If knowledge were acquired by carrying books around, I’d be the sharpest tool in the shed,” Vic thought as she carted the last load up three flights of stairs on a hot summer day.
Sweat rolled between her breasts. Light poured into the rooms, the windows thrown open to catch any hope of a breeze. As she placed the carton on top of the old kitchen table, it swayed ever so slightly from the weight.
“Dammit!” a voice complained from outside.
Vic walked to the kitchen window that overlooked a well-maintained yard. A small creek bordered one side of the property, a line of thick pines obscuring the view into the neighbor’s yard.
Vic leaned out her window and listened to the sounds of struggle and fury. She trotted down the stairs, jumped the creek, and emerged through the pines. A young woman perhaps five feet five inches tall, blond, her back turned to Vic, was cussing a blue streak while trying to slide an old dresser from the back of an equally old Mercedes station wagon.
“Need a hand?” Vic’s low alto startled the woman.
She turned around. “You scared the shit out of me!” Her voice betrayed Pennsylvania origins.
“Sorry.” Vic smiled. “I’m your neighbor. Vic Savedge. Come on, we’ll get the dresser out and we can carry it up together.”
“I’m Chris Carter.” The woman held out her hand.
Both women smiled and shook hands.
Then Vic removed the dresser with one pull.
“How’d you do that?”
“Patience. You lost yours,” Vic sensibly replied.
“Guess I did.” Then she slyly added, “Anyone ever tell you you’re big and strong?”
“Every day. And it doesn’t get them anywhere.” Vic laughed. “But in your case, seeing as how I have to live next to you for the year, I’ll carry this up.”
Chris struggled to pick up one end. “This thing is awkward.” She blinked to keep the sweat out.
“Put it down,” Vic commanded.
“Just put it down,” Vic repeated. “You go ahead of me and open the doors.”
“You aren’t going to carry that up by yourself, are you?”
“It’ll be easier than trying to maneuver you and the dresser.” Vic hoisted the bird’s-eye maple dresser on her back, bent over, and started up the back stairs of the Olsen house. Chris’s apartment was at the top of that house just as Vic’s apartment was at the top of the DeReuter house. She gladly put down her burden when she reached the top of the last flight, breathed deeply, then picked it up again and headed toward the bedroom. Chris led the way, apologizing with every step. Vic placed the dresser against the wall.
“Thank you. Really. I can’t thank you enough.”
“A Co’Cola would help.” Vic wiped her brow, droplets of sweat spraying off her fingertips.
Chris’s kitchen was graced with newer appliances than were in Vic’s kitchen. She opened the refrigerator door, pulled out a cold can of Coke, grabbed a glass with dancing polar bears on it, dropped in ice cubes, and poured the soda. Then she repeated the process for herself.
“They taste better over ice.”
Vic gulped hers down. “True.”
“Here, you need another one.” Chris popped open another can and poured its contents into Vic’s glass. Her eyes met Vic’s for a second. Vic had green eyes, deep electric green. Set against her black hair, her eyes could be almost hypnotic. “You have the most incred- ible eyes.”
Vic laughed. “It runs in the family. So does the height—my mother’s six-one, too.” Then she studied Chris. “Well, you’ve got brown eyes and blonde hair and you’re petite. I bet everyone tells you you’re pretty, it’s a beautiful combination. Do you listen to them?”
“Never. Do you?”
“No, I don’t want to be known for how I look but for what I do.”
“If we were both butt-ugly we’d probably feel different.”
They laughed; then Vic said, “What year are you?”
“Junior. I’m a transfer from the University of Vermont. It’s a good school, but I never knew how much I hated cold weather until I wound up in Vermont. Fall starts in August. I think you have to be born to it, you know?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been to Vermont. The farthest north I’ve been was to visit Cornell but it was during summer.”
“Same difference. Fall starts there in August, too.” She finished her drink. “Are you moved in?”
“Yes,” Vic said with relief. “I’d just put the last carton of books on the table when I heard you.”
“Was I that loud?” Chris’s hand flew to her mouth, an unexpectedly feminine gesture.
“It could have been worse. I could have yelled ‘fuck.’ ”
Vic laughed again. “One of two things would have happened: Every old biddy on the street would have fainted dead or the men would have come running, hoping you meant it.”
Chris wrinkled her nose. “Neither prospect sounds very appetizing.” She took the glass from Vic’s hand. “What year are you?”
“I guess. I still have to get through it. Don’t count your chickens, et cetera.” She walked over to the sink as Chris washed out the two glasses. “Do you know anyone at William and Mary?”
“Not really. I fell in love with the school and figured I’d make friends.”
“You’re in luck. I have wonderful friends. If you’re really good to me, you can meet them.”
“I’m pretty damn good,” Chris replied.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Alma Mater by Rita Mae Brown. Copyright © 2001 by Rita Mae Brown. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.