Her father called her Prudence but friends knew her as Pru. She was the daughter of a Pentecostal Baptist minister and was know for the very conservative clothing she wore in school. But looks are deceiving and Pru was not to be judged by her cover nor by her “official” behavior. I had a few classes with Pru and I must confess, she seldom looked my way. Tall, thin, with high cheekbones that gave her face a definite heart shape, and a mane of black hair held back with a broad white ribbon, that is the image she portrayed. Most of us would guess she was meant to be a minister’s wife by age twenty one. the man would be of her father’s choosing, of course. The Reverend Mr Black was well deserving of his name, for the man was tall and wiry with the same full head of black hair and very piercing gray eyes. I never saw him in any suit but black, as if life was a continuous funeral. Pru had her mother’s eyes, a kind of light blue like the early morning sky, still pale and just waking up. Mrs Black, I never knew her given name as Pru always called her Momma and her father always referred to her as Mother, was of middling height and a little more full in both body and face yet she had not succumb to that middle age expanse of skin and weight most mothers of teenage girls acquire as their submission to retirement from child rearing.
Fate, or chance, depending on whether one is religious, took part in my affairs during my senior year. Pru was failing geometry and she needed a math class for graduation. I was a wiz at it and was not adverse to being her tutor. So the math teacher introduced us and made out a schedule for our tutor sessions in the last hour of classes for the day. You might remember, the one devoted to clubs or study hall. It took me a couple of weeks but I helped her understand not only geometry but how to learn it, how to think through the problems. Now at first Pru was quiet and reserved, but I, being as I like to think, a natural clown, had caused her to let down some of those defenses and she became quite charming in manner. She too, had a sense of outrageous humor that had been suppressed by her father’s religious view of the world. I can still remember to this day the grin on her face as she cracked her first pun, oh what a shameful expression. Oh, there was no thought of romance, not that I wasn’t willing, but because she never regarded me as anything other than a casual friend.
I was invited one night, a Tuesday because that was the one night that Pru’s father wasn’t at the church with some committee or bible study group or other such work. The Rev Black wanted to meet the boy who had guided his daughter through the educational sea to safe harbor, as he put it. I did not make a good impression, to say the least. Oh, I looked clean cut, my parents wouldn’t let me do the long hair (at least I didn’t have to get those horrid crew cuts), and my dress was not the most preppy by any means. No, there were three things that happened that night. First, I knew little about the bible. My parents were Methodists and the new Methodist church didn’t go in for bible study as a rule. Rev Black saw that as a sin against god and told me as much. The second event is that I cracked a few jokes and Rev Black though such levity was frivolous to good living and belief in god. And the third event was that Pru forgot herself and actually made a pun, most unintentional, but its presence did not please her father. After diner there was the formal dismissal of thank you for your help and nice to meet you, but no please come and see us again sometime. I got the hint, not that I am all that socially adept.
The next time I saw Pru, it was Friday. Her mother had called the school to report, not excuse, mind you, that Prudence was ill and would return that Friday. All that Friday she avoided my glances and didn’t wish to acknowledge my presence, I was a stranger. So when study hall came I cornered her in the hall just outside the door. “Pru, what’s wrong? Did I do something wrong, something to hurt you?” “No, nothing. You did nothing.” And then Pru turned and went to her assigned seat. She kept up the pretence for two weeks and then finally came to me during the lunch period. “Let’s go outside an talk for a few minutes.” Pru led the way and I followed meekly, I mean she seemed so serious. We sat on one of the bleacher seats and she began by putting her finger to her lips when I attempted to speak. “You’ve opened up a world to me, not a very big world, but big enough to make me think. My father was furious with my behavior that night at dinner. It was the first time we ever had humor in the house. By the way, He thinks you are possessed by the devil.” I laughed at that thought. I am not very religious and was in my own rebellion against the religious authority my parents sometimes tried to exercise on me. Pru continues in that quiet voice of hers: “Father spent a lot of time trying to exercise that “devil inspired” humor from me and it took two days. I eventually had to go along with him and go through all the confessing and acts of atonement and believing and, well, it was a “Come to Jesus” moment. Not that I have changed or accepted what he wills for me.” I was kind of stunned that a father would do that. I mean I knew some girls whose fathers were strict and some whose fathers really didn’t give a shit. Bu I never knew one who would stoop to that depth of dominance. I mean, from early childhood on I had been beaten by my father a few times and really didn’t like being around him. But to me her house was like a prison.
We sat and talked about other things for a few minutes and then she stood up. “Mike, maybe we can talk a little over the next few months until graduation. I’d like that.” “Pru, just tell me where and when, I’ll be there.” I felt a slight bond between us. I found out later that children who are beaten by either the hand or the brow seem to be attracted to others of similar circumstance. Others may not understand but I always though of it as our own red badge of courage. The next few months until summer arrived and signaled the end of innocent childhood Pru and I did talk a dozen times or so. Mostly for the reassurance, I think, but also for some new perspectives on the world. That fall I left for college, a small liberal arts school that my parents could afford and that would accept my poor grades. I occasionally wrote to Pru by way of a mutual friend or she would never have received my letters. Back then, legal age was twenty one and colleges exercised parental control over the undergrads. Most underage drinking went on in the fraternities and I was never considered for membership. I had to sneak my beer and alcohol by other means and make sure it was kept well hidden in my dorm room. We had our monthly inspections for clean bodies and clean minds. Even Playboy was forbidden lest we forget the reason for marriage and especially sex under the sanctity of holy wedlock.
By my third year my mutual friend began to report those chances in Pru that were causing concern not only in her family but in my friends minds. Not soon into my first year of college pru had found the taste of cheap wine intoxicating. And that taste kept growing as long as she was kept in her prison. By the middle of the third year her father had arranged her marriage to a young minister a year out of seminary. There was to be a June wedding. I use the past tense because there would be no wedding, not then and not to him. Pru was becoming an alcoholic and in that May had run away with a man who drank heavily as well. They eloped and spent half a dozen unhappy years together. Maybe it was the need to take that bad tasting medicine for a long time that made the difference. I caught up with her ten year later. she was sober, clean as AA says. Pru worked in a Goodwill store in the very town I had settled seven years before. My first job and I was still single, still living a bachelor’s life. The booze has changed her, given her added age to her face. But her thinness persisted, still very trim in her late thirties. Pru’s voice had gained a little of the gravel that sometimes afflicts alcoholics, but her eyes were clear and for the first time I saw them dance. She was another woman, no longer the old Pru I knew. I took her out to dinner and we sat and talked for a few hours. She was now full of laughter with that sense of irony that only strong conflict can bring out. “I never knew what life could be, never knew there was anything more to life that total devotion to some god.” “Did you lose your faith” I enquired? “No, I gained it back, I took it back from my father. It now belongs to me.” I saw a bit of defiance in her eyes and that telltale firmness in her chin. “How are your parents?” “I don’t know. We’ve never spoken and I’ve never been back. I am dead to my father and that’s enough for me.” “Do you have a love interest these days?” “There is one man, a good man, a kind man. We see each other and talk over lunch. Sometimes we go to the movies. I think he want’s to ask me but he’s not sure yet. We both need time. You know, love take time and I can wait.” “Sounds like sweet blindness.” Pru just laughed at the reference.