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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 46


  “He was tryin’ to get out,” Davy Ray said as we watched the trailer shake, rattle, and roll. “Did you see that?”

  “Yeah, I did. He went crazy.”

  “Bet he never had a candy bar before,” he said. “Not in his whole life. He likes Zeros as much as I do, huh? Boy, I’ve got a whole boxful at home he’d like to get into, I’ll bet!”

  I wasn’t sure the taste of a candy bar had done it, but I said, “I think you’re right.”

  The trailer’s rocking subsided. In a few minutes Mr. Attitude came out. His clothes and face were splattered with gobbets of mud and dookey. Both Davy Ray and I started shaking trying to hold in our belly laughs. Mr. Attitude drew the curtain, pulled a door shut, and locked it with a chain and padlock. Then he looked at us and exploded. “Get outta here, I said! Go on, before I—” He came at us, waving the nail-studded baseball bat, and we let our laughter go and ran.

  The carnival was closing for the night, the midway’s crowd dwindling, the rides shutting down and the freak-show barkers hanging up their superlatives. The lights began to go off, one by one.

  We walked to where we’d left our bikes. The air had gotten frosty. Winter was on the march.

  Ben, his load somewhat lightened, had returned to the land of the living and was chattering happily. Johnny didn’t say much, but he did mention how neat the motorcycle riders were. I said I could build a haunted house that would scare the pickles out of people, if I had a mind to. Davy Ray, however, said nothing.

  Until we got to our bikes. Then Davy Ray said, “I wouldn’t like to live that way.”

  “What way?” Ben asked.

  “In that pen. You know. Like the thing from the lost world.”

  Ben shrugged. “Ahhhhh, he’s probably used to it by now.”

  “Bein’ used to somethin’,” Davy Ray answered, “is not the same as likin’ it. Numb nuts.”

  “Hey, don’t get mad at me!”

  “I ain’t mad at anybody.” Davy Ray sat on his bike, his hands clenching the grips. “It’s just… I sure would hate to live that way. Could hardly move. Sure couldn’t see the sun. And every day would be just like the day before, even if you lived a million days. I can’t stand the thought of that. Can you, Cory?”

  “It would be pretty awful,” I agreed.

  “That man’ll kill it real soon, the way he’s beatin’ it. Then he can go dump it on a garbage pile and be done with it.” Davy Ray looked up at the sickle moon, his breath white. “Thing wasn’t real, anyhow. That man was a low-down liar. It was a deformed rhinoceros, that’s all it was. So, see? It was a gyp, like I told you.” And he started pedaling away before I could argue with him.

  That was our visit to the Brandywine Carnival.

  Early Saturday morning, sometime around three, the civil defense siren atop the courthouse began yowling. Dad got dressed so fast he put his underwear on backward, and he took the pickup to go find out what was happening. I thought the Russians were bombing us, myself. When Dad returned near four o’clock, he told us what he’d learned.

  One of the carnival’s attractions had escaped. Broken right out of its trailer and left it in kindling. The man who owned it had been sleeping in another trailer. I later heard Dad tell Mom it was a trailer occupied by a red-haired woman who did strange things with light bulbs. Anyway, this thing had gotten loose and rampaged down the midway like a Patton tank, tearing through tents like they were heaps of autumn leaves. This thing had evidently run right down Merchants Street and smashed into several stores, then had turned a number of parked cars into Mr. Sculley’s fodder. Had to have done ten thousand dollars’ worth of damage, Dad said Mayor Swope had told him. And they hadn’t caught the thing yet. It had gotten into the woods and headed for the hills while everybody was still jumping into their boots. Except Mr. Wynn Gillie had seen it when it had crashed its head through the bedroom wall of his house, and Mr. Gillie and his wife were now being treated for shock at the hospital in Union Town.

  The beast from the lost world was free, and the carnival left without him.

  I let it wait until Sunday evening. Then I called the Callan house from Johnny’s, and we used the telephone in the back room while his folks were watching TV. Davy Ray’s little brother Andy answered. I asked to speak to Mr. Callan.

  “What can I do for you, Cory?” he asked.

  “I was callin’ for my dad,” I told him. “We’re gonna be takin’ Rebel’s pen down this week, and we were wonderin’ if you might have…oh, a chain cutter we could use?”

  “Well, you’ll probably need wire cutters for that job. There’s a difference.”

  “There’s some chain needs to be cut, too,” I said.

  “Okay, then. No problem. I’ll have Davy Ray bring it over tomorrow afternoon, if that’ll suit you. You know, I bought that chain cutter a few years ago but I never use it. Down in the basement in a box somewhere.”

  “Davy Ray’ll probably know where it is,” I said.

  Mr. Attitude had slinked away, most likely because a seven-hundred-dollar loss was cheaper than a ten-thousand-dollar vacation in jail. Many mighty hunters went out on the trail of the beast from the lost world, but they returned with dookey on their boots and their egos busted.

  I have a picture in my mind.

  I see the park after the carnival has packed up and gone. It is clear again, except for a few scatters of sawdust, crushed Dixie cups, and ticket stubs the cleanup crew has left like a dog marking its territory.

  But this year the wind blows Zero wrappers before it, and they make a sound like giggling as they pass.

  FOUR

  Winter’s Cold Truth

  A SOLITARY TRAVELER—FAITH—Snippets of the Quilt—Mr. Moultry’s Castle—Sixteen Drops of Blood—The Stranger Among Us

  1

  A Solitary Traveler

  “YOUR FATHER’S LOST his job,” mom said.

  I had just walked in from school, with Thanksgiving four days behind us. This news hit me like a blow to the belly. Mom’s face was grim, her eyes already seeing days of hardship ahead. She knew the red-ink realities of her baking business; Big Paul’s Pantry had an immense section of pies and cakes as well as milk in disposable plastic jugs.

  “They told him when he went in,” she continued. “They gave him two weeks’ pay and a bonus, and they said they couldn’t afford him anymore.”

  “Where is he?” I dropped my books on the nearest flat surface.

  “Gone somewhere, about an hour ago. He sat around most of the day, couldn’t eat a bite of lunch or hardly talk. Tried to sleep some, but he couldn’t. I believe he’s about wrecked, Cory.”

  “Do you know where he’s gone?”

  “No. He just said he was goin’ somewhere to think.”

  “Okay. I’m gonna try to find him.”

  “Where’re you goin’?”

  “Saxon’s Lake, first,” I told her, and I walked out to Rocket.

  She followed me to the porch. “Cory, you be care—” She stopped herself. It was time to admit that I was on my way to being a man. “I hope you find him,” she offered.

  I rode away, under a low gray sky threatening sleet.

  It was a good haul out there from my house. The wind was blowing against me. As I pedaled on Route Ten, my head thrust forward over the handlebars, I looked cautiously from side to side at the wind-stripped woods. The beast from the lost world was still at large. That in itself wasn’t a fearful thing, since I doubted the triceratops wanted to have much to do with the entrapping mudhole of civilization. What made me cautious was the fact that two days before Thanksgiving Marty Barklee, who brought the newspapers in from Birmingham before the sun, had been driving along this very road when a massive bulk had come out of the woods and slammed into his car so hard that its tires left the pavement. I’d seen Mr. Barklee’s car. The passenger side was crushed in as if kicked by a giant steel boot, the window smashed all to pieces. Mr. Barklee had said the monster had literally hit and run. I believed the trice
ratops had staked out his claim in these dense and swampy woods around Saxon’s Lake, and any vehicles on Route Ten were in jeopardy because the triceratops thought they were rival dinosaurs. Whether he would think Rocket was worth a snort and charge, I didn’t know. I just knew to keep pedaling and looking. Evidently, Mr. Attitude had not realized that instead of a big gray lump that sat snoozing in the mud, he owned a Patton tank that could outrun a car. Freedom will sure speed your legs, that’s for sure. And for all its age and size, the triceratops was at heart a boy.

  Other than having Davy Ray show up at my front door with a chain cutter, I never let on what I suspected. Johnny didn’t either, and we never told Ben because sometimes Ben had a runaway mouth. Davy Ray didn’t speak a word about it other than to remark he hoped they just let the creature live out its days in peace. I was never exactly sure, but it seemed like the kind of thing Davy Ray might have done. How was he to know the triceratops was going to do ten thousand dollars’ worth of damage? Well, glass could be replaced and metal hammered out. Mr. Wynn Gillie and his wife moved to Florida like they’d been wanting to do for five or six years. Before Mr. Gillie left, Mr. Dollar told him the swamps of Florida were full of dinosaurs, that they came to your back door begging for table scraps. Mr. Gillie turned paste-white and started shaking until “Jazzman” Jackson told him Mr. Dollar was only pulling his leg.

  As I turned the curve that would take me past Saxon’s Lake, I saw Dad’s pickup truck parked over near the red rock cliff. I coasted, trying to figure out what I was going to say. Suddenly I had run out of words. This was not going to be like feeding the magic box; this was real life, and it was going to be very, very hard.

  I didn’t see him anywhere around the truck as I eased Rocket onto the kickstand. And then I did see him: a small figure, sitting on a granite boulder halfway around the lake. He was staring out across the black, wind-rippled water. As I watched him, I saw him lift a bottle to his lips and drink deeply. Then he lowered the bottle, and sat there staring.

  I began walking to him through a morass of reeds and stickerbushes. The red mud squished under my shoes, and I saw my father’s footprints in it. He had come this way many times before, because he’d trampled down a narrow trail through the worst of the undergrowth. In doing this he had unconsciously continued his work as a father, by making the path just a little easier for the son.

  When I got nearer, he saw me coming. He didn’t wave. He lowered his head, and I knew he, too, had run out of words.

  I stood ten feet away from him on the boulder, which at one time had been part of the lip of Saxon’s Quarry. He sat with his head bowed and his eyes closed, and beside him was a plastic jug half-full of grape juice. I realized he had gone shopping at Big Paul’s Pantry.

  The wind shrilled around me and made the trees’ bare branches clatter. “You all right?” I asked.

  “No,” he said.

  “Mom told me.”

  “Figured.”

  I dug my hands into the pockets of my fleece-lined denim jacket, and I gazed out over the dark, dark water. Dad didn’t say anything for a long time, and neither did I. Then he cleared his throat. “Want some grape juice?”

  “No sir.”

  “Got plenty left.”

  “No sir, I’m not thirsty.”

  He lifted his face to me. In the hard, cold light he looked terribly old. I thought I could see his skull beneath the thin flesh, and this sight frightened me. It was like looking at someone you loved very much, slowly dying. His emotions had already been balanced on the raw edge. I remembered his desperately scribbled questions in the middle of the night, and his unspoken fears that he was about to suffer a breakdown. I saw all too clearly that my father—not a mythic hero, not a superman, but just a good man—was a solitary traveler in the wilderness of anguish.

  “I did everythin’ they asked me to,” he said. “Worked a double route. Picked up the slack when it needed pickin’ up. Got there early and stayed late doin’ stock work. I did whatever they wanted.” He looked up, trying to find the sun, but the clouds were plates of iron. “They said, ‘Tom, you have to understand how it is.’ They said, ‘We’ve got to cut to the bone to keep Green Meadows afloat.’ And you know what else they said, Cory?”

  “No sir.”

  “They said home milk delivery is as dead as the dinosaurs. They said there’s no room for it in all those shelves of plastic jugs. They said the future is gonna be easy come and easy go, and that’s what people want.” He laced his fingers together, a muscle in his gaunt jaw working. “That’s not what I want.”

  “We’ll be all right,” I said.

  “Oh, yeah.” He nodded. “Yes, we will be. I’ll find somethin’ else. I went by the hardware store before I came here and wrote up an application. Mr. Vandercamp Junior might need a truck driver. Heck, I’d work behind a cash register. But I really did think that in three more years I’d be an assistant foreman on the loadin’ dock. I really did. Dumb, huh?”

  “You didn’t know.”

  “I never know,” he said. “That’s my trouble.”

  The water rippled as the wind swept across it, kicking up little wavelets. In the woods beyond, unseen crows cawed. “It’s cold, Dad,” I said. “We ought to go home.”

  “I can’t wait for your granddad to find out about this.” He was talking about the Jaybird. “Won’t he have a fine old laugh?”

  “Mom and me won’t be laughin’,” I said. “Neither will anybody else.”

  He picked up the grape juice jug and took another long swig. “Went by Big Paul’s Pantry, too. I walked in there and saw all that milk. A white sea of it.” He looked at me again. His lips were blue. “I want things to stay the way they are. I don’t want a gum-chewin’ girl who doesn’t know my name to take my money and not even smile when I ask her how she’s doin’. I don’t want supermarkets open until eight o’clock at night and full of lights that hurt your eyes. Families ought to be home together at eight o’clock at night, not out at the supermarket buyin’ stuff that the big banners hangin’ from the ceilin’ say you ought to buy, I mean…if it goes so far, even in the little ways, we can’t ever go back. And someday somebody’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s so fine we can go to the supermarket after dark and we can pick and choose from shelves of stuff we’ve never even heard of before, but whatever happened to those milkmen, or those fellas used to sell watermelons out of the back of their trucks, or that woman who sold fresh vegetables right out of her garden and smiled like the sun when you said good mornin’?’ Somebody’ll say, ‘Oh, they sell all those things at the supermarket now, and you don’t have to go hither and yon to buy what you need, it’s all under one roof. And why don’t they do that to everythin’? Just put a whole town’s stores under one roof so the rain won’t fall on you and you won’t get cold. Wouldn’t that be a jim-dandy idea?’” My father worked his knuckles for a moment. “And then you’ll have stores and roads and houses, but you won’t have towns anymore. Not the way they are now. And you’ll walk into one of those stores under one roof and you’ll ask for somethin’ and the gum-chewin’ girl’ll say no, we don’t have that. We don’t have that, and we can’t get it for you because they don’t make that anymore. That’s not what people want, you see. People only want what the big banners hangin’ from the ceilin’ tell them to want. We only have those things, and they’re made by machines a thousand a minute. But they’re perfect, she’ll say. Not an imperfection in the lot. And when you use it up or get tired of it or when the banners change, you can just throw it away because it’s made to be thrown away. Now! she’ll say, How many of these perfect things do you need today, and please hurry because there’s a line behind you.”

  He was silent. I heard his knuckles crack.

  “It’s just one supermarket,” I said.

  “The first one,” he replied.

  He narrowed his eyes, and for maybe a minute he stared out at the lake as the wind scrawled patterns across its surface.

  “I hear you,” he
said softly.

  I knew who he was talking to. “Dad? Can we go home?”

  “You go on. I’m gonna sit here and listen to my friend.”

  I heard the wind and the crows, but I knew my father heard another voice. “What’s he sayin’, Dad?”

  “He’s sayin’ the same thing he always says. He’s sayin’ he’s not gonna let me alone until I come with him, down in the dark.”

  Tears came to my eyes. I blinked them away. “You’re not gonna go, are you?”

  “No, son,” he said. “Not today.”

  I almost told him about Dr. Lezander. My mouth opened, but my brain posed a question: What would I tell my father? That Dr. Lezander didn’t like milk and was a night owl, and Vernon Thaxter believed those were the qualities of a killer? What came out of my mouth was: “The Lady knows things, Dad. She can help us if we ask her.”

  “The Lady,” he repeated. His voice sounded thick. “She pulled a good one on Biggun Blaylock, didn’t she?”

  “Yes sir, she did. She could help us if we go see her.”

  “Maybe so. Maybe not.” He frowned, as if the thought of asking the Lady’s help caused him deep pain. It was surely no worse than the pain already lodged and festering. “I’ll tell you what,” he said as the frown went away. “I’ll ask my friend what he thinks.”

  I was scared for him. Very, very scared. “Please come home soon,” I told him.

  “I will.” He nodded. “Soon.”

  I left him there, sitting on the boulder under the low gray clouds. When I made my way to Rocket, I looked back and saw him standing on the boulder’s edge. His attention was fixed on the water below him, as if he were searching for the trace of a car in those terrible depths. I started to call to him, to warn him away from the edge, but then he walked back to where he’d been and sat down again.

  Not today, he’d said. I had to believe him.

  I pedaled home the way I’d come, and I had way too much on my mind to even give a thought to the beast from the lost world.