Queen of the Skies

See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past


By Joe Bageant

As I drove through the decaying neighborhood in Winchester, Virginia the pain of growing up there came back — the stabbing kind that only lasts a second but makes you flinch as you remember some small but stupid and brutal moment of adolescence. I have never known if everyone has them, but I’ve always suspected they do. Now that old neighborhood slid by my rental car window looking like it was painted by Edward Hopper, then bleakly populated with gangstas, old men with forty-ounce malt liquor bottles, hard-working single moms and kids on cheap busted plastic tricycles.

Wedged between the old railroad station and the Confederate Cemetery, our neighborhood was and still is called the North End. It has gone mostly black now. But you can see some of its families going through the same struggle for modest respectability as in 1961 when it was the poorest edge of white Winchester — flower pots on porches, lawn edges cut crisply in the earth along sidewalks, as if the red clay pounded by the feet of neighborhood kids were going to produce enough grass to threaten the walkways — all those things the poorest white working people did back then to proclaim: We might be poor and close to Niggertown, but we ain’t niggers.


And there on the corner a block up Piccadilly stands Patti Hensley’s house, where for the first time I asked a girl for a date, a memory that causes me an actual physical flinch every time it surfaces. Just about everyone at our school knew Patti Hensley was going to be an airline stewardess because: A) she said so, and B) she was excruciatingly cute, which was, far as any of us in the tenth grade knew, the only requirement for the job. And, as if we needed any further evidence, Patti was already dating seniors, proof she had the sophistication to become a globe trotting bunny of the skies like those we’d seen in Playboy magazine. For all I know, Patti thought of it the same way at the time. But beyond that, Patti Hensley was unarguably as sincere an individual as anyone could ever imagine. Accepted in the best cliques of girls and invited to every exclusive teen party by the boys and girls of every old name or wealthy family in town because of her beauty, she nevertheless kept her kindness intact. If she was guilty of the sin of vanity — she never had a hair out of place and obviously spent thousands of hours at grooming — she most certainly kept it a private enough vice.
Patti lived around the corner a block from me, in the same working class neighborhood, but out of the shadow of the dingy round-the-clock clattering textile mill across from my house, which was a stark gray frame thing with awkwardly placed windows and a front porch that had been boxed in and converted to a bedroom. Hers was crisp and white stucco with a wraparound porch pleasantly strewn with wicker furniture and shaded by climbing wisteria that seemed like an extension of the deep green lawn and shrubs. Her father, a foreman at the mill, could be seen on Saturdays through the wisteria smoking and reading. Given the ridiculous class awareness of native Virginians, compounded by the agonizing self-consciousness of being a teenager, one block and some whitewash was the difference between Leave it to Beaverville and Hell’s Kitchen. So how I ever got the idea of asking her for a date is beyond me even all these years later — Patti with her penny loafers, pleated skirts and circle pin, me still in cheap flannel shirts and jeans from Sears like the small boys over at the elementary school. A fool could spot the chasm between us. Part of it was my just plain cluelessness. The other part was a courageous shot in the dark on the part of hope. But most of it was having absolutely no idea how the world of dating worked.

So I spent the first half of a fall Saturday getting ready, dressing as coolly attractive as a guy can in cheap woven brown nylon shoes — made black with liquid stove polish for the occasion — stiffly ironed blue work pants and a fifty cent haircut from the drunkest barber in town, Mr. Schwartz. But the act of spiffing up put me in a buoyant mood and I walked out of the house into the mist of a damp fall afternoon.

It was only when Patti Hensley’s screen door opened slightly and I saw her soft silhouette before me as the polished hardwood floors swept away behind her that panic struck and my head began to roar with the thundering of love’s poisoned hooves. It dawned on me that I had never spoken to this girl in my life and we only knew each others’ names because we were in the same grade and lived in the same neighborhood.

“Well, hello Joey!,” she said with that warm, buttery smile of hers, slight confusion flashing only briefly across her face. “Would you like to sit down on the porch for a moment? Or come in?”

“Ah, no. I was just wondering if you’d want to go to the dance at the Fire Hall tomorrow.” Subtle, right? Completely out of it. Yet, here she was inviting a grubby little pud who’d appeared on the front porch into her house.

“Oh, I’m sorry but I donít think that would work out for me.” (Work out? What did that mean, for god sake? My mind jammed.)

“Okay. Well, I was just in the neighborhood (like I didn’t live in the friggin’ neighborhood!) and I thought I’d ask. It surely must be flattering to a girl to be asked out just because a guy walks by and thinks, “Huh? Oh, a female lives there, guess I’ll ask her for a date.” Brilliant, Bageant, brilliant, I thought to myself.

“Sure you won’t sit down for a minute?

“No, I gotta go now.”

I practically leapt from the porch to the street. On the way home I looked down to see my wet shoes starting to produce tiny black rivulets of stove polish.

At that time I was buddies with, if you could call being a sycophant being buddies, with two older high school boys who lived next door in a clapboard tenement — Jim and Dick Carby. Jim and Dick were true teenaged hillbilly hipsters whose old man kept several racehorses, despite the fact they had cost him a trucking company and lots of trouble with the IRS. But at age fourteen I couldn’t imagine anything more worldly or absolutely hip these two who were respectively two and three years older than me. Jim rode as an exercise boy at the track and I often spent evenings polishing his jockey boots and saddle, doing anything that would allow me to stick around the two older guys, listen to Carl Perkins records and feel hip. The fact that neither Jim nor Dick had a girlfriend never got in the way of me wanting to hear their expertise on women and courtship.

So when I made the mistake of telling them about asking Patti for a date. Jim howled, “My fuckin’ god! Every guy in the school wants to date Patti Hensley.” The oldest of the two brothers, Jim was tall, thin, with the kind of scooped back dark hair that made him spend hours admiring his profile in the mirror. And though they spared me the misery of teasing, they gave each other looks of utter bafflement that I could be so stupid. Surely they had quite a laugh over it later. For years afterward, day in and day out I ducked Patti Hensley in the hallways at school, avoiding her attention in every way possible. Oh crazy regret.

Three decades later when the Class of ’63 Hadley High School reunion rolled around, I was up for it. I’d never been to a high school reunion, but from the other side of fifty they start to take on new significance. Particularly if you’ve been away for thirty years. I felt it was bound to be a moving experience just to see what time and its river does or doesn’t do to us all. Beyond that, I wanted to be around a few people whose very presence verified that I was young once and devoid of the fatigue and cynicism that now looms in the background of my days.

The Hadley reunion was held in the main room of a colonial era inn now called the Fox Tavern, a heavily timbered and dark catacomb of rooms highlighted with oil paintings of fox hunts, red linen topped tables, blue flow ware and antique silver. Naturally there were the shriveled old teachers escorted by graying former pupils who had become psychiatrists and CPAs and teachers themselves. Watching as each person or couple enter the front door, I was absorbed in that warm recognition of faces once young, now mostly discernable by their eyes.

The attendees were all the movers and shakers of those high school days, because, after all, it is those who had near perfect high school experiences and who stay in their hometowns living lives of unadventurous continuity who organize and go to these things. And as sure as God made little green apples, there was not one person there I could say had been a friend of mine at Hadley. Certainly not Jim Carby, who died in a motorcycle accident or Dick Carby, now retired from the Virginia State Highway Department and a born-again Christian who wouldn’t go anyplace where alcohol was served. It disappointed me a bit, but I was still excited to see these changed, yet deeply familiar faces go by in the cottony world martinis create. It was also pleasant to discover that some of the most arrogant had warmed and improved with age. And hell, after all, I’d had a pretty exciting career by local standards, met all sorts of famous people and traveled the world more than I ever really wanted to. There were lots of reasons to feel confident and excited.

I wasn’t looking for Patti Hensley when she introduced herself to someone standing near me at the bar in the Fox that night. Despite what I might have expected, there was no embarrassing memory of that day on her front porch. Nor was there any of the normal writer’s interest to hear about what had become of her life. Because there she stood in a black designer cocktail dress, thin, almost deathly looking, with that purple lesion across her arm which spells AIDS. For once in my life as a writer I did not want to know the story. I still don’t.

Accompanying her was a large heavy well-groomed man with a silver mustache who was, as I gathered from their conversation, her husband, a retired airline pilot. Patti’s haggard glance caught me staring at her. But like most extremely attractive women, having had a lifetime of men staring, she took it to be the plain ogling of a fool, not recognizing me in the slightest. All I could think of was what good fortune forty unwanted pounds, thinning hair and an Italian suit can sometimes be.

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