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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 32


  “I guess we can get started,” Mayor Swope began. He kept looking around at the crowd, then toward the Lady and the Moon Man, back to the crowd again. “I want to welcome you all to the awards ceremony of the 1964 Zephyr Arts Council Writing Contest. First off, I’d like to thank every one of the participants, without whom there could be no contest.”

  Well, it went on like that for a while. I might have drowsed off if I hadn’t been so full of ants. Mayor Swope introduced all the judges and the Arts Council members, and then he introduced Mr. Quentin Farraday, from the Adams Valley Journal, who was there to take pictures and interview the winners. Finally, Mayor Swope sat down and Mrs. Prathmore took his place at the podium to call up the third-place winner in the essay division. An elderly woman named Delores Hightower shuffled up, took her essay from Mr. Dean, and read to the audience for fifteen minutes about the joys of an herb garden, then she was given her plaque and she sat down again. The first-place essay, by a beefy, gap-toothed man named George Eagers, concerned the time he had a flat tire near Tuscaloosa and the one and only Bear Bryant had stopped to ask him if he needed some help, thus proving the Bear’s divinity.

  The poetry division was next. Imagine my surprise when the Demon’s mother stood up to read the second-place poem. This was part of it: “Rain, rain, go away,”/ said the sun, on a summer day./ “I have lots of shinin’ to do yet,/ and those dark clouds make me get/ To cryin’.” She read it with such emotion, I feared she was going to get to crying and rain on the whole room. The Demon and her father applauded so loud at the end of it, you’d have thought it was the Second Coming.

  The first-place poem, by a little wrinkled old lady named Helen Trotter, was in essence a love letter, the first rhyme of which was: “He’s always there to show he cares,/ whatever’s right, that’s what he dares,” and the last rhyme: “Oh, how I love to see the smiling lace/ Of our great state governor, George C. Wal-lace.”

  “Groan,” Dad whispered. The Lady, Charles Damaronde, and the Moon Man were gracious enough to make no public comment.

  “And now,” Mrs. Prathmore announced, “we move into the short-story division.”

  I needed that cork. I needed it bad.

  “This year we have the youngest winner ever on record since we began this contest in 1955. We had a little difficulty deciding if his entry was a short story or essay, since it’s based on an actual event, but in the end we decided he showed enough flair and descriptive imagination to consider it a short story. Now, welcome if you will, our third-place winner, reading his story entitled ‘Before the Sun’: Cory Mackenson.” Mrs. Prathmore led the applause. Dad said, “Go get ’em,” to me, and somehow I stood up.

  As I walked to the podium in a trance of terror, I heard Davy Ray giggling and then a soft pop as his dad cuffed him on the back of the neck. Mr. Dean gave me my story, and Mrs. Prathmore bent the microphone down so it could gather my voice. I looked out at that sea of faces; they all seemed to blur together, into a collective mass of eyes, noses, and mouths. I had a sudden fright: was my zipper up? Did I dare to look and see? I caught sight of the Journal photographer, his bulky camera poised. My heart was beating like the wings of a caged bird. Queasiness roiled in my belly, but I knew that if I threw up, I could never again face the light of day. Somebody coughed and somebody else cleared his throat. All eyes were on me, and in my hands the paper was shaking.

  “Go ahead, Cory,” Mrs. Prathmore urged.

  I looked at the title, and I started to read it, but what felt like a spiny egg seemed to be lodged in my throat where the words were formed. Darkness lapped around the edges of my vision; was I about to pass out in front of all these people? Wouldn’t that make a dandy front-page picture for the Journal? My eyes rolled back in my head, my body tumbling for the floor, my underpants white in the maw of my open zipper?

  “Just take your time,” Mrs. Prathmore said, and in her voice I heard her nerves starting to shred.

  My eyes, which felt as if they were about to burst from my head, danced over the audience. I saw Davy Ray, Ben, and Johnny. None of them were grinning anymore; this was a bad sign. I saw Mr. George Eagers look at his wristwatch; another bad sign. I heard some malicious monster whisper, “He’s scared, poor little boy!”

  I saw the Lady rise to her feet at the back of the room. Behind her veil her gaze was cool and placid, like still green waters. She lifted her chin, and that movement spoke a single word: Courage.

  I pulled in a breath. My lungs rattled like a freight train crossing a rickety bridge. I was here; this was my moment. I had to go on, for better or worse.

  I said, “‘Before the—’” My voice, thunderous through the microphone, shocked me silent again. Mrs. Prathmore placed her hand against my back, as if to steady me. “‘—Sun,’” I went on. “By C-C-Cory Mackenson.”

  I started reading. I knew the words; I knew the story. My voice seemed to belong to someone else, but the story was part of me. As I continued on, from sentence to sentence, I was aware that the coughing and throat clearing had ceased. No one was whispering. I read the story as if traveling a trail through a familiar woods; I knew the way to go, and this was a comfort. I dared to glance up again at the audience, and when I did I felt it.

  This was to be my first experience with it, and like any first experience, the feeling stays with you forever. What this was exactly I can’t say, but it drove into my soul and made a home there. Everyone was watching me; everyone was listening to me. The words coming out of my mouth—the words I’d conceived and given birth to—were making time null and void; they were bringing together a roomful of people into a journey of common sights, sounds, and thoughts; they were leaving me and traveling into the minds and memories of people who had never been at Saxon’s Lake that chill, early morning in March. I could tell when I looked at them that those people were following me. And the greatest thing—the very greatest thing—is that they wanted to go where I led them.

  All this, of course, I reasoned out much later. What struck me at the moment, beside getting to the end, was how quiet and still everybody had become. I had found the key to a time machine. I had discovered a current of power I’d never dreamed I possessed. I had found a magic box, and it was called a typewriter.

  That voice coming out of me seemed to get stronger. It seemed to speak with expression and clarity rather than being a mumbled drone, which is how it had begun. I was amazed and elated. I actually—wonder of wonders—was enjoying reading aloud.

  I reached the final sentence, and ran out of story.

  For now.

  My mother started applauding first. Then my dad, and the others in the room. I saw the Lady’s violet-gloved hands clapping. The applause felt good; but it wasn’t nearly as good as that feeling of leading people on a journey and them trusting you to know the way. Tomorrow I might want to be a milkman like Dad, or a jet pilot or a detective, but at that instant I wanted to be a writer more than anything on earth.

  I accepted my plaque from Mayor Swope. When I sat down, people around me clapped me on the back, and I could tell by the way my mom and dad smiled that they were proud of me. I didn’t mind that my name was misspelled on the plaque. I knew who I was.

  The second-place winner, by Mr. Terrence Hosmer, was about a farmer trying to outsmart a flock of ravens after his corn crop. The first-place winner, by Mrs. Ada Yearby, concerned the midnight kneeling down of the animals at the birth of Jesus Christ. Then Mayor Swope thanked everyone for coming and said that we could all go home. On the way out, Davy Ray, Johnny, and Ben swarmed around me, and I believe I got more attention than even Mrs. Yearby. The Demon’s mother waddled up to congratulate me, and she looked at my mother with her broad, mustached face and said, “You know, Brenda’s birthday party is next Saturday and Brenda sure would like your boy to be there. You know, I wrote that poem for Brenda, ’cause she’s a real sensitive child. Would your boy come to Brenda’s birthday party? He don’t have to bring no present or nothin’.”

  Mom looke
d at me for a cue. I saw the Demon, standing with her father across the room. The Demon waved at me and sniggered. Davy Ray elbowed me in the ribs; he didn’t know how close he was to getting killed. I said, “Gee, Mrs. Sutley, I think I might have some chores to do at home on Saturday. Don’t I, Mom?”

  Mom, God love her, was quick. “Yes, you sure do! You’ve got to cut the grass and help your father paint the porch.”

  “Huh?” Dad said.

  “It’s got to be done,” Mom told him. “Saturday’s the only day we can all work on it together.”

  “And maybe I can get some guys to help,” I offered, which made my buddies find wings on their feet.

  “Well, if you wanna come to Brenda’s party, she sure would like it. She’s havin’ her relatives over and all.” Mrs. Sutley gave me a defeated smile. She knew: Then she returned to the Demon and said something to her and the Demon gave me that exact same smile. I felt like a heel on a dung-stained boot. But I couldn’t encourage the Demon, I just couldn’t! It was inhuman to ask me to. And oh brother, I could just imagine what the Demon’s relatives must be like! That group would make the Munsters appear lovely.

  We were almost out the door when a quiet voice spoke: “Tom? Tom Mackenson?”

  My dad stopped and turned around.

  He was in the presence of the Lady.

  She was smaller than I remembered. She barely stood to my father’s shoulders. But there was a strength in her that ten men couldn’t have matched; you could see the force of life in her as you can see it in a weathered tree that has bent before the winds of countless storms. She had approached us without Mr. Damaronde or the Moon Man, who stood waiting at a distance.

  “Hello again,” Mom said. The Lady nodded at her. My dad wore the expression of a man trapped in a dark closet with a tarantula. His eyes were skittering around, searching for a way out, but he was too much of a gentleman to be rude to her.

  “Tom Mackenson,” she repeated. “You and your wife sure have raised a talented boy.”

  “I…we…we’ve done our best, thank you.”

  “And such a good speaker,” the Lady went on. She smiled at me. “You’ve done well,” she said.

  “Thank you, ma’am.”

  “How’s that bicycle doin’?”

  “Fine. I named it ‘Rocket.’”

  “That’s a nice name.”

  “Yes ma’am. And…” Tell her, I decided. “And it’s got an eyeball in the headlight.”

  Her brows lifted, ever so slightly. “Is that a fact?”

  “Cory!” Dad scolded. “Don’t make up such things!”

  “Seems to me,” the Lady said, “a boy’s bicycle needs to see where it’s goin’. Needs to see whether there’s a clear road or trouble ahead. Seems to me a boy’s bicycle needs some horse in it, and some deer, and maybe even a touch of rep-tile. For cleverness, don’t you know?”

  “Yes ma’am,” I agreed. She knew Rocket, all right.

  “That was kind of you to give Cory a bike,” Dad said to her. “I’m not one to accept charity, but—”

  “Oh, it wasn’t charity, Mr. Mackenson. It was repayment for a good deed. Mrs. Mackenson, is there anythin’ at your house that Mr. Lightfoot needs to fix?”

  “No, I think everythin’s workin’ just fine.”

  “Well,” she said, and she stared at my father. “You never know when things are likely to suffer a breakdown.”

  “It was good to see you, Mrs.…uh… Lady.” Dad took my mother’s elbow. “We’d better be gettin’ on home now.”

  “Mr. Mackenson, we have some matters to discuss,” the Lady said as we all started moving away. “I believe you understand when I say they’re matters of life and death?”

  Dad stopped. I saw a muscle in his jaw work. He didn’t want to turn back to her, but she was pulling at him. Maybe he felt her life force—her raw, primal power—heat up a notch, just as I did. He seemed to want to take another step away from her, but he just couldn’t do it.

  “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, Mr. Mackenson?” the Lady asked.

  This question broke through his final barricade. He turned around to face her. “Yes, I do,” he said solemnly.

  “As do I. Jesus Christ was as perfect as a human bein’ can be, yet he got mad and fought and wept and had days of feelin’ like he couldn’t go on another step. Like when the lepers and the sick folks almost trampled him down, all of ’em beggin’ for miracles and doggin’ him till he was about miracled out. What I’m sayin’, Mr. Mackenson, is that even Jesus Christ needed help sometimes, and he wasn’t too proud to ask for it.”

  “I don’t need…” He let it go.

  “You see,” the Lady said, “I believe everybody has visions, now and again. I believe it’s part of the human animal. We have these visions—these little snippets of the big quilt—but we can’t figure out where they fit, or why. Most times they come in dreams, when you’re sleepin’. Sometimes you can dream awake. Just about everybody has ’em, only they can’t fathom the meanin’. See?”

  “No,” Dad said.

  “Oh yes, you do.” She raised a reedy finger. “Folks get all wrapped up in the sticky tape of this world, makes ’em blind, deaf, and dumb to what’s goin’ on in the other one.”

  “The other one? Other what?”

  “The other world across the river,” she answered. “Where that man at the bottom of Saxon’s Lake is callin’ to you from.”

  “I don’t want to hear any more of this.” But he didn’t move.

  “Callin’ you,” she repeated. “I’m hearin’ him, too, and he’s wreckin’ my damn sleep, and I’m an old woman who needs some peace.” She took a step closer to my father, and her eyes had him. “That man needs to tell who killed him before he can pass on. Oh, he’s tryin’, he’s tryin’ mighty hard, but he can’t give us a name or a face. All he can give us are those little snippets of the big quilt. If you were to come see me, and let’s us put our thinkin’ caps on, maybe we could start sewin’ those snippets together. Then you could get a good night’s sleep again, so could I, and he could go on where he belongs. Better still: we could catch us a killer, if there’s a killer here to be caught.”

  “I don’t…believe in…that kind of non—”

  “Believe it or don’t believe it, that’s your choice,” the Lady interrupted. “But when that dead man comes callin’ on you tonight—and he will—you won’t have any choice but to hear him. And my advice to you, Mr. Mackenson, is that you ought to start listenin’.”

  Dad started to say something; his mouth opened, but his tongue couldn’t jimmy the words out.

  “Excuse me,” I said to the Lady. “I wanted to ask you…if you’ve been…like…havin’ any other dreams.”

  “Oh, most all the time,” she said. “Trouble is, at my age, most all my dreams are reruns.”

  “Well… I was wonderin’ if…you’ve been havin’ any dreams about four girls.”

  “Four girls?” she asked.

  “Yes ma’am. Four girls. You know. Dark, like you. And they’re all dressed up, like it’s a Sunday.”

  “No,” she said. “I can’t say that I have.”

  “I dream about ’em a lot. Not every night, but a lot. What do you suppose it means?”

  “Snippet of a quilt,” she said. “Could be somethin’ you already know, but you don’t know you know.”

  “Ma’am?”

  “Might not be spirits talkin’,” she explained. “Might just be your ownself, tryin’ to figure somethin’ out.”

  “Oh,” I said. This must be why the Lady was picking up Dad’s dreams but not mine; mine were not the ghosts of the past, but a shadow of the future.

  “You’ll have to come over to Bruton and see our new museum when it’s done,” the Lady said to Mom. “We’ve raised money to start buildin’ onto the recreation center. Should be finished in a couple of months. Gonna have a nice exhibition room.”

  “I’ve heard about it,” Mom said. “Good luck.”

 
“Thank you. Well, I’ll let you know when the openin’ ceremony’s gonna be. Remember what I’ve told you, Mr. Mackenson.” She offered her violet-gloved hand, and my father took it. He might be fearful of the Lady, but he was first and foremost a gentleman. “You know where I live.”

  The Lady rejoined her husband and Mr. Damaronde, then they walked out into the warm, still night. We went out soon after them, and we saw them drive away in not the rhinestone Pontiac but a plain blue Chevrolet. The last of the attendees were talking on the sidewalk, and they took the time to tell me again how much they’d enjoyed my reading. “Keep up the good work!” Mr. Dollar said, and then I heard him brag to another man, “You know, I cut his hair. Yessir, I’ve been cuttin’ that boy’s hair for years!”

  We drove home. I kept my plaque on my lap, clenched with both hands. “Mom?” I asked. “What kind of museum’s gonna be in Bruton? They gonna have dinosaur bones and stuff?”

  “Nope,” my father told me. “It’s gonna be a civil rights exhibit. I guess they’ll have letters and papers and pictures, that kind of thing.”

  “Slave artifacts is what I hear,” Mom said. “Like leg chains and brandin’ irons, would be my guess. Lizbeth Sears told me she heard the Lady sold that big Pontiac and donated the money toward the buildin’ costs.”

  “I’ll bet whoever burned that cross in her front yard isn’t exactly whistlin’ ‘Dixie’ about this,” Dad observed. “The Klan’ll have somethin’ to say, that’s for sure.”

  “I think it’s a good thing,” Mom said. “I think they need to know where they’ve been to know where they’re goin’.”