a memoir by William Locke Hauser
In 1943, when America was in the middle of World War II and I was eleven years old, my father had settled my mother and me in New Orleans while he deployed overseas. Our home was next to the old Garden District, on Joseph Street halfway between St. Charles Avenue and Freret Street, and on Freret there was a streetcar line going down to the French Quarter. At the Joseph Street stop was a drugstore where you could buy an ice cream cone—vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry—for a nickel. The store also sold comic books, of which I was an avid consumer, and one day I bought—if memory serves, for fifteen cents—and later discarded after reading, a copy of the very first issue of “Captain Marvel,” the one in which Billy Batson discovers the magical powers of Shazam! Who could have imagined then that those pages of colored paper, if kept and preserved between layers of cellophane, would today be worth a small fortune?
But to my story. It was Saturday and I’d been down in the Quarter, browsing through old print shops, where I liked to flip through racks of colorful depictions of military uniforms and famous battles and exotic native costumes and grisly barbaric tortures, imagining what my father must be witnessing in North Africa and Italy. After dismounting at Joseph, I stopped in the drugstore. “May I have a chocolate, please?” I asked the proprietor, a skinny, chin-whiskered old man with a little black cap somehow affixed to his bald head, who wore a long black coat with white tassels showing from underneath, even in hot weather. I’d heard folks in our neighborhood say that he was a Jew who had come to America after escaping from the Nazis in Germany, and some used the expression “dirty Jew,” complaining that it was the Jews in Europe who’d provoked the war that our soldiers were now across the ocean fighting. I would never have used that expression because my mother had said my father was over there on behalf of those Jews. I figured that they must be pretty fine people if my father was risking his life for their sakes.
“Are you a good boy?” the proprietor asked as he handed the cone across the counter.
“Yessir,” I said. “I try to be.”
“Keep on being a good boy,” he said. “The world needs good boys.”
As I walked out of the store, I suddenly felt a need to pee. I had only three blocks farther to go to my house, but I was afraid of having an accident before making it there. One time, I recalled with shame, a friend at school had said something so funny that I laughed so hard that snot came out of my nose, and I wet my pants. Only a little, but still . . .
There was a vacant lot in the next block, filled mostly with grass and knee-high weeds but with a big oleander bush next to the sidewalk. I went behind that bush to where I surely couldn’t be seen, because the houses in back and on either side of the lot had tall wooden fences, and there, while juggling the dripping ice cream cone with one hand, I used the other to unbutton my short pants and pull out my willy. Ah, blessed relief! But then, looking through the top branches of that oleander, I saw on the other side of the street a house, and on the upper story of that house a window, and in the window an old lady looking out. I knew her. She was Miss Venable—known as “crabby old Venable”—who taught in my school.
Had she seen me? I dropped the cone, hurriedly buttoned my pants, and strolled nonchalantly back onto the sidewalk. I was nervously whistling, if memory serves, a popular tune that went “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lambzy divey . . .” I walked fast and was home in five minutes, leaving the embarrassment behind.
My mother wasn’t there, being out on the coast as a volunteer watching for German submarines, and our housekeeper, whose name was Fleta Mae, fussed at me for being late. “I ain’t gonna fix you a good lunch if you gonna spoil your appetite with ice cream!” I feigned innocence, but she could see the evidence dribbled onto my shirt. The lunch was red beans and rice with bits of bacon chopped up in it, and it was so good that the memory lingers. Then I took a post-lunch nap, as I did every day at that age, including in my homeroom in school.
The next day, my mother being still involved with her coastal duty, Fleta Mae took me to her church, and I loved being oohed and ahhed over by the ladies with big hats. My mother told me afterward that I shouldn’t refer to them as “ladies,” because there was a distinction—she’d been raised as a Southerner and this was back in 1943, remember—between “white ladies” and “colored women.” She meant well, of course, but I didn’t agree and still don’t, but I refrained from saying so because it would embarrass her and make her cry. She cried easily at that time because she was worried about my father, who was just then stuck in someplace in Italy called Anzio, and the Germans were bombarding it with long-range guns and killing a lot of the American soldiers. I’m an old man now, and racial prejudice has lessened—or has it? Maybe it hasn’t because I still hear ugly-talk putting down “lazy blacks” and “dirty homos” and “terrorist hajjis” and “smartass liberals.”
And then it was Monday. My homeroom teacher was Mrs. Bastion, a tall, redhaired lady with a big hawkish nose. Some of the kids called her “Beaky Buzzard” after another popular comic-book character, but I never did, because my parents—and emphatically Fleta Mae—had told me to honor and respect teachers because they unselfishly helped make you a good person.
And now it was second period after lunch, the time Mrs. Bastion always set aside for “individual reading.” She had two shelves of books in a walk-in closet behind her desk, one shelf for 4th-graders like those in her homeroom, and a separate shelf of “advanced reading” for the 6th-graders to whom she taught English. You were allowed to walk into the closet one student at a time and choose a book, and then return to your desk—the usual kind with seat and writing surface connected together—and read silently. I was an avid reader, had been one, according to my mother, since I was three years old and pronounced the words on the cereal box while eating breakfast, and at four perused the headlines every evening in the Times-Picayune, and at five worked my way steadily through our twenty-volume set of The Book of Knowledge. So I found the 4th-grade selection boring. After all, who wants to read about “The Bobbsey Twins Go to the Seashore” when you could read “Tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table”?
But Mrs. Bastion held that “reading ahead is injurious to one’s progressive development,” so I had to resort to the subterfuge of taking a large-size/large-print Bobbsey Twins volume and concealing, say, a smaller Reptiles of the Southern Swamplands (illustrated, by a Georgia Tech Ph.D.) inside. That made for clumsy transport to my desk, but once I got there, I could prop up the barrier volume to hide the true object of my interest.
One day—this was about a week after I’d peed on the oleander—I got caught.
Mrs. Bastion made me stand in front of the class, while she explained—nicely, to give her credit—the logic of her rules. “If you don’t know the meaning of words, you won’t truly understand the story, and if you haven’t heard them used in an educated home or classroom, you might mispronounce them in your head and be stuck with mispronunciation for the rest of your life. Then people will think you uneducated and disrespect you, and you will not get ahead in the world.”
I had not yet read Jane Eyre, but when I later did in junior high, I empathized with the poor little heroine in her humiliation.
There was more humiliation to come. Miss Venable—the lady I had seen looking out of the window—was what they called a “master teacher” in the school, who not only instructed English composition to “advanced” pupils among the sixth-graders, but also visited other teachers’ classrooms to evaluate their performances for the principal, and then mentored those teachers’ improvement. And it happened that just as Mrs. Bastion was administering her constructive correction to me, Miss Venable entered from the hall.
It was a lovely fall day, with warm sunlight pouring through the classroom windows, but then clouds seemed to rush over and all the world went cold and dark.
“What have we here?” the older lady asked. “Who is this boy?”
Before Mrs. Bastion could respond, Miss Venable answered her own question. “As a matter of fact, I know this boy. He’s a dirty little boy who does dirty little things behind bushes. Behind one oleander bush in particular. Dirty little things! Dirty little boy!”
My humiliation deepened. I cringed, and my cringing made the other children laugh at me. I hated them, and I hated Mrs. Bastion, and I hated Miss Venable most of all. I wanted to sink into the floor, to die, to make them all regret their meanness. Then Mrs. Bastion said, “You may return to your seat, William. And you other children, stop this behavior!” She looked imploringly to Miss Venable, to which the older woman gave not a whit of notice.
“I’m leaving now, Mrs. Bastion,” she said, “and mind you, this will be noted in your performance report.” She slithered—like one of the reptiles I’d been reading about—from the room, and Mrs. Bastion crumpled into tears at her desk. I had heard that her husband was in the Pacific as a sergeant in the Army, that she was the sole support of a crippled sister, and that the school was to undergo “reorganization” between terms, and that some less-well-performing teachers might be “let go.” Where did they go? I wondered, and then what did they do?
I never found out, because my father came back from duty in Italy, and we moved from New Orleans to Washington, DC, where he taught for a few months in an Army school and then was assigned back overseas, this time to India, where he would spend the balance of the war.
Twenty years later, a friend to whom I’d told the anecdote sent me a news clipping from the Times-Picayune. Miss Ophelia Venable was retiring from the New Orleans school system and would be honored in a special ceremony—for the second time in her distinguished career—as “Teacher of the Year.” I had a business trip scheduled for just about then, from New York to Houston, and decided to make a stopover, where I envisioned joining in the booing and hissing at the mid-morning event. Even if others didn’t boo and hiss, I would, if only to myself. Illogical as it may sound, the resentment had lingered.
There were maybe a hundred people in the school auditorium when I arrived, and one of them—Mrs. Bastion, now grown stout and gray-haired—recognized me. “Aren’t you Billy . . .?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered. “How could you know it was me?”
“The child is the father of the man,” she said. “You still have the same serious expression. What have you done with yourself since then?”
“After college and ROTC, I served with the Army in Germany, and then I went to law school on the GI Bill, and now I’ve just graduated and joined a firm in New York,” I said, “and they’re sending me to tax-audit a yacht maintenance yard in Houston, and I decided to take a day of annual leave detouring by here.”
“Miss Venable will be so proud that you came to honor her.”
The ceremony was perfunctory, the honoree wizened and bent-over, her wispy white hair patchy on her balding scalp. She trembled as she rose to stand behind the podium, and her voice quavered. Holding the framed inscription in both hands, she waved it as if it were a fan, to cool herself in the under-airconditioned sticky heat. “I’m not retiring voluntarily,” she said at the conclusion of her remarks. “They’re making me because they say I’m too old.”
There was also a prize, a gift certificate for dinner at Commander’s Palace, along with two guests. When the crowd had dispersed from the auditorium, only Miss Venable, Mrs. Bastion, and I remained. “Marianne, you and this young man can be my luncheon guests!” Miss Venable exclaimed.
“Oh, you want to save that for evening,” Mrs. Bastion said. “That way, you’ll really get your money’s worth.”
“But”—the old lady’s lips quivered—“I don’t have anyone to take. My assisted-living attendant doesn’t speak English, and the driver who brought me here wouldn’t be comfortable in such a fancy place. No, it has to be the two of you. Besides,” she brightened, “you’re two of my favorite people from way back.”
We were given a table on the high deck, with a massive live-oak branch shielding us from the sun, and a cool breeze had blessedly arrived. The service was courtly, the waiter attentive, and the sommelier presented with a flourish a bottle of wine that he said was “perfect for all of your choices.” He tried to pour the sample in my glass, but quickly reacted when informed that the lady he referred to as “the beautiful comtesse” was the host. Miss Venable sipped, muttered “I really can’t taste much anymore,” but regained her poise and stated regally that “It seems to be an excellent vintage.” “Madame is very discriminating,” commented the sommelier, with the waiter nodding vigorously in agreement.
She ordered, if a fifty-years-later memory serves, broiled oysters and a salad of goat cheese and frissée, Mrs. Bastion, an entrecote with pommes frites, and I a thick and bloody-rare hamburger with chewy “half-done” deli pickles. The wine, a ’92 Kalksteiner Kabinett, was indeed perfect.
After we ate decorously, with only brief pauses for conversation so as not to let our food get cold, Mrs. Bastion ventured conversation. “Tell Miss Venable and me about yourself.”
“Oh, I have already,” I said modestly. “There’s little more to tell.”
“But Miss Venable—I can call you Ophelia now, may I not, Miss Venable, since you’ve retired?—Miss Venable hasn’t heard it.”
“Oh, do tell us,” the old lady said huskily. “You know I’ve always found young people to be an inspiration, haven’t you, dear Marianne?”
Mrs. Bastion, visibly flattered at the elder’s familiarity, nodded in agreement.
I repeated the bare facts, and then, emboldened, elected to confide. “I’m way in debt after law school, and I’m not really sure I want to be a lawyer or that I’m going to be very good at it, and at the rate, they’re paying me I’ll be an indentured servant for twenty years.”
“What do you want to be?” both ladies chorused.
“I want to be a writer. I had some interesting experiences, and I want to use those, the bitter as well as the sweet, and the people I meet and deal with and observe, as material for stories and maybe a novel or two. I want to become famous, and someday be invited to campuses as an author-in-residence, and stroll about the greensward to the worshipful admiration of young scholars.”
“Will you use these people?” Mrs. Bastion asked. “Will you take advantage of the secrets they might not want you to know, let along broadcast?” She looked over at Miss Venable for reinforcement, but that venerable lady was nodding sleepily in her chair.
“Oh, no ma’am, that would be unethical. I’ll just remember afterward some little snatch of conversation, some little quirk of behavior or reaction to an event, and transport it to another time or place or situation.”
Miss Venable awoke. “I agree with everything you’ve said, young man. People don’t have good manners anymore, and the world is going to Hades in a handbasket.”
“In a handbasket,” Mrs. Bastion concurred. “It was better in your time, wasn’t it . . . Ophelia . . . wasn’t it?”
“May I tell the two of you about the man who loved me?”
We nodded, and she went on. “He had been in France with General Pershing, and there he was gallantly wounded, in a way that makes a man not able properly to love a woman, and he wanted to marry me and we could adopt children, but my father refused to give his blessing, and my beautiful lover drowned himself in Lake Pontchartrain. The police said it was an accident, but I knew better, because who would take a rowboat out in the middle of a tropical storm without a cork vest?” She pulled a lace hankie embroidered with flowers from her purse and dabbed her rheumy eyes.
“He was wounded how?” Mrs. Bastion asked.
“Oh, I couldn’t say it. Or maybe I will. It was his thingy. You know. His thingy.” She blushed and there was dead silence for a moment until the waiter had returned and cleared our entrée dishes.
We finished our meal with the house’s signature tarte tatin and a pot of French Market coffee-and- chicory blend. I had two cups, which set my head to spinning because I’d forgotten how strong the Orleanians drink their brew.
After saying goodbye to Miss Venable—I hugged the old lady and almost forgot my past enmity as I felt her fragile bones through the black crepe material—Mrs. Bastion and I stood and waved as she rode away in her hired limo. And then it was time for me to say goodbye to my now-beloved English teacher.
“Have you progressed in your reading?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “of course.”
“I knew you would. And I can tell from your broad-ranging conversation that you read a daily newspaper and weekly magazines. Do you know what I learned from Time just this past week?”
“No, ma’am, but I’m absolutely sure you’re about to tell me,” I said impishly.
“Now don’t make fun of a teacher. Back when I myself was in school with the nuns, you could get paddled for that.”
“Yes’m,” I answered.
“Well, anyway, there’s a section called “Tips for Parents,” and this week was a list of warnings about poisons. Did you know that the sap of the Christmas poinsettia is so bitter that it can give you blisters?”
“That’s good advice.”
“And there’s one even worse. If a child chews on a stalk of oleander, the bitterness can pucker his lips so badly that he can’t speak for days."
“Why would a kid ever want to do that?”
“One never knows what children may do. But if you should ever want to tell stories about Miss Venable and me, you’ll want to be kind or you’ll be left with a taste of bitterness in your mouth.”
After military and business careers, William Locke Hauser is engaged in a ‘third career’ of writing fiction. Prior to “Oleander,” thirty-seven other stories have been published in literary journals, most recent;y in ROSEBUD (“The Carny,” Summer 2018) and GARGOYLE (“My Bench,” forthcoming in 2020). He and his wife live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a summer home in Reston, Virginia. They have two married sons.