by the edge of the river
 

Chapter 12: Two of Us and Maybe More

November 1, 1957

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.

Since bringing Loyola to his house, after everything that had happened that October, Brian had thought a lot about the integration at the school, about how the school might be considered integrated, but what did that really mean? Students of different races did not sit together or hang out together, with one exception: sports. Only the basketball, baseball, and football teams were truly integrated, and even that integration ended once the team was off the field.

He looked around the cafeteria now, and something was very different. Something had changed overnight. Jim Frayne was not at the B.W.G. table, for starters. He was sitting at a table with Jeff Hoffer, a Negro student in Jim's art class. Next to them was the "Asian" table, but only two of the Asians were seated there, although both Chinese. With them, Brian recognized Todd Maurer, who waved at him with that big grin on his face before turning back to the other kids at the table.

Almost a third of the tables in the cafeteria held a mix of colored and white students. The two basketball tables, formerly the Negro and the white halves of the team, were now pushed together and the entire team sat as one group.

Brian made his way slowly through the crowd to the B.W.G. table. Mart and Trixie were there, but they were the only two Bob-Whites. He had spotted Jim earlier, and he saw now that both Honey and Di were at other tables as well.

He took an empty seat next to Mart and gestured to the rest of the cafeteria. "What goes on here today, anyway?"

Mart winked at Trixie. "That, my brother, is our little high school coming together to show support for interracial relationships."

Brian's eyes actually misted up. "And you two are responsible for this?"

Trixie grinned widely, her blue eyes twinkling. "I can't believe the idea took off like this. I expected maybe one or two people to help us out but so many students were on board with the idea."

"What idea? What exactly did you do?" Brian tried to sound stern, still not sure if he should be hugging or strangling his siblings. At the other end of their table, the students seated there were ignoring them, deep in their own conversation.

"It was all her," Mart began, pointing at Trixie. "You know how our female sibling is. She gets an idea, and no matter how wild or crazy, Jim and Honey both support it, and then before you know it—"

Trixie stuck her tongue out at her almost-twin. "You supported it right from the start yourself, so don't go making it out like I had to convince any of you."

"Fine," Brian interjected. It was wonderful to see the school come together over such a divisive issue, and it was fantastic to see that there was support for his relationship with Loyola, but unless Loyola had been convinced—which was doubtful in his mind—it probably wouldn't change anything for him. She still wasn't talking to him, and he still wasn't talking to her. His stubborn pride, coupled with his embarrassment over his behavior at the beginning of the week, had kept him from trying to make any kind of amends with her.

Still, his sister had done something quite good—remarkable, really—no matter what the outcome for his own love life. He wanted to hear more about it. "So you had this idea, Trixie, to get all these students to sit at different tables?"

Trixie nearly bounced out of her seat with excitement. "I did! I started out by approaching Loyola. I really just wanted to convince her to come sit at our table with us for a while, like you had been sitting with her and her friends."

"Loyola?" Brian couldn't help the small frown that formed at the mention of her name, but also the bit of hope that maybe Trixie had worked her magic on the Negro girl.

"Yes. And then her friend, Shirley, I think, said that it would be nice if they could just sit wherever they wanted without worrying about the rest of the school gossiping, and that's when I got the idea."

"Actually," Mart interjected, "she said something more like, 'We would have it so good if we could just plonk ourselves down wherever we pleased and have no beads about who's flappin' their jaws.'"

Brian chuckled, his mood already improved. "That sounds more like Shirley."

"Anyway, I thought it might be about more than just Loyola sitting here." Trixie held her arm out and moved it slowly in a circle to indicate the entire room. "Why not have everyone sit wherever they want?"

"So how did you execute this brilliant plan of yours?" Mart coaxed, although it was apparent by his wide grin and the grandiose manner in which he asked that he already knew the answer.

Trixie's eyes sparkled merrily. "That was easy. I just went to everyone I knew and asked them if they could sit somewhere different today, and to make sure of at least two things."

"One," Mart interrupted her tale, eager to get in on the telling of it, "being that they should spread the word to all their friends, but they absolutely could not tell you."

"The whispers all week?" Brian wondered now if not all of it had been the normal gossip about him and Loyola, but something more. That had to explain Todd's odd behavior the previous day.

Trixie's curls bounced as she nodded in affirmation. "We wanted it to be a surprise for you. And two, and that was the part I expected people to resist, but surprisingly they didn't. Most of the students seemed more than willing—"

Brian bopped her lightly on the head. "Good grief, Trixie. Get to the point."

"Two: that they had to do their best to make sure there was a colored person at every table. That we had to show that this school really is inte-integrated—"

"Integrated," Mart interrupted, even though their sister had completed the word.

"Right. I just said that. Integrated." Trixie's smile spread from ear to ear.

"There was a third part to the plan," a new voice added from behind him.

Brian turned to see Loyola standing there. His heart beat faster as he gazed at her.

"Hi, Brian." Her eyes softened behind the glasses she wore. "Thought I'd see what it was like to sit on this side of the cafeteria today."

"Right. Right!" Brian stood up and pulled out a chair next to him. "Sit down, please."

She slid into the seat and swallowed audibly before speaking. "The third part is my idea, and I still don't know if it will work."

"Well, what is it?" Mart asked, leaning forward curiously.

"It's a request I still need to make of one student in particular. Only I'm afraid I may not get the response I'm hoping for." Loyola kept her focus on Brian. "Brian Belden, will you please go to Wimpy's after school with me today? I'd like to make good on your birthday dinner plans."

Brian sat in stunned silence. Loyola was not only talking to him again, not only sitting with him at lunch time, but she had asked him out on a date, for the second time.

Trixie tapped him on the arm. "Answer her, already."

Brian snapped out of his reverie. "Will I?! Yes. Of course."

The other students at the former-Bob-White table must have been eavesdropping. One of them let out a small whoop and a smattering of applause was heard. As other tables became curious, the news soon spread through the whole cafeteria. From a table on the other side of the room a shout was heard. "Kiss her, you fool!"

Brian's cheeks flamed but one look at Loyola and he knew he couldn't do that—not there, not then. Loyola's own face was flushed and she sat staring at her hands in her lap. The embarrassing moment seemed to last forever.

That is, until Trixie broke the silence. Her eyes were focused on one of the few tables in the school cafeteria that had been sullenly quiet throughout. "What do we do about Mike Larson and his gang?"

Mart grimaced. "Those jerks will probably back off now that they know how the rest of the school feels. They're cowards, that type."

Trixie didn't look convinced of that. "Don't you think they're the ones who attacked you?"

Loyola sighed and shook her head. "They'll harass us, I'm sure. Bill Wright's been especially obnoxious."

Brian drummed his fingers on the table nervously. "And you're okay with that? I mean, not okay, because harassment isn't okay, but ... it won't affect us?"

"I was running scared, and that has to stop." She looked around the cafeteria. "Especially now that I know so many of the students at this school really are fine with the two of us dating."

Trixie's eyes darted nervously from Mike's table back to Brian and Loyola. "I don't want to discourage you two, but if you do go to Wimpy's, well, Brian, you didn't drive. If you walk, what if—?"

"What if they do attack you?" Mart finished, repeating her earlier concern.

"I don't think they'll take it that far." Loyola frowned. "Then again, those other men acted like they were going to kill you. I couldn't stand for that to happen again."

"Other men?" Brian puzzled over the word choice. "Do you know who attacked us? It wasn't those goons?"

Loyola glanced down at her lunch sack. "No."

The three Belden siblings waited for her to continue.

"I don't know them, but they were older guys. In their twenties at least." She gave them an apologetic glance. "I'd recognize them if I saw them again, though. It definitely wasn't any of that crowd."

Trixie pounced on that bit of information. "So they weren't students here?"

Loyola shook her head. "I don't think so."

"And it wasn't that basketball player, Jesse Sherman?" Mart asked. "I've been a bit suspicious of his behavior lately."

Loyola looked shocked at the suggestion. "Jesse? Good heavens, no. He would never do anything like that."

"Are you sure?" Trixie narrowed her eyes in the direction of the basketball table. "He said some things to Brian the other day that were rather unfriendly."

"He doesn't like the idea of me going out with Brian." Loyola shrugged a shoulder. "But he's a good person. And he's a friend of mine. He may not like this, he may not agree with it, but he wouldn't hurt us."

Brian didn't want Trixie going off on one of her mystery-solving tangents, although he wasn't surprised that she would. But it was another thought that went through his mind. "I thought you left before you could identify them. I thought you said you hadn't seen their faces."

She ran her hand along the edge of the table nervously. "I did say that. I was afraid I'd have to go to the police and, after what happened back home, I just couldn't."

Trixie was in full pounce mode, latching on to every little word that was said. "What else happened at home? Were you attacked there?"

"Forget it, Trix." Brian put a hand on her arm. "I understand what she means."

Trixie's brow wrinkled and her mouth opened to protest, but Mart seemed to catch on. "That doesn't matter now. The important thing is that you would recognize them if you saw them."

"Yes," Loyola confirmed.

Brian's thoughts drifted back to that horrible afternoon, and an image flashed in his mind. He pictured the car as clear as day: a shiny white Chevy Bel Air with red interior. "Matthew Larson."

"Matt Larson?" Mart's hands clenched into fists. "Are you sure?"

Brian glanced at the table where the younger Larson boy was sitting. "It was his car." He barely knew Matt, but he knew the car well. Matt had graduated from Sleepyside Junior-Senior High School three years earlier, when Brian was still a freshman. He worked at the local auto garage and Brian had seen that particular Chevrolet a few times. "Mike must've told him about us. Matt's his older brother," he explained to Loyola.

Trixie wrinkled her nose in disgust. "We should tell Sergeant Molinson."

Loyola's eyes widened. "Will the police do anything? Will they actually arrest him?"

Brian thought about it for a minute before answering. "I haven't pressed charges and I don't know if I should. It was just a fight, one which I lost. I don't know that going to the police will make things better, and it could easily make them worse."

"It wasn't just a fight," Mart protested. "It was a personal, unprovoked assault. You could've been killed. How can you even think of not going to the police?"

Brian gazed at Loyola, asking her silently what she would do.

"It's up to you." She shrugged a shoulder. "If you think they'll actually care, I would. But if they don't care and you do go to them, things will definitely get worse. Much worse." Her voice had the authority of someone with personal experience.

Trixie spoke firmly, just as sure of what she was saying. "They'll care. Sergeant Molinson will care. Spider will care. They'll all care."

"I suppose I should, then." Brian sighed.

A heavy silence fell over the four students before Loyola finally spoke up. "So, are we still going to Wimpy's? Or do we go to the police after school instead?"

"We go to Wimpy's." Brian reached for her hand and clasped it in his own. "I will go to the police, but I can do that later. I want to spend time with you, first."

"Will you at least let us escort you?" Mart asked, clearly still worried about the two of them. "Safety in numbers and all that."

Brian was about to turn down the offer but the look of worry in both his sister's and Loyola's eyes convinced him otherwise. "Sure. No reason you can't walk there with us. But once we're inside, you'll excuse me if Loyola and I get a table of our own." He winked. "I don't need you stealing our French fries."

 

Gossip spread through the school like wildfire. People came up to Brian after lunch and between his classes, only this time, although there were still some slurs and insults, there were just as many people who made encouraging comments and even congratulated him.

After Calculus, Todd asked if he could walk with them to Wimpy's. In the end, a crowd of students ended up joining them on the walk to the diner: all the Bob-Whites, of course; Todd; Shirley; Jeff (Jim's art class friend who, apparently, had been admiring Shirley from afar); and even Jesse, who claimed he was there to try and talk some last-minute sense into Brian and Loyola.

"You're really going through with this?" Jesse asked, as the twelve teenagers walked down the street.

"I am." Loyola put her hand in Brian's and clasped it tightly.

Beside her, Shirley sighed happily. "Love is color-blind."

"Maybe so, but bigots aren't." Jesse frowned as he glanced warily around the street watching other groups of teens walking away from the junior-senior high school.

Brian ignored him and looked down at Loyola's hand in his, her dark fingers intertwined with his pale ones. It was soft and warm and good. Everything felt right and that's all that mattered.


epilogue: he finally wins the fight