Edward O. Wilson, renowned father of sociobiology, has published his first novel, Anthill. Steve already reviewed it at length; I want to initiate a discussion about how, given the chance, Wilson applies his knowledge of Darwinism to recounting the courtship between the protagonist’s parents in 1976:
The FloraBama Restaurant was a famous establishment located on the coast precisely at the line between Florida and Alabama. Out back lay a sugar-white beach and shallow turquoise water that stretched unbroken from Perdido Bay on the east all the way west to Fort Morgan at the entrance to Mobile Bay. It was already famous in the 1970s as a center of Redneck Chic, where families could eat piled-up shrimp off paper plates, and men could drink American beer directly from longneck bottles. Young lawyers and stockbrokers squeezed in at the bar among truck drivers and oystermen – among real people, in other words, the ones who actually produce and fix things for a living.
On a Saturday afternoon Marcia came to the FloraBama with a group of other Spring Hill College coeds. One of the real people present when Marcia arrived was Ainesley Code of West Pirate Beach, Alabama, a graduate of Fairhope Senior High School and an expert automobile mechanic and part-time persimmon and strawberry picker. He was seated at a table next to the bar with four of his friends, sipping beer and rating young women as they came through the entrance. They were assigning scores from zero to ten for overall attractiveness, and planned to confer a crudely made imitation gold medal to the first one given a unanimous vote of ten. After an hour and a half without a winner, the impatient judges were arguing over whether the requisite scores should be lowered to nine.
When Marcia walked in, Ainesley was startled, then riveted by the look of her. First was her petite size, matching his own. She was even smaller than Ainesley. This was an increasing rarity in the well-fed South. Most young women were his size or bigger, and they had big feet. Marcia’s were much smaller. Her clothing size, he was to learn later was petite small. Then, in the two-second survey hard-wired in males, he saw in sequence: nice shape, lovely face, well-groomed hair, neat clothes, graceful walk. Summary: a really great-looking young woman. Moreover, she was talking with animation, flashing an orthodontically corrected perfect smile.
“Do you see that, the one on the left?” he said to his scruffy companions. “Check it out. A perfect ten, you gotta vote ten. This one I’m gonna personally meet.”
With that, he stood up and walked across the floor to the girls, wh were settling at their table. Ignoring the others, straightening his shoulders, he looked into Marcia’s eyes and assumed the winsome grin he had practiced so often in front of a mirror.
“Excuse me, miss. My name’s Ainesley Cody and I live close to here and I come in a lot and I’ve just got to say, and the other fellows over there agree with me, that you are the prettiest girl that ever walked into this place. You are just terrific!”
Marcia glanced nervously left and right, then back to Ainesley with a surprised “You mean me?” expression. The other girls giggled. Several, all larger than Marcia, were thinking they were just as pretty.
Ainesley, the talented fast-talker, abruptly shifted gears. A sadness came into his face, and he continued in a calmer voice, shaking his head slowly, in mock remorse.
“Well, I guess I just made a fool of myself. Believe me, I've never just walked up to someone like this before. I hope you’ll forgive me, and I apologize to you, ma’am and to you all.”
Marcia stayed stock-still. The girl to her right elbowed her in the side, laughing, then turned to Ainesley and said, “Do you mean me?”
Without answering, he walked back across the floor to rejoin his buddies and stood with them, making gestures and facial expressions meant to look both serious and concerned. He cautioned the others not to laugh or raise their voices. He knew Marcia and her companions would be looking his way in eager conversation of their own. He kept them in view furtively, with sidewise glances.
Later, as the girls were heading for the door, none carrying the gold medal, Ainesley eased up to Marcia, making a pleading gesture with his hands up, palms forward, and fingers spread.
“Excuse me,” he said, then hesitated. He knew what he wanted to say, but in an un-Ainesley lapse was beginning to feel confused. The would-be ladies’ man and casual seducer felt a pang of sincerity.
“Could I say something?”
Marcia halted politely. Two of her friends stayed with her as he finally put the words together.
“Listen, I'm sorry if I seemed rude when I came up to you. But you do look like such a terrific person. I’d appreciate if I could just talk to you sometime, maybe get a cup of coffee, like they say in the movies. That’s all. And then I’m gone. I promise.”
Ainesley nervously handed her a pencil and two scraps of paper torn from the table mat. One had his name and telephone number written on it, and one was for her to write hers. Marcia was flustered. This was not in her finishing-school playbook. Trying not to be rude, she took the slips of paper and said, “Thank you. Excuse me, I have to go.” And walked quickly to the waiting van.
She thought, Ms. Rhodes at Hartfield [her finishing school] would have given me an A for that. Or maybe not. Did I just make a mistake?
Ainesley caught up with one of the girls who had stayed with her, and commanded, “Quick, what’s her name? Please, I’m a good guy. I just gotta know.”
With that innocent betrayal, Marcia Semme’s fate was sealed.
A few days later, with a telephone directory of Mobile and Pensacola, in which few Semmeses were listed, Ainesley quickly tracked Marcia down.
“Is Marcia there?” he asked on the telephone.
“No, she’s at the college today,” Elizabeth Semmes [Marcia’s mother] responded.
“Spring Hill College, I guess.”
“Yes. You can reach her there. Who shall I say called?”
“A friend. I’ll call her there. Thanks a lot.”
Knowing he wouldn’t be given her number at the school, Ainesley simply waited until the first holiday weekend and called her at home again. This time she was the one who answered.
“Hi, is this Marcia Semmes?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“I’m Ainesley Cody. We met at the FloraBama a month ago. I sort of hoped you might remember. I’m a senior at the University of West Florida, over in Pensacola,” he lied. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I didn’t want to bother you. After saw you, I just wanted to talk to you, you know, maybe for a couple of minutes.” He strained to sound casual. “So here I am. I won’t come around or bother you or anything.”
Marcia was intrigued. After all, he sounded like a nice guy, who was really, truly interested in her. She said, “Oh, no, no, that’s all right. A couple of minutes is okay with me.”
Two weekends later, after several telephone calls, each longer and warmer than the last, the ersatz senior of the University of West Florida showed up at the Semmes home for a first date. He was driving a new 1976 Chevrolet, on which he’d made a down payment the day before. He wore his best clothes. His hair was freshly cut and brushed. In his pocket were two tickets to a bull-riding competition in nearby Chickasaw.
Ainesley was startled by the magnificence of Marybelle [the family’s antebellum plantation house], its colonnades, its spacious lawn and circular drive. When he got out of the car and searched for the street number, unaware that great houses do not as a rule display their street numbers, he found instead a bronze plaque installed by the Alabama Historical Society identifying Marybelle as a state historical site.
While Ainesley waited anxiously in the main hall for Marcia to come down the spiral staircase, her father Jonathan stepped out of the library to speak to him.
“Isn’t bull-riding a rough kind of sport to take a young lady?”
Ainesley was prepared for this.
“Well, sir, I see your point, sir. It’s been my experience, though, that young ladies among my friends sometimes get tired of going to concerts and stuff like that, and it’s a nice change of pace for them. You can learn a lot from bull-riding.”
Jonathan was worried by this response. He opened his mouth to probe some more, then let it pass. He had documents to review, and an important meeting with a committee of state senators in Montgomery the next afternoon.
Marcia joined them at that point. She was dressed in a vaguely cowgirl outfit of jeans, kerchief, and low boots.
“Oh, Daddy, I’m so excited! Have you ever been to a real rodeo before?”
“Yessir,” Ainesley said. “Nothing less than the real thing.”
What attracted Marcia to Ainesley was his vitality and self-confidence. Despite his bantam size, he seemed strong, able to address her father as one adult to another. That evening and later, he implied dark deals in his past he wished not to discuss. He told stories, all with a kernel of truth even if they had happened to someone else. All were richly embroidered. To Marcia, Ainesley was a man above the callow youths of her acquaintance, with a deep and significant history relative to her own meager experience. The highway was in his eyes, the airways, the sea lanes. He had destinations, he had plans, and he had connections implied but still undisclosed to Marcia. She tried to imagine, as he intended, how it would feel to be at his side during these adventures.
This persona of Ainesley was not deliberately false. It was an accretion of stories and poses, at the center of which lived undisturbed his personal sacred code. This much was unalterable: he would always meet his obligations, if at all possible, and he would never tell a lie that could hurt his family or friends. He would never assault another except in self-defense, and in conflict he would never bend to anyone if he knew he was right.
If all else came apart in Ainesley’s life, the code would remain. It was the definition of his manhood and the safety net of his sanity.
What Marcia could not understand about Ainesley, nor could her parents, was that he was a commonly encountered denizen in the particular stratum of the world he inhabited, and that he was working his way through a biography appropriate to it. He would in good time settle down, but not to the end that he imagined and wished the Semmeses of Mobile to believe. Ainesley was endowed with powerful self-respect, but he lived one day at a time, and sought the pleasures awaiting him in each one. He was not a man to put off rewarding himself. Since his teenage years he had been a heavy smoker, although he could still cut back, as he now did in the presence of Marcia and her parents. He thought sipping hard liquor and holding it well to be a masculine virtue. He had occasional weekend binges, but none Marcia was allowed to see.
True to his culture, Ainesley was a gun lover. His father and paternal grandfather had gathered collections of firearms as large as the law and household space allowed. In his parents’ home at West Pirate Beach hung a photograph of his grandfather with two brothers standing behind a fallen black bear, cradling their rifles in folded arms. The slain animal had been one of the last of the endangered Florida subspecies seen in Escambia County.
From early boyhood Ainesley enjoyed, along with excursions to hunt and fish, trips with his father to an abandoned farm in Jepson County to try out items from the family armory. On those occasions he was allowed to fire an old army issue Colt .45 and a rifle used by a distant cousin during the Spanish-American War. Ainesley, then and afterward, was awed by the spectacle of objects bursting into pieces at the pull of a trigger.
Ainesley was a patriot. As a boy, he had a fantasy of wiping out pillboxes with a machine gun and grenades and marching in a victory parade down Government Street with a chest full of medals. During the Vietnam War he tried as a seventeen-year-old to join the Marine Corps, but was turned away for reasons he preferred thereafter to keep to himself.
Finally, Ainesley was a racist. But he had a way of squaring that with his code. He was a separatist, he said. He had a formula to recite when in polite company: “I got nothing against colored people; I just want to be with my own kind.” Otherwise, he stayed muted and ambivalent on the subject – except when drinking in bars and on fishing trips with like-minded white male citizens.
Ainesley did, at least, have a boast-worthy pedigree. He and his close relatives claimed that there had been a Cody in every American war since the Revolution, and that might well have been true. Several of his forebears were Hodgeses, one of the clans that settled Blakely and the fertile land of what was later to become Baldwin County across the bay from Mobile, when that city was still a mud village. Another ancestor, John Tom Cody, along with his brother Lee, were among the Mobile hotheads who joined the Alabama Artillery as soon as they heard news of Fort Sumter. Buck privates to the end, they helped lay the “hornets’ nest” of concentrated cannon fire that drove back the Union forces at Shiloh. Lee was captured at Murfreesboro, but John Tom fought on despite an injured right leg. He was captured at the last battle of the Civil War, fought the day after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and before the news reached the gathering battalions. The battle site was providentially Fort Blakeley, in South Alabama, so that John Tom had only to shoulder his rifle and other belongings and walk home in a single day. Settled back in Mobile, he married and fathered a large family.
Ainesley and Marcia’s courtship proceeded uneasily under the noses of the elder Semmeses. Her parents were as beguiled as Marcia by Ainesley’s charm and unfailing good manners. He returned her home on time, every time. He told her parents he was a junior executive in his father’s business, and a sometime student at the University of West Florida.
Their surveillance of Ainesley was cursory. They saw the image he projected, not the real young man remaining hidden. They asked the mandatory questions, and were satisfied with the answers they got and the easy assumptions they made.
“Who are his people? The Baldwin County Codys? That’s a good family,” Jonathan Semmes said to Elizabeth.
He was thinking of the Codys of relatively posh Fairhope, not the Codys who inhabited West Pirate Beach on Perdido Bay a short distance away.
To the Semmeses, Ainesley relentlessly displayed what he himself considered to be his three most genuine and impressive qualities. He believed in himself, in what he said, and he was passionate about it all. Truth was whatever Ainesley thought for the moment to be factually true – that is, true for sure or mostly true, or at least very possibly true. His cocky self-confidence cut through the exaggerated good manners and foggy urbanities of Marcia’s own class. Ainesley focused his energies on Marcia solely as a desirable woman. He was sexually passionate but never forced himself on her. He showed no desire to use her or her family to climb the social ladder, and, while polite to her parents, was otherwise indifferent to them. He just didn’t care about anything but her, and that endeared him still more to Marcia Semmes.
Jonathan Semmes saw Ainesley’s intentions the same way. He thought the young man rough cut but “up and coming.” Marcia’s mother Elizabeth alone remained suspicious. She called him a “zircon in the rough.”
No matter. Marcia fell in love with this earnest man.
Marcia’s parents learned of the depth of her feelings too late. they were uneasy about the match, but not enough to be openly hostile to so intense a romantic attachment. In any case, most of the ambitions were invested in their son, Cyrus, ten years older than Marcia, and already a vice president of the family firm. They hoped – in fact, they expected – that Marcia herself would soon end the affair and regain her freedom to meet other young men, this time of her own class.
They were therefore stunned when she announced upon returning from an evening date that she and Ainesley were engaged to be married. She found them in Jonathan’s study and held up her left hand to display a diamond ring just given her by Ainesley.
“We’ve decided to have the wedding as soon as possible,” she said.
She paused to examine their faces, her face screwed tight in anxiety. She was torn in loyalty between the two forces she was pitting in opposition.
Jonathan stood up,his mouth curling down and started to speak. “Are you—”.
Marcia interrupted quickly, “Oh, no, no. Nothing like that, Daddy. I’m not pregnant or anything like that. It’s just that we love each other and want to start our life together.”
She forgot to bring her left hand down, and left the ring posed in the air like a flag.
Elizabeth grabbed the arm of a chair to sit down. Jonathan tried to speak again. “Let me get this straight –“
But Marcia interrupted. “We want to keep it simple, nothing too fancy. I hope I haven’t upset you too much. I’m real tired right now Can we talk about this tomorrow?”
There’s a lot to work with here, but I’ll let my readers take the first crack at it.