فصل 06

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فصل 06

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Six

Then the war was over. The paper had headlines six inches high, and the drugstore gave away free firecrackers that everybody shot off on Main Street. It was summer, and it was hot in the valley. In the summer there wasn’t any breeze. It was just still and hot. I sat on the porch and listened to the firecrackers down in town. You could hear them all over the valley, even from the county seat. When night came the whole town lighted up except a few houses where men had been killed, like ours. I could sit there and pick them out. The big gray one on Main Street where the woman’s husband was killed in Germany, the small old one where a colored woman lived whose son was killed on some island, one or two clean white ones on the street where the rich people lived, a house on the hill across from us where an old maid’s brother was killed who was a bachelor and lived with her, and some others I didn’t know about but just saw the dark space in between all the other lights.

That night was just like the day had been, hot and still, even in the hills. I could hear radios playing loud from down in town. Some had the baseball game, but most were listening to the news about the end of the war. Our radio was playing upstairs where Mother and Aunt Mae were listening to it, but it was some waltz music from someplace in New York. Down on the streets people were still going to one another’s house or meeting on the street and laughing. The preacher’s Bible was on like always. Once in the war we had an air raid practice in the valley and he got into trouble with the sheriff because he wouldn’t turn it off. The preacher was probably glad the war was over too. While it was going on, not many people attended, not even the ones who stayed with him after the Bobbie Lee Taylor thing.

The next day everybody’s clothesline was full of bedclothes and shirts for the husbands and brothers and sons who were coming home. By the time Christmas came, plenty were home. They all had babies from the girls they married on their furloughs. Everybody had up a Christmas tree but us and those other houses where the lights weren’t on the night the war was over. They still had their service flag in the window where they didn’t want to or forgot to take it down. We still had ours on the front door too. None of us wanted to touch it.

By the next spring the seedling pines in Poppa’s cleared land were getting tall and beginning to look like real pines. Down in town all the babies were beginning to walk, and there were new ones coming in. When I walked home from Mr. Farney’s class in the evening all the girls were out on the front porches where they lived with their parents or their husband’s parents, and I could see they were all going to have other babies soon too. Almost all the soldiers were in then. Some of them went off to the college at the capital with their wives and babies, but plenty stayed right in town because they hadn’t even been to the high school at the county seat.

Mr. Watkins wrote a letter to the paper that he had never seen so many pregnant women on the streets and that he was disgusted with the sight of them. Then the paper got a lot of letters from the pregnant women asking him what they were supposed to do about it. One woman wrote she was curious to know why Mr. Watkins and his wife never had any children. The next Sunday night Mrs. Watkins got on the preacher’s radio program and said she was glad she never had any children to have to bring up in this sinful world alongside of the kind of children that woman would have.

Some of the men came back to the valley with women they married in Europe. The town people wouldn’t have anything to do with them, so they all got together and moved to the capital. On the radio the preacher said it was good riddance and that he didn’t want to see the good American blood of the valley lose its purity. That won a lot of the town people back to his side, so pretty soon the church rolls were filled again and kept on growing. Some got together in the church hall and organized a society to keep the valley blood pure and Christian and free from the heathen blood that might ruin it and bring damnation to the valley. Not everyone in town joined it, but it had a pretty big membership. It met once a week for a while until all the soldiers who weren’t killed got home, and then they didn’t need it anymore.

Some of the killed men started coming home too. They delivered them at the station just like mail. About once a month one would come to the valley, but just his people went to get the body. No one thought too much about the dead ones. The living ones were all over with their new babies and families. I don’t guess anyone wanted to think about the ones who came to the station in the long wooden boxes. Anyway, no one did, except maybe the newspaper editor, who always had something in the paper about it when one came in. The women who hadn’t cried since they heard about their son or brother or husband getting killed cried all over again when the bodies came in at the station. Then they were put in somebody’s truck and taken to the graveyard up in the hills. Sometimes I’d see one of those trucks going down Main Street with a woman sitting up front crying and a man driving with the long box bumping in the back. The little children would run away when they saw one coming because it frightened them. After they got out of town, they turned up the north hill to the graveyard. If the woman was on the preacher’s rolls, they’d stop at the church to get him to go with them. Then they came down from the hill about an hour later and left the preacher off, and the woman was still crying.

Poppa never did come home. They buried him in Italy somewhere. Mother got a picture of the place. It was nothing but rows and rows of white crosses, and Mother wondered which one was Poppa’s. Aunt Mae had to hide the picture from her because she just sat down and looked at it and said, “Maybe this one,” and pointed, or “It could be that one, Mae,” or she’d ask Aunt Mae which one she thought it was. When she couldn’t find the picture, she got mad, so Aunt Mae had to give it back to her. Pretty soon it was all torn and yellow, and the crosses were smeared and greasy from Mother rubbing her finger across it. When Aunt Mae went out to sing at night, I’d sit with Mother and watch her look at the picture. She never even knew I was there, but just sat and felt the picture, and then she’d turn it over and look on the back and laugh when she saw there wasn’t anything there. I knew I shouldn’t be frightened of my own mother, but I was, and I’d wait for Aunt Mae to come home and hope she’d hurry up.

The war plant closed, so Aunt Mae didn’t have her job anymore. The only money she made was at night when the band went out. She tried to get a job down in town, but all the men who returned had all the jobs. The only thing she could do was be a maid for the rich people who lived on the street to the north, and Aunt Mae didn’t want a job like that. All the colored girls would call her white trash if she took a job like that, so she stayed around the house while I was away at school and helped Mother, who couldn’t seem to do anything anymore. Mother would begin to clean and then go get the picture from her room and sit and look at it, or else she burned the food when she tried to cook and didn’t even smell it to take it off the stove. One day Aunt Mae told her to go sit on the porch while she worked in the house. When I got home from school that afternoon, Aunt Mae ran down the path to get me with a wild look in her eyes. I was scared when I saw her coming and didn’t know what was wrong. She grabbed me by the shoulders and said she told Mother to go sit on the porch and now she couldn’t find her. That strange feeling ran up my legs and stopped, the one I always get when I’m scared. I told Aunt Mae I didn’t see her coming up the path. We went back to the house and looked all over, but we couldn’t find her. It was getting dark. Mother was nowhere in the house, so I went up into the hills to walk around and try to think where she could be. I walked through the old place that Poppa had cleared. The pines there were a fine size now. The twilight was always pretty in the pines. I stopped and looked around and thought I heard something by the base of one of them. It was Mother digging at the ground. She looked up and saw me and turned back to the pine and smiled.

“Oh, David, aren’t your father’s cabbages growing big! I never thought his vegetables would get anywhere in all this clay, but just look. Big, big cabbages your poppa grew.”

Aunt Mae got up in the mornings now and made my lunch for school. She learned more about cooking by now and didn’t do so bad. When I got off she dressed Mother and let her go outside.

In school I was almost out of Mr. Farney’s, which meant I was almost out of grade school. Mr. Farney was different from the other people in the valley. I heard he was from Atlanta, but that wasn’t why he was different. It was the way he acted that made him strange. He didn’t walk like the other men did. He walked more like a woman who swayed her hips. You could always tell Mr. Farney by his walk, no matter what clothes he was wearing and even if his back was turned to you. He had small feet that sort of pointed in when he walked. He had thin black hair that just lay soft on his head like a baby’s. The main thing about Mr. Farney that was different when you saw him was his face. I knew he was almost thirty, but his skin was smooth, and you could see thin blue veins in his forehead and his nose and on his hands. His eyes were the clearest blue you ever saw and were big and wide. Everything else about him was thin, his nose, his mouth, and his body. No matter whether it was warm or cold his ears were always red, and you could almost see through them in some places.

If he wasn’t so smart the boys in our class would have laughed at him. They talked about him all the time, but they never did anything in class. He could recite anything in the line of a poem or something from a famous book, and no one else in town even read poems or many books. Sometimes he wrote poems himself. The editor of the paper would print them, but nobody knew what they meant. Oh, some people who thought they were smart said they did, but I knew they didn’t. His poems didn’t rhyme like everybody thought they should, so Mr. Watkins wrote a letter to the editor and asked him to stop printing that trash. The editor was from up east, though, and said the poems were very good but that only a small group could understand and appreciate them. Mr. Farney took this out of the paper and put it on the board in the room.

Mr. Farney liked plants. All over the windowsills in the room he had them in pots and jars. When one started to droop, he could just touch it with his thin fingers full of the light blue veins, and pull off the bad leaves so that the plant hardly shook at all, and the next few days he had it standing up straight again. He liked violets more than anything else because he told us they were shy and delicate. He could take violet plants and pick the violets right out from under the leaves where nobody else could ever find them.

Mr. Farney lived in a little house in town with another man who gave music lessons. It was painted blue and white and had pink curtains in the front windows. Both of them never were in the war. They were some of the few men who were left in town. The people who took music lessons from the other man said the house was pretty on the inside and had all light-colored things in it and plenty plants in pots. Mr. Farney’s garden was the prettiest in town. Women used to ask him about how to grow this and that, and he always helped them because he was a very nice person. Mr. Farney called the other man “dear” once when they were in the drugstore together. Everybody heard about it sooner or later, and some laughed and some shook their heads and some wanted to see him leave the valley. But he was the best teacher our school ever had, so nothing ever came of it.

Maybe you would have thought Mr. Farney was alright if you didn’t hear him talk. He sort of emphasized some words more than others, and he’d take a deep breath before he said anything. When he was talking, you always watched his hands because he used them a lot.

“Now,” he would say, “I hope you all can sit still for just a little minute while I get this record on. I do wish the state would send us a phonograph worth mentioning. The one I have at home is so much better. There. This is one of my own records, and it is a Beethoven quartet, Opus Eighteen, Number One. Notice the homogeneity of interpretation. Oh, I do wish that boy in the third row would stop leering at me. It’s only English that I’m speaking. Tomorrow we must have a vocabulary review. Do remind me.”

Nobody laughed at Mr. Farney when he spoke. He knew too much about things like classical music that we didn’t know. I did think we had a little too much music that last year, though. That and poems. The poems he read to us were better than the music because most of them were pretty, but some of the music he played for us sounded off key, or like the instruments in the band were trying to outdo each other. Mr. Farney liked it, though, so it must have been good. One poem he read to us he made the whole class learn, and we recited it at graduation. It was by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the only thing I knew he wrote was “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which we learned for Miss Moore because she said it was the only poem she ever heard that she liked. This one was different from “Paul Revere’s Ride.” It was the only beautiful thing I ever heard, especially one part:

Then read from the treasured volume

The poem of thy choice.

And lend to the rhyme of the poet

The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music,

And the cares, that infest the day,

Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

And as silently steal away.

I recited it for Aunt Mae, and she said it was beautiful, just like I thought. I didn’t tell anybody in school that I liked it, or they would have thought I was crazy. Everybody learned it because they had to, but they thought it was stupid and wanted to sing a song instead. Mr. Farney said we could sing a song too, so that made them feel better. The class voted to sing “Dixie.”

Our graduation night was really nice. Aunt Mae went with me and got that woman she knew from the time she worked at the plant named Flora to stay with Mother. Flora was happy because her son came back and married some girl from town instead of a Chinee like she thought he might. They lived with her down in town and had two children. One of them looked like Flora herself, the little boy.

We had the graduation in the hall on Main Street they always used for graduations and wedding receptions. All the lights were on, and they had flowers on the platform and twenty chairs out for our class to sit on. After Aunt Mae got her seat out front, I went up on the platform and sat where Mr. Farney had told me to. Some of the others in my class were already up there, and we said hello. We had been in the same class ever since Mrs. Watkins’ room. I had on a suit we just bought and one of Poppa’s old shirts. I was the first man in my family to get through eighth grade. Aunt Mae was sitting in about the fourth row. She had on a big hat that tilted to one side and a dress with yellow flowers all over it. A few little yellow curls came down on her forehead to right above her eyebrow. I thought of how good she looked for her age. The only thing wrong was her eyes. They looked tired and sad.

I saw all the people I knew sitting out there. Mr. and Mrs. Watkins were sitting next to the preacher, who was going to give a prayer tonight, but she looked up at the ceiling when she saw me looking at her. Miss Moore was in the front row where she could hear what was going to happen. Her old mother was with her, and she was deaf too, but she had a hearing aid she got in the capital sticking out of her ear, with the cord from it hanging down the front of her dress. One of the women who testified at Bobbie Lee Taylor’s the night I went was sitting in the back talking to a little boy who must have been hers. Bruce, the little boy Poppa sent me over to visit, was graduating with me. I saw his mother out front, and she saw me, and we just stared at each other. When Poppa lost his job, Bruce’s father stopped being friends with him. I looked back at Aunt Mae and saw that the old man who had the band was sitting next to her and they were talking. I wondered what he was doing at my graduation. Aunt Mae smiled at him a little bit, and I knew he must have been telling jokes. He always told jokes. I never liked people who always were telling jokes, especially ones like he told that weren’t even funny, and ones where they tried to imitate people like he tried to imitate Negroes that didn’t even sound like Negroes. I know Aunt Mae didn’t like him either. She told me so. She’d look at him and listen and smile and then turn her head away and make a face in the other direction.

Pretty soon everybody was there, so we started. Mr. Farney sat at the piano. The preacher got up and started to pray. His back was to me, and I noticed how it was getting round. I thought of how old he must have been getting. He was almost fifty years old when we dropped off the rolls, and that was when we moved onto the hill. He divorced his first wife right before the war ended because he said she drank. He married again a little while later. His second wife was an organ player at some church in Memphis where a friend of his was minister. She was in her twenties and pretty but a little fat. They got married right on the preacher’s radio program by his friend. After it was over the friend started joking about what a good organ player he lost, and I turned off the radio. I don’t know what happened to his first wife, but Aunt Mae told me she and her daughter were living in New Orleans, where the daughter was going to a Catholic school.

When the preacher finished we all sat down, and Mr. Farney talked about what a fine class we were and said he was glad to have had us for pupils. All the parents clapped. Then we sang “Dixie,” and everybody sang with us, and Mr. Farney was wrinkling his nose at the piano. Then Mr. Farney gave us a certificate saying we had satisfactorily completed grade school and could enter any state high school with it, and he hoped we would do just that. We pledged allegiance to the flag and recited the poem. Everybody recited it too fast and ruined the whole thing. Then I was out of grade school.

I passed Miss Moore, and she said she was proud of me, and I went over to where Aunt Mae was waiting. She kissed me, and I looked around to see if anybody saw her, and I could feel myself turning red. Aunt Mae didn’t see me do this, though. She was looking for something in her purse. When she brought it out, it was something wrapped like a present. I opened it up, and it was a watch, a real new one that must have cost at least thirty dollars. I thanked her and wondered where she could have got the money to buy it.

We went outside in the still night. It wasn’t too hot, because the real hot weather didn’t come to the valley until August, but it was just still with the sound of some kind of bug I didn’t know the name of. People were coming out of the hall and nodding at Aunt Mae. Everybody knew her from her singing. I started to walk toward the hill, but Aunt Mae said, “Over here, David. Clyde’s going to drive us to the hill.” I hadn’t noticed that he’d been with us all the time. There he was standing next to Aunt Mae. I wanted to walk, but I went with them to his truck.

“Here, David, get in.” Aunt Mae held the door open for me, and I got up on the running board.

“No, Mae, there ain’t enough room for him up here. Get in the back, boy, but watch out for my fiddle.” Then I heard him say to Aunt Mae, “I bet he’d rather ride in the back than up here with us.”

“You can ride up here if you want, David.” Aunt Mae leaned out of the door. I knew Clyde didn’t want it, so I said no and climbed up in the back. We started off, and I sat with my legs hanging down the tailgate. Main Street passed behind me. I looked down at the street and saw it flowing like the river flowed under the bridge at the old war plant when it was flooding. Cars going the other way passed by, and I watched them until their taillights turned into small red points down by the base of the other hill. The truck had a canvas roof and sides, so I couldn’t see the stars or the houses passing alongside. Clyde’s fiddle was hitting up against my back. I got mad that I didn’t get up front like Aunt Mae said. I wanted to ride in a truck, but not in my suit with that big fiddle. I looked through the little window in the back of the cab where Clyde and Aunt Mae were. Clyde kept leaning over and trying to get his face under Aunt Mae’s hat. Aunt Mae was almost out her door. I wondered if Clyde was watching the road. I never thought old men still liked women. The boys at school said they couldn’t do anything anyway, so I wondered about Clyde again. He must have been a few years older than Aunt Mae, and she was getting old. The truck started going slower and slower.

Clyde kept his head under Aunt Mae’s hat for almost a block. I heard Aunt Mae say something loud, and he came from under her hat and looked back at the road. Then a car went by the truck so close the canvas shook. I heard Aunt Mae really curse up front.

The truck stopped. We were at the bottom of the hill. I jumped down and just grabbed Clyde’s fiddle before it fell out too. When I had it back in, I walked around to the door. Aunt Mae was saying, “Alright, Clyde, a little while.” I put my hand on the door handle to let her out, but she said to me, “Look, honey, go wait there by the path for me. I’m going to stay here with Clyde for a while. Now, don’t go off, you hear. I don’t want to walk up the path alone. I won’t be too long.” She was going to say something else, but Clyde pulled her away from the window, so I went over to the path and waited.

The honeysuckle was thick around the old stumps there. It smelled wonderful and strong on the heavy, still air. There wasn’t any breeze to blow it away the way it did sometimes. It just hung around there and got in your nose. I sat on one of the stumps and picked a few of the little flowers and smelled them, but you couldn’t tell the difference from the air all around. The moon was shining on the honeysuckle and me and Clyde’s truck. I looked over there once, but Clyde and Aunt Mae weren’t sitting up. I couldn’t see either one of them in the cab. I just saw the tip of Aunt Mae’s hat sticking up by the window. I wondered what they were doing, and then I thought of when Aunt Mae went with George when I was little. I wondered if they did what the boys said at school. Aunt Mae was so old, though. She was sixty before we ever moved into the hills, and that was eight years ago when I went into Mrs. Watkins’ for the first time.

I sat on the stump and looked up at the moon and down at Clyde’s truck and smelled the honeysuckle, and I felt like I never felt before in my life. The warm air was all around me, sweet and still. It was so quiet and dark over by Clyde’s truck. Clyde was doing something I never had done or even thought about much. Some of the boys at school went out with girls to the movies, but I never had. I never thought about taking one out. I didn’t know any, living in the hills away from most of the town. I wondered if they’d like me if I asked them to go out. I was fourteen, and I never thought what I looked like. I knew I was getting tall, though.

Then I looked down at the watch Aunt Mae gave me, and I looked over at the truck. I heard her talking now, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I didn’t hear Clyde, but I could hear somebody breathing. Then Aunt Mae was quiet again. The watch said exactly eleven-thirty. I set it by the clock on the drugstore next to the hall where we had the graduation, and it was still running. It was hurting my wrist, so I loosened the leather band and wondered if it was real leather. Since the war everything was synthetic. They said after the war we were going to have plastic houses and helicopters, but I never saw any, and I wondered if they had them in New York. That was where they had everything. I looked at the watch. It was ten of twelve. Clyde’s truck was still quiet. I was getting mad at him. We should have been at the house about an hour ago to see how Flora was doing with Mother. Then Aunt Mae’s hat came up all the way. I heard her cough. Clyde came up by the wheel. Aunt Mae said, “Good night, Clyde.” She opened the door. Clyde didn’t say anything but just started the motor. Aunt Mae got off the running board and closed the door. I heard Clyde trying to shift gears, but his truck was old, bought before the war, and he wasn’t having too much luck. Aunt Mae walked over to where I was standing. She took my wrist and looked at the time and said, “Gee.” We stood there and watched Clyde trying to get into first. The motor and the noise of the gears broke the still and the honeysuckle so much I wanted to go over and tell him to be quiet. I looked at Aunt Mae, and she was looking at the truck with that line around her mouth she always got when she was mad. Clyde got going at last. We watched him go off with his fiddle bouncing in the back.

We walked up the path. Aunt Mae said the honeysuckle smelled better than Clyde’s breath. I didn’t answer her because I didn’t know what to say to something like that. We walked on a while longer, and I looked down at some of the houses where I knew they were having graduation parties. I wasn’t invited to any. I stopped Aunt Mae and turned so the moonlight fell on my face, and I asked her how I looked. She looked at my face for a while, and then she put her hand at the back of my neck and said I was going to be fine-looking in about a year or so. My body was getting some lines, she said, and my face was getting to look like a man’s too. We started walking again. I looked down at my suit. The moon was shining on the buttons of my coat. For the first time I noticed they weren’t in a line with the opening of my coat. The suit was double-breasted. Then I remembered nobody at the graduation had a double-breasted suit. I was the only one. Most of the boys had on a sport coat with a different pair of pants, a different color, but they cost money.

It seemed like we just started, but before I knew it I heard the cinders under my feet, and I realized we were in the front yard. Aunt Mae stopped at the gate to rest. I waited with her for a while, then I walked on up the porch to see how Mother was. It was late, and maybe Flora had put her in bed. When I got to the door, it was wide open. I wondered what Flora had done that for. I could hear Mother talking in the kitchen, but I didn’t hear anybody else. I stood on the porch and waited for Aunt Mae, and when I saw she was going to rest by the gate for quite a while, I called to her to hurry up and come in. She came across the cinders slowly, fanning herself with her big hat. When she got up to where I was on the porch and saw the door open, she looked at me and I told her how I had found it. She said Flora must have been crazy to let the door open like that with all the things in the hills that might run in. Mother was talking louder in the kitchen. We both heard her.

Aunt Mae went in and threw her hat on a chair in the front room while I closed the door. She turned around and said to me that Flora should have got Mother in bed long ago. The only voice I heard in the kitchen was still Mother’s. She was answering somebody, it sounded like, only I didn’t hear the other person. Aunt Mae was already in the kitchen when I got there, and I heard her asking Mother where Flora was. Mother was sitting at the table looking at the picture of the white crosses. Aunt Mae asked her again. She looked up like she was surprised to see Aunt Mae.

“Flora? Oh, yes. She told me I was crazy, Mae. Right to my face. Can you imagine that? Right to my face. She wasn’t here thirty minutes. I’ve been sitting here waiting for you two to come in. Yes, Flora wasn’t here thirty minutes.”

Aunt Mae looked at Mother for a while, and I saw just how tired her eyes really were. Then she looked at me. And we just stood there under the one electric bulb and looked at each other and didn’t say anything.

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