فصل 02

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فصل 02

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Then we moved. Something went wrong at the factory and Poppa lost his job, so we had to move to an old farmhouse-like house up on a hill right where the town ended.

It was a tan and brown place, but the paint was so faded you couldn’t tell what color it was at first. There were so many rooms that we locked plenty of them up and never used them, and the whole place made me think of the hotel down in town, except it wasn’t quite so large. The furniture in the other house came with the price of the rent, so we really didn’t have any of our own worth mentioning, just things like the toilet seat Aunt Mae bought when she said the old one pinched.

About the saddest place was the living room, really the front room, with only an old couch Mother got from some friends and two old-fashioned chairs of Aunt Mae’s. At first we didn’t have any curtains, but Aunt Mae had some beautiful old stage costumes that she tore up to use instead. I can’t say that they looked bad, though, even if they weren’t wide or long enough for the big windows. Every window in the front room had a different curtain. The big one that looked onto the porch had one made out of an evening dress with big pink roses and lace. On one of the smaller windows Aunt Mae put a curtain she made out of a shroud she wore in some murder play, and on the other one she had a red satin costume from a minstrel show. When the sun came through all three windows, it made the room so red and bright that Poppa said it reminded him of hell, and he would never sit with us in there. I think this was because the curtains were Aunt Mae’s costumes, too, and he didn’t want the sun to shine on him through them.

Upstairs in the bedrooms we had some old beds someone had left in the house, and they were so hard and smelled so much that I never fell asleep till I had tossed around for about an hour. Anybody who got close to them could tell that they must have been used by little children ever since they were built. Aunt Mae got sick from the smell of her mattress the first night we slept there. She slept on the couch that night and then threw all of her powder on her bed the next day.

Inside the house there wasn’t much more to see, but you could see almost the whole country from the front porch. You could see our town down at the bottom of the hills, and over from the side of the porch you could see the county seat pretty well on clear days, and you could tell where it was anytime if you looked for the factory smokestack, because it was painted orange. There was a big black mark on it that was a big R when you got close to it. It stood for Renning, the people who owned the factory. I always remember the smokestack because Poppa would sit on the porch and look at it and say, “Those Rennings are the people that are keeping us poor. Damn those rich buggers. They’re the ones keeping this whole valley poor, them and the damn politicians they get elected to run us.” His work wasn’t too steady now, and he sat on the porch most of the time and looked out over the county.

Our own yard was just cinders and a few weeds that grew around the steps and the porch. It was hard to play in the yard because there wasn’t much to do, and if I fell down on the cinders they’d stick in my skin and have to be washed out with soap. I couldn’t play back in the hills either, because they were full of snakes, so I got used to playing on the porch and in the house. The only time the cinders were fun was when it rained. Then you could pack them tight like cement and make dams, which was easy to do with all the water that came down from the hills when it rained.

Rain was something we were always afraid of at the hill house. After we moved there, we heard that the other people left years before because the house was too dangerous when it rained. Of course the roof gave trouble, not having been taken care of in so long, but the real trouble was with the foundations. The hills were nothing but clay, and when the rain came down them, the foundations would sink in the soft mud. That’s why the cinders were in the yard, so that you could walk around there after a rain. If you went back into the hills after a rain, though, you had to wear boots.

When I first looked at the house, I could tell it was leaning and not straight, but it wasn’t until after the first spring we were there and the first real rain came that we knew why. All night that night the house rumbled, and we thought it was just the thunder. In the morning the kitchen had dropped down on one side and there was wet clay under the stove. We had plenty of empty rooms downstairs, so we made another room the kitchen and left the old one just dropping there at the back of the house in a crazy way. When the hurricanes came in off the Atlantic that fall, we lost that old room and half of the front porch too.

I set up my train in one of the empty rooms upstairs, and I made all kinds of scenery for it to pass through. I made a tunnel and a hill out of some old boxes, and made a bridge with some of the trellis that was nailed to the front porch for climbing roses. Everyone could tell that climbing roses would never grow in that clay and cinders. It made Aunt Mae mad, though, because she liked the trellis and said that she could sit and imagine there were roses on it, even if there weren’t.

My train was a beautiful thing, though. It ran all through the room. First it went under the tunnel, then over an old shoe box which I covered with crepe paper to make it look like a green hill, then it came down off the shoe box over the trellis bridge, which looked just like the steel bridge they had over the river at the county seat. From there it had a clear stretch over the floor in a circle and stopped back at the tunnel.

The same fall that we had the hurricane off the Atlantic was the fall I entered County Elementary. That was the name of the grade school down in town. It was far from our place. In the morning I had to go down the hill and across town to get to it, because it was at the foot of the range of hills opposite from ours. When it rained, I wore my boots to get off the hill. Then I had to carry them with me through town, and they were always wet and covered with clay, and they’d get me dirty and ruin my homework papers.

The school was a wooden building in the middle of a big yard that didn’t have any grass on it. It had four rooms. I went into the first, second, and third room, but they had a fourth, fifth, and sixth room and also a seventh and eighth. I don’t know what the last room was used for, but a big boy told me what happened there sometimes at night when he and his friends used it, and I didn’t understand what he was talking about.

There were three teachers, two women and a man. The man had the seventh and eighth room. He was from out of state, but the two women were from town. One was our neighbor when we lived in town, and she didn’t like Aunt Mae. I got her for my first teacher.

She recognized me right away and asked if the hussy was still living with us. I asked her what she meant, and she said that I should stop trying to pull her leg, that she knew my smart-aleck kind, that I was a perfect nephew for Aunt Mae, sly and tricky. When she said “sly and tricky,” it sounded like the kind of words the preacher at church used, and I didn’t like him. Her name was Mrs. Watkins. I knew her husband too, because he was a deacon at the church. I don’t know what he did for a living, but his name was always in the paper trying to make the county dry, trying to keep the colored people from voting, trying to take Gone with the Wind out of the county library because so many people were reading it and he just knew it was “licentious.” Someone wrote a letter to the paper asking if Mr. Watkins had ever read the book, and Mr. Watkins answered it saying that no, he would never lower himself to such a degree, that he “just knew” it was dirty because they were going to make a movie of it and therefore it had to be dirty, and that the man who had questioned his activities was an “agent of the devil.” All this made the people of the county respect him, and a group met in front of the library in black masks and went in and took Gone with the Wind off the shelf and burned it on the sidewalk. The sheriff didn’t want to do anything about it because he’d get into too much trouble with the people in town, and anyway, the election was next month.

Mrs. Watkins knew how the people felt about her husband after he did this to protect county morals, and whenever someone played around in the room, she’d say that she was going to talk to Mr. Watkins and see what he would do to punish such a person. This made all the playing in the room stop, because we were afraid Mr. Watkins would do to us what he did to the book. Anyway, at lunch one day the little boy who sat next to me told me that he was positive Mr. Watkins would burn anyone who was bad in his wife’s room. After this really got around, Mrs. Watkins had the quietest room you’ve ever heard, and it was the wonder of the other two teachers, because when someone finished three years so quiet in Mrs. Watkins’, he just naturally got a lot noisier in the next room.

Because she said I was a bad influence, Mrs. Watkins made me sit in the front row “right under her eye,” as she said. This made me mad at Aunt Mae, but then I realized I was happy that she hadn’t been friendly with Mrs. Watkins. I knew no one could be unless he was a deacon or a member of the Ladies’ Aid, and Aunt Mae didn’t like that kind either.

After a few days I began to notice that Mrs. Watkins was cross-eyed. That was something I had never noticed before, and when I told Aunt Mae, she laughed and laughed and said she hadn’t noticed it either.

I memorized Mrs. Watkins’ whole body the first week, along with a few pages out of the primer reader. Where I sat, my head came just a little above her knee, and I never felt a bonier knee in my life. I was just looking at her legs and wondering why she never shaved them the way Mother and Aunt Mae did when she hit me on the chin with her knee and told me to pay attention. My front tooth had been loose for a week, but I had been too afraid to let Mother or Poppa pull it out. When Mrs. Watkins’ knee hit, I felt it pop loose and I let out a little “ouch,” which I think pleased her. She didn’t know she had done me a favor, and I never told her. I kept the tooth in my mouth until after class, then I spat it out and kept it, and I looked in the mirror at home and saw the new one coming through.

I wondered why a woman had such a straight body, because both Mother and Aunt Mae were round, and you could lay against them and be comfortable. Mrs. Watkins was straight all the way, with two big bones sticking out near her neck. You never knew where her waist was. Some days her dress would make it look like it was at her hips, but then it would be up across her chest or else near to where a waist should be. She must have had a big navel, because thin dresses sank way in near her stomach.

One day she was bending down over my desk to correct a paper, and I smelled her breath for the first time. I didn’t know where I’d smelled that smell before, but I knew I had. I turned my head away and tried to cover my nose with my reader. That didn’t do any good, though, and I could still smell it on the way home. It was a kind of odor you can’t forget, the kind that reminds you of something or someone, like the smell of flowers always reminds me of funerals.

I don’t know what I learned that year with Mrs. Watkins, but whatever it was there wasn’t much of it, and I didn’t like what there was. With three classes in the same room, she could only spend a little time with each one. I do know that I learned to read a little, because the next summer when I went to the movies with Aunt Mae I could read the name of the movie and people in it pretty well. I could add, too, and knew how to print. Poppa said that was all I had to know and I didn’t have to go back the next fall. That was alright by me, but Mother wouldn’t let me listen to him. Poppa was trying to grow some crops back in the hills above the house, and he needed someone to help him plow the clay, and Mother said that was why he didn’t want me to go back to school.

When I heard that, I was glad to return in the fall, even if it was to Mrs. Watkins. Poppa couldn’t grow anything in the hills, and Mother knew it. Anything was better than having him sit on the porch all the time the way he did. He was working part-time down in town at a gas station, but the hours were short, and when he came home he just sat there on the porch and looked onto the town and back into the hills. I thought he was crazy when he said he was going to start farming up in the hills. When the clay hardened after a rain, it was like cement, and anyone would know that no seeds would be able to come through. Aunt Mae had tried to start a garden behind the house, but when she didn’t have time to water it, the mud got hard and began to crack just like it did all through the hills.

He spent all one week’s salary, and it wasn’t much, to buy some seeds and a little plow that a man could work by himself. He got a rake, too, and a shovel and a little hatchet to cut the small pines that grew all over. I was sitting in the front room doing my spelling for Mrs. Watkins the night he came home with all this. It was the regular pay night, and Mother had only some hush puppies and fried fish because it was near the end of the week and we didn’t have any money in the house. I had twenty-three cents in my bank, but Mother wouldn’t ever take that even though I had told her she could have it.

Aunt Mae was still upstairs, probably still sleeping from her afternoon nap. The sun was setting right behind the Renning smokestack, which looked like a black matchstick in front of an orange lightbulb. The sunset made the room look all orange, except for the bright light I was studying by. Outside I heard Poppa coming across the cinders in the front yard, making the heavy crunching sound that he always did, and there was a lighter crunch behind him. I saw him carrying some bags over his shoulder. Behind him was a colored boy with some big things wrapped in hardware paper. Poppa took these, and the boy went off across the cinders down to town.

“Mother.” I put my pencil down on my copybook. “Poppa’s here.”

I heard the fish frying back in the kitchen as she opened the door into the front room.

“Good, David.” She was wiping the greasy cornmeal on her apron. “He has his money with him.”

She hurried to the door and met him as he was about to open the door.

“Oh, Frank, what’s all that?” She looked at the bags over his shoulder and the big wrapped packages on the steps.

He walked past her and threw the bags on the floor near the kitchen door.

“Seeds, Sarah, seeds.”

“Seeds? What are they for? Frank, are you really going through with that crazy plan to grow things on the hill? What did you buy them with?”

“With the money I got paid at the gas station. All of it.” He turned away and started to go up the stairs, but Mother grabbed his arm, and a terrible scared look came into her eyes.

“All of it? All of the gas station money, Frank? No, no, you couldn’t do that, not for seeds that are never going to grow. What are we going to eat this week? There’s no more food in the house.”

He went up two more steps, but Mother grabbed him again.

“Damn it, let me go. I can spend my money like I want. There’s money to be made back in the hill, do you hear me, plenty money.”

“But you can’t use the money we live on to go after it, Frank. Take those seeds back to town tonight and get the money back.” Mother was hanging on to the cuff of his shirt. She was frightened now to let go of him.

“Get off me. Damn it to hell, get off. You can always get food for this week. Go sell some of Mae’s jewelry down at the barroom. There’s some women upstairs there that like that kind of stuff. Let me go!”

“Frank, you fool, you stupid fool. You have a son to feed. I can take anything you say, go ahead and say it. Call Mae what you want to. I know what you think of her. I just need the money. We have to eat. We can’t sit and starve and wait for a few seeds to work where even trees can hardly grow. There’s still time to get down to town and get your, our, money back. Oh, Frank, please, please.”

I saw Poppa’s knee coming up, and I called out for Mother to get off the stairs. She was crying and didn’t hear me, and Poppa’s knee was already at her chin. She screamed and rolled backward down the stairs. I got to her just as she reached the floor. The blood was already flowing out the sides of her mouth.

When I looked up, Poppa was gone, and since he hadn’t passed me, he must have gone upstairs. Aunt Mae was coming down the stairs to where Mother and I were. Her eyes were wide.

“David, what happened?” she called. She didn’t come any lower, and I thought it must have been the blood on Mother’s chin that frightened her. She was afraid of blood or anything like that.

“Aunt Mae, come down quick. Mother’s hurt, and I don’t know what to do.” Mother was moaning and rolling her head from side to side. Aunt Mae was crying now. The noise must have got her up, because her hair was all loose and hanging in her face, and through her tears I could see her eyes all sleepy and surprised.

“You must call a doctor, David, that’s all. I wouldn’t know what to do for her.” She began to cry harder, and it made me feel frightened.

“But you can just help me to move her, Aunt Mae, then I can call the doctor.”

“Alright, David, I’ll come down, but forget about the doctor. I don’t think there’s any money in the house to pay him with.”

Aunt Mae came down the stairs shaky. Her face was white, and her hands couldn’t keep a hold on the rail. She took Mother’s feet, and I took the head, and we moved her to the old sofa in the front room. Mother moaned and kept rolling her head.

“Look in her mouth, Aunt Mae, that’s where it’s bleeding from.” I was holding Aunt Mae by the arm because she was about to go back upstairs.

“No, David, no. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared. She might be dying.”

“Just look in her mouth, Aunt Mae. That’s where the blood is coming from.” I must have really looked anxious, or half mad, if someone can look that way at seven years old. Anyway, Aunt Mae stopped pulling away from me and said, “Alright.”

She opened Mother’s mouth and stuck her finger slowly in. At that moment Mother moaned again and closed her teeth. Aunt Mae screamed and pulled her finger out fast. When she had quieted down enough, she stuck it back in again and said, “I don’t know, David, but all I can see and feel is that a tooth has been knocked out. Let’s pray that it isn’t anything more.”

Later, when we had Mother upstairs, Aunt Mae got around to asking me what started all this. I began to tell her, but I remembered Poppa hadn’t passed me on the stairs earlier. I jumped up and started going through all the upstairs rooms. Poppa was nowhere, so I went back to Mother’s room and told Aunt Mae that Poppa was gone.

“When I heard all the crying and noise, I got out of bed and was almost knocked down by your father running through my room. He went out the window onto the porch roof,” Aunt Mae told me as she changed the ice pack on Mother’s cheek to another place. Mother hadn’t come around yet, but she was mumbling and her eyes were flittering.

Then I wondered what had happened to Poppa. I didn’t want to see him again, but I was curious to know where he had gone. I went downstairs and onto the porch. All his things that he bought were gone. The moon was shining so white on the cinders in the yard that they were shining like diamonds. It was a still night in the valley, and the pines on the hill were swaying just ever so slightly. Down in town people’s lights were going off in their windows, leaving only a few neon lights on Main Street still burning. I could see the big neon Bible all lighted up on the preacher’s church. Maybe it’s lighted up tonight, too, with its yellow pages and red letters and big blue cross in the center. Maybe they light it up even if the preacher isn’t there.

I could see the old section where we used to live, even the exact house. There was somebody new living in it now. I thought about how lucky they were to have a nice house in town without cinders in their yard and four feet of clay under that. Mrs. Watkins lived next door. All the lights were out there. She always told us how early she went to bed. She never had any fighting in her house. She got a nice check from the state for teaching school, too, so she never had to fight with her husband over that.

I leaned back against the porch post and looked at the sky. All the stars were there. It was such a clear night that you could even see some that you only saw about once or twice a year. My legs were beginning to get cold from the air that was setting in, and I wished I was old enough to wear long pants. I felt little and small from the cold and the stars, and I was frightened about what was going to happen to us with Poppa gone. My nose began to hurt in the tip. All of a sudden the stars got all blurry as the tears filled up my eyes, and then I began to shake hard from the shoulders, and I put my head on my knees and cried and cried.

The last neon sign on Main Street was just going out when I got up to go into the house. My eyes felt funny because my lashes were stuck together and the lids were sore. I didn’t lock the front door. Nobody in the valley ever locked their door at night or any other time. The seeds were gone from where Poppa had put them near the kitchen door, so he must have come to get them when Aunt Mae and I were upstairs taking care of Mother. I wondered if Poppa had gone forever. I wondered where he was now. Back in the hills, or maybe down in town somewhere.

All of a sudden I realized I was hungry. In the kitchen the hush puppies that Mother had made were on the table in a bowl. I sat down and ate some and drank a little water. The fish were in the pan where Mother turned off the fire when Poppa came in, but they were cold and greasy and didn’t look very good. Over my head the one bulb that hung from the electric cord was pretty greasy too, and it made long shadows after everything and made my hands look white and dead. I sat with my head in my hands and ran my eyes over the design in the oilcloth on the table again and again. I watched the blue checks turn into the red and then into the black and back into the red again. I looked up at the light-bulb and saw blue and black and red checks before my eyes. In my stomach the hush puppies were heavy. I wished I hadn’t eaten anything.

Upstairs Aunt Mae was covering Mother as I came into the room.

“She’ll be alright, David,” Aunt Mae said when she saw me in the doorway. I looked at Mother, and she seemed to be sleeping.

“What about Poppa, Aunt Mae?” I was leaning on the door.

“Don’t worry about him. There’s nowhere else for him to go. We’ll have to take him back when he shows up, though I can’t say how I want to.”

It surprised me to hear Aunt Mae talk like that. I’d never heard her talk sensible that way before. I always thought she was afraid of Poppa, and here she was deciding what to do about him. I felt proud of her. She made me lose some of the frightened feeling I had. Behind her the moonlight was shining into the room so that it made her look all silvery around the edges. Her hair was down on her shoulders, and the light made every separate hair shine like a spider’s web in the sun.

Aunt Mae looked big and strong. Just standing there, she looked like a big statue to me, a silver one, like the one in the park in town. She was the only one in the house that could help me, the only strong person older than I was. I ran to her all of a sudden and stuck my head in her stomach and held my arms tight around her back. She felt soft and warm and like something I could hold on to that would take care of me. I felt her hand on my head, petting me softly. I squeezed her tighter until my head went in her stomach so much that it hurt her.

“David” – she ran her hand down my back – “Are you afraid? Everything will be alright. When I was on the stage, I was hurt worse than you are now. I was never really very good, David, as an entertainer. I always knew that, but I loved the stage, and I loved to have the spotlights blinding me and the noise of a band under me. David, when you’re on a stage and you’re singing and you can feel the beat of the band shaking the boards on the stage, you feel like you’re drunk. Yes, you do, baby. The stage was like liquor to me, like beer or whiskey. It hurt me at times, just like liquor hurts a drunk man, but it hurt me in my heart, that’s what made it different. I was lucky whenever I got a job in some little dance hall in Mobile or Biloxi or Baton Rouge. What did I get paid? Just enough to live in a cheap hotel and buy a new costume now and then.

“There were times, David, when I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from. Then I went into the dime store in whatever town I was and got a job. The last few years they wouldn’t even give me a job there because they want young girls, and I had to work as a cleanup woman in the hotel I was staying in to get enough money to leave town. Then I’d do the same thing in the next town usually.

“I never sang good, honey, but when I was younger at least I was better-looking. Sometimes I could get a job just because I looked good in my clothes. The men liked me then. They came just to see me, and I went out a lot. They made promises, and I believed the first few, but after I saw how I was fooled, I was hurt, hurt so that I thought my heart would break. Then I couldn’t hope to be honest to any man by letting him marry me, because you see, he’d be getting a used-up piece of goods, so to speak. After that there was nothing but my career, and that was slowing down. I couldn’t take any more after those last ten years. No one would give me a job, not even some of those men who had made promises to me. The ones I had given so much to wouldn’t answer the phone when I called. They had all married other girls and had grandchildren. Those were the times when I sat in my hotel rooms and cried on the smelly pillows. All the other women my age could look out their kitchen window and see the wash drying on the line, but all I could see out my hotel window was a dirty alley full of old papers and lushes’ broken wine bottles and garbage cans and cats and dirt. Was I hurt then, David? I wanted to commit suicide with the old rusty razor blades in those cheap bathrooms. But I wouldn’t let those other people make me kill myself.

“The last job I had before I came to live with you all was in a real dump in New Orleans. I don’t know why the man hired me, because he was a real tough dago with an eye on the cash register. He had about five girls he got from the bayous around town who did strips. They took their clothes off while three or four hopheads played some music. He got a lot of seamen from the boats in town for customers. They sat right under the stage and grabbed at the girls’ ankles while they danced, or moved around, anyway, because they were just Cajun girls who came to the city on a promise and fell for it the way I did once.

“It was my second night there, and I didn’t feel like going on because the musicians were so full of dope they played my music all wrong the night before. I had to keep the job, though, because I owed on my room and I needed some cash. When I went out, the lights were on me and the music was beating, and I felt better. The sailors were noisy that night like always, but there was one big one sitting near the door who began to laugh and call at me when I started singing. I was just going into the second chorus when I hear the dago shout from behind the bar, ‘Watch out, Mae!’ Before I knew what he was yelling about, I felt something hit me hard on the head. It turned out that sailor threw a beer bottle at me, a big, thick brown thing. Those Cajun girls were so good to me, honey. They paid for the doctor who brought me to and fixed my head, and they paid the hotel and got me a train ticket when I said I wanted to come here.

“I was hurt that all those years ended that way. I wanted to be happy with you all here, but I’ve made the people in the town hate me, and I didn’t want for that to happen. I’ve always dressed bright, and maybe I went on the stage to show off, but no one ever paid any attention to me in the cities. Here I’ve been just a sore thumb, David, you know that. I know what they think of me here, and I didn’t want them to.

“I never told anyone these things, David, not even your mother. Maybe it was good to save them for now when I could show you how small your hurt is next to all the ones I have.”

I looked up into Aunt Mae’s face. I couldn’t make out the expression on it in the shadows, but the moonlight shining on her cheeks showed how wet they were. I felt a warm drop fall on my forehead, and it tickled as it ran down my face, but I didn’t move to wipe it off.

“Come on, David, you can sleep with me tonight. I feel lonely.”

We went to Aunt Mae’s room, and she helped me take off my clothes. I waited by her window while she put on her nightgown which she always wore. I felt her come up beside me.

“David, do you pray every night before you go to sleep?”

I told Aunt Mae that I did sometimes, and I wondered why she wanted to ask me a question like that. I didn’t think she ever thought about praying.

“Come kneel with me by the window, David, and we’ll pray that your mother feels well tomorrow and that nothing happens to your Poppa tonight and that you and I. . . that you and I won’t be hurt too bad tomorrow or ever again.”

That seemed like a beautiful prayer, so I looked out the window and began, and my eye fell on the neon Bible below and I couldn’t go on. Then I saw the stars in the heaven shining like the beautiful prayer, and I began again, and the prayer came out without even thinking, and I offered it up to the stars and the night sky.

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