فصل 08کتاب: كتاب مقدس نئون / فصل 9
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Then Jo Lynne left. Her grandfather got better, and her mother said they could go back to Springhill. I remember the day she came in the store and told me. It was one of those times Mr. Williams was out, and I was moving some shampoo bottles around under the counter trying to clean up. I had heard the door close and the footsteps come across the old tile floor. It was a sort of slopping walk, and only one person I knew walked like that. I got up and saw Jo Lynne looking around, looking for me.
When I saw her face, I knew something was wrong. She didn’t wait, though, she came right out and told me that she and her mother were planning to leave. I didn’t answer her. When things like that happen to me, I just don’t speak. I don’t know what to say. I just looked up at the shelf next to me and thought a while about nothing. For a while my eye read the label on one of the bottles there. Then I heard Jo Lynne talking again. I was surprised to hear her talk that way, like it was any ordinary thing you could just talk about like the weather or the new houses on the hills. That night up in the new houses came into my mind, when her lips were purple and the moonlight was shining on their wet and I could see the little cracks in them thinner than a pin.
When she finished talking, I gathered that she was leaving the next day on the train. I came out from behind the counter and grabbed at her hand, but it felt different from the other night when it made mine so hot it sweated. She didn’t look at my face. Her eyes were turned to the side, and she watched the people on the street who were passing by the big plate glass window not even thinking about what was going on inside the drugstore. I hoped nobody came in, because I wanted to talk to her when I was ready and could think of what to say.
She pulled her hand away and said that, well, she’d said all there was to say. It sounded something like a movie to me, like what they said in those cheap Friday night movies with the actors you never heard of. I grabbed her hand again when I saw she was going to leave. I asked her if she was going to come to town again or if I could write letters to her at her house. She turned away from the window and looked at me and said she might be coming to town again sometime. I asked her when.
“I don’t know. Maybe if my grandfather gets sick again,” she said, and tried to pull her hand away again, but I held her.
“Well, where can I write you? I have some paper here. Let me write it down.”
“No, Mother won’t want to see me getting letters from some boy. What’s the matter with you, anyway? We just went out once. Let go of my hand. You act like you don’t know any girls at all. I see. . .”
“I don’t know any girls, I really don’t. You’re the only one I know. I don’t. . .”
“Oh, keep quiet. And let me go now. It sounds like you want to get married.”
“We could get married, Jo Lynne. The state’ll marry us. You’re almost seventeen, and I’m old. . .”
Jo Lynne hit me in the face with her free hand. Her face was red, and her eyes were wild, and I saw I was getting her scared, so I let her go. She fell down on the tiles, and I went to pick her up, but she was at the door before I could even bend over to get her. She was crying and screaming I was crazy when she slammed the door. I watched her from the window as she ran down Main with her hair flying. Then a woman passed the window and looked in at me and stared. I wondered why she didn’t go away. She pointed to her cheek, but I didn’t understand her, so I walked away from the window and passed the mirror. When I saw my face, I knew why she had been pointing. My cheek was beginning to bleed in the hollow where I was hit.
I ran behind the counter to where Mr. Williams kept the bandages in a box and got out one and pressed it to my cheek over the thin little scratches her nails made. My face was burning. I felt my eyes pounding against the lids like they wanted to get out, and my hair felt like wool that I wanted to tear off to cool myself.
When I got my mind steady, I began to think about what had happened. Sitting on the high stool behind the counter, I looked around the store and out onto the bright street. I wondered where Jo Lynne was, if she was home. Then I thought of myself and how dumb I was. I’d made a fool out of myself the night we went out, and it didn’t even matter to her. The night up in the new houses didn’t matter. Kissing her didn’t matter either. She didn’t know what I thought when I saw the moon on her face, or when my arm touched hers in the movie, or even when I heard her walk into the drugstore a little while before. She didn’t know she was the only thing I ever wanted to have that I thought I’d get.
I took the bandage off and looked at the red lines on my cheek. They made a sort of tit-tat-toe pattern like we used to make on the blackboard at school when I was little. I felt ashamed when I looked at it. Someone hitting me. I never did anything to make anyone hit me, except for Bruce before I went to school. I wondered what people would think if they knew someone hit me, especially a girl. They’d think all kinds of dirty things like people always did. Or maybe they’d be surprised, too, because they thought I was just a quiet boy who worked at the drugstore and lived with my aunt and my mother up on the hill in an old house, and sat up there with my mother every night and took care of her and listened to the radio with her.
I went and looked in the mirror again. There were two dark red lines on my cheek right above where I shaved. The blood had stopped flowing now, so I knew that was what they were going to look like for the rest of today, anyway. Then I tried to think of some kind of excuse to give the people who might see me, but I couldn’t think of anything that sounded like you could believe it. I didn’t care, either.
Mr. Williams kept some matches behind the counter, so I took one and lit the bandage and threw it in the trash basket. I watched the smoke curl up, gray and fast at first, then white and slow. When it stopped, I began to smell the burnt smell. I breathed it in and sat up on the stool and didn’t think about anything. My mind was empty.
Work in the drugstore went on like always. Mr. Williams had the old front torn off and put all glass in the place where the old bricks were. That made business pick up some, just like he said it would. I don’t guess he ever thought of what it would be like in the store when the sun was going down and it was shining right in through all that glass. That was the time the store got all orange inside, and it hurt your eyes to look at almost anything. Then he had to spend a lot more money buying shades, and that messed up the way it was supposed to look.
Around this time Aunt Mae began to change. She had always been nice to me, but she was even better now. I never told her about what happened with Jo Lynne, so she didn’t have to feel sorry for me, but it seemed to me that she did, and I wondered why.
Thinking people feel sorry for you is something I guess you should appreciate, but I didn’t and never have. It made me mad to see someone acting like I was pitiful, always asking how I was, fixing special things for me, talking to me in a sort of baby way, making her eyes all sorry-looking when she looked at me. I wanted to tell Aunt Mae she got me mad, and I wanted to ask her why she treated me in such a different way, but somehow or another, I never did. I just stayed curious and waited to see what was making her act like I was a crippled little mountain rabbit that hadn’t had anything to eat for a week.
Sometimes when I went home at night I just went up to the old room where my train was. I could open the window up there and prop it up with a broom pole and look out at the stars and the pine tips. I could feel the breeze blowing into the room, stirring the dust off everything and pushing the old, stale air around. Aunt Mae wasn’t around to pat me on the head and feed me the special things she made and look at me with that look that made me mad. I could think up there too.
I could think about plenty things. Everybody who left grade school with me was at the state university now, at least all who went to high school, and most did. People who came into the drugstore always talked about them, what a good time they were having, how some were in fraternities and sororities if they had money, how this one was studying to be a doctor or something else you had to go to college to be. I thought of what I was ever going to be. I couldn’t stay at the drugstore all my life, and there wasn’t much else I could do in the valley. You had to go to college to be anything. But I didn’t even get near high school, and almost everybody got that far.
I thought about Jo Lynne too. I didn’t like to think about it, but I did. The night I went out with her was the best time I had since I was in school or during the war at the propeller factory party. When I thought of the day in the drugstore, my face got hot and my eyes began to pound again. I could feel my heart beat all over my body. That was a day I wanted never to remember, but every time I got up in the room and let my mind go over things, it came back to me as clear as if I was right there getting hit.
Maybe I could have told Aunt Mae about Jo Lynne. It was the way she was acting to me that made me not tell her. If Aunt Mae had been like she was before, I would have told her, but I didn’t want her to know about it, not anything about it. I was tired enough of what she was doing now, and I didn’t want her to get worse when I told her how I missed Jo Lynne and wished I could write her and try to make some excuses and say I was sorry about what I had said and done and ask her to write me a letter back, even if she was still mad, just as long as I got something from her that I could see her writing on. I wanted to go by her grandfather’s and get the place where she lived, but I never could do it. Maybe if I would have talked to Aunt Mae she would have told me the right thing to do, but I didn’t want to talk to her about anything like that right now.
So I just sat up there in the old room and looked out at the pine tips sticking up near the stars, or at my old train that didn’t run anymore but just stood there all tan from rust and rusted to the track from the leaky roof. I sat there and thought that someday I would get to work on it and get it loose and oil it, and maybe it would run again.
When I sat up there nights, I could hear the radio playing under me and Mother asking questions and Aunt Mae answering her. Aunt Mae was home nights now. Clyde went to Nashville to see some man who might give him a job on the radio there, on a music program. Every day I saw a letter around the house he wrote Aunt Mae. I could tell they were Clyde’s letters because they were printed. Clyde didn’t know how to write, at least I didn’t think so, because I never saw him do anything but print. Aunt Mae never said when he was coming back, and I didn’t care. I was glad to have her home nights to sit with Mother, even though we needed the money.
But Mother was changing, I thought. She didn’t look like she did once. She got skinnier and skinnier, and her cheeks began to sink in. The skin was stretched over her nose until it looked like just an onion peel covered the bone. That’s why I was glad Aunt Mae was home, so I could get upstairs. I didn’t like to sit in the half-dark with her and listen to the radio. It got me scared to look at her and see her look at me with that black under her eyes. When I was around, she just looked at me, and that made me feel uncomfortable. Even when we were eating. She wouldn’t eat if I was at the table with her. She just sat there with the food in front of her and stared at me. After she did this a while, Aunt Mae had to give us our food at a different time so both of us could eat, because I couldn’t eat either with her staring at me.
I got mad at myself for feeling that way about my own mother, but then I thought about it, and I told myself she wasn’t a real mother anymore. She was just a strange woman who frightened me and didn’t seem to know me at all. She didn’t even look like my mother. I knew what my mother looked like. I remembered the woman who put me to bed and danced with me at the factory party and stood with me when my poppa went off to war. I remembered the woman who looked at the train until long after it was gone with Poppa on it. But this wasn’t the same one. This was a woman that I was scared to be in the same house with. She never talked to me now. She just sat and looked and made me scared.
And I knew what was happening down in town. It was a long time since I graduated from grade school and we got Flora to sit with Mother. After that everybody in town knew about her. They were pretty nice about it, and after they saw I wasn’t going to talk about it too, they never said anything else to me. But I knew the way the people in town thought about things. They always had some time left over from their life to bother about other people and what they did. They thought they had to get together to help other people out, like the time they got together about the woman who let a colored man borrow her car and told her the best place for her was up north with all the other nigger lovers, and the time they got the veterans with overseas wives out. If you were different from anybody in town, you had to get out. That’s why everybody was so much alike. The way they talked, what they did, what they liked, what they hated. If somebody got to hate something and he was the right person, everybody had to hate it too, or people began to hate the ones who didn’t hate it. They used to tell us in school to think for yourself, but you couldn’t do that in the town. You had to think what your father thought all his life, and that was what everybody thought.
I knew what everybody thought about Mother. She didn’t have any more friends down in town to say any different, so Flora’s story got bigger and bigger. I knew Flora was back with the preacher and was even the head of the big people’s Sunday school. It was too bad if the preacher got to be the leader in anything. Except for Bobbie Lee Taylor, everything he planned always came off right the way he wanted. When he wanted to send people out of town, they went, especially if they didn’t belong to the church.
The preacher was the head of the people that decided who was going to the state institutions like the crazy house and the poor folks’ asylum. Every year he sent about one old man or woman away to the old asylum, but they didn’t want to go. Everybody said you died there pretty soon, and even if the people were real old, they didn’t want to die, and they cried when the preacher took them down to the train. If they didn’t mind too much, he drove them to the place in his car, but those were the ones who believed him and thought it was really as nice as he said, or else they were deaf and couldn’t know what was going on anyway. I saw an old woman once who couldn’t move herself at all, and she couldn’t even speak. One day when I was going home from the drugstore I saw the preacher take her into his car from the old place where she lived. She couldn’t move or speak or anything, but her eyes were the most awful thing I ever saw anytime in my life. When I passed the car, she looked at me with a real scared look like a little mountain rabbit has when it sees it can’t get away from the thing that’s hunting it. I don’t know why I did, but I stood there after the preacher’s car left and watched it go down the street with that old woman. I guess she’s still there now in the state poor home.
Mr. Williams’ wife went to the preacher’s church, and that’s how I found out about Mother. Mr. Williams told me the preacher and Flora were trying to see if they could get the crazy house to take Mother in. I didn’t believe it when I heard it, because Mother never even saw any people in town, and nobody even saw her except for some men who still came up into the clearing to get rabbits. I tried to think of why they wanted to do a thing like that, but I couldn’t think up a reason. Mr. Williams told me to tell Aunt Mae about it, because they couldn’t do anything if the family wouldn’t let them. I wanted to tell Aunt Mae, but lately I didn’t speak with her much, so I never did. I thought about it a lot when I sat upstairs, though. I thought about how some people could do what they wanted to another person and not get put in jail by the sheriff, and I thought about Mother getting in the preacher’s car and going off. That got my mind all filled up. I couldn’t think about anything else when I thought about those two driving away and the preacher telling everybody after how he helped the town and helped a poor woman. But, he would say, it was only the Christian thing to do, and any good Christian would leap at doing such a thing.
I was getting tired about what the preacher called Christian. Anything he did was Christian, and the people in his church believed it, too. If he stole some book he didn’t like from the library, or made the radio station play only part of the day on Sunday, or took somebody off to the state poor home, he called it Christian. I never had much religious training, and I never went to Sunday school because we didn’t belong to the church when I was old enough to go, but I thought I knew what believing in Christ meant, and it wasn’t half the things the preacher did. I called Aunt Mae a good Christian, but nobody else in the valley would have because she never went to church. One day I told somebody I thought Aunt Mae was just as much a Christian as Mrs. Watkins claimed to be. It was a woman who came into the store a lot. She got to talking about some people in town, and when she came to Mrs. Watkins she said that that was a real, dedicated Christian. When I said Aunt Mae was too, she said I was a babe who didn’t know the true word, or something like that in the kind of words church people use.
When Mr. Williams didn’t say any more about Flora and the preacher and Mother, it passed from my mind in a little while. But things like Jo Lynne and the way Aunt Mae was acting didn’t. I still thought about Jo Lynne when I sat upstairs. Not from the windows in the room where the train was, but from the windows in my bedroom, you could see the little houses on the hill where I kissed her. They were all finished now, and they had a lot of people in them. They were lighted at night now. That made them even easier to find, and at night I would sit on the windowsill sometimes and look off at them. But I didn’t like to see that part of the hill lighted up. I liked to think about it like it was the night we were there, with the houses all empty and the hill with nobody but us on it and the moonlight the only thing besides the dark. I even wondered who was living in the house where we sat on the step.
Then I stopped worrying about Aunt Mae. One day when I came in from the store she was sitting in the kitchen running her hands along the oilcloth on the table.
“Come in here, hon,” she said when she heard me coming in the house. I felt like going right up to the train room, because I didn’t feel like being around her with the sorry eyes. When she heard me start up the stairs, she called again. “Come here, hon. In the kitchen.”
I went in there, and she had a faraway look. She was looking out the back door into the clearing where I guess Mother was somewhere in the pines, which were large enough now to compare with any in the hills.
“Sit down. Here by the table. Mother’s back there.” She pushed a chair out for me with her foot. “Well, how was work today?”
“Okay, Aunt Mae.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Things were just slow. Nobody came in hardly, excepting some old lady who always does and asks for things half-price.”
She looked at me for a while, and that was why I didn’t feel like going and talking with her. I looked the other way so I wouldn’t see her eyes.
“I got something to tell you, Dave.”
I saw her hand go across the table to some paper I never noticed before. It was a letter, or it must have been, because it was in an envelope.
“I got a letter from Clyde today that I’m going to read to you.”
I didn’t say anything, and she handed it to me.
“Here, you read it for yourself, hon.”
I opened the envelope and took out the letter. It was printed in red pencil on old tan line paper like I used to use in grade school with Mrs. Watkins.
I have got good news for us. Bill here says he will use us on his radio show. If he likes us. I think he will Mae. You don’t have to hurry here. You got a week to make it. I have a nice room here. Bill says maybe we can make records to. Theres a lot of money in them. I know. You will like Nashville. You said you have never been here. They got all kinds of radio shows. Write me a letter love and say when you will get here. This is a big chance.
After I finished it, I read it again. It still said the same thing, and it sounded crazy to me. I looked at Aunt Mae, but she wasn’t sitting at the table. She was washing some dishes over at the sink. After a while she turned around.
“Well, hon, what do you think about it?”
“I don’t know, Aunt Mae. What does it mean?”
“Clyde thinks he can get us a good job, a permanent one, in Nashville on the radio or records.”
Nashville. That sounded strange to me. Aunt Mae in Nashville.
“What about me and Mother?”
“That’s it, hon. That’s what I’m afraid about, but if we get a job, I can send for you two. This man Bill told Clyde it wouldn’t be long before he could get us something. Don’t you see? I can make a lot of money.”
The whole thing sounded funny to me. Aunt Mae in Nashville with Clyde. She didn’t know how long she was going to be. And Mother. What would I do with her? I was scared of her even with Aunt Mae around. And what would we eat? I still didn’t say anything to Aunt Mae, though.
“Look, hon, I’m taking the bus out of here the day after tomorrow. And don’t worry. It won’t be long before you and Mother get a train ticket from me, you hear?”
All at once the whole thing hit me the way it should have at first. She was really planning to leave me with Mother. My mind got all filled again, and I looked up at Aunt Mae.
“But what am I going to do with Mother? I work all day, and she’s up here, and what are we going to eat? If I was. . .”
“There’s nothing to worry about, hon, really. I been with her all day. She just sits in your poppa’s old cabbage patch or somewhere around the house. She isn’t trouble. I know you can leave her here all day and she won’t get in trouble.”
I tried to think about what Aunt Mae was saying, but I couldn’t. I just knew she really meant she was going. If I knew about it a week before or something, maybe I could think about what to do around the house while she was gone, but this was all of a sudden. I was really going to be left in the house with Mother to do everything for her. Aunt Mae in Nashville and Poppa in Italy and me here with Mother. It all ran together in my mind so fast I couldn’t stop any of it long enough to think on it. I just looked down at the oilcloth. It was the same oilcloth on the table for as long as we lived in the house, but the shiny top part was wearing away in little creases and lines all over it, and the stiff cloth underneath was showing. I ran my fingers over the little cloth parts and let the rough rub on my skin. It felt so different from the slippery oilcloth.
“Look, hon. Maybe I shouldn’t do this, but I never had a chance like it before, even when I was young. I can get on the radio and records. Are you listening, Dave? It don’t seem like you hear anything I’m saying. Look. Quit your job at the store. Then you can stay here all day with Mother, you hear? In a week, or maybe two, you’ll get the tickets to Nashville from me. And Dave, when you get to Nashville, maybe you can go back to school at one of the good ones they have there. Cities have good schools, Dave, and I’ll be getting enough money for you to quit this work and finish your education. Now, tell Mr. Williams tomorrow that you want to quit.”
I wanted to ask Aunt Mae a lot of things, but I didn’t. I wanted to know what I was going to eat, and Mother too, with her gone off. And in Nashville with Clyde. I knew Clyde was old, but then I didn’t know about him either. When I saw him with her, he didn’t act old, and that was all else I knew. Quitting the job with Mr. Williams was something I didn’t want to do. If I went and quit, I lost just about the best job I could get anywhere. And Mr. Williams would think I didn’t appreciate what he did for me just giving me the job.
Aunt Mae passed by my chair and kissed me on top of my head. I didn’t do anything but just kept looking out the back door to where Mother was somewhere in the pines. It was beginning to get dark, and she usually came in then. Pretty soon I saw her coming under the light green needles in the dimness with her skirt held up like a basket to hold some cones she must have picked up under the trees. I looked at her nearing the back steps and tried to think of living alone with her, even if it was for just two weeks. That funny tingling ran up the inside of my legs from my heels, and I just sat there and kept rubbing my finger over the worn-off places on the oilcloth.
Aunt Mae reached up and turned on the light when Mother came in. She went and closed the old screen because Mother’s hands were holding in the cones. Mother came over to the table and dumped the cones out in a pile in the middle of the oilcloth. Her hands were all full of clay from pulling the cones out the ground, and leaves were stuck all in her skirt.
“There,” she said.
I looked up at her, and she looked at me and smiled. I smiled back, but I was surprised at the way she looked. She looked like she got older during the day, even from when I saw her in the morning. I knew she was still looking at me, so I looked out the back door at the dark setting in between the pines, but I was thinking about how Mother looked with her face all like leather the way they stretched it to make drums, and her hair like white wire. I thought about her eyes with that funny look, and then I thought of when she was pretty and soft and I used to kiss her and hold on to her, but now I was afraid of her and didn’t want to get near her.
Aunt Mae made a sign to me to leave the kitchen so Mother could eat.
The next day I went down to the store and told Mr. Williams I had to quit. He thought I was trying to make fun at first. Then I told him I really meant it, that I had to because Aunt Mae was leaving me with Mother for a while. He looked at me with that sad kind of look like Aunt Mae’s, and I wished he would stop and let me go. He went over to the cash register and got out some money and put it in an envelope and gave it to me. I didn’t know what to say, and I guess he didn’t know either, so I left, but I did thank him, and I was glad. Then, on my way back up the hill, I thought maybe it was wrong to take the money from him. But I didn’t go back.
The day after that was the day Aunt Mae was leaving. She didn’t have enough money to take the train, so she was going on the bus. I watched her pack up in her room and helped her close the top of the old suitcase she owned. I was careful not to bend her scrapbook, which was right on top of her clothes, when I finally got the lock to snap. She put on her hat, the same one she wore the day she came to live with us, and she didn’t even think about it, but I did.
When she was ready to leave, we looked for Mother, but she wasn’t anywhere around. I guessed she was in the back, but we didn’t have time to find her. The bus came through in thirty minutes.
I picked up Aunt Mae’s suitcase and looked at the stickers from New Orleans and Biloxi and Mobile while she got the hatpin through her hair. The wind was getting cold as we got on the porch, so I closed the front door behind us. As we walked down the path, Aunt Mae talked about what I was to do about food, and where to find the cans in the kitchen and the pan to fry eggs, and when she would write about the tickets, but I didn’t listen to everything she said. I was thinking about the way we used to walk together when I was a little boy. Aunt Mae wore the same big hat then, but it looked a lot newer and brighter, and I never saw many big hats like that anymore. But Aunt Mae looked about the same, except she had clothes like anybody in the valley now, and not the different things she wore at first. It was when I was thinking that that I thought of how old Aunt Mae really was. I guess I never thought much about her age because she was so healthy the way she did everything. But Aunt Mae was really old, I thought all of a sudden, and I looked down at her hair. It was as yellow as always. And I felt sorry for her. I don’t know why I did. Maybe it was thinking about her having to go all the way to Nashville and being with Clyde.
Fall was really all over the hills. The pines lashed each other in the wind up high, but down near the ground it was sort of still, and yet it was windy too, but not as windy as up high where the pines ended. Some leaves from the bushes that grew in the open blew around our feet and ran down the path in front of us to town. I wished I had a coat with me because my arms were beginning to get bumpy like they always did when it was cold. Aunt Mae didn’t have a coat either, and I knew it was going to be even colder in Nashville, but when I told her she said we didn’t have time to go back to the house to get one.
We got down into town under the bright blue sky. The leaves that had followed us down the hill joined some others in the streets and blew along in the gutters and up through yards and onto the windows of moving cars, where they stayed just like they were pasted until the car stopped moving. The bus stopped in front of the barbershop, so we got down to where it was on Main and waited by the curb. Aunt Mae’s suitcase was heavy, and I was glad to put it down.
Aunt Mae looked down the street to see if the bus was coming, and when she turned around, I saw her eyes were wet along the bottom.
“It’s the cold breeze, hon. Always makes my eyes water.”
We waited there for what seemed a whole hour before the bus came. Then I heard it roaring somewhere far away, and I went out into the street to make a sign at the driver when he got near. It stopped about a block away. I picked up the suitcase, and we both ran to where the driver was opening the door. Aunt Mae got up on the first step and then got down again and kissed me, and I kissed her. I wanted to tell her not to go, but I handed her the suitcase, and the door closed. Somewhere in the dark inside I saw her waving at me. I waved back and smiled. Then the engine started and it pulled away. The bad smell of a bus got in my nose, so I stepped back on the sidewalk and watched it till it was gone around the far hill, and that was the last time I saw Aunt Mae.
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