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Dancing To Ray Charles: ch04, Peace Talks

Would he and Amy soon be fighting like that Blue Jay and squirrel in the backyard?

Sleep had been hard to come by. Mark’s mind kept going back to his bumping into Bebe at the dance last night and her agreeing to a date, then it would switch back two weeks to his kissing Amy, and how that changed everything, at least for him, then return to the meeting with Bebe.

Just before dawn, he woke to the sound of his father leaving to go fishing on Big Bear Lake with S.J. Marshall. Unable to get back to sleep, Mark crawled out of bed and made his way to the shower.

After a long stay, he emerged feeling cleaner and at least half-awake. More time had to be spent drying and arranging his dark, collar-length hair. Then he put on a pair of faded, cut-off, blue jeans, an ink-stained work shirt, and scuffed loafers. Satisfied with his fashionably under-dressed appearance, Mark headed for the kitchen.

"What are you doing up so early, honey?" His mother was standing by the sink rinsing off some dishes. They had a dishwasher, but being the hands-on type, she never used it except after big meals.

"Kinda had trouble sleeping," replied Mark, reaching into the refrigerator for orange juice. "I woke up when dad left this morning and never could get back to sleep."

"Too much excitement last night at the big dance?" teased his mother.

"Oh, without a doubt," he said, going along with the joke. He wasn't ready to tell her about meeting Bebe, much less about them going on a date next weekend. It wasn't that she'd object. His mother never made open objections to anyone he dated. That didn't mean she wouldn't come up with a series of non-objections that could make the Spanish Inquisition seem tame in comparison. Time, he decided, to change the subject.

Putting his now empty glass on the table, he joined her at the sink and began drying the last, few dishes. "So what have you got lined up today?"

"Mandy and I are going to the Legion Hall and help Marci take down the decorations and clean-up the mess you and your friends made. I don't suppose you'd be willing to lend a hand?" She punctuated her question by pointing to his empty glass on the table.

"Uh, tell you what,” he said, fetching the glass, ”I’d like to go visit Amy, you know, check on the poor shut-in. If they let me in, call me there when you're finished. I promise to come right over in Dad's truck and haul off the trash."

It should have been a safe offer. Even if Amy was well enough for him to visit, his father always took the truck whenever he went fishing.

"You've got a deal." Something seemed suspicious about her smile as she took the dishtowel and draped it over the empty drain board.

“They went in S.J.’s car so you could use the truck. Oh, and your father said to fill it up when you finish. Now call Mandy and tell her I'm on my way over and find out if Amy feels like putting up with you."

A few minutes later, he sat sipping coffee and staring out the Marshall's kitchen window. A blue jay and a squirrel were waging a hit-and-run battle among the oak and pecan trees in the big back yard. Could their combat be an omen, he wondered, that he and Amy were about to go at each other like those two?

It had been almost two weeks since he’d seen Amy, a long separation. for them. That had been the day after the party, and he’d felt all right. His mind seemed unwilling, or maybe just unable, to accept her transformation from his oldest friend into the woman he loved.

While resigned to never having her as anything more than a friend, that friendship was special and something he didn’t want to lose. So he wanted to be the first to tell her about Bebe. But he wondered if he could continue to act normal around Amy or get all stupid and tongue-tied.

He’d never wanted any girl or anything the way he wanted Amy Marshall. And not just to get laid. .Before that night on the levee, he’d never thought of Amy as a sexual being. But God knows he did then and had ever since.

As the blue jay and squirrel kept fighting, he tried to decide if he wanted another cup of coffee enough to get up and risk missing some of the outdoor Armageddon. Caffeine prevailed over combat.

He almost drained the pot, then set it back on the new electric stove. For just a moment, he considered making some more. Amy would be down soon, and he might want a third cup. But he wasn't certain where to find the coffee since the kitchen had been remodeled. Besides, he wanted to get back to the fight.

A few minutes later, Amy shuffled into the kitchen. In silence, she opened a cabinet door and fished out a chipped, green coffee mug. On its side, faded white letters read, "Panther Pride.” In half-filling her mug she emptied the coffee pot. "Thanks for leaving me the dregs," she groused and reached for the sugar bowl. 

Mark felt relieved. This was his friend, not the person he loved. "I would have made some more, honest, but I couldn't find the coffee. All your mother's new harvest gold appliances must have disoriented me. Besides, the dregs have all the good nutrients and minerals."

When no response followed this announcement, he continued. "And in closing, may I say you've never looked better, Miss Marshall?"

"Nobody likes a smart-ass, Cahill.” Amy put in a second spoonful of sugar. "So don’t make fun of my mother’s somewhat questionable taste in appliance color. And no, you may not say I've never looked better.”

As they both knew, she looked like hell, at least by her standards. Of course, Amy Marshall set a high standard when it came to good looks. Even messy hair, bloodshot eyes, and pasty skin couldn't overwhelm her classic beauty. Neither could rumpled pajamas or the green, satin smoking jacket she wore. Years ago, someone had given it to her father. When he refused even to try it on, she adopted it as her house robe.

Mug in hand, she made her way over to the table. "What have you been doing, besides sucking down all the coffee?"

"Just sitting here watching the mortal combat in your backyard. It’s a titanic struggle between a bad tempered cat squirrel and a pissed-off Jaybird. Neither one seems willing to give peace a chance."

Amy bent over and stared out the curtained window. The bucolic scene was devoid of strife. "You're hallucinating. Nothing's going on out there."

The news came as a surprise. Mark hadn't noticed the cessation of hostilities. "No doubt just a temporary truce. Maybe they're trying to arrange peace talks in Paris."  

"Whatever. Just quit hogging all the seat." She sat next to him on the padded bench between the table and the bay window.

After scooting over as ordered, he waited for her to finish a first, cautious, sip of coffee before breaking the silence. “It’s an obvious question, but how do you feel?”

“I guess it’s one of those good news, bad news jokes. The good news is, I’m feeling a lot better. The bad news is, I still feel crappy.”

 “What laid you low?”  

“Well, according to the good Doctor Miles, I had a bad case of distemper.”  

Mark grinned at what had to be the old doctor’s oldest joke. “Which means it was some sort of flu bug he figured you’d get over sooner or later.”  

Amy nodded. “I don’t know what I did as a child to deserve catching something like that. But whatever it was must have been very, very bad.”  

“That couldn’t be it. Everybody knows we were both perfect children. You must have been suffering from that most terrible of fates, a parent’s curse. When you went against your folks and high-tailed it for the Gulf coast, your doom was sealed.”  

“God, I hope not,” groaned Amy. “The whole thing was a total bummer. I mean it rained all the time. Seaweed was everywhere. The guys were all creeps. And to top it off, I got rotten sick.”  

“As a dog with distemper?”  

“This is your second and last smart-ass warning.”  

“Forewarned is forearmed.”  

“Of course you, dear Mark, would have had a good time. You don’t like sunny beaches, and there were lots of girls hanging around.” Amy paused and studied him for a moment. “Come to think of it, why didn’t you go? I did invite you, remember?”  

“I’d promised to help 'Last Card' Landry move into the Big House with Howard and company, remember? It proved to be a momentous, if somewhat sweaty, occasion which I begged you on bended knee to stay and enjoy. It’s hard to believe anyone would prefer getting sick on some beach to helping Last Card move. Anyway, after we christened the place, I was two cents and a winning smile away from being flat broke. So like the proverbial Martin to its box, I came winging my way home for some free meals.”  

“I can’t believe Howard and Ginger are getting married. I didn’t think hippies did that.”  

“Ginger’s just a fellow-traveler and Howard’s still learning the ropes. Don’t forget, a few months ago he was the ultimate frat rat. God knows what he’ll be into next semester. He’s like most of that crowd, a hippie wanna-be. He likes to follow fads and smoke dope.”

“And you don’t?” Amy reached over and flipped the ends of his longish hair.

“Said she who got wasted at a recent levee party.” He returned her gesture with a gentle tug on her unkempt red hair. They looked at one another across the shared memory of a spring night on the banks of the Mississippi River. But neither wanted to be the first to start talking about what did and didn’t happen or what might have changed.

“You know me,” said Mark, who found it difficult to resist filling any conversational vacuum, ”I’ve got nothing against that whole free love and nickel beer scene. After all, I’m at least 100% in favor of peace, equality, protecting the environment and all that jazz. Besides, the parties and music are great. Although I still haven’t found a hippie chick who’s into free love.”

“You’re hopeless,” said Amy, with a shake of her head.

Mark grinned and sipped at his coffee. “To be fair, I’ve met a few true believers. Mother Ruth seems genuine. She came up to visit Ginger and help get things squared away. And some of the brothers are very intense. But most of that crowd seems so damn pretentious. To them, the whole thing’s more a fashion statement than a cause. I mean, you’ve got to admit, being a hippie in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is kind of a...” Mark paused, “well, kind of a contradiction in terms.”  

“The word you’re struggling for is, an oxymoron.” There was the smallest hint of a grin on her face.

 “And with that insult to my redneck intellect, you are awarded your first smart-ass warning,” said Mark.

 “You’re still ahead 2-1,” she reminded him. “And speaking of smart-asses, what’s this I hear about you and Bebe at the dance last night?”

 The remark caught Mark off guard. “Who told you?”

 “She who knows all and sees all. My little-bitty, baby sister.”

“Oh. I didn’t see her there.”

“According to Jan, about all you did see was Bebe. What’s going on?”

 “Well, let me tell you, little lady, it’s like this.” Amy’s scowl convinced him to drop the John Wayne accent. No need to press his luck.

A fresh set of screams from the jaybird delayed the start of Mark’s story. “Something tells me those two aren’t committed to the peace process,” said Amy.

They turned to watch the renewed hostilities between bird and squirrel.

 While the struggle outside continued, Mark sensed more than heard someone moving in the kitchen. Looking away from the backyard drama, he saw a semi-awake Jan feeling her way into the pantry. He put a fingertip to Amy’s lips and motioned toward the open pantry door.   A moment later, Jan emerged holding a box of cereal. Judging from the knee-high hem of the PHS Girls Basketball practice jersey she had on, it must have once belonged to the much taller Amy. Completing her ensemble was the pair of worn-out, pink, fuzzy slippers she refused to let her mother throw away.

 Oblivious to the presence of Mark and Amy, she went about the task of preparing her morning ration of cereal.

While watching Jan’s trance-like motions, Mark felt Amy tap his arm.

They’d always had an uncanny ability to read each other’s lips. Now she mouthed, “Good morning, Jan.” and held up three fingers. Mark nodded his understanding. Jan had just returned the milk to the refrigerator when Amy looked at Mark and began counting on her fingers. When she raised the third one, they yelled in ragged unison, “Good morning, Jan!”

Jan let out a high-pitched scream while displaying her cheerleader prowess with a vertical leap of impressive height. Upon re-establishing contact with the floor, she glared over at her tormentors, red-faced with laughter.  

“You two think you’re so funny,” she snarled while struggling to regain her composure. To emphasize her displeasure, she picked up a spoon and tossed it in their general direction. Amy and Mark made a show of ducking the off-line throw and laughed even harder.  

At some point during these proceedings, Mutt, the Marshall’s enormous, mixed-breed, ex-tomcat, came in to investigate the noise. It had been years since his partner, Jeff, another sociable stray, had wandered in front of a car while out looking for love. Following Jeff’s tragic departure, Mutt was neutered and had since specialized in being peaceful and fat. Jan bent over, picked up the big, gray cat and stroked its head.

“Where were you Mutt? Amy and Mark aren’t playing nice. Let’s go teach ‘em a lesson.” With the cat draped over her arm, Jan picked up the bowl of cereal and walked to the table. After depositing her bowl, she gently lowered the cat to the floor and pointed at Mark. “Okay, Mutt, sic him.”

Mutt responded to this call for combat by rubbing against Mark’s bare legs, then jumping up into his lap. “The vicious, attack-trained Mutt strikes again,” said Mark, while scratching under the old cat’s chin.

Jan somehow managed to stick out her lower lip in a pout while also grinning. “That’s it, Mutt. Scratch his eyes out. Teach him a lesson for being so mean to me.”   At Mutt’s insistence, Mark began to scratch his ears. “This cat is the original peacenik.”

 “More like a peace non-activist,” amended Amy, while stroking the cat’s broad back.  

Jan sat down and then began looking around. “What happened to my spoon?”  

“It’s somewhere under the bench. You threw it at us,” said her sister.  

Mark elaborated. “And you missed by a mile. Now being a true southern gentleman and all, I’d be more than willing to get you another one. But of course, I can’t get up without disturbing poor old Mutt.”  

“Mutt, all you’re good for is shedding,” said Jan as she headed over for another spoon.

 “Why are you up this early?” asked Amy. “It’s Saturday.”

“Sandy Baker has to go shopping with her mother and grandmother,” said Jan, returning to the table. “I promised to go along and run interference for her.”

 “A noble self-sacrifice,” said Mark. “Now, why don’t you tell us what’s in it for you?”

 “Mom said I could get a new swimsuit and some shorts,” Jan admitted, with a sheepish grin.

 “The truth shall make you free,” Amy said with a laugh.

 In a blatant attempt to turn the spotlight on someone else, Jan pointed her new spoon at Mark. “And speaking of the truth, why don’t you tell us what you and Bebe were up to last night at the dance, Mr. Mark?”

 “As a matter of fact, he’d just started when you walked in and interrupted.”

 “I interrupted? You two morons almost scared me to death. But, now that I’ve recovered, he can tell us all.”

She and Amy stared at Mark, who shifted under their gaze. He glanced out the window, petted Mutt, and then began. “Well, I hadn’t planned on staying very long. But we bumped into each other right after I got there. And she didn’t seem to have a date so I asked her to dance and she said okay. Then after we danced a few times, we started talking about dancing and music and stuff like that. Well, everything seemed to be going great so I suggested we might go hear John Fred next weekend. And she said, fine.”  

The two sisters looked away from Mark and at one another. They shook their heads in a show of weary disbelief and curled their upper lips in mutual disgust. Then they shrugged their shoulders and emitted loud sighs.   

Mark had seen and laughed at the act dozens of times. But now, being the object of the performance, it didn’t seem quite so funny. “I take it you two don’t approve,” he said, stating the obvious.  

“No shit, Sherlock,” replied Jan. “How could you even think of going out with her after the way she treated Bob? And what about Willie? You know how she is about black folks.”  

“That all happened years ago,” said Mark. “Everyone screws up now and then. She was just a kid. Besides, everything turned out all right for Bob, didn’t it?”  

“Sure it did,” said Amy, “because of all the long distance calls I made to Shreveport. You better believe convincing Libby to drop everything and come down here for a prom date with a boy she barely remembered wasn’t easy. I mean, her house was always surrounded by college guys driving Jags, ‘Vettes, and T-birds. And once she agreed, my aunt and uncle still had to be convinced. Then their little Libby comes floating back home all goo-goo eyed over this guy I’d set her up with who drives an old pick-up truck. I don’t know if my aunt’s ever forgiven me.”  

“Okay, I get your point,” said Mark. “But Bebe wasn’t as lucky as Libby. She didn’t have a big cousin around to teach her that us guys who drive old wrecks are a lot cooler than the sports car crowd.”

“That,” Amy paused, searching for the perfect term, and failing. “That, female, has forgotten more about men than I’ll ever know.”  

Mark picked up one of Mutt’s paws and used it to shadow box at Amy and Jan. “Come on, Mutt. We guys gotta stick together. You gotta help me keep these wild-eyed women at a safe distance.” The big cat stared at Mark, then freed his paw, and made a ponderous leap onto the floor.

“See, even Mutt agrees with us,” said a triumphant Jan.

 “I seem to remember someone saying all Mutt’s good for is shedding.”

 “Don’t you dare pick on Mutt,” said Jan, as she hoisted the heavy cat into her lap. “He’s the one guy around here with any sense.”

 “Look you two, all right, make that three counting Mutt, give me a break. All I’m doing is going out with Bebe on one date.”

Amy had been studying the liquid in the bottom of her mug. Now she spoke without looking up. “Mark, have you asked yourself why Bebe was at a Junior League dance, and why she went without a date, and why she just happened to bump into you, and why, after all these years, she’s agreed to go out with you?”

 “Well, yeah, I guess she’s so bored being back in Pinefield, she figures even a Junior League dance and going on a date with me is an improvement.”

“Maybe.” Amy looked up and stared straight into Mark’s eyes. “But if all she wanted was somebody to party with, there’s always Darrell Ray Sims.”

The smile left Mark’s face. He didn’t like Darrell Ray Sims and hadn’t since the day they first met. That had been in his first year of junior high. At an afternoon football game between Pinefield and Rollins, Mark found himself lined up against Darrell Ray Sims.

It would be another year before Mark hit his growth. While no runt, he'd been a little short for his age and more than a little overweight. But on that hot September day, he felt like a midget. For in the person of Darrell Ray Sims, he found himself facing someone two years older who looked hard, mean, and very big for his age.

Kids from Rollins hate the “snotty” city kids from Pinefield. They, in turn, look down upon the “mill trash” from Rollins. This mutual disdain is a long-standing fixture of parish life. But that afternoon, Darrell Ray’s attitude towards his younger, smaller, less skilled opponent seemed vicious and personal.

With Pinefield being short-handed that day, Mark couldn’t come out of the game. Every play seemed to end the same way, with him sprawled on the hard, unforgiving ground. He’d look up and see Sims towering over him, sneering at the weakness and ineptitude of the “candy-assed city kid."

Nothing like that ever happened again. Football wasn’t Mark’s favorite sport. But, he got bigger and made himself get better. But due to age and injuries, he never again played against Sims. Today, Mark could match up against most men, including Darrell Ray, in height, strength, and build. But in his mind, he still saw Sims through the eyes of that same humiliated, scared, little junior high football player. That Bebe always preferred Darrell Ray, or almost any other guy, to him just aggravated the memory.  

A ringing noise jerked Mark back to the present and sent Jan scurrying for the phone.

“Yes ma’am,” she said, looking at Mark, “he’s here.

"No, ma'am. I don’t suppose he’s been much worse than usual.

“He agreed to haul off the trash from the Legion Hall? Well, I’ll be glad to tell him it’s ready and waiting.” By the time she hung up, Mark had already gotten to his feet.

Amy said, “Looks like your mother just saved you from any more interrogation.”

“Well, everything considered, I suppose it could be worse.” He mussed her hair and headed for the door. “Hauling trash has got to be an improvement over getting trashed by you two.”

The sudden squawk of a scolding Jay stopped him at the door.

“Sounds like the peace talks have fallen apart,” he said and grinned. “See you later, agitators.”  

 

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