فصل 03

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فصل 03

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The next morning Aunt Mae got me up and dressed me for school. Mother was alright, but she was still sleeping, so Aunt Mae said she’d make me some breakfast. I never saw Aunt Mae do anything in the kitchen, and I wondered what she was going to fix. While I was washing my face, I heard her getting ready downstairs, slamming the icebox and walking back and forth in the kitchen.

When I came down, the food was on the table. She had a pile of biscuits in a bowl, so I took one and began to butter it. The bottom was all burnt, and the inside was still wet dough. I was hungry, though, because all I had the night before was the water and hush puppies. She brought a pan to the table with some brown fried eggs floating around in about two inches of fat. There was such a proud look on her face that I said, “Oh, Aunt Mae, those look good,” when I saw them. That made her happy, and we sat and ate the eggs and biscuits like they were real fine.

I got my books and the lunch Aunt Mae made for me and left for school. There were a lot of things on my mind. Where was Poppa? I thought he’d be back at the house in the morning, but I hadn’t said anything to Aunt Mae, and she didn’t talk to me about it. Then I remembered that I didn’t do the work in my copybook for Mrs. Watkins. I couldn’t get in any more trouble with her, so I put my books and lunch down by the side of the path and got my pencil out and sat down. I could feel the seat of my pants getting wet from the dew on the grass, and I thought how funny that was going to look. With the copybook slipping off my knee every time I went to write a letter, the page began to look bad. My A’s looked like D’s, and sometimes my commas slid all the way down to the next line. I finally finished it and got up and pulled the little wet blades of grass off my pants.

I still had to get off the hill and cross town to get to school. The sun was up pretty well now. That meant that there wasn’t too much time. Something felt heavy in my stomach, and I was sure it was those eggs and biscuits of Aunt Mae’s. With the taste of the eggs still in my throat, I began to belch, and belch hard. Belching always made my throat feel hot, so I started to breathe the cool hill air through my mouth. It made me feel a little better, but the burning was still way down, in my chest, and it stayed there.

I got off the hill onto a street and decided to take the shortest way I could. It was the street right behind Main where they had all the little restaurants and mechanics’ shops. Usually I went another way, through the pretty houses, because I liked it better.

Here they had old boxes in the gutter and old hubcaps and big garbage cans covered with flies that had such a strong smell I had to hold my nose when I passed. It was dark in the mechanics’ places, with old cars on wooden blocks or bodies without wheels hanging from chains. The mechanics sat around in the doorways waiting for some business, and every word they spoke had “Christ” in it or “damn” or something like that. I wondered why Poppa had never been a mechanic, and thought that maybe he had been at one time, or maybe his father, because he never told me anything about his family, my grandpeople.

The mechanics’ places were mostly tin garages with old oilcans out in front and in the alleys. When it rained there, the water in the gutters was never clear but had purple and green colors on it that made any kind of design you wanted when you moved the water with your finger. I don’t think the mechanics ever shaved, and I wondered how they got all the grease off their skin when they went home at night.

There was one of those little restaurants between almost every mechanic’s shop. They were named the DeLux Kitchen or Joe’s or Kwik-Meal or Mother Eva’s or other names like that. In front of every one there was a blackboard with the food they were having for the day, and it was always something like beans with rice or pork chops with beans or beans and chicken. I never knew how they could sell food so cheap, because there wasn’t any meal that cost more than fifty cents. It must have been that they didn’t have to pay much for the buildings they used.

The barroom was on this street too. All along the front they had fake marble with neon lettering around the door and windows. I never saw what it looked like on the inside because it was always closed when I passed in the morning. I don’t suppose anyone was meant to look above the first floor. The marble and neon stopped there, and the rest up to the roof was old weatherboards, brown and gray. There were three windows up there, big long ones that led onto a wooden balcony like all the old buildings in town had on the second floor. In the morning they were usually closed, but sometimes they were open and things were drying out on the balcony. They must have been women’s underwear, but not like any I’d seen at home. They were made out of black lace with little shiny red rosebuds sewed on them in different places. Sometimes there were sheets hanging out too, or pillowcases or black net stockings like no one in town wore. When I got to Mr. Farney’s room in school, I found out who lived there.

There were plenty empty lots along the street too, just like all over town. The only thing different was that they weren’t kept clean like the others. They had big weeds in them, and sunflowers and wild violets. The mechanics threw their old oilcans and car parts in them when there wasn’t enough room left in the alleys or the gutter. Next to the barroom they had one full of old rotting chairs and beer cases where about ten mangy cats lived. Of course the cats were all over here, in the empty lots and everywhere. They hung around the back doors of the diners for food, and you could always see them climbing in and out of the garbage cans with their ribs showing through their fur. I often thought of what a hard life these cats had and how if people only took care of them what nice pets they could be. They were always having kittens, but I knew what Poppa would do if I brought one home. Once I saw him throw a brick at a cat that was in our yard, a little one that I was trying to give some old meat to.

When I got to the end of this street, I just had to turn left to get to the school. The boys and girls were beginning to go in when I was about a block away, so I ran to be sure I wouldn’t be late. My face was all red, and I was out of breath by the time I got to Mrs. Watkins’. I was the last one to take my seat, which was in the front row “right under her eye.” She got down off her platform and came over to where I sat. I didn’t look up at her, but my eye followed the pattern on her dress, a bouquet of faded flowers.

“Well, class, we have someone who just got here on time today.”

I thought I could make out one of the flowers to be a daisy.

“He’s one of the poor folks that lives up in the hills and don’t have the money to buy an alarm clock.”

Some of her pets in the class giggled – the preacher’s daughter by his first wife, her niece, the boy who stayed after school to beat out the erasers. Now I saw that the flower wasn’t a daisy but really a white rose. She hit me with her knee.

“Get up.”

I stood up, and then everyone began to giggle, and I saw a terrible look come over Mrs. Watkins’ face.

“What’s everybody laughing at?”

She was mad at the whole class now, not only me, and then I remembered the seat of my pants and how it must have looked. Everyone stopped giggling and talking except her pets, who hadn’t started in the first place. The boy who cleaned the erasers raised his hand. Mrs. Watkins nodded at him.

“Look at the back of him.” He pointed at the wet of my pants.

I almost tried to pull my buttocks in when I heard him say that, but Mrs. Watkins had already spun me around. She looked happy to me.

“What’s the matter? Try to sleep in your clothes?”

Everybody screamed at this, even her pets, or maybe I should say, especially her pets. My throat was burning again, and all of a sudden I belched the loudest I’d ever heard anyone do it. Mrs. Watkins slapped me so hard I felt my head roll back on my shoulders. The ring she had from the auxiliary of the preacher’s church made a small cut on my cheek. She was holding on to me by the arm.

“I’ve never had a pupil like you, son. You know, the state doesn’t have to accept everyone into their schools. Did you know that? Well, you might find out about it soon enough. Come with me.”

She grabbed my books and my lunch and took me with her to the empty room. I was frightened the way she looked at me. There were two or three old chairs in the room and an old desk. When she had closed the door, she pushed me into one of the chairs.

“I’m going to report you to the state authorities, do you hear that? They’ll get you, son, they’ll get you. I hope the Lord will be merciful with you for your behavior to those trying to instruct you in His path. You and your family are fallen-away Christians. You are not on the church rolls anymore. I see that. I see all those things. You may remain in this room to meditate on your failings, and you will not leave until I come for you.”

She closed the door and left. I knew we didn’t go to the preacher’s anymore because we didn’t have any money to pay the church pledge. I wondered what she was going to do with me about the state authorities. Would I be put out of school because of Aunt Mae’s eggs? I tried to be mad at Aunt Mae, but I couldn’t. I just hoped that when I was put out of school they never told Aunt Mae why. She was probably belching at home right now, and she’d know.

I was wondering how long Mrs. Watkins was going to leave me in the room, too. The pants were beginning to dry, but the wet had soaked through and it was uncomfortable. I wanted to be outside in the sun where they could dry quicker through to my skin. There were two windows in the room, but one had no glass in it. A little air came through that one, so I tried to open the other, but it wouldn’t move.

After a while I got used to the smell in the room, but at first I didn’t know what to make of it. I looked all around and saw some old wine bottles in one corner, and I picked one up and smelled its sweet strong odor. But that wasn’t the only thing making the whole room smell the way it did. I can’t say what it smelled like. There was a little of the old wine smell, but there were other ones too. It smelled musty and dirty, and yet that cheap kind of perfume Aunt Mae used was there, and the smell of a cigarette and a leather jacket. Something was grating under my foot, and when I lifted it, the thing was a bobby pin. I knew none of the girls in school used bobby pins except some of the big ones in Mr. Farney’s room.

Through the door I could hear Mrs. Watkins down the hall in class, and I heard Mr. Farney’s funny high voice too. Miss Moore’s classes were out on a field trip into the hills to get some clay for modeling. There was a lock on the door, so I locked it and took my clothes off and hung my pants on one of the chairs to dry. It felt good to be naked, but I knew that no one better find me like that.

The sun was really up and coming in bright and strong through the open window. I had never stood naked in the sunlight, so I went to the window and let the yellow light fall on me. My body looked pale white except for my arms and face, and the breeze blew cool all around me.

I stood there for a long time looking out at the trees up on the hill and the blue sky with only a few clouds above the tallest pines. They moved slowly along, and I watched one all the way till it went behind the hill. I made one out to look like Aunt Mae’s face, then it turned into a witch and then into what looked like an old man with a beard before it passed away.

Suddenly I felt someone’s eyes on me, and there was a woman on the sidewalk with a bag of groceries staring at me. I jumped away from the window to get my clothes. They were dry, so I put them on. When I went back to the window she was gone, and I looked down the block and couldn’t see her. I wondered where she went and if she saw me well. No one ever saw me naked but Aunt Mae and Mother and Poppa. Maybe the doctor when I was born, and the nurses, and once when I went to the doctor to have him look at me. I don’t know why, but it makes you feel funny to have someone see you naked, it makes you feel nasty, though it shouldn’t.

Out in the yard I heard everyone coming out from their classes. I looked at the sun, and it was straight overhead, so it was lunchtime. I got out Aunt Mae’s lunch from under my books. She had it wrapped in a piece of newspaper with a rubber band around it. There were a few of the old hush puppies Mother made the night before and a sandwich with a little piece of ham on it. She didn’t put any butter on the sandwich, but there was a flower packed in the lunch from the little garden Aunt Mae had tried to grow. I knew it was the only flower that had come out from the little plants she had. It was only a few blue petals, and I don’t know what kind it was because I’d never seen such a weak-looking flower before. I took it back to her when I went home. She was so glad to have it back and so proud of it that I thought how nice it was of her to put it in my lunch when she thought it was so valuable.

Mrs. Watkins came out into the yard with our class and sat on a bench near the flagpole. I sat at the window and ate my sandwich, but she never looked over at where I was. I wondered if she called the state yet about me. If she would have just looked at me I could tell what she was thinking, but she never did, she just sat there and talked to Mr. Farney, although I knew she didn’t like him. Mr. Farney was surprised to have Mrs. Watkins talking to him, and he showed it on his face. She always talked to people about him. It helped to have Mrs. Watkins like you in town. Mr. Farney knew this, and he was agreeing with everything she said, at least that’s the way it looked from where I sat. He looked so uneasy I felt sorry for him.

I finished my sandwich and hoped I was outside and not in trouble. I picked up Aunt Mae’s flower, and it smelled nice but faint. It seemed like such a wrong flower to be hers. Aunt Mae was more like a big bright sweet-smelling flower to me. A red one, maybe, that had a strong smell like honeysuckle, but not quite so innocent.

After a while someone rang the bell, and everyone went inside again. I heard them moving along the halls outside the door in the sort of steady file of thump-thump that the classes always made. When it all got quiet, the teachers’ voices began again, Mrs. Watkins’ through the nose, Miss Moore’s, whose class had returned, sort of sweet, and Mr. Farney’s high and trailing. The sun was getting lower. I wondered if the people from the state were coming. They probably were at the capital, and it would naturally take a while to get to town.

It seemed like a day later when I heard school letting out. When the boy who cleaned Mrs. Watkins’ erasers finally left, I heard her coming down the hall. I wondered if she had the state people with her, but there was only one set of footsteps. She walked so slow toward the room that I prayed she’d hurry up and get it over with. All of a sudden she was rattling the doorknob, and then I remembered I forgot to take the lock off.

“Unlock this door.”

I jumped up and ran and pulled at the lock, but she was leaning against the door, and I couldn’t move it.

“I’ll give you one second to get this lock off. One second!”

I was so scared I couldn’t speak to tell her to stop pushing on the door.

“You don’t think I can knock this door down to get in, do you, you little devil? Well, I hear you in there fooling with the door. I’ll come in there and get you if it’s the last thing I do today!”

She must have moved back from the door to throw herself against it, because the lock slipped and I pulled the door open. Mrs. Watkins came flying into the room. She must have expected to fall against the closed door, and she came in so fast with such a strange look on her face and her arms folded. She couldn’t protect herself with her arms and fell over a chair onto the floor.

Before I could run away, she was up and had me by the collar. My heart was in my throat when I saw the horrible look on her face. Her cheek was red where she fell on it, and I could just see her little slit eyes full of tears through all the hair over her face. For a minute she just held me and breathed hot over me in quick, heavy breaths.

I could see the pain in her eyes. At least, that’s all I could make her expression out to be. When she opened her lips they were still half closed and almost stuck to each other they were so dry. At first she had been pulling at my collar, but now she was leaning on my shoulders with all her weight. Her big bony body was almost bent in half. “Get the doctor, go get him right away. Damn you, hurry!” I ran out of the room and heard Mrs. Watkins fall on the floor moaning. Never before in my life did I run as fast. The doctor was over on Main Street three blocks away. I ran through people’s backyards and got caught in clotheslines and frightened little children who were playing in the mud. When I told the doctor, he kited over to the school. I was hot and tired and walked back slowly. Some kids in the neighborhood saw the doctor running over to the school and followed him. When I got back there, they had almost more people around than in the whole town. The ones in my class were laughing and making jokes about Mrs. Watkins, but I didn’t feel like making jokes. I felt sick. Some asked me if I had done it, and I just didn’t say anything.

When I got to the empty room, they were just putting Mrs. Watkins on a stretcher. She moaned all the while and really screamed when they gave the final lift. I stood there and looked at her and felt sorry to see anyone who was so powerful suddenly be so weak and afraid. She saw me and motioned for me to come near the stretcher. When I got near, I saw the scared look in her face wasn’t all from pain. She grabbed ahold of my head and whispered in my ear.

“Don’t ever dare to tell anyone a word about this. You can get into plenty trouble if you do. Understand?” Her fingernails were digging into the flesh at the back of my neck. Her breath was hot and had the same bad smell. “Never a word to anyone.”

I nodded, half out of relief, and wondered why Mrs. Watkins had told me to be quiet. I thought I’d have to beg her to have mercy on me. I was a lot older when I learned what the State Board of Education would have done to her if I ever opened my mouth. When I think of how grateful I was then, it makes me laugh.

After they took Mrs. Watkins out, I got my copybook and Aunt Mae’s flower and left. A few people were still hanging around the school talking about the accident, which was now made out to be that Mrs. Watkins just tripped over a chair. The town people would have believed anything Mrs. Watkins said – that is, almost everyone except the newspaper editor, who was a pretty smart man from some college up east. When he wrote about the accident in a sort of suspicious way, there was talk that Mr. Watkins was going to get up a petition against him. It never came around, though, because I guess Mr. Watkins realized the newspaper was the only way he could put himself before the town people.

Some old ladies stopped me and told me what a fine lad I was to run for the doctor and show such concern for Mrs. Watkins’ welfare. The news about me was all over town by the time I got to Main Street. People who recognized me stopped and patted me on the head and kept me so long that it was dark by the time I got to the foot of the hill.

Then I remembered about Poppa and got to thinking about him and if he came home. The early stars were out. The moon was near the top of the hill as I looked up, and it was full and bright. It made the path and the leaves look silver, something like the early snow. Some night birds were already singing way up in the pines. One went che-woot, che-woot, che-woot in a long-drawn-out way that sounded like a dying person. I could hear that song ring out all over the hills as the other birds picked it up. Two or three flew across the moon going to meet some others in the tall pines on the north side of the valley. I wished I could fly and follow those birds and be two hundred feet above the hills and see into the next valley where I’d never been. Then I’d look back on the town from on top of the Renning smokestack. I’d look over the new town, too, and see all the new buildings I’d never seen and the streets I’d never walked on.

Nighttime was the time for all the little animals that lived in the hills to come out. They ran across the path every now and then, and sometimes I’d almost trip over one of them. It was strange that they were so scared of people when their real enemies were others of their own kind. I wasn’t mad at them, because I knew what it was like to be scared to your bones by someone, only I felt a little sorry for them because I didn’t have to worry about my enemy anymore.

When I got to the house it was all lighted up and Aunt Mae was sitting on the porch. I kissed her and gave her the flower, and she looked at it like it was her baby. The first thing I asked her was if Poppa was home.

She looked up from the flower and said, “Yes, he came home. He’s still out in the dark behind the house trying to plow the land. Mother’s got some food in the kitchen.”

Aunt Mae followed me into the house and asked why I was so late. I didn’t tell her the truth, but I told her that I got the doctor for Mrs. Watkins when she tripped over a chair and how people stopped to congratulate me. Aunt Mae beamed all over and said she was proud of me, even though Mrs. Watkins had hurt her many times.

Mother looked a little weak, but she was glad to see me. I didn’t think there would be anything in the house to eat after what I heard her say to Poppa. She said he sold some of his seeds and the rake, and that bought a little food. She was silent after a while. When Aunt Mae told her about me at school, she said, “That’s nice,” and got quiet again.

All the time I ate she just stared at the wall and ran her finger along the oilcloth. Aunt Mae seemed to understand that she didn’t want to speak, so I didn’t say anything either. It was one of the quietest meals I ever ate, but it didn’t make me sad. I was thinking that Mrs. Watkins had told me about the state authorities just to scare me and was planning to come into the empty room to really take care of me herself. I wondered what she would have done to me if she didn’t hurt herself. I wondered what she was doing right then in the hospital. Well, anyway, I wasn’t going to visit her to find out.

After a while I heard Poppa coming up the back steps. As soon as she heard him, Mother jumped up from the table and went upstairs. Just as he opened the back door, I heard one close above me. Poppa went over to the sink and washed his hands, and soon there was clay all over the faucet and thick tan water flowing into the drain. He wiped his hands on a dishcloth and went over to the stove. While he was looking in the pots I looked at Aunt Mae, and she was staring into the cup in front of her without any kind of look on her face. He filled up a plate and came and sat down at the table. He looked at me and said hello, and I nodded at him and tried to talk, but when I opened my mouth nothing came out of my throat. I felt embarrassed and wished I was upstairs with my train or out on the front porch or anywhere but where I was.

Aunt Mae must have seen the look on my face, because she said, “Let’s go out front,” and we left the kitchen. I sat on the steps, and Aunt Mae sat in a chair on the porch, the one she was sitting in when I came home. Mrs. Watkins’ home was dark down in town. There were no lights on, so Mr. Watkins must have been with her. I wondered if the state paid teachers when they were sick. Besides Mrs. Watkins not working, I thought of the hospital bills she was going to have to pay. I thought of how worried Mr. Watkins would be with his wife out of school. I wondered if he’d get a job somewhere in town.

Tonight wasn’t like the night before when it had been so still in the valley. A breeze was starting that soon turned into a wind. It was nice to sit on the steps and watch the pines on the far hills swaying against the sky. I looked around at Aunt Mae. Her yellow hair was flying all over her eyes, but she didn’t move to straighten it. Her eyes were on the town, I don’t know exactly what part. They were just staring down on the town.

It got dark on the porch after the clouds began to cover the moon. Pretty soon there was just a white glow in the sky covered by gray smoke. You could see the shadows of the clouds on the hills moving fast across the valley. Soon the whole sky was full of gray smoke from the south, and it looked like the valley had a gray lid on it. A rumbling began at the far hill and spread across the sky until it shook the house. The sky lit up off and on like one of the signs on Main Street, except without color, just a silver glow. The kind of cool breeze that always comes before a rain started up, and soon I could hear the first big drops on the porch roof and feel them hitting my knees. They hit the clay with a steady thump and made the cinders shine.

Aunt Mae and I got up and went inside. I went up to my room and sat on my bed and looked out at the pines swaying in the rain and thought how a day that started out so bad ended up so well.

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