|Jul/Aug 2018 Spotlight|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
The moon was so bright over the town that night, the morning glories stood open, stiff, as if afraid they were facing Forever. The strings crisscrossing the garden were visible, and the aluminum pie pans hanging from them batted in the soft breeze, flashing as they turned. The tall, silver poplars rustled like restless birds in their nests; I feared if I moved too quickly, I would startle them and they would wrench themselves out of the earth and fly. Spools of white insects orbited the street lamps, and grass ceaselessly scratched itself—the crickets.
I stood at the foot of the ladder beneath my parents' window, considering the midnight journey before me, and I was afraid. I had hatched a plot both cunning and terrible.
We lived in a camel-back shotgun house, four rooms straight back, connected by a narrow hallway. My room, the hump of the house, was above the kitchen and never cooled off, not even with a fan. I had stuffed a spare mattress out the window onto the flat section of the roof, and on the hottest nights of summer slept there.
The sun beat down on the house all day, buckling the white paint and drying and splintering the clapboard. That summer, and every summer thereafter till I left home, it was my job to scrape and paint the entire house. The wooden ladder was therefore at my disposal, and it did not seem odd to my parents that I had left it propped against the house at the point where I had given up my work that day.
I had gone to bed at the usual time and waited until long after they put out the hazy rectangle of yellow light that fell from the window of their room onto the grass. Then I dangled myself, belly-down, off the edge of the roof, kicking the air, until I reached the top rung of the ladder and was able to start down. I eased my weight onto every rung and paused before shifting my weight down to the next one.
When I reached the dry grass, I saw the morning glories twining their way up the string trellis at the edge of the porch were fully open, mesmerized by the moon. I thought it a good omen for my purpose. Before I had gone to bed and the moon had risen, I had seen the blossoms closed.
My shadow was precise on the rough grass. I timed my steps to the chirrup of the crickets, for there was a common pulse, and moved quietly toward the tool shed at the back of the property. I had placed the spade just inside the door and had only to reach inside for it. I had made sure the shed door was ajar before coming in for the night. I couldn't risk making any sound that would waken my parents and cause me to be mistaken for a prowler, or a ghost.
I carried the spade like a balancing pole because I could not carry it upright without its dragging the ground: I was 11 years old that summer and small for my age. It had never occurred to me to question how I would manage to dig with a spade too long and heavy for me to carry upright. Nor did I have any idea how deep I would have to dig to reach Joshua. They had named and buried him without letting me see him. There was something hideous about him they would not let me see, and the only way to unravel the mystery was to look myself where they had buried him. Beside the necessity of finding out what terrible thing had been born to my mother—and named—the logistics of my plan and its execution did not bother me. I supposed if I mastered my fear and actually arrived at the grave site with a shovel, the deed would somehow be accomplished by itself, as if it were a small thing to make the earth render up its secrets when no human being would divulge them.
I liked the name Joshua. I had picked it out for the child because I wanted the name for myself. Instead I had been named Osborne, after a great uncle on my father's side. I was the only living person I knew with such a stodgy name, and it did not go with anything—not with the town, not with my youth, nor with my slight build and thin skin. I was taunted with the name Ostrich at school and was unequal to the task of hiding my hurt over having my name taken in vain. I was kidded all the more when I hung my head and kept my eyes to the ground while gangs of children, even ones younger than I, circled around me on the playground, chanting, "Ostrich! Ostrich!"
But the name Joshua was strong and authoritative as the sound of a gavel pounded against the bench in a court of Law, to signal evidence was inadmissible, outbursts would not be tolerated, such conduct was rebuked. What strength of heart I did not possess would be made over to me in such a name. Joshua went with Judges. I could not name one Book without the other. Also, it was the name of the warrior who went seven times around the wall of Jericho, blowing his trumpet each time, and with the shout of the multitudes brought the whole thing down. It was the name of destroyer and victor in one, and it penetrated to my heart like something meant for me but that I had had no voice at the time to ask for. It was something I was cheated of because parents pleased themselves. So, when they asked me what name I thought the baby should have if it was a boy, I said, "Joshua," without a moment's hesitation. And then I was jealous. The new child was to have what I wanted. I had given away my preference.
I began to work immediately to dissuade them from my choice, but it had appealed to them, and they did not turn from it. The name Mother chose for a girl was Susan Jo. I became jealous of that name, too, for it seemed a secret facet of the name Joshua, something derived from it like Eve from Adam's rib.
Beyond the naming of it, my interest in the child was slight. The threatened addition to the family after 11 years of my life was a sign to me I wasn't enough. But enough of what, I couldn't decide. My parents openly discussed the financial burden another child would entail, and so I gathered the baby was coming not entirely at their wish. This news cheered me. Still, my mother laughed more often than before and went around in a daze that told me she was dreaming of the life to come and had all but forgotten me in her winsome hope for the future.
During the time of anticipation and worry, Mother and Father met eyes more frequently than usual. Each would lift his or her chin a bit and smile, as if they were looking over the same invisible barrier at each other. I longed to see this barrier and to look past it with them. As time went on and their gladness seemed to grow more private, I suspected I was the burden they rose above and ignored.
Father had a skimpy mustache curled under his upper lip, and he was graying at the temples. He was slightly build and stooped, tending to lean forward and look at the ground as he walked. He had gentle brown eyes I think of now as being sorrowful, and one of his ears was markedly larger than the other and flared out from his head. He worked downtown at Gersham's Department Store in the men's suits section and was well-liked by every adult who knew him. His philosophy was that the customer sold himself a suit and he was there merely to make sure the fit was correct, the colors matched, and the style fit the age of the customer. I don't think anyone he served ever found him pushy or unpleasant.
My mother was beautiful, as only familiar things can be beautiful. She was the only one in the world who treated me with possessiveness, and I knew I belonged to her, whereas I answered to my father. These two things, belonging and answering, seemed to conflict, so I took to my mother for protection when my father, whose temper often flared for no reason seen by me, thought I had been too lazy or unmanly or disrespectful and scolded me. He often made me quiver inside, but I set my jaw firmly against displaying my feelings. Feelings were things by which people grabbed a hold of you and haled you this way and that while you held on for dear life to your fixed expression.
But every way of being possessed and offended and protected changed that winter and spring with the anticipation of the birth.
My father would come home on the mild spring evenings and, still in his good pants and suspenders, pitch balls to me, then chase them across the soggy grass alley and into the adjacent backyards. Because his pitches were wild and my batting uncertain, he was able to visit most of the houses in the neighborhood and exchange a few words with the occupants, most of whom spent the early evening hours setting out gardens. I had never known Father to be a Visitor, but he sought people out, using my varied batting as an excuse to ramble. He had rarely played with me, nor had he needed to talk much to people. Now he took pleasure in mundane comments on the weather, the garden stocks, and most importantly, on the child to come. He sought the mention of that from as many people as possible.
In the early spring evenings, the soft gold sky set to a deep blue in a matter of minutes as the chill came up from the earth and the stars appeared. Mother would come out of the house, her round belly hard with the new world, considering each step as she descended the porch, and put her arm around Father's back, through his suspenders. They walked to the house, heads tipped slightly toward one another, their eyes staring at the dark grass out of which twilight rose.
This spring I began to walk downtown to meet Father when he quit work at 5:30. Prior to this, I had not been allowed alone beyond the neighborhood. One afternoon Mother decided to walk for exercise and then suggested we surprise Father by showing up to accompany him home. When she grew tired, she sent me on alone. From then on, I was allowed to go downtown any time I wanted.
On those walks home, Father told me stories about himself. His confidence made me suspicious he was trying to lure confessions of mischief out of me. Laughing, and sometimes shaking his head in shame, he told me of the hot August afternoon when he was six years old, when he and three friends pulled up every growing thing in the neighbors' garden while they were at their infant son's funeral. He recounted his and a friend's dressing up in sheets and rattling chains in the side yard of a house owned by an old woman known to do nightly rituals to put her in contact with her dead husband, and of his and another boy's walking a girl home from prayer meeting and then fighting on her porch in contest for her after she'd gone inside.
Father repaired watches as a hobby. One night he called me out to the lean-to back porch where he made his workshop. Beneath the bare bulb, the splintery wooden table was scattered with springs and cogs, pins, crystals, rings, and pliers of various shapes. While I sat on the stool in the middle of the porch, my father, the jeweler's loupe over his left eye, leaned sideways against the table. With the absorption of a surgeon, he straightened a bent tooth of the escape wheel, a part of what provided the watch's heartbeat sound. Lying out against the scarred table were the gold hour and minute wheel, the hairspring and the balance wheel. With his pair of cricket-leg tweezers, he selected a steel pin the proper size to replace one of the worn-out pallets, the other half of the watch's heartbeat, against which the teeth of the escape wheel clicked. Done, he suddenly looked up at me, one eye wild and close inside the loupe, the other eye kind and amused, and said, "There's the child's mother," something I didn't understand but that had some reference to the heart he had just revived.
Father invited me to pull my stool next to his and watch him clean the inner workings and reassemble the clock. As I was scooting my stool toward him, he did something very odd: he offered me his hand, and when I extended mine, he shook it firmly as if we were two adults meeting for the first time.
Mother had told me there was something Father wanted to discuss with me when she had sent me out to the lean-to. So why was there a formal greeting as if we were meeting for the first time or in surprise after a long time?
That night, talking quietly into the timepiece as into eternity or the night sky, the sky endless and close, as with delicate hands he brushed and oiled the workings and reconstructed and reset time, Father spoke to me about the plan of life—of love, union, and Creation. Absorbed in the minutiae of the works, absorbed in accuracy and delicacy, we watched the timepiece go back together, almost as if by itself, and it seemed like Father was talking about it, the watch. His voice was steady and composed.
I remained silent and divided my attention among the clock, what Father was saying about the plan of time for all time, and the song Mother sang in the next room as she worked on her stitching. I imagined her leaning toward the stiff shade of the floor lamp, which cut out light on the floor like a crimped cookie cutter. She sang, "Oh, my love, my darling, I've hungered for your touch a long lonely time. Time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much," and at the same time leaning toward the hard light, the piece of cloth locked tight in the ring frame.
Her singing was as much about the stitching she was doing as Father's words were about the clock he was mending. "And it was time we discussed this, the fact that you are a man, have drives, or soon will know what drives a man to manhood," Father concluded, taking the loupe from his eye, holding his breath for a moment in suspense or in an effort to hold time still before expelling the breath on a long weary sigh. He reached forward with his hand, a great paw it did not seem possible could touch anything small without scattering it. He tousled my hair, suddenly troubled or embarrassed by the look on my face. While in the next room Mother sang about time and loneliness deep as the night beyond the safe ring of the fire of manhood.
The end of the discussion, which was not really a discussion, for I was too stunned to ask questions, coincided with his placing the face back on the watch and closing the crystal. And it was as if the whole of it, the mystery of love and the plan of love, had been closed up inside the timepiece and went on ticking at its heartbeat, repaired and encapsulated forever.
"I wanted to tell you before you heard it while you were out playing," he said to me. "And if you ever hear something you don't understand, I want you to come talk to me."
At last Father cleared his throat, held up the dangling watch tied to a shoestring, and passed it through the air to me. I closed it in both hands and then slowly opened them. The piece lay gold and ticking in my palm, and suddenly realizing something other than the telling of a strange tale had been accomplished, I started to laugh with relief.
It had rained as we talked, but I hadn't heard it. I didn't know about the rain until I went to the back door to lock it and saw the finest drops still clinging to the screen, the yard jeweled and black in the passing moon.
Joshua was born on the first of June and buried on the second. They didn't let me see him, either alive or dead.
I was staying next door with the Priddys. Mr. Priddy had driven Mother and Father to the hospital before school time, and I was allowed to skip that day. Mr. Priddy then drove to work, and Mrs. Priddy and I stayed at the house, doing chores and waiting for the phone call. Around four o'clock we were in the side yard between the houses at the shared clothes line. Mrs. Priddy had opened the window nearest to us, taken the screen out, and set the phone on the sill. I was holding the sheets off the ground for her while she pinned them to the line, and the wind came up and filled them like sails against the cloudless sky. Once, in a strong gust, I let go of my end of a sheet, and it blew against Mrs. Priddy, surprising her so that she turned the wrong way in it and wound herself inside like a mummy. Laughing, she pulled the sheet off the line and stepped on it trying to get loose. She said, "They used to wind the dead like that in sheets." We looked at each other. The sky was a dazzling blue behind her head and beyond the roof of the house. She squinted her eyes and caught at a wisp of her hair. Then she bent down, rolled up the soiled sheet, and pitched it through the window.
We went back to work. There was something about the whiteness of the sheets, the smell of bleach, the blue sky, that made me lose my consciousness of where I was and believe I was at the ocean, raising the sail on a boat. What I was doing I seemed to have done before. There was someone with me, much smaller than I, and we were going out on the water together. But we wouldn't be back. I had that feeling. We were going out to be lost at sea.
This moment by the ocean happened as I was holding my end of the sheet high and the wind filled it from below, blocking my view of Mrs. Priddy. The odd flash of intuition ended with the sound of a car door slamming. At the same, Mrs. Priddy took my end of the sheet, and looking into her freckled, worn face, I saw she was tensely watching the approach of someone behind me.
I turned. A taxi had pulled up in front of our house, and my father was leaning through the passenger window, speaking to the driver. He was not paying.
Father straightened and began to walk diagonally across the lawn toward us. At first his steps were uncertain, his legs wobbly at the knees. I thought he was smiling, but as he came closer, I saw it was only the sun in his face. The taxi was waiting.
When Father got to us, I saw tears standing in his eyes. He said slowly, nodding to help himself go on, and staring me straight in the eyes, "Mother's fine. She had the baby around noontime. We named him Joshua. He died a few minutes ago." He worked his right index finger inside his collar and then turned around and looked into the sky.
There was a rustling beside me. Mrs. Priddy held the corner of the sheet we had just hung and gestured strangely with it toward Father. Her lips moved soundlessly, and her tongue appeared too large for her mouth.
"She's asleep," he said, looking back to me. "Do you want to see her? You may. I'm going back."
"I want to see the baby," I said.
"You may not. The baby has been taken to the hospital morgue." He tugged on his flared-out ear, which was red. He couldn't look at me any longer but stared at the sheet, which was of a devouring whiteness. He cleared his throat. "Come on, if you're coming." He backed away from Mrs. Priddy. He stared at the white sheet. It blinded him. He was only able to back away because he couldn't see anything but the devastation of the white sun. After the sheet, the grass appeared to my eyes to be black and bright as a crow's back.
We were halfway across the yard before Mrs. Priddy, her voice barely audible, nearly drowned beneath the wind, called after us, "I'm so sorry."
Father didn't answer, but when he'd put me in the front seat and closed the door, he turned and waved to her.
By the time we got to the hospital, I had begun to cry. Father told me if I didn't stop, I couldn't stay until Mother woke up. I didn't believe she would ever wake up unless I stayed to see her the moment she did. I sat in the chair outside her door and tried to remember what I had laughed so hard about that afternoon. I thought of my lifting the sail in preparation for the journey to sea, and I wondered how one day could be different from any other. If you did the same thing every day and knew how, still there was the one day the sea might not let you come back.
Around seven o'clock, I knew she had woken. I heard the rustling of the sheets, and following this, a sob of protest, a low-held note that went on for so long it struck me with terror, existing apart from all sentiments I had ever known. It was unbroken anguish, muted so that no one would hear.
Someone had come to speak with Father about Joshua's burial, and they had gone to the end of the corridor. The screen was gold from the early evening sun, and Father and the man glowed in the refracted light.
I opened the door slowly. Mother was sitting up in bed, her hands covering her face. Her mouth was closed, the long moaning note lodged deep in her throat. Suddenly she stiffened and lowered her hands. Her eyes were red from crying.
She held her arms out to me, and when I stood by the bed she pulled my head against her soft breasts and stroked my hair. With her other hand she held me tightly at the shoulder.
"Can you come home with us?" I whispered, and she asked in a voice breathless with pain, "Why did you come?"
I wept, but for my own reasons, that without the child everything would be far more barren than it would have been with him. I had felt thrust outside, but now there was nothing to be jealous of, for no one was jealous of sorrow.
Father came in. Mother loosened her grip on me and began weeping again. I backed into the corner by the window and looked down onto the courtyard, onto a pool with a helmeted angel standing in it.
"Why did you let him come?" she asked Father.
"I wanted to come," I said out the window, still looking at the angel.
"Mr. LeCompte has taken him," Father said.
I looked at her. She had turned her face to the wall. "I wanted to come. I wanted to see him. I named him."
Darkness was sifting into the room.
"Mr. LeCompte can hold him till you're able to attend."
She sighed. Suddenly, talking about it, she ceased to weep. Her voice became soft and resolute. "No. Bury him tomorrow. I can visit the grave."
"Why didn't he live?" I said.
"He couldn't live." She fixed my attention with her glistening eyes.
"He wasn't able."
"What did he look like?"
Her tears flowed silently. They gathered light. She raised her eyebrows and cocked her chin. "He looked like an angel."
I knew it wasn't true because she seemed so proud to say so.
"You're sure you want it done that way?"
She was obdurate. "Yes."
They buried Joshua the next afternoon. I was not allowed out of school. At two o'clock on the bell, I went to the boys' cloak room and prayed, "Escape!" I pretended they were burying an empty coffin, that the baby had wiles. I thought of the burial as punishment for dying, and I also thought of myself as having some ability, through my imagination, to help him escape.
That evening we visited Mother in the hospital. She sat at the top corner of the bed, her arms folded over her chest, and looked at us dazedly. When Father told her the women of her Sunday School class put a wreath on the plot, she only stared at him. As we were leaving, she insisted he take all the flowers people had sent her and lay them on the grave. "Put the wreath to the side," she said tonelessly.
"It's getting dark," Father said.
"Do it now." Her voice was uncompromising.
By the time Mr. Priddy came for us and we drove to the cemetery, the gates were locked. He promised to bring Father back on his lunch hour the next day. We could leave the flowers in the back seat till then. I promised never to tell Mother we had not gotten them there that night. I thought Father was overly cautious. Surely she would understand what a lock and chain, nightfall, meant.
Mother came home from the hospital the last day of school, and the first thing I asked her as soon as she got her case unpacked was for permission to move out of my room and onto the roof. She turned to me with a great weariness and closed her eyes. A wave of fatigue came over her whenever she talked to anyone now. She spoke as if out of sleep.
"Whatever you want to do," she said.
I dragged the old cot mattress from the tool shed, beat it on both sides with the broom, hauled it through the kitchen, up the stairs, and heaved it through the window.
Father disapproved. He was seated at the kitchen table, polishing his shoes, when I came through with the mattress. He frowned. "What are you doing with that old thing? It's filthy. What are you doing with it?"
"I'm going to put it on the roof."
"And what for?"
"To sleep when it's hot. She said I could."
Mother was standing at the stove, stirring milk in a sauce pan. "I said he could." She sounded detached, like an echo.
Father slammed the shoe brush on the top of the table. "After what happened, you're going to let him go out on the roof?"
She turned slowly. Her eyes were closed. "What does he have to do with what just happened?" She opened her eyes and looked down the hallway toward the front door.
Father repeated her question. "He could fall off the roof. He could roll off. He could trip and break his neck. Anything could happen."
"Is that what just happened? Anything? Is that what you call it?" She turned back to the stove, sighed, and went on stirring.
She had let go of an uneasiness that had protected us. She had used to circle us nervously, to make sure we didn't get too close to the edge. Now she stood aside. Perhaps she had discovered there was no edge, or that since danger constantly changed form, there was no use drawing an imaginary line to distance oneself from it.
"I don't fall out of bed. Why would I fall off the roof?" I said to him.
I dragged the mattress after me as quickly as I could. Once in my room, I unlatched the screen, lifted it into the room, and shoved the mattress out the window. I sat down at the top of the stairs and looked down to the landing where the staircase turned and went the rest of the way into the kitchen. There was no sound from below but the continual scraping of the wooden spoon against the sides of the pan.
There was a moment in each afternoon when everything suddenly stopped. I would be alone somewhere, on the roof or in the wash tub I filled with water or walking barefoot through the gutter along a dusty street, when all of a sudden the breeze that had been rattling the leaves and rippling the blades of grass died down and the air grew deathly still, or the dog that had been barking frantically was suddenly quiet. I imagined I was unable to breathe and put my hands to my stomach to wait for the breath to come back. No matter how hard I willed myself to take a breath, I couldn't.
The presence of Joshua hovered, exalted, unreachable each stifling afternoon; it rested, dead in the white air, resurrected every afternoon. By day I didn't think of him lying with the earth banked on him. Only at night, when I lay down and stared into the sky, I pictured him, soggy and glum, lying on his back, baby hands folded prim and white across his belly naked like mine.
The pulsing of the stars made the sky seem to rock from one side to the other. And I pretended my house had become a boat. I floated out onto a dark sea, alone, and was rocked to sleep on the water.
I stopped meeting Father at the store. The days of walking with him seemed to have been part of our preparation for the child that hadn't worked out. I didn't see any use continuing the practice, but after a few weeks he surprised me by asking me at the dinner table if I had forgotten him. "You always used to walk with your poppa after work. Why don't you anymore, with all the free time you've got?"
I lifted one shoulder and looked at my plate.
The next evening I met him and walked home with him. I carried his jacket and dangled his tie around my neck, where there also hung the green facemask I wore in the wash tub. The first question he asked when we left the store was, "What do you do with yourself all day?"
I was barefooted and intent on watching the sidewalk for glass. "Nothing," I mumbled.
"Look up and talk plain when I speak to you."
I looked at him in surprise. He didn't usually raise his voice on the street. His head was pulled to the side, jerking slightly, and that eye squinted. "I'm tired of you moping around."
"I'm not moping," I answered, and he swatted the back of my head.
"None of us is easy about what happened."
"I don't know what happened." My voice was shrill.
"You need to do some work, not spend your summer just going around. I'm going to pay you a quarter an hour to scrape and paint the house, just the downstairs outside, never mind the porch, and you have all summer to do it. You only have to work on it a couple hours a day and when you feel like it. You'll have money, and we'll open you a savings deposit."
We stopped at the Federal Bakery, but I hung around at the screen door, angry and hot. He bought three apple fried pies for dessert but let me eat mine on the way home.
Every afternoon when Father arrived home, I had to be there while he inspected my work. He ran his long, tapered hand over the surface of the clapboard to make certain I'd scraped it 'to the bone.' When he was satisfied, he moved the ladder down several feet so it would be set for the next day's work. When my work had passed inspection, Father ran the cord to the vacuum cleaner out the window and vacuumed the paint chips off the sidewalk and out of the grass.
One day when I was on the ladder, I heard the baby cry, and my neck stiffened. I stopped scraping, backed off the ladder, and stood in the yard, listening, staring at the screened window. All I heard then was the drying of the grass, the mourning whistle of an engine in the train yard, a small airplane moving like a zipper down the sky.
I tiptoed up the steps of the porch, silently pulled back the screen door, and entered the living room. Through the long hallway, I saw Mother at the side table in the kitchen, leaning over the cake she was decorating, her left wrist pressed against her forehead as she would press it to mine to test whether I had a fever. She shook her head slowly back and forth. Her neck and chest heaved once as if she were about to give under an incredible burden. Something, maybe the unsatisfactory way the icing was spreading, caused her to snap, and she plunged the knife into the center of the cake and swiftly withdrew it. She buried her face in the crook of her arm, still shaking her head slowly back and forth, and leaned on the table for support. I backed cautiously out the door and laid it closed with the care of a burglar.
I went back to scraping, and though intermittently I heard the baby crying, I did not investigate but worked with greater vigor to drown out the sound, sometimes digging into the clapboard and splintering it.
That night I woke to the sound of a shout and sat upright on my mattress. I listened intently. The melancholy sounds of the insects went on undisturbed. I scooted to the edge of the roof and watched the shifting planes of fireflies over the side yard. They tilted the earth as the flashing stars did the heavens.
I dangled my legs over the side of the roof and scooped a handful of dead leaves and whirligigs out of the gutter and tossed it like confetti into the yard. There was a hole of darkness where the fireflies scattered.
I was ready to return to bed when I heard muffled sobbing from below, and with this the sounds of someone trying both to comfort and to hush whomever was crying.
I had learned to move quietly along the roof and up and down the ladder, sneaking to the backyard to urinate in the middle of the night. I started down now to find out where the sounds were coming from and had descended several rungs when I understood they came from my parents' room. I stopped and held my breath. Father was crying, and Mother was shushing him. I moved down one more rung and hung by one arm, crouched like a monkey, listening. My feet were almost level with the top of the window.
I heard their breathing, my father's labored and fast and my mother's gentle and soothing beneath his, like a wave exhausting itself repeatedly at the shore.
"I'm all right," he whispered hoarsely. "I dreamed I woke up. The room was dark, except there was a small wooden box on the floor, and light was coming through the cracks from inside it. A voice inside was saying, 'I love you,' over and over."
He cried for several minutes while Mother made the sounds to soothe him, and then all at once everything was quiet, as if they had turned at the same time to look at something neither of them understood. In a moment the sheets rustled, and Mother said sharply, "No!"
The floor creaked from someone walking across it, and half a minute later the lamp on the back porch came on, throwing a path of light onto the grass. This was Father at his work table, I guessed. I climbed back onto the roof and sat at the edge, kicking my legs, waiting for Mother to go to the porch and try to get him to come back to sleep.
She coughed and cleared her throat. The wooden frame creaked as she adjusted herself in the bed.
It had been seven weeks since Joshua was buried. And yet there was no smile, worn out as it was, nor a dream, nor a work assignment, nor a silence, that didn't have a sense of the dead slumbering somewhere in it. It was as though Joshua had lived a long life with us before he died and had left a much larger emptiness than I would have thought possible after only four hours of living.
I looked out over the sleeping neighborhood and finally came to a conclusion: if I saw what had happened, I would immediately be able to account for why it had happened. The next night I would sneak away from home and go to the grave, dig up Joshua's coffin, and stare directly into my brother's face.
Back on my mattress, I sat for a long time planning my course of action. The clock in the courthouse tower rang three bells. The moths and white insects whirled, inexhaustible, like electrons around the street lights. I scuttled to the edge of the roof and looked down once more. My father's lamp was still on in the back porch. Tomorrow he would keep his regular schedule anyway.
I carried the shovel like a yoke behind my back, with my hands dangling over it. I looked at the skin on my arms. The moonlight made it a pale blue-white, and the delicate hairs on my arms cast a fine network of shadows on my skin.
Every porch appeared still and composed. The lids of the milk boxes were lifted awaiting the morning's delivery. Trees, shrubbery, houses stretched into the grayish-blue darkness. Rattles in the dark trees answered one another, a shake here, a response there, constantly. Leaves rustled without a wind, jumping like fish as I passed under them.
I walked swiftly, and my bedtime moccasins made soft patting sounds on the sidewalk. I also wore my coonskin cap. I had a knife with me to jimmy the lock on the coffin, a small flashlight shaped like a fountain pen, and a whistle. The whistle was to blow at whatever frightened me. As I trotted along, I brought the whistle out of my shorts pocket and bit it between my teeth. It wheezed softly like the snoring of a bird from my panting.
As I got closer to downtown, the path grew darker. I passed the rich peoples' neighborhood, where the sycamores and lindens overhung the streets and yards, creating a dense jungle obscuring the moonlight. I slowed my pace and pressed my tongue against the opening of the whistle so it wouldn't wheeze anymore.
At the end of the rich neighborhood, I ducked under the First Avenue Bridge and went into Culver's Alley, a narrow dirt street cramped behind downtown against the concrete flood wall. This was a street of two- and three-room shacks of unpainted clapboard and tin roofs. A few of the shacks had screened storm porches; others didn't even have screens in their open windows. On the other side of the flood wall was an even shabbier section called The Craw, a gravel road on the mud bank of the river, lined with roadhouses strung with colored lanterns. One of the places was nothing but a raft with tables and chairs and a drink cooler on it, with a piece of plywood nailed down in the middle of it for a dance floor. The raft got its dance music out the windows of other joints. I heard my father say this section of town made preachers pray for floods.
The roofs of the alley shacks had been painted various colors: mint green, bitter red, sun yellow, and they glowed weirdly under the silver cast of the moon. There were no street lights in the alley. The moon was blocked from coming over the flood wall and did not shine onto the alley floor. But the moon was so fierce tonight, pale colors off the low-slung roofs reflected near the top of the blackened flood wall. The dirt front yards were actually burned white, as if chalk dust had been spread over them.
At the end of the first row of shacks, a brick street intersected Culver Alley and passed through the flood wall into the Craw. The hot moonlight spread through the break in the wall and pressed the gnarled shadow of a sickly pecan tree against the shack of the corner lot. The yard of this shack was marked off with white stakes, around which chicken wire had been strung for a fence. There was no opening or gate, and you had to step over the chicken wire to enter the yard. Beneath the window next to the porch was a treacherous-looking prickly pear with withered blossoms still hanging on. Some variety of creeping vine forming spear-shaped pods grew tangled in the pecan tree. The waxy leaves of this vine, draped like a fungus over half the miserable tree, shivered in the moonlight.
I knew who lived in this corner shack. He was a pariah I used to puzzle over. Mode Johnson was a black man born white, called colored when he was pale as moonlight. He had no pigment in his sallow skin. His hair was fleecy yellow, and his reddish eyes were so sensitive he had to keep out of the daylight. Not even shaded glasses protected his eyes sufficiently. I saw him sometimes downtown, walking through the mid-afternoon glare, hugging as close as possible to the buildings on the shaded side of the street and holding a newspaper to his face to shield it against the sunlight reflected off the pavement. He squinted even indoors, under the long rows of fluorescent lights above the aisles, cleaning the glass display cases and waxing the wood, bringing the stock out of the back room on a dolly or in a wheelbarrow. He no longer worked at Gersham's and hadn't for a long time. I knew where he lived because several times after Gersham let Mode go, Father brought him charge-back items he'd bought at cost, among them a tan hat, corduroy pants, a feather quilt.
I went the first time with Father to Mode's house because I'd been terrified of him ever since I could remember, and I had an irresistible desire to see where the person who terrified me lived. We went at dusk on a cold winter afternoon. A slight rime of frost coated the mud street and yards and the gray shacks. Some of the shacks were strung with Christmas lights, and Mode had strung gold tinsel along the top of his chicken wire fence. No sooner had we stepped into his yard than he opened the door. He stood at the interior of the room, shading his eyes against the pale blue twilight fading off the flood wall. "I see everything," he answered in a somber voice when Father asked how he knew we were coming.
The window shades were drawn, the room we entered dark except for the gas jets visible through the grating of the box furnace behind Mode. The blue jets flickered weakly and cast the shadows of his calves. Mode crossed his arms over his thin chest and hunched forward, squinting with suspicion. "What's you come all this way for? It's cold."
Father explained it wasn't far, only eight blocks. Nothing was far enough from anything in town for anyone to express concern over the distance you'd come to see him.
Mode made his hands into fists when he folded his arms and now ran his thumbs nervously up and down his index fingers. When he opened his mouth and ran his tongue over his gray lips, he made the dry crackling sound of static electricity. "Christmas was a week ago," he said, nodding at the Gersham's bag Father had brought.
"This isn't for Christmas," Father said. "We're starting the markdown for inventory. I got this for a couple of bucks. It's a parka, just like new, only the machine didn't sew through under one arm. I thought you could use it. It was only a couple of bucks." He bowed self-consciously and placed the bag on the wooden chair next to the furnace where apparently Mode had been sitting before we came.
Mode looked out the corner of his eye at the bag, a sour expression on his face. "Never bought anything at Gersham's. Couldn't afford it."
The room smelled of bacon grease and of the paper and garbage burning in the grate in another room. I heard the floor creak in this other room as someone got up from a rocking chair and walked to the stove. The iron door squealed as the person pulled it back. She cleared the phlegm in her throat and spat. The cold spittle cracked loudly as it hit the back of the iron.
"Won't you take it?" Father said.
I stood slightly behind him, glancing around the room: at the flowered contact paper that had been applied crookedly to the walls; at the large framed picture of Jesus, showing His left profile, which formed the center of a group of photographs of various people in Mode's family, I guessed, all of them dark-skinned, with uniformly stern expressions. They all were handsome and dark and stern, while Mode had always seemed to me ugly, ghostly, and hideously kind whenever he met me in Gersham's. His kindness was terrifying. It was looping, encircling. He had me in the crook of it before I knew it, and then I was caught. This face at cross-purposes to itself, pink-eyed and squinting its broad smile, loomed over me, forcibly humble, and I had to hide the terror his contradictory face, with its unearthly whiteness, inspired in me.
Whenever he saw me in the store, he leaned his wide broom against a post or put down his box of garbage and came to me, hung solicitously and limply on his bluish-white smile and raised shoulders. His face looked to me like a fish turned inside out. He always insisted on shaking my hand, leaning over to pat me on the head and say my name. "Osborne! How is Osborne? You've gotten big since the last time I've seen you."
Standing in the dark, crooked living room of his shack that winter evening, I found him changed. He was still ugly and phantom-like. But he was now like his family in sternness. He'd come that much to resemble them as they appeared in their photographs.
"I didn't take nothing when you said I did, and I won't take nothing now when I say I won't. I'm not lying. I never did like a liar or act like a liar." He spoke in a thick hoarse voice to my father, but he kept shifting his eyes back to me.
I took in as much as I could of the dark room. My eyes came to rest on the piece of scarred wood nailed to the wall next to the picture of Jesus. Mode had been waiting for me to see this object and the dried-to-white palm branch nailed up next to it. "That's a piece of the real cross He was pierced on. Feel of it if you don't believe me." He nodded to give me permission. "That palm branch is only from a tree out on the Gulf Mexico."
The thought that Jesus might be real was more shocking to me than that Mode would have a piece of the actual cross here in this miserable shack. I shoved my hands into the pockets of my jacket and withdrew my gaze from his to the floor.
"That's been in my family and handed down and handed down, and now I have it. We're going to die off. My sister Hartelle don't have kids neither."
My father's figure wavered like the flame of a candle. He was trying to think of what to say. Finally he mumbled, "I never said it was you."
Mode nodded. "That's all right. But I'm not going to take what someone said I took. You see what I'm saying? I don't care if you or the President of the United States said it. With Hartelle's pay we get what we need." He turned his head, bit a hangnail, and spit it over his right shoulder. When he turned back, his face was composed. "I thank you all the same."
Father made a slight bow and reached for the bag. He patted his thigh with his gloved hand and shifted his weight. After an awkward moment, Mode stepped around us and without a word opened the door. We had to leave quickly because cold air flooded the room. It withered the blue gas jets. I took one last look back at the room, at the white black man, and he held his hand with his pink palm raised toward me in a gesture of parting.
"Why do we have to call him a black man?" I asked Father on the way home.
The evening had fallen, and the stars were sharp and vibrant. The shacks stood hard in silhouette against the indigo sky.
"Because if his skin had color, that's what color it would be."
"But how do you know?"
"Look at his face. Look at his family."
"But maybe he's something different from his face or his family."
At various times throughout the next year, Father came home from the store with a marked-down item. It would sit in the corner in its Gersham's sack for a day or two while he worked up to his decision, and then one evening after supper he would spring up, pick up the sack, and walk resolutely out the door. I always dashed after him.
I gathered that Father's part in Mode's losing his job was a simple statement, not meant to cast suspicion, he had made to Mr. Gersham's comment about certain discrepancies in a jewelry inventory: "But Mode's the only one besides the managers and the girls who has a key to those cases." I heard him tell Mother he had only meant to express dismay, to name the people who couldn't possibly have had any part in supposed thefts.
The fourth or fifth time we went to his house was in summer. Father had a yellow silk shirt with green parrots on it. He'd paid full price, because I saw the sales ticket on it and nearly fell over.
Birds were gathering in the high blue sky from all corners of town and crying sharply, forming a swing that rocked back and forth and then broke apart at the bottom, as if someone had sent himself flying from that swing into a blue lake.
Hartelle was sitting on the front steps, drinking a nickel bottle of Coca Cola and wiping it over her forehead. I had never seen her any of the times we'd come by. She had a forbidding stare, and I could see from outside their yard that the whites of her eyes were a rusty brown. Her face was shaped like a coffee pot, wide at the jaws, with a rounded chin, which she jutted out firmly when she saw us and the name on the sack Father was carrying. If she was one of the people whose photographs hung on the wall around Jesus, she had certainly changed. In her own angry way, she was as frightening as Mode. She wore one terry cloth house slipper and with the tip of it scratched the enormous big toe of her bare foot. She didn't speak.
Father, intimidated, stood at the edge of the yard and lifted the sack, swinging it like a bell. I stepped over the chicken wire. Hartelle slammed the Coca Cola bottle down on the step beside her. "Who said, 'Come in'?"
I stopped with one leg already over the fence, but the ground tilted me out, and I found myself once more standing outside the boundary.
"Is Mode at home?" Father said.
Her face hardened until I expected to see cracks appear in it. Her voice had the desolate note of a warning siren in it. "Mode's gone to work in The Craw. He's taking passes to The Float. What you come by for again? He don't want what you got."
"I came by to see how he was getting on."
The twist of her head called Father a liar. "I see that poke you got. Mode worked 15 years for Gersham. Now he'll work 15 years in The Craw. You go on. We don't want any white trash. My brother's honest a man as Gersham ever dreamed on sweet pillow of being. Honest any those fancy men Gersham ever sold clothes to. Honest man don't look for nothing outside heaven."
"We'll just go see him in The Craw," Father said.
"Through there," she said, sticking her head out on her long neck to indicate the opening in the flood wall.
Father took me to the entrance to The Craw but only let me enter about ten feet into it, although it was too early for the bad crowd. The river was narrow at this point, black and oily-appearing. The opposite bank was bright, overgrown and jungle-like, like a vine-covered beast pacing the bank, looking for a way over.
Along the shore of The Craw were several low-ceilinged flat-roofed frame buildings decorated with lanterns and painted electric colors of pink and blue and purple. The names of the joints were painted sloppily in black paint across the fronts: Baby Talmedge's, The Coop, The Brown Derby. A few people milled around and stood at the entrances to the buildings.
There sat Mode at the bottom of the plank leaned from the bank to the tip of a large raft. This plank was really a heavy oak door that looked like it might have been taken out of the ballroom of a ransacked mansion. It still had its brass doorknob and was ornately carved. Mode wore a colorful sombrero that shaded his face from the slanting sun, and he sat on a stool above the card table holding a change box and a rubber stamp and pad.
Light darted and clanged on the black water.
Mode swished the fringe of his shawl slowly at a fly buzzing around his thigh. He smiled under his hat, thinking to himself, "The Fool! He's come again, in the very same way. That is the way with Fools."
Father walked across the narrow gravel lot toward Mode, pulling at his flared-out ear. Mode tilted his head back. "This the fifth, sixth time you come bearing gifts," he called out. "I forget what for." He raised the skin on his forehead. "I don't need any consolation what happened eight, nine months ago. You must have no troubles whatsoever if you can remember another man's trouble longer than he can."
"I'm sorry you wound up working here."
"It's close to home." He spread his arms so that the shawl flared out to show its checkered pattern, and the multi-colored tassels waved in the breeze. "I get to dress up. And Hartelle can come over any time she pleases, tie strings round both her big fat toes, and go fishing."
I heard a scuffling behind me and turned to find Hartelle, her bony arms crossed, standing zigzagged inside her gray sack dress, bearing down on me with all the rusted-out life in her eyes. She was like a lightning bolt standing still, with the look on its face that said it only came near because it chose, and could have struck you dead center if it wanted, but lightning would rather have an audience than a victim.
I beat her to the thunder. If she was going to frighten me, I could at least speak first. "He paid full price for what he's got."
Her eyes squinted a little as if a pin had pricked her in a place not too sensitive. After a moment she said, "What's he got?" Her mouth was curved as if a horseshoe were in it, and she chewed on the back of it. The front of her neck glistened with sweat and curved in like the palm of my hand.
"It's a yellow silk shirt."
"In its sheath?"
She grabbed through her sack for something she wore under it and twisted it more around front. Then she crossed her two stick-arms again. "You see he comes by before he leaves."
"You want what's in that sack?"
She glared and then relaxed and unfolded as she swiveled her head. Her gums were a dark green, like the bottom of a stagnant stream. "Your daddy's the strangest white man I ever know. He may never said 'nigger,' but his doing says, 'Help that nigger out.' If your daddy want to act out 'man' instead of 'nigger,' he could have got Mode his job back last year, not given piddling door prizes. He knew Mode's Christian character to point of persuasion. He could've spoke with tongues of angels if deep down he thought 'man' instead of 'nigger.'" She squinted again, hard as a spider with a web in its brain instead of spun. "You say I'm waiting for him." She pulled a white hankie out of the tight sleeve of her dress and dried under her jaw with it as she turned and walked off, pulling herself along with little jerks of her head that went out of her with small tucks of her buttocks. This strange haughty walk had the same effect on me as if she'd crooked her finger for me to follow.
She turned around once as she was walking toward the yard and said, "Scat!" with a fierce squaring of her mouth. But then she loped on indifferently. She leaned over the fence and crossed it like a person turning in her sleep. She beat her hand flat on the screen once to get the flies to scatter, and then she sat back down on the step. I stayed just outside the fence, my hands jammed deep into my pockets, and dug a rut in the dirt with my toe. Occasionally I looked up to see if she was staring at me, but she wasn't.
Finally I said, "Was your brother always white?"
She placed her elbows on the step behind her and leaned back. "Wasn't never that low."
Again I didn't understand what she meant, but I waited a few minutes as if giving the thought consideration. Then I said, "But he is white though."
"And sometimes the sun is black, but only when a shadow pass over it. That shadow don't change what the sun actually is."
I wondered a moment. "What kind of shadow passed over Mode?"
"The opposite to one. A no-shadow. God."
I shuddered in my chest, that God could actually and purposely make a person to be hideous. But when Hartelle said that God's no-shadow passed over Mode, she wasn't thinking of him with horror.
"He's gentle," she said, "but don't mess with him. A gentle man won't hurt you, so don't mess with him. If you do, you're not looking at his eyes, but God's."
A bird landed on the tin roof and began to slide down.
Finally Father appeared from around the corner of the flood wall, carrying the sack. He looked downcast.
I met him and said, "His sister wants to talk to you."
When Hartelle saw Father approaching, she stood, neck-first, as if unseen hands lifted her at her wide jaws. She drew each hand slowly up the opposite arm, one at a time as if putting on long gloves. She reared her head back. "Did he behold of what's in that poke?"
Father shook his head negatively.
She went on. "I have the say-so. Naturally he has his delights, but I have the law." She closed one eye and puckered her face around that cheek. "After all, let me see what you got in that poke."
Father hesitated, but she did a tic with her head and said, "May come in." She waited, still and composed, her large, mannish hands with their even darker knuckles pressed expectantly to her thighs. When Father brought the shirt out of the sack, she hummed a note of praise and slipped one hand up the wrapper to feel the material. "This silk?" she asked, still peering out of only that one eye.
He nodded. "Read the tag."
"I will," she said without looking at it and put her fists on her hips. "But I got one worse question. What you think this matters even if I could get him to take it from you? What you think this makes up for, of all that's wrong that can never be put to rights?"
"I am sorry that Mr. Gersham wouldn't listen to reason."
Her voice trembled. "After 15 years." She clenched her jaw. "After 15 years, you wouldn't think I could persuade him to take this shirt, but I can."
Father slumped over and crossed his arms close to her chest. "I meant only to say that Mode had a key, not to suggest he would misuse it. I want to be friends."
She pretended to balk. "Friends. But nonetheless I'll make him take this shirt. I tell him, 'Don't bend down.' He knows if I took something I didn't bow down when I took it. So that way it didn't offend neither of us."
So Hartelle took the shirt Father had brought Mode, but gave him back the sack. "I was two years behind Mode. When he was a little boy, the doctor said if he goes outside he should to go under an umbrella. So here goes me dragging Mode through the dust under an umbrella. But it was something he had to have instead of a proper color. And maybe he has this instead of a proper apology." She lifted the shirt and shook it at Father. "Anyway, you notice the way I took it, saying to you it don't make it right."
Father put his hand to his mouth and cleared his throat. "I didn't think it would."
"I'll see if I can't get him to put it on. If anybody can, it's me. I made him stay under a bush once while I beat the living hell out of some boys with his umbrella, when they made fun of him with it. Every consolation is imperfect to never having had the trouble in the first place."
"I'll grant you that."
"Every one of us here on this earth knows that."
"We do," Father agreed.
"Everything a consolation that fails. But consolation for what, God only knows." She drew up one shoulder and turned away, took her seat on the step, and poured the rest of her Coca Cola on the prickly pear.
As we walked off, I lagged behind and turned. Hartelle had forgotten about us and was busy unwrapping the shirt and shaking the wrinkles and pins out of it. First she held the bright slick material against her arm, and then she held the shirt up by the collar in front of her flat narrow chest, squeezing it under her chin.
Father made one or two trips by the house in the fall, but I didn't go with him because of school work. From one trip he brought home a raisin pie Hartelle had made, but Mother, without knowing Hartelle or what her kitchen looked like, dumped it immediately out of the tin into the garbage can. Yet when it came time for Father to return the tin, Mother baked a mincemeat pie in it and made the gift to Mode and Hartelle with her compliments on theirs. A week or so later a thank you note came from Hartelle, looking like it was written by someone holding the pen in the wrong hand.
It was about this time that the upsetting news came that there was to be another child, and Father completely forgot about Mode. The note from Hartelle was the last contact he had with the Johnsons for a while. I forgot about them too, until one night in mid-March, about two and a half months before Joshua was born, I started out of a sound sleep and sat up, staring into the blackness of the room, and I heard the words, "Everything is a consolation that fails," going through my head, in my own voice. I remembered immediately that Hartelle had spoken these words. I lay back and thought of myself and the small changes I had begun to notice in my body. I thought about becoming different and about one thing replacing the other and never making up for the lost thing, because the thing lost had disappeared completely. The coming summer would replace the previous one. The child coming would replace me in my parents' hearts, but perhaps they would be nagged by the sense that having him would not be like getting me back. I pretended they wanted me back. I would be glad when they found out they had accomplished something else. They would be disappointed.
I took Culver Alley that night for two reasons: it was unlit, whereas the main street through downtown was lined with street lights; and because as I went along I suddenly thought of Hartelle and her regard for her miscreated brother. I had a clear vision of her hiding him in the bulrushes while she went out and wielded his umbrella like a sword at his persecutors. Her eyes blazed like the eyes of God, igniting the dust. Her brother's strangeness made her brave, and if those who were not so afflicted did not fear the hand of God, then it was her duty to make them afraid.
"Good Lord, it's a big bad raccoon walking there," a voice called out from the darkness of Mode's house as I passed in front of it. I recognized his voice. "And a spade. Sic'm Fox!" He gave a slow squeal of laughter, a private wriggle that was muffled as if he were putting it down inside a bottle and corking it.
I pressed my back against the flood wall and froze. The spade struck the concrete with the clang of a bell. I held my breath.
A moment later, he appeared behind the moon-silvered screen door, paler than it.
On the strange silver moonlight he appeared to float through the screen without opening it, and to levitate down the steps without moving his legs, tipped slightly forward, drawn on by the hand of doom. I was mesmerized, helpless to move, and I thought: this is what opening a grave is like, releasing a ghost who glides through the air after you.
He floated silently toward me as the ghost of my brother had done once or twice in dreams, except my brother had disappeared the moment his face would have become clear.
Mode's feet touched the ground outside the chicken wire fence, and I saw him lurch back and stoop slightly as the impact went through him. He wore the yellow silk shirt with the parrots on it that Father had left with Hartelle last summer. The shirt was glazed with moonlight, and a diagonal line glared off it, sharp as the sunlight on a ripple of water, until he fell under the shadow of the flood wall.
"Mode Johnson, it's me," I called out.
"Me who?" His shoulders hunched to help him squint.
"Osborne. Osborne Polsgrove."
"Osborne? You don't sound like you."
"I'm not," I said. I didn't know what I meant by that, but I thought I'd better confirm him in whatever he said.
"You sound a year older. It's been that long since I've seen you. And then, you didn't say nothing. It was earlier than that, in spring, when you and Mr. Polsgrove come by. I was scaling a carp Hartelle caught, and I give you a handful of scales. When you left, you threw them in the air, and your daddy scolded you because you got them down his collar."
"He's afraid of anything with scales on it. Fish and snakes. And feathers. Feathers are a changed form of scales."
"No! Snakes has beads, but they slide out of your hands like sand."
"I touched noses with a snake once," I said, and Mode drew his head back to allow me the breadth of honor.
"Did it cross its eyes?"
"I did mine."
"If a snake crosses its eyes and don't snap, means that person has power over evil. But if it squints, it recognizes a partner in evil."
I deferred. "I didn't notice its eyes. You aren't supposed to look a snake in the eyes, because it'll charm you and drop its jaw."
The dirt smelled clean, with the brown smell of the baking sun.
"But wait." Mode folded his arms and leaned hard forward. He shook his head slowly back and forth. "Lord God Almighty: coonskin cap, whistle on a string, man-size spade. Just where you think you're going this hour the night, with all that paraphernalia, alone like this? You snuck off, didn't you?"
He bent at the knees and leaned back with incredulity. "Oh, I see. Your daddy's hired you out ditch-digger at two in the morning. Well, let me walk you back home, to see nothing happens. But, laws of mercy, what do you have in mind, running around this way this time of night?"
I took the cap off my head and dressed the handle of the shovel with it. In the crook of my arm I wiped the sweat off my face.
Mode persisted. "Tell me, Osborne, what were you up to?"
With a squirming movement, I eased the guilt backward off my shoulders. "Nothing." I paused and then added, "I hate the name Osborne."
"What would you rather be called, Sir?"
"You're full of 'nothing' tonight."
I accused him: "You're up mighty late, too."
"Not in no get-up, wandering around."
"Staring out the window."
"Neither could I."
"So, you decide to creep around town with a spade." He hunched over closed to me, so that our foreheads nearly touched, and placed his sulphur-colored hands on his kneecaps. He whispered, and his close breath was bitter with something like the smell of rotten wood, but it wasn't an unpleasant aroma. "Now, you were hunting buried treasure, weren't you? Someone told you where something valuable was buried. You weren't able to sell all you had to buy that field, so you were going to dig it up and bear it off. Isn't that so?"
I seized on the explanation he gave me. "That's right." I nodded vigorously.
He straightened up so suddenly the back of my head hit the flood wall. "I found a treasure," he boasted. His cheeks were high and round, the skin of his face creamy as the skin of a balloon that is blown too full.
Though he was the same Mode of Gersham's store, who used to seek me out and crouch down to put his fish-colored face close to mine, to tussle my hair and ask how I was doing in school, what I wanted for Christmas, was I minding my folks; though he was the same Mode who in my dreams occasionally rose up like a ghost to pursue me, his face bluish and amorphous as a jellyfish, I had sometime lost my aversion to him. His face used to seem a portent of suffocation. I had never been able to understand why adults did not protest the mere sight of Mode.
I looked past his face and thought of my brother's face, though I had never seen it. I imagined Joshua over Mode, as a cloud over the face of the moon, or the face of the moon over the bewildered earth.
"And I didn't have to buy it, nor dredge it up," he went on.
"Maybe the same treasure I'm out after."
"Not unless you meant to scoop water. No, Sir. This treasure swam up to me, swallowed my hook, and I pulled it flapping out of the river."
"That's what I'm saying. Common carp."
"What about it?"
"Nothing, except it died, as usual, and when I split it open, this is what I found." He drew his gray hand through the air like a paddle, making the first dip in the strange stream of night. He floated back into the moonlight, from under the shadow of the flood wall. His skin glowed like phosphorescent chalk, as if he were a drawing of himself in an unearthly medium.
Leaving my shovel against the wall, I followed him toward the house. Again he levitated over the low fence and came down with a slight jarring of his upper body. The impact caused the shadow of the twisted pecan tree to tremble lightly. And then by the mysterious sanction of the moonlight, I began to float over the fence as well but suddenly found myself sprawled on hands and knees inside the yard and Mode lifting me by my right arm. "You can misjudge," he said. "In this moon, you step on the wrong spot and you trigger the net. Moon pulls strange tricks on the eyes."
I slapped my hands on my t-shirt while Mode dusted off my knees. "I saw the morning glories open tonight, and it wasn't no trick on my eyes."
He stood straight up, and I heard a clutching sound in his throat. "You mean to tell me?" His voice became hollow, full of awe and determination. "It's a sign of the resurrection. Full open glories at night is sign of the resurrection." He placed his palms together and rested his chin for a moment on the tips of his middle ringers.
A light breeze came straight down on us like a sheet floating out of the sky. I felt it pass from my ears to my ankles, as if I were being put through a hoop.
Mode climbed the few steps to the porch, and as he pulled open the screen door, a thought occurred to me: "What about your sister?"
"What about her?"
"I don't want to wake her up."
"Only God can do that now. That's right." He nodded like an 'Amen!" to second himself.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that Hartelle, my only sister who I lived with all my life, died in March of this spring."
"Dead in the bed in morning. Cold. She was breathing loud as a horse when I came in midnight from The Raft and was cold as ice on a barrel in the morning. Never opened her eyes. I could tell she was dead by looking at her from across the room. Dead person looks like a pulled tooth, if you think about it, the root showing. You ever see one, you know what I mean."
I told him I had never seen a dead person and didn't want to, but then remembered to tell him I was sorry about Hartelle, that I had talked to her once.
"I know," he said and stepped into the front room of the shack, holding the door open with his palm pressed to the screen. I squeezed past him and then brought out my flashlight and shined it around for a place to sit. I took a seat in a cane-bottomed chair beside the gas heater where Mode had stood that first winter evening we visited. He left the doorway, and I turned the narrow shaft of light on his feet and watched them move to a corner of the room. His hands reached down into the light and found an old cane foot stool, which he brought into the parallelogram of moonlight falling through the screen across the floor. "Yes," he said as he sat down. "She thought your daddy most peculiar. Hartelle loved to frighten if she could. Nobody stopped to ask hisself, 'What could she do to me? She's nothing but an old piece of string.' She thought it mighty funny, mighty funny man, woman, nor child would notice, 'She's nothing but two petal pots bung together.'"
"She sent us a pie once," I said.
"I know that. She loved to be fierce, used to stroll round The Craw with a hunting knife stuck in her hair, glare at some of those young pretties, say, 'Look at me one more time, Girl,' and purr like a tiger. She liked to challenge what she couldn't fight. Got used of it, growing up with me. She'd say of somebody that thought he was ferocious, 'You could get shunt of him by rattling pans in the kitchen.' And she gave herself what she called her Indian name: Two Pots Bung Together."
I twisted my feet through the rung of the chair and, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, looked around the room. The curtain over the front window was closed. Silhouetted in front of it on the window table was the box clock that ticked faintly, the sound like grains of sand dropping one by one onto a piece of tin. On this same table sat a lamp with a fringed shade, but Mode made no movement to turn it on. In the corner behind the door was a fat reclining chair. Sitting on a service tray in front of it were a plate with silverware leaning against it, and a plastic cup.
He sniffled and see-sawed his shoulders. He was crying, so I didn't tell him what I really thought, that Hartelle was mean because she was bitter, because she thought everything was a consolation that failed and not because she put on an act for her own amusement.
"She doesn't know how lonely she left me," he said, choking. "She wouldn't've died for nothing."
I moved to the edge of my chair and gripped my kneecaps tightly. Mode cried gently for several minutes. There was no violence in his feeling, and his crying was its own comfort. Finally he leaned to the side and pulled from his hip pocket a handkerchief with which to dry his face. "Of course, Hartelle didn't mean anything by it. It wasn't Hartelle." He slowly shook his head. "It was Almighty God. And who can argue with Him. Whatever He says happens. He's got a map. And according to it, you bury your treasure along the way."
Drawing breath with a long rattle in his windpipe, as if he were horrified at what he was doing, he stood and opened the door to the next room. His dark silhouetted figure went inside and crossed several times through the moonlight that slanted over the floor. I noticed, then, that the moon was having to twist at an ever sharper angle to get inside. The night was passing quickly away. The sleeping world would soon awaken, and night, now still and composed in one dark but weirdly illuminated form, would splinter into the thousand occupations and distractions of day. There would come that dead center of the afternoon that was like the moment when the baby quit breathing, a moment of suffocation relived in me every day, after which I would wander the alleys and back streets, pondering the mystery of one event called by two names: blessing and misfortune.
I heard Mode open and rummage in several drawers and gathered from listening to the clatter that the drawers were filled with kitchen utensils. "Cats and dogs," he whispered, unable to lay his hands on what he was looking for. I thought it strange he'd lose track of his treasure. But perhaps he valued everything he owned equally and didn't make distinctions.
The sharply slanted pane of moonlight on the floor reflected onto the glass over the portraits on the wall. They were like windows looking out to a pale ghostly world beyond this room. I could see nothing of the faces, except that of Jesus, because His picture was heaviest and leaned out from the wall, making less critical the angle of reflection. I felt a jolt, for an instant having the sensation His picture was coming off the wall. The face headed straight toward me like a sail swung wild on a boom broken loose on a wild sea.
"Mode!" I called, rising out of my chair. "Mode!" A wave of desolation that had been suspended over me for weeks like a mighty hand dropped toward my head, the face of Jesus, the body of my brother, and a wind-filled sail strewn in it. Before I realized what I was doing, I took several steps toward the next room and ran head-long into Mode as he was returning. He caught me by the shoulders, and I reared back.
"Here's Mode," he said in a wondering voice.
I turned my head, as in reflex to a summons, and saw through the screen door the moonlight glint off the blade of the shovel where I'd left it propped against the flood wall.
He took me to the doorway where the last shaft of moonlight that was able cut into the room, blue with lateness. Mode stuck his fist into the moonlight, and that fist-sized section of light turned white; then he turned his fist over and flattened his palm. There were red lines on it and a round white mole like a rough moon in the center of it. His fingers trembled and glistened with sweat, ready on an instant's notice to close.
There, resting across the pads of his fingers, was a small locket. "You can't just call this coincidence," he said. "I won't let you. This is my treasure. Whoever finds a treasure knows what it means. A person who's never found a treasure is blind. But whoever finds a treasure knows why stars make pictures of things on earth: bears and eagles and hunters.
"Now, behold," he said. "Hartelle was gone two weeks, and one day I say to myself, 'I'm going to die. Unless You, Lord, or you, Hartelle, gives me a sign, I'll die. I'll starve if I have to, but you aren't going to make me stay here.' I had more power than I'd ever had before in my life, to stay or go as I liked. I truly wanted to be God, because I thought in myself, 'God isn't satisfactory. Whatever exists in heaven or on earth isn't miracle enough to comfort me.'"
The locket in his hand was the kind that could be strung from a necklace or charm bracelet, that opened on a tiny hinge when you depressed the latch at the bottom. It held a photograph of your love. I wondered who was Mode's love.
On the face of the locket were etched the features of the moon, with heart-shaped lips, rounded cheeks, and nearly-closed eyes.
"What's inside?" I asked, and he answered, "I am," and depressed the latch to release the moon face, which opened to reveal a photograph the size of a pea. The image was so small and the light of the moon so weak by now that I had to shine my miniature flashlight on the picture to make out its details. Yet, even before I saw it clearly, I knew this could not be a picture of Mode. The skin of the man's face was dark. I turned the flashlight onto his face and kept it there. Mode covered his eyes with his free hand. He said nothing, but his lips formed shapes as if he were praying silently.
"I know what you're thinking," he finally said.
"I'm not thinking anything."
"You're welcome to compare."
I turned the light toward the photograph again and was forced to conclude that if Mode honestly held this to be his image, then he was either crazy or too far-sighted to tell the difference.
"This man is colored," I said.
"You think I'm not?" He tapped his forefinger on the plastic covering the picture. "Look down there, and tell me what you see."
I see a Negro man you think is you, because Hartelle has put a spell over your eyes.
I leaned closer to his palm and looked for Mode in that picture of someone's love. "You pulled this out of the water?" I whispered.
"That evening I prayed that prayer for a sign, I already had my answer. I was sitting on the stoop, flaying a common carp I caught that afternoon and found that moon charm caught in its neck."
I shrugged tiredly. "So?" Two lovers had had a quarrel, and she cursed the man by throwing his charm into the river as if casting him out of her heart. He was as small as the scale of a fish and no better than food to choke a fish. But by some fluke Mode had recovered the castaway lover from the water.
"It's no coincidence," he repeated, as if reading into my mind.
"It doesn't look like it's damaged."
"None the fish round here has teeth."
"But water damages things."
"Sure, if it's not a sign."
He would have it his way.
"Look hard!" he said, and I went down again into the picture, narrowing my attention to the size of a pea. He was determined I see the treasure in this ordinary, cast-off trinket, that I see the central function this small object had in preparing his mind to encounter eternity. I looked hard, and as I watched, the picture widened to the size of a wall. I discerned now an overall resemblance to Mode's face, a resemblance that had escaped me at first glance because the color in the man's skin had made me positive of Mode's error. And yet, the resemblance was not actual in form, either. It consisted of my recognizing in this photograph the picture of what Mode wanted, to belong unambiguously to his family.
"Do you know him?"
"No. But look! It doesn't matter whether I know him or not. What matters is that I prayed for a sign, and this is the sign given me. I must take it and make of it what I can."
Mode and I turned and stared at one another. The darkness was less gloomy than before and suffused with a grainy light, like a dust cloud traveling out from an ancient explosion and still refracting, though dimly, its blinding flash.
"I see the resemblance," I said. I didn't lie. Hope resembled the thing hoped for. For weeks before the child's birth, I had seen his image mirrored in the faces of my parents, the gentle dreaming eyes. I didn't tell Mode what had become of their hope once my parents had looked into the face of reality, nor of the distress now reflected in their eyes. I didn't mention my brother at all.
"That's what I'll look like," he said, reaching forward with his index finger and gently closing the lid of the charm. "It's like Hartelle heard and sent the picture she'd already took of me with those heavenly eyes she's got."
He slipped that moon face into his pocket and pressed it to his thigh. He was thinking what a handsome fellow he was. I was ashamed I'd thought him otherwise. He seemed to know what was in store.
Mode made some lemonade, and we sat on the steps and each had a glass. He'd taken off his shoes, and his big toes moved like snails along the dirt path, pulling his huge feet after them. Once his legs were stretched out completely, he slid his feet back until his heels struck the bottom step. And then he began inching forward by his big toes once more. There were two grooves worn in the hard dirt where he had done this night after night.
He moved the sweating glass back and forth across his forehead.
The moon had gone behind the house and reversed everything: what had been black was white. The flood wall and the rutted street were now bathed in moonlight, while we sat in shadow. The light just grazed the top of the naked peach tree, and its branches trembled as if straining to grasp the moonlight and pull it back down.
Mode pointed toward the shovel. "You'd better not be digging on somebody's private property. Just what were you going to dig for anyways? Where'd you get your tip?"
I craned my neck and rubbed my chin on my shoulder. "You ought to cut that tree down. It's dead."
"So I see. But it still moves in a breeze."
"That's doesn't mean nothing."
"It means I can see the breeze. If you don't have anything but a concrete wall to look up at, you keep a dead tree, and then you can see something go by. And sometimes birds stand there. That old prickly pear under the window keeps people from crawling in and dogs from hiking on the foundation." He considered a moment and then nodded. "This yard has some sense to it. My words about a tree is: if money won't grow on it, it might as well be dead. I only know my yard. That's plenty enough. It's got life and death inside it, birds and no dogs."
Swiftly I told him the story of the past several months and of my plan for tonight. All the while he looked at me, shaking his head slowly and sadly. "Lawzamercy," he said when I was finished. His widely-spread nostrils flared with indignation and pity.
The beads of sweat outlining them and on his forehead and upper lip barely glistened. "Law, Boy, what is left is nothing. That child in Glory now. What he was is changed. Why do you seek the living among the dead?"
Without remembering where I'd first heard it, I repeated the response that came immediately to mind: "'Nothing is just itself, but stands in a relation to God.' No matter what he looked like, he was in a relation to God. They didn't have any right to keep me from seeing what it was."
"Hush, now. They done what they thought best."
"They never talk about him. But he has a place in everything."
Mode shivered. "Laws of mercy. You weren't going to find what went under earth two months back. There's something about a corpse that has nothing to do with neither life or death, and that's why we bury it quick and consider it an offense to dig it up."
I said, "He cries during the day, and at night he runs his fingers across the string trellis."
Mode squinted, scooted himself as far away from me as possible, and leaned back to take stock. "Go on!"
"I've looked over the edge of the roof and seen them shaking. And he bangs the pie pans strung in the garden."
Mode scratched his head slowly, thinking these things through, and the scratching reminded me of the measured, delicate footsteps I heard passing, night after night, through the dry grass in the side yard. Once I nearly tumbled headlong over the edge of the roof, scrambling to catch a glimpse of him. But he was gone by the time I got to the eaves, and all I saw was the vibrating of the trellis strings and the closed blossoms of the morning glories.
"Trellis strings and pie pans," Mode said at last, eyeing the darkness warily. "Diabolical imagination. Nuts. And you, scared as you are of thin air, going to stand alone on a moonlight night where there's nothing. Not life, not death." He flung his limp arm out nervously.
I remembered then that I had heard in a church sermon the words with which I'd defended myself to Mode. I didn't remember the illustration, nor had I made a conscious effort to remember these words, "Nothing is just itself, but stands in a relation to God," but they had stayed with me. It seemed the preacher had been talking about acts, not objects, and appealing to us to be mindful, in all our acts, of God's judgments. Our acts were our own responsibility and elicited a judgment from God. But then weren't the made-objects God's responsibility, and shouldn't we be able to judge Him on the basis of the things made? If our acts told about us, didn't the objects He made tell about Him? It seemed so to me, if everything stood in a relation to God.
Hartelle came to my mind. Slowly the words in my head shifted to accommodate my memory of her, and I heard her fix the sermon in her own way. She said, "Everything is something that fails to be God."
"God couldn't make Himself," I blurted out.
Mode, still thinking of ghosts, flinched, I spoke with such violent enthusiasm. "And so?" he said in an equally frantic voice.
"God couldn't create another God. There's no room for two. So, anything He created you would expect to fail, or it couldn't have been created. Anything created perfect would have to be God, and that couldn't be."
"This shirt used to belong to Hartelle," he said.
"I took a fancy to the parrots. No, something more than that. One night I got to missing her so bad, something came over me. I paced back and forth from wall to wall like an animal in a cage. So, I went to the closet we shared and put this on. It made me feel closer to her." He took my hand and brushed it over his shoulder. "Silk."
"Nice," I said.
"I don't wear it, except around the house. Hartelle was seen out in it, I don't know what would be said about a man wearing his dead sister's clothes. What would you say?"
"I'd say, 'She borrowed it from me.'"
Mode leaned away and regarded my skill at lying. Finally he tapped me on the shoulder, sniffing laughter. "'At's a fox. Sic'm."
In the waning moonlight, the streets seemed broader. The sky was lifting, coming untucked at the east corner and letting in light, as the sky will glow with the lights of a distant city. God could not make God and so made everything else. Mundane sights were changed in the twinkling of an eye. Yards, fences, glass, the sleeping lives of all those I identified with the silent houses I passed: all had the dependent nobility of the thing created.
"But we wouldn't be here if God only created perfection," I repeated in my mind to Mode, though I had left him several minutes ago.
The air was sultry, and darkness hung close to the earth. Only the westernmost stars and the ever paler moon still shone. The moon was the size of a pea and had become diaphanous, like a bubble inside a hoop.
The trees and houses of my neighborhood continued to darken and flatten as the sky blanched to a yellowish gray. Strips of clouds like wet pigeon feathers appeared, textured with pink. By the time I reached my own yard, the clapboard of the houses had begun to take on their daylight luster and were lighter than the distance. Their black windows gave them a look that made their whiteness stand for some impending event. The houses reminded me, because of their black windows, of eggs on the verge of hatching, when the eyes of those inside would open to see the world that had been there all along.
The taller trees foamed with light and swaggered.
The trumpet-shaped morning glories, entwined in the strings of the trellis, exhausted now but soon to be recalled to attention, drooped on their vines, faintly pink, drawn into themselves and puckered at their tips like the ends of tied balloons.
I rushed to the shed and propped the shovel inside, leaving my coonskin cap and my whistle dangling from the handle. I took off my moccasins and placed them near the shovel; then I passed the neglected garden with its rows of suspended pie pans, all of them black-bottomed where they caught what was left of night.
I was making my way up the ladder, easing my weight gradually onto each creaking rung, when I heard a stirring inside my parents' room. I turned toward the window and saw my father standing with a pillow over his middle, bleary-eyed, his mouth moving silently in the shape the mouth of a fish makes as it glides through the water. I saw that my best defense would be to wait until he spoke. His face contorted with the effort of trying to wake up. One of his eyes was larger than the other, as if one half of him were still dreaming. Finally he brought himself under control and hissed, "What in hell's name are you doing roaming around in the yard?"
"I had to pee-pee."
The wind went out of him. His chest slumped. "Good God," he said. "What do you think you are, an animal? I hope nobody saw you."
"Me, too," I said and continued climbing.
I would have liked to have been friends with my father, but that was impossible because I had to lie to him from time to time. He was sometimes under the mistaken impression we could be friends. I suppose he got this idea from the fact he never lied to me. What he didn't consider was that though he didn't lie, he kept knowledge from me, which seemed to me at that point to be as trust-breaking an offense as lying.
I climbed onto my mattress and closed my eyes. I thought of Joshua and waited for something in me to move, for that anxiety to flare up in my heart as it had done for so many weeks. Instead there was in me the stillness and peace of great hazard, of being not-God and of being subject to the perils and misfortunes common to all created things. All human beings had kinship: their inability to chart their courses because they did not create and could not command the sea. That sense of kinship lay on my heart. But it filled me with peace rather than terror. I laid the pillow over my eyes and prayed, "God above," but I could go no further, for I was reasoning. What no longer lived was no longer imperfect and had to be taken back by God, Who must perfect it so it could join Him.
God and my brother had this in common: I could picture neither of their faces. But whatever hideous form God had created in my brother was now absorbed into the perfection of God, that perfect face toward which I rowed without a sense of direction and without the gift of sight.
"God above," I said, and was immediately fast asleep.
I must move ahead in time, now, to another night. Several years had gone by since the night I visited with Mode. Our house had five more coats of white paint, one for each passing summer. I was nearly half a foot taller than Father and had a job working evenings at Garrity's Pharmacy. I never did anything much wrong. And then one night I stole a pack of cigarettes. They weren't for me. Why I took them is the ending of the story.
Mode had died about two years before the night I am talking about. I didn't even know about his death until a couple of months after it happened. After the night I spent talking to him, nothing seemed to take me by there, and I never got back to see him as I'd told myself I would. I can't even remember what finally possessed me to walk up Culver Alley the day I saw that the peach tree and the prickly pear were gone from Mode's yard like two plagues routed. The chicken wire fence was gone, too, and I thought to myself, "Mode didn't see the reason for it anymore." Someone had sown grass seed on the dirt yard and covered it with burlap until the tender shoots could take root.
I walked up the plywood planks laid down as a pathway to the door and knocked. Almost immediately a man with red hair showed his face in the glass of the door and opened it, the smoke still scrolling out his nostrils and from between his bared rotten teeth. He had a brutish muscular face and small green eyes that were threateningly still. He made a guttural sound that stood for, "What do you want?" I quickly glanced past him to survey the room. A Confederate flag hung where the pictures of Jesus and Mode's other family members had been. I knew instinctively not to appear too curious or surprised.
"I'm looking for Mode Johnson. He used to live here."
The man glared to indicate I had better explain why I was visiting someone I knew didn't live here.
"But I didn't know he'd moved till you came to the door."
He leaned his head back as if to show me a wound he'd gotten under his chin, a wound that would make me withdraw.
"The guy's dead," he said flatly.
I was too stunned to say anything except, "Okay," as if he were refusing to let me see Mode and I knew I'd better acquiesce to his decision as he was hardened to appeals.
Later on I asked Father if he knew Mode had died. He said he'd heard something to that effect several months back. I was angry he hadn't mentioned Mode's death when he first knew about it, and I said, "But you used to take him things."
"What's that have to do with it?"
I shrugged and said, "I figured you were concerned about him."
"After a while you can't be as concerned about people who are so stubborn."
You mean people who won't let you ease your conscience in the way you want to, I thought. But that wasn't fair. There was no reason for Father's conscience to ache in the first place. Then why had it? Because Gersham's should have but didn't, and Father was the sort to bear someone else's conscience when it was cast off by that other person. It naturally fell to him to try to make amends. Only he didn't have Gersham's means. So he had to make amends in a second-rate fashion. It was all second-hand. And it all seemed so long ago. What did it matter? And now Mode was dead. It was all over. So why did the thoughts of those days linger on with me? I should have been able to cast them into the bin with all other experiences that rooted and bloomed and died to no apparent purpose.
My job at Garrity's was to stock the shelves and punch the cash register up front while Garrity himself filled prescriptions and sold the embarrassing adult items at the back.
Garrity was old and had spots on his pale face like those on a pheasant's egg. He had a monotonous, siren-like voice, and whenever he told me to do something he always added, "Immediately," though there was no emergency and there might not be a single customer in the narrow store. His eyes were fixed in his head. He never cut them to the right or left to see off the rim, but always turned fully toward you with his fixed eyes carrying a tremendous amount of force in their full swing. If he was going to take the trouble to look at you, he was going to be angry.
On the dark September night I am thinking about, the wind was damp and pungent with coming rain. The streets were deserted, and the light from the street lamps was only a more blurred form of the darkness. I was arranging comic books in the rack by the screen door and breathing deeply the dark mysterious wind that smelled of rotting leaves and harvested earth. A train sounded in the distance. I sighed heavily. I felt trapped and free at the same time. I felt Garrity's eyes on my back, and yet in my mind I was standing in a grove of trees in the moonlight, watching the leaves like sparks being torn from the trees and swept skyward by an invisible broom.
I went back to the counter. It was nearly 8:30 and time I counted the register for closing. No one else would be in. The threat of rain was oppressive.
As I was counting the money, I heard the screen door slam and saw a black man walking toward me. In an instant my nerves were on the alert, for there was something strangely familiar about this man, and yet I knew I had never met him. Still, I had the distinct feeling he had been or would be someone important to me. Another reason I was surprised was that black people never came into Garrity's store. It was understood what kind of man he was and what his opinions were. Though this was 1970 and the laws governing trade in town had never been so strict as to deny black people access to goods and services, Garrity made it plain they were not welcome in the main part of his store. If a black person wanted a prescription filled or to purchase a store item, he could come to the back door, state his business, and then one of the clerks or Garrity would take care of it. People accepted this arrangement as a fact of life.
He was a handsome man but tired and road-weary. The bright lights of the store hurt his eyes, and he kept brushing at them. He smiled weakly but kindly and asked me for a pack of cigarettes. I knew Garrity would be up there in a minute to stop the sale, but I went on with it, trying to act like nothing was coming. I started to ring the sale but looked up once more at the man and realized something. His dark rich skin, delicately-traced lips, deep eyes and wide forehead: these were the features I had stared so intently at inside Mode's charm. This was the face that had been superimposed onto Mode's face that night in his hope of transformation. This man was Mode in a state of hope.
I couldn't move. "You looked like someone I know," I finally said. But I was drowned by the roaring voice of Garrity, who had come down from the pharmacist's cage and was approaching like thunder, yelling, "What are you doing in here?" his face straining at the cords in his neck and his eyes burning. He hit the pack of cigarettes I had laid on the top of the counter, and it slid across the glass to the floor.
The man turned to me and asked, "What is the meaning of this?" His eyes trembled with nervous rage.
I stuttered, and Garrity turned on me, growling, "You know the rules."
"Rules?" The black man said. He closed his eyes in an effort to compose himself. "I don't know the rules. I don't know what rules you're talking about. Please, tell me what the rules are." Every time he said the words "rules," he jerked his head forward, as if he were spitting, or knocking his forehead against an invisible wall. To further emphasize the word, he rocked each time onto the balls of his feet. "Are you the owner of this establishment?" he asked Garrity. His speech was clipped and precise. He spoke rapidly.
"I am. You got any complaint with that?
"Do you treat all of your customers in this way? Because if you do, I'd like to know how you stay in business." The more he said, the quieter he got. The quietness of his voice was like digging in, a position he was taking for the duration of a siege. I saw through the counter that he had balled his hands into fists, not in readiness to strike but rather to draw into himself for strength. He also locked his arms to his sides, making himself dead weight.
Garrity's face had turned red, and he'd broken into a sweat that streamed down his neck and into his collar. I could see his temper, which he called "principle," narrowing itself into one long, thin and inflexible rod, ready to strike out. His face was ugly and distorted as a jellyfish, flaccid and mobile with hatred. "Get out," he hissed and raised his hands, shoving the man at the shoulders.
"Do not touch me!" He managed to stand his ground, but his voice crumbled under the weight of indignation. "I can leave on my own. Do not touch me." He pointed his finger at me. "I've got a witness here if you touch me again. "Don't you push me."
"Don't push him," I echoed.
"I've got a witness."
The man stepped back, but Garrity did not close in on him. He tossed his fist loosely in the air. "All right. Get the hell out of here."
The man opened his palms and extended them toward Garrity. "All I wanted was to buy a pack of cigarettes. Why do you go off on me? I've got money, not a gun. I could come back with a gun. Why not take a man's money instead of his bullet?"
Garrity slammed his fist down on top the cash register. "Are you threatening to rob my store?"
"No, Sir, I'm threatening to open your eyes. You treat people like they're people, they won't turn into guerrillas. It's simple arithmetic. Arithmetic of the soul, Man."
"Ape is as ape does. Get the hell out of here before I call the police, Gorilla."
He backed with agility toward the door and bowed as he pushed his buttocks against the screen to open it. "Good night, then. No hard feelings. Peace. I hope you learn your lesson."
Garrity's attention was like a wasp buzzing around my head. It was all I could do not to duck or fan my arms to fend it off. "Did you ever?" he said, assuming I sympathized with him.
I stared at the money in the open drawer and out the corner of my left eye saw the pack of cigarettes lying on the floor. "I don't think he's from around here."
"What makes you say that?"
I started to say, "He didn't know how you are," but amended my thought to, "He doesn't know your rules."
"Good God, they're not my rules. They're civilization's rules. Why do you think God scattered the nations and races at Babel, to prevent all this intercourse? You think it doesn't make a difference which door you come in and go out by? You're young. You'll learn." He started to walk by, but then he turned back to ask, "Why didn't you send him directly to me? You know the rules."
I shrugged lamely. "It was so close to closing."
"That doesn't matter. I think I'll call the police and repeat what that nigger said about coming back here with a gun. I don't take that kind of threat lightly. Would you? What did he mean, you were a witness? He was the one who threatened me."
I went on counting, closing my left eye so I couldn't see Garrity on the rim of it.
He locked the front door and returned to the cage, where he started filing prescriptions and counting his cash drawer. I didn't hear him phone the police if he did. The incident, which so unsettled me, he passed off entirely in a few minutes' time. The night was sealed tightly against the bright front window, and I wondered if somewhere out in the dark, in the narrow passage between two buildings, God was waiting for Garrity with the message he'd had enough chances. Garrity was so close to being humbled. "I fear for you," I said under my breath.
I bagged the money, and as I turned to carry it back to the safe, I once again saw the pack of cigarettes. Without questioning my motive, I reached down and slipped the pack into the pocket of my jacket lying on the shelf below the register.
When I stepped into the pharmacist's cage, Garrity raised one eyebrow but did not lift his eyes from the list down which he was moving his pencil. Some part of him was always aware of me, giving a sign he would get to me when he could spare a moment. His forehead was bunched like a sock that would not stay up. I put the money bag in the safe next to the wall clock and left the cage. When I had turned off the lights in the watch and cigar cases, I put on my jacket and waited by the door for him to come let me out.
As he walked down the aisle toward me, he smiled, showing his perfect row of false teeth.
My hand gripped the packet of cigarettes in my pocket. In my imagination, I was crushing his smile. I didn't know why I had stolen the pack. He was giving me one of the few smiles he ever had, and I'd just stolen from him.
Garrity unlocked the glass door, and a gust of dark, rain-threatening wind blew into the store, turning the pages of the comics in the racks and filling my jacket like a sail. There was more air than me inside it.
"Be a bird dog for home," Garrity said. He glanced at his watch. "Well, you're getting away by 8:45. That'll give you two hours for study."
"Take it. Good night."
I crossed the street and hung around in the alcove to Marshall's restaurant for a while. Garrity had turned out the fluorescent lights over the main part of the store, but I could see the dim light where he sat at work in the cage. I saw him in my mind, sitting tortoise-shaped in his chair, leaning his head with some trepidation over his body as if over a cliff so high it struck fear into the heart, a sour white crust forming at the corners of his taut lips.
The wind came in basketfuls; it was sudden and gone, sudden and then gone, as if it vanished vertically. It smelled of wet soil, clay, and granite. When I stepped out of the alcove, the air was calm, but the humidity weighed down my spirit. I wondered where the man had gone to get his cigarettes, and all of a sudden I realized I had stolen for him. I walked hurriedly along the street in the direction I'd seen him turn, hoping to catch up with him. I saw a figure walking ahead of me in the street. He had come even with the cemetery and was walking doggedly, his head slumped and pushing forward with every step.
I called out and ran toward him, waving the pack of cigarettes over my head. Beneath the last lamp post on the road, I caught up with him, running around in front of him to block his way. He had been lost in sullen thought and blinked at me, uncomprehending. His mind had already gone miles or hours from our other encounter. He wrinkled his forehead and narrowed his eyes, as if trying to connect me to what was now only a vague memory.
"Well, do you want these or don't you?" I held out the pack of cigarettes.
He hesitated, looking suspiciously at me to discover what kind of trap this was. Finally he reached up and took the pack, silently nodding thanks.
"What do I owe you?"
"Nothing. Mr. Garrity wanted to apologize and sent me out to give you these and to say he's sorry."
The man held an amused expression as long as he could and then threw his head back and let loose pounding laughter. I heard the sputtering of the streetlight and the wind soughing like distant waves through the pine trees inside the graveyard. The wind shook the globe covering the street lamp, and the light trembled around us, causing our shadows to get up and walk, though we stood our ground.
He lowered his head, covered his mouth with the back of his hand, and shook with laughter, staring at me, his eyes mirthless and dry. In a minute it was over, and his face was proud and composed. "Don't lie to me. I know stone when I see it. That old man is not the sort who would let one word of his pass away, or would turn on it and trample it. You bought me these cigarettes yourself, and I'm going to pay you for them, or you will return them."
I backed away, to the other side of the light pole. "You remind me of somebody I knew, or saw here once, a long time ago."
He reached into his pocket. "I have a twin brother. I myself have never been in this town before tonight and will be glad to leave it. Here. Take this."
"I don't want your money. I said Garrity sent me with them, to apologize, and to forget him."
"Gladly. And I wish I could. But I'll be running into him the rest of my life, I feel certain."
He tore open the pack of cigarettes, put one in his mouth, and lit a match to it. I stared at him and shook my head in disbelief. I couldn't help it. "You look so much like him. Did anyone ever carry a picture of you in a moon charm that would fit on a charm bracelet?"
He narrowed his eyes to slits as he smoked. "Maybe."
"Because I knew someone who did."
"A friend of mine. Mode Johnson."
"How'd she get a hold of my picture?"
He looked at me a moment, stunned, the cigarette dangling off his lips. Then he reached absently toward the cigarette and withdrew it, tilting his head to the side as if considering one angle of a problem. "I've had various women, but then the Lord taught me flesh was evil. But try to run away from yourself. You're flesh, so you run into yourself wherever you go, and you run into someone who knows what you're made of. Everyone knows it. I haven't got enough money for a bus, so I'm hitching. I've got a sister in Cincinnati."
I turned and looked into the graveyard. Only the first few rows of stones were visible in the wild darkness. "My brother's buried in there. I hardly ever think of him. Except, you remind me of him, too."
He balked. "Me? You must have had an unusual brother."
"No. You remind me of a night I went looking for him."
"Did you find him?"
"He was already dead."
He straightened up as if he'd been hit in the middle of the back.
The man told me his name, Jenkins, and that he was from Salvisa, a community about 40 miles up river from here. It was possible some lover of his had torn his charm off in a jealous rage and tossed it in the river, so that it had finally come into Mode's possession. I didn't think it likely, but I believed it happened that way.
When he had finished his cigarette, he stomped it out and said, "Well, I can't stand here all night, and you look like you belong somewhere else."
I wondered whether he had left everything behind or whether he had had nothing to leave. I had never met anyone who was passing through this town on his way to somewhere he considered a haven. I walked away, feeling that this small town had been used, and that was all it was good for, a place for a person to pass through on his way to where his life would begin anew.
"So long," I said.
After I had walked a short distance, I heard his voice call to me, and I turned. "Thank you, Mr. Garrity, for the cigarettes." He waved his arm high above his head. And then he swept his arm in a semi-circle under the harsh light, as if broadcasting chicken feed, and shouted, "Bread upon the waters of life."
He walked away as if he had made perfect sense, but I think many times people walk away from you, wondering what they meant by what they've just said, troubled in their souls and disappointed they once again haven't said the one thing that would make sense of themselves. Everyone carries around in him the notion that one day he will surprise himself by bringing forth the wisdom of the ages, in a word—or a child. And it is a hard thing to fail in one way or the other.