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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 55


  “Listen here!” Mr. Lightfoot’s voice was stern, his brow furrowed with disapproval. “Don’t you gimme no sass!” With the miniature hammer he clunked the screw holes, and Mr. Moultry lost another few ounces as his pants suddenly got wet. Then Mr. Lightfoot gripped the tail fins with both hands and pulled.

  Slowly, with a thin high skrreeeeek of resistance, the bomb’s tail section began to slide out. It was hard work, and Mr. Lightfoot had to pause to stretch his cramping fingers. Then he went back to it, with the determination of a sloth gripping a tree branch. At last the tail section came free, and exposed were electronic circuits, a jungle of different-colored wires, and shiny black plastic cylinders that resembled the backs of roaches.

  “Hoooowheeee!” Mr. Lightfoot breathed, enchanted. “Ain’t it pretty?”

  “Killin’ me…” Mr. Moultry moaned. “Killin’ me dead…”

  The rasping was louder. Mr. Lightfoot used a metal probe to touch a small red box from which the noise emanated. Then he used his finger, and he whistled as he drew the finger back. “Oh-oh,” he said. “Gettin’ kinda warm.”

  Mr. Moultry began to blubber, his nose running and the tears trickling from his swollen eyes.

  Mr. Lightfoot’s fingers were at work again, tracing the wires to their points of origin. The smell of heat rose into the air, which shimmered over the red box. Mr. Lightfoot scratched his chin. “Y’know,” he said, “I believe we gots us a problem here.”

  Mr. Moultry trembled on the edge of coma.

  “See, I”—Mr. Lightfoot tapped his chin, his eyes narrowed with concentration—“fix things. I don’t break ’em.” He drew in a long breath and slowly released it. “Gone have ta do a little breakin’, seems ta me.” He nodded. “Yessuh. Sure do hate ta break somethin’ so pretty.” He chose another, larger hammer. “Gone have ta do it.” He cracked the hammer down on the red box. Its plastic skin split from one end to the other. Mr. Moultry’s teeth gripped his tongue. Mr. Lightfoot removed the two plastic sections and regarded the smaller workings and wires within. “Jus’ mysteries in mysteries,” he said. He put his hand down into the toolbox and it came out holding a little wire cutter that still had its ninety-nine-cent price sticker on it. “Now, listen good,” he told the bomb, “don’t you burp in my face, hear?”

  “Ohhhhh God, oh Jeeeesus above, oh I’m comin’ to heaven, I’m comin’,” Mr. Moultry gasped.

  “You get there,” Mr. Lightfoot said with a faint smile, “you tell St. Peter he’s got a fix-it-man on the way.” He reached the cutter toward two wires—one black, the other white—that crisscrossed at the heart of the machine.

  “Wait,” Mr. Moultry whispered. “Wait…”

  Mr. Lightfoot paused.

  “Gotta get it off my soul,” Mr. Moultry said, his eyes as bugged as the minstrel’s. “Gotta get light, so I can fly to heaven. Listen to me…”

  “Listenin’,” Mr. Lightfoot told him as the bomb spoke on.

  “Gerald and me…we…it was Gerald did the most of it, really… I didn’t wanna have nothin’ to do with it…but…it’s set to go off at…ten in the mornin’…day after Christmas. Hear me? Ten in the mornin’. It’s a box…full of dynamite…and an alarm clock timer. We paid Biggun Blaylock, and he…he got it for us.” Mr. Moultry swallowed, perhaps feeling hell’s fire under his buns. “It’s set to blow up that civil rights museum. We…it was all Gerald’s idea, really…decided to do it when we first heard the Lady was plannin’ on buildin’ it. Listen to me, Lightfoot!”

  “Listenin’,” he said slowly and calmly.

  “Gerald planted it, somewhere around that museum. Could be in the recreation center. I don’t know where it is, I swear to God…but it’s over there right now, and it’s gonna go off at ten in the mornin’, day after Christmas.”

  “That right?” Mr. Lightfoot asked.

  “Yes! It’s the truth, and God take me to heaven ’cause I’ve freed my soul!”

  “Uh-huh.” Mr. Lightfoot reached out. He gripped the black wire with the cutter and snip, the black wire was parted. The bomb, however, would not be silenced so easily.

  “Do you hear me, Lightfoot? That box of dynamite is over there right this minute!”

  Mr. Lightfoot eased the cutter’s blades around the white wire. A muscle clenched in his jaw, and sweat sparkled on his cheeks like diamond dust. He said, “No, it ain’t.”

  “Ain’t what?”

  “Over there. Not no more. Done found it. Gone cut this wire now.”

  His hand trembled. “Might blow if I’ve cut the wrong wire first.”

  “God have mercy,” Mr. Moultry whined. “Oh Jesus I swear I’ll be a good boy every day of my life if you just let me live!”

  “I’m cuttin’,” Mr. Lightfoot said.

  Mr. Moultry squeezed his eyes shut. The cutter went snip.

  KA-BOOOMMMMM!

  In that tremendous roar of destruction and fire, Mr. Moultry screamed.

  When his screaming wound down, he heard not the harps of the angels nor the devils singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” He heard: “Heh heh heh heh.”

  Mr. Moultry’s eyes flew open.

  Mr. Lightfoot was grinning. He blew a little flicker of blue flame from the snipped end of the white wire. The bomb was tamed and mute. Mr. Lightfoot spoke in a voice made hoarse by the tremendous yell he’d just yelled into Mr. Moultry’s ear. “Beggin’ your pardon, suh,” he said. “Jus’ couldn’t pass it up.”

  Mr. Moultry seemed to deflate, as if he’d been punctured. With a slow hissing sound, he fainted dead away.

  5

  Sixteen Drops of Blood

  I’M BACK.

  The time bomb box full of dynamite—with an extra stick thrown in from the gracious hand of Biggun Blaylock—had indeed been found, not long after I had informed the Lady who my dream visitors were. I must’ve remembered that picture and kept it in the back of my head, and then after the cross-burning and my witnessing Mr. Hargison and Mr. Moultry buy the box from Biggun Blaylock, I must’ve known subconsciously what the box was. That’s why I’d taken to knocking my alarm clock off my bedside table. The only hitch in this theory is that I’d never seen pictures of the girls who’d died at the 16th Street Baptist Church until at the museum. I don’t think. Maybe they were in the Life magazine. Mom had thrown it out, though, so I can’t say for sure.

  The Lady put it together as soon as I’d told her. She organized everyone at the reception to start looking for a wooden box either in the recreation center, the civil rights museum, or in the vicinity outside. Nobody could find it, and we tore that place up searching. Then the Lady recalled that Mr. Hargison was a postman. Right outside the center, on the corner of Buckhart Street, was a mailbox. Charles Damaronde held Gavin by his heels as he slid into the mailbox, and we heard his muffled voice say, “Here it is!” He couldn’t bring it up, though, because it was too heavy. Sheriff Marchette was called, and he came with Zephyr’s postmaster, Mr. Conrad Oatman, who brought the mailbox key. In that box was enough dynamite to blow up the recreation center, the civil rights museum, and two or three houses across the street. Evidently, four hundred dollars was enough to buy a mighty big bang.

  Mr. Hargison, knowing what times the mail was picked up and that the mailbox would not be opened again until sometime on the afternoon of December 26th, had set the alarm clock timer for ten on the dot. Sheriff Marchette said the bomb had been constructed by a professional, because you could adjust the timer to either twelve, twenty-four, or forty-eight hours. He told the Lady that he didn’t want Mr Hargison or Mr. Moultry to know the bomb had been found yet, not until the innards were dusted for fingerprints. Mom and I had told Dad when we’d gotten home from the recreation center, and I have to say that both he and Sheriff Marchette did a good job of not spilling the beans when they were at Dick Moultry’s house and Mr. Hargison walked in. Mr. Moultry’s confession turned out to be the icing on the cake, since the time bomb yielded five prints that perfectly matched Mr. Hargison’s. So tho
se two were taken off pretty soon to visit the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Birmingham, and needless to say their names were ticked off the roster of the residents of my hometown.

  The civil rights museum had its grand opening. I had no more dreams of the four black girls. But if I ever wanted to see them again, I knew where to go.

  The falling of the bomb from a jet plane and the finding of a Ku Klux Klan bomb in a mailbox outside the civil rights museum kept Zephyr buzzing in the days following Christmas. Ben, Johnny, and I debated whether Mr. Lightfoot had ever been really afraid of the bomb or not. Ben said he had been, while Johnny and I took the position that Mr. Lightfoot was like Nemo Curliss; instead of baseball, though, Mr. Lightfoot’s natural affinity was to anything mechanical, even a bomb, so when he stared those wires down he knew exactly what he was doing every second. Ben, incidentally, had had an interesting experience in Birmingham. He and his mom and dad had stayed with Ben’s uncle Miles, who worked at a downtown bank. Miles had given Ben a tour of the vault, and all Ben could talk about was the smell of money, how green it was and how pretty. He said Miles had actually let him hold a pack of fifty one-hundred-dollar bills, and Ben’s fingers were still tingling. Ben announced that he didn’t know what he was going to do in this life, but as far as possible it was going to involve lots and lots of money. Johnny and I just laughed at him. We missed Davy Ray, because we knew what his comment would’ve been.

  Johnny had asked for and received two Christmas presents. One was a policeman’s kit, complete with honorary badge, fingerprint powder, handcuffs, burglar dust that got on the shoes of burglars and only showed up under ultraviolet light, and a policeman’s handbook. The other was a wooden display case with little shelves in it, to show his arrowhead collection. He filled it up except for one shelf, which was reserved for a certain smooth black arrowhead if Chief Five Thunders ever decided to give it up again.

  A question remained about Mr. Lightfoot and the bomb. Mom voiced it two nights after Christmas, as a cold rain fell on Zephyr.

  “Tom?” she said. We were all sitting in the front room, with the fireplace blazing. You couldn’t have pried The Golden Apples of the Sun out of my hands with a crowbar. “What made Mr. Lightfoot go to Dick Moultry’s house, anyway? I wouldn’t have thought that was somethin’ he might’ve volunteered to do.”

  Dad didn’t answer.

  Just as parents have sixth senses about their children, so, too, do children about their parents. I lowered my book. Dad continued to read the newspaper.

  “Tom? Do you know what made Mr. Lightfoot do it?”

  He cleared his throat. “Kind of,” he said quietly.

  “Well, what was it?”

  “I guess… I had somethin’ to do with it.”

  “You did? How?”

  He lowered the paper, realizing there was no way out but the truth. “I…asked the Lady for help.”

  Mom sat in stunned silence. Rain struck the windows and the fireplace log popped, and still she didn’t budge.

  “I figured she was the only chance Dick had. After what she did with Biggun Blaylock’s ammo bag… I thought she could help him. And I was right, it appears. She called Marcus Lightfoot while I was there at her house.”

  “Her house? I can’t believe this! You went to the Lady’s house?”

  “Not just to it. Inside it. I sat down in her chair. I drank a cup of her coffee.” He shrugged. “I suppose I was expectin’ shrunken heads on the walls and black widow spiders in every corner. I didn’t know she was religious.”

  “To the Lady’s house,” Mom said. “I just can’t believe it! And after all this time when you were so afraid of her!”

  “I wasn’t afraid of her,” Dad corrected Mom. “I was just…a little skittish, that’s all.”

  “And she said she’d help Dick Moultry? Even when she knew he’d had a hand in settin’ that time bomb?”

  “Well…it wasn’t quite that simple,” my father admitted.

  “Oh?” Mom waited. When Dad offered no more information, Mom said, “I’d like to hear it.”

  “She made me promise to come back. She said she could look at me and tell I was bein’ eaten up alive. She said it showed in your face and in Cory’s, too. She said we were all livin’ under the strain of that dead man at the bottom of Saxon’s Lake.” Dad put the newspaper down and watched the fire. “And you know what? She’s right. I promised to go back to see her tomorrow evenin’ at seven o’clock. I was gonna tell you, eventually. Or maybe I wasn’t, I don’t know.”

  “Pride, pride,” Mom scolded him. “You mean to tell me you did for Dick Moultry what you wouldn’t do for me?”

  “No. It’s just that I wasn’t ready. Dick needed help. I found it for him. And now I’m ready to find it for myself and both of you, too.”

  Mom got up from her chair. She stood behind my father, and she put her hands on his shoulders and leaned her chin against his head. I watched their shadows merge. He reached up and put his arm around her neck. They stayed that way for a moment, heart-close, as the fire cracked and sizzled.

  It was time to go see the Lady.

  When we arrived at her house at ten minutes before seven o’clock, Mr. Damaronde answered the door. Dad had no qualms about crossing the threshold; his fear of the Lady was gone. The Moon Man came out, clad in his robe and slippers, and offered us some pretzels. Mrs. Damaronde put on a pot of coffee—the New Orleans kind with chicory, she said—and we waited in the front room until the Lady was ready to see us.

  I was keeping my suspicions about Dr. Lezander to myself. I still couldn’t let my heart believe that Dr. Lezander, who had always been so kind and gentle to Rebel, might be a murderer. I had the connection of the two parrots, but there was nothing to connect Dr. Lezander with the dead man except a green feather, and that was just my theory. So he didn’t like milk and he was a night owl; did that make him a killer? Before I told my parents, I would need something more solid to go on.

  We didn’t have to wait very long. Mr. Damaronde asked us to come back with him, and he led us not to the Lady’s bedroom but to another room across the hallway. In it, the Lady was sitting in a high-backed chair behind a folding card table. She wore not a voodoo robe or a wizard’s cap, but just a plain dark gray dress with a lapel pin in the shape of a dancing harlequin. On the floor of what was obviously her consultation room was a rug of woven reeds, and a crooked tree grew from a big clay pot in the corner. The walls were painted beige and unadorned. Mr. Damaronde closed the door and the Lady said, “Sit down, Tom.”

  Dad obeyed. I could tell he was nervous, because I could hear his throat click when he swallowed. He flinched a little when the Lady reached down beside her chair and brought up a doctor’s bag. She placed it on the table and unzipped it.

  “Is this gonna hurt?” Dad asked.

  “It might. Depends.”

  “On what?”

  “How deep we have to cut to get at the truth,” she answered. She reached into the bag and brought out something wrapped up in blue cloth. Then a silver filigreed box came out, followed by a deck of cards. She brought out a sheet of typing paper. In the overhead light I saw the Nifty watermark; it was the same brand of paper I used. Last out of the bag was a pill bottle containing three polished river pebbles: one ebony, one reddish-brown, one white with gray bands. She said, “Open your right hand,” and when Dad did she unscrewed the pill bottle’s cap and shook the river pebbles into his palm. “Work those in your hand awhile,” she directed.

  Dad gave a nervous smile as he did as she asked. “Did these come from Old Moses’s stomach or somethin’?”

  “No. They’re just old pebbles I found. Keep workin’ ’em, they’ll calm you down.”

  “Oh,” Dad said, rolling the worry-pebbles around and around in his palm.

  Mom and I stood to one side, to give the Lady plenty of room to do what she was going to do. Whatever that might be. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe one of those torchlit ceremonies with people
dancing around in circles and hollering. But it wasn’t like that at all. The Lady began to shuffle the cards, and the way she did it I suspected she might have given lessons to Maverick. “Tell me about your dreams, Tom,” she said as the cards made a rhythmic whirring noise between her supple fingers.

  Dad glanced uneasily at us. “Do you want them to go?” the Lady asked, but he shook his head. “I dream,” he began, “about watchin’ the car go into Saxon’s Lake. Then I’m in the water with it, and I’m lookin’ through the window at the dead man. His face…all smashed up. The handcuff on his wrist. The piano wire around his throat. And as the car’s goin’ down and the water starts floodin’ in he—” Dad had to pause a minute. The pebbles clicked together in his palm. “He looks at me and he grins. That awful, smashed face grins. And when he speaks it’s like…mud gurglin’.”

  “What does he say?”

  “He says…‘Come with me, down in the dark.’” Dad’s face was a study in pain, and it hurt me to look at it. “That’s what he says. ‘Come with me, down in the dark.’ And he reaches for me, with his hand that isn’t shackled. He reaches for me, and I pull back because I’m terrified he’s gonna touch me. Then it ends.”

  “You have other recurrin’ dreams?”

  “A few. Not as strong as that one, though. Sometimes I think I hear piano music. Sometimes I think I hear somebody hollerin’, but it sounds like gibberish. Occasionally I see a pair of hands holdin’ that wire, and what looks like a thick wooden baton wrapped up with black tape. There are faces in there that are all blurred up, as if I’m lookin’ at ’em through blood or my eyes can hardly hold a focus. But I don’t have those nearly as much as the one about the man in the car.”

  “Did Rebecca tell you that I’m pickin’ up some of those snippets, too?” She continued to shuffle the cards. It was a hypnotic, soothing sound. “I hear bits of piano music, the hollerin’, and I see the wire and the crackerknocker. I’ve seen the tattoo, but not the rest of him.” She smiled faintly. “You and me are plugged into the same socket, Tom, but you’re gettin’ more juice than I am. Can you beat that?”