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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 33


  “Yeah, I know where the Klan wishes they’d go, too.” Dad slowed down and turned the pickup truck onto Hilltop Street. I caught a glimpse of the Thaxter mansion through the trees, its windows streaming with light. “She had a hard grip,” Dad said, almost to himself. “The Lady, I mean.” We knew who he was talking about. “Had a hard grip. And it was like she was lookin’ right into me, and I couldn’t stop her from seein’ things that—” He seemed to realize we were still there, and he abruptly canceled that line of thought.

  “I’ll go with you,” Mom offered, “if you want to go see her. I’ll stay right by your side the whole time. She wants to help you. I wish you’d let her.”

  He was silent. We were nearing the house. “I’ll think about it,” he said, which was his way of saying he didn’t want to hear any more talk about the Lady.

  Dad might know where the Lady lived, and he might need her help to exorcise the spirit that called to him from the bottom of Saxon’s Lake, but he wasn’t ready yet. Whether he was ever going to be ready or not, I didn’t know. It was up to him to take the first step, and nobody could make him do it. I had to concern myself with other problems for now: the dream of the four black girls, the Demon’s crush on me, how I was going to survive Leatherlungs, and what I was going to write about next.

  And the green feather. Always the green feather, its unanswered questions taunting me from one of the seven mystic drawers.

  That night, Dad hung the plaque on a wall in my room for me, right over the magic box. It looked nice, up there between the pictures of a large fellow with bolts in his neck and a dark-caped individual with prominent teeth.

  I had been charged with power and tasted life tonight. I had taken my own first step, however awkward, to wherever I was going. This feeling of sheer exhilaration might fade, might wane under the weight of days and diminish in the river of time; but on this night, this wonderful never-to-be-again night, it was alive.

  3

  Dinner with Vernon

  TO SAY THE DEMON pestered me in the following days about coming to her birthday party is like saying a cat has a fondness for the company of mice. Between the Demon’s insistent whispering and Leatherlungs’ window-shaking bellows, I was a bundle of nerves by Wednesday, and I still couldn’t divide fractions.

  On Wednesday night, just after supper, I was drying the dishes for Mom when I heard Dad say from the chair where he was reading the paper, “Car’s stoppin’ out front. We expectin’ anybody?”

  “Not that I know of,” Mom answered.

  The chair creaked as he stood up. He was going out to the porch. Before he went out the door, he gave a low whistle of appreciation. “Hey, you oughta come take a look at this!” he said, and then he went outside. We couldn’t resist this invitation, of course. And there parked in front of our house was a long, sleek car with a paint job that gleamed like black satin. It had wire wheels and a shiny chrome grille and a windshield that seemed a mile wide. It was the longest and most beautiful car I’d ever seen, and it made our pickup truck look like a crusty old scab. The driver’s door opened and a man in a dark suit got out. He came around the car and stepped onto our lawn, and he said, “Good evening” in an accent that didn’t sound like he was from around here. He came on up the walk, into the porch light’s circle, and we all saw he had white hair and a white mustache and his shoes were as shiny and black as the car’s skin.

  “Can I help you?” Dad asked.

  “Mr. Thomas Mackenson?”

  “Tom. That’s me.”

  “Very good, sir.” He stopped at the foot of the steps. “Mrs. Mackenson.” He nodded at my mother, then he looked at me. “Master Cory?”

  “Uh… I’m Cory, yes sir,” I said.

  “Ah. Excellent.” He smiled, and he reached into the inside pocket of his coat and his hand came out holding an envelope. “If you please?” He offered the envelope to me.

  I looked at Dad. He motioned for me to take it. I did, and the white-haired man waited with his hands clasped behind his back as I opened it. The envelope was sealed with a circle of red wax that had the letter T embossed in it. I slid from the envelope a small white card on which there were several lines of typed words.

  “What’s it say?” Mom leaned over my shoulder.

  I read it aloud. ‘“Mr. Vernon Thaxter requests the pleasure of your company at dinner, on Saturday, September 19, 1964, at seven o’clock P.M. Dress optional.’”

  “Casual wear recommended,” the white-haired man clarified.

  “Oh my,” Mom said; her worry-bead words. Her brows came together.

  “Uh…can I ask just who you are?” Dad inquired, taking the white card from me and scanning it.

  “My name is Cyril Pritchard, Mr. Mackenson. I am in the employ of the Thaxter household. My wife and I have looked after Mr. Moorwood and young master Vernon for almost eight years.”

  “Oh. Are you…like…the butler or somethin’?”

  “My wife and I serve as we’re required, sir.”

  Dad grunted and frowned, his own mental worry-beads at work. “How come this was sent from Vernon and not from his father?”

  “Because, sir, it’s Vernon who wishes to have dinner with your son.”

  “And why is that? I don’t recall Vernon ever meetin’ my boy.”

  “Young master Vernon attended the Arts Council awards ceremony. He was very impressed with your son’s command of the language. You know, he had aspirations of being a writer himself at one time.”

  “He wrote a book, didn’t he?” Mom asked.

  “Indeed he did. The Moon My Mistress was its title. Published in 1958 by Sonneilton Press in New York City.”

  “I took it out from the library,” Mom admitted. “I have to say I wouldn’t have bought it, not with that bloody meat cleaver on the front. You know, I always thought that was odd, because the book was more about life in that little town than the butcher who…well, you know.”

  “Yes, I do know,” Mr. Pritchard said.

  What I didn’t know until later was that the butcher in Vernon’s book had cut out a different intestine from a number of ladies every time the moon was full. Everybody in the fictional town raved over the butcher’s steak-and-kidney pies, spicy Cajun sausages, and lady-finger meat-spread sandwiches.

  “It wasn’t bad, though, for a first novel,” Mom said. “Why didn’t he write another one?”

  “The book unfortunately didn’t sell, for whatever reason. Young master Vernon was…shall we say…disenchanted.” His gaze returned to me. “What shall I tell young master Vernon in regards to the dinner invitation?”

  “Hold your horses.” Dad spoke up. “I hate to state the obvious, but Vernon’s not…well, he’s not in any mental shape to entertain guests up at that house, is he?”

  Here Mr. Pritchard’s stare went icy. “Young master Vernon is perfectly capable of entertaining a dinner guest, Mr. Mackenson. In response to your implied concern, your son would be safe with him.”

  “I didn’t mean any offense. It’s just that when somebody walks around naked all the time, you’ve got to believe he’s not rowin’ with both oars. I can’t figure why Moorwood lets him go around like that.”

  “Young master Vernon has his own life. Mr. Thaxter has decided to let him do as he pleases.”

  “That’s clear to see,” Dad said. “You know, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Moorwood in…oh, I guess over three years. He was always a hermit, but doesn’t he ever come up for air anymore?”

  “Mr. Thaxter’s business is taken care of. His rents are collected and his properties maintained. That was always his principal pleasure in life, and so it remains. Now: what may I tell young master Vernon, please?”

  Vernon Thaxter had had a book published. A mystery, by the sound of it. A real book, by a real New York City publisher. I might never get the chance to talk to a real writer again, I thought. I didn’t care if he was crazy, or walked around in his birthday suit. He had knowledge of a world far beyond Zephyr, and
though this knowledge may have scorched him, I was interested in finding out his own experiences with the magic box. “I’d like to go,” I said.

  “That’s a yes, I presume?” Mr. Pritchard asked my parents.

  “I don’t know, Tom,” my mother said. “One of us ought to go, too. Just in case.”

  “I understand your hesitation, Mrs. Mackenson. I can only tell you that my wife and I know young master Vernon to be a gentle, intelligent, and sensitive man. He doesn’t have any friends, not really. His father is and has always been very distant to him.” Again, the ice crept back into Mr. Pritchard’s eyes. “Mr. Thaxter is a single-minded man. He never wanted young master Vernon to be a writer. In fact, up until quite recently he refused to allow the library to stock copies of The Moon My Mistress.”

  “What changed his mind?” Mom asked.

  “Time and circumstances,” Mr. Pritchard replied. “It became clear to Mr. Thaxter that young master Vernon did not have the aptitude for the business world. As I’ve said, young master Vernon is a sensitive man.” The ice left him; he blinked, and even offered a shade of a smile. “Pardon me. I didn’t mean to ramble on about concerns with which I’m sure you don’t wish to be bothered. But young master Vernon is eager for an answer. May I tell him yes?”

  “If one of us can go, too,” Dad told him. “I’ve always wanted to see the inside of that house.” He looked at Mom. “Is that all right with you?”

  She thought about it for a minute. I watched for signs of a decision: the chewing of her lower lip usually brought forth a no, whereas a sigh and slight twitch of the right corner of her mouth was a yes being born. The sigh came out, then the twitch. “Yes,” she said.

  “Very good.” Mr. Pritchard’s smile was genuine. He seemed relieved that a positive decision had been reached. “I’ve been instructed to tell you that I’ll pick you up here on Saturday evening at six-thirty. Is that suitable, sir?”

  The question was directed to me. I said it would be fine.

  “Until then.” He gave us all a stiff-backed bow and walked to the black-satin-skinned car. The noise the engine made starting up was like hushed music. Then Mr. Pritchard drove away, and turned at the next intersection onto the upward curve of Temple Street.

  “I hope everything’ll be all right,” Mom said as soon as we were back in the house. “I have to say, Vernon’s book gave me the willies.”

  Dad sat down in his chair again and picked up the sports page where he’d left off. All the headlines were about Alabama and Auburn football games, the religions of autumn. “Always wanted to see where ol’ Moorwood lives. I guess this is as good an opportunity as I’ll get. Anyhow, Cory’ll have a chance to talk to Vernon about writin’.”

  “Lord, I hope you don’t ever write anythin’ as gruesome as that book was,” Mom said to me. “It’s strange, too, because all that gruesome stuff just seemed sewn in where it didn’t have to be. It would’ve been a good book about a small town if all that murder hadn’t been in there.”

  “Murders happen,” Dad said. “As we all know.”

  “Yes, but shouldn’t a book about life be good enough? And that bloody meat cleaver on the cover…well, I wouldn’t have read it to begin with if Vernon’s name hadn’t been on it.”

  “All life isn’t hearts and flowers.” Dad put down his paper. “I wish it was, God knows I do. But life is just as much pain and mess as it is joy and order. Probably a lot more mess than order, too. I guess when you make yourself realize that, you”—he smiled faintly, with his sad eyes, and looked at me—“start growin’ up.” He began reading an article about the Auburn football team, then he put it aside again as another thought struck him. “I’ll tell you what’s strange, Rebecca. Have you seen Moorwood Thaxter in the last two or three years? Have you seen him just once? At the bank, or the barbershop, or anywhere around town?”

  “No, I haven’t. I probably wouldn’t even know what he looks like, anyway.”

  “Slim old fella. Always wears a black suit and a black bow tie. I remember seein’ Moorwood when I was a kid. He always looked dried up and old. After his wife died, he stopped comin’ out of his house very often. But it seems like we would’ve seen him now and again, don’t you think?”

  “I’ve never seen Mr. Pritchard before. I guess they’re all hermits.”

  “Except Vernon,” I said. “Until the weather turns cold, I mean.”

  “Right as rain,” Dad said. “But I think I might ask around tomorrow. Find out if anybody I know has seen Moorwood lately.”

  “Why?” Mom frowned. “What does it matter? You’ll probably see him on Saturday night.”

  “Unless he’s dead,” came his answer. “Now, wouldn’t that be somethin’? If Moorwood’s been dead for two years or more, and everybody in Zephyr still jumps at the sound of his name because his dyin’s been kept a secret?”

  “And why would it be kept a secret? What would be the point?”

  Dad shrugged, but I could tell he was thinking in overdrive. “Inheritance taxes, maybe. Greedy relatives. Legal mess. Could be a lot of things.” A smile stole across his mouth, and his eyes sparkled. “Vernon would have to know it. Now, wouldn’t that just be a hoot if a naked insane man owned most of this town and everybody did what he said to do because we thought it was Moorwood talkin’? Like the night the whole town turned out to keep Bruton from bein’ washed away? I always thought that was peculiar. Moorwood was more interested in keepin’ his money in a tight fist than givin’ it away to Good Samaritans, even if they had to be threatened to be good.”

  “Maybe he had a change of heart,” Mom suggested.

  “Yeah. I suspect bein’ dead can do that.”

  “You’ll have your chance to find out on Saturday night,” Mom said.

  And so we would. Between now and then, however, I had to face the Demon and hear about how much fun her birthday party was going to be and how everybody else in the class would be there. Just as my father was asking around about sightings of Moorwood Thaxter, I asked my classmates at recess if they were going to the Demon’s birthday party.

  No one was. Most made comments that led me to believe they’d rather eat one of her dog dookey sandwiches than go to any party where they’d be at her booger-flicking, Munster-family mercy. I said I’d lie down in red-hot coals and kiss that baldheaded Russian guy who beat his shoe on the table rather than go to the Demon’s party and have to smell her stinking relatives.

  But I didn’t say this where she could hear me, of course. In fact, I was starting to feel more than a little sorry for her, because I couldn’t find one single kid who was going to that party.

  I don’t know why I did it. Maybe because I thought of what it would feel like, to invite a classful of kids to your birthday party, offer to feed them ice cream and cake and they wouldn’t even have to bring a present, and have every one of them say no. That is a hurtful word, and I figured the Demon would hear a lot of it in time to come. But I couldn’t go to the party; that would be begging for trouble. On Thursday after school, I rode Rocket to the Woolworth’s on Merchants Street, and I bought her a fifteen-cent birthday card with a puppy wearing a birthday hat on the front. Inside, under the doggerel poem, I wrote Happy Birthday from Your Classmates. Then I slid it into its pink envelope, and on Friday I got into the room before anybody else and put the envelope on the Demon’s desk. I thanked God nobody saw me, either; I never would’ve lived it down.

  The bell rang, and Leatherlungs took command. The Demon sat down behind me. I heard her open the envelope. Leatherlungs started hollering at a guy named Reggie Duffy because he was chewing grape bubble gum. This was part of the overall plan; we’d learned she despised the smell of grape bubble gum, and so almost every day somebody became a purple-mouthed martyr.

  Behind me, I heard a faint sniff.

  That was all. But it was a heart-aching sound, to think that fifteen cents could buy a happy tear.

  At recess, on the dusty playground behind the school, the Demon fluttered fr
om kid to kid showing them the card. Everybody had the good sense to pretend they already knew about it. Ladd Devine, a lanky kid with a red crew cut who was already showing signs of being a football star in his quick feet, loping passes, and general fondness for mayhem, began telling all the girls he’d bought the card when he heard they thought it was sweet. I didn’t say anything. The Demon was already staring at Ladd with love in her eyes and a finger up her nose.

  On Saturday evening, at the appointed time, Mr. Pritchard arrived at our house in the long black car. “Watch your manners!” Mom cautioned me, though it was meant for Dad, too. We weren’t dressed up in suits; “casual wear” meant comfortable short-sleeved shirts and clean blue jeans. Dad and I climbed into the back of the car and the impression I had was of finding yourself in a cavern with walls of mink and leather. Mr. Pritchard sat divided from us by a pane of clear plastic. He drove us away from the house and took the turn up onto the heights of Temple Street, and we could hardly hear the engine or even feel a bump.

  On Temple Street, amid huge spreading oaks and poplars, were the homes of the elite citizens of Zephyr. Mayor Swope’s red brick house was there, on a circular driveway. Dad pointed out the white stone mansion of the man who was president of the bank. A little farther along the winding street stood the house of Mr. Sumpter Womack, who owned the Spinnin’ Wheel, and directly across the way in a house with white columns lived Dr. Parrish. Then Temple Street ended at a gate of scrolled ironwork. Beyond the gate, a cobblestoned drive curved between rows of evergreens that stood as straight as soldiers at attention. The windows of the Thaxter mansion were ablaze with light, its slanted roofs topped with chimneys and bulbous onion-shaped turrets. Mr. Pritchard stopped to get out to open the gate, then he stopped again on the other side to close it. The car’s tires made pillows out of the cobblestones. We followed the curve between the fragrant pines, and Mr. Pritchard pulled us to a halt under a large canvas awning striped with blue and gold. Beneath the awning, a stone-tiled entryway led to the massive front door. Before Dad could unlatch the car’s door, Mr. Pritchard was there to do it for him. Then Mr. Pritchard, moving with the grace and silence of quicksilver, opened the mansion’s front door for us, and we walked in.