Chapter 36: Georgia on my mind*
We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
And the waiter brought a tray…
— Procol Harum, 1967
I was back home from the Army four months when I gave my notice at the newspaper that had changed so much I hardly recognized it. I was following the matriarch’s mandate to return to my hometown, preparatory to her moving the family back. The Army had not corroded the matriarch’s influence over me, just substituted another authority for two years.
I took the Greyhound north because my mother needed my car for work. The old man’s multiplying ills and hospital stays had cleaned out all my book royalties. I was back paycheck to paycheck. My hometown newspaper gave me a nice little raise that put me above a hundred bucks a week, which seemed like tall cotton.
My political uncle met me and took me home. I rented a VW Bug by the week while he worked contacts to find a good used car. I now was the youngest Sunday editor in Georgia, developing a freelance payroll and writing a weekly column, emulating my erstwhile boss. No private office, just a corner cubicle with widows overlooking Confederate soldiers’ monuments on Broad Street.
I didn’t feel uprooted. The worn newsroom felt like the one I earned my spurs in before it moved to soulless modern digs. Police and fire scanners muttered from the cluttered city desk. Engraving-room chemicals watered your eyes. On the traditional horseshoe-shaped news desk shirt-sleeved copy editors with lead smudges on their elbows smoked cheap cigars and cracked wise.
When Glenda flew up on vacation, she felt right at home, took over a desk and did illustrations for my column. We stayed in a motel for privacy. My uncle and aunt had three kids. One of my male cousins, well shy of puberty but with the familial sexual precocity, confessed fifty years later she rang his chimes and aroused fierce envy of my undeserved luck. In an ancient Polaroid of us together on their piano stool she radiated sensuality. I looked smug. No wonder he was smitten.
Glenda was there when a reporter tipped me to an apartment, helped me move my stuff from my uncle’s and christen the bed as I had hers on the Beaches. But there were no artist openings on the paper or elsewhere. Vacation over, she went back to work and I was alone in a silent apartment.
The loneliness could have been worse. The Sunday magazine was part of the morning paper so I worked the night shift like all the morning crew. Night-side was a revelation. I loved it. Between the midnight final and bar closing I became a regular at the table reserved for reporters in a bar run by a local hoodlum. I discovered even in this small isolated city the people of the night occupied a different geography than day people, with its own coordinates, landmarks and icons. It was like stepping into a novel about nighttime Manhattan or Chicago, small-scale. The newsmen were classic ink-stained wretches as immortalized by Damon Runyon or Ben Hecht. When bars closed there were after-hours bottle clubs across the river. I could avoid the empty apartment until the sun came up. Day sleeping was easier. I loved coming in freshly showered and shaved at 4 p.m., looking forward to night like a vampire.
Nightlife was wide-open, women everywhere and available. Not that I was interested, but I enjoyed the show. Watched the up-tight city-hall reporter almost faint when a go-go dancer stripped her top, buried his face in conspicuous breasts and shook him dizzy. Saw another reporter bury his face in a dancer’s crotch stage-side until her knees buckled, and come up grinning. Definitely Hecht, if not Henry Miller. Serious drinking and casual sex were drugs of choice for the madcap night crew, whose soundtrack that year was A Whiter Shade of Pale, the lyrics antic as our lives. I participated happily in the drinking. This was the newspaper homecoming I dreamed.
There were other echoes of early newspaper days — involving women of course. The managing editor introduced a pretty young reporter supposedly interested in writing for me. I waxed poetic about goals for a fine magazine. She smiled and concentrated on every word but left without offering a story. Later the ME said, “Did you score?” and laughed at my blank look. She insisted on introduction because she thought me hot! Nobody else had lucked out with her. But he bet she’d leave me alone if I was that obtuse. And she did. When I passed the women’s desks, I did not imagine amused looks and giggly whispers. My ignorance of Venusian code made me once more an object of fun to female reporters.
The mobster’s bar featured attractive cocktail waitresses in fishnets and quasi-Playboy outfits minus ears. Legs for days. Language like sailors. One blonde vivant joked about fucking a reporter right on the table. Later someone felt her up. A reporter called him on it: “that’s no way to treat a lady.” I was in my cups and brooding. “What lady?” I said. “Ladies don’t fuck on bar tables.”
Which bothered her worse than the guy’s groping. One of our crew came back from the bathrooms saying she was back there bawling because that new guy she had a thing for insulted her. Wait, what? I found her and apologized. She took it graciously, said she always liked my looks and hoped I’d ask her out, that’s why it hit her so hard. Holy cow. “How about I take you across the river to the Greek’s for breakfast to say I’m sorry?”
She gave me a sad-clown look through runny mascara. “Ask me again when you’re sober. If you even remember.” Yikes, I believe that was a touché, M’lle. Of course I remembered — I never forget when I’ve been a jerk. But I never asked her out because I was committed to Glenda. The object of my affections was 300 miles of state highways through darkest Georgia into North Florida. Thirty seconds past midnight shift-end Friday I’d be laying rubber down U.S. 1. Maybe sooner if no one was keeping track.
I was now driving a recycled South Carolina game warden’s big Dodge with the police-package 440 Hemi and push-button drive. My uncle scored it for me at auction, said it was the only car he’d found faster than the Olds with which he burned up highways to Atlanta. My best time to Glenda in the Saturday wee hours was four hours flat, an average of 75 miles an hour, pretty good when I had to poke through seven small towns notorious as speed traps. I aired out that old mill on dark empty roads between towns while graveyard-shift troopers cribbed a little sleep or drank coffee at all-night diners.
Glenda would open the door all little-girl sleepy in a modest floor-length gown against the onshore predawn wind. Nothing beneath but the thrilling geometry of her compact curvy body, which I craved with unflagging hunger. Shampoo and scented soap smells would mingle with salt air. Then she would be in my arms, kissing me deep, nipples tenting the gown and burning into me, any resemblance to little-girlhood gone in a heartbeat.
Sometimes she would ruck her gown around her hips and climb me right there against the closed door. She was light enough and I was big enough for that to work just fine. She would search one-handed behind my zipper, find and unfurl me into position. When she fitted me where I belonged she made that sobbing moan of female hunger I had come to know well. I would walk her to the bed, ease her down, all without disconnecting, and we would start our weekend.
I finally wrote to the girl with the Murphy bed about Glenda. I hated that. But she had waited over four months for an invitation I was no longer in a position to issue. She deserved the truth, bitter as it was. I couldn’t have them both. Regret for hurting her and a sense of loss that I’d never see her again were the only shadows on my life.
Meanwhile the matriarch was having trouble persuading the old man to put the beach house up for sale. Wasn’t that why I was in Georgia in the first place? But my new routine precluded annoyance. I had a pleasant apartment, my newspaper weeks were satisfying and colorful night life assuaged loneliness until dawn. I had all day Monday to get to work from my Glenda weekends. And five short midnight deadlines later I would again be blowing down the aptly-named Woodpecker Trail shortcut to Florida.
I should have knocked on some of that wood.