by the edge of the river
 

Chapter 1: Not Without Takin' Some Falls

October 5, 1957

Brian parked his 1941 Mercury Club convertible—although the roof stuck, so it wasn't really convertible anymore—in front of a brick row-house with neatly mowed lawns on all sides. Tall chrysanthemums were still in bloom, decorating either side of the entrance. He stepped up to the door, cleared his throat, and rang the bell.

He heard the sound of footsteps hurrying up the hall just before the door was answered. "Bye, Papa!" Loyola called out toward one of the back rooms of the apartment. She turned her face toward him, looking slightly flushed. "Ready to go?"

Brian nodded, reaching for the bright red Coca-Cola cooler she held. It was heavier than he expected. "What all is in here?"

"Just the jars, test tubes, and solutions and things for the different tests we're planning." She smiled up at him as they walked to the car. He loved hearing her talk. She had a distinct Southern accent, but he wasn't sure which state she had come from before moving to New York. "Oh, and I also packed us some lunch," she added.

He opened the passenger door of the jalopy and waited for her to be seated inside before closing it. After placing the cooler in the backseat, they were soon on their way. "I picked out spots, a couple of them, uh, along the river, that I thought might be good. For getting samples, I mean."

"Okay." She glanced out the window.

"I thought we'd start at the bay. With the bay water." Why do I always sound like an idiot around her? He cleared his thoughts and then tried to picture Trixie sitting next to him instead of her. "There are plenty of places off Water Street where we can cross the tracks and get close enough to the bay to get some samples."

"Okay," she repeated.

Brian maneuvered the car through the streets of the small town. Minutes later, he was pulling into a parking lot off Water Street in front of an air heating and cooling manufacturer. It wasn't the best part of town, but it wasn't the worst either. He got out of the car, leaving the door open, and looked toward the small bay and the larger river into which it flowed.

Loyola walked around to his side and he felt himself getting flustered again. She was wearing a pair of blue jeans, the cuffs rolled up to mid-calf, and she had on navy blue rubber-soled Kedettes that looked like they could slip off her feet easily. She reached around him to open the cooler sitting on the backseat. She took out a cardboard box, one containing test tubes and some small jars. "This is a good spot. We have the confluence of the Croton and Hudson here so I expect the mineral composition will be very different from what we collect further up the river."

"Uh-huh," he mumbled. He grabbed a notebook and pencil box he had brought from home. The pencil box held a scientific thermometer and some pH test strips as well as some other supplies, including an indelible ink marker and an actual pencil or two. He peered up and down the railroad tracks and then glanced at Loyola standing next to him. With a flash of courage, he switched the items to his right hand and then grabbed her free hand. "Looks clear. Let's cross."

Still holding her hand, he led her to a small bank near the edge of the river. Reluctantly, he let go of her hand so he could open the notebook to a fresh page.

Loyola walked around to his other side, gently placed her box of equipment on the ground, and then took the pencil box from him. "Superman?"

"It's Bobby's," Brian admitted, a sheepish grin adorning his face. "My little brother's," he clarified, when he saw she didn't recognize the name. "I borrowed it since it has enough room for everything we need."

She opened it, sorting through the contents inside, neatly separated by the small compartments. She pulled out the special thermometer. "Is this Bobby's, too? Mrs. Cowles included one with the equipment."

Brian shook his head. "It's mine. It's from a science kit I got for Christmas a couple of years ago."

"Oh." She shrugged her shoulders and then reached into the box and took out a pencil. "Okay. Let's measure the temperatures first and then get the water samples."

Brian smiled at her as he took the pencil from her. "Sounds good."

She kicked her shoes off, stepped off the bank, and waded a few feet into the river. "About here?"

He moved closer to the river bank, closer to her. "Is it possible to get any deeper?"

The water nearly reached the cuffs of her jeans already. She stuck the thermometer in her pocket and bent over to roll them up further.

"It's not too cold, is it?" he asked, concerned for her comfort.

"It's much warmer than I expected. I can probably venture in another foot or two." She stepped carefully, and even from shore Brian could see she was moving her feet slowly across the bottom as if feeling for stability before taking a step.

He inched a little closer to the water so he wouldn't have to shout too loudly. "You should be good there."

She nodded and then held the thermometer up in the air above the water, shielding it with her hand to provide some shade to get a more accurate reading. A couple of minutes later she called out to him, "Air temperature 15.4 degrees Celsius. Um, Brian ...." She was pointing at him but he wasn't sure why. "Your shoes—"

He stepped toward her and that was when he realized what Loyola was trying to tell him. He was in the actual river. His shoes were soaked through. Oh, no! Moms will have a fit when she sees my shoes and pants. Trying not to look concerned, he ignored the sloshy feeling and dutifully wrote down the air temperature. He would make a neat table with columns later. "Okay. And water temp?"

He thought Loyola looked rather amused—or maybe she was just annoyed—as she bent down and dipped the thermometer in the river. Brian glanced at his watch, knowing they'd have to wait another two minutes for the thermometer to register the correct temperature. He slowly made his way back to the rocky shore, hoping Loyola wouldn't really notice how messy his slacks and loafers had gotten.

She stood back up and checked the thermometer. "18.3." She waited for him to write that down. "Should we do the pH test next?"

Brian nodded. He reached down into the cooler and pulled out a test tube. "I should bring this out to you. We should get the water from the exact same spot."

"Okay," Loyola agreed. He thought she was grinning—probably laughing at him—but he couldn't be completely sure.

He removed his shoes, still soaking wet and muddy, and then carefully rolled up his trousers as far as he could. He grabbed two test tubes and had sense enough to grab the special jar for the dissolved oxygen sampling as well. He took a few steps into the water.

"Don't forget the plastic bowl for the water!"

Brian slumped his shoulders, returned to shore, and retrieved the plastic bowl with a spout for pouring. He put the test tubes and lidded jar inside it for easier carrying and made his way over to her again, very carefully, worried that he'd do something idiotic and end up face first in the river. Do not trip, Brian!

He waded into the river to her side, right by her side, just inches from her, and then held the plastic bowl out to her. We should both do the pH test separately. That's what he wanted to say. What came out was somewhat more garbled. "Both of us should pH. Um. We should test both of us. Do the test."

"Brian?" Loyola frowned as she took the test tubes and jar out of the bowl and held onto them.

"They can vary. The results. Subjective." It was easier to try and keep his sentences short. Incomplete, maybe, but hopefully the word order made more sense.

"Brian." Loyola's voice became stern and her accent was even more pronounced. "What is wrong with you?"

Brian looked into her eyes, those beautiful dark eyes, and answered her clearly. "You. I am so crazy about you, I can't think straight." Then he cupped her cheek with his hand, leaned his head down toward her, and kissed her.

"Brian?" She was sounding annoyed. "Earth to Brian?"

"Huh?" Brian snapped out of his brief fantasy. "I ... uh."

"Listen, Brian. This is a serious project and I need to get a good grade on this. I have a college scholarship riding on this class." She sighed in exasperation. "We'll each do the pH test. I think that's what you were trying to say, right?"

Brian nodded dumbly.

"Which makes sense, because the results are subjective and can vary." She took the bowl from his hands and dipped it into the river.

"Loyola." Brian wanted to apologize for being such an idiot. He wanted to tell her how he felt. He really just wanted to kiss her.

"Brian?"

"I ... uh ... nothing. I'm sorry." Brian took a couple of deep breaths and then reached for the test tubes she was still holding. "I'll hold these so you can pour the water in. Pour in the water."

Loyola did as he suggested with a slight roll of her eyes. "I will, thanks."

"I'm sorry," he mumbled again. "I don't mean ... I ... forget it."

Loyola's beautiful dark eyes narrowed in his direction. "Look, Brian, I'm Negro. You knew that when you asked me to partner with you. But if the color of my skin makes you so uncomfortable to be around me, maybe we should just switch partners. It's not too late."

"No!" Brian nearly fell backwards in his haste to correct her misunderstanding. "No, I want to be yours, to be your partner, uh, to partner with you."

"Really?" Loyola gave him just a flash of a smile before frowning again. "Well, I'm starting to feel like I made a mistake. Jesse Sherman asked me to work on the project, too."

Jesse Sherman was a six-foot-four, basketball-playing, honor-roll student. And he was Negro, too. If Loyola was interested in him and he was interested in her, Brian Belden probably didn't stand a chance.

Loyola was staring at him again. Maybe she'd asked him something and she expected an answer? But after he'd heard the name Jesse Sherman, Brian hadn't been able to hear anything else. "Uh?"

She threw up her hands in exasperation. "You act like you're scared of me. I don't have a disease, you know? I'm just colored, that's all."

"No, no disease." Her words sunk in and he realized he was an even bigger idiot than he'd previously thought. He really hoped he could say what he was thinking without tripping over his tongue. "You're beautiful. And smart. And ... and ... Ireallylikeyoualot."

"Beautiful? You think I'm beautiful?" Loyola took a step backwards.

He saw it happening. The river swirled around her calves as she slid, falling. He dropped the forgotten test-tubes in his hands and reached out to grab her, to stop her. She landed on her behind, the water came up over her head, and he fell on top of her, pinning her under the water with his weight. In a panic, he stood up and then reached for her again, this time pulling her up.

She coughed a few times, spitting out some water. "You could've killed me!"

"Loyola, I'm so sorry! Are you okay?" Could he be more of an idiot? Of course she wasn't okay.

"I'm alive," she muttered. "I guess that's okay enough for today."

"I'm sorry," Brian mumbled again. He wondered if she realized that her blouse, being soaked, was now see-through. He tried not to stare.

"The test tubes!" She looked around her, trying to find them.

Brian scanned the water. He felt around the bottom with his hands and stood up. They were gone. He wasn't sure if they had broken or sank or drifted away with the current.

She pulled the thermometer out of her pocket, miraculously unbroken. "We have two thermometers and a couple of test tubes and jars, but not enough to conduct all the experiments."

"We can get replacements."

"Where? How?" Loyola let out a small groan of frustration. "Of all the idiotic stupid moves, Brian Belden ...."

"Are you saying this is my fault?" It is though, isn't it? If I could just keep my cool around her, maybe none of this would've happened.

She headed back to shore, trudging through the water angrily, nearly slipping again.

Helplessly, Brian followed her, listening mutely to the small tirade she was unleashing with each step. But the words she was saying didn't really match the angry tone of voice.

"How can someone so intelligent, someone who aces every test, someone as organized, someone as handsome as him possibly be such a complete and total idiot?" Her dark hair, previously coifed into perfection, had thin, tight corkscrew curls coming out of place, some sticking to the nape of her neck.

Handsome? Is she talking about me? Probably; he was a complete and total idiot around her, anyway.

Loyola got to the shore, picked up her shoes, and turned around to face him. "I need to go home."

Brian sucked in his breath as he took in the sight of her again. Her blouse hadn't dried at all and it looked like her bra was black and he really wanted to undo those little buttons and see if he was right.

Loyola must've noticed him ogling her. She folded her arms over her chest. "Take me home, Brian."

"I don't just think you're beautiful. You are beautiful." He was responding to what she'd said right before she fell, and he could barely believe the words had come out in the right order.

Her jaw dropped open for a few seconds and then clamped shut. She dropped her Kedettes, slipped her feet into them, and turned away from him. His eyes followed her as she crossed the railroad tracks and headed to the car. She opened the door and sat down in the passenger seat.

He reached for his own shoes and socks and, after picking up the box with what few supplies they still had, followed her.

Dejected, Brian climbed in behind the driver's wheel. He turned the key in the ignition, starting the engine, and then turned the heater on. He leaned over her, accidentally brushing her chest with his arm, to check that the passenger vent was spewing out warm air and that it was directed at Loyola.

He was rewarded with a cold glare and a frown. "Thanks. I can adjust it myself."

"I'm sorry," Brian said again. "I'll talk to Mrs. Cowles about getting new test tubes and jars. I'll tell her it was my fault."

"Of course you will. It is entirely your fault."

"Right." He sighed. "I'll take you home."

"Wait. I can't go home looking like this. Papa will kill me. He'll think—" She stopped suddenly and spoke quietly. "He'll think I was making out with you or something worse. As if I ever would."

Brian blushed. He didn't think he could feel more horrible if he tried. And yet, he couldn't stop the retort that came to his lips, even though he knew he shouldn't say it. "Would that be so bad?"

"What?" Loyola stared at him.

"Would making out with me be so bad?" He watched her cheeks turn crimson. He'd never seen a colored person blush before. She looked especially cute when she was blushing.

"Are we just going to sit here or are you going to take me somewhere?" she finally asked.

Brian coughed. "You said I can't take you home. Can I take you to my house?"

She shrugged.

"My sister's about your size. Maybe you can borrow some of her clothes," Brian offered.

"Okay."

He pulled out of the parking lot and drove back to Crabapple Farm. He wondered what his mother would think of the two of them showing up soaking wet. Hopefully she'd understand.

 

Brian pulled his jalopy into the driveway and parked in front of the large barn that had been converted to a garage. Another car was parked next to his, his mom's station wagon. He turned to look at Loyola, her blouse still transparent from the dampness. "We're here."

"This is where you live?" She gazed out her window at the farm house with keen interest.

Brian looked up at the house, a plain-looking white frame house with a neat little garden visible on one side. The chicken coop was hidden from view behind the house itself. The front porch was swept clean and he could almost hear the creak of the swinging bench as it swayed gently in the wind. The large crabapple tree in the front yard was full with ripening fruit. Some squashed fruit littered the bottom of the tree along with a scattering of leaves that had fallen since the lawn had last been raked.

He couldn't see why she seemed so impressed with the house. "Yes," he answered simply. He opened the door and was heading around to open hers, but she was already getting out of the car.

Brian led her around to the kitchen door and into the house. He could hear the radio playing in the background. His mom's voice could be heard singing over the hit song with vigor. "Number forty-seven said to number three, 'You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see. I sure would be delighted with your company—'"

"Moms!"

"In here," Mrs. Belden replied, while Elvis Presley kept singing.

"I brought a friend over," Brian announced, walking toward the living room. Loyola stood shyly behind him, almost as if hiding.

Mrs. Belden had the ironing board out and a basket of laundry on the couch. She turned to the two of them as they entered the room. "That's nice—" Her eyes opened wide in surprise at Brian's appearance. "What happened to you? Did you fall in the river?"

"Well, um, yeah, yes." Brian looked down at his shoes, actually thankful he had an excuse for their damage, now.

Her eyes followed his. "Take your shoes off and leave them on the porch. Then go change." She turned to Loyola, and her eyes widened further, though she quickly recovered. She looked through the clothes she'd already ironed that were hanging over the side of the couch. She picked out a blue blouse and a plaid skirt, both Trixie's. "These should fit you, dear. You can change in the guest room."

"Thank you, ma'am." Loyola took the clothes and followed Brian's mother to the downstairs bedroom.

Brian sighed as he trudged up the stairs. He'd never actually told his mother that the friend with whom he was working on the ecology project was female, much less colored.


chapter 2: find a way to get it right