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The Last Girlsby Lee Smith
The river . . . it all started with the river. How amazing that they ever did it, twelve girls, ever went down this river on that raft, how amazing that they ever thought of it in the first place.
Well, they were young. Young enough to think why not when Baby said it, and then to do it: just like that. Just like Huck Finn and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which they were reading in Mr. Gaines's Great Authors class at Mary Scott, sophomore year.
Tom Gaines was the closest thing to a hippie on the faculty at Mary Scott, the closest thing to a hippie that most of them had ever seen in 1965, since the sixties had not yet come to girls' schools in Virginia. So far, the sixties had only happened in Time magazine and on television. Life at the fairy-tale Blue Ridge campus was proceeding much as it had for decades past, with only an occasional emissary from the changing world beyond, such as somebody's longhaired folk-singing cousin from up north incongruously flailing his twelve-string guitar on the steps of the white-columned administration building. And Professor Tom Gaines, who wore jeans and work boots to class (along with the required tie and tweed sports jacket), bushy beard hiding half his face, curly reddish-brown hair falling down past his collar. Harriet was sure he'd been hired by mistake. But here he was anyway, big as life and right here on their own ancient campus among the pink brick buildings and giant oaks and long green lawns and little stone benches and urns. Girls stood in line to sign up for his classes. He is so cute, ran the consensus.
But it was more than that, Harriet realized later. Mr. Gaines was passionate. He wept in class, reading "The Dead" aloud. He clenched his fist in fury over Invisible Man, he practically acted out Absalom, Absalom, trying to make them understand it.
Unfortunately for all the students, Mr. Gaines was already married to a dark, frizzy-haired Jewish beauty who wore long tie-dyed skirts and no bra. They carried their little hippie baby, Maeve, with them everywhere in something like a knapsack except when Harriet, widely known as the most responsible English major, came to baby-sit. Now people take babies everywhere, but nobody did it then. You were supposed to stay home with your baby, but Sheila Gaines did not. She had even been seen breast-feeding Maeve publicly in Dana Auditorium, watching her husband act in a Chekov drama. He played Uncle Vanya and wore a waistcoat. They had powdered his hair and put him in little gold spectacles but nothing could obscure the fact that he was really young and actually gorgeous, a young hippie professor playing an old Russian man. Due to the extreme shortage of men at Mary Scott, Mr. Gaines was in all the plays. He was Hamlet and Stanley Kowalski. His wife breast-fed Maeve until she could talk, to everyone's revulsion. But Mr. Gaines's dramatic streak was what made his classes so wonderful. For Huck Finn, he adopted a sort of Mark Twain persona as he read aloud from the book, striding around the old high-ceilinged room with his thumbs hooked under imaginary galluses. Even this jovial approach failed to charm Harriet, who had read the famous novel once before, in childhood, but now found it disturbing not only in the questions it raised about race but also in Huck's loneliness, which Harriet had overlooked the first time through, caught up as she was in the adventure. In Mr. Gaines's class, Harriet got goosebumps all over when he read aloud:
Then I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn't no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippoorwill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die, and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn't make out what it was and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of sound that a ghost makes . . .
This passage could have been describing Harriet; it could have been describing her life right then. Mr. Gaines was saying something about Huck's "estrangement" as "existential," as "presaging the modern novel," but Harriet felt it as personal, deep in her bones. She believed it was what country people meant when they said they felt somebody walking across their grave. For even in the midst of college, here at Mary Scott where she was happier than she would ever be again, Harriet Holding continued to have these moments she'd had ever since she could remember, as a girl and as a young woman, ever since she was a child. Suddenly a stillness would come over everything, a hush, then a dimming of the light, followed by a burst of radiance during which she could see everything truly, everything, each leaf on a tree in all its distinctness and brief beauty, each hair on the top of somebody's hand, each crumb on a tablecloth, each black and inevitable marching word on a page. During these moments Harriet was aware of herself and her beating heart and the perilous world with a kind of rapture that could not be borne, really, leaving her finally with a little headache right between the eyes and a craving for chocolate and a sense of relief. She was still prone to such intensity. There was no predicting it either. You couldn't tell when these times might occur or when they would go away. Her mother used to call it "getting all wrought up." "Harriet," she often said, "you're just getting all wrought up. Calm down, honey."
But Harriet couldn't help it.
Another day Mr. Gaines read from the section where Huck and Jim are living on the river:
Sometimes we'd have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water, and maybe a spark-which was a candle in a cabin window . . . and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It's lovely to live on a raft.
His words had rung out singly, like bells, in the old classroom. Harriet could hear each one in her head. It was a cold pale day in February. Out the window, bare trees stood blackly amid the gray tatters of snow.
Then Baby had said, "I'd love to do that. Go down the Mississippi River on a raft, I mean." It was a typical response from Baby, who personalized everything, who was famous for saying, "Well, I'd never do that!" at the end of The Awakening when Edna Pontellier walks into the ocean. Baby was not capable of abstract thought. She had too much imagination. Everything was real for her, close up and personal. "We could do it, you know," Suzanne St. John spoke up. "My uncle owns a plantation right on the river, my mother was raised there. She'd know who to talk to. I'll bet we could do it if we wanted to." Next to Courtney, Suzanne St. John was the most organized girl in school, an angular forthright girl with a businesslike grown-up hairdo who ran a mail-order stationery business out of her dorm room.
"Girls, girls," Mr. Gaines had said disapprovingly. He wanted to get back to the book, he wanted to be the star. But the girls were all looking at each other. Baby's eyes were shining. "YES!" she wrote on a piece of paper, handing it to Harriet, who passed it along to Suzanne. Yes. This was Baby's response to everything.
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