Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 19

  “You little piece o’ shit,” Gotha said, his nose dripping. He put his foot on my chest and slammed me down on my back again. Gordo, still holding his shoulder, said, “Lemme have him.”

  I was too dazed to fight back. Even if I hadn’t been dazed, I couldn’t have done very much against those two without a spiked mace and a broadsword and fifty more pounds on my bones.

  “Stomp his ass, Gordo,” Gotha urged.

  Gordo grabbed the front of my shirt and started to haul me to my feet. My shirt ripped, and I remember thinking that Mom was going to tear me up.

  “I’ll kill you,” somebody said.

  Gotha laughed like a bark. “Put it down, kid.”

  “I’ll kill you, I thwear I will!”

  I blinked, spat blood, and looked at Nemo Curliss, who stood fifteen feet away. The baseball was in his hand, his skinny arm cocked back.

  Now, this was an interesting situation. I’d been lucky in hitting Gordo’s shoulder; in Nemo’s hand, however, that hard round sphere was a lethal weapon. I had no doubt that Nemo could hit either one of the Branlins right between the eyes and knock their brains out. I had no doubt, either, that he would. Because I saw his eyes magnified behind those glasses. The fury trapped in them, like a distant conflagration, was terrible to behold. He was no longer crying or trembling. With that baseball in his grip, he was the master of the universe. I really think he was ready to kill somebody. Maybe it was the rage at being born a runt, of having a lisp, of attracting bullies like a weak calf makes a predator’s mouth water. Maybe he was full to the gullet with being shoved and taunted. Whatever it was, it was there like a deadly resolve in his eyes.

  Gordo let me go. Lip-ripped and shirt-ripped, I sat in the grass.

  “Look at me shake,” Gotha said silkily as he took a step toward Nemo.

  Gordo fanned out a few paces from his brother. His penis was still hanging out of his jeans. I wondered if that would make a good target. “Throw it, chickenshit,” Gordo said.

  A Branlin was very close to death.

  “Hey, you boys! Hey, there!”

  The voice came across the field at us, from the road that ran along its edge. “Hey, you boys all right?”

  I turned my head, my face as heavy as a bag of stones. Parked on the roadside was a mailman’s truck. The mailman himself was walking toward us, a pith helmet shading his face. He wore shorts with black socks, and sweat stains darkened his blue shirt.

  Like any animals, the Branlins knew the sound of the hinge on a cage’s lid. Without a word to each other, they turned away from the carnage they had created and ran to their bikes. Gordo hurriedly pushed his penis back in and zipped up his fly, then he swung himself up in the seat. Gotha paused to kick Rocket over again; I suppose the temptation to ruin was just too great. Then he got on his bike and the two brothers started pedaling frantically back the way they’d come. “Wait a minute!” the mailman shouted, but the Branlins listened only to their inner demons. They raced across the field, dust swirling up behind them, and then they hit the trails they’d carved through the brushy grass and were gone into the patch of woods that stood beyond. Some ravens screamed in there: scavengers, welcoming their own.

  It was all over but the cleaning up.

  Mr. Gerald Hargison, our mailman who delivered my monthly issue of Famous Monsters magazine in a plain brown envelope, reached me and stopped when he saw my face. “Good God!” he said, which told me it was bad. “Cory?”

  I nodded. My lower lip felt as big as a goosedown pillow, and my left eye was swelling up.

  “You okay, boy?”

  I didn’t feel like twirling a Hula Hoop, that’s for sure. But I could stand up, and all my teeth were still in their sockets. Davy Ray was all right, too, except his face was a mass of bruises and one of the Branlins had stepped on his fingers. Johnny Wilson, however, had been the hardest hit. Mr. Hargison, who had a fleshy, ruddy-cheeked face and smoked plastic-tipped cheroots when he was walking his route, winced as he helped Johnny sit up. Johnny’s Cherokee hatchet of a nose was broken, no doubt about it. The blood was dark red and thick, and Johnny’s swollen eyes couldn’t hold a focus. “Boy?” Mr. Hargison said to him. “How many fingers am I holdin’ up?” He held up three, right in front of Johnny’s face.

  “Six,” Johnny said.

  “I believe he’s got a—”

  And here was a word that never failed to frighten, giving images of brain-damaged drooling.

  “—concussion. I’m gonna take him to Doc Parrish. Can you two get home?”

  Us two? I saw Davy Ray, but where was Nemo? The ball was lying on the ground next to home plate. The boy with the perfect arm was gone.

  “Those were the Branlin brothers, weren’t they?” Mr. Hargison helped Johnny stand, and he took a handkerchief from his shorts pocket and held it against Johnny’s nostrils. In no time, the white was spotted with blood. “Those fellas need their butts kicked.”

  “You’re gonna be all right, Johnny,” I told him, but Johnny didn’t answer me and he walked rubber-legged as Mr. Hargison led him to the truck. Davy and I stood watching as Mr. Hargison got him in and then went around and started the engine. Johnny leaned back in the seat, his head lolling. He’d been hurt bad.

  After Mr. Hargison had turned the mail truck around and sped off in the direction of Dr. Parrish’s office, Davy and I rolled Johnny’s bike up under the bleachers, where it wouldn’t be readily seen. The Branlins might come back and tear it to pieces before Johnny’s dad could come get it, but it was the best we could do. Then it dawned on our foggy minds that the Branlins might be in the patch of woods still, where they’d been waiting for Mr. Hargison to leave.

  That thought hurried us up some. Davy retrieved his baseball and got on his bike and I picked Rocket up again. I saw, for a brief instant, the golden eye in the headlight. It seemed to regard me with cool pity, same to say, “You’re my new master? You’re gonna need all the help you can get!” Rocket had had a rough first day, but I hoped we’d get along all right.

  Davy and I pedaled away from the field, both of us hurting. We knew what was to come: horror from our parents, indignation at the Branlins, angry phone calls, probably a visit by the sheriff, an empty promise from Mr. and Mrs. Branlin that their boys would never, ever do anything like this again.

  We knew better.

  We had escaped the Branlins for now, but Gotha and Gordo held grudges. At any moment, they might swoop at us on their black bikes and finish what they’d started. Or what I had started, by throwing that danged baseball.

  Summer had suddenly been poisoned by the Branlin touch. With July and August still ahead, we were not likely to have all our teeth by September.


  I Get Around

  OUR PREDICTIONS OF the future were correct.

  After the parental horror and the angry phone calls, Sheriff Amory made a call on the Branlins. He did not, as he told my dad, find Gotha and Gordo at home. But he told their parents that the boys had broken Johnny Wilson’s nose and come close to fracturing his skull, and this was what Mr. Branlin replied, with a shrug: “Well, Sheriff, I kinda figure boys will be boys. Might as well learn ’em when they’re young that it’s a tough old world.”

  Sheriff Amory had clamped his anger down tight and stuck his finger in Mr. Branlin’s rheumy-eyed face. “Now, you listen to me! You control those boys of yours before they end up in reform school! Either you do it or I will!”

  “Don’t matter none,” Mr. Branlin had said as he sat in front of the television in a room where dirty shirts and socks were scattered around and Mrs. Branlin moaned about her bad back from the bedroom. “They ain’t scared of me. Ain’t scared of nobody on earth. They’d burn a reform school smack to the ground.”

  “You tell ’em to come see me, or I’ll come here and get ’em!”

  Mr. Branlin, probing his molars with a toothpick, had just grunted and shaken his head. “You ever try to catch the wind, J.T.? Them boys are free spirits.” He had lif
ted his gaze from the Calling-for-Cash afternoon movie and stared up at the sheriff, the toothpick between his teeth. “Say my two sons beat the asses of four other boys? Sounds to me like Gotha and Gordo were fightin’ in self-defense. They’d have to be crazy to pick a fight with four boys at once, don’t you figure?”

  “It wasn’t self-defense, from what I’ve heard.”

  “From what I’ve heard”—Mr. Branlin paused to examine a brown glob on the end of his toothpick—“that Mackenson boy threw a baseball at Gordo and came near breakin’ his shoulder. Gordo showed me the bruise, and it’s as black as the ace of spades. Those people want to push this thing, I reckon I might have to press charges against that Mackenson kid.” The toothpick and the brown glob went back into his mouth. He returned his attention to the movie, which starred Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. “Yeah, those Mackensons go to church all high-and-mighty, and they teach their kid to throw a baseball at one of my boys and then whimper and whine when he gets his clock cleaned.” He snorted. “Some Christians!”

  In this matter, though, Sheriff Amory prevailed. Mr. Branlin agreed to pay Dr. Parrish’s bill and for the medicine Johnny was going to need. Gotha and Gordo had to sweep and mop the jail and couldn’t go to the swimming pool for a week by order of the sheriff, which I knew, of course, simply stoked their rage at Davy Ray and me. I had to have six stitches to seal the gash on my lower lip—an experience almost as bad as getting the lip split in the first place—but Mr. Branlin refused to pay for it on account of my throwing the baseball at Gordo. My mother pitched a fury, but my father let it go. Davy Ray went to bed with an ice pack, his violet-bruised face looking like two miles of bad road. As I learned from my dad, Johnny’s concussion was severe enough to put him on his back until Dr. Parrish gave him the green light, which might be a couple of weeks or more. Even when Johnny was back on his feet, he was not to do any running or roughhousing and he couldn’t even ride his bike, which his father had rescued intact from beneath the bleachers. So the Branlins had done something even worse than beating us up: they’d stolen part of Johnny Wilson’s summer away from him, and he would never again be twelve years old in June.

  It was about this time that, sitting on my bed with my eyes puffed up and the curtains drawn against the stinging light, I put my stack of Famous Monsters magazines in my lap and began to cut out some of the pictures with scissors. Then I got a roll of Scotch tape and started taping the pictures up on my walls, on my desk, on my closet door, and just about anywhere that would hold adhesive. When I finished, my room was a monster museum. Staring down at me were Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Mummy. My bed was surrounded by moody black and white scenes from Metropolis, London after Midnight, Freaks, The Black Cat, and The House on Haunted Hill. My closet door was a collage of beasts: Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir battling an elephant, the monster spider stalking the Incredible Shrinking Man, Gorgo wading across the Thames, the scar-faced Colossal Man, the leathery Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Rodan in full flight. I had a special place above my desk—a place of honor, if you will—for Vincent Price’s suave, white-haired Roderick Usher and Christopher Lee’s lean and thirsty Dracula. My mother came in, saw what I had done, and had to hold on to the door’s edge to keep from falling down. “Cory!” she said. “Take these awful pictures off the walls!”

  “Why?” I asked her, my lower lip straining against its stitches. “It’s my room, isn’t it?”

  “Yes, but you’ll have nightmares with these things starin’ at you all the time!”

  “No I won’t,” I said. “Honest.”

  She retreated graciously, and the pictures stayed up.

  I had nightmares about the Branlins, but not about the creatures who adorned my walls. I took comfort in the belief that they were my watchdogs. They would not allow the Branlins to crawl through my window after me, and they spoke to me in the quiet hours of strength and endurance against a world that fears what it does not understand.

  I was never afraid of my monsters. I controlled them. I slept with them in the dark, and they never stepped beyond their boundaries. My monsters had never asked to be bora with bolts in their necks, scaly wings, blood hunger in their veins, or deformed faces from which beautiful girls shrank back in horror. My monsters were not evil; they were simply trying to survive in a tough old world. They reminded me of myself and my friends: ungainly, unlovely, beaten but not conquered. They were the outsiders searching for a place to belong in a cataclysm of villagers’ torches, amulets, crucifixes, silver bullets, radiation bombs, air force jets, and flamethrowers. They were imperfect, and heroic in their suffering.

  I’ll tell you what scared me.

  One afternoon I picked up an old copy of Life from a stack of magazines Mom was about to throw out, and I sat on the porch and looked through it with Rebel sprawled beside me, the cicadas droning from the trees and the sky as still as a painting. In this magazine were photographs of what had happened in Dallas, Texas, in November of 1963. There were sunny pictures of the president and his wife in a long black convertible, and he was smiling and waving to the crowd. Then, in a blur, it all changed. Of course I had seen that guy Oswald get killed on television, and what I remembered about that was how small the shot had sounded, just a pop and not at all like the cannon booms of Matt Dillon’s six-shooter on “Gunsmoke.” I remembered how Oswald had cried out as he fell. I made a louder noise than that stubbing my toe on a rock.

  As I looked at the photographs of President Kennedy’s funeral—the riderless horse, the dead man’s little boy saluting, rows of people standing to watch the coffin go past—I realized what to me was a peculiar and scary thing. In those pictures, you can see black pools spreading. Maybe it was just the light, or the film, or something, but those pictures seemed to me to be filling up with darkness. Black shadows hang in the corners; they spread tendrils across men in suits and weeping women, and they connect cars and buildings and manicured lawns with long fingers of shadow. Faces are shrouded with darkness, and it has gathered around people’s shoes like ponds of tar. The darkness seems like a living thing in those pictures, something growing among the people like a virus and hungrily stretching right off the frame.

  Then, on another page, there was a photograph of a man on fire. He is baldheaded and Oriental, and he wears the flames like a cloak as he sits cross-legged in the street. His eyes are closed, and though the fire is eating up his face he is as serene as my dad listening to Roy Orbison on the radio. The caption said this had happened in a city called Saigon, and the Oriental man was a monk who poured gasoline on himself, sat down, and lit a match.

  And there was a third picture that haunts me yet. It shows a burned-out church, the stained-glass windows shattered and firemen picking through the ruins. A few black people are standing around, their expressions dull with shock. The trees in front of the church have no leaves on them, though the caption said this event happened on September fifteenth of 1963, before summer’s end. The caption said this was what was left of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, after somebody planted a bomb that went off as Sunday school was just letting out and four girls died in the blast.

  I looked out, across my hometown. I looked at the green hills and the blue sky, and the distant roofs of Bruton. Beside me, Rebel whimpered in a dog’s dream.

  I never knew what hate really was until I thought of somebody wrapping up a bomb and putting it in a church on a Sunday morning to kill little girls.

  I wasn’t feeling very well. My head, still lumpy from Gotha Branlin’s fist, was hurting. I went to my room and lay down, and there amid my monsters I fell asleep.

  This was early summer in Zephyr: an awakening to hazy morning heat, the sun gradually burning the haze off and the air getting so humid your shirt stuck to your skin by the time you’d walked to the mailbox and back. At noon the world seemed to pause on its axis, and not a bird dared to wing through the steaming blue. As afternoon rambled on, a few clo
uds rimmed with purple might build up from the northwest. You could sit on the porch, a glass of lemonade at your side and the radio tuned to a baseball game, and watch the clouds slowly roll toward you. After a while you might hear distant thunder, and a zigzag of lightning would make the radio crackle. It might shower for thirty minutes or so, but most times the clouds just marched past with a rumble and grunt and not a drop of rain. As evening cooled the earth, the cicadas droned in their hundreds from the woods and lightning bugs rose from the grass. They got up in the trees and blinked, and they lit up the branches like Christmas decorations here on the edge of July. The stars came out, and some phase of the moon. If I played my cards right, I could talk my folks into letting me stay up late, like until eleven or so, and I would sit in the front yard watching the lights of Zephyr go out. When enough lights were extinguished, the stars became much brighter. You could look up into the heart of the universe, and see the swirls of glowing stars. A soft breeze blew, bringing with it the sweet perfume of the earth, and the trees rustled quietly in its passage. It was very hard, at times like this, not to think that the world was as well-ordered and precise as the Cartwright ranch on “Bonanza,” or that in every house lived a “My Three Sons” family. I wished it were so, but I had seen pictures of a spreading dark, a burning man, and a bomb-wrecked church, and I was beginning to know the truth.

  I got to know Rocket better, when my folks would let me ride again. My mom told it to me straight: “You fall down and bust that lip open again, it’s back to Dr. Parrish’s and this time it’ll be fifteen or twenty stitches!” I knew better than to push my luck. I stayed close to the house, and I pedaled Rocket around as gingerly as riding one of those swaybacked ponies that plods in circles at the county fair. Sometimes I thought I caught a glimpse of the golden eye in the headlamp, but it was never there when I looked directly at it. Rocket accepted my careful touch, though I sensed in the smoothness of the pedals and chain and the snap of the turns that Rocket, like any high-strung Thoroughbred, wanted to run. I had the feeling that I had a lot to learn yet about Rocket.