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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 56


  “I thought you were supposed to be the mystic,” Dad said.

  “I am. Supposed to be. But everybody’s got the dream-eyes, Tom. Everybody sees snippets of some quilt or another. You’re real close to this one. Closer than I am. That’s why.”

  Dad worked the river pebbles. The Lady shuffled her cards and waited.

  “At first,” he said, “I was havin’ those dreams right when I went to bed. Then later on…they started comin’ on me when I wasn’t even asleep. Durin’ the day. I just have a flash of that car, and that man’s face, and I hear him callin’. He says the same thing, over and over: ‘Come with me, down in the dark.’ I hear that mud-gurglin’ voice, and I’ve… I’ve come close to goin’ to pieces over it, because I can’t shake it. I can’t get any rest. It’s like I’m up all night, too scared to let myself sleep for fear of…” He trailed off.

  “Yes?” the Lady prodded.

  “For fear of…listenin’ to that dead man, and doin’ what he wants me to do.”

  “And what might that be, Tom?”

  “I think he wants me to kill myself,” Dad said.

  The card shuffling ceased. Mom’s hand found mine and clenched it hard.

  “I think he…wants me to come to that lake and drown myself in it. I think he wants me to come with him, down in the dark.”

  The Lady watched him intently, her emerald eyes gathering light. “Why would he want you to do that, Tom?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe he wants company.” He tried for a smile, but his mouth wouldn’t work.

  “I want you to think very, very carefully. Are those the exact words?”

  “Yeah. ‘Come with me, down in the dark.’ He says it kinda gurgly, because I guess his jaw’s busted or there’s blood or water or mud in his mouth, but…yeah, that’s it.”

  “Nothin’ else? Does he call you by name?”

  “No. That’s all.”

  “You know, that’s funny, don’t you think?” the Lady asked.

  Dad grunted. “I wish I knew what was so funny about it!”

  “This: If the dead man has a chance to speak to you—to give you a message—then why does he waste it on askin’ you to commit suicide? Why doesn’t he tell you who killed him?”

  Dad blinked. Now the clickings of the pebbles stopped. “I…never thought about that.”

  “Think about it, then. The dead man has a voice, however torn up it is. Why doesn’t he tell you the name of his killer?”

  “I can’t say. Seems he would if he could.”

  “He could.” The Lady nodded. “If he was speakin’ to you, that is.”

  “I’m not followin’ you.”

  “Maybe,” she said, “there are three plugs in that socket.”

  Realization crawled over Dad’s face. Over mine and Mom’s, too.

  “The dead man isn’t speakin’ to you, Tom,” the Lady said. “He’s speakin’ to his killer.”

  “You…mean I’m…”

  “Pickin’ up the killer’s dreams, like I’m pickin’ up yours. Oh, mercy! You’ve got some strong dream-eyes, Tom!”

  “He doesn’t…want me to…kill myself because I couldn’t get him out?”

  “No,” the Lady said. “Of that I’m sure.”

  Dad pressed his free hand to his mouth. Tears blurred his eyes, and I heard Mom sob beside me at the sight. He leaned his head forward. A single tear dropped to the table.

  “Cuttin’ deep,” the Lady said, and she put a hand on his forearm. “It’s a good hurt, though, isn’t it? Like cuttin’ away a cancer.”

  “Yes.” His voice cracked. “Yes.”

  “You want to go outside and walk around a bit, you go right ahead.”

  Dad’s shoulders trembled. But the burden was leaving him, ton by ton. He drew a deep, gasping breath, like the breath of someone whose head has just broken the surface of dark water. “I’m all right,” he said, but he didn’t lift his face up just yet. “Give me a minute.”

  “All the minutes you need, take ’em.”

  At last he looked up. He was still the man he’d been a moment before; his face was still lined, his chin a little saggy. But in his eyes he was a boy again, and he was free.

  “You interested in tryin’ to find out who that killer might be?” the Lady asked.

  Dad nodded.

  “I’ve got my own host of friends across the river. You get to be my age, you’ve got more of ’em on that side than this. They see things, and sometimes they tell me. But they like to play games with me. They like to throw me a riddle or two. So they never come right out and answer any question directly; it’s always a sly answer, but it’s always the truth. You want to involve them in this matter?” It sounded like a question she was used to asking.

  “I guess I do.”

  “Either do or not, no damn guessin’ about it.”

  After the least bit of hesitation, my father said, “I do.”

  The Lady opened the silver filigreed box and shook six small bones out on the table. “Put down the pebbles,” she said. “Pick up those in your right hand.”

  Dad looked distastefully at what lay before him. “Do I have to?”

  The Lady paused. Then she sighed and said, “Naw. It’s a mood-setter, is all.” She used the edge of her hand to sweep the bones back into the silver box. She closed it and set it aside. Then she reached into the doctor’s bag again. This time her hand came out with a small bottle of clear liquid and a plastic bag full of cotton swabs. She set these between them and opened the bottle. “You’ll have to put the pebbles down, though. Hold out your index finger.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I said so.”

  He did it. The Lady opened the bottle and upturned it over one of the cotton swabs. Then she dabbed the tip of Dad’s index finger. “Alcohol,” she explained. “Get it from Dr. Parrish.” She spread the Nifty typing paper down on the table. Then she unwrapped the object in the blue cloth. It was a stick with two needles driven through one end. “Keep your finger still,” she told him as she picked up the needled stick.

  “What’re you gonna do? You’re not gonna jab me with those, are—”

  The needles came down fast and rather roughly into the tip of Dad’s finger. “Ouch!” he said. I, too, had winced, my index finger stinging with phantom pain. Instantly blood began to well up from the needle holes. “Keep your blood off that paper,” the Lady told him. Working quickly, she dabbed alcohol on the index finger of her own right hand and with her left she whacked the needles down. Here blood was drawn, too. She said, “Ask your question. Not aloud, but in your mind. Ask it clearly. Ask it like you expect an answer. Go ahead.”

  “All right,” Dad said after a few seconds. “What now?”

  “What was the date that car went into Saxon’s Lake?”

  “March sixteenth.”

  “Squeeze eight drops of blood on the center of the paper. Don’t be stingy. Eight drops. Not one more and not one less.”

  Dad squeezed his finger, and the blood began dripping. The Lady added eight drops of her own red blood to the white paper. Dad said, “Good thing it didn’t happen on the thirty-first.”

  “Take the paper in your left hand and crumple it up with the blood inside it,” the Lady instructed him, ignoring his witticism. Dad did as she said. “Hold it and repeat the question aloud.”

  “Who killed that man at the bottom of Saxon’s Lake?”

  “Hold it tight,” the Lady told him, and she pressed another cotton swab to her bleeding finger.

  “Are your friends here right this minute?” Dad asked, his left fist around the crumpled-up paper.

  “We’ll soon find out, won’t we?” She held out her left palm. “Give it to me.” When it was lodged there, she said sternly to the air, “Don’t ya’ll show me up to be a fool, now. This is an important question, and it deserves an answer. Not no riddle, neither. An answer we can figure out. Ya’ll gone help us, or not?” She waited perhaps fifteen more seconds. Then she placed the crumpled pape
r in the middle of the table. “Open it,” she said.

  Dad took it. As he began to uncrumple it, my heart was slamming. If Dr. Lezander was scrawled there in blood, I was going to split my skin.

  When the paper was open, Mom and I peered over his shoulder. There was a great big blotch of blood in the middle of the paper and other blotches all around it. I couldn’t see a name in that mess to save my life. Then the Lady took a pencil from her bag and studied the paper for a moment, after which she began to play connect-the-blotches.

  “I don’t see a thing,” Dad said.

  “Have faith,” she told him. I watched the pencil’s tip at work, moving between the blood. I watched a long, curvy line swing out and in.

  And suddenly I realized I was looking at a 3.

  The pencil’s tip kept moving. Curving again. Out and in, out and in.

  A second 3. And then the pencil’s tip ran out of blood blotches to connect.

  “That’s it,” the Lady said. She frowned. “Two threes.”

  “That’s sure not a name, is it?” Dad asked.

  “They’ve riddled me again, is what they’ve done. I swear, I wish they’d make somethin’ easy every once in a while!” She thunked the pencil down in disgust. “Well, that’s all there’s gonna be.”

  “That’s it?” Dad sucked at his wounded finger. “You’re sure you did this right?”

  Words cannot describe the look she gave him. “Two threes,” she said. “That’s the answer. Three three. Maybe thirty-three. If we can figure out what that means, we’ll have the killer’s name.”

  “I can’t think of anybody who has three letters in their first and last name. Or maybe it’s an address?”

  “I don’t know. All I know is what I’m lookin’ at: three three.” She slid the paper toward him; it was his to keep for his pain and trouble. “That’s all I can do for you. Sorry there’s nothin’ more.”

  “I am, too,” Dad said, and he took the paper and stood up.

  Then the Lady removed her professional face and became sociable. She said she smelled the fresh coffee, and that there was chocolate roulage made by Mrs. Pearl from the Bake Shoppe. Dad, who had been eating like a bird before we came to the Lady’s, ate two whopping pieces of roulage and washed them down with two cups of hot black chicory coffee. He and the Moon Man talked about that day the Blaylocks had been routed at the Trailways bus stop, and Dad laughed at the memory of Biggun running from a bag full of garden snakes.

  My father was well and truly returned. Maybe even better than he was before.

  “Thank you,” Dad said to the Lady as we stood at the door ready to leave. Mom took her hand and kissed her ebony cheek. The Lady regarded me with her shining emerald eyes. “You still gone be a writer?” she asked me.

  “I don’t know,” I said.

  “Seems to me a writer gets to hold a lot of keys,” she said. “Gets to visit a lot of worlds and live in a lot of skins. Seems to me a writer has a chance to live forever, if he’s good and if he’s lucky. Would you like that, Cory? Would you like to live forever?”

  I thought about it. Forever, like heaven, was an awfully long time. “No ma’am,” I decided. “I think I might get tired.”

  “Well,” she said, and she placed a hand on my shoulder, “it seems to me a writer’s voice is a forever thing. Even if a boy and a man are not.” She leaned her face closer to mine. I could feel the heat of her life, like the sun glowing from her bones. “You’re gonna be kissed by a lot of girls,” she said. “Gonna kiss a lot of girls, too. But remember this.” She kissed me, very lightly, on the forehead. “Remember when you do all that kissin’ of girls and women in all the summers left ahead of you that you were first kissed”—her ancient, beautiful face smiled—“by a lady.”

  When we got home, Dad sat down with the telephone book and scanned the names, looking for the address “thirty-three.” There were two residents and a business: Phillip Caldwell at 33 Ridgeton Street, J. E. Grayson at 33 Deerman Street, and the Crafts Barn at 33 Merchants Street. Dad said Mr. Grayson went to our church, and that he was nearing ninety. He believed Phillip Caldwell was a salesman at the Western Auto in Union Town. The Crafts Barn, Mom knew, was run by a blue-haired woman named Edna Hathaway. She seriously doubted if Mrs. Hathaway, who went around supported by a walker, had had anything to do with the incident at Saxon’s Lake. Dad decided Mr. Caldwell’s house was worth a visit, and he planned to go early in the morning before Mr. Caldwell left for work.

  A mystery could always get me out of bed. I was up bright-eyed by the time the clock showed seven, and Dad said I could go with him but I wasn’t to say a word while he was talking to Mr. Caldwell.

  On the drive over, Dad said he hoped I understood he might have to tell Mr. Caldwell a white lie. I feigned shock and dismay at this, but my own count of white lies had been on the heavy side lately so I couldn’t really be disappointed in him. Anyway, it was for the right cause.

  Mr. Caldwell’s red brick house, four blocks past the gas station, was small and unremarkable. We left the pickup truck at the curb and I followed Dad to the front door. He pressed the buzzer and we waited. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman with jowly cheeks and sleepy eyes. She was still wearing her quilted pink robe. “Is Mr. Caldwell at home, please?” Dad asked.

  “Phillip!” she called into the house. “Philllleeeeup!” She had a voice like a buzz saw at high pitch.

  In another moment a gray-haired man wearing a bow tie, brown slacks, and a rust-colored sweater came to the door. “Yes?”

  “Hi, I’m Tom Mackenson.” Dad offered his hand. Mr. Caldwell shook it. “Aren’t you the fella who works at the Western Auto in Union Town? Rick Spanner’s brother-in-law?”

  “That’s right. Do you know Rick?”

  “Used to work with him at Green Meadows. How’s he doin’?”

  “Better, now that he found a job. Had to move to Birmingham, though. I pity him, I wouldn’t care for the big city myself.”

  “Me neither. Well, the reason I dropped by so early and all is… I lost my job at the dairy, too.” Dad smiled tightly. “I’m workin’ at Big Paul’s Pantry now.”

  “Been there. Big ol’ place.”

  “Yes, it is. A little too big for me. I was just wonderin’…uh…if…uh…” Even a white lie stuck in his craw. “If there were any jobs to be had at the Western Auto.”

  “No, not that I know of. We hired a new fella last month.” He frowned. “How come you just didn’t go by there and ask?”

  Dad shrugged. “Thought I might save myself the gas, I suppose.”

  “You ought to go by and fill out an application. You never know what’ll come up. The manager’s name is Mr. Addison.”

  “Thank you, I might do that.”

  Mr. Caldwell nodded. Dad didn’t retreat from the door. “Anythin’ else I can do for you?”

  Dad’s eyes were searching the man’s face. Mr. Caldwell lifted his eyebrows, waiting. “No,” Dad said, and I heard in his voice that his answer had not been found. “I don’t think so. Thanks anyway.”

  “All right. You come on by and fill out an application, Mr. Addison’ll keep it on file.”

  “Okay, I’ll remember that.”

  Back in the truck, Dad started the engine and said, “I believe that was a strikeout, don’t you?”

  “Yes sir.” I had been trying to figure out what the numbers 3 and 3 might have to do with Dr. Lezander, but I, too, was coming up empty.

  So was the truck. “Uh-oh!” Dad glanced at the gas gauge. “I’d better stop in and filllleeeeeup! Don’t you think?” He smiled, and I returned it.

  At the station, Mr. Hiram White shambled out of his cathedral of engine belts and radiators and started pumping the gas in. “Pretty day,” Mr. White commented, looking up at the blue sky. It had gotten cold again, though; January was champing at its bit like an eager horse.

  “Yes, it is,” Dad agreed, leaning against the truck.

  “Ain’t gone be no gunplay today, is t
here?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  Mr. White grinned. “I swear, that was more excitin’ than television!”

  “I’m just thankful nobody got killed.”

  “Good thing the bus didn’t come in while all that shootin’ was goin’ on, there would’ve been some dead bodies to sweep up.”

  “Right as rain.”

  “You heard about the bus gettin’ hit by that monster out on Route Ten, didn’t you?”

  “Sure did.” Dad checked his watch.

  “’Bout knocked it off its wheels. You know Cornelius McGraw, been drivin’ ol’ thirty-three for eight years?”

  “I don’t know him personally.”

  “Well, he told me that monster was as big as a bulldozer. Said it ran like a deer, too. Said he tried to swerve, but it hit ’em broadside and he said the whole bus ’bout shook itself to pieces. Had to retire the bus is what they had to do.”

  “Is that right?”

  “Sure is.” Mr. White finished the job and pulled the nozzle from the truck’s gas port. He wiped the end with a cloth so no drop of gas would mar the pickup’s paint. “New bus has the route, but Corny’s still drivin’ it. Still number thirty-three, too, so things don’t change so much, do they?”

  “I don’t know about that,” Dad said, and paid him.

  “Ya’ll take care, now!” Mr. White told us as we drove away.

  We were halfway home when Dad said, “I guess I’d better check the phone book again. Maybe I missed somethin’.” He glanced at me, then back to the unwinding street. “I was wrong about the Lady, Cory. She’s not evil, is she?”

  “No sir.”

  “I’m glad I went. I feel lighter now, knowin’ that man isn’t callin’ for me. I feel sorry for whoever he is callin’, though. Poor devil must have a hell of a time sleepin’, if he sleeps at all.”

  He’s a night owl, I thought. It was time. “Dad?” I said. “I think I know who—”