Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 22

  As for Lucifer, he was seen traveling in the trees by a half-dozen people. A banana cream pie cooling on a shady windowsill at the house of Sonia and Katharina Glass was utterly destroyed, and at any other time I’d have said the Branlins did it but the Branlins were lying low. Lucifer, on the other hand, was swinging high. An attempt was made by Chief Marchette and some of the volunteer firemen to snag Lucifer in a net, but what they got for their trouble was monkey business all over their clothes. Lucifer evidently had a sure aim and a steady spout, both front and rear. Dad said that was a pretty good defense mechanism, and he laughed about it, but Mom said the thought of that monkey loose in our town made her sick.

  Lucifer stayed pretty much to himself during the day, but sometimes when night fell he shrieked and screamed loud enough to wake up the sleepers on Poulter Hill. On more than one occasion I heard the crack of gunshots as someone, roused from sleep by Lucifer’s racket, tried to put a hole through him, but Lucifer was never there to catch a bullet. But the gunfire would wake up all the dogs and their barking would awaken the entire town and therefore the Zephyr council passed an emergency ordinance forbidding gunshots in the town limits after eight o’clock at night. Soon afterward, Lucifer learned how to clang sticks against trash cans, which he liked to do between three and six A.M. He avoided a bunch of poisoned bananas Mayor Swope laid out for him, and he shunned a trip-wire trap. He started leaving his brown mark on newly washed cars, and he swung down from a tree one afternoon and bit a plug out of Mr. Gerald Hargison’s ear when the mailman was walking his route. Mr. Hargison told my dad about it as he sat for a moment on the porch and puffed a plastic-tipped cheroot, a bandage on his diminished left ear.

  “Would’ve shot that little bastard if I’d had my gun on me,” Mr. Hargison said. “He was a fast thing, I’ll give him that. Bit me and took off and I swear I hardly saw him.” He grunted and shook his head. “Hell of a note when you can’t walk on a street in the daylight without gettin’ attacked by a damn monkey.”

  “Maybe they’ll catch him pretty soon,” Dad offered.

  “Maybe.” Mr. Hargison puffed blue smoke and watched it drift away. “Know what I think, Tom?”

  “What’s that?”

  “There’s more to that damn monkey than meets the eye that’s what I think.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “Well, consider this. How come that damn monkey stays around here in Zephyr? How come he don’t go over into Bruton and cause trouble?”

  “I don’t know,” Dad said. “I haven’t thought about it.”

  “I think that woman’s got somethin’ to do with it.”

  “What woman, Gerald?”

  “You know.” He cocked his head toward Bruton. “Her. The queen over there.”

  “You mean the Lady?”

  “Yeah. Her. I think she’s whipped up some kind of spell and put it on us, because of…you know…the trouble.”

  “The burnin’ cross, you mean.”

  “Uh-huh.” Mr. Hargison shifted into the shadows, because the sun was hitting his leg. “She’s workin’ some of that hoodoo on us, is what I think. It’s spooky, how come nobody can catch that damn monkey. Thing screamed like a banshee one night outside my bedroom window and Linda Lou about had a heart attack!”

  “That monkey gettin’ loose was Reverend Blessett’s fault,” Dad reminded him. “The Lady didn’t have anythin’ to do with it.”

  “We don’t know that for sure, do we?” Mr. Hargison tapped ashes onto the grass, and then the cheroot’s tip returned to his teeth. “We don’t know what kind of powers she has. I swear, I believe the Klan’s got the right idea. We don’t need that woman around here. Her and her petitions.”

  “I don’t side with the Klan, Gerald,” Dad told him. “I don’t go in for cross burnin’s. That seems to me like a cowardly thing.”

  Mr. Hargison grunted quietly, a little plume of smoke leaking from his lips. “I didn’t know the Klan was even active around here,” he said. “But I’ve been hearin’ things lately.”

  “Like what?”

  “Oh…just talk. In my profession, you hear a lot of lips flap. Some folks around here think the Klan’s mighty brave for sendin’ a warnin’ to that woman. Some folks think it’s high time she got sent on her way before she ruins this town.”

  “She’s lived here a long time. She hasn’t ruined Zephyr yet, has she?”

  “Up until the last few years she’s kept her mouth shut. Now she’s tryin’ to stir things up. Colored people and white people in the same swimmin’ pool! And you know what? Mayor Swope’s just fool enough to give her what she wants!”

  “Well,” Dad said, “times are changin’.”

  “My Lord!” Mr. Hargison stared at my father. “Are you takin’ her side, Tom?”

  “I’m not takin’ anybody’s side. All I’m sayin’ is, we don’t need attack dogs and fire hoses and bombs goin’ off here in Zephyr. Bull Connor’s days are done. It seems to me that times are changin’ and that’s the way of the world.” Dad shrugged. “Can’t hold back the future, Gerald. That’s a fact.”

  “I believe those Klan boys might argue the point with you.”

  “Maybe. But their days are done, too. All hate does is breed more hate.”

  Mr. Hargison sat in silence for a moment. He was looking toward the roofs of Bruton, but what he was seeing there was difficult to say. At last he stood up, picked up his mail satchel, and slung it over his shoulder. “You used to be a sane fella,” he said, and then he began walking back to his truck.

  “Gerald? Wait a minute! Come on back, all right?” Dad called, but Mr. Hargison kept going. My father and Mr. Hargison had graduated in the same class from Adams Valley High, and though they weren’t close friends, they had traveled the same road of youth together. Mr. Hargison, Dad had told me, used to quarterback the football team and his name was on a silver plaque on the high school’s Honor Wall. “Hey, Big Bear!” Dad called, using Mr. Hargison’s high school nickname. But Mr. Hargison flipped his cheroot stub into the gutter and drove away.

  My birthday arrived. I had Davy Ray, Ben, and Johnny over for ice cream and cake. On that cake were twelve candles. And sometime during the cake-eating, Dad put my birthday present on my desk in my room.

  Before I found it, Johnny had to go home. His head still hurt him sometimes, and he had dizzy spells. He had brought me two fine white arrowheads from his collection. Davy Ray had brought me an Aurora model of the Mummy, and Ben’s gift was a bagful of little plastic dinosaurs.

  But on my desk, with a clean sheet of white paper gripped in its roller, was a Royal typewriter as gray as a battleship.

  It had some miles on it. The keys showed wear, and Z.P.L. was scratched on its side. The Zephyr Public Library, I later learned, had been selling some of their older equipment. The E key stuck, and the lower-case i was missing its dot. But I sat at my desk in the deepening twilight of my birthday, and I pushed aside my tin can full of Ticonderoga pencils and, heart pounding, laboriously typed out my name on the paper.

  I had entered the technological age.

  Soon enough I realized typing was going to be no simple task. My fingers were rebellious. I would have to discipline them. I kept practicing, long after the night had thickened and Mom said I ought to go to sleep. COERY JAT MACKEMAON. DAVY RSU CALKAN. JIHNMY QULSON. BEM SEARS. REBEL. OLF MOSES. THE LADT. BURNUNG CROSD. BRAMKINS. GREEN-FEATHRED HAT. ZEPHIR. ZEPHTR. ZEPHYR.

  I had a long way to go, but I sensed the excitement of the cowboy heroes, Indian braves, army troops, detective legions, and monster squads within me, eager to be born.

  One afternoon I was riding Rocket around, enjoying the steam that rose from a passing shower, and I found myself near the house where Nemo Curliss lived. He was out front, a small figure throwing a baseball up in the air and catching it as it hurtled down again. I eased Rocket onto its kickstand, and offered to throw him a few. What I really wanted was to see Nemo in action once more. A boy with a perfect arm, no matter
how frail that arm might look, surely had been touched by God. Soon I was encouraging Nemo to aim for the knothole in an oak tree across the street, and when he zoomed that ball right in and made it stick not once but three times, I almost fell to my knees and worshipped him.

  Then the front door of his house opened with the ringing of chimes and his mother came out onto the porch. I saw Nemo’s eyes flinch behind his glasses, as if he were about to be struck. “Nemo!” she shouted in a voice that reminded me of the stinging wasp. “I told you not to throw that ball, didn’t I? I’ve been watchin’ you out the window, young man!”

  Nemo’s mother descended the porch steps and approached us like a storm. She had long, dark brown hair, and maybe she’d been pretty once but now there was something hard about her face. She had piercing brown eyes with deep lines radiating out from their corners, and her pancake makeup was tinted orange. She wore a tight pair of black pedal-pushers, a white blouse with big red polka dots, and on her hands were a pair of yellow rubber gloves. Her mouth was daubed crimson, which I found peculiar. She was all fancied up to do housework. “Wait’ll your father hears about this!” she said.

  Hears about what? I wondered. All Nemo was doing was playing outside.

  “I didn’t fall down,” Nemo said.

  “But you could’ve!” his mother snapped. “You know how fragile you are! If you broke a bone, what would we do? How would we pay for it? I swear, you’re not right in the head!” Her eyes swept toward me like prison searchlights. “Who’re you?”

  “Coryth my friend,” Nemo said.

  “Friend. Uh-huh.” Mrs. Curliss looked me over from head to foot. I could tell by the set of her mouth and the way her nose wrinkled that she thought I might be carrying leprosy. “Cory what?”

  “Mackenson,” I told her.

  “Your father buy any shirts from us?”

  “No, ma’am.”

  “Friend,” she said, and her hard gaze returned to Nemo. “I told you not to get overheated out here, didn’t I? I told, you not to throw that ball, didn’t I?”

  “I didn’t get overheated. I wuth jutht—”

  “Disobeyin’ me,” she interrupted. “My God, there’s got to be some order in this family! There’s got to be some rules! Your father gone all day and when he comes home he’s spent more money than he’s made and you’re out here tryin’ to hurt yourself and cause me more worry!” The bones seemed to be straining against the taut flesh of her face, and her eyes had a bright and awful shine in them. “Don’t you know you’re sickly?” she demanded. “Don’t you know your wrists could snap in a hard breeze?”

  “I’m all right, Momma,” Nemo said. His voice was small. Sweat glistened on the back of his neck. “Honetht.”

  “You’d say that until you passed out with heatstroke, wouldn’t you? And then you’d fall down and knock your teeth out and would your good friend’s father pay for the dentist’s bill?” Again, she glared at me. “Doesn’t anybody wear nice shirts in this town? Doesn’t anybody wear nice tailored white shirts?”

  “No, ma’am,” I had to say in all honesty. “I don’t think so.”

  “Well, isn’t that just dandy?” She grinned, but there was no humor in it. Her grin was as hot as the sun and terrible to look upon. “Isn’t that just so very civilized?” She grasped Nemo’s shoulder with one of her yellow-gloved hands. “Get in the house!” she told him. “This minute!” She began to haul him toward the porch, and he looked back at me with an expression of longing and regret.

  I had to ask. I just had to. “Mrs. Curliss? How come you won’t let Nemo play Little League?”

  I thought she was going to go on in without answering. But suddenly she stopped just short of the porch steps and spun around and her eyes were slitted with rage. “What did you say?”

  “I…was askin’…how come you won’t let Nemo play Little League. I mean…he’s got a perfect ar—”

  “My son is fragile, in case you didn’t know! Do you understand what that word means?” She plowed on before I could tell her I did. “It means he’s got weak bones! It means he can’t run and roughhouse like other boys! It means he’s not a savage!”

  “Yes ma’am, but—”

  “Nemo’s not like the rest of you! He’s not a member of your tribe, do you understand that? He’s a cultured boy, and he doesn’t get down and wallow in the dirt like a wild beast!”

  “I…just thought he might like—”

  “Listen, here!” she said, her voice rising. “Don’t you stand on my lawn and tell me what’s right or wrong for my son! You didn’t worry yourself crazy when he was three years old and he almost died of pneumonia! And where was his father? His father was on the road tryin’ to sell enough shirts to keep us from bankruptcy! But we lost that house, that pretty house with the window boxes, we lost that house anyway! And would anybody help us? Would any of those churchgoin’ people help us? Not a one! So we lost that house, where my pretty dog is buried in the backyard!” Her face seemed to shatter for an instant, and behind its brittle mask of anger I caught a glimpse of a heartbreaking fear and sadness. Her grip never left Nemo’s shoulder. Then the mask sealed up again, and Mrs. Curliss sneered. “Oh, I know the kind of boy you are! I’ve seen plenty of you, in every town we’ve lived in! All you want to do is hurt my son, and laugh at him behind his back! You want to see him fall down and scrape his knees, and you want to hear his lisp because you think it’s funny! Well, you can find somebody else to pick on, because my son’s not having anythin’ to do with you!”

  “I don’t want to pick on—”

  “Get in the house!” she shouted at Nemo as she pushed him up the steps.

  “I’ve gotta go!” Nemo called to me, trying desperately to keep his dignity. “I’m thorry!”

  The screen door slammed behind them. The inner door closed, too, with a thunk of finality.

  The birds were singing, stupid in their happiness. I stood on the green grass, my shadow like a long scorch mark. I saw the blinds on the front windows close. There was nothing more to be said, nothing more to be done. I turned around, got on Rocket, and started pedaling for home.

  On that ride to my house, as the summer-scented air hit me in the face and gnats spun in the whirlwinds of my passage, I realized all prisons were not buildings of gray rock bordered by guard towers and barbed wire. Some prisons were houses whose closed blinds let no sunlight enter. Some prisons were cages of fragile bones, and some prisons had bars of red polka dots. In fact, you could never tell what might be a prison until you’d had a glimpse of what was seized and bound inside. I was thinking this over when Rocket suddenly veered to one side, narrowly missing Vernon Thaxter walking on the sidewalk. I figured even Rocket’s golden eye had blinked at the sight of Vernon strolling in the sun.

  July passed like a midsummer’s dream. I spent these days doing, in the vernacular of my hometown, “much of nothin’.” Johnny Wilson was getting better, his dizzy spells abating, and he was allowed to join Ben, Davy Ray, and me on our jaunts around town. Still and all, he had to take things easy, because Dr. Parrish had told Johnny’s folks that a head injury had to be watched for a long time. Johnny himself was just as quiet and reserved as ever, but I noticed that he’d slowed down some. He was always lagging behind us on his bike, slower even than tubby Ben. He seemed to have aged since that day the Branlins had beaten him senseless; he seemed to be apart from us now, in a way that was hard to explain. I think it was because he had tasted the bitter fruit of pain, and some of the magic carefree view that separates children from adults had fallen away from him, gone forever no matter how hard he tried to pedal his bike in pursuit of it again. Johnny had, at that early age, looked into the dark hole of extinction and seen—much more than any of us ever could—that someday the summer sun would not throw his shadow.

  We talked about death as we sat in the cooling breezes from the ice house and listened to the laboring lungs of the frosty machines within. Our conversation began with Davy Ray telling us that his da
d had hit a cat the day before, and when they got home part of the cat’s insides were smeared all over the right front tire. Dogs and cats, we agreed, had their own kinds of heaven. Was there a hell for them, too? we wondered. No, Ben said, because they don’t sin. But what happens if a dog goes mad and kills somebody and has to be put to sleep? Davy Ray asked. Wouldn’t that be a hell-bound sin? For these questions, of course, we only had more questions.

  “Sometimes,” Johnny said, his back against a tree, “I get out my arrowheads and look at ’em and I wonder who made ’em. I wonder if their ghosts are still around, tryin’ to find where the arrow fell.”

  “Naw!” Ben scoffed. “There’s no such thing as ghosts! Is there, Cory?”

  I shrugged. I had never told the guys about Midnight Mona. If they hadn’t believed I’d shoved a broomstick down Old Moses’s gullet, how would they believe a ghost car and driver?

  “Dad says Snowdown’s a ghost,” Davy offered. “Says that’s why nobody can shoot him, because he’s already dead.”

  “No such thing as ghosts,” Ben said. “No such thing as Snowdown, either.”

  “Yes there is!” Davy was ready to defend his father’s beliefs. “My dad said Grandpap saw him one time, when he was a little kid! And just last year Dad said a guy at the paper mill knew a guy who saw him! Said he was standin’ right there in the woods as big as you please! Said this guy took a shot at him, but Snowdown was runnin’ before the bullet got there and then he was gone!”

  “No. Such. Thing,” Ben said.

  “Is too!”

  “Is not!”

  “Is too!”

  “Is not!”

  This line of discussion could go on all afternoon. I picked up a pine cone and popped Ben in the belly with it, and after Ben howled in indignation, everybody laughed. Snowdown was a hope and mystery for the community of hunters in Zephyr. In the deep forest between Zephyr and Union Town, the story went, lived a massive white stag with antlers so big and twisted you could swing on them as on the branches of an oak. Snowdown was usually seen at least once every deer season, by a hunter who swore the stag had leaped into the air and disappeared in the gnarly foliage of its kingdom. Men went out with rifles to track Snowdown, and they invariably returned talking about finding the prints of huge hooves and scars on trees where Snowdown had scraped his antlers, but the white stag was impossible to catch. I think that if a massive white stag really did roam the gloomy woods, no hunter really wanted to shoot him, because Snowdown was for them the symbol of everything mysterious and unattainable about life itself. Snowdown was what lay beyond the thickness of the woods, in the next autumn-dappled clearing. Snowdown was eternal youth, a link between grandfather and father and son, the great expectations of future hunts, a wildness that could never be confined. My dad wasn’t a hunter, so I wasn’t as involved in the legend of Snowdown as Davy Ray, whose father was ready with his Remington on the first chilly dawning of the season.