Getting cigarettes at filling stations was not as easy as Rhoda thought it was going to be. This was God’s country they were driving into now, the hills rising up higher and higher, strange, silent little houses back off the road. Rhoda could feel the eyes looking out at her from behind the silent windows. Poor white trash, Rhoda’s mother would have called them. The salt of the earth, her father would have said.
This was God’s country and these people took things like children smoking cigarettes seriously. At both places where they stopped there was a sign by the cash register, No Cigarettes Sold To Minors.
Rhoda had moved to the back seat of the Cadillac and was stretched out on the seat reading her book. She had found another poem she liked and she was memorizing it.
Four be the things I’d be better without, Love, curiosity, freckles and doubt, Three be the things I shall never attain, Envy, content and sufficient champagne.
Oh, God, I love this book, she thought. This Dorothy Parker is just like me. Rhoda was remembering a night when she got drunk in Clarkesville, Mississippi, with her cousin Baby Gwen Barksdale. They got drunk on tequila LaGrande Conroy brought back from Mexico, and Rhoda had slept all night in the bathtub so she would be near the toilet when she vomited.
She put her head down on her arm and giggled, thinking about waking up in the bathtub. Then a plan occurred to her.
“Stop and let me go to the bathroom,” she said to her father. “I think I’m going to throw up.”
“Oh, Lord,” he said. “I knew you shouldn’t have gotten in the back seat. Well, hold on. I’ll stop the first place I see.” He pushed his hat back off his forehead and began looking for a place to stop, glancing back over his shoulder every now and then to see if she was all right. Rhoda had a long history of throwing up on car trips so he was taking this seriously. Finally he saw a combination store and filling station at a bend in the road and pulled up beside the front door.
“I’ll be all right.” Rhoda said, jumping out of the car. “You stay here. I’ll be right back.”
She walked dramatically up the wooden steps and pushed open the screen door. It was so quiet and dark inside she thought for a moment the store was closed. She looked around. She was in a rough, high-ceilinged room with saddles and pieces of farm equipment hanging from the rafters and a sparse array of canned goods on wooden shelves behind a counter. On the counter were five or six large glass jars filled with different kinds of Nabisco cookies. Rhoda stared at the cookie jars, wanting to stick her hand down inside and take out great fistfuls of Lorna Doones and Oreos. She fought off her hunger and raised her eyes to the display of chewing tobacco and cigarettes.
The smells of the store rose up to meet her, fecund and rich, moist and cool, as if the store was an extension of the earth outside. Rhoda looked down at the board floors. She felt she could have dropped a sunflower seed on the floor and it would instantly sprout and take bloom, growing quick, moving down into the earth and upwards toward the rafters.
“Is anybody here?” she said softly, then louder. “Is anybody here?”
A woman in a cotton dress appeared in a door, staring at Rhoda out of very intense, very blue eyes.
“Can I buy a pack of cigarettes from you?” Rhoda said. “My dad’s in the car. He sent me to get them.”
“What kind of cigarettes you looking for?” the woman said, moving to the space between the cash register and the cookie jars. “
Some Luckies if you have them,” Rhoda said. “He said to just get anything you had if you didn’t have that.”
“They’re a quarter,” the woman said, reaching behind herself to take the package down and lay it on the counter, not smiling, but not being unkind either.
“Thank you,” Rhoda said, laying the quarter down on the counter. “Do you have any matches?”
“Sure,” the woman said, holding out a box of kitchen matches. Rhoda took a few, letting her eyes leave the woman’s face and come to rest on the jars of Oreos. They looked wonderful and light, as though they had been there a long time and grown soft around the edges.
The woman was smiling now. “You want one of those cookies?” she said. “You want one, you go on and have one, It’s free.”
“Oh, no thank you,” Rhoda said. “I’m on a diet. Look, do you have a ladies’ room I can use?”
“It’s out back,” the woman said. “You can have one of them cookies if you want it. Like I said, it won’t cost you nothing.”
“I guess I’d better get going,” Rhoda said. “My dad’s in a hurry. But thank you anyway. And thanks for the matches.” Rhoda hurried down the aisle, slipped out the back door and leaned up against the back of the store, tearing the paper off the cigarettes. She pulled one out, lit it, and inhaled deeply, blowing the smoke out in front of her, watching it rise up into the air, casting a veil over the hills that rose up behind and to the left of her. She had never been in such a strange country. It looked as though no one ever did anything to their yards or roads or fences. It looked as though there might not be a clock for miles.
She inhaled again, feeling dizzy and full. She had just taken the cigarette out of her mouth when her father came bursting out of the door and grabbed both of her wrists in his hands.
“Let go of me,” she said. “Let go of me this minute.” She struggled to free herself, ready to kick or claw or bite, ready for a real fight, but he held her off.
“Drop the cigarette, Rhoda,” he said. “Drop it on the ground.”
“I’ll kill you,” she said. “As soon as I get away I’m running away to Florida. Let go of me, Daddy. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” he said. The veins were standing out on his forehead. His face was so close Rhoda could see his freckles and the line where his false front tooth was joined to what was left of the real one. He had lost the tooth in a baseball game the day Rhoda was born. That was how he told the story. “I lost that tooth the day Rhoda was born,” he would say. “I was playing left field against Memphis in the old Crump Stadium. I slid into second and the second baseman got me with his shoe.”
“You can smoke all you want to when you get down to Florida,” he was saying now. “But you’re not smoking on this trip. So you might as well calm down before I drive off and leave you here.”
“I don’t care,” she said. “Go on and leave. I’ll just call up Mother and she’ll come and get me.” She was struggling to free her wrists but she could not move them inside his hands. “Let go of me, you big bully,” she added.
“Will you calm down and give me the cigarettes?”
“All right,” she said, but the minute he let go of her hands she turned and began to hit him on the shoulders, pounding her fists up and down on his back, not daring to put any real force behind the blows. He pretended to cower under the assault. She caught his eye and saw that he was laughing at her and she had to fight the desire to laugh with him.
“I’m getting in the car,” she said. “I’m sick of this place.” She walked grandly around to the front of the store, got into the car, tore open the lunch and began to devour it, tearing the chicken off the bones with her teeth, swallowing great hunks without even bothering to chew them. “I’m never speaking to you again as long as I live,” she said, her mouth full of chicken breast. “You are not my father.”
“Suits me, Miss Smart-alecky Movie Star,” he said, putting his hat back on his head. “Soon as we get home you can head on out for Florida. You just let me know when you’re leaving so I can give you some money for the bus.”
“I hate you,” Rhoda mumbled to herself, starting in on the homemade raisin cookies. I hate your guts. I hope you go to hell forever, she thought, breaking a cookie into pieces so she could pick out the raisins.
It was late afternoon when the Cadillac picked its way up a rocky red clay driveway to a housetrailer nestled in the curve of a hill beside a stand of pine trees.
“Where are we going?” Rhoda said. “Would you just tell me that?”
“We’re going to see Maud and Joe Samples,” he said. “Joe’s an old hand around here. He’s my right-hand man in Clay County. Now you just be polite and try to learn something, Sister. These are real folks you’re about to meet.”
“Why are we going here first?” Rhoda said. “Aren’t we going to a hotel?”
“There isn’t any hotel,” her father said. “Does this look like someplace they’d have hotels? Maud and Joe are going to put you up for me while I’m off working.”
“I’m going to stay here?” Rhoda asked. “In this trailer?”
“Just wait until you see the inside,” her father said. “It’s like the inside of a boat, everything all planned out and just the right amount of space for things. I wish your mother’d let me live in a trailer.”
They were almost to the door now. A plump smiling woman came out onto the wooden platform and waited for them with her hands on her hips, smiling wider and wider as they got nearer.
“There’s Maud,” Dudley said. “She’s the sweetest woman in the world and the best cook in Kentucky. Hey there, Miss Maud,” he called out.
“Mr. D,” she said, opening the car door for them. “Joe Samples’ been waiting on you all day and here you show up bringing this beautiful girl just like you promised. I’ve made you some blackberry pies. Come on inside this trailer.” Maud smiled deep into Rhoda’s face. Her eyes were as blue as the ones on the woman in the store. Rhoda’s mother had blue eyes, but not this brilliant and not this blue. These eyes were from another world, another century.
“Come on in and see Joe,” Maud said. “He’s been having a fit for you to get here.”
They went inside and Dudley showed Rhoda all around the trailer, praising the design of trailers. Maud turned on the tiny oven and they had blackberry pie and bread and butter sandwiches and Rhoda abandoned her diet and ate two pieces of the pie, covering it with thick whipped cream.
The men went off to talk business and Maud took Rhoda to a small room at the back of the trailer decorated to match a handmade quilt of the sunrise.
There were yellow ruffled curtains at the windows and a tiny dressing table with a yellow ruffled skirt around the edges. Rhoda was enchanted by the smallness of everything and the way the windows looked out onto layers of green trees and bushes.
Lying on the dresser was a white leather Bible and a display of small white pamphlets, Alcohol And You, When Jesus Reaches For A Drink, You Are Not Alone, Sorry Isn’t Enough, Taking No For An Answer.
It embarrassed Rhoda even to read the titles of anything as tacky as the pamphlets, but she didn’t let on she thought it was tacky, not with Maud sitting on the bed telling her how pretty she was every other second and asking her questions about herself and saying how wonderful her father was.
“We love Mr. D to death,” she said. “It’s like he was one of our own.”
He appeared in the door. “Rhoda, if you’re settled in I’ll be leaving now,” he said. “I’ve got to drive to Knoxville to do some business but I’ll be back here Tuesday morning to take you to the mines.” He handed her three twenty-dollar bills. “Here,” he said. “In case you need anything.”
He left then and hurried out to the car, trying to figure out how long it would take him to get to Knoxville, to where Valerie sat alone in a hotel room waiting for this night they had planned for so long. He felt the sweet hot guilt rise up in his face and the sweet hot longing in his legs and hands.
I’m sorry, Jesus, he thought, pulling out onto the highway. I know it’s wrong and I know we’re doing wrong. So go on and punish me if you have to but just let me make it there and back before you start in on me.
He set the cruising speed at exactly fifty-five miles an hour and began to sing to himself as he drove.
“Oh, sure as the vine grows around the stump You’re my darling sugar lump,” he sang, and;
Froggy went a-courting and he did ride, Huhhrummp, huhhrummp, Froggy went a-courting and he did ride, Huhhrummp,
What you gonna have for the wedding supper? Black-eyed peas and bread and butter, Huhhrummp, huhhrummp . . .”
Rhoda was up and dressed when her father came to get her on Tuesday morning. It was still dark outside but a rooster had begun to crow in the distance. Maud bustled all about the little kitchen making much of them, filling their plates with biscuits and fried eggs and ham and gravy.
Then they got into the Cadillac and began to drive toward the mine. Dudley was driving slowly, pointing out everything to her as they rode along.
“Up on that knoll,” he said, “that’s where the Traylors live. Rooster Traylor’s a man about my age. Last year his mother shot one of the Galtney women for breaking up Rooster’s marriage and now the Galtneys have got to shoot someone in the Traylor family.”
“That’s terrible,” Rhoda said.
“No it isn’t, Sister,” he said, warming into the argument. “These people take care of their own problems.”
“They actually shoot each other?” she said. “And you think that’s okay? You think that’s funny?”
“I think it’s just as good as waiting around for some judge and jury to do it for you.”
“Then you’re just crazy,” Rhoda said. “You’re as crazy as you can be.”
“Well, let’s don’t argue about it this morning. Come on. I’ve got something to show you.” He pulled the car off the road and they walked into the woods, following a set of bulldozer tracks that made a crude path into the trees. It was quiet in the woods and smelled of pine and sassafras. Rhoda watched her father’s strong body moving in front of her, striding along, inspecting everything, noticing everything, commenting on everything.
“Look at this,” he said. “Look at all this beauty, honey. Look at how beautiful all this is. This is the real world. Not those goddamn movies and beauty parlors and magazines. This is the world that God made. This is where people are really happy.”
“There isn’t any God,” she said. “Nobody that knows anything believes in God, Daddy. That’s just a lot of old stuff . . .”
“I’m telling you, Rhoda,” he said. “It breaks my heart to see the way you’re growing up.” He stopped underneath a tree, took a seat on a log and turned his face to hers. Tears were forming in his eyes. He was famous in the family for being able to cry on cue. “You’ve just got to learn to listen to someone. You’ve got to get some common sense in your head. I swear to God, I worry about you all the time.” The tears were falling now. “I just can’t stand to see the way you’re growing up. I don’t know where you get all those crazy ideas you come up with.”
Rhoda looked down, caught off guard by the tears. No matter how many times he pulled that with the tears she fell for it for a moment. The summer forest was all around them, soft deep earth beneath their feet, morning light falling through the leaves, and the things that passed between them were too hard to understand. Their brown eyes met and locked and after that they were bound to start an argument for no one can bear to be that happy or that close to another human being.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” Rhoda said. “It’s a free country and I can smoke if I want to and you can’t keep me from doing it by locking me up in a trailer with some poor white trash.”
“What did you say?” he said, getting a look on his face that would have scared a grown man to death. “What did you just say, Rhoda?”
“I said I’m sick and tired of being locked up in that damned old trailer with those corny people and nothing to read but religious magazines. I want to get some cigarettes and I want you to take me home so I can see my friends and get my column written for next week.”
“Oh, God, Sister,” he said. “Haven’t I taught you anything? Maud Samples is the salt of the earth. That woman raised seven children. She knows things you and I will never know as long as we live.”
“Well, no she doesn’t,” Rhoda said. “She’s just an old white trash country woman and if Momma knew where I was she’d have a fit.”
“Your momma is a very stupid person,” he said. “And I’m sorry I ever let her raise you.” He turned his back to her then and stalked on out of the woods to a road that ran like a red scar up the side of the mountain. “Come on,” he said. “I’m going to take you up there and show you where coal comes from. Maybe you can learn one thing this week.”
“I learn things all the time,” she said. “I already know more than half the people I know…I know…”
“Please don’t talk anymore this morning,” he said. “I’m burned out talking to you.”
He put her into a jeep and began driving up the steep unpaved road. In a minute he was feeling better, cheered up by the sight of the big Caterpillar tractors moving dirt. If there was one thing that always cheered him up it was the sight of a big shovel moving dirt. “This is Blue Gem coal,” he said. “The hardest in the area. See the layers. Topsoil, then gravel and dirt or clay, then slate, then thirteen feet of pure coal. Some people think it was made by dinosaurs. Other people think God put it there.”
“This is it?” she said. “This is the mine?” It looked like one of his road construction projects. Same yellow tractors, same disorderly activity. The only difference seemed to be the huge piles of coal and a conveyor belt going down the mountain to a train.
“This is it,” he said. “This is where they stored the old dinosaurs.”
“Well, it is made out of dinosaurs,” she said. “There were a lot of leaves and trees and dinosaurs and then they died and the coal and oil is made out of them.”
“All right,” he said. “Let’s say I’ll go along with the coal. But tell me this, who made the slate then? Who put the slate right on top of the coal everywhere it’s found in the world? Who laid the slate down on top of the dinosaurs?”
“I don’t know who put the slate there,” she said. “We haven’t got that far yet.”
“You haven’t got that far?” he said. “You mean the scientists haven’t got as far as the slate yet? Well, Sister, that’s the problem with you folks that evolved out of monkeys. You’re still half-baked. You aren’t finished like us old dumb ones that God made.”
“I didn’t say the scientists hadn’t got that far,” she said. “I just said I hadn’t got that far.”
“It’s a funny thing to me how all those dinosaurs came up here to die in the mountains and none of them died in the farmland,” he said. “It sure would have made it a lot easier on us miners if they’d died down there on the flat.”
While she was groping around for an answer he went right on. “Tell me this, Sister,” he said. “Are any of your monkey ancestors in there with the dinosaurs, or is it just plain dinosaurs? I’d like to know who all I’m digging up…I’d like to give credit . . .”
The jeep had come to a stop and Joe was coming toward them, hurrying out of the small tin-roofed office with a worried look on his face. “Mr. D, you better call up to Jellico. Beb’s been looking everywhere for you. They had a run-in with a teamster organizer. You got to call him right away.”
“What’s wrong?” Rhoda said. “What happened?”
“Nothing you need to worry about, Sister,” her father said. He turned to Joe. “Go find Preacher and tell him to drive Rhoda back to your house. You go on now, honey. I’ve got work to do.” He gave her a kiss on the cheek and disappeared into the office. A small shriveled-looking man came limping out of a building and climbed into the driver’s seat. “I’m Preacher,” he said. “Mr. Joe tole me to drive you up to his place.”
“All right,” Rhoda said. “I guess that’s okay with me.” Preacher put the jeep in gear and drove it slowly down the winding rutted road. By the time they got to the bottom Rhoda had thought of a better plan. “I’ll drive now,” she said. “I’ll drive myself to Maud’s. It’s all right with my father. He lets me drive all the time. You can walk back, can’t you?” Preacher didn’t know what to say to that. He was an old drunk that Dudley and Joe kept around to run errands. He was so used to taking orders that finally he climbed down out of the jeep and did as he was told. “Show me the way to town,” Rhoda said. “Draw me a map. I have to go by town on my way to Maud’s.” Preacher scratched his head, then bent over and drew her a little map in the dust on the hood. Rhoda studied the map, put the jeep into the first forward gear she could find and drove off down the road to the little town of Manchester, Kentucky, studying the diagram on the gearshift as she drove.
She parked beside a boardwalk that led through the main street of town and started off looking for a store that sold cigarettes. One of the stores had dresses in the window. In the center was a red strapless sundress with a white jacket. $6.95, the price tag said. I hate the way I look, she decided. I hate these tacky pants. I’ve got sixty dollars. I don’t have to look like this if I don’t want to. I can buy anything I want.
She went inside, asked the clerk to take the dress out of the window and in a few minutes she emerged from the store wearing the dress and a pair of leather sandals with two-inch heels. The jacket was thrown carelessly over her shoulder like Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. I look great in red, she was thinking, catching a glimpse of herself in a store window. It isn’t true that redheaded people can’t wear red. She walked on down the boardwalk, admiring herself in every window.
She walked for two blocks looking for a place to try her luck getting cigarettes. She was almost to the end of the boardwalk when she came to a pool hall. She stood in the door looking in, smelling the dark smell of tobacco and beer. The room was deserted except for a man leaning on a cue stick beside a table and a boy with black hair seated behind a cash register reading a book. The boy’s name was Johnny Hazard and he was sixteen years old. The book he was reading was U.S.A. by John Dos Passos. A woman who came to Manchester to teach poetry writing had given him the book. She had made a dust jacket for it out of brown paper so he could read it in public. On the spine of the jacket she had written American History.
“I’d like a package of Lucky Strikes,” Rhoda said, holding out a twenty-dollar bill in his direction.
“We don’t sell cigarettes to minors,” he said. “It’s against the law.”
“I’m not a minor,” Rhoda said. “I’m eighteen. I’m Rhoda Manning. My daddy owns the mine.”
“Which mine?” he said. He was watching her breasts as she talked, getting caught up in the apricot skin against the soft red dress.
“The mine,” she said. “The Manning mine. I just got here the other day. I haven’t been downtown before.”
“So, how do you like our town?”
“Please sell me some cigarettes,” she said. “I’m about to have a fit for a Lucky.”
“I can’t sell you cigarettes,” he said. “You’re not any more eighteen years old than my dog.”
“Yes, I am,” she said. “I drove here in a jeep, doesn’t that prove anything?” She was looking at his wide shoulders and the tough flat chest beneath his plaid shirt.
“Are you a football player?” she said.
“When I have time,” he said. “When I don’t have to work on the nights they have games.”
“I’m a cheerleader where I live,” Rhoda said. “I just got elected again for next year.”
“What kind of a jeep?” he said.
“An old one,” she said. “It’s filthy dirty. They use it at the mine.” She had just noticed the package of Camels in his breast pocket.
“If you won’t sell me a whole package, how about selling me one,” she said. “I’ll give you a dollar for a cigarette.” She raised the twenty-dollar bill and laid it down on the glass counter.
He ignored the twenty-dollar bill, opened the cash register, removed a quarter and walked over to the jukebox. He walked with a precise, balanced sort of cockiness, as if he knew he could walk any way he wanted but had carefully chosen this particular walk as his own. He walked across the room through the rectangle of light coming in the door, walking as though he were the first boy ever to be in the world, the first boy ever to walk across a room and put a quarter into a jukebox. He pushed a button and music filled the room.
“Kaw-Liga was a wooden Indian a-standing by the door, He fell in love with an Indian maid Over in the antique store.”
“My uncle wrote that song,” he said, coming back to her. “But it got ripped off by some promoters in Nashville. I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “I’ll give you a cigarette if you’ll give me a ride somewhere I have to go.”
“All right,” Rhoda said. “Where do you want to go?”
“Out to my cousin’s,” he said. “It isn’t far.”
“Fine,” Rhoda said. Johnny told the lone pool player to keep an eye on things and the two of them walked out into the sunlight, walking together very formally down the street to where the jeep was parked.
“Why don’t you let me drive,” he said. “It might be easier.” She agreed and he drove on up the mountain to a house that looked deserted. He went in and returned carrying a guitar in a case, a blanket, and a quart bottle with a piece of wax paper tied around the top with a rubber band.
“What’s in the bottle?” Rhoda said.
“Lemonade, with a little sweetening in it.”
“Yeah. Like whiskey. Do you ever drink it?”
“Sure,” she said. “I drink a lot. In Saint Louis we had this club called The Four Roses that met every Monday at Donna Duston’s house to get drunk. I thought it up, the club I mean.”
“Well, here’s your cigarette,” he said. He took the package from his pocket and offered her one, holding it near his chest so she had to get in close to take it.
“Oh, God,” she said. “Oh, thank you so much. I’m about to die for a ciggie. I haven’t had one in days. Because my father dragged me up here to make me stop smoking. He’s always trying to make me do something I don’t want to do. But it never works. I’m very hardheaded, like him.” She took the light Johnny offered her and blew out the smoke in a small controlled stream. “God, I love to smoke,” she said.
“I’m glad I could help you out,” he said. “Anytime you want one when you’re here you just come on over. Look,” he said. “I’m going somewhere you might want to see, if you’re not in a hurry to get back. You got time to go and see something with me?”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Something worth seeing,” he said. “The best thing in Clay County there is to see.”
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll go. I never turn down an adventure. Why not, that’s what my cousins in the Delta always say. Whyyyyyyy not.” They drove up the mountain and parked and began to walk into the woods along a path. The woods were deeper here than where Rhoda had been that morning, dense and green and cool. She felt silly walking in the woods in the little high-heeled sandals, but she held on to Johnny’s hand and followed him deeper and deeper into the trees, feeling grown up and brave and romantic. I’ll bet he thinks I’m the bravest girl he ever met, she thought. I’ll bet he thinks at last he’s met a girl who’s not afraid of anything. Rhoda was walking along imagining tearing off a piece of her dress for a tourniquet in case Johnny was bit by a poisonous snake. She was pulling the tourniquet tighter and tighter when the trees opened onto a small brilliant blue pond. The water was so blue Rhoda thought for a moment it must be some sort of trick. He stood there watching her while she took it in.
“What do you think?” he said at last.
“My God,” she said.
“What is it?”
“It’s Blue Pond,” he said. “People come from all over the world to see it.”
“Who made it?” Rhoda said. “Where did it come from?”
“Springs. Rock springs. No one knows how deep down it goes, but more than a hundred feet because divers have been that far.”
“I wish I could swim in it,” Rhoda said. “I’d like to jump in there and swim all day.”
“Come over here, cheerleader,” he said. “Come sit over here by me and we’ll watch the light on it. I brought this teacher from New York here last year. She said it was the best thing she’d ever seen in her life. She’s a writer. Anyway, the thing she likes about Blue Pond is watching the light change on the water. She taught me a lot when she was here. About things like that.”
Rhoda moved nearer to him, trying to hold in her stomach.
“My father really likes this part of the country,” she said. “He says people up here are the salt of the earth. He says all the people up here are direct descendants from England and Scotland and Wales. I think he wants us to move up here and stay, but my mother won’t let us. It’s all because the unions keep messing with his mine that he has to be up here all the time. If it wasn’t for the unions everything would be going fine. You aren’t for the unions, are you?”
“I’m for myself,” Johnny said. “And for my kinfolks.” He was tired of her talking then and reached for her and pulled her into his arms, paying no attention to her small resistances, until finally she was stretched out under him on the earth and he moved the dress from her breasts and held them in his hands. He could smell the wild smell of her craziness and after a while he took the dress off and the soft white cotton underpants and touched her over and over again. Then he entered her with the way he had of doing things, gently and with a good sense of the natural rhythms of the earth.
I’m doing it, Rhoda thought. I’m doing it. This is doing it. This is what it feels like to be doing it.
“This doesn’t hurt a bit,” she said out loud. “I think I love you, Johnny. I love, love, love you. I’ve been waiting all my life for you.”
“Don’t talk so much,” he said. “It’s better if you stop talking.”
And Rhoda was quiet and he made love to her as the sun was leaving the earth and the afternoon breeze moved in the trees. Here was every possible tree, hickory and white oak and redwood and sumac and maple, all in thick foliage now, and he made love to her with great tenderness, forgetting he had set out to fuck the boss’s daughter, and he kept on making love to her until she began to tighten around him, not knowing what she was doing, or where she was going, or even that there was any place to be going to.
Dudley was waiting outside the trailer when she drove up. There was a sky full of cold stars behind him, and he was pacing up and down and talking to himself like a crazy man. Maud was inside the trailer crying her heart out and only Joe had kept his head and was going back and forth from one to the other telling them everything would be all right.
Dudley was pacing up and down talking to Jesus. I know I had it coming, he was saying. I know goddamn well I had it coming. But not her. Where in the hell is she? You get her back in one piece and I’ll call Valerie and break it off. I won’t see Valerie ever again as long as I live. But you’ve got to get me back my little girl. Goddammit, you get me back my girl.
Then he was crying, his head thrown back and raised up to the stars as the jeep came banging up the hill in third gear. Rhoda parked it and got out and started walking toward him, all bravado and disdain.
Dudley smelled it on her before he even touched her. Smelled it all over her and began to shake her, screaming at her to tell him who it had been. Then Joe came running out from the trailer and threw his hundred and fifty pounds between them, and Maud was right behind him. She led Rhoda into the trailer and put her into bed and sat beside her, bathing her head with a damp towel until she fell asleep.
“I’ll find out who it was,” Dudley said, shaking his fist. “I’ll find out who it was.”
“You don’t know it was anybody,” Joe said. “You don’t even know what happened, Mr. D. Now you got to calm down and in the morning we’ll find out what happened. More than likely she’s just been holed up somewhere trying to scare you.”
“I know what happened,” Dudley said. “I already know what happened.”
“Well, you can find out who it was and you can kill him if you have to,” Joe said. “If it’s true and you still want to in the morning, you can kill him.”
But there would be no killing. By the time the moon was high, Johnny Hazard was halfway between Lexington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, with a bus ticket he bought with the fifty dollars he’d taken from Rhoda’s pocket. He had called the poetry teacher and told her he was coming. Johnny had decided it was time to see the world. After all, that very afternoon a rich cheerleader had cried in his arms and given him her cherry. There was no telling what might happen next.
Much later that night Rhoda woke up in the small room, hearing the wind come up in the trees. The window was open and the moon, now low in the sky and covered with mist, poured a diffused light upon the bed. Rhoda sat up in the bed and shivered. Why did I do that with him? she thought. Why in the world did I do that? But I couldn’t help it, she decided. He’s so sophisticated and he’s so good-looking and he’s a wonderful driver and he plays a guitar. She moved her hands along her thighs, trying to remember exactly what it was they had done, trying to remember the details, wondering where she could find him in the morning.
But Dudley had other plans for Rhoda in the morning. By noon she was on her way home in a chartered plane. Rhoda had never been on an airplane of any kind before, but she didn’t let on.
“I’m thinking of starting a diary,” she was saying to the pilot, arranging her skirt so her knees would show. “A lot of unusual things have been happening to me lately. The boy I love is dying of cancer in Saint Louis. It’s very sad, but I have to put up with it. He wants me to write a lot of books and dedicate them to his memory.”
The pilot didn’t seem to be paying much attention, so Rhoda gave up on him and went back into her own head.
In her head Bob Rosen was alive after all. He was walking along a street in Greenwich Village and passed a bookstore with a window full of her books, many copies stacked in a pyramid with her picture on every cover. He recognized the photograph, ran into the bookstore, grabbed a book, opened it and saw the dedication. To Bob Rosen, Te Amo Forever, Rhoda.
Then Bob Rosen, or maybe it was Johnny Hazard, or maybe this unfriendly pilot, stood there on that city street, looking up at the sky, holding the book against his chest, crying and broken-hearted because Rhoda was lost to him forever, this famous author, who could have been his, lost to him forever.
Thirty years later Rhoda woke up in a hotel room in New York City. There was a letter lying on the floor where she had thrown it when she went to bed. She picked it up and read it again. Take my name off that book, the letter said. Imagine a girl with your advantages writing a book like that. Your mother is so ashamed of you.
Goddamn you, Rhoda thought. Goddamn you to hell. She climbed back into the bed and pulled the pillows over her head. She lay there for a while feeling sorry for herself. Then she got up and walked across the room and pulled a legal pad out of a briefcase and started writing.
You take my name off those checks you send those television preachers and those goddamn right-wing politicians. That name has come to me from a hundred generations of men and women . . . also, in the future let my mother speak for herself about my work.
P.S. The slate was put there by the second law of thermodynamics. Some folks call it gravity. Other folks call it God.
I guess it was the second law, she thought. It was the second law or the third law or something like that. She leaned back in the chair, looking at the ceiling. Maybe I’d better find out before I mail it.