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By Joan Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Joan Williams
All rights reserved.
Often, in the long-ago summer, he had lain wanting only to daydream. But when he sought sleep without dreams, Poppa intruded again. Hot and perspiring, Poppa came around the house; his question, having festered in him unbelievably long, burst out at last. "But what do you want to do?" Poppa said. The boy's answer was the only one Poppa probably had not considered: "Nothing." Wordless then, floundering at air like a toy monkey on a string, Poppa rounded the house again. Respecting his father, the boy did not laugh aloud.
Over and over, his mother said, "I declare, he's spurted so, I think growing's taken all his energy." She irritated him. Why, when he had been shaving a year, couldn't they leave him alone?
The sun burned wrathfully and only shadows from the muscadine, twining up the porch's cedar supports, meeting in the eaves, gave spattered relief. It was a summer of drought. The side lot wavered distantly in heat as if seen through tears, and Poppa seemed to saddle Molly in dust. They came up out of the side lot and passed him as silently as ghosts. His final glimpse was of the beautiful, flame-colored horse with Poppa rocking in perfect coordination until, colliding into sunlight, they were gone. His mother's pale face appeared behind the screen door. "Why didn't you help your daddy catch that horse?" she said. "Go pitch him down some hay, at least. You know his blood pressure," and fear fluted her words again. Jessie's young face, in sorrow, watched while he went out the back door and slammed it. His mother, watching too, seemed in scattered pieces behind the back porch's latticework.
Inside the barn, he leaned against a horse's sticky side, thinking that here he could be content with the horse eating and sleeping and emptying and filling its bladder with the monotony of people, only never bothering him. But he could not hide. At suppertime, someone would come looking for him. He took the fork and pitched hay, knowing as long as he remembered the afternoon he decided to leave home, he would know again the smell of barn on a hot afternoon.
From a bed, his since childhood, he could see the moon in slivers through night-dark pines and could hear not only night's myriad and familiar sounds, but also the crunch of Jessie's feet on gravel as she came from town. Her cabin in lamplight, long ago, had been safety when he looked out from his room. Often, he went there when he was small. Even in sleep, he could know the smells inside that cabin again, of coal oil and simmering firewood and their own smells, sitting close to the fire to play cards. Beyond the lamplight and without the fire had been cold corners of darkness.
On the morning he ran away, he got up before daylight to pack underwear and a toothbrush, having no need for or attachment to clothes hanging in a half-opened closet. The kitchen windows were pale as death with dawn. He cut a slice of Jessie's weekly cake and left the cake box carefully askew and crumbs scattered as evidence. Then, eating the cake, he went down the hall where dawn was a grey pall at the front windows. Roosters crowed like echoes of one another around the world, it vast and he alone. Daylight meant heat and the stench of ragweed along the roadside, as if something were rotting in fields. Dawn's mist lifted to reveal town, and he passed between two rows of white stores with hens roosting on their porches. Everything was still except for a wolfish grey dog slinking across the road and water dripping from the town pump, as ceaseless as time. The dog's eyes were as haunting as a skeleton's, but thrown cake, it whined for more. An incline took town from view, and he stopped to look back and saw the dog, still hungry, watching him out of eyes that were hollow and accusing.
He accepted a ride from a farm couple and, jostling in the pickup's bed, watched the farmer's shirt rub red his pocked neck and watched his wife's black elastic hatband slip up and down as they went over bumps. Eroded gullies flew by and at intervals cabins with dry dirt yards full of flowers, standing out from the dust like stars separate from the dark. He seemed floating in dust when he jumped from the truck. He crossed a highway to wait beside a Negro. "Hot," he said. "Sho is," said the Negro.
Suddenly, the bus was there, as things appear in dreams, without warning. He felt disconsolate and wanted to talk to the Negro, in back, his last link with home. But mirror-smooth and white, the gravel roads disappeared, and he was among city streets, a stranger. He saw a waitress in a restaurant, who was cooking, and a clock on a building read five. Outpouring crowds from office buildings carried him along the street to a park; there he drank from a fountain with chewing-gum wads looming up through the water, seeming larger than life-sized. Old men sat on benches in dejected attitudes of rest. An orator in a flowing brown robe stood on a crate. Lying in grass to listen, he woke to a stab of pain. A policeman with a bloated face cried, looking down: "Move on!" He went back between the old men, who now were grinning, while the orator called, "Repent!"
When he passed the restaurant again, the waitress emerged and said, "Hey, what's your hurry?" Her mouth in darkness seemed a bloody gash against an evening soft as new-plowed ground. Having answered, "Looking for a place to stay," he followed as she beckoned down a block with a river hidden at its end. Entering her boardinghouse was like entering a hole, her face too white and close in the gloom. Had he, at last, accepted the proverbial ice-cream cone from the stranger as he had been warned always not to do?
"Sugar," she answered. "What's yours?" When he replied, she recoiled and repeated, "By-run?"
Two wieners appeared to be dancing in boiling water until the landlady turned off the gas jet beneath them. She came toward him with eyes big behind thick glasses, making him think of things never told, and he averted his glance. "Fifty cents, Sugar," she said. "The same room as last time. Last name?" When he had answered, "Shelley," he followed Sugar's wide hips, swinging up the stairs before him. Laughing, he read the paper again, Re'cd from Byron Shelley 50¢. Swinging open, a door revealed a frail room, beyond which the sun sank magnificently into a river, blood-red, while he stood grieving for all things dying.
Watching smoke rise from the bed, he said, "I'm hungry," and Sugar crushed out the cigarette. They went over napless carpet through the silent house and stood on the front steps, where he cried, "I am the best of Byron and Shelley and Keats!" He was embraced afterward by surging crowds, then the image disappeared, as if a movie screen had darkened, and the audience gone. CAMILLE read a marquee under which women emerged, weeping, and turning their backs seemed to shun him on the street. In the restaurant, Sugar's handbag, a disintegrating straw, lay on the table. She took from it a scarred gold compact decorated with a sequined lady, half-gone. She put beside that a pint of whiskey and said, "You lost your girl or something?"
"I don't even have one. Why?" he said.
"Because," she said, "you're quieter than the dead."
There were too many questions, he thought: like home. Then he had thought the one word he had been telling himself ever since dark not to think. He saw again the grey pall at the front windows. Running home through dark when he was small, he had seen his mother's silhouette move in lamplight from the window to the door. She had called, "Where were you? Where were you?" And Jessie, carrying stove wood, had come from the kitchen crying, "Is it him?" He had been safe, then.
"Where's that ice!" Sugar said. The waiter set down a bowl full of cold blue cubes. "What'd you do, spit and wait till it froze?" she said. The waiter's voice formed two soundless words, like hollow cries of pain. "The same to you," she said.
His stomach wanted to reject whiskey never tasted before. Instead, he and Sugar went lightly down sidewalks rising and falling like furrows in the starless night. Along the street, a car careened crazily and a rummaging dog overturned a garbage can, leaving spoilage in his way. A woman sang. From a window someone yelled, "Shut up, you old whore," then he knew it was Sugar whose singing filled the lonesome night. Craters were streaked tears on the moon's face. "That or-bed maiden," he cried, "with white fire la-den Whom mortals call the Moon, Glides glimmering o'er—" and he ran off after scraps of things, like ashes rising in the wind. "Good Christ, you're on a jag," Sugar called, following. Light broke the darkness of their room like the impact of glass shattering stillness. Sugar moved from the switch and said, "Lay down," and they passed between them, on the bed, a soggy container of coffee she had bought.
He was grateful, for it was unexpected that Sugar could say nothing. He lay thinking that tomorrow, at the window where now he saw blackness, he would see the river, solitary and drifting, too. Freedom was drinking coffee with a whore when at home, people would be getting up for chores.
"That all you got," Sugar said, turning her head. "A toothbrush and a clean pair of B.V.D.'s?"
"Top clean, bottom clean," he said, trying to make a joke. But it would not work, and when his voice wavered, he shut up.
"You some kooky rich kid or what?"
"Do I look rich?"
"No. But something's different about you," she said. He sank back into the darkness of the room again, having escaped nothing after all. Being himself, he was somehow different. Sugar's voice, in semidarkness, seemed unattached when she said, "You sleep, honey?" Coming a long way back from sleep's brink, he said, "Getting there." She moved closer and her huge breasts offered every possibility of suffocation. How could he save both his pride and his virginity? He wanted to lose the latter, though not here.
"Look, Sugar," he said. "I'm just a country boy."
"Shoot," she said. "I'm just a country girl."
Hoping sickness would answer, he loped down a hall with a single bulb burning at its end, but a finger down his throat only caused gagging. He came back into the room and said, "I don't feel so hot." She said, "Me neither. Cheap whiskey."
Removing his socks, he saw the Mississippi with the sun rising as it had fallen, blood red against the sky. He had thought that if it were daylight, they could not make love. But Sugar dragged him toward her over the scant sheets, while he dug his heels into the mattress. Scared to death, he had to laugh. His arms folded stubbornly across his chest when she held him. It was like being tickled with a feather as she touched him, there. It was good, but being held against her was like suffocation, so that he fought his way up, in despair over death, and was weakened. She released him and lay like a beached whale, taking deep slow breaths.
"Sugar," he said, "I guess it just wasn't my time, and I'm sorry." In the silence and the separating dark, listening to her sigh, he felt all the other disappointments of her life and her slow acceptance of this one. Sitting up to tell again that it had been all his fault, he wailed instead, "Sugar, I'm not but fifteen years old. And I've run away from home!"
"Why, boy," she said, sitting up and covering her breasts. "You go right back on home, you hear." He saw her face a final time, tender and anxious, before he heard himself sobbing.
Dreaming, he remembered and woke wondering whether there were any difference between the two: dream and memory. He had laughed in sleep, as he had all those years ago, at Poppa, floundering like a toy monkey on the end of a string before rounding the house. Then, as now, the sun had been on his face in splatters like hot grease, coming through the muscadine only grown more gnarled, older. The nature of his dream had made the journey back from his drugged sleep a longer one than usual. And, without opening his eyes, he knew by the feel of the sun that it was almost noon and that the rain had stopped. He wondered how long he had been lying in the hammock on the porch. As he had known in dream when Poppa rode away on Molly that someone was watching him from behind the screen door, he knew that now and opened his eyes.
Jessie's grey hair stuck in wisps from a skullcap, the top half of a woman's stocking, twisted at the top of her head like a balloon's end. "You all right?" she said, meaning that moment when, with the same effort with which he had propelled himself awake, he propelled himself into a sitting position and swung his feet from the hammock to the porch, deck-grey and wetted by blown rain.
"So-so," he answered. Sitting up, he was sickened by the back swaying of the hammock and the smell that clung faint and near and as invisible as memory. Paraldehyde, he thought. This siege must have been bad and long if they had called a doctor. He wondered if time lost had been really lost or whether he would eventually remember everything.
When he let the hammock go, it swung softly toward him and moved him several stumbling steps forward. They must have been the first in some time, for he was stiff. He wondered again how long he had been lying there. His steps seemed without aim or stability, as if he were a child learning to walk.
"Can you eat?" Jessie said.
Everything was indeterminate and without purpose and unwanted, he thought. "Soup, I guess," he said. Though feeling sick at the thought of food, he needed something.
Jessie went ahead of him down the hall, the whites of her heels visible one after the other in a pair of his old slide-in bedroom shoes. He stood adjusting to the hall's dimness after the porch speckled by sun and shadow. His hand trembled reaching behind him to close the door, gently.
Dizzy, he sought something steady to look at, feeling the need to lose everything. He called after the flapping heels, "Just broth, bouillon, something light," swallowing rapidly. The hall was warm and smelled of age. Moving down it slowly, he was pervaded by the dream- and memory-smell of horseflesh and barn and hot afternoon. The wallpaper had an English hunting scene, in black and white except for red jackets, and had been long faded. Floor to ceiling, he confronted a confusion of men and horses and beagles with ecstatic tails, jumping and running and scrambling beneath brush. It was too deadly serious, he thought, studying the paper at eye-level. For years, he had believed there had to be some joking fox's face hidden in all that confusion, the clue to what the hurrah was about.
In the kitchen, he sat down and watched Jessie stir soup. "I'm going to get after those vines in the pine copse today," he said.
Noticing he was already wearing old work pants and a T-shirt, he wondered when he had put them on and why. Even sitting still, he perspired in the hot sticky aftermath of the summer rain. The last thing he remembered was going into town properly dressed to have his Seconal prescription filled. By happenstance, as he came out of Chester's drugstore, he had seen Cole, the Negro bootlegger.
"You got something I can wash down some pills with?" he had said.
"Suh," Cole had answered.
He remembered racing along the softly crushed, red gravel road, his pickup behind the Negro's, and going around back of a rural store he knew the Sheriff owned. Why not keep the whiskey closer to town, at the jail? he had wondered, going back through the pine-sweet, shining countryside with an old tarpaulin thrown over a case of beer and several bottles of bad Scotch, wishing for a bootlegger who knew more about whiskey. "Hardly no calls for Scotch," Cole had said. "We gets the cheapest."
Now, watching Jessie set down consommé, Almoner wondered whether anything was left to drink and where it was. The soup's steaming smell thrust upward. It was like the smell of a wet chicken or a wet hound, and suddenly he tasted again the first can of warm beer chasing the first capsule. He remembered little beyond that except a progression of daylights and darks. But what day or week it was now, he had no idea. He had managed, finally, to know nothing but darkness. Spooning soup wearily and without curiosity about those missing days, he recalled a sensation of glitter and gorgeousness, which meant he had spent time on a chaise in the dining room. Imprinted on his memory was the gleam of crystal, in bright sunlight let in through the muscadine, and that would have been the chandelier. He had a connecting memory of some green outdoors scent, lilies-of-the-valley, but not growing in spring's moist ground along the edges of the porch. He thought the scent had been Amelia's ritualistic perfume. He remembered opening his eyes and glimpsing her standing in some light-colored, sprigged dress, holding a white patent-leather pocketbook off which sun bounced as dazzling as snow.
Excerpted from The Wintering by Joan Williams. Copyright © 1980 Joan Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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