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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 57


  “God have mercy!” Dad suddenly shouted, and he hit the brake so hard the pickup slewed around and went up onto somebody’s lawn. The engine shuddered and died. “Did you hear what Mr. White said?” Dad’s voice quavered with excitement. “Thirty-three! Ol’ thirty-three, he said!”

  “Sir?”

  “The Trailways bus, Cory! It’s number thirty-three! I was standin’ right there listenin’ to him, and I hardly heard it! You think that could be what those numbers mean?”

  I was honored that he was asking my opinion, but I had to say, “I don’t know.”

  “Well, the killer couldn’t be Cornelius McGraw. He doesn’t even live around here. But what would the bus have to do with whoever killed that man in Saxon’s Lake?” He started puzzling it over, his hands clenched hard around the steering wheel. Then a woman holding a broom came out on her porch and started hollering at us to move the truck before she called the sheriff, so we had to go.

  We returned to the gas station. Mr. White emerged again. “Sure went through that tank in a hurry, didn’t ya?” he asked. Dad wasn’t interested in filling up anything but his curiosity, though. When was number thirty-three due back in again? he asked Mr. White, and Mr. White said the next day around noon.

  Dad said he’d be there.

  Maybe he was wrong, he told Mom that night at dinner, but he was going to be at that gas station waiting for the bus at noon. It wasn’t Cornelius McGraw he would be there to see, but he would be watching to find out who the bus brought to Zephyr or who it took away.

  I was there with him as noon approached. Mr. White was driving us crazy talking about how hard it was to find good GoJo to clean the grease off your hands anymore. Then Dad said, “Here it comes, Cory,” and he walked from cold shadow into crisp sunlight to meet it.

  The Trailways bus, with number 33 on the plate above its windshield, swept on past without even slowing, though Mr. McGraw honked the horn and Mr. White waved.

  Dad watched it go. But he turned to Mr. White again, and I saw by the set of his jaw that now my father was a man with a mission. “Bus come back through day after tomorrow, Hiram?”

  “Sure does. Twelve noon, same as always.”

  Dad lifted a finger and tapped it against his lips, his eyes narrowed. I knew what he was thinking. How was he going to meet the bus on the days he had to work at Big Paul’s Pantry?

  “Hiram,” he said at last, “you need any help around here?”

  “Well… I don’t know if I—”

  “I’ll take a dollar an hour,” Dad said. “I’ll pump the gas, I’ll clean the garage, I’ll do whatever you ask me to do. You want me to work overtime, that’s fine. A dollar an hour. How about it?”

  Mr. White grunted and stared at the cluttered garage. “I reckon I do need some stuff inventoried. Brake shoes, gaskets, radiator hoses, and such. And I could use another strong back.” This from Quasimodo of the Belts. He stuck out his hand. “Got a job, if you want it. Startin’ six in the mornin’, if that’s all right?”

  “I’ll be here,” Dad said, grasping Mr. White’s hand.

  My father was nothing if not resourceful.

  The bus passed through once more without even a hiss of brakes. But it was due again, twelve noon, same as always, and my dad would be there.

  New Year’s Eve came, and we watched on television the festivities in Times Square. At the stroke of midnight, someone shot off fireworks over Zephyr, the church bells rang, and horns honked. It had become 1965. On New Year’s Day we ate black-eyed peas to bring us silver, and collard greens to bring us gold, and we watched football games until our south ends were sore. Dad sat in his chair with a notepad on his lap, and though he hollered for his teams he was scribbling 33…33…33 into an interlocking mosaic of numbers with his ball-point pen. Mom chided him to put down that pen and relax, and he did for a little while but soon his fingers found it again. I could tell by the way she looked at him that she was getting worried about him once more; ol’ number thirty-three was becoming as much an obsession as the bad dream had ever been. He was still having that dream, of course, but he knew the dead man was not calling him and that made a big difference. I suppose, though, that in my father’s case it took one obsession to break another.

  Ben, Johnny, and I and the rest of the childish generation returned to school. In my class, I discovered we had a new teacher. Her name was Miss Fontaine, and she was as young and pretty as spring. Beyond the windows, though, winter was starting to rage.

  Every other day, near noon, my father would step outside the gas station’s office into chilly wind or blowing sleet or cold pale sun. He would watch the Trailways bus—ol’ number thirty-three with Cornelius McGraw at the wheel—as it approached, his heart beginning to pound.

  But it didn’t stop. Not once. It always kept going, bound for somewhere else.

  Then Dad would return to the office, where he was likely to be playing dominoes with Mr. White, and he would sit down in a creaky chair and wait for the next move.

  6

  The Stranger Among Us

  JANUARY ADVANCED, COLD as the tomb.

  At eleven o’clock on the morning of Saturday, the sixteenth, I said good-bye to Mom and left home on Rocket to meet Ben and Johnny at the Lyric. The sky was plated with clouds, the threat of freezing rain in the air. I was bundled up like an Eskimo, but I’d soon be shedding my coat and gloves. The movie for today was called Hell Is for Heroes, the poster of which showed the sweating faces of American soldiers crouched down behind machine gun and bazooka, awaiting the enemy attack. To accompany this carnage, there would be a program of Daffy Duck cartoons and the next chapter of Fighting Men of Mars. The last chapter had ended with the Fighting Men about to be crushed by a falling boulder at the bottom of a Martian mine shaft. I’d already plotted out their escape; they would scramble into a previously hidden tunnel at the very last second, thus escaping a flattening fate.

  On my way to the theater, I myself took a fateful turn.

  I pedaled to Dr. Lezander’s house.

  I hadn’t seen him at church since Christmas Eve. Since I’d called him “Birdman,” and looked him in his eyes of stone. I was beginning to wonder if he and Mrs. Lezander hadn’t flown the coop. Several times I’d started to tell Dad my suspicions, but he had thirty-three on his mind and I had nothing but a green feather and two dead parrots. I stopped Rocket at the bottom of the driveway and sat there watching the house. It was dark. Empty? I wondered. Had the doctor and his wife cleared out in the dead of night, alerted by whatever it was I might know? I kept watch; there was no sign of light or life. The heroes and the fighting men could wait. I had to find out, and I began to pedal Rocket up the driveway to the house. I went around back. The PLEASE LEASH YOUR PETS sign was still up. I eased Rocket down on the kickstand and peered into the nearest window.

  Dark upon dark. At first I saw only shapes of furniture, but as my eyes grew used to the gloom I was able to make out the twelve ceramic birds perched atop the piano. It was the den where the bird cages were. Dr. Lezander’s office was below, closer to hell. I couldn’t help but see Mrs. Lezander sitting at that piano, playing “Beautiful Dreamer” over and over again as the green and the blue parrots flapped wildly in their cages and shouted curses came up through the air vent. But why were the curses in German?

  Lights hit me. My heart hammered; I felt like a prisoner in a jailbreak movie, caught by the roaming circle. I twisted around, and there were a car’s headlights as the car pulled up to the back porch. It was a late-model steel-gray Buick with a chrome radiator that resembled a grinning mouthful of silver teeth; the doctor’s work was well paid. I made a move toward Rocket, but it was too late to get the kickstand up before I heard a voice say “Who is that?” Mrs. Lezander got out, her bulk made bearish in a brown overcoat. She must’ve recognized my bike, because my collar was turned up. “Cory?”

  I was caught. Easy, I thought. Just take it easy. “Yes ma’am,” I answered. “It’s me.”

  “T
his is providential,” she said. “Will you help me, please?” She went around to the passenger side and opened the door. “I’ve got some groceries.”

  Rocket might have whispered to me in that second. Rocket might have said in a silken, urgent voice Get away, Cory. Get away while you still can. I’ll take you, if you’ll just hang on.

  “Help me, please?” Mrs. Lezander hefted the first of a half-dozen burdened paper bags. On all of them, printed in red letters, was Big Paul’s Pantry.

  “I’m goin’ to the movies,” I said.

  “It’ll just take a minute.”

  What could be done to me in broad daylight? I took the bag. Mrs. Lezander, a second bag under one arm, slid her key into the back door’s lock. A gust of wind blew around us, and I saw the folds of her overcoat move and I knew she had been the figure I saw standing at the edge of the woods.

  “Go on,” she said, “the door’s open.”

  With Mrs. Lezander hulking at my back and a boulder of fear in my throat, I walked across the threshold as if into a mine shaft.

  “Ten points,” Mr. White said as he plunked down another domino.

  “And ten,” Dad said, his own domino going down at the end of the L-shaped pattern.

  “I swear I didn’t think you had that one!” Mr. White shook his head. “Tricky fella, ain’t you?”

  “I try my best.”

  There was a tapping sound. Mr. White peered out the window. The clouds had darkened, the gas station’s light splashed across the concrete. Little flecks of sleet were striking the glass. Dad took the opportunity for a glance at the clock on the wall, which showed twelve minutes before noon. “All right, where was I?” Mr. White rubbed his chin and pondered his dominoes like a hunchbacked sphinx. “Here we go!” he said, and reached for one. “Just mark down fifteen points in my fa—”

  Something hissed.

  Dad turned his head to the left.

  The Trailways bus was pulling in.

  “—vor,” Mr. White finished. “How do, how do! Look who’s early this fine day!”

  Dad was already on his feet. He walked past the cash register and the shelves of oil and gasoline additives toward the door. “Must’ve caught a tailwind!” Mr. White said. “Probably caught sight of that monster out on Route Ten, and Corny gave it the lead foot!”

  Dad walked out into the cold. The bus pulled to a halt beneath the yellow TRAILWAYS BUS sign. The doors folded outward with a breath of hydraulics. “Watch your step, gents!” Dad heard the driver say.

  Two men were getting off. Sleet hit Dad in the face and the wind whirled around him, but he stood his ground. One of the men looked to be in his sixties, the other half those years. The older man, who wore a tweed overcoat and a brown hat, carried a suitcase. The younger, dressed in blue jeans and a beige jacket, carried a duffel bag. “Enjoy your stay, Mr. Steiner!” Corny McGraw said, and the older man lifted a gloved hand and waggled the fingers. Hiram White, who’d come out of the office behind Dad, said, “Howdy” to the two men, and then he looked up the steps at Mr. McGraw. “Hey, Corny! You want some hot coffee?”

  “No, I’m gettin’ on down the road, Hiram. My sister Jenny had her baby this mornin’, and as soon as I finish my route I can go see her. Third young’un, but first boy. Bring you a cigar next time ’round.”

  “I’ll get a match ready. You be careful, Uncle Corny!”

  “Ta-ta, ya’ll,” he said. The doors closed, the bus pulled away, and the two strangers stood facing my father.

  The older one, Mr. Steiner, had a wrinkled face but a chin like a slab of granite. He was wearing glasses, flecks of sleet on the lenses. “Sir? Pardon me,” he said with a foreign accent. “Is there a hotel?”

  “Boardin’house will do,” the younger one said; he had thinning blond hair and a flat midwestern brogue.

  “No hotel in town,” Dad said. “No boardin’house, either. We don’t get a lot of visitors here.”

  “Oh my.” Mr. Steiner frowned. “Where’s the nearest hotel, then?”

  “There’s a motel in Union Town. The Union Pines. It’s—” He stopped, his arm rising to point the way. “You fellas need a ride?”

  “That would be very nice, thank you. Mr.…?”

  “Tom Mackenson.” He shook the gloved hand. The man’s grip jammed his knuckles.

  “Jacob Steiner,” the older man said. “This is my friend, Lee Hannaford.”

  “Pleased to meet the both of you,” Dad said.

  The sixth bag was the heaviest. It was full of dog-food cans. “That goes downstairs,” Mrs. Lezander said as she put other canned goods into the cupboard. “Just set it on the counter, I’ll take it myself.”

  “Yes ma’am.”

  The lights were on in the kitchen. Mrs. Lezander had shed her overcoat, and beneath it she wore a somber gray dress. She took a jar of Folger’s instant coffee out of the fourth sack and opened it with a slight wrist-twist. “May I ask,” she said, her broad back to me, “why you were looking in the window?”

  “I…uh…” Think fast! I told myself. “I thought I’d drop by because…uh…”

  Mrs. Lezander turned around and watched me, her eyes flat and impassive.

  “Because… I wanted to ask Dr. Lezander if he…like…needed some help in the afternoons. I thought maybe I could clean up downstairs, or sweep, or—” I shrugged. “Whatever.”

  A hand grasped my shoulder from behind.

  I almost cried out. I came very close to it. As it was, I felt my face freeze as the blood left it.

  Dr. Lezander said, “An ambitious young man. Isn’t that right, Veronica?”

  “Yes, Frans.” She turned away from me and continued putting the groceries up.

  He released me. I looked at him. He obviously had just awakened; his eyes were sleep-swollen, the hairs had come out in a grizzle around his neatly trimmed chin beard, and he was wearing a red silk robe over pajamas. He yawned and stifled it with the same hand that had just been on my shoulder. “Coffee, please, dearest,” he said. “The blacker the better.”

  She began to spoon coffee into a cup that had the picture of a collie on it. Then, that task done, she turned on the hot water faucet.

  “I heard East Berlin this morning around four,” he told her. “A wonderful orchestra was playing Wagner.”

  Mrs. Lezander filled the collie cup full of steaming water and stirred it. She handed the ebony coffee to her husband, who first inhaled its aroma. “Ahhhhhh, yes!” he said. “This should do the trick!” He took a little slurpy sip. “Good and strong!” he said, satisfied.

  “I’d better be goin’ now.” I edged toward the back door. “Ben Sears and Johnny Wilson are waitin’ for me at the Lyric.”

  “I thought you wanted to ask me about an afternoon job.”

  “Well… I’d better go.”

  “Oh, nonsense.” He reached out again, and his hand found my shoulder. He had iron in his fingers. “I’d be pleased and happy to have you come by and help in the afternoons, Cory. As a matter of truth, I’ve been looking for a young apprentice.”

  “Really?” I didn’t know what else to say.

  “Really.” He smiled with his mouth. His eyes were careful. “You’re a smart young man, aren’t you?”

  “Sir?”

  “A smart young man. Oh, don’t be so modest! You pursue things, don’t you? You grip a fact and shake it like a…like a terrier.” His mouth smiled again, and the silver tooth sparkled. He took a longer sip of coffee.

  “I don’t know what you mean.” I heard my voice tremble, the slightest bit.

  “I admire that quality in you, Cory. The terrier determination to get to the root of things. That’s a fine quality for a boy to have.”

  “His bicycle’s outside, Frans,” Mrs. Lezander said as she put away packs of Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat.

  “Bring it in, will you?”

  “I’ve gotta go,” I said, and now the fear had started choking me.

  “Non”—he answered, smiling—“se
nse. If we have a freezing rain—and it certainly looks grim out there today—you don’t want that fine bicycle of yours to be covered with ice, do you?”

  “I…really have to—”

  “I’ll bring it in,” Mrs. Lezander said, and she went outside. I watched, Dr. Lezander’s hand on my shoulder, as the woman pushed Rocket across the threshold and into the den.

  “Very good,” Dr. Lezander said. He drank some more coffee. “Better safe than sorry, yes?”

  Mrs. Lezander returned, sucking her left thumb. She brought it from her mouth to show blood on it. “Look at this, Frans. I cut myself on his bicycle.” She said it with an almost clinical detachment. The thumb returned to her mouth. There was blood on her lower lip.

  “While you’re here, Cory, it seems to me you should see what your job would entail. Don’t you agree?”

  “Ben and Johnny…they’re gonna miss me,” I said.

  “Yes, they will, I’m sure. But they’ll go in and sit down and watch the film, won’t they? They’ll probably think”—he shrugged—“that something happened. Like things do to boys.” His fingers began to knead my shoulder. “What film is it?”

  “Hell Is for Heroes. It’s an army picture.”

  “Oh, an army picture. I expect it’s the conquering American heroes destroying the wretched German dogs, isn’t it?”

  “Frans,” Mrs. Lezander said quietly.

  A look passed between them, as hard and sharp as a dagger.

  Dr. Lezander’s attention returned to me. “Let’s go downstairs, Cory. All right?”

  “My mom’s gonna be worried,” I tried, but I knew it was no good.

  “But she believes you’re at the film, doesn’t she?” His eyebrows lifted. “Now, let’s go downstairs and see what I’m prepared to pay you twenty dollars a week to do.”

  My breath was stolen. “Twenty dollars?”

  “Yes. Twenty dollars a week for an able and understanding apprentice seems like a bargain to me. Shall we go?” His hand guided me toward the steps that led down. It was a powerful hand, and it would not be denied. I had to go. Dr. Lezander flicked a switch that turned on the light over the stairs and flooded light below me. As I descended, I heard the rustle of his red silk robe and the shuffle of his slippers on the stairs. I heard him slurp his coffee. It was a greedy sound, and I was afraid.