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Hunter James 5581 Becks Church Road Winston-Salem, NC 27106 Email: hunterj@triad.rr.com www.grassyforkdays.com

TOBACCO TOWN A Taste of Southern Gothic

2 DOWNHOME CHRISTMAS

The house was fearfully dark and silent as Ryerson opened the gate to the picket fence and went up toward the porch. Dark with terror, dark with the promise of early death. Like a house from which all life had long ago fled. Yet the living room was a glorious scene of greenery and sparkling bells and shiny decorative balls and tinsel, amid which stood a shrunken Santa Claus with a dirty white beard. It had been a present at his first Christmas and though no longer the lusty fellow of those first days Ryerson always made sure that he enjoyed a prominent place amid the great wealth of greenery and tinkling bells. Then he saw the single light way back in the kitchen at the end of the hall. He still did not go in. He ran back down the walk and waited for his father to catch up. He had paused by the gate under their tall loblolly pine tree to put another lozenge in his mouth. Ryerson worried that it would take a lot more than that to hide the truth from Mother's nose. Smell of Negro, smell of beer, smell of the decadent night itself. He has just never heard of a nose with the kind of power that his mother claimed for her own. His father came up beside him and they went back to the porch and entered the house as burglars, moving very slowly now, being as careful as possible as they went along the unlit hall and feeling their way into the brightly lighted kitchen where his mother sat holding her Red-Letter Bible. On the table sat the remains of the Christmas Eve dinner they had enjoyed before he and his father had left for town. A big Christmas Eve supper with succulent honey

3 baked ham, a special cheese and macaroni dish, vegetables still fresh from the summer garden, a huge Swedish krumkake, wonderfully golden brown as only she could make it They had been gone for more than two hours. His father had said nothing about their leaving till he got up from the supper table. "Honey, I hope you don't mind if the boy and I take a quick little run downtown after we finish supper. Just a little piece of business I need to get outa the way. Won't try to drive and fight all that traffic. All the streetcars will be running late tonight." Even before they left it looked very much as though she was about to fall into one of her spells. No need to say anymore when she fell into one of those terrifying moods. Maybe if she would just keep taking her pills she could finally get rid of the terrible fear that came into her face every time his father looked at her a certain way or when he came home late and often drunk from making the rounds of his rental properties. He got up and slapped his hat on and stood looking at her across the room, flashing the big friendly smile that would almost always be followed by a huge laugh. She had got up at the same time, glaring at him menacingly "Sit down and finish your supper, honeybunch. Might want a little piece tonight, it being Christmas Eve and all." Piece? Piece of what? Was his father still hungry? Ryerson was about to offer him part of his apple pie when he saw that his mother's face had suddenly turned to stone, the anger coming in her voice: "Well, you'll not get it, sot! Do you hear me?" The boy just didn't understand. His father had not played the sot tonight. He could easily see that his father was not drunk—and everything had started out

4 so well! It was to have been the best night of the whole year. Christmas Eve. Tinsel and candles in all the windows. The big cedar glowing in the front room. The decorations sparkling magically in the dark. A big fire waiting to be lit in the hearth. It was really

very strange the way his mother was acting—leaving the table like that and grabbing up her Bible and giving way to tears as she struggled to regain her voice. Father went on out through the dark hall. "Honey, don't forget your medicine now, and try to eat a little supper, will you? Why, we'll be back before you can say ‘jackrabbit!’” He got no answer. They went on out anyway, because the boy knew that when they got back with the presents she would have to smile again and give each of them a big piece of the apple pie and everything would be all right again. His father had been putting aside a little money for the last couple of months or so, but he had been so busy keeping an eye on his barbershops and rent houses that he just hadn't had time to get out and do any shopping. That was all right. The stores were always open late on Christmas Eve. Earlier, his mother had spoken a little more calmly about the terrors of the city night, the danger of running into desperate characters on the streets at almost any time and especially during the big Christmas rush. "Nothing is safe for us any more—never will be safe for us now that Roosevelt and his people have taken over the White House, bringing the country down around our ears. I thought you would understand that by now. And to think that you would leave me here alone like this on Christmas Eve. Why? I ask you. Why?"

5 “Won’t be gone but an hour or so, honeybunch. Then we'll all have a nice little cup of hot chocolate and talk about all the good times and maybe I'll be able to talk you into that little piece." "Yes," she said. "All the good times. The times you have left me here alone while you drag that child into one of Roosevelt's filthy beer joints." The boy’s mother simply could not understand why Roosevelt had brought beer back to the counters of America. "I know what I know. You're planning the same thing right now, aren't you? Yet I'm supposed to sit here all by myself while you're out celebrating with those common characters that you like to call 'your boys.' I should certainly hope you won't try to drive. And don't be too sure you'll find me here when you get back either." "Honey, you know it's nothing like that. Why I haven't touched a drop in whole month of Sundays." "How late will you be? Why am I even fool enough to ask?" His father had come back into the kitchen to give her a little kiss on the forehead. "It's only six. Be back by eight at the latest. Don't forget, now. It'll soon be time for your next pill." "I suppose you think you can always count on me to be here when you get back." "You know that isn't it, sweetheart." "Well, I know what I know." She was sad and about to cry again and had gone off to sit with her Bible in one corner of her bedroom and did not even look up as they started out.

6 Yet they had hardly got out the door before she was behind them again. "I just hope you aren't planning to put me through any more of that pain and torture tonight. If you come back to this house with any of that Roosevelt's filthy beer on your breath, you might as well bury me. I don't know how much time I have left to me anyway." "Take the medicine that the doctor gave you, honey. You'll feel a whole lot better. And try to eat a little something. This little piece of business won’t take us any time a-tall.” The boy knew she was watching them as they went down the front walk and on out of sight beyond the big loblolly pine tree that marked the edge of their driveway. Surely she must have guessed the reason for their outing. She must have known that he had been saving up to make her a nice Christmas after the bad time they'd had the year before. That was the time his father had come home with that drunken and merry look on his face, and the house had been full of screams and shouts all night long as the boy tried to sleep. But his father had made a solemn vow this time. The boy just hoped it would be OK. So far it had been one of the best Christmases he had known in all of his seven years. He felt cheerful out in the cold wind as he and his father had walked to the trolley stop. Almost no room left when they got there. They had pushed their way on board and worked their way slowly back through the crowded aisle to where the Negroes sat. Oh what a fuss his mother would have made if she could have known! "To stand with nigras," she had always said. "To sit with nigras. All because of that Roosevelt and that damnable wife of his. You'll see that papa was right. He was a

7 real smart man, papa was. He always said that Roosevelt and all these new programs he was bringing in would destroy this county. Oh, how right he was! People who want to change all the old ways that have made this country great—why I'm telling you, they ought to be strung up by their . . . Well, never mind. But you just mark my words: this country will never be the same again. And I will tell you something else: If you put that man back into office, he'll have us right in the middle of this European war. Papa was right about that too. You wait. It won't be long before you see all his words coming to pass. I only wish that he himself could have lived to see how right he was." The boy could not think of that now. Not on Christmas Eve. He’d felt very warm and excited looking out the windows of the big trolley; the remains of the recent snowstorm lay scattered in fringes about the edge of the street, and in the windows of all the houses the lights of the Christmas trees sparkled with glorious promise. Six o'clock—yet already quite dark, with the lights of the town beginning to appear through the frosted-over window panes. Except for the Negro section in back there was no room left on the trolley. That was all right; his mother would not have to know that they had stood with Negroes. His father always spoke with them very freely, not like mother, who always made a face and said: "I hope they don't expect me to ride on that streetcar. I'm telling you, son, we'll never ever have order in this country again. I'm telling you that they'll soon be letting those nigras sit anywhere they please." And his father: “Don’t be ridiculous, honey. You know there’s no way in the world anybody’s ever gonna let that happen.”

8 The trolley clanged down Liberty past the tenements and boarding houses where the "tarts" lived. His grandfather had called them that. Though he was only seven, the boy had already heard about the old man's long and close relationship with the tarts. Sometimes when he and his parents were out at the farm, where they would be going next day for the big Christmas dinner, the old man would get a little too much to drink and talk very freely about his good times with his gambling buddies in boomtown Winston and about all the other times with the tarts in their two-story rooming houses on North Liberty Street. “Shut up, papa," Aunt Sally or Aunt Esther would say. "Shut up, do you hear? We don't need that kind of talk at this table." He would just laugh and finger his mustache suggestively and go on talking about it anyway. The trolley clanged on down into the main business district, stopping at last in front of the courthouse at the corner of Fourth and Liberty. As they got off a statue of the Unknown Soldier stared imperiously over their heads. Even though no one would have to know that they had stood with Negroes, the boy felt a lot better now that he was out on the streets again. A crush of people had been waiting to climb aboard and get to the seats. And to hang with where the Negroes sat! Christmas shoppers mingled with a crowd of worshippers that had just come from the First Presbyterian Church. Among them, a little boy with no arms. Ryerson watched him climb up ahead of his parents and then saw him again as the trolley lurched off down the tracks: a real little guy, no more than four or five at most, standing with his face pressed against the glass and the stubs of his arms hanging down.

9 Poor little guy. Poor little guy. Ryerson walked on down Fourth Street behind his father, still looking back at the streetcar. Around them now the clear joyous sound of Christmas: a sound of bells and carols and church chimes. O holy night. The stars are brightly shining. At one corner stood a kind of house, white and very small, with an iron mesh over the window and, inside, a shrunken Salvation Army Santa Claus with another dirty white beard; he, too, with a bell, though he was no longer ringing it. Still great swarms of people on the streets, some with packages and some without, some cheerful and others almost forlorn: a great mass of shoppers and non-shoppers over which wafted not only the crisp wind-blown sound of the bells but also the sound of cars stopping and starting, the iron sound of the trolley wheels and always the sound of the people themselves, angry and not angry, moving in and out of the revolving doors, lurching along the sidewalks and out into the streets, shouldering one another under great burdens of packages, shoving and talking loudly, Negroes and ordinary people like himself, climbing into the trolleys and into their automobiles with a merry Christmas to all and to all a good night! At the Belk-Stevens department store the crowd had begun to thin out. He and his father moved down past the long wooden counters, the salesgirls watching them intently as they stopped and rose to return unbought gifts to their proper niche. “May I help you, mister?" Ryerson watched his father talking to them, grinning, rocking back on his heels and rolling a Camel from one side of his mouth to the other, the ash already beginning to

10 curl over. He picked out a sweater, some cologne, a purse. He had wanted to buy more, a skirt perhaps and a leather belt to match the purse; but times had been hard that year and indeed for as long as the boy could remember. "Maybe we can do a little better next year," his father said, almost apologetically. "After all, there's still a Depression on." The salesgirls wrapped the packages in paper glistening with tiny bells and holly berries. Then he and his father were off to Walgreen's for a box of those special dark chocolates that mother liked. There, the girl had run out of all her special gift paper. But that was nothing. Ryerson knew his mother would be pleased anyway—surprised too, because his father had been talking for weeks as if there would be no money for presents this year. "Please call again, sir." "Thanks you and a merry Christmas to you." "And a merry Christmas to you, sir." So back out again into the cold dark, the streets not nearly so crowded now yet very cold, with a new wind blowing down from the Blue Ridge Mountains. O holy night. A whimper of bells above them in the wind, a new promise of snow. They paused, listening, before again moving along the dark tinsel-bright street past stores now locked and shuttered. -*-

Ryerson had started for the trolley stop when he realized his father was not going that way at all. After a long walk up Trade Street in the cold, blustery dark they’d

11 found themselves in the Trade Street Bar & Grill, a steamy beer-and-hotdog joint next to the Hauser & Moser Wholesale Grocery House and only three doors down from the first of the three barbershops his father had ever owned. He had sometimes gone with his father to Charlie's place for early breakfast, and at least once to sit with him while he drank a beer toasting Roosevelt's health. He remembered it all so clearly: a long ago Saturday night in 1935. Mother hardly knew what beer was. She had waited on the sidewalk for him to have his little drink, and said nothing at all on the way home. Not long, though, before everything changed. The man behind the counter, a big fellow by the name of Charlie Simpson, was an old friend of the boy's father. He always joked with Ryerson and gave him pretzels; but tonight he seemed somber. "Well, Prather," he said, snapping the cap off a Budweiser. "Mighty tough tryin’ to cheer up for the holidays after a year like this ‘un. I'm a-tellin’ you, it's been mighty tough these past few months. A tough year, and no joke neither. Voted for Roosevelt two times now and we still got this damn Depression hangin’ over us. Reckon it's ever gonna be any better?" "I'd sure hate to go back to the Hoover days." "Yeah, I reckon that's true enough." He sat the cold Bud in front of Prather and poured a frosted mug half full. "How about you, young fella? They tell me this stuff will grow real hair on your chest." Ryerson thought about his mother sitting at home waiting. He thought about all the other times she had waited and him with her in the big dark living room. He

12 remembered the time his father had given him beer at a baseball game in Southside Park. His father had almost wrecked the car on the way home, and his mother had smelled beer on both their breaths. "You devil! You devilish sot! Now we're all paying for what that Roosevelt has done to this country!" "How about it, son?" Charlie Simpson said. "A small glass half full." "Nope," his father said. "Better not. Nope, not this time. The madam, I sure don't want to do anything to get her all upset. And that would do it quicker than anything. Always making him promise he'll never touch the stuff. Anyhow, I was kinda counting on getting a little piece tonight." Piece? Ryerson still didn't understand. What kind of piece? It didn't sound like pie he was talking about now. It didn't sound like anything he'd ever heard anybody talking about. Anyway, it had thrown both Charlie Simpson and Father into a big squall of laughter. “Yeah,” said Charlie. “Ain’t nothin’ like a little hotbox on Christmas Eve.” The laughter quickly passed, and now his father seemed somber again. The boy watched him staring at the beer until the frost had melted off the mug. "Yessirreeee, Charlie, you're right as rain about this Depression business. A mighty tough year for everybody. Have to grant you that. But what would that Hoover have done? Why we've got electricity out at our old farm now for the first time in my life, and I guess we can thank Roosevelt and his New Deal people for that at least. Can't help but think he's on the right track. If we can just stay out of this war. That's the big worry right now."

13 A tough year for everybody. Ryerson wondered how many times he'd heard the same conversation. And all the talk of the war. Having known no other life he would not realize until he was almost grown how edgy and uncertain everything had been during those early years. Yet his father had had it better than most. He had traveled the country as a kind of itinerant barber long before the Depression came along. It was not long after that that his special knowledge of tobacco had got him a good-paying job as a buyer for the R. J. Reynolds cigarette manufacturing company. The job kept him on the road only from late July until shortly after the first of the year, with time out for the holidays, and it paid well, and he was soon investing some of the money in barbershops, the only other trade he knew, and in rental property. During the early years of the Depression he'd had four shops, the one on Trade and another on Liberty, up near the courthouse, and two others in East Winston. He'd had to get rid of one of the two in East Winston and had long ago given up following the tobacco market. He still spent a lot of time cutting hair at the Trade Street shop, mostly just to make enough "to keep the madam in furs," he always said, though not to her face. He talked about all that again as he sat at the counter drinking his second beer— all about where his travels had taken him that year and all the hard times he had seen on the road and how tough it was getting back home for Christmas. All the way back from Lexington, Kentucky, where he had been working the burley market. "And I have to tell you, Charlie: we aren't seeing ten-cent tobacco any more. Those government supports have helped keep many a poor dirt-farmer out of the bread

14 lines. Still a lot of folks going hungry out there, but I don't reckon we can write everything off as a loss.” "I guess that's the truth, Prather. Maybe there's just not a whole lot nobody can do. And like you say: the whole country's talkin’ about war now. But, shit, it can't get a whole lot worse'n it is now if you ask me." He gave the county and angry swipe of his towel. "Yessir, this is one year we'll be well rid of, I'm a-tellin’ you." "Maybe 1939 will be better." His father was suddenly quite jolly in spite of the bad year. Ryerson looked at him and tugged anxiously at his coat sleeve. "Shouldn't we go." And him: “Yep, son, it's about that time. But let's not stand out there at that cold trolley stop any longer than we have to. What say?" He looked back over at Charlie Simpson. "Say, Charlie, you got anything the boy can drink? Maybe some chocolate milk or something? Something like that that you can let the boy have?" "Comin’ right up." There it was: the glass of milk that was supposed to keep him content until time to go. He took a swallow and juggled the sack of presents in lap while his father finished the beer and signaled for a third. "Don't you think we ought to just go on?" He could tell time well enough to know that his mother would be getting awfully anxious by now. "Just a minute, son, and we'll be right on our way."

15 Charlie Simpson came back after swapping a joke with one of his other customers. "What's the matter, young fella? Don’tcha know it's Christmas Eve? Better celebrate while we can. We'll sho be into this war first thing you know. Don't reckon we're just gonna just stand around and let Hitler take over this here country whenever he gets ready. Lots of folks figure that's exactly what he's got in mind." The boy counted two more beers before his father was ready to leave. He downed them in a hurry, maybe in too big of a hurry, stepping down unsteadily from the barstool and stopping on his way out to give everybody a lusty handshake and then throwing up his arms with a great shout of "hallelujah!" as he and the boy moved on out into the cold bright dark. They had gone only half a block when Ryerson realized he didn't have the presents. Back he went on the run, his father behind him, stopping again to shake hands and talk with all the others along the counter. Ryerson got the packages while his father ordered another beer and drank this one quickly too and he was really quite wobbly as he moved back to the front, slapping all his buddies on the back and again stopping at the door to shout out a merry Christmas greeting. "Come again, Prather. And a merry Christmas to you both." "A merry, merry, merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!" his father said, falling backward and cracking his head against the doorjamb. He didn't seem to feel it at all. "Thanks, Prather. And you come again, hear?" "We'll see all you boys." "Goodnight, Prather."

16 "Goodnight." The boy had walked fast, holding the sack of presents, the wind coming harder now, moving them an extra step for every step they took on their own, his father wobbling from one side of the pavement to the other. The cold air must have sobered him a little. He seemed OK when they got back to the trolley stop. They stood between the two great show windows of Pegram & Wallbrook's shoe store. It had got colder by the minute, and now the boy wondered if they had overstayed their time had got Charlie Simpson's beer palace and had missed the last trolley. Even the Unknown Soldier seemed to have grown colder waiting out there in the harsh wind. His father just stood their grinning, with the perpetual Camel in his mouth and not minding the cold at all, his smile a little silly now from all the beer he had drunk. Nobody in sight now except four or five others who had just come up to join them in the entrance to the shoe store and, directly across from them, on his granite pedestal, the tall patient statue of the Unknown Soldier, quite still, quite frozen. "Either of you boys know when the streetcar is due?" his father asked the newcomers. "Oughta be along any minute now." The first car that came up had no room left, not even in the Negro section, and the second was going the wrong way. It was past ten o'clock when their trolley clanged up. The boy held the sack awkwardly as he climbed the iron steps. There was plenty of room this time. His father moved to the back, to sit with the Negroes, to sit and talk with the Negroes just as though they were his own kind. Would his mother be able to smell

17 the smell of Negro all over his father? Would she be able to smell even that smell beneath all the smell of beer? She had always said her nose was the best in the world for scenting out all kinds of evil, and that Father would never be able to taste even one taste of Roosevelt's evil brew without her finding it out instantly. The smell of Negro and beer all over him. Ryerson watched as he put some kind of lozenge in his mouth. He just hoped there wouldn't be a fight. He tried to feel cheerful and excited about everything, about the mystery of the night, and the thought of waking next morning to find all the gifts waiting for him, and most of all because the family would be going out to the old homeplace at Dobbs Station for the big Christmas dinner. Those were always the best times at the farm. The log fires going in every room, the huge Christmas cedar dominating the corner of the parlor, with more presents to be opened after dinner, the tables laden with platters of fried chicken and spiced ham and roast beef and huge slabs of honey baked ham and mince pie, with great steaming bowls of dumplings and dishes full of rice and giblet gravy and all kinds of succulent garden vegetables, and more of his mother’s krumkake alongside grandman’s towering coconut layer cakes that seemed forever on the verge of toppling over of their own weight, and all sorts of chocolate deserts. Not that he was thinking so much about that now. He was thinking of that other time long ago, a Saturday night in the summer, when he and Mother had gone downtown over the sweaty cobbles and him saying, "Stay off the streetcar tracks, mama!" And her saying, "Oh, no, son. Don't worry. Don't fret yourself. There's no streetcar coming now."

18 That was in 1935 or 1936 and they were on their way to pick up Father at the barbershop on South Liberty. When they got there all the other barbers said, "Who do you want to see, boy? Who're you looking for?" And him saying: "Just my daddy." And then all laughing and saying, "Your daddy ain't here, boy. Your daddy's gone away." And Mother saying, "My God! O my God! Why would he do this to me? Tell me, Ryerson. How could he let himself become a slave to liquor?" When they found him, next door in the poolroom, he was drunk and they drove all the way home with him promising never to touch the stuff again, sitting there in the front seat of the Model-A with his hat falling off and Mother driving because she said he would kill them all if she let him behind the wheel and her crying and saying What am I going to do what are any of us going to do I'd rather be dead than endure this hell I'd rather be dead and in my grave . . . and then turning to Ryerson and saying, Promise me, son. Promise me that you will never touch liquor . . .

-*Would it be the same as all the other times, the trembling voice, the insistent tearful stare: “Promise me, Ryerson, honey. You must promise your mother that you will be a good Christian boy all your life and never touch liquor.” And his father saying, “Don’t make him promise such a thing as that, honeybunch. Growing up is a long time. You can’t hold a boy to that kind of promise.” Yes, it would almost certainly be the same. Now that they were back he could see at once that nothing had changed. She sat in the near corner, facing the stove, not even turning to look at them. Yet Ryerson could tell that she had been crying. "I knew it!

19 Before you ever walked out of this house I knew it as well as I know my own name. Why didn't I stop you? Why? I ask you. Why?" Father didn't know why; he stood there grinning, having taken the presents from Ryerson and waiting for her to turn around and be surprised. She did not turn around. She began to shake all over with the crying and almost fell onto the hot stove—would have fallen onto it if his father hadn't caught her in time. Ryerson realized now that she had indeed smelled the Negro smell and the smell of the beer and all the other smells, maybe even from the very moment they had stepped off the streetcar. He had never heard of a nose like that in his whole life. "I should have known that you can't leave this house with that child for two minutes without making an utter fool of yourself. But, of course, I did know, didn't I? You and that Antichrist up there in the White House and that devil wife of his and all that filthy beer inside you!" Then at last she did turn, shaking convulsively. "Why must you insist on doing me this way? Why? I ask you. Why?" Father only smiled as he spread the presents in front of her on the table. "Come on now, honey. It's OK. We have you a little something." "Why must you put me through this hell! But, of course, I should have known . . " "Come, don't make a fuss. It's Christmas Eve. Don't you want to open your things?" "What? You take that child out and endanger his life by exposing him to all the nigras on that streetcar and now do you know when one of them's gonna pull out a knife

20 and cut you both wide open? And then you come back in here and expect to buy me off with presents? Is that what you think, sot!" "C'mon, Ellie. You know it's not like that. C'mon and look at your things." Ryerson watched her. His father had held back one of the presents. The box of dark chocolates. She was quite beautiful even when she was crying and refusing to look at her presents. "What do you expect of me? What do you want from me?" She got to her feet, holding the Bible open at Revelation. She was not crying now. Her voice was suddenly quite sharp and alarming, her entire face, attitude, everything, suddenly transformed into something awesome and terrifying. She looked back at the Bible and began to read. "'All drunkards' . . . Do you hear me, sot? . . . 'All drunkards shall have their place in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone . . .’" "We can talk about all that tomorrow, honey. Sit now. It's OK. Besides, we want you look at some of the things we bought. I wish it could have been more, but you know it's been a tough year." "Coming in here like this and expecting to buy me off with presents? You think that's all you have to do to change the hell you've made of my life? Is that what you think?" The overhead light seemed brighter, too bright, so bright that the boy's parents seemed momentarily lost in it, like bright shadow-figures grown dim with too much sunlight.

21 "I don't want them! Do you hear me? I don't want anything a drunken sot brings into this house!" She raked the presents violently onto the floor and drew Ryerson to her. He dropped the box of chocolates among the other refuse. "Why must we endure this hell? Why, son? I'd rather be dead than married to the kind of poor miserable drunkard your father has become. I'd rather be in my grave. A thousand times I'd rather be dead and in my grave." "Come on now. There's no reason to start again and get yourself all worked up over a little bottle of beer or two. It's Christmas, honey. Have you taken those little pills the doctor gave you?" He stood rocking back on his heels, his hat cock-sided, his spectacles and the gold crown on one of his molars catching a sharp glint of overhead light. He had picked up the presents and placed them back on the table. "C'mon now. Go ahead and open your presents — or would you rather wait and open them with the other things tomorrow?" She looked around, her face pale, frenzied. "You want this child to grow up into another drunkard? With all that rotten blood inside him? Just don't open your mouth to me! Oh, what a wonderful example you're setting for him! You and that devil Antichrist both!" She stood glowering at him with her back to the bedroom door. "It's Christmas, honey." His father took the chair she had left vacant. "Come and sit on my lap and we'll open our things and have a nice little time and maybe talk about that little piece."

22 There it was again. Might want a little piece tonight, honeybunch. Ryerson looked at the stove, where the pie was. But he began to understand now that it wasn't the pie his father was talking about. He remembered that some of the boys had used that same word at school and how he had been laughed at when he asked what it meant. And now he had heard it from the mouth of his own father. "Christmas?" she said. "Piece? Peace? What are you talking about, sot?" "Peace on earth and good will toward men!" Father said. "That's all, honey. Just come and sit on my lap for a moment." Ryerson was glad he had misunderstood Father. Bringing that kind of talk into the house! He knew Mother would never have allowed that for a moment. She looked at the sacks of presents, almost vacantly, the tears starting again, and her long auburn hair stiffly framing her lean almost girlish face. Ryerson wondered if the vial of pills would help. She was always forgetting to take them. She looked back at Father. "Christmas, you say? So that's what you think it is? Christmas, and you coming home drunk like this, making a fool of yourself, ruining this boy's life —and then . . . and then expecting everything to be all right just because you brought some presents picked up as a second thought at some cheap five and dime as you were on your way out of town, thinking, I'm sure, that nothing more than that would be needed to make everything perfectly OK." She paused, lifting her hand, trembling. "You must promise me, son. You must promise that you will never ever touch that filthy stuff. Will you promise your mother?" "I promise."

23 "My Lord in heaven, honey. Don't make him promise that. You think he'll remember a promise like that when he's all grown up? Come on and open your presents." He sat slumped and weary, yet still with that grin on his face. "Why did we have to put that filthy monster in the White House? Why, I ask you? Why?" "Why do you keep bringing Roosevelt into it. Don't you know that he saved the country?" "Saved the country! That filthy gangster. Is that what you think? Who could have done more to bring this country down than that loathsome creature? Bringing Armageddon to our very door. Turning us all into swine, into filthy sots!" "C'mon, sweetheart. Are we going into all that again? Can you imagine what kind of shape the country would be in if we’d let those Republicans back in?" "Are you actually going to sit there and tell me that the Republicans are responsible for this mess we're in? Was it the Republicans who fed all those potatoes to pigs when people were going hungry in the country? And plowing under all those crops, or storing them in warehouses so that all your Democrats could bargain them off and fill their pockets with money? Was it the Republicans who told the nigras to get on their high horses? And brought that filthy beer back into our homes?" Father sat slouched and grinning. Ryerson watched him. He had a way of waiting her out. Maybe everything would be OK after all.

24 "C'mon," Father said. "Let's open our things and have a little celebration. We want to get an early start tomorrow." "Don't speak to me, drunkard. And don't expect me to go anywhere with you tomorrow—not out to that farm, not anywhere. Do you hear me? Not tomorrow, not ever. I don't want to see any of them again." She fell back, crying, clinging to the doorknob, and then again looked at Ryerson. "I could have had a good life—been somebody. People have told me so. They had said, 'Eleanor, if you'd just gone on and got that college degree, you could have done remarkable things with your life. You could have written books. You could have gone on the stage. You could have been anything you wanted to be.' Now just look at me, won't you?" She drew the boy closer and talked only to him now, though loud enough for Father to hear. "It's in his blood, child, that terrible weakness for liquor and for leaving drawers open every time he goes through the house. And for never shutting closet doors. And dropping cigarette ashes all over the place. It's a genetic weakness that comes down from god knows where and its in every last one of those Goodes; and, I'm greatly afraid, child, in yours as well. That's why I want you to promise me that you will never touch liquor." The sobs shook her like an old rag as she leaned against the bedroom door. Father sat shaking his head, staring at the floor. For some reason Ryerson kept thinking about the little armless boy they had seen on the streetcar, wondering how he would celebrate Christmas and who would open his presents for him and whether his mother and father would take him out to his grandparents' house for a big holiday dinner.

25 He was still thinking about all that, about the sad little guy sitting beside the Christmas tree watching the others open their presents, while his mother screamed at his father and kept looking around for something to throw at him. Then she found it: the bundle of packages his father had put back on the table. Her own presents. Only the second time she had touched them, and now in a final tumultuous fury she grabbed them all up hurled them at his father, so that they exploded all over him like pasteboard shrapnel. He did not speak. He looked a little dead, maybe more than a little dead as he sat there with the packages in his lap and all around him on the floor. Something in one of the boxes had knocked his hat off and his glasses awry and left a spot of blood on his noggin. In almost the same motion she flung herself into the bedroom and slammed the door. Ryerson heard the latch fall. Then the key turn. He could still hear the crying a long time after she had locked herself in. Father was all right except for that single trace of blood on his forehead. "It's nothing, son. It'll be just fine. I guess we'll have to try and find ways not to worry your mother so much." Ryerson was thinking about the farm again and how awful it would be if they had to spend Christmas at home and about the little boy with no arms and about how Roosevelt had brought the country down when suddenly his Father said: "Come here, Ryerson. Come on over here and sit with your old papa a minute." He straightened his glasses and drew the boy onto his knee. "Don't worry about it, son. We're gonna be all right. There'll be lots of other times when we can go out to mama's. Lots of times. Try not to worry about all that tonight."

26 "What about tomorrow?" "There are so many tomorrows for you, sonny boy. Just you don't worry about that now. We'll just have to wait and see. Your mama can be awful determined when she sets her mind to something. You might even say 'stubborn.' A whole lot like her sisters. There's hardly a one of them that hasn't had their share of these little spells at one time or another. It's just something that they're born with, like that weak blood she's always talking about, 'cept I guess she sees it as something different than that in herself. Anyhow, I don't guess they can do anything about it. You sure can't budge one of them a single inch when they make up their mind about something. Even when they see these hard times we're having, why they'll just close their eyes and mark that Republican ballot every time!" "Can’t hardly believe she’d simply refuse to go." “To the farm? Well, I don’t know, son. We’ll just have to wait and see. We’ll just have to wait and see how she is in the morning. Awful hard to do anything with her when she makes up her mind, though.” Ryerson sat thinking again about the little boy with no arms, wondering what Christmas would be like at his house, not wanting to think about it at all, only wanting his father to say something to assure him that, come what may, they would not miss Christmas dinner at the old homeplace out at Dobbs Station. Somehow he had come to feel that he himself was the little boy with no arms, forever to be locked out of life, shut up behind doors with latches for which no key could be found, forever crying with no one to hear and forever vowing to take revenge on the world by voting Republican if he ever got out.

27 "Don't worry, son. You run on to bed and I'll have a nice little chat with your mama and try to get a spoonful of that new medicine with her. A couple of those pills. Whatever it is she's supposed to be taking. Who knows? Maybe she'll be her old self in the morning." Father's voice was suddenly more spirited and reassuring. But exactly what was her old self? Christmas somehow seemed a long way off, maybe like something that didn't exist at all, a dream that he was dreaming even now as he lay in bed and hoped for more snow and thought of all those windup dolls singing "Silent Night" in the downtown store windows, of the Salvation Army Captain collecting alms for the poor (or maybe for his own drunken parties)— and even of himself as the little boy with no arms and how lovely it would be for everyone to come in to waken him in the morning and find that he was now nothing more than an armless corpse and how sorry his mother would be, with all the crying and everything, except that it could never be like that now: for in his dreams or even during the times in that long night when he was lying there half awake, hearing vaguely threatening noises from somewhere far off in the house, he would remember that he had no arms to hold either the knife or the gun or whatever kind of pill it would take to free him at last from the ravages of this world, for tonight, for tomorrow and for all time to come

28

IN PRAISE OF VIOLETS

Edna shoved the violets in his hand and told him to hurry up and get on down to the corner or he'd miss his bus. He stood at the corner holding the flowers out in front of him. He rode all the way to school like that, sitting on one of the inside seats staring straight ahead and waiting for someone to say: "OK, buddyrow, where ya think ya goin' with them thar flower By the time he got to school the bouquet had begun to wilt. He went up through the schoolyard holding it out in front of him, the petals drooping on his hand. He went down the hall to the classroom and, as usual, P. C. was waiting for him. "Ain't I done gone and told you better’n that? Don’t you know no better’n t’ bring no more flowers up here?" "Shut up." He knew P. C. was right, as much as he hated him. The girls were supposed to bring the flowers. That's what he had told the maid. "I'm not gonna take those flowers. I'm just not gonna do it." "You do lak yo mama said and take these here flowers," Edna said. "She tell you to take them flowers ‘en give 'em to Mrs. Flynt, so you just better go on 'en do it."

29 He set them on Mrs. Flynt’s desk. Amid the tall vases of tulips, forsythia and yellow jonquils, they looked like a sickly bouquet of old hounds' ears, flopping down idiotically around the rim of the jar. Other days P.C. and his pals had mocked him for his clean starched shirts, his shiny shoes, the way he parted his hair. Now they could ridicule him for the flowers as well. Class had begun. “I'll sho git ya at recess," P. C. said from across the aisle. "Ya wait an’ see." Ryerson stared directly ahead at Mrs. Flynt. She seemed immensely tall and pale, a thin washed-out blonde, not old, with her hair done up in a bun on the back of her head. His mother wore her hair like that sometimes. "You jes’ wait," P. C. said. "We'll git ya this time." Ryerson kept looking at the front of the class. He saw his puny violets almost lost amid the forest of tulips and jonquils. He wondered if Mrs. Flynt knew who’d brought them. He had torn off the name tag as soon as he left home. Would it matter if she knew? Would she take his side this time? "We'll git you. Don't ya worry, dummy. We'll take real good care of ya at recess." Mrs. Flynt hadn't called on him for reading. Now it was time for the writing lesson. He had just written The day is sunny I am seven when P. C. started taunting him again. "Redheaded peckerwood. Redheaded niggerhead." He felt the eyes on him, not just P. C.'s eyes but all the others as well, his classmates all snickering and laughing at his hair, at his funny starched shirt.

30 He looked at Mrs. Flynt. She had just started to take up the papers when the bell rang for recess." "We'll git ‘cha now, dummy!" Ryerson waited for P. C. under a giant white oak not from the schoolhouse door. Except that it wasn't just P. C. now: there were three of them facing him at first and then three more, all barefooted. Ryerson looked at their bare feet and then at his own feet—the shiny Buster Browns his mother had bought at a special sale just before school began. "How they feel, son?" the shoe salesman said. "Looks like you gotta real nice fit." Even though they were still brand new his mother had cleaned and polished them before leaving for work that morning. "Yessir," the salesman kept saying. "A real nice pair of shoes, son." Now they felt tight, hot. "Redheaded niggerhead," the boys chanted. "We'll git ‘cha now!" P. C. was a shade darker than most of the boys in the second grade. Long hard days in the tobacco field. But Ryerson had done plenty of hard work in the tobacco fields himself. So that didn't have anything to do with the way he felt about P. C. It was those bare feet and overalls and a genuinely unpleasant smell that followed him everywhere he went. That's what the difference was. All Ryerson knew was that he had disliked him from the start. Or maybe it was more of a feeling of discomfort than anything else. How had P. C. known of his feelings? Ryerson wasn't sure, but somehow the ratty little guy had sensed the dislike. "Git him, P. C.!"

31 Ryerson watched him, his eyes, his thin face, his hard dirty fists. There were more of them now, eight or nine second graders crowding in behind P. C., all with the same threatening look. One wore shoes, a pair of brogans encrusted with field dirt—the others, all barefooted. "Go on, P. C! Git him!" P. C. moved in, circling him, glowering, dancing around. One of the others gave him a shove that sent him crashing into Ryerson, who fell against the tree and, recovering, pushed P. C. away. Then more circling, more glowering. P. C. making a fist and thumbing his nose. The others hooted and shouted, staring at him, their bare feet shining. "Git him, P. C.!" Then another clang of the bell. And Mrs. Flynt yelling at them from the steps. "Come, children. Hurry now. Let's get inside. Come, quickly now." "Come on, P. C. Ain't you gonna git him!" "Ain't time now. We'll git him at lunchtime, though." Inside, P. C. was still taunting him under his breath. "Redheaded peckerwood. You jes wait’ll lunchtime. We'll git you then. You jes wait." Ryerson could not—must not—say anything. Earlier that week when P. C. was taunting him he had turned suddenly and said: "Shut up! I haven't done anything to you. Just shut up!" Then Mrs. Flynt: "Come to the front, Ryerson." "Wasn’t me saying anything. It was P. C." "Come here!"

32 "But it really wasn't . . . " "Don't be impudent with me, young man!" She had hurriedly scribbled something on a scrap of paper and pinned it to his shirt front. "Now, young man. Now The sign said: "I TALK IN CLASS! I LIE! I WILL NOT MIND!" All in capital letters and harsh red ink. And the other children all laughing and saying, "Look, Ryerson Goode has to wear signs in school. Look at him. Look." And P. C. laughing loudest of all and telling him, "Take that sign off, boy. You better listen to me now? You take hit off or we'll sho take care of you." He had worn it all day, everywhere he went, through the lunch-line, at recess, everywhere, and at the end of the day Mrs. Flynt told him: "Now, young man. You take that home and bring it back with your mother's signature on it. Do you hear me? And don't you dare take it off on the school-bus. You wear it just like that until you get home and give it to your mother. Don't worry. I'll know it if you try to pull a stunt like that." His mother had cried all through supper, saying, "What has happened to my child? Where have I gone wrong?" The next morning was the first time she had told him to take along a bouquet of flowers. When he got to school it started all over again. One of the first graders had shouted at him, "Ryerson has to wear signs in school. Where's your sign, Ryerson?" Ryerson had chased him across the playground and got him down on the grass. Then somebody was pulling him off. It was Mrs. Flynt. "You, young man! Follow me!"

33 In the principal's office, One-Eye Becker said: "Turn around." As he turned Ryerson saw Mrs. Flynt standing in the door, her lips tight. He felt the keen fast blows of the rubber strap. The teacher kept standing there, looking, maybe to keep him from escaping. Becker had only one arm, as well as only one eye, and would be without recourse should his victim decide to make a run for it. "Help! Ho! Help! Stop that man! . . ." When the blows stopped falling Mrs. Flynt said that he should feel much better now and that in any case it was all up to him whether he wished to continue this unseemly behavior or whether he would learn to conduct himself in a manner befitting a young man brought up in the way she was sure he had been brought up. "I only pray that we don't have a repetition of what we have all been through this morning."

-*-

Lunchtime. Ryerson moved through the line, P. C. right behind him, and ate alone at a table near the cafeteria exit. He ate fast, a bowl of soup, some crackers. That was all. Then out into the bright sunlight. Still alone. No one had come up and said: "Don't worry. We'll see to it that he doesn't bother you." He walked past the swings and on out toward the baseball diamond, where some of the fourth graders were playing roller-bat. He knew it was only a matter of time before

34 P. C. would be standing behind him saying, "Redheaded niggerhead. You ready to fight? I done told you we'd git you. You jes c'mon now." He knew there would be trouble soon enough, but he really wasn't thinking about P. C. now. He was thinking again about the sign, the other children laughing at him, and his mother crying, and the big principal standing there with the white rubber hose. "I TALK IN CLASS! I LIE! I WILL NOT MIND!" And Mrs. Flynt saying, "Now, young man. You come here to me. Do you hear me! 'Now!' I said." "There he is, P. C.! Git him!" The shout came from a clump of hedge near the road. He walked slowly, not trying to get away, no use of that now, but not looking back or waiting for them either, just walking along acting as though he hadn't even hear the shout, the warning. "C'mon, P. C.! Take him!" Again he faced them, the same group that had ganged up on him at morning recess. Two or three others came up to join them. None came around to his side. "Git him, P. C.!" He was thinking about the time he had come home from school with a swollen eye and how his father had put a punching bag in the backyard and started teaching him how to box. "Just remember, son. First thing you do you go for their eyes. That'll keep 'em off balance. Start 'em to thinking some too. Just keep moving and going for their eyes and keep that left out." That's what his father had told him. Go for the face; eyes. He watched intently as the small knotty P. C. crowded in on him, dancing around, the dirty fists raised high in front of his face.

35 Ryerson looked at the clumps of bare feet; then again looked down at his own— the shiny shoes, garish, unseemly. He felt the blood draining out of him, a surge in his bowels. P. C. wasn't saying anything now. Just looking. He wore no shirt beneath his overall straps. Ryerson saw the dark skin, the tight hard muscles. “Remember," his father had said. "Don't start anything, but it they start it . .." One of the barefoots had knelt behind him as P. C. closed in, but Ryerson got out of the way in time to avoid the sure backward flip into the dirt. Now there were others, three or four of them, all shoving him viciously toward the center of an imaginary ring. Twice, three times, he caught himself before plunging into P. C. Then someone was shoving P. C., then both of them at once. Then it was P. C. shoving him. He stood there feeling bloodless and helpless in his starched shirt, his neatly pressed pants, not wanting to look down at his shoes again. He could see P. C.'s hot eyes and feel his own growing blurred, the bright April sun bearing down on him like an interested spectator. Then more shoving and grappling. Then P. C.'s fist smacking into his face. The hot mean eyes again. Then he was hitting too, mostly just swinging wildly, trying to remember everything at once. The face, the eyes. He landed a blow, two blows. And then another — but he was being hit too. Clean and hard. His jaw already beginning to swell. Again he saw the eyes, the bare feet, heard the voices. "C'mon, P. C.! Git him, P. C.!" Then someone else yelling, "Stop it! You boys cut out that fighting this minute!"

36 It wasn't Mrs. Flynt this time, not at first anyway. It was Miss Small. She held them apart, saying, "Who started this? What's it all about?" Then he again looked up and saw Mrs. Flynt coming toward him, her face pale, vicious. "So it's you again, Ryerson. And you, P. C. Who's responsible for this?" "He started it," said one of the barefoots, pointing at Ryerson. Then all the others chimed in. "Yeah. He's the one. The redhead started it." "Is that true, Ryerson?" "No'm." "Come with me, young man. You too, P. C." They followed her into the empty schoolhouse, down the dark oiled hall, into the classroom. “Get out your paper. Both of you. Write, 'I must not fight on the schoolground.' Three hundred times apiece. You hear me?" They began to write while Mrs. Flynt stood guard at the door. "I'm really gonna git you fer this," P. C. was saying beneath his breath. "Yeah. We're really gonna git you this time. There's still afternoon recess." Ryerson wrote steadily until the other started coming in for class. He still wasn't more than half through. His classmates were all sitting talking quietly or reading stories. Every time he looked up Mrs. Flynt would say, "Back to what you were doing, Ryerson." "Don't worry," P. C. said. "We'll git you at afternoon recess." They were waiting for him just outside the schoolhouse door, on the stone steps.

37 "Git him, P. C.!" P. C. waited on the top step, his hand, like Ryerson's, cramped from writing, the others doing all the talking: "We've got you now, redhead! We're gonna git you now!" What were they talking about anyway? Actually his hair wasn't all that red. "Strawberry blond," his mother called it. Why had they insisted on mistaking him for just another freckle-faced redhead without any real class about him? He suddenly felt a hot anger he had not felt before. Maybe that was why he didn't even wait for P. C. to move in on him, or for one of the other barefoots to give him a shove. He moved in on P. C. instead, swinging wildly, clawing at him, and then he saw it: the terror in P. C.'s eyes, the blood running down his clawed face. Then some of the older children were pulling them apart, Ryerson still swinging at him and him holding his face and beginning to cry. "You, young man!" Mrs. Flynt came striding rapidly through the crowd, her thin face pale with new menace, his hair knotted tightly at the back of her head. She seized his arm and led him once more into the big empty schoolhouse, the oiled boards squeaking underfoot. He could still hear the shouts from the playground, but what he saw was Mrs. Flynt sitting at her desk writing out another sign:

BEWARE! I FIGHT! I SCRATCH! I BITE!

38 I CLAW!

"Now, young man. Pin this on. Don't you dare let me see you close your jacket over it either." It hung down his shirt front like a monstrous neon sign. I Fight! I Scratch! I Claw! "Now come with me, young man." Recess was still in progress when they reached the principal's office. One-Eye Becker said nothing. He saw the sign, rose and came toward him with the rubber hose. "Stand quite still," One-Eye said. "This will only take a moment." Ryerson felt the hose come down. Whap! Six more strikes, well laid on, and him just standing there wearing the sign while Mrs. Flynt barred the way, glaring at him from the door. He could hear the whoosh of the hose as it went up and came down. "Again, young man. Once more if you please." Once more, then, and it was over. This time the principal was breathing heavily. "There, now, I think that will about do it." Ryerson waited a moment longer while One-Eye talked about truth and justice and the meaning of life and right conduct and respect for human kind. Mrs. Flynt, tall, lean, vicious, stood glaring at him, arms folded. It was a powerful lecture. For once, she could think of nothing to add as she led him back down the oiled creaky hall. And yet, years later, he would wonder why he had not seized the rubber whip from old One Arm and given it back as good as he had got it. The last bell of the day clanged as they neared the room; already the children were lining up at the door, some of them saying, "There's Ryerson. Did you get a beating, Ryerson? Why're you wearing that sign?"

39 They were the ones who rode the early buses. "Now,” said Mrs. Flynt. "All of you children who're waiting for the second load—back to your seats, please. You too, Ryerson." He was still sitting there wearing the sign when the janitor came in with his big brooms and trash cans. Ryerson watched him clear the wilted flowers off Mrs. Flynt’s desk, the violets with all the others. They hung down floppy and almost in shreds. The janitor held them by their broken necks, talking about how he never see a teacher get so many purty flowers . . . Ryerson was still wearing the sign when he got on the school-bus. That morning he had sat there holding the droopy violets. Now he was riding home with the stupid sign on his chest, his back still hurting where One-Eye Becker had lashed him with the hose. Where had he gone wrong? He still wasn't quite sure. As he boarded the bus the others had fallen back in a mania of laughing. "Ryerson has to wear signs at school! Ryerson Goode has to wear signs!" Then, in mocking refrain: "Ryerson Goode ain't no good. Ryerson Goode ain't no count." Then more mockery and laughter as the bus rumbled out of the schoolyard onto the high road.. "Don't you bite me, Ryerson Goode! Don't you scratch me now!" Janice Long, an older girl sitting just opposite him, said: "Ryerson, why don't you take off that ridiculous sign? What can she do to you now? She should never have been allowed to put it on you in the first place." He wasn't sure. He wasn't sure about any of it anymore. Mrs. Flynt had pinned it on him with the warning: "Don't you dare let me hear of you removing that sign, young man!"

40 So he was afraid she would get onto it somehow, afraid that there would be another trip to the principal's office, with old One-Eye Becker who also had only one arm standing there swinging the hose and Mrs. Flynt guarding the door and Ryerson yelling, "Stop! Please, stop!" And the people all looking in from the hall and Mrs. Flynt saying, "It's nothing. Don't worry. It's merely one of those phonograph records we're using for sound effects in the operetta this year . . . " "The nerve of that woman," Janice Long said. "I've half a mind to . . . Who started it anyway. " "I never started anything." "You bite anybody?" “No, I didn’t. Not one bite. Didn’t even think of no bite.” He sat there stiffly and awkwardly on the slow-moving school-bus, trying to remember if he actually had bitten anybody. The day came back to him in such waves of confusion he couldn't be sure of anything. The bus rumbled over broken concrete, up hills and across bumpy country roads, and him sitting there all that time with the sign pasted to him,

I SCRATCH! I BITE! I...

"Take it off," Janice said. "That woman ought to be ashamed of herself."

41 He couldn't take it off. He knew he couldn't take it off. He was even afraid lest someone else jerk it off him before he had a chance to get home with it. He just sat there with it hanging down his shirt front, feeling the bus droning on across the April landscape, the bright afternoon sun all mixed up with the memory of the fresh morning violets with their droopy necks. "That P. C. Dunn," Janice said. "He deserved a great deal worse than he got. Go on and take it off, Ryerson, and you go home and tell your mother every detail of what happened to you at school today. That woman has no right to treat you that way." He thought again of how his mother had left the house early that morning, walking across the damp grass and feeling her way carefully into the rock garden, not wanting to get the dew on her going-to-work clothes, reaching down and plucking the violets and gathering them ever so carefully into a bouquet. Then she had brought them in and stuck them in a jar and admired them for a moment and told Edna, "Don't you dare let that child forget to take those flowers today." And Edna: "Yes'um." And his mother again: "Don't you dare forget it now." And him taking the violets aboard the bus and holding them in front of his face and the other children laughing at him and him watching them wilt and hoping that somehow he could get them into the classroom without P. C. finding out. "Oh, don't you dare now," his mother had said. "I don't want to hear of his coming home today having failed to take those violets." The sign was still hanging on him, shining like a frenzied glare of neon, as he got off at his corner. Behind him, the loud voices still full of mockery: "Ryerson Goode ain't no good. Ryerson Goode ain't no count . . . "

42 In the last block before he reached the house he quickly and with great furtiveness removed the sign, folded it twice and placed it inside his Blue Back Speller, still shuddering as he thought again of what Mrs. Flynt had told him as he was leaving school: "Now you bring it back tomorrow, young man, and I want to see your mother's signature on it. Do you understand me now!" It would be another two hours before his mother arrived home from work. Edna had finished the cleaning and put the supper on. "Did you give that teacher them flowers, boy?" "Yeah, I reckon I did." "You go on ‘en git on yo homework now. Yo mama done said fo' you to be sho and git on it." It was growing dark when his parents got home. Supper was on the table, but he would not go into supper just yet. He sat waiting for his mother to come to his door. She had called twice, but he had only waited. Then, a moment later, she was beside him: "Supper, Ryerson. Are you coming?" He explained that he'd been busy with his spelling lesson and would be there in a moment. She leaned over and gave him a rare hug. "I'm happy for you, Ryerson—to see that you're finally beginning to apply yourself." Then he showed her his work. Among the words he had spelled was her first name: Eleanor. "Did I get it right?"

43 She peered closer. "E-L-E-A-N-O-R. Why, yes, Ryerson, and a very nice handwriting too. I'll have to speak with Mrs. Flynt about how much you've improved." Another hug, and then: "What's the matter with your jaw?" "It's nothing." "Come to supper." Before leaving his worktable he removed the sign from his speller and carefully wrote his mother's name at the bottom in his second-grade handwriting. E-L-E-A-N-OR. But a very much improved handwriting. Mrs. Flynt would never guess that it wasn't his mother's own signature. The next day he left with the sign still hidden inside his speller, being very happy that Edna hadn't given him any more flowers to take to school. Once more the long ride over peaceful country roads, once more the feeling of terror inside him as the bus rumbled onto the graveled drive in front of the school. Once more the tall menacing blonde looking down at him as he entered the room. This time he had seen nothing of P. C. He placed the sign on Mrs. Flynt’s desk. "Very well. Take your seat, Ryerson." He sat looking at what he had written the day before. The day is sunny. I am seven years old. I . . . He clutched the top of the desk without looking up, wondering where P. C. was, what the other children were thinking, feeling inside him the magic of the spring sun, the memory of the violets. Yesterday morning all seemed to long ago now.

44 Then, loudly: "Ryerson Goode!" "Yes'um?" "Come to the front, please. Be quick about it, will you?" He looked at her. "Just who exactly do you think you are, young man?” she asked him as he came forward. "Haven't you given me another trouble for one week?" Somehow she had detected the forgery. How was it possible? He was certain he had spelled the name right. E-L-E-A-N-O-R. His very best imitation of grown-up handwriting. "Young man, you are in for it now. What do you take me for? This time you’re sure gonna pay, and you make certain that no one tells you different!” He watched her as she scribbled something on a scrap of paper. I AM A LIAR! A CHEAT! "Lean over here." She pinned it on his shirt front. Where could he have gone wrong? Eleanor. She handed the first sign back to him. "Now, listen to me, young man. I want you to take both these pieces of paper home and bring them back with your mother's signature on him. Your mother's signature. Do you understand?" He was thinking of the long walk up the oiled hall and One-Eye Becker standing there with the hose and Ryerson holding the sign carefully in place so the hose wouldn't cut it in two and Mrs. Flynt telling all the passers-by: "Pay no attention to the screams. We're just holding rehearsals for the operetta."

45 He sat at his desk, one sign in the speller and the other hanging down the front of his stiffly starched shirt, Mrs. Flynt glaring at him from the front of the room and saying, "No more foolishness, young man. Do you hear me? Don't you dare come back in this class tomorrow unless both those pieces of paper have your mother's signature on them. Do you understand that?" "Yes'um." "Do you hear me? I'm not playing with you now." "Yes'um."

Ryerson Goode ain't no good, Ryerson Goode ain't no count . . .

46 ‘EVERBODY’S TALKIN’ UP THE BOMB’

Sometimes it seemed that the war had been going on for even longer than he could remember. It had sure brought big changes into his life—no more long visits to the Virginia coast, where his mother's parents lived, not even those familiar Sunday visits to his other grandparents' house out in the country, no Hershey bars after lunch at school, no decent cigarettes anymore, no more family reunions. Was it really all over, as the papers were saying? If not, almost surely it would be soon, now that the United States was dropping those crazy new bombs all over the late great Empire of Japan. Maybe that's why Ryerson Goode was feeling more than a little excited and generous when he went downtown to take in a Thursday afternoon double-feature at the "Crumb," a real treat that he had always saved for Saturdays during the war years. Everything would be different now: Milky Ways and Butterfingers and Three Musketeers every day after lunch at school rather than on those rare occasions when he had to stand in a line that stretched all the way out to the playground just to get his hands on one. The same with all the other good things of life. "Only one, Ryerson," the teacher at the end of the line would say. "We've got to make sure we have enough to go around. Our boys overseas come first, you know." That's the way it had been at school all through the war years, but it was summer now and there was no school and the war in Europe was over and soon there would be no more fighting in the Pacific. Would Lucky Strike Green come safely back from the war?

47 Well, he never much cared for them anyway. He was only twelve and smoked very little, but for his money the "whites" were far superior. He left his father's barbershop and walked out into the new freedom of the late morning sunshine. Maybe he would celebrate by taking in a Wild Bill Elliott double feature at the old State Theater. The theater had once been a vaudeville house, nothing else like it in town. He wondered what it was like, in those old glory days of vaudeville, as he bought his ticket and stepped just inside to see if he had enough for popcorn and an R. C. Yes—and with a whole dime left over! He still felt a strange sense of excitement as he entered the dark of the auditorium, fingering his dime. Things would be different now. No more talk of Depression and war. Just as he started to take a seat he heard a voice behind him: "Hey, buddy whatcha gonna do with that thar dime?" Ryerson looked at it. He hadn't decided yet. He looked at the newcomer, a boy of fifteen or sixteen—three, maybe four years older than he was, barefooted and wearing coveralls. "Dunno," he said, taking his seat. "Say, why don'tcha lend me that dime. C'mon. I'll be sure 'en git it back before the show is over?" "First show?" "Yeah. The first. Jes need to borrow it fer a minute or so." Two other newcomers had appeared behind the first. Ryerson clung to the dime; it had got a little sweaty in his palm. How could he trust a guy he had never even seen?

48 Well, he knew, deep down, that he couldn't trust him at all, and ordinarily he would never have let him have the dime, even if he'd had to call on the management to intervene— even if it had meant he would have to stand up and fight the guy. Somehow today was different. He looked at the coin and handed it over. "Sure gotta have it back after the first show." The three were already halfway out of the auditorium. "Sure, we'll have it back. You'll see. Honest to God." Only a ten cent piece. Yet it could have meant another box of popcorn and cold drink for the second feature. The moment it left his hand he felt a great emptiness come over him. "You're just like papa," his mother was always telling him. "Giving your last cent away if you think somebody needs it worse than you. There's such a thing as being much too generous, you know." Maybe he would be lucky; maybe they really would bring it back. Only on such a day would he have allowed for so much honesty and character in a bunch of snotty nosed barefoots. Yet for them not to come back—well, he could scarcely imagine anything quite so dishonest. He felt that the world had changed somehow. That everything would be different. He had just felt full of a spirit of generosity. He kept thinking about what his mother had said: how unselfish he was. Why, then, had he felt the loss—if loss it was to be—so acutely? "Certainly a very good man in many ways," his mother had so often said of her father, "but he would let his own family go hungry before he would deny the sorriest, good-for-nothing beggar his last cent."

49 Only a ten-cent piece. Unselfish. An excellent trait in man. Something to cling to even he could no longer cling to the dime. All through the showing of the first feature he forced himself not to look around to see if the freeloader was on his way back with the coin, wanting to believe in spite of everything that he would come down the aisle and stick it in his hand at any moment. He had sat through the “Movietone News” and the first “Merrie Melodies” cartoon without looking around. He had sat through “The Three Stooges” and the second cartoon. He sat through “Steama, The Jungle Woman,” the next-to-last episode in the weekly serial, never taking his eyes off the screen even though he had begun to feel all empty again and maybe even a little dead inside. He even sat through half of the second Wild Bill feature, Mystery at Big Pond, before allowing himself to become really downright concerned about his loss. From that moment he was constantly craning his neck to see if there was any sign of the borrowers. Nothing. A couple of times, when there was a lag in the action on the screen, he even walked out into the vestibule to see if they had come back. He looked all the way up Liberty toward the courthouse square and then down the other way toward the tobacco warehouses and hardware shops. He went back inside and watched impatiently as Wild Bill Elliot roared into Big Pond and shot up the place like crazy and then discovered what Ryerson had guessed even before he had gone out to reconnoiter North Liberty Street: that the manager of the Wells Fargo line was the brains behind a robber gang that had been holding up his own stagecoaches. It made him a little sick to think that he hadn't had the courage to stand up for himself the way Wild Bill would have.

50 “No damn you, No! You ain't getting this dime! I've done told you now!" That's what he should have said to the guy and his two companions, but he'd never been the victim of so brazen a theft; and it was really a whole new experience to think that people who would do such a thing were out walking the streets like free men. Maybe he was just a coward. He had never backed off from a fight at school even though he hated it when he had to stand there and face the class tough with most of the other toughs ganged up behind his opponent. He had never backed down no matter how many times he had felt like it. Perhaps he should have fought to hold on to the coin, the way the marines had fought to take back all those islands in the Pacific. That was what made him go all sick inside: that he hadn't been man enough to hold his ground.

-*-

He sat through a second run of “The Three Stooges” and the Movietone newscast, with all its talk about the victory celebrations in Europe, craning his neck all the while in the lost hope that the dirty little guy might have remembered to come back at last. He was halfway through a second run of original feature film when he finally had to make himself face the grim reality that he would never see the dime again. It was getting late and he knew that it would soon be closing time at the barbershop and that his father would be anxious to get home and tend to his Victory Garden, even if he didn't have to call it that anymore. Only a ten-cent piece. Still, a lot of money just to give away, as hard as times had been these last few years, and the whole idea that he would allow something like that

51 to happen had thrown him into a terrible mood—not so much the loss of the dime as his own loss of innocence—during what otherwise should have been a fine afternoon, because the newsboys were all out on the street hawking the evening paper: TRUMAN SEES PEACE SOON! Was it possible that the guy in the faded, dirty jeans had only forgot? He had started up the hill for the two-block walk back to the barbershop when he thought, no, not yet, not quite yet, because he realized he had not done all he could to retrieve his lost fortune. Maybe he could still find the guy out on the street somewhere. He took a long slow walk up around the courthouse and looked inside of O'Hanlon's Drugstore and then stood out on the curb thinking of all the times the guys at school had tried to start fights with him because they didn't like the color of his hair or because his shoes were always a bit too shiny or his shirts too starched and how he'd had to play the lead role in a third-grade tug-of-rope play and make a speech about cleanliness and good health and right living while leading a tug of war against the forces of dirt and evil. All the guys he'd had to face on the school-ground were on the other side, and he knew there would probably be more fights because he'd had to stand up there on the stage and lecture them about their dirty teeth and their dirty fingernails and their overall lack of good hygiene. It had turned out exactly as he expected: one of the leaders of the other team had wanted to start something at lunch recess. That was all right. He had been through it all before, and with the help of his father had learned how to take care of himself. So that it hadn't actually come to a fight, because everybody else in class knew about him now;

52 they knew he wouldn't back down just because he was outnumbered and that he couldn't be bluffed as easily as they had once thought. He knew it would be the same thing all over again, and that it would almost surely come to a fight this time, if he were ever to catch up with the dirty little two-timing grunt who had stolen his last ten-cent-piece.

-*-

He found his father stretched out half asleep in his barber-chair with a copy of the afternoon Sentinel spread out on his lap.

Truman Tells Japan to Quit or Be Destroyed

His father and only two of his other five barbers were in the shop. It had been a slow afternoon. "Well, son," his father said, hitting the lever of the chair and bringing himself to a sitting position. "Looks as if we've about got this old war behind us now." Should he tell his father how he had been suckered out of the dime? He would prefer to have him think he had spent it on popcorn. He had been forced to learn a lot at school, just to defend himself, but he still felt like a simpleton in a lot of ways. Is that what his father would think? Something way down inside him needed to know, but he also knew it would be awfully hard to think up the right words to explain how three guys he had never seen before had made a plumb bodacious fool out of him.

53 "Funny thing, though," his father said, looking at the paper again. "The Japs, they say they've got the bomb too." He looked around at the other barbers. "Reckon it's true? Could mean real trouble if it is. A lot of our own cities getting blown up." "Naw," said one of the others. "They ain't got no bomb. They gotta say that, I guess, but you know they woulda used it a long time before now if they’d really had it." "Well, listen to this," his father said, quoting from the paper. "'The Japanese radio in Singapore in a broadcast monitored by BBC said today that Japan has a weapon "similar" to the atomic bomb and will use it "to the utmost against the United States.'" "Well, I don't know, Prather. I sure do hope it ain't true. Those dirty little Japs they've sure put us through enough hell already." "Does it mean more war?" Ryerson asked his father. He thought of all those Milky Ways and Three Musketeers and Butterfingers and Mars Bars flying right out of the lunchroom at school and all the hard times coming again if there was to be more fighting in the Pacific. "Well," one of the other barbers said. "I just don't believe they've got the bomb. Sure hope not." "You really think there will be more war?" Ryerson asked. "Dunno, son. Just dunno. Almost time for Gabriel Heatter. We'll tune him in and see what he has to say about it." His father laid the paper aside, and Ryerson read the headlines again:

HIROSHIMA DISAPPEARS IN ATOMIC BOMB BLAST Plane Crew Sees City

54 Go Up in Smoke Cloud

He wondered what it would be like to live again in a world where there were no gas-rationing stamps to think about and where the school cafeteria was full of chocolate bars and the store shelves packed with Lucky Strikes and Camels, and him always a dime short of what he might have had if he just hadn't let himself be played for a fool. A big loss, getting bigger all the time in his mind, bigger than the loss of all those candy bars, and yet he still couldn't bring himself to say anything about it to his father. Gabriel Heatter came on and announced there were was "very good news in the world tonight" and dismissed as "mere talk and rumor" reports that the Japs also had the Bomb. "Well, that's mighty good to hear," his father said. His voice sounded different somehow; because, well, you just about had to trust Gabriel Heatter. If not, then who? H.V. Kaltenborn? Fulton Lewis Jr.? No, Heatter was the man, by far the most reliable on the air to his father's way of thinking. Then he felt those other old nagging doubts preying on him again, wondering how he could have been so stupid as to let a stranger have his last dime and was still able to bring home straight A's on his report card. That is, whenever it struck him as worthwhile to do so. He watched as his father stood up and placed the Sentinel on a stack of papers he was saving for future generations and said goodnight to the other two barbers, as they put on their jackets and went out. He put on his own jacket and was preparing to lock up when two men who had been shooting pool next door at the Trade Street Billiard Parlor came in.

55 "Well, Prather," one of the men said. "There's mighty good news in the world tonight." His father cheered up a little when he saw the other men. Ryerson had seen both of them hanging around the shop at different times, but he knew only one of them by name. Garl Humphries. His father's best friend. They had come to Winston when both they and the town were young. Garl was drunk now. "Good news in the world tonight!" "Yep, Garl, that's what they're saying all right." "How's about a little game of five-card, Prather?" supper, boys." "Just a couple hands. Hell. C'mon, Prather, it's not everyday that we get a chance to celebrate the end of a war." "Madam's waiting

-*-

Full dark now, and in the boy's sleep the voices in the rear of the barbershop seemed to come from somewhere off beyond the rim of the world. He jerked awake and heard them more plainly, the laughter and drunken howls and just plain loud talk of men enjoying themselves over a bottle of good bootleg whisky and a lively game of setback or poker. What kind of world's it gonna be, Prather. What kind of world we gonna be living in now that this war is over?

56 Ryerson hit the big lever at the side of the barber-chair and brought it straight up. It was so dark he could not make out the time from the clock on the wall. He knew his mother would be waiting up with a lot to say, and it wouldn't have anything to do with the Bomb either. He knew they should have been home hours ago. He wasn't even worried about the dime now, except that the thought of losing it was always there somewhere at the back of his mind: he was thinking mostly of what his mother would say when they got home. Don't even step foot inside this door, drunkard! Perhaps his father would phone and make up some kind of excuse. Not that it would help much, but surely even his mother would understand that the end of a big war like this didn't come every day. He could not help thinking about the lateness of the hour and about how they would explain themselves when they got home the war is over mama don't you see the war is over we don't have to worry about anything now Actually he knew there was nothing they might say that would help. It was supposed to be one of the greatest days in the history of the country, but it had sure turned rotten now. How could he have been so foolish as to give up his ten-cent piece without some guarantee in writing . . . They say you should always have a contract any dumb fool knows you gotta have a contract Should he at least have said something to the police? No. Then his parents would find out for sure because it would all be right there in the afternoon Sentinel, right alongside the latest news out of the Pacific.

57

BOY LOSES LIFE SAVINGS AS WORLD GOES UP IN SMOKE

He slept again, fitfully, and woke to see his father raking in another pot: shouts, drunken guffaws as the others slammed down their cards and conceded that his father was indeed the best five card stud player in the whole goddamn world. "Yep, Prather, said one of the men. "You're the best. Ain't that right, boys?" "Outa my class." Again the bottle went around as they talked about how the good old U. S. had finally socked it to those stinking little Japs. The boy kept looking at the clock, now that his eyes had grown used to the dark. It looked to be about ten. Ten o'clock! They had never been that late getting home. As the long hand slowly moved past ten he felt the knot in his stomach draw a little tighter. He crawled out of the chair and went back to where the men were playing cards, standing in the door of the latticed wall, beneath a sign that said, IT PAYS TO LOOK WELL. "Yep, we showed 'em, Prather. We sho did." How much longer could his father keep winning without losing back everything he had taken in? How long could he keep laughing? How much longer could he go without at least looking at his watch? A man named Ed Fortiscue had joined the game and was now dealing the cards. The man called Garl said by god he'd better get a better goddamn hand this time or he was gonna start thinking something was mighty goddamn suspicious goddammit.

58 The third man, whose name the boy did not know and who he had never seen before, had not joined in the raucous spirit of the occasion. He looked as the boy felt: as if he'd just lost every last cent he had in the world. Maybe he had, because Ryerson's father kept raking in all the pots. He had lost all of his somber look now, maybe because of the liquor, maybe because he was the big winner, maybe only because he had finally decided it was good to have the war behind them now even if the U. S. did have to play a little dirty to win it. Only a dime. Yet it would have been enough for two more Hershey bars, or a Hershey and a large R. C. or Pepsi.

Pepsi Cola is the Drink for You Twice as much for a nickel too

Yet he would now have to swallow all of his indignity and try to get on with his life. "This here is the last hand, boys. Me and the boy have gotta get on home. We ain't gonna have time to worry about no Japs if the madam gets on her high horse." "Whatcha think about that bomb," Garl said as he dealt the last hand. "Ain't that a reg'lar blister?" His father was suddenly somber again, not even looking at his cards. "It was something all right. But I ask you, boys. What kinda world's it gonna be now? What kinda world we gonna have now that we got this strange new weapon among us? Won't be long till the Russians have it, too. You can betcha last dollar on that."

59 "That ain't all," Ed Fortiscue said. "Think about how bad times were before the war. I sho don't wanta live in that kind of world again." The thought that bad times might come again had brought a moment of sobriety to the whole table. Nobody was looking at his cards. "Yeah," Prather said. "Don't wanta ever seen another year like Thirty-Three or Thirty four." "Thirty three, thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six—they were all bad. I reckon that's why Roosevelt felt he had to get us in this war." "I was in Texas in Thirty three," the man who had lost everything said. "Why you couldn't even convince those folks down there that there'd ever even been a Depression. Never felt it a-tall down there. Yep. That's Texas for you. All them oil wells and big derricks. You'd look at one of those folks and talk about how hard times were back up north and he's just look at you kinda funny like and say, 'Hard times? What the hell you talkin’ about, boy?’” "Well, that sho is a blister," Garl said. "How about one more hand?" Prather looked at his watch. "Well, I guess one more won't hurt. I'm sure gonna be in some kind of hot water when I get home, but I don't reckon she can heat it any hotter than it already is." "I'm out," said the man who lost everything as he rose to put on his jacket. Garl dealt the cards. The boy watched that knowing grin come over his father's face; he knew he had the others beat again. "Well, goddammit, that does it for me," Garl said, slamming his deck down. "Ain't no fuckin' justice in this world, I can tell you that."

60 He and Ed Fortiscue both rose to put on their coats. Ed took the last swallow of bourbon, which was only proper since it was his bottle anyway. Ryerson's father didn't look as though he was going anywhere, not home, not back to work in the morning, not anywhere. He looked a little sad. He had called home to say there had been something wrong with the car, but Ryerson knew his voice would have given him away. Usually his mother could rely on her nose to scent out such evils. But she didn't even need it this time. Ryerson could hear her all the way from the other side of the line. “You bring that boy home drunkard and then you go where you please drunkard and after all my years of trying to make a decent home.” "The war's over, honey. The war's over. Things are gonna be a lot better now. Let's try to think about how much better things are gonna be now that we dropped that bomb." Ryerson couldn't hear what else his mother was saying. All he knew was that she would be in no mood to celebrate a war she'd always thought could have been avoided anyway. She always had a sneer in her voice when she talked about the President. "That devil Roosevelt," she always called him, "Sinister lover of Jews, liquor, loose women, a warmonger and infidel, a veritable dissembler" who had plotted for years to bring this tragic conflict on them. He had always thought his mother was the only Republican in North Carolina and had been careful not to talk it up around on the playground at school.

61 Ryerson kept wondering whether he could avoid getting hit by a stray shot of his mother's pistol if she was in a really bad mood. They went back down the narrow alley to where his father always parked the car; before he could get in it he fell—tumbled—onto the trunk, with that hacking cough the boy remembered from his earliest days. The cigarette his father always had in his mouth. The coughing fit had snared him with an almost demonic power, and he looked really tired before he was able to get in the car and light another Camel. Ryerson had never seen him like that. He looked sick and old. Maybe because he knew there would be trouble when they got back to the house, perhaps the same as on that long ago night when he had come home from the ballpark drunk and stumbled into bed amid a shower of brooms and chairs and whatever else his mother could get her hands on.

-*-

That was the night she and Ryerson had packed their things and got in the car and drove over to Aunt Julia’s house in Buena Vista as a first stop on their way to a new life somewhere in the West. "Forever," she had said. "Child, I can't live with this. We must go." Go they must and go they did. Once in the car, his mother had seemed undecided on exactly where they actually would go. It was then that she hit on the idea of driving first to Aunt Julia’s house to see what advice she could get from her sister and brother-in-law. She would at least get sympathy, and he knew his aunt and uncle would gladly put them

62 up until they had decided on the new life they were to make for themselves. It was different when they got there; she had realized by then that she could not really bear to go inside and face her sister with the terrible stories of her husband's drunkenness.' "Are we going in?" the boy asked. She had begun to cry. "I don't know, son. I just don't know any more." They sat there a while longer with the lights out; but he knew by now that his mother was not going in, that she just couldn't bring herself to humiliate herself before her younger sister. Soon she backed the car out of the drive and turned toward home again. When they got there his father was in bed asleep, snoring away with the brooms and mops still lying on top of him. Ryerson realized that his mother had gone away and come back without his father knowing anything about it. He didn't even find out about it until weeks later. Would it be like that again tonight? Perhaps it would be different if his mother could be made to understand that his father was really sick and, on top of that, worried about the new bomb and what it would mean if Russia ever got hold of it and whether any of them could survive in that kind of world. His father never could get rid of that cough; one day perhaps it would kill him, and the boy knew now when he looked at him that he could never bring himself to confess he had lost his last dime to a dirty little thief at the movie house. After all they had been through during the Depression, just trying to keep food on the table, and his father always wasting money on drink —not all of it, though, because those were also the years that he had begun to buy up other barbershops and a string of rent-houses, maybe some of them with the big stakes he'd always been able to win at the gambling table.

63 By the time the war came there was plenty of food on the table and a good bit of money in the bank. They would never really know hard times again, but somehow his mother was unable to keep all that straight in her head. "You think the Japs really have the bomb?" Ryerson asked him for the third or fourth time. "Naw," his father said with new assurance. After all, Gabriel Heatter had spoken just about the last word on the subject. "Naw, they ain't got the bomb. Yet you hardly know what to think about it all. All we can know for sure is that the world we knew before this terrible war—bad as it was in some ways—is a world we're never gonna know again." There was something new in his father's voice. He had never seen quite the same worried look on his face. Yet the hard times were over now—or were there more to come? Was he about to lose one of his barber shops or some of his other property? He had lost his first shop during the early days of the Depression before swearing that he would never let that happen to him again. His father didn’t seem to be thinking about home at all. He leaned on the fender of his 1939 Plymouth and looked up at the sky. "I just don't know, son. This new weapon they've got. Makes you think this old world ain't ever gonna be quite the same again. We got a whole new world now. Lots of folks, well, I guess they just don't see it yet, but it's gonna be a lot different from anything we've known before." Maybe his father was right. Maybe he had foreseen something that so many others had not. Well, he could worry about all that later, and, besides, nothing had seemed quite as important to him after he had been gulled out of his last ten-cent piece.

64 He was just glad his father hadn't asked about it. He knew he couldn't say anything about it tonight. Maybe tomorrow, when his father had got over all his worries about the new bomb and started thinking about what it would mean to have all the gas and sugar and candy bars and cigarettes that you could ever want. It would finally be like America again. Then he knew he couldn't wait till tomorrow. It all just came out of him, the whole ignominious story, right there in the parking lot while his father stood looking up at the sky. The lost dime, his own stupidity in letting it go like that, his failure to demand a contract, his search for the two thieves. "A dime? You worried about a little old dime. I know times have been hard, son, but we've never been so lacking that we've had to worry about the loss of a single little old dime. Sure, you gonna run into people, people who'll do you that way and steal every last thing you've got if they can get away with it. But it's just part of growing up son. You lost a dime today, and I won it back a hundred-fold tonight. A whole lot more than a hundred fold. Never had such luck at the gambling table. Best not to say anything about that to the madam, though. "Peace," his mother said. "Peace, peace! Men cry peace when there is no peace!" The boy stepped back in alarm. He could not see the gun, and now he knew she must not have it; for she came toward them with her arms flung wildly upward, like a prophet of old, her hair all tossed and crazy like the hair of all those drunken goddesses in his mythology books. Like a Cassandra doomed forever to know the truth and unable

65 even to beg an audience to hear it. She was no longer as she had been just that morning, no longer the lovely young women people sometimes mistook for his older sister. "Oh, yes, the war is over, and maybe we will even go back to our normal lives for a while, but peace? Ah, men are fools to call for peace! Ah, have we not known from of old that that devil usurper in the White House has only enhanced the tragedy that afflicts this world and that very soon now it will be the turn of all the powers of darkness!" She had dropped her voice; now it rose again, her face twisted in a almost maniacal grimace, something he had never seen in her at all. Her voice kept rising as she again flung her arms toward the ceiling, looking upward as though seeing right through the house into some unknown world far above. "Listen to me, son. Listen to me, all ye minions of evil and darkness! Never again will we know anything but death, turmoil, and tribulation in this old world! Why, son, why! Why do we cry peace when there can be no peace! Have I not said a thousand times that the war itself is only a prelude of greater evils to come? We can see it on every side. Look at the nigras. How uppity they act in all the stores, on the streets, in all the buses. We'll not be able to do a thing with them now that they are demanding their 'rights.' Why the whole country is practically in the hands of the communists at this very moment. And who brought all that damnable liquor back to our shelves, and turned our cities into cesspools of drunkenness and decay? Yes, yes! I say, the war may be over, but do not think that we will have peace. Have I not told you a thousand times, a thousand times more than a thousand, that this is merely the beginning of sorrows!"

66 "Sit down, honey. Sit down. You've been reading too many books again. Did you take the medicine I sent the shine-boy after today? Did he bring it to you like I asked him to. You were supposed to get started on it right away." "Peace!" She spat out the word. "Bah, I tell you there will be no peace in this world, not for drunkards and liars and idolators, not even for those who would dupe us into thinking that there can ever be such a thing as peace!" "Sit down, baby. You're a little excited, that's all. Everything will seem a lot different in the morning." Ryerson watched his father, who stood, as always, with the stub of a Camel in his mouth. He still had that strange new look—completely different from anything Ryerson could remember. Ryerson had learned to expect trouble when his father was late, maybe a broom in the face, maybe even a wild shot from the pistol. Nothing like this. The boy had never seen anything like this at all. "Sit down, honey. Sit down. This is no time for hysterics. War's over, baby. War's over. Let's be a little thankful while we can." "That damnable heathen! Conspiring every way he knew how to get us into this war, to bring back liquor, to build up the nigra, and you call that 'saving the country.'" "Don't know where we'd be now without Roosevelt and Truman," his father said. "Maybe living under Hitler and his goose-steppers. Don't blame them for the bomb. It did a lot of good. Saved a lot of lives. That's what the papers say. Everybody talking up the bomb. But you need to lie down and get some rest. I'll bring your medicine. Fred did drop it by, didn't he? Reckon you could recall where he put it?"

67 She collapsed below them in a fit of hysterical crying, no longer able to scream out her frightening yet somehow strangely magnificent prophecies. Father got off the floor, relieved perhaps that for the first time she had not noticed the liquor on his breath, or had lost all sense of what it meant for him to come home drunk after a night at cards. Everything had changed in an instant. There was no supper on the table. Ryerson watched as his father got her back to the bedroom and got some of the medicine inside her. He looked at the label on the bottle after he had already fed her two big tablespoonfuls of the stuff. “Looks like I gave her a double dose. I reckon it won't hurt. I don't think she's been taking it the way she ought to. I think she just forgets." His father stood outside the door, looking at her as she lay there in the dark. "What will we do now?" Ryerson asked him. "Don't quite know, son. First thing is I guess we'll run up to the corner and grab a couple hotdogs. I don't think she's gonna want anything to eat tonight. We'll just have to see how she is in the morning, I guess. Maybe she'll be OK then. I just hope that new medicine will do the trick." She had been in the sanitarium briefly, and the boy greatly feared that she would have to go back, perhaps for a much longer stay this time. "Do you think she's . . . " He wanted to say "crazy" or "mad" or "insane." He couldn't get the word out, but his father understood.

68 "No," he said, in that way he had of belittling everything. "Just a little trouble with her nerves. Maybe this new medicine will do the trick." She was still crying, much more softly now, as the double dose of medicine began to take hold. His father shut the door and sat at the kitchen table, his face bleak and pale in the overhead light. “Will she have to go away?" "Sure hope not, son. Sure do hope not." "She acts, well . . . " He still couldn't make himself say the word, but he knew what his father was thinking. He knew what the whole family was thinking. Later, after they had got back from eating their hotdogs, they found her in a deep sleep. He felt a little better now. Still later, as he lay in bed in the dark, in the room next to his parents,' he kept listening for the crying to start again and heard nothing at all. He began to cry. Maybe she would not survive the overdose. Then he heard voices, muffled. He couldn't make out whatever was being said. He began to cry again, dreaming of the days before Roosevelt brought back drink, before they had moved into town, thinking of how lovely she was then, of how she would take him to a movie each Saturday afternoon and buy him a Coke at the pharmacy next door to the Carolina Theater. He was always proud when grownups mistook her for his sister. He knew those days were long past; she would never be as she was then; she would probably have to go away for a while, perhaps for a great while, and he lay half-sleeping and crying into his pillow, knowing that she was right even in her hysteria, knowing that she had always been right, maybe even about all those new people in Washington, knowing from what he

69 had seen in his father's face even before he saw it in hers that the long day which had begun with a great cry of peace, even as his last dime was being gulled from him, was indeed nothing more than the beginning of sorrows and the coming of afflictions like none ever before visited upon the world. The medicine might calm her down for a while; but how could it alter the terrible truth of what she had spoken, the doom that hung over him even now as he tried to sleep, that hung over all the world in this first night of real peace he had known since the earliest years of his life?

70 HAINTS IN THE ATTIC

The house on New Poplar Street was one of many fine dwellings that had clung stubbornly to its proud heritage amid the reverses of a declining city; but the boy would remember it only for a pervasive gloom that forever hung about the place: the fetid dark air, the smell of corncob pipes, of flowers too long in the jar; the shapes and shadows, the movement without sound, a lot of things indistinguishable to him in later years; but most of all the old man: the way he would always be standing out at the edge of the porch under the awning, watching his visitors as they mounted the two flights of stone steps from the street. The old man would emit a faint chuckle and then clutch the banister and lean over it, saying, "Come on up here, boy. I got a little something for you." The boy would go up ahead of his parents—he never knew why—to confront his inevitable and predictable fate. The old man would grab him rudely by the shoulder and lead him into the hall and over to the basement door. "I'll tell you what I'm a-gonna do to you, Ryerson, old boy. I'm a-gonna put you right down there in that coal bin. You hear me now? Git on down there! Yessir, we're gonna fix your little red wagon for sure. Lots of ‘em rats and moles down there waiting on their supper, boy. Ain’t had no taters lately. Har har har! So you git on down there, hear! Yessirreee. Why them rats will eat that pecker o’ yore’n right down to the nub. Don’tcha know that? So you go on now. We'll let you know when them rats has got a bellyful of you. Har Har Har Har Har!"

71 He would hold Ryerson there for a long moment, the door open, the smell of dust and coal and death and everlasting darkness drifting up out of the cellar. "Git on down in that basement, boy! We gonna lock this here door and throw the key to Kingdom Come! Yessir, that's what we're gonna do all right. Where's the key, mama?" Then he would turn away chortling madly, dragging his victim toward the parlor as he lit his corncob pipe and already spilling out to the boy's father some outlandish lie or other he had been working on, getting the details right, ever since their last visit. The old woman would just be sitting there all this time, hardly palpable, stiff and not alive at all, only her outline faintly luminous in the late sun, the snuff stick sticking out of her mouth. The house was always dark like that, winter and summer, and heavy with all kinds of indiscriminate smells, even in the brightest part of the day—darker still in summer when the great oaks and sycamores and poplars dropped their heavy brooding shadows over the place. Ryerson never knew how long it would be before his father would speak; but the old man, he just kept talking all the time, maybe about some ranch he'd lived on out West or how he'd once been with the FBI and knew for a fact that Jesse James was still alive and robbing banks as late as 1920. Or maybe he would talk about the time he himself was riding the Western plains, and especially about the night he had shot and killed a whole pack of coyotes, just looking at them in the dark, watching them as they moved around beyond the campfire, and him with nothing to aim at but their evil, glimmering eyes. In later years it was hard for the boy even to remember what the old woman sounded like. He couldn't remember anything she ever said, or for that matter anything

72 else about her, only that she was his great-grandmother and had married the old man— Granddaddy Starnes, everybody called him—late in life. She would just sit there mummified in the dark, with the old man sitting directly across from her on the daybed, making hieroglyphics in the musty air with his pipe, and all of them swallowed up in the dark and he himself “all rared back” with his thumb hooked in the strap of his galluses and boring everybody half silly (except maybe Ryerson’s father) with one big lie after the other: " . . . Made my first big gold strike in the summer of 1914 I believe it was—me and two other fellers I ran into up 'Frisco way." Then he would lean forward slightly, dropping his voice and staring with new intensity at the boy's father. “But lemme me tell you something, Prather; it's a funny thing what gold will do to a man. My two partners, they allowed as how they'd team up on me and take my share of the strike; but as you've probably already guessed, I was a deal too fast for 'em. Yessir. I dropped the first one before he could get to his gun, and the second, well, he commenced crying and whimpering and begging for his life. Says to me that he'd do anything I asked. So I says to him—talking about the feller I'd just shot —I says, 'Bury that polecat.' Yessir, Prather, it's a funny thing what a little gold will do to a man." The boy's father would sit grinning enigmatically, the gold sliver of a molar shining out of his mouth in the dark. Was that what had given the old man the idea for the story? Ryerson's father always looked forward to hearing the old man's lies even if they did make the boy and his mother a little ill.

73 Or maybe it was just the smell. You couldn't avoid it. It was all through the house, everywhere, as if the gloom itself had brought it in, as if it were as much a part of the house as the wood or the paint or the furniture. It would be Sunday afternoon when they went down there, the gloomiest time of the week along New Poplar Street, with all the gloomy branches of the trees hanging over the sidewalk and the old people all sitting on their front porches and their voices just kind of floating up in the dusk and hanging there. He had heard it said that the street was once the home of the town's early settlers and, after that, of the first tobacco millionaires; a street of real wealth and prestige in those days, though with little left now except the good memories. One Sunday there was somebody else at the house. A tall ghostly looking fellow named Myrtrice Jones, an automobile dealer related by marriage to Ryerson's mother. He certainly looked as though he belonged with the house and it always seemed to Ryerson Goode, as far back as he could remember, that his "uncle" Myrtrice always came in and looked it over with a certain proprietary air. On this afternoon Ryerson and his parents had got there later than usual. His uncle was sitting on the daybed with the old man who, from across the room, stared blindly at them like always. The old woman and Myrtrice just sat there in that mummified way of theirs, listening to Granddaddy Starnes talk about the time he had thrown two holdup men off a passenger-freight down in Ninety Six, South Carolina. It was some place all right—the old woman sitting propped up in the gloom as if the gloom itself was holding her up, and Myrtrice Jones tapping his cane on the rug, and the old man sitting there like always, with the pipe in his mouth and his shoulders all drawn back and both hands planted imperiously beneath his galluses.

74 He always looked as if he'd just got up from the table, although Ryerson couldn't actually remember ever seeing anything to eat in the house. He had never been invited to dinner or anything. He would just go down there on Sunday afternoon with his parents and sit and smell the smell and let the gloom stick to his face, and maybe along about sunset the old woman would come alive long enough to offer them a glass of iced tea. Somehow Ryerson knew as soon as he went in the door that this Sunday was to be different. When he stepped into the parlor Myrtrice Jones rose abruptly. "Well, Prather. Who's that young fellow you've brought along with you?" "Dunno. Just somebody we picked up on the way over. He just came to hear all the big talk." "Lock him in the coal bin, Myrtrice." Myrtrice came grimly forward while the old man sat in the dark, chuckling behind his corncob pipe. "Go on. Whatcha waiting on? Go on and lock him up." Myrtrice Jones caught the boy's neck with the hook of his cane and drew him over to the basement door. Nobody said anything. Then the old woman spoke out of the gloom, holding her head slightly awry, her body almost palpable now, the snuff stick catching a last glimmer of sunlight. "Leave that boy alone! Don't you be locking him in that coal bin!" "Just a little joke, mama," the old man said, with a voice like broken glass, chortling, grim. "Don't even think about putting him down there. Don't even talk about it any more. Do you hear me?"

75 Myrtrice kept poking the boy with the fancy walking stick and backing him toward the wall. Ryerson felt the sharp metal tip of the cane jabbing him in the groin— hard, much harder than necessary for "a little joke"—and then looked up desperately as the car dealer's face broke into a horrible grin. "Did you hear what I said!" the old woman called out. For a moment the boy thought she had actually got half out of her chair. Before he could be sure, his mother had stepped between him and Myrtrice Jones. "Get you hands off him? Are you deaf? Did you not hear what she said? Now I'm telling you: Leave him alone, damn you! Get your hands off him!" Myrtrice stepped away, forcing a laugh. "It's nothing, Eleanor. Only a bit of fooling. Didn't think you'd mind." His last words were almost mocking, bitter. "Really, Eleanor." "Well, I do mind. Do you hear me? I mind a great deal."

-*-

The next time Ryerson and his parents went down to New Poplar Street Myrtrice Jones was again sitting talking to the old man. He rose to greet the visitors, moving forward slowly, his face like granite, his cane pointed at Ryerson's stomach. "Let's go, boy." Ryerson's mother was between them in an instant. "Myrtice, sometimes you act as if you don't have half sense. I told you the last time we were here that you were to leave that boy alone, and if have to tell you again you may not like the result. Is

76 that clear enough for you? And I will tell you this: he's been having terrible dreams about your last little episode all week. I'm not asking you, I'm telling you and I'm telling you right now you'd better stop pointing that idiotic cane at him and just leave him alone!" Ryerson had seen a lot of his mother's anger and was surprised that his uncle, or whatever he was, would want to keep toying around with her like that. He was quite sure she could have knocked him flat with one blow. If not, there were plenty of other canes around—or maybe that little pistol she sometimes carried in her pocketbook. "Just a bit to tomfoolery, Eleanor. Dreams? Surely you aren't suggesting . . . " Not just dreams—nightmares. And if you think this is only a suggestion you'd better get your head on straight right now! Do you hear me?" She looked back at her son. "He wakes up in the middle of the night thinking he's been locked in that coal bin with all those rats crawling over him. But you can't even understand that, can you? If you don't think I'll call the law and put a stop to this, you just try me one more time." The room fell horribly still, everybody standing looking at Myrtrice Jones while the old man refilled his smelly pipe. Myrtrice pulled himself up taut, as though to bring the whole crowd down with a crash. Instead, he just took up his cane with a certain supercilious air and marched straight for the door, without so much as saying goodbye or stopping to look back or anything. "Just a little joke," said Granddaddy Starnes. Then, with scarcely a pause, he took up his old story about the latter-day Jesse James, how there wasn't one speck of truth to all that talk about the dirty little coward who shot Mister Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave.

77 "I know for a fact that him and his men robbed a couple of real big banks out in Nebrasky right after the first war. The spring of 1919 I believe it was. And that's a fact, Prather. That's a fact."

-*It was almost six months before Ryerson's next visit. The old woman was dead. All the windows had been thrown open and the smell of autumn drifted through the house, a smell of October, fresh sunlight and newly potted flowers even in this season of death and transfiguration. Somehow the place was a whole lot less gloomy now than when she was alive. The sun shone brightly along the hall, catching in its glimmer cabinets filled with crockery, crystal-ware, silver and, down at one end, the old man thumbing through a pouch of gold coins, telling Myrtrice Jones and some of the other mourners how a couple of toughs had tried to take the pouch off him one time while he was waiting to catch a train back from Reno. He sent the men reeling and left them for dead on the station platform. "How many men you reckon you killed?" one of the relatives asked. "Can't rightly say, son. But I'll tell you something and you can mark it down in your little black book: Ain't nothing like a big gold strike to change a man. I reckon I'm one of the few it never did change. And I can tell you this: I never lost a fight defending anything I ever got in a fair way." "That's something, granddaddy. You must've had a lot of big write-ups in the paper."

78 Granddaddy Starnes looked momentarily stunned. Ryerson wasn't sure anyone else noticed, he recovered so quickly. "Oh yeah, a whole lot of those. Whole boxes full of that kind of stuff, you might say. 'Spect we'll run across a lot of it when we get to cleaning out the attic." Myrtrice, meantime, was no longer looking at the gold. He took a couple of steps toward the upper hall, staring at Ryerson and his parents through rimless spectacles, the pearl-handled walking cane raised before him in a kind of taunt. "Well, well, well, Eleanor. We are all here on a very sad occasion. Very sad indeed." Prather Goode stood calmly holding his hat against his belly, his gold tooth glimmering with new life in the fresh light of the hall. He went on in the parlor and took a look at the casket—the old woman seemed almost alive for once—and then came back and sat in the front room for a while, a long ash curving off the end of his cigarette. Later, on the way home, Ryerson's mother said: "I despise that Myrtrice Jones. I know that is not a very Christian thing to say. But I simply can't think of any other way to describe it. Why do you suppose he never stepped foot in that house until he heard grandmama had . . . that terrible thing growing inside her. Sniffing all around the place like the hypocrite he is. I suppose he's happy now that he thinks he's going to get all the old man's gold coins. Where did he get them anyway? I gather not from prospecting in the High Sierra. Probably stole them from some of his family before Roosevelt outlawed gold. It’s actually illegal for him to have them, you know. I wonder what else that monster will do to our lives.” “Which one?” Ryerson asked.

79 “Which one? What do you mean, son?” “Roosevelt or Granddaddy Starnes?” “Well, I’m sure each in his own way will do as much to our detriment as he possibly can. Why did grandmother ever decide to marry that . . . that despicable old crank? Lord knows, I would be very much surprised if he hasn't worked night and day to make certain that Myrtrice gets everything and that the rest of us get nothing. Well, we'll just have to see about that, won't we?" Nobody had any idea about the size of his estate. Or even if there was any estate, other than the house and maybe a couple of acres of land grown up in untended gardens. Granddaddy Starnes was such a miser and a crank that he couldn't possibly ever have spent any of his gold or silver dollars or V nickels or anything else he might have had, at least not in the time Ryerson and his parents had known him. Which actually wasn't all that long; he and the old woman had been married only a little more than ten years at the time of her death. "That old crank," Eleanor said. "That miserly old infidel. It doesn't seem to bother him in the least that she's dead and gone. And did you notice the way Myrtrice looked. No need to tell me he wasn't glad to see her gone. If he wants to be that kind of fool, I'm certainly not one to interfere. Why should I care anyway? Why? I ask you. Why? What on earth of importance or real feeling could ever come from two utterly hateful old infidels like that anyway."

-*-

80 In the weeks to come Myrtrice Jones was seldom far from the old man's side. Every time Ryerson went down there the two men would be sitting in the parlor, Granddaddy Starnes all “rared” back like always, telling one big lie after another, and Myrtrice Jones not even bothering to acknowledge the presence of the newcomers, just sitting there gazing silently at them from the chair that had once belonged to the old woman. Which suited Ryerson just fine. For the first time in his life he didn't have to worry about getting kicked down in the coal bin for the rats to nibble at, although he was old enough now so that neither of them would have dared try to put him in the coal bin or anywhere else. Ryerson had imbibed enough from his mother to know that some kind of fight was shaping up, and he didn't want to be left out of it. Maybe the time had come to lock Myrtrice and the old man both in the coal bin rather than waste a whole Sunday afternoon just sitting and staring at one another. What the hell were they doing there anyway? Nobody could actually think of the house as belonging to Granddaddy Starnes, the famous night-rider and gold prospector, and as for Myrtrice Jones, it was long past time for him to give up any idea of claiming a share of the inheritance. Except that he might be just a little too shrewd for that. Ryerson's mother would bite her lips plumb white just thinking about it, and now she was more heavily into her tranquilizers than ever. “Well," she would say. "I just hope he'll be happy when he has it all. That fraud, that crank, that miserable old infidel!"

81 "Now, now, honey. Just try not to keep dwelling on it. You'll find out that these things eventually work themselves out for the best." Well, maybe not. For the day came when Myrtrice Jones did have it all. He had everything his own way. The only problem was that he had to take the old man as part of the bargain. Took him way out at his country estate in the foothills of the Sauratown mountains. Ryerson almost never saw him after that—only on those times when his parents out of some sense of obligation neither of them quite understood drove the fifteen miles or so out there to pay them a visit. Once—maybe twice—a year at most. After the first year they began to hear a lot of talk about how things were going. Everybody in the family—at least everybody who had taken the trouble to go out there— said it was one more rotten shame the way Myrtrice was treating the old man. Ryerson himself had begun to notice it. On one of his first visits to Sauratown he saw at once how much Granddaddy Starnes had changed since his days on New Poplar Street. He suddenly seemed much older, all humped over and shrunken, and he had a walking stick now—not one of Myrtrice Jones elegantly carved models, just a plain old cane he'd picked up a dime stone somewhere or maybe carved out of one of the hickory trees that grew along the back of the lot. Strangest of all was how little he had to say. No more talk of train robbers and heroic deeds on the Great American Plains. He had quit all that lying; he had just about quit talking altogether. On that day Ryerson and his mother found him in the sun-parlor, off on one side of the house, a room almost completely walled with glass and surrounded by thick masses of greenery. He held his sorry old cane across his lap and hardly looked up at them as they came in. Watching him, Ryerson got the dreary feeling that he would linger

82 on like that for some time to come—years maybe—no matter how badly Myrtrice Jones treated him. He just sat there humped over like some kind of grotesque hot-house flower, his rheumy eyes staring off at nothing and the vines of the sun-parlor beginning to creep down on him. Toward the end of their stay Myrtrice Jones's housekeeper came to the door. "Now, Mr. Starnes. Time for a little nourishment." She got him up and led him out to the kitchen, where, as always (so they had gathered) he would enjoy his "little nourishment" alone. Later she took him out for his constitutional. Ryerson could see them walking around in the formal gardens back of the house, him with his scroungy cane and the housekeeper holding his arm. Meantime, Myrtrice Jones had come in to greet his company and explain that Granddaddy Starnes had become a terrible burden in his life and how nothing ever seemed to please the old crank any more and what a hardship it had been putting up with him all these months. Myrtrice, who did in fact look a little undone by it all, said the old man never had a kind word for anybody and never did for himself any of the things he could do easily enough if ever he’d wanted to take a mind to it. Always expecting somebody to come and wait on him. He, on the other hand, had scarcely a moment to call his own. Some people were born to waste their days in licentiousness and others to serve a higher cause. Only God would ever know the full measure of his burden . . .

-*-

83

That was a kind of a funny thing to say; Myrtrice Jones didn't even believe in God. Ryerson found that out for certain one afternoon when Granddaddy Starnes was in one of his rare talkative moods. When he was sure that his keeper was out of earshot he told his visitors how Myrtrice had refused to let him read his Bible and how he broke out into foul oaths every time the name of God or the church or eternal life were so much as mentioned in his presence. The old man had lived a life without God, and now, as he looked out on eternal night, he had to face the thought that he might very well have committed sins for which there would be no forgiveness when he stood at the Judgment Seat of the Almighty. "I guess he's thinking about all those men he shot down in cold blood out there in the desert," Ryerson said. His father shushed him, frowning at him across the room, maybe fearful that he would interrupt another of the old man's good stories. "A shame," Ryerson's mother kept saying. "Such a terrible waste." Old man Starnes sat there crying and shaking amid the greenery and, later, after they had left the house and were on their way back to town, she was still talking about it. "You know, I think he would like to believe in God if only somebody would give him a little encouragement. Do you know what he told me? He said, 'Eleanor, when I was only sixteen years old I heard the Lord speaking to me, but I wouldn't listen. I still had a life to live. I still had a world of adventures ahead of me, and I just wouldn't listen. Then he began to cry. "I just wouldn't listen, Eleanor. And now it's too late, Eleanor, too late . . . '"

84

-*-

The next time they went out there it was winter; a cold bleak afternoon with the light of eternal gloom settling slowly over the house. Even Myrtrice seemed to feel it as he sat shivering in a cashmere sweater by the hearthfire. He said little and looked increasingly uneasy and grim. When the old man came out—he was in a wheelchair now —Ryerson's mother rose with the Bible she had brought especially for the occasion and, after excusing herself, swung him right around and rolled him out to the sun-parlor. The boy watched them sitting out there with the French doors shut. She would lean over and speak to him quite sternly (so at least it seemed to young Ryerson Goode) and he would nod and she would stand back and lecture him some more and then he would nod again and finally she would read something from the Book of Daniel, her favorite, or maybe from Revelation. And again he would nod. Would it ever come to anything? Had the old man found God at last? Just from looking at him it was hard to say whether she had saved him for the Lord or whether she would just have to mark him down as another lost cause. Toward nightfall Mrs. Bruce, the housekeeper, went out to throw a shawl over him and wheel him back inside to supper. "How is he?" Ryerson's father asked.

85 "Some better perhaps. But you can never be certain about these things. My only hope is for him to understand what the Lord expects of him and that a life of sin does not necessarily mean an eternity of Hellfire." Myrtrice said nothing. He just stood there carved out of granite, waiting, looking, scowling. "I hope for his sake that he will start to read his Bible and that no one will be so audacious as to keep him from his prayers." She was looking right at Myrtrice when she said it. Lest he miss the point she kept right on looking at him and recounting the whole story of how the old man had been robbed of his Bible and how certain people—if indeed one could imagine such a thing— had even forbidden him to pray or even so much as beg forgiveness for his many sins. “For we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God." She looked at Myrtrice, or rather had never stopped looking at him. "All! Do you hear me? All?" Myrtrice just stood there, at times almost alive, at other times a mere statue, collecting dust. Almost imperceptibly, a tiny snarl twisted his lips as she lectured him even more fervently on the ways of violent and evil men, and the fate that awaited them in the hereafter. "'. . . I saw a new heaven and a new earth,'" she said, quoting again from Revelation. "'For the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea . . . ." Well, if it was too late for Myrtrice Jones, maybe there was still time for the old man. Ryerson and his parents went back more frequently now, none of them expecting him to outlast the winter. The boy would always remember his last visit, how

86 Granddaddy Starnes had sat looking at them pitifully out of a mass of greenery of which his head seemed a mere shriveled sprout, waiting for somebody to provide him with assurances that he would not be spending eternity in Hell after all. Nobody could think of exactly the right words. After a long afternoon of really banging the gospel into the old man's head, Ryerson's mother turned away and said in a low and despairing voice: "Yes. Maybe it is too late. Maybe he just doesn't understand after all. I suppose that this is what they mean by the ultimate blasphemy: the time in a man's life when he can no longer hear the appeal of Christ. And so is beyond all hope. I suppose that is why they call it the one sin that is unpardonable." So he just sat there, nodding and sobbing by turns, wasted and all but invisible amid the devouring shadows. Ryerson couldn't help feeling a little sorry for the old infidel. On this last visit they did not even see Myrtrice Jones until they were ready to leave. As they went down the front steps past the two huge neoclassical columns Ryerson turned and saw the two infidels staring out the casement window into the heavy, sullen December dusk. Myrtrice Jone's granite face had begun to melt and his hair was gone and for the first time the boy noticed how terribly sad he looked. "Well," said Ryerson's mother as they were on the long highway back to town. "I hope he's satisfied with what he’s won out of life. I hope that tight-fisted rascal who nobody ever invited into our lives has finally found out what it's like to live with another human being who has no more feeling for his fellow man than he does." "Myrtrice, you mean." "Of course. Myrtrice. I hope he's happy now that's he's got it all and at the price he's having to pay for it."

87 Myrtrice had probably figured by now that the old man would never die. He was stuck with him. Why was it, Ryerson wondered, that infidels always managed to live so much longer than ordinary people? His mother said it was because even the godless— and maybe especially the godless—must be given every chance to redeem themselves. So it was with Granddaddy Starnes and Myrtrice Jones. Years from now they would still be sitting together in the great mansion to which no guest ever came, just two old infidels alone, the darkness slowly consuming them, their voices like crickets' voices, their bodies nothing but dry husks and the talk growing fainter and fainter until at last a wind would come up and blow them out to eternity. Ryerson kept thinking about the time the old man had been alone in the desert and how the coyotes had come and how he had shot them down, one bullet to a coyote, without being able to see anything but their eyes shining in the dark. Yes. And the time he had thrown those two characters off the train down in Ninety-Six, South Carolina. And how he had always thought Jesse James would have made a marvelous president. But now the evil days had come, and the years had drawn nigh when he could say, "I have no pleasure in them." Nothing left for him but to sit around and think back on all the wasted years and wonder why nobody ever came to talk to him about God any more. "What good is his gold now?" Ryerson's mother said as they were driving away on that last afternoon. "Yes. What good?" "Seemed kinda down on himself today." "Down on himself. Down on everything. But there is nothing new in that. It is only because you haven't been paying attention. My word, as little as I cared for him I

88 can certainly feel sorry for him now that he's found out what Myrtrice really thinks of him. Is he getting what he deserves? That's not for me to say. But we all do, I suppose, in one way or an another, either in this world or the next. Or in both. I know how hard it was on grandmama having to live with him all those years. I know what she must have gone through in her mind. But people always get paid back, and you can count on that for a certainty." She turned to Ryerson. "Remember that, son. People always get paid back no matter what." "Oh, I don't know about that," his father said. "Oh, you don't, don’t you? Do you mean to tell me that you think he is being treated far worse than he deserves? Well, I suppose it's easy enough for you to forget. I suppose you can't even remember the way he treated Aunt Lou Anne that time, making her move out of the house when all she wanted was to be near her mama and care for her. Because she certainly realized he would never assume the responsibility on his own. And I don't suppose you remember the way he sneaked off with some of grandmama's very best China and sold it and kept the money for himself. She was looking back at Ryerson again. “Nobody else in the family ever saw a piece of it. You don't remember any of that. It wasn't that I ever expected anything from him, and don't now, but I'll never forgive him for the way he treated grandmama and Aunt Lou Anne. But he's got what he deserves now, and more too, and so has that devil Myrtrice. I'm just thankful I lived to see it all. The very confirmation of all we have been taught to believe. He sure didn't get his little cache of gold by holding up trains all these years, or whatever that nonsense is that he's been telling you all this time. I'm just glad I lived to

89 see it all. Two infidels who deserve each other. I don't suppose there's any more you can say about it than that." "Reckon not.” The boy never saw either of them again. When the old man died no one went to his funeral. All anybody could think to say was: "May the Lord have mercy on his soul!" And nothing could have been more certain than that Myrtrice Jones would soon be following him right straight on down to Perdition.

-*-

Having committed the Unpardonable Sin, Myrtrice Jones apparently felt that he was free to commit as many others as he chose, at no extra penalty. He eventually got everything the old man had, just as everyone had foreseen—all of his money, his rare coin collection and even those pouches full of gold currency he wasn't even supposed to have in the house after Roosevelt came into office. He got what little was left of the expensive China plate that the old man hadn't already sneaked off and sold for himself. He got all the silverware and fine crystal and antique furniture and expensive wall hangings and even the photograph album that contained pictures of Ryerson's mother as a young bride. Still, it wasn't actually true to say that he got everything. The old woman had seen to it in her will that Ryerson's mother was to get the house. Everybody kept saying how fortunate she was to have inherited such a fine old place in one of the best parts of town.

90 Maybe it was true. But Ryerson never was quite sure how he was supposed to feel about it. He never would learn to feel at home there. He just never could forget those old bad days when Granddaddy Starnes sat in the dark parlor chortling wildly as he recounted his impossible stories. He couldn't forget the smell of the corncob pipe, the thought of the coal bin or his great-grandmother sitting in the big easy chair chewing her snuff stick. His father must have felt much the same. Forced to leave his own house, way out on the northern edge of the city, he seemed uneasy with his life, all the time caught up in the gloom he had never seemed to feel during their many Sunday afternoon visits. He began spending more time away from home and had taken more heavily to drink. But what the boy mainly noticed, almost from the day they moved in—he was sixteen, a junior in high school—was that his mother herself had fallen into a deep unshakable gloom far more profound than the crazy spells of melancholia that had troubled her during her early married life, especially after Roosevelt, that “damned Antichrist” as she always called him, had come into office and brought and end to Prohibition. She had wanted the house more than anything. She had thought she would finally be happy there. Not only for herself, she always explained, but for her son as well, so that he could finish his education at the best of the city schools and get the good fresh start he would need to amount to something in the world. So his father sold the house on the northern fringe of the city. It was the house in which Ryerson had spent all of his childhood and early teenage years. His father had bought it mostly because it was not much more than a long walk from the community of Dobbs Station and the farm where he had grown up. He had planted his first Victory Garden there and would often say in later life that those had been his best years. Still, he

91 had given it up in the hope that if he could give his wife what she wanted she would recover from the mental instability that had haunted her with growing frequency since the first years of their marriage. He had never fought her in anything. He had even allowed her to vote Republican — in the good days when she was able to vote at all—and get away with it. And if moving to New Poplar Street would make her more content—well, he would not fight her in that either. Yet the thing she had wanted most of all would one day drive her to the very edge of madness, and, as some would later say, right over the edge. Was it possible that the shade of old man Starnes still walked those halls? That she alone of all who came there could smell his pipe and hear his footsteps? The boy was never sure. All he knew was that none of their lives were ever to be the same after they had left their first house out on the northwest edge of the city. He would never be sure when he first came to believe in the evil power of the house. It wasn't just the memory of old man Starnes, and all the other bad memories: it was the house itself. Even if he couldn't always hear the footsteps or voices. Or smell the old man's pipe. "Is it just the house?" he used to ask his father. "I mean is there some, well, presence here that we don't know about?" "I rightly don't know, son. Lord help me, sometimes I just don't know what to think." "Everything seemed to go wrong after we moved in."

92 Meantime, the farm where his father had grown up would eventually become almost a second home to him; he would begin to spend a great deal more time there as a teenager. More often now his mother would be away from the house on New Poplar Street for weeks at a time, weeks that grew into months and finally into years. In time Ryerson would grow to hate and fear the house even more than he had as a child. Half the time he never knew where his father was anymore. When he was out at the farm and his mother at the rest home in the mountains, trying to recover from her latest seizure of melancholia, he would always have to content himself with the knowledge that he was where he said he was: that is, at his "office" downtown. Or what he called his office. Actually it was nothing more than the storage section of his Trade Street barbershop, set off from the front by a freshly painted piece of latticework, a place mainly for him to keep his important business papers and to invite his old pals in for drinks and cards. Sometimes his father would be there, and the boy with him; other times out on the road, explaining that he had heard about some new bargain or other in rental property and would need a considerable amount of time to go and take a look. All Ryerson knew for certain was that even his father would never spend a night alone in the house on New Poplar Street. Unlike Ryerson, he never quite believed in another world that lay just beyond their seeing or hearing. But there was quite definitely something about the house that put him in much the same state as his wife and son. During those times when his mother was away his father would always give it out that she was recuperating from one of her "little spells" at a secluded mountain hotel known mainly as a refuge for tobacco millionaires and other members of the city's elite.

93 People close to the family would say little, but everybody knew that she was really at the insane asylum in Morganton. His mother had always been given to dark moods, long brooding spells of uncertainty, great flights of temper that would suddenly end in bouts of frantic sobbing— her "little spells," as his father called them. Mostly they would come over her when he came home a little drunk after staying out late with the boys. But there were darker spells now, long hours when she would lock herself in her bedroom and forget to prepare meals, sobbing, clinging to her Bible without really reading it, talking brokenly of the coming Tribulation and the reign of the Antichrist, for whom Roosevelt had been—as she now saw more clearly—merely one more false prophet sent to prepare for The Way. Not that there weren't some good times out at the farm, glorious days in the autumn after the leaves had fallen, the laughter and sunshine of summer mornings and all the big Sunday dinners and family reunions, the good times when he was able to see his half sister Deni again, not knowing that even though they were Southerners they would never be able to get away with the passionate love affair that one day would enkindle them both. She was only a year younger than he was, dark and intense, child of his father’s first brief marriage, with something a little wild in her eye, already liking him as more than just a brother when she was barely twelve years old. Sometimes she would visit him at his father's old homeplace out at Dobbs Station during revival time. Those were always the best times. A hint of evil seemed to hang over the whole community of Dobbs Station during those two weeks of the summer revival, bringing him and his sister ever more

94 closely together, some would say, too close . . . Ah, but that is too much a story for another day. Deni liked her father as well, and would embrace every opportunity to spend as much time as she could at the house on New Poplar Street. But as she sat with her brother on the stairs or on the porch even she could sense the dark moods of the house. "There's something about this place that's a little scary," she would say. "Didn't you like it better where you were before?" "Mother always had a great love for this old place, even since she was a girl. It was her fondest dream fulfilled when she realized that it was actually hers." "But she doesn't seem to be enjoying it at all, does she? And Father, really, I worry about him. I shouldn't stick my nose into your business, but I can't help noticing that he seems to be drinking a lot more. Do you think it's the house?" "Dunno." "I guess that's silly. You wouldn't think a house all by itself had the power to change a person or drive them into—what do they call it? Melancholia? That's what the doctors say, isn't it? I love that word. Melancholia. The sound of it, I mean. I think if I spent much more time here I would have a very bad case of it myself. I really do wonder if that is why Father seems to be drinking more than is good for him." Ryerson was sure of it, though he rarely spoke of how he felt about his new home to anyone else: a house that could exercise its own dark power over you and give you more than just a little case of the shudders. It was something to think about all right. Deni saw very little of his mother even when she was back home from the mountains. Sometimes she would go to the door of her bedroom and listen for a long time and then

95 maybe she would knock sharply and, in that nervy way she had, would ask if she might come in and talk. Sometimes his mother would come to the door all bleary eyed from crying and let her into a room even darker and more frightening and mysterious than the house itself. Had it got to the point that she could no longer survive in the full light of day? Sometimes she would not come to the door at all. He always hated to see Deni leave and would always arrange to invite her to the farm whenever he was going out there to help with the haying or with the tobacco crop. Even on New Poplar Street she was always ebullient and cheerful, even when the heavy threat of the house lay over them all. When the time came for her to go he would sometimes walk her as far as Old Salem, the eighteenth-century Moravian congregation town where Aunt Ethel lived and where, in later years, Deni would usually leave her car, maybe just to give herself an excuse for the two of them to be together. "You know," she would say as they parted. "I really hate to think of it in just this way, and I know I shouldn't talk about it at all. But I have to wonder if your mother will ever be truly well again." He would walk back in the heavy gloom of the afternoon and stand looking at the house for a long time before climbing the two flights of stone steps to the porch. He would think about all the times he had come there to see old man Starnes waiting for him beneath the awning, smoking his corncob pipe and laughing his sinister laugh. And he would think again about all the things Deni had said about the house.

96 It would simply destroy me, Ryerson. I'm sure of it. If I had to spend all my time here. Do you plan to stay here forever? Do you think your father will ever stop drinking? Yes. It would destroy her, just as it was destroying his mother. Perhaps it would also destroy him. Perhaps it would destroy them all. Yet those who did not know it as he knew it had always said it was very possibly the most elegant and warmest house on the whole street and how fortunate it was that his mother could afford a maid to keep the place up since she herself was so seldom up to the task. After moving into town he began to spend whole summers at the farm. His uncle Clint always needed his help with the tobacco and corn harvest, and he could always find an excuse to go out and visit even when his mother was able to leave her room and go out to work in her flower-bed again. Those times would grow fewer as he reached his last years in high school. By that time she was always being sent off to some recovery hostel or other and would be spending less time than ever in the house where she had hoped to find the first real happiness she had ever known—where she had found instead only the terrible frightening days and nights that were a foretoken of her final doom. She would often come back to New Poplar Street, sometimes for prolonged periods during the twenty years or so she had left to her. There would always be some new medication, some new pill or bottle of dope that would be sure to work this time and bring her to a full and complete recovery. It never did.

97 Yet there were times when she would be almost as she was on the good days when they had lived outside of town, in the little house where father had planted his Victory Gardens and where she had spent long hours each afternoon digging in her roses. She would cook big meals, as she had in the old days, and start cleaning house and throw open all the blinds and curtains. Then it would begin again. One day they would come home to find her locked in her room, sobbing uncontrollably and talking about the last days and the Great Tribulation. All the old arguments would start again, and then more crying, and the pills and the jars of blue medicine and green medicine would be brought out and none of them ever seeming to do any good: and again the not-quite-heard-voices, the brooding darkness, the strange musty smell you could never quite get rid of, the footsteps that were never quite there. Foolish, perhaps. And his father would always manage an uneasy laugh when Ryerson started talking that way. It would go on like that for years, while he was in college and for a long time after, and he had known all along that he would never really feel right about the house on New Poplar Street until the day when he himself could put a FOR SALE sign in the yard and walk away from the place forever.

98

FIRST LOVE

He was never sure where it came from. It was almost as if it had been waiting for him around the corner all along, ready to smack him to the ground when he wasn't even looking. He had not even suspected it was anywhere in the neighborhood; yet there it was, catching him completely off his watch and leaving him a little crazy inside, as though he had drunk or absorbed some sensuous and exotic liqueur unknown except to a privileged elite whose powers were forever greater than those of other men. All he knew was that suddenly everything was different—the way the night looked and felt, the way the moonlight came through the trees, the sound of voices in the abandoned school-bus where he sometimes joined the other guys in the neighborhood each night to smoke cigarettes and wait for Sarah Musgrove or one of the other neighborhood strumpets to get there. Everybody liked talking dirty to Sarah and getting their hands up her dress. Never anything more than that, not when there was a crowd around. Sometimes she would bring a friend, occasionally even a second. Those were the best nights: no more than two boys to a girl, hands going like crazy, working them up to wild whoops and yells and often getting very little for it in return. In those first days, after the Phantom of the Opera had dropped those drops of enchantment into Ryerson’s eyes, he just couldn't figure out what it was exactly that had come bursting in on him without any warning at all. He sure didn't know what to call it, but it struck with such destructive power that forever after that he could recall the very

99 moment he felt its impact. All he could think of was one of those love potions his teachers had read about in English class: two drops on your eyelids while asleep and you dote on the first girl that comes near you when you awake. Well, when he woke from his dose, halfway through the next school day, his eye fell upon a most unlikely prospect: the lovely blonde Alva McElenney, two years older than he and already, as a sophomore, an all-state basketball player. So there he was. He knew he had no chance with her, but at least his eyes hadn't landed on Patricia Willard, who had been giving high schoolers the time of their lives at least since her fifth year in school. Or maybe because of some predestined fate he was not permitted to see her—really see her—at all until he had first seen Alva McElenney, the girl he thought he could love forever, the one girl he knew he could never have. Her older brother, Josh McElenney, had been the best player ever to wear an Old Fork uniform. During his last two years on the varsity the team had won all the big trophies, two state championships, and maybe half a dozen regional titles, and would almost certainly have done so again if he had not gone off to war and died in the Philippines. Gone and greatly lamented, he was, but not before teaching his younger sister the game of basketball as few girls in Ryerson’s day had ever managed to learn it. She was a natural anyway, as her brother had been; and there Ryerson was, a mere eighth grader (though already a first-string guard on the junior varsity basketball team) who had fallen so powerfully under her spell that he really felt a little ill when he wasn't around her, which was most of the time. About the only chance he had to see her up close was during homeroom class, when everybody was coming back from lunch.

100 She had always managed a little smile, a very sweet smile, though meaningless, when she came to get the books she had left on his desk after her fourth-period class in American history. He liked to think she permitted the smile only because she felt he was a real comer as an athlete. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't; but for some reason, on the day after his mystical experience under the full moon of October, he had seen an Alva McElenney who, till that moment, might never have existed at all. Her smile was different, her voice, her eyes, the way she looked at him. Yet it meant nothing. Not with her being two grades ahead of him and already a celebrity of sorts. What possible chance would he have with her? How could he possibly even so much as think of sitting next to her on the activity bus, much less asking her to join him for smokes or maybe to meet him downtown at O'Hanlon's drugstore? During those crazy hours he thought at first that he might be able to arrange it through Patricia, or “Trish,” who was always willing to oblige if someone’s “virtue” was at the stake. Another cherry crushed and bleeding. Maybe not such a good idea, though, to ask for that kind of favor till she got over her sulk: she sure didn’t care a great deal for the way he had been eyeing Alva McElenney in recent weeks. It was sort of an odd piece of timing, but she had wrangled out of him, only a day or two before, a promise that he would pay her a visit on the very next night that her old man was working late. "Trish, you know I don’t have any way to get out to your place.” “Walk. Ride your bike. It couldn’t be more than three miles.” She pouted for a moment while running her hand up his thigh. “Damn you, Ryerson. You never even come to see me when you do have a chance. Like all those summers you spend out at

101 your family farm—not a good mile from where I live. Yet I’m always having to beg you to come. It’s like pulling teeth to get you to come by and say hello.” “OK, Patricia. I mean, Trish. I will change. I promise you that from now on I will mind my manners.” He was never quite sure why she had picked him out special, or why at that particular time, maybe only because she knew all about what the full moon could do to guys his age and had seen in him something he had not seen in himself. Trish, a stringy haired girl on the marginal edge of good looks, had learned everything she knew from her father, a shocking thing for her to say and for him to know, and yet a real break for sure: He had just turned thirteen and was still hopelessly naïve when it came to girls and he guessed she had sort of figured that out and hated to see him go on and become a big sportsman and president of his class without being properly introduced to what she liked to call "the fruits of love." Trish was the champ all right. Even Sarah Musgrove, who lived much nearer to Ryerson, in the days before he and his family had moved into town, could never quite match her in that.

-*-

Well, there came a day when he just couldn't stand it any longer. Long after the full moon had waned, if he wasn't seeing Sarah, he would just walk all about the neighborhood alone, feeling the new sweet overpowering melancholy inside him and

102 thinking of Alva McElenney. Why had fate so prepared it that the mystical drops of love potion would not fall on her eyes as well? He knew something eventually had to happen and one day it did. When Alva came by after lunch to pick up her books, with Trish sitting right beside him and glaring at him with all her might, the strange demonic force that had seized him and shook him like a rag doll under the October moon simply took over his whole being. At least that is the way he remembered it later. Because he could think of any other way to explain why, all of a sudden, he caught hold of her hand and pulled her toward him—and, god, what a wondrous smell of perfume! "Such a lovely, white, luscious hand. May I keep it for a while?" That got a bit of a laugh out of her, though very little else. "I'm afraid you would have to keep me with it, sweetie." "You all planning to go undefeated this year." "We always plan on it." "Well, so do we." "Yes, I know. You and your buddy Gregg. That play you two boys worked out last year. Really, a truly beautiful thing to watch." The next day he stopped her again: "Play you one on one." "Oh. You will, will you?" She paused and looked back just for a second. "See me at recess and we'll talk about it."

103 It was quite a lot for him to say to a girl he hardly knew at all and who, till now, had frightened him half to death with her air of huge confidence and unspeakable good looks. He did not have a chance to see her at recess and there was no time to talk when she came to pick up her books the next day. Her smile stayed with him day and night and he never got off to sleep without seeing it—and not just her smile either. Because now, he thought of her either crawling into his window naked or standing by his bed with the cover rising before him like a pup tent as that same strange demonic power filled him with its maniacal lust. Still, it meant nothing. She could have easily have been Lauren Bacall and him a shameless leper begging alms at her door for all the good it would do him. It was the same thing every day: whether he spoke or found it impossible to think of anything original to say. He could do nothing but walk around with the picture of her laughing face in his head, moon or no moon. He found myself staring at her, unable to help it, like a helpless sheep dog, hardly able to speak of her at all until the day she had spoken those fateful words: See me at recess and we'll talk about it then

-*He just went all crazy inside after that. It was more conversation than he had ever expected to get. He kept thinking about all the success his junior varsity team had enjoyed long before he ever realized his life belonged to Alva McElenney. The team had

104 gone undefeated when he was only a seventh grader and had not won a game by fewer than ten points. He and Gregg Alpin—they had been close friends from their very first day in school —had spent the whole summer developing a beautifully executed play that no one had been able to stop completely and almost no one had been able to stop it at all. The timing was very nearly perfect—Gregg's high leap and Ryerson’s rocket-like pass just as he was going up for the basket. Everybody knew what was coming and nobody could stop it. Gregg was almost six feet tall and almost a year older than Ryerson even though they were in the same grade. Now, as an eighth grader, Gregg could leap as high as any one on the varsity and both he and Ryerson could run with the best of the upperclassmen. Another year's experience and they would surely be ready for their first sortie into the "big time." Long after that he liked to boast that they had been years ahead of their time. With his playing days long behind him, he would watch the big college teams execute to perfection almost the same play he and Gregg had developed as mere kids. Not that he was ever so full of himself as to think he could have played with the generation of performers that came along during the next quarter of a century—but at least he and Gregg had had the idea. Perhaps that is why Alva had not dismissed him as a mere trifle, and after pestering her for weeks, every time she came by to pick up her books, he eventually got her into a challenge match. He skipped study hall one afternoon and got down to the gym as the girl's varsity was just completing its workout. Alva suddenly turned and flung him the ball.

105 “OK, hotshot, let's see what you've got." They ignored the bell for sixth period and spent the next hour in a give-and-take that left Ryerson unashamed of his performance even though Alva was already good enough to play for the boy's team and everybody knew it. He was about to go in for what would have been his last shot when old one-eye Becker came in and broke it up, threatening to throw both of them out of school for violating Old Fork's athletic code. Well, everybody knew he wasn't about to throw Alva out of school, which meant that he was helpless to do anything about Ryerson either. Becker kept looking at his watch and bellowing for everybody to get the hell on back to class. Becker, who also had only one arm, held the door while they all filed out, blinking at the two players ominously with his good eye, his flesh a little broken and pasty-looking. A real wreck, Becker was. Ryerson had long ago made up his mind that the old coot would never again bring him under the lash as he had when he was a mere second-grader. Ryerson was still hoping for an excuse to take him down for the count? Was this the time? Well, perhaps not in front of all the girls. Above, alone in the oily and squeaky hall, Alva stopped him and said, "Come here a minute, hotshot.” “Whatcha want?” “Let me see your hands." "My hands?" "Yes. Hold them out and let me have a look." "Ah, you're going to read my palm."

106 "Better than that. Yes. You've got the hand-span for it and, with your speed, you could be as good as Josh, maybe better, maybe the best we've ever had here if you . . . don't let yourself get sidetracked." Then she rushed off with her pile of books, laughing merrily and leaving him to wonder what she meant by "sidetracked." "Well," Patricia said when he came in next morning. "You two certainly seem to have a lot to say to each other these days." "We're only talking basketball. It isn't anything." "Oh? Do you think I haven't seen you just go all to pieces every time you look at her. Do you love her? She really is very lovely, isn't she, but I'll bet she won't do for you what I can do. And her two years older than you are. And besides, she is already going steady with Eddie Hugh Morris. I understand they plan to be married as soon as she graduates." Ryerson said nothing, but he had begun to wonder if Alva had begun to feel for him something she had never felt for Eddie Hugh Morris. He also knew that word of their meetings on the basketball court and their little conversations were rapidly getting around the school. Maybe he would read about it in the next issue of the Old Fork Tattler. Did you know that old Ryerson has the hots for Alva McElenney? You don't say? Does she know? Dunno. Boy, wouldn't she get a laugh out of that?

107 -*-

He was really beginning to feel really good about himself, knowing Trish would not abandon him in the hour of need and that maybe one day soon he might even get up the nerve to grab a seat beside Alva on the activity bus. But that was before he found out that Gregg, who had led the junior varsity in scoring though he could never had done so without his teammate being able to get him the ball exactly where he had to have it, had also taken a liking to Alva McElenney. Not only that, he had actually had the nerve to ask her out—and she had accepted. Gregg was a big swell-looking guy for his age, and Ryerson figured any chance he had of winning over Alva McElenney were gone forever. Soon they were doing everything together. After that she always seemed a little nervous when she came by his desk, although she never left him without a smile. Then something happened. Gregg had been seeing her for no more than two weeks before she began to look a little distraught and not quite sure of herself. Ryerson was almost certain that she had been crying. "Are you surprised?" Trish asked him. "As well as you know Gregg? They have broken up, you know. I knew from the start that it wouldn't last. Nothing ever lasts with Gregg. But you should know that, Ryerson, a lot better than I." There was something in her voice that struck him as a little odd, but he decided it was only his imagination and thought no more about it. Trish was right. Nothing ever lasted with Gregg. He began seeing a lot of other girls after that, mostly going after those

108 who were a class or two ahead of them; but for some reason his love affairs always came up lame—a week, two weeks at most, and then it would be over. "Bed 'em and leave 'em," everybody said. "That's Gregg's motto." Well, maybe that's what you could do when you had those killer good looks and were a real comer on the basketball court. Killer good looks. That's what he had all right. People were always saying that Gregg really was almost "too pretty" for a boy. The story was that Alva had cared greatly for Gregg, despite the slight difference in their ages, and a lot of people were worried that whatever had happened between them might affect her game. For a while it seemed to do just that; but soon the shots started falling again and people were talking about another state championship. Of all the girls Gregg had taken out, only Betty Henshaw, who had made the cheerleading squad as a ninth grader, was able to make her romance last from one issue of the Tattler to the next. Of course, everybody knew that old Betty was an even more

experienced tramp than Trish Willard. "I guess he was just waiting for the right one," he told Trish one day. "No. You will see. It will be like all the others." It was over almost as she spoke. It was just about the last time anybody ever saw them together. The last girl at Old Fork High School he ever went out with. Ryerson began to see a lot less of her; she started coming by earlier to pick up her books, before he had got back from luncheon recess. For that matter he began seeing a whole lot less of Gregg himself. He never came around to the old hangouts—to smoke in the

109 parked school-bus or to try his luck at getting his hand up the dress of whatever new "loose" girl had arrived on the scene. Then everybody heard that he had taken to drink. Not just an occasional beer or anything like that: the really mean stuff, distilled in radiators and dispensed by the quart or gallon in the slums of East Winston. Ryerson had never been friends with Gregg since the day he asked Alva out and they would never truly be friends again. By this time they were in the tenth grade and Ryerson was splitting guard duties with the guy who had been first-string the year before. Gregg, meantime, had lost all interest in basketball: he had gone out for cheerleader instead. Patricia had predicted that, too. Or at least found out about it before anybody else. Was it only because she knew Gregg so much better than others, or at least knew something about him that no one else had guessed? She had actually been Gregg's first "conquest," or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, she passed on to him the "fruits of love" she had first learned from her father and later from an obliging uncle who, almost before she was out of the crib, began to take an excessive interest in her “proper upbringing.” "Did it last very long?" Ryerson asked her once. "Between you and Gregg?" "Longer than most, though not as long as all that." "Don't understand." "Well, I can't tell you now. Maybe some time, I mean, if by now you haven't already figured it out for yourself."

110 Gregg had his own car now, a beat-up old 1936 Plymouth, and soon he was drinking more heavily than ever. He had never been wealthy, and Ryerson couldn't figure out where he was getting his money, but he always had enough to keep a pint of Four Roses of some of that raw “popskull” in his glove compartment. He knew all the black bootleggers in East Winston, and couldn't have been more than sixteen before he could phone all of them up and give his business to the first who arrived on the scene. You could see the end coming for him one night when he actually passed out and retched all over the basketball floor one night while trying to lead a cheer. He later laid it all to a rotten case of food poisoning, but that was the all for him as a cheerleader. In class one day Ryerson again asked Trish if she had any idea why he had taken up drink and lost all interest in basketball, what with the absolutely marvelous future he had in front of him. All the girls he would ever want. A scholarship to any college he wanted to attend. "You mean you still don't know—haven't even guessed? And you were his best friend. Really, Ryerson, sweetie pie, I've never thought of you as being slow to catch on to things." That was what really set him to thinking—mostly about the times he and Gregg had been alone together. He began to remember little incidents he hadn’t thought about in years. Maybe the real reason is that they were too close, and it just never occurred to Ryerson that the best friend he’d ever had could actually turn out "that way," not even after he began to talk a little more openly at what he was after. He remembered, now, all those long ago summer afternoons when Gregg would invite him to join him in the kitchen while he stripped and gave himself a "splash" bath at the kitchen sink.

111 Even if Ryerson had been certain that something was not quite right, he would never have said anything. He would tell himself that it was nothing more than a phase his old pal was going through and that he would surely grow out of it in time. Not a phase that interested Ryerson at all. Still, Gregg was always hinting at the "pleasures" he and some of the other guys had enjoyed together. Circle jerks and all that. And maybe more than that. Later he began to hear talk that Gregg had fallen under "evil" influences as a child. Looking back on it after they were long out of high school, he wondered how he could have misread all the signs. He could remember strange visits to Gregg's house by a prominent doctor who held himself up as his mother's “entertainer.” The old fellow apparently had some of the same tastes as Trish’s uncle, taking a fervent liking to young Gregg as well as to his mother. The father had left home long ago. Nobody knew why, but some people had talked as though his mother was not only "loose" but something much worse. There were only hints, nothing anybody would come right out and talk about in the nineteen forties, what with a war going on and our country fighting and dying so that it could lay claim to a moral superiority unknown to other nations of the world. Even after it had dropped those nasty bombs on Japan. So he still didn't think a whole lot about it. At the time there was nothing more than those sly little hints Gregg was always dropping as he stood washing himself at his kitchen sink. Maybe it wasn't until Ryerson started going alone to movies down at the Crumb theater and being approached by all sorts of odd characters who would come in and sit down beside him and slap their hands on his thigh—well, it had just never

112 occurred to him till then that he would ever actually meet something as exotic as a real "queer." Once or twice Gregg had turned to him, with that half-smile on his face, and say something like: "Well, old boy, are you ready to have some really hot times?" He never was. He would always just laugh it off. Then one afternoon he watched a trifle uneasily as Gregg turned toward him with his implement of warfare now “high and lifted up.” Ryerson noticed right away that it was almost embarrassingly

small. He had heard the same said of Rudolph Valentino. A real shame for a man who had set out to conquer every woman worth having in all of Hollywood. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe that is why he took all that Spanish fly to keep up appearances and burned so many holes in his stomach that he simply fell dead one day without anyone ever guessing, at least none of his women, that he was indeed the foremost “queer” of his time. Now he could see that maybe that was part Gregg's problem as well. Each time his old pal hinted at the prospect of “hot times” Ryerson would turn away without interest and say something like: "Well, maybe later. Maybe it's something we can talk about." And Gregg: "Talking about it spoils all the fun." "Ah," Trish said, after he had told her of those almost-forgotten experiences. "So you did know?" "That he prefers boys—men? Yes. I mean, I guess I knew but didn't really think anything about it. Like it was only a passing phase or something. I mean I could never think of him as being really "queer."

113 "And you said nothing?" "I guess I just didn't want to think about it." "The love that dare not speak its name," she said a little sadly. "Is that literary? It sounds like something I have heard somewhere." "Yes, Ryerson. You must know by now that I can read books and be very literary and still be your favorite class tart.” "Somehow I get the feeling that it is not entirely his fault. I think his mother had a lover who was also a little that way. I think Gregg must have begun with him. Like all the other parts of this ‘strange and eventful tale’ I just didn't think a whole lot about it at the time." "And talk of it—never." "No. I tried to think that, well, he wasn't such a bad guy in spite of this terrible affliction that he has." In those days, everybody thought of it that way—as an affliction. A lot of people still did. Ryerson wondered sometimes how he felt about even though he found it awfully difficult to imagine himself being caught up in the same sort of "mystique."

-*-

He never did overcome his feelings to talk about it openly, at least not with anyone who did not already know the whole story. He never did feel really easy about it even with those who did. Maybe because of all those Baptist revivals he had attended as a child. But at least now he knew, or thought he knew, why Gregg had taken so heavily

114 to drink. Trying to forget how he was. Trying to pretend he was really like everybody else. Ryerson also knew, or guessed, where he had been getting a lot of the money that was keeping him in liquor, probably from older men who undoubtedly paid him well for his favors in the downtown bus terminal or in movie houses or in the washrooms of crummy hotels. How many others had guessed the truth? Till they were long out of school it seemed that almost no one had. Maybe the girls he had gone out with, but who, in those days, other than Trish and Sarah Musgrove and Betty Henshaw and maybe a few others would ever talk about that openly to a boy? His friendship for Gregg, of course, had subsided long before he learned of his "dark" secret, mainly for the contemptuous and even arrogant way he had stepped between Ryerson and the lovely Alva. He hadn't even liked it when he was out leading cheers for the Old Fork basketball team. Trish still saw him occasionally, mostly for old times sake or maybe, as she told Ryerson one day, because there was no one else in school willing to perform the only act of love that had ever made him feel comfortable with a girl. In those days most girls would shudder at such a thought—or so he had been led to believe. Just too many revivals, too much Christian singing, too much doom in the air. "You never did that it for me." "Sweetie pie, you never asked, and, besides, how can I do anything for you when I have to work like the devil just to get you to come and see me.”

-*-

115 He had always thought himself more capable than almost anybody of holding a grudge long after it has served any useful purpose. Still, he wondered sometimes if it hadn't been for the way he felt about Alva whether he might have been able to forgive Gregg—perhaps even have been able to keep him for a friend. Alva had ended any hope of that. Had he gone out with her only to show him he could succeed where everybody else—and mainly Ryerson—had failed, to make him jealous, to get back at him for all the times he had been rebuffed in his own kitchen? Was it his way of getting "even”? Ryerson never got her back, which is not to say that he ever had her in the first place. He tried to forget all about her. They never even spoke except in casual meetings. One night long after those mad love potions had been insidiously injected into him and drove him all crazy with just thinking about her and her smile and how, someday, somehow, she would knock on his window one night and beg for the love that had lived only in his fancy—long after the night she came without any warning at all and sat beside him on the activity bus. She was a senior, with only a week left in regular season. It was the first time she had ever done that. It wasn't as if there weren't plenty of other seats. He spoke of Gregg only as a way of making conversation. "You ever see him anymore?" "Not for ages, sweetie. Why do you bring that up now?" "I was surprised that it ended so quickly." "I'm afraid I can't—shouldn't—say anymore about that." "It's been so long. I thought you might. Anyway, I guess I know the answer." "Yes, I thought you might. Anyway, I don't think we should talk about it now."

116 He said no more. The first girl he had ever loved. He sat there struggling to hold back the feeling that can never be evoked by anything other than a first love. He kissed her then, knowing it would probably be the last chance he ever had; and, to his utter astonishment, the kissing got to be really heavy. For the first time in years he felt as he had on that night when the dark phantoms of the full moon and smacked him with a madness he had never fully overcome. "No more," she said. "Not now. please. There's too much feeling in your kisses. Maybe we should just talk for a while. My stop will be coming up pretty soon." Then she looked at him as though she were seeing him for the first time. "You aren’t like him at all, are you?" "Gregg? You mean, you thought I was?" "How could I know, sweetheart? You were such good friends at one time." "That’s all changed now. We both know why. Does everybody else know?" "Well, it's all very strange. Whether everybody knows or whether nobody wants to talk about it." "Will you kiss me again?" "Not tonight, old boy. Not again. No, no, please! Besides, you're much too young to be getting serious. I will have been out of school two years by the time you graduate. You have too many things to do in this world. You would never be happy with married life, even with one your own age, after the first excitement had worn off." He kissed her anyway, as she twisted frantically at her engagement ring. The truly stunning thing was that she kissed him back, just as fervently as before.

117 "I think I love you, Ryerson. You see, with Gregg . . well, I can only say what I said before . . . that there was never any real feeling in his kisses . . . but I promised myself I would not say anymore about that, and I won't" Nor did she. It didn't matter. Love? The word he could not imagine ever hearing from her. He kept thinking about the days when he and Gregg were riding bikes together and how he would sit with him each afternoon watching him take his splash bath. His old friend never failed to become fully aroused and at least once had told Ryerson how his own mother had taught him strange things about "doing it" with other men. "I'm afraid," Alva said, "that he will have a really rough time of it before it's over. Living here in the South, as he does. Nobody will ever accept that in him, and he will never accept it in himself. We both know that that is why he's started drinking so much. It does seem a little strange that nobody else has ever understood why." "I love you, Alva. Do you know that you are all I have ever wanted since you used to come by home room to get your books." "You know I'm promised, Ryerson. You know I shouldn't be sitting here at all and that I certainly shouldn't have let you kiss me." "Well, if we could just have sat together sometimes after the games, going home on this old rattletrap of a bus, maybe it would have made a difference." "I don't know, sweet. I just don't know. How could I ever have foreseen such a thing when you first spoke to me all those years ago? People say I am at the very top of my game, but what does it all mean? What does it matter about my game after I'm out of school? There will be nothing left for me then. Just a house, a husband, children. It's so

118 much different with boys. So much more they can do with their lives. But I will never forget you, Ryerson. You are a lovely, lovely person." He looked at her, at the tears she was holding back. Then she said something quite strange indeed: “Why why why, did this have to happen to me, denying me the one person I know I can never have? If life just didn't play you such dirty tricks. Do you understand? You must forget me now, and make a real life for yourself. There's not a college in this state or anywhere else for that matter that won't be begging to pay your way through school? You will have lots of girls. You would never be happy if I allowed you to become tied down without your ever having a real chance at life." "It won't be the same." "You say that now, but I'll soon be little more than a hazy memory to you." "You were the first. There will never be anything exactly like that. I love you." "Oh, shut up, Ryerson. You're only making matters much worse. I have already compromised myself too much as it is. You have many glorious years ahead of you. For me, the good days are about over." "Maybe there's nothing left for any of us." "It can't be helped, sweetheart." "Well, I may never see you again. You were my first love. Nothing can ever change that." "I don't know. I just don't know, Ryerson, and, baby, I just can't talk about it any more right now. She got up. "Goodbye, Ryerson. You take care of yourself now. I think I'm the next stop."

119

-*-

He never saw her again. He saw Gregg only when he managed to make it to class and at graduation and, after that, not at all for many years. Out of school, he practically ruined himself with drink in almost no time at all. For a long time he still had the good looks that had captivated both the men and women in his life and he had married a lovely girl, perhaps the loveliest in her whole class at the town’s biggest and most elitist high school. She had been some sort of Fruit Bowl Queen or something, or at least that's what Ryerson always called her when he was feeling particularly ill toward his one-time friend. He had heard about their marriage after he had long left the town, though naturally he was not surprised to learn that it had lasted less than a year. When they broke up everybody laid it to his drinking. Even now nobody seemed able to accept the real truth about Gregg or at least nobody wanted to talk about it. Ryerson would always wonder about that. Whether out of simple disbelief or shock or dismay or whatever it was, his secret never did really come home to anyone else in their class, except to the girls who had refused to oblige his "strange lusts." He never married again. He turned even more heavily to liquor and, as one might guess, to unsavory men in seedy hotel rooms, looking for what he hated in himself and yet what he had to have. He thought of it often, how if he had lived in a later time his friends and acquaintances would have held him up as a man of undeniable probity and possibly even nominated him for Congress, if his inclinations had lay in that direction.

120 It must have been fifteen years before Ryerson saw him again. They were at a class reunion. Ryerson was sure he did not even recognize him at first. He no longer had the "killer" good looks of his younger days. He was already among the walking dead, sallow all over, his hair all coming out, his teeth all yellowish and misshapen and truly grotesque. Ryerson kept thinking of those yellowish fangs Lon Chaney used to grow when the full moon was transforming him into Wolfman. He and Gregg had seen a lot of those movies together. He wondered if his old friend any longer bothered to look in the mirror. All anyone could say was that he was a real mess, sitting there laughing that horrible laugh of the undead, with a drainage tube in his liver. Yet even now, after all this time, for all his old classmates knew, for all everybody knew, no one ever talked aloud of "the love that dare not speak its name." Only that he was born a drunk and died a drunk. Ryerson realized for the first time that he no longer hated him—that after all these years of holding a grudge he might even be able to forgive him. He often wondered what Alva thought, where she was, how the guy she had married was treating her, whether she was even alive. He had never even tried to find out. Had life gone on to treat her as it had so many others with providential disdain? He was in another state, working for a big-city newspaper, when he heard of Gregg's death. Everything had changed by that time. Men now openly boasted of the "malady" that had driven him to drink, destroyed his basketball career, turned him into a silly cheerleader and finally put him in the grave at an unseemly early age—the first in his class to die.

121 Yes, it is true: born in a later era he would have lived to find glory rather than infamy in his "affliction." He would have been the darling of the "politically correct," toasted by the cognoscenti, honored not less for his "decadent" way of life than for making it known to all the world. Perhaps he would have been chosen as a drum major in all the Gay Pride parades; his classmates would have watched with applause as he marched down Fifth Avenue, kicking his legs high, twirling his baton. Alas, he had known nothing of what might have been, only the beatings in filthy jail-houses, the condemnation of the Evangelicals. Even now Ryerson would sometimes remember those first days when they were still friends, when he never knew that his mother was a whore and her lover a pedophile. Then he would remember how he had sat at that class reunion watching him die right in front of him and all the others with whom he had once been friends. He would think of the unseen force that shapes and finally destroys all who stand in its way, and how it had insidiously smacked him up beside the head with a two-by-four on the very night before he was to see the one girl he could never forget. Then he would hate him all over again, hate him even as he thought of him lying there all dead and yellow in his grave, hate him all the more as he asked himself why Gregg had taken it upon himself, knowing it could never mean anything, to steal from him a girl he knew that he himself could never love in a proper way. Ryerson would finally have to face an ugly truth: that he could never, when it came right down to it, entirely forgive him after all and that he would live with the hate and maybe even learn to enjoy it, sometimes with a smirk, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a quiet sneer of disdain.

122

CHURCH IN THE WILDWOOD

123 At the top of the stairs the long day gathered itself into an eerie twilight. Voices far off from "the old Negro hollow" hung heavily in the dusk, with latent foreboding and terror, as though after all this time nobody had ever learned to feel quite at ease on nights when the black people gathered to hold their prayer-meetings in the old Piney Grove church. Looking back on it in later years, Ryerson Hezakiah Moffit Goode realized that everybody on his side of the Great Ravine was doomed never to think of those mournful chants as anything other than sinister growls coming from the darkest reaches of the forest, from some dark part of a primordial backwater no white man had ever dared penetrate, where none would ever think of going; mournful cries threatening their world as nothing before had ever threatened it, wild, mysterious, implacable. Not even the forced laughter of those who gathered at that hour on his front porch and pretended to look with scorn on "the nigger heaven and hell" could speak with ease of what was actually meant by those strange voices. It was as if all of what they were hearing went back to ages now lost to memory, back to ages and eternities without light or laughter, a kind of doom that hung over them all, as if their own lives had been swallowed up and lost in the vast darkness of the summer evening, with only the sighs of men and women long dead and the cry of nightbirds far out in the pines to see them through the difficult hours till bedtime. Ryerson would often sit there and listen as the old people sat rocking and talking of a forgotten era when laughter and song came far more easily to their kind, his own father remembering and retelling all the stories once told by far more elderly men who seemed always to remember when life was good in America.

124 Ryerson was had just turned fourteen and his cousin Tess, who lived nearby and often came to sit with him on Sunday afternoons, was barely a year older, a pretty thing, blonde, an exquisite flirt, and already looking like the most seductive streetwalker in all of Old Winston. In those early days, when he first began thinking of her in that way, he just couldn't figure it. What was that strange new power had come bursting in on him without any warning at all? He sure didn't know what to call it, but it struck with such destructive force that forever after he could recall the very moment he felt its impact. Yes, and who might it be but his favorite cousin Tess, whose good fortune was that she had been smitten by the same dark force as he, and had begun to hint at intimacies unbecoming for a girl her age—and to her own cousin at that! Yes, it was certainly true: he was a lot luckier than he thought. When he tried to explain how he felt he found her far more receptive than he had expected, so receptive indeed that she had begun to show a whole new side of herself, though not until the growups had piled into his dad’s new Olds and went roaring off for their Sunday afternoon pleasure drive. That was before the war had come and with it gas rationing, making it impossible to keep up the old ways. What forced him out of all reason to kiss his cousin he was never sure. He was certain even before he did so that she would not return the favor. Absolutely unthinkable, he told himself, as he abruptly placed his lips on hers. Then everything really went all crazy. “Not bad, Ry. I don’t suppose you need to practice, but let’s try it again.”

125 This time he felt her tongue in his mouth, but she held back his hand as it began to slither up her thigh. “Wondered when you were going to get around to that,” she said. “How far can we go?” “Don’t know, sweetheart. Let me think about it.” “Well, I understand it’s gonna get right expensive if that damned Roosevelt gets back in office.” “What on earth are you talking about.” “Well, it looks like he’s gonna be taxing us for even thinking about . . . well, you know.” “Not sure I do know.” This time he went for her breast and again she held him back. “We’re cousins, Ry. When are you gonna try to remember that.” “Well, if both of us were to forget, that’s when that old tax is gonna come down on us. Heard Mom talking about it to Aunt Sarah—how Roosevelt has it right at the top of the list if he wins another term. She thinks he’s the Antichrist anyway.” “Tax it how, sweetheart, as though I had any idea what you’re talking about? And you know as well as I that your mother would never talk out loud about anything of the sort. I suppose this is just one of your jokes. Like who’s gonna know?” “Well, the old fart has his spies everywhere.” “I declare, Ry, I do wish you would stop that kind of talk.” He went for her breast again, but she again held him back. “Will you stop it? Didn’t you even go to Sunday School this morning.”

126 “Sunday School. Church, too. Boring.” “Why do you keep trying to kiss me then . . . and do all those other things?.” “Why’d you let me?” “I didn’t go—to Sunday School I mean.” “All I can say is that that old Secretary of Pussy Alerts is gonna be mighty busy. I guess some kind of alarm will go off when you really get down to it.” “Oh, shut up, Ry. I don’t want hear anymore of your silly talk.” “Kiss you again?” “You know very well that you cannot. Are you drunk? You are, aren’t you? Don’t deny it. You’ve been sneaking into your dad’s popskull again.” “Relieves the pain in my knee. Now they say I’ve gotta have another operation. Damn me.” He got up and went back inside, feeling himself all sticky and wet inside. “Come back here. Where are you going?” “Back in a second sweetheart. Need to dry myself off, some clean jeans.” He did so and this time brought back the bottle of popskull. “Here ‘tis. Wanta little snort?” “Oh, my god. Well, why not. I’ll be a sure enough depraved creature before I get away from here this afternoon.” She downed two long gulps. Then made a face. “God, that stuff is nasty.” “But you already knew that, didn’t you. I reckon you’ve been sneaking into your own old man’s supply.”

127 “Not so, Ry. And I don’t want you getting dependent on that stuff either. You hear me? I know you have your football knee for an excuse. But that’s not good enough. That’s not excuse enough for you to go off and be a regular drunkard.” “Yeah, football knee—and never even had a chance to try out for the varsity.” He felt her hand again lying salaciously close to his phallus or, as he called it, his durchstechen, a piece of German slang he had picked up from his immigrant grandfather. “Wanta have a look? Might as well have a good understanding of what you know only as a blind man might know it.” “Better not. Not right out here on the porch.” “You know nobody’s here.” “Ry, you just keep that thing where it belongs.” They both watched it swell in his trousers. She left the swing and went down to sit on the porch steps. He had gone off again. “Back in a minute, Tess. Gotta change again” Then half to himself: “My god!. Mama will know for sure what that stuff is. Lord help me, I hope I can get it washed and ironed before she catches on.” He came back just as she returned to the swing. Sure is big, isn’t it. My lord, bigger than a nigger dick.” “How would you know about that? You been screwing those folks over in Piney Grove.” “Are you crazy? Even if it held the vaguest interest you think I would risk getting all those germs?” “What germs?”

128 “What germs do you think? “Don’t know about any germs.” “Well, let’s talk about something more pleasant, shall we?” She pretended to study the cars going by in the road, acting as if she had no interest at all in his dirty talk. He had known or suspected for a long time that she was not exactly new at dirty talk and maybe a whole lot more than just dirty talk. He’d heard nothing about all that at school. She kept her little secrets very carefully guarded. Yet it wasn’t what he suspected that gave him a hard-on almost every time he looked at her. Something far more subtle. Something that he would have felt even he did not realize she was already practicing to be the queen of New Orleans whorehouses. Still, he would not have been so anxious perhaps, would not have feared that he was passing up a chance of greatness if he did not know there was someone else, if it weren’t for all those sly innuendos she slipped into her speech. Along toward dark, he again turned to his cousin, who watched him with a sly look of promise. He slid his hands around her, going for her breasts until she again held him back. She tensed momentarily and then relaxed. He drew back and began to undo his jeans, watching her expression. She gave a slight shudder of delight as his member sprang out of his britches. “At least eight inches, Tess, maybe nine. Don’tcha at least wanta feel?” She gently removed his arm from around her neck. “I just don’t know, R.H. Maybe we’d better not. Not yet. I just don’t know how I feel about that.”

-*-

129

The next Sunday it was much the same. He truly did dote on her and maybe that was the day he understood that she had some of the same feeling for him. He sneaked a flask out of his jacket pocket, having filled it with his father’s expensive whisky and hoping the occasion would soon arise for him to introduce Tess to some of the most potent drink known to man, not counting white mountain liquor. “Oh, you’re at it again, are you?” “Good stuff. Store bought. Small batches of Knob Creek. Nothing else like it on the market anywhere. Just doesn’t get any better than that.” As always, they waited discreetly in the porch swing until the grownups had all piled into his father’s new Olds and went off for their Sunday afternoon drive. They swapped drinks and he began to feel her hand creeping up his thigh again. She took another stiff swallow and now he could see that she was really beginning to feel it. He knew she was ready now. Her hand went all the way to his groin and she began to massage him gently. “You’re done this before, haven’t you. Don’t deny it. I can tell.” “How? Somebody else been messing with you?” “Wanta have a look?” She waited a moment longer, looking out at the road. “Okay, gimmie another drink first.” She took two big ones and then fondled his cock like a jeweler evaluating the value of a diamond, counting off the inches with her finger. “Well, maybe you’re right. Eight inches for sure. Maybe nine.”

130 “Closer to nine.” She began to massage it again. “Honey,” he said, putting one arm around her neck an leaving her hand as it was. He put his hand on top of hers. “Maybe we should wait. Ry, you know we have to wait. It doesn’t matter what we want. We have to wait.” “Why, Tess. Give me a reason. It’s always wait, wait, wait.” “You know cousins don’t do that. Not if they have any kind of decent upbringing. Not unless they are some kind of hill country degenerates. Wait until school starts. I will find you somebody.” “I may not be in love with your ‘somebody.’ Anyway, you know I’ve never had trouble finding girls. It just isn’t the same. I mean, the way I feel about you. Just isn’t the same.” “I can’t talk about this anymore right now. Now you just keep your hands where they belong. And tell me, will you, just tell when was the last time you ever even saw the inside of a church. You sure do keep wanting to get into terribly dangerous territory, sweetheart” “Tell me all about those black people over in Piney Grove.” “Are you crazy? Sounds like more in your line. You aren’t afraid of germs?” “To hell with the germs.” He stood up with the same great swelling inside his trousers. “Ready for a little action now?”

131 “Let’s just talk about that later, shall we? Anyway, how do you propose to pay Roosevelt’s new tax?”

-*-

In those days a Great Depression hung over the land, and a threat of war. Each year brought closer the dread that awaited them all. As children they had listened closely to the grownups as they talked gloomily of the coming hard days. Now they were teenagers, almost grown themselves, and soon drawn into the real world of their parents. Until now they had given little thought to politics or to that "devil Roosevelt" who, as his mother always said, was "working night and day to draw us into a European war that is absolutely none of our business." Or to set up his Department of Pussy Affairs. Then the war did come, and there were no more chocolate bars in the school cafeteria. No Camels in the stores, no Lucky Strike Greens. Only brand names he had never heard of. Often while the others talked of olden times when “life was good”, or went off for a ride in the Olds, he and Tess gradually found themselves bored with just sitting fondling each other in the porch swing and so got in the habit of wandering off through the deepening dusk far down the old, smoky trail that led past the pine and sweet gum thickets that bordered the Goode’s wide sweep of pastureland. Sometimes they would find themselves even farther from the “Great House,” having crossed another pasture to the timber where he had built a treehouse that summer as a good hiding place to smoke cigarettes.

132 Those early evening hours when Tess was with him were the best times of the whole day, the scent of the honeysuckle intolerably sweet at that hour, mingling with the cry of the doves and whippoorwills. Once they did not stop at the tree-house to talk their own private talk away from the grownups. Some of the older boys would almost always be there, but he almost never joined them when Tess was at his side. He and Tess talked their own private talk on the path that led on down through the big timber toward a steep embankment overlooking the great hollow that divided the white community from the black. It was there that the Goodes got most of their help during the cotton harvesting season. He flung himself down atop the embankment and then drew Tess down beside him. She looked at him with a sly look of promise. Sliding his hands around her, he traced the round curves of her breasts, feeling her tits harden beneath his fingertips. He drew back and began to undo his jeans, watching her expression. She gave a slight shudder of delight as his member spring full blown out of his britches. “Come on, Tess. Just one feel. What can it hurt?” She gently removed his hand from her breast. “I’m just not ready for that, Ry. Besides, I don’t wanta spend good money paying Roosevelt’s new value-added tax.” “I guess that would be a burden. I don’t mean you couldn’t afford—only that why should we give that character anything.” She looked at him again as he began to get himself off. “Phenomenal. I can see why Evalina can’t wait to get over here and do her cleaning.” “What do you mean? Where did you ever get that idea?”

133 “Ah, you think I don’t have my sources.”

-*-

A week—maybe two weeks later--he did manage at last to kiss her again, a good full kiss this time, with her clinging to him as thought she had at last made up her mind. He felt it on his lips, on his tongue, burning, rapturous, unforgettable as she again pushed him away. “Just listen to me for a moment, Ry, old chum. We are cousins, you know. First cousins at that. How many times have I had to remind you of that? Reckon we’re supposed to be doing this at all? How do you really feel about it? Aren’t you a little worried even a little bit?” “Of course not. It ancient times it was almost expected—required.” “What ancient times?” “When times were good in America. Wanta go back up to the treehouse? More privacy up there.” “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” she said in a voice grown slightly husky, maybe a little hesitant, maybe because she, too, had felt—and she had almost said as much—the fiery pulsations of desire. Yet she did not at once move away. He slowly reached around her began to undo her dress from the back. With the undoing of the first two buttons he could see that she wore no bra. Probably nothing more than panties. “Ry, we really haveta stop. Please. Just button me back up. Do you want me running back to the house like this?”

134 All he knew was what Tess was always hinting at, what he had learned from Evalina, The married girl who came three times a week and had begun to work a blow job regularly into her schedule. He had come up behind her once, innocently enough, and her hand went instantly to the swelling in his trousers. After that she had always sought him out if he had not found her first. He had actually got inside her only once—well, actually three times though all in a single afternoon, one of those rare days when he had been left at the house alone.’ Lord, child, I aint got no cleaning done today. Your mamma gon have my tail. I”ll tell you her your phoned and said you were feeling poorly. Better tell her something. Cause I sho aint got nothing done. One more time, Evalina. One more time before you go. Gotta go, honey. My old man he always comes home drunk on Friday and wants a piece right off. I spect it’’ be hell to pay if I ain’t there waitin’ on him... “Getting kinda late,” Tess said, after their kissing got a little too hot and heavy. “Reckon we ought to be heading on back?” “Maybe. I don’t know. Sun’s still above the pines. Why don’t we walk on a ways.”

135 He could feel himself getting hard again as they paused momentarily at the edge of the great ravine that separated their white world from the black village. The chants and the great wild noises of the church seemed to draw them on even though they had often been warned never to go into the village alone. “Ry. I want to ask you something. Have you ever really slept with a nigger? Besides Evalina, I mean.” “Not exactly.” “What does that mean? “Not exactly.’” “You know Evalina?” “Sure, she’s nice.” “A real nice looker. Sometimes she’ll go down on me and, boy, does she really give me the works. I guess I ought to say: ‘Every chance she gets.’” Hard to get a real opportunity with mother always around, working her half to death. Besides, I know you’ve had plenty of guys in your life. Maybe every night in the back seat of that old schoolbus they park near your house. Don’t deny it.” She slipped silently down the cleft of the hill, over some rocks, and finally into the grassy bottom near a stream. “Who were they, Tess? You can tell me.” “Don’t be a perfect dunce, Ry.”

136 “Who then?” She stopped and looked at him with steel in her eyes. “Uncle Howard.” She paused to wait for his response. He stood with his mouth open, shaking, suddenly angry. “Did you hear me? I said ‘Uncle Howard. That lascivious old bastard. I could kill him easy, and may do so yet!” “Uncle Howard? Your mother’s brother?” He grabbed her and shook her violently. “You let that bastard do that to you and all you do for me is push me away. Damn you, Tess.” She shook free. “Stop it, goddammit. He raped me! Don’t you understand that? He raped me? I’ll see him dead or in the chair for it. I’ll see him in hell!” “Been keeping it mighty quiet. You think anybody’s gonna listen to you now? If you really want the bastard dead, as I do, I think I can arrange a hit and run”. “I should never have mentioned it at all. But you don’t realize how young I was. Only seven or eight. How did I know what he was doing?. He hurt me plenty and seemed to enjoy that more than the actual act. But he also taught me a lot and for just a brief time there it got so I was sorta looking forward to his coming, but I tell you this: That little old thing of his sure ain’t nothing to brag about.” “I’ll cut the goddamn thing off. Catch him out by the road some night and . . . I knew there was something about him I didn’t like besides his politics. He’s always talking up that damn Roosevelt, you know.

137 He wondered if he should attempt just once more to get her down in the grass before they reached the top of the next hill, but she kept going on ahead of him. That goddamn Howard! Yet she was right. It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t as though she might fall in love with the old lecher. Or had she already fallen in love with him?. He began to feel a little sad and remembered a fragment of poem he had read in school: What though the radiance which was once so bright Be now forever taken from my sight, Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower

-*-

Sometimes in those first days after his treehouse took shape the older boys were almost always there. Mostly to bum cigarettes and to stand around and laugh and hold circle jerks. Always wanting him to join in. Jesus. A disgusting sight to be sure. Handling each other, jacking each other off. He just hadn’t realized that there were so many queers in the world, if, in fact, that is what they were. Some of them had taught him how to smoke cigarettes. They took a fancy to Tess, and perhaps to Ry as well, for he was already being talked up as quite possibly on the way to becoming the best quarterback in Old Fork history—alas, all before the injury that had played havoc with the future he had carved out for himself. Soon the infamous bastards of those earlier years would no longer be welcome in

138 his private tree-grown alcove. He no longer took pains to befriend them, fearing that one of them would haul off and rape Tess right before his eyes. So it was that he had begun to think of the treehouse as his own private lasciviously decorated bordello. “Just too many goddamn queers in the world?” “Why do you say so?” “All those guys I thought were perfectly normal started coming down here to play around. You know, play with each other.” “Yes, I’ve seen them, though I would never in the world let them know what I had seen. And to me reassuring that you find it as revolting as I do.” His breath came hard as he put his arm around Tess and drew her closer to his secret hideaway. Then, as always, that stubborn resistance. “No, Ry. Not now. Not alone with you up there.” “When then?” “Dunno. You’ve gotta give me a little time to think. So on they went. He could never remember exactly what it was on that July evening that led them so far away from their enchanting grove and on down through the big timber toward the old Negro hollow. As they drew closer, crossing the deep ravine, the moans and chants emerging from the Negro church that sat atop the little hill seemed almost to draw them on. How many times had they been warned never to go alone into that dark village! Yet on we went, with hardly a thought of any danger that might intrude upon their path, unmindful that in some future age we would mock our innocence and curse those

139 who made each day seem a simple and joyous thing, when life, as the grownups always said, was still good in America. When was that time? When was there ever true contentment in the lives of their parents or grandparents or even in the lives of all those old people, long dead, whose portraits hung on the walls of their houses? How many were able to screw their own kin? A past-time for decadent Southerners only. How many of the women had turned out to be sluts. He knew that at least one aunt, possibly illegitimate, though the family was always quiet about that, had gone off to Detroit City and become one of the great streetwalkers of her time. Or so that talk went when the grownups sat on the front porch, dropping their voices whenever they talked deliciously of their relative’s renown. The good times? The lovely times when all was right in America? When were they? Where were they? He never did find out; but on this evening they looked into a part of that life they had never seen and would never forget. They suddenly found themselves far beyond the old hollow, beyond the pinewoods, almost in front of the church, with the afternoon fast dying, dusk so thick you could feel it on your skin, in your eyes, and the tremulous voices of prayer-meeting night filling all the world with a melodic and mournful chant. Just as they were about to turn away, fearful of their daring trespass, a big deacon late for the service snared them by the shoulders and dragged them up the steps of the decrepit, pine-boarded church, where now the chant grew more eerie and threatening still. They stood in the door, he and his cousin, anguished and yet a little bewildered as the church momentarily fell silent. The deacon, his big hands almost touching the

140 ceiling, held sway over the whole congregation, hushing the voices, hushing the preacher himself. "Why," says he. "Dese hyah chilluns come all de way 'cross de big hollow, come all de way from whar de white folks lives. Deys all good folks, de chosen uv de Lawd, so de good book say." All smiles, the good old preacher came down from the pulpit and led them to the place of honor: right up front onto the mourning bench, where now they were esteemed as guests more exalted than any who had ever dared cross their threshold, proud to have been chosen of "de Lawd." The good book also spoke of a time when there were giants in the earth, and Ry could not help thinking of that time, whenever it was, as he and Tess sat in the seat where only the most worthy could sit, and found themselves praised no less than those mighty men who first brought fire down from heaven, emissaries of a higher civilization, just as they themselves were at this very moment, glorified and set on their throne of honor by the very black worshippers of whom they had heard so many tales of horror. Esteemed as they were, proud to have been chosen of "de Lawd," Ry could not forget that now the full night had come, with only the light of a failing lantern to guide the preacher back up the steps to the pulpit. The lantern failed at last, leaving them in a darkness relieved only by the late sun and a faint light from the dirt street. Now the tumult rose higher still, and never once did the old preacher cease uttering his eerie chant, not even when he fell backwards upside down across the steps and lay as dead, eyes staring at the ceiling, sorrowfully repeating the frightful moan of which only these few words could Ry recognize:

141

Chosen uv de lawd dat's whut de good book say; O yea my brethren dat's whut de good book say!

Always grinning and nodding, the old preacher would come down from the pulpit or rise from wherever he had stumbled and fallen and deliver his mysterious chant to them alone. Giants in the earth they might have been, as in olden times, but the hour had grown late, and now the congregation rose with a new voice of thunder and emitted another terrifying moan of good and evil, the same dark, mystifying cry they had so often heard from way across the hollow on Sunday mornings or on prayer-meeting nights. Honored, yes—but now everything seemed to change. He felt his cousin beginning to shiver, sobbing softly as she seized his arm with new fright. He put his arm around her and let his hand rest on her breast. "Ry? Listen to me. I wanta go. Be dark soon and I'm so cold." "Cold? In August. My lord, it must be a hundred and fifty degrees in here.” "Just know how I feel, sweetheart. Cold, Ry, terribly, terribly cold. And the germs, my sweet. Don't you remember?" "Germs again?" "You know what they say. How easy it is to catch their germs." “Who says?” “Well, I hear a lot of talk about it.”

142 Now she was actually crying and shouting out her fear. No great matter. Simply one more crazy voice lost amid the thunderous moan that now pervaded the church and all the world outside. "I can feel them, Ry. On my skin. The germs. We don't know what they are. We don't know they’ll do to us." Ry couldn't say anything to get her mind off the "germs." He even imagined that he had begun to feel them himself. Like a thousand black ants crawling on the inside of his skin. The slow, insidious coming of the Black Death. I can feel them all over me, sweetheart. I just wanta go." "Stop it, Tess. Evalina comes every day to cook and clean and nothing is every said about any 'germs.' You think I would let here suck me off if I was scared of germs?” "That's different." "How different?” Even as he said it he could feel again the strange, creepy sensation beneath his flesh. He knew it was nothing. Yet he knew they couldn't get up and just walk out without any kind of explanation—they had come too far—and he knew he could never admit to Tess that he'd felt something crawling all over him, exactly as she had, and that it might be germs, or even the Black Death, or maybe ants that had come out of the dead wood, which was about the only kind of wood that kept the church still standing. He could not let her know that he, too, had been thinking of nothing else but escape. He could not help feeling, even now, that he was being prepared for some primordial orgiastic rite. And his cousin’s naked body would almost certainly be a part of it. And just as surely they would cut off his throbbing penis and feed it to her as a

143 roast’n’ear. In some such way were all those old Aztecs honored, he had always heard, before getting their heads lopped off. Even as he said it he could feel again the odd sensation beneath his flesh. He drew her closer, massaging her breast gently at first and then grasping it with new fervor, and now her curvaceous buttocks as well. Her voice grew less strained. It was as far as he had ever got with him. Except for the kiss. But at last she took his hand away, hanging on to with a deathly fear. "I still feel them, darling. And it's so dreadfully, deathly cold." "It's nothing, Tess," he said as he sat back down, kissing her and beginning to massage her breast even more passionately. "I tell you it's nothing.” He said no more, trying to convince himself that there really was nothing to it at all. They stood again, with the congregation, and now he reached down and found the channel between her buttocks, his fingers moving gently along the fringe as he leaned against her with the great swelling in his jeans. He placed her hand on top of it. “No, Ry! Don’t think this is the time or place.” “Maybe you’d rather have uncle Howard.” “Shut the hell up.” “Well, at least you can’t pretend I haven’t been in church today.” She fell almost violently against him, still trembling with her head buried in his chest and crying out breathlessly just as a lone woman in back of the church rose to sing a powerful, stirring rendition of Amazing Grace. The congregation fell still. His muscular hard-on had gone away during the woman’s solo. Now he could feel it coming back. Now he, too, only wanted to get out, hoping to find the way, if

144 indeed it could be found, that would lead them once more down through the old hollow and up the unseen woodland paths, back to the safety of his treehouse and later, much later, he hoped, to their own front porches, where the old people would still be talking, as always, of a time when life was good in America. So he said no more, trying to convince himself in silence that there was really nothing to all of her wild talk. He knew they couldn't get up and walk out without any kind of explanation—they had come too far—and he knew he could never admit to Tess that he'd felt something crawling all over him as well, exactly as she had, and that it might be germs, or even the Black Death, or maybe all those ants crawling out of the dead wood. He could not let her know that he, too, had been thinking of nothing else but escape. He could not help feeling, even now, that he was being prepared for some primordial orgiastic rite. He couldn't help feeling uneasy even when the old preacher had led them to the seat of honor. Yes, the same as those old Aztecs before getting their heads lopped off. Now he only wanted to get out, hoping to find the way, if indeed it could be found, that would lead them once more down through the old hollow and up the unseen woodland paths, back to the safety of their own front porches, where the old people would still be talking, as always, of a time when life was good in America. Yet she had grown almost frantic until the good old deacon had come to light their way back across the hollow.

-*-

145

Once they got to the other side of the ravine she clung to him more warmly, vowing never to go back to the old Negro church. “The treehouse,” she muttered. “Maybe a smoke before we go back.” She went up first and lay back as though she knew what to expect. Ry went for his package of Spuds, one of the crazy false cigarettes that had come on the market after Pearl Harbor, and at the same time for her silken thigh. Her hand barred the way. “Where is this leading, Ry? What if I should get pregnant? You just simply have got to stop acting this way.” “You mean Howard is good enough, but I am not.” “I will take care of that old goat in my own good time. You will see. I think I would be horribly at fault if I didn’t.” He smoked his tasteless Spud. She let hers die without ever taking a puff. If only he could get one bare peek at her small blondish cunt! He kept thinking of the first clover in springtime, wanting to kiss her again, wanting to get his mouth onto her most secret place, to taste the succulent juices, something he had never done or even thought of doing, even to his cousin, knowing he wasn’t yet man enough to lap them up. The thought of rape only made her seem more enticing. He watched her as she took up the smelly Spud, savoring the thought of the ripe musky smell of her secret parts. Oh, how hot and sweet they would be! “Yes,” he said. “We must go on. Otherwise, our salvation would not be complete. At least let me have a little feel.” “Feel of what?” “You know.”

146 “And that is all?” “I swear.” He was hot and cold all at once, sweating. He moved to her side, letting his hand slide up her thigh. Even as she protested and pretended to push his hand away she kept widening her thighs. She had his durchstechen in her hand as he attempted to mount her. This time she resisted in earnest, pushing him back with the strength of the momentarily insane. “Only your hand. You said that was all. You know that is all it can be.” He kissed her thirstily as she placed his hand on her clit. He went after it madly, tearing off her panties as she again pretended to push his hand back, saying “No” between her soft moans, and then no more pushing back at all, no more anything, until she cried out the final ecstatic moan for which he had been waiting. She fell back limply, breathless, as did he, and they both sat silent till he rose and kissed her again, replacing her hand on old durchstechen and snuggled to her side, allowing her to repay the favor. “Oh, God, I love you, Tess! Can’t you see that! It could have been so much more.” “I know . . . I feel . . . but I can’t . . . we can’t . . .” She fell silent. He got himself together as she wiped her hand on a maple leaf. “This is a desperate situation,” he said at last, thinking again about that sweet smell of spring clover that emanated from between her thighs. “Why would you let that damn Howard and who knows how many others have it all—and me nothing?.” “Well, sweetheart, what we’ve had is not exactly nothing when you remember how close we are in kinship. I told you that you have to give me time”

147 “All wet and sticky inside my jeans. I guess Mom will know exactly what that old dried up smell is when she starts to wash them.” The day had been long gone, and they both knew panic would have set in at the Big House, as their parents began to fret about where they were. He watched her as she wadded up her panties and threw them away. “Could you cum again?” “No more of that. Let’s just try and get ourselves together.” His afternoons with Evalina had gone far toward transforming him into a Grand Master, but apparently Tess had not had the same sort of luck with Uncle Howard. That filthy bastard. “Well, I can see you are going to be difficult right till the bloody end,” she said. “Boy! Have you learned a lot for only fourteen.” “And you a lot more for only fifteen.” “Can we have just one more smoke now? Those damned Spuds are nothing but trash.” He had to guess that she was satisfied enough. She resisted every other attempt at wholesale seduction, though their kissing was now hot and heavy. “Better go, Ry,” she said in that husky voice that always drove him half wild. “Gotta go. My god, dad will kill me. He may guess everything.” “What everything?” “Everything we did and didn’t do. Come. Hurry. Help me down these steps, will you?” It was past ten o’clock before they found their way home, with only a half moon to light their way through the weeds and honeysuckle back up the long path toward home, where Tess could feel safe again. “Though god only knows what I will say to him

148 parents.” For all his success he could never count on her going with him alone to the old tree-house or to any other part of the property from which she could see the great hollow that lay between her and the most terrifying experience of her young life. He would always remember her almost hysterical cries, even after they had met their own parents coming down the footpath, shouting out their names and spraying the woods with flashlights.

-*-

"What a shame that this had to happen," his mother said as they got to the house. They went in the back way. "How could you do this, son, with none of us knowing where you were and what might have happened to you? Tess's parents are absolutely frantic. Did you not know that? How often have I told you never to cross into that village alone? And certainly I would never have expected you to do so when Tess was with you and looking to you for protection." "Nobody needed any protecting." "How can you know that, son? Tell me, how can you be sure? How can you know what might have happened in a place like that, when those people get to hooting and hollering the way they do?" "Shame, son! Shame!" He explained that they had been honored guests at the First Baptist Church of Piney Grove and that they had fought off all the germs and disease and that just when

149 they thought they were lost and doomed to be slaughtered as innocents the good old deacon who first led them there had come to show them the way back to their own part of the world. "Shame, Ry! This is really unfortunate. This is really a thing you surely should be ashamed of.” He did not tell her how frightened his cousin had been—the fright he himself had felt—before the old deacon had come with his lantern. He had tried to hide his feelings from Tess as well, not very successfully, because she knew, or guessed, that they had got themselves lost in a landscape he had known almost as well as he knew his own house, almost before he knew it himself; and there really would have been a lot of explaining to do if the old deacon had not come to their rescue. "Who was that man? Do you know his name? Never mind. It makes no difference. It changes nothing. The fact is that anything can happen in a place like that. Don't you know that? What on earth possessed you?" He wasn't sure. When Tess's parents came to drive her home she was still shivering in spite of the hot August evening and wiping tears from her eyes. Did she now hate it that she had let him go so far? “What are the tears for Tess?” “It’s nothing, sweetheart. It’s really nothing at all.” “You beginning to have regrets?” “No! Oh my god, no. It was simply wonderful, Ry.” “When can I see you again?” “Let me think about it. I’m not sure. I think we’re supposed to go to Mobile

150 sometime next week to visit my grandparents.” “We’ve got an old Plymouth that still runs pretty good. I could come and pick you up. Just let me know when.” “Darling, please just give me a little time to find out when it will be possible. A little time to think. Sometimes I think I have already committed the Unpardonable Sin.” “I guess if that’s the case it won’t hurt to commit it again.” “Oh, shut up. You have an answer for everything.’ When Tess's parents came to drive her home she was still shivering in spite of the hot August evening and beginning to cry again. Ry held her arm all the way out to the car. "She thinks she caught something—some kind of germ," he told her father." "Who is to say that she did not? You should look at yourself long and hard in the mirror, Ry. You should certainly pray to your god about the shame you have brought on this family. Taking our little girl into that filth. I’m afraid this will have to be the last of her visits for a while. You need to understand that the colored are different from you and me. I should think you would have learned that by now.” Different, the color, yes, but maybe different in a better way, knowing how to take care of themselves, knowing how to enjoy life. He had never seen his own people get as much joy out of a church service as had those black field workers on that same night. He thought his uncle’s language a little overwrought for the occasion, but he sure wasn’t about to ask him out of the car for a fair fist fight. Yet he surely he did not feel ashamed, only a great joy of having committed a sin so magnificent that he would never possibly be able to describe in the book he planned to write someday. Tell that goddamn Howard to keep his hands off her, you prick. How would you

151 like to know about that? Shame indeed! He had wanted to say all that and more, but he knew there would certainly be an awful lot of explaining to do—to say nothing what it would do to Tess—if he flew back at him with that kind of information. He did not any of them how frightened his cousin had been—the fright he himself had felt—before the old deacon had followed them out with his lantern, leaving them with just enough time to complete their act of “salvation” in his treehouse. "Shame, Ry! Shame!" Her father stuck his head out of the window while revving up his engine. “A lesson I hope you won’t soon forget.” Shame, indeed, and how much shame her old man could never have guessed. He would not understand about the “salvation.” "Sure hope she won't be long getting her strength back. Them old germs ain't nothing to worry about nohow." “Shame, my boy! Shame!” He watched them back out from under the maples and turn south toward town, the taste of her smelly savory cunt still in his mouth. Brush his teeth right away and again before bedtime. He watched till the tail-lights went out of sight, then went back up to the porch and listened as the grownups talked again about the war and thank god for men like George Patton and what a fine thing it was on those long ago days when times were good in America.

-*-

152

Only two days later the people of old Winston read in the Evening Sentinel a story about a body found in a ditch on a principal thoroughfare in Buena Vista, home of the town’s elite. “Police have identified the body as that of Howard Littleton, a 49-year-old banker who has been mentioned as possibly the next president of Wachovia Bank & Trust Company. As yet there are no suspects.” “Reckon they’ll just put it down as an accident?” a reporter would ask A month passed, no suspects, no clues. Two more months and then a year— nothing. Neither Tess nor Ryerson ever mentioned his name again.

153

TOBACCO TOWN

Charlie Simpson woke on that chilly September morning with a new fever in his bones, a good strong rich smell of fresh tobacco in his nostrils, a devilish new excitement in his belly. A late summer smell of good tobacco. Always a good time for Charlie, the first day of the yearly tobacco sales—-busy times at the cafe, good money coming in, the busiest time of the year in Old Winston. Good, exciting times, too, in a way, with a lot of different people coming in the barbershops and poolrooms or in Charlie's cafe or in any of the other places along North Trade Street and talking about almost nothing except the sales and how the prices were holding up. The best time of the year for all the merchants and tradesmen in the raucous Winston warehouse district. The thought of it all came over him with a rush, like the smell of the tobacco itself, as he was crawling out of his cramped bed and preparing to get dressed. A bit cool for early September, but he knew it would be hot again as soon as the sun got up over the town. He had been though it all before, always at this season, on the opening day of the auction, the good feeling of that day and of all the days to come, from then until after Christmas, when the auction would slowly draw to a close. Always a special time in the life of Charlie Simpson. He had heard the cries out in the street long before dawn, while he was still lying there half asleep in the crowded little flat that he now owned after finally paying off

154 the mortgage on the building that included both his suite of rooms and the cafe below. He couldn't help wondering sometimes if maybe he'd made a big mistake by spending so much of his life on North Trade Street. Maybe he should have invested his money instead in one of those suburban malls that had sprung up all around the city after the war. A troubling thought—but that was only on the bad days. Suddenly the season would turn again and he would just nod philosophically and tell himself that maybe he hadn't made such a bad choice after all and that, anyway, the street was his life—always had been and always would be—and so he might as well and stop worrying about what might have been and play out as best he could the hand he had been dealt. Again he heard the cries of the new arrivals out on the damp cobbles of the cool morning, the trucks driving up and the men starting to unload their great bundles of leaf. A big day all right. He went to his window and listened for a moment to the shouts and laughter of the farmers looking to make a real killing and maybe even hoping they could get back home with some of their loot before throwing it all away on liquor and women. It was as if the Carolina backcountry had disgorged itself of its whole population— hundreds of farmers in their faded coveralls and khakis and maybe half as many farm women in their homespun cotton print dresses—and sent them barreling down dusty washboard roads in the first dawn toward the boisterous tobacco town of old Winston. The noise had started long before daylight: the harsh grating and banging of the warehouse doors, the Ford pickups revving up their motors, the shouts of the farm families as they impatiently waited for the start of the auction. Some had even come from as far away as Southside Virginia. Danville. South Boston. Blacksburg. Driving all

155 night with their wives and whole families, hoping to beat the crowds only to find the crowds already there. Certainly the biggest day of the year for all of the tradesmen and merchants in the warehouse district, bigger than ever this year perhaps because all the talk had been that prices on the Winston's Old Belt market would set records like nothing anybody had seen since the boom times of the twenties. That was when Charlie had first come to the town, though not yet to North Trade Street, and every time he told himself it was time to move on again, the new season would smite him with its bracing memories and the thought of reunions with a lot of the good close friends he had made over the years. Yes—and always that good fresh smell of new tobacco! Could his life ever be quite the same with that smell in his nostrils? That sudden, seductive, almost voluptuous smell, at once acrid and pungent and overpowering. Not at all like the old dead smell that forever hung over the town and had first earned it the named of tobacco-stinking Winston. The old smell drifting up from the cigarette manufacturing and plug tobacco plants, invading the very walls and floors of the buildings themselves, the clothes you wore, the darkest, most secret spot where you might hope to hide from it, as intimate a part of the town as all of the lovely fall color spreading down out of the hills of Sauratown, so much a part of everybody's life that people who had grown up there never even noticed it anymore or merely breathed more deeply and said, "The smell of new money. Yep. That's what it is all right. It's sure means a lot to this old town." Now, on this morning, with the new crop starting to arrive, the pace of the town would suddenly quicken and the people all along North Trade could put behind them the

156 last dead languor of the August dog days. Charlie could even hear the exhilaration in the shouts of the farmers out there in the streets as they were unloading their crop and watching as the warehouse workers scurried about placing it on the big scales and then in long rows on the wide floors where the auction was to take place. Charlie lingered at the window only a moment longer. Already past time for him to get downstairs and start preparing for the crowds that would soon be swarming in for breakfast. Yet, even on those first cool autumn mornings, with the chant of the auctioneers echoing through the big warehouses and the crowds of farmers in the streets, with all the good feeling inside him, Charlie Simpson would still find too many of the old bad memories drifting back. It would hit him of a sudden that he was fifty-five years old and that all of his talk about leaving the street someday and setting himself up in something with regular hours and none of the headaches posed by the cafe business—well, he must have known that it was just that: talk, and would never be anything else, nothing to make him think that life would ever get any better than it had been these past thirty years. Not that there some good memories and some good times. He had sure palavered about them often enough. The subject was bound to come up whenever his customers started coming in for an early breakfast. It was just that all of his investment in those years had never come to anything, a little money in the bank though hardly enough for him even to start thinking about retirement. On this day Charlie felt it more than ever, the old sad things of the world, the deep melancholy way down inside him somewhere. Always the same and yet not the

157 same. Still it was true: he knew that this was to be his one special day, somehow different from all the others in the whole long year.

-*-

How different he did not realize until he got his first look at the stranger: a seedy, pock-marked little guy standing at the end of the alley when Charlie went down to open up. Charlie looked at him. That sudden feeling of uneasiness in his stomach, where had it come from? A feeling of something almost like fear. Why, forever after that, did he somehow identify it with the stranger, a complete newcomer to the town, a tawdry character nobody on the street had ever seen before? Yet there he was, having drifted into town with the first chill of autumn, with the first cry of the tobacco auctioneers, as though something almost supernatural, something downright uncanny, something that Charlie had no name for, had brought him there to fulfill some peculiar and insidious destiny. "I knew sumpin' had sure gone wrong," he told Prather Goode one morning later that week. "Knew it the minute I laid my eyes on that little fart." He would always begin the story that way, and the rest of the morning-crowd would listen as he went through it all: how quickly and inexplicably that first little twinge of uneasiness had come over him when he looked up and saw the newcomer. "A real mangy character, he was. Wearin’ some old khaki work-clothes that looked like they mighta been two or three sizes too big for him. And he had these here little funny eyes. Yessir. That's the main thing I remember: those funny lookin' eyes of

158 his, just jumpin' all around like they had come unhinged somehow. Sort of floatin’ around like them little specks of dust or flotsam the way you see it in the water after a storm." Jump around as they would they had an unnerving habit of always coming back to land on Charlie Simpson. So it must have been then that he first realized the strange queasy little feeling in his belly was a whole lot more than just his imagination. "Seed him when I first come down that mornin'—just one of them guys you see hangin' around in the alley sometimes. Didn't think too much about it at first. It was only later when I looked up and seed him just lookin' in at me with them crazy eyes of his. Like he didn't have nothin' better to do all day but stand out there and look in the winder. Like he couldn't even come in and order him a couple of eggs or a big slab of ham or sumpin' like that. Maybe talk to some of the other fellas. Guess I'd of felt a lot better about it if'n he'd just gone on and done that. Wouldna changed nothin' that happened though." Prather, himself a former tobacco buyer, now working part-time in one of the barbershops he had bought with his savings, would come in each morning around five o’clock for his plate of eggs, sunnyside, often with his son Ryerson. It would never be long before the talk turned back to the stranger with the crazy eyes. Ryerson and his father had heard Charlie speak of that day so often, of that day and all the days to follow, the story so familiar to them now, that they almost felt themselves a part of the old man’s curious adventure. The way Charlie always explained it was this: It was as though after all the good feeling of the early morning hours something had gone terribly wrong with his life, not

159 just the old regrets this time, but something far more profound and disturbing. That's the only way he knew how to describe it. The way he always told it was that somehow he had known without being able to say why that the little guy with the swishy eyes was different from all the thousands of others he had seen hanging around in front of his cafe. Funny how he could be looking right at Charlie and those crazy eyes of his never standing still for a second. Anyhow, that was the way he would always remember it. Every time he looked up on that first morning he saw the man loafing around out there on the sidewalk, staring into the cafe and not just into the cafe but directly at Charlie himself. It was the eyes that did it. Staring at him with an almost maniacal zeal. At such times Charlie would feel something more inside him than the usual chill of unrealized ambition. He would again talk of it as though there was something a little other-worldly about it—how the stranger would go away for a while and then suddenly reappear with those eyes jumping around at everything and nothing before again fastening on Charlie Simpson. So he knew now that something definitely was wrong, even if he couldn't say why exactly. He knew it didn't make any sense. Why the man could have been any of a hundred others; the town was always haunted by strangers at that season, when the tobacco auction was just getting started: pimps, con men, bootleggers, card sharps, pool hustlers, you name it. Charlie Simpson had seen them all. So what made this guy so special? All he knew was that he got a kind of a funny feeling in his gut every time he looked up from the grill and saw him: a grizzled, stooped, mangy little character pacing the sidewalk and casting a fevered gaze through a big plate glass window that said:

160 TRADE STREET BAR AND GRILL Char. Simpson, Proprietor

Earlier, on that first morning of the stranger's appearance, Charlie had realized that despite all the good feeling of his waking hours he hadn't quite been himself anyway. A lot different now than when he was younger; always a different feeling now whenever the season began to turn, a little reminder in the air that the years were finally catching up with him. “Felt like I might be comin' down with sumpin.' Just didn't feel right somehow. Like I say, that was before I ever even seed that fellow and them strange little eyes of his’n. Kept tryin' to ignore him, tryin' not to think no more about it, and when, whatdya know, the fellow finally did come inside and set a spell. I spoke to him just like I’d speak to anybody else that seemed new in town. Says I, 'You in for the sales?' And so he looks at me a minute like I done gone and lost my mind and says, 'Sales? What sales?'” At this point Charlie’s voice would take on a more confidential tone. “My first thought was that he must be on dope or sumpin' like that thar. Can you all imagine anybody bein' in town the first day of the tobacco sales and not even know what's goin' on? So I says to him again, 'You must be in town for the sales.' And whatdya know, that same blank stare and crazy eyes. 'Sales,' he says. 'What sales?' And then just latchin' onto me again with them funny unhinged eyes. Most of the morning crowd would have come and gone, but the story never ceased. Charlie would take a seat on a tall stool in front of the grill and just keep on talking to whoever was left to hear.

161 Prather Goode, who owned two barbershops on North Trade, was among Charlie’s first customers that morning, just as he always, still rising at five o’clock, just as he had growing up on the farm, and always at Charlie’s just about good sunrise, to order his two eggs sunnyside up. He hung around a little longer than usual this morning, listening to this odd new story Charlie was telling. “Well, Prather, I guess I don't have to tell you that I was gettin' mighty anxious for the moment when we'd be gettin' some more customers in the place. It finally god so I was paying that strange little character much mind. Just kep movin’ up and down like always, servin' breakfast to some of my early bird customers. Hardly light, you know, at that time of mornin' in September. But you know—funny thing—it just seemed to me like I could still feel them funny eyes on me, just feel 'em swishing around all crazy-like and then landing smack dab on the back of my neck. "So you know what the next thing he says to me is? He says, 'Mighty funny smell in this town.' Well, I don't haveta tell you that if I hadn't knowed it before I woulda sho knowed right then he was a stranger. I says to him, 'Smell? Why that ain't nothin.' Ain't nothin' but the smell of tobacco. The smell of big money. The smell of new gold. You one of them fellers that ain't never smelled tobacco before?' I tried to speak to him without turnin' my back from the grill, like it didn't matter to me none one way or the other. So I says, 'Ain't never smelt no tobacco, eh. Well, you mustn't be from around these here parts.' "He didn't say nothin' else for a while. And I just stood there with my back to him, but I could see him all right. I got this tall chrome-plated coffee urn there by the grill and I can see his expression in it, all long and weird-looking, like in one of those

162 glasses at the county fair. About that time I see Jesse—that's Jesse Talbot, what runs the hardware store—coming in. Likes his eggs just like you do, Prather. Sunnyside. Two strips of bacon. I had it all waitin’ for him when he came in. And so just as I was about to shove Jesse's plate in front of him the new guy has completely disappeared. I moseyed over to the door and looked up and down the street. No sign of him anywhere. "So I says to Jesse, 'Jess, what happened to that little squirt? You see him leave?' But, hell, Jess didn't know nothin’ about it. He says, 'Who's that, Charlie?' And I says, "Why that odd-lookin' duck with them swishy eyes in his head. But Jess he just sets there and looks puzzled and says, 'Can't recollect seein' anybody like that, Charlie.' So I says, 'Sumpin' mighty funny about that fella. Felt it ever since I come in this mornin.' If'n I had to guess I'd say he's probably runnin' from sumpin.' And old Jess just looks up and says, 'Well, I guess that would be a pretty good guess, Charlie. People on the street this time of year, you can't never tell what kind of sorry lowdown meanness they might've been into. Worsen that, you can't tell what kind of meanness they might be gonna git themselves into."

-*-

So that's the way it was with Charlie Simpson in those days. The way he told it, that feeling of uneasiness, of a past too quickly fled, hung over him all morning. Just when he thought he was beginning to feel like his old self he looked out the window and saw the man again. It was different this time: the stranger had got up a crowd somehow and appeared to have forgot all about Charlie Simpson.

163 "So help me that little feller had gone to preachin' with all his might. But I guess you remember that as well as I do, Prather. ‘Cause he was a whole lot closer to your place than mine." "Remember it very well," Prather said. "Had good reason to remember it." "Can't remember all his words," Charlie said. "Sumpin' like, 'Beware the way of the transgressor! Beware the way of the transgressor!'" Charlie would sometimes get up and act out the part, repeating the words as best he could remember them or as time, perhaps, had since rearranged them in his mind. "Yes, sinner! Beware! For the Lord spoke to me in a river of light and I was bathed in his holy light, and the Lord said until me, 'Beware, sinner! Beware the way of the transgressor! For it is meet you should beware his evil ways!" Charlie would pace the floor in front of where Prather was sitting, his arms flogging the air. That was one of the few times anybody ever saw him acting a real card, the way he always had back before the years had got to him. It was Prather himself who finally ran the guy off. The preacher, if that is what he was, had fetched up a powerful big crowd and was making an awful lot of noise and was getting ready to pass the hat when Prather Goode figured he was drunk and maybe dangerous too. He went out of the shop with his razor open in his hand, motioning for the fellow to beat it on out of there and find another place to spread his gospel. Charlie would fall silent, and a little shiver would run through him, whenever Prather got to that part of the story. He would always remember how the barber had stood there with that razor open and how the man had simply stared him down, razor and all, turning his back on the little crowd and yelling in his face.

164 "Beware the way of the transgressor! Beware! . . . " He kept staring Prather down and Prather staring right back at him and holding the razor and the crowd getting bigger all the time until finally Bill Spease the cop came wading through. "Didn't take Bill long to break it up," Charlie would say. "But then sumpin' else funny: Bill just sort of punches him with his nightstick and that little feller goes to fallin' all over the concrete and yellin' bloody murder and cursin' Bill Spease in some of the foulest language you've ever heard in your whole life and I guess the only reason Bill didn't lock him up right then and there was that he was too stunned to realize what was happ’nin.' A minute later he looks around and the little guy has completely disappeared." That wasn't nearly all. The man had gone in the barbershop that same afternoon, acting as though everything was as normal as could be and ordered "the works." Then he'd gone straight over to the Trade Street Billiard Palace and started a brawl, broken cues, broken beer bottles—"the works." "Could've got a lot worse if Bill Spease hadn't still been around to break it up," Prather said. The regulars in Charlie's place were all talking about it that afternoon when Prather and his son went over for Cokes. "Sho won't no easy job," said Fat Sprinkle, a poolroom hanger-on. "You know, that little fella don't look like much, but Bill couldn't do nothin' with him. Starts punchin' away at him with his slapstick, but that don't work neither. So finally he has to go for his gun and the handcuffs and haul him off to the lockup."

165 -*-

The newcomer had spent only one night in jail. After he got out, that was when it really got rough on Charlie. Every time Charlie looked up, there he was, like some gaunt and ageless specter out to wreck vengeance on the whole town. Or maybe only on Charlie Simpson, his eyes never quite still except to stare at the slightly paunchy cafe owner. Charlie began to get used to him after a while. Just one of those queer ducks you see around. "Got so he'd come in the place almost every mornin' for a while. Never ordered nothin’ to eat. Never ordered nothin’ to drink. But he wasn't takin' up much room so why worry about it? Funny thing was, one mornin’ not long after he'd been in that brawl down at the poolroom he came in and sat around for maybe an hour or so without speakin' to nobody and then the minute I mentioned somethin’ about needin’ an extra waitress to help out durin’ the sales season, up he jumps and says, 'Well, maybe I can find you somebody.' I says, "What?" And the little guy says, "Sure, I know lotsa girls needin’ work. Maybe I could send one of them around.’ "Well, he don't even wait for an answer." That was the way Charlie remembered it anyway. "He just hauls ass out the door, hangs there a second, lookin' back at me in that wild haunted way he had, and off he goes into the sunlight. So I figured he musta been some kind of pimp or sumpin’ and figures I don’t never hire nobody but rundown old whores in this here place. Figured that was the last I’d hear outa him. Him of all people thinkin' he knows anything about findin' somebody to help out in the cafe?"

166 Maybe he did. And maybe he didn't. Maybe it was only a coincidence that a young woman came in later that day and applied for a job. "How'd you know I was lookin?' "Just took a chance," Her name was Selma: not a bad looker, dark, about thirty five. Charlie immediately suspected her of having a disreputable past. "Today's Thursday. You can start tomorrow it you wanta."

-*-

It was not yet daylight when Charlie went down to the cafe next morning, the air misty and the cobbles still damp from a shower that had wakened him briefly in the night. As usual, Prather Goode was there for an early breakfast. Another fine autumn day, a lot of people coming and going, a lot of money changing hands. Even at this early hour the pickups loaded with great piles of ripe golden brown tobacco had begun to block off the street in front of the Big Winston Warehouse, the farmers and floor bosses working in unison now to get the leaf inside and ready for the sales. For Charlie it was a morning like all of the other mornings at this season. The air still cool, the feeling of richness and melancholy inside him. He used to talk about those times, too: how the past would kind of hang before him like an old portrait and how he could suddenly see himself a lot more clearly than at other times, and not always liking what he saw: a man already too far past his middle years, a little too fat and a little too bald, the dark thorn-like hairs somehow too prominent on the backs of his hands, a

167 man of no means, no promise, no hope, a cipher, unloved and unfeared, perhaps even the butt of jokes from people passing by in the street. That was just his way of talking, when he was feeling a little down. Charlie knew as well as anybody that he had plenty of friends on that street. He knew that when or Jesse Talbot or old Clyde Fortner, the feed store operator, or Ross Cohen, the haberdasher, or Fat Sprinkle or Prather himself or any of the others in the part of town were speaking of him, one of them would be sure to say: "Old Charlie Simpson. A good old boy, Charlie. Not many like him left in this town." How long had it been since he had come to that street? More than thirty years now. More than thirty years since he left Boone Styres’s place on Liberty. Sometimes Charlie would reflect aloud on those years—on the unreality of it all, the little he had to show now for all of his years of work. Would it have been different if he had accepted one of those offers to go on the road as a salesman of fertilizer or farm machinery? Perhaps. Unless he was feeling really down he seldom stopped to think about all that. Mostly he liked to talk about all the good times he’d had when he had first come to the town as a young man. "Winston was really boomin’ in them days. Biggest town in the state and everebody talkin’ ‘bout how we was sho gonna be the next Atlanta. That crowd up there at Reynolds T’baccer, well, I reckon they sho done a lot for the town, but I think mostly they just wanted to keep all that new money for themselves. And then them damn Moravias, the church people we got to thank for building the town-p-hellfire, they stood up on their hind legs and refused to let the main line of the Southern Railroad come

168 through. Them and the ‘baccer folks wouldn’t let no kinda industries come in. Too skeered they might be bringin’ in too many union folks with ‘em. So we just kinda died there for a while, Prather. But it sho was some big times while it lasted. Yessir. Too many big nights of drinkin,’ Prather. Too many big nights of knockin’ around with the girls." One of the guys he'd run with in those days, Claude Messick, a good man with a cue, still came around to the cafe sometimes. "Ever see him, Prather" "Sure. Yeah, he comes around to the shop now and then. Same old Claude. Pretty much taken with the bottle now though." Charlie had been married for a while to one of the waitresses over at Boone’s place. Later, after she'd run off to Florida with an auto mechanic from Iron Station, the only women he took any interest in were the streetwalkers who came into his place sometimes and waited to be picked up. They still came in, but Charlie was no longer their man. What had gone wrong? He just wasn't sure. "Seems like some things just ain't meant to turn out, Prather. Yet with just a little luck . . . " On one such morning, when Ryerson Goode had again gone into town with his father for an early breakfast, he found out that the man with the crazy eyes, after dropping out of sight for a week or more, had suddenly come back and had twice appeared in the door of the cafe that morning—gaunt, haunted, menacing, his eyes always fixed on Charlie Simpson. "Whatcha want, mister?"

169 "Nothin' ya got." This time Charlie recognized the feeling in his belly and readily confessed it: it was fear. That was the morning he had started reaching in the drawer under his cash register to make sure he still had his snub-nosed .38. Maybe half a dozen times he found himself going over to the drawer to reassure himself. He kept up a good front, though. He kept telling everybody along the counter that he was sure "gonna take care of that little squirt one of these days." There was something else, too. Once, he went out of his way to tell Prather and all the others how pleased he was with his new waitress. He found it easy to talk to her. He had even talked to her about the swishy eyed little stranger who kept coming around and trying to cause trouble. “She's sure been right friendly," he told Ryerson’s father with a wink. "She's made it a lot easier for everybody. When the guy comes around and starts starin' in at us, she just laughs him off. And when she sees me gettin’ a little pissed off, she says, 'Now, Charlie, honey, don't you go doin' anything that's gonna get you in trouble now." So maybe without quite admitting it even to himself Charlie began to feel that the place had come to mean more to her than just a job. Had she spotted him as a man of unusual character and substance and rectitude?

-*-

In his room at night he thought of almost nothing else. One Friday evening in early October he kept wishing he could invite her up sometime. He sat looking around at

170 the place and realized it would need a lot of fixing up before he could even think about anything like that. A lot of paint and some new wallpaper. Some decent furniture. A real drab place as it was now: no curtains, the shades shot full of holes, a chest of drawers with one leg missing, some wooden crates turned upside down to serve as chairs. He had come down with a real case of the glooms. He went over by the window and stood looking out at the street, that strange mood still on him. The cobbles glistened under the hard damp October chill and he could see the faded glimmer of neon on the marquee of the U. S. A. Hotel: a street shadowy and unreal, made out of cardboard, depthless, full of darkened shops and hooded curb-market stands and cheap rented flats occupied by hustlers, drunks, peddlers, whores, pimps and Charlie Simpson. Maybe he would go out after a while and see if the poolroom was still open. Just something to do to kill a little time. Two women came up the street looking for action, but Charlie definitely wasn't their man. Charlie stood holding a tumbler of bourbon and just looking out at the cobbles and thinking ahead to the day of his death. A long time yet, though who could say that it wouldn't be upon him before he realized it? One day somebody would come and knock at the door and he would be lying there dead, not alive at all, not even the remains of a pulse; and then whoever it was would call the cops and the coroner, and then the men in the ambulance would come and take him down to the morgue and just stand there shaking their heads at the sadness of it all. "Maybe it's just as well," one of them would say. "An old guy like that, with no friends or anything, and where was his wife anyway? Yeah. It's just as well. Just as well that the old guy is dead."

171 An old man now with nothing to look forward to. Just dump him out in the rain somewhere and let it go at that. What did it matter anyway? "The poor old bastard," someone would say. "Not even a friend to come to his funeral."

-*-

The next day—Saturday—was the day that everything started coming together for Charlie Simpson. Who would have guessed it? He must have sensed it, as he so often sensed so many things about his fading life, before coming downstairs in the morning. He had been unable to sleep and had got down there along about four or fourthirty, long before anyone else was stirring. So what should happen but that just as he went to unlock his door the man— preacher, demon, whatever he was—moved in on him, terrifyingly, coming at him out of the alley from which Charlie had just emerged. "Where is she?" "Who?" "Don’t ask who, you smary bastard. You know who." "You mean the new waitress? Whatcha need to see her about? Anyway, she ain't due in till six." That was the way it went, the hurried conversation outside, and Charlie quickly unlatching the door and stepping inside and the man trying to force his way in behind him. "So I tell him, 'Sorry, we ain't open yet. You can come back around five.'

172 "But that fella, he didn't move a muscle," Charlie told Prather a little later. "He just stood there like he was waitin' on sumpin' real important. Like a shift in the earth or sumpin' and all the mountains to fall down on top of the town. So I just kept watchin' him from inside the big winder while the grill was gettin' hot and the coffee beginnin' to perk. Why was he askin' about Selma anyway? Had they known each other from somewheres? I wondered if I oughta say sumpin' else to the cops. But about daylight he disappears and it’s the biggest day of the week and I'm busy with breakfast and didn't think no more about it for the time bein.’” Saturday always was THE big day in Winston during the auction season. The day all the farm families came into town to do their shopping. Already the haberdashers had hung out their gaudy wares over the sidewalks, and soon now as more and more of the curb venders would be open for business, the air heavy with the smell of cantaloupes and apples and overripe peaches and bananas—all those smells from the curb market across the street mingling with the ever-present smell of tobacco and also with the smell of bacon and eggs frying inside the Trade Street Bar & Grill. Charlie Simpson, Proprietor. A big day—and toward evening a lot of drunk farmers on the streets, younger guys mostly, flush with the proceeds of a week's sales and looking for trouble, the tawdry women bargaining with them from the windows of their second-story flats. “Yep," Prather says. "Gonna be another real big day." He and Charlie had been friends for at least twenty years, maybe longer. They had both come to Winston as young men, hoping to make good in the city.

173 “Tobacco stinking Winston," everybody called it then. But there was gold in that smell, and it would last a long time after tobacco auctions and even tobacco itself, to some extent, had gone out of fashion. Real boom times, just as Charlie was always saying, maybe the last the city would ever know. Prather was still working the markets in those days, traveling the roads from eastern Carolina to northern Kentucky; a good life till he started experiencing those first pains in his chest. He had worked long enough as a buyer and saved enough and had begun to invest a lot of the money, first in barbershops, the only other trade he knew, and then in rent houses. He had opened his first barbershop on Liberty Street, corner of Liberty and Sixth, right in the middle of the warehouse district. Now he had either owned outright and had half-interest in a whole string of shops all over the warehouse district. He ordered his eggs sunnyside—"the usual." "You runnin' a little late today, Prather.” "Wouldn't you know it? Old man Spainhour was waiting on me when I got in this morning. You know him, Charlie. Comes in every couple of weeks and expects me to wait on him first thing . Before I can even get my own shave. And still pays me two bits like always. Still thinks its 1933, I guess. Can't say anything, though. He's some of the madam's kin." Prather Goode ate greedily, to make up for the time he had lost with old man Spainhour. "Well, I guess you're gonna just have to tell him, Prather. Clue him in on the fact that it's 1953 now and he's got to keep up with the times."

174 The place was crowded by now and Charlie still had no one but good old reliable Ethel Rosenthal to work the booths. His other two waitresses—Ruth Gentry and the new girl—were late on this busiest of all autumn days. And Charlie was getting a little frantic when Ruth finally got there; she looked all pale and bloated from a big night on the town. She bragged sometimes that she could take on eight, ten, twelve men in a row in the back seat of her roadster. "Another big night, eh, Ruth?" She had tried to disguise her hangover with powder and a great smear of rouge, but already the sweat had begun to creep through. She dragged herself to the back, slugged down a mug of coffee and turned to face the customers. She came up and looked over Ryerson’s shoulder as he was finishing his eggs. His father had driven him into town that day so that he could catch a movie and hang out with some of his friends on the corner in front of O'Hanlon's Drug Store, or maybe catch a Wild Bill Hickok movie. Prather had already left the cafe, anxious to get ahead of the barbershop crowd. "Prather's boy, aintcha? Ain't you sumpin,' though? Almost growed, aintcha?" She stopped again as she came back carrying her first order of the morning. "Son, I learned a lot in the ten years I been tryin' to make a livin' in this town. You're a fool if you think the world's on your side. I guess that was my first and hardest lesson: world ain't nothin’ but a gimmick to trick old ladies." Some of the sports who’d heard all this laughed their loud ribald laughter and then tried to cheer up the faded waitress.

175 "Come on, Ruth," somebody would say. "You got some good years left. From what I hear you ain't slowed down none. I heard you still the best quick piece in this whole town!" Ruth cursed the men silently and quickened her pace to keep up with the growing crowd. Ryerson left about that time, but not before he looked up and saw the stranger again. There he was, just like always, and maybe he had been out there a good long time, just staring at Charlie through the steamed-over plate-glass window. Nothing had changed: for long moments he would stand there inanimate, sullen, and then with an abruptness that was always startling he would go striding rapidly back and forth in front of the door. Charlie wondered if he was getting ready to preach again. About nine-fifteen, Selma, the new waitress, appeared; and then something really funny happened. The man grabbed her arm and twisted her back against the building. Charlie saw them talking and thought maybe he'd better go for his gun. Before he could make up his mind to grab it Selma shook off the bum and came on inside. "What is it?" Charlie wanted to know. "Is that piece of slime bothering you?" "It's OK, Charlie. Don't bother about him." A little later that day, after the luncheon crowd had cleared out, Ruth explained what it was all about. "That's her husband—or was, till they broke up. Two or three years ago, I guess it was, maybe longer. Surprised you didn't know that, Charlie. You mean she didn't tell you? I reckon as how she was ashamed to say anything about it. I mean, a guy like that . . . "Anyhow, he keeps showin’ up every couple of months or so and wantin’ money. I asks Selma why she doesn't let somebody know—report him to the law or somethin’

176 like that. But she says, 'Naw, Ruth, I can't do that. I sure can't do that.' She's scared a’ him, you see. And I mean really scared in a big goddamn way.”

-*Charlie didn't find out how scared until the early hours of Sunday morning. For once in his life things appeared to be going well for Charlie Simpson. "Prather," he said one Saturday at breakfast, long after his “adventure” was past and he had got his health back. "Don't ask me how it happened, but I just got to thinkin' that that girl and me might go a long way together. Ordinarily, you see, she would’ve been off by five or six, but she comes up about that time and says, 'I need the money, Charlie. I don't mind stayin’ to help out.' I needed the help all right. Nobody with me that evenin' except Joyce, and we still had a lot of business. But to tell you the truth, I got the feelin’ that it was a whole lot more than money. You know what I mean: it's just that feelin' you get sometimes. Because, you see, even when all the customers had gone, Selma, well, she just acted like she didn't wanta leave at all. As you can imagine, that was sure all right with old Charlie Simpson. I'm cleanin' away all the clutter while she sits at the counter puffin' on a cigarette. “Then she wants to know if I mind if she stays on there a little while longer just sort of to get herself together. "Crazy question, eh, Prather. I mean, this was a real dish, and I said, 'I'd not only be proud to have you stay, I'll even get you a little somethin' to make it worth your while. So I got out some of that real good bonded whisky that old man Claiborne brings down here ever once in a while from his place up at Lowgap. You ever tasted it, Prather?

177 There's no storebought nowheres that’ll even compare with it. Why he ages that stuff in them hickory casks of his'n until its as mellow as a warm night in September. There's a secret to it, Prather. Dunno what it is exactly. Don't reckon he's ever told any man that; but he's got a way of makin’ that stuff with a taste that's better'n anything you’d ever get from any distillery in this here whole country. So I decided I'd let her try a little taste." Prather had patronized old man Claiborne from time to time, and so had some of the other customers. Everybody agreed that Charlie was right. There was no storebought to compare with it. Claiborne had plenty of the other kind too: raw white moonshine for the regular bootleg trade. Not often that Charlie kept much bootleg on hand. "I poured her a tumbler about half full and told her to try it straight. Went down smooth as silk. She says, 'My god, Charlie, that's wonderful.' So I could see that maybe we were gonna have a regular little drinkin’ party. "Offered Joyce a glass out of politeness. Was mighty glad when she turned me down. Said she'd better get on home. Her old man would be waitin’ up. Would give her hell if he caught her with liquor on her breath." Charlie would draw the story out as long as possible: how he watched the older waitress go out, waited till he heard the click of the door latch, listened as her footsteps went up the street and turned the corner. A misty rain came up, promising colder weather before dawn. Then came more footsteps. O. K. Pitts, the cop, on his nightly rounds. Charlie? Well, the way he remembered it, he had gone out back to his storage room a couple of times, once to get the whisky and once to study himself in the bathroom mirror.

178 "Prather, I have to tell you the truth. I had just about decided that I'd been way too hard on myself." It came to him suddenly that maybe he wasn't as used up as the thought. Still had some of his hair, anyway. A certain intensity in his eye. A lot of people had asked him why he didn't get married again. "Too much a man of the world to get married," he always told them. This girl, Selma. Would she be willin' to go up and spend the night at his place? A shame the old dump looked no better. "I got to wishin' I'd moved off Trade Street a long time ago—maybe got me a place in one of those swanky new apartment complexes that've been goin' up all over the place since the war. I figured I’d tell her that. Hell, forget about this dump. We'll be livin’ in real style after a while. I figured I could scrape up a little money from somewheres. So I knew I wouldn't have to lie when I told her that if she'd just bear with me I’d fix her up with a place just as nice as anything you've ever seed in this town. Except for all them big places the tobacco millionaires built. "The place was kinda beginnin' to cool off, and I noticed she was startin' to shiver a little. Well, I figured that another drink of that Lowgap bottled-in-bond would be just the ticket. She took a glass, and drank it, but she was awful nervous. Kept sloshin’ it out on her hand. And what a hand, white and all delicate and really the hand of a child almost. Beautiful, Prather. Most beautiful hand I ever seen. So we swapped a couple more drinks, and were beginnin' to feel pretty good, and I noticed for the first time she was willin' to tell me sumpin' about that ex-husband of hers. I mean, he musta been a real gold-plated prick if you know what I mean. It’d still bring tears to her eyes to talk about

179 it, and I'd see that good whisky sloshin' out and just stand there listenin' as them tales she told got bigger and bigger. Like all the tricks he used to pull. How he'd wait on her in the dark and then beat hell out of her before she even knew who it was hardly and how he was always surprisin' her out of some creepy alley or courtyard and tryin’ to git money outa her." Charlie had looked at her hand and become enthralled all over again with its beauty, the fine delicate bones, the veins blue and lovely like the hands of some queen or noble lady in an old movie, the soft white flesh glistening beneath the slosh of good Lowgap whisky as she talked about the beatings and the terrible life she'd had until she finally got away from him. That still wasn't all. "'He's still out there, Charlie.' That's what she told me. Said he was allus out there watchin' the place, watchin' us, watchin' everything that was goin' on. I figured that the whisky and her imagination had kinda teamed up on her to make things even worse than they was. I went over to the winder, didn't see nothin' and pulled all the blinds shut. "She keeps saying, 'Keep him outa here, Charlie. Do it for me.' And I tell her it’s OK, that there's nothin' to worry about now. So she asks for another drink, and she doesn't spill this one: she drinks it straight down, talkin' real fast and excitedly, you know, like there's real danger out there and its gonna come pourin' in on us at any minute. 'You don't know him,' she says. 'You don't know how good he is with a knife.' Said he kept one on him all the time, spent all his spare time practicin' with it. Maybe killin' folks too. I don't mean she told me that. It's just a couple of things she said that made me wonder.

180 Then she says, 'Don't even like to think of some of the things he's done, Charlie. Don't even like to sit here and think about it.'" That was when Charlie made his move. "Don't you worry none. That's all over now. That's all over.'" He sort of let his hand rest on her shoulder; she let it lie undisturbed. So he tells her again, "It's all over. I got me a good .38 up there. You ain’t gotta worry none.” He brought out the whole jar of good Lowgap whisky. She took a glassful and drank it without spilling a drop and sat there calmly smoking in the dark. Charlie had turned out all the lights except the single fluorescent over the grill. Things were looking pretty good when he turned back to where she was sitting. "She was still shakin' a little and talkin' about how good her ex-husband was with a knife and sayin' she wasn't gonna cry no more even if she did feel like it and that the main reason she felt like it was because, well, look at what her life mighta been if she hadn't wasted so many years with a character that didn't even care, that didn't even . . . .'" Then she began to cry in spite of everything. Charlie felt a new strength in his hand as he took her shoulder. "Nothin' to worry about now. Just remember I got me a good .38 that don’t take no arguments from nobody." "All she says is, 'You're some guy, Charlie.'" Outside, the muffled rainy dark. Inside, the beginning of a new chapter in the life and times of Charlie Simpson. "She says, 'Sometimes he'll stare right through you, Charlie. Sometimes like you'll wake up in the middle of the night and feel those eyes on you . . .' Then she says, 'One night he caught me, Charlie.' . . . I didn't let on that I knew what she was gittin’ at.

181 I'd been around. Anyway, she says, 'It wasn't anything much. And besides, he'd already left me and it was no real concern of his, was it, one way of the other? That's the way he does—goes away and you think you're rid of him and back he comes just when you're least expectin' it.'" From the way he now told the story, always starting back at the beginning, everybody knew that he hadn't heard much of anything she said after that. Just those few words: "One time he caught me, Charlie." Still, old Charlie Simpson had been around. Nobody had to explain things to him. "I guess by that time she was pretty drunk. Because me, I look down and see that she's holdin’ her Camel with it burnin’ all the way down to her fingers. That skin of hers on fire and she ain't even feelin’ it. I'm tellin’ you that Lowgap whisky is a buster." Charlie shook her a little and got no response. Then he had tried to wake her with a good strong reassuring voice: "Look, I don't wantcha to worry about none of this. You lemme tend to it. I'll take right good care of that feller." His voice fell empty in the silence; he kept hearing himself, as he explained it later, for a good two or three minutes after he'd got the words out. "Then she says, 'Charlie, I can't explain how I know it, but I'm sure he's still waitin' out there.' Then she starts shakin' again, sloshin' my good whisky all over the place and me wipin' it up without sayin’ anything. Then I says, 'Look, you ain't gotta worry none about this. You can just come up to my place till he's gone.' She didn't make much response. I figured it was only because she was pretty drunk and that maybe I'd have to carry her up. I says, 'You wanta come?' She says, 'Whatdya think, Charlie? You

182 think it'd be safe?' I got out my .38 and put it on the counter just in case if the guy tried to start trouble when we started upstairs. Because I figured everything was finally workin’ out the way I'd always planned it. I poured a couple more drinks just for good measure and says, 'Just don't you worry about that feller no more. I'll sho tend to him. I'll take real good care of it, and anybody that knows Charlie Simpson knows he's a man of his word."

-*-

Well, it didn't exactly work out for Charlie that time, either. The truth was, he wasn't ready to take care of much of anything. The way he told it later, and after he had got back from the hospital, and after all the big buildup, he was never even sure exactly what had happened. All he remembered was that when he came out a third time from the kitchen the .38 was gone and that Selma, suddenly sober, was pointing it at him, laughing the loud mocking laughter of his worst nightmares. "Talked to me like nothin' we'd ever said mattered one little bit. And, of course, I reckon it didn't. I could see that after I’d had a little time to think about it. But listenin' to her call me all the names, talkin' like one of them gun molls you see in the movies, well, I guess you can imagine how surprised I was. 'OK fatso, move it,' she'd say. 'Just go on and move it, big boy, before this here thing goes off.'" Charlie would get that distant look in his eye when he came to this part of the story and would always look away as though he were embarrassed to go on. Sometimes he wouldn't talk about it any more right then. It didn't matter. Everybody knew the

183 whole story by heart. Everybody knew how the girl had unlocked the door to let the stranger in and handed him the gun and how he stood there holding it on Charlie while she filled a paper sack with cash. A week's take, more than two thousand dollars after one of the busiest weeks of the year. "Prather," Charlie would say mournfully. "I believe that's the mostest cash I ever had on hand at one time." So they had been planning the heist for a good long while. They had everything figured right to the day, the hour, knowing all about the big money coming in from the tobacco sales and maybe laughing at him in their dingy room at night as they worked over the details. What happened next was worst than any of that. Selma handed the sack to her boyfriend or husband or whatever he was and came toward Charlie again, still laughing at him and then hauling off and kicking him smack in the groin. "How about that, fatso? How do you like it? You rather have it in the nuts?" That was the part that always made Charlie stop and think. "Hell," he would say, "she didn't have no call to haul off and do that. Some folks, why they just plain don’t have no manners a-tall. Sometimes you gotta wonder how they was brung up.” Bill Spease the cop came around after daybreak to make out a police report. "Shoulda called us when it happened," Bill Spease told him. "Probably no catching up with them now." Charlie couldn't remember anything that would give the cops something to work with. "So Bill, he says, ‘It looks kinda hopeless, Charlie. More than two thousand, you say.

184 An awful lot of money. Doubt if they gonna spend a whole lot of time sittin’ around countin’ it." Every time Bill would ask for more details Charlie would just shake his head and say, "Naw, they didn't say nothin’. Just took the money." Charlie wasn't thinking about much of anything except the way Selma had turned on him all of a sudden, ridiculing him with great wild caterwaulings of laughter and then kicking him in the groin like, maybe, he wasn’t anything more to her than some kind of circus buffoon. "'Spect they're a long way down the road by this time," Bill Spease said. "Hope it'll make some of the other people on the street a lot more careful." Charlie didn't open up again all week. Mostly he just stayed in his room. Prather and his son had come up to see him one afternoon. He knew he was a sorry looking sight; he hadn't bothered to change clothes or shave or anything else since the robbery. "Whatdya gonna do now?" Prather asked him. "Don't know. Don't know what I'll do. Maybe it's too late to do anything. Guess I'm just tired of havin’ to think about it." He turned his head to the wall and his old friend would know it was only because he was trying to hold back the tears. Always knew there was something funny about that little fella, Prather. Knew it the first time I ever laid eyes on him."

-*-

Two weeks later, long before anybody had heard the whole story of his “adventure,” Charlie lay in a crowded ward at City Memorial Hospital, recovering from

185 his second heart attack in as many years. Prather and Ryerson went up to see him one drizzly afternoon and were still there when Bill Spease came by with some good news. The cops had really got lucky; a team of plain-clothesmen had caught up with Selma and her affiliate in an old rooming house south of town. "Got back more than half the money, Charlie. Just thought you'd like to hear some good news for a change." "Sure," Charlie said. Ryerson and his father had both watched him closely, knowing he wasn’t thinking about the money. He didn't even care about it anymore. Just take him on out and dump him in a filthy alley someplace and let it go at that. A sad old guy lying in a sad bed on a sad drizzly day just two weeks before Thanksgiving. He managed a small, ironical laugh. "I can just hear them now, Prather. You know how it is. They all come to see you put away nice, but you know what they're thinkin' about somebody like me. 'Yeah,' they say, 'it's a lot better knowin' he's outa our hair. What good was he to anybody anyway?'" "C'mon," Prather said. "You know better'n that. You know how many friends you got. And now you got most of the money back too. C'mon, it's gonna be a good year. Holidays coming up. I'll make sure the madam gets you out for a big meal." "We could have saved him and us a lot of grief if we'd kept a closer eye on that little turd from the start," Bill Spease said. "Guess that's partly my fault. But you got so many guys to watch, especially at this time of year. Practically impossible to know where they're gonna try to hit you next."

186 Bill Spease went to the window and looked out. The drizzle had turned into a steady rain as the dark came on. He stood there a long time without speaking. Then: "You know, it's a funny thing about that lady friend of his. You never know who to believe in a situation like that. She kept crying and acting like she was really sorry for what had happened and insisted she might not of gone through with it at all—says she'd even decided not to. But right at the last minute—I guess when she heard him rattling the door—she got scared and allowed as how she had no choice. Leastwise, that's what she says. Maybe she was hoping we'd make things a little easier for her. Don't know, though, I kinda got the feeling she was telling the truth. Hard to say why. I heard a lot of alibis in my life, and I guess you eventually get to where you can sort of tell the difference between a lie and what somebody at least thinks is the truth. Don't know what to think about this particular situation. But, like I say, I felt like she really did feel that she'd had a good chance to make things right for herself and she had screwed it up royally. Just one of those little feelings you get about things sometimes." He moved away from the window and around to the other side of the bed, staring at the sick man for a long contemplative moment. "You just got a real bad break, Charlie. I guess that's just about all there is to say about it." "Sure. That's all it was. Just one of them things." "I guess she was afraid of what might happen to her if she turned on him. Can't say as I much blame her." "Sure," Charlie said again, struggling to get his head off the pillow. "Like I say, if you ask me, I think she was getting a little hooked on you."

187 Bill Spease went back to the window and again stood staring down at the rainy street. Everybody waited for him to go on. Ryerson began to think that there wasn't any more to the story. Then he nodded with a big sigh and said: "Hard to tell what might have happened if you'd had another day or two to work on her. Just plain hard to say. You just ran out of time, Charlie. That's all. Like I say, it could've happened to anybody." “Said she was A-gonna kick me in the nuts. Reckon she’d a-done it too if they’d a bit more time to waste.” Another long pause as Bill Spease stood looking back across the bed and out at the rain and down across a wide sweep of lawn toward the dying traffic of the November evening. "Time was against you, Charlie. If you’d just had a little more time . . . well, that’s the shame of it." “Yeah." Charlie Simpson still could lift his head only a little and the rest of his body not at all. "Yep, I sure do envy you, Charlie. I sure do—and that's the plain god's truth. Maybe you ain't your old self right now, but I gotta tell you: I sure do envy you for that way you got with the ladies!"

188

THE SURROGATE

189 In the mountains that time he sat with Aunt Frances on the veranda of her lovely old vacation home, with its great porches and intricate Victorian baluster work, looking out at the road and the white fence and on out toward the long line of apple trees (the baskets already brimming with apples), watching his uncle come back up the hill from the lake and listening as his aunt began to cry softly: “How lovely,” she said almost to herself. "How very lovely it is at this time of year. Yes, how lovely that there is no death." Ryerson was never sure exactly how to act when she began talking like that. He knew that soon she would be crying. She had been a little wild and crazy ever since Telford's death. Telford was her only son and for a long time he had been Ryerson's closest friend, as well the only male cousin on his father's side. And for years everybody had been saying that his aunt would never truly get over her great loss. Her face would be bleary with old crying and sometimes the tears would start up right in the middle of her crazed laughter: Only one more echo of that long ago winter day when he made one with the eight pallbearers carrying the coffin down the steps of the church as she came heavily out behind them, sobbing: "My god, don't drop him! Oh, my god! Don't any of you understand! Just please don't drop him! Please!" How many times had she said that at the church and later at the cemetery? A dozen? Two dozen? Maybe that's when he first realized that the pain was much too deep for her ever to shake it off. He had ridden out to the cemetery with the other pallbearers, most of them Telford's friends from the big city high school and all of them the sons of tobacco millionaires. In that whole crowd he was the only one who did not enjoy great wealth.

190 They went out the narrow valley road almost ten miles beyond the town limits to the great arched drive that marked the entrance to Memorial Gardens. More tears and cries of agony as the sun and wind came over the hill and as the coffin dropped at last among the clods. Don't put him in there. You see, you've dropped him now. I told you not to drop him. Oh how could you be so careless how could you care so little for my feelings! It was always like that, even after Ryerson had married and taken his wife and later his three children up to visit the old mountain home. A truly marvelous old place, with a good view of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the higher mountains beyond and, below them, the fruit trees on a hill above the lake. He would say little, but he could never stop remembering how far apart he and Telford had grown as teenagers. In their early years they had been much closer than mere cousins, spending nights and weekends and sometimes whole weeks together. But there had come a time when they almost never saw each other anymore. Not at his own house, not even out at the farm. Those had always been the best times. Out at their grandfather's place on the Big Grassy Fork. In those first days after World War II they would romp all around those old bottoms, far from the farm itself, looking for Cherokee artifacts and soon losing themselves on land that back in those days was much like the wilderness the first settlers had known. As a teenager Telford no longer cared about that part of his life. All he cared about now was money and riding around with his well-to-do friends from the city high school in the new Kaiser sedan his father had brought him soon after old Tojo had laid down his arms.

191 Telford Senior, a grocer down in "colored town" during the early years, had made most of his money during the Depression on the wartime black market. He and his wife Frances began to move in the best social circles even before the end of the war. They had moved constantly from one vacation home to the next. By that time he had begun to see a whole lot less of his cousin—and for a lot of reasons began to dread those times when they were unavoidably thrown together. Telford had always had the best of everything, even during those early years when for all anybody knew his father was just another honest grocer. Back then Ryerson knew nothing about his big bootleg operation, which he ran mostly out of the back of his store. The Depression lay heavily on the land; yet his uncle prospered mightily during those years. His wife had brought both the store and quite a sum of money—nobody ever knew exactly how much—to the marriage. Thanks to his illicit enterprises, he had been able to turn her patrimony into a real fortune at a time when the rest of the family had almost nothing. Selling liquor in a dry town. That was what got him started on the path to real wealth. Very shortly he would be counted among the very rich, and the very rich in that town were very rich indeed, millionaires who had made vast fortunes out of tobacco and underwear and rayon stockings. No one would ever have predicted that his uncle would rise quite that high. But by the end of the war, after dabbling in the black market, he gained a status that put him right up there among the city's elite. One hundred millionaires and no middle class. That's what everybody said about the town in those days. Maybe it wasn't quite true, but by the late forties his uncle was quite definitely a man on the way up.

192 He began to buy rental property, as had Ryerson’s own father, and expensive antiques and to speculate in land. He and his wife began to be mentioned more frequently in the society columns. None of his brothers had made it so big, and that was a constant worry to Ryerson's Baptist grandmother, who often looked up from her knitting to mourn for her son: "You know, I do worry so about Telford. He was always such a good boy, but I truly fear for what lies ahead. I'm afraid he has grown much too fond of money." It was a long time after the death of Telford Junior before Ryerson could be around his aunt and uncle with anything like a feeling of belonging, with anything at all like the feeling he had had for them before the war. For a long time he had thought he would never have that feeling again, and the truth is that he never did regain it entirely— for his uncle maybe, though never for Aunt Frances, who spent her time either sobbing alone in her room or preaching to him about the sorry state of his soul. She had invested too much in her only son, invested too much and lost too much, and her face had taken on the never-changing look of crying even when there were no tears, even when there was nothing but laughter, almost the same laughter of that long ago time when he and his cousin were nine and ten and she was still a young woman of thirty. Now she looked sick all the time, her flesh like moldy old dough, a kind of pasty look that had become almost as much a part of her as her dark auburn hair or the great swell of her bosom under her loose-fitting matronly gowns. Before he learned the whole truth about Uncle Telford's trade in liquor and in the black market he could not understand, as his grandmother never did understand, how everything his uncle touched "just simply seemed to turn to money."

193 Even before the war he had bought a new Chrysler every year and when he bought the 1939 model, with the gear shift on the steering wheel, Ryerson knew that his cousin was destined to know heights of wealth and social standing he could never hope to attain. They were still friends, after a fashion, although it was never quite the same after the war as in the days when they were playing around the farm and among the feed sacks in the grocery store. Soon after the war Telford and his family moved out of the brick bungalow on Patterson Avenue, only a moderately well-to-do street, and into a pillared mansion way out on Robin Hood Road, directly across from a vast estate built by tobacco millionaire R. J. Reynolds Jr. Before his cousin's death he still rode out with his parents occasionally for Sunday afternoon visits. That was before he realized what a difference all that money had made in Telford's life. It was sure something to drive out to a place like that and spend long balmy afternoons running around under those big trees and wide lawns and sneaking onto the Reynolds estate and getting thrown out by the groundskeeper and then turning to taunt him through the fence. After so long a time he came to realize that his cousin had grown arrogant, now that he was attending the big city school with the sons and daughters of all the tobacco parvenus, and had grown contemptuous of Ryerson's inferior status. Still there were good times even then, though more frequently now something would happen, suddenly, without notice, and everything would turn ugly, nasty. There would be bitter fights, anger, shouting. Fights that began over nothing. Over Ryerson's right to use Telford's catcher's mitt or swing his golf clubs or ride his spiffy new motorbike. He never had much trouble disposing of the awkward Telford when it

194 came to a real showdown. His cousin would soon get over it and they would quickly make up, but he came to realize more acutely than ever that things would never again be quite the same. Even in those last days they still saw each other occasionally, usually at the big house on Robin Hood Road and, less often, out at the farm. Ryerson would find himself wishing that it could be like the old days only to realize anew how far apart they had grown. Out of his grandfather's ten children they were the only male heirs bearing the Goode family name. That made them kind of special even if one of them did have money and the other was less well off (not that Ryerson’s father was a pauper or anything close to it) and they would have to keep up the pretense of being close for that reason if for no other. But Ryerson truly did not much care for him anymore. The whole family could see that his parents had simply given him too much and indulged him too much and were beginning to turn him into a kind of monster.

-*-

After the war his uncle bought a fine old resort hotel up at Healing Springs. Another splendid investment that yielded a whole new fortune. It was some place, that old hotel. Back around the turn of the century rich Yankees had come there to "take the waters." But the Depression brought hard times even for many of the favored rich, and the former owner died and the hotel had been closed for years. His uncle bought it at a real bargain from the heirs, the way he seemed to buy everything else, and had again

195 turned it into a profitable enterprise. That's just the way it was with Telford, everybody said. "Everything that old boy touches just turns to money." There was a wide veranda with rocking chairs across the front of the hotel and a croquet lawn down across the graveled road and at one end of the playing area a bathhouse with a concrete cistern where the fraudulent healing waters came out. You could drink from the spring and be cured of almost anything. Arthritis. Lumbago. Cancer. Lou Gehrig’s disease. A lot of exotic diseases for which medical science as yet had no name. Such was the propaganda that his uncle was putting out. Anyway, the old hotel had again become a popular stopping off place for rich Yankees on their way to Florida and the Caribbean. He would sometimes hear them talking in their alien, clipped accents on the veranda in the evening after a big supper of fried chicken and country ham and sweet potatoes and huge bowls of succulent vegetables and great platters of strawberry and apple pie. Why this old mountain water is just about the best medicine I’ve ever found. I know it's been a real help to this old gout of mine. Sure am glad we found out about this place. We might just try it for another week or so. Some would stay and drink the water all summer, looking out over the dry fields of the harvest season and talking about how much their health had improved since they had come to Healing Springs and what a shame it was to have to leave the marvelous old place. And all the other guests repeating, "Yes, it is something all right. That water

196 certainly has miraculous properties. Why, my old lumbago was cured in three days time!" During the late forties the mountain place was a huge success and his aunt and uncle kept getting richer than ever, with his cousin year by year growing more distant. In those first days after the war there were still good times at the farm and even, occasionally, up at the hotel. Ryerson would go up there summers even though his mother would always explain it was only because his aunt felt under some obligation to invite him. He did not quite understand at first, maybe because he was too young and naïve to understand, as he was later to learn from Fitzgerald, that "the very rich are different from you and me." During one of those first summers after the war he spent almost a week at the hotel. It was then that he learned the terrible and unforgettable truth about his cousin, the dark secret that would haunt him all the way to the grave. That's when Ryerson really knew it was all over between them. One afternoon they had gone swimming in the big lake in a valley behind the hotel. To get there you went up through the oak timber and then down past great groves of laurel and rhododendron and then through more woods to the water. The lake had been well stocked with bass, and sometimes the deer and bear came down out of the woods to drink. But they were all alone that afternoon: the rowboats all tied up at the dock, with a stillness almost eerie from the far off cooing of the mourning doves in the pines.

197 He kept thinking about the change that had suddenly come over his cousin—the huskiness in his voice, the pleading in his eyes as he unzipped his trousers, saying, "Looka here. Look It's OK. We can have some fun now. No one has to know." They swam to the opposite shore and then back to the boating dock. Ryerson dreaded his cousin's next move. Telford had talked about it on the opposite shore, and Ryerson kept wondering if he had mistakenly encouraged him in some way, maybe by his failure to say anything either for or against his idea of "having fun." Yet what was he to say? What was he to think when he found out that his own cousin was "like that?" He had just started to get dressed when Telford came toward him walking awkwardly because of the great swelling in his trousers. "Why'd you want us to put our clothes back on? C'mon. There's no hurry. Whatsa matter? Like I been telling you: We can have some real fun now." He massaged his phallus with growing admiration and wanted to compare sizes. Ryerson's had shrunken until it was almost invisible, as if trying its best to hide from the whole deadly encounter. Looking back years later, he wondered if he should have taken the challenge —up to a point. Maybe he should have swung round at him with his own implement and flashed him as though commencing the last great battle of the Titans; but he never even wanted to think about it at the time. “What about it?" Telford said. "You ever seen one this big?" Ryerson knew that every word he failed to say only encouraged him the more. Telford had hardly been able to find his voice since he had come from the other side of the lake. The only perverts Ryerson had ever known were those slimy creeps who

198 came and sat beside him in the Crumb back home on Saturday afternoons when he was taking in the double feature or who approached him in the smelly bathrooms. Some slicked-back greaser would come and lay a hand on his thigh and he would always escape by going off to another part of the theater. Now here he was: facing the terrible realization that his own cousin was part of that strange breed. A real shock, and he just didn't know of anything that could quite have prepared him for it. He again looked without interest at Telford's implement and then up at the darkening sky. "We can have some real fun now," his cousin said again. "C'mon, you do it for me and I'll do it for you. Nobody ever has to know. Me and a guy back home, we do it all the time." He looked at it again, not caring about it at all, not wanting to see it, feeling a great coldness inside and wanting only to get back to the hotel. C'mon. You ever seen one this big? Nobody has to know. Maybe he was all wrong. His best friend in high school had turned out to be “that way.” Not that his malady, if malady it wask, had stopped him from trying to steal from Ryerson the first girl he had ever loved. Telford kept clamoring after him, talking up the “game;” but he just felt himself shrinking all up inside and walked hurriedly and doggedly back along the path, hastening his step every time the clumsy Telford ominiously closed in on him. Quickly now. Quickly. At least at the hotel I'll be safe from whatever it is he thinks he wants to do to me and maybe even have time to figure out how to talk him out of even trying

199 “C’mon, Hezekiah, old boy. We can do it now. C’mon.” Hezekiah would live to see the day when people like his cousin would gain a certain heroic status that would eventually make them popular with political and social uplifters. Sometimes he would manage to convince himself that they actually could not help themselves. At the time he could only think of his cousin as a kind of monster. Telford kept close in beside him as they walked back through the woods. "You mean you don't care nothing about girls?" Ryerson finally asked him. "Sure, girls, too. But this is even better. C'mon. Ain't you ever tried it? It's a whole lot better than girls. C'mon, be a sport. What harm can it do?" Again his voice had grown husky and strange. "C'mon, just loosen up a little. Ain't nobody gonna know. We don't have to tell nobody about it." He fell a little behind. The whole idea had simply become too much for him to bear. "Well," he said. "Wait up anyway, won't you?" Ryerson turned to see him inside a grove of pine saplings, the trees shaking wildly and Telford lifting his crazed moan to the skies as the saplings abruptly fell still. He came out, wiping himself with a handkerchief and they went on in silence until they came in sight of the hotel. "It's a lot more fun when you got somebody to do it with. I guess you never had anybody to teach you, huh?" He just wanted to go on and get out of there. He'd never done it with anybody either. He thought about the girl Susan Musgrove, whose father ran a filling station not far from his house—that was before he and his parents moved into town—and had sold him cigarettes all during the war even though he knew he was under-age. He kept

200 thinking about the big chance he had missed one night during the last year of the war when she invited him to meet her across the road from the service station in a broomsedge field behind a huge billboard that said: LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS. He'd always hated it how he had fouled up the best chance of his life; he could have been with her every night if he had chosen, but he was only twelve and she much older and he was never able to get over his fright or confess it either. She must have decided, as best he could figure it, that she had got the wrong idea about him and eventually found someone else. No more Susan Musgrove. No more anybody. Still a virgin and so he would remain if Telford’s “solution” were the only way to escape his dreadful infirmity. He already knew it would be his last night at the hotel, although he was not sure as yet just what excuse he would make to his aunt and uncle. He knew it would be impossible to avoid his cousin that evening. He went out to the veranda and sat down at one end watching the dark come on, a piece of verse he had learned in school that year running through his mind:

Light thickens and the crow Makes wing to the rooky wood . . .

Moments later, with the radio blaring inside, and the guests playing gin rummy or canasta or rook in the big game room, he felt Telford beside him, his voice plaintive, pleading. "C'mon, let's take a walk down to the bathhouse. Nobody down there now.

201 Dad, he locks it up at six, but I've got my own key. We'll be safe there. I can show you lots of tricks, and there's lots of guys back in Winston you can do with." He wasn't sure why he let him talk him into going down there. A devastating chill ran through him when he momentarily wondered if he, too, was secretly "like that." He immediately dismissed the thought, wondering if he might still find some way of reconciling himself with Susan Musgrove. He still had the good strong face and physique she admired. Some few good years left for him anyway. It had been quite a while since Telford had been as friendly as he was that evening. As soon as they had gone inside to take another look at the fraudulent waters he started again. "C'mon, be a sport. What harm will it do?" Ryerson looked at him, the pleading face, the eyes almost in agony. "C'mon,” he kept saying. “Be a sport. It can't hurt anything, can it?" He felt a little nauseous and he knew he had to get out of there before there was another fight or something. He left him there in the dark, though not for long: only moments later he was again sitting beside Ryerson on the gallery. They were out there with all the other guests, the old men and women who had come to drink the miraculous waters, some of whom had decided to stay on until the August dog days, maybe on into September and early fall. Ryerson could hear them talking again about the marvelous reports they'd heard from all the many people who had found a new life at Healing Springs, some cured of diseases so horrible and disgusting that one hesitated to speak of them openly. Like lepers in the Bible, they had come into these mountains, to this lavish hotel just south of the Virginia line, to find the remedies

202 and palliatives that would rid themselves of illnesses against which the most advanced medical knowledge had been utterly helpless. He heard them talking almost conspiratorially in the shadows as his cousin moved his chair closer. Then he felt the hand on his thigh. "Not out here. For god's sakes." "Later, then. In my room?" Ryerson moved over to the baluster and lit a cigarette even though he knew he was taking a big risk at being found out, with his aunt or uncle liable to come out at any moment. He could think only of getting away. He could be home before noon the next day and put those terrible last hours at Healing Springs forever behind him. He still had to get through the night, though; and Telford sure wasn't about to give up. Why not go ahead with it right there on the gallery? What about it, huh? Don’t matter none about all the others, not even his parents. It was full dark now; nobody would be able to tell what they were doing. He persisted on into the early morning houses "about all the fun things we can do together" until Ryerson finally broke down and told him that he would be leaving the next day. His uncle had to go into West Jefferson on business and had promised to drop him off at the bus stop after he explained that his mother was ill and needed him at home. "That's two days earlier than you planned. Whatcha wanta do that for? C'mon we could have a lot of fun together if you'd just let me show you how it's done." When Telford finally saw that it was useless he began to whine and plead again. He was really almost pitiful. He was afraid Ryerson would give him away to his parents or to his schoolmates who did not at all care for that sort of thing. Worse, he was not

203 above getting revenge any way he could, even if it meant spreading rumors that Ryerson Hezekiah Moffit Goode, his own cousin for god’s sakes and a future all-star high school athlete, was “like that.”

-*-

Their rooms were right next to each other, upstairs, isolated from most of the others. Ryerson could hardly sleep at all that night. He kept waiting for the knock on the door, the whispered assurance that "nobody would have to know." He had taken up smoking way back during the war, as a really sporting thing to do, and he went though almost half a pack that night, sitting on the edge of the bed and staring out at the dying moon as it threw a thin sliver of light across his bed and carpet. He kept waiting for his cousin to try his door, but along toward daylight he figured he was safe and was even able to get off to sleep for a couple of hours. He was up before the call for breakfast, with his bag packed. Telford followed him to the car. "You ain't gonna say anything, are you? I mean, you won't tell anybody? I won't say anything if you won't." "Naw. Nothing. Hellfire, not a word. Besides, what is there for me to say?" He didn't have to worry. Ryerson sure wouldn't want anybody to know that his cousin was nothing more than a wormy little deviant. He also knew the dirty little bastard would do all he could to incriminate Ryerson himself as the real instigator of their backwoods “tea party.” His only hope at that moment was that he would never have to see him again. How could he have known that in years to come his cousin would be

204 deemed a special breed deserving of high honor and would adopt quite a supercilious air toward the rest of American society? You sure couldn't have guessed anything like that in 1946.

-*-

Autumn came and with it Telford's constant boast that he had earned a spot on the Reynolds High football team. "Nobody young as I am ever made the Reynolds varsity," he kept boasting. It was different for Ryerson—and, god, how he hated it!—different because even the operation he had undergone on a bum knee that had hampered ever since his last year on the junior varsity had not turned out well—had in fact only made it worse, beyond any kind of healing. Yes, and killed his dream of being a triple-threat star at Alabama or Notre Dame. Not even the miracle waters at Healing Springs could save him now. Telford had grown fast for his age, taking after his mother's side of the family, and at first there had been great hope for him—that with his great bulk he might prove to be a real force at tackle, anchoring the whole right side of the line. But Ryerson knew his cousin was way too slow and clumsy for his size to be much of an advantage. He never said anything, but he went to a couple of games to see how the big sap was working out. It was just as he thought. Telford didn't get into a single game that first year or the second. He never gave up talking about it, though. He was sixteen now and had convinced himself that he was finally destined to inherit the coveted right tackle position. Ryerson still didn't say anything. But sure enough, there he was, still warming

205 the bench. Nothing to do but sit there and think about all the money he had, and it looked as if he had more of it all the time. Despite his failures at football he was still a kind of idol among all his friends, because of the big cars and all that money. Long after his death Ryerson began to hear stories of how often his cousin had bragged of his riches, of the big bills he carried around to display ostentatiously before his friends, saying, "See that wad of cash? Right impressive, ain’t it—and you can betcha it’s something I’m never gonna be without. And a whole lot more of it for sure.” He had heard all this from one of Telford’s closest friends, not so rich as the others, not so rich that he could avoid taking a job at old Reynolds No. 12, where the company produced all of its Camels and where Ryerson had also worked during his college years. There were still times, mostly out at the farm, when he and his cousin still bumped into each other, but they were never really friends again; and he was always careful to stay away from him when there was any chance they might find themselves alone. He often thought of that last summer at the hotel, how far they had drifted apart, but neither of them ever again spoke of it. Their conversations would be reserved and distant. He often wondered if his parents realized they were raising a slimy little pervert. His cousin had been dead for many years before he found out from the "new politics" that he had it all wrong and, as he had been telling himself for some time now, that Telford had actually been a member of a heroically oppressed underclass, the frightened young men who someday would begin to call themselves “gay.”

206 -*-

His grandmother had died only four years after the end of the war, worrying even at the last about her youngest son's obsession with money and the great affliction it was likely to bring upon him. He was different from all her other children in that way and not about to change. "Poor Telford," she would say. "He's still never gotten over that love of money. He's learned nothing, I'm afraid. And I’m so afraid he will be undone by the very evil he has embraced." Nobody paid her much mind. That was just the Baptist in her, everybody said, but on a cold December night just two weeks before Christmas all her talk about the evils lying in wait for her son and his family took on a shattering truth and she was suddenly a prophet. His aunts would gather and talk about it in whispers. "You know, mama saw all this coming. Somehow she just knew." Telford had just got his driving license and on that night—a dangerously cold night, with snow and sleet—he was in the Kaiser sedan his father had given him for his sixteenth birthday. A car packed with the sons of millionaires. He had revved the big car up to more than one hundred and twenty, so some said, and skidded into a massive oak overlooking the intersection near the county school where Ryerson had once hoped to star in football and basketball. Although he was dead by the time the ambulance got there, his five companions were still alive—barely. Broken legs and crushed spines and broken legs and ribs. Yet

207 still alive. They lay there on the highway in the icy rain until the other ambulances came out from the city. It was past midnight when Ryerson’s father shook him awake with the news. "Telford Junior has been killed," he said almost too matter of factly. "Big crash out on the Old Fork highway. Your mother and I will have to get over there at once. You go on and try to sleep for a while. We'll be back to get you in the morning." As they went out he heard his mother say: "I feel strongly that the Lord must have been speaking to Telford Junior for a long time." Did he later feel his cousin's presence in the room after his parents had left, or was it only his over-wrought imagination? C'mon Ryerson we can do it now nobody has to know we don't have to tell anybody. The sensation lasted for only an instant, yet the reality of it stuck with him for a long time after. He lay back down and tried to sleep. It was no good. He was dressed and ready to go when his parents got back the next morning. Everybody blamed the wreck on the icy roads. It wasn't until later that he began to hear all the other stories, some from friends who had been idling away the time at a nearby restaurant and had witnessed the accident. "Musta been doin' at least a hundred and twenty," everybody told him.. "Boy, I''m telling you: them big ol' Kaisers will sure git down and scat!' Sometimes the voices would drop an octave and take on an air of disbelief as they talked about how Telford had tumbled out from behind the driver's seat onto the icy street, the blood already rising in his throat and him laughing and saying ha ha ha ha ha ha I knew it was only a dream all along how glad I am to find it is only a dream and him

208 shouting for his mother and still laughing and talking about the strange dream he'd had when the ambulance driver leaned over and then stood and looked around at the others: “He's gone." Dead and him an only child, everybody said. How devastating, how utterly tragic! Ryerson could hear his aunt's wildly incoherent sobs and screams as he came up the wide paved walk outside the pillared mansion on Robin Hood Road. It would be like that all day. She would rise and come toward him with those insane cries as she hugged him, saying, "O my god, child, your dear cousin is gone. Our only son is gone. Gone! How could this happen, how could the Lord allow this to happen, how . . . " His uncle said very little. He just sat there on the long sofa under the big picture window that had been installed during a recent restoration, nodding his head and looking ashen and remote and maybe thinking (as were now all the others) of what his mother, in her last days, had always said of him and his love of money. “I really fear for him. I really do. He cares for nothing or no one, only money, only money—and I dread the day when it will all come back to haunt him.” The next day, in church, the preacher had said: "In my father's house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you . . . " Then came the long walk down the center aisle, with Ryerson scrunched in among the sons of the tobacco and underwear millionaires, and his aunt coming along heavily clumsily behind them, still sobbing, saying, "O my God, please don't drop him please. . . I beg, just don’t drop him. Please!"

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209

He saw little of them after the funeral. They tried to lose themselves on the back roads of the nation. They tried to forget their life in North Carolina on the long hot highways going west through Texas and Kansas to California. When, on occasion, they did come back to Winston, it was not to the pillared house on Robin Hood Road. They had sold that place, with all its bad memories, soon after their son's death and bought another, a brick rancher full of fireplaces and paneled dens and a picture window that looked directly down a long hill to the cemetery where Telford Junior lay buried. They had chosen a house precisely situated so that it would give them—or his aunt, rather—the very best view of his gravestone, the tall marble and granite slab that had cost more than a thousand dollars, everyone said: the only tombstone in the entire cemetery that was never without flowers or a wreath or a piece of greenery of some kind. All the flowers in their season. Artificial flowers when no fresh ones could be found. It was a long way down the hill and across the valley and the highway to the cemetery. But it was a good clear view, and for hours each day, morning and afternoon, his aunt would stand there just looking, often silent, yet the look of tears always in her face. They had paid way too much for the house, everybody said—but what did that matter now? As for his uncle, he no longer worked at all. He had sold most of his real estate interests and resigned as president of his automobile dealership. Actually, it had been a long time since he needed to work, and he had only done so to keep up appearances. He’d had such uncanny luck with his many business ventures he did not find it easy to sit around and do nothing and him not yet out of his forties. At

210 least on those rare occasions when he and Aunt Francis were not off in some distant part of the country. So much luck in all that he undertook, everybody said, and maybe a little more than luck—maybe even up to the point of getting the hotel burned so that he could collect the insurance. There were a lot of rumors about that. Almost nobody pretended to believe that he would resort to so devious an act, although some would always say that, really, there were often times when one did not know what to believe. But these were only those few who believed he might have inherited some of the bad, niggardly blood that had come down in his mother's side of the family. He had put the hotel up for sale only a month or so before the fire and had moved back to Winston when, like everybody else, he picked up the paper one morning and read that the old place had burned to the ground. He had made up his mind to dump the old place even before Telford's death and only a month or so before it burned under mysterious circumstances. So it was only logical to expect a lot of talk. Rumors of insurance fraud and the like. But nobody could ever prove, or ever tried to prove, that his uncle had anything to do with it. "I'll declare," said one of Ryerson’s other aunts about this time, "I've never seen anyone with an instinct for making money like that brother of ours. Knowing when to make an investment and when to sale. It must really be a gift." He did know that by that time people had begun to realize that there was nothing miraculous about the waters at Healing Springs and that profits had begun to drop off.

211 Still, he simply could not believe that his own uncle would have had anything to do with burning it down, when, after all, he really didn't need the insurance money. So it went for ten years or more: his aunt and uncle continually on the road and never at home in December, on the anniversary of their son's death. They would often drive out to visit kinfolks in Kansas City. Where else they went no one ever knew until they bought the big eighteenth century farmhouse in the mountains of Southern Virginia. A lovely spot with the great hills on every side and a mammoth apple and peach orchard covering almost half of a long treeless slope that ran down to the lake. That was where Ryerson first began to visit them with any sort of regularity, at first with his parents and later alone, or with his own family. His uncle was lonely and seemed to enjoy the company. They would talk of the old days in Winston and sometimes go off for long walks through the hills. That was when he began to hear talk of the inheritance. The family just naturally assumed that Ryerson would get everything now that he and his uncle had become so close. He knew that his aunt would never completely get over the loss. The old sorrow was still there, the old look of tears. Her grief had become its own monument, a fixed part of every look and every gesture. When she spoke to her nephew at all, on the good days, which came all too rarely now, she would sometimes laugh and make jokes as she had in earlier and happier times back home in Winston. More often there would be a flurry of brief almost maniacal laughter, haunting, mocking, perverse, before she lapsed again into those dreadful torrents of wrenching sobs and grief. Yet there were times when she seemed almost happy to have him there, not like those first months after the accident, when she still seemed to blame him for daring

212 to have had the audacity to survive that cold icy evening, to be alive now that Telford was in his grave. Why him, a young man with no great fortune and no great promise in the world? Why him, when they could have offered their own son so much? The family often spoke of how "strange and ironic" it was for his death to have occurred just when it did, only a week before Christmas, when for the first time in Telford's sixteen years his parents had bought no presents and made no preparations for the holidays. Almost as if on some level they already knew that for them there would be no Christmas that year. Aunt Frances herself had sometimes spoken of that in her hysteria, almost as if something had been trying to warn them of what was about to happen. If only we had listened, Telford. If only we had listened we would have known It was the same when Ryerson began to visit them at their first new home in Winston, the rancher high on a hill north of the cemetery. They could stand together at the picture window and look down the long hill at his grave. He never knew what to say, and she seldom said anything at all. The old sorrow was always in her face, yet she was not crying now, not as before, and she would talk of his own plans for the future—his ambition to take up law or newspapering as a profession; she even seemed happy when he won his first small writing award. Now for the first time he began to hear his other aunts say: "Well, you know, Frances does seem to be so much like her old self these days. Do you think she is getting over it at last?"

213 -*-

All that was before the bulldozers and gravediggers had come. Why must they dig there? Why, Telford? Will you tell me why? She would still spend great parts of every day standing at the picture window and looking down the long hill toward the cemetery. By that time Telford had been dead for more than five years. Why? If only someone could tell me why. Then the low inward sobbing would begin, rising at last into a loud moan and finally in to a great horrific cry that seemed to have been torn from her almost as the coffins themselves had been torn from the ragged and tormented winter earth and hauled like ruined merchandise to a far place on the hill, barely visible from the house. It was almost as it had been in those first days after the funeral. She would stand there shaking and crying until she could no longer stand at all. Then uncle Telford would lead her off to the bedroom and ladle out three spoonfuls of the red medicine one of her doctors had prescribed for rest. Ryerson was sure his uncle must have known about the new road long before he said anything to his wife. He would have seen the surveyors as they worked around the edges of the cemetery all summer. He knew that a new road to replace the old section of narrow, broken, twisted U. S. 421 had been talked about for years. But he would have said nothing about that, nor about the day the two men had come from the highway department with rolled-up design charts in their hands.

214 Yep. The new road would cut through the lower northern half of the cemetery. His son's grave was one of sixty or seventy that would have to be moved to a new section beyond the southern-most ridge. A real shame to have to bring the news. But they sure needed to replace that old road. Should have been done years ago. Counted six bad wrecks down there just in the last year. They had explained everything in detail, how all the coffins and grave markers would be moved way off to the other side of the hill, a lovely spot that had would have all the advantages of the old. His uncle was never one to make a fuss. He would have listened politely as they explained all the fine advantages the new road would bring, and would have said nothing about its one horrendous disadvantage: the gravesite about which his wife had built her life would no longer be visible from the picture window that spread across the front of their rancher like a blind eye searching for sunlight. Probably he did not mention it at all until they had closed up the house for the winter and left for their long holiday excursion to Kansas. They had gone away much earlier that year—the builders wanted to get a good start on the new road before the bad weather set in—and did not come back until late the next spring, long after the highway project was underway. Maybe that was actually the first she knew of it. Maybe Uncle Telford had hoped that the worst of it would be over by then. But the winter months had brought some of the rainiest, nastiest weather in years. Many of the graves still lay open to the rain and the sky, like neglected and festering sores, the raw wet innards of the red earth left to frighten with savage innocence the dreary sky of the March afternoon, the marble slabs

215 piled in great heaps near the old road, to be hauled six and seven at a time to the lovely new gravesite on the opposite side of the ridge. For weeks it was like that: the earth-moving machines parked alongside the construction shacks and the operators huddled inside and sometimes coming out to scan the sky, grimly waiting for the weather to clear. Why, Telford? Will you tell me why? By then all the old grief had come back in all its fury. "Poor Frances," everyone said. "Such a shame that this had to happen. And just when she was doing so well. Now I suppose she will never be the same again."

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Late April and still no let-up in the rotten weather. The bulldozers and forklifts stood idle on the dark, rainy slopes. Every time Ryerson went out to visit he would see the graves standing open amid the heaps of marble slabs, the idle and somehow menacing bulldozer poised to resume its work of desecration. That is what his aunt called it when she talked about it at all. "A terrible, terrible desecration, Telford. Will you tell me why?" He would always explain why, but it was all one: she never stopped asking. The rain fell steadily on into early May, and the marble slabs that had marked the graves still stood in great unseemly heaps along the ridges. Perhaps she’d had to see all that for herself before she fully understood the truth, if in fact she ever understood it at all. For a long time she had not gone anywhere near

216 the window. She had taken to her bed to live again with her grief and memories. Everybody already knew it would be their last winter in the house. What good was it to them now? Only a matter of waiting for summer, for the bad weather to end, for them to be on the move again, except that this time they would not be coming back. They would never really be settled again, except toward the end, for a little while, in their mountain home, living year after year for nothing except to be perpetually on the move, into the suburbs, and out of the suburbs into even newer suburbs, part of which his uncle himself had developed, into the mountains and back again, never staying more than three or four months in any of the new houses. No one only spoke of it openly, only the grief, the terrible turn of fate that had brought back all of the old bad memories. She was on new medication now, green and yellow pills to go with the red nerve medicine, the contents of which would vanish almost as soon as Uncle Telford set it beside her on the table. The doctors were keeping her doped up almost as they had in those first days after the accident. Again his sisters talked among themselves: "Is that good for Frances? To keep her in such a stupor like that? She seemed to be doing so well for a while." "Yes. But now the new road is coming through." "Well, that changes nothing. Frances really needs to get hold of herself now. She has her own life to live." In time she began to sit up again and even at times to stand by the window and look down toward the ruins of the old cemetery. Nothing ever changed; she would inevitably start crying again.

217 On weekends home from college Ryerson would almost always go out there for a while and would often hear her sobbing softly behind the closed door of the room. He would go in to make his presence known and find her lying there with staring eyes, a thin blanket tossed lightly over her, speaking mechanically if at all, not looking at him, no longer the woman who had once seemed to welcome him almost as a second son. She would have taken all the pills and yet sleep would not come. She would say little and just stare up at whatever she had been staring at before he came in. Or if she were in the den she would look up and speak in that same mechanical voice, hardly looking at him, no longer the woman who briefly—not so long ago—even after her own son's death had sometimes engaged him in long talks about what sort of future he hoped to make for himself. If there was to be any future, and maybe there wasn’t, because she could never discuss his future or any other kind of future without eventually reminding him of the coming hard days of the end-time and all the sorrows that would rain upon the earth. “And what have you done to prepare for those days, Ryerson? What have you done to prepare?” His uncle would often be beside her, sometimes in a lounge chair by her bed, other times in the den in front of the fire as she sat just behind him on the sofa. Other times he would be sitting there alone, staring into the fire, perhaps with a book or a copy of Look open on his lap, never reading from it, just staring into the fire and reaching over ever so often to stab it angrily with his poker. Those little jabs of the poker—almost the only kind of anger Ryerson ever saw out of his uncle. He spoke little, never of the place they would next call home, whether in the mountains or in one of the new suburbs now sprouting up all around the town, or in some

218 distant part of the country they had yet to visit. Only a matter of waiting for Aunt Frances to decide she was finally well enough to travel again. In those first days after the bitter exhumation of their son’s grave he could never be sure what his uncle was thinking, only that he always seemed to welcome his company. Ryerson felt far closer to him now than when Telford was alive, his uncle seeming to draw him ever more into his confidence even as his aunt began to treat him more than ever as a stranger. “Poor Frances,” everyone said. “To have all this happen, just now, and just when she seemed to be doing so well!”

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Dark, and a big fire going again in the lovely cherry-paneled den, a smell of apples and pears, and his aunt sitting on the daybed with the lights turned low, a shawl draped over her shoulders. Ryerson had not known when she came in. His uncle had been more talkative than usual and at last had said, after all these years, what everybody else had been thinking: that they had given their son too much, pampered him to much, and destroyed him long before that rainy night out on the Old Fork highway. His aunt said nothing. Perhaps she did not hear him at all. She sat in deep shadow, sobbing softly, with the lamps extinguished. His uncle had gone out to get more wood for the fire and came back dripping from the rain. By now Ryerson's visits with his aunt and uncle had become almost a weekly habit. Sometimes he would sit with his uncle for a long time in front of the fire without

219 talking, the two of them more than ever before like father and son. In the early days his uncle would ask about college and all about his plans for the future. Later, after Ryerson had joined the newsstaff of the local paper, the older man would express intense interest in his nephew's work. When he left the paper to undertake graduate work in literature and the humanities, his uncle was anxious to be of help financially if ever it should become necessary. Ryerson assured him that the money he had left from his inheritance would get him through the early stages of his studies. Then he would see. Perhaps he might win a teaching assistantship that would give him a certain amount of independence until after he had earned his doctorate. Sometimes as they talked or sat there not talking Ryerson would only gradually become aware of his aunt's presence. She would have come in softly and taken a seat on the daybed with the thin shawl draped over her shoulders, saying nothing, barely answering even when his uncle turned to speak to her directly. It was such a wonderful old den, with the fire going and the smell of fresh fruit, and the glow of the embers against the rich cherry paneling. He hated to think about them leaving it. He would hear the sobs before he saw her, low and soft and unchanging, and then he would turn and see her sitting on the sofa in the dark, always with the same shawl over her shoulders, never speaking unless her husband spoke first, and only with the words she had uttered a thousand times before, always the same words, the same accusing voice. “Why must they dig there. Why?”

220 There were than three weeks of rainy days before she could force herself to stand again at the picture window and look down where the men were working. When she spoke to Ryerson at all, on the good days, which came all too rarely now, she was sometimes almost pleasant; at times there would be another flurry of that maniacal, haunting laughter before she lapsed again into sobs and asked for her pills in the voice he had heard so often before—the same words, the same pitiful, accusing, almost pleading tone as her husband brought the medication: “Why, Telford? Will you tell me why?” Other times Ryerson could almost feel her eyes on him in the dark, the hard bitter stare, wondering no doubt, as so often before, why he was there instead of her own Telford Junior. Maybe she was not really thinking that. He could never be sure. He only knew that it was different now from the way it had been before the gravediggers had come. She would just sit there quivering in the too-warm room, the shawl over her shoulders, seldom speaking at all unless he or his uncle spoke first. "Do you think she will ever be any better now?" he once asked his uncle, not realizing she had come into the room. "Don’t know, son. Just don't rightly know whether we can ever expect any real improvement or not." "A shame about the new road." "Couldn't be helped. Old road was mighty dangerous. Too many wrecks, too many people getting killed down there." "Will you find a new house now?" His uncle was silent for a long while, staring into the fire. “I’d hoped she would be a little more her old self before we had to make a decision about that.”

221 Though it was still a little too warm in the room, his uncle threw another log on the fire before going over to stand by his wife. Ryerson could see him with his hand on her shoulder as she sat there shivering in spite of the cheery blaze. "Still cold? I can turn the heat up." "No," she said. "I'm not cold. I'm not anything." "Can I get you something? Some fresh coffee might help." "No. I'm not anything and I don't want anything. "Feeling worse, aren’t you?" Her voice had begun to tremble. "No, I feel the same. Did Willie come today?" "Willie? Don't think so." "He was supposed to bring some things from the store." "Don't think he came." "He was supposed to do some other things in the yard as well." "Haven't seen him. No, I really don't think he came." "Can we go somewhere?" "Where?" "Anywhere we haven't been before." "Perhaps. Would you like to go back and lie down now? You seem really very tired to me." "I told you. I am exactly the same." It was the first time Ryerson had heard her speak of anything except the new road and the gravediggers and where she and her husband would now have to go to put the flowers. She sat there quietly a moment longer before struggling to her feet.

222 "I want you to with me now, Telford. I want you to go with me to his little room." It was part of an old ritual. She would visit his room, or rather the room that had been set up as a kind of shrine, identical to the bedroom he had occupied as a child, with all his books and games and knick-knacks placed exactly as on the night of his death. Unable to live with her early memories of the big house on Robin Hood Road, neither could she live without them. Many years later, sitting with her on the porch of their mountain home, Ryerson would think of the dozens of houses they had bought and sold, each with its identical shrine to Telford’s memory, or to her memory of the good days in the big house after the war. Uncle Telford guided her down the hall and Ryerson followed at a discreet distance, watching as she went in and turned on the light. She went to the bed and plumped up the pillow and set the checkerboard on the covers exactly as it had been found on that terrible night. She looked up at the clock to make sure it still had the correct time. Eleven fifteen. The very moment that the news had come, the voice on the other end of the line remote and strange: Yes there has been an accident we'll send someone over at once yes don’t try to come on your own. It is important for you to understand that it was instantaneous. He did not suffer. Please try to understand that he did not suffer She looked at the calendar to make sure that it still said December 14, 1948. Then at the table clock to make sure it matched the other. The time and date always the same, the time and date that had stopped for her as well as for her son. The night and his room still the same after all these years even though the house was different. Ryerson went back to the hearth and sat alone until almost midnight.

223 His uncle came back after helping Aunt Frances to bed. He stirred the fire again. Ryerson knew it was past time for him to go and wondered how long his uncle would sit there before going to bed. More often now Ryerson found himself wondering why he was there at all. He kept thinking about that afternoon at the Healing Springs resort, how little his aunt and uncle had known about their son, how much they had given him to feed his greed, how on the very day of his death they had been in traffic court to pay off a speeding ticket he had got the first time he took his Kaiser out for a drive. So why had Ryerson made it almost a weekly habit to come back? Was it only because of the inheritance? He tried not to think about any of that. No one ever spoke of it. Yet he could never entirely rid himself of the thought. His own money might get him through graduate school or it might not, and, at best, there would be little left when he had completed his work at the university. Without extra income or the good pay that would come only after years of teaching and free-lance writing he would be a long time seeing Paris and Vienna and Rome or the ancient pastures and woodlands his ancestors had known in their youth. He got up to go. "So good of you to come." "Wish there was something more I could do." "There isn't anything. Nothing anybody can do. But it’s always good to have you here. I know she enjoys your visits even if sometimes it isn't completely evident." His uncle walked him to the door. "Yes. Almost every weekend she asks if you are coming. I know it does her a great deal of good to have you here even if she finds it difficult to show her true feelings."

224

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So he would always go back and try not to think about the inheritance. It would be well over a million dollars. Everybody talked of it now. His uncle could give half of it to charity (as he had sometimes hinted) and still have more than a million left. Ryerson tried not to think about any of that, and neither his aunt nor uncle ever spoke of money, only of going away somewhere, maybe to Canada or Mexico—a real trip this time—and maybe building a home in some other part of the city. He came in one afternoon as his uncle was preparing to go out. "She's asleep now," he said. "I thought this would be a good time." He didn't need to ask where he was going; he already knew—to see the grave again, to see if the coffin had finally been moved to its new resting place, perhaps because Aunt Frances had wanted to know, or rather had insisted on knowing without really wanting to know at all. The wind came up sharply as the dark closed in. Ryerson followed him around the house and down the long front yard and on down the graveled road toward the main highway. Or toward what had been the main highway until they had cut the new road through, neither of them speaking as they crossed to the cemetery. After all those weeks of rain the bad weather had turned and now the sun lay all across the wide valley. Ryerson followed him on across the old road and up one of the winding cemetery lanes that had been unaffected by the highway project. They went to the top of

225 the hill and down again, on down to where the men and machines were, where a raw gleaming stretch of red dirt marked the path of the new road. The men worked in the graves without looking up. His uncle stood watching them for a moment. Other men stood farther along the hill; they looked as if they were matching coffins with tombstones and then putting them in pickups and hauling them to the other side of the ridge. That's where the new section of the cemetery would be: a long green swale dropping slowly toward the creek. It would all be quite lovely as soon as the graves were laid out, the new lanes cut through and the grass trimmed and the shrubbery planted. His uncle walked over to one of the men who stood leaning on a shovel and watching the others work. "You the head here?" "The head? No, I'm Weathers. Guess you might be wanting Unkers. He's the head. Over thataway." The man motioned them toward a tool shed where three other workers stood talking, clanging their shovels together as they flung them into the back of their pickup. Uncle Telford looked as if he couldn't make up his mind whether to walk over to the tool shed or to go on back down the hill toward home. The dark was coming fast, and it would be good dark before they got back to the house and now his uncle seemed to be worried about leaving his wife alone for so long a time. Ryerson knew why he had come, but he wasn’t at all sure about the point of it all: what possible difference it could make in the way she or he felt about the bad way things had turned out. He looked all around before walking over at last to the shed. On the side of it was a sign that said: UNKERS'S WRECKING SERVICE.

226 One of the men came out and stood leaning against the door frame. His uncle took a couple steps toward the shed. "You the head here?" "I'm Unkers. Can I help you?" His uncle was almost apologetic. He explained that he had a son buried there and had just wondered how the work was coming. "Know you've had a lot of bad weather. Hard to get anything much accomplished with all this rain we've been having." "Ain't that the truth? And they're calling for more tomorrow. Sorry about your son, though." "Ten years ago. Killed in an automobile accident. Awfully hard on my wife to see his grave dug up." "You live around here?" His uncle pointed to his house way off on the opposite hill. "Yeah," Unkers said. "Must be a terrible thing. Mighty sorry to hear it." "Well, we'll be getting on back. Just wondering how you men were getting along with the work." Unkers looked up at the sky. "If we could just get a couple more weeks like we've had today I think we'd have it licked." "Well, the best of luck to you." "Yeah, same to you," Unkers said, a little foolishly. Ryerson looked back at all the idle machinery as they started off. It would take another day or two or drying out before the road-builders could start again. Maybe by then Unkers and his crew would have most of the coffins moved to their new grave sites. Would it make any difference to Aunt Frances?

227

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She was to live for another fifteen years, sometimes behaving almost as if she had recovered entirely from her old grief, and yet always, at unexpected moments, falling into black moods of terror and grief. They sold the house above the cemetery long before Unkers and his crowd finished work on the new grave sites. They moved from place to place. His uncle had gone back into real estate development almost full-time; he would build a house, move into it for a while, then sell it for an immense profit and move on. Later they were spending almost all of their time at their mountain home. His aunt had gone back to cooking the great meals of ham and chicken and sausage and cakes and pies that had once made her famous at the Healing Springs Hotel and that, as a diabetic, she had never been allowed to eat. Yet she ate and drank as she chose and lingered on, sickly and frail despite her great bulk, on into the mid-seventies, forever drugging herself with pills and shots and strange nameless liquids that nobody wanted to talk about. There was no doubt that she was trying to hasten her death; still, death did not come. His uncle never tried to persuade her to improve her diet. He seemed to know that nothing he said would make any difference. Even after all this time Ryerson was never able to feel easy in her presence. It was always, somehow, as if she were measuring him against what her son might have become. He had drifted into newspapering, first in Florida and then in his home town, mainly because there were plenty of jobs in those days if you weren't obsessed with money. He won a couple of small prizes and, after completing graduate school,

228 published a small book on the old German-speaking Moravians who had first settled their part of the world. He had also published poems in small literary magazines nobody had ever heard of and wrote short stories that found no takers. He often thought of doing a novel, not realizing that the time when novels could be written and published with relative ease had long passed him by. During his Florida years he had not seen his aunt and uncle at all. Hard, uncertain years, full of defeat, destruction, death. Also years full of a glorious, dangerous and illicit love with his own half-sister. Then came her betrayal with the Haitian voodoo queen, and his own flight back to Carolina. He had even been in jail a couple of times and for a while he thought that he had no future except the future of a decadent and broken messenger of doom, haunting the streets of a thousand towns, looking for his old lover, who he never found, who had never even written to him in all the years since he walked out on her. His uncle could never have guessed any of that. He knew little, perhaps nothing at all of how his nephew had spent his time in Florida, and Ryerson for his own very good reason never spoke of it at all. He had nursed a secret that was almost as dark and fateful as that of young Telford himself.

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So they drifted on through the years. He and his uncle became much closer as his aunt sank slowly toward the grave. They talked real estate and Democrat politics and often about Ryerson’s literary ambitions and sometimes went for long walks in the

229 balsam forests above his mountain home. Once they spent the entire day together and climbed on up into the dim and misty upper reaches of the balsams, where it was cool even on the brightest, hottest days of midsummer, where you could see thunderstorms and rainbows developing and vanishing way off beyond the Blue Ridge Parkway. He wondered at his uncle's stamina, and could readily believe that there had been talk among some of the chief men of the town about persuading him to run for mayor. Uncle Telford mentioned the idea almost incidentally one day before laughing it off as a joke. Ryerson tried to persuade him that it would be a very good thing for the city, but he wasn't sure his uncle was even listening, much less trying to pretend that he was taking the idea seriously. No, all those ambitions had faded with his son’s death and even more so now that his wife was in her last days. He buried her in the new part of the cemetery next to her son. So that part of it had worked out well enough. After that he just seemed to withdraw ever more deeply into himself. He looked a whole lot older than his sixty five years. But he lived on into his late seventies. Ryerson would try to get out to see him as often as possible, now that he was teaching regularly at his alma mater and doing as much newspapering as time would allow, always trying not to think about the inheritance. That pile of money everybody said Ryerson would inherit some day was getting bigger all the time. His uncle spent very little of it. In his last years he lived frugally, staying mostly to himself, seeing almost no one except Ryerson and other members of the family So whatever money he had was just lying off in a bank vault somewhere collecting tons of interest. Ryerson just tried not to think about that at all.

230 By that time he had written his book about the old Moravians and got married and raised three children and had moved permanently to into his grandfather's old farm on the Grassy Fork, where he and his sister Deni, daughter of his father’s brief first marriage, had spent their first summers together, days spent wandering through old orchards and down wagon roads through great hardwood forests, long before the fateful August that found them in each other’s arms. When the book reviews came out his uncle seemed genuinely pleased and more alert than at any time since Aunt Frances’s death. “Why, son, you're just about the first Goode that ever accomplished anything worthwhile in life.” "You have accomplished a great deal more." "Money. It is nothing. We have seen in our lives how little it can buy.” More than ever now the young man felt the warm hand of acceptability on his shoulder. Sometimes he would ride over to the two grave sites with his uncle and they would strew the tombstones and graves with laurel and yew and roses. Then, if it was winter, they would come back and sit by the fire and again the talk would turn to Ryerson’s work. Did he have another book planned? What about all the book reviews and occasional columns he had written for some of the biggest papers in the country. "Always had a hankering to go abroad,” he said once. “Maybe try my hand at being a foreign correspondent. Tough to get into that. Getting tougher all the time to leave teaching, now that I’ve got tenure and all the security that goes with it. I’d still like to get that novel written, though.” "If it's what you want I have no doubt that you will succeed completely."

231 He talked vaguely of their taking a trip together, perhaps out to Kansas to visit his in-laws. He had grown so frail and wheezy Ryerson feared he would never survive to make the trip. He talked about it each spring; each spring the idea seemed less likely than ever to work out. He was almost eighty now and had suffered two small strokes, the last at a bank where he was trying to cash a check. Later he laughed about it—the blackout— as though it were some sort of joke. They were now into the winter of 1976, and his uncle was only three years older than the century. He seemed listless and almost shabby as they sat by the fire at nights, and Ryerson was never sure he would make it till another spring came round, and he found himself trying harder than ever not to think about the inheritance. He tried not to think about all the big headlines, the boards of directors he would be invited to join, the big houses, the cars, the trips abroad, the books he would be able to write without having to worry about whether they brought in any money, his future as a U. S. Senator or ambassador to the Court of St. James. Like always, he just tried to push all that aside and pretend he was nothing more than the dutiful nephew friend his uncle so badly needed. Uncle Telford would visit him at the farm as often as possible and explain how genuinely happy he was that he had been able to take over the old place and how good it was to see all the work that had gone into keeping it up. "Kinda surprised the bulldozers hadn’t had it by now,” he would say. “These old places can eat you alive,and you’re gonna need money to stay ahead of the game. Why, the city’ll soon have this whole place on the tax books. And if the upkeep doesn’t eat you up, those taxes sure will. Yep. There'll be a lot of pressure on you to sell, because there

232 just isn't any kind of living in farming any more. Reckon you've already found that out for yourself." Naturally Ryerson felt more relieved than ever to know that he was planning to help. He had said as much in a hundred different ways. The years had drawn him ever more closely to his uncle. Once, the old man talked of selling his mountain home and asked his nephew to come up and offer his opinion as to its value. He knew Ryerson had no training in real estate; Ryerson figured he mostly just wanted the company. But they talked about it for a long while one summer afternoon. His uncle even asked him to join him in a rare drink—he had drunk almost nothing alcoholic since he was a young man—and wondered aloud whether it would be wise to sell the old place after all. Ryerson tried again not to think about the inheritance and how it would be when he had become one of the chief men of the city. Some of it he would not care for at all. The speeches he would have to give. All those long, tedious board meetings. He knew what all the other relatives were saying: that he was spending so much time with his uncle simply so he could assure himself of the inheritance. But Ryerson had never felt he owed anybody an apology. His uncle really had no one else. And he had never gone over to visit without being made to feel welcome. In his last days his uncle began to talk even more meditatively about the future of the old homeplace, and about all the money Ryerson would need, he and his wife, if they were ever to put it back in first-rate condition and pay all of those onerous taxes. "Sometimes I think my first answer was the best,” he would say. “Simply to bring in a bulldozer and raze it to the ground.”

233 "I’d hate to see it come to that," Ryerson would say. "It was a very important house to a lot of people at one time. All the memories there. It would really be hard to see it go." "Just as long as you realize what you’re letting yourself in for. You'll need plenty of help, and if you really feel strongly about it I hope I can be there to help."

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That was before he decided to leave all his money to charity. They had become so close, he and his uncle, that he was a little surprised he had not at once learned of his death—and even more surprised to learn, on one cold winter day, that the inheritance he had tried so often not to think about had gone to faceless foundations unfamiliar to anyone in the family. His uncle had once talked of throwing his money away in some such fashion, but Ryerson thought he had long ago given up on that idea. Most of it went to a boy's home in Virginia. Proceeds from the sale of his mountain home and the house in Winston and all his other properties would go toward the establishment of something called the Telford Junior Memorial Fund. Deserving graduates of the city high school could tap the fund for scholarship funds. There was talk of building a monument to his cousin on the grounds of the boys home that had got the first big batch of funds, but nothing ever came of that particular idea. The money that would have gone into that project, together with his uncle's other property—the land and rent houses yet to be sold, the excess funds, his priceless antiques —he had left to his executors to dispose of as they saw fit.

234 Ryerson? Not a cent. Not even a memento to remember him by. Not even Telford's old motorbike or his checkerboard or the ragged T-shirt he had worn when he was a member of the Royal Ambassadors. He tried to pretend that it was nothing when his other aunts and uncles expressed shock at Uncle Telford's failure to leave him anything. He knew that secretly they could not have been more pleased. He often cursed his uncle privately, as he walked around in a great gloom or resentment, was only sorry he had not found a way to let him and Aunt Frances as well know what a monster their son had become. All the time he had spent trying to make their lives a little better! He knew now he should had paid closer attention to something his grandmother was always in the habit of saying: "Poor Telford. Nothing but money, money, money. I worry about him so. He seems to think only of himself and no one else at all." Well, he sure didn’t like feeling that way about it. Still, he couldn't help wondering sometimes why he hadn't told his uncle about that episode with Telford at the lake, and about some of the other tales he learned about later—just so he could have completely destroyed the old miser by explaining that his son had become a stinking little pervert who would have ruined everything and everybody he ever touched if he had lived long enough to do so. Not that he would ever have actually done anything like that. Yet he couldn’t help feeling sometimes that it would have been much better for his uncle, and maybe his aunt as well, to have known the truth about their son than to have lived with an illusion. What harm would it have done? Their lives were ruined anyway. A simple little thing and then he wouldn't have had to feel like such a hypocrite and he could have felt a whole

235 lot better about not getting anything because he would have at least had the satisfaction of knowing he had done a little something not to deserve it. Ryerson kept asking himself if maybe he had secretly known all along, without ever admitting it to himself, that he really wouldn't get very much, if anything, out of his uncle. Another of his uncles had given away all his land to the church to save his soul from hellfire. Maybe it was the same with Uncle Telford. An errant gene that had found its way into the emotional makeup of certain members of the family. Or maybe a trace of that old bad blood his mother always talked about. Or maybe he was just plain scared. Maybe in those last hours, confronted with the thought of death and Hell, his uncle had given the money to charity simply for the good of his soul, to make up for all the thieving he had done during his halcyon days as a bootlegger and black-marketeer. Too bad Ryerson had had no inkling of what lay ahead. Too late now. Dead and in the ground. Maybe he should have written a little verse to capture the spirit of the occasion. Well, anyway, Ryerson’s grandmother, dead now for a quarter of a century, would at last have had reason to be proud of her youngest son. She had always been a great believer in death-bed conversions and would have been the first to suggest that her church dedicate a special plaque or build a monument to his memory. Well, let them go ahead and plant their flowers, build their monuments, emblazon their plaques, affix his name in great stained glass windows right in the spirit of Rome’s. Golden Age. Ryerson Hezekiah Moffit Goode, true to the precepts of his upbringing, could still bring a big juicy cowpie and place it among the garlands: an apt symbol of new life flourishing in the midst of death.

236 Just like all the old myths he had read about in his schoolbooks or perhaps had remembered from another more fortunate life.

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