Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 15

  “The writing contest,” she said. “You know. The Arts Council sponsors it every August.”

  I hadn’t thought about it. The Arts Council, headed by Mr. Grover Dean and Mrs. Evelyn Prathmore, sponsored an essay and story-writing contest. The winners got a plaque and were expected to read their entries during a luncheon at the library. I shrugged. Stories about ghosts, cowboys, detectives, and monsters from outer space didn’t seem much like contest-winning material; it was just something I did for me.

  “You should consider it,” Mrs. Neville continued. “You have a way with words.”

  I shrugged again. Having your teacher talk to you like a regular person is a disconcerting feeling.

  “Have a good summer,” Mrs. Neville said, and I realized suddenly that I was free.

  My heart was a frog leaping out of murky water into clear sunlight. I said, “Thanks!” and I ran for the door. Before I got out, though, I looked back at Mrs. Neville. She sat at a desk with no papers on it that needed grading, no books holding lessons that needed to be taught. The only thing on her desk, besides her blotter and her pencil sharpener that would do no more chewing for a while, was a red apple Paula Erskine had brought her. I saw Mrs. Neville, framed in a spill of sunlight, reach for the apple and pick it up as if in slow motion. Then Mrs. Neville stared out at the room of empty desks, carved with the initials of generations who had passed through this place like a tide rolling into the future. Mrs. Neville suddenly looked awfully old.

  “Have a good summer, Mrs. Neville!” I told her from the doorway.

  “Good-bye,” she said, and she smiled.

  I ran out along the corridor, my arms unencumbered by books, my mind unencumbered by facts and figures, quotations and dates. I ran out into the golden sunlight, and my summer had begun.

  I was still without a bike. It had been almost three weeks since Mom and I had gone to visit the Lady. I kept bugging Mom to call her, but Mom said for me to be patient, that I’d get the new bike when it arrived and not a minute before. Mom and Dad had a long talk about the Lady, as they sat on the porch in the blue twilight, and I guess I wasn’t supposed to be listening but I heard Dad say, “I don’t care what she dreams. I’m not goin’.” Sometimes at night I awakened to hear my father crying out in his sleep, and then I’d hear Mom trying to calm him down. I’d hear him say something like “…in the lake…” or “…down in the dark…” and I knew what had gotten into his mind like a black leech. Dad had started pushing his plate away at dinner when it was still half full, which was in direct violation of his “clean your plate, Cory, because there are youngsters starvin’ in India” speech. He’d started losing weight, and he’d had to pull the belt in tight on his milkman trousers. His face had begun changing, too; his cheekbones were getting sharper, his eyes sinking back in their sockets. He listened to a lot of baseball on the radio and watched the games on television, and as often as not he went to sleep in his easy chair with his mouth open. In his sleep, his face flinched.

  I was getting scared for him.

  I believe I understand what was gnawing at my father. It was not simply the fact that he’d seen a dead man. It was not the fact that the dead man had been murdered, because there had been murders—though, thank goodness, relatively few—in Zephyr before. I think the meanness of the act, the brutal cold-bloodedness of it, was what had eaten into my father’s soul. Dad was smart about a lot of things; he was commonsense smart, and he knew right from wrong and he was a man of his word, but he was naive about the world in many ways. I don’t think he’d ever believed that evil could exist in Zephyr. The idea that a fellow human being could be beaten and strangled, handcuffed to a wheel and denied a Christian burial in God’s earth—and that this terrible thing had happened right in his own hometown where he’d been born and raised—had hurt something deep inside him. Broken something, maybe, that he couldn’t fix by himself. Maybe it was also because the murdered man seemed to have no past, and that no one had responded to Sheriff Amory’s inquiries.

  “He had to be somebody,” I’d heard Dad telling Mom one night, through the wall. “Didn’t he have a wife, or children, or brothers or sisters? Didn’t he have folks of his own? My God, Rebecca, he had to have a name! Who was he? And where did he come from?”

  “That’s for the sheriff to find out.”

  “J.T. can’t find out anythin’! He’s given it up!”

  “I think you ought to go see the Lady, Tom.”


  “Why not? You saw the drawin’. You know it’s the same tattoo. Why won’t you at least go talk to her?”

  “Because—” He paused, and I could tell he was searching inside himself for an answer. “Because I don’t believe in her kind of magic, that’s why. It’s false trickery. She must’ve read about that tattoo in the Journal.”

  “It wasn’t described in such detail in the paper. You know that. And she said she heard voices and piano music, and she saw a pair of hands. Go talk to her, Tom. Please go.”

  “She doesn’t have anythin’ to tell me,” Dad said firmly. “At least not anythin’ I want to hear.”

  And that was where it stood, as my father’s sleep was haunted by a drowned phantom with no name.

  On this first day of summer, though, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I wasn’t thinking about Old Moses, or Midnight Mona, or the man with the green-feathered hat. I was thinking of joining my friends in what had become our ritual of celebration.

  I ran home from school. Rebel was waiting for me on the front porch. I told Mom I’d be back after a while, and then I ran into the woods behind our house with Rebel at my heels. The forest was green and glorious, a warm breeze stirring through the foliage and trees and the bright sun slanting down. I reached the forest trail and followed it deeper into the woods, and Rebel veered off to chase a squirrel up a tree before he came on. It took me about ten minutes to break through the forest and reach the wide green clearing that stood on a rolling hillside with Zephyr stretched out below. My friends, who’d come on their bikes, were already there with their dogs: Johnny Wilson with his big red Chief, Ben Sears with Tumper, and Davy Ray Callan with his brown-and-white-spotted Buddy.

  The wind was stronger up here. It whirled around and around in the clearing, a happy circle of summer air. “We made it!” Davy Ray shouted. “School’s out!”

  “School’s out!” Ben yelled, and jumped around like a pure idiot with Tumper barking at his side.

  Johnny just grinned, and he stood staring down at our hometown with the sun hot on his face.

  “You ready?” Ben asked me.

  “Ready.” I told him, my heart starting to beat hard.

  “Everybody ready?” Ben shouted.

  We were.

  “Let’s go, then! Summer’s started!” Ben began to run around the edges of the clearing in a wide circle, with Tumper loping along behind. I followed him, Rebel weaving in and out of my track. Johnny and Davy Ray started running behind me, their dogs racing back and forth across the clearing and tusseling with each other.

  We ran faster and faster. The wind was first in our faces and then at our backs. We ran around the clearing on our sturdy young legs, the wind speaking through the pines and oaks that rimmed our playground. “Faster!” Johnny shouted, limping just a little on his clubfoot. “Gotta go faster!”

  We kept going, fighting the wind and then flying before it. The dogs ran beside us, barking with the sheer happiness of movement. The sun sparkled on the Tecumseh River, the sky was clear azure, and summer’s heat bloomed in our lungs.

  It was time. Everyone knew it was time.

  “Ben’s goin’ up first!” I shouted. “He’s gettin’ ready! He’s gettin’—”

  Ben gave a holler. Wings tore through the back of his shirt as they grew from his shoulder blades.

  “His wings are gettin’ bigger!” I said. “They’re the same color as his hair, and they’re lazy from not bein’ used for so long, but now they’re startin’ to beat! Look a
t ’em! Just look!”

  Ben’s feet lifted off the earth, and his wings began to take him upward.

  “Tumper’s goin’, too!” I said. “Wait for him, Ben!”

  Tumper’s wings unfurled. Yapping nervously, the dog ascended beneath his master’s heels. “Come on, Tumper!” Ben cried out. “Let’s go!”

  “Davy Ray!” I said. “Do you feel it?”

  He wanted to. He really did, but I could tell he wasn’t ready. “Johnny!” I said. “You’re about to go!”

  Johnny’s wings, when they exploded from his shoulder blades, were shimmering black. He went up with big red Chief flapping at his side. I looked up at Ben, who was already fifty feet above the earth and flying like a pudgy eagle. “Ben’s leavin’ you, Davy Ray! Look up there at him! Hey, Ben! Call Davy Ray!”

  “Come on up, Davy Ray!” Ben shouted, and he turned a barrel roll. “The air’s just fine!”

  “I’m ready!” Davy Ray said, his teeth clenched. “I’m ready! Talk me up, Cory!”

  “You can feel your wings startin’ to grow, can’t you? Yeah, I see ’em! They’re gettin’ ready to bust free! Here they come! They’re loose!”

  “I feel ’em! I feel ’em!” Davy Ray grinned, sweat on his face. His sleek auburn-colored wings began to flap, and he ascended with a swimming motion. I knew that Davy Ray was not afraid of flying; he never had been in the summers we’d been coming here. He was only afraid of that first leap of faith when you left the ground. “Buddy’s comin’ after you!” I shouted as the dog’s brown-and-white-spotted wings caught the air. Buddy dog-paddled upward.

  My own wings suddenly burst from my shoulder blades, unfurling like brown flags. They ripped through my shirt, hungry for wind. I felt the delirium of freedom lighten my bones. As I began to rise, I had a few seconds of panic akin to the summer’s first jump into the cold waters of the public pool. My wings had been tight and dormant under my flesh since the end of August, and though they might have twitched every once in a while around Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas vacation, and Easter break, they had been asleep and only dreaming of this day. They felt heavy and ungainly, and I wondered—as I did every summer since our ritual had begun—how such things could read the air almost of their own accord. And then my wings filled up with wind and I felt their awesome muscular might. They gave a jerking motion, like the reaction after a sneeze. The second flap was more controlled and powerful; the third was as pretty as poetry. My wings began to beat in the current of air. “I’m doin’ it!” I shouted as I rose after my friends and their dogs in the bright sky.

  I heard a familiar barking, close behind. I looked back. Rebel’s white wings had grown, and he was following me. I flapped upward, following the others who followed Ben. “Not so fast, Ben!” I cautioned, but he was soaring toward seventy feet. He deserved to fly, I thought, for what he had endured on the ground. Tumper and Buddy swooped around and around in a long lazy circle and Rebel barked to be allowed in the game. Chief, like his master, was more of a loner. Then Rebel swooped over toward me again and licked my face, and I put my arm around his neck and together we soared above the treetops.

  Davy Ray had conquered his fears. He made a caw-caw-cawing sound and he put his head straight down with his arms rigid at his sides and he dove at the earth, laughing. His wings were smoothed back along his shoulders, his face contorted by the rush of air. “Pull up, Davy Ray!” I shouted as he streaked past me with Buddy in dogged pursuit. “Pull up!”

  But Davy kept going down toward the green forest. When it seemed he was doomed to crash like a meteor, his wings suddenly spread out like a beautiful fan and he jackknifed his body upward. He could’ve chewed on pine needles if he’d wanted. Davy flew across the treetops, yelling with delight, but Buddy crashed through a few thin branches before he got himself straightened out again. The dog came up from the trees spitting and growling, leaving shell-shocked squirrels in his wake.

  I kept rising toward Ben. Off by himself, Johnny was executing slow figure-eights. Rebel and Tumper began playing chase sixty feet above the ground. Ben grinned at me, his face and shirt damp with sweat, his shirttail hanging out. “Cory!” he said. “Watch this!” Then he closed his arms over his belly and pulled his knees up tightly and he whooped as he cannonballed down. As Davy had done, Ben opened his wings large to catch the wind when he wanted to slow his speed, but here something went wrong. One of his wings didn’t open full. Ben yelped, knowing he was in trouble. He cartwheeled, his arms flailing. “I’m goin’ dowwwnnnn!” Ben wailed on a wing and a prayer.

  He slammed into the treetops, belly first.

  “You okay?” Davy Ray asked him.

  “You all right?” I asked.

  Johnny stopped running, too, and Tumper ran over to his master and licked Ben’s face. Ben sat up and showed us a skinned elbow. “Wow,” he said. “That stung a little bit.” Blood was showing.

  “Well, you shouldn’t have gone so fast!” Davy Ray told him. “Numb nuts!”

  “I’m okay, really I am.” Ben stood up. “We’re not through flyin’ yet, are we, Cory?”

  He was ready to go again. I started running, my arms spread out at my sides. The others sped around me in all directions, their arms out, too, and the wind buffeting us. “Now Davy Ray’s up to seventy feet,” I said, “and Buddy’s right there with him. Johnny’s doin’ a figure-eight at fifty feet. Come on, Ben! Get out of those trees!”

  He came up, pine needles in his hair, his mouth split by a grin.

  The first day of summer was always a wonderful time.

  “This way, fellas!” Davy Ray shouted as he began flying toward Zephyr. I followed him. My wings knew the blue roads.

  The sun was hot on our backs. The houses of Zephyr lay below us like toys on gum-stick streets. The cars looked like little windups you might buy at the five and dime. We flew on over the Tecumseh’s sparkling brown snake, over the gargoyle bridge and the old railroad trestle. I could see some fishermen in a rowboat down there. If Old Moses decided to grab their bait, they wouldn’t be sitting so calmly waiting for a mudcat.

  Our small shadows, and those of our dogs, moved across the earth like secret writing. We flew over the dark brown, oblong stain of Saxon’s Lake. I didn’t like it, even as I caught a warm current and zoomed up to seventy feet. I didn’t like what was lying in it like a seed in a rotten apple. Davy dove down and flew less than ten feet over the lake’s surface. I figured he’d better be careful; if his wings got wet, he was through flying until they dried out. Then he ascended again, and all of us flew over the forest and farmland that lay beyond Saxon’s Lake like a patchwork quilt of wild green and burnished brown.

  “Where are we now, Cory?” Davy Ray asked.

  I said, “We’re almost to…”

  Robbins Air Force Base, a huge flat clearing amid an ocean of woods. I pointed out a silver jet fighter heading in for a landing. Beyond the base, and off limits to everybody including boys with wings, was a testing ground where the fighter pilots shot at dummy ground targets and bombers occasionally dropped a real payload that rattled the windows of Zephyr. The airfield was the boundary of our jaunt, and we turned around in the hot blue and began flying back the way we’d come: over fields and forest, lake, river, and rooftops.

  With Rebel at my side, I circled above my house. The other guys were swooping around their own houses, their dogs barking happily. I realized how small my house was compared to the great world that stretched off in all directions. From my height I could see roads going off to the horizon, and cars and trucks on those roads heading to destinations unknown. Wanderlust is part of summer, too; I was feeling it, and wondering if I would ever travel those roads, and if I did where I would be going. I wondered, as well, what might happen if Mom or Dad suddenly walked out of the house, saw my shadow and Rebel’s on the yard, and looked up. I doubt if they ever knew their son could fly.

  I made a circle of the chimneytops and turrets of the Thaxter mansion, at the top of Temple Street. Then I rejoine
d my friends, and we reached the clearing on tired wings.

  We made a few circles, descending one after the other like graceful leaves. The ground was a jolt under my heels, and I kept running as my wings and body adjusted again to earth’s grasp. Then we were all on the ground, running around the clearing with our dogs, first pushing the wind and then being pushed by it. Our wings folded up and returned to their hidden sheaths in our hollow shoulder blades; the dogs’ wings slid down into the flesh and sealed over with a rippling of hair—white, brown, red, brown and white spotted. Our torn shirts mended themselves, and no mother would ever know what had burst through them. We were drenched with sweat, our faces and arms shining with it, and as we became earthbound again we ceased our running and dropped exhausted to the grass.

  The dogs were upon us at once, licking our faces. Our ritual flight had ended for another summer.

  We sat around for a while, talking once our hearts and minds had settled down. We talked about all the things we were going to do this summer; there were so many things, the days wouldn’t be long enough. But we all decided we wanted to go camping, and that was for sure.

  Then it was time to go home. “See you guys!” Ben said as he wheeled away on his bike with Tumper in pursuit. “Catch ya later!” Davy Ray told us as he departed on his bike and Buddy sprinted after a cottontail rabbit. “See you later!” Johnny said as he pedaled away with faithful Chief loping at his side. I waved. “Alligator!” I said.

  I walked home, pausing to throw a few pine cones for Rebel to chase. He barked furiously at a snake hole he’d discovered, but I pulled him away from it before whatever was inside came sliding out. It was a mighty big snake hole.

  At home, Mom looked at me aghast when I strolled into the kitchen. “You’re drippin’ wet!” she said. “What’ve you been doin’?”

  I shrugged as I reached for the pitcher of cold lemonade.

  “Nothin’ much,” I answered.


  Barbershop Talk

  “LITTLE BIT OFF the top and thin the sides out, Tom?”