As a general rule, Southern Baptists don’t dance. In Beaufort, however, it wasn’t a rule that was ever strictly enforced. The minister before Hegbert—don’t ask me what his name was—took sort of a lax view about school dances as long as they were chaperoned, and because of that, they’d become a tradition of sorts. By the time Hegbert came along, it was too late to change things. Jamie was pretty much the only one who’d never been to a school dance and frankly, I didn’t know whether she even knew how to dance at all.
I admit that I also had some concerns about what she would wear, though it wasn’t something I would tell her. When Jamie went to the church socials—which were encouraged by Hegbert—she usually wore an old sweater and one of the plaid skirts we saw in school every day, but the homecoming dance was supposed to be special. Most of the girls bought new dresses and the boys wore suits, and this year we were bringing in a photographer to take our pictures. I knew Jamie wasn’t going to buy a new dress because she wasn’t exactly well-off. Ministering wasn’t a profession where people made a lot of money, but of course ministers weren’t in it for monetary gain, they were in it for the long haul, if you know what I mean. But I didn’t want her to wear the same thing she wore to school every day, either. Not so much for me—I’m not that cold-hearted—but because of what others might say. I didn’t want people to make fun of her or anything.
The good news, if there was any, was that Eric didn’t rib me too bad about the whole Jamie situation because he was too busy thinking about his own date. He was taking Margaret Hays, who was the head cheerleader at our school. She wasn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but she was nice in her own way. By nice, of course, I’m talking about her legs. Eric offered to double-date with me, but I turned him down because I didn’t want to take any chances with Eric teasing Jamie or anything like that. He was a good guy, but he could be kind of heartless sometimes, especially when he had a few shots of bourbon in him.
The day of the dance was actually quite busy for me. I spent most of the afternoon helping to decorate the gym, and I had to get to Jamie’s about a half hour early because her father wanted to talk to me, though I didn’t know why. Jamie had sprung that one on me just the day before, and I can’t say I was exactly thrilled by the prospect of it. I figured he was going to talk about temptation and the evil path it can lead us to. If he brought up fornication, though, I knew I would die right there on the spot. I said small prayers all day long in the hope of avoiding this conversation, but I wasn’t sure if God would put my prayers on the front burner, if you know what I mean, because of the way I’d behaved in the past. I was pretty nervous just thinking about it.
After I showered I put on my best suit, swung by the florist to pick up Jamie’s corsage, then drove to her house. My mom had let me borrow the car, and I parked it on the street directly in front of Jamie’s house. We hadn’t turned the clocks back yet, so it was still light out when I got there, and I strolled up the cracked walkway to her door. I knocked and waited for a moment, then knocked again. From behind the door I heard Hegbert say, “I’ll be right there,” but he wasn’t exactly racing to the door. I must have stood there for two minutes or so, looking at the door, the moldings, the little cracks in the windowsills. Off to the side were the chairs that Jamie and I had sat in just a few days back. The one I sat in was still turned in the opposite direction. I guess they hadn’t sat there in the last couple of days.
Finally the door creaked open. The light coming from the lamp inside shadowed Hegbert’s face slightly and sort of reflected through his hair. He was old, like I said, seventy-two years by my reckoning. It was the first time I’d ever seen him up close, and I could see all the wrinkles on his face. His skin really was translucent, even more so than I’d imagined.
“Hello, Reverend,” I said, swallowing my trepidation. “I’m here to take Jamie to the homecoming dance.”
“Of course you are,” he said. “But first, I wanted to talk with you.”
“Yes, sir, that’s why I came early.”
In church Hegbert was a fairly snappy dresser, but right now he looked like a farmer, dressed in overalls and a T-shirt. He motioned for me to sit on the wooden chair he’d brought in from the kitchen. “I’m sorry it took a little while to open the door. I was working on tomorrow’s sermon,” he said.
I sat down.
“That’s okay, sir.” I don’t know why, but you just had to call him “sir.” He sort of projected that image.
“All right, then, so tell me about yourself.”
I thought it was a fairly ridiculous question, with him having such a long history with my family and all. He was also the one who had baptized me, by the way, and he’d seen me in church every Sunday since I’d been a baby.
“Well, sir,” I began, not really knowing what to say, “I’m the student body president. I don’t know whether Jamie mentioned that to you.”
He nodded. “She did. Go on.”
“And . . . well, I hope to go to the University of North Carolina next fall. I’ve already received the application.”
He nodded again. “Anything else?”
I had to admit, I was running out of things after that. Part of me wanted to pick up the pencil off the end table and start balancing it, giving him the whole thirty seconds’ worth, but he wasn’t the kind of guy who would appreciate it.
“I guess not, sir.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
He sort of stared at me for a long time, as if thinking about it.
“Why did you ask my daughter to the dance?” he finally said.
I was surprised, and I know that my expression showed it.
“I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“You’re not planning to do anything to . . . embarrass her, are you?”
“No, sir,” I said quickly, shocked by the accusation. “Not at all. I needed someone to go with, and I asked her. It’s as simple as that.”
“You don’t have any pranks planned?”
“No, sir. I wouldn’t do that to her. . . .”
This went on for a few more minutes—his grilling me about my true intentions, I mean—but luckily Jamie stepped out of the back room, and her father and I both turned our heads at the same moment. Hegbert finally stopped talking, and I breathed a sigh of relief. She’d put on a nice blue skirt and a white blouse I’d never seen before. Fortunately she’d left her sweater in the closet. It wasn’t too bad, I had to admit, though I knew she’d still be underdressed compared with others at the dance. As always, her hair was pulled up in a bun. Personally I think it would have looked better if she’d kept it down, but that was the last thing I wanted to say. Jamie looked like . . . well, Jamie looked exactly like she usually did, but at least she wasn’t planning on bringing her Bible. That would have just been too much to live down.
“You’re not giving Landon a hard time, are you?” she said cheerfully to her father.
“We were just visiting,” I said quickly before he had a chance to respond. For some reason I didn’t think he’d told Jamie about the kind of person he thought I was, and I didn’t think that now would be a good time.
“Well, we should probably go,” she said after a moment. I think she sensed the tension in the room. She walked over to her father and kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t stay up too late working on the sermon, okay?”
“I won’t,” he said softly. Even with me in the room, I could tell he really loved her and wasn’t afraid to show it. It was how he felt about me that was the problem.
We said good-bye, and on our way to the car I handed Jamie her corsage and told her I’d show her how to put it on once we got in the car. I opened her door for her and walked around the other side, then got in as well. In that short period of time, Jamie had already pinned on the flower.
“I’m not exactly a dimwit, you know. I do know how to pin on a corsage.”
I started the car and headed toward the high school, with the conversation I’d just had with Hegbert running through my mind.
“My father doesn’t like you very much,” she said, as if knowing what I was thinking.
I nodded without saying anything.
“He thinks you’re irresponsible.”
I nodded again.
“He doesn’t like your father much, either.”
I nodded once more.
“Or your family.”
I get the picture.
“But do you know what I think?” she asked suddenly.
“Not really.” By then I was pretty depressed.
“I think that all this was in the Lord’s plan somehow. What do you think the message is?”
Here we go, I thought to myself.
I doubt if the evening could have been much worse, if you want to know the truth. Most of my friends kept their distance, and Jamie didn’t have many friends to begin with, so we spent most of our time alone. Even worse, it turned out that my presence wasn’t even required anymore. They’d changed the rule owing to the fact that Carey couldn’t get a date, and that left me feeling pretty miserable about the whole thing as soon as I found out about it. But because of what her father had said to me, I couldn’t exactly take her home early, now, could I? And more than that, she was really having a good time; even I could see that. She loved the decorations I’d helped put up, she loved the music, she loved everything about the dance. She kept telling me how wonderful everything was, and she asked me whether I might help her decorate the church someday, for one of their socials. I sort of mumbled that she should call me, and even though I said it without a trace of energy, Jamie thanked me for being so considerate. To be honest, I was depressed for at least the first hour, though she didn’t seem to notice.
Jamie had to be home by eleven o’clock, an hour before the dance ended, which made it somewhat easier for me to handle. Once the music started we hit the floor, and it turned out that she was a pretty good dancer, considering it was her first time and all. She followed my lead pretty well through about a dozen songs, and after that we headed to the tables and had what resembled an ordinary conversation. Sure, she threw in words like “faith” and “joy” and even “salvation,” and she talked about helping the orphans and scooping critters off the highway, but she was just so damn happy, it was hard to stay down for long.
So things weren’t too terrible at first and really no worse than I had expected. It wasn’t until Lew and Angela showed up that everything really went sour.
They showed up a few minutes after we arrived. He was wearing that stupid T-shirt, Camels in his sleeve, and a glop of hair gel on his head. Angela hung all over him right from the beginning of the dance, and it didn’t take a genius to realize she’d had a few drinks before she got there. Her dress was really flashy—her mother worked in a salon and was up on all the latest fashions—and I noticed she’d picked up that ladylike habit called chewing gum. She really worked that gum, chewing it almost like a cow working her cud.
Well, good old Lew spiked the punch bowl, and a few more people started getting tipsy. By the time the teachers found out, most of the punch was already gone and people were getting that glassy look in their eyes. When I saw Angela gobble up her second glass of punch, I knew I should keep my eye on her. Even though she’d dumped me, I didn’t want anything bad to happen to her. She was the first girl I’d ever French-kissed, and even though our teeth clanked together so hard the first time we tried it that I saw stars and had to take aspirin when I got home, I still had feelings for her.
So there I was, sitting with Jamie, barely listening as she described the wonders of Bible school, watching Angela out of the corner of my eye, when Lew spotted me looking at her. In one frenzied motion he grabbed Angela around the waist and dragged her over to the table, giving me one of those looks, the one that “means business.” You know the one I’m talking about.
“Are you staring at my girl?” he asked, already tensing up.
“Yeah, he was,” Angela said, kind of slurring out the words. “He was staring right at me. This is my old boyfriend, the one I told you about.”
His eyes turned into little slits, just like Hegbert’s were prone to do. I guess I have this effect on lots of people.
“So you’re the one,” he said, sneering.
Now, I’m not much of a fighter. The only real fight I was ever in was in third grade, and I pretty much lost that one when I started to cry even before the guy punched me. Usually I didn’t have much trouble staying away from things like this because of my passive nature, and besides, no one ever messed with me when Eric was around. But Eric was off with Margaret somewhere, probably behind the bleachers.
“I wasn’t staring,” I said finally, “and I don’t know what she told you, but I doubt if it was true.”
His eyes narrowed. “Are you calling Angela a liar?” he sneered.
I think he would have hit me right there, but Jamie suddenly worked her way into the situation.
“Don’t I know you?” she said cheerfully, looking right at him. Sometimes Jamie seemed oblivious of situations that were happening right in front of her. “Wait—yes, I do. You work in the garage downtown. Your father’s name is Joe, and your grandma lives out on Foster Road, by the railroad crossing.”
A look of confusion crossed Lew’s face, as though he were trying to put together a puzzle with too many pieces.
“How do you know all that? What he’d do, tell you about me, too?”
“No,” Jamie said, “don’t be silly.” She laughed to herself. Only Jamie could find humor at a time like this. “I saw your picture in your grandma’s house. I was walking by, and she needed some help bringing in the groceries. Your picture was on the mantel.”
Lew was looking at Jamie as though she had cornstalks growing out of her ears.
Meanwhile Jamie was fanning herself with her hand. “Well, we were just sitting down to take a breather from all that dancing. It sure gets hot out there. Would you like to join us? We’ve got a couple of chairs. I’d love to hear how your grandma is doing.”
She sounded so happy about it that Lew didn’t know what to do. Unlike those of us who were used to this sort of thing, he’d never come across someone like Jamie before. He stood there for a moment or two, trying to decide if he should hit the guy with the girl who’d helped his grandma. If it sounds confusing to you, imagine what it was doing to Lew’s petroleum-damaged brain.
He finally skulked off without responding, taking Angela with him. Angela had probably forgotten how the whole thing started anyway, owing to the amount she’d had to drink. Jamie and I watched him go, and when he was a safe distance away, I exhaled. I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding my breath.
“Thanks,” I said mumbled sheepishly, realizing that Jamie—Jamie!—was the one who’d saved me from grave bodily harm.
Jamie looked at me strangely. “For what?” she asked, and when I didn’t exactly spell it out for her, she went right back into her story about Bible school, as if nothing had happened at all. But this time I found myself actually listening to her, at least with one of my ears. It was the least I could do.
It turns out that it wasn’t the last we saw of either Lew or Angela that evening. The two glasses of punch had really done Angela in, and she threw up all over the ladies’ rest room. Lew, being the classy guy he was, left when he heard her retching, sort of slinking out the way he came in, and that was the last I saw of him. Jamie, as fate would have it, was the one who found Angela in the bathroom, and it was obvious that Angela wasn’t doing too well. The only option was to clean her up and take her home before the teachers found out about it. Getting drunk was a big deal back then, and she’d be looking at suspension, maybe even expulsion, if she got caught.
Jamie, bless her heart, didn’t want that to happen any more than I did, though I would have thought otherwise if you’d asked me beforehand, owing to the fact that Angela was a minor and in violation of the law. She’d also broken another one of Hegbert’s rules for proper behavior. Hegbert frowned on law-breaking and drinking, and though it didn’t get him going like fornication, we all knew he was deadly serious, and we assumed Jamie felt the same way. And maybe she did, but her helper instinct must have taken over. She probably took one look at Angela and thought “wounded critter” or something like that and took immediate charge of the situation. I went off and located Eric behind the bleachers, and he agreed to stand guard at the bathroom door while Jamie and I went in to tidy it up. Angela had done a marvelous job, I tell you. The puke was everywhere except the toilet. The walls, the floor, the sinks—even on the ceiling, though don’t ask me how she did that. So there I was, perched on all fours, cleaning up puke at the homecoming dance in my best blue suit, which was exactly what I had wanted to avoid in the first place. And Jamie, my date, was on all fours, too, doing exactly the same thing.
I could practically hear Carey laughing a squeaky, maniacal laugh somewhere in the distance.
We ended up sneaking out the back door of the gym, keeping Angela stable by walking on either side of her. She kept asking where Lew was, but Jamie told her not to worry. She had a real soothing way of talking to Angela, though Angela was so far gone, I doubt if she even knew who was speaking. We loaded Angela into the backseat of my car, where she passed out almost immediately, although not before she’d vomited once more on the floor of the car. The smell was so awful that we had to roll down the windows to keep from gagging, and the drive to Angela’s house seemed extra long. Her mother answered the door, took one look at her daughter, and brought her inside without so much as a word of thanks. I think she was embarrassed, and we really didn’t have much to say to her anyway. The situation pretty much spoke for itself.
By the time we dropped her off it was ten forty-five, and we drove straight back to Jamie’s. I was really worried when we got there because of the way she looked and smelled, and I said a silent prayer hoping that Hegbert wasn’t awake. I didn’t want to have to explain this to him. Oh, he’d probably listen to Jamie if she was the one who told him about it, but I had the sinking feeling that he’d find a way to blame me anyway.
So I walked her to the door, and we stood outside under the porchlight. Jamie crossed her arms and smiled a little, looking just as if she’d come in from an evening stroll where she’d contemplated the beauty of the world.
“Please don’t tell your father about this,” I said.
“I won’t,” she said. She kept on smiling when she finally turned my way. “I had a good time tonight. Thank you for taking me to the dance.”
Here she was, covered in puke, actually thanking me for the evening. Jamie Sullivan could really drive a guy crazy sometimes.