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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 3


  “Yes’m,” I answered.

  Miss Grace didn’t have much of a smile. Her lips were thin and her nose was broad and flat and her brows were black-penciled streaks above deep-set blue eyes. She thrust the Lorna Doones at me. “Want a cookie?”

  I wasn’t hungry, but my folks had always taught me never to refuse a gift. I took one.

  “Have two,” Miss Grace offered, and I took a second cookie. She ate a cookie herself and then sucked on the cigarette and blew smoke through her nostrils. “Your daddy’s our milkman,” she said. “I believe you’ve got us on your list. Six quarts of milk, two buttermilks, two chocolates, and three pints of cream.”

  I checked the list. There was her name—Grace Stafford—and the order, just as she’d said. I told her I’d get everything for her, and I started putting the order together. “How old are you?” Miss Grace asked as I worked. “Twelve?”

  “No, ma’am. Not until July.”

  “I’ve got a son.” Miss Grace knocked ashes from her cigarette. She chewed on another cookie. “Turned twenty in December. He lives in San Antonio. Know where that is?”

  “Yes ma’am. Texas. Where the Alamo is.”

  “That’s right. Turned twenty, which makes me thirty-eight. I’m an old fossil, ain’t I?”

  This was a trick question, I thought. “No ma’am,” I decided to say.

  “Well, you’re a little diplomat, ain’t you?” She smiled again, and this time the smile was in her eyes. “Have another cookie.” She left me the box and walked to the door, and she hollered into the house: “Lainie! Lainie, get your butt up and come out here!”

  My dad emerged first. He looked old in the hard light of morning, and there were dark circles under his eyes. “Called the sheriff’s office,” he told me as he sat in his wet seat and squeezed his feet into his shoes. “Somebody’s gonna meet us where the car went in.”

  “Who the hell was it?” Miss Grace asked.

  “I couldn’t tell. His face was…” He glanced quickly at me, then back to the woman. “He was beat up pretty bad.”

  “Must’ve been drunk. Moonshinin’, most likely.”

  “I don’t think so.” Dad hadn’t said anything over the phone about the car’s driver being naked, strangled with a piano wire, and handcuffed to the wheel. That was for the sheriff and not for Miss Grace’s or anybody else’s ears. “You ever see a fella with a tattoo on his left shoulder? Looked like a skull with wings growin’ out of its head?”

  “I’ve seen more tattoos than the Navy,” Miss Grace said, “but I can’t recall anything like that around here. Why? Fella have his shirt off or somethin’?”

  “Yeah, he did. Had that skull with wings tattooed right about here.” He touched his left shoulder. Dad shivered again, and rubbed his hands together. “They’ll never bring that car up. Never. Saxon’s Lake is three hundred feet deep if it’s an inch.”

  The chimes sounded. I looked toward the door with the tray of milk quarts in my arms.

  A girl with sleep-swollen eyes stumbled out. She was wearing a long plaid bathrobe and her feet were bare. Her hair was the color of cornsilk and hung around her shoulders, and as she neared the milk truck she blinked in the light and said, “I’m all fucked up.”

  I think I must’ve almost fallen down, because never in my life had I heard a female use a word that dirty before. Oh, I knew what the word meant and all, but its casual use from a pretty mouth shocked the fool out of me.

  “There’s a young man on the premises, Lainie,” Miss Grace said in a voice that could curl an iron nail. “Watch your language, please.”

  Lainie looked at me, and her cool stare made me recall the time I’d put a fork in an electric socket. Lainie’s eyes were chocolate brown and her lips seemed to wear a half smile, half sneer. Something about her face looked tough and wary, as if she’d run out of trust. There was a small red mark in the hollow of her throat. “Who’s the kid?” she asked.

  “Mr. Mackenson’s son. Show some class, hear?”

  I swallowed hard and averted my eyes from Lainie’s. Her robe was creeping open. It hit me what kind of girl used bad words, and what kind of place this was. I had heard from both Johnny Wilson and Ben Sears that there was a house full of whores somewhere near Zephyr. It was common knowledge at the elementary school. When you told somebody to “go suck a whore,” you were standing right on the razor’s edge of violence. I’d always imagined the whorehouse to be a mansion, though, with drooping willow trees and black servants who fetched the customers mint juleps on the front porch; the reality, however, was that the whorehouse wasn’t much of a step up from a broken-down trailer. Still and all, here it was right in front of me, and the girl with cornsilk hair and a dirty mouth earned her living by the pleasures of the flesh. I felt goose bumps ripple up my back, and I can’t tell you the kind of scenes that moved like a slow, dangerous storm through my head.

  “Take that milk and stuff to the kitchen,” Miss Grace told her.

  The sneer won out over the smile, and those brown eyes turned black. “I ain’t got kitchen duty! It’s Donna Ann’s week!”

  “It’s whose week I say it is, missy, and you know why I ought to put you in the kitchen for a whole month, too! Now, you do what I tell you and keep your smart mouth shut!”

  Lainie’s lips drew up into a puckered, practiced pout. But her eyes did not register the chastisement so falsely; they held cold centers of anger. She took the tray from me, and standing with her back to my dad and Miss Grace, she stuck out her wet pink tongue in my face and curled it up into a funnel. Then the tongue slicked back into her mouth, she turned away from me, and dismissed all of us with a buttstrut that was as wicked as a sword slash. She swayed on into the house, and after Lainie was gone Miss Grace grunted and said, “She’s as rough as a cob.”

  “Aren’t they all?” Dad asked, and Miss Grace blew a smoke ring and answered, “Yeah, but she don’t even pretend she’s got manners.” Her gaze settled on me. “Cory, why don’t you keep the cookies. All right?”

  I looked at Dad. He shrugged. “Yes, ma’am,” I said.

  “Good. It was a real pleasure to meet you.” Miss Grace returned her attention to my father and the cigarette to the corner of her mouth. “Let me know how everything turns out.”

  “I will, and thanks for lettin’ me use the phone.” He slid behind the wheel again. “I’ll pick up the milk tray next trip.”

  “Ya’ll be careful,” Miss Grace said, and she went into the white-painted whorehouse as Dad started the engine and let off the hand brake.

  We drove back to where the car had gone in. Saxon’s Lake was streaked with blue and purple in the morning light. Dad pulled the milk truck off onto a dirt road; the road, both of us realized, was where the car had come from. Then we sat and waited for the sheriff as the sunlight strengthened and the sky turned azure.

  Sitting there, my mind was split: one part was thinking about the car and the figure I thought I’d seen, and the other part was wondering how my dad knew Miss Grace at the whorehouse so well. But Dad knew all of his customers; he talked about them to Mom at the dinner table. I never recalled him mentioning Miss Grace or the whorehouse, however. Well, it wasn’t a proper subject for the dinner table, was it? And anyway, they wouldn’t talk about such things when I was around, even though all my friends and everybody else at school from the fourth grade up knew there was a house full of bad girls somewhere around Zephyr.

  I had been there. I had actually seen a bad girl. I had seen her curled tongue and her butt move in the folds of her robe.

  That, I figured, was going to make me one heck of a celebrity.

  “Cory?” my father said quietly. “Do you know what kind of business Miss Grace runs in that house?”

  “I…” Even a third-grader could’ve figured it out. “Yes sir.”

  “Any other day, I would’ve just left the order by the front door.” He was staring at the lake, as if seeing the car still tumbling slowly down through the depths with a hand
cuffed corpse at the wheel. “Miss Grace has been on my delivery route for two years. Every Monday and Thursday, like clockwork. In case it’s crossed your mind, your mother does know I come out here.”

  I didn’t answer, but I felt a whole lot lighter.

  “I don’t want you to tell anybody about Miss Grace or that house,” my father went on. “I want you to forget you were there, and what you saw and heard. Can you do that?”

  “Why?” I had to ask.

  “Because Miss Grace might be a lot different than you, me, or your mother, and she might be tough and mean and her line of work might not be a preacher’s dream, but she’s a good lady. I just don’t want talk gettin’ stirred up. The less said about Miss Grace and that house, the better. Do you see?”

  “I guess I do.”

  “Good.” He flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. The subject was closed.

  I was true to my word. My celebrityhood took flight, and that was that.

  I was about to open my mouth to tell him about the figure I’d seen in the woods when a black and white Ford with a bubble light on top and the town seal of Zephyr on the driver’s door rounded the corner and slowed to a stop near the milk truck. Sheriff Amory, whose first name was J.T., standing for Junior Talmadge, got out and Dad walked over to meet him.

  Sheriff Amory was a thin, tall man whose long-jawed face made me think of a picture I’d seen: Ichabod Crane trying to outrace the Headless Horseman. He had big hands and feet and a pair of ears that might’ve shamed Dumbo. If his nose had been any larger, he would’ve made a dandy weathervane. He wore his sheriff’s star pinned to the front of his hat, and underneath it his dome was almost bald except for a wreath of dark brown hair. He pushed his hat back up on his shiny forehead as he and my dad talked at the lake’s edge and I watched my father’s hand motions as he showed Sheriff Amory where the car had come from and where it had gone. Then they both looked out toward the lake’s still surface, and I knew what they were thinking.

  That car might’ve sunken to the center of the earth. Even the snapping turtles that lived along the lakeshore couldn’t get far enough down to ever see that car again. Whoever the driver had been, he was sitting in the dark right now with mud in his teeth.

  “Handcuffed,” Sheriff Amory said, in his quiet voice. He had thick dark eyebrows over deep-set eyes the color of coal, and the pallor of his flesh suggested he had an affinity to the night. “You’re sure about that, Tom? And about the wire, too?”

  “I’m sure. Whoever strangled that fella did a hell of a job. Near about took his head off.”

  “Handcuffed,” the sheriff said again. “That was so he wouldn’t float out, I reckon.” He tapped his lower lip with a forefinger. “Well,” he said at last, “I believe we’ve got a murder on our hands, don’t you?”

  “If it wasn’t, I don’t know what murder is.”

  As they talked, I got out of the milk truck and wandered over to where I thought I’d seen that person watching me. There was nothing but weeds, rocks, and dirt where he’d been standing. If it had been a man, I thought. Could it have been a woman? I hadn’t seen long hair, but then again I hadn’t seen much of anything but a coat swirling in the wind. I walked back and forth along the line of trees. Beyond it, the woods deepened and swampy ground took over. I found nothing.

  “Better come on to the office and let me write it up,” the sheriff told my father. “If you want to go home and get some dry clothes on, that’d be fine.”

  My dad nodded. “I’ve got to finish my deliveries and get Cory to school, too.”

  “Okay. Seems to me we can’t do much for that fella at the bottom, anyhow.” He grunted, his hands in his pockets. “A murder. Last murder we had in Zephyr was in 1961. You remember when Bo Kallagan beat his wife to death with a bowlin’ trophy?”

  I returned to the milk truck and waited for my dad. The sun was up good and proper now, lighting the world. Or, at least, the world I knew. But things weighed heavy on my mind. It seemed to me that there were two worlds: one before the sun, and one after. And if that were true, then maybe there were people who were citizens of those different worlds as well. Some moved easily through the landscape of night, and others clung to the bright hours. Maybe I had seen one of those darktime citizens, in the world before the sun. And—a chilling thought—maybe he had seen me seeing him, too.

  I realized I had brought mud back into the milk truck. It was smeared all over my Keds.

  I looked at the soles, and the earth I had collected.

  On the bottom of my left Ked was a small green feather.

  2

  Down in the Dark

  THE GREEN FEATHER went into my pocket. From there it found its way into a White Owl cigar box in my room, along with my collection of old keys and dried-up insects. I closed the box lid, placed the box in one of the seven mystic drawers, and slid the drawer shut.

  And that was how I forgot about it.

  The more I thought about seeing that figure at the edge of the woods, the more I thought I’d been wrong, that my eyes had been scared from seeing Dad sink underwater as the car went down. Several times I started to tell Dad about it, but something else got in the way. Mom threw a gut-busting fit when she found out he’d jumped into the lake. She was so mad at him she sobbed as she yelled, and Dad had to sit her down at the kitchen table and explain to her calmly why he had done it. “There was a man at the wheel,” Dad said. “I didn’t know he was already dead, I thought he was knocked cold. If I’d stood there without doing anything, what would I have thought of myself after it was over?”

  “You could’ve drowned!” she fired at him, tears on her cheeks. “You could’ve hit your head on a rock and drowned!”

  “I didn’t drown. I didn’t hit my head on a rock. I did what I had to do.” He gave her a paper napkin, and she used it to blot her eyes. A last salvo came out of her: “That lake’s full of cottonmouths! You could’ve swum right into a nest of ’em!”

  “I didn’t,” he said, and she sighed and shook her head as if she lived with the craziest fool ever born.

  “You’d better get out of those damp clothes,” she told him at last, and her voice was under control again. “I just thank God it’s not your body down at the bottom of the lake, too.” She stood up and helped him unbutton his soggy shirt. “Do you know who it was?”

  “Never saw him before.”

  “Who would do such a thing to another human being?”

  “That’s for J.T. to find out.” He peeled his shirt off, and Mom took it from him with two fingers as if the lake’s water carried leprosy. “I’ve got to go over to his office to help him write it up. I’ll tell you, Rebecca, when I looked into that dead man’s face my heart almost stopped. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I hope to God I never see such a thing again, either.”

  “Lord,” Mom said. “What if you’d had a heart attack? Who would’ve saved you?”

  Worrying was my mother’s way. She fretted about the weather, the cost of groceries, the washing machine breaking down, the Tecumseh River being dirtied by the paper mill in Adams Valley, the price of new clothes, and everything under the sun. To my mother, the world was a vast quilt whose stitches were always coming undone. Her worrying somehow worked like a needle, tightening those dangerous seams. If she could imagine events through to their worst tragedy, then she seemed to have some kind of control over them. As I said, it was her way. My father could throw up a fistful of dice to make a decision, but my mother had an agony for every hour. I guess they balanced, as two people who love each other should.

  My mother’s parents, Grand Austin and Nana Alice, lived about twelve miles south in a town called Waxahatchee, on the edge of Robbins Air Force Base. Nana Alice was even worse a worrier than Mom; something in her soul craved tragic manna, whereas Grand Austin—who had been a logger and had a wooden leg to show for the slip of a band saw—warned her he would unscrew his leg and whop her upside the head with it if she didn’t pipe down and give
him peace. He called his wooden leg his “peace pipe,” but as far as I know he never used it for any purpose except that for which it was carved. My mother had an older brother and sister, but my father was an only child.

  Anyway, I went to school that day and at the first opportunity told Davy Ray Callan, Johnny Wilson, and Ben Sears what had happened. By the time the school bell rang and I walked home, the news was moving across Zephyr like a crackling wildfire. Murder was the word of the hour. My parents were fighting off the phone calls. Everybody wanted to know the grisly details. I went outside to ride my rusted old bike and lead Rebel for a chase in the woods, and it came to me that maybe one of those people who called already knew the details. Maybe one of them was just trying to find out if he’d been seen, or what Sheriff Amory knew.

  I realized then, as I pedaled my bike through the forest and Rebel ran at my heels, that somebody in my hometown might be a killer.

  The days passed, warming into the heart of spring. A week after Dad had jumped into Saxon’s Lake, this was the story: Sheriff Amory had found no one missing from Zephyr or from any of the surrounding communities. A front-page article in the weekly Adams Valley Journal brought forth no new information. Sheriff Amory and two of his deputies, some of the firemen, and a half dozen volunteers got out on the lake in rowboats and dragged nets back and forth, but they only came up with an angry catch of snapping turtles and cottonmouths.

  Saxon’s Lake used to be Saxon’s Quarry back in the twenties, before the steam shovels had broken into an underground river that would not be capped or shunted aside. Estimates of its depth ranged from three hundred to five hundred feet. There wasn’t a net on earth that could scoop that sunken car back to the surface.

  The sheriff came by one evening for a talk with Dad and Mom, and they let me sit in on it. “Whoever did it,” Sheriff Amory explained, his hat in his lap and his nose throwing a shadow, “must’ve backed that car onto the dirt road facin’ the lake. We found the tire marks, but the footprints were all scuffed over. The killer must’ve had somethin’ wedged against the gas pedal. Just before you rounded the bend, he released the hand brake, slammed the door, and jumped back, and the car took off across Route Ten. He didn’t know you were gonna be there, of course. If you hadn’t been, the car would’ve gone on into the lake, sunk, and nobody would ever have known it happened.” He shrugged. “That’s the best I can come up with.”