Chapter 5: Cold Comfort
Copyright © 2000 by Diana E. Sheets
Skip and I are on a pontoon boat, drifting lazily down the Delaware River. It’s Friday afternoon, mid-August. The skies above us are sunny, blazing down a hazy furnace of heat. The currents beneath us push us south toward Lambertville, that lovely mill town, ten miles from ugly Trenton. We’re celebrating Skip’s promotion to management. I guess you could say we’re playing hooky. Bathing suits on, mint juleps in hand. An old truck inner tube attached to a painter trails behind the boat just in case one of us wants to take a dunk. Life is good.
The meandering scenic river, the pontoon boat, the mint juleps, aren’t we in Mississippi? Skip’s not helping, either. He’s talking about Memphis, antebellum plantations, good ol’ boys, Southern belles. There’s both irritation and pathos to his voice. Wispy traces of his Southern lilt take hold with alcohol. “Sue, the South’s no place to live. The racism, the provinciality, worse of all, the women.”
However, my perspective differs from Skip. I can’t help thinking: “I could live there. Economy’s on the upswing, not like the Northeast. It’s a good climate for sales. There’s both subtlety and directness in the way businessmen conduct their transactions. Relationships—both professional and personal—appear substantial. Then there are the social undercurrents that are intrinsic to that culture. They reflect sensibilities that never have to be explained; they’re implicitly understood. And Southern manners and patterns of speech have a distinctly English flavor. It all seems so enticing.
“What a contrast Manhattan presents. Social relations in the city fester with ethnic and class tensions causing, not one chasm, but a multitude of fissures. Everything’s loud, overstated. There are no shared values. Just an in-your-face attitude that permeates every encounter. Cash nexus governs every interaction. The grinding competitiveness of the city threatens to drive every deal below cost. I’m tired of shoving, pushing, and scraping for survival. I’m due for a change. Southern civility is beginning to look pretty good to me.”
So I say, “What’s so bad about the South Skip? Sounds great.”
Skip gives me one of those long, searching gazes. Then laughs. “Ten months, Sue. You’d be outta there before a year is through. Maybe the South holds some romance for you, but I guarantee you’d never fit in. You a Baptist?”
“In the South you had better be Christian.”
“And what about Tom?” Skip continues. “Everyone will know he’s Jewish. Can’t imagine him liking it down there. The two of you will be branded outsiders. His cultural identity will impede your friendships; it will even hinder your career. Then there’s your demeanor.”
“What’s wrong with my demeanor?” I snap.
“Well, you don’t exactly present yourself as a model of femininity. You dress in tailored suits; you walk aggressively, and you have a no-frills approach to your social and business interactions. Even a man in the South might have to tone some of that down. But a woman?”
Skip sees I’m glowering, so he soft-pedals a little.
“Sure, you’re cute enough.” Then he dives in, “But you’d have to start wearing all that feline, designer stuff. You’d have to smile a lot, you know, bat your eyelashes, things like that. Above all, you’d have to make men feel they’re important, especially when they’re not. You’d need a whole new presentation. We’re talking a total change in attitude, Sue. Demure. The whole nine yards. And that doesn’t include the tough stuff, the racial divide.”
“So do you go back?” I ask, switching the subject. No sense in arguing on Skip’s day.
“As little as possible,” he replies. Sadness seeps into his voice like the whiff of faded magnolia blossoms. “Helen wants to take the kids there this summer. Frankly, I’m dreading the prospect.”
And then it all comes out.
Skip Gibbons was the eldest of three children, the only boy. The marriage of his parents, MaryBeth Ann Cummings and Howard R. Gibbons, was one of those unlikely matches fostered by World War II. They met while both were stationed in Britain. MaryBeth was a WAC, Howard, a budding aerospace engineer. The urgency of those times fostered their mismatched union. They were wed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1947. The marriage was a disaster right from the get-go.
It’s hard for me to imagine a more ill-conceived pair, Southern belle and Northern engineer. I’m married to one, you see. Those engineers. They like their lives simple, uncluttered. No histrionics, no frills, no mess. They’re builders, like to fix things. Worst thing you can do with one of those guys is to screw up their meticulous world. They can’t take the chaos. But chaos is precisely what MaryBeth created.
For a while, of course, her actions were tempered by the demands of running a household and rearing three children. Skip, the eldest, was clearly MaryBeth’s favorite, whereas she regarded Tara Lynn and Mirabelle as tiresome, ever-babbling, porcelain dress-up dolls. Nevertheless, she carefully scrutinized the girls’ behavior for latent signs of feminine wiles, never quite trustful of her competition in the making.
But MaryBeth’s flamboyant nature could hardly be constrained forever. By the time Skip and Tara Lynn were in primary school and Mirabelle still a toddler, MaryBeth began shopping. At first, her purchases were just hats. Every day, Harold returned from work at Westcon, an aircraft parts manufacturer near Teterboro, New Jersey, to find his wife had purchased a new headpiece. Soon there were half-hats, pillboxes, and tiny bonnets overflowing the closet. To their ranks were added wide-brimmed straw garden hats. Then came the draped and crushed berets, as well as the fitted cloches. They included a colorful assortment of felt and suede styles.
For cocktail parties, MaryBeth favored only the smallest headpieces that were shaped like discs. These were covered in velvet or satin and embroidered with sequins or beads. Many had wispy veils accompanying them.
It seemed to Harold that the hats were breeding, forever multiplying. One day he decided to put a stop to it.
“I suppose you’re planning to open a millinery?” he snarled.
But MaryBeth refused to rise to his bait. Perhaps, he concluded, it was better to reach her through the medium of culture. But this posed a special challenge for Harold. For he was a man whose intellect had been fostered by tracing electrical wires to their power source. Then came his passion for rebuilding radios, later, his interest in airplanes. All of which hardly prepared him to do battle with a Southern woman well versed in literature and the arts. Nevertheless, Harold was a man who was seldom daunted. From his youth, he recalled some of the writings of Thoreau. A great man. Who better to reveal to MaryBeth the folly of her ways.
“Know what Thoreau said?” he began bravely.
“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”
Unlike Harold, however, MaryBeth had few holes in her literary arsenal. “Know what Addison said?” she countered.
“No. What?” Who the hell is Addison?
“There is not so variable a thing in nature as a lady’s headdress.”
Harold had been gunned down, rendered powerless by a literary allusion.
Shoes came next. No question MaryBeth was partial to stiletto heels and pointed toes. However, her closet revealed a wide assortment of flats, slings, open toes, and mules. Most were selected for their bright, opulent hues. MaryBeth favored the reds, shiny yellows, flaming oranges, vibrant purples, and fuchsias. But in the evening she chose from among a rack of black, satin pumps. Her favorite pair was both tall and pointy with rhinestones wrapping the heels. By now all the closets were overflowing with MaryBeth’s shoes. Shoes in their bedroom closet, shoes in the hall closet, shoes in the children’s closet, seasonal shoes packed away in boxes in the attic. They seemed to be breeding like field mice.
For Howard, this was all too much. But just as he was prepared to issue an ultimatum, there came a breather. For months, MaryBeth purchased only hosiery. But not just ordinary stockings, naturally. These came in designer colors: pink, mauve, an assortment of pastel shades in hues of green and blue. All were priced exorbitantly. Fortunately for Harold, however, even the priciest stockings were cheap by comparison to a new wardrobe. So with grinding teeth, he said nothing.
But as it turned out, this respite proved short-lived. Six months later, MaryBeth’s flurry of purchases resumed. First, there came the dresses. And what frocks they were! Soon these were accompanied by well-fitted bodices and dramatically flared and pleated skirts.
“What are these?” Harold growled.
“Aren’t they just beautiful?” said Marybeth. “They accentuate my hourglass figure.”
“Men are so charming when they’re dumb.”
For evenings, she purchased ballet-length satin skirts with snug, lacy tops and matching wraps. And so Harold’s nightmare continued.
As the fifties progressed, MaryBeth followed the dictates of fashion. She abandoned the “New Look” in favor of the styles influenced by the Space Age. She, too, began wearing the straight chemises, sheaths, and trapezes that resembled toothpaste tubes and circus tents. Only her precious bubble dress suggested her penchant for drama. With its bright flowery pattern, its sleeveless top cinched in tightly at the waist, its full hemline tucked under to form a puffball just below the knees, well, what man wouldn’t turn around for a second look?
But MaryBeth’s latest shopping spree made Harold livid. More dresses? Had all reason and rationale escaped his wife? He’d put a stop to this. This time he foraged for bullets from the footnotes of Roget’s Thesaurus. There he found a quote from Trollope. A glance at MaryBeth’s biographical dictionary confirmed his selection. Who better to use for ammunition than a successful nineteenth century British novelist? Armed and confident, Harold launched his assault.
“‘He is the best dressed whose dress no one observes,’ Trollope.”
“Well, ‘the soul of this woman is her clothes,’ Shakespeare.”
The ease with which MaryBeth dodged his enemy fire was appalling. The flesh wound was his. For even poor Harold had to acknowledge that in the scheme of things Shakespeare was more influential than Trollope. Shakespeare, he thought, how could I have overlooked Shakespeare?
In desperation, Harold fired one of his own hastily forged slugs.
“You’re driving me to the insane asylum and the poor house at the same time.”
“Who said that?”
“Harold R. Gibbons.”
“Touché, Harold,” she said, laughing, as she walked away.
“I know you heard me,” he shouted back, “stop this foolishness.” As if anything got through to her.
That evening, while MaryBeth dressed to attend the Swanson’s cocktail party, Harold paced. Of course, she would insist on wearing some fancy cocktail dress while other women wore simple sheaths. Her outrageous outfits were making him the object of ridicule. He, after all, would be viewed as the fool married to that woman.
These days, Harold imagined MaryBeth as a one-woman brigade festooned in post-Reconstructionist garb. Truth was, she had no intention of accepting the ascendancy of Unionist principles. She was single-handedly determined to reinstate the Confederacy. She would reverse the course of history. Under MaryBeth’s rule, the South would vanquish the culturally impoverished North and, once again, rise to splendor. Southern belles, plantations, slavery, and the primacy of cotton would be restored. He, Harold, would be reduced to nothing more than an indentured servant, left to toil with the Negroes in the fields so that she might truly glitter. Ruin, in the guise of the duplicitous charms of a Southern coquette, stalked him.
So it came as no surprise to Harold when MaryBeth appeared before him dressed to kill. There she stood wearing that hideous bubble dress and those decadent black satin shoes with their stiletto heels wrapped with rhinestones. Then there were those god-awful pastel stockings and that disgusting wisp of a hat.
“You can’t be planning to wear that get-up,” he barked.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The dress, those shoes, the stockings, that hat!”
“Just that?” Her laughter trilled like a Delta songbird.
He tried reason. “All the other women will be casual,” his words soft, almost pleading. Then ferociously, “We’re not going to the Opera; this isn’t a Paris soirée; I forbid you to go out dressed like that.”
But out she went. That evening, MaryBeth was the belle of suburban Fair Lawn. She reveled in the attention those New Jersey Yankees bestowed on her. Drinks flowed; she grew tipsy. It wasn’t long before she dared to sit on a few men’s laps, leaning over so they might peak down the front of her dress. Her laughter was a siren’s cry for sex, signaling men to gather round her.
But don’t think those Yankee wives sat idly by. They rallied in force to dampen their men’s passions. They hissed; they pawed. They snatched back their husbands. Their nails swept the air, drawing blood. No Southern hussy was going to steal their men, their meal ticket.
“The nerve of that woman!” cried one indignant female.
“A tramp, that’s all she is,” said another.
“Home-wrecker,” shouted a third.
Like the conductor of a train gone haywire, Harold was frantic, though powerless to prevent the wreckage. Sure, he dragged Marybeth from men’s laps that evening. He gripped her arm like glue. He forced steaming cups of coffee down her throat. But the damage was done.
After that, the invitations stopped coming. No more cocktail parties, no barbecues, nothing. Harold and MaryBeth pretended not to notice. Still, they were devastated. He, for the loss of respectability, she, for the absence of her public audience. Weeks went by, then months. And during that time, MaryBeth pined away, desperate for the flattery of men. Men, who would be besotted by her Confederate-Jasmine scent, her presence, her allure. How could they possibly leave her dancing shoes just hanging there on the rack?
But if MaryBeth’s reign as the Belle of Fair Lawn was kaput, nevertheless, she still had her liaisons. Of that, Harold could be sure. She always had her legions of men, sniffing her, following her, wanting her. Certainly, Harold remembered her charms. She could seduce even the most stalwart citizen. This he acknowledged though his lust for MaryBeth now lay blackened and hardened like so many lumps of discarded coal in an old steel bin. And try as he might to restrain her, there was no means of keeping tabs on her comings and goings. Despite his frequent calls home, his insistence that she account for her whereabouts, there were those suspect lunch hours when she never picked up the phone. And those afternoons when a sitter took his calls. Each time, MaryBeth was vague in providing a suitable explanation. But Harold was no fool. He saw the knowing glances and smiles of those other men. He knew.
With the approach of winter, MaryBeth resumed shopping. This time, she selected overcoats. Some in wool fabrics, loose and widely flaring, others with three-quarter length sleeves. Better clothes than men, Harold thought. However, MaryBeth always broke the bank. Hers was a life showered in overdrafts. And he was drowning in this ocean of debt.
So it could hardly have come as a great surprise to Harold that dark, November night when he opened the hall closet to discover, not just wool, but mink. There was her new stole draped over a padded silk hanger.
This time, Harold had had it. He would nail her. This time, he, too, came armed with Shakespeare. “‘I have no more doublets than backs, no more stockings than legs, nor no more shoes than feet.’ Nor shall you.” This time, there would be no room for ambiguity. This time, he roared, “You take that mink back tomorrow!”
Problem was, MaryBeth didn’t. To his great consternation, each evening he returned to find the dead hide still hanging in his hall closet. This time, he reminded himself, there would be no caving in. Victory would most assuredly be his. So the next morning, Harold left with the mink stole under his arm. He returned it to the furrier. However, that night he came home to find another in its place. The next day, he sent back MaryBeth’s latest purchase. Nevertheless, by evening a new stole hung in the closet.
Back and forth the minks went. If you were to gauge the trafficking of furs in that household, you might have thought the Gibbons were purveyors of animal skins. But, of course, that was scarcely the case. As Christmas approached both MaryBeth and Harold had become persona non grata to more than fifteen different furriers. In the end, Howard acceded to MaryBeth’s campaign, but it was a concession laced with dynamite. “No more purchases of clothing or our marriage is through!”
“You had to see my mother that day,” Skip told me as the burnt grassy banks drifted by. “It was as if she were a junkie without a fix.
“At first, Mother tried to comply. For months, dad would come home delighted to find no new arrivals. Naturally, he was relieved. He thought he had put an end to her shopping. Even the luncheons seemed to have stopped. Order appeared to have been restored.”
But as Skip pointed out, Harold was mistaken. MaryBeth’s efforts, though clandestine at first, were intent on securing still greater prizes, bigger houses, membership in the most exclusive clubs, the social register of Bergen County, if one existed. There ensued bitter arguments, slammed doors, and Harold’s angry departures. Visualizing certain bankruptcy, Harold sought relief. Separation first, then divorce. He congratulated himself on having secured his only true path to freedom.
But yet again, Harold underestimated MaryBeth’s tenacious grip. For no matter how frequently she remarried—and it was often—it was Harold whom she dragged back into court, each time for increased alimony. In every instance the children were brought in tow. They wore tattered rags for these occasions. They had been well coached by MaryBeth to beg the judge for assistance, Skip especially. And as the oldest child, he was the one, MaryBeth reasoned, who was most likely to influence the Court. Indeed, he made her case. No one could ignore his earnestness, his pleas. How could the succession of judges realize that these performances of his were pure subterfuge? That Skip was begging for his father’s love, not the mounds of cash. But cash they got. And with each victory, Harold withdrew further until the only contact between father and children were those staged court battles.
It was a terrible, terrible story. One that I scarcely could imagine. And yet, somehow, Skip sits next to me, a survivor.
“Do you ever see your dad these days?”
We’re on our second round of mint juleps. Probably not a great idea in this heat. Whatever.
“He’s still in New Jersey,” Skip says waving his hand toward the east bank. “Won’t have anything to do with me. Maybe that’s understandable. Who could blame him? The court stuff was dreadful. But I was just a kid. I didn’t realize what I was doing. Perhaps I should have. I just did what mother told me. I kept looking over at dad, hoping he would acknowledge me. But I was nothing to him. I’m prepared to accept that he won’t forgive me, but what about my kids? Andy and Clara did nothing to him, yet he refuses to see them. He never calls them. He doesn’t even admit they exist. They don’t understand why their grandfather doesn’t visit. Why is he punishing them? What have they ever done to him?” Skip sighs. “But I don’t suppose things will ever change.”
“And your mother?”
Skip’s laughter is bitter. “Mother’s in Memphis. With her fifth—or is he her sixth—husband? I despise her. I don’t want MaryBeth to have any ties with Andy and Clara. Her nails dig deep, very deep.
“Have I ever told you about my introduction to sex?” he says.
I laugh. Skip probably wants to change the subject. Not that I blame him. It’s too nice a day to get into all this unpleasant stuff. Relax, enjoy . . . “Sixteen?” I guess.
“Nope, my fifteenth birthday, which I celebrated with MaryBeth’s third husband, Gilbert, ‘the Fish.’ That was what I called him. I named him for his flat eyes, his scaly skin, his slimy personality. Anyway, the Fish took me into New York for my birthday. I was thinking dinner and a show. But not his kind of show. He took me to 42nd Street, the old 42nd Street. Of whores and pimps.”
“Was it fun?” I say in jest, instantly regretting those words. What I really mean, what I really feel is I’m so sorry you had to go through all that. It must have been dreadful. That’s what I really think. Skip’s nod acknowledges my unspoken support while responding gently to my question.
“Not much,” he replies. “Don’t get me wrong, Sue. At that age, I suppose all adolescent boys want sex. But I was this sweet, romantic kid. Had this crush on my girl, Betsy. We had been kissing and touching. Then the Fish set me up. What was I supposed to do? I’m male. Had these hormones running. And the Fish expected me to perform. He fixed me up with this woman. She took me into this back room. I was scared. Afraid I wouldn’t get it up. The room was filthy. Just a metal bed with a lumpy mattress. She undressed. She touched me, helped me along. Tried to make me relax. The Fish, I suspected, was watching the whole thing through a peep hole.
“In a way, it was the Fish’s trick, too, you know. Kind-of a two for one. I got sex. He got a show. Well, it ruined things for me. I couldn’t go back to innocence after that. I broke up with Betsy. It was another year before I thought about putting the moves on some girl my age.
“Anyway, that was what it was like growing up, nothing normal to hold on to. I want Andy and Clara to have a real family, the upbringing I never had.”
So that’s it. That’s why he works so hard at normalcy. The soccer games, scouts for Andy, pep squad for Clara. Why he married Helen, pediatrics nurse, but homemaker above all. Why suburbia plus pool entices him. Why he always has to have normalcy wedged in a headlock. He’s determined to make it work, whatever the cost.
Still, there’s no getting away from his sweetness. And I like the fact that he dotes on his family. Come to think of it, we’re the only sales managers in our company not divorced or perpetually single. Skip’s sentimentality is touching, really. The rest of the afternoon we keep things light. We reach Lambertville. I tie the boat up at one of the club rafts at the waterside park. Joe, the owner of the pontoon, will haul it out come evening. We find restrooms, change, and cross the river to New Hope where Helen and Tom meet us for dinner.
. . . .
Skip and I spend lots of time together. His territory extends from South Jersey to northern Virginia. I’m rooting for him. Truth is, I like him. And, of course, the better his reps perform, the better my business since our regions are contiguous. Tal Parsons, our VP, encourages our collaboration. So I travel south to help Skip hire new recruits and setup his territory.
We’re in Maryland interviewing with the first candidate.
“Where are you from?” Skip asks.
“Baltimore,” Jay replies.
“Great city. Does your family come from around here?”
“Yeah, got three sisters, Joan, Rhonda, and Lisa. They’re married. Great kids too . . . . Mom and dad also live in the area. And Uncle Albert and Aunt Louise . . . .”
I’m dying. Are we going to hear about the entire Johnson family? Jay still hasn’t said one word about his job history. Like where he worked, went to school, why he’s job hunting, what he has sold, how his performance stats compare with other reps, nothing. Forty-five minutes into the interview and we’re nowhere. Jay’s resume is not much help, either. It has lots of holes. Holes are scary. Guy’s probably hiding something.
I decide to interrupt their chitchat.
“Jay, your resume indicates that you are currently working at Telcomnet. Maybe you could tell us about that.”
“Who’s the bitch?” Jay flashes telepathically to Skip. “Is she for real? You’re the boss; lose her!”
Eventually, even dimwit gets it. Jay realizes he’s stuck and that my questions are compulsory. I’m the boss, and there’s no escaping this inquisition.
“Telcomnet,” he says reluctantly, “is a telecommunications company. I’ve been there nine months. It’s a lousy job. I’m in charge of new accounts for the Baltimore region.”
Anyway, Jay’s damaged goods. When I quiz him about the other positions he has held, it turns out he has worked for eight companies over the last seven years. None of these jobs lasted for more than twelve months. There’s no upside to this guy. LOOzer.
On to the next candidate, Howie Raymond.
“Love that tie,” Skip begins. From there the interview plummets. Skip and Howie shoot the breeze about golf, movies, family, pets, even Disneyworld. They’re lost in suburbia. No mention of the jobs Howie has held or anything about his resume. It’s left to me to steer the conversation back on course.
By the third candidate, I get the picture. Skip’s all over the place. He always tries to become buddy-buddy with every schmo we interview. He knows the names of every guy’s wife, the ages of all his kids, even the dietary restrictions of the pet gerbils. Skip discovers the bars in town the guy frequents, as well as his favorite sports, everything, that is, but the information that would allow Skip to assess the candidate’s motivations and likelihood of success. I’m always having to steer the conversation back on course. In the end, we select the best people, but that’s only because I force Skip’s hand at every juncture. It’s exhausting keeping him on track.
Over the course of the next two days, my exhaustion turns to fear. What’s Skip going to do without adult supervision? By now, I’m getting angry. I warned Tal that promoting Skip, after he had only been selling for me for ninety days, was crazy.
“Tal,” I had pointed out, “Skip has only two sales under his belt. If you have to promote someone from my team, why not Peter? He has been working for me for over fifteen months. He sold more in his first thirty days than Skip has sold after ninety days in the field. If you promote Skip, Peter’s going to be pissed. Why not give Peter this opportunity? He has great people skills; he knows the business. Giving him the job would make a lot of sense.”
I can’t recall Tal’s reasoning. I know that he wasn’t wild about Peter. Maybe he suspected Peter was gay. Perhaps, Skip exuded a hetero-masculinity that made Tal feel more comfortable. What Tal said was that Skip had what it took to do the job. Whatever that meant.
And then there was their geographical connection. After all, Tal grew up in Atlanta and, despite his New Jersey upbringing, Skip was, at heart, a Southerner with all those attendant sensibilities. Tal said Skip’s previous experience in management was the critical factor influencing his promotion. However, I never entirely believed that.
When I teased Skip about his close ties to Tal, he laughed.
“Darling,” he said in an exaggerated drawl, “we’re Southern. We stick with our kind.”
“Even if . . .”
“Baby, even when there’s a color divide. Tal and Peter may be black, and I may be nothing more than pasty white, but we understand one another. Which is not to say that we always speak the same language. Maybe, we don’t always talk the same lingo, but we know how to get along.”
Perhaps that was the entire story. If there were other reasons, neither Tal nor Skip told me. Anyway, Skip was promoted. And now, I’m supposed to help him. Still, I can’t help thinking things would have been a lot easier with Peter. Yeah, Peter, who’s pissed as hell because he didn’t get the job.
After two grueling days with Skip, I’m back in my territory playing catch-up. Crises are spilling out everywhere. Skip’s problems piggyback onto mine. He calls me daily, which just won’t do. As much as I like Skip, he’s going to have to succeed on his own. I can’t do both our jobs; I just can’t.
Eventually, Skip’s calls subside. Even so, I end up talking with him a couple of times a week. That’s easily two hours shot. Take today, Monday morning, doesn’t he know any better? I can’t deal with his problems today. I’ve got three brush fires of my own to douse, and I need to speak with all my reps before noon. But what does Skip do? He calls me at ten a.m.
“How’s it going?” I say. Not that I care. Not right now, anyway.
“Great!” he replies.
Well, that’s a ray of hope.
“Went out with Tisha this week. We sold a plant-refurbishing program to Gaylord Structures. That company runs a big operation. Their manufacturing facility has over thirty thousand square feet of space. We’re talking fifty K.”
“That’s wonderful, Skip.”
Really, I mean it. He’s finally goddamn done it. He’s on his way. His region will start performing, and I’ll be free to focus on my problems. After the strain of the last two months, the realization that I will no longer be responsible for Skip makes me lighter than air. I’m dancing and twirling weightlessly through skies of blue. Then gravity sets in. Down I plunge, feet first crashing into terra firma. Reality is such a bummer. Nevertheless, I take Skip through my deal-closing checklist.
“So, do you have a contract?”
“No, but they said they would buy.”
“Skip, unless you have a signature, you don’t have an order. What about the engineers?”
“What about them?”
“Have you brought them in?”
“Is that really necessary?”
“It’s critical, Skip. You need those system guys there to confirm exactly what’s necessary. Believe me, their input adds credibility to the sale. The engineers may double your system configuration. That’s double your current dollars. Say, does the company have warehousing and trucking facilities that can sweeten your deal?”
“I never thought to ask.”
“You have to ask, Skip. The warehousing and trucking could add another forty to sixty K to your numbers. And who’s the decision-maker there? The VP of operations? The general manager?”
“No, it’s the plant foreman.”
“What? And he can signoff on fifty K?”
“Well,” Skip admits, “the foreman needs the O.K. from the VP of operations and the general manager, but he says he’ll get it.”
“Skip, you have nothing. Just a wannabe deal. You have got to bring in our system guys ASAP and make sure the senior decision-makers from Gaylord buy into their recommendations. Lose the foreman, he has no authority.”
In the end, I’m the one who salvages Skip’s deal. It took me three separate visits to his territory and four days of nonstop meetings. Turns out that Gaylord wasn’t even positioned to buy. I created their need and sense of urgency. I drove their timetable. I tripled the dollars Skip thought they were going to spend. In short: I saved his ass.
And that’s not the only account I go in to rescue. Over the next four months, I bring in two more deals for him. I close nearly a quarter-of-a-million dollars. Yeah, I make sure Tal knows. Believe me, I have to. All this time on the road is cutting into my team’s revenue. Anyway, Tal’s the one who insists that I help finalize Skip’s deals. But every additional trip south makes me angrier.
Look at how lucrative his region is! To think I’m spending all my time developing his gold mine. And it’s not as if I’m getting a bonus based on his numbers. Why can’t Metro New York show the growth potential the D.C. hub demonstrates? Maybe it does. Maybe the grass always looks greener. But why the hell am I cultivating Skip’s territory?
All these trips leave me wondering if Skip is a lot more like MaryBeth than he admits. Every close of his spells chaos. Loose ends trail everywhere. And that doesn’t even count his harebrain schemes to shake the money tree. None of his ideas make sense. As for the important stuff—the day-to-day details that will ensure the revenue—well, let’s just say he never pays attention to the grunt work. I’m the one picking up his debris.
But even my empathy has limits. Five months after Skip’s promotion, I pull out. What little help I provide is done remotely. “No guilt,” I tell myself, “it’s not like my territory is booming, a toehold—that’s all I have.” So I take Skip’s calls, gave him whatever advice I can manage, provided it’s just a minute or two. He has got to make it on his own. No one, not even Skip, is taking me down with him.
At national meetings and tradeshows, well, that’s another matter. I do the political thing, advance my agenda, and hobnob with the honchos. But circumstance allowing, I hang out with Skip. Why not? The guy’s sweet and I enjoy his company.
. . . .
It’s business as usual throughout the remainder of the year and into the next. Fifteen months after Skip is promoted, all the sales managers travel to New Orleans in order to attend a national tradeshow. It’s our last night in town, and it’s Halloween. We’re all partying. Naturally, we decide to go to Pat O’s. Before long we’re smashed on Hurricanes. Skip and I are dressed in costumes—his and her latrines. They were easy enough to make. Each consists of a boxy, framed bed sheet. Mine has a ruffled skirt glued at the hips while Skip’s has a zipper positioned near his crotch. Our heads pop out of the top of the cotton sheeting, and our arms protrude through slits on both sides. Each of us holds a roll of toilet paper. Cardboard toilet seats are fastened to our backsides. Both of us have chains attached to a small, hidden tape recorder. When a chain is pulled, it activates the recorder. The result is a loud flushing sound.
Anyway, that night Skip and I are the dancing “John and Joanette” of Bourbon Street. The crowds from the balconies toss us beads that shower down like tokens from heaven. It’s primo saturnalia. A cacophony of sounds and images explode around us as we glide along.
But by two a.m., our group breaks up. Skip and I are walking back to our hotel. What an evening it has been. Too bad it has to be over. If only a little voodoo—the good stuff—could extend this glitter and magic just a little longer. I glance over at Skip. He’s distracted. Perhaps, he misses his family. Who could blame him? Then I remember.
“Skip, doesn’t your mother live in Memphis?”
“You’re not going to visit her?”
“But you’re so close. What is it, a day’s drive from here?”
“Aren’t you tempted? Hey, maybe if you visited MaryBeth now you wouldn’t have to take your family to see her this summer.”
“That’s a thought.” Then he groans, “I’m not sure I’m up to it. Still, if I could pull it off, it just might work. Hey, you want to take a drive? We could make it special. You’d be doing me a huge favor. Frankly, I could use a friend on this trip.”
I’m dying to go. It’s early Thursday morning. I could fly out on Sunday and still be at work on Monday. Tomorrow’s designated for travel. That means I’d only lose one vacation day. Tom’s not going to be thrilled. Not that he’s the jealous type. Still, a weekend with another man, however platonic, whatever the circumstances, it’s not going to please him. He hates it when I’m away. But when will I get another opportunity? It’s not as if Tom’s ever going to take me. The Mississippi delta, cotton fields, plantations, Memphis! They’re calling me. Perhaps this passion of mine is totally absurd, but I’ve got to make this trip. It’s so goddamn close. To hell with Tom. I’m going.
“Is there a hotel in Memphis where I could stay?”
“Sue, the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody.”
It’s decided then. I call Tom, waking him from a deep sleep. He’s irritated at the late hour, at my impulsiveness in wanting to make the trip, at the pointless folly of this Southern adventure, but reluctantly accepts my decision. I owe him big time, which is fine. Anything, he wants will be worth it. Finally, I’m in the South. The real South, not some Pontoon boat floating off Lambertville. A few hours later, Skip and I check out of our hotel rooms and pick up our rental car to begin our drive north.
Of course, a trip with Skip is never, really that simple. Expediency might suggest that we take Interstate 55 and head directly for Memphis. But that is not what we do. Unlike Tom, my engineer, Skip is a man of detours and byways. We seem to take every road but those headed due north.
We head west-northwest toward Baton Rouge. And while we begin our journey on Interstate 10, it’s not long before we’re traveling along dusty Route 44, a meandering road that snakes alongside the Mississippi. But we never see the Mississippi, just its levy. Oil refineries appear to own the right-of-ways.
“NO TRESPASSING, KEEP OUT!” their signs shout.
So there’s the Mississippi River so close, but we can’t even take the dirt roads along the levee to catch a glimpse of her.
Our drive takes us by one ugly processing plant after another. Tin roof shanties form clusters, each constituting some three-dog town. Each is dry, dusty, and desolate. What a surreal backdrop. My throat becomes parched just looking out the window. But this is no place to stop and have a sip of water. Who the hell knows what chemical compounds I might ingest. Cancer highway, that’s what I call Route 44. Bet no one lives to retirement here.
“Isn’t it grand?” Skip says. “Tell me when you want to stop.” He’s whistling, could be whistling Dixie for all I care.
Why would he think I would ever want to stop here?
“Yeah, sure,” I say as we drive through this surly purgatory with its bayous and alligators not so very far away.
Eventually my mood improves, thanks to the tape Skip’s playing. The music is soft and bluesy with some great finger-picking by an acoustical guitarist, whose voice is melodic and gravelly.
So I ask, “Who is he?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Surely you’ve heard of Mississippi John Hurt, the greatest guitarist that ever lived.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Girl, he’s pure Delta blues. Without Mississippi John Hurt, there would be no Elvis, no rock’n’roll, no rhythm and blues—hell, nothing! And as good as Eric Clapton is, well, his finger-picking and guitar strumming ain’t nothing compared to Hurt.”
“Your Mississippi John Hurt sounds pretty good.”
“Good? Why he’s the best you’ll ever hear.”
So we travel the dusty roads, past the snarling dogs, alongside the levee, the refineries, the tarpaper shacks, until we make our way back to Route 10. We head past Baton Rouge picking up Route 61 and turn north. Through it all, we’re playing John Hurt. It’s not long before I’m whistling along with Skip.
Late that morning, we pull into St. Francisville. According to Skip, the town was founded by French settlers in the early 1700’s before the English gained influence in the early 1800’s. As the largest port between Natchez and New Orleans, Skip says it played an important role in the transport of cotton. Certainly, there were a lot of cotton plantations nearby. Though St. Francisville is picturesque, I want to resist her charms. After all, she’s a prime tourist spot. But she grabs my heart, anyway.
Skip and I are standing in the cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church, site of the second oldest Episcopal congregation in Louisiana. Massive oaks draped in Spanish moss tower above us while lichen-encrusted headstones, some pitched forward, others tipped back, form their weary rows.
"Beautiful, isn’t it?” Skip whispers. “Grace Church was built shortly before the War.”
“The War?” I say.
He gives me that look, that look that can only be described as Skip’s Southern look. “Sue, in the South there is only one war.”
“All right, so there’s only one war people ever talk about here. Big deal.”
“And during the War Federal gunboat captain, John E. Hart, who was a Mason, was interred here. Fighting stopped for a day while Confederate and Unionist Masons buried him.”
“Well I’ll be. A Yankee buried with y’all. Will wonders never cease.”
Skip gives me that look again before we make our way back to the car and take a quick drive through the outskirts of town. That’s when we see the ferry landing. Take the boat across the Mississippi, continuing on Route 10, and you’ll find New Roads.
But instead, we turn around and head onto Tunica Street, which becomes Mahoney. It’s a beautiful, backwoods road with lots of curves and fun to drive. Along the way, I see this huge, swooping creature fly in front of the car—a vulture. And then another. Skip tells me they’re Turkey vultures. Whatever. Like I’m an expert when it comes to vultures. Moments later, I see another. That long-necked buzzard is ominously perched on a fence post waiting to pounce on his lunch. Damn creepy.
Further down, the road runs into a river that presumably feeds into the Mississippi. There’s a posted sign, “Cross At Your Own Risk.” We decide it’s too dangerous to drive through. Instead, Skip backs the car up, parking it along the side of the road, so we can have a look. We walk over to the water’s edge. Only wooden planks line the river; there is no bridge. While standing there, we hear a muffled roar. It gets louder, then louder. Our guess is that it’s a truck that will cross the river. So we wait. It isn’t long before we spot the vehicle. A logging truck stacked with felled trees powers mightily across. Water washes over the tires and onto its hood. That was gutsy. I salute the trucker. He honks back.
Ain’t gonna find nothing like this up north.
After that, Skip and I head back toward St. Francisville. We grab some drinks and sandwiches. We’re about to pick up Route 61 when I ask to stop in a tourist office. I pick up some pamphlets and ask the woman working behind the desk if she could tell me anything about New Roads.
“What would you like to know?” she asks.
“Well, is it worth visiting?”
“It’s nothing, really,” she replies. “They’re French. We’re English. The river’s moved away from them in years gone by. We have hills. They’re flat. They fish.”
In fewer than twenty-five words, I have been transported back to the time of the Louisiana Purchase, an age when English and French settlers battled for land and cultural dominance of the Americas. Clearly, the English descendants judged their French and Cajun brethren to be inferior.
So we’re part of that world are we? What a strange land I’m traveling in.
Armed with that bit of information, I get back in the car with Skip and we travel north to Natchez. According to Skip, the plantations surrounding St. Francisville and the mansions of Natchez survived, in part, because these communities had no military value. Natchez had the added benefit of being occupied by the Unionist army during the War. With the residence of Yankee generals and their officers came some measure of protection. The result, Skip points out, is that many of the homes escaped with relatively modest damage. And for those enterprising Southerners who had hidden away their valuables, the losses were probably minimal.
“Let’s take a tour,” I say.
“What would be the point,” Skip mutters. “Sue, I had enough of that growing up. There’s nothing to see. Just a lot of wood, brick, and chintz.”
By way of compensation, he walks me out along the grounds of one of the most stately homes, Rosalie. We walk past the brick wall, past the gazebo, out toward the bluffs overlooking the mighty Mississippi. What a view! We stand silently for quite a while watching the riverboats glide by.
Given that it’s late afternoon, it’s clear even to me that we’ll never make it to Memphis. Instead, Skip drives to a bed and breakfast called Bienvenue, which is nestled on Ravenna Lane. It’s owned by Christine Ann Dilbray, friend to MaryBeth. Skip tells me that despite its relatively modest size, this historic two-story, wood-framed structure with its slender Doric columns that support the double galleries is characteristic of early Natchez plantation homes.
As we enter Bienvenue’s central hall, we notice there’s an elliptical stairway that curves toward the attic. To the left of the central hall is a large double parlor, to its right a library and dinning room. The kitchen is in the rear of the house while the bedrooms and baths are located on the second floor.
While we’re walking through the house, Miss Dilbray greets us.
“Oh, Skipper,” she says, “it has been ages since I last saw you.”
Christine is a slender, elegant woman in her early sixties. She has short, coifed, platinum-colored hair. She’s wearing a stylish silk-print dress. Like her just-so-perfect period furnishings, she is stately and poised. Not a hair or piece of fabric out of place.
They embrace. Then she turns to me, “You must be Sue Maitland. Skipper told me I could expect you both for dinner.”
“He did? That’s news to me.”
Christine laughs. “Men, what can you do with them. They like to be in charge.”
She extends her hand. It’s warm and tender to the touch.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine. You brought Skipper home. When was the last time? Was it when you attended Ole Miss?”
“Ole Miss?” I ask.
“Oh Lordie, Skipper, you never told Sue you were one of us?”
She’s teasing, right? She’s ragging on poor Skip. His face is beet red.
“The University of Mississippi.” Skip says. “Sue knows that. Remember? It was on my resume.”
He gives me that look. Don’t you dare say anything.
Anyway, Christine is the epitome of grace. She never asks why we are traveling together. She discreetly arranges to have Maria place our bags in separate rooms. She puts me at ease.
And so, Southern hospitality rules. We stroll through the garden with our whiskies in hand. Later, dinner is served on fine English bone china. We sip our wine from Irish crystal goblets and eat our meal with colonial silverware. The meal prepared by Christine is sumptuous. It’s served by Maria with a grace that surpasses many of New York’s best restaurants.
That evening, Christine and Skip talk mostly about literature—Southern, of course. And their favorite authors? They adore Eudora Welty while revering William Faulkner. Which is not to say that Christine and Skip don’t mention contemporary authors. Richard Ford is discussed and even James Wilcox. But it is Faulkner to whom their conversation returns again and again, in much the same way as some Southerners return to the spring or fall pilgrimages of the great homes in Natchez.
But I can’t help noticing that Christine and Skip’s regard for great Southern writers never crosses the color divide. They never touch on Southern Soul: writers like Jean Toomer, Arthur Flowers, and Gayl Jones. And so even the seemingly passive act of reading here proves yet another obstacle to integration.
Later, the subject of MaryBeth comes up.
“Have you seen mother lately?”
“It’s been quite a while since I’ve been back to Memphis. I miss your mamma.”
“Have you met Charles?”
“I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him. I really should make a visit one of these days. Make sure you give your momma a hug for me. You hear?”
“I certainly will.”
“Skipper, I’m sure your momma told you she helped me restore all this,” Christine says as she sweeps her hand. “And I’m not just talking about the antiques. The wallpaper, the draperies, even the period restoration of the kitchen. I never could have done it without her. She’s a treasure, your momma.”
“Yes, well, she’s something else, isn’t she?”
That night, I slept in an antique canopied bed and dreamt of Southern tendrils, those coiling, attaching, clinging stipules that join both friends and family. All of us now, brothers, sisters, parents, lovers, acquaintances, both casual and intimate, were born again south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Naturally, with our change in birthplace came a transformation in our speech patterns. Our vowels multiplied or transformed into diphthongs. Diphthongs were transfigured into vowels. Rs’ became silent. And so it seemed gravity became weightless. My drawl, for that was how I heard myself speaking, appeared as a Southern dialect of the King’s English. Its tones were so rich and sonorous, worlds apart from the guttural, New York accent that I could have shouted for joy.
So it’s a disappointment of sorts to reawaken and discover that I’m still a full-blooded Yankee, roaming through conquered territories. Only these days, everything is topside-tipsy. It seems impossible to tell who’s the vanquished, who, the victor. With the Southern economy blazing, only a Northern fool would tread in these parts with a heavy foot.
But I scarcely have time to think of last night’s dream. For after a quick and early breakfast, after hugs and embraces have been exchanged between Skip and Christine, Skip and I resume our travels north.
We start by taking a segment of the Natchez Trace parkway until it joins with Route 61 around Port Gibson. From there, we’re headed for the Delta, “God’s country,” that’s what Skip calls it.
Then again, God seems to have all sorts of claims on people here in the South. Yesterday, while driving along Route 44 in Louisiana, I read a placard: “Jesus is Lord over Lutcher.”
This morning, as we travel north to Vicksburg, I see another: “Jesus Said Ye Must Be Born Again, John 3-7.” Along the way, I also spot a bumper sticke: “Jesus Was Not A Conservative.”
“That’s nothing,” says Skip. “For years there’s been a billboard on Interstate 40 in Arkansas headed east to Memphis that says, ‘Please don’t go to hell. John 3-16.’ And another leaving Memphis as you head over the bridge for West Memphis, Arkansas that says, ‘If I sin and die where do I go? Answer: West Memphis.’”
Then there are the religious stations on the radio that Skip keeps switching to so that I can “Get right with God.” But since it seems no amount of religious fervor is going to make a God-fearing Christian out of me, I insist that he turn off the radio and put on some more of his Delta blues. Mostly, he plays John Hurt and another Mississippian, Robert Johnson, who he says some people credit as the originator of blues. And then there are the others along for our ride: local Memphis songster, Sid Selvidge, as well as Texan bluesman, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Georgian, Blind Willie McTell.
Given all the God-fearing media, as well as the gospel underpinnings to the blues tapes we’re playing, it doesn’t take much to get Skip discussing religion.
“It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of Southern sensibility,” he says. “Take my mother’s family, for instance. Her granddaddy was a Baptist. Momma was raised as a Methodist. I was brought up as a Presbyterian. So we went from an evangelical Low Church to Scottish High Church in three generations.
“Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of Baptists and Methodists who exercise social and economic influence. But the Presbyterians and Episcopalians generally hold greater status than the Baptists and Methodists. No matter what your Christian faith—and it really must be Christian—Christ the Lord your God is the social glue that holds the South together, whatever your racial or ethnic makeup.
“And as for the Jews,” Skip continues, “well, if you have to be Jewish, you’re still better off attending Temple than living as an atheist. We don’t like atheists here.”
“We? A couple of days down here and you’re talking ‘we?’”
“You know what I mean.” He gives me that look again.
As we approach Greenville, the beginning of our Delta journey, Skip surprises me by heading east on 82 to Moorhead. He takes me to “where the Southern crosses the Dog.” That is, where two railway tracks, the Southern and the old Yazoo and Delta, otherwise know as Yellow Dog, intersect. “This crossing,” he says, “was the source of W.C. Handy’s song, ‘Yellow Dog Blues,’ which he wrote in 1914. Sue, you’re standing on the very soil where the Delta blues was born.”
In recent years the Yellow Dog has moved. Just one hundred feet away from the crossing its tracks end, and in their place stands a water tower. The dismemberment of this bit of folklore disappoints. Still, who wouldn’t be moved to hear the melancholy strains of Delta blues?
With that, we head back to 61 continuing our journey north, driving along the Delta plain listening to Delta blues. The landscape is flat, so very flat. The cotton, white gold, they call it, has all been harvested so what remains are just scrapings of white discarded by the roadside. What I see is a lone house here, a desolate shack there, and an occasional car or truck that has limped through years of abuse. Dirt roads running alongside the highway provide access to the fields. Flat, flat fields that thanks to the suns rays are now golden brown in hue. In the distance, trees and occasional telephone poles break up the monotony of flat. And so we drive, mile after mile, through the Delta plain.
At Merigold, we head west toward Rosedale and the Great River Road State Park. There we climb a seventy-five foot tower that affords us a magnificent view of the Mississippi. But to touch her is another matter. From the tower, the river appears a good two miles away. From up here the mighty Mississippi seems like nothing but a thin horizontal band of blue. On our side of the river, there’s a large expanse of Delta runoff. On the Arkansas bank, there’s a tall band of trees. It is a pretty sight. Skip and I sit atop the watchtower snacking on a picnic lunch prepared by Christine.
And then we drive north again, weaving between Route 1 and 61. We pass by Clarksdale and its Delta Blues Museum.
“You’ll never see it all in one trip,” Skip says, “Clarksdale will give you something to come back for.”
Later, we pass by a town called Lula. And then we take Route 49 across to the Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge just to catch another glimpse or two of the Mississippi, before heading into Memphis.
It’s Friday evening when we reach the city, a day late by my estimation. Not that I care. Skip made my hotel reservation, he probably intended that we arrive tonight. But what about MaryBeth? Was she expecting him yesterday? I’m glad he’s dropping me off at the Peabody hotel. I’d just as soon not be with him now when he shows up at MaryBeth’s twenty-four hours late. As we pull up to the hotel, we make arrangements to meet in the lobby tomorrow at noon before parting for the night.
So, here I am standing in the lobby of the Peabody, the beginning of the Delta. Yes, this will do nicely. At the center of this grand space is an ornate travertine marble fountain around which are clustered suitably elegant tables and chairs. Marble floors and elegant area rugs give this room stature. Up above, I see stained-glass skylights, surely an innovation at the time this hotel was built. Yes, the Peabody is magnificent, but I’m tired. It’s been a long day, and I’m having trouble taking it all in. So I check into my hotel room.
A shower and a catnap later, I’m headed down for a bite to eat and an opportunity to take the pulse of Memphis. As I walk the lobby, I notice that in the shops, everywhere, it seems, are Mallard ducks. They’ve multiplied and cloned effortlessly. Not guns or dogs, just D U C K S. I don’t get it. I missed something, something so basic, so fundamental, something everybody else knows without asking. Is it hunting season? Do men retire to the lobby? Are their dogs allowed on premise? Are ladies present? Tonight, it seems, they are. But these are not ordinary women; they appear to be debutantes as they glide past me, arm and arm with their male escorts.
The sight of all these gorgeous men and women creates a kind of vertigo. I’m confused; I’ve lost my bearing. What century am I in? Do black men serve? As slaves or freemen?
This dreamy, hazy space in time dissolves with the scorching blast of rock music. I must be witnessing a prom or homecoming. How else to explain the Cinderellas flowing past in their taffeta and bustling silk. Their escorts, Prince Charmings all, come dressed in black tie. There are even some glamorous African-Americans couples in the mix. So we are in the twentieth century, after all.
I suppose it’s only natural that this display of makeup, manicured nails, hairdos, and haute couture should stir up memories of my one and only high school dance. There I was in my tight miniskirt, a halter-top, platform shoes, surely I wore some? That night it was held in my high school cafeteria. The event was as cheerless as any institution of bedlam. There I was, standing in a corner, shouting into the ears of my two best friends as I tried to be heard above the scorching blare of the Rock N’ Roll beat. In the center, dancers swayed to frenzied pitch. Football players, cheerleaders, class officers, hangers-on, they were the social core, basking in the swell of sound and light. The rest of us might as well have been erased from view. We stuck like whitewashed graffiti to back-wall crevices. Oh, what a painful memory.
Then, of course, there were the drugs: alcohol, uppers, downers, pot, and cigarettes. The scent of contraband trailed from the lavatories and drifted along the hallways. It blew in through the double-doors that led into the cold, night air. Despite it all, there was a kind of innocence. For these were the days before guns and knives became as indispensable as daypacks.
That night, I survived a total of fifty-three minutes. I left without asking or being asked to dance. I got a friend’s brother to drive me home.
“Did you have a nice time?” my mother said when I stepped in.
“Yeah fine, mom,”
I said what I had to after the screen door slammed. But, of course, it wasn’t fine.
And that pretty much summed up the social whirl of my high school years.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that I’m anxious to leave the Peabody and head for Beale Street.
And what a contrast the Peabody and Beale Street make. Here, blues is pumped with loudspeakers onto the street. Every few steps a different sound, the aroma of restaurants wafting through the open windows, the doorways, and into the streets. I catch a bite to eat. The crowd in and around Beale Street is mixed, black and white, struggling and affluent; they blend almost as one, weaving along the pavement. The atmosphere is not altogether different from Bourbon Street; this, too, has the feel of carnival. I join the throng, thrilled to become just another pair of feet.
But then a touch. That’s all it takes, a touch. Once again, I’m a New Yorker.
Who the fuck is that? Am I going down? Where’s my mace? I’ll kill the bastard!
I whip around. Turns out the bastard’s black. Soft, lilting voice. Gentle. My steely looks and my clenched fist frighten him.
“Don’t mean no trouble, miss.” He says, as he hands me a leaflet and steps back.
I examine it suspiciously. It’s an ad for the blues club next door. Then I look into his eyes, something I would never do in New York.
He thinks I’m crazy.
“Thank you,” I say, warmly, trying to repair the damage. “Looks good, maybe I’ll stop by latter.”
“One of those damn Yankees,” his eyes say.
Imagine. My rude behavior is overlooked because I’m a Yankee.
We part amicably enough, though when I’m out of his sight I reach for my wallet and examine its contents, my suspicions unfounded.
The rest of the evening passes without incident. I flow with the crowds, blacks and whites mixing easily. They talk, they laugh, they share the night. No one else expects an eruption of rage and anger, or the threat of death around every corner. What I see here in front of me is a kind of easy warmth and humor spiced with hospitality. Who would have thought?
Eventually, I head back to the hotel for some shuteye. Late the next morning, I take the elevator down to the lobby. A crowd is standing near the elevator doors. A red carpet stretches to the marble fountain.
“The ducks, the ducks,” people say.
And so I stand and wait, peeking between heads. It’s not long before an elevator door opens to the strains of Sousa’s “King Cotton March.” Five ducks scurry out, dashing along the carpeted runway, scrambling up the carpeted plywood stairs into their fountain pool. There they swim furiously until the crowds abate. At five p.m., I’m told, the ducks repeat the procession in reverse, taking the elevator to their rooftop palace. This spectacle is a daily ritual.
And so I’m careful to nibble on toast, not some three-egg omelet. I’m nursing my cup of coffee when Skip shows up at noon. I have seen him looking a whole lot better.
“Some coffee?” I ask.
“No thanks.” Skip shakes his head. “Had three already. For all the good it did. Want to take a drive?”
I guess I never thought much about Southern cities until Skip brought me to Memphis. New Orleans doesn’t count, really. It’s a town that moves according to its own set of rules. And in many respects both St. Francisville and Natchez are also exceptions to the rule since their communities were largely untouched by the Civil War. But for the most part, the South was physically laid to ruin by the War. And so, oddly enough, what defines the South today is newness. And in that respect Memphis is truly Southern. The newer the construction, the better. Wealth is measured not only in terms of square footage but also with respect to newness.
The result is that downtown Memphis has a desolate feel. Sure, there’s commerce, but this city doesn’t buzz with that twenty-four-hour-a-day adrenaline rush that characterizes New York. Only the disadvantaged seem to live in Memphis proper. Perhaps a few enterprising souls have turned some cotton warehouses into lofts, but even that isn’t enough to breathe frenzied passion into this city. Not with the affluent citizenry moving ever eastward. New, new, new—that’s the south. Like a lot of America, I guess. But it’s not what I expected. I expected old; I got new.
But it’s the neighborhood that lies just south of Beale that grabs me. We drive by the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. It’s not pretty, this area. After all, it’s Southern ghetto. And while Skip tells me the area isn’t threatening in broad daylight, he says it’s no place to be after dark. Drugs and violence visit these streets now, even if they seem less menacing than many in New York.
I suppose there is nothing particularly distinctive about the Lorraine. Like lots of other motels and hotels of its time, it was segregated—blacks only—when Reverend King stayed there. Now, of course, it’s a museum. Two vintage cars are parked in spaces beneath the balcony of room 306 where King was assassinated. There’s an eerie feeling to the building, as if it were frozen in time.
Inside the National Civil Rights Museum, we watch video images of the South as it racially imploded in the sixties. We look at King’s room; we even walk across the street and chat with Josephine Smith, a one-woman protest of the National Civil Wrong Museum. All those voices, all that pain, all that bloodshed, all that grief. Yes, all that. And still so far to go.
After that we head toward MaryBeth’s. But not before Skip takes me into the Memphis Brooks Museum to see Carroll Cloar’s, Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog.
“If you saw only one Southern painting, it would have to be this,” Skip says.
Who am I to argue?
And then onto MaryBeth’s.
Her home is not far from communities like Chickasaw Gardens that set the standard of elegance in the years immediately preceding World War II. But while MaryBeth might wish for that kind of splendor, her home, and indeed those of her neighbors, is modest by comparison. She lives on Prescott Street in a small, three-bedroom, Airplane Bungalow, its frame a T shaped contour that resembles an airplane.
Somehow, it is not what I expected. Nor is the woman who greets us at the door, the MaryBeth I had envisioned. She’s approaching seventy with hair died to a reddish-blond tint. She looks tired, worn out, not the vixen of yesteryear. Even her clothes disappoint. Can you imagine? Nothing flashy, nothing current. They get by, that’s all. She’s wearing a long-sleeve cotton blouse and a rayon-print skirt. There’s a strand of pearls hanging around her neck. Only her red, high-heeled shoes and painted lips draw attention.
“So this is your colleague, Skip,” she says extending her hand. But her fingers that fleetingly press my flesh are cold and limp.
We step inside.
Again, I’m disappointed. Aside from the entry hall console, the dinning room table, an odd piece or two, it’s junk. The house passes, nothing more.
Where’s the MaryBeth Skip described? Is she, was she ever, a born-again antebellum belle? Or was this, too, just another one of Skip’s inventions? There’s nothing for me to do, but sit back and watch.
“It’s too bad Helen and the children couldn’t come down,” MaryBeth says with a shrill edge to her voice.
“You know they couldn’t. Helen’s working and Andy and Clara are in school.” You have no right, he seems to be saying.
“I was hoping to see my grandchildren.” Her words are emphatic, as if to insist I’m entitled to see them; they’re kin. You’re my son; you owe me that much.
“Well, you can always come up to see us.” Why must everything always be on your terms, mother?
“Skipper, you know I don’t travel north any more. This is home. And a grandmamma is entitled to see her family.”
“Mirabelle and her kids are in Nashville. I don’t suppose you visit them?” Why is everything about you, mother?
“They should visit me.”
“But Mirabelle’s a single mother. She works; it’s hard for her to manage just the day-to-day things.” You never cared about us, never.
“After all I did for y’all.” She turns to me, “All my children neglect me.”
“Mother, leave Sue out of this. Just what have you ever done for Mirabelle or Tara Lynn?” You have done nothing for any of us.
“Tira Lynn’s way up north, she never even calls.” Mothers are treated so horribly these days. What did we ever do to deserve this?
“She’s in Pittsburgh for God’s sake. What’s to stop you from calling?” Everything is always about you. Your needs, your wants. There’s never room in your life for anyone else.
“Sue, what brings you here? Are you married? Do you have children?” I don’t have to take this. Why is this woman sitting in my living room, anyway? Could it be that Skipper has just an ounce of the Southern scoundrel in him? Praise be the Lord! But why Sue? That Yankee. Why she doesn’t even dress like a woman. Skipper, if you’re gonna sin, do it with some panache. Why I know a dozen girls that could put some hair on your testicles!
“Oh, Skip and I had a meeting in New Orleans. I’m married. Tom and I don’t have any children. I’ve been dying to see the South. When Skip suggested I drive up with him, well, I just had to say yes.”
“That’s nice.” Well, you should have said no. Really, where were your manners? Don’t they teach you anything up North? “So, Skipper, how is work these days?”
“Mother, you know I go by Skip.” None of your damn business.
Yeah, there’s a lot of tension in this room. I watch as MaryBeth nags and probes; Skip evades. The more she questions, the more he withdraws. Most of his life is off limits to her: Helen, the kids, work. That doesn’t leave much room for give and take. Then there are topics that MaryBeth refuses to discuss, principally, her daughters and husbands one through four. She and Skip are wading through a minefield of grievances. He switches the topic of conversation to MaryBeth's charitable work. Skip’s trying desperately to find a safe haven for discourse. Even this sputters and misfires. They are at an impasse.
And then, in walks Charles Evans McGrath. Damn! He’s got to be fifteen years younger than MaryBeth. He’s tall and burly, handsome in a muscular sort of way. He’s dressed in faded khakis and a dark knit shirt. A contractor?
"You must be, Sue,” he says walking over to shake my hand.
His palms have calluses, but his voice is silky smooth. No wonder she fell for him. I glance over at MaryBeth. Two decades shed in an instant. She’s alive, sparkling with warmth and vitality. She giggles and crosses the room to greet him.
Theirs is a long, sensuous embrace, lips pressed wet against lips, his body thrust hard against hers. MaryBeth runs her fingers through Charlie’s hair. She’s oblivious to us. Passion simmers. With a laugh, Charlie moves away, his action part tease, part courtesy. He’s conscious of us, doesn’t want a scene. Too bad, this is the MaryBeth I came to see.
She’s super-charged now; electricity pulsates through her. As she heads back to the sofa, she swings her hips as she walks. Her skirt twirls, rising toward her thighs, a dancer’s ploy. Charlie watches and smiles.
“Can you imagine?” MaryBeth says, animation in her voice, “I’m sitting on the same committees as Alissa Thomson and Eudora Slimmons, the belles of Memphis!” Her laughter trills, rippling through air.
MaryBeth has finally done it, hobnobbing with those highly placed on the social register. Based on what Skip told me on our drive over, her selection of charitable institutions for which she volunteers appears impeccable: the Memphis Brooks Museum and the Dixon Gallery. She’s probably as knowledgeable as anyone in matters of art. However, it’s hard to imagine MaryBeth as anything but a peripheral player. Nevertheless, proximity, even if provisional, confers advantage. There’s the name-dropping, the mingling, the invitations to private showings.
“What about the Junior League down the street,” I say, “are you a member?”
“What a silly question. Why do you ask?” MaryBeth’s voice is edged with poison.
“Oh I don’t know. Skip drove me by the League; it’s beautiful. I imagine they support a number of local charities.” With each word, I’m mired deeper in shit.
“Well, I’d never get involved with that ridiculous organization.”
Could it be MaryBeth was not invited to join? Had I inadvertently stepped on a mine? Not another word out of me.
As if it my social gaffes really mattered. MaryBeth now appears to be traveling at warp speed back to the Jersey of Skip’s childhood. She’s seated next to her son. She leans conspiratorially toward him, her body pressed against his. MaryBeth’s finger’s slide down the length of his arm; her shoes brush against his. It’s not long before they’re comparing notes, telling jokes. None of their neighbors escape their mirthful scrutiny, not the Rosses, the Jamisons, the Andersons, even the Swansons.
It’s as if she’s communing with a lover. And now even I can see Skip is MaryBeth’s boy. He’s got her mannerisms, the cadence of her voice, there’s a raw sensuality pulsating through him. I notice that the top two buttons of his shirt have come undone. Did she do that? His chest hair is exposed; MaryBeth’s fingers slide down his shirt. Mother and son are talking; they’re whispering and laughing, that’s all. But they might just as well be naked, their bodies entangled on the divan, their breathing heavy, their pulses rapid. This intimacy, their union, I feel as if I’ve inadvertently walked into their boudoir. How can I make my escape?
“Sue, how about you and I get some barbecue for dinner,” Charlie says.
I could hug him. We head out the door. MaryBeth and Skip scarcely notice.
We’re driving back toward the city. Charlie’s talking about the Memphis of the pre-civil-rights era. “Negros, who knew their place.”
“You had servants?”
He laughs. “Hardly. My family was barely one step above white trash. My neighborhood was adjacent to theirs.”
I’m not really sure whether “theirs” refers to white trash or poor blacks. Nor am I about to ask. Race is not likely to be a subject easily addressed these days even amongst your own. Was I his own?
“Things were better then, everyone knew his station, none of this damn tension, this chaos. It’s getting impossible to run a business today. Legislation interferes with everything. I’m faced with lawsuits at every turn. ”
There’s frustration, even anger, in his voice. But Charlie’s nothing, if not pragmatic. Turns out his partner in his construction firm is African-American.
“Helps with the contracts,” he says.
Don’t go there; don’t even ask.
We arrive at the barbecue shack. Oblong, like the “shotgun” houses I saw in New Orleans. So small and straight you could shoot straight through them. They were the homes where the servants lived. These days many of these, at least near the Garden District, are owned by both blacks and whites. But we’re in Memphis, not New Orleans; I make no assumptions here.
Anyway, there are picnic benches outside this one. And a back room. Charlie says in the old days blacks ate in back, whites in front. Even today, no white man goes in back unless he’s invited. I laugh. Seems fair enough. Still, what I wouldn’t give to be a brother in that back room.
Charlie’s getting the barbecue. I try to pay, but he pushes my money aside.
“We Southerners take our chivalry seriously.” He winks at me.
The aroma of barbecue is everywhere. We head out to Charlie’s pickup with our food. We see an older, black man struggling to change a tire on his car. Next thing I know, the take-out is in my arms and Charlie’s helping him.
“Brother, give me your jack,” Charlie says.
“I ain’t your brother, lessn your momma’s been doing some mighty strange things!” They laugh.
The ribbing, the give and take, it’s easy. So warm and natural. Damn! I’ll never get the South. It defies classification. Who would help anyone change a tire in New York, let alone assist someone of a different color or social class? Go figure. We’re headed home now, Charlie’s whistling.
Apparently, we return just in time. Skip’s patience is threadbare. He’s edgy. Dinner provides a welcomed diversion for everyone. The conversation lightens up.
“Saw Christine Ann Dilbray, yesterday,” Skip says.
“Really? It’s been years since I’ve seen her. You stopped by Bienvenue?”
“What a magnificent place it is,” I add.
“It’s not hers, at least by family. She bought it a dozen years ago. I believe it was the proceeds from her husband’s estate. Christine and I went to school together.”
It seems I had set off another detonator. I wish I could take back those words. Social class standing, that’s a touchy area where MaryBeth is concerned.
“She’s done a beautiful job,” says Skip. “You and Charlie really should visit. Didn’t you help select some of the period furnishings?” His tone is gentle; he’s trying to soothe her.
“Skipper, you know I did. You think Christine knew anything about interior design? Only after I was done refurbishing Bienvenue. Can you imagine what that place would have looked like if I hadn’t been her decorator? Well, I’ll tell you. It would have been a disaster. Christine would have filled her home with nothing but cheap reproductions.
“So you liked it, Skipper?” MaryBeth continues, “well, maybe you’re my boy after all.”
Later, we have drinks on the porch. “Doing porch time” that’s what Charlie calls it.
Then Skip drives me back to the hotel. It has been a long day. I miss Tom. I can’t wait to go home to be in a place where everything is not said in some kind of code. What a relief that will be.
“I’ll drop by tomorrow morning,” Skip says.
“Skip, that’s very sweet of you,” I reply, “but I have an early flight back. Besides, you’ll want time with your family.”
“One day with MaryBeth a bit much?” He says it lightly, as if he were teasing, but I recognize it for what it is—a plea for rescue.
“Really, Skip. I need the time. These three days have been a real treat for me. I’ll never forget it. Call me Monday, we’ll chat.”
We hug. I squeeze his hands. Then I watch Skip heading off in the car before I walk into the Peabody.
Before I know it, I’m home.
. . . .
Less than thirty days later in November of 1991, our national meeting was held in Dayton. That was when I learned that Skip would be downsized by the end of the year. Only seventeen months after he started as manager, Skip’s luck had run out. Sure, his numbers weren’t quite up to par with the rest of us, but that wasn’t entirely his fault. His territory had never been properly worked. He wasn’t sufficiently trained. Maybe, he never had a real chance of succeeding given the corporate limitations on hiring, income, commissions, and health coverage.
By the time Skip arrived in Dayton, everyone knew he was about to be fired. I couldn’t imagine a more difficult situation. But throughout it all, Skip was a gentleman. There was dignity and restraint to his actions. A noticeable lack of self-pity. He must have been terrified about how he would provide for his family, how he’d stay afloat. At that time both coasts were reeling from the economic recession of 1990. Things hadn’t improved much. And all across the Fortune 500 landscape there was carnage, downsizing at every turn. Blood spattered everywhere.
But Skip never showed his fear, his terror. He never seemed angry at having been dragged to this meeting. And why not? After all, he had one foot out the door. Why even bother to be present?
To make matters worse, those Dayton idiots called on Skip, asking his opinion on all sorts of trivial matters. Through it all, he responded in good humor. Maybe he tolerated the awkward situation in order to make one last bid for a new assignment. If that was his hope, it never materialized. For while Tal Parsons seemed distressed at having to fire Skip, he never offered him a parachute.
In those days of mergers and layoffs, even proximity to failure posed risks. And so at that Dayton meeting, the other regional managers avoided Skip. They wanted no part of him lest they lose their jobs, too.
“That guy’s the Titanic,” I heard one say. “Glub, glub. He’s going down for sure.”
“So long as it’s him and not us,” said another.
“Just make sure none of his icebergs take you down with him,” cautioned a third.
The meeting was spring-loaded with tension. Throughout it all, Skip remained courteous, jocular, and engaged. In looking at the ease and style with which he conducted himself while under friendly fire, I couldn’t help thinking that, oddly enough, these were traits he may have acquired from MaryBeth. He was, indeed, a Southern gentleman.
For a while, we stayed in contact. Skip bounced from company to company. He took on additional jobs. He dug in; he never quit. Helen started working full-time at the hospital—working the late shift. By the late 1990’s when the economy heated up again, things must have improved for Skip. I got a Christmas card from him in 1997. His situation seemed to have stabilized. With his steady employment, Skip was able to bring his family back to a kind of normalcy. I prayed it would last.
As for my position at Amtech, I was now responsible for both Skip’s and my territories. On paper it was a promotion, though in reality all it meant was more responsibility and more headaches without the benefit of an increase in pay. After Skip’s departure, corporate exerted tremendous pressure on all of us to improve profitability. Though the words were never directly spoken, we knew that we were under siege and that our numbers had better improve “or else.”
Fourteen months later, our company slogan was “Amtech, the place to be in ’93.” It was emblazoned on coffee mugs, tee-shirts, golf hats, every manner of paraphernalia. It became the corporate battle cry. The pressure to perform was enormous. So it hardly came as a surprise that while attending our corporate meeting in Dayton in January, all of us spent a lot of time at the bars.
That first night, Dan Oldrich, one of the seasoned mid-western sales reps, joined us for drinks. He was an older man—caustic, witty, and hardened by years of corporatese. As he surveyed all the first-line managers that evening, Dan offered a toast.
“I give you cold comfort,” adding, “to us all, Amtech, the place to be in ’93. Out the door by ’94.”
We laughed heartily. We sloughed off his toast as nothing more than a wisecrack. But Dan had voiced the very fears that trembled in all our hearts.
Oldrich was prophetic. We were out the door by ’94, nearly every last one of us. The stragglers, few in number, were all located at corporate headquarters. Most took early retirement. Some were fired outright; others were demoted. A few were placed in windowless offices in floors sunk way below ground. They had nothing to do all day, except gaze at lighting fixtures.
Our fates were scarcely different from Skip’s. We bought time, a little more money, but we were all just treading water, engaged in that desperate search for the next opportunity—the deal that would put us over-the-top. None of us escaped our destiny. In the end we, too, were dismissed. But looking back, no one departed from Amtech with more dignity and grace than Skip.