Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 7

  The Lady was a queen, and Bruton was her kingdom. No one outside Bruton—and no one inside Bruton, as far as I understood—knew her by any name but “the Lady.” It suited her; she was elegance, through and through.

  Someone gave her a bell. She stood looking down at the sluggish brown river, and she began to slowly swing the bell back and forth.

  I knew what she was doing. My mom did, too. Everyone who watched did.

  The Lady was calling the river’s monster up from its mansion of mud.

  I had never seen the beast that was called Old Moses. One night when I was nine years of age, I did think I heard Old Moses calling after a heavy rain, when the air itself was as thick as water. It was a low rumble, like the deepest bass note from a church’s pipe organ, so deep your bones hear it before your ears do. It went up into a hoarse roar that made the town’s dogs go crazy, and then the noise was gone. It hadn’t lasted but maybe five or six seconds. The next day, that noise was the talk of the school. Train’s whistle, was Ben’s and Davy Ray’s opinion. Johnny didn’t say what he thought. At home, my folks said it must’ve been the train passing through, but we didn’t find out until later that the rain had washed away a section of track more than twenty miles from Zephyr and the freight to Birmingham hadn’t even run that night.

  Such things make you wonder.

  A mangled cow washed up, once, under the gargoyle bridge. Missing its head and guts, Mr. Dollar told my father when he and I went to get scalped. Two men netting crayfish along the riverbank just beyond Zephyr spread the story that a human corpse had floated past on the current, the body’s chest peeled open like a sardine can and its arms and legs ripped off at the roots, but no corpse was ever found downriver. One October night, something hit a submerged piling of the gargoyle bridge and left cracks in the support columns that had to be filled with concrete. “A big tree trunk” was Mayor Swope’s official explanation in the Adams Valley Journal.

  The Lady rang the bell, her arm working like a metronome. She began to chant and sing, in a voice surprisingly clear and loud. The chant was all African words, which I understood about as much as I grasped nuclear physics. She would stop for a while, her head slightly cocked to one side as if watching or listening for something, and then she’d swing the bell again. She never once said the name “Old Moses.” She kept saying “Damballah, Damballah, Damballah,” and then her voice would sail upward in an African song again.

  At last she ceased ringing the bell, and she lowered it to her side. She nodded, and the Moon Man took it from her. She was staring fixedly at the river, but what she was seeing there I don’t know. Then she stepped back and the three men with the burlap bags stood at the edge of the gargoyle bridge. They opened the bags and brought out objects wrapped up in butcher’s paper and tape. Some of the paper was bloody, and you could smell the coppery odor of fresh meat. They began to unwrap the gory feast, and as they did they threw the steaks, briskets, and beef ribs down into the swirling brown water. A whole plucked chicken went into the river, too, along with chicken intestines poured from a plastic jar. Calf brains slid out of a green Tupperware bowl, and wet red beef kidneys and liver came out of one of the damp packages. A bottle of pickled pigs’ feet was opened, its contents splashing down into the water. A pig’s snout and ears followed the feet. The last thing in was a beef heart bigger than a wrestler’s fist. It splashed in like a red stone, and then the three men folded up their burlap bags and the Lady stepped forward again, watching her footing on the blood that had dripped onto the pavement.

  It occurred to me that an awful lot of Sunday dinners had just gone into the drink.

  “Damballah, Damballah, Damballah!” the Lady chanted once more. She stood there for maybe four or five minutes, motionless as she watched the river move beneath the bridge. Then she breathed a long sigh and I saw her face behind the veil as she turned toward her rhinestone Pontiac again. She was frowning; whatever she had seen or had not seen, she wasn’t too happy about it. She got into the car, the Moon Man climbed in after her, the driver closed the door and slid behind the wheel. The Pontiac backed up to a place where it could turn around and then started toward Bruton. The procession began to go back the route it had come. Usually by this time there was a lot of laughing and talking, and people would stop to speak to the white faces along the way. On this particular Good Friday, however, the Lady’s somber mood had carried and no one seemed to feel much like laughing.

  I knew exactly what the ritual was all about. Everybody in town did. The Lady was feeding Old Moses his annual banquet. When this had started, I didn’t know; it had been going on long before I was born. You might think, as Reverend Blessett at the Freedom Baptist Church did, that it was pagan and of the devil and should be outlawed by the mayor and town council, but enough white people believed in Old Moses to override the preacher’s objections. It was like carrying a rabbit’s foot or throwing salt over your shoulder if you happened to spill any; these things were part of the grain and texture of life, and better to do them than not, just in case God’s ways were more mysterious than we Christians could grasp.

  On the following day the rain fell harder, and thunderclouds rolled over Zephyr. The Merchants Street Easter parade was canceled, much to the dismay of the Arts Council and the Commerce Club. Mr. Vandercamp Junior, whose family owned the hardware and feeds store, had been dressing up as the Easter bunny and riding in the parade’s last car for six years, having inherited the task from Mr. Vandercamp Senior, who got too old to hop. This Easter the rain doused all hopes of catching candy eggs thrown by the various merchants and their families from their cars, the ladies of the Sunshine Club couldn’t show off their Easter dresses, husbands, and children, the members of Zephyr’s VFW unit couldn’t march behind the flag, and the Confederate Sweethearts—girls who attended Adams Valley High School—couldn’t wear their hoop skirts and spin their parasols.

  Easter morning arrived, cloaked in gloom. My dad and I were compatriots in grousing about getting slicked up, putting on starched white shirts, suits, and polished shoes. Mom had an all-purpose answer to our grumbles, much the same as Dad’s “Right as rain.” She said, “It’s only one day,” as if this made the stiff collar and the necktie knot more comfortable. Easter was a family day, and Mom phoned Grand Austin and Nana Alice and then Dad picked up the telephone to call Granddaddy Jaybird and Grandmomma Sarah. We would all, as we did every Easter, converge on the Zephyr First Methodist church to hear about the empty tomb.

  The white church on Cedarvine Street, between Bonner and Shantuck, was filling up by the time we parked our pickup truck. We walked through the sloppy mist toward the light that streamed through the church’s stained-glass windows, all the polish getting soaked off our shoes. People were shedding their raincoats and closing their umbrellas at the front door, beneath the overhanging eaves. It was an old church, built in 1939, the whitewash coming off and leaving gray patches. Usually the church was primed to its finest on Easter day, but this year the rain had defeated the paint-brush and lawn mower so weeds were winning in the front yard.

  “Come in, Handsome! Come in, Flowers! Watch your step there, Noodles! Good Easter morning to you, Sunshine!” That was Dr. Lezander, who served as the church’s greeter. He had never missed a Sunday, as far as I knew. Dr. Frans Lezander was the veterinarian in Zephyr, and it was he who had cured Rebel of the worms last year. He was a Dutchman, and though he still had a heavy accent he and his wife Veronica, Dad had told me, had come from Holland long before I was born. He was in his mid-fifties, stood about five eight, was broad-shouldered and baldheaded and had a neatly trimmed gray beard. He wore natty three-piece suits, always with a bow tie and a lapel carnation, and he made up names for people as they entered the church. “Good morning, Peach Pie!” he said to my smiling mother. To my father, with a knuckle-popping handshake: “Raining hard enough for you, Thunderbird?” And to me, with a squeeze of the shoulder and a grin that shot light off a silver front tooth: “Step right in, Bronco!”
  “Hear what Dr. Lezander called me?” I asked Dad once we were inside. “Bronco!” Getting a new christening for a day was always a highlight of church.

  The sanctuary was steamy, though the wooden ceiling fans revolved. The Glass sisters were up front, playing a piano and organ duet. They were the perfect definition of the word strange. While not identical twins, the two spinster sisters were close enough to be slightly skewed mirrors. They were both long and bony, Sonia with piled-high whitish-blond hair and Katharina with piled-high blondish-white hair. They both wore thick black-framed glasses. Sonia played the piano and not the organ, while Katharina did vice versa. Depending on who you asked, the Glass sisters—who seemed to always be nagging each other but lived together on Shantuck Street in a house that looked like gingerbread—were either fifty-eight, sixty-two, or sixty-five. The strangeness was completed by their wardrobes: Sonia wore only blue in all its varying shades, while Katharina was a slave to green. Which brought about the inevitable. Sonia was referred to by us kids as Miss Blue Glass, and Katharina was called…you guessed it. But, strange or not, they sure could play up a storm.

  The pews were packed almost solid. The place looked and felt like a hothouse where exotic hats had bloomed. Other people were trying to find seats, and one of the ushers—Mr. Horace Kaylor, who had a white mustache and a cocked left eye that gave you the creeps when you stared at it—came up the aisle to help us.

  “Tom! Over here! For God’s sake, are you blind?”

  In the whole wide world there was only one person who would holler like a bull moose in church.

  He was standing up, waving his arms over the milling hats. I could feel my mother cringe, and my dad put his arm around her as if to steady her from falling down of shame. Granddaddy Jaybird always did something to, as Dad said when he thought I wasn’t listening, “show his butt,” and today would be no exception.

  “We saved you seats!” my grandfather bellowed, and he caused the Glasses to falter, one to go sharp and the other flat. “Come on before somebody steals ’em!”

  Grand Austin and Nana Alice were in the same row, too. Grand Austin was wearing a seersucker suit that looked as if the rain had drawn it up two sizes, his wrinkled neck clenched by a starched white collar and a blue bow tie, his thin white hair slicked back and his eyes full of misery as he sat with his wooden leg stuck out straight below the pew in front of him. He was sitting beside Granddaddy Jaybird, which had compounded his agitation: the two got along like mud and biscuits. Nana Alice, however, was a vision of happiness. She was wearing a hat covered with small white flowers, her gloves white and her dress the glossy green of a sunlit sea. Her lovely oval face was radiant; she was sitting beside Grandmomma Sarah, and they got along like daisies in the same bouquet. Right now, though, Grandmomma Sarah was tugging at Granddaddy Jaybird’s suit jacket—the same black suit he wore rain or shine, Easter or funeral—to try to get him to sit down and stop directing traffic. He was telling people in the rows to move in tighter and then he would holler, “Room for two more over here!”

  “Sit down, Jay! Sit down!” She had to resort to pinching his bony butt, and then he scowled at her and took his seat.

  My parents and I squenched in. Grand Austin said to Dad, “Good to see you, Tom,” and they shook hands. “That is, if I could see you.” His spectacles were fogged up, and he took them off and cleaned the lenses with a handkerchief. “I’d say this is the biggest crowd in a half-dozen Eas—”

  “Place is packed as the whorehouse on payday, ain’t it, Tom?” Granddaddy Jaybird interrupted, and Grandmomma Sarah elbowed him in the ribs so hard his false teeth clicked.

  “I sure wish you’d let me finish a single sentence,” Grand Austin told him, the red rising in his cheeks. “Ever since I’ve been sittin’ here, I’ve yet to get a word in edgewi—”

  “Boy, you’re lookin’ good!” Granddaddy Jaybird plowed on, and he reached across Grand Austin to slap my knee. “Rebecca, you feedin’ this boy his meat, ain’t you? You know, a growin’ boy’s got to have meat for his muscles!”

  “Can’t you hear?” Grand Austin asked him, the red now pulsing in his cheeks.

  “Hear what?” Granddaddy Jaybird retorted.

  “Turn up your hearin’ aid, Jay,” Grandmomma Sarah said.

  “What?” he asked her.

  “Hearin’ aid!” she shouted, at her rope’s end. “Turn it up!”

  It was going to be an Easter to remember.

  Everybody said hello to everybody, and still wet people were coming into the church as rain started to hammer on the roof. Granddaddy Jaybird, his face long and gaunt and his hair a white bristle-brush, wanted to talk to Dad about the murder, but Dad shook his head and wouldn’t go into it. Grandmomma Sarah asked me if I was playing baseball this year, and I said I was. She had a fat-cheeked, kind face and pale blue eyes in nests of wrinkles, but I knew that oftentimes Granddaddy Jaybird’s ways made her spit with anger.

  Because of the rain, the windows were shut tight and the air was really getting muggy. The floorboards were wet, the walls leaked, and the fans groaned as they turned. The church smelled of a hundred different kinds of perfume, shaving lotion, and hair tonic, plus the sweet aromas of blossoms adorning lapels and hats. The choir filed in, wearing their purple robes. Before the first song was finished, I was sweating under my shirt. We stood up, sang a hymn, and sat down. Two overstuffed women—Mrs. Garrison and Mrs. Prathmore—came up to the front to talk about the donation fund for the poverty-stricken families of Adams Valley. Then we stood up, sang another hymn, and sat down. Both of my grandfathers had voices like bullfrogs battling in a swamp pond.

  Plump, round-faced Reverend Richmond Lovoy stepped behind the pulpit and began to talk about what a glorious day it was, with Jesus risen from the dead and all. Reverend Lovoy had a comma of brown hair over his left eye, the sides of his hair gone gray, and every Sunday without fail his brushed-back hair pulled loose from its shellacked moorings and slid down over his face like a brown flood as he preached and gestured. His wife was named Esther, their three children Matthew, Luke, and Joni.

  As Reverend Lovoy spoke, his voice competing with the thunder of heaven, I realized who was sitting directly in front of me.

  The Demon.

  She could read minds. That much was an accepted fact. And just as it dawned on me that she was there, her head swiveled and she stared at me with those black eyes that could freeze a witch at midnight. The Demon’s name was Brenda Sutley. She was ten years old, and she had stringy red hair and a pallid face splashed with brown freckles. Her eyebrows were as thick as caterpillars, and the untidy arrangement of her features looked like somebody had tried to beat out a fire on her face with the flat side of a shovel. Her right eye looked larger than the left, her nose was a beak with two gaping holes in it, and her thin-lipped mouth seemed to wander from one side of her face to the other. She couldn’t help her heritage, though; her mother was a fire hydrant with red hair and a brown mustache, and her red-bearded father would’ve made a fence post look brawny. With all those red kinks in her background, it was no wonder Brenda Sutley was spooky.

  The Demon had earned her name because she had once drawn a picture of her father with horns and a forked tail in art class, and had told Mrs. Dixon, the art teacher, and her classmates that her pappy kept at the back of his closet a big stack of magazines that showed boy demons sticking their tails in the holes of girl demons. But the Demon did more than spill her family’s closeted secrets: she had brought a dead cat to school in a shoebox with pennies taped to its eyeballs for show-and-tell; she had made a graveyard out of green and white Play-Doh for her art class project, with the names of her classmates and the dates of their deaths on the headstones, which caused more than one child to go into hysterics when they realized they would not live to see sixteen; she had a fondness for bizarre practical jokes that involved dog manure pressed between sandwich bread; and it was widely rumored that she was behind the explosion of pipes in the girls
’ bathroom at Zephyr Elementary last November, when every toilet was clogged with notebook paper.

  She was, in a word, weird.

  And now her royal weirdness was staring at me.

  A slow smile spread across her crooked mouth. I couldn’t look away from those piercing black eyes, and I thought She’s got me. The thing about adults is, when you want them to pay attention to you and intervene, their minds are worlds away; when you want them to be worlds away, they’re sitting on the back of your neck. I wanted my dad or mom or anybody to tell Brenda Sutley to turn around and listen to Reverend Lovoy, but of course it was as if the Demon had willed herself to be invisible. No one could see her but me, her victim of the moment.

  Her right hand rose up like the head of a small white snake with dirty fangs. Slowly, with evil grace, she extended the index finger and aimed it toward one of her gaping nose holes. The finger winnowed deep into that nostril, and I thought she was going to keep pushing it in until her whole finger was gone. Then the finger was withdrawn, and on the tip of it was a glistening green mass as big as a corn kernel.

  Her black eyes were unblinking. Her mouth began to open.

  No, I begged her, mind to mind. No, please don’t do it!

  The Demon slid her green-capped finger toward her wet pink tongue.

  I could do nothing but stare as my stomach drew up into a hard little knot.

  Green against pink. Dirty fingernail. A sticky strand, hanging down.

  The Demon licked her finger, where the green thing had been. I think I must’ve squirmed violently, because Dad gripped my knee and whispered, “Pay attention!” but of course he never saw the invisible Demon or her act of prickly torment. The Demon smiled at me, her black eyes sated, and then she turned her head away and the ordeal was over. Her mother lifted up a hand with hairy knuckles and stroked the Demon’s fiery locks as if she were the sweetest little girl who ever drew God’s breath.