This story is for Ben Greer, fellow upcountryman.
The South Carolina Upcountry, 1955
He hears them talking through the swinging door.
Now what are you crying for? He’s the same. Everything’s the same, I tell you.
I know but I can’t help but worry.
About what? He’s the same and as healthy as can be expected.
You’re a man, Dr. Randall. These things don’t affect men the way they do women. The constant worrying over the least thing. That’s a woman’s lot in life. You ought to know that by now with all the women you’ve talked to through the years.
He’s healthy as a horse. He eats well. He sleeps well. His blood and heart rate are normal.
There is silence.
Now I told you – it’s a mental condition, not a physical one. He’s not an idiot by any means. Just slow with a tendency to keep to himself.
I can’t help but believe he’s being cheated out of something, and I want to give it back to him- so badly! And would if I could! I’d give up my whole life!
A sob then silence.
You’re the one who decided against psychiatric evaluation.
If we were living in a big town it would be different.
The door opens some and the woman, his mama, comes through first. She stands in the door a moment, her face all red and wet, but she is smiling and very pretty in her blue dress and white hat with the flowers banked on the brim. And then the man appears behind her who pushes his mama on through the door gently with two fingers and follows her. The man is white-haired and wears glasses and a wide smile. They both smile at him but he does not smile back. He sits on the examining table spread with plastic, his shirt off, and is staring once again at the thing he wanted to see most ever since they left him alone to go into the hall and talk: it hangs around the man’s neck by a split rubber chord and looks like a thimble, except it’s silver and cold. The man would not let him touch it but he touched him with it. Here. There. Leaving the cold on his skin a moment. Ticker sounds good, the man had told him and moved the thimble to his back. Now the man is smiling and coming towards him, and the thimble is low on his neck, almost ready to drop. It flares in a ray of sunshine through the slat-split window as though trying to speak to him, to communicate in a language all its own. He doesn’t want it to drop.
You been a fine young man today, the man says smiling and getting closer to him. The thimble moves and shines in its language of light, telling him something, communicating some desire to him. Wish all boys were like you. But he does not feel so good now. He is worried now what might happen should the thimble hit the floor.
Would it disappear for good? It is so low on the man’s neck, near his bellybutton, and slipping further. Doesn’t the man know? When the man gets close enough, talking and smiling, when he stands just outside the v-crack of his spread legs, he reaches out and snatches it with both his hands to keep it from falling – to save the bit of sun in it.
Hey, hey! What’s the matter there? The man takes it back from him. You’ve been after my stethoscope ever since you got here. You may hold it but you must give it back.
It shines too good to drop.
In the car he sits in the backseat pressed against the door. His mama has told him never to sit like that, that the door might open and he might be lost to the road. But he sits pressed against the door anyway. His mother looks back at him through the white veil she has drawn over her face against the sun and kept drawn even in the car – to hide her tears. Sugar. I have told you not to lean so hard on the door. You might fall out! Here. You want another cracker? I’ve got another cracker in my purse. Will that make you sit up straight? Here. Sit up and eat the cracker. Maddie will be a long time with supper yet.
Big Black Man is driving. He looks in the mirror at him and smiles. I wish my mamie was here to feed me crackers! Lawd if I don’t!
He laughs. Big Black Man ain’t got no mama!
Now here! his mama says. What have I told you about calling him that? His name is Charles. You are to call him Charles. And of course he has a mother. How do you think he got here?
Big Black Cow had him! That’s what Daddy says! He twists himself up with his laughter. His shoulders nearly meet and his head disappears between them and his legs cross.
Now here! Eat your crackers and hush such talk as that. His mama’s veil is up and her face is red. She is red, white, and blue today.
He leans back against the door and sniffs the cheese between the saltines. No sir. I ain’t no idiot. I’m a Flowers. Russell Bankhead Flowers II. Route Two. Beaslap, South Carolina. Mama says to tell them that if you get lost. So I say I’m Russell Bankhead Flowers II Route Two Beaslap, South Carolina, and that will get me back home. My daddy is not from Beaslap. He stays in Columbia and talks about roads all day long. The Road. The One Compton County Must Have If It is To See Itself Into the Twenty-First Century and Beyond. His daddy says that in Columbia and in Beaslap and in Compton whenever he is here.
Mama, how come Daddy talks about roads all day long? he asks, cheese and cracker tumbling from his lips.
Because Daddy wants a good road to come through Compton and make everybody happy.
Big Black Man? Would a good road make you happy?
Rusty, I thought I told you –
I reckon it would, Rusty. Reckon it’d make me happy as a hog in mud.
At home his mama makes him wash his hands in the kitchen sink. Then she goes into his room to pick out his summer clothes. She still wears the veil over her face.
Come and change, Rusty. You cannot stay in those good town clothes. Rusty, come and change, and Mama will let you read the funny papers. You want to read the Katzenjammer Kids? You can read it to Mama. She’ll tell your teacher how well you can read. Rusty! Charles, would you please bring him in here? Now, Rusty, don’t fight Charles. This is not a joke. This is not fun. You cannot stay in those good clothes.
Later, when he is in his room, changed from his town clothes to his summer clothes, he sprawls on the floor with the funny papers. He reads Dick Tracy, not the Katzenjammer Kids. He likes Gravel Gertie. Gravel Gertie has a bald spot on the top of her head and keeps a gun under her dress. He reads every word very slowly. Miss. Gatlin at the school says to say every word very slowly to yourself like it’s a big piece of gum and you are chewing it over very carefully and that the longer you say the word and chew it up, the longer that word will stay with you. It will stick to you like gum. Miss Gatlin waits for him outside everyday at the school in Spartanburg. She is small and nervous and pretty and very kind. She waits at the front gate, and when Big Black Man pulls up she opens the car door and says, Why, lands, I believe we’ve got us a learning man here! A scholar of the English language! He did not go to school today for he had to let the man poke him with the thimble, and as much as he likes Miss Gatlin and her soft voice and warm hands, he does not like school as much as the coming to and going from school because it is then his mother is not in the car and he can sit in the front seat with Big Black Man. Big Black Man wears a grey coat with big brass buttons down the front, and when the sun falls on them the buttons burn like yellow fire. Big Black Man gets mad when he reaches over and yanks at the buttons.
He-yah he says in his coal-black voice. What do you mean by such, Mr. Man? Do you think just ‘cause your daddy’s the senator he can afford to buy me a new livery every time you take a notion for a brass button?
It shines good.
So will your eye mister if you do not keep your hands to yourself.
Gravel Gertie has a big fat gun stuck against Dick Tracy’s head. You can-not un-der-es-ti-mate a wo-man she tells him and he chews the words aloud so they stick. He lays his head on the paper, as though reading the one sentence has exhausted him. His head feels so heavy now. The funny paper is warm and the smell of the ink is thick and chokes him some. He turns over on his back to escape it. He wants to sleep. He wants to go to sleep and dream. Of the golden calf. Mama reads to him about it in the Bible stories. And they raised an idol…a golden calf, in defiance of the Lord….she starts and ends The Lord struck it down with his mighty lightning! See there, Rusty. If you defy the Lord…. He knows. He knows all that. Miss Gatlin has told him. The Sunday school teacher has told him. He wants to see the calf hit by lightning. No, he wants to see it hit by sunlight. He wants to see them raise it to the sun and the sun fall down on it and make it shine. He wants that golden brilliance, as Ms. Gatlin might say in her soft, kind voice that suddenly rises with the excitement of a new and more complicated word. He wants the golden calf so bad now he can almost see it in the yellow paint on his ceiling. Oh God, don’t strike it down with lightning. It shines too good.
Rusty, get up off that floor. Do you want a bug to crawl in your ear? Get on the bed if you’re going to sleep.
He stands. No ma’am, I don’t want no inseck in my ear.
She turns and leaves. She will go and take her own afternoon nap before supper. Big Black Man and Maddie and the others will play cards in Charles’s rooms behind the main
house and sip cooking sherry and laugh and talk about when they were young. They might even put on records and dance and sing to them. He has been there and seen them do it and even tried a little of the sherry himself. He has never danced however.
It is the only time he has, while the sun is still high in the sky, and he must go now, before Mama wakes and misses him.
Outside, he lifts his legs high like a racehorse’s. He loves to hear his feet stamp on the ground. He is happy now, as he always is at the beginning of these trips. The air comes into his lungs sharp as a knife and makes him feel that if he can breathe enough of it, he will lift right off the ground and float to where he needs to go. He’s a man on his own. No, mama, no daddy, no Big BlackMan.
It’s mine, he says to himself then says it out loud. It don’t belong to no other soul but me. Not Daddy not Mama not Big Black Man nor Maddie nor Sadie Mae not even Miss Gatlin, nice as she is. He walks forward, staring ahead into the woods, hoping its doors, its windows, its crooked roof, will come into view soon, but it’s a long ways off and he keeps marching like a soldier. He stamps past the old Beaslap Yarn Mill with its broken windows and garlands of kudzu. I ain’t coming to see you! he tells it and leaves it like a child rejected and goes on.
He found it, this house, last Christmas, when he had run out of his Mama and Daddy’s house, no matter what his mama said about Jack Frost, to find a real Christmas tree and not a plastic one. It was high in the day, the sun cold as an ice cube, and he just kept running, like some crazy horse, couldn’t stop himself, and the trees ran past him and the roads cut away everywhere – he forgot about finding the Christmas tree, all of a sudden it didn’t matter anymore – and he felt he could run till the Kingdom Come, though he didn’t know where he was or where he would end up, but then he saw it – the tip of its roof came up out of a patch of little trees, and he stopped then, breath gone and his feet still wanting to move. It stopped him, the crooked roof with the chimney about to fall over. He went to it, got on his hands and knees and crawled through the short tunnel of brush and limbs till he came to it, the little house of unpainted and splintery wood, leaning to one side, like it was listening to somebody talking. The porch was gone, the windows blinded with ruined and slashed paper shades. It’s mine, he said then, out loud, and breathed hard. It must be mine. It made me stop running, didn’t it? It peeked out from the trees and stopped me and drew me close to it. He went in. The house was a blot of night in the bright winter day. It took him a while before his eyes could make out the piles of planks and broken glass, the tattered wall paper, the broken limbs of chairs and tables, the gaps in wall and floor. And the pot-bellied stove. Sitting there in what was once the kitchen, all alone, in shadows, like a runaway itself, a refugee. He had turned and started his crazy run back home, all excited, but he went back to the little house everyday that week, near dark, to see if any light burned in the broken windows. Then one morning, as everybody else slept, he took the duffel bag his daddy had given him when he turned thirteen from under his bed. It was heavy with everything, all he owned, and he took it and ran to the place, which he also owned now, ran as hard as he could, holding the bag close to his chest. It rattled. It shook. It wanted to take him down to the ground. Oh he couldn’t wait to see everything shine there in that dark place.
It’s mine, he says now, aloud, so many months later. He has marked it with the duffel bag in the belly of the black stove. That makes it his.
He marches ahead now, and now is when he begins to feel sad. The house will not come into sight. The trees keep coming, green and fat and full, and the little dirt roads whip around him like the paths in a maze. It saddens him too that he has nothing new to bring to duffel bag. He would have liked the doctor’s thimble – what does he need it for? it was hanging off his neck – but the doctor flung it over his shoulder so he could not reach for it again.
He’s sad now, and his head is heavy with the sad. He slows down and wants to go to the red dirt road and weep. I hate you house! he says aloud. He is sure the house has gotten up and moved just to spite him. And it is then, just when he least expects it and has almost given up on finding the house, that he sees a familiar pattern, the sad, slender clutch of trees, no taller than a man, with the sad sagging roof more on top of the trees than behind them, and it is then he throws himself into a run, knocking aside branches. He comes up, out of the storm of twigs and limbs and thorns, out into the high bright sun again, where it stands before him, the house, not making any fuss at all that he has returned, just standing there unmoved and unsurprised.
He goes to the house, to its front door barely hanging from its hinges, and reaches out to hook his index finger into the splintery hole where the doorknob once was, but he stops right away and pulls backs, draws back from the house, as though it has struck out at him with a splintery hand. Something is not right. It is not his anymore. It has another smell to it, a sharp skunk smell, and not the smell it had when he first came upon it and returned to it again and again, the smell of old and unpainted wood, the smell of gas, of hunting mice. He goes back to the house, cautious now and sad too. He steps in but doesn’t want to. It’s got another smell. He walks forward a little, sees the upturned chair and table, sees the pot-bellied stove like a gnome huddled in the day-lit darkness, and turns, turns so fast and hard he sends a loose plank in the floor flying and crashing. A storm of dust. It ain’t mine no more.
Who the hell’s in here? Who is that? It’s a Big Man’s voice like his daddy’s. It makes him stop, automatically, as his own daddy’s does. He does not want to stop, but it’s a deep voice, it’s got the sound of law in it, and he does. He turns and sees them, two Big Men, tall and lean, coming out of the long shadow in the back of the room. Two of them, one behind the other, and they’re smiling.
I thought it was mine, he says, looking down at the floor.
Thought what was yours?
They are Big Men, both, but not so big as his daddy or Big Black Man. One has black hair above his lip, the other is smooth-faced. One is dark-headed, the other light. One is taller than the other one. They are the both of them shirtless, and their pale knotted smooth muscles light up that corner of the room. They smile, and there is something bright and dreamy and far away in their eyes. He can tell that, even in the deep dusk of the room. One of them holds a tiny cigarette and puffs deeply off it before handing it to the other. What’s your name, man?
Russell Bankhead Flowers the Second, Route Two, Beaslap, South Carolina.
You that Senator’s boy?
It’s mine, he tells them in a low voice. He’s looking at the floor.
He’s that senator’s boy? You hear me, Joe., the one what makes all the talks raising hell about the federal highway coming through Compton County.
It’s mine! It’s mine! It’s mine! He stamps his foot each time he says it.
Hold on, compadre! Just hold on there. You kindly big to be making such a fuss. How old are you?
It’s mine, he says now in almost a whisper, his feet still.
What’s yours? What? This? This place? The Big Man with black hair above his lip, the taller of the two, steps back, moving both his arms from his sides, like he’s trying to take flight. This palace? Hee, hee, hee!
His daddy must of bought it for him. It must be their vacation home when he ain’t in Columbia.
Both of them laugh. The taller one goes to the chair and raises it up. This yours? he asks then lets the chair drop back to the floor. This? he says, picking up a grime-caked oil lamp. He drops that too. How about this? He moves to the old black stove. It’s standing alone, quiet. The man goes to it and put his hands on it.
Before he knows it himself, he has hurled himself forward, both his arms in front of him, aimed like an arrow at the Hair-Lipped Big Man. He crashes into the man, his right fist landing in his stomach, his left on his shoulder, and he cannot stop them. They keep moving like piston rods against the man’s taut flesh. Then, just as quick, he feels his arms being yanked back and held behind him. The Big Man’s eyes are wide and white as eggs and hiis face is red. He raises his own fist quick and high but it does not move once it’s in the air. The fist goes down slowly to his side. You better be glad you retarded, son, else….But what the hell’s so important about a pot-bellied stove that you got to get so fired up about it? Huh?
Take a look in it, C.J.
NO! He struggles against the blond Big Man but cannot move.
The dark Big Man opens the door of the stove. My goodness, what have we here? He reaches in for the sunken mouth of the duffel bag, hanging limply out the door like a tongue, and begins pulling, but the bag sticks on the rim of the mouth and will not move. He pulls harder, squeezing his eyes closed some, until he has managed to wrench the bag loose from the stove. He rocks back some with his effort, stumbling. The bag lands on the floor with a soft clink. The man opens it then looks in and smiles. Well, Joe Davis, he says to the blond Big Man, I believe old Russell Bankhead here is some kind of Jolly Roger. And then he takes the bag by its mouth and its bottom at the same time and hoists it up, turning it upside down. And the noise begins, the heavy, heavy clattering, the sharp spill, and everything – the knives, the forks, the brass doorknob and bed knob, the keyring without its keys, the sewing needle, the tin plate, the can opener, the tin ashtray and cigarette holder, the brass wedding ring, the nail file – comes down in a quick bright heavy sharp rain, and by the time the rain stops, everything lays on the floor scattered and glittering.
He ain’t nothing but a damned thief! the blond Big Man says as he holds him tight by the arms.
I told you! A pirate!
A crow’s more like it.
A crow. Stealing stuff that shines. Like a crow does.
Crow boy! they cry together.
It’s mine! he hollers and finally breaks free of the Big Man’s grip. He falls on the glowing heap, unmindful of the sharp edges. Then he feels them coming, the tears. He doesn’t want them, but they force themselves into his eyes and he buries his face in the pile to hide them. It’s mine! he says through the tears. He cannot help it. He wants to be a Big Boy, but the tears come.
What’s yours? That pile of shit? Stop crying. Nobody wants that.
Must be a queer, crying over spoons and forks and such as that.
Yeah he’s a queer. Shut up crying. Act your age. Reach down and give him a toke, Joe. Maybe that’ll calm him.
I can’t stand the sound of crying. Shut up. We don’t want your junk. We don’t want nothing but to come in here out of the sun and relax. Come on, Joe. Pass that weed over before it goes out.
Their voices back into the corner of the room. He remains on the mound of shining things, protecting it.
He’s kindly pitiful, ain’t he?
How old you reckon he is? Sixteen? Seventeen?
I don’t know but I think it’s funny as hell he is under the impression he owns this house.
The other one says nothing.
Me and you knows who this house belongs to, don’t we, Joe?
The other one says nothing.
Maybe we ought to tell him that story. Maybe he ought to know who this house belongs to.
Shut up, C.J.
About Nub and you and how this house come to be abandoned….
You ain’t got to talk about it.
But the other does talk, his voice long and dreamy over the sharp smell of smoke, over the faint glimmers of daylight through the broken windows and rotted shades. And his companion slaps at him with his own voice: Shut up telling it. Shut up! About Nub Andrews and the money buried under the floorboards and how Joe knowed and come to Nub. Let me have it Nub. Let me have the money or else. Shut up, CJ. He don’t need to know. And the fight. The knife flash into Nub’s belly. It taking more than a couple of stabs to take him down. He’s so big, that Nub, like a hog. Then Nub dead and the money still buried. He’ll tell hisself, CJ! Shut the hell up. He’ll tell!
He did not know he had slept until the gentle bump of the car’s backseat awakens him. The two Big Men are up front, and the day has dimmed to a rusty summer green – the sky ahead of them mud-colored and fading.
He has said it aloud.
…are we going?
He thinks of the table at home heaped with Maddie’s cooking – the quiet roast and shining sliced tomatoes and sweating glasses of tea and his place there empty with his mother and father sitting quiet and tight-faced, waiting for him, their napkins folded into points in front of them, the blessing not yet said because he is not there.
We going to get you laid, boy.
I’d rather lay at home. After I have eaten. Thank you.
Big man laughter from the Dark Big Man. The Blond One sits quiet and tense.
You ought not have told all that, CJ. He don’t need to know.
He might tell it.
We’ll get him some pussy and he won’t think of nothing else. I promise you.
The Blond One looks over the seat at him, his eyes squinting and dark and intense, as though the eyes might come out of his head at him and do him some harm.
The sun is falling down, and the big house sits in the twilight like an old man too lazy to get up and move. They stand in front of the house, the three of them, and the Dark Big Man says to him, You got to be on your best behavior in this house, son. This is the meeting place of the high and the mighty, the kings and the princes. No telling who we might run into. So no crying. You hear?
We ought not to have brought him, C.J. What if he’s daddy’s in here?
Shut up. You’ll get him started again.
Why did you bring him along, C.J.?
For fun. Don’t you want to have some fun, Joe?
Somebody he knows could be here. He could talk, C.J.
The Dark Big Man knocks on the door and knocks again and again, and it is only after the third knock that they hear a pair of running feet and see, at the door’s small, egg-shaped window, a girl’s wide, staring eyes. She looks at them only a second and runs off again, her feet patting swiftly and gently on the floor. Mavis! Mavis! they hear her holler. You won’t believe what them two nuts has done gone and done now!
Ah hell! the Dark Big Man says and opens the door himself. They go in and stand in the little dark hall with the bright foot rug and gnarled hat rack. A staircase of polished wood climbs to the next floor to their right, and on their left sits a parlor dressed in mahogany and richly colored carpet.
They hear the staircase creak. A light is on from upstairs, a weak yellow light that barely reaches the bottom steps, and a woman comes down in a bathrobe. She takes her time descending, and when she reaches the middle of the staircase, she stops and faces the three of them. She does not look like a nice lady. She has white hair like Gravel Gertie’s, and her face is wrinkled and lined and hard. She is thin. She folds her arms across herself and waits.
Hey lady! the Dark Big Man says.
Who the hell is that? the woman asks in a low voice.
It’s a special guest of ours, Mavis.
It’s a youngun, and he can’t stay here.
How come he can’t?
How come? Because he’s goddamned underage. That’s how come. Have you lost your mind, Charlie?
I told you, C.J. We ought not to brought him.
Ought not use the Lord’s name in vain in front of a youngun, Mavis. Might influence him the wrong way.
Shut up and get him out of here. You get out too, for that matter! You and your smart mouth. I don’t need it tonight.
No ma’am. We ain’t going no place. I ain’t had my pipes cleaned in three weeks, Mavis. I’m all backed up and ready to bust.
Get out now!
What you going to do if we don’t? Call the police? I’d like to see that. We got money. Look here, Mavis. The Dark Big Man reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet and opens it. Got paid today. Got money to spend. Ah. I knew the sight of money would soften you up, Mavis. Money always smoothes folks over.
Well, that youngun’s not going anywhere near them girls. You hear me?
And how come? We brung him here to give him some experience and make a man of him. This is his initiation.
He stays here in the parlor, or you don’t see nobody tonight. Understand? Now which girls do you want to see?
I believe Sally the Sword Swallower will cure what ails me. She in tonight, Mavis? Good. How about you, Joe?
The Blond One stands silent till the Dark Big Man prods him on the shoulder. I don’t know. I’m kindly out of the mood now.
Out of the mood?
Mavis is right. We ought not brought that youngun.
Oh God Almighty! Well, you stay down here and watch him then, all right? If you so worried about him. I’m going upstairs.
There is a moment of silence. Then the Blond One says, No, no. I’ll go upstairs. Dorothea here tonight, Mavis?
The woman turns without a word and goes up the stairs.
They leave him alone at the foot of the stairs. He turns to the parlor and enters it and walks about its shadowy coolness. A pair of heavy-shaded lamps light the room in each corner. Between them sits a couch, nearly big as an automobile, with great fat red cushions leaning against each plush arm. A low, dark mahogany coffee table precedes the couch. Another piece of mahogany, parallel to the couch and coffee table, holds a square box atop it. He goes to the box and sees that it is a record player with a disc already on it and the needle perched dead on the rim of the vinyl record. He leans down to read the title, but it is too dark in the room and all he can make out is one word, MAN. He turns from the player, and as soon as he turns, just at the moment of his swivel, he catches the sight, the flash, the glitter. His eye catches it but so do his insides: the sun is almost down now, but a long red finger of it points through the dense-curtained windows of the parlor, as though directing him to something, and he follows the thin finger, and there, on the mantelpiece, above the black, deep-throated fireplace, it sits, a small, glittering mirror, throwing off sparks as what’s left of the sun hits it. He goes to the mirror right away, nearly runs to it, and takes it down from the mantel. It’s not heavy at all, not as much as you might think upon first seeing it. The glass itself is set in brass that runs around it and holds it in loops; lion’s feet protrude at the bottom, brassy and bright as well. He sees his face in the glass, but he doesn’t want to see it. He presses the mirror to his chest. Oh, it’ll shine so good, he says to himself. When the sun hits it, all of the sun, the mirror and the brass, oh it will shine like a little sun itself! Lord, don’t let the sun go out yet. I want to see the glass burn. The brass. The lion’s feet. He holds it over his head, aimed at the window, so that the last of the red sun can touch it and set it aflame.
You best put that back, a voice says in the dark. He turns to see that it is a woman, but not the same woman as before. She turns on the big light, and the sun is gone now, for good. It is a younger woman, and she is holding something in her right hand which she now offers to him. Let’s make a trade. You take this and I’ll take that. She takes the mirror from him with her free hand and gives him the black, cold bottle of Coke. It’s got ice on it and everything. She has the mirror in both hands and she lifts it to put it back on the mantel. You drop that, and Ms. Rains will skin us both alive. Now drink your drink. Go on. Sit down and drink it. She has hair like the Big Blond Man, a gold-white kind of color that could well shine in the sun. Her face is thin and sad and there are big purple shadows under her dark eyes.
What’s your name? You can tell me. Don’t be shy. I’ll tell you mine. My real name is Mary Elizabeth, but around here they call me Venus Fly Trap. Yes. Isn’t that nasty? The boys give all us girls names, whether we like it or not. And what can we do to stop them? They’re trash, most of them. Some good ones. Some gentlemen. But not many. Certainly not the two you come in with. What are you doing with trash like that? They been in jail and everything, more than one time, since they were boys. Are they your friends? They said you was a senator’s boy or something. Are you? Don’t be shy. You know Joe, the blond headed one? He’s an idiot. Thinks he killed somebody. C.J. got him real drunk one night and convinced him he killed old Nub Andrews on the other side of Beaslap. Stabbed him to death. When old Nub got burned alive in a house fire some five miles down the road in a whole different house altogether. But Joe believes it to this day he killed Nub and that nobody but him and C.J. knows. That’s how dumb Joe is and how mean C.J. is. C.J. kind of hypnotized him. It’s a way for him to keep a hold on Joe, I reckon. Why is it you keep looking over my shoulder? Good Lord, what’s so special about this mirror that it fascinates you so? She takes it from the mantel and holds it in front of her. I think it’s kind of ugly myself. All them gnarls. But Mavis says a very special friend of hers gave it to her as a gift, so she keeps it and in a prominent place too.
She does not set it back over the fireplace but leans down and puts in on the long dark table in front of him. Here, you can look at it all you like. You just can’t have it.
She hushes for a moment, but he is not watching her, for in front of him, on the table, it sits, the mirror, quiet too and not shining now at all. It’s turned up a little bit on its hinges, so he can see part of the ceiling in it. He wants to reach out so bad and snatch it. It’s so close! He would take it out when the sun was high and bright and sit it on some bald spot on the ground, away from grass and dirt and rocks, and let the sun fall on it. It would shine, boy! Oh yes! The mirror and the brass would go up like a flame, like durned gold fire! And he would not hide it away in a pot-bellied stove but keep it out for everyone to see. He would take it with him everywhere, even to school. It shines better than anything else, he would tell Ms. Gatlin. Better than the sun!
You got a nice face, the woman starts up again, but he still doesn’t watch her. You have a girlfriend? I’ll bet you’re old enough to have one. Well, you won’t have no trouble getting one, that’s for sure, you being a politician’s son and all. You won’t have a problem getting anything you want. You got it made. I used to have it made. You believe me? Well, it’s true. I was married once to this peach farmer, the richest man in Compton County. Years ago. But I didn’t love him, and he didn’t love me, just my being young and pretty. He would have given me anything I wanted, clothes and jewelry and trips everywhere. It’s true. But I was miserable and I ran away. I was just a youngun and I wanted to act like a youngun and be around other young people, young men. So I left the money, the clothes, everything. Wrote them a note and told them I was going to Atlanta, but I didn’t. I didn’t get any farther than Greenville. Went to work at an old dive there, not much better than this place. Got married to the manager, who was old too, like my first husband, and I left him as well. And I came right back here.
But that’s not my point. My point is that I could have had it made too, like you, if I could have sit still and looked pretty and not wanted to be young, only look young for this old man. You’re not going to drink that, are you, and it’s making a ring on the table. Lord, Miss Rains will have a fit! Here, let me have it and I’ll put it back up. She takes the Coke and leaves the room, leaves him alone with the mirror, quiet and unshining in its frame. He leans forward, so that he is almost over it, close enough so that his breath could stain it if he breathes hard enough.
Anyway, the woman says upon her return to the parlor, my mama had no right pushing me into that first marriage. It was all her doing, her wanting to be surrounded by finery. I was just a child, you know. Hey, best leave that mirror alone, I told you. You break it, and Miss Rains will have both our scalps. Here. I better put it back. She takes it and sets it back over the fireplace. Strange a boy your age would be interested in such as that. She crosses her arms over herself and looks toward the window, which is dark with new night. I never had a young boyfriend. Not in all these years. Never knew what it was like to be loved by a boy. I know older men have the wisdom and know how and all, but young men are so alive, so fresh and bright – their skin and their hair, their voices even. So pretty. My first husband was fifty-seven years old, and the one after him was forty-five. What draws them to me, or me to them? Anyway, I’m too old for young romance now. You know how old I am? Take a guess. Won’t you guess? Well, I’ll tell you then. I am forty-seven years old. That’s right. People say I don’t look it, but that’s how old I am. Too old for a youngun. Besides, the young want the young. The boys never ask for me when they come in. Only the old. She steps away from the fireplace, leaving the mirror bare on the mantel. Look at me, she says, closer to him now. Look! I wouldn’t have told nobody but you my age. You know that? Because you’re so quiet. Not even Miss Rains knows it, although I imagine she suspects. You’re sweet. Sweet and quiet. I can’t believe you don’t have a girlfriend. A young lady ought to snatch you right up. You’re so pretty. Your mouth. Your cheeks. Your cheeks have roses in them. Oh, ha. Have you ever been kissed? Look at me! That’s right. I’m not so bad to look at, even at forty-seven years old. I’ll kiss you. I’ll be your first. She comes closer to him, leaning down. He feels her breath and hair close to his cheek, her mouth covering his.
Now, he lies on the ground looking up at the bashful stars, which wink only now and then. The automobile is several feet away. Its radio is turned up loud, and the sound of twanging voices and twanging music echoes in the wooded grove by the water where they are parked. IT WASN’T GOD WHO MADE HONKY TONK ANGELS! The Dark Big Man, the taller of the two, sits there smoking on the left runner of the car, the driver’s door wide open. His smoke drifts up to the blue-black night sky and makes the stars fuzzy in places. At some point the music stops and is replaced by a Big Man’s voice, deep and serious, telling how the President of the United States has suffered a heart attack in Denver, Colorado.
Goddamn! the Dark Big Man shouts. They’ll interrupt the goddamn music for any goddamn thing. As though hearing him, the music comes back, as loud and twangy as before. – THE WILD, WILD SIDE OF LIFE!
He doesn’t care if the music stops or not. He doesn’t care about anything else, because, under his shirt he has it hidden, the mirror, and now he brings it out and lays it beside him on the grass. He took it in their last few moments in the house, when the girls came down the stairwell, naked, their skin white as eggshells, chasing both Big Men in front of them, cursing them, hitting at them with their hands. Money, money, our money, they had screamed, and the Dark Big Man had looked around and hit back at them with the back of his hand and said it wasn’t worth a dime much less forty dollars, and then came the woman, the owner of the house, and there was even more noise and commotion and tussling from side to side. Names called. Things thrown down and broken. Mary, the woman who had kissed him, joined in, and that’s when he went to the mantel and snatched the mirror from it and took off for outdoors and the backseat of the Big Men’s car. They followed soon after, putting on their shirts as they walked and looking back at the women in the lighted doorway, cursing at them the whole time.
He had the mirror!
It was on the grass now beside him, full of the sky and the stars and the tops of the black trees. Tomorrow though, when the sun was out, it would shine! Oh boy. Like fire! He would stand and hold it high up and let the gold light pour.
You will tell.
He didn’t hear the voice at first. He was staring into the black depths of the mirror, with its pin points of white light, star light.
C.J. ought not have brung you along.
He turns. It is the Blond Big Man standing over him, looking down, his hair lit by the dark but his eyes even blacker and blanker than the eye of the mirror.
Ought not to have had nothing to do with you. Ought to have left you alone.
You will tell. I know it.
You can’t help what you do. You don’t know no better.
A click somewhere, a clean, swift sound. Then up from the man’s side comes the blade, visible only by its point.
You’ll tell and it will all come out and that will be it for me. They’ll fry my ass. God damn. And I didn’t get to enjoy none of it. Didn’t even get the money. His voice breaks.
He steps closer. He stoops some, right above him, his knees bent. His arm rises. The blade catches light from some source in the night sky, enough to make it flash as it comes down.
Oh it shines so good, boy!