by the edge of the river
 

Chapter 3: You Give Me Hope

October 7, 1957

"But, Mrs. Cowles, wouldn't it make more sense for me to work with Jesse?" Loyola's eyes darted from her teacher to Jesse Sherman and back to Brian.

Brian had been dreading his second period class; dreading it because he knew he didn't have time to change Loyola's mind. Not that he even knew how to try to change her mind. It was Monday morning and she was talking to Mrs. Cowles like she'd planned.

Todd Maurer shrugged his thin shoulders. "I'm fine with it either way."

Mrs. Cowles stood behind her desk and shook her head, her red-dyed hair not blending well with the gray roots that were showing. She was not budging on her position. "The partners are set. Whatever differences you and Brian have, you'll just have to work them out, Loyola."

Brian opened his mouth.

"Don't bother, Brian. I've made up my mind. You two have to work together." Mrs. Cowles' word was final. She sat down at her desk, dismissing them with a small wave of her wrinkled hand, and opened up the lesson plan for the day.

Jesse's posture slumped slightly and his eyes conveyed to Loyola that he was sorry that she hadn't been able to switch partners.

Brian, on the other hand, stood straighter. His teacher had just done him a huge favor. "Thank you, Mrs. Cowles." Brian finally managed to speak. "It's just, I lost some of our equipment and we need a new set of test tubes and another jar for the water sampling."

Mrs. Cowles green eyes opened wide as she stared at one of her star pupils with incredulity. "Lost them? As in misplaced them?"

"As in dropped them in the river," he admitted. "I have some money saved up from my job in the cafeteria. I can pay for the new ones." He worked in the school cafeteria three mornings a week when breakfast was served.

"See me after class and I'll see what I can get for you." Her expression returned to one of calm authority. "You may return to your seat."

Loyola rolled her eyes and addressed Jesse. "See why I want to change partners?"

The taller boy chuckled. "Sorry, Loyola." They went back to their seats, Jesse walking next to her, his head bent down toward hers as they talked. "Say, do you have a date for the Homecoming dance yet?"

"No, not yet." She shook her head.

"I'd really like to take you, then. Would you go to the dance with me?" Jesse asked.

Brian held his breath, waiting for her answer just as anxiously as Jesse appeared to be. He didn't want to admit it to himself, but he was jealous not only of the possible outcome of the question but of how smoothly the words came from Jesse's lips—no stuttering or tripping over sentences for the suave basketball player.

Loyola glanced back at Brian as if she could sense him eavesdropping and then turned to Jesse. "Let me think about it. I'll let you know tomorrow."

Brian was a good student: responsible, hard-working. He always listened to his teachers, always took good notes. But not today. Today, when he sat back down at his desk, he didn't pay attention to Mrs. Cowles' lecture. He wasn't able to concentrate on the words she was writing on the board.

All he could think about was Loyola. He knew if he wanted to go out with her, he'd have to fight for her. And if there was any chance at all that she'd consider going to the dance with him instead of Jesse, he had better act quickly.

He tore a piece of paper out of his binder and quickly scratched a note to the girl of his affections. Please go to the dance with me. — Brian. He folded up the paper and then wrote Loyola's name on the top. He handed it to the girl who sat next to him. "Pass this to Loyola, please."

If Mrs. Cowles caught him passing notes in class, not only would she read it aloud, he'd get detention. Brian had never had detention, but he was more concerned about embarrassing both himself and Loyola if the message happened to be intercepted.

Loyola sat two rows over and one row up from him. He watched as the note made it from one student's hands to the next, and then it was in hers and she unfolded it and read it. She glanced over at him and shook her head slightly.

Brian's heart sank. Maybe he should just give up. He didn't want to be the crazy guy stalking her every move. If she wasn't interested, she wasn't interested. But that was just it—she'd told him she liked him, that she had a crush on him. And, if he thought about it, she'd actually compared him to Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. How could he possibly ignore that?

He scribbled another note. Eat lunch with me today?

She glared at him before even opening the note. Then she sighed and read it.

"Well?" he mouthed at her when she didn't respond.

He watched her write something in return and nervously took the note from his classmate as it was passed back to him.

"You always eat with the B.W.G.s"

He glanced up at her. "So?" he mouthed. He could eat with someone else. He didn't have to sit with the Bob-Whites.

"Fine." She'd said the word out loud, not just mouthed it, not even whispered.

Mrs. Cowles turned around. "Miss Kevins, do you have something to share on this subject?"

"No, ma'am," Loyola answered. As soon as Mrs. Cowles turned back to the chalkboard, Loyola glared at Brian.

He smiled and winked at her.

 

Sleepyside was a small community. The Sleepyside Junior-Senior High School was an even smaller community within that. There were 647 students spread across six grades. Of those 647 students, exactly 42 of them were not white. There were eight Puerto Rican students, three Chinese students, two Japanese students, and 29 Negroes. Sleepyside Junior-Senior High was, and always had been, integrated.

Until bringing Loyola to his house, until sitting with her at his kitchen table the other day, until talking with his father, Brian hadn't thought much about the integration at the school. He looked around the cafeteria now, and somehow his eyes had adjusted and he saw it differently. He saw the group of five Asian students sitting at one table, but the two Japanese boys were ignoring the Chinese students. No other students sat with them.

At another table, a few members of the varsity basketball team sat together, along with some of their girlfriends. All of them were colored. Brian nodded in greeting as he passed by the table. He knew most of the basketball players—he'd been on the team in his junior year but had decided not to continue the sport with his heavy senior class load. Jesse Sherman was, of course, seated with them.

But as his eyes scanned the room, he couldn't find a single group where there was a colored person sitting with whites. He wondered how he'd never noticed that before.

He searched for Loyola. She had said he could eat lunch with her, or at least that's how he interpreted her response of "fine". He spotted her at a table with some other girls and wandered over to them. "Hi," he said quietly. "Can I join you?"

She stared at him. "Are you—? Never mind. You are."

"Am I what?" Brian dropped his lunch tray down next to her. He heard a couple of people in the room gasp and a smattering of hushed whispering, but that couldn't have been directed at him, could it?

"Crazy." Loyola turned to the girl across from her. "Shirley, this is Brian. He's crazy."

"Hi, Shirley." Brian grinned at her. "Crazy, but cute, right?"

"Craaa-zy!" The other dark-skinned girl giggled, her brown eyes twinkling with mischief. "He's the one? Oh, Loyola. Mmm-mmm."

Brian wondered what that meant exactly. Was it a good sound or a bad one? "Give me a chance? Another? Loyola? Will you?" Dammit, he was doing it again. Deep breaths. Just take deep breaths.

"On the project? I don't have a choice, do I?" Loyola smiled at him, taking some of the sting out of her words.

"Can he even speak English?" Shirley asked. She turned to him and spoke slowly and in an exaggeratedly loud voice, enunciating every word clearly as if he were deaf. "Where—are—you—from?"

"Sleepyside. Right here." Brian sighed. "Well, actually, I was born in the city, but I was raised here in town since I was just a babe."

"That explains it then." Shirley put her hand up next to her mouth as if to block out the sound as she stage-whispered to Loyola. "I think he's been drinking the crazy water."

"Loyola Kevins." Brian took another deep breath. He had to be able to say this. She was going to answer no anyway, so there wasn't any point in being nervous. "Will you go to the Homecoming Dance with me?"

Loyola peered at him in disbelief. "You asked me Saturday and I said no then."

At the basketball table, Jesse Sherman was paying close attention to Brian and Loyola. He wondered if Jesse had good hearing because his posture had been tense, but he suddenly relaxed and then turned back to his friends.

"You saw him Saturday?" Shirley smiled knowingly. "So, that's where you were."

"And are you still saying 'no'?" Brian knew he was pushing his luck. She'd slap him or something worse, and he'd deserve it.

One of the other girls at the table spoke up. "He's serious? A white boy wants to take a colored girl to the dance?"

"I'll go with you, honey," another of the girls said, batting her eyelashes at him.

Loyola glared at the girl and she turned back to her lunch with a small giggle.

"Well?" Brian asked again.

"No." She rolled her eyes. "I mean, yes, I'm still saying no."

He had been expecting that and she'd been a lot nicer than she could have been about it. It still felt like a punch in the gut.

But he stayed at the table, reached for the plastic fork on his tray, and started eating his own lunch.

"Aren't you going to join your friends?" Loyola asked after a second, glancing over at the BWG table.

Brian swallowed the morsel of food in his mouth—some corkscrew pasta with meat sauce. "You are my friend, aren't you?"

"Let him stay." Shirley smiled at him. "He makes our table look good."

The girl on his other side giggled again and then addressed him. "Isn't the friend territory a bad place for you to be if you ever want to go out with her?" She nodded her head toward Loyola.

He puzzled over the question. "Oh, uh, I don't know. Is it? I'd think you'd want to be friends with the person you're dating."

"We're not dating." Loyola glared at him momentarily. "And I'm not even sure if we're friends. Friends don't try to kill each other."

"What?" Shirley's jaw dropped as she looked from Loyola to Brian.

Neither answered. Eventually conversation resumed and Shirley went back to eating.

Brian sat quietly, eating his own lunch, but not sure how to cut into the conversation. After ten or fifteen minutes, he finally had the nerve to speak again. He'd had to wait for a pause in the constant chatter of the girls around him, most of which was in a type of slang he didn't even understand. "I talked to Mrs. Cowles after class and she'll have some equipment for us to use by Wednesday. Do you think we could go to the river and try some of those field tests again? Maybe after school this week or on the weekend?"

"Sure." Loyola put the last bite of her sandwich in her mouth.

He smiled, satisfied he would at least see her outside of the classroom.

His speaking must've given Shirley the courage to question him again. "Did you try to kill her or did she try to kill you?"

He blushed furiously. "It was an accident. A stupid, clumsy accident and it wasn't even entirely my fault but I'm sorry."

"I know." Loyola grinned. "He rescued me, too, Shirley. Don't worry."

"You should go to the dance with him." Shirley nodded her head, helping affirm her statement.

"She's right," Brian added, feeling emboldened by Shirley's sudden proclamation. He winked at Loyola. "You should."

Loyola laughed and then quickly sobered. She pushed her glasses up on her nose. "Look, Brian, I told you I like you and I shouldn't have. I wish I could take it back."

"Oh, you can't take back those kinds of words." Shirley shook her head. "You like him and he likes you. What's the problem, girl?"

Loyola gazed seriously at Brian, their eyes locking. For what felt like the longest time, they didn't say anything, just stared into each other's eyes. And then the warning bell blared, ruining the moment.

"I'll let you know tomorrow, okay?" She smiled at him again, softly.

"Okay." It was more than he'd hoped for. He picked up his tray and, with a lightness in his step, headed toward the cafeteria exit.

He placed his tray in the pile on the counter, and behind him he heard Shirley's voice. "He is gone on you, Loyola. He came and sat at our table. For you."

He couldn't hear Loyola's response, but he beamed as he walked out the door. He did have a chance.

 

The trouble started almost immediately.

Someone pushed against his shoulder as he walked to his next class. "Niggerlover."

"Don't mind him." Todd Maurer came up to walk next to him. "He's a jerk."

Brian grimaced. He glared at Mike Larson's back as the offender sauntered off to his own class. He was a grade below Brian, but much bigger. Brian thought he was on the wrestling team. "I guess."

"No guessing; he is," Todd affirmed, nodding his sandy-haired head vehemently.

Brian glanced at the lanky boy next to him. He wondered if Todd had ever been on the receiving end of Mike's bullying ways.

"So, is it true?" Todd raised an eyebrow.

"Is what true?" Brian walked through the door to their calculus class and took his seat.

Todd sat next to him and opened up his binder, pulling out a clean sheet of paper. "I heard you asked Loyola to the Homecoming dance."

Gossip at the speed of light .... "Yeah, that's true." Brian grinned. "She said no the first three times, but I finally got an 'I'll think about it' out of her."

"She's weakening." Todd laughed. "But Jesse likes her."

"I know," Brian whispered as the classroom started to fill with more students.

"So you're going to go up against Jesse for her?" Todd shook his head. "It's been nice knowing you."

"How do you know I'll lose? Does she like Jesse?" Brian still wasn't sure if Loyola did like the basketball player, but he knew she liked him. She'd admitted it, and the knowledge gave him a warm, confident feeling.

Todd shrugged. "I don't know. But Jesse asked her to the dance, too. Before you did, I hear."

"No, it was after I did." Brian tapped the eraser end of his pencil against his desk a couple of times. "I asked her on Saturday and he didn't ask her until today."

"Is that why she wanted to switch lab partners?" Todd chuckled. "Well, good luck, Belden."

 

When Brian went back to his locker after class, there was a small crowd of students standing around it. As he approached, they cleared out of his way. It wasn't much, but the symbolism was clear—just a simple black 'X' painted over the face of the locker, the paint still dripping wet.

Mart approached him, a cleaning rag in his hands. He must've gotten there earlier and gone to one of the nearby classrooms for the cloth.

Brian shook his head. "Don't bother. Let it stay."

"Are you sure?" Mart peered at him curiously. "It'll come off easier if we clean it before it dries."

"Positive. You clean it up, he'll just paint something else." Brian shrugged a shoulder.

"You know who did it?" Mart asked, sounding surprised.

Brian shook his head. "No, not really."

"But you have an idea, don't you?" Jim had come up from behind him and shook his head in disgust. "There are only a handful of people who would do something like this. We should tell Principal Stratton."

"But we don't know which of those people." Brian sighed. It could've been Mike again, but he didn't know that for certain. "I'll tell him after school if he hasn't already heard. Oh, and you don't mind if I eat lunch with other people for the next week or two, right?"

"I see enough of you at home as it is," Mart quipped. "Knock yourself out."

Jim nodded in agreement. "If this is because you sat with Loyola and her friends, I may start eating with Jeff Hoffer."

Brian gave Jim a nod of approval. Jeff was another Negro student at the school and was in one or two of Jim's classes. "I never even realized our school had this kind of problem."

"It's not our school," Mart corrected. "Don't let three or four students define the school."

"You're right. Thanks." Brian switched out his books for his next class, careful not to brush against the wet paint. "See you later," he called to Mart, as he and Jim headed to their history class.


chapter 4: nothing's ever gonna be the same