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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 10


  “I still think you ought to show somebody else,” Dad told him. “Like somebody from the newspaper in Birmingham.”

  “I would, Tom, but maybe Swope’s got a point. Maybe Old Moses is our monster. Maybe if we let everybody else know about him, they’d come try to take him away from us. Catch him up in a net, put him in a big glass tank somewhere like an overgrown mudcat.” Mr. Sculley frowned and shook his head. “Nah, I wouldn’t want that to happen. Neither would the Lady, I reckon. She’s been feedin’ him on Good Friday for as long as I can remember. This was the first year he didn’t like his food.”

  “Didn’t like his food?” Dad asked. “Meanin’ what?”

  “Didn’t you see the parade this year?” Mr. Sculley waited for Dad to say no, and then he went on. “This was the first year Old Moses didn’t give the bridge a smack with his tail, same to say ‘Thanks for the grub.’ It’s a quick thing, it passes fast, but you get to know the sound of it when you’ve heard it so many years. This year it didn’t happen.”

  I recalled how troubled the Lady looked when she left the gargoyle bridge that day, and how the whole procession had been so somber on the march back to Bruton. That must have been because the Lady hadn’t heard Old Moses smack the bridge with his tail. But what did such a lack of table manners mean?

  “Hard to say what it means,” Mr. Sculley said as if reading my mind. “The Lady didn’t like it, that’s for sure.”

  It was starting to get dark outside. Dad said we’d better be getting home, and he thanked Mr. Sculley for taking the time to show us where the bike had gone. “Wasn’t your fault,” Dad said as Mr. Sculley limped in front of us to show us the way out. “You were just doin’ your job.”

  “Yep. Waitin’ for one more bike, I was. Like I said, that bike couldn’t have been fixed anyhow.”

  I could’ve told my dad that. In fact, I did tell him, but one sorry thing about being a kid is that grown-ups listen to you with half an ear.

  “Heard about the car in the lake,” Mr. Sculley said as we neared the doorway. His voice echoed in the cavernous room, and I sensed my father tightening up. “Bad way for a man to die, without a Christian burial,” Mr. Sculley continued. “Sheriff Amory got any clues?”

  “None that I know of.” My father’s voice was a little shaky. I was sure that he saw that sinking car and the body handcuffed to the wheel every time he lay down in bed and closed his eyes.

  “Got my own ideas about who it was, and who killed him,” Mr. Sculley offered. We reached the way out, but the rain was still falling hard onto the mountains of old dead things and the last of the sunlight had turned green. Mr. Sculley looked at my father and leaned against the door frame. “It was somebody who’d crossed the Blaylock clan. Must’ve been a fella who wasn’t from around here, ’cause everybody else in their right mind knows Wade, Bodean, and Donny Blaylock are meaner’n horny rattlers. They got stills hidden all up in the woods around here. And that daddy of theirs, Biggun, could teach the devil some tricks. Yessir, the Blaylocks are the cause of that fella bein’ down at the bottom of the lake, and you can count on it.”

  “I figure the sheriff thought of that already.”

  “Probably did. Only trouble is, nobody knows where the Blaylocks hide out. They show up now and again, on some errand of meanness, but trackin’ ’em to their snakehole is another thing entirely.” Mr. Sculley looked out the door. “Rain’s easin’ up some. Reckon you don’t mind gettin’ wet.”

  We trudged through the mud toward my dad’s truck. I looked again at the mound of bikes as we passed, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before: honeysuckle vines were growing in the midst of the tangled metal, and the little sweet white cups were sprouting amid the rust.

  My father’s attention was snagged by something else that lay over beyond the bikes, something we had not seen on the way in. He stopped, staring at it, and I stopped, too, and Mr. Sculley, limping ahead, sensed our stopping and turned around.

  “I wondered where they brought it,” Dad said.

  “Yeah, gonna haul it off one of these days. Gotta make room for more stuff, y’know.”

  You couldn’t tell much about it, really. It was just a rusted mass of crumpled metal, but some of the metal still held the original black paint. The windshield was gone, the roof smashed flat. Part of the hood remained, though, and on it was a ripple of painted flames.

  This one had suffered.

  Dad turned away from it, and I followed him to the pickup. Real close, I might add.

  “Come back anytime!” Mr. Sculley told us. The hound dogs bayed and Mrs. Sculley came out on the porch, this time without her rifle, and Dad and I drove home along the haunted road.

  6

  Old Moses Comes to Call

  MOM HAD PICKED UP the phone when it rang, past ten o’clock at night about a week after our visit to Mr. Sculley’s place.

  “Tom!” she said, and her voice carried a frantic edge. “J.T. says the dam’s burst at Lake Holman! They’re callin’ everybody together at the courthouse!”

  “Oh, Lord!” Dad sprang up from the sofa, where he’d been watching the news on television, and he slid his feet into his shoes. “It’ll be a flood for sure! Cory!” he called. “Get your clothes on!”

  I knew from his tone that I’d better move quick. I put aside the story I was trying to write about a black dragster with a ghost at the wheel and I fairly jumped into my jeans. When your parents get scared, your heart starts pounding ninety miles a minute. I had heard Dad use the word flood. The last one had been when I was five, and it hadn’t done a whole lot of damage except stir up the swamp snakes. I knew, though, from my reading about Zephyr that in 1938 the river had flooded the streets to the depth of four feet, and in 1930 the spring flood had risen almost to the rooftops of some of the houses in Bruton. So my town had a history of being waterlogged, and with all the rain we and the rest of the South had been getting since the beginning of April, there was no telling what might happen this year.

  The Tecumseh River fed out of Lake Holman, which lay about forty miles north of us. So, being as it is that all rivers flow to the sea, we were in for it.

  I made sure Rebel would be all right in his dog run behind the house, and then my mom, dad, and I jammed into the pickup truck and headed for the courthouse, an old gothic structure that stood at the terminus of Merchants Street. Most everybody’s lights were on; the message network was in full operation. It was just drizzling right now, but the water was up to the pickup’s wheel rims because of the overloaded drainpipes and some people’s basements had already flooded. My friend Johnny Wilson and his folks had had to go live with relatives in Union Town for that very reason.

  Cars and pickup trucks were filling up the courthouse’s parking lot. Off in the distance, lightning streaked across the heavens and the low clouds lit up. People were being herded into the courthouse’s main meeting room, a large chamber with a mural painted on the ceiling that showed angels flying around carrying bales of cotton; it was a holdover from when cotton crop auctions used to be held here, twenty years ago, before the cotton gin and warehouse were moved to floodproof Union Town. We found seats on one of the splintery bleachers, which was fortunate because the way other folks were coming in, there soon wasn’t going to be room enough to breathe. Somebody had the good sense to turn on the fans, but the hot air emanating from people’s mouths seemed inexhaustible. Mrs. Kattie Yarbrough, one of the biggest chatterboxes in town, squeezed in next to Mom and started jabbering excitedly while her husband, who was also a milkman at Green Meadows, trapped my father. I saw Ben come in with Mr. and Mrs. Sears, but they sat down across the room from us. The Demon, whose hair looked as if it had just been combed with grease, entered trailing her monstrous mother and spindly pop. They found places near us, and I shuddered when the Demon caught my repulsed gaze and grinned at me. Reverend Lovoy came in with his family, Sheriff Amory and his wife and daughters entered, the Branlins came in, and so did Mr. Parlowe, Mr. Dollar, Davy Ray and hi
s folks, Miss Blue Glass and Miss Green Glass, and plenty more people I didn’t know so well. The place got jammed.

  “Quiet, everybody! Quiet!” Mr. Wynn Gillie, the assistant mayor, had stepped up to the podium where the cotton auctioneer used to stand, and behind him at a table sat Mayor Luther Swope and Fire Chief Jack Marchette, who was also the head of Civil Defense. “Quiet!” Mr. Gillie hollered, the veins standing out on his stringy neck. The talking died down, and Mayor Swope stood up to speak. He was tall and slim, about fifty years old, and he had a long-jawed, somber face and gray hair combed back from a widow’s peak. He was always puffing on a briar pipe, like a locomotive burning coal up a long, steep haul, and he wore perfectly creased trousers and shirts with his initials on the breast pocket. He had the air of a successful businessman, which he was: he owned both the Stagg Shop for Men and the Zephyr Ice House, which had been in his family for years. His wife, Lana Jean, was sitting with Dr. Curtis Parrish and the doctor’s wife, Brightie.

  “Guess everybody’s heard the bad news by now,” Mayor Swope began. He had a mayorly appearance, but he spoke as if his mouth was full of oatmeal mush. “We ain’t got a whole lot of time, folks. Chief Marchette tells me the river’s already at flood stage. When that water from Lake Holman gets here, we’re gonna have us a real problem. Could be the worst flood we’ve ever had. Which means Bruton’ll get swamped first, it bein’ closest to the river. Vandy, where are you?” The mayor looked around, and Mr. Vandercamp Senior raised his rickety hand. “Mr. Vandercamp is openin’ up the hardware store,” Mayor Swope told us. “He’s got shovels and sandbags we can use to start buildin’ our own dam between Bruton and the river, maybe we can hold the worst of the flood back. Which means everybody’s gonna have to work: men, women, and children, too. I’ve called Robbins Air Force Base, and they’re sendin’ some men to help us. Folks are comin’ over from Union Town, too. So everybody who can work oughta get over to Bruton and be ready to move some dirt.”

  “Hold on just one damn minute, Luther!”

  The man who’d spoken stood up. You couldn’t miss him. I think a book about a white whale was named after him. Mr. Dick Moultry had a florid, puffed face and wore his hair in a crew cut that resembled a brown pincushion. He had on a tent-sized T-shirt and blue jeans that might’ve fit my dad, Chief Marchette, and Mayor Swope all at the same time. He lifted a blubbery arm and aimed his finger at the mayor. “What you’re tellin’ us to do, it seems to me, is to forget about our own homes! Yessir! Forget about our own homes and go to work to save a bunch of niggers!”

  This comment was a crack in the common clay. Some hollered that Mr. Moultry was wrong, and some hollered he was right.

  “Dick,” Mayor Swope said as he pushed his pipe into his mouth, “you know that if the river’s going to flood, it always starts in Bruton. That’s the lowland. If we can hold it back there, we can—”

  “So where are the Bruton people?” Mr. Moultry asked, and his big square head ratcheted to right and left. “I don’t see no dark faces in here! Where are they? How come they ain’t in here beggin’ us for help?”

  “Because they never ask for help.” The mayor spouted a plume of blue smoke; the locomotive’s engine was starting to stoke. “I guarantee you they’re out on the riverbank right now, tryin’ to build a dam, but they wouldn’t ask for help if the water came up to their roofs. The Lady wouldn’t stand for it. But they do need our help, Dick. Just like last time.”

  “If they had any sense, they’d move out of there!” Mr. Moultry insisted. “Hell, I’m sick and tired of that damn Lady, too! Who does she think she is, a damn queen?”

  “Sit down, Dick,” Chief Marchette told him. The fire chief was a big-boned man with a chiseled face and piercing blue eyes. “There’s no time to argue this thing.”

  “The hell you say!” Mr. Moultry had decided to be stubborn. His face was getting as red as a fireplug. “Let the Lady come over here to white man’s land and ask us for help!” That brought a storm of assenting and dissenting shouts. Mr. Moultry’s wife, Feather, stood up beside him and hollered, “Hell, yes!” She had platinum-blond hair and was more anvil than feather. Mr. Moultry bellowed over the noise, “I ain’t breakin’ my ass for no niggers!”

  “But, Dick,” Mayor Swope said in a bewildered way, “they’re our niggers.”

  The shouting and hollering went on, some people saying it was the Christian thing to keep Bruton from being flooded and others saying they hoped the flood was a jimdandy so it would wash Bruton away once and for all. My folks kept quiet, as most of the others did; this was a war of the loudmouths.

  Suddenly a quiet began to spread. It began from the back of the chamber, where people were clustered around the doorway. Somebody laughed, but the laugh was choked off almost at once. A few people mumbled and muttered. And then a man made his way into the chamber and you’d have thought the Red Sea was parting as folks shrank back to give him room.

  The man was smiling. He had a boyish face and light brown hair cresting a high forehead.

  “What’s all this yelling about?” he asked. He had a Southern accent, but you could tell he was an educated man. “Any problem here, Mayor Swope?”

  “Uh…no, Vernon. No problem. Is there, Dick?”

  Mr. Moultry looked like he was about to spit and scowl. His wife’s face was red as a Christmas beet under her platinum locks. I heard the Branlins giggle, but somebody hushed them up.

  “I hope there’s no problem,” Vernon said, still smiling. “You know how Daddy hates problems.”

  “Sit down,” Mayor Swope told the Moultrys, and they did. Their asses almost busted the bleacher.

  “I sense some…disunity here,” Vernon said. I felt a giggle about to break from my throat, but my father grasped my wrist and squeezed so hard it went away. Other people shifted uneasily in their seats, especially some of the older widow women. “Mayor Swope, can I come up to the podium?”

  “God save us,” my father whispered, and Mom shivered with a silent laugh beating at her ribs.

  “Uh… I…suppose so, Vernon. Sure. Come on up.” Mayor Swope stepped back, pipe smoke swirling around his head.

  Vernon Thaxter stepped up to the podium and faced the assembly. He was very pale under the lights. All of him was pale.

  He was stark naked. Not a stitch on him.

  His doodad and balls hung out in full view. He was a skinny thing, probably because he walked so much. The soles of his feet must’ve been as hard as dried leather. Rain glistened on his white flesh and his hair was slick with it. He looked like a picture of a dark Hindu mystic I’d seen in one of my National Geographics, though, of course, he was neither dark nor Hindu. I’d have to say he was no mystic, either. Vernon Thaxter was downright, around-the-bend-and-through-the-woods crazy.

  Of course, walking around town in his birthday suit was nothing new for Vernon Thaxter. He did it all the time, once the weather started warming up. You didn’t see him very much in late autumn or winter, though. When he first appeared in spring, it was always a start; by July nobody gave him a second glance; by October the falling leaves were more interesting. Then it came spring again, and there was Vernon Thaxter with his private parts on public display.

  You might wonder why Sheriff Amory didn’t stand up right then and there and haul Vernon off to jail for indecent exposure. The reason he did not was because of Moorwood Thaxter, Vernon’s father. Moorwood Thaxter owned the bank. He also owned Green Meadows Dairy and the Zephyr Real Estate Company. Just about every house in Zephyr was mortgaged through Moorwood Thaxter’s bank. He owned the land the Lyric theater stood on, and the land where this courthouse had been built. He owned every crack in Merchants Street. He owned the shotgun shacks of Bruton, and his own twenty-eight-room mansion at the height of Temple Street. The fear of Moorwood Thaxter, who was in his seventies and rarely seen, was what kept Sheriff Amory in his seat and had kept forty-year-old Vernon naked on the streets of my hometown. It had been this way as long as I remembered.
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br />  Mom told me that Vernon used to be all right, but he’d written a book and gone to New York with it and a year later he was back home wandering around nude and nutty.

  “Gentlemen and ladies,” Vernon began. “And children, too, of course.” He reached out his frail arms and grasped the podium’s edges. “We have here a very serious situation.”

  “Momma!” the Demon suddenly squalled. “I can see that feller’s dingdo—”

  A hand with hairy knuckles clamped over her mouth. I guess the elder Thaxter owned their house, too.

  “A very serious situation,” Vernon repeated, oblivious to everything but his own voice. “Daddy sent me here with a message. He says he expects the people of this town to show true brotherhood and Christian values in this time of trouble. Mr. Vandercamp Senior, sir?”

  “Yes, Vernon?” the old man answered.

  “Will you kindly keep a record of the names of those able-bodied and good-thinking men who borrow digging utensils from you for the purpose of helping the residents of Bruton? My daddy would appreciate it.”

  “Be glad to,” Mr. Vandercamp Senior said; he was rich, but not rich enough to say no to Moorwood Thaxter.

  “Thank you. That way my daddy can have a list at hand when interest rates go up, as they are bound to do in this unsettled age. My daddy has always felt that those men—and women—who aren’t loath to work for their neighbors are deserving of extra considerations.” He smiled, gazing out at his audience. “Anyone else have anything to say?”

  No one did. It’s kind of difficult to talk to a naked man about anything but why he won’t wear clothes, and nobody would dare bring up such a sensitive subject.

  “I think our mission is clear, then,” Vernon said. “Good luck to all.” He thanked Mayor Swope for letting him speak, and then he stepped down from the podium and walked out of the chamber the way he’d come. The Red Sea parted for him again, and closed at his back.