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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 49


  One day Leatherlungs called me a blockhead six times. She told me to come up to the blackboard and show the class what I knew about prime numbers.

  I told her I wasn’t coming.

  “Cory Mackenson, you get up here right now!” she roared.

  “No, ma’am,” I said. Behind me the Demon laughed gleefully, sensing a new assault in the war on Mrs. Harper.

  “Get. Up. Here. This. Minute!” Leatherlungs’ face bloomed red.

  I shook my head. “No.”

  She was on me. She moved a lot faster than I ever would’ve thought. She grabbed two handfuls of my sweater and wrenched me up out of my desk so hard my knee hit and sent a shiver of pain through my leg, and by the time that pain got to my head it was sheer white-hot anger.

  With Davy Ray and darkness and a meaningless word called faith lodged in my mind like thorns, I swung at her.

  I hit her right in the face. I couldn’t have aimed any better. Her glasses flew off, and she gave a croaking cry of surprise. The anger fled from me just that fast, but Leatherlungs hollered, “Don’t you hit me, don’t you dare!” and she grabbed my hair and started jerking my head. The rest of my classmates sat in stunned amazement; this was too much, even for them. I had stepped into a mythic realm, though I didn’t know it yet. Leatherlungs slung me, I crashed into Sally Meachum’s desk and about knocked her over, and then Leatherlungs was hauling me out the door on the way to the principal’s office, raging every step.

  Inevitably, the phone call brought both Mom and Dad. They were, to say the least, appalled at my behavior. I was suspended from school for three days, and the principal—a small, birdlike man named, fittingly, Mr. Cardinale—said that before I could return to class, I would have to write an apology to Mrs. Harper and have both my parents sign it.

  I looked at him, with my parents right there in his office, and I told him I could be suspended for three months for all I cared. I told him I wasn’t writing her any apology, that I was tired of being called a blockhead, and I was sick of math and sick of everybody.

  Dad came up off his chair. “Cory!” he said. “What’s wrong with you?”

  “Never in the history of this school has a student struck a teacher!” Mr. Cardinale piped up. “Never! This boy needs a whippin’ to remember, is what I think.”

  “I’m sorry to have to say it,” Dad told him, “but I agree with you.”

  I tried to explain to them on the way home, but they wouldn’t hear it. Dad said there was no excuse for what I’d done, and Mom said she’d never been so ashamed. So I just stopped trying, and I sat sullenly in the pickup with Rocket riding in the truckbed. The whipping was delivered by my father’s hand. It was swift, but it was painful. I did not know that the day before, Dad had been ragged by his boss at Big Paul’s Pantry about messing up the count on boxes of Christmas candy. I did not know that Dad’s boss was eight years younger than he, that he drove a red Thunderbird, and that he called my father Tommy.

  I bore the whipping in silence, but in my room I pressed my face into the pillow.

  Mom came in. She said she couldn’t understand the way I was acting. She said she knew I was still torn up about Davy Ray, but that Davy Ray was in heaven and life was for the living. She said I would have to write the apology whether I wanted to or not, and the sooner I did it the better. I lifted my face from the pillow, and I told her Dad could whip me every day from now until kingdom come, but I wasn’t writing any apology.

  “Then I believe you’d better stay in here and think about it, young man,” she said. “I believe you’ll think better on an empty stomach, too.”

  I didn’t answer. There was no need. Mom left, and I heard my folks talking about me, what was wrong with me and why I was being so disrespectful. I heard the clatter of dinner plates and I smelled chicken frying. I just turned over and went to sleep.

  A dream of the four black girls, the flash of light, and a soundless blast awakened me. I had knocked my alarm clock off the bedside table again, but this time my parents didn’t come in. The clock was still working; it was almost two in the morning. I got up and looked out the window. A crescent moon appeared sharp enough to hang a hat on. Beyond the window’s cold glass the night was still and the stars blazing. I wasn’t going to write any apology; maybe this was the Jaybird showing up in me, but I was damned if I’d give the satisfaction to Leatherlungs.

  I needed to talk to somebody who understood me. Somebody like Davy Ray.

  My fleece-lined jacket hung in the closet near the front door. I didn’t want to go out that way, because Dad might be awake. I put on a pair of corduroy jeans, two sweaters, and a pair of gloves. Then I eased the window up. It squeaked once, a hair-raising sound, but I waited for a minute and heard no footsteps. Then I finished the job and slid out the window into the bitter air.

  I closed the window behind me, but for a thin slice I could get my fingers hooked into. I got on Rocket, and rode away under the sharp-fanged moon.

  The stoplights blinked yellow as I pedaled through the silent streets. My breath billowed out like a white octopus before me. I saw a few lights in houses: bathroom bulbs left on to ease the sleepy stumbling. My nose and ears got cold mighty fast; it was a night not fit for dog or Vernon Thaxter. On my way to Poulter Hill, I took a left turn and pedaled about a quarter mile more than I had to, because I wanted to see something. I coasted slowly past the house that sat on three acres and had a horse barn.

  A light burned in an upstairs room. It looked too bright to be a bathroom bulb. Dr. Lezander was up, listening to the foreign countries.

  A curious thought occurred to me. Maybe Dr. Lezander was a night owl because he feared the darkness. Maybe he sat up there in that room under the light, listening to voices from around the world, to reassure himself that he was not alone, even as the clock ticked through the lonely hours.

  I turned Rocket away from Dr. Lezander’s house. I had not pursued the mystery of the green feather any more since Davy Ray had died. A phone call to Miss Blue Glass was too much effort in this time of death and doubt. It was all I could do to fend off my own gathering darkness, much less think of what lay in the mud at the lightless bottom of Saxon’s Lake. I didn’t want to think that Dr. Lezander had anything to do with that. If he had, then what in this world was real and true anymore?

  I reached Poulter Hill. The wrought-iron gates were locked, but since the stone wall around the cemetery was only two feet high, getting in was no feat of magic. I left Rocket to wait there, and I walked up the hill among the moon-splashed tombstones. As Poulter Hill stood on the invisible line between worlds, so, too, did it stand between Zephyr and Bruton. The white dead people lay on one side, the black dead people on the other. It made sense that people who could not eat in the same cafe, swim in the same public pool, or shop in the same stores would not be happy being dead and buried within sight of each other. Which made me want to ask Reverend Lovoy sometime if the Lady and the Moon Man would be going to the same heaven as Davy Ray. If black people occupied the same heaven as white people, what was the point of eating in different cafes here on earth? If black people and white people walked in heaven together, did that mean we were smarter or more stupid than God because on earth we shunned each other? Of course, if we all returned to darkness, there was no God and no heaven, anyway. How Little Stevie Cauley had managed to drive Midnight Mona through a crack of that darkness was another mystery, because I had seen him clear as I now saw the city of stones rising up around me.

  There were so many of them. So many. I remember hearing this somewhere: when an old man dies, a library burns down. I recalled Davy Ray’s obituary in the Adams Valley Journal. They said he had died in a hunting accident. They said who his mother and father were, that he had a younger brother named Andy and that he was a member of the Union Town Presbyterian Church. They said his funeral would be at ten-thirty in the morning. What they had left out stunned me. They hadn’t said one word about the way the corners of his eyes crinkled up when he laughed,
or how he would set his mouth to one side in preparation for a verbal jab at Ben. There had been no mention of the shine in his eyes when he saw a forest trail he hadn’t explored before, or how he chewed his bottom lip when he was about to pitch a fastball. They had written down the cut-and-dried of it, but they had not mentioned the real Davy Ray. I wondered about this as I walked amid the graves. How many stories were here, buried and forgotten? How many old burned libraries, how many young ones that had been building their volumes year by year? And all those stories, lost. I wished there was a place you could go, and sit in a room like a movie theater and look through a catalogue of a zillion names and then you could press a button and a face would appear on the screen to tell you about the life that had been. It would be a living memorial to the generations who had gone on before, and you could hear their voices though those voices had been stilled for a hundred years. It seemed to me, as I walked in the presence of all those stilled voices that would never be heard again, that we were a wasteful breed. We had thrown away the past, and our future was impoverished for it.

  I came to Davy Ray’s grave. The headstone hadn’t arrived yet, but a flat stone marker was set into the bare earth. He was neither at the bottom of the hill nor at the top; he occupied the middle ground. I sat down beside the marker, taking care not to trample on the slight mound that rain would settle and spring would sprout. I looked out into the darkness, under the cold, sharp moon. In the sunlight, I knew, there was a panoramic view of Zephyr and the hills from here. You could see the gargoyle bridge, and the Tecumseh River. You could see the railroad track as it wound its way through those hills, and the trestle as it crossed the river on its passage through Zephyr to the larger towns. It was a nice view, if you had eyes to see it. I somehow doubted that Davy Ray cared much whether he had a view of the hills and river or if his grave overlooked a swamp bowl. Such things might be important to the grievers, but not so much to the leavers.

  “Gosh,” I said, and my breath drifted out. “I sure am mixed up.”

  Had I expected Davy Ray to answer? No, I had not. Thus I was not disappointed at the silence.

  “I don’t know if you’re in darkness or heaven,” I said. “I don’t know what would be so great about heaven if you can’t get in a little trouble there. It sounds like church to me. Church is fine for an hour on Sunday, but I wouldn’t want to live there. And I wouldn’t want darkness, either. Just nothin’ and nothin’ and more nothin’. Everythin’ you ever thought or did or believed just gone, like a ripple in a pond that nobody sees.” I pulled my knees up to my chest, and locked my arms around them. “No voice to speak, no eyes to see, no ears, nothin’ at all. Then what are we born for, Davy Ray?”

  This question, as well, elicited a burst of silence.

  “And I can’t figure this faith thing out,” I went on. “Mom says I ought to have it. Reverend Lovoy says I’ve got to have it. But what if there’s nothin’ to have faith in, Davy Ray? What if faith is just like talkin’ on a telephone when there’s nobody on the other end, but you don’t know nobody’s there until you ask ’em a question and they don’t answer? Wouldn’t it make you go kind of crazy, to think you spent all that time jawin’ to thin air?”

  I was doing some jawing to empty air myself, I realized. But I was comforted, knowing Davy Ray was lying beside me. I shifted over to a place where the brown grass was unmarked by shovels and I reclined on my back. I stared up at the awesome stars. “Look at that,” I said. “Just look at that sky. Looks like the Demon blew her nose on black velvet, huh?” I smiled, thinking Davy Ray would’ve gotten a kick out of that. “Not really,” I said. “Can you see that sky from where you are?”

  Silence and more silence.

  I folded my arms across my chest. It didn’t seem so cold, with my back against the earth. My head was next to Davy Ray’s. “I got whipped today,” I confided. “Dad really blistered me. Maybe I deserved it. But Leatherlungs deserves to get whipped, too, doesn’t she? How come nobody listens to kids, even when they’ve got somethin’ to say?” I sighed, and my breath rose toward Capricorn. “I can’t write that apology, Davy Ray. I just can’t, and nobody’s gonna make me. Maybe I was wrong, but I was only half wrong, and they want me to say I was whole wrong. I can’t write it. What am I gonna do?”

  I heard it then.

  Not Davy Ray’s voice, chiding me.

  But a train’s whistle, off in the distance.

  The freight was coming through.

  I sat up. Off in the hills I could see the headlight like a moving star as the train wound toward Zephyr. I watched it coming.

  The freight would slow down as it approached the Tecumseh trestle. It always did. It would slow down even more as it crossed the trestle, its heavy wheels making the old structure moan and clatter.

  As it came off the trestle, it would be slow enough to catch if someone had a mind to.

  The moment wouldn’t last very long. The freight would pick up speed, and by the time it had reached the far side of Zephyr it would be running fast again.

  “I can’t write any apology, Davy Ray,” I said quietly. “Not tomorrow, not the day after that. Not ever. I guess I can’t ever go back to school, huh?”

  Davy Ray offered neither opinion nor advice. I was on my own.

  “What if I was to go away for a while? Not long. Maybe two or three days. What if I was to show ’em I’d rather run away than write an apology? Then maybe they’d listen to me, don’t you think?” I watched the moving star come nearer. The whistle blew again, maybe warning a deer off the track. I heard it say Corrrrryyyyyyyyy.

  I stood up. I could make it to the trestle if I ran to Rocket. But I had to go right this minute. Fifteen more seconds and I would face one more day of anger and disappointment from my parents. One more day of being a boy closed up in a room with an unwritten apology staring me in the face. The freight that was about to pass through always returned again. I reached into my pocket, and found two quarters left over from some purchase of popcorn or candy bar at the Lyric last winter when things were good.

  “I’m goin’, Davy Ray!” I said. “I’m goin’!”

  I started running through the graveyard. As I reached Rocket and swung up onto the saddle, I feared I was already too late. I pedaled like mad for the trestle, the breath blooming around my face. I heard the moan and clatter as I pulled alongside the gravel-edged tracks; the freight was crossing, and I could yet meet it.

  And then there it was, the headlight blazing. The huge engine came off the trestle and passed me, going a little faster than I could walk. Then the boxcars began going past: Southern Railroad cars, bump ka thud, bump ka thud, bump ka thud on the ties. Already the train was starting to pick up speed. I got off Rocket and put the kickstand down. I ran my fingers along the handlebar. For a second I saw the headlamp’s golden eye, luminous with the moon. “I’ll be back!” I promised.

  All the boxcars were closed up, it seemed. But then here came one toward the end of the freight that had a door partway open. I thought of railroad bulls bashing heads and throwing freeloaders face-first into steam-scalded space, but I shook the thought away. I ran alongside the boxcar with the open door. A ladder was close at hand. I reached up, hooked four gloved fingers around a metal rung, got my thumb wedged there, too, and then I grabbed hold with the other hand and lifted my feet off the gravel.

  I swung myself toward the boxcar’s open door. I was amazed that I had such dexterity. I guess when you hear a few tons of steel wheels grinding underneath you, you can become an acrobat real quick. I went through that opening into the boxcar, my fingers released the iron rungs, and I hit a wooden floor sparsely covered with hay. The sound of my entrance was not gentle; it echoed in the boxcar, which was sealed shut on the other side. I sat up, hay all over the front of my outermost sweater.

  The boxcar rumbled and shook. It was clearly not made for passengers.

  But someone was indeed along for the ride.

  “Hey, Princey!” a voice said. “A little bi
rd just flew in!”

  I jumped up. That voice had sounded like a combination of rocks in a cement mixer and a bullfrog’s lament. It had come from the dark before me.

  “Yes, I see him,” another man answered. This voice was as smooth as black silk and had the lilt of a foreign accent. “I think he almost broke his wings, Franklin.”

  I was in the company of boxcar-riding tramps who would slit my throat for the quarters in my pocket. I turned to jump through the doorway, but Zephyr was speeding past.

  “I wouldn’t, young man,” the foreign-accented voice cautioned. “It would not be pretty.”

  I paused on the edge, my heart pounding.

  “We ain’t gonna bite ya!” the froggish cement-mixer voice said. “Are we, Princey?”

  “Speak for yourself, please.”

  “Ah, he’s just kiddin’! Princey’s always kiddin’, ain’t ya?”

  “Yes,” the black silk voice said with a sigh, “I’m always kidding.”

  A match flared beside my face. I jumped again, and turned to see who stood there.

  A nightmare visage peered at me, so close I could smell his musty breath.

  The man would’ve made a railroad tie look like Charles Atlas. He was emaciated, his black eyes submerged in shadow pools and the cheekbones thrust against the flesh of his face. And what flesh! I had seen summer-baked creekbeds that held more moisture. Every inch of his face was cracked and wrinkled, and the cracks drew his mouth back from his yellow teeth and continued up like a weird cap over the hairless dome of his scalp. His long, skinny fingers, exposed by the matchlight, were likewise shriveled, as was the hand on which they were fixed. His throat was a dried mass of cracks. He wore a dusty white costume of some kind, but where shirt and pants met I couldn’t tell. He looked like a stick in a bag of dirty rags.

  I was frozen with terror, waiting for the blade to slice my neck.