Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 54

  “Where’s Mrs. Moultry?” Dad asked.

  “Huh!” Mr. Moultry’s plaster-white face sneered. “She took off runnin’ and left me here, that’s what she did! Wouldn’t even lift a finger to help me!”

  “That’s not quite right. She did call me, didn’t she?” the sheriff pointed out.

  “Well, what the hell are you good for? Ohhhhhh, my legs! They’re broke plumb in two, I’m tellin’ ya!”

  “Can I come down?” Dad asked.

  “Rather you didn’t. Rather you got on out of here like any sane man should. But come on if you want to. Be careful, though. The stairs collapsed, so I set up a stepladder.”

  Dad eased himself down the ladder. He stood appraising the pile of timbers, beams, and Christmas tree on top of Mr. Moultry. “We can probably move that big one,” he said. “I’ll grab one end if you grab the other.”

  They cleared the tree aside and did the job, moving the oak-sized beam though their backs promised a rendezvous with deep-heating rub. Mr. Moultry, however, was still in a heap of trouble. “We can dig him out, take him to your car, and get him to the hospital,” Dad suggested. “That ambulance isn’t comin’.”

  The sheriff knelt down beside Mr. Moultry. “Hey, Dick. You weighed yourself lately?”

  “Weighed myself? Hell, no! Why should I?”

  “What did you weigh the last time you had a physical?”

  “One hundred and sixty pounds.”

  “When?” Sheriff Marchette asked. “In the third grade? How much do you weigh right now, Dick?”

  Mr. Moultry scowled and muttered. Then he said, “A little bit over two hundred.”

  “Try again.”

  “Aw, shit! I weigh two hundred and ninety pounds! Does that satisfy you, you sadist you?”

  “Maybe got two broken legs. Broken ribs. Possible internal injuries. And he weighs two hundred and ninety pounds. Think we can get him up that ladder, Tom?”

  “No way,” my father said.

  “My thoughts right on the button. He’s stuck in here until somebody can bring a hoist.”

  “What do you mean?” Mr. Moultry squawked. “I gotta stay here?” He looked fearfully at the bomb again. “Well, for God’s sake get that damn thing away from me, then!”

  “I’d do that for you, Dick,” the sheriff said. “I really would, but I’d have to touch it. And what if the thing’s primed to go off and all it needs is a finger’s touch? You think I want to be responsible for blowin’ you up? Not to mention myself and Tom? No, sir!”

  “Mayor Swope told me he talked to somebody at Robbins,” Dad said to the sheriff. “Said the fella didn’t believe—”

  “Yeah, Luther came by here before he and his family hit the trail. He told me all about what that sumbitch said. Maybe the pilot was too scared to let anybody know how bad he messed up. Probably staggered out of a Christmas party and climbed right into the cockpit. All I know for sure is, nobody’s comin’ from Robbins to get this thing anytime soon.”

  “What am I supposed to do?” Mr. Moultry asked. “Just lie here and suffer?”

  “I can go upstairs and fetch you a pilla, if you like,” Sheriff Marchette offered.

  “Dick? Dick, you okay?” The voice, tentative and afraid, was coming from upstairs.

  “Oh, I’m just dandy!” Mr. Moultry hollered. “I’m just tickled pink”—pank, he pronounced it—“to be layin’ down here with two busted legs and a bomb next to my melon! God a’mighty! I don’t know who you are up there, but you’re a bigger idiot than the fool who dropped that damn bomb in the first…oh. It’s you.”

  “Hi there, Dick,” Mr. Gerald Hargison said sheepishly. “How’re you doin’?”

  “I could just dance!” Mr. Moultry’s face was getting splotched with crimson. “Shit!”

  Mr. Hargison stood at the edge of the hole and peered down. “That’s the bomb right there, is it?”

  “No, it’s a big goose turd!” Mr. Moultry raged. “’Course it’s the bomb!”

  While Mr. Moultry thrashed to get free again and only succeeded in raising a storm of plaster dust and causing himself considerable pain, Dad looked around the basement. Over in one corner was a desk, and above it a wall plaque that read A MAN’S HOME IS HIS CASTLE. Next to it was a poster of a bug-eyed black minstrel tap-dancing, and underneath it the hand-lettered sign THE WHITE MAN’S BURDEN. Dad wandered over to the desk, the top of which was six inches deep in untidy papers. He slid open the upper drawer and was hit in the face by the enormous mammary glands of a woman on a Juggs magazine cover. Underneath the magazine was a hodgepodge of Gem clips, pencils, rubber bands, and the like. An overexposed Kodak picture came to hand. It showed Dick Moultry wearing a white robe and cradling in one arm a rifle while the other embraced a peaked white cap and hood. Mr. Moultry was smiling broadly, proud of his accomplishments.

  “Hey, get outta there!” Mr. Moultry swiveled his head around. “It ain’t enough I’m layin’ here dyin’, you’ve gotta ransack my house, too?”

  Dad closed the drawer on the picture and walked back to Sheriff Marchette. Above them, Mr. Hargison nervously scuffed his soles on the warped floor. “Listen, Dick, I just wanted to come by and see about you. Make sure you weren’t…you know, dead and all.”

  “No, I’m not dead yet. Much as my wife wishes that bomb had clunked me right on the brainpan.”

  “We’re headin’ out of town,” Mr. Hargison explained. “Uh…we probably won’t be back until day after Christmas. Probably get back near ten o’clock in the mornin’. Hear me, Dick? Ten o’clock in the mornin’.”

  “Yeah, I hear you! I don’t care what time you get back!”

  “Well, we’ll get back near ten o’clock. In the mornin’, day after Christmas. Thought you might want to know, so you could set your watch.”

  “Set my watch? Are you—” He stopped. “Oh. Yeah. Okay, I’ll do that.” He grinned, his face sweating as he looked up at the sheriff. “Gerald and me are supposed to help a friend clean out his garage day after Christmas. That’s why he’s tellin’ me what time he’ll be back.”

  “Is that so?” the sheriff asked. “What friend might that be, Dick?”

  “Oh…fella lives in Union Town. You wouldn’t know him.”

  “I know a lot of people in Union Town. What’s your friend’s name?”

  “Joe,” Mr. Hargison said, at the exact second Mr. Moultry said, “Sam.”

  “Joe Sam,” Mr. Moultry explained, still sweatily grinning. “Joe Sam Jones.”

  “I don’t think you’re gonna be helping any Joe Sam Jones clean out his garage the day after Christmas, Dick. I think you’ll be in a nice secure hospital room, don’t you?”

  “Hey, Dick, I’m headin’ off!” Mr. Hargison announced. “Don’t you worry, you’re gonna be just fine.” And with that last word the toe of his left shoe nudged the silver Christmas tree star that lay balanced on the hole’s ragged edge. Dad watched the little star fall as if in graceful slow motion, like a magnified snowflake drifting down.

  It hit one of the bomb’s iron-gray tail fins, and exploded in a shower of painted glass.

  In the seconds of silence that followed, all four of the men heard it.

  The bomb made a hissing sound, like a serpent that had been awakened in its nest. The hissing faded, and from the bomb’s guts there came a slow, ominous ticking: not like the ticking of an alarm clock, but rather the ticking of a hot engine building up to a boil.

  “Oh…shit,” Sheriff Marchette whispered.

  “Jesus save me!” Mr. Moultry gasped. His face, which had been flushed crimson a few moments before, now became as white as a wax dummy.

  “The thing’s switched on,” Dad said, his voice choked.

  Mr. Hargison’s speech was by far the most eloquent. He spoke with his legs, which propelled him across the warped floor, out onto the crooked porch and to his car at the curb as if he’d been boomed from a cannon. The car sped away like the Road Runner: one second there, the next not.

??Oh God, oh God!” Tears had sprung to Mr. Moultry’s eyes. “Don’t let me die!”

  “Tom? I believe it’s time.” Sheriff Marchette was speaking softly, as if the weight of words passing through the air might be enough to cause concussion. “To vamoose, don’t you?”

  “You can’t leave me! You can’t! You’re the sheriff!”

  “I can’t do anythin’ more for you, Dick. I swear I wish I could, but I can’t. Seems to me you need magic or a miracle right about now, and I think the well’s run dry.”

  “Don’t leave me! Get me out of this, Jack! I’ll pay you whatever you want!”

  “I’m sorry. Climb on up, Tom.”

  Dad didn’t have to be told a second time. He scaled that ladder like Lucifer up a tree. At the top, he said, “I’ll steady the ladder for you, Jack! Come on!”

  The bomb ticked. And ticked. And ticked.

  “I can’t help you, Dick,” Sheriff Marchette said, and he climbed the ladder.

  “No! Listen! I’ll do anythin’! Get me out, okay? I won’t mind if it hurts! Okay?”

  Dad and Sheriff Marchette were on their way to the door.

  “Please!” Mr. Moultry shouted. His voice cracked, and a sob came out. He fought against his trap, but the pain made him cry harder. “You can’t leave me to die! It’s not human!”

  He was still shouting and sobbing as Dad and the sheriff left the house. Both their faces were drawn and tight. “Great job this turned out to be,” Sheriff Marchette said. “Jesus.” They reached the sheriff’s car. “You need a ride somewhere, Tom?”

  “Yeah.” He frowned. “No.” And he leaned against the car. “I don’t know.”

  “Now, don’t look like that! There’s not a thing can be done for him, and you know it!”

  “Maybe somebody ought to wait around, in case the bomb squad shows up.”

  “Fine.” The sheriff glanced up and down the deserted street. “Are you volunteerin’?”


  “Me, neither! And they’re not gonna show up anytime soon, Tom. I think that bomb’s gonna explode and we’ll lose this whole block, and I don’t know about you, but I’m gettin’ out while I’ve still got my skin.” He walked around to the driver’s door.

  “Jack, wait a minute,” Dad said.

  “Ain’t got a minute. Come on, if you’re comin’.”

  Dad got into the car with him, and Sheriff Marchette started the engine. “Where to?”

  “Listen to me, Jack. You said it yourself: Dick needs magic or a miracle, right? So who’s the one person around here who might be able to give it to him?”

  “Reverend Blessett’s left town.”

  “No, not him! Her.”

  Sheriff Marchette paused with his hand on the gearshift.

  “Anybody who can turn a bag of shotgun shells into a bag of garden snakes might be able to take care of a bomb, don’t you think?”

  “No, I don’t! I don’t think the Lady had a thing to do with that. I think Biggun Blaylock was so blasted out of his mind on his own rotgut whiskey that he thought he was fillin’ that ammo bag full of cartridges when all the time he was shovelin’ the snakes in!”

  “Oh, come on! You saw those snakes the same as I did! There were hundreds of ’em! How long would it have taken Biggun to find ’em all?”

  “I don’t believe in that voodoo stuff,” Sheriff Marchette said. “Not one bit.”

  Dad said the first thing that came to mind, and saying it left a shocked taste in his mouth: “We can’t be afraid to ask her for help, Jack. She’s all we’ve got.”

  “Damn,” the sheriff muttered. “Damn and double-damn.” He looked at the Moultry house, light rising from its broken roof. “She might be gone by now.”

  “She might be. She might not be. Can’t we at least drive over there and find out?”

  Many houses in Bruton were dark, their owners having obeyed the siren and fled the impending blast. Her rainbow-hued dwelling, however, was all lit up. Tiny sparkling lights blinked in the windows.

  “I’ll wait right here,” Sheriff Marchette said. Dad nodded and got out. He took a deep breath of Christmas Eve air and made his legs move. They carried him to the front door. He took the door’s knocker, a little silver hand, and did something he never dreamed he would’ve done in a million years: he announced to the Lady that he had come to call.

  He waited, hoping she would answer.

  He waited, watching the doorknob.

  He waited.

  Fifteen minutes after my father took the silver hand, there was a noise on the street where Dick Moultry lived. It was a rumble and a clatter, a clanking and a clinking, and it caused the dogs to bark in its wake. The rust-splotched, suspension-sagging pickup truck stopped at the curb in front of the Moultry house, and a long, skinny black man got out of the driver’s door. On that door was stenciled, not very neatly: LIGHTFOOT’S FIX-IT.

  He moved so slowly it seemed that movement might be a painful process. He wore freshly washed overalls and a gray cap that allowed his gray hair to boil out from beneath it. In supreme slow motion, he walked to the truck’s bed and strapped on his tool belt, which held several different kinds of hammers, screwdrivers, and arcane-looking wrenches. In a slow extension of time he picked up his toolbox, an old metal fascination filled with drawers that held every kind of nut and bolt under the workman’s sun. Then, as if moving under the burden of the ages, Mr. Marcus Lightfoot walked to Dick Moultry’s crooked entrance. He knocked at the door, even though it stood wide open: One…two…

  Eternities passed. Civilizations thrived and crumbled. Stars were born in brawny violence and died doddering in the cold vault of the cosmos.


  “Thank God!” Mr. Moultry shouted, his voice worn to a frazzle. “I knew you wouldn’t let me die, Jack! Oh, God have mer—” He stopped shouting in mid-praise, because he was looking up through the hole in the living room’s floor, and instead of help from heaven he saw the black face of what he considered a devil of the earth.

  “Lawdy, lawdy,” Mr. Lightfoot said. His eyes had found the bomb, his ear the ticking of its detonation mechanism. “You sure in a big pile’a mess.”

  “Have you come to watch me get blown up, you black savage?” Mr. Moultry snarled.

  “Nossuh. Come ta keep you from gettin’ Mowed.”

  “You? Help me? Hah!” He pulled in a breath and roared through his ravaged throat: “Jack! Somebody help me! Anybody white!”

  “Mr. Moultry, suh?” Mr. Lightfoot waited for the other man’s lungs to give out. “That there bumb might not care for such a’ noise.”

  Mr. Moultry, his face the color of ketchup and the sweat standing up in beads, began fighting his condition. He thrashed and clawed at the pile of debris; he grasped at his own shirt in a fit of rage and ripped the rest of it away; he gripped at the very air but found no handholds there. And then the pain crashed over him like one wrestler bodyslamming another and Mr. Moultry was left gasping and breathless but still with two broken legs and a bomb ticking next to his head.

  “I believe,” Mr. Lightfoot said, and he yawned at the lateness of the hour, “I’d best come on down.”

  It might have been New Year’s Eve before Mr. Lightfoot reached the bottom of the stepladder, the tools in his belt jingling together. He grasped his toolbox and started toward Mr. Moultry, but the poster of the bug-eyed minstrel on the wall caught his attention. He stared at it as the seconds and the bomb ticked.

  “Heh-heh,” Mr. Lightfoot said, and shook his head. “Heh heh.”

  “What’re you laughin’ at, you crazy jigaboo?”

  “Thass a white man,” he said. “All painted up and lookin’ the fool.”

  At last Mr. Lightfoot pulled himself away from the picture of Al Jolson and went to the bomb. He cleared away some nail-studded timbers and roof shingles and sat down on the red dirt, a process that was like watching a snail cross a football field. He drew the toolbox close to his side, like a trusted companion. Then he took a p
air of wire-rimmed spectacles from the breast pocket of his shirt, blew on the lenses, and wiped them on his sleeve, all at excruciating slowness.

  “What have I done to deserve this?” Mr. Moultry croaked.

  Mr. Lightfoot got his spectacles on. “Now,” he said. “I can.” He leaned closer to the bomb, and as he frowned the small lines deepened between his eyes. “See what’s what.”

  He took a hammer with a miniature head from his belt. He licked his thumb and—slowly, slowly—marked the hammer’s head with his spit. Then he tapped the bomb’s side so lightly it hardly made a noise.

  “Don’t hit it! Oh Jeeeeesus! You’ll blow us both to hell!”

  “Ain’t,” Mr. Lightfoot replied as he made small tappings up and down the bomb’s side, “plannin’ on it.” He pressed his ear against the bomb’s iron skin. “Uh-huh,” he said. “I hears you talkin’.” As Mr. Moultry agonized in terrified silence, Mr. Lightfoot’s fingers were at work, moving across the bomb as one might stroke a small dog. “Uh-huh.” His fingers stopped on a thin seam. “Thass the way ta your heart, ain’t it?” He located four screws just below the tail fins, and he lifted the proper screwdriver from its place on his belt like a glacier melting.

  “You came here to kill me, didn’t you?” Mr. Moultry groaned. He received a punch of insight. “She sent you, didn’t she? She sent you to kill me!”

  “Got,” Mr. Lightfoot said as he made the first turn of the first screw, “half that right.”

  Eons later, the final screw fell into Mr. Lightfoot’s palm. Mr. Lightfoot had started humming “Frosty, the Snowman,” in his somnolent way. Sometime between the removal of the second and third screws, the sound of the detonation mechanism had changed from a tick to a rasp. Mr. Moultry, lying in a stew of sweat, his eyes glassy and his head thrashing back and forth with dementia, had lost five pounds.

  Mr. Lightfoot took from his toolbox a small blue jar. He opened it and with the tip of his index finger withdrew some greasy gunk the color of eel’s skin. He spat into it, and smeared the gunk onto the seam that circled the bomb. Then he took hold of the tail fins and tried to give them a counterclockwise turn. They resisted. He tried it in the clockwise direction, but that, too, was fruitless.