Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 40

  “You stupid shit!” Donny yelled as he reached the car. “We own the sheriff!” He yanked the door open and threw Lainie in on me, and I scrambled over into the backseat as she clawed and kicked to get out. Donny said, “Stop it!” and he hit her across the face with his free hand so hard, one second I was looking at the back of her head and the next at her face, the tough but pretty features pinched with pain. Blood began crawling from the corner of her mouth. “You want some more, you just keep it up!” Donny warned her, and then he went around and slid under the wheel. The Chevy’s engine fired. I started to jump out, but Donny caught my motion in the rearview mirror and the pistol’s barrel swatted at my head. If I hadn’t ducked in time, I might’ve earned my wings for real. “Just sit there! The both of you!” Donny shouted, and he whipped the car around in a neck-wrenching circle and headed for Route Ten again.

  “You’re crazy!” Lainie seethed, one hand pressed to her mouth. “I told you to leave me alone!”

  “Do tell!”

  “I swear I won’t stand for this! Miss Grace’ll—”

  “What’ll she do? I shoulda shot her brains out!”

  Lainie made a move for the door handle. But just then we reached Route Ten and Donny laid on the gas. The Chevy’s tires screeched as we sped toward Zephyr once more. Lainie’s fingers were gripping the handle, but we were already going fifty miles an hour.

  “Jump,” Donny said, and he grinned. “Go on, I dare ya!”

  Her fingers loosened. They let go.

  “I’ll get the law on you! I swear it!”

  “Sure you will.” His grin widened. “The law don’t have time for trash like you.”

  “You’re drunk and out of your mind!” She glanced back at me. “What’re you doin’ draggin’ a kid around with you for?”

  “Family business. You just shut up and look pretty.”

  “Damn you to hell,” she spat at him, but he just laughed.

  The Chevy crossed the gargoyle bridge again. We passed Rocket. A crow was perched on the handlebars, trying to pry the pie box open. The indignity of it! Donny tore through Zephyr at sixty miles an hour, blowing dead leaves in our wake. He burst out on the other side and hit Route Sixteen, and we raced across the hills toward Union Town.

  “Kidnappin’!” Lainie was still raging. “That’s what it is! They can kill you for that!”

  “I don’t give a shit. I got you. That’s what I want.”

  “I don’t want you!”

  His hand grabbed her chin and squeezed. The Chevy swerved across the road, and I gasped as I saw the woods reaching for us. Then Donny veered us back onto pavement again with a jerk of his arm. We were straddling the centerline. “Don’t you say that. Don’t you ever say that, or you’ll be real sorry.”

  “I’m just shakin’!” She tried to pull loose, but his wiry fingers tightened.

  “I don’t wanna hurt you, baby. God knows I don’t.” His fingers released her, but their marks stayed on her skin.

  “I ain’t your baby! I told you a long time ago, I don’t want nothin’ to do with you or them damn brothers of yours!”

  “You take our money, don’t you? High and mighty for a damned punchboard, ain’t you?”

  “I’m a professional,” she said with a measure of pride. “I don’t love you, don’t you get it? I don’t even like you! Only one man I ever loved, and he’s with Jesus.”

  “Jesus.” He mocked her voice. “That bastard’s rottin’ in hell.” His eyes flickered to the rearview mirror. I saw them narrow. “What the fuck?” he whispered.

  I looked back. A car was behind us, gaining rapidly.

  It was a black car. Black as a panther.

  “No.” Donny shook his head. “Oh, no. I cain’t be that wasted!”

  Lainie looked back, too, her lower lip swollen. “What is it?”

  “That car. See it?”

  “What car?”

  Her deep brown eyes registered nothing. I saw it, though. Clear as light. And Donny did, too. I could tell by the way he was letting the Chevy drift all over the road. The black car was speeding after us. In another moment I could make out the flames painted on the hood. I could see the faint shape of the driver through the slanted windshield. He seemed to be crouched forward, eager to catch us.

  “Hell’s bells!” Donny’s knuckles whitened around the furry wheel. “I’m goin’ off my rocker!”

  “You just now figurin’ that one out? Kidnappin’ me is bad enough, but your ass is gonna be in a crack for shootin’ Miss Grace! What if you’d killed her?”

  “Shut up.” Little beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead. His eyes kept ticking back and forth from the rearview mirror to the winding road ahead. The black car was lost for a few seconds behind a curve, and then I saw Midnight Mona slide around it and come out of a shadow, barreling after us. The sun was dull on the black paint and the tinted windshield. The Chevy was on the high side of seventy; Midnight Mona had to be doing near ninety.

  “There’s where it happened!” Lainie pointed at a place off the roadside, the wind whipping the hair around her strained and lonely face. “That’s where my baby got killed!”

  She was pointing at a place that might’ve just looked like weeds and thick underbrush, except two dead and blackened trees stood side by side, their trunks cut by deep and ugly gashes. The limbs of the trees were interlocked, as if embracing each other even in death.

  I looked at her blond hair, and I remembered it.

  Hers was the head I had seen resting on the shoulder of Little Stevie Cauley, a long time ago in the Spinnin’ Wheel’s parking lot.

  “Look out!” Lainie suddenly screamed, and she grabbed for the wheel as a tractor-trailer truck roared over a hill in front of us, its grille filling Big Dick’s windshield like a mouthful of silver teeth. Donny had been watching Midnight Mona grow in the rearview mirror, and he shouted with terror and twisted the wheel. The truck’s massive tires zoomed past, a deep bass horn bellowing with indignation. I turned around in time to see the truck and Midnight Mona merge together, and then Midnight Mona burst through the truck’s rear wheels and kept on coming and the truck went on its way as dumb as Paul Bunyan’s ox. Donny hadn’t seen this feat of magic; he’d been too busy trying to keep us from crashing. “That was damn close!” Lainie said, and when she looked back I could tell she still saw nothing of the black car.

  But I knew. And Donny knew, too. Little Stevie Cauley was coming to save his girlfriend.

  “If he wants to fuckin’ play, I’ll play with him!” Donny yelled, and his foot sank to the floor. The Chevy’s engine screamed, the whole car starting to vibrate, everything that wasn’t bolted down rattling and groaning. “He never could beat me! Never could!”

  “Slow down!” Lainie begged, her eyes filling up with fear. “You’ll kill us!”

  But Midnight Mona was right on our tail now, hanging there like a black jet plane, matching speed for speed. The driver was a dark shape behind the wheel. The Chevy’s tires flayed rubber as Donny gritted his teeth, sweat on his face, and followed the dangerous road. Over the engine and the wind and Lainie’s voice crying for Donny to slow down, I couldn’t hear a sound from Midnight Mona.

  “Come on, you sumbitch!” Donny snarled. “I killed you once! I can kill you again, too!”

  “You’re crazy!” Lainie was clinging to her seat like a cat. “I don’t wanna die!”

  I was thrown from one side of the car to the other as the Chevy took the curves at breakneck speed, Donny fighting the wheel with every ounce of mean strength in his body. My mind was jangled, but not disconnected; I realized, as I was flung around like yesterday’s laundry, that Donny Blaylock had killed Little Stevie Cauley. How it had happened I could see in my imagination: two cars—one blue, one black—racing hell-for-sparkplugs on this very road, flames shooting from their tail pipes under last year’s October moon. Maybe they were neck and neck, like the chariots in Ben-Hur, and then Donny had whipped Big Dick to one side and the right rear
panel had slammed into Midnight Mona. Maybe Little Stevie had lost control of the wheel, or maybe a tire had blown. But Midnight Mona had taken flight, as graceful as a black butterfly through the silvery dark, and exploded into fire when she came down. I could hear Donny’s fiendish laugh as he’d raced away from the burning ruin of glass and metal.

  As a matter of fact, I could hear his fiendish laugh right this minute.

  “I’ll kill you again! I’ll kill you again!” he hollered, his eyes crazed and his brilliantined hair swept back and twisting like Medusa’s snakes. It was obvious he was riding on his rims.

  He slammed on the brake. Lainie screamed. I screamed. Big Dick screamed, too.

  Midnight Mona, which was five feet behind the Chevy’s rear fender, hit us.

  I saw, as my eyes almost blasted out of my head, the black car’s flame-painted snout shove through the back seat. Then, like blurred freeze-frame pictures, Midnight Mona began to fill up the inside of Big Dick. I smelled burning oil and scorched metal, cigarette smoke and English Leather cologne. For the briefest of instants a black-haired young man with eyes as blue as swimming-pool water sat beside me, his hands gripping a steering wheel, his teeth clenching a Chesterfield’s stub. The sharp chin of his ruggedly handsome face was set like the prow of the Flying Dutchman. I believe my hair stood on end.

  Midnight Mona cleaved through Big Dick. Went right through the front seats, and on its way into the engine block its driver reached out a hand and seemed to touch Lainie’s cheek. I saw her blink and jump, her face going as pale as white silk. Donny cringed, yelling in stark-naked fear. He twisted the wheel back and forth because he could see the passing apparition even if Lainie was blind to it. Then Midnight Mona had gone through the front fender, its taillights the shape of red diamonds and its exhaust pipes spouting in Donny’s face, and the Chevy started spinning around and around like a Tiltawhirl, the brakes and tires shrieking like drunken banshees at an all-night haunt.

  I felt a crunch and heard a thud and I flew into the back of Lainie’s seat as if pressed there by an invisible waffle iron. “Jesus!” I heard Donny shout; this time he wasn’t mocking anybody. Glass crashed and something kabonged in the car’s belly, and with a loud ripping noise of bushes and low tree limbs the Chevy came to a halt with its nose buried in a bank of red dirt.

  “Yi yi yi yi!” Donny was yelping like a dog with a hurt leg. I tasted blood, and my nose felt as if it had been pushed right through my face. I saw Donny looking wildly about; at his hairline along the sides of his head, the hair had gone gray. “I killed him!” he squalled in a high and giddy voice. “Killed that bastard! Midnight Mona burned up! Saw it burn up!”

  Lainie stared at him, her eyes unfocused, an egg-sized knot bulging on her reddened forehead. She whispered thickly, “You…killed…”

  “Killed him! Killed him dead! Went flyin’ off the road! Boom, he went! Boom!” Donny started laughing, and he scrambled out through the driver’s-side window without opening the door. His face looked swollen and wet, his eyes cocked and crazy. He began to stagger in a circle, the front of his jeans soggy with urine. “Daddy?” he cried out. “Help me, Daddy!” Then he started gibbering and sobbing and he climbed up the bank of red dirt for the woods beyond.

  I heard a click.

  Lainie had reached down to the floorboard and retrieved the pistol. She had pulled its hammer back, and now she took aim at the struggling, insane wretch who sobbed for his daddy.

  Her hand trembled. I saw her finger tighten on the trigger.

  “Better not,” I said.

  Her finger didn’t listen.

  But her hand did. It moved an inch. The pistol went off, and the bullet threw up a chunk of red dirt. She kept firing, four more times. Four more red dirt chunks, flying in the air.

  Donny Blaylock ran for the yellow woods. He got caught up in branches for a moment, and as he thrashed to get loose the branches ripped the shirt right off his back. He hightailed it, but we could hear him laughing and crying until the awful sound faded and was gone.

  Lainie lowered her head and pressed her hand to her eyes. Her back began to tremble. She gave a low, moaning sob. My nose was starting to feel like it was on fire.

  But through it I could still smell a hint of English Leather.

  Lainie looked up, startled. She touched her tear-stained cheek. “Stevie?” she said, her voice alive with hope.

  As I’ve said, it was the season of ghosts. They had gathered themselves, building up their strength to wander the fields—and roads—of October and speak to those who would listen.

  Maybe Lainie never saw him. Maybe she wouldn’t have believed her own mind if she had, and she would’ve gone running for a rubber room the same as Donny.

  But I believe she heard him, loud and clear. Maybe just in the scent of his skin, or the memory of a touch.

  I believe it was enough.


  High Noon in Zephyr

  MY NOSE WASN’T BROKEN, though it swelled up like a melon and turned a ghastly purplish-green and my eyes puffed up into black-and-blue slits. To say Mom was horrified about the whole experience is like saying the Gulf of Mexico has some water in it. But I survived, and I was all right after my nose shrank to its regular size.

  Sheriff Amory, who’d been called by Miss Grace, found Lainie and me walking back to Zephyr on Route Sixteen. I didn’t have much to say to him, because I remembered Donny yelling that the Blaylocks owned him. I told Dad about this when he and Mom came to pick me up at Dr. Parrish’s office. Dad didn’t say anything, but I could see the thundercloud settling over his head and I knew he wouldn’t let it lie.

  Miss Grace was okay. She had to be taken to the hospital in Union Town, but the bullet hadn’t hit anything that couldn’t be fixed. I had the feeling that it would take an awful lot to put Miss Grace down for the count.

  This was the story about Lainie and Little Stevie Cauley, as I learned later from Dad, who found it out from the sheriff: Lainie, who’d run away from home when she was seventeen, had met Donny Blaylock while she was a stripper at the Port Said in Birmingham. He had convinced her to come work for his family’s “business,” promising her all sorts of big money and stuff, saying the Air Force boys really knew how to part with a paycheck. She came, but soon after she arrived at Miss Grace’s, she’d met Little Stevie when she’d gone to the Woolworth’s in Zephyr to buy her summer wardrobe. Maybe it hadn’t been love at first sight, but something close to it. Anyhow, Little Stevie had been encouraging Lainie to leave Miss Grace’s and straighten up her act. They’d started talking about getting married. Miss Grace had been in favor of it, because she didn’t want any girl working for her who couldn’t put her all into the job. But Donny Blaylock fancied himself to be Lainie’s boyfriend. He hated Little Stevie anyway because as much as Donny wanted to deny it, Midnight Mona could leave Big Dick dragging. He’d decided the only way to keep Lainie working was to get Stevie out of the picture. The crash and burning of Midnight Mona had been the wreck of Lainie’s dreams as well, and from that point on she didn’t care about what she did, with who, or where. As Miss Grace had said, Lainie had gotten as rough as a cob.

  The last I heard of Lainie, she was going home, older and wiser.

  Sadder, too.

  But who ever said everybody gets a happy ending?

  Some of this information came right from the jackass’s mouth. Donny was behind bars in the Zephyr jail, which stood next to the courthouse. He’d been found, dancing with a scarecrow, by a farmer with a very large shotgun. The sight of iron bars in front of his face had squared up some of Donny’s raggedy edges, and he had come out of his madness long enough to admit running Little Stevie off the road. It was clear that this time a Blaylock was not going to escape the long arm of the law, even if the hand on that arm was dirty with Blaylock cash.

  November had touched the yards of Zephyr with frosty fingers. The hills had gone brown, the leaves falling. They crackled like little fireworks when somebody came up the w
alk. We heard them on a Tuesday evening, when a fire burned in our hearth, Dad was reading the newspaper, and Mom was poring over her cookbooks for new pie and cake recipes.

  Dad answered the door when the knock sounded. Sheriff Junior Talmadge Amory stood under the porch light, his long-jawed face sullen and his hat in his hand. He had the collar of his jacket turned up; it was cold out there.

  “Can I come in, Tom?” he asked.

  “I don’t know,” Dad said.

  “I’d understand if you didn’t care to talk to me anymore. I’d take it like a man. But… I sure would like to have my say about some things.”

  Mom stepped up beside my father. “Let him in, Tom. All right?”

  Dad opened the door, and the sheriff came in from the night.

  “Hi, Cory,” he said to me. I was on the floor next to the fireplace, doing my Alabama history homework. A certain area where Rebel used to lounge in the hearth’s glow seemed awfully empty. But life went on.

  “Hi,” I said.

  “Cory, go to your room,” Dad instructed, but Sheriff Amory said, “Tom, I’d like for him to hear me out, too, seein’ as he was the one found out and all.”

  I stayed where I was. Sheriff Amory sank his slim Ichabod Crane body onto the couch and put his hat on the coffee table. He sat staring at the silver star that adorned it. Dad sat down again, and Mom—ever the hospitable one—asked the sheriff if he’d like some apple pie or spice cake but he shook his head. She sat down, too, her chair and Dad’s bracketing the fireplace.

  “I won’t be sheriff very much longer,” Sheriff Amory began. “Mayor Swope’s gonna appoint a new man as soon as he can decide on one. I figure I’ll be done with it by the middle of the month.” He sighed heavily. “I expect we’ll be leavin’ town before December.”