The following chapter, “La Robe Jaune” (The Yellow Dress) appears in the book Ten Was The Deal by John P Faris Jr.
La Robe Jaune
(The Yellow Dress)
It was late October, and we were in the middle of an Indian summer. Already there had been some cool weather accompanied by several heavy frosts. We had enjoyed almost a week of warm, but crisp, clear days with bright fall colors. There had also been no rain.
Rabon Creek, perhaps our most favorite duck hunting water, was down. The sandbars, now exposed, were covered with freshly fallen pin oak acorns. It was a splendid Saturday!
Sammy, my fifteen-year-old hunting partner, and I had talked his granddad into dropping us off above the Sandpit so we could duck hunt the Coon Den stretch of Rabon Creek.
Almost every stretch of river we hunted had been given a name long ago. The Coon Den section was midway up Rabon Creek. At the end of the old logging road that lead to this part of the little river was a hollow red oak about as big around as a fifty-five-gallon barrel. Thirty feet up the tree trunk, a missing limb had left a sizeable hole. Many a late evening while one of us quietly leaned up against that old tree and waited on the ducks to float or fly close by, a resident momma coon would lead her late-spring babies out of that hole. If you remained perfectly still, they would pass only a couple of feet away on their nightly trek to the creek side to search for supper.
By the time the truck turned onto the Cold Point Road, Sammy and I had decided that this afternoon it was my turn to be let out first. A half-mile further up Rabon Creek, Sammy would get out and then work his way downriver to the Coon Den where I waited. We would then hunt together toward the Sandpit until Sammy’s granddad picked us up right after dark fell.
We always stayed to dusk on our afternoon hunting trips so we could see how many ducks passed the Sandpit going to roost. All the mallards and black ducks roosted on Greenwood Lake and those that flew up Rabon Creek to feed had to pass over the Sandpit near dark to get to the big lake. Before hunting this creek, or any other for that matter, we wanted to know how many ducks were using that stretch of water. We could determine the number by counting the ducks that flew down at dark the previous night. As long as the acorns remained plentiful, the ducks would return to where they left.
When we stopped on the dirt road at the head of the Coon Den turnoff, I slid out of the faded, dark green 1950 Chevrolet pickup. I took my 12-gauge Browning out of its gun case. As the truck pulled off, I loaded four No. 6 high brass Blue Peter’s into the magazine, dropped one more into the barrel, and quietly closed the receiver.
I started down the old logging road. It had been cut in thirty years ago when the original pines had been harvested. The winding dirt road was now once again flanked by nice saw timber, so it was shady and carpeted with long, fresh pine needles.
My quarter-mile walk was so eerily quiet I could not even hear my own footsteps on the soft carpet of pine straw.
Rounding one of the many curves, I was surprised when I came upon a car parked in the middle of the narrow road. It was a late model, sporty, red job with a decal of the letters CHS on the rear window. CHS stood for Clinton High School, our archrival in every respect. The automobile was faintly familiar. It was parked right between two large pines which flanked the road. The road was completely blocked by the car.
It was unusual to see any kind of vehicle on this road. It was strange to see an automobile and not a pickup truck, and it was stranger still that it was obstructing the road.
It was an unwritten rule in the country woods. Do not block a road, no matter how infrequently it is used. During my teenage years, the woods belonged to everyone. Seldom did you see a No Hunting or No Trespassing sign posted. No one with any sense would block a road leading to the river.
I eased past the car, casually glancing through the rolled-up windows, and saw that it was empty. As I passed, I lightly touched the bright red hood. It was slightly warm. The car had not been there for more than an hour, if that.
As I continued walking toward the river, I tried to remember where I had seen that car before. I was wondering why it was in such a strange spot. Anyone familiar with the road would know that there was a large, wide clearing not far down, the remnants of the old logging deck. There was no need to stop in the middle of the narrow dirt road.
Sammy’s granddaddy called this logging deck a diddling place. There were always empty beer bottles. There were old tissues, and a few other items we did not ask about, lying around. Sammy and I knew better than to question his granddad what he meant by diddling. We were confident that it had to do with things teenage boys were not supposed to be thinking, but had nonetheless constantly on their minds. In the late 1950s the moral atmosphere in a small southern town was completely different than it is today. I suspect that as much went on in our community as any other place, but in that era many topics were never openly discussed.
As I walked a hundred yards or so further and entered the logging deck clearing, I was even more surprised to see a second car, one I knew well. The older, blue Plymouth sedan belonged to Miss Reshell, my eleventh-grade French teacher.
Decades later when the newer cars were smaller with rounded smooth curves, I worked with a man who still drove an old 1977 Lincoln Mark IV. It was wide and long, and all the young guys at work got to calling that car the Intergalactic Cruiser. Whenever I heard that name it made me remember Miss Reshell’s big blue Plymouth. I could not imagine what Miss Reshell’s car was doing at the Coon Den on a Saturday afternoon.
Miss Reshell had moved to our small town two years earlier to take a teaching job at Laurens High School. She lived on Academy Street with an old maid aunt. Miss Reshell was, by at least thirty years, the youngest teacher at our high school. She had gone to college in New Orleans and then lived in France for a while before moving to our town. If the truth be known, she was probably not more than a few years older than I was.
Miss Reshell was very attractive. She had slightly curly dark hair, bright brown eyes, and a figure that every girl at my school would have killed for. If she happened to smile at you, it totally made your day.
Every boy in the school had a crush on her. I suspected the majority held her image tightly in their minds as they drifted off to sleep most nights. I was not immune to her spell. Her first-year French class was very popular among the boys, including myself. I liked her class a lot. That is to say, I liked Miss Reshell a lot, but I did not understand more than a few words of French, which she spoke fluently. I was no better at reading it. Nearing the end of the first six-week period, I had a D average in her class. It was going to be a miracle if I passed her course. Unless I spent a lot more time on French and my grades got a lot better quickly, I would fail.
Inexplicably to me, my mom thought my performance in school was somehow linked to the amount of time I was allowed to roam the woods. The troubling possibility of losing my after-school freedom momentarily clouded an otherwise perfect day as I slipped alongside the driver’s side of the Plymouth.
I was now only a step away from the driver’s window which was rolled up. Movement in the car caught my eye. This car was not empty. As I took the next step, I saw Miss Reshell raise her back. It was bare! Her head was tilted up slightly as if she was looking at the sky. I was so close I could see small drops of perspiration beaded along her spine. In the harsh, late afternoon sunlight, her damp skin glistened. Her dark hair, where it touched her back, was curling into tight little ringlets. She did not have a stitch of clothes on. Her yellow dress, one she often wore to school, had been tossed on the dashboard. The guy she was sitting astride had only a pair of white socks on. His hands clutched her hips. His eyes were tightly closed.
My eyes, however, were not closed. I thought they were going to bulge out from their sockets.
As Miss Reshell arched her body and leaned back even further, instinctively I stepped away from the car. In doing so, the stock of my gun lightly bumped the driver’s door. In the surreal silence of the moment, that little tap on the door could not have sounded any louder or caused a more violent reaction if it had been a stick of dynamite exploding.
As I gaped at the scene taking place in the front seat of the car, Miss Reshell’s head jerked around. For one split second her eyes locked onto mine. She pushed herself off and the man fell into the floor of the car, legs up in the air, head under the glove box. His white socks had one red and one blue band around their tops. In one continuous motion, Miss Reshell threw her yellow dress over her head, spun around, slid under the steering wheel, and hit the starter and gas. The engine roared to life.
There they were, Miss Reshell with both hands gripping the steering wheel, buck naked, her dress completely covering her head. The man was scrambling to see what was going on and trying to get up off of the floor. He was cussing up a blue streak. As a young connoisseur of locker room profanity, I was quite impressed.
The motor was now racing. Miss Reshell threw the heavy Plymouth into reverse. The rear tires spun wildly, throwing pine needles and black dirt everywhere as the car tried to gain traction.
I could not move, not a muscle would work. My eyes would not blink, and my breathing seemed to have stopped altogether.
The car shot backward. She turned too far right to make the entrance to the logging road. Instead the car hit a big old-growth sweet gum tree hard, knocking out the left-hand taillight and badly denting the left-hand, rear-quarter panel. Colorful fall leaves and sweet gum balls filled the sky like confetti, showering down on me and the car.
Then the car shot forward. Turning hard right, it centered on a big loblolly pine. Chunks of bark flew everywhere as the front bumper caved in. Pinecones joined the shower of sweet gum balls. Miss Reshell was shifting gears, wrestling the steering wheel, and trying to keep the dress over her head, all at the same time. The car was now somewhat loosely wedged between the sweet gum and pine. The engine got more gas and raced even faster as it shot into reverse again. The sweet gum got a second solid lick. The man, who had made it onto the seat by this time, was thrown back into the floor. Chrome strips fell off the trunk. A hubcap bounced through the trees and out of sight down the hill toward the river.
Again the car shot forward, and I had to jump out of the way, seeking safety behind a big hickory. Bam! The pine got smashed again. Now in reverse once more, the car managed somehow to cross the clearing and onto the road leading out of the logging deck. As the car raced in reverse down the winding road, the yellow dress still covered the driver’s head. I knew what was coming, and it didn’t take a split second.
There was a resounding crash as that heavy Plymouth plowed into the sports car which was blocking the road to protect their rendezvous. Glass shattered and metal crumpled. I heard doors opening, voices shouting, more cussing, doors slamming, a second motor roaring.
Moments later as the sound of flying gravel faded up Cold Point Road, I stood peering out from behind the hickory tree and remembered to breathe. I could only imagine two completely naked people riding down Cold Point Road trying to decide where and when they were going to stop and put on their clothes. Didn’t seem likely they would wait until they pulled into their own driveways.
I was trembling and still looking up the logging road as if the Plymouth might return when I heard two quick gunshots from upriver.
Sammy was into ducks.
Now my mind was racing. What was I supposed to do or say or not say? I waited thirty seconds and shot twice into the air. Grabbing up the empty hulls, I ran as fast as I could in Sammy’s direction toward the Coon Den.
Just as I got to the big dead Coon Den tree that overlooked the river, I could see Sammy easing along the bank and around the last curve from upriver. I could barely make out the two greenhead mallards in his left hand. I was trying to control my breathing and think fast.
As Sammy approached he asked, “How many’d you get?”
“None,” I said.
“None? Them ducks must’ve passed not twenty yards out by the time they got here. I was just a short distance upriver when I jumped them. How many did you see?” he asked.
“Three,” I guessed.
“Gosh, two must have swung over the hill. Seven got up. I killed two, figured all five would have passed right by you.”
“Three did, but I must have been behind them. Never cut a feather,” I faked the most disappointment I could muster.
“Well, don’t take it so hard,” said Sammy. “It’ll be okay. Maybe we’ll see another group on down. The river’s full of acorns, and I’ll bet we’ll come up on some more.”
I put two more shells in my gun, and we turned to go. I let Sammy take the lead. Two curves downriver, we slipped up on another small group of summer ducks. Sammy let me cut out and go around. He was trying to push them by me. I suppose he felt sorry for me, since he already had killed two. After giving me thirty minutes to make my way around the ducks, they flushed. I shot two drakes and let the hen go. Both colorful drakes conveniently drifted into a brush pile on our side of the big creek.
The sky was getting dark when we reached the Sandpit. Two days after full, a large, pale, gibbous moon was working its way up through the afterglow of the autumn day. The creek bottom had turned misty purple. We waited and listened. You could hear the whistle from the wings of the low-flying ducks before you could see them. The highflyers gabbed about where to spend the night. The tan tummies of the males shown in the reflective sunlight from over the horizon.
We counted 146 ducks going to big water. We knew from this that there was some good hunting further up Rabon Creek from the area we had just covered. It would take some footwork to find them.
We continued to walk quietly in the coarse sand of the Sandpit the short distance to the road where Sammy’s granddad was waiting. We drove a short while after we turned off Cold Point Road onto the paved road leading to home.
Sammy’s granddaddy broke the silence by asking, “Did y’all hear that awful crashing noise not too long after I put you out?”
My heart began to beat hard and fast. I was sure the two people I was wedged between on the narrow seat could hear it thumping. Sammy said, “I sure did. It sounded like it was downriver from me some. I never heard anything like it before. I couldn’t tell what it was. At first I thought it was a wreck, but it just kept on crashing and crashing.”
Sammy’s granddad said, “Where I was waiting down at McPhearson’s Bridge, I could hear it good. Johnny, what do you think it was?”
“I didn’t hear anything!” I quickly lied.
I hadn’t yet decided if I should or could say anything about what I had witnessed to anyone, even Sammy.
Sammy said, “I don’t see how you could help but have heard it. It sounded like it was not too far above the Coon Den. It sounded like a demolition derby with cars gettin’ all smashed up.”
“You probably heard Mr. Ott feeding his cows just across the river. You know how noisy he always is with that tractor at feeding time. I don’t think I heard anything but him,” I lamely offered.
“What I heard wasn’t nobody feeding cows,” Sammy said. “It was an awful racket.”
My fervent prayer was answered as Sammy abruptly changed the subject saying “Granddad, we saw thirteen groups of big ducks go down, 146 in all, mostly mallards, but a few blacks.”
“You boys’ll need to go higher up next time. Those ducks may be going as far as Mr. Whitaker’s bottoms,” his granddad said.
All the way home I was really fretting. I felt somehow I had done something really terrible. I instinctively knew what I had witnessed in that car, but I had never expected I would ever see anything like it. I didn’t know what to do, say, or how to act. I certainly couldn’t tell my parents.
My worrying continued unabated all through Sunday. In big church that morning I was really singing that part in our Baptist hymn book about “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
The panic really kicked into gear Monday morning as third-period French class approached. I felt light-headed and my stomach churned. I thought of going straight to the principal’s office and telling him I was sick.
I asked Jill, a good friend of mine, after first period, “How was French?”
She said, “Fine.”
I asked if she had a substitute for Miss Reshell’s class.
Jill said, “No.” She looked at me kind of funny, and said that Miss Reshell was there.
Going down the hall at the end of second period I passed Jim, one of my lunchroom buddies, who had French the period right before me.
Still hoping for a miracle, I asked, “Is Miss Reshell here today?”
“Yep, she’s here alright. Looking good as ever, too,” as he gave me a little wink.
I thought, If you only knew!
I stopped at my locker, the water fountain, and the boys’ restroom. I lingered at the urinal, trying to decide whether to play the “I’m really sick” line. Finally I decided to bite the bullet and go on to class. I was running late. I prayed the class would have already started, and I could slip in and quietly take my seat without anyone noticing.
The late bell rang, and as luck would have it, Miss Reshell rounded the corner. We reached the door at the same instant.
A little out of breath, she hesitated a moment and said, “Good morning, Johnny,” and went in.
“Morning, Miss Reshell” I said softly to her back as I followed her in the door. I could not keep my mind from seeing in vivid detail her damp, bare body. I could feel my face flush. My head began to throb. I buried my face in my book the whole fifty minutes. When I took a peek, Miss Reshell seemed even more nervous than I felt. She did not glance my way or even call on anyone in my row. Deliverance came as the bell rang for lunch.
In the cafeteria, Sammy and I sat with Dave, Jim, and Larry, all big jocks on the football team.
Dave, with a mouth full of mashed potatoes, asked, “Did you see Miss Reshell’s car this morning? Must have had one bad wreck. The front and back of her car are tore up bad.”
Jim chimed in, “That Plymouth of hers is messed up for sure. Lights out, rear smashed in, hubcap missing. They talk about us teenagers being bad drivers.”
I was staring a hole in my pale green, plastic, partitioned plate and said nothing. I made up my mind right then I was never going to tell a soul, not even Sammy. Not ever.
As the week wore on, each day in French class got a little easier. Miss Reshell seemed not quite so nervous. She put her car in Sherers Body Shop to be fixed.
In third period she never looked my way during class, and no one within three seats of me ever got called on. Friday’s weekly French test seemed particularly hard to me, but of course I had given up all hope of passing French now. I was sure it would be hopeless.
On the following Monday, Miss Reshell’s repaired car was in its usual parking place. She came into class wearing her yellow dress.
The yellow dress!
I almost passed out. I started hyperventilating. Visions of Miss Reshell without anything on, not just in my imagination, but for real, continually invaded my mind like an endless film loop being played over and over and over. I was sure everyone else in class could read my mind. God was going to strike me stone, graveyard dead right there on the spot.
The class began as usual. Miss Reshell handed out the test papers from the previous Friday. She said she was very disappointed in the scores and that we all needed to study harder. She called out the names of each person, as was the custom. One by one the students walked to the front and got their test paper. You could tell how each person had done as they returned to their seats. The look on their face told the story.
I knew my score was going to be low when Jackie Thompson made a face as she got her paper. Jackie was the smartest person at Laurens High. She always made good grades. Not surprisingly, my name was called last. As I walked to the front I glued my eyes on the floor. Miss Reshell had moved to the rear of her big oak desk, and I had to pass her desk to get to where she stood. As I reached for my paper and started to take it, it fell from her hand. We both stooped to pick it up at the same instant. For just a moment we were hidden from the class. Miss Reshell picked up the paper first. As I tried to take it, she held it a fraction of a second causing me to look into her eyes.
She lifted her finger to her lips, silently motioning “Shhhhh.”
With the faintest of smiles, she released the test paper and I returned to my seat holding the first A+ I had ever gotten in French!
The pact with the devil was sealed. There was now a conspiracy of silence.
I kept everything to myself, and the A+s on my French tests continued. Mom and Dad were quite impressed with my next report card, particularly with my improvement in French.
The next time that Sammy and I hunted the Coon Den it was early December. The temperature hovered at thirty-four degrees with low-hanging clouds and a stiff northerly breeze. Sammy said it was my turn to go upriver and his turn to go to the tree, but I said no. I said I needed to redeem myself from my last Coon Den trip. He laughed and gave in.
On my way to the Den this time there were no cars. I picked up the broken pieces of light lenses, chrome strips, and even located the hubcap. I found a big stump hole. I put the evidence in there and covered it all with a foot of pine straw.
A fifteen-minute wait after I reached the big, old Coon Den tree, I heard Sammy shoot. Within seconds four acorn-filled mallards flew down river. As they climbed for altitude and passed by me at eye level I got my first triple of the season. When Sammy got to the Coon Den tree, I was wading on tiptoes back across Rabon Creek. My third duck, an old gray hen, had fallen across the creek. I had to wade the cold, fast water to retrieve her.
As I scrabbled up the slick bank, naked from the waist down, Sammy smiled, “Water cold?”
It was a tired joke, but I gave the stock answer to the stock question, “Cold as a witch’s titty.”
“Thank goodness the river’s down,” I said. “When it gets to you-know-where, it takes me a while to get over it.”
I glanced up at Sammy and smiled a little. Sammy knowingly agreed “Boy, you can say that again!”
We both chuckled. I dried off with my jockey underwear and put on my pants. I shoved my wet underwear in my hunting jacket along with the ducks. I pulled on my hunting pants and very carefully pulled up the brass zipper. Zipping up without any underwear on was a delicate operation. You only forget once.
Sammy had two nice mallards in his hand and as he watched me lace up my boots, I bragged a little on my triple.
“Your shooting’s improving almost as much as your French scores, old buddy,” Sammy teased. “You must be burning the midnight oil on that French” he said.
My unearned grades, along with Mom and Dad’s praise, actually inspired me to study more. As I worked harder, everything began to make sense, and I started to really like French. The more I liked it, the more I studied.
“I’m kinda getting the hang of it,” I said to Sammy. “I like it a lot better and it’s coming a lot easier for me.”
“I can’t wait til next year to take Miss Reshell’s class. That lady sure is easy on the eyes,” Sammy said.
As usual we hunted on down to the Sandpit where we met Sammy’s granddad.
Duck hunting season closed on New Year’s. The days grew colder, and studying came up against less competition. I began really earning the As and A+s in French. I determined to make it my best subject for the rest of the year.
For some unknown reason, the powers that be in our high school decided in late spring of 1961 to award letters, not just for sports, but also for outstanding performance in academics. On Awards Day near the last day of school, I found myself standing on the stage in our auditorium with some of the really bright students in my grade.
I heard the principal announce “Carolyn Cliatt – English.” Applause.
“Gene Ott – math.” More applause.
“Johnny Faris – French.”
Just as the others had done, I crossed the stage to the principal. He handed me a crisp certificate and bright gold block letter L.
I had lettered in French!
As I moved toward the end of the stage, I cut my eyes to the front row which was the faculty section, and there was Miss Reshell. I think she was proud that I had earned my letter and greatly relieved that I had kept her secret. She gave me a big smile, which totally made my day!
In late May, I was double-dating at the Laurens drive-in movie. I saw the red sports car with the letters CHS on the rear window, again. It, too, had been fixed. As casually as I could, I asked my date if she recognized the red car, parked one row in front of us. She looked over her shoulder and said it belonged to a senior on the football team in Clinton. She added that he had been going steady with one of our cheerleaders for well over a year.
Steady, right! I thought.
I never got a look at anyone in the red sports car that night of the movie. Its windows were so steamed up it looked like a cold morning fog had settled in the front seat. But I would have bet a Coca-Cola no one in that car was wearing la robe jaune.