I met the famous Southern writer, Peter Taylor, in Washington, D.C., not long before he died. He had known my grandfather and asked me, having just read my memoir, "Why were you so restrained?" Good question, I thought - particularly coming from you. Restraint was a notable hallmark of Taylor's wonderful short stories, and of all good writing, up to a point. And the South's famous for restraint, of course, as well as the opposite.
Girls generally fell into groups complicated by social standing but not ruled by it. To begin with, they were either chaste or unchaste. The former were the sort you would someday marry and whose designation you meanwhile halfheartedly sought to alter. Chastity tended toward the right side of the tracks, yet some of the most unchaste girls came from the right families. Curiously, a good girl's designation didn't necessarily change if she slept with someone she loved. Then she was a good girl touched with tragedy.
"Bad" was an imperfect concept when applied to girls, the word itself rarely used unless it pertained to those with names obviously — to us — sexual. They would make love to most anybody who came by to pick them up, and sometimes to two or three boys in succession, events I only heard about. Most girls who "did" were judged by the level of enthusiasm they brought to the act. Enthusiasm with more than one partner meant the girl was either bad or hopelessly sophisticated. Perceived variation in performance allowed each boy to think of himself as the best, the embodiment of valor or good looks that had at last fulfilled her expectations.
Years later, reading Peter Taylor's story "The Old Forest," set in Memphis, I realized that what had seemed to us a novel division was in fact standard operating procedure. We didn't refer to girls who did, or those who came from the wrong side of the tracks or the wrong side of the river and worked in thoroughly respectable jobs, as "demimondaines," wouldn't have known what the term meant, but we did treat them differently. Taylor's may have been an earlier generation, but the categorizing of girls according to current availability, connections, and future matrimony hadn't changed.
Veronica waded in dark water, holding up the hem of her skirt to reveal hefty but good legs that had not been shaved that day — a sign, I was sure, of rampant sexuality. It was Saturday. The brothers of Tau Delta Tau and their dates had gathered on the shore of Arkabutler, a reservoir in north Mississippi with a primordial vista: rotten stumps and a muddy littoral running to infinity. We boys lay on a patch of imported sand like shoats on a slow spit, drinking beer and practicing irreverence. Veronica was, I thought, under-appreciated by her date, the lank, fastidious Rughead. Her smile lacked the hale camaraderie with which some girls kept boys at bay, and her brilliant blue eyes reflected depthless unconcern.
She was not petite but she was pretty, and had a reputation for warmth that bordered on the indiscriminate. She lived in a housing development between the big lawns of Walnut Grove and the attenuated commercialism of Summer Avenue, a transitional neighborhood, and unfortunately was a Baptist. But these facts lost significance when I talked to her later on the telephone; Veronica's natural breathiness affected my circulatory system in the same way a person would have by sitting on my chest.
We made a date. Her response to my tentative moves in the front seat of my father's pea-green, stick-shift Plymouth was immediate, passionate, and absolutely circumscribed by a vow she had made at a Baptist retreat to preserve her virginity until marriage. The interesting part was that Veronica provided such willing inspiration for undermining it. This led to more dates and discussion, and eventually to Sunday dinner with her parents, plump evangelists who prayed loudly over the meal, eyes clamped shut, but were otherwise tight-lipped. I knew the jokes about Baptists: a person transferring from a Baptist to a Methodist church automatically lowered the IQ averages of both. Baptists didn't copulate while standing up because somebody might think they were dancing. And so on. Veronica's mother asked me what church I belonged to, and I admitted, "St. John's."
Her father looked at me as if at a released felon. "I hear they're pretty liberal," he said.
They had been to service at least once that day. Veronica's churchgoing blouse didn't suit her large, light-absorbing breasts. Those, not God, were the center of the universe, obvious to Him and everyone else, a screaming unavoidability that hung over a tablecloth into which had been woven a rugged cross from which holy rays emanated. Veronica's obliging blue eyes stayed on her roast beef.
Later, as if dinner had never happened, Veronica and I made out in her living room, using the sound of the television set for cover, while her parents did whatever Baptists were supposed to do in their bedrooms on Sunday night.
She came by my house with other girls and boys. Mom said nothing about Veronica that I can remember - a rarity - and Dad averted his eyes from those preponderant parts of her that usually attracted so much indiscriminate male attention. Veronica tried to be demure there, too, but was basically unequipped for the role. Some girls just had too much too early of whatever it was that made them women — and not just breasts — and a natural. pleasant, essentially southern disposition that added to the suggestion of complaisance.
Mostly Veronica and I went to movies, and sometimes to parties that coalesced almost every night in the city, amidst banks of flowers and the herbaceous explosion of Memphis. Harley took up with a friend of Veronica's; we double-dated in the Pontiac belonging to the second most important man in Tennessee, eating barbecue at Willie King's drive-in and then catapulting over the viaduct, bound for Boyle's Lake. Harley already had a steady girl, who went to Miss Hutchinson's and who would be "coming out" in a year. By some mysterious circumlocution the subject of Harley's debutante never came up. I was learning by example rather than exegesis that some guys had two sorts of girlfriends, and that neither sort talked about the other.
The four of us would sometimes leave the Pontiac parked by the Toddle House and creep back to the studio, to test the elasticity of vows and to come to grips by increment with what was most definitely on our minds.
Sex, like the aura of hydrangea, hovered over everything that summer of 1957. One Saturday, exposed to the world, I dragged the mattress out of the old servants' quarters, across the back yard, flattening the crabgrass, not even attempting to be surreptitious, and into the studio. The aspiring snow-job artist had given way to the no-quarter seducer. Someone — my parents, Dodo, Jack — must have noticed this remarkable preparation but said nothing, tacitly recognizing either an established ritual or the fact that I was no longer under control.
That night Veronica and I went to my grandfather's shrine by ourselves. An Ella Fitzgerald record of my brother's waited on the spindle; the mattress lay unavoidably in the middle of the floor. We knelt on it and started on the familiar progression, but Veronica knew that this time was different. I found a break in the fundamentalist front, and dove through; the physical disengagement of buttons and the clasp took a while, and then Veronica swung free in the almost-dark.
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