Dr. Kraszewski finished his PhD at Mississippi State University, and he and his wife currently reside in the Midwest where he teaches history at the University of Illinois. Gracjan wasn’t born in the South, but he found it as soon as he could. A longtime friend of mine, Gracjan, in my humble opinion, writes in the tradition of the important Southern catholic thinkers. His mind often produces ideas reminiscent of Walker Percy and Flannery O’Conner. His approach to fiction is comparable to that of Virginian Tom Wolfe, a snarky analysis of modern culture that is both informative and entertaining. Although an able and talented historian of the South, the following is an excerpt from a novel he’s been working on entitled The Holdout. This piece is written from the first-person perspective of 30 year old Rhett Lawson, an MSU graduate student whom Dr. Kraszewski describes as “studying Encephalopathy in Early America.” Gracjan has developed a high respect and appreciation for the South, one that many native-born could gain insight from. Enjoy.
La Légèreté Insoutenable de l’Humidité
My aunt Shelby lives on Jackson Street. I’m going over there for dinner tonight. She lives on Jackson Street in Starkville, Mississippi and it’s not a bad place to live, actually it’s quite nice, but I often think why not a little further out in the country? Starkville is not really a city, not like New Orleans, anyways. What I’m saying is that it’s a country place stitched together by a university, its football team, and some really good ice cream, ice cream one imagines a farmer cryogenically froze mid-stream ex-udder—he pumping with one arm, freezing with the other, the “snine-tist-nick contrap-ca-lation” doing its work fine, even down near the soft mud held by a callused hand extending out from rolled up, red and black flannel—before centrifugal separation could remove all the good lipids just so another skinny-jeaned, two-button fuchsia shirted hipster could have his “healthy” latte; the one with spooned-whipped caramel, mendacious mocha (?), shit like that. What I mean is this: if you’re going to live in the country, why not go whole hog? Ten, fifteen minutes outside of Starkville one can find it, the South: purple sunsets and atomic tangerine (a real color) sunrises, fog as thick as buttermilk, so white it’s almost gold, black dirt good enough to eat and midnight silence as still as a Cistercian monastery.
People don’t often believe that Shelby is my aunt because she’s black. When someone meets us together for the first time, she black and me white, they often think “Aunt” is some kind of cute nickname. When they find out that she really is my aunt—and if they, the inquiring party, are white—they quickly become apologetic, overly apologetic in keeping with the current fashion. These things can get down right embarrassing rather quickly.
One time, in the produce section at Kroger, such a mistake was made. The offending party had a cart full of food and goods labeled “organic” and “free range” and “no BPA” and “non-GMO” and even some kind of Icelandic yogurt product promoting a money back guarantee on intestinal “hyper-regularity” all the while sporting an orange sticker on her shirt that read “a !WOMAN! needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” She apologized, profusely, for what must have been at least two minutes. Shelby finally had enough. “Damn, girl. Get a hold o’yaself!”
Shelby is married to my Uncle Uwe, my father’s brother. Once upon a time Uwe came down South on a baseball scholarship to play for Ole Miss. He is originally from Boise, Idaho. I was born in Boise and much of my family still lives there. Uwe is as white as a ghost. When he and Shelby got together there was some friction on both sides. From her family and from his, things being they way they were back then. Uwe and Shelby didn’t care. They were in love. They got married. They’ve been married for close to forty years now.
Both Uwe and Shelby are retired. Uwe did something with oil. Shelby taught math. That’s how they ended up in Starkville. They originally lived near Biloxi where Shelby worked as an adjunct at a few local community colleges while Uwe was out on rigs in the Gulf. She received a tenure track offer from Mississippi State. Uwe was able to work something out with his job. I don’t know the details. Shelby accepted the offer and finished some years later as head of the MSU mathematics department. They haven’t left Starkville since.
Uwe is not religious. He’s not anti-religious he just doesn’t care. Religion is not important to him. Shelby is a proud Catholic and a proud Democrat, reconciling the conflicting points of these two allegiances by simply ignoring those facets of the Democratic Party platform that don’t conform to her Catholic faith. Shelby defines herself as “staunchly pro-life,” which she has explained to me as being against abortion, contraception, euthanasia, cloning, in vitro fertilization, nuclear weapons, the death penalty, embryotic stem cell research, sterilization, war, poverty, torture, dehumanizing immigration laws, guns and something she calls “covert neo-eugenics.” Those issues on which the Democratic Party either doesn’t match Shelby’s Catholic values, or can be classified as anti-Catholic, she puts away in her “mental laundry hamper.”
If I had to sit in a room and I wouldn’t be let out until I had written one paragraph saying something good about the Democratic Party I don’t think I could do it. I would have to stay in that room until I died. I don’t think I could manage the paragraph if ten million dollars was the reward. I just couldn’t do it, no matter the prize, not even if I wanted to. I don’t even think I could make up a lie if I was allowed to lie. Look, just write something, okay? Anything. Start scribbling, do hieroglyphics if that’ll get the juices flowing.
Uncle Uwe is not a man of few words. This designation implies occasionally speaking. Uwe doesn’t speak. He grunts and snorts. Because of this Shelby calls him her “Idaho Bull.” I don’t know how often Shelby calls him her Idaho Bull but she always does it out loud at family gatherings. I think Uwe and I are on good terms. I’m not quite sure. We had this moment, after my freshman year of college, where I think he, in his own way, accepted me as a man or something like that. I had just finished my first season of college football. Uwe respects athletes. I think he was both surprised and impressed that I had enough talent to play in college.
Uwe and I were in the basement. I was having a tea and he was on his fifth or eighth beer. We had been down there, just the two of us, for about ten minutes. Neither of us had spoken. We were just sitting there. He took a massive swig of his beer, and I mean this was like a 50 oz. mug, and he looked me in the eye. “Football,” he said. I, after a brief pause, was about to reply when he cut me off. He nodded his head three or four times. He picked up the mug once more and said, “Football.” That was it. That was the longest conversation I’ve ever had with him.
Today is a special dinner. My cousins from Columbus, I think my second cousins to be exact, are coming over. Parker and Austin are twenty-one year old twins, seniors at LSU. Their final year of college doesn’t start for another week. While Parker and Austin look alike—red hair, freckles, each about five foot eight—they have vastly different personalities.
Each time I see Parker he reminds me why I disdain the Republican Party. If I had to sit in a room and I wouldn’t be let out until I had written one paragraph saying something good about the Republican Party I don’t think I could do it. I would have to stay in that room until I died. I don’t think I could manage… do hieroglyphics…
Trying to avoid being critical of Republicans is as easy as staying dry when you fall off a boat in the middle of a lake.
That lake, by the way, is filled with gallons of yummy raw sewage. Every second word out of Parker’s mouth is about immigration, or the economy, or how what America really needs is for someone to invent a time machine so we can all go back to the Reagan years. I had a hunch Parker knew little about the man beyond soundbite talking points. I once asked him what was his favorite Reagan movie and if he thought there was any correlation between being an actor and a successful politician. Parker just stared at me. He stared at me with a deliciously obnoxious half-smirk. “Okay,” he laughed. “Yeah right, bro.”
(So you’re thinking I’m ‘anti-establishment’? That I like ‘outsiders,’ right? You silly goose. How about the next time we need someone to fly the plane we ask the baker; get the college dropout to teach Classics at Yale; get the noodle-armed actuary to close out the 9th for your favorite team in Game 7?)
Austin is a Buddhist. So he says. I’m pretty sure he’s not a Buddhist. I’m pretty sure he’s just a run of the mill, half-taught New Age seeker, the kind that is common to college campuses and used bookstores. The more I talked with him about his beliefs the more I came away with the impression that he was like some lady who left her posh middle-class American life in search of “Eastern enlightenment.” That was the way her book was marketed. A girl I was dating, Naomi, suggested it to me and gave me a five-minute pitch on how it had changed her life. I didn’t read it. The title was something like A workaholic New York Girl is Reborn under Bhutanese Sunspots. Enough said. I could tell that it sucked so I didn’t bother.
This woman, let’s call her Jane, goes on some pseudo-Buddhist trek, the only thing Buddhist about it being headlong immersion into “following your own lamp,” claiming that she is searching for a deeper meaning to life only to, instead, indulge every hedonistic and childish impulse imaginable on her “journey of self-discovery.” Americans wonder why the world hates Americans.
I’m pretty sure that Austin is this type of “Buddhist.” Austin is not a Buddhist as much as he is the all-together different “American Buddhist.” How to describe American Buddhism? One part actual Buddhism, one part Hinduism (Austin is a big fan of the Mahabharata although two questions in it’s obvious he has no idea what the Mahabharata is), one part marijuana, two parts New-Age belief in NV Peale “positive thinking,” “vibes,” and neo-gnostic “secrets,” one part cannabis (the only time I ever saw Austin properly mad was when he was explaining the difference between marijuana and cannabis to Parker who was just staring and smirking at him), one part being nice no matter what, and one part nostalgic longing. Those are the eight components of American Buddhism. I am fairly certain that for Austin, Buddhism is just code for smoking lots and lots of weed.
Then there’s Shannon. She’s twenty-six. She graduated from MUW a few years ago and works in a bridal shop in Columbus. She does something else, too. I think she’s some kind of designer.
Shannon is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life. She is thin but not too thin, strong and well built all the same. She is like a Mississippi version of some antiquarian statue of unreachable female beauty come to life. A Southern Venus de Milo, this one. She is tall. Five foot ten and three quarter inches. I know because I’ve asked her before. (She even stood against a doorpost and let me measure her once!) She has slightly blonde hair. It’s curly but not too much. She has green eyes. Her lips, which are neither too fat nor too thin, are the proper accentuating feature for a perfect face; “perfect” is the exact descriptive word, anything more or less is incorrect. She does this thing with her lips when she smiles. One side of her mouth comes up slowly and she gently bites her upper left lip. The last time I saw her do this my knees got so shaky I had to grab Shelby’s arm to stop from falling down.
“Y’all right, child?”
You see my problem. I know who the world’s most beautiful woman is. I have found her. But because she’s my cousin, or my second cousin, or something like that, I can’t even ask her out for a cup of coffee. I don’t want to be that guy, the guy who has a crush on his cousin. The guy with the cousin-girlfriend.
“Rhett,” Shelby says, standing in the doorway. She’s smiling. Her hands are outstretched as she shoos me to her. “Darlin’. Come in, come in. My boy.”
I give Shelby a hug and walk inside. Uncle Uwe is sitting at the kitchen nook. He sees me, nods his head once and goes back to his paper. Parker and Austin are standing by the kitchen sink, talking. Parker is wearing a suit. It’s a great choice for an August evening in Mississippi. Austin is dressed casually. He is wearing a loose fitting tank top, board shorts and flip-flops. When they see me they stop talking and smile, almost simultaneously.
“Hey, y’all,” I say, smiling myself. I shake Parker’s hand. He grips me firmly. I give Parker a pat on the back and extend my free hand to Austin. He brushes it away and pulls me in, slowly, for a deep hug. There is a moment when he’s resting his head on my chest. He then begins to nuzzle his nose against my sternum, ever so softly, before pulling back and looking into my eyes.
“How are you, brother?” he asks.
“Good,” I say. “You?”
“I’m excellent. Really, really, excellent. Unclouded. Clear. The haze has lifted, brother. My horizons have expanded beyond the horizon. ”
“That’s really good to hear.”
“Hey, Hollis,” a voice says from behind me. I don’t even have to turn around. I could pick it out of a crowd of thousands. Shannon Hawthorne. She’s the only one who calls me Hollis. I’ve known her since I was ten. And it was about that time that she decided to call me by a diminutive of my middle name, Hollister. Sometimes she’ll even call me “Holly.” I don’t mind.
I turn around and there she is, doing the lip bite smile standing at the back of the kitchen. She’s wearing a blue tank top over white capris and she’s barefoot. She’s never looked better. Funny thing, though: my knees don’t go weak. I’m not overpowered. It’s nothing like my worst Shannon moment. That was when she visited Boise one summer. I was either twenty-two or twenty-three; she eighteen or nineteen.
We had taken a trip to our family’s cabin, an hour north of Boise in a small hamlet called Smith’s Ferry, right off of Highway 55. You always know when to turn because after miles of winding road between thick forest on the right and the North Fork of the Payette River on your left, there appears this one solitary building on the side of the highway: Cougar Mountain Lodge. You turn past it and take a dilapidated bridge over the river, cross a long unused set of train tracks and drive deep into the woods on dirt and gravel for ten miles that feels like thirty until you reach the secluded Cabin. There is not a soul nor structure in site as far as the eye can see, only water and trees and sky.
The Cabin is rustic. It is Idaho living in its most romantic and stereotypical. No plumbing. No heat or air conditioning. No TV. No internet. There is a microwave and a stove, along with plates, cups, and utensils. You bring up your own food and the coffee’s made in old style stainless steel percolator pots. The kind that smell like rust and feel like lava if you touch the wrong part but earn their keep by really making the best coffee you’ve ever tasted. You bathe in the river, with just a towel and a bar of soap and the cold water. For fun, there are plenty of board games and beer. At night, we sit around a fire making s’mores and drinking beer. Another cousin of mine once suggested going to the Cabin without beer. His brother shot him in the groin with a BB gun, the whole affair was settled, and it was kind of like, why don’t diplomats try this method? Can we, America, try this? If “no,” why not? I’m just saying I’ve seen the results first hand.
The Cabin is cool enough to have legend attached to it. There’s a small enclave under the deck that is nicknamed “Uwe’s corner.” That’s where Uncle Uwe once drank thirty beers in one night. There’s no way he drank thirty beers. I don’t think it’s possible to drink thirty bottles of water in one night. But my father, who is without question the most honorable and honest man I know, swears that it’s true. I still don’t know.
The Cabin is a Lawson family treasure. My dad, Stephen, remembers working on it when he was a little boy. He told me that from about the time he was eleven years old it has looked as it does today: wood, brown with a white roof, two-stories, a big main room with a few couches and chairs leading into a kitchen flanked by two sleeping lofts. There is a deck from which you can look down over some one hundred yards of sloping hill that runs into the abandoned train tracks bordering the river. The river is always cold. Even in July or August, when the air temperature approaches one hundred degrees, the water stings you when you get in.
My worst Shannon moment happened here. We had decided to head down to the river for a swim. Shannon, who had been sitting next to me on the couch, got up and walked into the kitchen. It was only a fifteen-foot walk taking five, six seconds? I watched every step in 4x slow motion. So intently that when she finally made it to her destination my whole body felt exhausted, even sore. Inexplicably, my eyes misted over. I got the chills from head to toe. I started crying.
My mother noticed and asked me what was wrong. I forget what I said but it was a close call. I almost never cry. I can remember less than a handful of times that I have cried in my life and, this time excepting, never in public. To this day I still have no idea what happened.
There is none of that stuff this time; here, at Shelby’s. It is a great relief because I had been preparing for the worst.
“Hey, Shannon,” I say, walking over to her and giving her a hug. I’m still okay. Good.
Southern women might could make the world’s best food. Shelby has gone all out for this rare occasion when even a small contingent of the extended family is gathered together. The meal begins with an appetizer of fried okra and a bunch of other small things not worth mentioning in comparison. For the main course, she brings out this massive chicken. It’s covered in who knows what and tastes like no comment. No comment because you can’t talk when guzzling down chicken like it’s water. Dessert is a three-item affair: sweet potato pie, raspberry cobbler and muscadine ice cream.
Shelby has been talking virtually non-stop throughout the entire dinner. The current topic is a proposed bike lane in downtown Starkville.
“I, juss,” Shelby says. “I juss think we need that. Y’know? The students, bringin’ new students to the school and bein’ able to show’um y’doan need be only on campus, only at a football game or somethin’, tubby havin’ fun. There’s this connectivity ‘tween the campus and the city and y’all goanbe involved in everything when’ya come here. What you think, Uwe?”
Uwe looks up from a mélange of all the dessert options. A matching coterie of three beers rings his plate.
“Uh,” he mutters.
“No, really,” Shelby says, “What-ya think?”
“Dang, son. I’m not kiddin. Y’know much Marcus was involved with the city plann’an all that. They’re gon vote on this next month. What-ya think?”
Marcus is Uwe and Shelby’s son. He is an architect. He took a job in Austria a few years ago and has made it his home. Uwe shrugs and takes a massive pull on a Stella Artois, draining it to the dregs. Shelby shakes her head.
“You know, Miss Shelby,” Parker chimes in. “I think this bike lane is exactly what’s wrong with the liberals controlling the campus and the city.”
Shannon rolls her eyes and continues popping her bubble gum.
“You see,” he continues, “the people don’t want this. If the Founding Fathers were here, right now, they’d tell you the same. But the powers that be, those white collared liberal neo-Marxists in the city council and in the school administration, they want to force all these progressive measures on the Southern people.”
“How is a bike lane some type of liberal conspiracy?” I ask him.
“Well,” Parker says. “It’s a bike lane today. What is it tomorrow? See, they’re trying to remake the South in the North’s image. We’ve got enough of these hipster coffeeshops in town that I sometimes have nightmares I’m in Portland. First one bike lane, then more bike lanes, and before you know it there will be signs all around town about saving the earth and being green, reducing carbon emissions. Then you wake up one morning and everyone’s pledging oaths of allegiance to Double Zero and his goose-stepping comrades.”
Shelby laughs, shaking her head. “Boy, you done lost ya’mind. And where you get off talkin’bout my sweet Barack like that?” Shelby always refers to President Obama as “my sweet Barack.” Or, sometimes, “Cool Canary Barry.”
“You don’t, you,” Austin says, tentatively, “you don’t think that saving the earth is a bad thing, do you, brother?”
“Yeah,” Parker replies, sharply. “Because it’s really all about worshipping gaia, one world government and pumping the myth of global warming into every sector of society. So, yeah, I do think it’s a bad thing.”
“But you don’t think that Global Warming, I mean Climate Change, is a myth, do you, brother?”
“Yes. I do. And, Austin, son of a bitch! Stop it with that ‘brother’ bullshit, that Buddha-Yoda Tibetan sage bullshit.”
“I woan have that language ah-ma table,” Shelby says sternly.
Parker nods. “Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”
“C’mon, Parker,” I say. “You’re busting Austin, but how much of what you’re saying is for real? Refusing to say Obama’s name? Doesn’t the president deserve that basic respect? If I played back what you just said word for word, there’s probably at least five or six crackpot ideas right there, just in those two minutes.”
“Rhett,” he says, shaking his head side to side. “You’ll see. You keep the wool over your eyes and then Double Zero is gonna make his liberal dystopia right in front of you. Just watch. It’s already happening. And if you can’t see it now then by the time you do it’ll already be too late.”
Shannon gets up from the table and leaves. She’s bored. In between popping her bubble gum she’s been twirling her hair and staring off into the distance. Shannon is what some people would call an airhead. It’s really not true. She had a 4.0 at MUW and while she works in a bridal shop now, she has a degree in organic chemistry.
Shannon plays the slow on the uptake, spacy and sweet come rescue me my brave knight southern belle so well. I can’t stand these women. But as with everything in my paradoxical relationship with my second cousin, Shannon’s southern belle persona, whether real or constructed, is irresistible. I’ve fantasized many times about having to rescue this damsel in distress and when she demands that I kiss her, and I initially withhold reminding her that we’re related, she says to me, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Then we kiss. For a long time. For hours.
My favorite thing about Shannon is that she is 100% effective against torpor. If ever there was a widespread torpor epidemic all the CDC would have to do is find a way to exponentially multiply the woman, bottle her, and set up the queues. I’ve felt many things around Shannon but torpor isn’t one of them.
Parker is onto a new topic. Both he and Shelby are practicing Catholics, but of different stripes. Shelby is a thoroughly post-Vatican II Catholic. She loves bongos at Mass, off-key choirs, and saccharine and vapid homilies that avoid doctrine and traffic in jokes funny only to hard of hearing octogenarians and toddlers that’ll laugh at literally anything. Parker is so conservative a Catholic that when I once accused him of being SSPX he didn’t seem to mind. The SSPX, the Sedevacantists too, those suit and tie required, dress required, reactionary modern day Catholic Protestants more Catholic than the “pope.”
Parker is not SSPX or a Sedevacantist. He is a die-hard traditionalist. He accepts Vatican II only in obedience to the Church. Otherwise, he is completely opposed to anything that has emerged from the Council; if not directly from the Council, from its myriad “interpretations:” Eucharistic ministers, girl altar servers, the very music Shelby cherishes, the priest facing the people (“with his back to God” as Parker puts it, adding, “how would you feel if your bus driver decided to drive facing you, just to make you feel all warm and included and fuzzy, you know, with his back to the road, not looking where he’s going?”)
“You know,” Parker says, purposely louder than normal. “I was watching Michael Voris this morning and you won’t believe what he said ab—
“Don’t you mention that man’s name in my house,” Shelby says from the kitchen. I can hear her intensify the force of her scrubbing on a pan. Parker and I are the only ones at the table now. Austin has left. Uwe is passed out in a recliner.
Michael Voris is a polarizing figure, perhaps the most polarizing, if not most hated, man in Catholicism. I know all about him thanks to Parker. I know way more than I want to know, thanks to Parker. Voris once worked for some major news affiliate and won four Emmy awards. He started an apostolate called Saint Michael’s media that, over time, spawned ChurchMilitant.com. Voris puts out a plethora of Catholic programming; Church history, apologetics, a daily news brief. I have watched maybe three episodes total, out of everything combined, but have been irreparably exposed to Parker’s second hand viewership smoke.
Church Militant was originally called RealCatholicTV. The Archdiocese of Detroit made him stop using the name “Catholic” because they either didn’t like what he said or, more accurately, the way he says it, his “tone.” It’s a safe bet that almost all in Shelby’s camp, the “liberal Catholics” whom Voris derides as the “Church of Nice,” feel as strongly about him as she does. Moderate Catholics don’t like him because they see him as a fanatic. Super-traditional Catholics don’t like that he attacks the SSPX and other such breakaway groups in whom they see the best practice of authentic Catholicism, the restoration’s avant-garde, they believe, when and if they re-enter into full communion with Rome.
Voris does have passionate supporters. So passionate that one gets the impression from reading the comments on his website that they await his command to do anything and everything he would ask. Parker talks about “Double Zero and his goose-stepping comrades,” but get him all lathered up on Voris and, step aside. To some, Voris is a demagogical extremist. To others, he is nothing less than a modern day prophet, a voice crying out in the wilderness. One needs only to watch Voris’ daily “Vortex,” a five to ten minute monologue on various topics, to see him at his most Voris. This is where Parker goes next.
“Yeah,” Parker says. “Miss Shelby you should have seen it, really made me think.”
“Think?” Shelby asks. “Howdja have time’a think when Voris was beatin’-ya over the head with his’cessant hollerin’ and babblin’?”
“It was about clapping in church. I never knew it was forbidden.”
“Fah-biddin? No. There’s always people gon try and take ya’joy. Thass’athuh problem with Voris. Can’t find nothin’ real to have a problem with so he goes ana picks’on anythin’-an-airathin’ he can find. Thass the real problem: he creates problems, fake problems, and then makes’im self thuh solution.”
“It was pretty convincing.”
“Thass cuzya young, child. Ya’see things one way. Wait ta’ya get to my age. You’ll see.” Shelby puts a pan away. “Y’wanna know the best thing Voris’err did? Hire that girl does the news. Christine Niles. Now she-good, I like her.”
Parker finds some way to bring Reagan into the discussion. This is my cue to leave. I open the screen door and head out to the backyard. It’s a nice night; muggy and hot and still close to ninety degrees but nice nonetheless. The backyard is bright green, the grass well manicured and sufficiently watered. A small stream demarcates the back of the property. At the stream’s bank is an old magnolia tree under which a small bench and a few lawn chairs provide relief and something of a view. I head towards the bench. Someone is already there.
It’s Shannon. I sit down next to her. She seems down.
“You okay?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. I hear the dejection in her voice. “What do you think I should do, Holly?”
“What’s the problem?”
Shannon lets down her foot and traces her big toe through the dirt. “I think he’s going to ask me to marry him.”
“Well, do you want to?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you love him?”
“I don’t know.”
Shannon has had a revolving door of boyfriends in her life. I guess it’s like me with women. I’m not exactly her confidant so I don’t know if any of those relationships have been serious. I’m inclined to think the answer is no. A few years ago while she was at MUW Shannon pulled off a rare trifecta, perhaps never before accomplished, of dating three SEC starting quarterbacks in the same year: Alabama, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. Quite an interesting post-game handshake, no?
MSU QB: Good game, man.
Alabama QB: You too. Hey man, say hi to Shannon for me, okay?
MSU QB: We’re not dating anymore.
Alabama QB: What? She broke up with me to date you.
MSU QB: (smirking and pleased with himself) Yeah, I know. But we broke up.
Alabama QB: Really?
MSU QB: Yeah.
Alabama QB: Oh.
MSU QB: Now she’s dating that clown in Oxford.
Alabama QB: (smiling, pleased with Shannon). Wow.
MSU QB: Yeah. Women, right?
Alabama QB: Yeah. Women. (Smiling, but not like “women, they’re crazy,” more like “women, oh women, what would life be without them?”) Well, good game, bro.
I don’t know how she pulled it off, logistically. But then Columbus is basically in between Starkville and Tuscaloosa and it’s not like QB-boy # 3 was playing in the Pac-10 or something like that. That would have been impressive. These relationships with the quarterbacks, like almost all of her relationships, to me at least, meaning what I have heard second-hand grapevined from Shelby, seem to have a humorous indifference at the root. It’s a game to her. Boys are fun, nothing more. The moment anything might get remotely serious Shannon is ready to move on. Maybe this is her experience of something like torpor. I don’t know.
“Does he love you?” I ask her.
“I don’t know.”
I laugh. “You’re not helping me, you know.”
She laughs. “I know. I’m sorry. I just, I feel like I can trust you, Hollis. You’ve got your whole life together. Why am I so messed up?”
I don’t have my whole life together. And I don’t know what she means by “messed up.” Before I can manufacture some type of response Shannon scoots over to me, wraps her arm around mine, right under my armpit her hand clasped on my bicep, and rests her head on my shoulder. She has no idea what she’s doing. Instantly those knee bending feelings return. My stomach flips over and both of my feet are shot through with pins and needles, like somebody had been sitting on them for half an hour. I exhale deeply. It’s about all I can do to bear it.
“I, you,” I start, my voice noticeably shaky. I can hear how shaky it is. This is bad. “You’re not messed up. It’s, it’s normal what you’re feeling. Everyone has these doubts, especially when it comes to… marriage. I want to get married and it still really scares me, the thought of it.”
“Really?” she asks, looking up at me.
I avoid making eye contact. “Yeah. For sure.”
Shannon relinquishes her grip and walks the few feet over to the edge of the stream. I notice that my heart is pounding. She must have noticed too.
“I don’t think I can marry him,” she says, now in the middle of the stream, ankle deep in the water.
I don’t say anything.
“No. I can’t marry him. I can’t do it. I won’t do it, Holly. I just won’t.”
Shannon looks at me. She wants me to say something, maybe anything.
“What’s he like?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“Mark. What’s he like?”
Shannon stoops down and picks up a rock from the stream. She skips it on the water. She stands back up and shrugs her shoulders. She reaches in the water for another rock.
I keep silent. Shannon comes out of the water. “Can you carry me back to the house?” she asks. “My feet really hurt.”
I’m so caught off guard all I can do is laugh. Thankfully, Shannon does too. “Just kidding.”
We head back to the house, each under our own power.