Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Tour With "What The Bayou Saw" by Patti Lacy!

What the Bayou Saw
by Patti Lacy
Chapter 1
Call to Action

I see the bad moon arising. I see trouble on the way.
—John Fogerty, “Bad Moon Rising”
October 25, 2005, Normal, Illinois
Need to speak to you before class. Today. It was just a sheet of paper stuck under the wiper blade of her Suburban. Yet something about the bold black letters sent a chill up Sally Stevens’s back. Then she thought of her Sam and thawed a bit. He’d written this, wanting to schedule a coffee date. It was his math professor way of being romantic, yet it seemed odd that he’d disguise his handwriting. Maybe it was a peace offering after that little misunderstanding last night over her headache.
It nagged at Sally as she stuffed the note into her skirt pocket. Maybe it was from a student, since it referenced class. But how had it gotten under her wiper, inside her garage? She fumbled for her keys, then shrugged it off as one of those mysteries, like unmatched socks and empty cookie jars. It was just a note.
A glance at her watch told her she’d better get going if she wanted to spiff up her lesson plans before her eight o’clock class. She started the car, turned on the radio, and managed to back out of the garage without clipping the rearview mirror.
I hear a hurricane’s a blowin’. I hear the end is comin’ soon . . .
CNN images of post-Katrina New Orleans flooded her mind as Creedence Clearwater’s lyrics poured out of her car speakers. By the time Sally had pulled into the nearly empty parking lot at Midwest Community College, her mood was as black as the charcoal-streaked clouds, amassing liquid weaponry as they began to obliterate the blue sky.
Sally grimaced. It was the start of a war—a Midwestern winter. A war requiring her to summon every character trait she’d inherited from the Flowers clan, a genetic jumble of Cherokee, English, and Cajun ancestors, who’d certainly had their share of troubles in this land. A clan she’d left down in Texas. A clan that, with the exception of Mama and her crazy aunt Gayle and uncle Will, hadn’t edged a toe over the Mason-Dixon line for a visit. And she’d been up here for nearly ten years—three years in Indiana, over six years in Illinois. The steering wheel became a target for Sally’s frustration as she drummed it, squeezed it, forcing one of Daddy’s old sayings into her mind: “You can do it—you have no choice. We Flowers not only survive, we thrive.”
The college administration building, a gray concrete monolith, windowless on the long walls, did nothing to dispel the feeling that Sally was in a war zone. As an afterthought, it seemed, someone had planted twiggy saplings and anemic burning bushes around the perimeter of the building. The pitiful things bent in bare-branched surrender to the west wind, the biggest weapon in winter’s ample arsenal.
. . . it’s bound to take your life. There’s a bad moon on the rise.
With a twist of the knob, Sally stopped the music. What possessed some Midwest deejay to play Southern rock and tweak at the chords of her heart like this? She’d accepted being a Midwesterner, and had adjusted darn well. But like any good Southerner, she longed to go back home. And when the sun shortened its daily visits, when the wind hinted at snow and sleet, she almost hated it here.
Hate. Sally shivered, not only from the cold, but also from the emotion involved with even thinking that word. “Hate never solved anything,” Mama always told her, waggling her finger and clucking like an old hen. As Sally checked the rearview mirror for orange pulp in her teeth or smudged lipstick, she knew Mama was right.
She leaned closer to inspect her makeup. Menopause’s marks made her grimace. A complexion as drab as this campus. Her eyes? Dull as used spark plugs, and ringed with dark smudges from a halfhearted attempt at eyeliner. Even her hair, once a crown of glory, at least according to Mama, had been infiltrated with so much gray, Sally couldn’t see any blond in the shaggy mess, even though Sam assured her that he could. But with Suzi in college and Ed having all kind of senior year expenses, a good stylist was out of the question. Maybe she should succumb to a Clairol kit, but Mama always said those were for trailer trash and fast women.
Just thinking about Mama made Sally raise her head and jut out her chin, considerably tightening up her middle-aged jawline. Mama had taught her to face bad hair days, bad any kind of days, with a smile. “Don’t let them know how you really feel. You can change the world with a smile. Plus, honey, did you know it burns more calories than frowning?” Sally plastered on a grin that would make even a Southern mother proud.
Maternally fortified, Sally grabbed her briefcase and purse and got out of the truck. She didn’t have to shut the door—the wind did it for her. Snippets of the spirituals she planned to play, the pop quiz she planned to give, spun on the turntable of her mind. She had so much to do if she wanted to teach these kids about protest music, so much—
“Well, well. Just who we wanted to see.”
Wha—Sally’s blood ran cold. It couldn’t be, could it? Rufus’s hateful voice, Rufus’s hateful tone. Risen from the murky waters of that bayou to haunt her. She whirled, and so did the scenery. Like a crazy carnival ride, everything blurred into whites and blacks and grays. She gripped her briefcase, which had become a roller coaster lap bar.
Three of her students slouched against the side of a dingy white pickup truck. Toothpicks dangled from two of the simpering mouths. All three wore black leather jackets and had shaved heads.
“Lovely mornin’, ain’t it?” The tallest of the three clicked black storm trooper boots and saluted.
The scenery quit spinning, revealing itself not as a bayou and cypress trees but asphalt and, in the distance, Illinois cornfields and a freeway. As if she’d just gotten off the carnival ride, Sally’s legs wobbled. Of course it wasn’t Rufus. Rufus was dead. Still, when someone or something startled her like this, her mind hit “rewind,” and Rufus materialized out of rotting flesh and brittle bones. Sally managed to rub the ache out of her hand and still hold onto her briefcase. These were just students, albeit unsavory ones rumored to have ties to a white supremacy group. Still, Sally perceived them as Matt Hale wannabes, not the vicious man who had . . . with effort, she pushed away the memory of Rufus and plastered on her trademark smile. After all, this was Normal, where a sign at the city limits proclaimed: Racism: Not in Our Town.
“I guess you Midwesterners might call it lovely.” Sally mentally recited the alphabet, desperate to help her menopausal memory. What were their names? Alan? B, C—David? Fred—no, not David or Fred. Since that didn’t work, she visualized where they sat in her classroom. Back row, clumped together like weeds. Of course. Jay. Rex. Hugh. Because of their clonelike appearance, she had to study them a bit more closely to determine who was Jay, who was Rex, who was Hugh.
“We call anything lovely, as long as it ain’t black.” Rex and Hugh high-fived like they’d just scored in some sick Aryan sporting event.
If Sally hadn’t been so intent on studying every pimple and stray whisker to recollect their names, she might have missed the way they edged toward her. Adrenaline caused her to thunk her briefcase onto the pavement, then clench her fists.
Jay stepped even closer. “You look surprised to see us. Didn’t you get the note?” Spittle pooled in the corner of his mouth.
The note. One mystery solved. Sally honed in on eyes the color of arctic ice and shuddered, then clamped down her fear. Something was going on here; to deal with it, she needed to regroup. Fast. “You mean the note that wasn’t signed?” It was hard to stall for time and keep her gaze fixed on Jay’s dead-fish stare, especially when a million questions flew at her. Did they give the note to Sam? Ed? Who stuck it on the car? How did they get our address? What do they want?
“No.” Rex talked around what looked to be a wad of tobacco. “What’d ya think we’d send you? A ‘Get Well Soon’ note?”
Sally pretended to pick lint off her jacket but instead scanned the lot. Her heart pounded the message: empty, except for a cluster of beer bottles around a light pole and some wadded-up fast-food sacks.
“A Sympathy card? Which you might need if you keep teaching this niggerlover unit.” Jay scratched his head, his eyes blank, a nasty grin on his face.
“Keep your cool no matter what. Be assertive.” It was Daddy’s voice she heard this time, all his years as a college professor counting for something. Sally brightened her smile until her jaw ached. If they thought their threat scared her, they were wrong. After all, she was the teacher here, and she was going to take control of their little game, whatever it was. She straightened her shoulders and stared at Jay, whom she’d pegged as the ringleader, determined not to blink until he did. “You said you needed to talk about class.” In a calculated way, she studied her watch. “I’ve got a meeting scheduled with Ms. Grant. She’ll be here any minute.” She forced out a chuckle. “In fact, she’s late . . . Anyway, what did y’all need to talk about?”
“You mean that ape pretending to teach speech? What a joke.” Hugh joined the little tête-à-tête for the first time.
Steam expanded Sally’s chest. So they’d noticed her friendship with Daisy Grant, the black colleague who taught in the room next to their humanities class.
“Funny you should mention her.” Jay cleared his throat, then spat. A wad of phlegm landed not a foot from Sally’s shoe. “That’s the class we want to talk about. The class of apes that’s overrunning us. The class you keep throwin’ at us, pretending you’re teachin’ culture and music and all that bull—” He cursed, then shoved up his jacket sleeves, as if preparing to fight. Tattooed on his forearm was a mutant spider, four black Nazi legs instead of the usual arachnid eight.
In spite of her resolve to keep cool, Sally’s mouth flew open. With effort, she shut it. She remembered with absolute clarity the last time she’d seen a swastika. They’d been in Terre Haute about a month, during which time she’d gaped at the hateful symbols on foam dice that dangled from the rearview mirrors of beat-up pickups in the Wal-Mart lot. But that hadn’t been the last time. Oh, no. The last time had been much more subtle. Much more civilized. And much, much worse.
On a sunny morning, Sally had pulled into the parking lot of Suzi’s middle school for Parent Volunteer Day. At the same time, a nice-looking woman stepped out of a family-type sedan and walked around the rear of her car, her skirt swishing near a bumper plastered with rebel flag and swastika decals.
The woman had offered Sally a very soft, very white hand. “Hi. I’m Jamie’s mother,” she said. “You must be Suzi’s mother.”
Seeming to misinterpret Sally’s blank stare, she continued, “You know. Jamie plays flute in Suzi’s section? They both take Spanish?” A very nice smile wreathed a very nice face. “I’m so glad they’re friends,” she added.
For one of the few times in her life, Sally had been speechless. She stayed that way while she and Jamie’s mother worked side by side in the library, sliding wonderfully enlightening books onto specially ordered adjustable shelves. Sally never said a word, never asked “the question”—why a seemingly well-educated, well-mannered woman would display such hateful symbols on the back of her car for the entire world to see. Sally half-expected such things out of those pickup drivers, with their beater shirts and blank-eyed stares. But that sunny morning, Sally hadn’t said a thing. She’d just returned the nice smile, the inane chatter, her stomach churning and burning all the while.
That night, Sally’d sobbed the story to Sam, and later, she’d sobbed to God.
“Next time,” Sam had said.
Next time. The Spirit’s whisper had been softer than a sigh.
`One look at Jay, who had edged a bit closer, jolted Sally back to the present. She cleared her throat and made sure not to blink as she stared at each boy. That’s what they were. Just boys. Thirty years younger than her. But only a few inches taller, a few pounds heavier, if it came to that. Good thing I’m a big woman, because right now is “next time.”
“You say you want to talk.” The Southern niceties that Sally liberally sprinkled in her vernacular were gone—her ears crackled at the harshness of her tone. “Have at it.”
Rex and Hugh looked away, but not Jay. “I just got one thing to say to you.” He clenched his teeth and aimed a stubby finger at Sally’s chest. “Quit teachin’ this nigger crap.”
Sally took a step toward Jay, her hands shaking, the roots of her hair burning her scalp like she’d dipped her head in scalding water. Being from the South, she had a few reservations about blacks, but she drew the line at the use of the n word and she championed the importance of African-American culture to this country. She aimed a bloodred nail at Jay’s chest. “I’ll teach what they pay me to teach. You don’t have any say-so about it.”
Jay’s eyes narrowed.
Just looking at the hate in the boys’ faces kindled an anger that Sally hadn’t felt for years. She clenched her teeth until her molars ground together. “Anything else y’all need to ‘talk’ about?”
They stood there like heavyweights sizing each other up after the gong signaled the final round of a competitive bout. About the time Sally wondered how long she could go without blinking, Jay looked away, then glared at his friends. “You guys just gonna stand there and take this?” he snarled.
A genuine smile played with the corners of Sally’s mouth, but her hands still shook.
“You’re just chicken . . .” Jay’s voice trailed off, as did most of the hostility that had infused his words. He stepped back and slumped against the truck.
“And while y’all are here and we’re havin’ this nice little chat”—Sally’s drawl began its comeback—“may I ask why you got that in the first place?” She pointed to Jay’s tattoo.
Jay’s face paled, but maybe it was just the reflection of the sun’s rays, battling valiantly through the column of gray clouds. “It’s . . . it’s private. None of your business.”
The sag of his shoulders and the way he scuffed his boot on the asphalt sent a twinge through Sally. Here he was trying to be a poster boy for the Aryan Brotherhood, yet he was just a young man, misled by insidious propaganda. Had he been raised in a maelstrom of hate that had twisted his young mind? And how could she reach him, show him the Light that could change everything?
She grinned but folded her arms across her chest, doing her best to be friendly, yet serious. “I’m sorry, but you made it my business when you left me that note, then waited here, didn’t you?” Sally smoothed into her everyday voice—the one she used with family, students, friends, the women in her Bible study. “And I do appreciate your concern about my teaching, but it sounds like your problem concerns your own prejudices.”
Words flowed now as Sally made sure to look into each boy’s eyes. “And according to the school handbook, discrimination by race is illegal.” Her gesture toward Jay’s arm was quick and could have been taken for a wave. “If I were you, I’d keep that covered up. If it offends me, it’s bound to offend others.” Like Shamika. She thought of Shamika’s bright eyes and jumble of dreadlocks or weave or whatever the Ebony hairstyle of the week seemed to be. The one who sat front row, middle seat, as hungry for knowledge as a chirping chick for a worm. The one who, after a heated class debate, called these three the slimiest honkies in town. The one with the perfectly sculpted face, so like Ella’s. Dear Ella. That first friend who’d gone through things like this with her. That friend who, even after Katrina, Sally still hadn’t taken the time to find.
A car drove up. Sally cut a look to her right, managing to keep the students in her peripheral vision. It was Milton Rogers, a colleague who also taught at this uncivilized time of the day.

Sally lowered her voice, her eyes darting from Milton to the boys. “And I know you don’t want anyone to be offended. Like the dean or the president.”
Before they could respond, Sally grabbed her briefcase and stepped away.“Yoo hoo! Dr. Rogers?” Smiling, she waved, as if Milton had seen her, though he seemed intent on gathering his things and hadn’t looked their way. Then she turned to the boys, nodding. “Well, as you can see, my colleague’s here. I’d love to sit down with y’all, in a more civilized place.” Her hand swept toward the parking lot, which was suddenly filling up with cars whose speakers pulsated the beats of rap and rock and country. “And chat about this, ah, issue. I’m from the South, you know—”
“We know.” A hard gleam returned to Jay’s eyes. “You’ve told us about a thousand times.”
Sally waved away his comment as if it were a gnat. “And I’ve got some insight y’all just might not have.” Making sure she kept her eyes on the trio, she shouldered her purse and sidled toward Milton’s car.
“I thought you were meeting with that—”
“Oops!” Sally shrugged her shoulders. “Did I say Ms. Grant was supposed to meet me? I meant Dr. Rogers.” An inane giggle bubbled out of her mouth. She took one more sidestep, then practically galloped away.
Milton, briefcase in tow, shut the door of his gray sedan and turned toward the building. The wind had made a jumble of his coarse brown hair.
Sally clomped toward him as fast as her uncomfortable pumps would take her. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to share with him what had happened, but at least they could walk in together and she could chitchat away the image of those black jackets, that black tattoo. That black hate. “How are you?” With both hands Sally gripped her briefcase. Her head flopped back and forth, simulating a wave.
Perhaps Milton nodded, but Sally didn’t think so. As if she were invisible, he brushed past her, his gray slacks snapping in the wind.
“What do you think of this cold front?” Sally whirled around and followed him toward the building. In case the students were listening, she chattered on. “I’ll swan, it’ll blow away our patio umbrella if it gets much worse.”
As she strode past the pickup, Sally darted a glance toward the three boys, who were now lined up across the front seat like targets at a shooting gallery.
She slowed her step, though her heart continued to thump in her chest. She hadn’t been in any danger, really. They were just mixed-up boys.
“Have a nice day,” she called to Milton, who had loped ahead. Only her family and best friends would’ve detected the flint in her voice. And if her eyes could be weapons, Sally would’ve seared a hole in the back of Milton’s tweed jacket. Of course, Milton didn’t know what had happened, didn’t understand her need for camaraderie. Still, these Midwesterners galled her. People so reserved, they wouldn’t change expression if they won the lottery. People who practically wore “No Trespassing” buttons on their lapels. Sally stuck out her tongue at Milton’s hunched-over back, then sucked it in. Why was she resorting to such childish behavior?
She knew why. Milton’s snub was deflating her effort to rebound from this awful morning. Sally cut across the portico where all the smokers congregated— before, during, and after class. The stale tobacco that clung to what must have been dozens of stomped-upon butts constricted her airways as all of her earlier resentments about the Midwest moved in like the approaching storm. Dragging across the quadrangle, she longed to see something, anything, aesthetic. Where were the cupolas? Statues? Arches? Sidewalks lined with azaleas and dogwoods, petunias and pansies? She closed her eyes and breathed deep, desperate for Southern air thick with the fragrance of magnolias, which melded the scent of vanilla and spice and roses into one mood-changing fragrance.
Tears pooled in her eyes, blurring her view of the Fine Arts annex, not that it mattered. More gray. More concrete block. More . . . nothing. She walked inside the building, doing her best to ignore the resentment building even faster than the cloud column.
“Hey, Mrs. Stevens.” Jennifer’s smile accentuated straight white teeth. She looked like a teen magazine model, except for the plethora of studs in her nose and ears. And probably her navel, now covered by wool pea jacket.
Tension melted from Sally at the sight of a nice student. “Hi, Jennifer.”
“Could you help me with this?” Jennifer waved a folder at Sally. “It’s only a rough draft, but I spent all yesterday and half the night working on it.” She bounced as she talked, energizing the cramped hall. “It’s funny. I’d never heard of Odetta until your class. Now I’m doing a fifteen-page paper on her.”
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho . . . The music came from deep in Sally, pushing away the nasty little scene that, along with the weather, had darkened her morning. She glanced at the clock in the hall, the music growing inside until she began to tap her heel against the linoleum floor . . . and dem walls came tumblin’ down. Her lecture needed work and she had papers to grade. But teaching boiled down to one-on-one interactions like this; other things could wait. The warmth from Jennifer’s smile spread to Sally’s stiff fingers, her pinched toes . . . her heart. “Why, sure. I’d be thrilled to.” At times like this, she couldn’t believe they paid her to teach; she should pay them. Her briefcase plopped onto the floor as she dug around in her purse and found her keys, then unlocked the door and pushed it open. Her eager hand grabbed Jennifer’s paper; her impatient foot nudged her briefcase into the room. Buried in Odetta’s art, she headed toward her desk. Words leapt off the page and set off a dozen sparks, which ignited a dozen ideas in Sally’s head. She kept reading, barely aware that Jennifer had set her briefcase next to her chair. Jennifer’s enthusiasm had shoved the weather, the unpleasant parking lot encounter, into the deep freeze of her mind, where other ugly things had been stored. And with a little help from God, they’d stay there.


Patti Lacy graduated from Baylor University in 1977 with a B.S. in education. She taught at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois, until she retired in 2006 to pursue writing full time. She has two grown children with her husband, Alan, and lives in Illinois. Visit Patti online at

Happy Reading!


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