As promised in my last blod on novels set in the midst of tumult, here is a sample of my first novel.
NOWHERE ELSE TO GO
Labor Day, 1968
Cassie Daniels stood at the door of the Norton Bluffs School Board room, taking in the semi-circle of board members and principals gathered for yet again another last minute meeting. Energized by her summer’s work, she was ready to go and in no mood for another dose of the town’s anxieties.
The rest of the principals, heads bowed over some report, looked as irritated as she felt, but the high school principal, Simon Peabody, stood whispering nervously into the Superintendent’s ear. They kept looking out the window, as though to assure themselves that the town still sat solid on the bluffs above the Blackwater where Josiah Norton had placed it a century ago.
Cassie’s breath escaped in a huff. It was like walking back into the spring. War protests had spread from the college across the river, raising Peabody’s voice several decibels. Then Martin Luther King was assassinated. The explosions of rage from “The Flats,” the muddy land beneath the cliffs shared by the railroad and the blacks, joined the college uproar, reducing him to panic and his high school to a war zone. It didn’t look as though the summer break had calmed him much—more like they’d all been called together today because Simon Peabody didn’t want to reopen his doors.
The Superintendent saw her and called out in relief. Heads turned. They were waiting for her. The report they were all reading was hers, written in a state of euphoria a week ago. Red River Junior High, her school, sitting at the end of the bridge where the Red River joined the Blackwater, drew its students from the suburbs beyond the Red, a backwater at the other end of the bridge known as “the Delta,” and a small portion of The Flats. It was already integrated—a fact that had made it marginally respectable before last spring’s uproar, but now made it a magic cure. With a new wing, a black assistant principal, and new teachers specially trained by a professor of education from the college, the school could certainly accommodate more students from The Flats—and return the rest of the town to normal.
She and Sean McClelland, the principal of The Flats elementary school and her chief ally, had grimaced together at the irony of her new stardom. Now, she looked for him as she headed down the aisle. He was busy reading at the far end of a row and didn’t lift his head. She hadn’t talked to him all summer. The energy of anticipation she’d brought with her into the room soured, turning her queasy.
The board had chosen her husband to help her train new teachers, and the summer’s work had taken them back to the early days of their marriage when she and Ben had worked side by side in Chicago’s ghetto. The summer had saved Ben—saved them both—from an academic career gone stale. The return of their love—of each other and of teaching—had swept all else away. But now the summer was over, she was off campus, back in town. Ben had taken a seat in the spectator’s gallery, and the room felt full of strangers.
The Superintendent gaveled the meeting to order, and Cassie returned her attention to the podium. For the next half-hour, she listened to the compliments of the Superintendent and board members on her summer’s work. Her unease grew to a nameless dread as the board became reassured by the soothing tones of their own words. What had she fallen into? A few questions on bus schedules and the transfer of student records followed, then the meeting was over.
Cassie headed for the door.
A hand fell on her shoulder. “I think it’s dreadful what they’ve done to you.”
She turned to face the principal of the old-town junior high. It wasn’t the first time she’d been aware that in the eyes of the other principals, she’d been dumped on.
“I’d apply for a transfer, if I were you.” The principal waved and turned away before Cassie could respond. Despite his commiseration he didn’t seem eager to stick around.
“Mrs. Daniels.” Superintendent Trowbridge hurried up, his hand out. “Just want to thank you personally for a fine job. And you,” he added to Ben, who had come up beside her. “Fine job.”
“You have any trouble with those black boys,” Simon Peabody added, coming up beside the Superintendent, “you just let that Franklin fellow handle it.”
She smiled politely at the name of her new black assistant principal. “I don’t think I’ll have any problems. But thank you both.” She turned away and took Ben’s arm. “Get me out of here.”
“Peters will be happy to give you a hand, too,” Simon called after her.
She closed her eyes at the mention of her coach. “I’ll bet.” Peters was rarely her ally. “Have you noticed,” she asked Ben when they were safely away, “that the competence of women principals has reared its ugly head again?”
“Note taken,” Ben said, squeezing her arm. “Don’t let them get to you, Cass.”
She sighed. “I know, but I thought I was past all that.” She pulled open the car door and sank into her seat.
“You’ll get past it again. And you’ll have lots of support from the new teachers.” He chuckled as he climbed into the car. “Wish I could be there myself. College classrooms are going to seem awfully dull.”
She reached over and squeezed his knee. “We’ll invite you to visit.” But as they approached the bridge that crossed the Blackwater to the college, she realized that Sean McClelland, her closest friend on the town side of the river, hadn’t even come over to say hello.
“I’m going down to the Delta,” she announced as they drove through the tree-shaded streets of the college district. She needed that stream-fed place because it was no-place, merely a bit of land between bridges that connected the suburbs to the rest of the town. But it was home.
“Now?” He raised his eyebrows.
“I’ve been promising Ken I’d take him to sail his boat.” The company of their ten-year-old son sounded more than good—an essential relief. “And I haven’t checked on Dad in too long.” Family time, their usual summer occupation, had been all but absent this year. “And I need a Delta fix,” she finished.
“Okay.” He shrugged and turned into their drive. He’d never understood what she saw in that backwater—except that she’d grown up there.
She didn’t know either, but she had to go to reorient before she opened the doors of that school tomorrow morning. A half-hour later she’d changed into jeans and sneakers, rounded up her ten-year-old and his model sailboat and headed for the backwater between the bridges. At the little green and white clapboard bungalow that was her childhood home, she picked up her father and together they headed for one of the many ponds that laced the lowland. “Black Suds Pond” to the children. With father and grandson settled comfortably into each other’s company, she was left to find out why everything seemed so wrong.
She tramped the edge of the pond, letting the muck soak into her sneakers, and the first crispness of Midwestern autumn lighten the weight on her shoulders. This is what she needed. This piece of land had once been an island formed by a fork of the Blackwater where it flowed into the Red River. Then Josiah Norton had dredged the main channel so his barges could bring timber from the north, and the island became a marshy no-man’s-land. As she walked, Cassie felt the vise on her neck release its grip.
She looked down at her muddy feet, then up and across the marsh where the Delta had gradually joined itself to the junkyards and factory chimneys of The Flats. She supposed it was ugly, though she’d never thought of it as anything but part of her world. A part the school board had now joined to Red River Junior High. Memory came back of the tight faces of subdivision parents last spring when the board had announced the redistricting. Their rumblings were easy enough to read. Bad enough that the skuzzy bunch from Delta Elementary flowed across the bridge that was supposed to barricade them, now the board had opened the floodgates to the blacks of The Flats. She turned in irritation and stomped upstream.
Then she froze. Her foot had broken through to water. She stood, knowing it hadn’t been just a pile of driftwood that had collapsed, and watched the water pour over her sneaker out of someone’s carefully constructed still-water pond.
“What’s the matter, Mom?” Ken, following his boat around the bend, was looking at her through the guard he put up whenever he saw she was upset.
“I’ve ruined someone’s dam.” She pulled her foot from the mess of twigs.
“Huh? It’s just junk. Get it out of the way, Mom—make room for the Nancy Lee!”
“No, Ken—help me fix it.” She started gathering sticks and moss with the eagerness that comes from regaining childhood, if even for a moment. But the dam kept crumbling, defying her efforts. Her hands were icy and the sense of things gone wrong that had besieged her in the boardroom, returned. She straightened and shook her head. “Guess I’ve lost the art, Ken. Let’s go find Grandpa.”
“But Mom—you said it’d be a clear sail around—around …”
“Witch’s Elbow. I’m sorry, but the ponds change, Ken. Come on. You can sail her from the head again.” She picked up the Nancy Lee and tried to straighten her tangled halyards, then looked back at the ruined dam and shivered.
“What’s eating you, Cassie?” Her father sat propped against a tree, squinting up at her through pipe smoke. He looked withered—shrunken. Sometime before the spring tempest, she’d promised herself she’d be careful not to leave him too much alone this first summer without Mom. But then the high school riots had threatened to spread to her school, and when school ended, she’d buried herself in seminars and practicums. Ken had ridden over from college town on his bike, and she’d told herself that was enough.
“Nothing.” She sat down, avoiding his questioning gaze, and leaned back against the same tree, closing her eyes. What was the problem, anyway? Not Trowbridge’s or Peabody’s unctuous comments. It was that she’d become separated from Sean and the small group of colleagues she’d been a part of for years. How about the teachers who’d seen her through years of leadership? She hadn’t seen or heard from them in a month.
“Come on, you’ve been tramping around with your tail afire for an hour.”
“I don’t know.” She pitched a pebble into the pond, a habit from childhood to release tension. “This morning I was ready to go—and now I’m not.”
“Doesn’t sound like you.” Nat Sims shifted his position to look at her.
“I know. The school doesn’t feel like me, either. I guess that’s it.”
“It’s just all the flack and conflab that’s been going on all summer. Don’t understand what the fuss was about. You weren’t having trouble. You never do.”
She laughed. “Well—not never, maybe, but thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Folks are scared, that’s all. Been coming for a long time—all over the country. Delta folk knew all along that if the whites didn’t wake up, sooner or later the blacks would wake ‘em. So now they’re awake. And scared.”
“Relieved,” she amended, suddenly putting a name to the mood of the boardroom. “Last spring they were scared. Today, except for Simon Peabody, they’re relieved.” She shaped her discomfort into words for the first time as she spoke. “And why shouldn’t they be? It no longer has anything to do with them. The Flats kids now come to me. And they’ll go off to the new high school when it’s finished, leaving good old Norton Bluffs, including the college, undisturbed.”
“Hate to say it, Cassie, but good could come of that. They’re better off with you.”
“Maybe.” She was relieved to have nailed at least one cause of her misgivings. “Careful, Ken!” He was teetering on the old log they’d called the Devil’s Walk.
“Better take it thataway and head back,” her father called, pointing. “The wind’s off the river this afternoon.”
Ken reached the far bank and started in the direction his grandfather had pointed, and Cassie and her father settled back into companionable silence.
“Hey, look out!” Ken’s voice brought her to her feet, but not fast enough. The Nancy Lee careened into the logs below her and became snarled.
“This,” she said, as Ken came up, “is the Witch’s Elbow. Never did manage to sail anything around it.”
Nat Sims chuckled. “And she’s an expert.”
“Was, you mean.” She lifted the Nancy Lee free of the last twig and set her down on the lee side of the snarl of branches, trimming her sail. “Get over there Ken, on the other side, and I’ll see if I can get it to you.” She waited while he raced back across the Devil’s Walk, looking more sure-footed this time. When he’d reached the far bank, she set the Nancy Lee free, and she sailed a diagonal path, right into his arms. “How about that?” She called, delighted with herself.
Ken waved and prepared to send it back.
“Down here,” her father called, walking away from her down the bank.
A half an hour later, he and Cassie sank down on a sunny tuft of grass and let Ken pursue his sailing alone.
“There now. You’re looking better,” her father said.
“Me! I was going to say the same about you.”
“Nothing wrong with me. It’s you that was looking peaked.” His tone rejected argument.
“I could do with less advice, that’s all. ‘Just show them who’s boss, Mrs. Daniels,’” she mimicked Peabody’s comment after the redistricting. “Today it was, ‘let that fella Franklin take care of them.’”
“Hiram Franklin. My new assistant principal. Big and black.”
“So you have help, now; you could always have used a little more of that.”
She nodded. “It’s just that I was dumb enough to think I’d choose the person. I wanted Della or Franz. They’ve been in the trenches with me for a long time; I trust them. So I told them to apply.”
“And they didn’t get it.”
“Della, though she is black, is a woman. Bad enough to have a woman principal. And Franz—Franz has an accent. He’s not an American. He’s a citizen, mind you, but—you should have heard them dance around that one. The worst of it was, Dad, was that I had to tell them—humiliate them after I’d told them to apply.” And their habitual summer lunches hadn’t happened this year.
Nat Sims got up to disentangle the Nancy Lee again and send her back across the pond to Ken. When he returned he sat down gingerly and patted her knee. “They’ll get over it, Cassie. They’ve always been good friends.”
“Oh, I know. Della called to say it was okay—that she could do more good where she is, as my chief counselor. She said she was mostly angry for Franz, whose Prussian pride was outraged. I’ll bet it was, too. Franz is forever giving the rest of us lectures on American citizenship. Bah! What a thing to put him through. So they hired a big black man who’s also a science teacher.”
“Yeah. I read that in the paper. Figures, of course. You’re scared of the black boys, you hire a black man. Well, you got to them enough so at least they had to buy peace for their souls. That’s not so bad, Cassie.”
“No, but there’s so much—so much different now. I feel as though I haven’t been seeing straight—because I didn’t come down and look at the world from here.” She looked upriver. “I’ve been over there.” She pointed at the college bluffs. “All summer.”
Nat Sims gave her a long shrewd look, then got up and went to help Ken again. When he returned, he stayed on his feet, watching one of Josiah Norton’s barges pass on the Blackwater. “Working with you has been good for Ben, Cassie.”
Cassie was only briefly startled that he could read her mind, then she laughed and got to her feet, rubbing at her damp behind. “Well, I know that.” She put an arm around her father. “Ben wants things to happen. He’s bored silly with the ivory tower. It’s become clearer and clearer in the last five or six years that that isn’t what he’s cut out for.”
“He’s really in there pitching this year. Never seen him like that.” Clearly Nat Sims liked this new Ben better than the old.
“I have,” she said, softly. “He was like that when I met him. When we were setting up that school in South Chicago. And he was like that when he was teaching high school civics. But academia has been draining the life out of him.”
“Mm. Out of you, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing. Just that it’s good to see the two of you working as a team again.”
Again. They hadn’t even known it was gone, that feeling of being in each other’s bloodstreams, until it came back. It had been so good. Too good? She’d seen what the school board and the other principals were up to, with the redistricting, seen it and let Ben wave it aside.
“Forget it, Cassie. Let them have their victory, if that’s what they think it is. What we’ve won is money to put where it needs to be put, for a change.”
Which was true, and she hadn’t wanted to put any brambles in the path. So she nodded in agreement with her father. “We’ve won more than I’ve ever been able to get on my own. An assistant principal, more teachers with some idea about what poverty is about, more room, another science lab.” She took a deep breath of the damp, earthy air. “And I’m fine. I just needed to come down and sail the Nancy Lee. And talk. Things have been out of kilter.”
“The world’s out of kilter. But you’ll set it right—at Red River, anyway. You always barreled through messes and put it straight in the end.”
She laughed, grabbed his hand, and wished it were that simple. “Cassie must learn self-control,” teachers had scolded. “Unladylike,” clipped Aunt Bess. “Cassie must you always blurt everything out?” Her mother’s exasperation was chronic. But then she’d met Ben, who thought she was just right. “You don’t play games,” he said, kissing her.
The flow of the summer’s emotions returned. She sat up to cut it off as the current carried her somewhere she didn’t want to go. She looked upstream, past the tip of the land, where the two lines of bluffs faced each other without any swampy no-man’s-land to interfere. For the second time that day, she shivered.
“Hey! Don’t put her in there!”
Cassie swung around. A black boy had appeared on the far side and was dancing across the log bridge toward Ken.
“She’ll head right into Hag’s Nook!” the boy cried.
“Hag’s Nook?” Ken shrunk back, and Cassie saw the newcomer through her son’s eyes—an intimidating stranger.
“Right over there—see that willow? Wind’s crazy over here. Lemme see.”
Ken obediently handed over the boat. Too obediently.
“Neat.” The boy handed the Nancy Lee back. “Jesse made one like that last summer. Sailed real good—but you got to put her in over there. Come on. I’ll show you.” He headed downstream. ‘Hey!” He cried out a moment later. “Who busted our dam?”
“I’m afraid that was me,” Cassie said, coming to the edge of the bank. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” The boy’s outrage died as quickly as it had come. He stared at the ruined dam. “That’s okay, then.” His voice fell into a total resignation that shocked her.
Beside him, Ken put his boat into the water below the dam, but in the swirl created by the ruins, the Nancy Lee spun crazily and capsized.
“She won’t sail without ballast.” The boy spoke with a finality that made Ken shrink again.
“Run get some sinkers from my garage,” Nat Sims offered.
“Who is he?” Cassie asked as Ken followed the bigger boy up the bank.
“Jim Johnson. Jesse’s brother. You’ll be having him this year.”
“He looks bigger than Jesse already.”
“Bigger than he knows what to do with.” They listened to the hum of water bugs. “His dad was over the other day—comes over to chew the fat a good many afternoons, now that he’s working nights. Gets lonesome. Maggie’s at work and there’re hardly any grown-ups around during the day. He’s worrying about Jim going over.”
“Going over,” was neighborhood shorthand for crossing the bridge to junior high. “Jesse is doing fine,” she said.
“Mm. That’s the first thing Charlie’ll tell you.” Nathaniel chuckled. “Jim’s not like Jesse—just not like his brother at all.”
“Folks are worrying then? About this year?”
“We never liked sending delta kids out of the neighborhood, Cassie. You know that—and that high school mess last spring wasn’t calculated to make anybody easy in his mind. But it’s not the kids that’s tearing folks apart. It’s the war. Makes them jumpy about everything else that goes wrong. Even Captain Archie Stone hasn’t been waving the flag much lately.”
“That’s hard to believe.” The chiseled Prussian features and icy blue eyes of the senior Stone had been a fixture in the delta since her childhood.
“They lost a boy over there last spring,” Nat told her.
“Larry! He was only seventeen!” He’d been at Red River not four years ago.
“Eighteen. Yep. Had to follow his big brother—right into the Green Berets. Wasn’t in Nam over a week.”
“His big brother—that was before my time,” she mused.
“Archie Jr. Yes, I expect he was. You had Larry though.”
“Mmm. Had a time with him, too.” All she remembered was that hard rejecting face. Dead.
“Third one finishes high school next year. Old Archie must be looking at that twelve year-old of his and doing some hard thinking.”
“Twelve year-old. You mean I get another Stone this year?”
“Not the sweetest lot,” her father agreed, “but better you than someone else—you’ll handle him okay.”
Cassie winced at the word she’d heard far too often from scared white parents. But it fit. She’d never done anything but “handle” a Stone kid.
The boys returned and clambered down the bank. “Ought to sail now,” Jim said, handing Ken the boat. “Put it in over there, below the Witch’s Elbow.”
Cassie breathed in the familiar air of new puberty that surrounded the boy and smiled. Once he crossed that bridge to junior high, he’d never use childhood’s names like ‘Witch’s Elbow,’ ‘Hag’s Nook,’ or ‘Devil’s Bridge’ to describe these ponds again.
“You do it,” Ken handed the boat back.
Jim shrugged, but then took it eagerly. He glanced around. “Other side’s better. Come on.” He headed across the log bridge. “Look out,” he said over his shoulder, “she’s loose in spots.”
Ken pulled back too sharply, and Cassie winced again at the too polite, too obedient reactions of her son. The chemistry wasn’t right, but it was all too familiar. This was the way subdivision kids behaved when they first encountered black kids in the corridors of her school. This was why parents from down here, whose kids had grown up with each other, didn’t like sending their children over the bridge. “But the Delta’s just—no place, Cassie,” Ben had complained.
“A backwater, you mean,” she’d snapped back. She hadn’t bucked him seriously, though, and this was the price. Her son was a college-bluff kid. Again the hollow sense of wrongness beset her.