WE DANCED TO RAY CHARLES: synopsis & prologue
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Moral choices are seldom as simple as the one faced by MARK CAHILL in the summer of 1968, but it was the dangerous simplicity of a razor’s edge. On one side were an exotic beauty, the chance for political office, and the approval of most people in his small southern hometown.
On the other side were his beliefs, self-respect, and life-long friends, one of whom he now loved but knew he could never have. Set against the backdrop of racial tension and social change, We Danced to Ray Charles is a story of love, hate, temptation and loss.
Mark’s problems begin at a spring keg party on the levee of the Mississippi River. That night he and AMY MARSHALL, his oldest friend, kiss. Mark falls in love, but is convinced Any didn’t since, “guys like me don’t stand a chance with girl’s like her.”
Then the petite, exotic, BEBE BOUDREAUX, makes a very pragmatic decision to move in on Mark. She’s rejected him for years because, “he’s just too damn nice,” but arranges to accidentally bump into him at a dance in Pinefield. By the time they leave, she’s agreed to what becomes the first in a series of ever more intimate dates.
While Mark is delighted and surprised by this turn of events, there’s more to his wanting her than just hormones. He’s always felt like a perennial runner-up. As he explains to a friend, dating Bebe is like winning a blue ribbon; it says he’s a winner. And he hopes being with Bebe will help him forget how he feels about the unattainable Amy.
What Mark won't admit to anyone is how dating Bebe also helps him deal with a long-standing self-loathing over his fear of DARRELL RAY SIMS, Bebe’s long time, back-street lover. While in junior high, Sims humiliated him during a football game. Since then, Mark has been afraid of Sims and ashamed of his fear. That Bebe would go out with Sims and a lot of other guys while rejecting him just re-enforced this feeling.
However, Bebe’s unexpected change of attitude forces Mark to face some serious complications. For one thing, she’s a racist. So are a lot of other people he knows. But he and his friends are not, and it’s getting harder for him to overlook her type of blatant racism. It’s even tougher to ignore her father, who has taken over the local Klan.
That’s a particularly awkward situation since one of Mark’s other close friends is WILLIE CARTER. His father is Pinefield’s leading black minister and head of the area’s civil rights movement.
Mark, Amy, and Willie were born a few weeks apart and grew up together. Along with laconic latecomer BOB HEMPHILL, who Bebe once publicly insulted, they are a close-knit group. Even for Mark, who can rationalize almost anything, balancing his values and old friendships with dating Bebe is a tricky act.
There are other complications. When Bebe begins dating Mark, Darrell Ray Sims, who has always felt a class-based contempt for the “candy-assed, city kid,” turns to Klan activities in an effort to impress her. Many of these acts relate to a “Peeping Tom” trial the Klan supported sheriff hopes will insure his re-election by embarrassing Willie’s family and impeding the voter’s registration drive.
But for Mark, the worst complication is the physical attraction he continues to feel for Amy, the homecoming queen and campus beauty who he’s sure can never be more than his friend. When he sees and feels her tall, slim, nude body the moonlit night they go skinny-dipping, it leaves him numb, speechless, and feeling hopeless.
Amy is facing her own complication. While unsure how she feels about her life-long best friend, she’s positive Bebe is evil and would be terrible for Mark. Amy wonders if she’s trying to break them up because she cares for Mark, hates Bebe, or is there more to her motives? But as she confides to her sister and cousin, it doesn’t matter how she feels about Mark. He’s so nuts about Bebe he didn’t even react to her body brushing against his the night they went skinny-dipping.
For Bebe, it’s a much less complicated situation. A Cajun, she’s a relative newcomer to the clannish town and wants Mark for financial security and social respectability. If hooking him antagonizes Amy, the long-time rival she despises, so much the better.
Another friend summed up the situation this way for Mark:
After knowing Amy all your life, you go and fall for her just when Bebe drops in on the act. You didn’t ask for advice, but in my opinion you should tell Bebe to hit the road and then take your best shot with Amy. But you won’t do that. You’re too hung up on Bebe and too afraid of losing Amy. Besides, we both know you’re a nice guy who was born to compromise.
The problem is you could end up losing ‘em both, plus a bunch of friends and, what the hell, toss in your self-respect just for good measure. So I feel sorry for you. No shit, I do. ‘Cause unless you change your ways, something tells me you’re in for a very interesting summer.
From the dark cab of his pick-up truck, Jack Boudreaux and his second-in-command, Delmar Bullock, watch with approval as the cars turn right onto a dead-end road with no lights and no name in a nowhere place called Sandtown.
On one side of the street, abandoned cars, a basketball goal with no net, and a weed-choked baseball field occupy an otherwise vacant lot.
A row of small frame houses, perched as if ready to flee at the slightest noise, face the lot. All are tidy but patched and weatherworn. Short fences outline bare-dirt front yards.
The quiet procession halts in front of the last house. No dogs bark as uniformed white men get out. One circles behind the dark house. The others set up around the front and sides.
A tall, nervous man wearing western boots and a cowboy hat steps up on the porch. After a last glance around, he hitches up his pants and pulls a pearl-handled, .44-caliber revolver from its hand-tooled holster. He yanks the screen door open and begins banging on the wooden, hollow-core front door. With his first blow, red lights start flashing on top of the cars.
“Open up! This is the Sheriff. Come on out, Amos. We know you’re in there.”
From inside comes the sound of frightened whispers and scurrying feet. The tall man hits the door even harder. The sound echoes in the damp night air. “This is Sheriff Tobias. Get on out here. We gotta talk.”
“I’m comin’. Jes let me get my pants on.” There are more loud whispers. Someone peers out from behind the curtains of a front window. Then the door opens a few inches and a middle-aged, black face with old, wary eyes looks out.
“What ya wanna talk about, Sheriff? I ain’t done nothin’.”
“Don’t give me that shit, boy. Get out here or I’m gonna bust in and drag you out.”
“You don’t hafta do that. My Momma’s in here. You already done scared her ‘bout half to death.” The door swings inward and a short, wiry man wearing khaki work pants and a white t-shirt steps out. ”What y’all doing here dis time of night, Sheriff?”
“Shut up, nigger!” The white man holsters his pistol, then reaches behind his lanky frame and produces a set of handcuffs. “You’re coming with me.”
The black man steps back. His face shows surprise and fear. “How come? I told you I ain’t done nothin’.”
“And I told you to shut up. Now turn around and put your hands behind your back. I’m taking you to Pinefield, to jail.”
After a momentary hesitation, the voice of white authority overwhelms any outrage or bewilderment. The man named Amos does as ordered and the cuffs snap into place.
The Sheriff spins him back around, steps away, pulls out his revolver and uses it to motion for another white man to join them. Then he glares at his prisoner. “You’re a goddamn pervert. You know that, boy? We got an eyewitness who saw you looking into the bathroom window of a white, widow-lady named Myrtis Oglesby. Amos Little, you’re under arrest as a Peeping Tom.”
“A what? Sheriff, I ain’t been looking into no white woman’s window.” The prisoner turns from the Sheriff to the deputy, as if searching for support. “Least of all no dried-up, crazy old white woman like Mrs. Myrtis.”
Bathed in the rhythmic, flashing glare of red lights, the sweeping motion of the Sheriff’s right hand resembles something from a flickering silent movie as his fist, and the revolver it holds, smash into the side of the prisoner’s head. A scream comes from inside the house. He staggers in a macabre, jake-leg dance of insensibility, then drops to his knees.
Sheriff Odell Tobias leans close and hisses. “Nigger, you’re talking about my wife’s aunt. Now it looks like we’re gonna have to add a charge of resisting arrest.”
Another deputy joins the first. They pull the prisoner to his feet, drag him off the porch, and shove him into the back of the lead car. There’s a ragged volley of closing doors.
With sirens on and lights still flashing, the three large cars with the words Kisatche Parish Sheriff’s Department and an angry, ornate star on each front door swing around and leave. As they drive past the pick-up truck, everyone but the prisoner waves at the two men sitting inside.
Thin red streaks emerge from the dark cab, arc through the still night and land with small bursts of glowing embers. Headlights come on and the truck moves down the now deserted street. It stops across from the last house, the one with the front door still open. Inside, a black widow-lady named Bernice Little is alone and crying for her son.
The men get out, lift an X-shaped object from the bed of the truck, and carry it into the vacant lot. A small flame soon spreads up from the base of a wooden cross. They wait to make sure the cross is burning properly. Once assured it’s another Klan job well done, they head back towards Pinefield, and home.