My first taste of fire and of the Festival area school system came close togethernot after I’d become an administrator, but as a high school freshman, the year after the schools were integrated, the year I was stalked by humiliation.
I snapped my locker shut at lunchtime and turned, coming eye-to-chest with a blue T-shirt that smelled sweet with detergent, sour with menace. In the dim light, the guy’s skin was tar, his hair black wool, his muscles glistening. I was short for fourteen; he was enormous. Except for the two of us, the hall was deserted.
“Gimme a quarter, man,” he said.
“I don’t have a quarter.”
“You got lunch money, don’t you?”
He moved closer, cut off my escape with his bulk. “What’s your name, boy?” Boy.
“Next time, bring a quarter, Jordan.” He whispered this, bending down, crooning into my ear. A dark hand over my nose, my head turning, slamming into the locker. A metallic jab to the cheekbone, and my eye began to swell. He was gone before I looked up. I left the grounds and walked home.
The house should have been empty. My mother was a nurse at the hospital, and my brother was in junior high. My father was supposed to be at work, but he was sitting in the living room with a receptionist from his office. We’d moved to Festival over the summer. From what I could tell from my parents’ late-night arguments, we came largely to curb his infidelities. But I had never, until now, actually seen him with another woman. He was calm, as if it were natural for her to be there. I might have been more offended if he hadn’t seemed to forget the receptionist and to focus, entirely and sympathetically, on my eye.
“Got a shiner,” he announced, standing, testing the swelling with his thumb. He peered at my eyeball. “I’ll get you some ice.”
As he disappeared into the kitchen, the receptionist rose from the couch and moved toward the front door.
My father returned. He held a dishtowel filled with ice. “What happened?”
“I got sucker-punched by a black kid.”
“I’m not surprised.” He nodded and applied the ice to my eye. “I knew it might be a little rough over there.” He examined the position of the ice pack, rearranged it, lifted my fingers so I could hold it. “Keep it on till you can’t stand it anymore.” He leaned to my ear much as the black guy had, conspiratorial. “Probably shouldn’t mention this to your mother.” He gestured toward the eye and toward the receptionist. He winked. “There are some things you don’t tell the women.”
I didn’t understand completely, but when my mother asked about the eye, I said I’d gotten hit playing football.
“You got it from some colored kid, didn’t you? Don’t lie to me.” She’d wanted to send us to private school but couldn’t afford to. I deduced from her tone that whatever small glory I might eke out of this would come from avoiding confession. Otherwise, at great sacrifice, money would be found for the safer schoolI’d be offered sympathy, control, nets of protection. My weakness would be public. My father was right.
“Football,” I maintained.
“If it isn’t Jordan,” the black guy said a week later. “Hey Jordan. You remember to bring my quarter?” He had my arm.He spun me around to face him. There were a few people in the hallI was careful about not lingering at my lockerbut they ignored us. The black guy smiled at me. I didn’t know I’d grow eight inches and put on thirty pounds before the summer. I was skin and bones and mouth.
“Fuck off, asshole,” I said, brave with despair. I jiggled my free arm. He pulled me closer. I was a dead man.
Then Hal Crosby came down the hall. “Leave him alone, man,” he said. His tone suggested the two of them knew each other. The black guy let me go.
I didn’t know why Hal Crosby rescued me. Never asked. I hadn’t seen him before. He was sixteen and drove me home in his souped-up Chevy. I knew most high-school friendships were already sealed, exclusivity being the rule at that age, and it didn’t occur to me the hoods might still be recruiting. Hal wore an old tweed jacket that would have been laughed off the grounds on anyone else. His hair grew down over his collar. He was tall.
“A quiet ‘fuck-off, asshole’ is a lot more effective than an excited ‘fuck-off, asshole,”’ he said, driving. “Better yet, don’t cuss at all. just make your face so calm only your mouth moves and say, ‘Get your own quarter,’ and then walk away. That way, they’ll jive you that once but probably never again.”
Pulling up in front of my house, he added, “The niggers don’t want to be at Central any more than we want them here.”
“That’s real comforting,” I said.
“Last year when they first came, we didn’t have a normal day of classes for a month. They were that pissed.”
I had heard about thisbottles thrown and white students jostled in the halls, angry demonstrations. The blacks wanted their segregated high school backtheir all-black football team, all-black marching band, all-black pride. They did not regard integration as a hard-won victory. But police came to the hallways, the vacant black school was torn down, and the disruptions dwindled to insults and extortion, usually of lunch money carried by small white freshmen traveling alone. To me it seemed the blacks regarded integration as my fault personally.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said.
“One more thing,” Hal told me. “Never act spastic. Spastic is a dead giveaway, man. Look calm. Calm.”
“Calm,” I said, grinning.
Hal taught me the art of lifting sodas from the grocery store and of taking money from the girls’ locker room while they square-danced in the gym. Hal’s other friend was Frank. We played mailbox baseball late at night, Hal driving down the streets while Frank and I leaned out the window, trying to knock over curbside mailboxes with a bat. I had a ten o’clock curfew, but if my brother closed our bedroom door, no one checked. My father was otherwise occupied. My mother had switched to evening shift at the hospital. Once, coming in late from work, she caught me. By then, Hal Crosby had rehearsed me well in the skills of deception. I looked into her narrowed eyes and held her gaze. There were some things you didn’t tell the women.
All fall and winter, we stole small sums of money, drank the beer Hal took from his father, smoked the pot Frank bought on the street. The two of them treated me alternately as friend and as mascot. I stopped worrying about being caught. Hal was my protector, my mentor. By spring, we’d grown bolder. We cased a store on Conklin Street in the black public housing project.
“We ought to rob it, man,” Hal said. “Get ski masks and gloves. They’d never suspect whites.”
This made us feel high and heady, even after the impossibility of the project dawned. Black women shopped there all day; black men made deals for liquor and drugs at night.
“All the better,” said Hal. “A challenge.”
We bought dark turtlenecks, toy pistols. I don’t know if we would have done it. Mixed with my euphoria was a vision of being caught and sent to jail. Even with Hal as my guardian, I was disturbed by that. If the others had their own misgivings, they didn’t say so.
Martin Luther King’s assassination stopped us. It prompted the residents of the project to knock out the windows of that store and others on Conklin Street, loot them, set them on fire. The newspaper blamed anger at the death of their leader, at the loss of an all-black high school, at their small grip on power and other slights of which we had no knowledge. Some blamed the hot weather. We didn’t care. Glass crashed, flames shot into the air, we were released forever from our intended crime. Frank was busy that night, so Hal and I, jubilant, drove into the ghetto to watch the blacks tear their neighborhood apart.
The convenience store, fish market, and coin laundry were all burning by the time we arrived, but not so much that we couldn’t see the smashed windows and the looted goods littering the pavement: rolls of toilet paper, racks of candy, broken soda bottles. The wind was blowing hard, whipping the flames around. Young black men were running, fists raised, shouting. The police had cordoned off an area to contain them, but they paid no attention. Hal gave a group of them the finger. No one noticed. They were absorbed by something larger.
The firemen went about their business. Hoses crisscrossed the street. Loudspeakers crackled, sirens wailed. Burning cinders blew into the clump of pines that separated the stores from the rows of barracks-like houses behind. Flames danced in the layer of pine straw at the base of the trees, then licked upwards to the branches. The sap hissed as it turned to steam; the needles flashed like burning powder as they ignited. Hal clapped me on the shoulder. I was glad Frank hadn’t come. We cheered as the tops of the trees began blazing, sending down sparks onto the roofs of the adjacent houses.
Though firemen doused the roofs with water, a row of houses caught fire. Officials shouted for people to get out of the way. We ignored them. The smell of smoke made my heart beat fast, but I was too keyed up to be afraid. The blaze was to our right, to our left, more exciting than a robbery.
Soon the flames were hurling themselves into the night, screeching and cackling, a Halloween beast sending out curling wisps of smoke. Every hot color danced against the sky: yellow, scarlet, crimson, amber. The wind drew billows of flame from one frame building to another, sucking fire down the streets as if through a pipe. Hal and I ran from block to block, following the drama. Houses on three different streets were burning. A roof detached and sailed, a fiery raft afloat in the darkness.
“The ultimate fireworks, man!” Hal yelled.
The fire got louder. Voices on loudspeakers drowned in its roar. The looters stopped looting. The blaze was bigger than their anger. I had never been so high in my life. Not on beer, not on pot, not on nerves.
The worse it grew, the more we chucked each other on the shoulder and sped through the streets. We didn’t notice when the flames got out of control, only that they were inanimate one minute, then suddenly alive, malignant.
“Let’s get out of here!” I yelled.
When I turned toward Hal, he was lost in a shroud of smoke, and the voices behind me were so distorted against the howling that they might have been anyone’s. The blaze was two enclosing walls, two armies approaching each other, battalions of flame.
When I turned to get my bearings, all the directions were the same. Smoke everywhere. Sparks falling, igniting patches of grass near the sidewalk where I stood. In one horrific moment I went from spectator to participant, lifting my arms over my head for protection. I couldn’t move. A gut-rotting fear held me to the spot. My right hand was stung as if by a bee. I brought it down into my line of vision. The fine hair on the back of my hand was burning. Burning. Then I ran, panicked. The sparks from which my upraised arm had protected me rained on my face. I beat them away, but they came faster than I could put them out. The blaze was on both sides, above, everywhere. I was in the middle of an inferno. I screamed: “HAL!” The sound was so thin I could hardly hear it. And Hal couldn’t, surely, how could he, over the hissing, crackling witch’s voice of the fire? Guardian gone. No protection. My helplessness was so all-consuming, I won’t forget it if I live to be a hundred. Then instinct made me drop, rub my hand on the ground, grind my face into the dirt and grass, put out the fire.
My eyes were gritty. My right eyebrow throbbed and stung. I was choking, breathing thick, smoke-filled air, breathing darkness. Coming up out of a nightmare. Someone pulled me, hands beneath my shoulders. Hal’s hands? Time passed. Coughing again. Rubbing my eyes. Pain. Andslowly, slowlymy hand came into focus again, grotesque and swollen. I was still lying on the grass. A voice, but I couldn’t hear it clearly. Not Hal’s. I turned on my side and threw up.
“You’re okay, son,” the voice said. “A couple of nasty burns, but you’re okay.” A fireman. “Stay there for now. Ambulance’ll be here in a minute.”
The fireman disappeared into the commotion. I didn’t want an ambulance. I got up. Somebody was lying right next to me. Hal? When my eyes focused, I saw it was a black kid. Where was Hal? The black kid didn’t move. A big guy, almost the size of the one who’d demanded my quarters. It took me a minute to realize he was dead. Christ. A dead black kid a little older than me, with his pants and shirt so charred they clung to his skin like bits of paper. Snot crusted all over his nose. Eyes shut like he’d only gone to sleep. Except he had no eyelashes. They were burned off at the base, not a mark to show they’d ever existed. I felt for my own eyelashes. Intact. Then I felt above my eye, where the stinging was. Raw. But the lashes were there.
I couldn’t stop looking at the dead guy. The skin on his cheeks was cracked like an egg, a burnt-black eggshell. Underneath it was a blood-red layer of face, seeping up through the cracks, a face as pink as mine under the cracked black skin. A wave of weakness passed through me. I figured firemen must have dragged us out of the fire about the same time, me and this dead kid who might be the one who’d wanted my lunch money all those months ago before Hal showed up. If he’d been knifed, or shot in a fight, I might have thought it served him right for the weeks of terror he caused me. But he was so utterly destroyed, so completely worse off than I was, in a permanent way, that I forgave him.
The pain in my eyebrow began to expand, taking over my whole mind. My vision was foggy from smoke and the sight of the dead guy. The throbbing in my hand was also intense, but the fact that I could see the hand, however red and glazed, limited the pain somehow, kept it in its boundaries. But I couldn’t see my face. I believed, irrationally but with total conviction, that the damage in my brow would grow as the pain had, take over my eyes, leave me deformed and blind. I believed if I could reach Hal, my talisman, I might prevent this.
Through the blur of my vision, I saw the two walls of fire meet. A soaring flame leaped into the skya sudden last fountain of lightand then died away as the two fires canceled each other out, leaving what would become half-a-mile square of ruin.
I began to move toward Hal’s car. That’s where he’d be. Waiting for me. It would be all right. No one looked at me as I walked, raw hand clutched to my chest. They didn’t look at me or at each other, though there were dozens of them, black and white. As if in a film with the sound turned off, they were mutely watching the end of the fire, the sky turning to smoke. Most of the Conklin project was gone. My hand and face throbbed, but I moved toward Hal. The ground beneath me was wet from the hoses. The smell of ash rose into the air. Hal would know what to do. I got to the block where the car was parked. Soon the burning pain would stop. The car was gone. Hal was nowhere.
I kept walking, unsure where I was headed. I found myself in the emergency room of the hospital where my mother worked. I asked to see her. The hand and the brow and my terror by then seemed to occupy my whole mind, my limbs, my chest. There were some things you didn’t tell the women, but that night there was no one else to tell and too much for a fourteen-year-old to contain. So I told my mother in words and tears about our trip to the ghetto and the fire that had escaped like a wild beast from its cage; I spoke and sobbed, and the longer I went on the freer I felt, as if speech were a balm that could ease the pain.
My mother listened stony-faced, with what I didn’t recognize until years later as the cold retroactive anger of a parent whose child has escaped mortal danger. “The only reason you got out was because you were lucky, you know that?” she said, face close to mine, shaking my shoulder. “You know how many people have died in here tonight?”
I realized then I had been talking quite a while, and that no one had rushed in with medical treatment while I rambled, and that my burns were not as severe as I’d thought and wouldn’t blind or kill me. I understood what my father meant about not telling the women, how fragile was the masculine shell we had constructed, how easily pummeled and shattered, how small we would find ourselves inside it. I was ashamed of my weakness.
“How many firemen killed?” I asked.
“None. One brought in for inhalation, but he’ll be all right. Why?”
I didn’t answer.
Later, when the hair in the middle of my eyebrow refused to grow back and the scar on my hand was shiny and tight, I took these marks to be reminders of a number of things about that night, but chief among them the weakness of confession. It seemed obvious to me that the firemen had faced the inferno armed and therefore had escaped. That was the important lesson. If my mother could not see that for herself, she had no right to know. I was finished explaining to women.
What happened when Cassie Ashby was fourteen had less to do with the black man and more to do with the white one than people thought. The white man was her stepfather, Royal P.A. Ashby, who in Cassie’s opinion stumbled in from his Wright County commissioners’ meeting every Tuesday primarily to show he was so weary from carrying the town on his hairy shoulders that he could barely stand up long enough to get a beer from the refrigerator.
Every Tuesday, Royal pulled off his tie and opened his collar, releasing an extra inch of neck skin he’d stuffed in theretan, loose skin so flabby it jiggled when he swallowed and made Cassie feel as if a hand were clutching at her own throat, cutting off the air. Having taken a swig from the beer before he could bring himself to close the refrigerator, Royal made his way into his study and slumped into the chair behind his desk. Cassie followed. Her mother, Betty, sat on the sofabed, where Royal often slept when he was “too wrought up” over some vote to go upstairs. He sighed.
“You have no idea what it means to be in power,” he said.
Cassie certainly did not.
“I almost threw up on the bus again,” she ventured, hoping he might at least be amenable to compromise in his power monger mood. “I know Tiffany Galloway would drive me if I asked.” Tiffany was a junior of great beauty and wildness who lived two blocks away and drove a red Honda Civic to school, breathing fresh air on the way instead of exhaust and gymshoes.
“Maybe we ought to consider it,” her mother said.
The bus ride took forty minutes, meandering through Festival Beach, across the drawbridge, and finally to Central High in downtown Festival. It would have been shorter except that the bus passed North High on the way and went seven extra miles“in order to deposit the correct number of white middle-class students into the black ghetto.” That’s how Royal explained it at cocktail parties. “The federal busing mandate was lifted in nineteen eighty-one, but we’re afraid if we don’t continue, the government will step back in.” Then he’d sip his drink meaningfully, allowing his guests to contemplate the dangers of putting Wright County, North Carolina, into the hands of anyone but Commissioner Royal Ashby.
“I thought we’d discussed her getting a ride before,” Royal said, rising from his desk and moving toward his wife, suddenly all charm. Betty, too, suffered from motion sickness. “Honey, I believe you have a genuine problemI’ve seen it in action. But this child here...” He waved the beer at Cassie.
“I’m hardly a child, Royal.” Cassie fingered her earrings. Sometimes when he was unbearable, she walked across the drawbridge to a little store called Jewels and had another hole pierced in her ears. Royal said only foreigners did this more than once, but Cassie had had her earlobes punctured more times than anyone she knew.
“Cassie, when you’re in the position of making rules like I am,” he intoned, “you have to be careful about breaking them. The rule is that freshmen ride the bus, and I think you should.” He rested the hand without the beer on Betty’s shoulder. “I’d say that even if the Galloway girl didn’t have the reputation she does. If you don’t ride the bus, people will think you’re getting special favors because you’re my daughter.”
Cassie rolled her eyes, but Royal ignored her.
“It was different when your mother got seasick all the time,” he went on. “All I had to do then was sell my boat.”
“You never sold that boat because Mama got sick on it,” Cassie said. “You sold it because real estate was bad and you couldn’t afford to keep the damned thing.”
“If that’s how you choose to describe it, maybe you should ponder your choice of language in your room over the weekend,” Royal said stiffly.
“Because I said damn? Because I’m supposed to be a credit to my stepfather, the important politician? Because if I hear anything nasty like the F-word, my mind is supposed to be too pure to retain it?”
Betty stood up. “You know what I can’t understand?” she said. “I can’t understand how two people can live under the same roof and take so much pleasure in being ugly to each other.”
* * *
It was late September and still hot. There was no autumn in Festival, not like in Baltimore when Cassie was little, where there had been air of the exact chill and dryness to let her hear individual leaves swishing against each other on the trees. Here, the sun didn’t lose its bite, it only got yellower.
The bus was close and damp. Cassie’s head pounded, her stomach churned, her tongue grew thick and dry. Curley Johnson, the bus driver, gave her a seat by the window and let her keep it open regardless of the weather.
“Me, I get to suffocate, and she gets a window seat with air blasting in,” said Kyle Carter, the last passenger to be picked up. He lived next door to Tiffany, whose red Honda sat in the driveway. Kyle was a head taller than Cassie, blond and tan from surfing. He wore Gotcha shorts, Billabong T-shirts, nothing generic.
“You never passed out yet,” Curley said, waiting for him to sit down. Curley was eighteen or nineteen, not easily rattled.
Kyle slipped into the seat across the aisle from Cassie and stared over at her with his usual mixture of lust and disdain. She knew what she looked liketall enough, thin enough, good legs. When he singled out a spot on her cheek to examine as if it were crusted with food from her breakfast, she was grateful to be by the window, not on the aisle where Janet Biggs was, right across from him. Kyle tossed his head, flipping a wedge of pale hair out of his eyes from his hotshot surfer haircut.
Later, after the trouble began, when everyone wanted to know what Curley looked like, Cassie would say, “Like any other black guy.” Maybe they called him Curley because of his hair. The truth was, she never much noticed. Between looking out the window and trying not to throw up, it was Kyle she was aware of those mornings, swaying back and forth across the aisle from her and Janet, grumbling every time they crossed a rough spot on the road.
“Too pretty to go to school,” someone cried. Others murmured assent. Heat shimmered up from the road and a thin cool rose from the waterway as they crossed the bridge.
“I’ll tell you what,” Curley said. “You raise forty dollars, and I won’t take you to school. I’ll take you to Sand Dollar Beach.” Sand Dollar Beach was the other beach town, south of Festival, a honky-tonk place with cheap motels and sidewalk arcades.
They started raising money, peeling dollar bills meant for lunch out of their wallets, handing them forward to Janet Biggs, who was always treasurer of everything. Janet got up and stood in the aisle, marking the sums in a notebook.
Kyle slipped into Janet’s seat to torment Cassie further. He positioned himself so his calf touched Cassie’s, its bleached hair grazing her skin. He didn’t look at her face, didn’t move closer or farther away, just sat limb to limb, staring at Cassie’s smooth leg as if it were deformed. Cassie focused on Janet, pretending an interest in the collection of money. She wouldn’t have moved if she’d been under the blade of a guillotine, wouldn’t have given Kyle the satisfaction. On the periphery of her vision, the wedge of hair on his forehead was so white it hurt her eyes.
“Illegal to stand up on the bus,” Curley told Janet. Janet sat down in the aisle, letting people hand their money down the rows. Everyone was laughing, happy. Coldness began to spread from the pit of Cassie’s belly into her limbs. Her throat felt sour. She turned toward the window. Fumes came up from the road.
A red car zipped around them, a strand of black hair escaping the driver’s window, flying in the wind. Tiffany. She was going fifty easily. The speed limit was twenty-five. She switched lanes, cut off the bus. Air brakes hissed. The bus lurched. Cassie swallowed hard.
“Only thirty-seven dollars,” Janet said. “Curley, will you take us for thirty-seven?”
“Hey, a deal’s a deal,” Curley said.
“Anybody got another three dollars?”
“Not me, I’m clean.”
“Come on, Curley,” someone said.
“No, man, I can’t do it. I’d like to, but I can’t.”
A general groan.
Kyle tossed the wedge of hair back from his face. Cassie’s stomach contracted. A rush of saliva came to her mouth.
“Hey, you can’t say we didn’t try,” Janet laughed. She was giving the money back, parceling it out.
“I gave you a five!”
“Like hell you did!”
The bus turned onto Bishop Street, three blocks from school.
“What’d you give me, Becky?”
“Ninety cents in change.” Central High appeared in the distance, old brick baking in the sun. Janet worked quickly, consulting her notebook for the right amounts to return. Cassie’s mouth tasted like oil. She felt ragdoll limp, muscles and innards melted away except for stomach and throat, where everything was poised to come up. Her limbs were loose and heavy. But she didn’t move her leg.
They turned into the parking lot, went over the speed bump. “Home free, Miss Carsick,” Kyle said. He was looking at her straight on now. At the sweat on her face. At her skin slick as wax. He gave her an eyeful of hate. People stood, heading for the doors. She forced herself up, locked her knees so as not to sink, kept her breakfast down by an effort of will. She followed Kyle onto the sidewalk, into volumes of fresh air, not throwing up. It was the hardest thing she’d ever done.
* * *
All day, she dwelled bitterly on a single fact: four years before, she’d been living contentedly in Baltimore, where she might still be if she’d only reacted more quickly one afternoon when she was ten.
It was a Saturday. Her mother had taken her to a park across a finger of bay from the Inner Harbor, as if for their usual outing. The trees were orange and burgundy, luminous in the sunlight. They sat on a bench, munching popcorn that scratched Cassie’s throat. The throat had been getting sorer all morning, but she didn’t say so.
Her mother rose and walked over to a railing that separated the park from the water below. Honey-colored light sparkled up from the waves and caught in her hair. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about Royal,” she said.
“What about Royal?” Cassie asked.
Her mother worked for the convention bureau and had met him at a political conference. Since then, he’d been flying to Baltimore on weekends, bringing Cassie T-shirts with yellow and aqua fish and “Festival Beach, N.C.” on them. He told such wild stories about hurricanes and eighty-degree Christmases that Cassie hardly noticed how he ruffled her hair and whisked her mother off to dinners and shows. The relationship had grown more serious after he discovered Betty had been a Powell in Raleigh before Cassie’s father took her north and died.
“He’s asked me to marry him,” Betty said.
“Are you going to?”
“I wanted to discuss it with you first.”
“He’s kind of old.”
“Older than I am. But not old. He’s a good man.”
A shower of bright leaves drifted across Betty’s shoulders, then swept down the bank into the water.
“He wants to make a better life for us. He has a house. A business.”
In this, Cassie heard the voice of compromise. She chewed but couldn’t make her popcorn soft enough to keep it from scraping her throat.
“He claims to have a car that runs more than two days in a row,” Betty continued, smiling. The buildings of the Inner Harbor gleamed across the water as she returned to the bench. “What’s the matter?” she asked. She put her hand to her daughter’s forehead. “Fever,” Betty concluded.
Later, Cassie sat in bed drinking tea, the sun slanting into the window, an ancient gold. Though she recalled how sick she’d felt, the memory wasn’t unpleasant.
But somehow, when she was still safe, she’d failed to say the words that might have forestalled this. What should she have done? She could never decide.
So the wedding was at Christmas. Royal moved them south to his beach house, making Cassie a friendless newcomer at Festival Beach Elementary School in January. The temperature was closer to forty degrees than eighty. The sky was filled with harsh white light. The wind off the ocean bit clean through her skin.
Kyle Carter, then just one of twenty strangers in her new class, circled her on the playground as if he were looking at a dog up for adoption at the pound. The others watched with amusement.
“You look like your mother, I bet,” he said.
“Man, I can’t believe it.”
He kept circling.
“Believe what?” Cassie asked.
“That Commissioner Ashby dumped Peggy Tischer to marry somebody who looks like you.”
The bystanders erupted into laughter. Cassie felt her face go red. She was too stunned to speak.
Janet Biggs detached herself from the group and came to her side. “He’s just mad because he’s kin to Peggy Tischer.”
Cassie didn’t care. There was nothing wrong with her mama. Nothing wrong with her. She moved so close to Kyle that he started to step back. Then she spat in his face. The kids who’d been laughing at her a second ago started to cheer and clap.
Royal’s voice had drifted up the stairs that night, not his suitor’s voice but rougher. “She’s your daughter and I appreciate that,” he said to Betty, “but there are certain things you can’t allow.”
“She was trying to defend me,” Betty said.
“There’s a way to do that and a way not. Let her get away with spitting on someone, and what do you think she’ll try next? She’s liable to become a real pain in the ass.”
Betty and Royal grounded herher first taste of his child- rearing techniques. She had not been grounded before. She knew then that politicians told hurricane stories and bought T-shirts and promised warm wind off the sea but that had nothing to do with the true selves they revealed after you voted for them. It was Royal, not Cassie, who was the pain in the ass.
She dubbed him Royal P.A., for “royal pain in the ass,” as if the letters were his middle initials. Though she referred to him as Royal P.A. any time she mentioned his name, no one thought to question her.
“Please come get me,” she wrote her grandmother Truitt in Baltimore then. “You drive south through practically all of North Carolina to the town of Festival, then turn left and go over the Intracoastal Waterway to Festival Beach. You can see the house from the drawbridge because it’s the tallest one on the waterway, a disgusting gray wood‘weathered,’ he calls itwith ceilings so high the wind blows through the front room. Just don’t come in winter unless you want to freeze your you-know-what.”
Cassie’s grandmother failed to act. She wrote back that stepparents required some adjusting to and Cassie ought to be patient.
* * *
On the way home, the drawbridge was open, its gray-green grids a wall in front of them, letting tall-masted sailboats pass in the water below. The bus idled and rocked, which for Cassie was worse than moving.
“Curley, let me off here,” Cassie called.
“Only a couple of minutes till you’re home,” he said.
“What’s the matter?” Kyle asked. “Bus too much for you? Stomach too delicate?”
Hearing that, Curley opened the door. Cassie stumbled onto the pavement, dizzy. She remembered her mother plying her with Cokes on road trips. There was a Hardee’s by the bridge, and she found herself inside, ordering.
A voice behind her said, “You look awful. You okay?”
She turned to see eyes so pale blue they might have been blind. Long dark lashes, hair a black sheet. Tiffany Galloway was the only person Cassie knew who lived at the beach and didn’t get tan, claiming she had Irish skin that looked better white. Cassie felt sure it was only a matter of time until Tiffany was discovered by that film studio up in Wilmington.
“The bus makes me sick. I couldn’t sit there waiting for the drawbridge.”
“Here,” Tiffany said, motioning to a booth. Cassie sat. Tiffany unwrapped a straw, scrutinizing Cassie through long blue eyes.
“If the bus bothers you so much, why don’t you get a ride? Plenty of people drive,” she said.
“Because Royal P.A. is big on the rule about freshmen riding the bus.”
“Isn’t there an election or something? I bet he’s too busy to notice.”
Cassie sipped her Coke, considering this. Although Royal P.A. maintained it wasn’t necessary to campaign much after being in office so long, it was true he’d been gearing up for the November election. He’d accepted speaking invitations, prepared a brochure, had big board signs made for the top of his car.
“I could take you sometimes,” Tiffany said, studying her. “Not Thursdays. Thursday, Brian doesn’t have classes.”
This was Brian Ivey, dark and handsome. He’d graduated from Central High and now went to Festival Community College. Cassie had heard Tiffany cut school to sleep with him but, until now, she hadn’t believed it. Brian and Tiffany were famous for their colorful fights at football games and in other public places, after which they lovingly made up.
“Thursdays I could handle,” Cassie said, though the whole idea was out of the question. She imagined Royal looking out his study window just as the red Honda pulled up. She would be grounded forever.
“Just give me a call.” There was harsh light in Tiffany’s eyes. Tiffany knew Cassie wouldn’t.
“Speaking of the devil,” Tiffany said. Brian Ivey was walking toward them, sliding into the booth, putting his hand on the back of Tiffany’s neck, around her silky hair, in a gesture so intimate that Cassie had to look away.
“What’ve we got here?” he asked, meaning Cassie. He checked her out with eyes the exact opposite of Tiffany’s, so dark the pupil was indistinguishable from the iris. Tiffany introduced them and gave him a summary.
“You have to ride the bus, huh?” He said it sympathetically, which she wouldn’t have expected from someone so old. “Then you must be a freshman.”
Tiffany twirled her straw between her fingers, impatient. “A freshman. That means she’ll be an Azalea Princess in the spring.” Sarcasm in her voice. Cassie didn’t know what to say. Two years ago, when Tiffany was a freshman, she’d missed an entire month of school. It was her absence from the Azalea Festival Court of Princesses that had drawn attention to her long furlough. There were rumors she was in a drug program, had complications from an abortion, got suspended for blackmailing another student. No one really knew. She narrowed her eyes at Cassie. “I can just see you in a hoop skirt and crinolines.”
They were both zeroing in on her, Tiffany with her blue gaze and Brian with his black one.
“Not me,” Cassie said.
“Oh yes you will. Any daughter of Royal Ashby’s...” The Court of Princesses was made up of the freshman daughters of every prominent family in Festival and Festival Beach.
“Stepdaughter,” Cassie felt obligated to say.
“Yes, but he adopted you, didn’t he?”
“In an election year. For the publicity.”
They both hooted.
“He arranged for the papers to be signed right before the election. The Festival Herald covered it as a news eventno kiddingCOMMISSIONER ASHBY ADOPTS,” Cassie said defensively.
It was true. “She was always like a daughter to me from the first time I met her,” Royal had been quoted as saying. Cassie, intending to be daring, had whispered to a reporter, “Like hell.” She had been ignored.
“Adopted for the publicity,” Brian repeated, shaking his head.
“I can understand how that would piss you off,” Tiffany said sharply, “but somehow I don’t think you’ll get out of being an Azalea Princess.”
Cassie had never even considered this possibility. Now she pictured herself riding on a parade float through downtown Festival, waving at a crowd that had gathered not so much to see the Princesses as the Azalea Queen, who was always some soap-opera star. She imagined standing among the azaleas on the garden tour, dressed like something out of Gone With the Wind. She imagined tourists gawking at her, drawn by the ads that ran statewide, announcing THE AZALEA FESTIVAL AT FESTIVAL. The event was such a big deal that years ago, the Chamber of Commerce had changed the town’s name from Masonboro to Festival and the name of the beach to Festival Beach.
Though Betty was a member of the Festival Garden Club which organized the event, Cassie had never thought her mother’s fondness for flowers would extend to wanting her daughter on public display. It was Royal who’d like seeing Cassie trussed up in taffeta, carrying a parasol against the sun. It was Royal who’d point out she was a credit to him, a sweet Southern belle.
“I’d rather die,” she said to Tiffany.
Brian and Tiffany were still in the booth, touching shoulders, when Cassie left. She felt so warm with kinship and envy that she’d nearly forgotten her stomach.
She herself was not allowed to date until she was sixteenpart of Royal’s effort to turn her into a flower of Southern womanhood. Having seen her own mother be taken in by Royal, having endured Kyle Carter’s staring, she mostly didn’t care. Someday, when Royal deemed her ready to date the sons of contributors, boys from Carolina and Duke, she would refuse coolly. Royal’s eyes would widen in disbelief. Her disinterest would serve her. But imagining Brian and Tiffany together on Thursdays when Tiffany cut schooltheir faces getting closer together, mouths opening, touching lips and tonguesthat was something else altogether. She imagined them in a darkened room, the air conditioning cooling everything but their skin, little beads of sweat forming on Brian’s forehead, dropping onto Tiffany’s neck.
The sun was hot as Cassie walked, the street deserted. She was sweating herself, what with her heavy backpack slung over her shoulder, her arm bent holding onto the strap. She didn’t notice Kyle coming toward her.
“Ah, Miss Carsick,” he said.
He reached out as if to pat her stomach, then lifted his hand and cupped her breast insteadher breast!as if she’d stuck it out there to amuse him. He never missed a step, just took a feel, then let go and walked on, a huge self-satisfied grin on his face. As if he’d read her mind and knew at that moment she was thinking about Tiffany and Brian and sex. She was too humiliated to say a word.
That night, she dreamed she was in Tiffany’s house, in Tiffany’s bed. Brian’s hand was stroking her breast, rubbing the nipple. Maybe she was Tiffany. Her eyes were closed, but she felt the warmth of his tanned chest just above her, the approval in his dark gaze. When she opened her eyes in the dream, a wedge of white-blond hair was hanging over her, the expression beneath it full of disgust. The face was Kyle’s, not Brian’s. What he was doing was not an act of love or even sex. It was an act of hate.
* * *
A seat on the bus had been slashed, a quick, long slice with a razor or penknife. Curley stood in the doorway, letting everyone get just close enough to see.
“Listen up, everybody,” he said, lifting a piece of white stuffing from beneath the gash. “We could spend a whole lot of time figuring out who did this, but we’d never get home.”
The crowd mumbled. Anyone could slash a seat. Getting off in the morning, with everyone pushing out, a vandal could wield a knife big enough to carve beef and no one would notice.
“Like I say, we could spend a lot of time. But we won’t. We’re just gonna make sure it don’t happen again.”
He assigned every person on the bus a seat. Cassie got her usual place, with Janet Biggs next to her on the aisle. Kyle was assigned to the very back, opposite the emergency exit.
“This seat is your baby from now on,” Curley said. “Anything happens to this seat, it’s like it happened to your own baby. It gets dirty, you clean it up. It gets cut up, you pay the hospital bill. You hear what I’m saying?”
The next morning, everybody sat where Curley told them. Then Kyle got on. He stood hanging onto the back of Cassie and Janet’s seat, tossing his hair.
“Against the rules to stand up,” Curley said. “You got an assigned place, don’t you?”
The bus was idling, vibrations from the motor shivering down the aisle. Kyle didn’t move.
“We could wait here all day, man,” a kid named Claud said.
“I don’t think so,” Kyle told him. “They don’t like these bus runs to come in late. They might fire him if he stays here too long.”
“They might fire his black ass,” Kyle said.
Curley moved the gear shift, putting the bus into park. He stood up to face Kyle. He looked tall and powerful. Beside him, Kyle was gawky. “Sit down, bleach boy,” Curley said.
Not beach. Bleach. All that surfer-cut hair, whiter than sand. Cassie laughed. Everybody laughed.
“Nigger,” Kyle whispered under his breath. Curley was still standing there, solid and unmoving. The passengers went dead quiet. Finally Kyle turned, walked down the aisle, and sat.
The next day, Kyle went to the guidance counselor and told her this story: The previous afternoon, after everybody else had gotten off the bus, Curley pulled off the road across from Kyle’s house, but didn’t open the door to let Kyle out. Instead, he threatened to accuse Kyle of slashing the seat unless Kyle did certain things with him. Then he put his hands in a certain place on Kyle’s pants. Kyle broke free and triggered the door release so he could get out. Curley didn’t come after him once he was on the street.
This was a rumor for six hours in school. Then they got on the bus and found a woman driving.
“I think he’s been suspended.”
When Kyle got on the bus, he was walking with a kid named Jeff, saying louder than he needed to, “...first time I’ve ever had a guy’s hand there, manand the last. Now when it comes to girls’ hands...”
He winked as he passed Cassie’s seat, then sat down with Jeff two rows back and laughed about Curley’s suspension.
* * *
That was Friday. Saturday noon, Royal P.A. dragged Cassie and Betty to the Elks picnic in Festival Beach Park. The smell of burnt chicken rose from the grills. A crowd gathered around the table where they were selling beer. Betty wore a tailored dress and Royal a suitcampaign clothesthough the temperature was in the eighties and hardly any wind came off the ocean. “You wear what you have to, not what other people do,” Royal often said. “It’s one of the obligations of power.”
“I’ll be damned if I’ll wear church clothes to a picnic,” Cassie said, though she never went to church. She dressed in a skirt and blouse, sneakers with socks, and earrings so long that they grazed her shoulder, a different stud in every extra hole in her ears.
They made separate rounds, Royal alone, Betty with Cassie, squinting against the sun, shaking hands. In the distance, Royal talked animatedly with the Carters, Kyle’s parents, patting Larry Carter’s arm as he pumped his hand. The Carters were big contributors.
“It must have been difficult for Kyle, saying what he did,” Betty mused. “A lot of boys would be afraid to admit if some man made a pass at them.”
“He’ll do anything for attention,” Cassie said. “Besides, he was lying.”
“I doubt it, Cassie. Why would he lie?”
“Because he smart-mouthed Curley and Curley called him a bleach boy.”
“A bleach boy?”
“Lots of boys bleach their hair these days.”
“Well, regardless, they’ll fire the bus driver and that’ll be the end of it. That’s all they do unless there are witnesses.”
“Why should they fire him if he didn’t do anything?”
Betty didn’t answer. Royal was coming up to them, Ashby-for-Commissioner button on his lapel, beer in hand, arm around the shoulders of an old guy Cassie had never seen before.
“Ron Trask, you remember my wife Betty and our daughter Cassie.”
Stepdaughter, Cassie thought. Betty told the man how nice it was to see him. It was Royal’s rule that they always say how nice to see people, never how nice to meet them, because maybe they’d met them before and forgot. Cassie nodded to the man but didn’t smile or say a single word.
At home, Royal pulled off his tie and got another beer, this time from the refrigerator.
“What did the Carters say?” Betty asked, moving around him, taking a package of hamburger from the freezer.
“What could they say? The kid was upset. The bus driver’s out.” Royal took a swig of beer and sat heavily at the table. Interesting, how he could drink all afternoon, guzzle it down, and never say the first wrong thing, never show there was a drop of alcohol in him until after he got home. Drinking was what turned your neck into flab and showed you had no control over your body. It was as gross and disgusting as smoking pot or doing drugs. She looked at him with disgust.
“I guess you believe it,” Cassie said.
“That the bus driver’s fired? Damn right.”
“That the bus driver did what Kyle says.”
“Doesn’t matter whether I believe it or not, it’s a done deal,” he told her. Bright sun poured into the kitchen from the west, glistening up from the Intracoastal Waterway behind them. In the light, Royal’s face was slack and drunk and happy.
“That driver could no more have pulled off the road around here than drive into the ocean without somebody noticing it.”
“What’d he look like, this bus driver?” Royal taunted.
Cassie kept her face expressionless. “They all look the same, don’t they? Dark brown skin. Kinky hair. Smooshed-in nose. Just the type who might have the hots for Kyle.”
“Cassie!” Betty said.
“No, Mama, lookhe agrees with me. That’s what they all look like, right? With real big you-know-whats that make them go around raping...”
“Cassie, stop it!”
But she didn’t care. Once, in Baltimore, she’d had a friend Betty didn’t know was black until Cassie brought her home. Cassie never thought to mention it. Down here, a person’s color was the first thing you’d discuss. A lot of the Central High blacks lived in Bishop Gardens public housing and spent their time at school clustered in the hallways or the cafeterialoud, laughing too much, and pushy. It was true Cassie didn’t like them. And the ones who might be all right didn’t pay attention to her, or she to them. That was how it was. The only black she really knew was LaMonica Reilly in her geometry class. But she was sick of Royal’s acting like he was some precious white marble statue, guzzling beer and sounding righteous.
He finished his beer and moved to the refrigerator for another, smiling, enjoying her outburst. “No, Cassie, you got it all wrong,” he said. “I don’t think it has a thing to do with flat noses or big lips or even the size of their you-know-whats.” He leaned toward her, holding the new beer in his hand. “No sir, I think it’s more that they’re different in every way.”
“Sure, Royal. Different in every way.”
“Yes ma’am, different.”
“What he means, honey, is in this community the blacks are mostly welfare blacks and the whites are middle-class,” Betty said quickly. “It’s a question of economics and value systems, not just color.”
“Oh no indeed, that’s not what I mean at all,” Royal said, sitting down. “I mean things like not being able to say the letter ‘R.”’ Smiling now, playing with her.
“That’s crazy,” Cassie said.
“Now wait a minuteis it really? You ever heard a black person say the word poor?”
“What’s this, Royal? Twenty questions for bigots? Of course I have.”
“I doubt it.” He popped the beer can and watched the little mist come out of the opening. “You want to know why? Because they can’t. They can only say po’. ‘I don’t have no money, I’m really po’.”
“Royal, enough,” Betty said.
“You ever hear a black person say he had four of anything?” Royal asked Cassie. “Or fourteen? No ma’am, you never did. Not a nigger in this town ever had those amounts. Most those po’ niggers ever had was fo’ of anything, fo’teen at the most.”
“Nigger? Nigger?” Cassie screamed.
Royal stopped smiling. “Let me tell you something, Miss Cassie. In a place like this, you spend a lot of time with blacks, some of them good and some of them niggers. If it hurts your ears with those gypsy earrings hanging down, well, that’s too bad, but it’s the damn truth. Some of them are plain niggers. And a lot of times, you got no way of knowing which is which until something happens, like with that driver, Curley.”
“Let me tell you something, Royal. Curley says the letter ‘R’ better than you do, especially when you’re drunk. And he no more put his hand in Kyle Carter’s pants than you did.”
Royal paused, putting the beer can down on the table, turning the drunkenness off. “You’re mighty sure of that, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You spend forty minutes riding on the bus with him and you know all about his morals, right? No, Cassie. You don’t know the first thing about him outside of that bus.” He picked up the beer again. “For all you know about him or any other black person in this town, they could still be living in Africa and talking a different language.” He was holding the can as if he might crush it, but all he did was take another drink. “Your life has no more to do with theirs or theirs with yours than if they were still living over there in Africa. So what that bus driver did or didn’t do to Kyle Carteryou really don’t rightly know.”
“So a bleached-haired white kid opens his mouth against him, and that’s that.”
“Yes.” Royal was looking at her straight on. “The balance of power, Cassie. It’s not as if they’re sending him to jail.”
Then he couldn’t fight the alcohol a second longer, couldn’t keep from breaking out into the most evil grin Cassie’d ever seen, worse than Kyle’s when he touched her breast. She had to grin back so he wouldn’t imagine he had the better of her, but she wasn’t smiling, not really. She was planning how to shift the “balance of power” away from Royal P.A. Ashby if it was the last thing the arrogant bastard ever saw her do.