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Lucy came to live with us in the house on Peachtree Road, when she was five and I was seven, and before that April day was over I learned two things that altered almost grotesquely the landscape and weather of my small life. I learned that not all women wept in the nights after the act of love.
And I learned that we were rich.
That those tidbits of information should literally change a world seems perhaps a bit strange now, when children of seven digest with equanimity the daily disclosure of the sexual peccadilloes of politicians and television evangelists and the felonious traffic in billions by arbitragers and governments. But the Buckhead and Atlanta of that day were infinitely smaller principalities than now, and my own cosmos within them was minuscule. I literally had nothing with which to compare my life, and so assumed, in the manner of cloistered only children, that everything and everybody else was as we were.
I knew that my mother cried at night after having intercourse with my father, because I had slept since my infancy in a small room that had been intended as the dressing room for my parents' bedroom, and I could hear clearly each muffled grunt and thrust of that mute and furious coupling, each accelerating squeal of bedsprings, each of my father's grudging, indrawn breaths. From my mother I heard nothing during the act, but each time, without fail, that he finished with a snort and began to snore, her weeping would start, and I would lie, muscles stiff and breath held with dread and unexamined fury, waiting for her to stop. I knew precisely how long she would cry, and when the weeping would cease on adeep, rattling sigh, and when the traitorous springs would creak once more as she turned over into sleep, and only then would I unknot my fists and let myself slide into sleep, following her.
I cannot ever remember wondering what it was that they did in the nights that occasioned the strange hoarse cries, and the alien weepingfor at all other times my mother was one of the most self-possessed women I have ever known. I knew what transpired in their bedroom from the time I could barely walk, though I had no name for the act until Lucy came, and even then only the shadowiest notion of its import. My mother never closed the door between our rooms, and never allowed my father to close it, and for a few weeks and months when I was about two and had just learned to wriggle over the bars of my crib and toddle to the threshold of their bedroom, I watched that darkling coupling.
It must have frightened me to see the two great titans of my existence grappling in murderous silence on the great canopied tester bed, but I never ran into the room and never cried out, and I do not know to this day whether they knew I was there. How they could have avoided at some time or other raising their heads to see my small, stone-struck figure silhouetted in the sickly glow from my Mickey Mouse night-light I cannot imagine, but neither of them ever gave the smallest sign, and I would hang there night after night, a small Oedipal ghost haunting in despair a chamber where he was not acknowledged.
After a time I stopped going to the door to watch, and soon was no longer afraid, but I never slept until they were done, and I never lost the feeling of violation that the sounds gave me, or the resulting bile-flood of guilty rage at them. Even then, something cool and infinitesimal deep within me knew that I was being burdened and exploited as no child should be. Oddly, it was never at my father that the jet of my little fury was directed, but at my mother. He was a massive, tight, furiously simple, red and white-blond man who vented his considerable tempers and passions directly, and wherever they happened to erupt. As useless to feel rage at him as at a volcano, or a broken water main.
No, it was my mother, the cool, slender, exquisite and infinitely aware vessel for his passions, at whom my anger steamed. It seemed to me that no one so totally self-defined and perceived and carefully calibrated as my mother should allow anything done to her person that would cause weeping, and I was angry at her both for the tears and for making me listen to them. But since my parents were all there was, for practical purposes, to my world, and since I loved my mother and feared my father passionately, I neither admitted the anger nor shut the door. I simply moved, for the first seven years of my life, in a dark and decaying stew of unacknowledged sexuality and anger, and neither cursed the darkness nor thought it out of the ordinary until Lucy Bondurant blew it away on a gust of her extraordinary laughter. On the surface, to the rest of the small society in which I moved, I must have appeared the most unremarkable and ordinary of small boys.
It was for the same reason that I did not know we were rich: There was nothing and no one who appeared different from us Bondurants in the entire sphere of my existence, and where there is no concept of poor, neither can there be one of rich. There were, of course, Shem and Martha Cater, who lived over the old stable-turned-garage behind the house and worked in the kitchen and pantry and drove the Chrysler and answered the door and sometimes served meals in the big dining room when people came to dinner, and there was Amos, who worked in the yard, and Lottie, who came in to cook, and Princess, who brought the hand laundry, fragrant, silky, and still warm, in a rush basket.