Settings
Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 13


  “What is it?” Mom peered over his shoulder. “Can it be fixed?”

  “See there? Little ol’ red wire?” He tapped it with the screwdriver’s edge. “Done come a’loose.”

  “Is that all that’s wrong? Just that little wire?”

  “Yes’m, that’s.” He began to carefully rewind the wire around its connection, and watching him do this was like a strange kind of hypnosis. “All,” he finally finished. Then he put the toaster back together again, plugged it in, pushed down the timer prongs, and we all saw the coils start to redden. “Sometimes,” Mr. Lightfoot said.

  We waited. I think I could hear my hair growing.

  “Just the.”

  The world turned beneath us.

  “Little things.” He began to refold the white cloth. We waited, but this particular line of thought had either derailed or reached its dead end. Mr. Lightfoot looked around the kitchen. “Anythin’ else need fixin’?”

  “No, I think we’re in good shape now.”

  Mr. Lightfoot nodded, but I could tell that he was searching for problems like a bird dog sniffing game. He made a slow circle of the kitchen, during which he delicately placed his hands on the icebox, the four-eyed stove, and the sink’s faucet as if divining the health of the machinery through his touch. Mom and I looked at each other, puzzled; Mr. Lightfoot was certainly acting peculiar.

  “Icebox kinda stutterin’,” he said. “Want me to take a peek?”

  “No, don’t bother with it,” Mom told him. “Mr. Lightfoot, are you feelin’ all right today?”

  “Surely, Miz Mackenson. Surely.” He opened a cupboard and listened to the slight squeak of the hinges. A screwdriver was withdrawn from his tool belt, and he tightened the screws in both that cupboard door and the next one, too. Mom cleared her throat again, nervously this time, and she said, “Uh… Mr. Lightfoot, how much do I owe you for fixin’ the toaster?”

  “It’s,” he said. He tested the hinges of the kitchen door, and then he went to my mother’s MixMaster blender on the countertop and started examining that. “Done paid,” he finished.

  “Paid? But… I don’t understand.” Mom had already reached up on a shelf and brought down the mason jar full of dollar bills and change.

  “Yes’m. Paid.”

  “But I haven’t given you any money yet.”

  Mr. Lightfoot’s fingers dug into another pocket, and this time emerged with a white envelope. He gave it to Mom, and I saw that it had The Mackenson Family written across its front in blue ink. On the back, sealing it, was a blob of white wax. “Well,” he said at last, “I ’spect I’m done for.” He picked up his toolbox. “Today.”

  “Today?” Mom asked.

  “Yes’m. You know.” Mr. Lightfoot now started looking at the light fixtures, as if he longed to get into their electrical depths. “My number,” he said. “Anythin’ needs fixin’, you.” He smiled at us. “Jus’ call.”

  We saw Mr. Lightfoot off. He waved as he drove away in the clankety old pickup, the tools jangling on their hooks and the neighborhood dogs going crazy. Mom said, mostly to herself, “Tom’s not gonna believe this.” Then she opened the envelope, took a letter from it, and read it. “Huh,” she said. “Want to hear?”

  “Yes ma’am.”

  She read it to me: “‘I’d be honored if you would come to my house at seven o’clock this Friday evening. Please bring your son.’ And look who it’s from.” Mom handed the letter to me, and I saw the signature.

  The Lady.

  When Dad got home, Mom told him about Mr. Lightfoot and showed him the letter almost before he could get his milkman’s cap off. “What do you think she wants with us?” Dad asked.

  “I don’t know, but I think she’s decided to pay Mr. Lightfoot to be our personal handyman.”

  Dad regarded the letter again. “She’s got nice handwritin’, to be so old. I would’ve thought it’d be crimped up.” He chewed on his bottom lip, and just watching him I could tell he was getting edgy. “You know, I’ve never seen the Lady close up before. Seen her on the street, but…” He shook his head. “No. I don’t believe I want to go.”

  “What’re you sayin’?” Mom asked incredulously. “The Lady wants us to come to her house!”

  “I don’t care.” Dad gave her back the letter. “I’m not goin’.”

  “Why, Tom? Give me one good reason.”

  “Phillies are playin’ the Pirates on radio Friday night,” he said as he retired to the comfort of his easy chair. “That’s reason enough.”

  “I don’t think so,” Mom told him, setting her jaw.

  Here we came to a rare fact of life: my parents, though I believe they got along better than ninety-nine percent of the married couples in Zephyr, did have their go-rounds. Just as no one person is perfect, no marriage of two imperfects is going to be without a scrape of friction here and there. I have seen my father blow his top over a missing sock when in fact he was mad he didn’t get a raise at the dairy. I have seen my usually placid mother steam with anger over a muddy bootmark on the clean floor when in fact the root of her discontent lay in a rude remark from a neighbor. So, in this tangled web of civilities and rage riots that we know as life, such things will happen as now began to take shape in my parents’ house.

  “It’s because she’s colored, isn’t it?” Mom threw the first punch. “That’s the real reason.”

  “No, it’s not.”

  “You’re as bad as your daddy about that. I swear, Tom—”

  “Hush!” he hollered. Even I staggered. The comment about Granddaddy Jaybird, who was to racism as crabgrass is to weeds, had been a very low blow. Dad did not hate colored people, and this I knew for sure, but please remember that Dad had been raised by a man who saluted the Confederate flag every morning of his life and who considered black skin to be the mark of the devil. It was a terrible burden my father was carrying, because he loved Granddaddy Jaybird but he believed in his heart, as he taught me to believe, that hating any other man—for any reason—was a sin against God. So this next statement of his had more to do with pride than anything else: “And I’m not takin’ charity from that woman, either!”

  “Cory,” Mom said, “I believe you have some math homework to do?”

  I went to my room, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t hear them.

  They weren’t really loud, just intense. I suspected this had been brewing awhile, and came from a lot of different places: the car in the lake, the wasps at Easter, the fact that Dad couldn’t afford to buy me a new bike, the dangers of the flood. Listening to Dad tell Mom that she couldn’t put a rope around his neck and drag him into the Lady’s house, I got the feeling that it all boiled down to this: the Lady scared him.

  “No way!” he said. “I’m not goin’ to see somebody who fools with bones and old dead animals and—” He stopped, and I figured he’d realized he was describing Granddaddy Jaybird. “I’m just not,” he finished on a lame note.

  Mom had decided she had ran this horse to death. I could hear it in her sigh. “I’d like to go find out what she has to say. Is that all right with you?”

  Silence. Then, in a quiet voice: “Yeah, it’s all right.”

  “I’d like to take Cory, too.”

  This started another flare-up. “Why? You want him to see the skeletons hangin’ in that woman’s closet? Rebecca, I don’t know what she wants and I don’t care! But that woman plays with conjure dolls and black cats and God knows what all! I don’t think it’s right to take Cory into her house!”

  “She asks, right here in the letter, that we bring Cory. See?”

  “I see it. And I don’t understand it, either, but I’m tellin’ you: the Lady is not to be messed with. You remember Burk Hatcher? Used to be assistant foreman at the dairy back in ’fifty-eight?”

  “Yes.”

  “Burk Hatcher used to chew tobacco. Chewed gobs of it, and he was always spittin’. Got to be a bad habit he hardly even knew he had, and—don’t you dare tell anybody this—bu
t a couple of times he forgot himself and spat right in a milk vat.”

  “Oh, Tom! You don’t mean it!”

  “Right as rain, I do. Now, Burk Hatcher was walkin’ down Merchants Street one day, had just got his hair cut at Mr. Dollars’s—and he had a full, thick head of hair he could hardly pull a comb through—and he forgot himself and spat on the sidewalk. Only the tobacco wattle never hit the sidewalk, ’cause it got on the Moon Man’s shoes. Smack dab all over ’em. Wasn’t on purpose, as I understand it. The Moon Man was just walkin’ past. Well, Burk had a weird sense of humor, and this thing struck him as funny. He started laughin’, right there in the Moon Man’s face. And you know what?”

  “What?” Mom asked.

  “A week later Burk’s hair started to fall out.”

  “Oh, I don’t believe it!”

  “It’s true!” The adamance of my father’s voice indicated that he, at least, believed it. “Within one month after Burk Hatcher spat tobacco juice on the Moon Man’s shoes, he was balder’n a cue ball! He started wearin’ a wig! Yes ma’am, he did! He almost went crazy because of it!” I could imagine my father leaning forward in his chair, his face so grim my mother was having to struggle to keep from laughing. “If you don’t think the Lady had somethin’ to do with that, you’re crazy!”

  “Tom, I swear I never knew you put so much faith in the occult.”

  “Faith, smaith! I saw Burk’s bald head! Heck, I can tell you a lot of things I’ve heard about that woman! Like frogs jumpin’ out of people’s throats and snakes in the soup bowl and…uh-uh, no! I’m not settin’ foot in that house!”

  “But what if she gets mad at us if we don’t go there?” Mom asked.

  The question hung.

  “Mightn’t she put a spell on us if I don’t take Cory to see her?”

  I could tell Mom was jiving my dad a little, from her tone of voice. Still, Dad didn’t answer and he was probably mulling over the potential disasters of snubbing the Lady.

  “I think I’d better go and take Cory, too,” Mom went on. “To show that we respect her. Anyway, aren’t you the least bit curious why she wants to see us?”

  “No!”

  “Not the tiniest least bit?”

  “Lord,” Dad said after another bout of thinking. “You could argue the warts off a toad. And the Lady’s probably got bottles full of those, too, to go along with her mummy dust and bat wings!”

  The result of all this was that on Friday evening, as the sun began to slide down across the darkening earth and a cool wind blew through the streets of Zephyr, my mother and I got in the pickup truck and left our house. Dad stayed behind, his radio tuned to the baseball game he’d been awaiting, but I believe he was with us in spirit. He just didn’t want to make a mistake and offend the Lady, in manner or speech. I have to say I was no solid rock myself; under my white shirt and the clip-on tie Mom had made me wear, my nerves were frazzling mighty fast.

  Work was still going on in Bruton, the dark people sawing and hammering their houses back together. We passed through Bruton’s business center, a little area with a barbershop, grocery store, shoe and clothing store, and other establishments run by the locals. Mom turned us onto Jessamyn Street, and at the end of that street she stopped in front of a house from which lights glowed through every window.

  The small frame house, as I’ve already mentioned, was painted in a blaze of orange, purple, red, and yellow. A garage was set off to the side, where I figured the rhinestone-covered Pontiac was stored. The yard was neatly trimmed, and a sidewalk led from the curb to the porch steps. The house appeared neither scary nor the residence of royalty; it was just a house and, except for its coat of many colors, very much like every other house on the street.

  Still, I balked when Mom came around and opened my door.

  “Come on,” she said. Her voice had tightened, though her nervousness didn’t show in her face. She was wearing one of her best Sunday dresses, and her nice Sunday shoes. “It’s almost seven.”

  Seven, I thought. Wasn’t that supposed to be a voodoo number? “Maybe Dad was right,” I told her. “Maybe we ought not to do this.”

  “It’s all right. Look at all the lights on.”

  If this was supposed to make me feel at ease, it didn’t work.

  “There’s nothin’ to be afraid of,” Mom said. This, from a woman who fretted that the gray insulation they’d recently sprayed above the ceiling of the elementary school might be bad for your breathing.

  Somehow I got up the porch steps to the door. The porch light was painted yellow, to keep bugs away. I’d imagined the door’s knocker might be a skull and crossbones. It was, instead, a little silver hand. Mom said, “Here goes,” and she rapped on the door.

  We heard muffled talking and footsteps. It occurred to me that our time to flee was running out. Mom put her arm around me, and I thought I could feel her pulse beating. Then the door’s knob turned, the door opened, and the Lady’s house offered entry. A tall, broad-shouldered black man wearing a dark blue suit, a white shirt, and a tie filled up the doorway. To me he looked as tall and burly as a black oak. He had hands that looked as if they could crush bowling balls. Part of his nose appeared to have been sliced off with a razor. His eyebrows merged together, thick as a werewolf’s pelt.

  In seven mystic words: he scared the crap out of me.

  “Uh…” Mom began, and faltered. “Uh…”

  “Come right in, Miz Mackenson.” He smiled. With that smile his face became less fearsome and more welcome. But his voice was as deep as a kettledrum and it vibrated in my bones. He stepped aside, and Mom grasped my hand and pulled me across the threshold.

  The door closed at our backs.

  A young woman with skin the hue of chocolate milk was there to greet us. She had a heart-shaped face and tawny eyes, and she took my mother’s hand and said with a smile, “I’m Amelia Damaronde, and I’m so verra pleased to meet you.” She had bangle bracelets covering her forearms and five gold pins up the edges of each of her ears.

  “Thank you. This is my son, Cory.”

  “Oh, this is the young man!” Amelia Damaronde turned her attention to me. She had an electricity about her that made me feel as if the air between us was charged. “A pleasure to meet you, too. This is my husband, Charles.” The big man nodded at us. Amelia stood about up to his armpits. “We take care of things for the Lady,” Amelia said.

  “I see.” Mom was still holding on to my hand, while I was busy looking around; The mind is a strange thing, isn’t it? The mind concocts spiderwebs where there are no spiders, and darkness where the lights are bright. The living room of the Lady’s house was no temple to the devil, no repository of black cats and bubbling cauldrons. It was just a room with chairs, a sofa, a little table on which knickknacks rested, and there were shelves with books and framed, vividly colored paintings on the walls. One of the paintings caught me: it showed the face of a bearded black man, his eyes closed in either suffering or ecstasy, and on his head was a crown of thorns.

  I had never seen a black Jesus before, and this sight both knocked me for a loop and opened up a space in my mind that I’d never known needed light.

  The Moon Man suddenly walked through a hallway into the room. Seeing him so close caused a start for both my mother and me. The Moon Man wore a light blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a pair of black trousers, and suspenders. Tonight he had only one wristwatch on, and the white rim of a T-shirt showed instead of his chain and huge gilded crucifix. He wasn’t wearing his top hat; the splotchy division of pale yellow and ebony flesh continued up his high forehead and ended in a cap of white wool. The white beard on his chin was pointed, and curled slightly upward. His dark, wrinkle-edged eyes rested on first my mother and then me, and he smiled faintly and nodded. He lifted a thin finger and motioned us into the hallway.

  It was time to meet the Lady.

  “She’s not been feelin’ well,” Amelia told us. “Dr. Parrish’s been loadin’ her up with vitamins.”
/>
  “It’s not anythin’ serious, is it?” Mom asked.

  “The rain got in her lungs. She doesn’t get along so good in damp weather, but she’s doin’ better now that the sun’s been out.”

  We came to a door. The Moon Man opened it, his shoulders frail and stooped. I smelled dusty violets.

  Amelia peered in first. “Ma’am? Your callers are here.”

  Sheets rustled within the room. “Please,” said the shaky voice of an old woman, “send them in.”

  My mother took a breath and walked into the room. I had to follow, because she gripped my hand. The Moon Man stayed outside, and Amelia said “If you need anythin’, just call,” before she gently closed the door.

  And there she was.

  She lay in a bed with a white metal frame, her back supported by a brocaded pillow, and the top sheet pulled up over her chest. The walls of her bedroom were painted with green fronds and foliage, and but for the polite drone of a box fan, we might have been standing in an equatorial jungle. An electric lamp burned on the bedside table, where magazines and books were stacked, and within her reach was a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.

  The Lady just stared at us for a moment, and we at her. She was almost bluish-black against the white bed, and not an inch of her face looked unwrinkled. She reminded me of one of those apple dolls whose faces shrivel up in the hard noonday sun. I had seen handfuls of fresh snow scraped off the Ice House’s pipes; the Lady’s soft cloud of hair was whiter. She was wearing a blue gown, the straps up around her bony shoulders, and her collarbone jutted in such clear relief against her skin that it appeared painful. So, too, did her cheekbones; they seemed sharp enough to slice a peach. To tell the truth, though, except for one feature the Lady wouldn’t have looked like much but an ancient, reed-thin black woman whose head trembled with a little palsy.

  But her eyes were green.

  I don’t mean any old green. I mean the color of pale emeralds, the kind of jewels Tarzan might have been searching for in one of the lost cities of Africa. They were luminous, full of trapped and burning light, and looking into them you felt as if your secret self might be jimmied open like a sardine can and something stolen from you. And you might not even mind it, either, you might want it to be so. I had never seen eyes like that before, and I never have since. They scared me, but I could not turn away because their beauty was like that of a fierce wild animal who must be carefully watched at all times.