The Missouri Review 27.2 (2004) 11-26
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It was an unseasonably chilly day in late September, 1959, when Joe Bill Kendall waved to his parents from the aft deck of the French-flagged freighter Marion Lykes. They'd left Tyler at 3:00 A.M. to get him to the boat on time and to save the expense of a New Orleans hotel room, and now his parents looked, to Joe Bill, small and tired and, his mother especially, slightly worn, the way she kept waving, wiping her face, waving and wiping her face. Although he had not slept the night before, Joe Bill felt no fatigue at all, just the same excited strum in the gut he'd had for several weeks.
After a few minutes of waving, watching his parents grow tinier and tinier—although the ship had not yet moved—he blew one last kiss good-bye and turned, took his luggage cart by the handle and began to make his way toward the passengers' deck. He passed some of the deck hands tying down loads and marking the inventory, and understood every word. He passed a pair of officers discussing their plans in Le Havre and picked up most of that as well.
Joe Bill thought he'd learn so much more if he didn't let on that he spoke French. Plus it would just be fun; it would make him feel like a spy on a secret mission, not just a college kid going for a few months of study abroad on the cheap. At the exact right moment, he planned to spring it on some unsuspecting officer or deck hand, respond to some slight about Americans or some clever quip or worldly statement. They'd look at him, stunned, amazed, with a whole new respect. The man, they would think, is more than he appears.
Joe Bill's cabinmate was already in the room when he arrived, lugging his cart behind him through the narrow hallways of the passenger deck. Joe Bill was a little disappointed; he'd hoped to be the first.
"I'm Lee," the other man said. "I don't mind the top bunk." They shook hands and Lee looked off to the side of Joe Bill, behind his back and to the left.
He was a slight young man a few years older than Joe Bill, dark brown hair and a knobby chin, small, dark eyes beneath dark, large brows.
"So what brings you aboard the Marion Lykes?" Joe Bill asked as Lee untied the gray denim duffel that was apparently his only piece of luggage. He took out three dark pairs of slacks, four or five white button-down shirts, a handful of underwear and undershirts, some [End Page 11] socks. The drawer was only half full when Lee was done with the clothes. He threw the duffel, still containing some weight, onto his upper bunk.
"I'm going to college," Lee said, kneeling back down beside the drawer.
"Me too," Joe Bill said. "You going in France?"
"No," Lee said, not looking up at Joe Bill, still fiddling with the clothes in the drawer, lining them up straight and pressing them out flat. "Sweden."
"Sweden," Joe Bill said. "How about that? Cold up there." Lee appeared to have only the coat he still had on, a green military field jacket. "And dark six months of the year."
"Oh," Joe Bill said. "So you haven't decided?"
"What about you?" Lee said, looking directly at Joe Bill for the first time, then quickly looking back into his drawer. He set each ball of socks next to the other in a tight, lumpy row.
"I'm going to study at the Institute in Tours."
"How old are you?" Lee asked, setting his eyes on Joe Bill again.
"I'm eighteen," Joe Bill said. This always made him nervous. He was old for his age, or acted older, and when people found out how old he really was, they did one of two things. They either dismissed...