Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 39

He glanced back. I caught the white blur of his face, his eyes scared and glittering with trapped moonlight. I don’t think he ever got to the edge of the woods. He was just not there anymore.

  Rebel began to whine and circle in his pen, the withered leg dragging. He looked toward the forest, and I could not help but see his longing. I stood at the pen’s gate. The latch was next to my hand.

  He was my dog. My dog.

  The back porch light came on. Dad, his eyes squinty from sleep, demanded, “What’s all this hollerin’ about, Cory?”

  I had to make up a story about hearing something rummaging around the garbage cans. I couldn’t use Lucifer as an excuse, as the second week of October Lucifer had been shotgunned to nasty pieces by Gabriel “Jazzman” Jackson, who’d caught the monkey ravaging his wife’s pumpkin patch. I said I thought it might have been a possum.

  At breakfast I didn’t feel like eating. The ham sandwich in my Clutch Cargo lunchbox remained untouched. At dinner I picked at my hamburger steak. Mom put her hand against my forehead. “You don’t have a fever,” she said, “but you do look kind of peaked.” This was pronounced peak-ed, and was Southern for “sick.” “How do you feel?”

  “All right.” I shrugged. “I guess.”

  “Everythin’ okay at school?” Dad inquired.

  “Yes sir.”

  “Those Branlins aren’t botherin’ you anymore, are they?”

  “No sir.”

  “But somethin’ else is?” Mom asked.

  I was silent. They could read me like a fifty-foot SEE ROCK CITY sign.

  “Want to talk about it, then?”

  “I…” I looked up at them in the comforting kitchen light. Beyond the windows, the land was dark. A wind sniffed around the eaves, and tonight clouds covered the moon. “I did wrong,” I said, and before I could stop them tears came into my eyes. I began to tell my parents how much I regretted praying Death away from Rebel. I had done wrong, because Rebel had been so badly hurt he should’ve been allowed to die. I wished I hadn’t prayed. I wished I could remember Rebel as he had been, bright-eyed and alert, before he had become a dead body living on the sheer power of my selfishness. I wished, I wished; but I had done wrong, and I was ashamed.

  Dad’s fingers turned his coffee cup around and around. It helped him sort things out, when there were many things to be considered. “I understand,” he said, and two words were never more welcome. “You know, no mistake in the world can’t be fixed. All it takes is wantin’ to fix it. Sometimes it’s hard, though. Sometimes it hurts to fix a mistake, but you have to do it no matter what.” His eyes rested on me. “You know what ought to be done, don’t you?”

  I nodded. “Take Rebel back to Dr. Lezander.”

  “I think so,” Dad said.

  We were going to do it the next day. Later that night, as my bedtime approached, I took a piece of hamburger steak out for Rebel. It was a real dog’s treat. I hoped he might eat it, but he smelled it and then just stared at the woods again as if waiting for someone to come for him.

  I was no longer his master.

  I sat beside him as the chill wind moved around us. Rebel made little whining noises deep in his throat. He let me pat him, but he was somewhere else. I remembered him as a puppy, full of boundless energy, enthralled by a yellow ball with a little bell in it. I remembered the times we had raced each other, and like a true Southern gentleman he had always let me win. I remembered when we flew, over the hills of summer. Even if that had only been in my imagination, it was truer than true. I cried some. More than some.

  I stood up, and I turned toward the woods. I said, “Are you there, Carl?”

  He didn’t answer, of course. He had always been a shy little boy.

  “I’m givin’ Rebel to you, Carl,” I said. “Okay?”

  No answer. But he was there. I knew he was.

  “Will you come get him, Carl? I don’t want him to be alone very long.”

  Just silence. Just the silence, listening.

  “He likes to have his ears scratched,” I said. “Carl?” I called. “You’re not burned up anymore, are you? Will Rebel…be like he used to be?”

  The wind was speaking. Only that and nothing more.

  “I’m goin’ inside now,” I said. “I won’t come back out.” I looked at Rebel. His attention was fixed on the woods, and his tail wagged the slightest bit. I walked into the house, shut the door, and turned off the back porch light.

  Long past midnight, I awakened to the sound of Rebel’s happy bark. I knew what I would see if I went to the back door. It was best they get to know each other without me butting in. I turned over, and I went back to sleep.

  The next afternoon, at Dr. Lezander’s, Dad and the doctor left me alone while I said good-bye to Rebel. He licked me with his cold tongue. I stroked his misshapen head and patted him for a while, and then it was time. Dr. Lezander had the form ready, and Dad held the pen poised for my final word.

  “Dad?” I said. “He’s my dog, isn’t he?”

  My father understood. “Yes, he sure is,” he answered, and he gave the pen to me.

  We left the form that said Case #3432 with Dr. Lezander, my name signed on the dotted line. When we got home again, I walked around in Rebel’s pen. It seemed so very small. I left the gate open when I went out.


  Dead Man Driving

  TOWARD THE END of October, dad bought a wire basket for me to put on Rocket. At first I thought it was pretty cool, until I realized that now I would be expected to run all sorts of errands for Mom. It was about this time that she put up a hand-lettered sign on the bulletin-board at church, announcing that she was selling pies and other baked goods. A similar sign went up in the barbershop. A few orders began to come in, and soon Mom was elbow-deep in floury mixing bowls, eggshells, and boxes of powdered sugar.

  The reason for this, I later learned, was that Dad’s hours had been cut back at the dairy. We were hurting for money, though I never would’ve known it. There was simply less work for Dad to do at Green Meadows. Some of the dairy’s oldest customers had canceled their orders. It was because of the new supermarket in Union Town, which had recently opened its doors to the fanfare of the Adams Valley High School marching band. The supermarket, called Big Paul’s Pantry, could’ve swallowed our own little Piggly-Wiggly like a whale swallows a shrimp. It had a section, it seemed, for everything under a fat man’s chin. The milk section alone was a whole aisle, and all the milk was in opaque plastic jugs that didn’t have to be rinsed out and returned. And because Big Paul stocked so much milk, he could afford to sell it at prices that knocked the stuffing out of Green Meadows Dairy. So it came to pass that Dad’s milk route became progressively shorter, if such a thing can be called progress. People liked the newness of going into a clean, air-conditioned supermarket and buying their milk in plastic jugs and then throwing those jugs away without a second thought. Not only that, but Big Paul’s Pantry stayed open until eight o’clock at night, which was unheard of.

  Putting a basket on Rocket was like saddling Seabiscuit with mailbags. But I did my duty, carrying pies and cakes around to people in the afternoons, and Rocket stiffened up from time to time in protest but never dropped one item.

  To show thanks to the Lezanders for being so kind to Rebel, Mom decided to make a pumpkin pie—her best seller—for them free of charge. She put the pie in a box, tied it up with twine, and I slid the box into Rocket’s basket and pedaled for Dr. Lezander’s house. On the way, I passed Gotha and Gordo Branlin on their black bikes. Gotha acknowledged me with a slight lift of his chin, but Gordo—still wearing bandages that covered oozing sores—sped away like blue blazes. I got to Dr. Lezander’s house and knocked on the back door, and in a minute Mrs. Lezander answered.

  “Mom baked you and the doctor a pie,” I said, offering her the box. “It’s pumpkin.”

  “Oh, how very nice.” She took it and sniffed around the lid. “Oh dear,” she said. “Does this have cream in it?”

porated milk, I think.” I should know. The kitchen was teeming with Pet Milk cans. “My mom made it this mornin’.”

  “It’s very thoughtful of your mother, Cory, but I’m afraid neither of us can eat cream. We’re both allergic to anything from a cow.” She smiled. “That’s how we met, all red and blotched at a clinic in Rotterdam.”

  “Oh. Gosh. Well, maybe you can give it to somebody else, then. It’s a real good pie.”

  “I’m sure it’s a wonderful pie.” Vunderful, she’d said. “But if I even kept it in the house, Frans would get into it like a little mouse around midnight. He has the sweet tooth, you know. Then in two days he would look like he had the measles and he would itch so much he couldn’t wear clothes. So, better not to even let Frans smell it, or he’d be walking around like Vernon Thaxter, yes?”

  I laughed at that image. “Yes, ma’am.” I took the pie back. “Maybe Mom can make you somethin’ else, then.”

  “It’s not necessary. Just the thought is kind enough.”

  I paused at the door, wondering if I should mention something that had been on my mind lately.

  “Yes?” Mrs. Lezander prodded.

  “Can I see the doctor? I’d like to talk to him for a minute.”

  “He’s taking a nap right now. He stayed up all night listening to his radio shows.”

  “His radio shows?”

  “Yes, he’s got one of those shortwave radios. Sometimes he stays up until dawn listening to the foreign countries. May I give him a message?”

  “Uh… I’ll just talk to him later.” What I wanted to ask was if he needed some help in the afternoons. After watching Dr. Lezander at work, it seemed to me that being a veterinarian was a pretty important job. I could be a veterinarian and a writer at the same time. The world would always need veterinarians, just like it would always need milkmen. “I’ll come back some other time,” I said, and I returned the pumpkin pie to Rocket’s basket and headed for home.

  I pedaled leisurely. Rocket acted a little nervous, but I took that to be his dissatisfaction with the basket, like a greyhound with a leash. The sun was warm and the hills were blazing yellow. A week from now the leaves would be brown and tumbling. It was one of those beautiful afternoons when even the blue shadows are lovely, and you know instinctively to slow down and enjoy things because they cannot and will not last.

  I grinned, thinking of Dr. Lezander walking around as naked as Vernon Thaxter. That would be a sight, wouldn’t it? I’d heard of people being allergic to grass, dogs and cats, ragweed, tobacco and dandelions. Grand Austin was allergic to horses; they made him sneeze until he could hardly stand, which was why he’d stopped going to the Brandywine Carnival when it came through town every November. Grandmomma Sarah said the Jaybird was allergic to work. I supposed people could be allergic to everything under and including the sun. Just think! Neither of the Lezanders could eat ice cream. They couldn’t eat banana pudding, or drink a glass of vanilla milk. If I couldn’t have any of those things, I’d go just as crazy as—

  Vernon came to mind.

  Vernon, standing in that room with the trains circling little Zephyr.

  You know what I believe?

  I remembered the lights off, the windows of the tiny houses glowing.

  I believe if you find a night owl who doesn’t drink milk, you’ve got your killer.

  I hit the brake. The suddenness of it surprised even Rocket. The bike skidded to a stop.

  He stayed up all night listening to his radio shows, Mrs. Lezander had said.

  I swallowed hard. I might’ve had a Pet Milk can wedged in my throat.

  Sometimes he stays up until dawn listening to the foreign countries.

  “Oh no,” I whispered. “Oh no, it can’t be Dr. Le—”

  A car pulled up beside me, so close it almost skinned my leg, and then it swerved to block my way. It was a dark blue, low-slung Chevy, its right rear side smashed in and rust splotched across it like dead poison ivy leaves. A white rabbit’s head on a black square hung from the rearview mirror. The Chevy’s engine boomed and popped under the hood, and the whole car trembled with pent-up power. “Hey, boy!” the man behind the wheel said through the rolled-down window. The wheel was covered with blue fur. “You’re that little Mackenson shit!”

  His voice was slurred, the lids of his red eyes at half mast. Donny Blaylock was three sheets to an ill wind. His face was as craggy as rough-cut rock, a greasy comma hanging down from his dark, slick brilliantined hair. “I ’member you,” he said. “Sim’s house. Little fucker.”

  I felt Rocket shiver. The bike suddenly darted forward and banged into the Chevy, like a terrier attacking a Doberman.

  “Been seein’ things you shouldn’t oughta see,” Donny went on. “Been causin’ us some trouble, ain’t you?”

  “No sir,” I said. Rocket backed up and banged into the Chevy again.

  “Oh, yes you have. Biggun’s gonna be glad to see you, boy. Gonna have a talk with you ’bout them big eyes and that big ol’ mouth of yours. Get in.”

  If my heart had been pounding any harder, it would’ve pulled up its root and burst right out of my chest.

  “I said, get in. Now.” He raised his right hand.

  It gripped a pistol, and the pistol was aimed at me.

  Once again Rocket attacked the car. Rocket had saved me from Gordo Branlin, but against this dirty rat and his gun, Rocket was powerless.

  “Shoot your fuckin’ head off in two seconds,” Donny vowed.

  I was scared half to death, and the other half was terrified. That gun’s barrel looked as big as a cannon. It made a convincing argument. In my mind I could hear Mom screaming as I left Rocket and got into the car, but what choice did I have? “Goin’ for a ride,” Donny said, and he leaned across me—all but suffocating me with the foul odors of stale sweat and moonshine whiskey—and slammed the door shut. He put his foot down on the gas pedal and the Chevy growled and crawled up on the curb before he could get it straightened out again. I looked back at Rocket, which was rapidly shrinking. A little plastic Hawaiian girl did a wobbly hula in the Chevy’s rear windshield. “Sit still!” Donny snapped, and I obeyed him because the pistol was right there to jab the obedience into me. Donny’s foot pressed harder on the gas. The Chevy’s engine was wailing as we tore along Merchants Street and turned toward the gargoyle bridge.

  “Where’re we goin’?” I dared ask.

  “You just wait ’n see.”

  The speedometer’s needle climbed to sixty. We left the gargoyles gasping for breath. The Chevy’s engine was making thunder, and we were going seventy miles an hour on the curving road that led past Saxon’s Lake. When I gripped the armrest, Donny laughed. On the floorboard an empty bottle rolled back and forth under my feet and the smell of raw rotgut moonshine was harsh enough to make my eyes water.

  The woods on either side of the road passed in a yellow blur, the Chevy’s rear tires shrieking on the snake-twist road. “I’m fuckin’ alive!” Donny howled. Maybe so, but he looked near dead. His eyes were sunken, his jaw stubbled with a scraggly beard, his clothes as wrinkled and dirty as if he’d slept for three days in a pigpen. Or maybe just laid in there and drank for three days. “I saw you!” he shouted to me over the wind’s blast. “Followed you! Yessir, ol’ Donny crept up behind you and bagged him a bird, didn’t he?” He threw his shoulders into a curve that made my eyes pop. “That fat sumbitch says I’m stupid! Show his fat ass who the smart Blaylock is!”

  If a gun, a fast car, and being drunker than a Shriner made a man smart, then Donny was Copernicus, Da Vinci, and Einstein rolled up into one mass of doughy genius.

  We whipped past Saxon’s Lake and the red rock cliff. “Whoa! Whoa, Big Dick!” Donny hollered at the car as he stepped on the brake. We slowed down enough for Donny to turn the Chevy to the right and onto a dirt road without flying us into the trees. Then he put on the gas again, and we zoomed the fifty yards between Route Ten and the small white house with a screened-in front porch that stood a
t the end of that road. I knew the house. The red Mustang was still parked under the green plastic awning, but the old rust-gnawed Cadillac was gone. The rose garden was still there, all thorns and no flowers.

  “Whoa!” Donny shouted, and his Big Dick came to a throbbing halt at the door of Miss Grace’s house of bad girls.

  Lord help me! I thought. What was this all about?

  He got out of the car, gun in hand. He showed me its ugly snout. “You better be here when I come back! Better be here, or I’ll hunt you down and kill you! Understand?”

  I nodded. Donny Blaylock had already killed one man. Mr. Dollar had said so. I had no doubt he would do it again, so my butt stayed glued to the seat. Donny staggered to the door and started beating on it. Somebody hollered from inside. Donny kicked the door open and charged in, shouting, “Where is she? Where’s my fuckin’ woman?”

  I was in deep dookey, that was for sure. Somehow in my fear-seized brain I thought that Dr. Lezander couldn’t be the one who’d killed that man at Saxon’s Lake; it had to be Donny Blaylock. Mr. Dollar had heard about it from Sim Sears. Donny Blaylock was the killer, not Dr. Lezander!

  Donny emerged from the house less than thirty seconds after he’d crashed in. He had hold of a girl by her blond hair, and he was dragging her as she fought and cursed.

  That girl was Lainie, who’d furled her tongue at me that very first day.

  “Get in that car!” Donny yelled as he dragged her over the ground. She was wearing a pink halter top and purple hot pants, and one of her silver shoes had come off. “Get in there, and do it quick!”

  “Lemme go! Lemme go, you sumbitch!”

  Out from the doorway shot redhaired, stocky Miss Grace, who wore a white sweater and blue jeans big enough to house a barn dance. She had the look of hellfire on her face and a frying pan in her right hand, and she lifted it to strike Donny over the head.

  He shot her. Bam! Just that fast.

  Miss Grace screamed and grabbed her shoulder as the crimson blossomed against the white like the opening of a rose. She fell to her knees, crying, “You shot me, you asshole! You dumb bastard, you!” Two more girls, both brunette and one as plump as the other was skinny, rushed out to kneel beside Miss Grace, while another blond girl stood in the doorway shouting, “We’re callin’ the sheriff! Right this minute, we’re callin’ him!”