San Francisco, 1993
I am out here in California waiting for the walls to come tumbling down. We have had omens. Ten years of plague. Seven years of drought. Firestorms. Mudslides. Floods. Pestilence. Riots. Tremors. Visions of the Virgin.
The millennium is bearing down on us fast. Nobody knows if 1999 will bring the end of everything, or the beginning of something else.
I kick back in my junior-one-bedroom apartment and look out at the shimmering night-lights of Telegraph Hill and the East Bay. I wonder how it will look when it all falls down.
Remember Jimmy Stewart's house in Vertigo, where he takes Kim Novak to dry out after he's fished her out of San Francisco Bay? I live up the hill from that house. They've painted it slate-blue and the shrubs have grown up. Otherwise it looks the same.
I sit by the window in my rocking chair, where I can see Jimmy Stewart's house and my TV at the same time. I freeze the laserdisc on the wide shot of the house: Cool blond Kim Novak strides to her car, forsaking Jimmy on the front porch.
I compare the scene as it is now, in real life, to the forty-year-old view through Hitchcock's camera. I drink bourbon and sit for hours, studying the subtle differences.
Everyone else is worried about the future. I have this thing about the past.
One night I was running Kim on a continuous slow-motion loop from Jimmy's front door to her green sedan and back again, when the telephone rang.
A quavery voice said "Peejoe?"
Nobody calls me Peejoe anymore. "Aunt Lucille?"
"God, it sure takes me back, just to hear you," she said.
"Me too, Aunt Lucille." I hadn't heard hervoice in years, except on late-night reruns. I glanced up at my face on the cover of that old Life magazine, framed and hanging on the wall, and suddenly I was back in the deepest summer of my life, the summer of 1965, when everybody went crazy in Alabama.
Pigeon Creek, Alabama, 1965
My grandmother used an old embalming fluid bottle at the ironing board. She said the rocket-shaped tip put out just the right amount of water for sprinkling clothes.
I loved to be in Meemaw's room while she ironed, that big friendly room with a four-poster bed and framed pictures of Jesus and George Wallace and Grandpa Joe Wiley. Meemaw didn't mind my climbing up in her bed with my red-stained feet. I loved the hiss and suck of the steam iron, the moist rising fragrance of starch when the iron's hot face met the fabric. I loved the mysteries of the ritual: wet the clothes to wash them, dry them in the sun, wet them with the sprinkler bottle, dry them with the irona ceaseless baptism of dresses and white cotton shirts.
Meemaw hummed "O, My Papa" while I sprawled among her pillows, sketching floor plans for the funeral home I dreamed of building one day.
"Looka here, Meemaw, look at this one." I clambered down from the bed. "See, this is the front door where people come in, and here's the casket parlor, and these are the laying-out rooms."
She pointed the bottle at a corner of my sketch. "What's this part with the cow?"
I rolled my eyes. "That's not a cow, it's a dog. That's the kennel."
"So people can bring their dogs to funerals."
"You've thought of most everything," Meemaw said. "What's this squiggly-looking thing out back?"
"A swimming pool."
"Well now what would they need with a swimming pool?" She smoothed a white shirt on the ironing board. "Folks coming to a funeral, seems like swimming would be about the last thing on their minds."
"It's not for them," I explained. "It's for me. I'm gonna be living upstairs. On my day off, I can go swimming."
"Oh. Well. That makes sense," she said. "Will you let me stay up there with you, Peejoe?"
"Sure. You can have the room over the casket parlor, see? It's the nicest one."
"You're an angel," she said.
Funerals run in our family.
My grandfather, Joe Wiley Bullis, was a gravedigger. One day he was standing at the back edge of a funeral, trying not to laugh at some wisecrack another gravedigger had made, when a grief-crazed mourner grabbed his shovel away and hit him in the head with it. That put an end to the joke, and to Grandpa Joe Wiley.
He left Meemaw with three sons and one daughter.
The daughter, my Aunt Lucille, dreamed of becoming a Hollywood movie star but wound up instead in Cornelia, Alabama, with six children and a husband who didn't understand her.
All three of her brothers went into the funeral business.
Uncle Franklin was a traveling casket salesman. Uncle Dove ran a funeral home in the town of Industry. The baby of the family was my father, John Lewis Bullis, who introduced the concept of Perpetual Care to south Alabama. He set up memorial parks from Andalusia to Wolf Bay. He and Mama were driving home from a cemetery convention in Mobile when Daddy fell asleep at the wheel and ran up under a log truck, making orphans of my brother Wiley and me.
Wiley was five when they died. I was three. I have only the haziest soft-lap recollection of Mama, and none at all of our daddy. Wiley said he was a big man who smelled of beer and Lucky Strikes, and slapped his knees when he told a joke. Wiley said Mama was pretty and sweet with the loudest sneeze you ever heard, but he didn't remember much more than that.
After the accident Meemaw took us in. I know now she couldn't afford us. Apparently Daddy felt he was too young for life insurance and left us without a nickel. Uncle Dove did the embalming himself, and the plots at Shady Acres Memorial Park were free, of course, since Daddy had been responsible for carving the place out of piney woods. Uncle Franklin got the caskets at cost. Preacher Lambert donated his sermon.
Meemaw sold off five acres at the back of her property to buy a fine marble headstone. When it was over she was left with us two little boys and a falling-down house on two hundred ninety-five acres of scrub pine. She started taking in ironing from the other white ladies of Pigeon Creek. That's how I remember her, humming, and sighing, and ironing.
"Listen, Sweet Pea," she said, "when Lucille comes with your cousins, I think maybe you ought not show 'em your little drawings, all right?"
Meemaw bore down on the shirtsleeve. "Well, now, it hasn't even been a year since their Grandma Vinson passed away. It might bring back a sad memory. Not everybody thinks about funerals the way you do."
I was twelve years old that summer. I knew everything about everything. "You mean they're crybabies," I said.
"No, not exactly.... You don't want to make 'em feel bad, do you?"
"I don't know why they should feel bad." I toyed with the fringe on the chenille bedspread. "So what if their grandmother's dead. My mama and daddy are both dead but I don't go around crying about it."
Meemaw blinked and pushed a strand of silver hair from her eyes. "That's 'cause you don't remember," she said.
Wiley's .22 went crack in the woods.
"Meemaw, what do you think happens to you when you die?"
She whipped the shirt off the ironing board and nudged a wire hanger into the sleeves. "Why don't you go out and shoot some with Wiley."
"I hate that gun."
"Well go on out anyway." Her voice was hoarse. "Beautiful a day as this is, and you in here messin' around with old me."
"I wish I could stay with you every single minute, Meemaw."
She fixed me with one of her Lordy-lord looks. "If wishes were niggers, we'd all have slaves," she said. "Now go on. I'll ring the bell when they come."
I climbed down from the bed and sulked out into the afternoon. Adolf bounded up to lick my hand and bat me with his big eager tail. Adolf was Meemaw's albino German shepherd, named after the only German whose name she could remember. I pushed him away"Go on, you nigger."
That word tasted dangerous on my tongue. Meemaw never said it when there was a nigger around; then she called them "colored people." Whenever one of them came to cut grass or rake leaves or move a chifforobe for her, she was sweet and friendly as if they were anybody. But if they asked for a drink of water, she always offered them the same chipped red Liberty National coffee mug from the high shelf at the back of a kitchen cabinet.
Meemaw must have imagined fantastic diseases lurking on the rim of the mug, left by the Negroes who'd drunk from it. Maybe she thought it would turn you Negro to drink after one of them. I pulled the mug down one day and was peering into it when Wiley came wandering through.
"What are you doing with that nigger cup?" he said.
I said "nothing" and put it back in its place. But that cup held a special fascination for me. I wanted to drink from it. I wanted to taste the difference.
Adolf frolicked at my knees. I crouched through the barbed wire and started down the ravine where we dumped our garbage.
Meemaw was right, this was a beautiful day. Already May, but not hot yeta murmurous breeze, wild azaleas and fresh green leaves in abundance. The bugs made a rhythmical zizz, zizz in the weeds. There was nothing to do, all the time in the world to do it. Adolf sniffed and peed on everything.
A rifleshot cracked in the distance.
"Hey, it's me! Don't shoot!" I picked my way through the blackberry thorns, peering ahead to where the trees opened out. A chorus of bluejays hollered from the high branches. "Hey Wiley, where are you?"
I came into the clearing. On a fallen log near the great mound of garbage, Wiley had arranged a line of Nehi soda bottles for execution. Fragments of glass glittered like jewels in the sand.
A voice startled me from above"I could kill you right now."
My knees went swimmy. Wiley was wedged in the crook of a tree directly over my head, with the mouth of his rifle pointed directly at me.
Adolf ran to the foot of the oak, barking up a big noise.
My brain said to run but my legs were frozen by the sight of that round little hole where the bullet would come out to kill me. "Quit that!" I said. "Put it down!"
Wiley adjusted his arm. "You'd make a lousy Green Beret, Peejoe. You sounded like a herd of cattle coming through the woods."
"You quit pointing that thing or I'm telling!"
It was my only weapon against him, the threat to tell, and Wiley knew very well I would use it in a minute. After the big long lecture Meemaw gave him along with the rifle, we both knew she would skin him alive if I told about this.
He lowered the barrel, slung the rifle over his shoulder, and dropped to the ground. "Let's take out the bullet and play Green Beret," he said. "I can kill you and then you can kill me.""I like the other guns better," I said, meaning the cut-out plywood guns Uncle Dove had made for us when we were little. Mine had peejoe inscribed in Magic Marker on the stock.
"You wouldn't be scared if you'd go on and shoot it," said Wiley. He pushed Adolf's nose out of his crotch and thrust the rifle at me. "You're just a scared little chicken."
Wiley was my faithful best friend, yet he took a peculiar delight in torturing me. We were so different it seemed impossible that we were brothers. He was tall and thin, gangly arms and legs, tangled black hair and fierce stone-green eyes; he was handsome and square-chinned like Daddy, in the photograph. He loved fishing and shooting off guns. He was always running or jumping or batting squishy high fly balls with rotten peaches in the orchard.
I wanted nothing more than to be just like Wiley, but way down deep I was Peter Joseph, irrevocably. I was Peejoe. I was round-faced, blue-eyed and blond, easily sunburned, clumsy, a bit pudgy. Could not catch a ball if it landed in my hands. Terrified of guns. I had hated hunting ever since I'd seen Bambi, and I detested fishingthe terrible moment when my prayers were ignored and a fish actually bit my hook and I had to touch the poor squirming thing.
"Come on. You can do it." Wiley offered the .22. "Go on up closer and see if you can hit the bottle on the end."
I looked all around the dump for some distraction or inspiration. Flies swam happily in the smelly air. "I know. Let's tie up junebugs."
He looked at me a long minute. "That's boring."
"No it ain't." I stuck out my chin and planted my hands on my hips to show him he might as well go along with me, I was not going to touch that rifle if he stood there for a million years.
At last he said "oh, all right" with a superior air. "Let's find some string."
We went over to the garbage mountain and began poking through with sticks, holding our noses, gagging, laughing at our own disgust. Wiley found a usable Bama mayonnaise jar. I came up with four filthy lengths of twine.
We set out through the buzz and hum of a summer day, searching the branches and weeds at our feet, listening for that peculiar click-rattle"Hey! Over here!"following the sound down to a clump of cow-grass, a hard shiny bug nestled in like a tiny bottle-brown Volkswagen. Careful nowjunebugs were not fast, but they possessed mysterious powers of evasion.
It took Wiley and me the most part of an hour to catch four of them, and then we discovered the first two had expired because we forgot to punch air holes in the jar lid.
"Damn it to hell!" Wiley liked to curse out of Meemaw's earshot. "I'm sick of looking. Let's just make do with these two."
He unscrewed the jar lid and slipped in his hand, trapping the larger of the surviving bugs. Gripping its glossy shell between his thumb and first finger, he made a loop in the end of the string and began trying to snare the tiny gesticulating hind leg. It took him three passes to snag it and close the tiny noose. "You ready?"
I held tight to the other end of the string. "Ready."
Wiley opened his hand. The bug lifted away, buzzing furiouslythen it snapped the slack from the line at the edge of its new universe.
I jerked the string. The bug tugged and danced, zipping every which way, hopelessly trapped.
"Don't yank too hard, Peejoe, you'll pull off his leg."
"Don't tell me how to do it." I turned a circle with my arms out. The junebug was my prisoner, my little captive helicopter, my razzing, indignant living yo-yo.
Wiley knelt in the weeds to tie up a bug for himself. In a moment we had two live ones leading us back through the woods to the garbage ravine. Adolf whined and ran circles around us.
The junebugs never quit trying to outwit the string. They would let it go limp as if they were just on the edge of surrender, then strike suddenly down and to one side but Oh, Ho! We were their gods! We held the strings! We made them dance! They would dance for an hour or two and then conveniently die of exhaustion about the time we got bored with them.
I was in charge of the funerals. I made caskets out of Jell-O boxes lined with toilet paper. I dug holes in red clay with a rusty trowel, placed the boxes, spoke a few solemn words, tossed the first handful of dirt.
"I'm gonna call mine Ratface," said Wiley. "What's yours?"
"I don't know." My bug vibrated the string. "MaybeSteve or something."
"Steve?" Wiley stared. "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard. A bug named Steve."
"I haven't decided yet," I said, thinking what's wrong with Steve? It's a nice, modern-sounding name. I wish my name was Steve.
Wiley's bug landed on his knee and began crawling down. "That's your last mistake, Ratface," he said. Plucking the bug from his jeans, he carried it to the fallen log and tied its string to the neck of a Nehi bottle. The bug strained against its tether.
Wiley picked up his rifle.
I moved out of the line of fire. "What are you doing?"
He thumbed the barrel at the junebug. "Moving target."
Adolf waggled up to the log, wrinkle-nosed, snapping his teeth at the bug. Wiley shouted "Go home! Go home!" and made threatening jabs with an imaginary stick until Adolf slunk off.
"Don't, Wiley. You'll mess it up. We won't get to bury it."
"I'm shootin' mine," he said. "You can bury yours."
"But burying it is the fun part!" To me it seemed the smallest decency to let a bug die struggling at the end of a string, and give it a proper funeral.
To me, but not to Wiley. Or maybe he was feeling cruel that afternoon. He raised the rifle. He set his tongue between his teeth and squinted down the barrel.
The junebug had reached a state of such perfect panic that a bullet whizzing by made no difference at all.
"Jesus Christ." Wiley reloaded.
I covered my ears. "Stop! It ain't fair!"
"Life ain't fair," said Wiley. He fired again and missed. "Besides, he ain't all that easy to hit. Hold still, Ratface!"
My junebug quivered the string in my hand, as in sympathy.
Wiley fumbled for bullets. "Take yours down there and tie him up, Peejoe."
"He's mine. You ain't shooting at him."
"You're such a baby," he said.
"You're just mad 'cause you can't hit it."
"Oh yeah?" Wiley raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired. The bug exploded, a liquid brown pouf! The string draped itself over the log.
Wiley's mouth dropped open.
I tried to look unimpressed, although to this day that remains the single most spectacular unaimed shot I have ever seen.
"Guess we can bury the string," I said.
"I got it!" He stuck his thumb in his belt, all in awe of himself. "Go on, Peejoe, go tie yours up. Let's see if I can do it again."
The bell began clanging away up the hill, Meemaw calling us home.
I wound the string around my wrist. "Too late. Last one there is a rotten old pig."
"Wait," he said, "I can't run with the twenty-two."
"Too bad!" I took off with my bug in my hand.
Adolf chased my heels. I ran all the way.
I pitied that poor bug, wiped out without warning, without a chance in the world. Even a lowly junebug has a right to a better end than that. I imagined a junebug widow in a pillbox hat. A tiny junebug toddler raising his hand in a solemn salute. I had a vision of the junebug's soul rising to heaven, freed from the cares of earth.
I stopped running. I opened my hand. The dazed bug sat on my palm, awaiting the next part of its fate.
I bent my head and bit into the string, an inch from the knot. Faintly I tasted spaghetti sauce. I gnawed until the string broke.
The bug scuttled forward, testing its freedom. Then it unsnapped its wings lifted up flew away and did not come back.
Wiley beat his way through the bushes, huffing and blowing. "Look," he said. "Aunt Lucille."
From the Trade Paperback edition.