Nine Months Ago
In the fall semester of 1966, Scooter Andersen had been the first sophomore at Hell Creek High to own a motor. He made that clear the first day of school, blasting around campus on that junker without a muffler. He rounded the traffic circle, skidded his Yamaha sideways, and booted down the kickstand in one smooth move.
I watched O’Murphy watch Scooter.
He unfolded like a switchblade, gazed insolently into her eyes, and smirked in a way that invited her to . . .
She was seduced already. It was like The Wild One, where the good girl asks, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” And Brando sneers, “Whaddya you got?”
That’d been precisely what the good girl had wanted to hear. Maybe O’Murphy Scott went so Pavlovian because of Scooter’s antisocial cockiness. Or maybe she was attracted to the leader of the pack. Or maybe it was secondary-school Darwinism: girls got curves; Scooter Andersen got arms veined w Hell Creek had been my tale of two schools: in the summer 1966–the best of times–we had departed junior high on bicycles. Then high school had rocked our sophomore year and led to the winter of our discontent.
Hell Creek had been my tale of two schools: in the summer 1966–the best of times–we departed junior high on bicycles. Then high school rocked our sophomore year and led to the winter of our discontent.
“Your name, Miss?” Mrs. Macintosh asked.
The second time I saw her, I fell hopelessly, despairingly, hormonally infatuated with the wrong girl. She strolled into homeroom five minutes late. The new girl was five feet nothing–a little short for a goddess. She wore white go-go boots and a powder-blue Twiggy shirt skirt. She smelled like lilacs in bloom.
“O’Murphy Scott?” Her answer sounded unsure, but I was certain she had been born to be adored. Her toe-in-front-of-toe sashay jiggled her left hip, then her right. O’Murphy had the number-one, blue-ribbon, girl walk ever.
But you knew that, didn’t you, O’Murphy? Because anything that sexy must be put on, at least a little. Even if they’re also smart or good, Pretty Girls know they’re not seen as Smart Girls or Good Girls, because every head–male and female–turns when they walk into a room.
I confess, I watch girl butts. Do girls watch guy butts? Because I don’t have one. Daddy called me No Butt, so mine must have fallen off when I was a little kid. Everyone else has a butt, so if I ever win the Irish sweepstakes, I’m going to a plastic surgeon. I’m going to buy a butt.
The desk beside me was vacant. Please. Please. Please, please, please. But O’Murphy scatted by me and curled her legs onto the seat between Pickle Andersen and Marybeth Cannellini. And then she smiled at That Bastard. Scooter Andersen.
“If a car is traveling fifty-three miles per hour, how far will it go in fifteen minutes?”
My chance to impress. “Twenty-six something . . .”
“Who agrees with Mr. Pye?” Mrs. Macintosh didn’t humiliate me; she wasn’t that kind of teacher. She just clued everyone that my answer to her story problem was wrong.
She’s right. My hand jumped: twenty-six times four is wrong. That’s 104 miles an hour. I should’ve . . . “I multiplied. I should’ve divided fifty-two in half, then divided it again, so . . . thirteen-and-a-quarter miles?”
Our sophomore Algebra I teacher was as flexible as a thumbtack. Like Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love, she called everyone mister or miss, something most teachers had quit doing in the informal Sixties. “You have the right answer this time, Mr. Pye, but why didn’t you set it up as an algebra problem?”
Because I can’t. I don’t get new math.
O’Murphy’s No. 2 pencil rolled from her slanted desktop and onto the linoleum.
I dove at the same moment she slid off her seat, so that put her shirt-skirt hem at my eye level. That morning-sky chambray–which I will always call O’Murphy Blue–had come into fashion that year. The tails stopped a fraction above her knees, barely legal by high school rules. She knelt, and I discovered white scars about six inches higher: tiny, jagged, but regularly spaced.
What caused those cuts? Book pages? That doesn’t seem right.
She grinned with tiny Tinker Bell teeth when she saw my hand going for her pencil.
And there I was: dumb as a bump on a pickle. Fourteen years old, and I’d never spoken to a chick.
She smiled up at Scooter as if to say, “Is this guy for real? He’s petrified.”
Scoot didn’t look at her, though; he stared right into my eyes.
Third period. Mrs. Lane wrote her name on the blackboard, then guided a hi-fi needle onto the LP. O’Murphy wafted past like a blossom on the wind and sat behind me again, between MBe and Pickle. My nose caught another whiff of lilacs.
She must’ve gone to pep-squad tryouts during second period. She had an all-conference chest, so she looked how every girl wanted to look in a letter sweater. A pleated scarlet-and-cream Hell Creek Demonette skirt made her legs seem long for such a petite girl. Now I understood the word voluptuous: her ankles and calves were elegant, upturned bottles; her curves were ripe, tart cherries.
“Nowhere Man” played.
“John Lemon,” said the girl beside me.
“Lennon,” I corrected, but a smile let me in on her joke.
“Oh, Lordy. I’ve sat beside a Negro,” I whispered hugely.
“Afro-American.” Her smile widened.
Holy feces! She gets my humor.
“I’m Sammie Davis.”
Even at fourteen, I was already a little hard of hearing, so I cupped my ear.
She repeated the words and fully extended her right arm to shake hands. “Sammie. Davis. He don’t own the name, you know. What’s yours, man?”
We were the two darkest kids in school. Before Sammie, the only student in school darker than me had a Coppertone tan, and she’d moved back to Corpus Christi. “Curtis. Pye.” Mother said Frederick Douglass High had closed last summer, that Negroes would be bused to the white high school, but I’d never thought desegregation would affect me.
Mrs. Lane handed sheaves of papers to Sammie and me. “Pass these back, please.”
I love the scent of mimeograph paper–lanolin and solvent with a hint of castor oil. I gave my pile to O’Murphy, who smiled. At me. I’d swim Red River for a girl who looks at me that way.
“Today, we’ll study the lyrics of the Beatles. Anyone, what’s ‘Nowhere Man’ all about?” In that moment, Mrs. Lane became our most far-out teacher. Most of us were sixteen, and Mrs. Lane wasn’t much older–maybe twenty-two or twenty-three.
A light snapped on in Sammie’s eyes. She knew the answer.
But it was Marybeth who raised her hand. “It’s a folk song.”
Mrs. Lane nodded. “And that is significant because?”
“Because the Beatles ain’t folk singers?” O’Murphy edged in. Her last word finished on an upbeat, turning her answer into a question.
“Aren’t,” Mrs. Lane corrected. “This is sophomore English, so I know all of you can speak it correctly by now. But yes. They were bubble-gummers. Switched to folk and rock. Why else is this song significant?”
“It’s the first Beatles tune that ain . . . isn’t about love?” O’Murphy ventured again.
“What’s your name?”
“O’Murphy Scott? Murph?”
“Good. And what’s your name?”
“Marybeth Cannellini. MBe.”
“O’Murphy, how does this song make you feel?”
“It is melancholy,” Mrs. Lane affirmed. “Anything else?”
“It’s existential,” MBe offered.
Mrs. Lane hadn’t expected that. “How is it existential?”
“It says life is meaningless and absurd. Nothing is worthwhile.”
Hmm. Is MBe is the female version of me? I hadn’t met either O’Murphy or MBe before high school. We’d all come from different elementary schools.
Mrs. Lane beamed. “Where does the song say that?”
“The last refrain,” MBe said. “Making nowhere plans. For nobody.”
O’Murphy whistled through the diastema between her two front teeth. “MBe is smaaart!”
A thought struck me. “Why are we learning what songs mean?”
“My, aren’t y’all insightful!” Mrs. Lane pointed a wry smile at me. “Name?”
“Cortez, in Español. Your name also appears on my Spanish roll.”
I nodded. Bueno. Mucho better than Cutie. I glanced back at O’Murphy.
She winked. At me.
“You’re perceptive, Cortez, it is my little trick. After this, we’ll study Bob Dylan. By analyzing ‘Just Like a Woman’ and ‘Rainy Day Women,’ all y’all will learn to dig Dylan Thomas.”
I thought for a moment about pronoun usage, but Mrs. Lane had said it correctly. In Okie speak, “y’all” is singular; “all y’all” is plural.
“By the way, Bob Dylan is a pen name. What’s his real name?” Mrs. Lane asked.
“Robert Zimmerman.” Heads turned toward me and whispered.
O’Murphy punched her congratulations on my shoulder. “How did you knooow?”
It was my second chance to speak to her, but I half smiled instead.
“I hear he always knows the answers,” MBe muttered.
“And from which poet did Dylan borrow his nom de plume?” Mrs. Lane looked at me through round granny glasses.
Not this time.
“Come on,” Mrs. Lane encouraged. “I’ve already given you the answer.”
“Dylan Thomas?” O’Murphy ventured.
Art Fleming, O’Murphy would be a natural for Jeopardy. All her answers were in the form of a question. And thank you, Tiger Beat. It’s a chick mag, but I’d read the article on Bob Dylan, then I’d gone to the record store and spun Bob’s six-minute single, “Like a Rolling Stone.” I hadn’t understood the lyrics, so I’d returned the next day and written down the free-verse poem about a poor little rich girl who’d been misled.
Dylan and I had something more in common than liking Joan Baez. He’d dropped out of college to visit Woody Guthrie in a mental hospital. Woody–my music idol–was a good ol’ Okemah boy.
“What did Dylan Thomas write?”
Do not go gentle.
No hand went up.
“Dylan Thomas,” Mrs. Lane said, “was a Welsh poet who famously wrote, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ We’ll find out about him in a couple of weeks.”
When I’d bought Bob’s Freewheelin LP, I’d realized he didn’t just write songs, he had established rock music’s age of reason. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was about our impending doom.
The bell rang, and the best half of our school day ended. Mrs. Lane shut off the record player and poked a green, sandwich-sized tape into a deck. Biggy had installed an eight-track under the dash of his Mustang, but I had no idea they’d made a tape deck for a cabinet.
“My husband’s fave,” Mrs. Lane raised her voice against the commotion of students switching classrooms. “He’s a sergeant. We bought it when the army stationed him near London.”
O’Murphy was beside me for a moment. “Joan Baez,” she informed.
The woman who had reintroduced folk music to the 1960s had a haunted sound in her vibrato as she sang “500 Miles.” The character in the song had hopped a train. Her family would know she had gone because they could hear the whistle blow for a hundred miles.
I was determined to speak to O’Murphy this time, but she no longer saw me. Richie Richards grinned and rolled a secret finger wave. Hell Creek’s most in vogue senior couldn’t be seen talking to a sophomore from the poor side of town.
I followed her eyes. Scooter and Spit glared and whispered to each other, but I sensed they were talking about me. O’Murphy honeyed up to calm Scooter. He shoved her shoulder.
Mrs. Lane shouted to us, “Tomorrow, Joan Baez.”
“Stunning voice.” Sammie walked alongside me now and watched.
“Your name is really Sammie Davis? Like The Sammy Davis Junior Show?”
She looked at me with a mischievous glint. “My daddy-o, Sam Davis, named me after himself, so I’m a junior too. He called me ‘Sambo’ until Sammy Davis Junior became the ‘Magical Negro.’ Now he calls me Sammie Davis Junior.”
How should I deal with racial humor from a Negro? I grinned conspiratorially. “This class is going to be sooo much fun.”
MBe faced her locker as Sammie and I walked by. I heard her whisper. “He likes you.”
“Cutie? Yeah.” O’Murphy said.
“You like him?”
“Too nice. Not my type. Yours.”