Friendship – Book One
(Completed at 98,170 words)
by Tom DeLoughry – tdeloughry@BeingYourBest.org – 716-909-9612
© 2019 by Tom DeLoughry – All rights reserved.
This book is dedicated to my wife, Kathy, who taught me more about love than any book or preacher.
by Tom DeLoughry – tdeloughry@BeingYourBest.org – 716-909-9612
© 2020 by Tom DeLoughry – All rights reserved.
My hip hurt and my heart ached as I closed my guitar case, taking care to avoid the microphone and speaker wires that snaked through the grass around my feet.
We were gathering our things from backstage at the edge of a meadow just before it sloped down to the Niagara River. The afternoon sun had pierced the clouds, spotlighting a blaze of early autumn over on the Canadian shore.
“Susan,” Alice said, as she placed her guitar on the table, “could you write something about my grandma? Like how you met, and the music you played?”
I didn’t know what to say. Alice was still flushed from the applause we had just received. At twenty-seven, she looked just like her grandmother, Donna, did on the day we met.
It was 1968 on Spring Break in the Bahamas. Donna had been sitting in the back of a dusty jeep on Bay Street waiting for a tour to begin, her blond ponytail bouncing as she laughed with the guides. I was running from the worst mistake of my life, hoping my sunglasses would hide my tears. …Could I tell Alice about that?
This afternoon’s concert had been billed as “The 15th Commemoration of the 9/11 Attacks.” That was when Donna disappeared. The day fear became an epidemic.
Every autumn since the Eighties, the Lodge, an eclectic spiritual community of peace activists and recovering hippies, had sponsored an outdoor concert on the Niagara River. Donna, Ed, Paul and me – known collectively as Friendship – had headlined more than a dozen of them.
In the old days, after all the equipment was packed in our vans, we’d take a couple of boats across the Niagara up to the Black Creek Tavern and enjoy some Canadian beer on their patio. We’d laugh about our mistakes, like me playing ‘air guitar’ when I forgot the chords. But with four vocals, three guitars and a bass to distract them, we knew the audience almost never noticed. After another round or two, we’d take a slow cruise back to our vans, drifting with the ducks, savoring the sunset and each other.
If we did that today, we would be stopped, and our boats might be confiscated for crossing the border without permission.
A low drone in the distance had grown into the intrusive growl of twin outboard motors, powering the white and green U.S. Border Patrol boat heading upriver from Niagara Falls to Buffalo. It turned slightly, heading towards a raft of about a hundred canvasbacks ducks and scaups drifting slowly toward the Falls, five miles downstream. They were the first contingent of over a hundred thousand birds that wintered here each year, drawn by the current that kept the river from freezing.
The boat sped towards them, forcing them to flap furiously and take off. Swarming awkwardly towards the clouds that hung over the border, they looked ugly, like the flying monkeys that served the Wicked Witch in Oz.
“Please, Susan,” Alice said as she slid our song list under the strings of her guitar. “I adored grandma but was only twelve when she vanished. I know the other clergy expelled her from her ministry the day before September 11th, but never understood why. What happened?”
A few minutes ago, when we were onstage, Alice had lifted her chin and smiled at me as she held a high note, just like Donna always did. Her brown eyes sparkled under her blond bangs, her joy contagious. For a moment, I was a young woman again, sharing a microphone with my best friend, my guitar pulsing in time with hers, singing with all my heart to awaken more love in the world… and my life.
‘But now, staring at the river, I couldn’t speak. The music had ripped the scab off my grief and opened the scars of my guilt. I shook my head no.
“Are you sure?” she asked, smiling. “Even if you only sent me part of your story, I would really treasure it. I wish I could stay longer so we could talk, but Hillary’s campaign has asked our agency to produce two more videos for the battleground states. I’m the director on one of them, so I have to get back to New York.”
I hesitated. How could anyone shrink thirty-three years of hope and heartbreak into a few pages? …But maybe if I started with our last conversation? Or what we found at the museum?
“My mother said you found a lot of Grandma’s journals when you were cleaning out her apartment. I know you were best friends, but maybe some of them could help you remember what grandma was thinking?” Alice’s eyes twinkled with hope as she tilted her head and lifted her eyebrows, waiting for my answer.
I remembered Donna giving me that look when she was nudging me to be a little braver than I really am.
So I’m going to try…
FOR ALICE: MAY YOU CREATE A BETTER WORLD THAN WE DID
Your grandmother appeared in my life hours before Martin Luther King was murdered. She disappeared when the Twin Towers were destroyed, the day after she was expelled from her ministry. She wanted a life of love, but hate marked the beginning and end of our friendship.
Years later we found her plea for forgiveness fused to molten metal in a display case at the September 11th Memorial Museum.
But can I ever forgive myself?
I wish we had warned the officials about Malik’s hateful letters from al-Qaeda …or that we really understood what the Bahamian woman meant when she said:
‘Religion is a dangerous medicine. Too little can harm. Too much can kill.’
But I never imagined that religion would kill Donna’s career because she decided to follow the Golden Rule instead of church rules.
Or that the name of God would be on the lips of the fanatics who flew the planes on September 11th, 2001.
My kitchen was a mess, the drop cloths tripping me as I rushed to answer the phone.
It was Donna, sobbing. “Susan, they convicted me.”
“Oh, Donna, I’m so sorry,” I said, a twist of rage and misery growing in my chest.
“It’s over. No church will hire me now. I’m finished as a minister. Finished.”
I slumped down on a chair, clutching the phone to my ear. “You were so brave, so good. How could they?” We cried, harmonizing our pain, me in my kitchen and my best friend in her apartment three hundred miles away.
“I should have been there to support you,” I said, looking at the half-painted green wall. I put my brush down on the edge of the can. “I’m so sorry.”
Her sobs slowed to sniffles.
“The way I see it,” I said, “you’re only guilty of following the Golden Rule instead of church rules. I’m proud of you.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, just above a whisper.
“Is there any hope?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t be thinking about hope if you were in my shoes today,” she replied with a bitter laugh.
“Oh, Donna, I can’t imagine how awful that must have been… I really can’t,” I said, “But I think your courage has been so widely publicized, they’ll vote to change the rules next year.”
“My courage or my stupidity?” she said. “Look at the lives I’ve ruined. The people I loved the most! And so much hate mail… I stopped reading it.”
She paused. “No more fighting. I’m done.”
The storm had surfaced last April. Her good intentions drowned by months of a sex scandal splashed across the evening news and the Internet. Doubt had worn her down.
Malik’s letters, promoting bin Laden’s version of Islam, were bombshells that had torn a family apart. And what if Malik really was back in the United States, hunting Donna to avenge his family’s honor?
“Who wouldn’t be exhausted by what you’re going through? Can you come to Buffalo and stay with us for a while? A few days, a few months, whatever you need to recover and decide what’s next.”
“Thank you, I was hoping you’d offer. I checked Amtrak, and I can get the 7:46 train out of Yonkers in the morning and get to Buffalo by three.”
The next morning, as I watched the horror of the Twin Towers tumbling on television, I was sure Donna was safe, traveling away from New York, up the Hudson, halfway to Albany. She had no reason to be in Manhattan, thirty miles south of where her fellow ministers had voted to defrock her. But she never got off the train when it pulled into the Buffalo station at 3:01 PM.
Donna, a 55-year-old ex-minister, had vanished.
The September 11th Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center opened twelve years after that horrible day. But I didn’t work up the courage to visit until Friendship, our folk music group, was asked to do a reunion concert to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the terror attack. Ed, Paul and I would be singing with Donna’s granddaughter, Alice.
My hand was slippery with sweat on the museum’s handrail as Ed and I stepped onto the escalator, sliding down beside two girders, battered remnants of the Twin Towers. I leaned on my cane, steadying myself against the movement and the memories as we sank through the Manhattan bedrock to the Memorial Museum, seven stories below where the Towers once soared.
The second escalator descended to the vast cavern of Memorial Hall. A quote from Virgil: No day shall erase you from the memory of time, blazed from an enormous wall with a thousand different shades of blue, recalling the beautiful sky that hung over that awful day.
“No day shall ever erase you,” I murmured as we sank lower.
“How could we ever forget her?” Ed said. He towered over me, still lean and handsome despite wrinkles under a messy shock of silver hair. “Even now I ache… but I still wonder if it was suicide,” rehashing the hole in our hearts for the thousandth time.
I’d have slapped him if I hadn’t heard it so many times before.
“I mean, Susan,” Ed continued, “think about how she loved being a minister.” His brow wrinkled. “How awful to have that ripped away. Plus, there was all the media coverage, the friends who turned on her. If it were me, I’d have at least thought about jumping off a bridge.”
Ed’s strong point was honesty. I’d always wished it was sensitivity. If Donna had killed herself, wasn’t it my fault for not being there?
The guilt started to drain me, but I forced myself to choose something else. “How about when we’re done,” I suggested, “we go someplace nice for lunch and make a toast to all the good times we had?”
Ed smiled. “Then we were four young folk singers who wanted to change the world. Now we’re just two old fogies, and the world ignores us.”
“Pardon me?” I said, “I’m certainly not ready to be ignored, and I know you’re not either. Unless you’ve decided to cancel the publication of your book next month.”
“Well, even if it doesn’t sell, writing is a cheap hobby that keeps me out of trouble,” he smiled.
“I don’t know, Ed. What about the chapter where you question our priorities by saying terrorism has caused nearly 4000 American deaths over the past 12 years, compared to 33,000 deaths from opioid addiction just last year. Don’t you think that’s going to get you into trouble?”
“I think all of us are already in trouble because people make decisions based on our fears rather than the facts,” Ed said quoting from his preface, “and our national policies place profits over people.”
He took my elbow to steady me as the escalator reached the bottom. A jolt shot down my leg as I stepped off, but my physical therapist says I’m doing well for a sixty-nine-year-old lady with a recent hip replacement.
For the next twenty minutes we barely spoke as we relived the nightmare, the twisted steel, the videos and the crushed fire truck, a relic of the 343 firefighters who died.
“And, here, ladies and gentlemen, is what has come to be called the ‘9/11 Bible,” the tour guide said. “It was found fused to a steel girder when the rubble of the Twin Towers was being removed.
“What is most remarkable,” he continued, “is that a page from the New Testament is clearly legible. You can see Jesus’ words printed in red: ‘…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek.’ …His message of forgiveness.”
As soon as I saw it, I knew. The bubble of grief started in my stomach, grew in my chest and exploded behind my eyes with tears.
“It’s Donna’s,” I sobbed, barely above a whisper.
Ed faced me, his eyes widening as he touched my shoulder. “What?” he asked.
My chin trembled. I grabbed his arm to steady myself as another bubble of pain rose and burst. “It’s Donna’s.” I pointed. “It’s her Bible!”
Ed turned to the display. “Oh, my God,” he murmured. “Is it possible?” His chest heaved, and his eyes glistened.
I looked at the charred margins of the book and the message embedded in the molten metal. “Ed, do you remember? We gave her a New Testament with Christ’s words written in red on the day she was ordained. And ‘turn the other cheek’ was one of her favorite sayings.”
“God knows, that there were always plenty of people for her to forgive,” he said, frowning.
My stomach curdled. But forgive the terrorists who willfully crashed their planes, shouting God’s name as they killed almost three thousand people?
‘Turn the other cheek.’ Is this what Donna was reading as she died? Her message to us? God’s message? Or was the survival of those words just some sort of cosmic coincidence?
Malik had been bragging about bin Laden’s plans in his letters ever since he joined Osama in the Sudan. Had he lured Donna there for vengeance, to witness al-Qaeda’s success as they ‘cut off the head of the snake?’
Forgive and forget? Never. Never forget!
Ed put his arm around me as we both stared at it.
“It looks like the one she read,“ Ed said. He bent to get a closer look.
“Yes,” I said, dizzy with nausea as I remembered. “We gave her just the New Testament so it wouldn’t be bulky.”
His nose was inches from the glass case as he stared at it. “And we ordered a custom purse with a little compartment so she could take it everywhere. But, Susan, there must be tens of thousands of this exact same Bible. What are the odds that this one is hers?” He paused, straightening up. “And how did it get here?”
In my heart, I knew it was hers.
But why would she go to the World Trade Center? I thought she was on her way to Buffalo to see me.
I thought she was safe.
“Don’t worry, Susan, it’s perfectly safe!” Anne yelled to be heard over the steel drums and the noise from the bar we had just left. “We just say ‘no thanks’ to any car with two or more guys.”
Her blond hair flowed around her face as she half twirled to embrace the street party. “We’re in Nassau, girl. Time to let loose and live!”
The souvenir shops had been shuttered for hours, but the action on the sidewalks had been growing since dark.
“No, Anne,” I insisted, “It’s too dangerous to hitchhike.” ‘No’ was never easy for me to say but being with Anne was giving me plenty of practice.
Two celebrations were merging in the streets and in the bars. Hordes of college kids on spring break mingled with the local Negroes, many who were leaving a political rally near the Straw Market. The locals greeted each other with shouts of “Hey, man, PLP all the way!” their slogan for the success of the Progressive Liberal Party in next week’s election.
“There are dozens of lonely guys who would love to give us a ride,” Anne said. “If either of us is uncomfortable with whoever stops, we won’t get into the car. OK?”
“Or, if you want to walk” she offered, “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.”
I sighed. “OK. Let’s stick together.”
Anne tucked her tee shirt tighter into her pants, emphasizing a chest that was already hard to ignore. Then she stepped into traffic and stuck out her thumb
You’re such a show-off!” I said, loosening my ponytail. I knew that my green eyes were more striking when my dark hair framed my face and curled over my breasts. When we were out drinking with our housemates, I usually attracted the most guys, but Anne was the girl who took one home.
Anne was the last person I would have chosen as my roommate on spring break. But one by one, each of our housemates had backed out of the trip I organized, leaving just the two of us. Lately, it seemed they all did things without inviting me.
At least David was loyal. But after two years with the same boyfriend I was getting tired of the same old routine, even if he was a quarterback on the University of Buffalo’s football team.
So, I had planned this as a girls-only last blast before we graduated. A lot of seniors I knew were getting engaged. Did I really want to settle down with Dave? I needed to feel free before I could decide.
The bars were so jammed that the dancing had spilled onto the street. Swarms of college kids laughed as they stumbled over cobblestones, their happiness fueled by freedom, beer and the bottles of the local rum they carried in brown paper bags.
The second bar had a grove of coconut trees behind it. The trunks were wrapped with little lights that went up into branches, casting a soft glow under the palms on the tables and chairs below. The local band was doing a decent cover of the Beach Boys Good Vibrations, a perfect song for a pretty setting. But the flutter in my stomach wouldn’t go away.
We each ordered a Pina Colada at the tiki bar next to a small clearing choked with dancers.
“Anne, do you think I’m overdressed?” I shouted over the music, looking down at my sleeveless blue silk blouse and my linen shorts. Most of the girls, including Anne, were dressed in sloppy t-shirts and cut-off jeans.
“Your majesty,” she said with a huge grin, “I always think you’ve overdressed. But the tramps of the world have lower standards than campus royalty.”
The girls at our house were always teasing me about being elected Homecoming Queen.
“Oh, Anne, you’re certainly not a tramp,” I said, although she was.
“Are you sure?” She raised her eyebrows and then her glass in a toast. “Party on, your highness.” Then, she turned to dance alone into the middle of the crowd, grinning at everyone and waving her drink in time with the music.
I swiveled on the barstool, turning my back to the dancers, my mind wandering back to when I was first stung by that word.
“Susan, you’re acting like a tramp!” It was my father’s voice from years ago, turning a horrible night into something worse. “You’re only 16, and this is the second time you’ve gotten home after one in the morning. You know you’re supposed to be home by midnight. What will the neighbors think? What have you been doing all this time?”
What I’d been doing was fighting off Richie Evans in the back seat of his father’s car. I loved him, and not just because he was a basketball star and the senior class president who chose me, a sophomore. I loved him because he always sweet and kind to me.
We’d been going steady for almost two months and had been necking a couple of times at College Point after the movies. My big mistake was going into the back seat with him.
Before when I said “no,” he always listened, but this time he wouldn’t. I started to panic and tried to push him away when he started to pull at my panties. “Stop, please stop!”
“I love you, Susan,” he said nuzzling my neck and hurting my breasts as I squirmed under him. For weeks, I’d imagined making love with him on our wedding night, but not like this. Not like this!
“No, Richie, no!” I struggled to get him off me, but he was too heavy, too strong.
There was a stab of pain between my legs as he entered. It got worse as he moved inside me, but ten seconds later he pushed really hard and stopped with a satisfied groan.
I held him, crying against his chest. “I love you, Richie,” I said, “I love you.” But he just laid there, quiet. His fingers moved slowly through my hair.
Finally, he looked at me and kissed me, his lips brushing my wet cheeks. “You are so beautiful.”
His thing was still inside me. Did he still love me? Had he ever? I couldn’t wait for him to get off me, take me home and leave me alone. I cried harder.
I quietly opened the front door, as Richie sped away. My parents were standing there, waiting to call me names.
“Nobody is going to respect you if you keep acting like a tramp,” my father said, pulling the belt on his blue bathrobe over his big belly, pacing back and forth across the living room.
“Your father is right, dear,” my mother said, as I sat looking at the living room rug. “You don’t want to do anything to ruin your reputation.”
Was my skirt stained? My father was angry, and she was on his side. I was sore and messy from the worst experience of my life, but I couldn’t tell her about it. She didn’t want to know.
Before this, my father and I used to watch ‘our’ show, Bonanza, every Sunday night. The TV room was in the basement of our little cape cod, out in the middle of nowhere. There was one brown plaid couch and two cheap easy chairs, just enough for a salesman, his wife and their only child. Our first color television stood on a metal stand in the corner. I always made popcorn or some other snack before the show. My mother usually stayed upstairs, busy.
The stories about the fights and feuds of a handsome older man and his three grown sons in Colorado during the 1800’s didn’t appeal much to me unless it was an episode where Little Joe had a girlfriend. But I loved sharing the couch with my father, snuggling, my head on his shoulder.
When I started to grow breasts, my father started to grow away, sitting in one of the easy chairs instead of cuddling on the couch. But after that night he called me a tramp, he stopped coming downstairs. I watched Bonanza alone for a couple of weeks, then stayed in my room on Sunday nights. I heard my parents fighting more often, and sometimes it was about me.
So, I built a wall that was just big enough to protect me, but not so tall that they couldn’t see how perfect I was becoming. My room and my outfits looked like pictures from magazines. I smiled and agreed with them until it was almost a habit, or until the mean in me came bursting out.
I was sixteen, and my mother and I were planning my birthday celebration. I came down from my bedroom to show her pictures of a party table from my Seventeen magazine. Mom was talking to a friend on the phone, “Well, in one more year she’ll be going away to college. To tell you the truth, she’s such a handful, neither Joe or I can wait.”
I slept there for another year, but that was when I began living alone.
Actually, when Anne and the girls tease me about being the ‘homecoming queen,’ they’re playing to my strength because being elected was the single greatest accomplishment of my life. It’s my favorite memory to soothe me when I’m stressed. And it proved my parents were wrong.
Being chosen isn’t just about looks. It’s about being both a brain and a beauty. I had to fill out a four-page application form, like applying to college all over again. Plus…
“Hi, would you like to dance?” someone shouted in my left ear, interrupting my memories.
I flinched, turned on the barstool, and saw a tall, dark-haired guy standing close, smiling at me.
“Dance?” I yelled back, “Do you like this song?” buying time while I scanned the crowd for Anne.
“One of my favorites.”
“Me, too, but honestly, my feet hurt. I like how these sandals look,” I said, sticking out my feet to show him, “but now they’re giving me blisters.”
“They’re very nice.” He moved closer so he could talk in my ear without shouting. If it weren’t for his crooked nose, he would have been very handsome. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“No, thanks. I just started this one, but we can talk. I’m waiting for my girlfriend to exhaust herself on the dance floor. Where do you go to school?”
“I go to Ohio State. I’m a phys ed major on a baseball scholarship…” And then he started a monologue: How he was recruited, his batting average, why playing shortstop is better than playing second base and way too much more.
Did he think I was interviewing him for an athletic award instead of a date? We wouldn’t be flying home for three more days, and I didn’t want to spend every waking moment with Anne. I’d be happy to find a guy to go to the beach with.
Why is it that most guys think that the conversation should be about them and whatever stupid sport they play? At least Dave listens, although his attention sometimes wanders, and he doesn’t ask good follow-up questions when I’m explaining something.
I let Mr. Baseball buy me another Pina Colada, figuring I had earned it. Finally, I saw Anne dancing in my direction, now with a reddish colored drink in her hand.
“I’m ready to go, are you?” I asked her.
“Sure,” she said, as I waved goodbye to Mr. Sports Talker.
We exited onto Bay Street which was still buzzing. “How about if we walk back towards our hotel,” I suggested, “and stop at the first place where we don’t have to yell to be heard?”
“Okay,” she said.
As we were crossing one of the bigger streets, I saw a man on the corner passing out flyers. He was old, maybe in his forties, but very fit with ruddy skin and a great head of sandy hair.
I took a flyer to be polite, glancing at the big bold letters that said: “FREE: See the Real Bahamas.” But the graphic at the bottom of the page caught my eye, and I stopped to examine it under the next streetlight.
The drawing featured a clenched fist, like the black power symbol that made me a little nervous at some of the anti-war demonstrations. But this fist was inside the well-known symbol for Venus or the feminine: a round circle with a cross dangling below it. The fist was drawn so that its wrist and the forearm became the upright part of the cross.
I was offended and, then, intrigued.
I walked back to the corner where he stood under a streetlight and asked, “So, what are the real Bahamas?”
The warmth in his eyes matched his smile as he turned towards me.
“The real Bahamas are the 97 percent of the Islands that the tourists never see. The real people and the real culture. I’m John Bennet, a missionary who helps native Bahamians find a better life.” He extended a warm and calloused hand. “And you are?”
“I’m Susan,” I said as we shook hands “I’m on Spring Break here for another couple of days.”
“My wife and I are offering a free tour tomorrow to anyone who is interested,” John said. “We can pick you up at noon, show you our mission school, see a couple of the sights, and get you back to your hotel by sunset. Interested?”
Anne was about thirty feet down the block in front of an establishment where students were clustered on the sidewalk. She waved for me to join her, then pointed at the doorway of what apparently would be our next stop. I smiled and raised my hand to signal “just one minute” before I turned back to the missionary.
“Well, I’m studying to be a teacher, “I responded, “so it would be interesting to see a Bahamian school. But this graphic on your flyer,” I said, pointing to the bottom. “Isn’t it a little, um, outrageous?”
I was amazed to hear myself being so rude. How strong were those Pina Coladas?
“Perhaps outrageous times call for outrageous measures,” he responded with a slow grin, “but my wife can explain it better than I. She’s our illustrator, and she’d be interested in your perspective.”
“Well, thank you,” I said, folding the flyer and putting it in my pocket as I started to walk away. “I’ll check with my girlfriend and let you know.”
Now, after an hour of watching Anne dance with an assortment of guys in the Conch Café, we were standing out in the street, Anne with her thumb out, smiling at each pair of headlights that approached us.
“I can’t wait to get back to the hotel,” I said standing next to her. “My feet hurt, but maybe we should find a taxi instead of hitchhiking?”
She ignored me. On the sidewalk, one boy vomited at the base of a palm tree while his friends jeered. The tree and about half the storefronts in town were plastered with political posters proclaiming “PLP All the Way!”
“I still don’t get why everyone is so excited about an election,” Anne said, glancing at a nearby PLP poster. “I mean, isn’t this a British colony and the Queen is in charge?”
Politics wasn’t Anne’s thing. She was a sociology major who was writing her senior thesis on “Gossip as a Form of Truth-Telling within Groups.”
“Well, the Queen is really a figurehead,” I replied. “One of the tour guides told me that, although the Bahamas is only 10% white, next week’s election is the first time that the Negro candidates in the Progressive Liberal Party may win a majority in both the Bahamian House and Senate. So maybe it feels to them like Emancipation Day is coming.”
A small white car pulled over. As Anne bent to look inside, a melodic baritone asked, “What is your destination, miss?”
“The Ocean View Hotel,” Anne said, turning to me with a big smile
“It is on my way home. I would be most happy to drop you off,” said the deep voice, resonating with a lyrical West Indies accent.
Anne crawled into the rear seat, and I squeezed in after her. I noted an appealing smell of jasmine and musk, tinged with a sweet hint of whiskey.