by the edge of the river
 

Chapter 5: Nothing I Was Doing Was Right

October 9, 1957

Wednesday was not a good day for Brian Belden. He had no sooner walked into his US Government class when his teacher immediately pulled him aside and sent him with a hall pass straight to Mr. Stratton's office.

The day seemed to just be getting worse with every passing moment. Mike Larson and Jerry Vanderhoef had both goaded him with nasty wisecracks in the morning. Then Loyola had avoided him completely during chemistry. And, to make matters worse, she'd stayed and talked to Mrs. Cowles after class. He was sure she'd complained that she really couldn't work with him. Maybe she'd told the teacher that he was harassing her—that he'd kissed her against her will. Maybe that's why he was being summoned to the principal's office.

Brian grew more nervous with each minute that passed as he waited in the office for Principal Stratton to see him. His imagination was working overtime. Was he going to get yelled at? Detention? Or maybe the principal would actually take the ancient paddle down from the hook on his wall and use it on him.

Mr. Stratton finally opened his door. "Brian? Come in, please."

Brian entered the room slowly. He sat across from the balding man, whose brown hair was cut to about two inches long and circled his head neatly on all three sides. He looked around the office, avoiding Mr. Stratton's gaze. His right leg shook and he clamped his hand down just above his knee to try and stop it, but to no avail.

"I suppose you know why you're here?" Mr. Stratton asked.

"No, sir." That wasn't quite true. It probably had something to do with kissing Loyola, or maybe it was about the vandalism of his locker the other day, or it could just be because of the hateful comments directed at him from some of the students.

Mr. Stratton put his elbows on his desk and tented his fingers together. The robin's-egg blue striped shirt he was wearing looked bright against the dull gray of his blazer. "So, you don't know about the paint that was on your locker Monday afternoon?"

Brian's leg finally stopped its incessant shaking. He wasn't in trouble for inappropriate behavior in the cafeteria. Or, at least, that's not what Principal Stratton was opening with. "Oh, that. Sure. I mean, I saw it, too, of course. Who cleaned it off?"

"One of the janitors, but that's not important." Mr. Stratton frowned. "Do you know who did it?"

"No, I don't."

Mr. Stratton peered at him curiously. "Did you do it?"

Brian shook his head. "No, sir, I didn't."

"I didn't think so, but I had to ask. After all, you didn't report it." Principal Stratton gazed at him seriously.

Brian nodded his head. "It kind of slipped my mind. I meant to come tell you at the end of the day on Monday but ... I forgot." He shrugged.

The principal sat back in his chair, more relaxed now. He picked up a pen from his desk and twirled it in his fingers a couple of times. "Another student's locker had similar paint on it. Any idea why someone would do that?"

He must have meant Loyola's locker. Shirley had said as much at lunch the previous day. "No, sir."

Mr. Stratton dropped the pen.

"Is that all, sir? May I return to class, please?" Brian asked when it seemed the principal wasn't going to say anything else. If it was just about the locker, he really didn't know who had done it. And he really hoped his being here had nothing to do with the kiss.

"I heard you've been sitting with a different group of people than you normally do at lunch time this week." Mr. Stratton smiled.

He swallowed hard. His leg started shaking again. He was still in trouble. "I have." He bit back adding more to that response, not wanting to sound defensive. It shouldn't matter to the principal that he sat with some other friends for a change, but Mr. Stratton obviously thought it did.

"That's good." Mr. Stratton nodded his head in approval. "I'm pleased to hear it."

"Thanks?" Brian wasn't sure quite how to respond to that and couldn't help the questioning tone in his voice.

"I hope no one's given you a hard time because of it." He sat forward and adjusted his tie, a white tie with a green S on it for the school's colors. He either washed it every night or had a whole stash of them. He wore that same tie nearly every day. And, that day, it clashed terribly with his shirt. "That kind of thing wouldn't be tolerated, if they did," Mr. Stratton continued. "And if someone were to harass you, or anyone else, I hope you'd let me know."

Brian wondered briefly if he should mention the slurs he'd heard from a handful of students, but it was just some name calling, and he wanted it to die down, not to escalate it. Principal Stratton seemed to be waiting for him to say something. "I will."

"Okay. You can go back to class now." He stood up, giving permission for Brian to do the same.

"Yes, sir." Relief flooded through Brian. He stood and made his way quickly out of the office. To his surprise, he saw Loyola sitting on one of the seats in front of the secretary's desk. She was wearing a pair of gym sweats and a t-shirt. He knew she had P.E. third hour, but was surprised she would've been called to the office without changing first. Or had she come there on her own? That was always a possibility.

She glared at him as if he were to blame for her being there. She probably did blame him, even if she had come in to see the principal for her own reasons. He reminded himself that it wasn't his fault someone had reacted so negatively to them sitting together. But he had kissed her, and while he had been feeling happy about it up to that point, he no longer was. It was more than obvious that she wasn't happy about it at all.

He didn't dare say anything to her as he passed by.

 

When Brian entered the cafeteria, he went straight to Loyola's table and placed her thermos beside her lunch box.

She glanced up at him. "Thanks," she mumbled.

He sat down even though he hadn't picked up his own lunch yet from the counter.

"Hi, Brian," Shirley called out cheerfully as she set her tray down across from Loyola. "Aren't you eating today?"

He glanced at the other girl, glad Loyola had such nice friends. He answered with a bravado he certainly didn't feel. "Nah. Thought I'd go on a hunger strike until Loyola agrees to go out with me." The truth was his stomach was in knots over wondering if Loyola was mad at him about the kiss. He couldn't possibly eat.

Loyola ignored his remark. "No hi for me?" she chided, addressing her friend.

"Hi, Loyola," Shirley echoed dutifully. "So, what did you tell the principal?"

"Nothing." She opened a book she'd brought with her to the table and started reading.

"Nothing," Brian answered at the same time.

"He called you to the office, too?" Shirley seemed surprised that Brian had seen Mr. Stratton. "Well, what did he say?"

Loyola shrugged a shoulder. "He just wanted to know if I knew who had vandalized the lockers. And if anyone's been bothering me." She gave a sideways glance Brian's way. "I was tempted to tell him Brian's been heckling me."

Brian's cheeks flushed. "Do you want me to leave?" Of course, she does.

"Don't you dare," Shirley commanded. "She's just kidding. Right, Lo-la?"

Loyola let out a forced laugh. "Sure, he can stay."

He breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't sound very happy with him, but he had to talk to her. The memory of the kiss they'd shared still lingered on his lips—or at least in his mind. And she'd responded; she'd returned the kiss. He was pretty sure he hadn't imagined that. He needed to find out how she really felt. "Loyola, can we ... can we still work on the project this weekend?"

"I talked to Mrs. Cowles."

"And?" Here it comes. We're no longer partners for the ecology project.

"And she said she'd have the new equipment for us in class tomorrow." Loyola glanced at him and then returned to her novel. "So we should be able to try and collect samples again this weekend."

"That's great." He breathed again. Things weren't as bad as he'd feared. "Can I pick you up Saturday morning, then?"

"Sure. That'd be fine." She still wasn't really looking at him. Don Quixote seemed to be holding her interest.

"There you go, Brian. She's going out with you. Hunger strike over?" Shirley grinned.

"Yeah, I guess. Though working on a science project isn't exactly a date." He winked at Loyola's friend. Now that he knew he and Loyola were still working together and that he'd see her over the weekend, his mood started to turn around.

Loyola shoved a small plastic container toward him. "Do you want my salad?"

"Waldorf salad?" he asked, eyeing the chunks of apples. "Sure." He took a few bites, wondering if he could wait until the weekend to talk to her about the kiss. That seemed like a better option than bringing it up here, in front of Shirley and the girls at the other end of the table.

"You're really digging into that salad," Shirley commented.

Brian shrugged. "It's good." He turned to Loyola. "Why did you bring it if you don't like apples?"

She glanced up from her book. "Papa asked me to make some and we had too much leftover. I didn't want it to go to waste."

"Apple seeds part of the recipe?" he asked, noticing that a piece of the apple core was tossed in and a few apple seeds were stuck to it.

Loyola peered up at him and then at the salad. "Oops. Guess I wasn't paying attention. Just chopped up the apple and slid the whole thing in the bowl."

"No big deal." Brian pushed the apple core to the side of the container. "So long as you aren't trying to poison me or anything," he added, attempting to make a joke.

Shirley looked up from her own food. "Poison?"

"Apple seeds," he clarified. It was something Miss Bennett, his junior-year science teacher, had taught the class during one of their botany lessons. "They contain trace amounts of cyanide. Not enough to worry about, though. Not unless you eat a lot at once."

"I should've put more in, then," Loyola remarked calmly, flipping a page of the book.

Brian sighed. If she was going to be like this for the entire length of time they worked together on their project, it was going to be a very long month. But he still didn't regret kissing her.

 

Loyola did avoid him the rest of the week, even when he sat with her at lunch. Brian tried a few times to talk to her—really talk to her, not just chat about the project—but with no luck.

On Friday, after lunch, he'd just about given up on her. The only bright spot he could see was that she would be going to get water samples with him on Saturday and they would work on their project together. He stacked his dirty lunch tray on the tray return counter with a bit of a sigh and headed on to his next class.

"Your jungle-bunny have enough of you, already?" a nearby voice asked.

Brian turned around, startled. He was staring into the face of Bill Wright, another senior at the school. He decided to ignore the other boy's insult and continued on to his classroom.

But Bill didn't want to be ignored. "I noticed she's not so friendly with you lately. Looks like you're not gonna be gettin' any from her after all." He followed Brian out the door and pointed down the hall where Loyola's back was barely visible. "Or did you already get some from her?" He thrust his hips forward suggestively.

Brian stiffened.

Bill leered in Loyola's general direction. "Come on. The only reason to be hanging out with a nigger girl is if you're banging her. Is she any good?"

Brian's hand balled into a fist and, without thinking about it, he swung as hard as he could.

 

Brian sat sullenly in the principal's office for the second time that week.

Bill sat calmly in the chair next to his, gingerly touching around his black eye.

Mr. Stratton frowned at them. "What seems to be the trouble, young men?"

Bill shrugged a shoulder. "Wish I knew. We were just talking and then he up and hit me." He glanced at Brian. "For no reason."

"I had a reason," Brian retorted.

"Yes? Care to share that reason?" The principal stared at him steadily.

"He insulted someone." Brian hoped that was enough of a reason.

"Insulted?" Principal Stratton wasn't satisfied. "Who did he insult?"

"He insulted a girl ... a friend of mine." Brian frowned.

"I see." The principal shot a look at Bill and then returned to questioning Brian. "How exactly?"

Brian stared down at his feet as he mumbled his reply. "He ... he called her a jungle-bunny. And then he asked if she was any good."

"Any good?" Principal Stratton leaned forward. "Any good at what?"

Brian remained quiet. But as the principal continued to stare at him, he finally answered. "He implied in bed."

"Bill?"

"He's lying, sir. I never insulted her. And I asked if she'd done good, but I meant on the test. In English." Bill smirked at Brian briefly before returning his expression into a mask of innocence.

Brian sighed. It was going to be one boy's word against the other. "How would I know if she'd done well on an English test? I'm not even in her English class."

The principal coughed, apparently trying to cover up a small snort at Brian's correction of Bill's grammar. "Whatever Bill said, Brian, you shouldn't have hit him. And I have eye witnesses that say you threw the first punch." Mr. Stratton's forehead creased.

Brian nodded glumly. "I did, sir." There was no use lying about it.

The principal sighed. "Do you have anything else to add?"

"No, sir," Brian replied dutifully.

"Bill?"

"No, sir. You heard it from him. He hit me first and for no good reason," Bill proclaimed.

"Since this is your first offense, Brian, I'll go easy on you. Detention every day next week." Principal Stratton turned his gaze to the other young man in the office.

Bill had a smug smile on his face.

"Bill, any kind of prejudiced or derogatory remarks at this school will not be tolerated. I've known you and Brian both for a long time now, and this isn't the first time you've been in trouble." He paused, studying the two young men. "Brian's never gotten in a fight at school before. I'm taking his word for it that you did insult his friend. Detention for you, too. Same length."

"That's not fair!" Bill protested. "I didn't do it. And even if I had, since when is name-calling punishable by detention?"

"You're father works for the newspaper, right?" Mr. Stratton didn't wait for the answer; it was a known fact. "Maybe you should pick one up and read it once in a while. Then maybe you'd understand the seriousness of words." The principal opened his desk drawer and pulled out some sheets of paper. "I'm going to have to write notes home to both of your parents, you understand?"

 

"Detention?" Moms looked up from the note Brian had handed her. "Really, Brian? Detention?"

He glanced around the cheery red-and-white kitchen, avoiding eye contact with her. The aroma of meat roasting in the oven filled the room. "Sorry, Moms," he mumbled finally.

"Why, Brian? Why did you hit this boy?" His mother shook her head. "What could he possibly have done that would make you lose your temper?"

"Oooh ... what's this?" Trixie was grinning as she entered the room. "Our dark-haired golden boy is actually in trouble?"

Mrs. Belden's eyes followed her and Mart, who had walked in behind Trixie. "Take your snacks to the dining room. Brian and I need to talk."

"You should've seen the other guy, Moms," Mart commented. "He has a big ol' shiner."

Their mother glared at him and the blond boy ducked his head.

"Brian got him pretty good, I hear," Trixie whispered to Mart as the two left the room with a tray of cookies and milk.

Brian sighed.

"Well, Brian? What did this other boy do to you to make you lose your temper? You never lose your temper." She sounded so very disappointed in him. When he didn't answer right away, her voice softened a little. "You've seemed irritable lately. Brian, is there anything wrong—I mean, really wrong? Are you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine," Brian insisted. "And I apologize for being so impatient and losing my temper. I seem to be doing nothing but causing trouble these days."

"Was it because of Loyola?"

Brian nodded again, almost relieved she had guessed. "Yes, Moms." He sat down at the table, setting his book bag on the chair next to him.

His mother poured him a glass of milk and sat down beside him. "What happened?"

"Thanks." He took a gulp of the milk and then reached for a cookie on the platter in the middle of the table. "He insulted her."

His mom raised an eyebrow. "Insulted her so bad you needed to hit him for it?"

Brian nodded. "He ... he suggested that the only reason ... that I was with her ... was for ... for ...."

Mrs. Belden gave him a tentative smile. "For sex?"

Brian couldn't help the blush that crept up his neck. This was awkward, but he was glad his mom had guessed it because he wouldn't have been able to say it. "Yeah. He called her a jungle bunny and a nigger and asked me if she was good in bed."

"Jungle bunny?" Mrs. Belden's brow creased. "Is that the same as a jungle bird?"

Brian looked up at her, startled. "Yeah, I suppose. A Negro girl whose a ... a—"

"Tramp," his mom supplied. "I can see now why you hit him." She regarded him thoughtfully. "You know that's not the right way to handle those situations. You're usually more responsible."

"I know, Moms. I should've ignored his teasing. I could've told a teacher or gone to the principal." He agreed with her dutifully, even though he felt like the other boy had deserved it; even though he secretly wished he had broken Bill's nose.

"I'll talk this over with your father when he comes home," Mrs. Belden said.

Brian nodded glumly. If Moms was disappointed, his dad would be doubly so. "You're absolutely right. I acted irresponsibly."

"Sounds like he had it coming to him, though," his mom whispered under her breath. Then she winked at him. "Do not let your father know I said that."

Brian's head shot up in surprise. "So, any chance I can still work on the project with Loyola tomorrow?"

She put a hand on his arm. "It's school work. And you need to get it done sooner rather than later, right?"

"Right. If we don't gather enough samples this weekend, we'll fall too far behind."

"Okay, then. You can see her tomorrow. But you work on the project and then you come straight home," she added sternly. "No having fun."

Brian nodded. It wasn't likely to be much fun anyway, since Loyola probably hated him at this point.

Mrs. Belden patted his hand, getting his attention again. "And Loyola's welcome to join us for dinner if it should happen to get late before you wrap up your work."

Brian frowned. "I doubt she'll want to, but thanks, Moms." He quickly stood up and grabbed his book bag from the chair. He could see his mother processing his statement and the questioning look in her eyes. He really didn't want to stick around and talk to her about his love life, or lack thereof. "I have to get started on my homework. Thanks again for understanding, and I'm really sorry I let that other guy get to me."


chapter 6: to the passing river