Pretty girls ride for free

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by Nicole Crews

Mother: When are you going to write a novel?

Me: I’m writing it right now.

Mother: No. You’re talking to me right now.

Me: Exactly.

The muscle of Liz’s memory was still tender years later on the subject of Odessa. So tender, in fact, she would still leaf delicately through the buckling pages of her bound and engraved scrapbook and read aloud the official words of her own (practically embossed from Braille-like pen tracings) detention slips, words that later made her new boarding school friends in knee socks and tassel loafers cringe with delight — words like “truant,” “bare midriff” and “possession.”

Words that made her Mainline Philadelphia grandmother, Miss Georgina, curse the day her only child married a cracker lawyer from Carolina who would insist on raising her granddaughter on hushpuppies, sweet tea and his own style of Mayberry morality. The quasi-liberal dogma that pushed a public school education was the final dish — served deliberately cold to Georgina, though with a sweet, “Y’all come back now, ya heah?” smile.

The distinguished matriarch Georgina, whose own dubious lineage — far closer to Ellis Island than her manufactured Plymouth landing — was secured by marrying the late furniture-manufacturing scion Gordon Bass all those years ago. Whatever made her think it was alright to let her one child attend university in the backward state where her husband’s family — one of the First Families of Eastern North Carolina — had made their millions? The thought of her daughter’s nuptials to some tobacco barony’s reluctant heir didn’t help, considering the fact that he was dead set on heading to the even more backwoods eastern part of the state to practice criminal law and escape his family. Profiting from the region’s plentiful lumber supply and getting cheap Appalachian craftsmen to eight-way hand-tie sofa frames and hone boraxy reproduction dinette sets was one thing — but a public college in North Carolina in the 1960s for her debutante daughter was quite another. And a town like Odessa — teetering in the middle of nowhere between the desolate coastal plains and the mill towns of the Piedmont — wasn’t exactly the life Georgina Bass had contrived for Victoria’s first steps into wifedom.

Didn’t they know what was going on down there? Sit-ins. That Asian conflict. Didn’t people read the newspapers?

Even now as she faced the task of correcting her daughter’s mistakes with her grandchild, colored faces rose like apparitions in the dreams of Georgina Bass. Frightening men with skin the shade of her late husband’s still-ominous riding boots leapt from AP photos taken in the jungles of Vietnam — and those were the Americans. But it was the much closer battlefields in places like Alabama, Mississippi and even North Carolina that still wrenched Georgie Bass from slumber. She had never ridden a bus before, but even so, she knew she wouldn’t like to be relegated to the back of one.

In her day, before the War and before Gordon Bass, there had been trolleys and trains and her looks had often garnered a conductor to remark, shooing away her change; “Pretty girls ride for free.” Easy words to get used to. And the thought — the mere thought! — of her only child falling for some Freedom Rider, would-be civil-rights lawyer and sending her granddaughter off in filthy buses to those integrated public schools made her reach for the gin long before cocktail hour crooned at her.

Even the faces of her servants seemed to have become more malevolent since this so-called movement had taken off. Della, even, who had been with the Bass family since their exodus north, was starting to get notions — though she told Miss Georgina that she couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. It was Della, in fact, who had put a halt to her own grandchild’s friendship with Miss Georgina’s Lizzie once puberty seemed eminent.

Miss Georgia got the message. If her Negro maid was worried about her grandson Willie cavorting with her own blue-blooded Lizzie during her summers “back home,” then something had to be done. Boarding school, it was explained, was the best road to Radcliffe, Smith or Vassar. Georgina Bass’s money would secure entry into a good school despite Lizzie’s dubious grades. Proletarian argument from her daughter and son-in-law could be haggled with.

They were, after all, concerned for Liz. She had been busted for smoking in the bathroom and banned from cheering in the Odessa Thanksgiving parade because of it. And Victoria and her husband Squire had suspicions about what else Lizzie might be smoking besides the tobacco that had paid for much of Russell Owen McAllister (aka Squire’s) own education.

Something else: Lizzie herself knew she was slipping. She was tired of nobody expecting much from her except to look nice on Sunday in her monogrammed sweaters and chew her food with her mouth closed. She wanted something more than what sailing camp, the club and her mediocre classes had to offer. But she also knew that shoplifting feather earrings and selling her tennis racket for weed was probably not the best road to life outside of Odessa.

So when private school was offered up on a silver platter like the jelly jar travelers after her parent’s parties, she was secretly relieved to relinquish her newly acquired title of Bad Girl for the plaid skirts, loafers and study halls of Sweetwater Hall. Besides, she could always save face by blaming her grandmother — that’s what grandmother were for, after all.