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I hear Earl and my three brothers dragging their feet up the boardwalk off Troublesome Creek. You can tell the old man hears them too, the way he cocks his bony head and eyes the door, priming up to say to them what he's been saying to me all morning: Me and your mommer's done with one another, y'all do what you want to about hit. "Hit" meaning "it," and "it" meaning put Mama away decent or any way we can.
Buck sidles in first, shrunk-faced and scrunched against the cold, and Earl and Pee Wee and Alamand shove in behind him. Alamand has to pick up on the door to ram it shut against the wind. He don't get it closed good before a transfer truck revs up at the crossing and roars down the creek dip, grinding gears. The wind and racket scours the room of festering steam and clock ticks, but I can still smell the baby like a new puppy.
Mama didn't make it.
I know the boys have been to the funeral home in Jasper, Florida, since Earl's got on his light yellow shirt with his brown hair water-slicked. They make a place on the couch and perch like birds on a light line. The red rose curtain behind is pinned together with a clothespin and puffs at their backs. (That window's been busted out from where Buck drove the old man's head through it.)
"Well, Old Man," says Buck, sucking on a cigarette and squinching his hazel eyes. "Looks like they ain't no making the undertaker bury Mama less'un we can come up with a couple hundred." Smoke snorts from his long, crooked nose.
"Me and your mommer's done with one another," says the old man, "y'all do what you want to about hit." He rares back and jerks his sucked-hide face tothe wall. One giant hairy ear stays tuned in, like he don't want to miss the solution even if it ain't his problem.
Pee Wee, my middle brother, hoves up and rakes his fingers through his shingled brown hair. "Hell, looks like a man in his line of work wouldn't lord it over poor people cause they ain't struck it rich yet!"
Then Buck starts. "We ain't got no choice but to go to Buster and see if the county won't . . ."
"I hain't listening to no sech!" The old man rocks to his feet, bellering and stomping on a weak floor joist. Every dish in the piesafe sets in dinging.
Mama's last baby don't make a peep. I can feel it warm up next to my leg on the bed. I can't hear it breathing. The covers don't move. I lay my hand on its back and feel its heart like a bitty chick's blood pulse. They're really getting into it now, Buck and the old man, over where they gone get the money from. The old man's going on about how none of his'n ain't never been put away by the county since Buster took it over, and how he ain't fixing to start looking to the county now. Buck's riled goodhe's the oldest, going on twenty-eight, and like Mama always said, a worrywart.
Pee Wee is walking the floor, cussing. His keen face is kerosene yeller. Smells like he's done made a stop by The Line on his way back from the undertaker's where Mama's laying a corpse. He don't generally get into none of their scraps if he ain't drinking. Bout as big around as my leg from doing without so he can get the most out of his likker.
Alamand, setting on the couch next to Earl, goes to wringing his hands and chewing on his top lip. He's a mite on the chunky side with a white dish face and dark hair that curls up where his cap goes. Takes everything to heart, the sweetest one of the bunch. Was born with a double veil, according to Mama, is how come he can draw. I can tell he's itching to get on over to Aunt Becky's old house, where he can set and draw by hisself. Bad about stealing my pencils. He's the least one, or was until night before last. Fourteen years old, two years behind me in school when he goes.
"Looks like old Loujean there's just setting taking it easy," Earl says. His milky blue eyes snag mine. Up to now, he's been tapping his boots on the floor with his elbows ditched on his knees.
"Earl," I say, "chunk a piece of wood on the fire, will you?" I fix my skirt so my legs don't show. He twists around with one knee on the couch and parts the curtain to where it fans over the back. Out of respect for me, he raises the window where he could of reached right through the head-size hole in the glass.
I wish I could go out. I wish I could leave this baby where she lays and go outside. I gaze through the gapped curtain at the shed sweetgums on Troublesome Creek, where the wind sings lonesome in the tents of tangled vines. White as bleached lace on the tin sky.
Earl grabs a stick of firewood off the scaffold and lets the window down and fixes the curtain back, just so. Then, trying to look real handy, he struts over to the stove and flips open the door latch with the toe of his right boot. Smoke boils out and eats up my eyes.
The firelight on his pale square face makes him look scalded, his milky eyes bright. He rubs his hands together over the pot of steaming lima beans and grins at me. The fire cracks and pops and the stovepipe roars, turning red as my face.
"Prechate it," I say. Feels like me and Earl's the onliest ones in the room, but that good feeling ain't enough to keep my mind off of my troubles. I won't make it to school todayit's Friday anyhowpro'bly not never no more. But that's all right.
Earl backs to the stove, bowing his stocky chest, and rocks with his hands latched behind. I can smell his britches scorching. When it looks like he can't stand the heat no more, he taps back over to the couch and plops, eyeballing me around Pee Wee and Buck walking the floor and fussing with the old man. Old Man ain't moved, but he's study quarreling. Where he's bald on top, a sprig of gray-glazed hair sticks up like a scared man's in the funny papers.
"Buster and that bunch over yonder at the courthouse hain't never took no interest in me and mine," he says.
"If you'd had ery lick of sense," pipes up Buck, "you'd a done like Buster told you when Aunt Becky died, stead of puffing up and taking it on yourself to put her away fancy." Buck's preaching to the old man now, gulping between words like a Hardshell Baptist, with his hip cocked. "Now we left owing the undertaker and can't get Mama put away."
"Becky was Buster's own double-second cousin." The old man pops up like a rotten egg in water. "If he hain't got no more principle about him . . ."
Buck butts in. "You got a bone to pick with him, Old Man, go pick it!"
"I hain't hankering to see his yeller face!"
"He ain't fixing to up and offer," says Buck, right in the old man's face, "you know that!"
"You gotta go begging sometimes, Old Man." Pee Wee socks the front door with his fist.
"I hain't going begging Buster for nothing," the old man says.
"Ain't Buster you gotta look to," Buck hoots. "It's the county."
"Same thang." The old man sets back, sulling again.
Pee Wee's sweating now, and I got a notion he's fixing to start in on me about keeping the house too hot. Shore nuf, in a minute he snatches the door open and the stiff wind whips at the new picture calendar over the head of the bed. A bik bik bik sound. A peaceful Jesus is kneeling in the garden above February 1960.
The old man shoots forward. "Shet that door, boy!"
"Well, you gone have to open it if you bring her home like she is." Pee Wee slams the door and hugs hisself, walking. "Undertaker's got her in a cold storage now. I'll be a S.B.!"
"You cussing your own dead mommer, boy!" The old man punches the air with his scrawny arm cocked. Generally, he'll let the boys say S.B. or G.D., but that's about it, because one time he knowed a man got struck down by lightning for cussing God under a pine tree.
Pee Wee's warming at the stove with his legs spraddled. Directly, he slacks off and the room gets still, and I listen to the leftover bik bik bik of Jesus over my head. When it stops, the lid on the bean pot picks up with the same racket.
"You so all-fired proud, Old Man!" Buck grits his teeth, sounds like he's trying to take the sore throat. He squats at the old man's knees like he's worshipping him. "You got a extra pension check laying around somewheres, huh?"
The old man turns his face to the wall and says it again: "Me and your mommer's done with one another, y'all do what you want to about hit."
"I see old Loujean there's just setting taking it easy," Earl says, doing his dead level best to change the subject. He ain't dumb as he looks.
The baby cries. Buck
Soon as we get done with dinner, I set out on foot for Buster's, leaving pore lil ole Loujean with the baby bawling and the old man blabbing. Generally, you'll find Buster propped up at the courthouse across the way, or at Hoot's store, south of the crossing, or out scouting for somebody to hoodoo. But you can count on him to be eating and sleeping at his house.