Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 53

  I left my mother’s side, and walked to one of the blown-up photographs. It showed a snarling police dog, its teeth full of shirt as a black man tried to fight away and a policeman lifted a billy club. The next photograph showed a slim black girl clutching schoolbooks and walking through a crowd as rage-swollen white faces shouted derision at her. The third showed…

  I stopped.

  My heart had jumped.

  The third picture showed a burned-out church, the stained-glass windows shattered and firemen picking through the ruins. A few black people were standing around, their expressions dull with shock. The trees in front of the church had no leaves on them.

  I had seen this picture before, somewhere.

  Mom and the Lady were talking, standing over by the slave-spun pottery. I stared at the picture, and I remembered. I had seen this in the copy of Life magazine Mom was about to throw out.

  I turned my head to the left about six inches.

  And there they were.

  The four black girls of my recurring dream.

  Under individual pictures, their names were etched on brass plaques. Denise McNair. Carole Robinson. Cynthia Wesley. Addie Mae Collins.

  They were smiling, unaware of what the future held.

  “Ma’am?” I said. “Ma’am?”

  “What is it, Cory?” Mom asked.

  I looked at the Lady. “Who are these girls, ma’am?” My voice trembled.

  She came over beside me, and she told me about the dynamite time bomb that had killed those girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963.

  “Oh…no,” I whispered.

  I heard the voice of Gerald Hargison, muffled behind a mask as he held a wooden box in his arms: They won’t know what hit ’em until they’re tap-dancin’ in hell.

  And Biggun Blaylock, saying: I threw in an extra. For good luck.

  I swallowed hard. The eyes of the four dead girls were watching me.

  I said, “I think I know.”

  Mom and I left the recreation center about an hour later. Dad was joining us to go to the candlelight service at church tonight. After all, it was Christmas Eve.

  “Hello, Pumpkin! Merry Christmas to you, Sunflower! Come right in, Wild Bill!”

  I heard Dr. Lezander before I saw him. He was standing there in the church doorway, wearing a red vest with his gray suit and a red-and-green-striped bow tie. He had a Santa Claus pin on his lapel, and when he smiled, light sparkled off his silver front tooth.

  My heart started beating very hard, and moisture sprang to my palms. “Merry Christmas, Calico!” he said to my mother for no apparent reason. He grasped my father’s hand and shook it. “How are you, Midas?” And then his gaze fell on me, and he put his hand on my shoulder. “And a very happy holiday to you, too, Six-Guns!”

  “Thank you, Birdman,” I said.

  I saw it then.

  His mouth was very, very smart. It kept smiling. But his eyes flinched, almost imperceptibly. Something hard and stony came into them, banishing the Christmas light. And then it was gone again, and the whole thing had been perhaps two seconds. “What are you trying to do, Cory?” His hand wouldn’t let me go. “Take my job?”

  “No sir,” I answered, my cleverness squeezed away by Dr. Lezander’s increasing pressure. He held my gaze for a second longer, and in that second I knew fear. Then his fingers relaxed and left my shoulder and he was looking at the family who entered behind me. “Come on in, Muffin! Merry Yuletide, Daniel Boone!”

  “Tom! Come on and hurry it up, boy!”

  We knew who that was, of course. Granddaddy Jaybird, Grandmomma Sarah, Grand Austin, and Nana Alice were there in a pew waiting for us. Grand Austin, as usual, looked thoroughly miserable. The Jaybird was on his feet, waving and hollering and making the same kind of ass out of himself here at Christmas as he had at Easter, proving that he was a fool for all seasons. But when he looked at me he said, “Hello, young man” and I saw in his eyes that I was growing up.

  During the candlelight service, while Miss Blue Glass played “Silent Night” on the piano and the organ across from her indeed remained silent, I watched the Lezanders, who were sitting five pews ahead of us. I saw Dr. Lezander turn his bald head and look around, pretending to be quickly scanning the congregation. I knew better. Our eyes met, just briefly. He wore an icy smile. Then he leaned toward his wife and whispered in her ear, but she remained perfectly motionless.

  I imagined he might have been answering the question: Who Knows? What he whispered to horse-faced Veronica, there between the “darkness flies” and the “all is light,” might well have been: Cory Mackenson knows.

  Who are you? I thought as I watched him during Reverend Lovoy’s Christmas prayer. Who are you really, behind that mask you wear?

  We lit our candles, and the church was bathed in flickering light. Then Reverend Lovoy wished us a happy and healthy holiday season, said for us to keep the spirit of Christmas first and foremost in our hearts, and the service came to a close. Dad, Mom, and I went home; tomorrow belonged to the grandparents, but Christmas Eve was ours.

  Our dinner this year wasn’t as grand as in the past, but I did like eggnog and we had plenty of that, courtesy of Big Paul’s Pantry. Then came the gift-opening time. As Mom found carols on a radio station, I unwrapped my presents beneath the Yule pine tree.

  From Dad I received a paperback book. It was titled The Golden Apples of the Sun, by a writer named Ray Bradbury. “You know, they sell books at Big Paul’s, too,” Dad told me. “Got a whole rack of ’em. This fella who works in the produce department says that Bradbury is a good writer. Says he’s got that book himself and there’re some fine stories in it.”

  I paged to the first story. “The Fog Horn,” it was called. Skimming it, I saw it was about a sea monster rising to a foghorn’s lament. This story had a boy’s touch. “Thanks, Dad!” I said. “This is neat!”

  As Dad and Mom opened their own presents, I unwrapped my second package. A photograph in a silver frame slid out. I held it up to the hearth’s light.

  It was a picture of a face I knew well. This was the face of one of my best friends, though he didn’t know it. Across the bottom of the photograph was written: To Cory Mackenson, With Best Wishes. Vincent Price. I was thrilled beyond words. He actually knew my name!

  “I knew you liked his movies,” Mom said. “I just wrote the movie studio and asked ’em for a picture, and they sent one right off.”

  Ah, Christmas Eve! Was there ever a finer night?

  When the presents had been opened and the wrappings swept away, the fire fed another log, and a third cup of eggnog warm in our bellies, Mom told Dad what had happened at the Hall of Civil Rights. He watched the fire crack and sparkle, but he was listening. When Mom was finished, Dad said, “I’ll be. I never thought such a thing could happen here.” He frowned, and I knew what he was thinking. He’d never thought a lot of things that had happened in Zephyr could ever happen here, starting with the incident at Saxon’s Lake. Maybe it was the age that was beginning to take shape around us. The news talked more frequently about a place called Vietnam. Civil strifes broke out in the cities like skirmishes in an undeclared war. A vague sense of foreboding was spreading across the land, as we neared the plastic, disposable, commercial age. The world was changing; Zephyr was changing, too, and there was no going back to the world that used to be.

  But: tonight was Christmas Eve and tomorrow was Christmas, and for now we had peace on earth.

  It lasted about ten minutes.

  We heard the shrieking of a jet plane over Zephyr. This in itself wasn’t unusual, since we often heard jets at night either taking off from or landing at Robbins. But we knew the sound of those planes as we knew the freight train’s whistle, and this plane…

  “Sounds awfully low, doesn’t it?” Mom asked.

  Dad said it sounded to him like it was skimming the rooftops. He got up to go to the porch, and suddenly we heard a noise like somebody whacking a barrel
with a fifty-pound mallet. The sound echoed over Zephyr, and in another moment dogs started barking from Temple Street to Bruton and the roving bands of carolers were forced to give up the holy ghost. We stood out on the porch, listening to the commotion. I thought at first that the jet had crashed, but then I heard it again. It circled Zephyr a couple of times, its wingtip lights blinking, and then it veered toward Robbins Air Force Base and sped away.

  The dogs kept barking and howling. People were coming out of their houses to see what was going on. “Somethin’s up,” Dad said. “I think I’ll give Jack a call.”

  Sheriff Marchette had stepped ably into the job J. T. Amory had vacated. Of course, with the Blaylocks behind bars, Zephyr’s crime wave was over. The most serious task that lay before Sheriff Marchette was finding the beast from the lost world, which had attacked the Trailways bus one day and gave it such a hard knock with its sawed-off horns that the driver and all eight of the passengers were admitted to the Union Town hospital with whiplash.

  Dad reached Mrs. Marchette, but the sheriff had already grabbed his hat and run out, summoned away from Christmas Eve dinner by a phone call. Mrs. Marchette told Dad what her husband had told her, and with a stunned expression Dad relayed the news.

  “A bomb,” he said. “A bomb fell.”

  “What?” Mom was already fearing Russian invasion. “Where?”

  “On Dick Moultry’s house,” Dad said. “Mrs. Moultry told Jack it went right through the roof, the livin’ room floor, and into the basement.”

  “My Lord! Didn’t the whole house blow up?”

  “No. The bomb’s just sittin’ in there.” Dad returned the receiver to its cradle. “Just sittin’ in there with Dick.”

  “With Dick?”

  “That’s right. Mrs. Moultry gave Dick a new workshop bench for Christmas. He was in the basement puttin’ it together. Now he’s trapped down there with a live bomb.”

  It wasn’t very long before the civil defense siren began wailing. Dad got a phone call from Mayor Swope, asking him if he would meet with a group of volunteers at the courthouse and help spread the word from door to door that both Zephyr and Bruton had to be immediately evacuated.

  “On Christmas Eve?” Dad said. “Evacuate the whole town?”

  “That’s right, Tom.” Mayor Swope sounded at his rope’s end. “Do you know a bomb fell out of a jet plane right into—”

  “Dick Moultry’s house, yeah I’ve heard. It fell out of a jet plane?”

  “Right again. And we’ve gotta get these people out of here in case that damn thing blows.”

  “Well, why don’t you call the air base? Surely they’ll come get it.”

  “I just got off the phone with ’em. Their public relations spokesman, I mean. I told him one of his jets lost a bomb over our town, and you know what he said? He said I must’ve been in the Christmas rum cake! He said no such thing happened, that none of their pilots were so careless as to accidentally hit a safety lever and drop a bomb on civilians. He said even if such a thing happened, their bomb deactivation team was not on duty on Christmas Eve, and if such a thing happened, he’d hope the civilians in that town upon which a bomb did not drop ought to have sense enough to evacuate because the bomb that did not fall from a jet plane could blow most of that town into toothpicks! Now, how about that?”

  “He’s got to know you’re tellin’ the truth, Luther. He’ll send somebody to keep the bomb from explodin’.”

  “Maybe so, but when? Tomorrow afternoon? Do you want to go to sleep tonight with that thing tickin’? I can’t risk it, Tom. We’ve got to get everybody out!”

  Dad asked Mayor Swope to come pick him up. Then he hung up the phone and told Mom she and I ought to take the truck and get to Grand Austin and Nana Alice’s for the night. He’d come join us when the work was done. Mom started to beg him to come with us; she wanted to, as much as rain wants to follow clouds. But she saw that he had decided what was right, and she would have to learn to deal with it. She said, “Go get your pajamas, Cory. Get your toothbrush and a pair of fresh socks and underwear. We’re goin’ to Grand Austin’s.”

  “Dad, is Zephyr gonna blow up?” I asked.

  “No. We’re movin’ everybody out just for safety’s sake. The Air Force boys’ll send somebody to get that thing real soon, I’m sure of it.”

  “You’ll be careful?” Mom asked him.

  “You know it. Merry Christmas.” He smiled.

  She couldn’t help but return it. “You crazy thing, you!” she said, and she kissed him.

  Mom and I got some clothes packed. The civil defense siren wailed for almost fifteen minutes, a sound so spine-chilling it even silenced the dogs. Already people were getting the message, and they were driving away to spend the night with relatives, friends in other towns, or at the Union Pines Motel in Union Town. Mayor Swope came by to pick up Dad. Then Mom and I were ready to go. Before we walked out the door, the phone rang and it was Ben wanting to tell me they were going to Birmingham to spend the night with his aunt and uncle. “Ain’t it somethin’?” he said excitedly. “Know what I heard? Mr. Moultry’s got two busted legs and a broke back and the bomb’s lyin’ right on top of him! This is really neat, huh?”

  I had to agree it was. We’d never experienced a Christmas Eve quite like it.

  “Gotta go! Talk to you later! Oh, yeah… Merry Christmas!”

  “Merry Christmas, Ben!”

  He hung up. Mom collared me, and we were on our way to Grand Austin and Nana Alice’s house. I’d never seen so many cars on Route Ten before. Heaven help us all if the beast from the lost world decided to attack right about now; there’d be a bomb behind us, cars and trucks tumped over like tenpins, and people flying through the air without wings.

  We left Zephyr behind, all lit up for Christmas.

  The rest of this story I found out later, since I wasn’t there.

  Curiosity got the best of Dad. He had to see the bomb. So, as Zephyr and Bruton gradually emptied out, he left the group of volunteers he was riding with and walked a half-dozen blocks to where Mr. Moultry lived. Mr. Moultry’s house was a small wooden structure painted pale blue with white shutters. Light was streaming upward through the splintered roof. The sheriff’s car was parked out front, its bubble light spinning around. Dad climbed up onto the porch, which had been knocked crooked by the impact. The front door was ajar, the walls riddled with cracks. The bomb’s velocity had shoved the house off its foundations. Dad went inside, and he couldn’t miss the huge hole in the sagging floor because it had swallowed half the room. A few Christmas tree decorations were scattered about, and a little silver star lay balanced on the hole’s ragged edge. The tree itself was missing.

  He peered down. Boards and beams were tangled up like a plateful of macaroni. Plaster dust was the Parmesan cheese. There was the meatball of the bomb: its iron-gray tail fins protruded from the debris, its nose plowed right into the basement’s dirt floor.

  “Get me outta here! Ohhhhh, my legs! Get me to the hospital! Ohhhhh, I’m dyin’!”

  “You’re not dyin’, Dick. Just don’t try to move.”

  Mr. Moultry was lying amid wreckage with a carpenter’s workbench on top of him, and atop that a beam as big around as a sturdy oak. It had split, and Dad figured it had been a support for the living room’s floor. Lying across the beam that crisscrossed Mr. Moultry was the Christmas tree, its balls and bulbs shattered. The bomb wasn’t on top of Mr. Moultry, but it had dug itself in about four feet from his head. Sheriff Marchette knelt nearby, deliberating the mess.

  “Jack? It’s Tom Mackenson!”

  “Tom?” Sheriff Marchette looked up, his face streaked with plaster dust. “You ought to get outta here, man!”

  “I wanted to come see it. Not as big as I thought it would be.”

  “It’s plenty big enough,” the sheriff said. “If this thing blows, it’ll take the house and leave a crater where the whole block used to be.”

  “Ohhhhh!” Mr. Moultry groaned. His shi
rt had been torn open by the falling timbers, and his massive gut wobbled this way and that. “I said I’m dyin’, damn it!”

  “He hurt bad?” Dad asked.

  “Can’t get in there close enough to tell. Says he thinks his legs are broken. Maybe a busted rib or two, the way he’s wheezin’.”

  “He always breathes like that,” Dad said.

  “Well, the ambulance ought to be here soon.” Sheriff Marchette checked his wristwatch. “I called ’em directly I got here. I don’t know what’s keepin’ ’em.”

  “What’d you tell ’em? That a fella got hit by a fallin’ bomb?”

  “Yes,” the sheriff said.

  “In that case, I think Dick’s in for a long wait.”

  “Get me outta here!” Mr. Moultry tried to push some of the dusty tangle of lumber off him, but he winced and couldn’t do it. He turned his head and looked at the bomb, sweat glistening on his suety cheeks. “Get that outta here! Jesus Christ, help me!”