CHAPTER Twenty-six: ABOUT WEEKENDS AND THE UNFAIRNESS OF LIFE

       Greg heard a little about the Pocatello trip Friday from Chuck (It seemed to go well), but Vic went to town early with her mom and Mandy, and he didn’t get to talk to her. He was up early Saturday morning, but barely early enough for Vic. She burst into his house at 6:30 – not waiting for any kind of greeting – and hugged him tightly. He liked it.

   “You keep getting earlier and earlier. Maybe I should stay awake all night so I’m up to greet you. Or maybe you should stay the night, and save the morning sprint.”

   “Is that some kind of offer?” She pulled away from him. “No, that is definitely not a conversation to get into right now. I did it, Greg! I talked to Mom and Daddy about staying here on the weekends.”

   That got his attention. “And?”

   “And I don’t know for sure. I did it last evening, after dinner. As you suggested, I tried not to burn any bridges behind me, but I didn’t leave any question about what I want and need. They were surprised and upset – particularly Daddy – but they let me talk. I told them that, with all the changes occurring in my life, our Saturday talks are more important to me – to us – than ever. I was smart enough not to state the fact that, in a month’s time, they won’t have any control over what I do each day. And I didn’t tell them how mature I am, and that I - we - can be trusted alone. They have to decide that, don’t they?  Anyway, I thought I was going to be too wound up to sleep. Guess what? I slept like a baby. But when I woke up, I was ready to see you!”

   He took her in his arms, again. “It sounds like you handled it really well. I’m proud of you. Now what, we just wait?”

   “I don’t know. I have a feeling Daddy is going to talk to you – maybe even today. Can you handle it?”

   “For you, Victoria darling, I am Superman, the man of steel. I can handle anything!”

   “I’ll drink to that. Let me get some water heating for my tea.”

 

   The day was already fairly warm as they settled on the front steps. It was early morning quiet. Some mourning doves were calling from down below the houses, and a few cliff swallows were trying to glean breakfast from the few flying insects. A cottontail rabbit hopped onto the lawn near their feet, realized it wasn’t alone, and hurried on across the driveway into the brush. They both laughed. It was a nice spot at a nice time.

   “So, dear,” Vic began, “Anything exciting going on?”

   “No, dear, not that I can think of. When you arrived this morning, I was thinking about Jo – Venita...”

   “What!” Vic almost spilled her tea. “Here I am, possibly on the verge of being disowned by my family, and you are thinking about my rival?”

   Greg put his arm around her, and softly pressed his lips against her ear lobe. “I’m sorry, Vic. That was very insensitive of me.” As he whispered, his lips moved gradually down her cheek, until they reached the corner of her mouth. “Is it in your heart to forgive me?” She was rapidly losing her battle to keep from grinning. “Because..” She turned her lips toward his. He moved away. “Because, I wasn’t really thinking about her, at all. I was thinking of some things that happened this past week that made me think – momentarily – about what I was thinking just after she left to return to Little Rock.”

   “You know that doesn’t make any sense at all?”

   He leaned forward, and finished the kiss. “Would you like to hear what I was thinking?”

   “Do you want to know what I’m thinking right now?”

   “Hmm, let’s see. I think you are wondering if you should select osculation or elucidation.”

   “Well, this is one of those rare cases in which your vocabulary may be slightly stronger than mine. However, I am going to take a chance, and go with Option One.”

   He obliged, for several long moments. Then, they sat side by side, holding but not drinking their now cold tea and coffee.

   After a while, Vic wondered, “Do you think that rabbit will come back?”

   “It seems unlikely.”

   “Then, maybe we should try elucidation.”

   “I would really like that, but it could be a fairly weighty conversation. Do you want to get into it, now?”

   “Sure, it’s still early.”

   Greg was a little hesitant to start. “I wanted to talk to you about all this right after she left. But then, you were here, and I was so glad to see you, and we had so much else to talk about – and I guess I really wasn’t quite ready, after all. I didn’t have my thoughts together. Then, there were so many other things going on, that it just kind of slipped into the background. My need to talk about it only came back because of what happened this past week.”

   She was puzzled. “So, what happened this past week?”

   ‘You know about the riots in Los Angeles?”

   “Yes, I saw it in the paper, and we were hearing about it on the radio this morning. It sounds awful.”

   “It is, and it’s been going on since last Wednesday. It’s in an area called Watts, that I guess is almost all Colored families. It started with a routine traffic stop. The police pulled over some people. I don’t know if it was a legitimate stop or not – there’s all kinds of tension between the police and the people there. Anyway, the stop turned into a scuffle between the police and the people in the car, a crowd joined in, more cops were called, and now we have this riot. Buildings and cars have been burned up, people have been killed, and a lot injured. The National Guard were called in to fight the rioters, which has made it even worse.

   “The traffic stop didn’t really cause the riot. It just was kind of the last straw for the local people, who had been upset for years about the poor living conditions and the lack of job opportunity for Negroes. There had been a series of smaller local demonstrations in the last two years – one editorial in the paper said there had been 250 different protests in that time. In those same two years, the police shot 65 Negroes – according to the editorial, most of them were unarmed. The L. A. police chief didn’t help the matter when he made some pretty inflammatory comments about both Negroes and Muslims.”

   Greg paused to catch his breath and collect his thoughts. “I heard all this just days after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. Almost 100 years after the Negroes were ‘freed,’ and we need a law that says the states can’t stop them from voting! They can’t ‘own’ slaves, anymore, but they are doing everything possible to make sure that the African-Americans can never become citizens with equal rights. They make them pay to vote; they give them literacy tests; they make it hard for them to get to polling places; they threaten anybody who tries to vote; and they even beat up and sometimes kill Negroes who try. It’s working. An editorial in Monday’s paper said that there are two counties in Alabama that have more Negroes than White people, but no Negro is registered to vote there. It’s the same in four counties in Louisiana, five in Mississippi, and two in Georgia. This is America in the second half of the 20th century that we’re talking about! Because of this new law, Federal judges are actually going to go into several Southern states, and make sure that no one is denied the right to vote because of their skin color.

   “Some of this information is new to me, but I studied quite a bit about slavery and segregation  in school. It’s been really hard for me to believe that anybody – any human being! – could keep another person as a slave. And it makes me sick – sometimes, actually sick to my stomach – to think that it wasn’t just individual people who were so lacking in human feeling that they could keep other people in total bondage. It was the majority of people in a whole region of the country who were so depraved – so horribly insensitive – that they could all do it – and not even call their captives people, but label them as ‘property.’ They treated them like ‘property,’ too. They bought and sold them like cattle. They even bred them like cattle, selling a wife or a husband, and bringing in some other mate that they thought might result in stronger slave stock. They took girls and boys from their families, and sold them off for similar purposes. There’s also mounting evidence that the use of women slaves – rape - by their ‘masters’ was not an unusual occurrence.

   “Did you know that almost all of our so-called ‘founding fathers’ owned slaves – owned! I hate that word! George Washington, the ‘father of our country,’ had many on his lands. Even after it became popular to at least talk about freeing the slaves, he never freed any. He claimed he couldn’t, because they actually belonged to Martha, his wife. Why he and Martha couldn’t mutually agree is unclear. Thomas Jefferson talked a good talk about freedom, but he didn’t free any of his slaves during his lifetime. He fathered a whole string of children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Some claimed the sex was consensual – and apparently she was clever enough to get him to free some of their children – but only after his death, as a result of wording in his will – and he never freed her. And, honestly, can anything be really consensual when the woman is ‘property,’ belonging completely to her owner? We would rightly call it rape, today.”

   Vic had sat quietly beside him through all of this. He looked over at her, now. “I’m sorry, Vic. I didn’t realize how wound up I was. I really wanted to talk to somebody about this, and when I think about talking to somebody, it’s always about talking to you.”

   She touched his arm. “Go on, tell me how this ties in with Jo’s visit.”

   “Thank you.” He took a breath. “Your dad was really upset about Jo being assigned here. He thought it was crazy to send an African-American young woman all the way out here by herself – first, through country where she could be in danger from Southern white people, then to an area where she wouldn’t be welcomed by the Mormons.”

   “What about the Mormons?”

   “Your dad said that Mormons consider black skin the ‘mark of Cain.’ According to them, God gave it to the descendants of Cain - Adam’s and Eve’s son – who killed his brother, Abel, after God rejected Cain’s sacrifice and accepted Abel’s. In other words, they think that God rejected black-skinned people.”

   “Do Mormons really believe that?”

   “I think so. Mormons seem to have changed their beliefs a lot over time, and I guess now colored people can be in the Mormon church, but they still can’t teach or take part in any of the sacred rituals. That means that they can’t go to Mormon Heaven, either. Apparently, they are ‘saved’ somewhere, but Heaven is reserved for White Mormons.

   “Anyway, that’s kind of an aside, but I was interested because it’s hard not to consider  the effects of Mormonism in an area where most people are Mormons. So, I met Jo at the bus. She was the only colored person. She was dressed pretty much like you or Mandy would’ve been dressed, and shouldn’t have been viewed any different than any other pretty young woman. Instead, people stared at her like she was a kangaroo or an alien being. She didn’t seem to notice, but I did. Then, when I carried her suitcase out of the terminal, I got what could only be considered scandalized looks – a white man carrying a colored girl’s luggage!

   ‘On the way out here, we just talked about how flat and open the country is, and how ‘god awful’ long the trip is. Your folks were great, and your mom and Jo hit it off immediately. At dinner, they were chatting as if they’d known each other their whole lives. The next day, we drove around the refuge, and stopped and had lunch with Tim and Rusty. They teased her like I suspect they would tease any young woman, and she responded in kind. In all the time she was with us, there wasn’t one mention of race, or segregation, or discrimination, or differences. We were just people.

   “When I took her back to the bus was the first time she showed any concern about the situation. I really wanted to hug her, and she looked around as if she knew that wouldn’t be received well by onlookers. I told her I didn’t care – I was going to hug my friend, and we did. As I was leaving, I sensed some disapproval, but I didn’t care. I felt like I’d won a victory!

   “It seems kind of strange to say, but Jo is probably the first colored person I have ever known. There were African-Americans in my high school and at college, but we didn’t live close, and we didn’t see each other outside of classes. There weren’t any bad feelings that I knew of; we just didn’t associate. Although I’ve always hated slavery and segregation, and sympathized with what colored people were still going through, I realized it was still kind of philosophical and academic to me. I didn’t really know them. After being with Jo even that short time, I started thinking about her – a college graduate – being deprived of the right to vote; of her not able to use the same rest rooms and drinking fountains as white people; of her denied the right to eat in a restaurant. It all became very personal to me. Now, I can’t read about the Watts riots, or think about the passage of a voting rights bill, without wanting to do something! I don’t know what, but something.”

   After he finished, they didn’t talk for several minutes. “Thank you,” Vic said, finally. “I love you for that. I’m glad you told me.”

   “There’s one other thing I want to tell you about Jo’s short time here, something I didn’t tell your dad. The night before she left, we had a really violent thunderstorm. I don’t know if you got it in town; our summer storms can be so local. Anyway, in the middle of it, I thought I heard someone calling my name. I went outside, and heard Jo calling. She was in a real panic. I stayed with her until she calmed down.

   “It wasn’t really the storm. They have storms worse than that in Arkansas all the time, often with tornadoes involved. It was just a combination of being alone in a strange environment, and knowing that she wasn’t supposed to be here, at all. She came over to the bunkhouse in the morning, and told me her decision. I told your dad, but not the details of the night.

   “What I wanted to tell you was about the talk we had after she calmed down. I had offered her a cup of tea, saying that I had some I bought for you. At some point, it dawned on her that – if my tea for you was in this house – that this must really be my house. I confessed that I had moved over to the bunkhouse, so she could have her own place, in case the Johnsons wanted to stay at the refuge. She remembered your mom saying that you and Mandy spent all week in town. That being the case, she wondered when I was having tea with you. I told her about our Saturday routine. I guess I was waxing eloquently about how great these conversations were. She looked at me, and quietly said – but as a question – ‘you like Victoria?’ I said something vaguely inane about what a good talker you are, and she asked again: ‘So, you like Victoria?’ Like Peter denying Jesus three times, I started to say something about us only knowing each other a couple months. She said, ‘So, you like – with very strong emphasis on like – Victoria?’ We both started laughing, and I confessed that it was considerably more than like.”

   “So, she got you to admit what I had a hard time getting you to realize. I like Jo!”

   “Well, there’s a little more to the story. When we were waiting for her bus, she said how sorry she was not to meet you and Mandy. Your mother had such high praise that Jo figured you both were pretty special. Then, she said to me something like: ‘And from what you didn’t say, I think Vic must be very, very special.’”

   “And what did you say to that?”

   “I said, ‘She is. She really is.’”

 

   Vic went home for breakfast. Greg went inside, and made something for himself. He cleaned up the place a bit, then read for a while. He wasn’t surprised when Chuck appeared at his door around noon.

   “Can we talk about Victoria? Is this a good time?”

   “Sure. I was just reading. Come on in. The coffee may still be reasonably good.”

   “No, I’m okay.”

   Greg offered him the armchair, but Chuck sat in one of the kitchen chairs. Greg took another.

   “You probably know that Victoria talked to us about spending her weekends out here with you, after we move to town. I’m not comfortable with that.”

    “Chuck, that’s a family matter that you folks will have to decide. If you want my perspective on it, I’ll be glad to talk about it.”

   Chuck gestured for him to continue. “As you know, there’s a lot going on in Vic’s life right now – lots of good excitement, but lots of turmoil, too. It has dawned on her that, for the first time in her life, she’ll really be separated from you. I know she lived a lot of the past few years in town, but she was with Mandy, and you were only a phone call away. This is really taking her away from her family, into unknown territory.

   “Besides that, there is the move to town, and also the likely move away from here next summer. She told me a couple months ago that she loved you for sacrificing some of your career goals so that she and Mandy can finish high school with their classmates. But she also said that it’s going to be really hard because – especially for Mandy, but for her, too – when they leave for college, they won’t have a home to come back to. She knows it’s government housing, and was always temporary, but it has been ‘home’ for a lot of their lives. Vic will come back here a few times in the next year; after Mandy graduates, she probably won’t come ‘home’ – here – again. That concern about rootlessness has been bothering Vic for a while. And now, your move to town – although she knows it’s the right thing to do for Alice and Mandy – is cutting her time at ‘home’ even shorter. She’s talked about how much she loves the view from her room, even if it isn’t really ‘hers.’

   “Lastly, there are our Saturday talks. They’ve become really important to both of us. We can bring our coffee and tea out on the porch steps, and talk about whatever comes to mind. This morning, we talked for almost two hours about Venita Jo, the Voting Right Act, and the Watts riots. Other mornings, we’ve talked about religion, Viet Nam, books we like, our childhoods – whatever we want. It’s been our time to really get to know one another.

   “We’ve known that we will lose that time next month when Vic goes off to college, but we thought we had a few more Saturdays to prepare ourselves. With the other inevitable changes, the thought is pretty hard to take.

   “I think you know that you and Alice have, in Vic, raised a pretty level-headed daughter. From what I’ve seen of Mandy, she’s much the same. They’re going to make mistakes in life – we all do – but there aren’t going to be many, and the ones they do make are not likely to be big ones. I talked to you before about Vic and me. We love each other, and we are picturing ourselves having a long life together. But there will be lots of changes in the next few years, most of which we can’t predict. What we’re doing is planning for a future together, but also making sure that nothing we do in the meantime would jeopardize any different outcomes. I can’t give you any more assurance than that.”

   Chuck didn’t say anything immediately. Finally, he got up. “Thanks for giving me your thoughts, Greg. I appreciate it.” He headed for the door, but turned back, and offered Greg his hand. “Thanks. I really mean it.”

***

      He expected to see Vic at his door Sunday morning, and there she was.

     “Can we take a little walk?” she asked.

     “Sure.” He closed his door. “Down toward the woods?”

     “No, let’s just walk out the road a little ways. I have to get right back so we can go to town, but I wanted to see you for a minute.”

     They walked along in the sunshine. “I had another talk with Mom and Daddy last night. It was better. Daddy was pretty calm. He said he recognized all the changes that were coming for me  – college, the move to town, and the loss of our time together.” She looked over at him. “It sounded very much like he was repeating something that somebody else had said to him, recently.”

   Greg didn’t respond. “In any event, he seemed to be considering it all very carefully. I’m hopeful.”

   “That sounds good,” said Greg.

    They turned back to the compound. As they approached Greg’s house, a cottontail ran across his lawn, and went on under the bunkhouse.

   “That’s our bunny!” Vic exclaimed.

   “Or a relative.”

   “No, that’s him. I’d recognize him, anywhere.”

   Greg squeezed her hand. “I always said you have a real gift for perceiving things.”

   “I do, don’t I?”

 

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