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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 9


  “No, sir,” I had to admit. “I didn’t.”

  Well, my dad pulled the truck away from the curb and we started off again. Not toward home, but heading west. I knew where we were going. Mr. Sculley’s junk shop lay to the west, past the wooded edge of town. On the way, I had to endure my father’s tale, the one that began like this: “When I was your age, I had to walk if I wanted to get somewhere. I wish I’d had a bike back then, even a used one. Heck, if my buddies and me had to walk two or three miles, we didn’t think a thing about it. And we were healthier for it, too. Sun, wind, or rain, it didn’t matter. We got where we were going on our own two le—” And so on, you know the kind of speech I mean, the generational paean of childhood.

  We left the town limits behind us, and the glistening road wound through the wet green forest. The rain was still coming down, pieces of fog snagged on the treetops and drifting across the road. Dad had to drive slowly because the road around here was dangerous even when the pavement was dry. My dad was still going on about the dubious joys of not having a bike, which I was beginning to realize was his way of telling me I’d better get used to walking if my old ride was unfixable. Thunder boomed off beyond the hazy hills, the road deserted before us as it curved beneath the tires like a wild horse fights a saddle. I don’t know why I chose that moment to turn my head and look back, but I did.

  And I saw the car that was coming up fast behind us.

  The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and the skin beneath it tingled like the scurrying of ants. The car was a black, low-slung, mean-looking panther with gleaming chrome teeth, and it rocketed around the long curve my father had just negotiated with an uneasy alliance of brake and accelerator. The pickup truck’s engine was sputtery, but I could hear no sound from the black car that closed on us. I could see a shape and a pale face behind the wheel. I could see red and orange flames painted on the slope of the ebony hood, and then the car was on our tail and showed no sign of slowing or swerving and I looked at my father and shouted, “Dad!”

  He jumped in his seat and jerked the wheel. The truck’s tires slewed to the left, over the faded centerline, and my father fought to keep us from going into the woods. Then the tires got a grip again, the truck straightened out, and Dad had fire in his eyes when he swung his face in my direction. “Are you crazy?” he snapped. “You want to get us killed?”

  I looked back.

  The black car was gone.

  It hadn’t passed us. It hadn’t turned off anywhere. It was just gone.

  “I saw… I saw…”

  “Saw what? Where?” he demanded.

  “I…thought I saw…a car,” I told him. “It was…about to hit us, I thought.”

  He peered into the rearview mirror. Of course he saw only the same rain and empty road I was seeing. He reached out, put his hand against my forehead, and said, “You feelin’ all right?”

  “Yes sir.” I didn’t have a fever. Of that, at least, I was certain. My father, satisfied that I was not building up heat, pulled his hand away and refastened it to the steering wheel. “Just sit still,” he said, and I obeyed him. He fixed his attention on the tricky road again, but his jaw muscle clenched every few seconds and I figured he was trying to decide whether I needed to go see Dr. Parrish or get my butt busted.

  I didn’t say anything more about the black car, because I knew Dad wouldn’t believe me. But I had seen that car before, on the streets of Zephyr. It had announced itself with a rumble and growl as it roamed the streets, and when it had passed you could smell the heat and see the pavement shimmer. “Fastest car in town,” Davy Ray had told me as he and I and the other guys had lounged around in front of the ice house on Merchants Street, catching cool breezes from the ice blocks on a sultry August day. “My dad,” Davy Ray had confided, “says nobody can outrace Midnight Mona.”

  Midnight Mona. That was the car’s name. The guy who owned it was named Stevie Cauley. “Little Stevie,” he was called, because he stood only a few inches over five feet tall though he was twenty years old. He chain-smoked Chesterfield cigarettes, and maybe those had stunted his growth.

  But the reason I didn’t tell my dad about Midnight Mona streaking up behind us on that rain-slick road was that I remembered what had happened on a night last October. My dad, who used to be a volunteer fireman, got a telephone call. It was Chief Marchette, he’d told Mom. A car had wrecked on Route Sixteen, and it was on fire in the woods. My dad had hurried out to help, and he’d come home a couple of hours later with ashes in his hair and his clothes smelling of burnt timber. After that night, and what he’d seen, he hadn’t wanted to be a fireman anymore.

  We were on Route Sixteen right now. And the car that had wrecked and burned was Midnight Mona, with Little Stevie Cauley behind the wheel.

  Little Stevie Cauley’s body—what was left of it, I mean—lay in a coffin in the cemetery on Poulter Hill. Midnight Mona was gone, too, to wherever burned-up cars go.

  But I had seen it, racing up behind us out of the mist. I had seen someone sitting behind the wheel.

  I kept my mouth shut. I was in enough trouble already.

  Dad turned off Route Sixteen and eased the truck onto a muddy side road that wound through the woods. We reached a place where rusted old metal signs of all descriptions had been nailed to the trees; there were at least a hundred of them, advertisements for everything from Green Spot Orange Soda to B.C. Headache Powders to the Grand Ole Opry. Beyond the signpost forest the road led to a house of gray wood with a sagging front porch and in the front yard—and here I mean “sea of weeds” instead of yard as ordinary people might know it—a motley collection of rust-eaten clothes wringers, kitchen stoves, lamps, bed-frames, electric fans, iceboxes, and other smaller appliances was lying about in untidy piles. There were coils of wire as tall as my father and bushel baskets full of bottles, and amid the junk stood the metal sign of a smiling policeman with the red letters STOP DON’T STEAL painted across his chest. In his head there were three bullet holes.

  I don’t think stealing was a problem for Mr. Sculley, because as soon as my dad stopped the truck and opened his door two red hound dogs jumped up from their bellies on the porch and began baying to beat the band. A few seconds later, the screen door banged open and a frail-looking little woman with a white braid and a rifle came out of the house.

  “Who is it?” she hollered in a voice like a lumberjack’s. “Whadda ye want?”

  My father lifted his hands. “It’s Tom Mackenson, Mrs. Sculley. From Zephyr.”

  “Tom who?”

  “Mackenson!” He had to shout over the hound dogs. “From Zephyr!”

  Mrs. Sculley roared, “Shaddup!” and she plucked a fly swatter from a hook on the porch and swung a few times at the dogs’ rumps, which quieted them down considerably.

  I got out of the truck and stood close to my dad, our shoes mired in the boggy weeds. “I need to see your husband, Mrs. Sculley,” Dad told her. “He picked up my boy’s bike by mistake.”

  “Uh-uh,” she replied. “Emmett don’t make no mistakes.”

  “Is he around, please?”

  “Back of the house,” she said, and she motioned with the rifle. “One of them sheds back there.”

  “Thank you.” He started off and I followed him, and we’d taken maybe a half-dozen steps when Mrs. Sculley said, “Hey! You trip over somethin’ and break your legs, we ain’t liable for it, hear?”

  If what lay in front of the house was a mess, what lay behind it was nightmarish. The two “sheds” were corrugated metal buildings the size of tobacco warehouses. To get to them, you had to follow a rutted trail that meandered between mountains of castaway things: record players, broken statuary, garden hose, chairs, lawn mowers, doors, fireplace mantels, pots and pans, old bricks, roof shingles, irons, radiators, and washbasins to name a few. “Have mercy,” Dad said, mostly to himself, as we walked through the valley between the looming hills. The rain spilled and spattered over all these items, in some places running down fr
om the metallic mountaintops in gurgling little streams. And then we came to a big twisted and tangled heap of things that made me stop in my tracks because I knew I had found a truly mystical place.

  Before me were hundreds of bicycle frames, locked together with vines of rust, their tires gone, their backs broken.

  They say that somewhere in Africa the elephants have a secret grave where they go to lie down, unburden their wrinkled gray bodies, and soar away, light spirits at the end. I believed at that moment in time that I had found the grave of the bicycles, where the carcasses flake away year after year under rain and baking sun, long after the spirits of their wandering lives have gone. In some places on that huge pile the bicycles had melted away until they resembled nothing more than red and copper leaves waiting to be burned on an autumn afternoon. In some places shattered headlights poked up, sightless but defiant, in a dead way. Warped handlebars still held rubber grips, and from some of the grips dangled strips of colored vinyl like faded flames. I had a vision of all these bikes, vibrant in their new paint, with new tires and new pedals and chains that snuggled up to their sprockets in beds of clean new grease. It made me sad, in a way I couldn’t understand, because I saw how there is an end to all things, no matter how much we want to hold on to them.

  “Howdy, there!” somebody said. “Thought I heard the alarms go off.”

  My dad and I looked at a man who pushed a large handcart before him through the muck. He wore overalls and muddy boots, and he had a big belly and a liver-spotted head with a tuft of white at its peak. Mr. Sculley had a wrinkled face and a bulbous nose with small broken veins showing purple at its tip, and he wore round-lensed glasses over gray eyes. He was grinning a square grin, his teeth dark brown, and on his grizzled chin was a mole that had sprouted three white hairs. “What can I do for you?”

  “I’m Tom Mackenson,” my dad said, and offered his hand. “Jay’s son.”

  “Oh, yeah! Sorry I didn’t recognize you right off!” Mr. Sculley wore dirty canvas gloves, and he took one of them off to shake my father’s hand. “This Jay’s grandson?”

  “Yep. Cory’s his name.”

  “Seen you around, I believe,” Mr. Sculley said to me. “I remember when your daddy was your age. Me and your grandpa go back a piece.”

  “Mr. Sculley, I believe you picked up a bike this afternoon,” Dad told him. “In front of a house on Deerman Street?”

  “Sure did. Wasn’t much to it, though. All busted up.”

  “Well, it was Cory’s bike. I think I can get it fixed, if we can have it back.”

  “Oops,” Mr. Sculley said. His square grin faltered. “Tom, I don’t think I can do that.”

  “Why not? It is here, isn’t it?”

  “Yeah, it’s here. Was here, I mean.” Mr. Sculley motioned toward one of the sheds. “I took it in there just a few minutes ago.”

  “So we can get it and take it back, can’t we?”

  Mr. Sculley sucked on his lower lip, looked at me, and then back to Dad. “I don’t believe so, Tom.” He pushed the handcart aside, next to the mound of dead bikes, and he said, “Come on and have a look.” We followed him. He walked with a limp, as if his hip worked on a hinge instead of a ball-and-socket.

  “See, here’s the story,” he said. “Been meanin’ to get rid of those old bikes for over a year. Tryin’ to clean the place up, ya see. Got to make room for more stuff comin’ in. So I said to Belle—that’s my wife—I said, ‘Belle, when I pick up one more bike I’m gonna do it. Just one more.’” He led us into an open doorway, into the building’s cool interior. Light bulbs hanging on cords threw shadows between more mounds of junk. Here and there larger things rose up from the gloom like Martian machines and presented a glimpse of mysterious curves and edges. Something squeaked and skittered; whether mice or bats, I don’t know. The place sure looked like a cavern, where Injun Joe would feel right at home.

  “Watch your step here,” Mr. Sculley cautioned us as we went through another doorway. Then he stopped beside a big rectangular machine with gears and levers on it and he said, “This here crusher just ate your bike about fifteen minutes ago. It was the first one in.” He prodded a barrel full of twisted and crumpled metal pieces. Other barrels were waiting to be filled. “See, I can sell this as scrap metal. I was waitin’ for one more bike to start breakin’ ’em up, and yours was the one.” He looked at me, the overhead bulb shining on his rain-wet dome, and his eyes were not unkind. “Sorry, Cory. If I’d known anybody was gonna come claim it, I’d have held on to it, but it was dead.”

  “Dead?” my father asked.

  “Sure. Everythin’ dies. It wears out and can’t be fixed for love nor money. That’s how the bike was. That’s how they all are by the time somebody brings ’em here, or somebody calls me to come pick ’em up. You know your bike was dead long before I put it in that crusher, don’t you, Cory?”

  “Yes sir,” I said. “I do.”

  “It didn’t suffer none,” Mr. Sculley told me, and I nodded.

  It seemed to me that Mr. Sculley understood the very nucleus of existence, that he had kept his young eyes and young heart even though his body had grown old. He saw straight through to the cosmic order of things, and he knew that life is not held only in flesh and bone, but also in those objects—a good, faithful pair of shoes; a reliable car; a pen that always works; a bike that has taken you many a mile—into which we put our trust and which give us back the security and joy of memories.

  Here the ancient hearts of stone may chortle and say, “That’s ridiculous!” But let me ask a question of them: don’t you ever wish—even for just a fleeting moment—that you could have your first bike again? You remember what it looked like. You remember. Did you name it Trigger, or Buttermilk, or Flicka, or Lightning? Who took that bike away, and where did it go? Don’t you ever, ever wonder?

  “Like to show you somethin’, Cory,” Mr. Sculley said, and he touched my shoulder. “This way.”

  My dad and I both followed him, away from the bike-crushing machine into another chamber. A window with dirty glass let in a little greenish light to add to the overhead bulb’s glare. In this room was Mr. Sculley’s desk and a filing cabinet. He opened a closet and reached up onto a high shelf. “I don’t show this to just anybody,” he told us, “but I figure you fellas might like to see it.” He rummaged around, moving boxes, and then he said, “Found it,” and his hand emerged from dark into light again.

  He was holding a chunk of wood, its bark bleached and dried mollusks still gripping its surface. What looked like a slim ivory dagger, about five inches long, had been driven into the wood. Mr. Sculley held it up to the light, his eyes sparkling behind his glasses. “See it? What do you make of it?”

  “No idea,” Dad said. I shook my head, too.

  “Look close.” He held the wood chunk with its embedded ivory dagger in front of my face. I could see pits and scars on the ivory’s surface, and its edges were serrated like a fishing knife.

  “It’s a tooth,” Mr. Sculley said. “Or a fang, most likely.”

  “A fang?” Dad frowned, his gaze jumping back and forth between Mr. Sculley and the wood chunk. “Must’ve been a mighty big snake!”

  “No snake, Tom. I cut this piece out of a log I found washed up along the river when I was huntin’ bottles three summers ago. See the shells? It must be from an old tree, probably laid on the bottom for quite a while. I figure that last flood we had pulled it up from the mud.” He gingerly ran a gloved finger along the serrated edge. “I do believe I’ve got the only evidence there is.”

  “You don’t mean…” Dad began, but I already knew.

  “Yep. This here’s a fang from the mouth of Old Moses.” He held it in front of me once more, but I drew back. “Maybe his eyesight ain’t so good anymore,” Mr. Sculley mused. “Maybe he went after that log thinkin’ it was a big turtle. Maybe he was just mean that day, and he snapped at everythin’ his snout bumped up against.” His finger tapped the fang’s broken rim. “Hate to
think what this thing could do to a human bein’. Wouldn’t be pretty, would it?”

  “Can I see that?” Dad asked, and Mr. Sculley let him hold it. Mr. Sculley went to the window and peered out as Dad examined what he held, and after another moment Dad said, “I swear, I believe you’re right! It is a tooth!”

  “Said it was,” Mr. Sculley reminded him. “I don’t lie.”

  “You need to show this to somebody! Sheriff Amory or Mayor Swope! Heck, the governor needs to see it!”

  “Swope’s already seen it,” Mr. Sculley said. “He’s the one advised me to put it in my closet and keep the door shut.”

  “Why? Somethin’ like this is front-page news!”

  “Not accordin’ to Mayor Swope.” He turned away from the window, and I saw that his eyes had darkened. “At first Swope thought it was a fake. He had Doc Parrish look at it, and Doc Parrish called Doc Lezander. Both of them agreed it’s a fang from some kind of reptile. Then we all had a sit-down talk in the mayor’s office, with the doors closed. Swope said he’d decided to put a lid on the whole thing. Said it might be a fang or it might be a fraud, but it wasn’t worth gettin’ folks upset over.” He took the pierced wood chunk back from my father’s hands. “I said, ‘Luther Swope, don’t you think people would want to see real evidence that there’s a monster in the Tecumseh River?’ And he looked at me with that damn pipe in his mouth and he says, ‘People already know it. Evidence would just scare ’em. Anyway,’ Swope says, ‘if there’s a monster in the river, it’s our monster, and we don’t want to share it with nobody.’ And that’s how it ended up.” Mr. Sculley offered it to me. “Want to touch it, Cory? Just so you can say you did?”

  I did, with a tentative index finger. The fang was cool, as I imagined the muddy bottom of the river must be.

  Mr. Sculley put the piece of wood and the fang back up on the closet shelf, and he closed the door. The rain was coming down hard again outside, banging on the metal roof. “All this water pourin’ down,” Mr. Sculley said, “must make Old Moses mighty happy.”