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Westwords, Chapter 1


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About 94,000 words First Serial Rights 1990 Lewis W. Heniford
 
 
 

"No." West shook his head and smiled wearily at the examination monitor who had asked if he needed more paper. Not wanting to offend, West hastily worded a more polite explanation. "Thank you, I've finished." He put down the pencil. From needle sharpness at the start of the ordeal, the point of the pencil had worn to the wood around it. West finished the battery of difficult entrance examinations before midday. The monitor excused him with instructions that Dean Phillips would tell him the outcome at four o'clock, Eastern War Time. On the way out, he wiped his damp brow and upper lip onto his rolled-up sleeves. Too much like a field hand, he thought. Even the extra starch his mother had put in his best shirt had not kept it crisp through the ordeal. The dim hallway outside the test room felt cool, but he yearned for light. Could he possibly have passed?

Outside, he paused to face upward, breathing deeply with his eyes closed. The reassuring brilliant May sunshine quickly brought more perspiration trickling onto his eyelashes. He squinted again and tugged from his hip pocket a clean, neatly-pressed, threadbare handkerchief. He dabbed it over his face.

West explored the campus for hours, like a discoverer trying to absorb a new world. The strong direct light cast hard-edged shadows, so his eyes, moving from light into dark, gathered dazzling afterimages. He paused to let his vision absorb and conquer the colors.

A soft guilt intruded. Should he escape to this place instead of to the only other schools he'd thought about— the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville, or the University of South Carolina, at Columbia? Either of those two had a higher claim on him. But his sister Carla had arranged this chance at Chapel Hill. He had not even asked why. Did the University of South Carolina look like this? Maybe he should be there right now, searching around hard-edged shadows. After all, he did come from there. No, he'd been born in Virginia; his mother had seen to that. Did the University of Virginia look like this? Now that he studied his choices, why had Carla chosen here?

No matter, any escape was welcome.

Confusion about other allegiances gave way to enchantment. Several times, he rambled the length of the campus. Crisscrossing reddish-gravel courses gave long views of green expanses. These invited relaxation in pools of shade under trees ancient in their protection of newcomers. Marvelous walls of ivy overlaid charmingly-weathered brick buildings. Humid breezes nudged greenery into seductive dances. The scene boasted, I'm something, really special. I am the University of this State of North Carolina.

Trees, aglitter with trembling lush growth, housed constantly-chattering birds. Other birds, too busy to sing, defiantly and willfully strolled a bordering section of lawn. Noting his presence, they paused, awaiting his next action, and when he outwaited them, they flew to other business. They fleeted from lawn to tree then to other trees and to other lawn sections with free choice that he envied.

Once, he sensed a dark, searching stare from a person in a splendid red Buick convertible slowly passing about twenty feet away. As if preyed upon, he glanced covertly that way. The car sped off, its driver beyond sight.

Only a few people walked the pathways. The folks he did meet smiled and said, "Howdy" or "Hi" or "Hey, there." Their greetings welcomed him, as did the sounds from buildings and grounds and birds and trees. He longed to talk to them, to ask, "Where are you from?"

But what if they asked the same?

At four o'clock, E.W.T., promptly as promised, Dean Phillips smiled as he ushered the youth into the Admissions Office. The old gentleman came to the point. "You passed the entrance examinations. I believe we can find a room in Steele Dormitory."

"Now? Stay here right now?" West asked.

"Yes, or enter fall term." Dean Phillips' smile was all in his eyes, barely altering his mouth. " What do you think of Chapel Hill?"

"It's fine."

The smile broadened, and he removed his glasses. "We like to think so. Summer session begins day after tomorrow."

"I thought the exams were for entering next fall. My folks expect me home tomorrow."

"Did no one tell you that passing the entrance examinations would allow you to matriculate immediately?"

The question somehow seemed part of an invitation. "No, sir. My sister didn't tell me much about what would happen."

"I see. You could telephone your folks. Or I could. I'm sure you will, anyway, want to tell them about passing your entrance examinations."

"I promised I'd call them."

"You can say that your rank on the examinations was a bit above average. Really good, I might say. Considering that you are skipping your senior year of high school, your test score is excellent."

The youth's face lit. His eyes and mouth fixed open in surprise.

"Yes, congratulations. Well, remain where they put you up last evening. Telephone your family. See me promptly at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. If you remain here, I'll have concluded arrangements with Housing and have found an advisor to guide you through registration for classes." The old gentleman paused to watch his words register. "The rest is up to you."

The youth left the Admissions Office in a daze. He wandered to a low wall fronting the adjacent street and sat. First, of course, he had to telephone home. Wouldn't this turn of events surprise them! Or, had they really expected him to pass? Who besides Mom and Carla would care if he did? Yes, his passing would impress those teachers back home. His schoolmates, what about them? He would be here, away from them, if he took this chance of going ahead with early entrance? What would they think if he did take this chance?

He wished, so truly wished, to stay near them.

Some little time had passed when he again detected that dark, Mediterranean stare. The splendid red Buick convertible eased to a pause about twenty feet away, its engine running. West intended only a quick glance in that direction, but he locked into a gray-green stare from a person his own age. Trying to elude the awkward moment, he smiled and stood, undecided how to move away.

"You lack clear purpose."

"What?"

"You need to go somewhere.

"Go?"

"A person rises, normally, for a purpose: to proceed toward a destination."

"Oh, uh, I was sitting here, thinking." He tried to rein in his nervousness.

"This is Earth, a speck in orbit around a sun in the Milky Way Galaxy. Anno Domini 1943."

"What?"

"Does any of that help? Knowing where you are, when it is?"

"Well, yes, uh, I have to make a phone call—no, first, I have to decide something. Then make the phone call." He knew the explanation sounded dumb.

Subtle expressions altered the tanned face of the youth in the Buick. "Ah, decisiveness is not everyone's forte. You could use enlightened aid." The well-dressed driver stretched toward the handle of the opposite door and opened it over the curb. He thrust a left hand in greeting. "My name is Francis Beaufort."

"Pleased to meet you. I"

"My family insists that Francis Beaufort is a name worth remembering."

"I won't forget it."

"Few people do. My family remembers ad infinitum. Generations of Francis Beauforts. I am at least the eighth. Maybe the eleventh."

"Don't you know?"

"Any family history has more artful mythology than scientific genealogy. You see, some begetting needs forgetting. Under the sheets versus over the sheets, as they say. The accepted record, though, in my case, is lengthy and volatile. English on one side, Greek on the other. That creates in me a redoubtable mix, don't you think?" The words slip-slapped, in a honing blur, razor-ready for a precise cut.

During a strained pause, the disconcerted youth settled into the seat. "Yeah, I guess. I'm Weston Newcomb."

"And who am I?"

"Who?"

"Once more, a name you cannot forget: Francis Beaufort, the whatever. I shall test you." Gray-green eyes smiled while the lips did not.

"Oh, yes."

"So, Weston Newcomb, what is your origin?" Then the lips and the eyes smirked. "If you don't know where you are going, perhaps you can say where you are from."

"Loris. It's near"

"My god! I know the town."

"You do?"

"Rather small, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"And it isn't near anyplace. I would say, to the contrary, it is far from everywhere."

West, too, held that his hometown was on the edge, maybe in the middle, of nowhere. Under pressure now, he could not share that idea. "How would you know where Loris-"

Francis appreciated himself in the rearview mirror of the Buick. "My family have a suite at the Ocean Forest Hotel, in Myrtle Beach."

"The Million-Dollar Hotel?"

"On the way there last week, I sped through your metropolis. Come to think, I don't recall it on my return trip. You haven't misplaced it someplace in all those Waccamaw swamps, have you?"

West did not know whether to laugh. "Oh, it's there, all right. How did you like the beach?"

"It passed the time. I spent the week there."

West could not imagine anyone's not loving the beaches all along the coast of his home county. "You were there last week?"

"I hit the Hill here yesterday.

"Are you a student?"

"Officially, yes. Preferentially, no."

West wondered what preferentially meant. Did this fellow not want to be here? "How do you mean?"

"This was to have been my year in Europe. The old man told me, 'My boy, once you're out of prep, the tour!'"

"A whole year in Europe?"

"He's been declaiming about it all my life, so I foolishly relied on it. Ah, I have been to the Continent before, with my parents. What I could tell you of war zones! Nonetheless, this was to have been le grand voyage, all on my own. But the damned war. The old man had miscalculated. You would think that with more than two years America could have won the war. Once Europe becomes the battlefield, who knows what will be left?"

"My dad says those countries had just begun to heal from the Great War. He thinks, once this is over, it'll take a long time for things to recover over there." The last person West had expected to quote, or even refer to, was his dad.

"Your old man—your dad—has inside information? He has a position in the war effort?"

"He's a druggist, . . . an insurance salesman. Why am I lying, West wondered, so he added, "Uh, now he's a farmer."

"A farmer . . . ." Francis registered the term as an archeologist naming a fossil bone. "You have enrolled this term?"

"They just accepted me. I register tomorrow and move into a dormitory."

"Steele." Francis dispensed the information swiftly, in the manner of one who has answers others crave. "Steele Dormitory." Gesturing to the centrally-situated timeworn three-story structure nearby, he clarified the obvious. "Steele. Right beyond Old South Building there, on the main campus."

"That's it. Dean Phillips said I'd live there."

"Where else but Steele? All the freshmen are put there. I am second landing center, fronting Old South. The vista is better this side. The currently-senior Mr. Beaufort—my old man—dropped by en route to the beach and contrived for me to have his old room, the same one he had back in 1917."

"My dad was in France then, a medic."

The currently-senior had the good sense to avoid all that. Our good fortune is to miss this one."

"It seems like it's lasting forever. Two and a half years since Pearl Harbor."

"With the North African campaign over, the Allies only have to free Europe. I can't see the invasion taking long. How old are you?"

"Fifteen last April." The directness of the question had trapped him. West had hoped not to reveal that. Dean Phillips had had records from which to learn his age, but there was no reason to let just everybody know it. Not only the directness of the question, but also his own impulse always to speak truthfully had trapped him.

Francis motioned thumb toward chest. "Sixteen next November. As your elder by over half a year, I shall demand respect. Agreed?" He lit a cigarette. "You do respect age?"

"My parents taught me to take care of old folks. I'll see what I can do with you."

"We'll both miss this war. You can count on that. Cigarette?"

"Thanks." West smiled and accepted the cigarette he did not want. His few attempts at real tobacco had not been enjoyable. Even childhood tries with smoking rabbit tobacco had made him sick.

Francis tilted his head and parceled whiffs of smoke like a lazily-steaming kettle. "Now, where to? What about that complex problem you were facing? Where to go? What to do?"

West smiled. "I guess I did look lost when you first saw me. Well, I have to call my folks. Any pay phone."

Francis started the car. "Let's go to the Inn." He performed an illegal U-turn. "Let's go to the Inn. You can put the call on the currently-senior Beaufort's tab."

They drove the half-block to the Carolina Inn and parked near the entrance. When Francis sought a key at the desk, the clerk effusively delivered an envelope, also. Francis rapidly tore off the end of the envelope. West could not keep from seeing the contents.

Francis extracted several one-hundred-dollar bills as if the money had no importance and rechecked the envelope. "Oh, right in character. No note. Not one goddamned word."

West hardly knew what to say. "Who's it from?"

"The old man has taken his leave. Let's get drunk."

"I've got to call home and see if I can stay."

"Oh, the phone call.

Why would you not be able to stay?"

"They could use me on the farm." He wanted to explain that he might have a financial problem with staying. The money held so carelessly in his new acquaintance's hand a few inches away made him balk.

"Let's go to the suite. At least that didn't disappear with Currently-senior. And the Inn comps a supply of his favorite for him. You can call your family once we've had our drink."

West forgot that he had not eaten since breakfast. Also, he had known nothing more than homemade wine. He had certainly not tasted the expensive bourbon (Canadian Club was bourbon, he supposed) that came in drink after drink. He felt the warm glow of drunkenness saturate his body. Drink after drink, his words flowed with increasing ease. He talked much about himself. This stranger was proving to be an intent listener.

West liked Francis, thoroughly liked him. How fortunate to find a friend in the first hours on campus!

The two grew boisterous and threw ice cubes across the room into each other's drinks. To add zest while throwing the cubes, they balanced objects on their heads. Some of the objects, borrowed from the room's decorations, broke. The throws usually missed, but ones that actually scored caused noisy glee. The desk clerk telephoned to relay a complaint. Francis, having gotten fully into the spirit of the game, insisted they ignore that.

Soon, the desk clerk ordered a bellhop to the room to repeat the protest. Guests next door required sleep for a long trip and would appreciate consideration. Francis nobly tipped the bellhop and invited him to have a quick drink. He asked the employee about fraternities: which one attracted la creme de la creme?

"Phi Gamma Delta. That's what I am." The bellhop accepted one more drink and another lavish tip then left, advising, "Keep it calm, and I'll see you won't get booted out of here."

Francis made a curt salute to the bellhop, nodding in acquiescence. Closing the door with a grand show of quiet, he crossed directly to his jacket, in which he found a compact morocco notebook. He wrote as he murmured. "Phi Gamma Delta. Gotchu!"

West clumsily strove to steer the conversation onto the life of his host. Somehow, he heard himself talking again about himself. What could interest Francis so much, he mused. Another drink made the question unimportant; he passed out.

Sometime later, West roused from the moist sofa, switched on the lights, and searched the suite for his host. During the slow hunt, he felt his clothes clinging wetly. Near the sofa on the floor, which also was drenched, he spied the empty ice bucket. He recalled having played something like basketball with it.

He called in a raspy voice, "Francis?"

No response.

He went into the bathroom, stripped, bent over the tub, and squeezed water from his clothes. He dried himself with one of the thick, monogrammed towels. Then he donned the still-damp, wrinkled briefs, pants, and shirt. The tight fit of the clothes showed he was still growing.

West found his old loafers before the sofa, luckily outside of the saturated area. He sat on a sofa arm and waved his feet to finish drying them, then he slipped into the shoes. His mother had not even had time to buy him a new pair for the trip. She always had bought him new shoes before the long trips to visit her kin in Richmond. She could scarcely have afforded the purchase, although she would have found money, somehow. He began searching for pen and paper to leave a note. In a desk by the window, he found embossed stationery and a weighty pen.

The recollection struck that he had not made the vital phone call to Loris. Oh, Lord, what time must it be! He wrote hurriedly, "I had to go. See you in Steele. Thanks for . . ." He could not focus on the sentence and left it dangling. He wrote his host's first name on the envelope because he could not recall the last. Had he failed some promise to remember? He forced some saliva to glue the envelope. A thickness and dryness of his tongue sent him to the bathroom for a drink of water. He came back, sealed the envelope, and rested it on the suitcase atop the stand at the foot of one of the sumptuous beds. He spotted a clock and telephone on the table separating the beds. The clock pointed ten past nine. The family would have been waiting for his call at least since five. Four hours. Oh, Lord, how would he explain having taken so long to call home! Should he use this telephone Francis had offered? No, using the telephone in his host's absence did not seem right. He would call from the vacant dormitory downhill on the corner, where he was sleeping his first two nights here. The decision made, the note completed, he headed for the door.

At that moment, nausea overwhelmed him. He barely had time to reach the toilet for a familiar, hated routine. As he retched, the agony of vomiting did not drive away the anxiety about getting to a telephone. When he felt the seizure ebb, he splashed cold water over his face and entire head. He had done this so often back home, under indoor and outdoor spigots, under buckets of well water, under whatever. Then he reached for the towel he had used previously, to save dirtying more than one. He checked in the mirror over the sink to see that he looked all right. He raked his hair with his fingers, accepting his image.

Then he entered the night outside, savoring the dark air heavy with just-before-the-storm humidity. The sky, now and again, gave cracks of light. West made his way toward his temporary room in the dormitory at the distant end of the block, fortunately downhill.

He located the hall telephone just inside the door. He pulled a coin from his damp pocket and rubbed it over the telephone book to dry it to avoid any electric shock. When he carefully deposited the coin, the operator worked swiftly, and he heard himself telling his mother carefully-selected parts of the day's events. He strove to word plainly and maturely his request to stay for summer term. He was more keenly aware than ever of being fifteen while he anxiously waited through the hasty private discussion between his mother and father. Then came the momentous yes. They promised to send his clothes and some money. He, in turn, promised to be a good boy.

A jump of lightning and a tumble of thunder summoned forth a late-May rainstorm. The rising breeze like a playful boy with a garden hose sprayed sheets of water against the windowpanes.

West tossed and rolled in the strange bed in the strange room in the strange town. He wondered if he could ever feel at home here. How could he enjoy this strange life?

What is it, he thought; what do I need?

He missed Mom and their music, missed Carla, missed his friends. He doubted whether he should stay. At least, he knew his hometown, bad as it was—did he even miss that? What was he getting into here?

You can go to Chapter 2.








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