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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 44


  I pressed the doorbell. Chimes rang, and Miss Blue Glass said, “Will you please answer that, Davy Ray?”

  He opened the door as the banging continued. I could tell by his sick expression that listening to Ben try to hammer out the same five notes over and over again wasn’t good for your health. “Is that Winifred Osborne?” Miss Blue Glass called over the racket.

  “No ma’am, it’s Cory Mackenson,” Davy Ray told her. “He’s waitin’ for Ben, too.”

  “Bring him in, then. Too cold to wait outside.”

  I crossed the threshold into a living room that was a boy’s nightmare. All the furniture looked like spindly antiques that wouldn’t bear the weight of a starved mosquito. Little tables held porcelain figures of dancing clowns, children holding puppies, and the like. A gray carpet on the floor appeared to indelibly remember footprints. A glass curio cabinet as tall as my dad held a forest of colored crystal goblets, coffee mugs with the faces of all the presidents on them, twenty-odd ceramic dolls clothed in lace costumes, and maybe another twenty rhinestone-decorated eggs each with its own brass four-footed stand. What a crash that thing would make if it went over, I thought. A green-and-blue-streaked marble pedestal held an open Bible as big as my gargantuan dictionary, the type in it large enough to be read from across the room. Everything looked too frail to touch and too precious to enjoy, and I wondered how anybody could live in such a state of frozen pretty. Of course, there was the gleaming brown upright piano, with Ben trapped at its keys and Miss Blue Glass standing beside the bench holding a conductor’s baton.

  “Hello, Cory. Please have a seat,” she said. She was wearing all blue, as usual, except for a wide white belt around her bony waist. Her whitish-blond hair was piled up like a foamy fountain, her black glasses so thick they made her eyes bug.

  “Where?” I asked her.

  “Right there. On the sofa.”

  The sofa, covered in velvety cloth that showed shepherds playing their harps to prancing sheep, had legs that looked about as sturdy as rain-soaked twigs. Davy Ray and I eased down into the sofa’s cushiony grip. The sofa creaked ever so slightly, but my heart jumped in my throat.

  “Now! Thinkin’ cap on! Fingers flow like the waves! One, two, three, one, two, three.” Miss Blue Glass started motioning up and down with her baton as the pudgy fingers of Ben’s right hand tried to play the same five notes with some resemblance to rhythm. Soon enough, though, he was pounding those notes as if trying to crush fire ants. “Flow like the waves!” Miss Blue Glass said. “Softly, softly! One, two, three, one, two, three!”

  Ben’s playing was less wavy and more sludgy. “I can’t do it!” he wailed, and he pulled his hand away from those frightful keys. “My fingers are gettin’ all crossed up!”

  “Sonia, give that boy a rest!” Miss Green Glass called from the rear of the house. “You’re gonna wear his fingers to the bone!” Her voice was more trombone than flute.

  “You just mind your own beeswax now, Katharina!” Miss Blue Glass retorted. “Ben’s got to learn the proper technique!”

  “Well, it’s his first lesson, for pity’s sake!” Miss Green Glass walked out of a hallway into the living room. She put her hands on her skinny hips and glowered at her sister from behind her own black-framed glasses. She was wearing all green, the shades varying from pale to forest. She made you feel a little seasick just looking at her. Her blondish-white hair was piled higher than Soma’s, and had a vague pyramidal shape about it. “Not everybody’s a musical genius like you, you know!”

  “Yes I do know, thank you very much!” Swirls of red had crept into Miss Blue Glass’s ivory cheeks. “I’ll thank you not to interrupt Ben’s lesson!”

  “His time’s about over, anyway. Who’s your next victim?”

  “Winifred Osborne is my next student,” Miss Blue Glass said pointedly. “And if it wasn’t for your magazine subscriptions, I wouldn’t have to go back to teachin’ piano to begin with!”

  “Don’t you blame my magazine subscriptions! It’s your own self at fault! I swear, if you buy another set of dinner plates, I’m gonna go straight out of my head! What’re you buyin’ all those dinner plates for when we don’t ever have anybody to dinner?”

  “Because they’re pretty, that’s why! I like pretty things! And I could ask you why you went out and bought a collection of First Lady thimbles when you can’t even sew a stitch!”

  “Because they’re gonna grow in value, that’s why! You wouldn’t know an investment if it crawled up on one of those dumb dinner plates and begged you to eat it with a biscuit!”

  I feared the Glass sisters were going to come to blows. The timbres of their voices sounded like a duel of slightly off-key musical instruments. Caught between them, Ben appeared about to leap from his skin. Then something went crooaaakk from the rear of the house. It was the kind of noise I would’ve imagined the tentacled Martian in the bowl could make. Miss Blue Glass jabbed the baton at her sister and snapped, “See there? You’ve upset him! Are you satisfied now?”

  The door chimes rang. “It’s probably the neighbors fussin’ about your hollerin’!” Miss Green Glass predicted. “They can hear you all the way to Union Town!”

  Johnny stood there when Miss Blue Glass opened the door. He was bundled up in a dark brown jacket over a black turtleneck. “I’m here to wait for Ben,” he said.

  “Lord have mercy! Is the whole world waitin’ for Ben?” She made a face as if she’d bitten into a lemon, but she said, “He’s still got five minutes! Come on in, then!” Johnny entered the house, and he saw our edgy faces and realized he had stepped into something that was not a pile of roses.

  Crooaaakk! Crooaaakk! the thing in the back room squawked.

  “Would you see to him if you aren’t too busy?” Miss Blue Glass told her sister. “Since you’ve stirred him up, at least see to him!”

  “I swear I’d move out of here if I could find a cardboard box worth livin’ in!” Miss Green Glass groused, but she stalked into the hallway again and the ruckus was over at least for the moment.

  “Lord, I’m worn out!” Miss Blue Glass picked up an old church bulletin and fanned herself with it. “Ben, get up and I’ll show you what you can be playin’ if you’ll do your exercises like I’ve told you.”

  “Yes ma’am!” He jumped up.

  Miss Blue Glass settled herself on the piano bench. Her hands with their long elegant fingers poised over the keyboard. She closed her eyes, getting in the mood I guess. “I used to teach this song to all my students when I was teachin’ piano full-time,” she said. “Ever heard of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’?”

  “No ma’am,” Ben said. Davy Ray elbowed me in the ribs and rolled his eyes.

  “This is it,” Miss Blue Glass explained, and she began to play.

  It wasn’t the Beach Boys, but it was nice. The music swarmed out of that piano and filled up the room, and Miss Blue Glass swayed slightly from side to side on the bench as her fingers rippled across the keyboard. I have to say, it did sound pretty.

  Then a terrible screech intruded. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and strained at their roots. The noise felt like jagged glass hammered into your earhole.

  “Skulls and bones! Hannah Furd! Skulls and bones! Cricket in Rinsin!”

  Miss Blue Glass stopped playing. “Katharina! Feed him a cracker!”

  “He’s goin’ crazy in here! He’s beatin’ at his cage!”

  “Skulls and bones! Draggin me packin! Skulls and bones!”

  I didn’t know if those words were what the thing was screaming, but that’s what it sounded like to me. Ben, Davy Ray, Johnny, and I looked at each other as if we’d walked into a nuthouse. “Hannah Furd! Crooaaakk! Cricket in Rinsin!”

  “A cracker!” Miss Blue Glass yelled. “Do you know what a cracker is?”

  “I’ll crack your head in a minute!”

  The screaming and screeching went on. Over this tumult, the door chimes rang again.

  “It’s that song, I’m tellin’
you!” Miss Green Glass hollered. “He goes insane every time you play it!”

  “Crooaaakk! Draggin me packin! Hannah Furd! Hannah Furd!”

  I got up and opened the front door in prelude to running out. A middle-aged man and a little girl eight or nine years old stood on the porch. I recognized the man. Mr. Eugene Osborne was the cook at the Bright Star Cafe. “We’re here for Winifred’s piano less—” he began, before the caterwauling started up again. “Skulls and bones! Crooaaakk! Cricket in Rinsin!”

  “What in the world is that racket?” Mr. Osborne asked, his hand on the little girl’s shoulder. Her blue eyes were wide and puzzled. On Mr. Osborne’s knuckles, I saw, were faded tattooed letters. A U.S. on the thumb, and on the following fingers A, R, M, and Y.

  “That’s my parrot, Mr. Osborne.” Miss Blue Glass came up and shoved me aside. She was mighty strong to be so thin. “He’s havin’ a little trouble lately.”

  Miss Green Glass emerged from the hallway, carrying a bird cage that contained the source of all that noise. It was a fairly large parrot, and it was fluttering at the bars and shaking like a tornado-spun leaf. “Skulls and bones!” it shrieked, showing a black tongue. “Draggin me packin!”

  “You give him a cracker!” Miss Green Glass put the bird cage down on the piano bench, none too gently. “I’m not gettin’ my fingers snapped off!”

  “I fed yours all the time, and I sure risked my fingers!”

  “I’m not feedin’ that thing!”

  “Hannah Furd! Draggin me packin! Skulls and bones!” The parrot was a bright turquoise blue, not a speck of any other color on him except for the yellow of his beak. He attacked the bars, blue feathers flying.

  “Well, then get him to the bedroom!” Miss Blue Glass said. “Put the night cloth over him and settle him down!”

  “I’m a slave! I’m just a slave in my own home!” Miss Green Glass wailed, but she picked up the bird cage by its handle again and left the living room.

  “Skulls and bones!” the parrot shrieked in parting “Cricket in Rinsin!”

  A door closed, and the noise was thankfully muffled.

  “He has a little bitty problem,” Miss Blue Glass said to Mr. Osborne with a nervous smile. “He doesn’t seem to like one of my favorite songs. Please come in, come in! Ben, that finishes your lesson for this evenin’! Remember, now! Thinkin’ cap on! Fingers flow like the waves!”

  “Yes, ma’am.” Then he said under his breath to me, “Let’s get outta here!”

  I started out, following Davy Ray. The parrot had quieted, perhaps calmed by its night cloth. And then I heard Mr. Osborne say, “First time I ever heard a parrot curse in German.”

  “I’m sorry, Mr. Osborne?” Miss Blue Glass lifted her penciled-on eyebrows.

  I stopped at the door, and turned to listen. Johnny bumped into me.

  “Curse in German,” Mr. Osborne repeated. “Who taught him those words?”

  “Well, I…have no idea what you’re talkin’ about, I’m sure!”

  “I was a cook for the Big Red One in Europe. Got the chance to talk to a lot of prisoners, and believe me I know some foul words in German when I hear ’em. I just heard an earful.”

  “My…parrot said those things?” Her smile flickered off and on. “You’re mistaken, of course!”

  “Let’s go!” Johnny told me. “The carnival’s waitin’!”

  “Wasn’t just cursin’, either,” Mr. Osborne went on. “There were other German words in there, but they were all garbled up.”

  “My parrot is American,” Miss Blue Glass informed him with an upward tilt of her chin. “I have no earthly idea what you’re talkin’ about!”

  “Well, okay, then.” He shrugged. “Don’t matter none to me.”

  “Boys! Will you close that door and stop lettin’ all the heat out?”

  “Come on, Cory!” Davy Ray called, already astride his bike. “We’re late enough as it is!”

  A door opened in the back. Miss Green Glass said from the hallway, “He’s quiet now, thank the Lord! Just don’t play that song again, whatever you do!”

  “I’ve told you it’s not that song, Katharina! I used to play it for him all the time and he loved it!”

  “Well, he hates it now! Just don’t play it!”

  Their squawking was beginning to remind me of two squabbling old parrots, one blue and one green. “Close that door, if you please!” Miss Blue Glass yelled at me, and Johnny gave me a shove onto the porch to uproot my feet. He closed the door behind us, but we could still hear the Glass sisters clamoring like buzz saws. I pitied that poor little Osborne girl.

  “Those two are loony!” Ben said as he got on his bike. “Man, that was even worse than school!”

  “You must’ve done somethin’ to make your mom awful mad at you,” was Davy Ray’s opinion. “Time’s wastin’!” He gave a whoop and took off in the direction of the carnival, his bike’s pedals flying.

  I lagged behind the others, though they kept yelling for me to catch up. German curse words, I was thinking. How come Miss Sonia Glass’s parrot knew German curse words? As far as I knew, neither of the sisters spoke anything but Southern English. I hadn’t realized Mr. Osborne was in the Big Red One. That, I knew from my reading, was a very famous infantry division. Mr. Osborne had really been there, on the same war-torn earth as Sgt. Rock! Wow, I thought. Neato!

  But how come the parrot knew German curse words?

  Then the happy sounds of the carnival drifted to me along with the aromas of buttered popcorn and carameled apples. I left the German-cursing parrot behind and sped up to catch my buddies.

  We paid our dollars at the admission gate and threw ourselves into the carnival like famished beggars at a feast. The strings of light bulbs gleamed over our heads like trapped stars. A lot of kids our age were there, along with their parents, and some older people and high school kids, too. Around us the rides grunted, clattered, and rattled. We bought our tickets and got on the Ferris wheel, and I made the mistake of sitting with Davy Ray. When we got to the very top and the wheel paused to allow riders on the bottommost gondola, he grinned and started rocking us back and forth and yelling that the bolts were about to come loose. “Stop it! Stop it!” I pleaded, my body freezing solid to offset his elasticity. At that height, I could see all across the carnival. My gaze fell on a garish sign with crude green jungle fronds and the red, dripping words FROM THE LOST WORLD.

  I paid Davy Ray back in the haunted house. When the warty-nosed witch jumped out of the darkness at our clanking railcar, I grabbed the back of his neck and wailed to shame the scratchy recorded gibberings of ghost and goblin. “Quit it!” he said after he’d come down onto his seat again. Outside, he told me the haunted house was the dumbest thing he’d ever seen in his life and it wasn’t even a bit scary. But he sure was walking funny, and he hustled himself off to the row of portable toilets.

  We stuffed our faces with cotton candy, buttered popcorn, and glazed miniature doughnuts. We ate candied apples covered with peanuts. We packed away corn dogs and drank enough root beer to make our bellies slosh. Then Ben wanted to ride the Scrambler, with results that were not pretty. We got him into one of the portable toilets, and luckily his aim was good and his clothes were spared a Technicolor splatter.

  Ben passed on entering the tent that displayed the big, wrinkled one-eyed face. Davy Ray almost chewed his way through the canvas in his hurry to get in there, but Johnny and I went with him against our better judgment.

  In the gloomy confines, a dour-looking man with a nose as large as a dill pickle held court before a half dozen other freak aficionados. He went on for a while about the sins of the flesh and the eye of the Lord. Then he drew back a small curtain and switched on a spotlight and there in a big glass bottle was a shriveled, pink and naked baby with two arms, two legs, and a Cyclops eye in the center of its domed forehead. I winced and Johnny shifted uncomfortably when the man picked up the formaldehyde-filled bottle, the Cyclops baby drifting in its dream. He started s
howing it to everybody up close. “This is the sin of the flesh, and here’s the eye of God as punishment for that sin,” he said. I had the feeling he might get along famously with Reverend Blessett. When the man paused in front of me, I saw that the eye was golden, like Rocket’s. The baby’s face was so wrinkled it might have been that of a tiny old man, about to open his toothless mouth and call for a sip of white lightning to ease his aches. “Notice, son, how the finger of God has wiped clean the means of sin,” the man said, his baggy-drawered eyes glinting with a spark of evangelical fever. I saw what he meant: the baby had neither male nor female equipment. There was nothing but wrinkled pink skin down there. The man turned the bottle to show me the baby’s back. The baby drifted against the glass, and I heard its shoulder make a soft wet noise of collision.

  I saw the Cyclops baby’s shoulder blades. They were thick, bony protrusions. Like the stumps of wings, I thought.

  And I knew. I really did.

  The Cyclops baby was somebody’s angel, fallen to earth.

  “Woe to the sinner,” the man said as he moved on to Johnny and Davy Ray. “Woe to the sinner, under the eye of God.”

  “Ah, that was a gyp!” Davy Ray ranted when we were outside on the midway again. “I thought it was gonna be alive! I thought it could talk to you!”

  “Didn’t it?” I asked him, and he looked at me like I was halfway around the bend.

  We went to a show where motorcycle drivers raced around and around a caged-in cylinder, the engines screaming right in front of our faces and the tires gripping disaster’s edge. Then we went to the Indian pony show, under a large tent where palefaces who wouldn’t know Geronimo from Sitting Bull jumped around in loincloths and feathers and tried to spur some spirit into horses one hay bale away from the glue factory. The finale came when a wagon with cowboys on it circled the tent with the pseudo-Indians in pursuit, and the cowboys shot off their blanks and the white redmen hollered and ran for their lives. Alabama history was never so boring, but at the end of the show Johnny gave a wan smile and said that one of the ponies, a little tawny thing with a swayed back, looked as if it really could gallop if it had half a field.