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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 14


  The Lady blinked, and a smile winnowed up over her wrinkled mouth. If she didn’t have her own teeth, they were good fakes. “Don’t you both look nice,” she said in her palsied voice.

  “Thank you, ma’am,” Mom managed to answer.

  “Your husband didn’t want to come.”

  “Uh…no, he’s…listenin’ to the baseball game on the radio.”

  “Was that his excuse, Miz Mackenson?” She lifted her white brows.

  “I…don’t know what you mean.”

  “Some people,” the Lady said, “are scared of me. Can you beat that? Scared of an old woman in her one hundred and sixth year! And me layin’ here can’t even keep no supper down! You love your husband, Miz Mackenson?”

  “Yes, I do. Very much.”

  “That’s good. Love strong and true can get you through a lot of dookey. And I’m here to tell you, honey, you got to walk through many fields of dookey to get to be my age.” Those green, wonderful, and frightening eyes in that wrinkled ebony face turned full blaze on me. “Hello, young man,” she said. “You help your momma do chores?”

  “Yes’m.” It was a whisper. My throat felt parched.

  “You dry the dishes? Keep your room neat? You sweep the front porch?”

  “Yes’m.”

  “That’s fine. But I bet you never had call to use a broom like you used one at Nila Castile’s house, did you?”

  I swallowed hard. Now I and my mother knew what this was about.

  The Lady grinned. “I wish I’d been there. I swanee I do!”

  “Did Nila Castile tell you?” Mom asked.

  “She did. I had a long talk with little Gavin, too.” Her eyes stayed fixed on me. “You saved Gavin’s life, young man. You know what that means to me?” I shook my head. “Nila’s mother, God keep her, was a good friend of mine. I kind of adopted Nila. I always thought of Gavin as a great-grandchild. Gavin has a good life ahead of him. You made sure he’ll get there.”

  “I was just…keepin’ from gettin’ eaten up myself,” I said.

  She chuckled; it was a gaspy sound. “Run him off with a broomstick! Lawd, Lawd! He thought he was such a mean ole thing, thought he could swim right up out of that river and snatch him a feast! But you gave him a mouthful, didn’t you?”

  “He ate a dog,” I told her.

  “Yeah, he would,” the Lady said, and her chuckling died down. Her thin fingers intertwined over her stomach. She looked at my mother. “You did a kindness for Nila and her daddy. That’s why whenever you need somethin’ fixed, you call Mr. Lightfoot and it’s done. Your boy saved Gavin’s life. That’s why I want to give him somethin’, if I have your permit.”

  “It’s not necessary.”

  “Ain’t nothin’ necessary,” the Lady said, and she showed a little flare of irritation that made me think she would’ve been plenty tough when she was young. “That’s why I’m gone do it.”

  “All right,” Mom said, thoroughly cowed.

  “Young man?” The Lady’s gaze moved to me again. “What would you like?”

  I thought about it. “Anything?” I asked.

  “Within reason,” Mom prodded.

  “Anythin’,” the Lady said.

  I thought some more, but the decision wasn’t very difficult. “A bike. A new bike that’s never belonged to anybody before.”

  “A new bicycle.” She nodded. “One with a lamp on it?”

  “Yes’m.”

  “Want a horn?”

  “That’d be fine,” I said.

  “Want it to be a fast one? Faster’n a cat up a tree?”

  “Yes’m.” I was getting excited now. “I sure do!”

  “Then you’ll have it! Soon as I can get my old self up from here.”

  “That’s awfully nice of you,” Mom said. “We sure appreciate it. But Cory’s father and I can go pick up a bike from the store, if that’s—”

  “Won’t come from a store,” the Lady interrupted.

  “Pardon?” Mom asked.

  “Won’t come from a store.” She paused, to make sure my mother understood. “Store-bought’s not good enough. Not special enough. Young man, you want a real special bicycle, don’t you?”

  “I…guess I’ll take what I can get, ma’am.”

  At this, she laughed again. “Well, you’re a little gentleman! Yessir, Mr. Lightfoot and I are gone put our heads together and see what we can come up with. Does that suit you?”

  I said it did, but in truth I didn’t quite understand how this was going to bring me a brand-new bicycle.

  “Step closer,” the Lady told me. “Come around here real close.”

  Mom let me go. I walked to the side of the bed, and those green eyes were right there in front of me like spirit lamps.

  “What do you like to do besides ride a bicycle?”

  “I like to play baseball. I like to read. I like to write stories.”

  “Write stories?” Her eyebrows went up again. “Lawd, Lawd! We gots us a writer here?”

  “Cory’s always liked books,” Mom offered. “He writes little stories about cowboys, and detectives, and—”

  “Monsters,” I said. “Sometimes.”

  “Monsters,” the Lady repeated. “You gone write about Old Moses?”

  “I might.”

  “You gone write a book someday? Maybe about this town and everybody in it?”

  I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

  “Look at me,” she said. I did. “Deep,” she said.

  I did.

  And then something strange happened. She began to speak, and as she spoke, the air seemed to shimmer between us with a pearly iridescence. Her eyes had captured mine; I could not look away. “I’ve been called a monster,” the Lady said. “Been called worse than a monster. I saw my momma killed when I wasn’t much older than you. Woman jealous of her gift killed her. I swore I was gone find that woman. She wore a red dress, and she carried a monkey on her shoulder that told her things. Woman’s name was LaRouge. Took me all my life to find her. I’ve been to Lepersville, and I’ve rowed a boat through the flooded mansions.” Her face, through that shimmering haze, had begun to shed its wrinkles. She was getting younger as I stared at her. “I’ve seen the dead walkin’, and my best friend had scales and crawled on her belly.” Her face was younger still. Its beauty began to scorch my face. “I’ve seen the maskmaker. I’ve spat in Satan’s eye, and I’ve danced in the halls of the Dark Society.” She was a girl with long black hair, her cheekbones high and proud, her chin sharp, her eyes fearsome with memories. “I have lived,” she said in her clear, strong voice, “a hundred lifetimes, and I’m not dead yet. Can you see me, young man?”

  “Yes’m,” I answered, and I heard myself as if from a vast distance. “I can.”

  The spell broke, quick as a heartbeat. One second I was looking at a beautiful young woman, and the next there was the Lady as she really was, one hundred and six years old. Her eyes had cooled some, but I felt feverish.

  “Maybe someday you’ll write my life story,” the Lady told me. It sounded more like a command than a comment. “Now, why don’t you go on out and visit with Amelia and Charles while I talk to your momma?”

  I said I would. My legs were rubbery as I walked past Mom to the door. Sweat had crept around my collar. At the door, a thought hit me and I turned back to the bed. “’Scuse me, ma’am?” I ventured. “Do you…like…have anythin’ that would help me pass math? I mean like a magic drink or somethin’?”

  “Cory!” Mom scolded me.

  But the Lady just smiled. She said, “Young man, I do. You tell Amelia to get you a drink of Potion Number Ten. Then you go home and you study hard, harder’n you ever did before. So hard you can do them ’rithmatics in your sleep.” She lifted a finger. “That ought to do the trick.”

  I left the room and closed the door behind me, eager for magic.

  “Potion Number Ten?” Mom asked.

  “Glass of milk with some nutmeg flavorin’ in it,” the Lady said
. “Amelia and me got a whole list of potions worked out for folks who need a little extra courage or confidence or what have you.”

  “Is that how all your magic’s done?”

  “Most all. You just give folks a key, and they can rightly open their own locks.” The Lady’s head cocked to one side. “But there’s other kinds of magic, too. That’s why I need to talk to you.”

  My mother was silent, not understanding what was about to come.

  “Been dreamin’,” the Lady said. “Been dreamin’ asleep and awake. Things ain’t right here no more. Things are tore up on the other side, too.”

  “The other side?”

  “Where the dead go,” she said. “Across the river. Not the Tecumseh. The broad, dark river where I’m gonna be goin’ before too much longer. Then I’ll look back and laugh and I’ll say, ‘So that’s what it’s all about!’”

  Mom shook her head, uncomprehending.

  “Things are tore up,” the Lady went on. “In the land of the livin’ and the world of the dead. I knew somethin’ was wrong when Damballah denied his food. Jenna Velvadine told me what happened at your church Easter mornin’. That was the spirit world at work, too.”

  “It was wasps,” Mom said.

  “To you, wasps. To me, a message. Somebody’s in terrible pain on the other side.”

  “I don’t—”

  “Understand,” the Lady finished for her. “I know you don’t. Sometimes I don’t either. But I know the language of pain, Miz Mackenson. I grew up speakin’ it.” The Lady reached over to her bedside table, opened a drawer, and took out a piece of lined notebook paper. She gave it to my mother. “You recognize this?”

  Mom stared at it. On the paper was the pencil sketch of a head: a skull, it looked to be, with wings swept back from its temples.

  “In my dream I see a man with that tattoo on his shoulder. I see a pair of hands, and in one hand there’s a billy club wrapped up with black tape—we call it a crackerknocker—and in the other there’s a wire. I can hear voices, but I can’t tell what’s bein’ said. Somebody’s yellin’, and there’s music bein’ played real loud.”

  “Music?” Mom was cold inside; she had recognized the winged skull from what Dad had told her about the corpse in the car.

  “Either a record,” the Lady said, “or somebody’s beatin’ hell out of a piano. I told Charles. He recalled me a story I read in the Journal back in March. Your husband was the one who saw a dead man go down in Saxon’s Lake, ain’t that right?”

  “Yes.”

  “Might this have anythin’ to do with it?”

  Mom took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out. “Yes,” she said.

  “I thought so. Your husband sleepin’ all right?”

  “No. He…has bad dreams. About the lake, and…the man in it.”

  “Tryin’ to reach your husband,” the Lady said. “Tryin’ to get his attention. I’m just pickin’ up the message, like a party line on a telephone.”

  “Message?” Mom asked. “What message?”

  “I don’t know,” the Lady admitted, “but that kind of pain can sure ’nuff drive a man out of his mind.”

  Tears began to blur my mother’s vision. “I…can’t… I don’t…” She faltered, and a tear streaked down her left cheek like quicksilver.

  “You show him that picture. Tell him to come see me if he wants to talk about it. Tell him he knows where I live.”

  “He won’t come. He’s afraid of you.”

  “You tell him,” the Lady said, “this thing could tear him to pieces if he don’t set it right. You tell him I could be the best friend he ever had.”

  Mom nodded. She folded the notebook paper into a square and clenched it in her hand.

  “Wipe your eyes,” the Lady told her. “Don’t want the young man gettin’ upset.” When my mother had gotten herself fairly composed, the Lady gave a grunt of satisfaction. “There you go. Lookin’ pretty again. Now, you go tell the young man he’ll have his new bicycle soon as I can manage it. You make sure he studies his lessons, too. Potion Number Ten don’t work without a momma or daddy layin’ down the law.”

  My mother thanked the Lady for her kindness. She said she’d talk to my father about coming to see her, but she couldn’t promise anything. “I’ll expect him when I see him,” the Lady said. “You take care of yourself and your family.”

  Mom and I left the house and walked to the truck. The corners of my mouth still had a little Potion Number Ten in them. I felt ready to tear that math book up.

  We left Bruton. The river flowed gently between its banks. The night’s breeze blew softly through the trees, and the lights glowed from windows as people finished their dinners. I had two things on my mind: the hauntingly beautiful face of a young woman with green eyes, and a new bike with a horn and headlight.

  My mother was thinking about a dead man whose corpse lay down at the bottom of the lake but whose spirit haunted my father’s dreams and now the Lady’s dreams as well.

  Summer was close upon us, its scent of honeysuckle and violets perfuming the land.

  Somewhere in Zephyr, a piano was being played.

  TWO

  Summer of Devils and Angels

  LAST DAY OF SCHOOL—Barbershop Talk—A Boy and a Ball—I Get Around—Welcome, Lucifer—Nemo’s Mother & a Week with the Jaybird—My Camping Trip—Chile Willow—Summer Winds Up

  1

  Last Day of School

  TICK…TICK…TICK.

  In spite of what the calendar says, I have always counted the last day of school as the first day of summer. The sun had grown steadily hotter and hung longer in the sky, the earth had greened and the sky had cleared of all but the fleeciest of clouds, the heat panted for attention like a dog who knows his day is coming, the baseball field had been mowed and white-lined and the swimming pool newly painted and filled, and as our homeroom teacher, Mrs. Selma Neville, intoned about what a good year this had been and how much we’d learned, we students who had passed through the ordeal of final exams sat with one eye fixed to the clock.

  Tick…tick…tick.

  In my desk, alphabetically positioned between Ricky Lembeck and Dinah Macurdy, half of me listened to the teacher’s speech while the other half longed for an end to it. My head was full up with words. I needed to shake some of them out in the bright summer air. But we were Mrs. Neville’s property until the last bell rang, and we had to sit and suffer until time rescued us like Roy Rogers riding over the hill.

  Tick…tick…tick.

  Have mercy.

  The world was out there, waiting beyond the square metal-rimmed windows. What adventures my friends and I would find this summer of 1964, I had no way of knowing, but I did know that summer’s days were long and lazy, and when the sun finally gave up its hold on the sky the cicadas sang and the lightning bugs whirled their dance and there was no homework to be done and oh, it was a wonderful time. I had passed my math exam, and escaped—with a C-minus average, if truth must be known—the snarling trap of summer school. As my friends and I went about our pleasures, running amuck in the land of freedom, we would pause every so often to think of the inmates of summer school—a prison Ben Sears had been sentenced to last year—and wish them well, because time was moving on without them and they weren’t getting any younger.

  Tick…tick…tick.

  Time, the king of cruelty.

  From the hallway we heard a stirring and rustling, followed by laughter and shouts of pure, bubbling joy. Some other teacher had decided to let her class go early. My insides quaked at the injustice of it. Still, Mrs. Neville, who wore a hearing aid and had orange hair though she was at least sixty years old, talked on, as if there were no noise of escape beyond the door at all. It hit me, then; she didn’t want to let us go. She wanted to hold us as long as she possibly could, not out of sheer teacher spite but maybe because she didn’t have anybody to go home to, and summer alone is no summer at all.

  “I hope you boys and girls remember to us
e the library during recess.” Mrs. Neville was speaking in her kindly voice right now, but when she was upset she could spit sparks that made that falling meteor look like a dud. “You mustn’t stop reading just because school is out. Your minds are made to be used. So don’t forget how to think by the time September comes around a—”

  RINGGGGGGG!

  We all jumped up, like parts of the same squirming insect.

  “One moment,” Mrs. Neville said. “One moment. You’re not excused yet.”

  Oh, this was torture! Mrs. Neville, I thought at that instant, must have had a secret life in which she tore the wings off flies.

  “You will leave my room,” she announced, “like young ladies and gentlemen. In single file, by rows. Mr. Alcott, you may lead the way.”

  Well, at least we were moving. But then, as the classroom emptied and I could hear the wild hollering echoing along the hallway, Mrs. Neville said, “Cory Mackenson? Step to my desk, please.”

  I did, under silent protest. Mrs. Neville offered me a smile from a mouth that looked like a red-rimmed string bag. “Now, aren’t you glad you decided to apply yourself to your math?” she asked.

  “Yes ma’am.”

  “If you’d studied as hard all year, you might’ve made the honor roll.”

  “Yes ma’am.” Too bad I hadn’t gotten a drink of Potion Number Ten back in the autumn, I was thinking.

  The classroom was empty. I could hear the echoes fading. I smelled chalk dust, lunchroom chili, and pencil-sharpener shavings; the ghosts were already beginning to gather.

  “You enjoy writing, don’t you?” Mrs. Neville asked me, peering over her bifocals.

  “I guess.”

  “You wrote the best essays in class and you made the highest grade in spelling. I was wondering if you were going to enter the contest this year.”

  “The contest?”