Alexandria, a small, nondescript city on the Red River in central Louisiana, is the symbolic checkpoint separating the state’s French, Catholic south from its Scots-Irish, Protestant north. In the pre-interstate days, a two-lane highway weaved its way south from town toward Baton Rouge. A picturesque, tree-lined bayou flanked one side of the road. On the other side were pastures and a string of whitewashed cabins which looked like they once could have served as slave quarters.
Beyond this section, open, flat farmland spread out on both sides. A line, marked by an abrupt change in crops, divided the state’s hot, cotton-growing north from the even hotter, sugar cane-producing south.
During the fall, farm tractors pulling large trailers piled high with either cotton or cane filled the entire stretch. They were joined by the usual assortment of impatient 18-wheelers, self-important utility vehicles, and a vast multitude of pick-ups and cars filled with people whose sole desire was to be somewhere else.
Heightening this sense of urgency was a nauseating odor that permeated the entire area. The smell was unique to old sugar cane processing mills, such as the one located near the highway, and babies suffering from diarrhea. It all combined to change the road from slow and scenic to slow, dangerous, and aromatic.
But this was July. The air might be hot and humid, but it wasn’t disgusting. The asphalt highway had no more than the usual amount of summer traffic. Having navigated the snake-like portion of the road, a white, travel-worn, 1959 Ford Galaxie 500 lumbered past the demarcation line on its way to Baton Rouge. No one inside noticed. They’d seen it before and were too busy talking.
A Bobby Goldsboro song came on the radio. Mark beat Amy to the dial and, as was his right by conquest, turned down the volume. Amy, who would have turned the volume up, leaned back and gave him the finger. He grinned in triumph at the obscene gesture, then motioned toward the passing landscape. “Y’all know what this road needs?”
The question halted conversation until Bob, sitting in the back with his girlfriend Libby Graham, responded. “Something tells me widening this sucker and straightening out the curves isn’t the answer.”
“A wide, safe, straight road? Get real, Brother Hemphill. No, it just struck me that this road needs a few Burma Shave signs like the ones along the highway to Shreveport.”
“And here I thought you were going to say it needed more honky tonks,” said Libby. The car passed another unpainted, frame building covered with beer signs.
“Can’t have too much of a good thing,” said Mark. “Besides, those are juke joints, not honky-tonks.” No one took the bait and asked him to explain the difference.
“What about more speed traps, potholes, and road kill?” asked Amy, darting her hand over to turn up the volume. The lugubrious lament about a dead wife and a live tree was ending. The Beatles began singing the praises of “Lady Madonna.” The song got everybody feeling goofy and bouncing in their seats. But they were so far from town, by the time the song ended the AM radio signal was fading.
Mark turned off the radio. “End of civilization as we know it, except for zydeco, gospel, or country. And since those are out of the question, I guess I’ll have to fill in the dead air with a detailed account of my love life.”
Amy giggled. “That shouldn’t take but a mile or two.”
“That might have been funny, you redheaded hussy,” said Mark, over the laughter in the car, “if it wasn’t the absolute, pathetic, damn truth.”
“I told you we should have come in my car,” she said. “That way we’d have had the 8-track for music, and you’d have been spared all that emotional trauma.”
Mark gave her a stern look. “If we’d come in that rolling wreck of yours, the trauma would have been physical, not emotional. According to Hoss, your daddy just about had a fit when he learned your brakes were an accident waiting to happen, the front end was way-to-hell-and-gone-again out of line, the tires were shot, and the engine was hurting for a tune-up, if not an overhaul. Have you ever heard of changing the oil?”
“At least you can open my passenger door,” she spun the non-functioning handle on her door to emphasize the point.
This announcement wasn’t a news flash. The door handle in question hadn’t worked for years. Mark, who always got out on the driver’s side, considered it one of the car’s lesser blemishes. “Any human being can open that door, even you. Just roll down the window, stick out your hand, and use the outside handle. And if that’s too much trouble, you’ll be glad to know Hoss promised to fix it, someday.”
“Hoss is a bigger gossip than Skeeter,” grumbled Amy, still annoyed at his telling both her father and Mark about her car’s minor mechanical imperfections. “Between him at the garage and her at the beauty shop, no one’s safe.”
They were heading for what promised to be a real “hippie” wedding between Howard Ingram and Ginger Reynolds. Along with almost everyone else at LSU, Mark and Amy knew all about the groom. Howard was once one of the school’s many hustling future politician types. But over the last year, he began to assume the trappings of the counter-culture.
The bride was an average-to-pretty brunette who first met Howard at a fraternity party during their freshman year. She’d stayed with him through his unsuccessful campaigns for various student council posts. Then she went along with his recent transformation from frat rat to flower child. Libby knew her from high school in Shreveport, Amy, and Mark from college.
Bob didn’t know either one of them, which was fine with him. Libby was the reason he came along, although he claimed it was, “To see the show.”
An hour later, they made a pit stop at the one business in the crossroads community of Lebeau. Housed in a large, rambling, white building, Stella’s served as a combination truck stop, gas station, bus depot, souvenir shop, convenience store, restaurant, bar, and mini-casino.
For Libby and Amy, the main attraction was the somewhat less than legal mini-casino located in a place of honor near the bar. Neither cared that all it contained was a few aging slot machines which, for appearances’ sake, lacked the traditional “one-armed” pull handle. While Bob and Mark went to the nearby restaurant to find a table and order, they got five dollars worth of nickels from the cashier and hit the machines.
They were down to a couple of dollars when the food arrived but still didn’t want to stop. Bob took on the thankless job of herding them over to the table.
The looks on Amy and Libby’s faces almost made Mark sorry the food had come. They were like a couple of little schoolgirls at an amusement park. But as every man in the place seemed to have noticed, they were grown women and jaw-droppingly beautiful.
For years, Libby spent two or three weeks each summer in Pinefield with the Marshall family. She’d always been beautiful. Unlike Amy, she never went through a gawky phase. One summer she was an angelic little blue-eyed blond. The next year she was a gorgeous young woman.
The tight, hip-hugger bell-bottoms and short halter-top Libby had on showcased a figure that needed no help. Amy had on an LSU t-shirt at least one size too small and a pair of short, snug cut-offs that emphasized her long legs. It all made for a very pleasant view.
When the parade arrived, he gave them a stern look. “Y’all are starving, remember? That’s all you’ve been talking about since we left Alexandria.”
Bob sat down and prepared to tackle his jambalaya. “I don’t know what’s worse. The fact they’re both gambling addicts or that they come to south Louisiana and order hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.”
“We’re not gambling addicts.” Libby took a defiant bite of her grilled cheese sandwich.
“That’s right,” agreed Amy, who was pouring ketchup on her hamburger. “We’re not gambling addicts. We’re slot machine addicts. So there.”
Mark ate some more crayfish etouffee and shook his head in a show of disappointment. “I can see it plain as day, Bob. Forty years from now, these two will be old, blue-haired ladies camped out in front of a row of slot machines in some low-class casino tossing away their Social Security checks at a nickel a pull.”
“And loving every minute of it,” said Amy. “Besides, I’ll never grow old. I’m going to be young, dumb, and happy forever. And at the rate things have been going for me, I’ll be boyfriend-less as well.”
Libby gave Bob a warning smile. “You better not agree with Mark or I might be an unmarried, old lady playing those slot machines.”
“Which reminds me,” said Amy, “have you two gotten around to deciding about wedding dates and all that?”
“Well, kinda. Although Mr. Romance here never has asked me.”
Bob rose to his own defense. “That’s not true.”
“Oh, yes, it is, dear,” said Libby. No one could miss the contrary emphasis on what should have been a term of endearment. “We’ve talked about getting married after you graduate. But the closest you ever came to a proposal was when you asked me if I had a date in mind for the wedding.”
An uneasy smile crept across Bob’s face. “Uh, well, you knew what I meant.”
“Yes, I did. And it’s all right, honest. But facts are facts. And the fact is, you’ve never asked.”
Mark and Amy glanced at one another and nodded. “Well, it’s now or never, Romeo,” said Mark. “There’s no better place to do the dirty deed than here in front of all these customers, and no better time than after a last meal, I mean a good meal. So give it your best shot before I lose control and start moving in on your woman.”
“We could leave, and give y’all a little privacy,” said Amy. “We could, but we won’t.”
Bob pretended to scowl at his two friends. “I should charge you two admission.” They responded with big grins
After that, he ignored them and focused on the stunning young woman sitting beside him, the only girl he’d ever loved. “You want me to get down on one knee?”
She blushed and gave him a smile that took in the entire restaurant. “Not if you want me to say yes.”
Back in the car, Amy turned around and looked at Libby. “How does it feel to be officially engaged?”
“Nice, very nice.” She was still beaming and leaning her head on Bob’s shoulder. “I didn’t think it mattered. But it feels, I don’t know, special.”
“I guess that blows Mark’s vision of the two of us as old ladies gambling away our Social Security checks.” Amy poked him in the ribs.
Mark pretended to slap at her hand. “Don’t mess with the driver, young lady. Your life is in my hands.”
“God, but…” her voice trailed off. Then she finished her sentence. “That’s a scary thought.” After giving him another poke, she leaned back against her door and closed her eyes.
Outside, the scenery soon changed from open farmland to cypress trees, palmettos, and standing water. It marked the beginning of the huge Atchafalaya basin. After negotiating a long, narrow stretch of road through the swamp, they reached a four-lane highway and headed east.
The silence inside the car was starting to get on Mark’s nerves. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he saw Bob with his eyes closed and a pleased expression plastered on his face. There was no sign of Libby, aside from that look on Bob’s face.
With the folks in the back being otherwise occupied, there was no one left to play with except Amy. But when he looked over at her, he could tell she wasn’t in a playful mood. Her eyes were closed, but he knew she was awake. Instead of her mouth being open, which would have been the case if she were sleeping, her lips were pressed together in a small, tight frown.
She was unhappy. That much was obvious. But he wasn’t sure why much less what he should do. His first instinct was to get her to slide over beside him and put his arm around her shoulders. But he wasn’t sure how either of them would react. So far he had no problems when they were together. He could still fool himself into thinking Amy was still just his old friend and didn’t want to push things.
But there was something else. Her expression was new to him. It was like dejection mixed with a touch of anger. Maybe she had a headache, except Amy almost never got headaches. Maybe it was that time of the month. Maybe it was none of his damn business. Whatever its cause, the look convinced him his gesture might do them both more harm than good.
All he could do was hope she’d be in a better mood when they got to Baton Rouge. After getting past the speed traps of tiny Krotz Springs and crossing over the narrow, Atchafalaya River bridge, Mark pushed the old Ford’s speedometer past 80 and silently hurried east.
Amy stared out at the cypress trees and palmetto. Then she had to squeeze her eyes shut to keep from crying. She felt angry and weepy and so stupid for not knowing why. What has gotten into you, girl? One minute you’re feeling great. Then it’s like someone turned on all the bad vibes in the world.
Maybe it had something to do with that look of pure happiness on Libby’s face. She recalled her own crack back in the restaurant about being “boyfriend-less.” Would she ever love anyone the way Libby did Bob, or be loved by someone like Bob did Libby?
Back in high school, she thought Steve Ethridge might be her special person. He was a year older and a senior when they started dating. The acknowledged school “brain,” he had a slender, well-toned build and ran track. With his short blonde hair and pale blue eyes, he was cute in a little-boy way. They dated for most of her junior year. Both planned on going to LSU.
Then his father, an executive at Imperial Paper, was transferred to Oregon. Steve’s parents thought Amy was great and said he could still go to LSU. But a week before they were due to leave town, he told her he’d changed his mind and would be going with them. And while he didn’t say so, Amy knew why--they never went, all the way.
It seemed like such a stupid, selfish reason to break up. She felt hurt, betrayed, and more than a little self-righteous. Poor Mark had to listen to her tale of woe all summer while they worked in Early Short’s race for Congress. Now, she thought Steve might have been right. Why should he give up his family for someone who wouldn’t even give up her damn virginity?
The irony was, even when she did yield the pearl beyond price, the outcome was the same. Aaron Duplantier was an architecture student from an old New Orleans family. With his long, almost black, hair and dark eyes that were so sexy, he was hard not to like. He was also cultured, fun, easy-going, and a gentleman. They began dating during her second year at school. Last fall, Aaron gave her his fraternity pen.
Being “pinned” was serious business, one step short of being engaged. With that symbolic sanctification, she gave herself to him. And while there was no one for her to compare him with, she sensed he was a talented lover who enjoyed giving her pleasure.
After Christmas break, he came back to school with a tall, longhaired creep named Rodney Mannheim. “Rod’s a part-time student and full-time poet,” said Aaron. “We met in Mexico over the break. I convinced him to come to LSU.”
In the weeks that followed, she saw more and more of Rod. That meant she spent less and less time alone with Aaron. By the beginning of May, it’d been weeks since she and Aaron had made love. Even going on a date without Rod tagging along was a rare event.
That’s why she was so happy when they managed to get away by themselves. After supper at their favorite Italian restaurant, Aaron told her he was transferring to some school in California. He said that in the world outside of backwater Baton Rouge things were happening that he needed to experience. He said Rod, who hated Baton Rouge and wanted to go back to the coast, had convinced him to make the move and would be going with him.
There was no mention of her in these plans. He’d always treasure their time together, he said, and was sorry if this hurt her but--.
The rest of that night and the next few days were a hazy memory. She got around on autopilot, moving like a zombie to classes, and then coming back to her room. Once there, she’d collapse on the bed and cry herself to sleep.
It was Thursday before she worked up the courage to call Mark. She felt hurt, mad, embarrassed, confused, and didn’t think she could handle a face-to-face meeting. They spent hours talking on the phone. Near the end of her marathon confessional, she heard him say something about a party that weekend on the nearby Mississippi River levee. While not sure about what he said, she remembered telling him that going to a party was the last thing she wanted to do on Saturday.
Then came Saturday. Her room was invaded by three girlfriends. Saying she’d been in bed all day, which was true, they forced her to get up and come with them to the party.
As she’d suspected, it was Mark who arranged things and turned her friends into kidnappers. When they arrived, he was waiting for her with a grin on his face and a beer in his hand.
LSU students are always ready to party. It seemed like everyone she knew was there. At first, she tried to be a good sport and get into the spirit. But the laughter and good times just annoyed her. After a few beers, some cheap wine, and her first experience with marijuana, she was a little drunk and, for all she knew, maybe even stoned. But most of all she felt more miserable than ever. Rather than be a wet blanket, she grabbed a beer and wandered away.
As the sound of the party began to fade, she found a small driftwood sanctuary near the riverbank. That’s where Mark found her a few minutes later, sitting behind a big log, crying.
Without a word, he sat down beside her. There was a light, cool breeze coming off the river. When she shivered, he put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. That did it. She let out a sob that was a mixture of despair and release, she laid her head on his chest and cried until she ran out of tears.
When her breath began to even out, she noticed the front of his old dress shirt was soaked. Fascinated, she slid a fingertip across the damp cloth. He’d come to be with her, to comfort her. And in return, she’d drenched his shirt with her tears and probably smeared it with mascara.
She lifted her head and looked up at him. In the moonlight, she could make out his familiar, comforting smile and felt better.
He’d always been there, close and caring, whenever she needed a friend, needed a shoulder to cry on, just like tonight. Because, because he loves me. And I love--. A new emotion swept over her, a warm, tingly sensation that had nothing to do with friendship. She no longer just needed Mark--she wanted him, now.
Slipping both hands behind his neck, she pulled his face to hers and began kissing her best friend.
Later, much later, their lips parted, they looked at one another. There was an uncertain, questioning expression on Mark’s face. Amy found herself praying he wouldn’t be sensible or cautious or, even worse, make a joke.
Damn it, Mark, just kiss me. Please. Then he leaned forward and began kissing his best friend.
At some point, it occurred to her that Mark was a very good kisser. In a strange sort of way, it made her proud to know her best friend was so gifted.
The next time their lips parted, Mark began to say something. It was going to be about how they should stop. She was sure of that, and sure he was right. They’d have to do that, soon. But not now, not just yet. Before he could say anything, she snuggled closer and pulled him back onto her waiting mouth.
After that, the kisses became more intense, the touches more intimate. Mark’s hand slipped under her sweatshirt, and she shivered with pleasure. The smooth, sensuous pressure eased the anguish in her body and her soul. His fingers took possession of her breast. The feeling was incredible.
When lips replaced his fingers, she heard herself moan while arched her back to meet his touch. She felt loved and wanted and safe. This was Mark who cared for her, who was always there when she needed a friend, who she could count on to do what was best. In the back of her mind, she began to wonder if that would include their making love.
On some vague level, she was aware of his fingers sliding down to her jeans. When he started fumbling with the zipper, her stomach churned with excitement. They were going to make love. She felt the zipper began to yield.
Without warning, his fingers, lips, tongues became motionless. She felt his body sag. After a parting kiss, his lips moved from her breast to her lips. As they kissed, his fingertips caress first one breast, then the other. It was a gentle, searching touch as if trying to memorize their texture, shape, and warmth.
With an unsettling mixture of relief and regret, she understood he’d decided their making love wasn’t what was best. The kissing continued, but now it was with increasing affection and decreasing passion. He was, she realized, letting them both ease down from their physical and emotional high.
A sudden dip in the road banged Amy’s head against the window. At first, she couldn’t figure out what had happened. Instead of sitting near the river kissing Mark, she was in the front seat of his car speeding down a four-lane highway. And instead of watching the road, he was looking over and grinning at her. “You’ve got to tell me what you were dreaming about, lady.”
“None of your business,” she said while yawning and stretching. To give her mind more time to re-enter the here-and-now, she glanced into the back. Bob, who could sleep through a hurricane, was snoring. Libby lay stretched out across the back seat, her head resting on his lap.
Amy turned back and studied the scenery. Between breaks in the live oaks lining the highway, the tall state capital was emerging from flat farmland. Having traveled this road for years, she knew it meant they’d soon be in Baton Rouge.
She located her purse, pulled out a compact, and pretended to study her face in the small mirror while trying to sort through her emotions. Okay, Amy, don’t start acting like an idiot just because you had a hot dream. Remember, you thought you loved Stephen and then Aaron and look how those turned out. Then you and Mark kiss and just like that you think he may be the one. But he’s not interested in you, at least not as a girl. He’s known you all your life. Besides, you’re not his type. Bebe fits that description, damn it.
She closed her compact with a loud snap. “Why do you think I was dreaming? Maybe I was just deep in thought.”
“I doubt it. The thing is, when we left Krotz Springs, you looked awake and like, well, like you did the day, old Jeff, the natural born tomcat, went one-on-one with that log truck and lost. A few minutes later, your mouth was wide open. That’s always a sure sign you’ve nodded off. The next time I checked, you had this dumb, happy look on your face. So what were you dreaming about?”
She gave him a big, I-know-a-secret-and-you-don’t, smile. “You’re right; I really was feeling rotten. But I had this dream that was all romantic and mushy with lots of steamy stuff, and now I feel a lot better.”