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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
Robert R. McCammon
Boy s Life 61
What would happen if that ball Nemo Curliss flung to heaven suddenly came down into my hand after all these years?
But it doesn’t happen. Nemo, the boy with a perfect arm who was trapped by all-too-imperfect circumstances, threw that ball beyond the clouds. It never came down and it never will, and only Ben, Johnny, and I remember.
I close my palm, and return my arm to my side.
I can see Poulter Hill from here.
It, too, has been allowed to deteriorate. The weeds are pushing up amid the headstones, and it appears that no new flowers have been put up there for a long time. That’s a shame, I think, because there lie Zephyr’s faithful ones.
I don’t want to walk amid those stones. I had never been back, after my train trip. I had said my good-bye to Davy Ray, and he said his to me. Anything else would be a numb-nuts thing to do.
I turn away from Death, and walk back to the living.
“This was my school,” I tell my wife and child as I stop the car beside the playground.
We all get out here, and Sandy walks at my side as my shoes stir the playground’s dust. Our “young’un” begins to run around in wider and wider circles, like a pony set free after a long period of confinement. “Be careful!” Sandy warns, because she’s seen a broken bottle. Worrying, it seems, comes with the job.
I put my arm around Sandy, and her arm goes around my back. The elementary school is empty, some of the windows shattered. There is a crushing silence, where so many young voices whooped and hollered. I see the place near the fence where Johnny and Gotha Branlin squared off. I see the gate where I fled from Gordo on Rocket and led him to Lucifer’s judgment. I see—
“Hey, Dad! Look what I found!”
Our “young’un” comes trotting back. “I found it over there! Neat, huh?”
I look into the small, offered palm, and I have to smile.
It is a black arrowhead, smooth and almost perfectly formed. There are hardly any cuts on it at all. It was obviously fashioned by someone who was proud of his labors. A chief, most likely.
“Can I keep it, Dad?” my daughter asks.
Her name is Skye. She turned twelve in January, and she’s going through what Sandy calls the “tomboy stage.” Skye would rather put on a baseball cap backward and run grinning through the dust than play with dolls and dream about the New Kids on the Block. These things will come later, I’m sure. For right now, Skye is fine.
“I believe you ought to,” I tell her, and she eagerly pushes that arrowhead down into the pocket of her jeans like a secret treasure.
You see, it’s a girl’s life, too.
And now we drive along Merchants Street, into the center of the’stilled heart.
Everything is closed. Mr. Dollar’s barbershop, the Piggly-Wiggly, the Bright Star Cafe, the hardware store, the Lyric, everything. The windows of the Woolworth’s are soaped over. The growth of retail outlets, apartments, and a shopping mall with four theaters in Union Town consumed the spirit of Zephyr, as Big Paul’s Pantry finished off the milkman’s route. This is a going-forward, but is it progress?
We drive past the courthouse. Silence. Past the public swimming pool and the shell of the Spinnin’ Wheel. Silence, silence. We drive past the house of Miss Blue Glass, and the silence where there used to be music is heavy indeed.
Miss Blue Glass. I wish I can say I know what happened to her, but I don’t. She would be in her eighties now, if she is still alive. I just don’t know. The same is true with so many others, who drifted away from Zephyr in the waning years: Mr. Dollar, Sheriff Marchette, Jazzman Jackson, Mr. and Mrs. Damaronde, Nila Castile and Gavin, Mrs. Velvadine, Mayor Swope. I think they are all alive, in other towns. I think they have kept part of Zephyr with them, and wherever they go they leave Zephyr’s seeds in the earth. As I do.
I worked for a newspaper in Birmingham for two years after I finished college. I wrote headlines and edited other people’s stories. When I went to my apartment in that big city after work, I sat down at my magic box—not that same one, but a new magic box—and I wrote. And I wrote. The stories went out into the mail and the stories came back. Then, out of desperation, I tried to write a novel. Lo and behold, it found a publisher.
I am a library now. A small one, but I’m growing.
I slow the car as we move past a house set back off the street next to a barn. “He lived right there,” I tell Sandy.
“Wow!” Skye says. “It’s creepy! It looks like a haunted house!”
“No,” I tell her, “I think it’s just a house now.”
Like Bo knows football, my daughter knows haunted houses. She knows Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, the films of Hammer, the works of Poe, the chronicles of Mars and the town called ’Salem’s Lot. But she knows Alice through the looking glass, too, and the Faithful Tin Soldier, the Ugly Duckling, and the journeys of Stuart Little. She knows Oz and the jungles of Tarzan, and though she is too young to fully appreciate anything but the colors, she knows the hands of Van Gogh, Winslow Homer, and Miró. She will listen to Duke Ellington and Count Basie, as well as to the Beach Boys. Just last week she asked me if she could put a picture in a frame on her dresser. She said she thought this particular dude was cool.
His name is Freddy.
“Skye,” I said, “I really think havin’ that in here is gonna give you night—”
And then I stopped. Oh-oh, I thought. Oh-oh.
Freddy, meet Skye. Talk to her about the power of make-believe, will you?
I turn the car onto Hilltop Street, and we rise toward my house.
I’m doing all right with my writing. It’s a hard job, but I enjoy it. Sandy and I aren’t the kind of people who need to own half the world to be happy. I have to say, though, that once I did splurge. I bought an old red convertible that called to me from a used car lot when Sandy and I were taking a vacation in New England. I think they used to refer to such cars as roadsters. I’ve restored it back to how it must’ve looked when Zephyr was new. Sometimes, when I’m alone out in that car, speeding along with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, I forget myself and speak to it. I call it by a certain name.
You know what I call it.
That bicycle went with me when we left Zephyr. We had more adventures, and that golden eye saw a lot of trouble coming and kept me from getting into it on more than several occasions. But eventually it creaked under my weight, and my hands didn’t seem to fit on the grips anymore. It was consigned to the basement, under a blue tarp. I imagined it went to sleep like a bird. One weekend I returned from college to find that Mom had had a garage sale, which included the contents of the basement. And here’s your money a fella paid for your old bike! she’d said as she handed me a twenty-dollar bill. He bought it for his own boy, isn’t that grand, Cory? Cory? Isn’t that grand?
It’s grand, I’d told my mother. And that night I put my head on my dad’s shoulder and cried as if I were twelve again instead of twenty.
My heart stutters.
There it is. Right there.
“My house,” I tell Sandy and Skye.
It has aged, under sun and rain. It needs paint and care. It needs love, but it is empty now. I stop the car at the curb, and I stare at the porch and see my father suddenly emerge smiling from the front door. He looks strong and fit, like he always does when I remember him.
“Hey, Cory!” he says. “How ya gettin’ along?”
Just fine, sir, I answer.
“I knew you would be. I did all right, didn’t I?”
Yes sir, you did, I say.
“Sure do have a pretty wife and a good daughter, Cory. And those books of yours! I knew you were gonna do well, all the time I knew it.”
Dad? Do you want me to come in and stay awhile?
“Come in here?” He leans against the porch column. “Why would you want to do that, Cory?”
Aren’t you lonely? I mean…it’s so quiet here.
“Quiet?” He laughs heartily. “Sometimes I
wish it was quiet! It’s not a bit of quiet here!”
But…it’s empty. Isn’t it?
“It’s full to the brim,” my father says. He looks up at the sun, over the hills of spring. “You don’t have to come here to see them, Cory. Or to see me, either. You really don’t. You don’t have to leave what is, to visit what was. You’ve got a good life, Cory. Better than I dreamed. How’s your mom doin’?”
She’s happy. I mean, she misses you, but…
“But life is for the livin’,” he tells me in his fatherly voice. “Now go on and get on with it instead of wantin’ to come in an old house with a saggy floor.”
Yes sir, I say, but I can’t leave yet.
He starts to go in, but he pauses, too. “Cory?” he says.
“I’ll always love you. Always. And I’ll always love your mother, and I am so very happy for the both of you. Do you understand?”
“You’ll always be my boy,” Dad says, and then he returns to the house and the porch is empty.
I turn my face and look at Sandy.
“What do you see?” she asks me.
“A shadow,” I say.
I want to go one more place before I turn the car around and drive away. I head us up the winding path of Temple Street, toward the Thaxter mansion at its summit.
Here things have really changed.
Some of the big houses have actually been torn down. Where they were is rolling grass. And here is another surprise: the Thaxter mansion has grown, sprouting additions on either side. The property around it is huge. My God! I realize. Vernon must still live there! I drive through a gate and past a big swimming pool. A treehouse has been constructed in the arms of a massive oak. The mansion itself is immaculate, the grounds beautiful, and smaller buildings have been constructed in its style.
I stop the car in front. “I can’t believe this!” I tell Sandy. “I’ve gotta find out if Vernon’s still here!”
I get out and start for the front door, my insides quaking with excitement.
But before I reach it, I hear a bell ring. Ding…ding…ding…ding.
I hear what sounds like a tidal wave, gaining speed and force.
And my breath is well and truly swept away.
Because here they come.
Swarming out of the front door, like wasps from the nest in the church’s ceiling on Easter Sunday. Here they come, laughing and hollering and jostling each other. Here they come, in a wonderful riot of noise.
The boys. Dozens of them, dozens. Some white, some black. Their numbers surge around me, as if I am an island in the river. Some of them run for the treehouse, others scamper across the rolling green yard. I am at the center of a young universe, and then I see the brass plaque on the wall next to the door.
It says THE ZEPHYR HOME FOR BOYS.
Vernon’s mansion has become an orphanage.
And still they stream out around me, furious in their freedom on this glorious Saturday afternoon. A window opens on the second floor, and a wrinkled face peers out. “James Lucius!” her voice squawks. “Edward and Gregory! Get up here for your piano lessons right this very minute!”
She wears blue.
Two older women I don’t know come out, chasing after the crowd of boys. Good luck to them, I think. And then a younger man emerges, and he stops before me. “Can I help you?”
“I…used to live here. In Zephyr, I mean.” I am so stunned I can hardly talk. “When did this become an orphanage?”
“In 1985,” the man tells me. “Mr. Vernon Thaxter left it to us.”
“Is Mr. Thaxter still alive?”
“He left town. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what became of him.” This man has a gentle face. He has blond hair, and eyes of cornflower blue. “May I ask your name?”
“I’m—” I stop, because I realize who he must be. “Who are you?”
“I’m Bubba Willow.” He smiles, and I can see Chile in him. “Reverend Bubba Willow.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you.” We shake hands. “I met your mother once.”
“My mom? Really? What’s your name?”
The name doesn’t register. I was a ship, passing through Chile’s night. “How’s your mother doin’?”
“Oh, just great. She moved to St. Louis, and she’s teachin’ sixth grade now.”
“I’ll bet her students sure feel lucky.”
“Parson?” A wizened voice says. “Par son Willa?”
An elderly black man in faded overalls has come out. Around his skinny waist he wears a tool belt holding hammers, screwdrivers, and arcane-looking wrenches. “Parson, I done fixed that slow leak upastairs. Oughta lookat that ol’ freezer now.” His eyes find me. “Oh,” he says with a soft slow gasp. “I know you.”
And a smile spreads across his face like day following night.
I hug him, and when he grasps me his tool belt jingle-jangles.
“Cory Mackenson! My Lord! Is that you?”
I peer up at the woman in blue. “Yes ma’am, it is.”
“My Lord, my Lord! Excuse me, Reverend! My Lord, my Lord!” Then her attention goes where it ought to: toward the new generation of boys. “James Lucius! Don’t you get up in that treehouse and break those fingers!”
“Would you and your family like to come in?” Reverend Willow asks.
“Please do,” Mr. Lightfoot says, smiling. “Lots ta talk about.”
“Got coffee and doughnuts inside,” the reverend tempts me. “Mrs. Velvadine runs a grand kitchen.”
“Cory, you get on in here!” Then: “James Luuuuucius!”
Sandy and Skye have gotten out of the car. Sandy knows me, and she knows I’d like to stay for just a little while. We will not tarry long here, because my hometown is not our home, but an hour would be time well spent.
As they go in, I pause outside the door before I join them.
I look up, into the bright blue air.
I think I see four figures with wings, and their winged dogs, swooping and playing in the rivers of light.
They will always be there, as long as magic lives.
And magic has a strong, strong heart.
NO BOOK IS EVER written without help and influence. Boy’s Life is no exception. I would like to thank, then, some of the people and things that helped create Boy’s Life, whether they’re aware of such help or not.
My thanks to Forrest J. Ackermann; Roger Corman; Boris Karloff; Vincent Price; Lon Chaney Senior and Junior; Jungle Jim; Sky King and Penny; Screen Thrills Illustrated; Ian Fleming and Bond, James Bond; Eudora Welty; Bob Kane; Barbara Steele; Big Daddy Roth; the Boys from Hawthorne though a young man is gone; Clutch Cargo; Space Angels; Super Car; the Captain and Tom Terrrrific; Yancy Derringer; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Gordon Scott; Vic Morrow and the Combat squad; Jim Warren (sorry, Forry!); Boston Blackie; Zorro; Cisco Kid and Pancho; the Whistler; Kirk Douglas in Spartacus; the Rolling Stones; Thriller and those pigeons from hell; the Hammer Films bunch; Peter Cushing, the ultimate Van Helsing; Christopher Lee; Edgar Rice Burroughs; Red Skelton and the passing parade; Creepy and Eerie; Ray Harryhausen and the Ymir; Mr. Television, Milton Berle; It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad (Did I miss one?) World; Edgar Allan Poe; Lester Dent or Kenneth Robeson or whoever cranked out all those great Doc Savages; Three Dog Night (hello, Cory!); Clayton Moore, the one and only Lone Ranger, Richard Matheson; Roy Rogers and Trigger, X-Men; Buffalo Bob and Howdy; the Brothers Grimm; Bela Lugosi; Paladin; The Outer Limits; Brigitte Bardot (I didn’t spend all my time with Geographics!); Basil Rathbone; Mister Dillon! Mister Dillon!; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Invaders from Mars; Gene Autry; Steve Reeves; Aunt Bea; Dr. Richard Kimble; the Who; Hans Christian Andersen; 13 Ghosts and those weird glasses; Sergeant Preston of the Yukon; Mr. and Mrs. North; the Thin Man; Peter Lorre; Alfred Hitchcock; Here, Lassie!; Errol Flynn, the perfect Robin Hood; a man named Jed; the Aquanauts
; Steve Roper and Mike Nomad; Clint Walker, Kookie, my hair’s falling out!; Gorgo; Rodan; Reptilicus; Charles Laughton; Oral Roberts heal thyself; The Gallant Men; Victor Mature swinging that jawbone; Walt Disney; Mr. Lucky; Burt Lancaster, Through the Looking Glass; Bronco and Sugarfoot; the Mavericks, wild as the wind in Or-e-gon; Joe and Frank; Fantasia; that house on haunted hill; Guy Madison and Andy Devine; The Mysterians; Dementia 13 (Yikes!); Captain America and Bucky; Harper Lee; Steve McQueen (Cooler!) on that motorcycle, jumping the barbed wire; Tom Swift and His; and so many, many more whom I will think of as soon as I believe I’ve finished writing this.
To two very special influences on this boy’s life and writing: Mr. Rod Selling, for his talent and imagination that continues on far beyond the Zone; and to Mr. Ray Bradbury. Your lake will always be deeper and sweeter than mine, your jar hold greater mysteries, your rockets travel truer to the heart. Thank you so very, very much.
Well, I see by the old clock on the wall that it’s time to go. Good-bye, kids!
Robert R. McCammon
April 14, 1990-September 23, 1990
ROBERT R. McCAMMON is the author of ten previous novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Swan Song, Stinger, and The Wolf’s Hour; Mine, Baal, Bethany’s Sin, The Night Boat, They Thirst, Usher’s Passing, and Mystery Walk, and a collection of short stories, Blue World. Mr. McCammon is a native of Birmingham, Alabama.
Robert R. McCammon, Boy's Life
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