In 1958, Beaufort, North Carolina, which is located on the coast near Morehead City, was a place like many other small southern towns. It was the kind of place where the humidity rose so high in the summer that walking out to get the mail made a person feel as if he needed a shower, and kids walked around barefoot from April through October beneath oak trees draped in Spanish moss. People waved from their cars whenever they saw someone on the street whether they knew him or not, and the air smelled of pine, salt, and sea, a scent unique to the Carolinas. For many of the people there, fishing in the Pamlico Sound or crabbing in the Neuse River was a way of life, and boats were moored wherever you saw the Intracoastal Waterway. Only three channels came in on the television, though television was never important to those of us who grew up there. Instead our lives were centered around the churches, of which there were eighteen within the town limits alone. They went by names like the Fellowship Hall Christian Church, the Church of the Forgiven People, the Church of Sunday Atonement, and then, of course, there were the Baptist churches. When I was growing up, it was far and away the most popular denomination around, and there were Baptist churches on practically every corner of town, though each considered itself superior to the others. There were Baptist churches of every type-Freewill Baptists, Southern Baptists, Congregational Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Independent Baptists . . . well, you get the picture.
Back then, the big event of the year was sponsored by the Baptist church downtown-Southern, if you really want to know-in conjunction with the local high school. Every year they put on their Christmas pageant at the Beaufort Playhouse, which was actually a play that had been written by Hegbert Sullivan, a minister who’d been with the church since Moses parted the Red Sea. Okay, maybe he wasn’t that old, but he was old enough that you could almost see through the guy’s skin. It was sort of clammy all the time, and translucent-kids would swear they actually saw the blood flowing through his veins-and his hair was as white as those bunnies you see in pet stores around Easter.
Anyway, he wrote this play called The Christmas Angel, because he didn’t want to keep on performing that old Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. In his mind Scrooge was a heathen, who came to his redemption only because he saw ghosts, not angels-and who was to say whether they’d been sent by God, anyway? And who was to say he wouldn’t revert to his sinful ways if they hadn’t been sent directly from heaven? The play didn’t exactly tell you in the end-it sort of plays into faith and all-but Hegbert didn’t trust ghosts if they weren’t actually sent by God, which wasn’t explained in plain language, and this was his big problem with it. A few years back he’d changed the end of the play-sort of followed it up with his own version, complete with old man Scrooge becoming a preacher and all, heading off to Jerusalem to find the place where Jesus once taught the scribes. It didn’t fly too well-not even to the congregation, who sat in the audience staring wide-eyed at the spectacle-and the newspaper said things like “Though it was certainly interesting, it wasn’t exactly the play we’ve all come to know and love. . . .”
So Hegbert decided to try his hand at writing his own play. He’d written his own sermons his whole life, and some of them, we had to admit, were actually interesting, especially when he talked about the “wrath of God coming down on the fornicators” and all that good stuff. That really got his blood boiling, I’ll tell you, when he talked about the fornicators. That was his real hot spot. When we were younger, my friends and I would hide behind the trees and shout, “Hegbert is a fornicator!” when we saw him walking down the street, and we’d giggle like idiots, like we were the wittiest creatures ever to inhabit the planet. Old Hegbert, he’d stop dead in his tracks and his ears would perk up-I swear to God, they actually moved-and he’d turn this bright shade of red, like he’d just drunk gasoline, and the big green veins in his neck would start sticking out all over, like those maps of the Amazon River that you see in National Geographic. He’d peer from side to side, his eyes narrowing into slits as he searched for us, and then, just as suddenly, he’d start to go pale again, back to that fishy skin, right before our eyes. Boy, it was something to watch, that’s for sure. So we’d be hiding behind a tree and Hegbert (what kind of parents name their kid Hegbert, anyway?) would stand there waiting for us to give ourselves up, as if he thought we’d be that stupid. We’d put our hands over our mouths to keep from laughing out loud, but somehow he’d always zero in on us. He’d be turning from side to side, and then he’d stop, those beady eyes coming right at us, right through the tree. “I know who you are, Landon Carter,” he’d say, “and the Lord knows, too.” He’d let that sink in for a minute or so, and then he’d finally head off again, and during the sermon that weekend he’d stare right at us and say something like “God is merciful to children, but the children must be worthy as well.” And we’d sort of lower ourselves in the seats, not from embarrassment, but to hide a new round of giggles. Hegbert didn’t understand us at all, which was really sort of strange, being that he had a kid and all. But then again, she was a girl. More on that, though, later. Anyway, like I said, Hegbert wrote The Christmas Angel one year and decided to put on that play instead. The play itself wasn’t bad, actually, which surprised everyone the first year it was performed. It’s basically the story of a man who had lost his wife a few years back. This guy, Tom Thornton, used to be real religious, but he had a crisis of faith after his wife died during childbirth. He’s raising this little girl all on his own, but he hasn’t been the greatest father, and what the little girl really wants for Christmas is a special music box with an angel engraved on top, a picture of which she’d cut out from an old catalog. The guy searches long and hard to find the gift, but he can’t find it anywhere. So it’s Christmas Eve and he’s still searching, and while he’s out looking through the stores, he comes across a strange woman he’s never seen before, and she promises to help him find the gift for his daughter. First, though, they help this homeless person (back then they were called bums, by the way), then they stop at an orphanage to see some kids, then visit a lonely old woman who just wanted some company on Christmas Eve. At this point the mysterious woman asks Tom Thornton what he wants for Christmas, and he says that he wants his wife back. She brings him to the city fountain and tells him to look in the water and he’ll find what he’s looking for. When he looks in the water, he sees the face of his little girl, and he breaks down and cries right there. While he’s sobbing, the mysterious lady runs off, and Tom Thornton searches but can’t find her anywhere. Eventually he heads home, the lessons from the evening playing in his mind. He walks into his little girl’s room, and her sleeping figure makes him realize that she’s all he has left of his wife, and he starts to cry again because he knows he hasn’t been a good enough father to her.
The next morning, magically, the music box is underneath the tree, and the angel that’s engraved on it looks exactly like the woman he’d seen the night before. So it wasn’t that bad, really. If truth be told, people cried buckets whenever they saw it. The play sold out every year it was performed, and due to its popularity, Hegbert eventually had to move it from the church to the Beaufort Playhouse, which had a lot more seating. By the time I was a senior in high school, the performances ran twice to packed houses, which, considering who actually performed it, was a story in and of itself.
You see, Hegbert wanted young people to perform the play-seniors in high school, not the theater group. I reckon he thought it would be a good learning experience before the seniors headed off to college and came face-to-face with all the fornicators. He was that kind of guy, you know, always wanting to save us from temptation. He wanted us to know that God is out there watching you, even when you’re away from home, and that if you put your trust in God, you’ll be all right in the end. It was a lesson that I would eventually learn in time, though it wasn’t Hegbert who taught me.
As I said before, Beaufort was fairly typical as far as southern towns went, though it did have an interesting history. Blackbeard the pirate once owned a house there, and his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, is supposedly buried somewhere in the sand just offshore. Recently some archaeologists or oceanographers or whoever looks for stuff like that said they found it, but no one’s certain just yet, being that it sank over 250 years ago and you can’t exactly reach into the glove compartment and check the registration. Beaufort’s come a long way since the 1950s, but it’s still not exactly a major metropolis or anything. Beaufort was, and always will be, on the smallish side, but when I was growing up, it barely warranted a place on the map. To put it into perspective, the congressional district that included Beaufort covered the entire eastern part of the state-some twenty thousand square miles-and there wasn’t a single town with more than twenty-five thousand people. Even compared with those towns, Beaufort was regarded as being on the small side. Everything east of Raleigh and north of Wilmington, all the way to the Virginia border, was the district my father represented.
I suppose you’ve heard of him. He’s sort of a legend, even now. His name is Worth Carter, and he was a congressman for almost thirty years. His slogan every other year during the election season was “Worth Carter represents ---,” and the person was supposed to fill in the city name where he or she lived. I can remember, driving on trips when me and Mom had to make our appearances to show the people he was a true family man, that we’d see those bumper stickers, stenciled in with names like Otway and Chocawinity and Seven Springs. Nowadays stuff like that wouldn’t fly, but back then that was fairly sophisticated publicity. I imagine if he tried to do that now, people opposing him would insert all sorts of foul language in the blank space, but we never saw it once. Okay, maybe once. A farmer from Duplin County once wrote the word shit in the blank space, and when my mom saw it, she covered my eyes and said a prayer asking for forgiveness for the poor ignorant bastard. She didn’t say exactly those words, but I got the gist of it.
So my father, Mr. Congressman, was a bigwig, and everyone but everyone knew it, including old man Hegbert. Now, the two of them didn’t get along, not at all, despite the fact that my father went to Hegbert’s church whenever he was in town, which to be frank wasn’t all that often. Hegbert, in addition to his belief that fornicators were destined to clean the urinals in hell, also believed that communism was “a sickness that doomed mankind to heathenhood.” Even though heathenhood wasn’t a word-I can’t find it in any dictionary-the congregation knew what he meant. They also knew that he was directing his words specifically to my father, who would sit with his eyes closed and pretend not to listen. My father was on one of the House committees that oversaw the “Red influence” supposedly infiltrating every aspect of the country, including national defense, higher education, and even tobacco farming. You have to remember that this was during the cold war; tensions were running high, and we North Carolinians needed something to bring it down to a more personal level. My father had consistently looked for facts, which were irrelevant to people like Hegbert. Afterward, when my father would come home after the service, he’d say something like “Reverend Sullivan was in rare form today. I hope you heard that part about the Scripture where Jesus was talking about the poor. . . .”
Yeah, sure, Dad. . . .
My father tried to defuse situations whenever possible. I think that’s why he stayed in Congress for so long. The guy could kiss the ugliest babies known to mankind and still come up with something nice to say. “He’s such a gentle child,” he’d say when a baby had a giant head, or, “I’ll bet she’s the sweetest girl in the world,” if she had a birthmark over her entire face. One time a lady showed up with a kid in a wheelchair. My father took one look at him and said, “I’ll bet you ten to one that you’re smartest kid in your class.” And he was! Yeah, my father was great at stuff like that. He could fling it with the best of ‘em, that’s for sure. And he wasn’t such a bad guy, not really, especially if you consider the fact that he didn’t beat me or anything. But he wasn’t there for me growing up. I hate to say that because nowadays people claim that sort of stuff even if their parent was around and use it to excuse their behavior. My dad . . . he didn’t love me . . . that’s why I became a stripper and performed on The Jerry Springer Show. . . . I’m not using it to excuse the person I’ve become, I’m simply saying it as a fact. My father was gone nine months of the year, living out of town in a Washington, D.C., apartment three hundred miles away. My mother didn’t go with him because both of them wanted me to grow up “the same way they had.”
Of course, my father’s father took him hunting and fishing, taught him to play ball, showed up for birthday parties, all that small stuff that adds up to quite a bit before adulthood. My father, on the other hand, was a stranger, someone I barely knew at all. For the first five years of my life I thought all fathers lived somewhere else. It wasn’t until my best friend, Eric Hunter, asked me in kindergarten who that guy was who showed up at my house the night before that I realized something wasn’t quite right about the situation.
“He’s my father,” I said proudly.
“Oh,” Eric said as he rifled through my lunchbox, looking for my Milky Way, “I didn’t know you had a father.”
Talk about something whacking you straight in the face.
So, I grew up under the care of my mother. Now she was a nice lady, sweet and gentle, the kind of mother most people dream about. But she wasn’t, nor could she ever be, a manly influence in my life, and that fact, coupled with my growing disillusionment with my father, made me become something of a rebel, even at a young age. Not a bad one, mind you. Me and my friends might sneak out late and soap up car windows now and then or eat boiled peanuts in the graveyard behind the church, but in the fifties that was the kind of thing that made other parents shake their heads and whisper to their children, “You don’t want to be like that Carter boy. He’s on the fast track to prison.”
Me. A bad boy. For eating boiled peanuts in the graveyard. Go figure. Anyway, my father and Hegbert didn’t get along, but it wasn’t only because of politics. No, it seems that my father and Hegbert knew each other from way back when. Hegbert was about twenty years older than my father, and back before he was a minister, he used to work for my father’s father. My grandfather-even though he spent lots of time with my father-was a true bastard if there ever was one. He was the one, by the way, who made the family fortune, but I don’t want you to imagine him as the sort of man who slaved over his business, working diligently and watching it grow, prospering slowly over time. My grandfather was much shrewder than that. The way he made his money was simple-he started as a bootlegger, accumulating wealth throughout Prohibition by running rum up from Cuba. Then he began buying land and hiring sharecroppers to work it. He took ninety percent of the money the sharecroppers made on their tobacco crop, then loaned them money whenever they needed it at ridiculous interest rates. Of course, he never intended to collect the money-instead he would foreclose on any land or equipment they happened to own. Then, in what he called “his moment of inspiration,” he started a bank called Carter Banking and Loan. The only other bank in a two-county radius had mysteriously burned down, and with the onset of the Depression, it never reopened. Though everyone knew what had really happened, not a word was ever spoken for fear of retribution, and their fear was well placed. The bank wasn’t the only building that had mysteriously burned down. His interest rates were outrageous, and little by little he began amassing more land and property as people defaulted on their loans. When the Depression hit hardest, he foreclosed on dozens of businesses throughout the county while retaining the original owners to continue to work on salary, paying them just enough to keep them where they were, because they had nowhere else to go. He told them that when the economy improved, he’d sell their business back to them, and people always believed him.
Never once, however, did he keep his promise. In the end he controlled a vast portion of the county’s economy, and he abused his clout in every way imaginable. I’d like to tell you he eventually went to a terrible death, but he didn’t. He died at a ripe-old age while sleeping with his mistress on his yacht off the Cayman Islands. He’d outlived both his wives and his only son. Some end for a guy like that, huh?
Life, I’ve learned, is never fair. If people teach anything in school, that should be it. But back to the story. . . . Hegbert, once he realized what a bastard my grandfather really was, quit working for him and went into the ministry, then came back to Beaufort and started ministering in the same church we attended. He spent his first few years perfecting his fire-and-brimstone act with monthly sermons on the evils of the greedy, and this left him scant time for anything else. He was forty-three before he ever got married; he was fifty-five when his daughter, Jamie Sullivan, was born. His wife, a wispy little thing twenty years younger than he, went through six miscarriages before Jamie was born, and in the end she died in childbirth, making Hegbert a widower who had to raise a daughter on his own. Hence, of course, the story behind the play.
People knew the story even before the play was first performed. It was one of those stories that made its rounds whenever Hegbert had to baptize a baby or attend a funeral. Everyone knew about it, and that’s why, I think, so many people got emotional whenever they saw the Christmas play. They knew it was based on something that happened in real life, which gave it special meaning. Jamie Sullivan was a senior in high school, just like me, and she’d already been chosen to play the angel, not that anyone else even had a chance. This, of course, made the play extra special that year. It was going to be a big deal, maybe the biggest ever-at least in Miss Garber’s mind. She was the drama teacher, and she was already glowing about the possibilities the first time I met her in class. Now, I hadn’t really planned on taking drama that year. I really hadn’t, but it was either that or chemistry II. The thing was, I thought it would be a blow-off class, especially when compared with my other option. No papers, no tests, no tables where I’d have to memorize protons and neutrons and combine elements in their proper formulas . . . what could possibly be better for a high school senior? It seemed like a sure thing, and when I signed up for it, I thought I’d just be able to sleep through most every class, which, considering my late night peanut eating, was fairly important at the time.
After high school I planned to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My father wanted me to go to Harvard or Princeton like some of the sons of other congressmen did, but with my grades it wasn’t possible. Not that I was a bad student. I just didn’t focus on my studies, and my grades weren’t exactly up to snuff for the Ivy Leagues. By my senior year it was pretty much touch and go whether I’d even get accepted at UNC, and this was my father’s alma mater, a place where he could pull some strings. During one of his few weekends home, my father came up with the plan to put me over the top. I’d just finished my first week of school and we were sitting down for dinner. He was home for three days on account of Labor Day weekend. “I think you should run for student body president,” he said. “You’ll be graduating in June, and I think it would look good on your record. Your mother thinks so, too, by the way.”
My mother nodded as she chewed a mouthful of peas. She didn’t speak much when my father had the floor, though she winked at me. Sometimes I think my mother liked to see me squirm, even though she was sweet. “I don’t think I’d have a chance at winning,” I said. Though I was probably the richest kid in school, I was by no means the most popular. That honor belonged to Eric Hunter, my best friend. He could throw a baseball at almost ninety miles an hour, and he’d led the football team to back-to-back state titles as the star quarterback. He was a stud. Even his name sounded cool. “Of course you can win,” my father said quickly. “We Carters always win.” That’s another one of the reasons I didn’t like spending time with my father. During those few times he was home, I think he wanted to mold me into a miniature version of himself. Since I’d grown up pretty much without him, I’d come to resent having him around. This was the first conversation we’d had in weeks. He rarely talked to me on the phone.
“But what if I don’t want to?”
My father put down his fork, a bite of his pork chop still on the tines. He looked at me crossly, giving me the once-over. He was wearing a suit even though it was over eighty degrees in the house, and it made him even more intimidating. My father always wore a suit, by the way.
“I think,” he said slowly, “that it would be a good idea.” I knew that when he talked that way the issue was settled. That’s the way it was in my family. My father’s word was law. But the fact was, even after I agreed, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to waste my afternoons meeting with teachers after school-after school!-every week for the rest of the year, dreaming up themes for school dances or trying to decide what colors the streamers should be. That’s really all the class presidents did, at least back when I was in high school. It wasn’t like students had the power to actually decide anything meaningful.
But then again, I knew my father had a point. If I wanted to go to UNC, I had to do something. I didn’t play football or basketball, I didn’t play an instrument, I wasn’t in the chess club or the bowling club or anything else. I didn’t excel in the classroom hell, I didn’t excel at much of anything. Growing despondent, I started listing the things I actually could do, but to be honest, there really wasn’t that much. I could tie eight different types of sailing knots, I could walk barefoot across hot asphalt farther than anyone I knew, I could balance a pencil vertically on my finger for thirty seconds . . . but I didn’t think that any of those things would really stand out on a college application. So there I was, lying in bed all night long, slowly coming to the sinking realization that I was a loser. Thanks, Dad. The next morning I went to the principal’s office and added my name to the list of candidates. There were two other people running-John Foreman and Maggie Brown. Now, John didn’t stand a chance, I knew that right off. He was the kind of guy who’d pick lint off your clothes while he talked to you. But he was a good student. He sat in the front row and raised his hand every time the teacher asked a question. If he was called to give the answer, he would almost always give the right one, and he’d turn his head from side to side with a smug look on his face, as if proving how superior his intellect was when compared with those of the other peons in the room. Eric and I used to shoot spitballs at him when the teacher’s back was turned.
Maggie Brown was another matter. She was a good student as well. She’d served on the student council for the first three years and had been the junior class president the year before. The only real strike against her was the fact that she wasn’t very attractive, and she’d put on twenty pounds that summer. I knew that not a single guy would vote for her.
After seeing the competition, I figured that I might have a chance after all. My entire future was on the line here, so I formulated my strategy. Eric was the first to agree. “Sure, I’ll get all the guys on the team to vote for you, no problem. If that’s what you really want.”
“How about their girlfriends, too?” I asked.
That was pretty much my entire campaign. Of course, I went to the debates like I was supposed to, and I passed out those dorky “What I’ll do if I’m elected president” fliers, but in the end it was Eric Hunter who probably got me where I needed to be. Beaufort High School had only about four hundred students, so getting the athletic vote was critical, and most of the jocks didn’t give a hoot who they voted for anyway. In the end it worked out just the way I planned. I was voted student body president with a fairly large majority of the vote. I had no idea what trouble it would eventually lead me to.
When I was a junior I went steady with a girl named Angela Clark. She was my first real girlfriend, though it lasted for only a few months. Just before school let out for the summer, she dumped me for a guy named Lew who was twenty years old and worked as a mechanic in his father’s garage. His primary attribute, as far as I could tell, was that he had a really nice car. He always wore a white T-shirt with a pack of Camels folded into the sleeve, and he’d lean against the hood of his Thunderbird, looking back and forth, saying things like “Hey, baby” whenever a girl walked by. He was a real winner, if you know what I mean.
Well, anyway, the homecoming dance was coming up, and because of the whole Angela situation, I still didn’t have a date. Everyone on the student council had to attend-it was mandatory. I had to help decorate the gym and clean up the next day-and besides, it was usually a pretty good time. I called a couple of girls I knew, but they already had dates, so I called a few more. They had dates, too. By the final week the pickings were getting pretty slim. The pool was down to the kinds of girls who had thick glasses and talked with lisps. Beaufort was never exactly a hotbed for beauties anyway, but then again I had to find somebody. I didn’t want to go to the dance without a date-what would that look like? I’d be the only student body president ever to attend the homecoming dance alone. I’d end up being the guy scooping punch all night long or mopping up the barf in the bathroom. That’s what people without dates usually did.
Growing sort of panicky, I pulled out the yearbook from the year before and started flipping through the pages one by one, looking for anyone who might not have a date. First I looked through the pages with the seniors. Though a lot of them were off at college, a few of them were still around town. Even though I didn’t think I had much of a chance with them, I called anyway, and sure enough, I was proven right. I couldn’t find anyone, at least not anyone who would go with me. I was getting pretty good at handling rejection, I’ll tell you, though that’s not the sort of thing you brag about to your grandkids. My mom knew what I was going through, and she finally came into my room and sat on the bed beside me. “If you can’t get a date, I’ll be happy to go with you,” she said.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said dejectedly.
When she left the room, I felt even worse than I had before. Even my mom didn’t think I could find somebody. And if I showed up with her? If I lived a hundred years, I’d never live that down.
There was another guy in my boat, by the way. Carey Dennison had been elected treasurer, and he still didn’t have a date, either. Carey was the kind of guy no one wanted to spend time with at all, and the only reason he’d been elected was because he’d run unopposed. Even then I think the vote was fairly close. He played the tuba in the marching band, and his body looked all out of proportion, as if he’d stopped growing halfway through puberty. He had a great big stomach and gangly arms and legs, like the Hoos in Hooville, if you know what I mean. He also had a high-pitched way of talking-it’s what made him such a good tuba player, I reckon-and he never stopped asking questions. “Where did you go last weekend? Was it fun? Did you see any girls?” He wouldn’t even wait for an answer, and he’d move around constantly as he asked so you had to keep turning your head to keep him in sight. I swear he was probably the most annoying person I’d ever met. If I didn’t get a date, he’d stand off on one side with me all night long, firing questions like some deranged prosecutor.
So there I was, flipping through the pages in the junior class section, when I saw Jamie Sullivan’s picture. I paused for just a second, then turned the page, cursing myself for even thinking about it. I spent the next hour searching for anyone halfway decent looking, but I slowly came to the realization that there wasn’t anyone left. In time I finally turned back to her picture and looked again. She wasn’t bad looking, I told myself, and she’s really sweet. She’d probably say yes, I thought. . . .
I closed the yearbook. Jamie Sullivan? Hegbert’s daughter? No way. Absolutely not. My friends would roast me alive.
But compared with dating your mother or cleaning up puke or even, God forbid . .
I spent the rest of the evening debating the pros and cons of my dilemma. Believe me, I went back and forth for a while, but in the end the choice was obvious, even to me. I had to ask Jamie to the dance, and I paced around the room thinking of the best way to ask her.
It was then that I realized something terrible, something absolutely frightening. Carey Dennison, I suddenly realized, was probably doing the exact same thing I was doing right now. He was probably looking through the yearbook, too! He was weird, but he wasn’t the kind of guy who liked cleaning up puke, either, and if you’d seen his mother, you’d know that his choice was even worse than mine. What if he asked Jamie first? Jamie wouldn’t say no to him, and realistically she was the only option he had. No one besides her would be caught dead with him. Jamie helped everyone-she was one of those equal opportunity saints. She’d probably listen to Carey’s squeaky voice, see the goodness radiating from his heart, and accept right off the bat.
So there I was, sitting in my room, frantic with the possibility that Jamie might not go to the dance with me. I barely slept that night, I tell you, which was just about the strangest thing I’d ever experienced. I don’t think anyone ever fretted about asking Jamie out before. I planned to ask her first thing in the morning, while I still had my courage, but Jamie wasn’t in school. I assumed she was working with the orphans over in Morehead City, the way she did every month. A few of us had tried to get out of school using that excuse, too, but Jamie was the only one who ever got away with it. The principal knew she was reading to them or doing crafts or just sitting around playing games with them. She wasn’t sneaking out to the beach or hanging out at Cecil’s Diner or anything. That concept was absolutely ludicrous. “Got a date yet?” Eric asked me in between classes. He knew very well that I didn’t, but even though he was my best friend, he liked to stick it to me once in a while. “Not yet,” I said, “but I’m working on it.”
Down the hall, Carey Denison was reaching into his locker. I swear he shot me a beady glare when he thought I wasn’t looking.
That’s the kind of day it was.
The minutes ticked by slowly during my final class. The way I figured it-if Carey and I got out at the same time, I’d be able to get to her house first, what with those gawky legs and all. I started to psych myself up, and when the bell rang, I took off from school running at a full clip. I was flying for about a hundred yards or so, and then I started to get kind of tired, and then a cramp set in. Pretty soon all I could do was walk, but that cramp really started to get to me, and I had to bend over and hold my side while I kept moving. As I made my way down the streets of Beaufort, I looked like a wheezing version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Behind me I thought I heard Carey’s high-pitched laughter. I turned around, digging my fingers into my gut to stifle the pain, but I couldn’t see him. Maybe he was cutting through someone’s backyard! He was a sneaky bastard, that guy. You couldn’t trust him even for a minute.
I started to stumble along even faster, and pretty soon I reached Jamie’s street. By then I was sweating all over-my shirt was soaked right through-and I was still wheezing something fierce. Well, I reached her front door, took a second to catch my breath, and finally knocked. Despite my fevered rush to her house, my pessimistic side assumed that Carey would be the one who opened the door for me. I imagined him smiling at me with a victorious look in his eye, one that essentially meant “Sorry, partner, you’re too late.”
But it wasn’t Carey who answered, it was Jamie, and for the first time in my life I saw what she’d look like if she were an ordinary person. She was wearing jeans and a red blouse, and though her hair was still pulled up into a bun, she looked more casual than she usually did. I realized she could actually be cute if she gave herself the opportunity.
“Landon,” she said as she held open the door, “this is a surprise!” Jamie was always glad to see everyone, including me, though I think my appearance startled her. “You look like you’ve been exercising,” she said. “Not really,” I lied, wiping my brow. Luckily the cramp was fading fast.
“You’ve sweat clean through your shirt.”
“Oh, that?” I looked at my shirt. “That’s nothing. I just sweat a lot sometimes.”
“Maybe you should have it checked by a doctor.”
“I’ll be okay, I’m sure.”
“I’ll say a prayer for you anyway,” she offered as she smiled. Jamie was always praying for someone. I might as well join the club. “Thanks,” I said.
She looked down and sort of shuffled her feet for a moment. “Well, I’d invite you in, but my father isn’t home, and he doesn’t allow boys in the house while he’s not around.”
“Oh,” I said dejectedly, “that’s okay. We can talk out here, I guess.” If I’d had my way, I would have done this inside.
“Would you like some lemonade while we sit?” she asked. “I just made some.”
“I’d love some,” I said.
“I’ll be right back.” She walked back into the house, but she left the door open and I took a quick glance around. The house, I noticed, was small but tidy, with a piano against one wall and a sofa against the other. A small fan sat oscillating in the corner. On the coffee table there were books with names like Listening to Jesus and Faith Is the Answer. Her Bible was there, too, and it was opened to the chapter on Luke.
A moment later Jamie returned with the lemonade, and we took a seat in two chairs near the corner of the porch. I knew she and her father sat there in the evenings because I passed by their house now and then. As soon as we were seated, I saw Mrs. Hastings, her neighbor across the street, wave to us. Jamie waved back while I sort of scooted my chair so that Mrs. Hastings couldn’t see my face. Even though I was going to ask Jamie to the dance, I didn’t want anyone-even Mrs. Hastings-to see me there on the off chance that she’d already accepted Carey’s offer. It was one thing to actually go with Jamie, it was another thing to be rejected by her in favor of a guy like Carey.
“What are you doing?” Jamie asked me. “You’re moving your chair into the sun.” “I like the sun,” I said. She was right, though. Almost immediately I could feel the rays burning through my shirt and making me sweat again. “If that’s what you want,” she said, smiling. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”
Jamie reached up and started to adjust her hair. By my reckoning, it hadn’t moved at all. I took a deep breath, trying to gather myself, but I couldn’t force myself to come out with it just yet.
“So,” I said instead, “you were at the orphanage today?”
Jamie looked at me curiously. “No. My father and I were at the doctor’s office.”
“Is he okay?”
She smiled. “Healthy as can be.”
I nodded and glanced across the street. Mrs. Hastings had gone back inside, and I couldn’t see anyone else in the vicinity. The coast was finally clear, but I still wasn’t ready.
“Sure is a beautiful day,” I said, stalling.
“Yes, it is.”
“That’s because you’re in the sun.”
I looked around, feeling the pressure building. “Why, I’ll bet there’s not a single cloud in the whole sky.”
This time Jamie didn’t respond, and we sat in silence for a few moments. “Landon,” she finally said, “you didn’t come here to talk about the weather, did you?”
“Then why are you here?”
The moment of truth had arrived, and I cleared my throat.
“Well . . . I wanted to know if you were going to the homecoming dance.” “Oh,” she said. Her tone made it seem as if she were unaware that such a thing existed. I fidgeted in my seat and waited for her answer. “I really hadn’t planned on going,” she finally said.
“But if someone asked you to go, you might?”
It took a moment for her to answer.
“I’m not sure,” she said, thinking carefully. “I suppose I might go, if I got the chance.
I’ve never been to a homecoming dance before.”
“They’re fun,” I said quickly. “Not too much fun, but fun.” Especially when compared to my other options, I didn’t add.
She smiled at my turn of phrase. “I’d have to talk to my father, of course, but if he said it was okay, then I guess I could.”
In the tree beside the porch, a bird started to chirp noisily, as if he knew I wasn’t supposed to be here. I concentrated on the sound, trying to calm my nerves. Just two days ago I couldn’t have imagined myself even thinking about it, but suddenly there I was, listening to myself as I spoke the magic words. “Well, would you like to go to the dance with me?” I could tell she was surprised. I think she believed that the little lead-up to the question probably had to do with someone else asking her. Sometimes teenagers sent their friends out to “scout the terrain,” so to speak, so as not to face possible rejection. Even though Jamie wasn’t much like other teenagers, I’m sure she was familiar with the concept, at least in theory.
Instead of answering right away, though, Jamie glanced away for a long moment. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach because I assumed she was going to say no. Visions of my mother, puke, and Carey flooded through my mind, and all of a sudden I regretted the way I’d behaved toward her all these years. I kept remembering all the times I’d teased her or called her father a fornicator or simply made fun of her behind her back. Just when I was feeling awful about the whole thing and imagining how I would ever be able to avoid Carey for five hours, she turned and faced me again. She had a slight smile on her face. “I’d love to,” she finally said, “on one condition.”
I steadied myself, hoping it wasn’t something too awful.
“You have to promise that you won’t fall in love with me.” I knew she was kidding by the way she laughed, and I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. Sometimes, I had to admit, Jamie had a pretty good sense of humor. I smiled and gave her my word.
As a general rule, Southern Baptists don’t dance. In Beaufort, however, it wasn’t a rule that was ever strictly enforced. The minister before Hegbert-don’t ask me what his name was-took sort of a lax view about school dances as long as they were chaperoned, and because of that, they’d become a tradition of sorts. By the time Hegbert came along, it was too late to change things. Jamie was pretty much the only one who’d never been to a school dance and frankly, I didn’t know whether she even knew how to dance at all.
I admit that I also had some concerns about what she would wear, though it wasn’t something I would tell her. When Jamie went to the church socials-which were encouraged by Hegbert-she usually wore an old sweater and one of the plaid skirts we saw in school every day, but the homecoming dance was supposed to be special. Most of the girls bought new dresses and the boys wore suits, and this year we were bringing in a photographer to take our pictures. I knew Jamie wasn’t going to buy a new dress because she wasn’t exactly well-off. Ministering wasn’t a profession where people made a lot of money, but of course ministers weren’t in it for monetary gain, they were in it for the long haul, if you know what I mean. But I didn’t want her to wear the same thing she wore to school every day, either. Not so much for me-I’m not that cold-hearted-but because of what others might say. I didn’t want people to make fun of her or anything. The good news, if there was any, was that Eric didn’t rib me too bad about the whole Jamie situation because he was too busy thinking about his own date. He was taking Margaret Hays, who was the head cheerleader at our school. She wasn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but she was nice in her own way. By nice, of course, I’m talking about her legs. Eric offered to double-date with me, but I turned him down because I didn’t want to take any chances with Eric teasing Jamie or anything like that. He was a good guy, but he could be kind of heartless sometimes, especially when he had a few shots of bourbon in him. The day of the dance was actually quite busy for me. I spent most of the afternoon helping to decorate the gym, and I had to get to Jamie’s about a half hour early because her father wanted to talk to me, though I didn’t know why. Jamie had sprung that one on me just the day before, and I can’t say I was exactly thrilled by the prospect of it. I figured he was going to talk about temptation and the evil path it can lead us to. If he brought up fornication, though, I knew I would die right there on the spot. I said small prayers all day long in the hope of avoiding this conversation, but I wasn’t sure if God would put my prayers on the front burner, if you know what I mean, because of the way I’d behaved in the past. I was pretty nervous just thinking about it.
After I showered I put on my best suit, swung by the florist to pick up Jamie’s corsage, then drove to her house. My mom had let me borrow the car, and I parked it on the street directly in front of Jamie’s house. We hadn’t turned the clocks back yet, so it was still light out when I got there, and I strolled up the cracked walkway to her door. I knocked and waited for a moment, then knocked again. From behind the door I heard Hegbert say, “I’ll be right there,” but he wasn’t exactly racing to the door. I must have stood there for two minutes or so, looking at the door, the moldings, the little cracks in the windowsills. Off to the side were the chairs that Jamie and I had sat in just a few days back. The one I sat in was still turned in the opposite direction. I guess they hadn’t sat there in the last couple of days. Finally the door creaked open. The light coming from the lamp inside shadowed Hegbert’s face slightly and sort of reflected through his hair. He was old, like I said, seventy-two years by my reckoning. It was the first time I’d ever seen him up close, and I could see all the wrinkles on his face. His skin really was translucent, even more so than I’d imagined.
“Hello, Reverend,” I said, swallowing my trepidation. “I’m here to take Jamie to the homecoming dance.”
“Of course you are,” he said. “But first, I wanted to talk with you.”
“Yes, sir, that’s why I came early.”
In church Hegbert was a fairly snappy dresser, but right now he looked like a farmer, dressed in overalls and a T-shirt. He motioned for me to sit on the wooden chair he’d brought in from the kitchen. “I’m sorry it took a little while to open the door. I was working on tomorrow’s sermon,” he said. I sat down.
“That’s okay, sir.” I don’t know why, but you just had to call him “sir.” He sort of projected that image.
“All right, then, so tell me about yourself.”
I thought it was a fairly ridiculous question, with him having such a long history with my family and all. He was also the one who had baptized me, by the way, and he’d seen me in church every Sunday since I’d been a baby. “Well, sir,” I began, not really knowing what to say, “I’m the student body president.
I don’t know whether Jamie mentioned that to you.”
He nodded. “She did. Go on.”
“And . . . well, I hope to go to the University of North Carolina next fall. I’ve already received the application.”
He nodded again. “Anything else?”
I had to admit, I was running out of things after that. Part of me wanted to pick up the pencil off the end table and start balancing it, giving him the whole thirty seconds’ worth, but he wasn’t the kind of guy who would appreciate it. “I guess not, sir.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
He sort of stared at me for a long time, as if thinking about it.
“Why did you ask my daughter to the dance?” he finally said.
I was surprised, and I know that my expression showed it.
“I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“You’re not planning to do anything to . . . embarrass her, are you?” “No, sir,” I said quickly, shocked by the accusation. “Not at all. I needed someone to go with, and I asked her. It’s as simple as that.”
“You don’t have any pranks planned?”
“No, sir. I wouldn’t do that to her. . . .”
This went on for a few more minutes-his grilling me about my true intentions, I mean-but luckily Jamie stepped out of the back room, and her father and I both turned our heads at the same moment. Hegbert finally stopped talking, and I breathed a sigh of relief. She’d put on a nice blue skirt and a white blouse I’d never seen before. Fortunately she’d left her sweater in the closet. It wasn’t too bad, I had to admit, though I knew she’d still be underdressed compared with others at the dance. As always, her hair was pulled up in a bun. Personally I think it would have looked better if she’d kept it down, but that was the last thing I wanted to say. Jamie looked like . . . well, Jamie looked exactly like she usually did, but at least she wasn’t planning on bringing her Bible. That would have just been too much to live down.
“You’re not giving Landon a hard time, are you?” she said cheerfully to her father. “We were just visiting,” I said quickly before he had a chance to respond. For some reason I didn’t think he’d told Jamie about the kind of person he thought I was, and I didn’t think that now would be a good time.
“Well, we should probably go,” she said after a moment. I think she sensed the tension in the room. She walked over to her father and kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t stay up too late working on the sermon, okay?” “I won’t,” he said softly. Even with me in the room, I could tell he really loved her and wasn’t afraid to show it. It was how he felt about me that was the problem. We said good-bye, and on our way to the car I handed Jamie her corsage and told her I’d show her how to put it on once we got in the car. I opened her door for her and walked around the other side, then got in as well. In that short period of time, Jamie had already pinned on the flower.
“I’m not exactly a dimwit, you know. I do know how to pin on a corsage.” I started the car and headed toward the high school, with the conversation I’d just had with Hegbert running through my mind.
“My father doesn’t like you very much,” she said, as if knowing what I was thinking.
I nodded without saying anything.
“He thinks you’re irresponsible.”
I nodded again.
“He doesn’t like your father much, either.”
I nodded once more.
“Or your family.”
I get the picture.
“But do you know what I think?” she asked suddenly.
“Not really.” By then I was pretty depressed.
“I think that all this was in the Lord’s plan somehow. What do you think the message is?”
Here we go, I thought to myself.
I doubt if the evening could have been much worse, if you want to know the truth.
Most of my friends kept their distance, and Jamie didn’t have many friends to begin with, so we spent most of our time alone. Even worse, it turned out that my presence wasn’t even required anymore. They’d changed the rule owing to the fact that Carey couldn’t get a date, and that left me feeling pretty miserable about the whole thing as soon as I found out about it. But because of what her father had said to me, I couldn’t exactly take her home early, now, could I? And more than that, she was really having a good time; even I could see that. She loved the decorations I’d helped put up, she loved the music, she loved everything about the dance. She kept telling me how wonderful everything was, and she asked me whether I might help her decorate the church someday, for one of their socials. I sort of mumbled that she should call me, and even though I said it without a trace of energy, Jamie thanked me for being so considerate. To be honest, I was depressed for at least the first hour, though she didn’t seem to notice. Jamie had to be home by eleven o’clock, an hour before the dance ended, which made it somewhat easier for me to handle. Once the music started we hit the floor, and it turned out that she was a pretty good dancer, considering it was her first time and all. She followed my lead pretty well through about a dozen songs, and after that we headed to the tables and had what resembled an ordinary conversation. Sure, she threw in words like “faith” and “joy” and even “salvation,” and she talked about helping the orphans and scooping critters off the highway, but she was just so damn happy, it was hard to stay down for long.