BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
JUNE 22, 1963. Ready or not, the graduating Gatorsburg High School senior class stood with one foot on the bottom rung of adulthood.
That Saturday evening dusk dissolved swiftly into darkness in Gatorsburg as it always did, but night brought no respite from the Louisiana heat and humidity. Purple bruise and gunmetal grey clouds piled up on the horizon, the anvil tops tinged a lurid pink and orange, promising thunderstorms.
Tyson LaFramboise parked his father’s month-old Chrysler Imperial convertible in Mary-Beth’s driveway and held the door open for her to get in. Dressed in a white gown and her mother’s white, elbow-length gloves, she slid into the passenger seat and sat with her hands in her lap. She glanced at Ty. A small, almost prim smile crossed her lips before she turned her head to look straight ahead. Mary-Beth was small and dainty enough to pass for a girl half her age and, except for the gardenia corsage on her wrist, Ty figured she looked like she could have been on her way to her first communion.
He reversed out of the driveway and pushed the PowerFlite automatic transmission button on the dash to Drive. Within seconds a bead of sweat trickled down his temple. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. A moment later it returned.
He pressed on the accelerator and felt the wind cool his scalp through his straw blond, quarter inch crew cut. The trickle stopped. He glanced over at Mary-Beth. She caught his look and moved closer on the red leather bench seat. Her blond hair with the tiny white bow did not have a strand out of place, fixed by an armour plate of hair spray from the beauty parlour her mother went to. She looked like her mom in the engagement photo on the sideboard in her parents’ dining room. He reckoned she’d still look like her mom twenty years from now, and be just as boring. She smiled as if to say, “we both know why I’m here.” He returned the smile. He had 10 bucks riding on the outcome. Figured it should be money in the bank, and the 10 bucks would pay for the cost of renting the tux for the Prom. Then, the job done, she’d be out of his life forever. No regrets on either side.
Ty pulled to a stop under the floodlight in the parking lot of the Gatorsburg Golf and Country Club. Mary-Beth snuggled closer and rested a hand on Ty’s thigh. He thought of kissing her, but that would mess with her lipstick, and the smell of her hair spray made him want to sneeze. He pushed a button on the dash and the convertible top levered itself up and over them. He clipped the heavy canvas in place driver’s side and reached across Mary-Beth to fasten the other clip.
“Careful,” she said.
Careful. That was Mary-Beth all over. Her mother’s daughter fast becoming her mother.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to touch you. Not there.” Not yet. Besides, a search party would be hard pressed to find anything “there.” He fastened the passenger side clip without further chastisement, got out and held the passenger side door open for her. She swivelled round in her seat and placed her white pumps on the gravel. Ty held his hand out and Mary-Beth accepted it. She slid out of the car clasping her clutch purse in front of her looking like she was unsure what to do next. Ty compressed his lips in a straight line. This might be harder than he thought.
He tapped his pants pocket. The mickey of gin sat flush with his thigh. He suppressed a grin. Two spiked cups of fruit punch should be enough to lower her defences, increase co-operation and make her horny enough to enjoy the back seat on the way home. Her parents weren’t expecting her back before breakfast. It was an unwritten rule every daddy understood — on Senior Prom night your daughter’s cherry gets popped.
He figured most of the girls in the senior class were still as prim and pristine as Mary Beth. They certainly acted like they were, with their noses stuck up in the air, saving themselves for marriage. Bullshit. More like saving themselves for prom night, with Mary-Beth at the head of the list. He hadn’t wanted to take her to the prom, but to collect his winnings he had to. All he needed was to come up with proof he’d claimed her scalp. Maybe it would take three shots of gin. And her panties as a trophy.
He suppressed a grin, glad Mary-Beth had no idea she was worth 10 bucks. That would have ruined his chances of success, big time.
“Hey, man.” Roger Toussaint tapped Ty on the shoulder.
Ty turned. His face lit up. “Hi, Roger. I heard your football scholarship check finally arrived.”
“No cheque. Tuition fees paid by Tulane but nothing for personal equipment.”
“They won’t pay for your jock? Cheapskates.”
Roger laughed. “It’s more than I had yesterday, man. I’ll probably get red-shirted my freshman year and end up as a defensive back. You know how it is being a freshman quarterback, even at Tulane.”
“Don’t give up, Roger. School’s going to inherit Danny ‘Fourth and Long’ Crombie as the QB next year.”
Roger pulled a face. “If Gatorsburg was any bigger, we’d have two high schools and you’d have had him this year.”
Ty grimaced. “Don’t bear thinking of.”
Roger touched Ty on the arm. “You could have been the quarterback, man. You can throw and run, and take a hit when you have to.”
“I don’t like getting hit. I’d rather line up behind ‘Capital Punishment’ and kill the quarterback.”
Roger winced. Ty gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder. “He can run, but he can’t hide from this linebacker.”
Roger turned to Mary-Beth. “Heh, Mary-Beth. Y’all with Ty tonight?”
Tongue-tied, Mary-Beth merely nodded. Ty reached for her hand but she kept it in a fist.
“I’m with Lorraine,” Roger said. “If she remembers.” He laughed.
“Are you on again or off again tonight?”
“I know, it’s hard to keep track. I’ll have to ask her.”
“Don’t forget to take her home. She might get the impression you’re back together.”
“Unless she changes her mind again before the night’s over.”
On the dance floor, Motown, Beatles, and Johnny Cash pounded through the speakers before the DJ slowed it down with Pat Boone, Marty Robbins and Patsy Cline. Ty slipped a capful of gin into Mary-Beth’s fruit punch whenever she wasn’t looking. It seemed to have not the slightest effect. At the break Mary-Beth went off to the patio to be with her girlfriends and smoke like grown-ups. The guys congregated at one end of the ballroom where they could talk football, baseball, hunting and fishing without boring their dates.
Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Beach Boys and a whole boatload more Country followed the break. As lightning flashed across the sky, thunder crashed and rolled, and rain splashed off the Country Club’s flagstone terrace. The Cascades sang, “Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain.” Everyone jeered. Then the air conditioning gave out. Near one o’clock the DJ slowed his music. Ray Charles crooned, “Take These Chains from my Heart.” Bobby Vinton’s tenor rang around the room with, “Blue Velvet.” Sweaty couples clung to each other, ignoring the heat given off by their bodies.
Lorraine slid across the dance floor and hooked an arm through Ty’s. “Roger’s deserted me again,” she whispered. She nodded in the direction of Roger and Mary-Beth, swaying slowly in each other’s arms. Mary-Beth had her arms around Roger’s neck. Roger’s hands rested on her butt, pressing her unresisting body against his loins. Ty watched his ten bucks vanish down the can.
“So’s Mary-Beth,” he said, and shrugged. “How about it?”
“How about what?”
“A slow dance and I’ll take you home.”
“We could stop off along the way.”
“For something to eat?”
Lorraine gave Ty a look he couldn’t decipher. “That too,” she whispered. “Roger’s only got his daddy’s ’48 Mercury pick-up. The cab’s cramped and the back doesn’t have a cap. I don’t want to get soaked.”
“I’ve got my old man’s Chrysler Imperial. I have to have it back by breakfast.”
“That’s plenty of time.”
“For what you had in mind?”
The DJ announced the last dance. Roy Orbison’s acapella voice all but spoke the first lines of the song. Ty stiffened and the colour drained from his face.
Lorraine appeared not to have noticed. “I can’t let you come into my room,” she whispered. “My daddy would kill me and shoot you. Is your back seat comfy?”
Roy Orbison’s tenor soared three octaves into the heart of the song.
“Comfy and dry,” Ty whispered back. “I put the top up as soon as I arrived.”
“You’re smart enough to be a quarterback,” she whispered, and they both laughed. He glanced over at Roger and Mary-Beth, lost in each other’s arms, eyes closed, scarcely moving. Screw them. If Roger wants her scalp, he’s welcome to it.
“I saw your lips moving,” Lorraine whispered as she wrapped her arms around Ty’s neck and pulled him close to her. He slipped his hand down her ankle-length, backless navy blue dress until it rested on her butt. She moved closer and pressed her hips against his.
“I didn’t say anything. Just mouthing the words to the song.”
“I love this song.”
‘“In Dreams?’ I hate it,” he said with vehemence. “There’s something about it I can’t shake. It stays with me. I have to listen to it. If I hear it on the radio or on a juke box, I crank up the volume. I can’t turn it off. It’s haunting.”
“If it bothers you, let’s leave. We can get a head start on eating something.”
When Ty drove Lorraine home Sunday morning it was still dark and a good couple of hours away from an early breakfast. The rain eased up for a moment as he pulled the red Chrysler into her driveway. They ran to the front door. She held out her key. He took it and unlocked the door. “Thank you for a wonderful evening,” she said, loud enough for her parents to hear in their bedroom over the door.
“We only graduate once,” he said. “So we can’t do it again. Anyway, I’m on a plane to Washington in a few hours, then on to Quantico.”
“I’m joining the Marine Corps. With any luck I might get to Viet Nam before it’s over and done. My old man was a Ranger. Went ashore on D Day, Omaha Beach. Got wounded pretty bad, bad enough to get a medical discharge.”
“I didn’t know.”
“He don’t brag about it.”
“Good luck.” She dropped her voice. “I’m glad I got to say goodbye properly.” She kissed him lightly on the lips, then shut the door quietly behind her.
Ty drove over to Roger’s wood frame and aluminum siding house half a mile outside Gatorsburg. The driveway was empty. He killed the headlights and sat in the dark a few yards down the street, listening to the wind in the live oaks lining the side of the road and the different sounds the rain made when it drummed off the steel bodywork and canvas top. He lit a cigarette and turned on the radio. A Philco. All transistor, the dealer said. The DJ chattered for a few seconds, then played, ‘In Dreams.’ Ty stiffened, exhaled angrily and stubbed the cigarette in the ashtray before he cranked up the volume. Angry red flashed across his eyes. As the song reached its climax and ended he saw headlights approaching in his rear view. A Mercury pick-up slowed and pulled into the driveway. The driver’s door opened and closed softly. There was no sign of Mary-Beth in the truck.
Ty got out and loped across the road.
“What the hell are you doing here, man?” Roger hissed.
“You screw Mary-Beth?”
“None of your business, man.”
“Was she good for a first time, asshole?”
“I can guarantee it wasn’t her first time. I figured you’d been there before me.”
Ty’s mouth dropped open. He blinked away the red flash, flattened his hand and with all his force drove his fingers into Roger’s throat, an inch below his Adam’s apple. Roger collapsed soundlessly in a heap. His feet drummed on the driveway for a few seconds. He twitched a couple of times. Then he lay still. Ty felt the carotid artery for a pulse. None.
He hoisted Roger’s body over his shoulder, crossed the road and dumped him on the road at the rear of the Chrysler. He opened the trunk and hefted Roger’s body inside. He closed the lid softly and glanced at the house. Still dark. No neighbours. No dog bark, but he closed the door quietly to be on the safe side and drove off without kicking up gravel.
Six miles out of Gatorsburg he pulled off the road at Bubba’s Bait and Tackle and backed down the concrete boat ramp. He hauled Roger’s body out of the trunk and dragged it down the ramp to the edge of the bayou. With a downed tree limb he pushed the body into the stagnant, brackish water. Where an arm disturbed the muddy bottom bubbles rose to the surface. Ty smelled methane. A few moments passed. He watched a black log detach itself from the muddy bank and slip soundlessly into the water. A ripple widened. Another log followed. Then another.
A snout surfaced. Roger’s body bobbed as the snout hit. A tail thrashed the water. Jaws snapped shut, crunching flesh and bone. Within seconds a feeding frenzy foamed around Roger. In the inky darkness Ty imagined Roger’s blood staining the bayou red. He turned his back and returned to his father’s automobile.
Retired United States Marine Corps three star General Tyson LaFramboise pulled his Hummer onto the boat ramp by Bubba’s Bait and Tackle and stopped with the SUV’s front wheels axle-deep in the murky water. He slouched over the steering wheel, staring moodily at the bayou. He wondered who owned Bubba’s now, 54 years after the Senior Prom. Or if they ever found Roger Toussaint’s body.
Some things change, he thought. Some don’t hardly change at all. Gatorsburg High was still there. Bubba’s Bait and Tackle. The gators. America had changed, though, especially since ’Nam. He’d gotten two Purple Hearts over there, along with five rows of medals they don’t give away with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He’d been in Somalia, both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. Now the country was run by the children of draft dodgers, and their kids whine about lacking safe spaces.
He spat through the open window. “Grow a spine, snowflake,” he snarled.
He tuned the radio to WTIX-FM, an Oldies station in New Orleans. ‘In Dreams’ came through the eight speakers in the Hummer. “Christ!” he snarled. “I can’t never get away from that song.” He cranked up the volume. “God damn you, Roy Orbison. God damn you to hell.”
A red streak flashed across his eyes. He slammed his fists on the steering wheel, pounding it as he relived the gators eating the first man he ever killed. Roger had it coming for screwing Mary-Beth, even if she was no virgin. And it cost him 10 bucks. It was Lorraine instead who had expertly relieved him of his virginity in the back seat of the Chrysler that night. He threw his cigar butt angrily out the window and heard it sizzle for a second when it hit the water.
“Forty years in the Corps, for what?” he snarled. “No wonder America’s gone to hell in a hand basket. Goddamn Democrats!” He rammed the transmission into Reverse and gunned the engine.
“Hell, they don’t even build Hummers anymore.”