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I'm in Bluffton on a truancy spree, cutting, we call it, but all you do is walk off the unfenced yard during recess, where three hundred hunched-over kids are shooting marbles. I can't shoot a marble with a slingshot, so I split and go into Dresser's Rexall for a Coke or something, expressly forbidden me by the Doctor because it makes me hyper, she says, but should I drink milk all my life instead or go on now to house bourbon? That is not the point.
Suddenly there she is on a counter stool between me and a cherry Coke, or I'm even considering a suicide—sixteen godoxious syrups in a thimble of soda—but I can handle this disappointment. I could go to the Texaco and have a bottle and talk to Vergil. They even have Tom's peanuts for a goober-bottle rig—you just pour in the peanuts and drink. But Clyde, his pumpman, will try to take off his wooden leg on me. One day I got curious and he unbuttoned his shirt and showed me the network of sweaty straps all over his chest that holds the leg on, and I got closer, and he loosened the straps and took down his overalls, and all of a sudden the leg was off, a small cypress log, and he bounced his stump around on the chair, pecan-colored and hard- looking, and I about fainted. Now I have to beg him to leave it on. When I get pale, Vergil will stop him. "Keep your leg on, Clyde." "Okeydoke," Clyde says, but he still fidgets with the straps and giggles.
But I don't get out of the Rexall unnoticed. She calls me over and introduces me to this gray-headed gent she's with. Now this is what gets me. She says to him, who turns out to be a barrister working land in Hilton Head, she says, "I want you to meet my protégé."
She never includes the detail I'm her son, so I put my name into the dialogue so she might have to mention the relationship. "Simons Everson Manigault," I say to him, stepping up and pumping him a three-pump country shake, squeezing harder than even the old man said to. You say it "Simmons." I'm a rare one-m Simons.
So she hatches a "protégé" on the guy and I think I see his face hitch to the floor a hint, as if he had a doubt about her—remarkable, this, because the lawyers I have seen, including my old man, have had better control of facial expression than any actor in the land, and I figure either something twitched him or he doesn't work on his feet. The Doctor has a bit of a reputation, you know, and a suitor outside the college where she teaches can be right skittish. The Negroes call her the Duchess. Anyway, next I look at them he is looking at her legs folded up under her on the chrome swivel stool, bulges of calf flesh pressed out firm as pull candy, so I just drift out of Dresser's—no suicide, but at least not recognized as skipping school either.
Truancy is no big deal to the Doctor anyway, because it's the "material" has her send me to public school, podunkus Bluffton Elementary, when the old man would send me to Cooper Boyd, college-prep academy for all future white doctors, lawyers, and architects in the low country. But the old man cut out some time ago. He gave me a Jack London book and coached me into the best eight-year-old shortstop in the history of the world before the book shit hit. "That kid's supposed to read all that?" he said. "I thought that was your library." He was shocked by the Plan: the bassinet bound by books, which I virtually came home from the hospital to sleep in the lee of, my toys. Like some kids swat mobiles, I was to thumb pages. Some get to goo-goo, I had to read.
It was something. He (the Progenitor) had actually built the shelves that held the Doctor's training tools, which took me straight away from our after-work grounder clinic and his idea of things. They got in it over this, one charged with sissifying and the other with brutalizing.
I suppose I became my momma's boy, at least she was still there, and in fact all this scribbling is directly related to her training program. It's an assignment. I'm supposed to write. I'm supposed to get good at it.
So the day I'm talking about, after leaving the Rexall, I got out of Vergil's without Clyde making me sick, got on the school bus, as usual, and fell out of it racing down the road, as not usual. I looked up from my surprise at not being dead and saw a white face, calm as an ambulance driver, among a whole gawking throng of Negroes. And reading the Doctor's toys for boys is what got me in the predicament.
That's what being a "material" hound will get you: little you who should be up in the front with the nice kids but are in the back listening to Gullah and watching, say, an eight-year-old smoke marijuana like a man in a cell block, eyes squinting toward the driver with each hissing intake of what his grandfather called hemp and took for granted, you trying to orate on the menace of the invading Arabs—"They don't ride camels and carry scimitars, but they are coming all the same; they've bought ten islands, we'll all be camel tenders soon"—when the emergency door flies open and it is not the Negroes nearest who go out and do cartwheels after the bus, it is you who gets sucked out into a fancy bit of tumbling on the macadam, spidering and rolling up the gentle massive cradling roots of an oak tree that has probably stopped many more cars with much less compassion. My tree just said whoa. You must see the miraculous thing it is to have avoided death by a perfect execution of cartwheels, rolling over a two-lane highway and partway up a tree, to clump down then with only two cracked ribs and no more for medicine than Empirin. The codeine kind not the old-lady kind. I jumped up to tell them I was not dead: Negroes from nowhere, peering at my sleeping little face framed by roots. As I looked at them, before jumping up and losing my breath to the ribs, I saw that one calm light face among them.
Anyway, that's what sniffing out things will do for you, and I was changed by discovering how close the end can be when you don't even think about your being alive, not at twelve, and that same night the one calm face among my coterie of gawkers stepped onto the porch like the process server he was, but with no papers to serve, and I felt the porch sag.
When the ambulance does get there, the Negroes tell the driver, "That the Duchess boy." So he takes me, not that I'm hurt or anything—though I am, sort of, because it hurts when I try to breathe—he takes me to Dr. Carlton back in Bluffton instead of the clinic in Beaufort, and Carlton gives me a ride home. My maternal Doctor has not missed me and has the evening set up.
It gets dark so very gradually it seems pure dark will never descend and I get moody in my new, good-as-dead outlook, walk around the place trying to savor the sudden news that I don't have to be alive, even, and turn on a few lamps. The Doctor clears up the dinner problem by assigning me leftovers, fine with me, and gets a drink and takes up on the wicker sofa, sitting on her folded legs, and drinks her drink.
These are the times that are best: when she is distracted and I am left to whatever I can manage on my own, basically provided for but maybe burning meat loaf or something without a peep from her. These are times when we are least protégé and master. I can feel each drink she pours, each necessary bite of the sour bourbon on her mouth, feel it in a neutral way without any kind of judgment, I am aware is all, by the sounds of glass and wicker, of her evening and she must be as aware that I am going to bed without reading any assignments, just listening to the palmetto and waves and going to sleep.
We are well into that kind of dance this evening when Taurus shows up. Elbows on the drain counter, I am keeping my weight off my ribs and watching the food cook when I see him. You do not know what in hell may be out here on a hoodoo coast and I do not make a move. What follows is not nearly so ominous as I would sound. He don't ax-murder us or anything like that. Yet there is something arresting about this dude the moment you see him. He is shimmery as an islander's god and solid as a butcher. I consider him to be the thing that the Negroes are afraid of when they paint the doors and windows of their shacks purple or yellow. His head is cocked, his hand on the washtub of the Doctor's old wringer, its old manila rolling pins swung out to the side. When he comes up to the screen, I know I have seen his face before.
That's the assignment. To tell what has been going on since this fellow came trying to serve a subpoena to we think Athenia's daughter and scared Theenie so bad it about blued her hair. Before he came I spent most of my time at the Baby Grand—Marvin's R.O. Sweet Shop and Baby Grand, where I am a celebrity because I'm white, not even teenage yet, and possess the partial aura of the Duchess (The Duchess boy heah!"). And I look like I hold my liquor ("Ain't he somp'm."). The trick there is to accept a new can when anybody offers and let your old one get drunk by somebody else.
And besides playing the freak I can jive a little, too, like the Arab alarum I like to ring. "If it wasn't for the Marines down the road, these Arabs'd do more than buy this place!" "Shih! Boy crazy!" And the dudes there play a tune back, a constant message: Life is a time when you get pleasure until somebody get your ass. And one of the ways to prolong pleasure is to not chop up time with syllables. They go for something larger than words, but no essays. This way nothing large is inaccurate, presumptuous. "Bitch look heavy." "Tell me." Like these James Brown guitar riffs of five notes that run twenty minutes, and then one of the five notes goes sharp and a statement is made. A whole evening hums, and then there's a new note—razor out. I still hit the Grand, but less now with Taurus and me doing things.
That night when he stepped on the porch and I was trying to breathe, the Doctor came to the door and stopped short of pushing it open as she would have for an ordinary visitor—he had his hand inside the rim of the wringer tub and his head was slightly cocked off at it as if he were listening to a large conch shell. I noticed then a stack of linen folded—not folded anymore, thrown—by the sink. Some kind of nut is on the porch and I take time out to notice this because now I know something is up.
Because when your Southern barony is reduced as ours is to a tract of clay roads cut in a feathery herbaceous jungle of deerfly for stock and scrub oak for crop, and the great house is a model beach house resembling a pagoda, and the planter's wife is abandoned by the planter, as ours has been, and she has only one servant left (Theenie, who for quarters has only one 10' x 12' shack insulated by newspaper and flour on a cold Atlantic bluff), well, that vestigial baroness insists that vestigial slave do her one duty right—"the linen," all that remains of cotton finery. Theenie vacuums the house too, but that doesn't signify as Preserving the South. And the laundry was not in the hall closet (successor to armoire) but flung all over the kitchen counter, which was not right.
If I had not rolled sixty feet at forty miles an hour into an oak tree just hours before, I might have thought nothing of that laundry. But there it was, flopped forlorn on the drainboard, looking a bit like I might have before I stood up to disassociate myself from the dead in that sudden ring of gawkers. There was somehow a connection in all this: my suddenly seeing the linen in the new good-as-dead way of seeing, the linen an embodiment of Theenie and the Doctor's old order and of, somehow, the someone cocking an ear to a sound on our porch, whose discovery stopped the Doctor mid-track and knocked her into her classroom style, so that she suddenly stood three feet inside the door, straightened up, and spoke as if there were an invisible podium between her and her audience.
"Won't you please come in and let us talk," said the Doctor heavily, as though scanning the line for a student, and she stepped forward and slowly swung open the screen door to a total stranger, who looked young enough and strong enough to be the ax murderer. (Man, several years ago I was all-hours victim to accounts of boogeymen on this wind-riddled spit of remote earth, one thing that did encourage me to read: you keep reading to stay awake and so get a good jump if the Hook Man breaks in.)
He stepped in. She stepped back. "In the name, it would seem, of paralegal service," she said, and turned and walked away and crossed the living room and sat on the creaking wicker sofa on her legs, "you have done me a grave disservice." She said this in her explicatory, cadenced style, punctuated and metered so no idiot could fail to record it in his notebook. The stranger, who had not followed her, then looked at me, evenly and without expression. He came in.
"My maid has quit," she said.
"I have not served anyone yet," the stranger said.
"You wanted her daughter, anyway. I am now without retainer. Do you paralegals make restitution of damages such as retiring twenty-year employees?"
"Do you know where her daughter is?" He sat down.
"Do you want to find out?"
Here they stopped. I could see his back, arms on his knees; he was sitting looking directly at her. She had her drink. She looked over the rim of it at him, sort of looking out the tops of her eyes and hiding her mouth with the drink.
"If you'll tell me, I'll get the other one back," he said.
"No, you won't. You won't even find her."
"Lately I am a professional at finding—"
"You won't find her unless I tell you where she is, and you probably won't find her daughter unless she tells you where she is."
"Where did she go, then?"
"That's a laid-low to catch a meddler."
"Skip it. I'll tell you what. Since you scared hell out of my maid and my estate is consequently short-handed, you might assist me ..." She kind of trailed off.
They looked at each other a while.
"If you want to find either of them, you might hang around a bit."
"I am short on domestics, it would seem. There's the gardening and the brass polishing, of course, but as a coachman ... And Simons has just today manifested a problem in his school-bus riding. You could escort him to school and back, and keep up the quarters on the beach, and let me see if I can locate Athenia for you."
"I suppose I might," he said.
"And could you tell me what is paralegal service?" She knew what it was. The old man was a lawyer and every joe to take her out since who wasn't a professor was an ambulance chaser or coroner. She was not asking to get an answer, but to know the answerer. This tactic was used when she had brilliant students over, mostly.
The stranger accepted the game. She was still accelerating, ever since the door, and virtually beaming at him over the whiskey, her tawny old Kool-Aid. "That straddles law and law enforcement," he said, and I was certain, without any evidence, that he was grinning. He had passed a little test with flying colors—not flinched at all the crap about servants and brass polishing, but accepted her game, and what her game was even I did not know. But I knew something was going on, and if I had not been buzzing on Empirin, I could have told whether it was really going on, or just me, buzzing on Empirin.
"Well," the Doctor said, in her summing-up tone, "there's a cake down there. Send it back with Simons. Can you walk okay, Ducks?"
"Yes ma'am," I said.
I beat him out the door into the trees, leaning with the night wind away from the beach, and headed us for Theenie's shack. It was my
I beat him out the door into the trees, leaning with the night wind away from the beach, and headed us for Theenie's shack. It was my birthday and I had a cake.CHAPTER 2
An Assessment of the Stranger
Our beach is steep and not white but cochina. We took the fronting road, named Juno Boulevard by the speculator who sold his model-home land office to the Doctor. It is a mod building: an octagonal pagoda on stilts with two levels of parapet walks and sliding glass doors all around, a cupola on top with a widow's walk, all of it squatted over five thousand dollars' worth of heating and cooling equipment on a slab below, which would flood out with the first good blow. The Doctor got it for a price so famously cheap that everyone still shakes his head about it, but I don't know the exact amount. She caught him depressed.
Excerpted from Edisto and Edisto Revisited by Padgett Powell. Copyright © 1996 Padgett Powell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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