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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 52


  “A little bird told me,” I said. “What did the parrot die of, Miss Glass?”

  “A brain fever. Same as my parrot. Dr. Lezander says it’s common among tropical birds and when it happens there’s not much can be done.”

  “Dr. Lezander.” The name left my lips like frozen breath.

  “He loved my parrot. He said my parrot was the gentlest bird he’d ever seen.” Her lips curled into a snarl. “But he hated that green one of Katharina’s! I think he could’ve killed it the same as me, if I could’ve gotten away with it!”

  “He almost got away with it,” I said quietly.

  “Got away with what?” she asked.

  I let her question slide. “What happened to the green parrot after it died? Did Dr. Lezander come get it?”

  “No. It was sick, wouldn’t touch a grain of seed, and Katharina took it to Dr. Lezander’s office. It died the next night.”

  “Brain fever,” I said.

  “That’s right, brain fever. Why are you askin’ all these strange questions, Cory? And I still don’t understand why you have that feather.”

  “I…can’t tell you yet. I wish I could, but I can’t.”

  She leaned forward, smelling a secret. “What is it, Cory? I swear I won’t breathe it to a soul!”

  “I can’t say. Honest.” I returned the feather to my pocket, and Miss Blue Glass’s face slowly dropped again. “I’d better be goin’. I hated to bother you, but it was important.” I glanced at the piano as I went to the door, and a thought struck me like the arrowhead of Chief Five Thunders lodging right between my eyes. I remembered the Lady saying she’d dreamed of hearing piano music, and seeing hands holding piano wire and a “crackerknocker.” I recalled the piano in the room where all the ceramic birds were, at Dr. Lezander’s house. “Did you ever teach Dr. Lezander to play the piano?” I asked.

  “Dr. Lezander? No, but his wife took lessons.”

  His wife. Big, horse-faced Veronica. “Was this real recently?”

  “No, it was four or five years ago, when I was teachin’ full-time. Before Katharina had me knockin’ at the poor-house door,” she said icily. “Mrs. Lezander won several gold stars, as I recall.”

  “Gold stars?”

  “I give gold stars for excellence. Mrs. Lezander could’ve been a professional pianist in my opinion. She has the hands for it. And she loved my song.” Her face brightened.

  “What song?”

  Miss Blue Glass got up and situated herself at the piano. She began to play the song she’d been playing that night her parrot had started squawking in German. “‘Beautiful Dreamer,’” she said, and she closed her eyes as the melody filled the room. “It’s all I have left now, isn’t it? My beautiful, beautiful dreams.”

  I listened to the music. What had made the blue parrot go so crazy that night?

  I remembered the voice of Miss Green Glass: It’s that song, I’m tellin’ you! He goes insane every time you play it!

  And Miss Blue Glass, answering: I used to play it for him all the time and he loved it!

  A small glimmer began to cut through the darkness. It was like a single shard of sunlight, as seen from the bottom of murky water. I couldn’t make out anything by it yet, but I knew it was there.

  “Miss Glass?” I said. A little louder, because she’d increased the volume and was starting to hammer the keys as if she were playing with Ben’s fingers: “Miss Glass?”

  She stopped on a bitter note. Tears had streamed down all the way to her chin. “What is it?”

  “That song right there. Did it make your parrot act strange?”

  “No! That was a vile lie of Katharina’s, because she hated my favorite song herself!” But the way she said it, I knew it wasn’t true.

  “You’ve just started givin’ piano lessons again, haven’t you? Have you played that song very much since…oh…the green parrot died?”

  She thought about it. “I don’t know. I guess… I played it at church rehearsal some, to warm up. But because I wasn’t givin’ lessons, I didn’t play the piano much at home. Not that I didn’t want to, but Katharina”—she couldn’t help but sneer the name—“said my playin’ hurt her sensitive ears, that vicious man-stealer!”

  The light was still there. Something was taking shape, but it was still a long way off.

  “It was Katharina this and Katharina that!” Miss Blue Glass suddenly slammed her hands down on the keyboard with such force the entire piano shook. “I was always bendin’ over backward to appease almighty Katharina! And I loathe and despise green!” She stood up, a skinny, seething thing. “I’m gonna take everythin’ green in this house and burn it, and if that means parts of the house, the very walls, well, I’ll burn those, too! If I never see green again, I’ll smile in my grave!”

  She was working up to a frenzy of destruction. That was a sight I didn’t care to witness. I had my hand on the doorknob. “Thank you, Miss Glass.”

  “Yes, I’m still Miss Glass!” she shouted, but she was crying again. “The one and only Miss Glass! And I’m proud of it, do you hear me? I’m proud of it!” She plucked the pale green farewell letter from the sofa and, her teeth clenched, she began to rip it to shreds. I got out while the getting was good. As the door closed behind me, I heard the curio cabinet go over. I’d been right; it did make a terrible crash.

  As I pedaled home, I was trying to put everything together in my head. Snippets of the quilt, the Lady had said. The pieces were there, but how did they fit?

  The murder of a man no one knew.

  The green feather of a dead parrot, there at the scene of the crime.

  A song that caused a second parrot to curse blue blazes in German.

  Dr. Lezander, the night owl who hated milk.

  Who knows?

  Hannaford?

  If the green parrot had died at Dr. Lezander’s office, how had one of its feathers gotten to the lake?

  What was the link between the two parrots, the dead man, and Dr. Lezander?

  When I got home, I went straight to the telephone. I called the Glass house again, my fears of tragedy pushed down out of sheer necessity. At first I thought Miss Blue Glass wasn’t going to answer, because the phone rang eight times. Then, on the ninth ring: “Yes?”

  “Miss Glass, it’s me again. Cory Mackenson. I’ve got one more question for you.”

  “I don’t want to talk about Benedictine Arnold anymore.”

  “Who? Oh, not your sister. Your parrot. Besides this last time, when it died at Dr. Lezander’s, was it ever sick before?”

  “Yes. They were both sick on the same day. Katharina and I took them both to Dr. Lezander’s office. But that next night her damn bird died.” She made a noise of exasperation. “Cory, what is this all about?”

  The light was a little brighter. “Thanks again, Miss Glass,” I said, and I hung up. Mom asked me from the kitchen why I was calling Miss Glass, and I said I was going to write a story about a music teacher. “That’s nice,” Mom said. I had discovered that being a writer gave you a lot of license to fiddle with the truth, but I’d better not get into the habit of it.

  In my room, I put on my thinking cap. It took a while, but I did some sewing with those snippets of the quilt.

  And I came to this conclusion: both parrots had been at Dr. Lezander’s the night in March the unknown man had been murdered. The green parrot had died that night, and the blue one had come away cursing in German when “Beautiful Dreamer” was played on the piano. Mrs. Lezander played the piano. Mrs. Lezander knew “Beautiful Dreamer.”

  Was it possible, then, that when Miss Blue Glass had played that song, her parrot remembered something that was said—or cursed and shouted in the German language—while Mrs. Lezander had been playing it? And why would Mrs. Lezander be playing a piano while somebody was shouting and curs—

  Yes, I thought. Yes.

  I saw the light.

  Mrs. Lezander had been playing the piano—that song, “Beautiful Dreamer”—to cover up the
shouts and cursing. Only both parrots had been in that room, in the bird cages there. But it seemed unlikely that anybody would be hollering and cursing right over her shoulder, didn’t it?

  I remembered Dr. Lezander’s voice, rising up through the air vent from his basement office. Calling Dad and me to come down. He had known we would hear him clearly through the vent, which was why he hadn’t come upstairs. Had he feared, on that night in March, that the noise of shouting might be heard outside the house, and that was why Mrs. Lezander had been playing the first song that came to mind as the two parrots listened and remembered?

  Had Dr. Lezander beaten that unknown man with a crackerknocker in the basement, and strangled him as the parrots listened? Maybe it had taken almost all night, the noises of violence making both parrots thrash against their cages? Then when the deed was done Dr. Lezander and his big horsey wife had carted the naked body out to that unknown man’s car, parked in the barn? And either one of them had driven to Saxon’s Lake, while the other had followed in their own car? But they hadn’t realized that a green feather had whirled out of a bird cage and wound up in the folds of a coat or the depths of a pocket? And since both the Lezanders were allergic to milk, they weren’t on the dairy’s delivery list and they didn’t know what time Dad would be on Route Ten?

  Who knows?

  Hannaford?

  Maybe it had been like that. Maybe.

  Or maybe not.

  It sure would’ve made a good Hardy Boys mystery. But all I had was a feather from a dead parrot and a halfway-sewn quilt that seemed a little ragged at the seams. The German cursing, for instance. Dr. Lezander was Dutch, not German. And who was the unknown man? What possible link could a man with the tattoo of a winged skull on his shoulder have with Zephyr’s veterinarian? Ragged, ragged seams.

  Still…there was the green feather, “Beautiful Dreamer,” and Who Knows?

  Knows what? That, it seemed to me, was the key to this dark engine.

  I told my parents none of this. When I was ready, I would; I wasn’t, so I didn’t. But I was convinced now more than ever that a stranger lived among us.

  4

  Mr. Moultry’s Castle

  TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, the telephone rang and mom answered it. Dad was stock-clerking at Big Paul’s Pantry. Mom said, “Hello?” and found herself talking to Mr. Charles Damaronde. Mr. Damaronde was calling to invite our family to a reception for the Lady at the Bruton Recreation Center, where the civil rights museum had been completed and was set to open on December 26. The reception was on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and it was going to be a casual occasion. Mom asked me if I wanted to go, and I said yes. She didn’t have to ask Dad, knowing he wouldn’t go, and anyway he had to work on Christmas Eve because big boxes of canned eggnog and pressed turkey slices were backing up on the loading dock.

  Dad didn’t try to stop us from going. He didn’t say a word when Mom told him. He just nodded, his eyes somewhere distant. The big boulder at Saxon’s Lake, I guessed. So on Christmas Eve morning Mom drove Dad to work in the pickup truck, and when time to get ready for the reception rolled around, Mom suggested that I wear a white shirt and a tie even though Mr. Damaronde had said to come casual. She put on a nice dress, and we set off for Bruton.

  One of the interesting things about living in south Alabama is that, though there might be a cold snap in October and maybe even a snow flurry or two in November, Christmas is usually warm. Not summertime warm, of course, but a return to Indian summer. This year was no exception. The sweater I had on was aptly named; I was sweating in it by the time we got to the recreation center, a red brick building next to the basketball court on Buckhart Street. A sign with a red arrow pointed to the Bruton Hall of Civil Rights, which was a white-painted wooden structure a little larger than a house trailer, added on to the recreation center. A red ribbon encircled the entire white building. Although the museum’s grand opening wasn’t for two more days, there were a lot of cars and quite a bit of activity. People—most of them black, but a few white—were going into the recreation center, and we followed them. Inside, in a big room decorated with pine-cone Christmas wreaths and a huge Christmas tree with red and green bows on the branches, people were lining up to sign a guest book, of which Mrs. Velvadine was in charge. Then the line continued to a punch bowl full of lime-colored liquid, and on to other tables that held a holiday bounty: various chips and dips, little sandwiches, sausage balls, two golden turkeys awaiting the knife, and two weighty hams. The last three tables were true groaning boards; atop them was a staggering selection of cakes, puddings, and pies. Dad’s eyes would’ve shot out of his head if he could’ve but seen all this feast. The mood was happy and festive, people laughing and talking while a couple of fiddlers sawed their strings on a small stage. And it might have been a casual occasion, but people were dressed to the elevens. The Sunday suits and dresses abounded, the white gloves and flowered hats thrived. I think a peacock might’ve felt nude in all this rainbow splendor. People were proud of Bruton and proud of themselves, and that was clear to all.

  Nila Castile came up and hugged my mother. She pressed paper plates into our hands and guided us through the crowd. The turkeys were about to be carved, she said, and if we didn’t hurry, all that fine meat would be sucked right off the bones. She pointed out old Mr. Thornberry, who was wearing a baggy brown suit and buck-dancing to the fiddlers’ tune. Beside him, Gavin grinned and matched him step for step. Mr. Lightfoot, elegant as Cary Grant in a black suit with velvet lapels, held a paper plate piled high with ham layered on cake layered on pie layered on sandwiches, and he moved through the throng with slow-motion grace. Then our plates were loaded down with food, our punch cups brimmed with lime fizz. Charles Damaronde and his wife appeared, and thanked Mom for coming. She said she wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Children scampered around and grandparents chased futilely after them. Mr. Dennis sidled up to me and asked me in mock seriousness if I didn’t know who had spread that glue down for poor Mrs. Harper to get stuck in like a fly in molasses. I said I had an idea, but I couldn’t say for sure. He asked me if my idea went around picking her nose to beat the band, and I said it might.

  Somebody began playing an accordion. Somebody else whipped out a harmonica, and the fiddlers had competition. An elderly woman in a dress the color of fresh orchids started buck-dancing with Mr. Thornberry, and I imagined that at that moment he was very glad he had chosen life. A man with an iron-gray beard grasped my shoulder and leaned his head down beside mine. “Broomstick in his craw, heh heh heh,” he said, and gave my shoulder a good hard squeeze before he moved on.

  Mrs. Velvadine and another rotund woman, both of them wearing flowered dresses bright enough to shame nature, took the stage and shooed the musicmakers off. Mrs. Velvadine spoke through a microphone, telling everybody how glad the Lady was that they’d come to share this moment with her. The museum they’d worked so hard to build was almost ready, Mrs. Velvadine said. Come the day after Christmas, it would open its doors and tell the story of not only the people of Bruton but the struggles that had brought them to where they were. There are struggles ahead! Mrs. Velvadine said. Don’t you think there aren’t! But though we have a long way to go, she said, we have come a long way, too, and that’s what the museum was meant to show.

  As Mrs. Velvadine spoke, Mr. Damaronde came up beside Mom and me. “She wants to see you,” he said quietly to my mother. We knew who he meant, and we went with him.

  He led us out of the reception area and through a hallway. One room we passed was set up for table tennis, and had a dartboard and a pinball machine. Another room held four shuffleboard courts side by side, and a third contained gymnasium equipment and a punching bag. Then we came to a white door, the smell of paint still fresh. He held it open for us as we passed through.

  We were in the civil rights museum. The floor was made of varnished timbers, and the lighting was low. Glass display cases held slave and Civil War clothes on black mannequins, as well as primit
ive pottery, needlework, and lace. A section of bookshelves held maybe a hundred or more thin, leatherbound volumes. They looked like notebooks or diaries. On the walls were large blown-up black and white photographs. I recognized Martin Luther King in one, and in another Governor Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door.

  And at the center of this room stood the Lady, dressed in white silk, her thin arms adorned with elbow-length white gloves. She wore a white, wide-brimmed hat, and beneath it her beautiful emerald eyes shone with light.

  “This,” she said, “is my dream.”

  “It’s lovely,” Mom told her.

  “It’s necessary,” the Lady corrected her. “Who on this earth can know where they’re going, unless they have a map of where they’ve been? Your husband didn’t come?”

  “He’s workin’.”

  “No longer at the dairy, I understand.”

  Mom nodded. I had the impression the Lady knew exactly where Dad was.

  “Hello, Cory,” she said. “You’ve had some adventures lately, haven’t you?”

  “Yes ma’am.”

  “You wantin’ to be a writer, you ought to be interested in those books.” She motioned toward the shelves. “Know what those are?” I said I didn’t. “They’re diaries,” she said. “Voices of people who used to live all around here. Not just black people, either. Anytime somebody wants to find out what life was like a hundred years ago, there are the voices waitin’ to be heard.” She walked to one of the glass display cases and ran her gloved fingers across the top, checking for dust. She found none, and she grunted with satisfaction. “Everybody needs to know where they’ve been, it seems to me. Not just blackskins, but whiteskins, too. Seems to me if a person loses the past, he can’t find the future either. Which is what this place is all about.”

  “You want the people of Bruton to remember their ancestors were slaves?” Mom asked.

  “Yes, I do. I want ’em to remember it not to feel pity for themselves, or to feel put-upon and deservin’ of what they don’t have, but to say to themselves, ‘Look where I have come from, and look what I have become.’” The Lady turned to face us. “Ain’t no way out but up,” she said. “Readin’. Writin’. Thinkin’. Those are the rungs on the ladder that lead up and out. Not whinin’ and takin’ and bein’ a mind-chained slave. That’s the used-to-be world. It ought to be a new world now.” She moved around the room, and stopped at a picture of a fiery cross. “I want my people,” she said quietly, “to cherish where they’ve come from. Not sweep it under a rug. Not to dwell on it either, because that’s nothin’ but givin’ up the future. But to say, ‘My great-granddaddy pulled a plow by the strength of his back. He worked from sunup to sundown, heat and cold. Worked for no wages but a master’s food and a roof over his head. Worked hard, and was sometimes whipped hard. Sweated blood and kept goin’, when he wanted to drop. Took the brand and answered Yes, massa, when his heart was breakin’ and his pride was belly-down. Did all this when he knew his wife and children might go up on the auction block and be torn away from him in the blink of an eye. Sang in the fields, and wept at night. He did all this and more, and by God…by God, because he suffered this I can at least finish school.’” She lifted her chin in defiance of the flames. “That’s what I want ’em to think, and to say. This is my dream.”