• Richard Murff

The Niceties Must Be Observed

Dim notes on "Southern Sin"

The author, seen here after unrelated shenanigans

My freshman year in college, I was standing in the front hall of the sorority house in Tuscaloosa waiting for my Game Day date. I’d liked her fine on Tuesday, but over the week, decidedly less so. It wasn’t her fault, but I was about to make a serious breach of manners – which if Moses had been wandering around south of the Mason/Dixon rather than Egypt, that would have been the first “Thou shall not.” Or at least the third.

It isn’t that sin in the South is more insidious than anywhere else in the world. It’s the way we are always trying to bury it in manners, which really is the only thing to do with it. Public confession is unseemly, and public humiliation in the stocks is just unneighborly. The real problem with our technique is that this makes “good” sin tickle even worse than it already does. Like laughing in church. This can be problematic.

What was going through my head in the front hall of the Kappa house that very hot Game Day morning, was that Phi Gam pledges were expressly forbidden from breaking a date once made (bad manners, again). In general, I agree with the ruling. Yet by applying a dose of little boy logic I had a legitimate excuse for my infraction. Everyone else was doing it.

The problem had unfolded thusly: We’d had a swap with these fine gals on a Tuesday, rather than the normal Thursday. On this unstrategic night, I had been paired with the young lady in question – a pledge herself. How she at Alabama I’ll never know. She was from Chicago.

In those days, a date for “the Game” didn’t mean just the event in the stadium; it meant a date for a party Friday night, the game, and then another party Saturday night. A weekend ordeal that, if things got really sinful, extended to a late lunch on Sunday. Which if you think about it is quite a commitment to wring out of a pair of booze-addled undergrads who barely know each other. Who asks a girl out on Tuesday? As it was, my head was temporarily wounded by cupid’s rotten shot. I think it was a shot of bourbon. I asked the poor girl out and she – also lacking critical thinking skills – said yes.

By Wednesday afternoon it became obvious that it was going to be one of those games where most of my class just didn’t get dates. The guys who had girlfriends got off the hook because the girlfriends were a) playing the long game so they let the fella off said hook, and b) I can’t imagine that anyone really likes sitting in a packed concrete bowl in the 90 degree heat in stockings, high heels and a cocktail dress. The girlfriends just went in a mass of fairer humanity that was, for once, dressed like a sane person would under the circumstances. Which left myself and a pledge brother we’ll call Pony saddled with dates. So I had to avoid Pony all week because I was not getting stuck on a double date and having him ditch us for the stag party that had spontaneously formed midweek. At least that was my plan.

While I wasn’t convinced that the move I was contemplating was sinful per say, it was certainly in bad taste. Old school, carved-in-stone, biblical sins are generally black and white. Getting caught skinny-dipping, for instance, is undeniable. When buried under a big enough pile of manners, however, sin always has an escape hatch: It’s not what you’ve done, it’s how it was done. Bourbon for breakfast indicates a drinking problem; a bloody mary is just being sociable. Which makes things a lot less straightforward, especially after a few bloody marys.

What all this meant to me was that I could get out of my date, I just had to reckon how. It also meant that I needed to avoid the date-saddled Pony like the plague because he – not the deep thinker I was – doubtlessly assumed he was stuck, and you know how misery loves company.

Friday arrived and the young lady and I had a nice time at the band party. We got to know each other. They eat something called curds up in the North. I was listening closely because it’s good manners and because I was trying to find something with which I could manufacture “an incident.” Not anything we’d call a fight, just an irreconcilable awkwardness that might lead her to call the weekend off. Alas, there was nothing offensive, or even remarkable, about the girl. It seemed her opinion of me existed in the same uneventful twilight.

Game Day, however, posed a problem. Fraternity parties are free flowing mobs while stadiums require standing next to each other for hours on end. Compounding the problem was that these were the days when the University of Alabama played a few games every year at Legion Field in Birmingham, about an hour away. So we were facing a bus ride and another few hours of trying togetherness. Sure, there was a football game to distract from the fact that we had nothing to say to each other, but this girl was not from the SEC and I had a sneaking suspicion that she didn’t really follow football. And that really was a sin.

So there I stood in the front hall of the sorority house, seriously contemplating Operation: BAD FORM, when she appeared amid the excited bustle of the day. She was pretty, but look in her eyes told me that in my dashing figure – in an abused grey suit and repp tie - she beheld something… tolerable. She smiled and said, “How are you feeling?”

Inspiration hit like a snort of affordable whiskey. “Well, I’m a bit hung over actually.” Said I. We stepped out into the bright hot sun and she winced. I set my plan in motion. I reckoned, in current traffic, I had about seven minutes to describe a semi-imaginary hangover in such nauseating detail that by the time we reached the buses she’d be suffering from a psychosomatic one of such ferocity that she’d beg off to go lay down.

The only flaw in the plan was that the girl was, pardon the expression, a Yankee. Southern belles know, and ruthlessly employ, modern versions of “the vapors” all the time. Perfect for avoiding in-laws and what not. In these modern days, it goes under a variety of names, but it’s still affective because no man ever really wants to know the details of mysterious female ailments. Those Northern girls, I’d heard, played hurt and didn’t get the vapors. In short, this chick needed to think she was dying.

I started with a lively description of a hangover that focused on the pain just behind and above the eyes – radiating downward. Like an atomic cloud, this distracting ocular bloom supported the throbbing in my cranium – persistent, but not yet violent. By the time we got to the car, where I deliberately didn’t turn on the air, I started to describe the thin sheen of spent nicotine and sweat rising through my pores and spreading like the nauseating emollient across the skin.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw her rub her nose take quick sniff of her finger. The hook was set – she was feeling the nicotine sweats. “Does this car have air conditioning?” She asked politely, and sounded like a Northerner when she did. No Southern girl will ask if you have air conditioning. She’ll just command you – sweetly, but in no uncertain terms – to turn the damn thing on. The belle might go out with a fella without a car, but she won’t be seen with a local fella who isn’t smart enough to get air conditioning.

“Broken.” I explained. For all I knew it was true, I didn’t have a car. I proceeded downward to the stomach, in particular, that sensation of having motor oil slosh around in your empty gut that will not mix well with a simple glass of water. We crossed University Avenue and were snaking through a labyrinth of parking lots to the dirt lot behind the fraternity house. I had gone as far as I could go because, well, I wasn’t going into the bowels. Not in mixed company. That’s just rude.

When I parked the car, she looked pretty green. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Well, I was this morning. But this just hit me.” Said she, “It’s so warm, we need to get outside and cool off.” Which is another thing that can’t be said in a Southern accent.

Still roasting in the car, I opined that the stadium wasn’t going to cool her off much. Then compassionately offered, “Listen, if you aren’t feeling well…” No, I wouldn’t be offended. Perish the thought, darlin’! Of course we were still on for tonight!”

Then she said it. The words I’d so longed to hear. “Do you mind?”

“Of course not!” I drove her back to the house looking disappointed, but trying not to look too disappointed.

As I type these words, it occurs that the entire episode was less than gracious.

I was feeling pleased with myself, but my date-saddled pledge brother was less so. “Where’s your date!” he fairly screamed at me when I stepped on the bus.

“Gone back to lay down.” I said, “Wasn’t feeling very well. Not sure what it was.” The vagueness was for the benefit of his date – an admirable thing who showed the good sense not to go out with me. She was now only attached girl on the bus on a bus full of willfully unattached boys. What’s more, it made me seem the sympathetic victim of the ole “vapors” ploy. I looked hangdog. So did my pledge brother, but for an entirely different reason.

I can’t even remember what game it was, although I know we won. I had a great time. Eventually we exiled our otherwise congenial Coach Bill Curry for his crimes, but I didn’t have to wait that long. Sometimes, the wages of sin are like a cosmic ATM machine, spitting wrath and penance at the touch of a button.

Waiting for me after the game was a young lady who had just learned to associate toxic nausea sweats with my presence. The really sad part wasn’t that I’d done it to myself, but that it had only taken seven minutes to inextricably link the two. You’d have to be Don Juan to get over a Pavlovian karma like that. At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m no Don Juan.

I picked her up for dinner and tried to act concerned and speak softly. The problem was that after a Tide victory is not the time to deliver a subtle performance. It’s possible that I played my part a bit large. I’ve since learned that bringing the hammer of wrath down at dinner is a tactic the female of the species uses without regard to regional differences. I didn’t know O’Charley’s even served lobster.