I guess you could say my life peaked early. In the summer of 1929, my brother Reuben drove me to Saint Paul in his new car, a 1922 Ford Model T. I was twelve and he was twenty-two, and his thick black hair had a wave that made the women of Delaney jealous. Business was still good at the mercantile, and Reuben was still living at home. I was reading Alfred Lord Tennyson that summer, The Idylls of the King—even the title made me feel rich and indolent—and my head was full of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, and in that fantastic world I was not Honey Bass but The Lady of Shalott, weaving at my magical loom in a tower by the river, imprisoned by an obscure whispered curse, yearning for unattainable love. And Reuben was always my Lancelot.
The trip to Saint Paul was seventeen miles of gravel road that wound along up the White River Valley and crossed the river and the railroad tracks half-a-dozen times. In the spring you couldn't even make that trip by car, just on a horse, or maybe with a wagon. But in the summer, when the river was low, it was, like everything else in 1929, possible.
Each time we crossed the river, I leaned out over the door and watched the water lapping almost to the running boards, ripples angling out from the front tires like peacock feathers. The White River was clean and cold, clear as window glass, and I could see the minnows and small perch and stripers darting away and stopping and darting away again. And Reuben, with his hat cocked a little to one side and his left arm resting on the door beside him and his right hand on the wheel, looked at me and smiled with those perfect teeth of his that never did see a dentist that I know of and said, "What's the matter, Honey Bear? 'Fraid we'll get stuck?"
"Naw!" I said. "You'd never get stuck, Reuben."And it was true. At least in 1929. Nothing could stop Reuben. He was always in control. He had Mama wrapped around his little finger. I don't think she ever once yelled at him, though Caleb got her riled up plenty of times, and by the time I was sixteen or seventeen her tone had taken on a new quality altogether. You might say I was a kind of a catalyst that helped her find her voice.
But she never yelled at Reuben. There was even a quiet in her eyes when she talked to him. But then nobody in Delaney would yell at Reuben. Whenever he walked into a room, people's faces relaxed and they smiled and said "Hey, Reuben." And they watched him for a minute like he was their own son before they went back to whatever they were doing when he came in. The only person who ever fought with him was my other brother Caleb, but part of the problem was that Reuben always knew what to say. Caleb was so quiet he would stand there and take whatever trouble came to him. But Reuben could talk anybody into anything. Or he'd just talk until they threw up their hands and laughed and let him go.As far as I was concerned, Reuben lived a charmed life. He was in control of the world and nothing but good things would come to him. In 1929 the second world war was still twelve years away.
When he was fifteen or sixteen, he was hired to teach at the school. Uncle Purvis was president of the school board, and the school only went through the eighth grade. They'd hire people like Reuben, who were finishing high school part time in Saint Paul. So my first year of school was his first year as a teacher.He spread the world out in front of us on a big map that hung down over the blackboard. The edges of the world were torn. It had blue oceans and yellow and green and brown countries, and Reuben dissected it with his long thin pointer. He knew the world. Called it by all of its various names. France, Germany, Italy, Russia—the romance of Europe rolled off his tongue like a song.
I thought he was the smartest person in the world. And when I sat in the middle of all those older kids, all their eyes fixed on Reuben, the girls falling in love with him, the boys' heads full of the European campaigns, I'd get tears in my eyes I was so proud of him.
But I was never much of a student. I finished high school, but only because Mama made me and because it got me out of the house. If I had known what was coming, I'd have paid closer attention in that geography class. France, Germany, Italy—all those places we had to memorize on the map. When we got the news about Reuben in 1944, I was waiting tables at the Ozark Grill in Fayetteville. I sat down and tried to see Italy in my mind on the map. Tried to remember what color it was, what the land was like, the "inhabitants." I tried to remember the newsreels Ransom Todd had showed that summer about the Italian campaign. But it was all a blur in my memory. All except the image of Reuben up in front of the classroom. His black wavy hair. His Erol Flynn teeth. His smile.
When Reuben drove me to Saint Paul that summer of 1929, he was going to see Mary Beth Fitts. He was all spruced up and wearing his white shirt and vest. He had met Mary Beth when he was going to high school and had been going to see her pretty regularly since then. But even though I knew he was going to see Mary Beth, he made me feel like I was the only reason for the trip. Reuben could do that. He stopped the car after we crossed the river the second time, and we got out and skipped rocks across the smooth water above the ford, and he asked me about school—I was in the sixth grade—and I told him I really liked it. Which wasn't true, of course, but I knew that's what he wanted. I would say anything to please Reuben.
The sun was shining down through the trees along the river bank, and the water rippled along through the shallows. It was hot, like always in July.“Wade on out there and cool off, Honey,” Reuben said. “White River is the coldest water in the state of Arkansas.”
And it is, too. Spring fed. You couldn’t find better swimming in July and August. So after I stepped around on the rocks like I was tip-toeing through the house and grabbed at a couple of crawdads, we got back in the car and headed on toward St. Paul.
not prepared for Mary Beth Fitts. Mary Beth worked at the soda
fountain at Parson’s drug store in
Paul. Her thick black hair and big brown eyes swallowed me when
I looked at her. Thick eye brows and long lashes, and a
chiseled nose that seemed too small for that face, maybe because of
her lips. Voluptuous. Thick
and heart-shaped and sealed with dark red lipstick. The men would
have called her a stunner.
Reuben put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Honey, I’d like you to meet Mary Beth Fitts. Mary Beth, this is Honey.”
Mary Beth held out her hand to me across the counter. Her arm was white, like she’d never been out in the sun. “I finally get to meet the famous Honey,” she said.
like the ugly duckling being introduced to the swan. I could feel my
face burning. What did she mean by famous?
She smiled at me without parting those thick red lips and then said to Reuben, “I get off for lunch in fifteen minutes. You want a soda while you wait?”
“No thanks,” he said. “Think I’ll show Honey a little bit of St. Paul. We’ll be back here by twelve.”
There was two or three seconds of silence, during which she blinked once, and then the bell over the door jingled as a woman holding a handkerchief to her mouth entered.
Mary Beth looked at me and smiled again the same way, lips tight together, and said, “Don’t be late.”We only had a few minutes, so we just walked down to the end of Main Street, about a block and a half, past the barber shop, where a boy about my age with a smirk on his face was sitting back on the window ledge with a shoe shine box at his feet. He asked Reuben if he wanted a shine, and Reuben said sure.
As that boy polished Reuben’s shoes, his overalls one size too short, and his bare feet covered with dust, he worked his mouth around like he was trying not to laugh at some funny joke he was hiding from everyone else.
Reuben sat back on that window ledge as cool as a cucumber, with one foot up on the shoe shine box, and looked out over St. Paul, with the cars coming and going on the street and the people on the sidewalks. Life was bustling in the summer of 1929. People moved as if they had somewhere to go and business to do when they got there.But Reuben was above it all. He rolled his white shirt sleeves up a couple of folds as if he had all the time in the world, and he smiled at me like we were the ones who shared a secret that the rest of the world was dying to know. We were Lancelot and Guinevere. I was so in love that I had to look away from him, at the dust that rose behind the empty logging truck that rumbled down the street.
And that is how I will always remember Reuben—above the fray. I don’t remember much else that happened that afternoon. I do remember Mary Beth Fitts standing in the front window of the drug store, her arms folded across her chest, her purse hanging from one wrist, waiting for us. We were five minutes late. She only had an hour, and she thought five minutes might have been more important than a shoe shine. But like everyone else, she couldn’t stay mad at Reuben for long.And even though Mary Beth gave in to Reuben’s smile and smiled herself, smiled in a real way, even showing those big white teeth, giving in to the magic that Reuben worked on her and me and St Paul that afternoon, and even though I felt like she wasn’t half bad after all, still it was the last time, as far as I know, that he ever went to see her. He never mentioned her name, around me at least, after that afternoon.
I think now, after all these years, that my being with Reuben that day was more than just an outing for the two of us. Reuben could never stop being a teacher. And that trip to St. Paul was a kind of final exam for Mary Beth Fitts. And she failed the test. But of course neither Mary Beth nor I had any inkling of what that summer afternoon meant beyond the charm of being with Reuben.
We walked down to the river—so many of the beautiful minutes of my life, it seems, were at the river—and we sat under a big green ash tree on a blanket Reuben pulled out of the back seat of the car, and our ice cream cones melted faster than we could lick them up. Mary Beth sat with her legs crossed and slightly bent and leaned over to the side on one hand. She was a stunner all right. She was fifteen minutes late getting back from lunch, and Reuben had to explain to Mr. Parson, whose face was stiffer than his collar.The longer Reuben talked, the more Mr. Parsons' face relaxed, and he got that familiar look in his eyes. The look that said maybe the world wasn’t rushing to Hell in a handcart after all, not as long as bright young men like this were ready to take the reins. I got a funny feeling in my stomach, a little like jealousy, when I realized that Mr. Parsons was proud of Reuben, just like everyone in Delaney was proud of him and would have claimed him in a second as their own.
Now, as I think back on that trip to St. Paul, I realize that it was one more sign of Reuben's love. Of course, he could never love me the way I wanted him to, and the Lady of Shalott died a tragic death when she left her loom and her tower. The mysterious curse.The next year, 1930, Reuben intended to go to college. He had been saving money, and he would have enough by then to try it for a year. He would have been good in college, too. But then the next year everything changed when the bank went belly up and nobody had any money. Not Reuben or Daddy or Uncle Purvis. Nobody.
Things changed for us all that next year, but in the summer of 1929, four months before Black Thursday, I was consumed with Alfred Lord Tennyson's world of Camelot and Arthur and Guenevere and Lancelot. I would lie on my back in bed and cry till my ears were full and my pillow was wet. Big sweet tears of lost love and lost innocence in King Arthur's court, where honor and chivalry were soiled by lust and betrayal. Where the noble quest went wrong because of misguided passion. I soaked it for all it was worth.I guess if I'd known what was coming, the Depression and the war and all that would go with them, beginning with Uncle Purvis, I'd have read Tennyson with a much different eye, even at the tender young age of twelve. But then I guess the result would have been the same. I would have cried for the loss of innocence, the death of the good, the passing of Camelot. But the tears would not have been so sweet.
(photo by Robert O'Nale)