You could say what happened to me happened to all of us. It happened to Victor, to Momma and Missy, Granpaw and Granny, to Moses Mashbone, to Willis, to Nealy Harlan and that old cousin of his, Bird Pruitt â€“ to all the folks that lived and worked around Harlanâ€™s Crossroads, white and black. And I suppose you would be right in putting it that way, though you would be wrong too, dead wrong, for what happened was also altogether particular to my person alone; particular and so elusive, so hard to get hold of that few in this world, least of all myself â€“ though I had been given a glimpse to last a lifetime â€“ would dare say it had happened at all.
Some said it was magic. Some said no. Some said what destroyed the barn and tore the wheels off Reverend Pennycallâ€™s police car was just a late summer storm, though of unusual magnitude, which at the time seemed a reasonable enough explanation. But the thing that put the slice of worry permanently between Mommaâ€™s eyes and pointed out the path I was to take â€“ the thing that sent the Devil to his grave â€“ that was more than just a storm.
EVERYBODY ON EDGE
Thursday, June 6th 1959
Momma and even Victor said Iâ€™d be coming to St. Petersburg with them. Theyâ€™d been saying it for weeks. Then Victor changed his mind. He was my stepdaddy, Victor was. It would be easier on everybody, he said, if I stayed with Granny and Granpaw in Kentucky. Him and Momma had enough Florida business to take care of without on top of everything else having to take care of me too. I was a handful, Victor said. I kept everybody on edge. If you asked me, the only edge everybody was kept on was Victorâ€™s. As far as I was concerned, him and Momma could both go to hell. Missy too. I was fed up trying to be good. Saying everything was okay when it wasnâ€™t. Pretending I understood when I didnâ€™t.
Mommaâ€™s car was a 1950 model. Daddy said it was the first Ford car to come automatic. I didnâ€™t know what â€˜automaticâ€™ was but it sure had silver ashtrays, two of them on the back of the front seats. They were all popped open with gum wrappers and cigarette butts and boy did they smell.
One butt fell on top a bunch of comic books I had me in a pile. The pile leaned cockeyed against my dump truck. Heat came up from there, little whiffs of tail pipe smoke, warm and stuffy like the insides of my tennis shoes.
It rattled too â€“ the Ford car did. The glove box. The mirrors. The windows. The knobs on the radio. The muffler under the floorboard. Everything rattled.
Weâ€™d been traveling hard all day, barreling down Road 3 from Detroit to Kentucky. Down to Harlanâ€™s Crossroads. I sat on the edge of the back seat, watching the fence posts zoom by. Missy stood up next to the side window, sucking her thumb, the fingers of her other hand jammed between her legs. She was five years old. I was nine.
Iâ€™d seen pictures of Florida in a magazine. It had palm trees and alligators and oranges. It had long white beaches and pelicans that could dive-bomb the water. Kentucky was just old lonesome farmhouses and brokeback barns. Gravel roads and chickens in the yard.
Road 3 took us down big places like Fort Wayne and Muncie. It took us down a whole bunch of little places too, places with funny names like Zaneville and Deputy and Speed.
Missy couldnâ€™t read.
â€œPiss with care,â€ I said.
â€œOh Orbie, you said a bad word.â€
â€œNo. Piss with care, Missy. That sign back there. Thatâ€™s what it said.â€
Missyâ€™s eyes went wide. â€œIt did not. Mommaâ€™ll whip you.â€
Later on we got where there was a curve in the road and another sign. â€œLook Missy. Do not piss.â€
â€œIt donâ€™t say that.â€
â€œYes it does. See. When the road goes curvy like that youâ€™re not supposed to pee. But when itâ€™s straight, itâ€™s okay; but you have to do it careful cause thatâ€™s what the sign says. Piss with care!â€
â€œIt donâ€™t say that.â€
We crossed a big pile of water on a bridge with towers and giant ropey things looping down. On the other side was Louisville, Kentucky. After that was just small towns and little white stores with red gas-pumps, farm houses and big barns and fields, empty fields and fields of corn and fields where there were cows and horses and pigs and long rows of tobacco plants Momma said cigarettes was made of.
I had me a war on all the towns going down.
Tat Tat Tat Tat! Blam! There goes Cox Creek!
Bombs away over Nazareth!
Blam! Blam! Boom! Hodgekinsville never had a chance!
â€œLetâ€™s keep it down back there!â€ Victor said.
â€œA grenade rolled into Victorâ€™s lap!â€ I whispered. â€œBlamOOO! Blowed him to smithereens!â€
I wished Mommaâ€™d left him back there in Toledo like she said she would. She was always threatening around like that, but then she would get to feeling sorry and forget all about it. Sheâ€™d been mad ever since Victor spilled the beans about Daddy. Victor was mad too, drinking his beer and driving Mommaâ€™s Ford too fast. After Louisville he started throwing his empties out the window.
I liked to watch them bust on the road.
â€œPretty country, Kentucky,â€ Victor said.
It was the end of daytime and a big orangey-gold sun ball hung way off over the hills, almost touching the trees. The Ford jerked over a ditch at the foot of a patchy burnt yard, thundering up a load of bubble noises before Victor shut it down.
â€œGet off me,â€ Missy said.
â€œI ainâ€™t bothering you.â€
â€œYes you are.â€
â€œBut Missy, look!â€
A big boned woman in a housedress had come to stand in the yard down by the well. She was looking into the sun â€“ orange light in her face - standing upright, sharp edged and stiff, like an electrical tower, one arm bent like a triangle, the other raised with the elbow so the hand went flat out over her eyes like a cap. She stared out of wrinkles and scribbles and red leather cheekbones. Her nose was sunburned, long but snubbed off at the end, sticking out above a mouth that had no lips, a crack that squirmed and changed itself from long to short and back to long again.
Missyâ€™s eyes widened. â€œWho is that?â€
â€œGranny,â€ I said. â€œDonâ€™t you remember?â€
I saw Granpaw too, sitting squat-legged against Grannyâ€™s little Jesus Tree. He was turning in one big hand a piece of wood, shaving it, whittling it outward with a jackknife. The brim of a dusty Panama shadowed his eyes. In back of him stood the house, balanced on little piles of creek rock. You could see jars and cans and other old junk scattered underneath. It was the same dirty white color as before, the house was, but the sun ball had baked it orange, and now I could see at one end where somebody had started to paint.
As we got out of the car, the big boned figure in the housedress let out with a whoop, hollering, â€œGood God A Mighty! If it tainâ€™t Ruby and them younguns of hers! Come all the way down here from Dee-troit!â€ Blue-green veins bulged and tree-limbed down the length of her arms.
Victor stayed out by the Ford, the round top of my ball cap hanging out his pocket. A gas station man had given it to me on the way down. It was gray and had a red winged horse with the word â€˜Mobilgasâ€™ printed across the front. Victor had swiped it away, said I shouldnâ€™t be accepting gifts from strangers. I should have asked him about it first. Now it was in his back pocket, crushed against the Fordâ€™s front fender where he leaned with an unlit cigar, rolling between his lips. The sun was in back of him, halfway swallowed up by a distant curvy line of hilltop trees.
â€œHidy Victor!â€ Granny called. â€œYaâ€™ll have a good trip?â€
Victor put on a smooth voice. â€œFine Mrs. Wood. Real fine. You canâ€™t beat blue grass for beauty, can you?â€ A long shadow stretched out on the ground in front of him.
Granny laughed. â€œAinâ€™t been no farther than Lexington to know!â€
Granpaw changed his position against the tree, leaned forward a little bit and spat a brown gob, grunting out the word â€˜shitâ€™ after he did. He dragged the back of his knife hand sandpaper-like over the gap of his mouth.
â€œI want you just to looky here!â€ Granny said. â€œIf tainâ€™t Missy-Two-Shoes and that baby doll of hers!â€
Missy backed away.
â€œAw, Missy now,â€ Momma said. â€œThatâ€™s Granny.â€
Missy smiled then and let Granny grab her up. Her legs went around Grannyâ€™s waist. She had on a pink Sunday dress with limp white bows dangling off its bottom, the back squashed and wadded like an overused hankie.
â€œHowâ€™s my little towhead?â€ Granny said.
â€œGood.â€ Missy held out her baby doll. â€œThis is Mattie, Granny. I named her after you.â€
â€œWell ainâ€™t you the sweetest thang!â€ Granny grinned so big her wrinkles went out in circles like water does after a stoneâ€™s dropped in. She gave Missy a wet kiss and set her down. Then her grin flashed toward Momma. â€œThereâ€™s my other little girl!â€
Momma, no taller than Grannyâ€™s chin, did a little toe dance up to her, smiling all the way. She hugged Granny and Granny in turn beat the blue and red roses on the back of Mommaâ€™s blouse.
â€œI just love it to death!â€ Granny said. â€œLet me look at you!â€ She held Momma away from her. Momma wiggled her hips; slim curvy hips packed up neat in a tight black skirt. She kissed the air in front of Granny.
Like Marilyn Monroe. Like in the movies.
â€œJezebel!â€ Granny laughed. â€œYou always was a teaser.â€
They talked about the trip to Florida, about Victorâ€™s prospects â€“ his good fortune, his chance â€“ about Armstrong and the men down there and that Pink Flamingo Hotel. They talked about Daddy too, and what a good man heâ€™d been.
â€œIt liked toâ€™ve killed us all, what happened to Jessie,â€ Granny said.
â€œI know Mamaw. If I had more time, Iâ€™d go visit him awhile.â€ Momma looked out over the crossroads toward the graveyard. I looked too but there was nothing to see now, nothing but shadows and scrubby bushes and the boney black limbs of the cottonwood trees. I remembered what Victorâ€™d said about the nigger man, about the crane with the full ladle.
â€œI want you just to look what the catâ€™s drug in Mattie!â€ Granpaw had walked over from his place by the tree.
â€œOh Papaw!â€ Momma hugged Granpawâ€™s rusty old neck and kissed him two or three times.
â€œShoo! Ruby youâ€™ll get paint all over me!â€
Momma laughed and rubbed at a lip mark sheâ€™d left on his jaw.
â€œHow you been daughter?â€
â€œAll right I reckon,â€ Momma said. She looked back toward Victor who was still up by the Ford. Victor took the cigar out of his mouth. He held it to one side, pinched between his fingers.
â€œHowâ€™s that car running Victor?â€ Granpaw called.
â€œNot too bad, Mr. Wood,â€ Victor answered, â€œconsidering the miles weâ€™ve put on her.â€
Granpaw made a bunch of little spit-spit sounds, flicking them off the end of his tongue as he did. He hawked up another brown gob and let it fall to the ground, then he gave Victor a nod and walked over. He walked with a limp, like somebody stepping off in a ditch, carrying the open jackknife in one hand and that thing, whatever it was heâ€™d been working on, in the other.
Grannyâ€™s mouth got hard. â€œRuby, I did get that letter of yorn. I done told you it were all right to leave that child. I told you in that other letter, â€˜member?â€
â€œYou sure itâ€™s not any trouble?â€ Momma said.
Grannyâ€™s eyes widened. â€œTrouble? Why, tainâ€™t no trouble a-tall.â€ She looked over my way. â€œI want you just to look how heâ€™s growed! A might on the skinny side though.â€
â€œHeâ€™ll fill out,â€ Momma said.
â€œWhy yes he will. Come youngun. Come say hello to your old Granny.â€
â€œOrbie, be good now,â€ Momma said.
I went a little closer, but I didnâ€™t say hello.
â€œHeâ€™ll be all right,â€ Granny said.
â€œI hope so Mamaw. Heâ€™s been a lot of trouble over this.â€œ
Veins, blue rivers, tree roots, flooded down Grannyâ€™s gray legs. More even than on her arms. And you could see white bulges and knots and little red threads wiggling out. â€œIâ€™ll bet you theyâ€™s a lot better things going on here than they is in Floridy,â€ she said. â€œI bet you, if you had a mind to, Granpaw would show you how to milk cows and hoe tobacco. Iâ€™ll learn you everything there is to know about chickens. Why, youâ€™ll be a real farm hand before long!â€
â€œI donâ€™t wanna be no damned farm hand,â€ I said.
â€œBoy, Iâ€™ll wear you out!â€ Momma said. â€œSee what I mean, Mamaw?â€
â€œHeâ€™ll be all right,â€ Granny said.
The sun was on its way down. Far to the east of it two stars trailed after a skinny slice of moon. I could see Old Man Harlanâ€™s Country Store across the road, closed now, but with a porch light burning by the door.
A ruckus of voices had started up by the Ford, Granpaw and Victor trying to talk at the same time. Theyâ€™d propped the Fordâ€™s hood up with a stick and were standing out by the front.
Victor had again taken up his place, leaning back against the front fender, crushing my ball cap. â€œThatâ€™s right, thatâ€™s what I said! No good at all.â€ He held the cigar shoulder level â€“ lit now â€“ waving it with his upraised arm one side to the other. â€œThe Unions are ruining this country, Mr. Wood. Bunch of meddlesome, goddamned troublemakers. Agitators, if you catch my drift.â€ He took a pull on the cigar then blew the smoke over Granpawâ€™s head.
Granpaw was stout-looking but a whole head shorter than Victor. He stood there in his coveralls, doubled up fists hanging at the end of each arm, thick as sledgehammers â€“ one with the open jackknife, the other with that thing heâ€™d been working on. â€œSon, you got a problem?â€
â€œThe rank and file,â€ Victor said. â€œTheyâ€™re the problem! Theyâ€™ll believe anything the goddamn Union tells them.â€
Granpaw leaned over and spat. â€œYou donâ€™t know nothinâ€™.â€
â€œAnything,â€ Victor said.
Victor took the cigar out of his mouth and smiled. â€œI donâ€™t know anything is what you mean to say. Itâ€™s proper grammar.â€
â€œI know what I aim to say,â€ Granpaw said, â€œI donâ€™t need no northern jackass a tellinâ€™ me.â€ Granpawâ€™s thumb squeezed against the jackknife blade.
Cut him Granpaw! Knock that cigar out his mouth!
â€œStrode!â€ Granny shouted. â€œCome away from there!â€
Momma hurried over. â€œVictor, I told you.â€
â€œI was just sharing some of my thoughts with Mr. Wood here,â€ Victor said. â€œHe took it the wrong way, thatâ€™s all. He doesnâ€™t understand.â€
â€œI understand plenty, City Slicker.â€ Granpaw closed the knife blade against his coveralls and backed away.
â€œAinâ€™t no need in this Strode!â€ Granny said. â€œVictorâ€™s come all the way down here from Dee-troit. Heâ€™s company. And you a man of God!â€
â€œIâ€™ll cut him a new asshole, he keeps on that a way,â€ Granpaw said.
Momma was beside herself. â€œApologize Victor. Apologize to Papaw for talking that way.â€
â€œFor telling the truth?â€
â€œFor insulting him!â€
Victor shook his head. â€œYou apologize. Youâ€™re good at that.â€
Over where the sun had gone down the sky had turned white-blue. Fireflies winked around the roof of the well, around the branches of the Jesus Tree. Victor walked around to the front of the car and slammed the hood down harder than was necessary. â€œCome on Orbie! Time to get your stuff!â€
I couldnâ€™t believe it was about to happen, eventhough Iâ€™d been told so many times it was going to. I started to cry.
â€œGet down here!â€ Victor yelled.
Momma met me at the car. She took out a hankerchief and wiped at my tears. She looked good. She always looked good.
â€œI donâ€™t want you to go,â€ I said.
â€œOh now,â€ Momma said. â€œLetâ€™s not make Victor any madder than he already is, okay?â€ She helped bring my things from the car. I carried my tank and my box of army men and crayons. Momma brought my dump truck, the toy cars, my comic books and drawing pad. We put them all on the porch where Missy sat playing with her doll. Momma hugged me one last time, got Missy up in her arms and headed to the car.
Victor was already behind the wheel, gunning the engine. â€œCome on Ruby! Letâ€™s go!â€
â€œYou just hold on a minute!â€ Momma put Missy in the car and turned to hug Granny. â€œBye Mamaw.â€
â€œGoodbye Sweetness. I hope you find what youâ€™re looking for down there.â€
â€œRight now Iâ€™d settle for a little peace of mind,â€ Momma said; then she hugged Granpaw. â€œIâ€™m real sorry about Victor Papaw.â€
Granpaw nodded. â€œYou be careful down there in Floridy.â€
â€œBye Momma! Bye Missy!â€ I yelled.
Momma closed her door and Victor backed out. I hurried down to where Granny and Granpaw were standing. The Ford threw dust and gravels as it fishtailed up the road.
Granpaw tapped me on the shoulder. â€œThis oneâ€™s for you son,â€ he said and handed down the piece heâ€™d been working on. It was a little cross of blond wood about a foot high with a burnt snake draped lengthwise along its shoulders. Granpaw moved his finger over the snakeâ€™s curvy body. â€œScorched that in there with a hot screw driver, I did.â€
It was comical in a way, but strange too; I mean to make a snake there â€“ right where Jesus was supposed to be. Like most everything else in my life, it made no sense at all. Mommaâ€™s Ford had disappeared over the hill. Pale road-dust moved like a ghost into the cornfields under the half-dark sky. It drifted back toward the skull of Granpawâ€™s barn, back toward the yard. I stood there watching it all, listening as Mommaâ€™s Ford rumbled away.
Granny held up the lamp to see by. She laid clean blue jeans and a long-sleeved red-checkered shirt over the back of a straw chair. I was lying in bed. â€œWhere we going theyâ€™s pickers and thorns,â€ she said. â€œScratch ye legs up awful, you donâ€™t put something on.â€ The attic smelled like old kerosene and Grannyâ€™s Juicy Fruit gum. Big beams ran up from out the dark on both sides, little pieces of wood nailed in between.
Granny turned with the lamp held to the side. Her skin was sunburned, worn looking as old leather. A shadow cut off half her face â€“ an eye and part of her nose. She stood like that, with half a face; chewing gum, her teeth moving inside a mouth looked like a pouch pulled together with a string.
The arms of the red-checkered shirt hung down from the chair, reaching toward the floor without hands. Momma and Victor had left over an hour ago.
I started to cry.
Granny raised the lamp and the shadow flew away, eyes green glowing as a catâ€™s. â€œYour Momma will be back in two weeks Orbie. That ainâ€™t no time a-tall.â€ Midget flames like the one in the lamp wiggled in each of her eyes. â€œBlackberries child! Thatâ€™s what we gonna do. You and me!â€
â€œIâ€™m scared Granny.â€
â€œScared? What you scared of?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. I donâ€™t like it dark. There might be something in here. Something under the bed. There might be a man.â€
â€œA black nigger man Granny. He might kidnap me!â€
â€œThey Lord Orbie, if that donâ€™t sound like your Momma, every bit.â€ Granny loomed over me. It was like sheâ€™d opened a door to a dark room and was holding the lamp up to see. Her words came out full of spit. â€œI donâ€™t hold with that word youngun! I donâ€™t care where you heard it from neither. Thatâ€™s the sorriest, hatefullest word on Godâ€™s green earth and I donâ€™t want to hear it mentioned. Not by you ner nobody else! Not in my house.â€ She pointed a finger at the shadows overhead. â€œTheyâ€™s colored folks and theyâ€™s white. But when you get down to the rock bottom truth of thangs theyâ€™s just folk folks!â€
Granny didnâ€™t know anything about niggers. Mean niggers in Detroit with knives.
â€œAinâ€™t many folks these parts believes the way I do,â€ Granny said. â€œExcept maybe Granpaw, and folks over to Kingdom. I know your Momma donâ€™t. Your Momma used to have more respect for coloreds. Before she went off north she did.â€
â€œStill there might be somebody,â€ I said. â€œI donâ€™t like it dark.â€
Granny set the kerosene lamp on the floor by the bed. â€œThey ainâ€™t nothinâ€™ under there now, look.â€ She made a motion for me to climb down and look. She was right. There wasnâ€™t anything under there except my tennis shoes and the dirty brown linoleum floor. A big wiry-legged spider crawled into the circle where the light was and stopped. â€œThatâ€™s just old Daddy Long Legs,â€ Granny said. â€œHe wonâ€™t hurt you none.â€
â€œLike hell he wonâ€™t,â€ I thought. I grabbed up one of the tennis shoes and slammed it on the spider.
â€œThey Lord!â€ Granny breathed.
I lifted the shoe and there it was, a wet circle of thread skinny legs. One had broke off and was trying to crawl sideways across the linoleum. I slammed it with the shoe. â€œI hate spiders Granny.â€
â€œThat ainâ€™t no reason to kill one! Get back in the bed!â€
I put the shoe down and climbed back in.
â€œI got to kill thangs too, sometimes,â€ Granny said. â€œPigs. Chickens. Cows. Even spiders sometimes. I donâ€™t do it just to be doing it though.â€
That you needed a reason to kill spiders had never occurred to me. I pulled the sheet up over my chin and stared back.
â€œIt had been different it was poison,â€ Granny said. â€œIâ€™d have killed it myself it was poison.â€
She knew as much about spiders as she did about niggers, which was next to nothing at all. To me spiders were creepy and mean with big fangs that could suck blood. One time at the drive-in-picture-show I saw where a spider had grown so big it ate people alive and crashed through walls. You couldnâ€™t kill it either, not even with a tank.
Again Granny raised the lamp. â€œYou know, you look just like a baby raccoon I came up on wunst in the woodshed. Itâ€™s eyes all a shine. Like glass. Watching me like it thought I was crazy.â€ She let out a laugh. â€œYou think Iâ€™m crazy donâ€™t you?â€
I didnâ€™t know what to think. I liked how she talked though, like she was having the best old time. I liked it so much I almost forgot to cry. Her face sidled in along side the lamp frame. â€œSure enough. You and that rascally little raccoon look just exactly alike!â€ She wagged her head, laughing. I laughed too. Then her eyes went over the floor by the bed. â€œI donâ€™t reckon theyâ€™s a man small enough could fit under there, do you?â€
â€œNo Granny,â€ I said.
â€œMe and Granpaw will be right at the foot of them steps, you get scared.â€
Granny smiled. â€œAll right then.â€ She went with the lamp to the ladder hole. The shadow of her shoulder soared up to the ceiling, stretched out over the beams like a wing. She started backwards down the ladder hole, facing me but looking down, frowning, holding the lamp to one side whilst she felt for the steps. When her chin got even with the floor she looked up at me. â€œGo to sleep now hon. Everythingâ€™s gonna be all right.â€ She went on down. The shadow of the wing slid off the beams and followed after her. The light flickered in the hole and went out.
I curled up in a ball like a rabbit, hunkering down in the featherbed, warm and listening to the crickets. I thought about Momma and Missy, about Victor, barreling down and up and over the hills of Kentucky, moving on into Tennessee and Chattanooga, going on the rest of the way, on down to Florida and that Gulf of Mexico without me. I thought about my real Daddy. I thought about the fire, and then the tears started again. Thatâ€™s how I went to sleep.
My eyes wouldnâ€™t open. Blades of white stabbed in through the lashes. I saw bright red and blue circles rising, silvery spider legs growing and fading â€“ floating in a glare. There was syrupy stuff too, up in the corners, some of it dried off hard and grainy like scabs. I rubbed until the lashes sucked loose, until I could see the beams and the tin roof overhead â€“ light shining through the little nail holes up there â€“ Kentucky light.
The featherbed puffed up around me like hills. Still I was able to see the top of Grannyâ€™s dresser, the big round mirror leaning over the front, looking back at the room like a big glass eye. I could see my end of the attic in there, the window behind the bed. There was a window at the other end too, full of sunshine, tall like a man with a chest full of fire.
My dump truck, the one Daddy won bowling at Fordâ€™s, sat on the dresser, shiny red with chrome bumpers and black rubber mud flaps. Granpawâ€™s cross was up there too, leaning against the mirror, blond wood with a black snake draped over its shoulders where Jesus was supposed to be.
Momma said Jesus could have called ten thousand angels to come and save him from the cross, but God said not to, which to me didnâ€™t make any sense. To me, Jesus should have called them angels right away instead of letting Himself be killed like he did. He could have saved people for real then. Thatâ€™s what I would have done.
â€œWhy, Jesus had to die,â€ Momma said. â€œSo people could believe on him and be saved. Thatâ€™s how God planned it.â€
â€œDo I have to believe in Jesus?â€ I asked.
â€œYou got to come to the age of accountability first,â€ Momma said. â€œYou got to get under conviction.â€
Conviction sounded bad, like a bank robber or some bad man on Dragnet, sitting behind bars in a jail. I didnâ€™t want to be under anything like that.
â€œYou donâ€™t have to worry none,â€ Momma said. â€œJesus loves all the little children. Little children that donâ€™t know no betterâ€™s already saved.â€
I liked it that Jesus loved the little children, but I wasnâ€™t sure if nine-years-old was still little. It didnâ€™t matter anyhow, not if Jesus didnâ€™t come when you wanted him to. Preachers at church said Jesus was coming soon. To me â€˜soonâ€™ meant right away like tomorrow or next week, not years and years. If â€˜soonâ€™ took that long, maybe a person would be better off without Jesus. At least you wouldnâ€™t all the time have to be thinking about Him, wondering around if He was going to come or not.
Far off somewhere I heard a rooster crow. The sound zigzagged way up in the sky like a train whistle then gagged off all of a sudden like somebody had choked it. I heard things moving around downstairs. Voices. A chair being pulled across the floor.
Bacon smells drifted over from the ladder hole, making me think of home, of cartoons on TV where long fingers of smoke would come out from pots and pans on a stovetop. Where they would drift over to a tomcat or a man that was sleeping and start to curl in and out in front of his nose. That cat or that man would float up off the ground then, and the smoky fingers would just float him along by the nose till they got to where the food was. This morning they were doing the same thing to me.
â€œOrbie! Ah, Orbie!â€ It was Granny yelling up the ladder hole, her breath going in and out. â€œI got you some eggs down here! Ah, Orbie! You up yet?â€
â€œI am Granny!â€
â€œCome on then. Granpawâ€™s already eatinâ€™ his.â€ She walked away, slipper bottoms smooching across the floor.
I slid out of bed onto the cracked linoleum, cold and prickly with dirt. I tiptoed one foot to the other, rubbing at my eyes; still trying to get that syrupy stuff out.
â€œOrbie! Ah, Orbie! Eggs is gettinâ€™ cold!â€
â€œOkay Granny!â€ I quick put on my clothes, went over to the dresser, got my dump truck, put the cross in the back end and climbed down the ladder hole â€“ backwards like Granny â€“ the truck tucked under my arm. When I got to the bottom, I wrapped both arms around the truck from underneath, rounded a corner in Granny and Granpawâ€™s bedroom and went into the kitchen.
Granpaw sat at the end of a big brown table, wheezing as he sopped up his eggs with a biscuit. His head was covered with short silvery hairs. A shiny red knot went up with his ear and then down as he chewed. He slurped coffee from a thick white mug he held by the rim between his big finger and thumb.
Under a hawk brow he spied me, standing in the doorway. His words crawled out over the table. â€œYou ever seeed a black snake, boy?â€ A crooked grin fixed itself up one corner of his mouth. Then his eyes and face suddenly blew out like a bullfrogâ€™s throat and there he was, choking on coffee. He slammed his mug down, sloshing coffee over the rim, spat something in his hand and wiped it on the leg of his coveralls. â€œSit you down, boy!â€ he said. â€œGet you some of these eggs.â€
In back of him by the door hung a one-day-at-a-time wall calendar. A black number â€˜7â€™ took up most of the page â€“ with the month and the year printed above, and the day, Friday, printed below. I put my truck with the cross on the floor and sat down. On my plate were two fried eggs with bacon and a biscuit broke in two, covered over with thick white gravy.
â€œGo on, eat,â€ Granpaw said. â€œPut some meat on them bones.â€
I picked up my fork. I wasnâ€™t hungry but I cut out a piece of egg white anyway and put it in my mouth. On the other side of the room under a window with a fan was a woodstove for cooking. A quiet fire played peek-a-boo behind the air holes on the door.
Granny came and stood in the doorway next to Granpaw. â€œThem eggs ainâ€™t cold now are they?â€
She walked around Granpaw and stood next to the stove. She had a thick white mug like his in one hand and a spoon in the other. â€œOrbie hon, look up here to me. You got the dry eye, donâ€™t ye?â€
I didnâ€™t know if I had it or not.
â€œNo,â€ I said.
â€œYes you do.â€ Granny dug out a spoonful of coffee and biscuit from her mug. Iâ€™d seen her do that other times I was down here. Coffee and biscuit from a mug was one of her most favorite things. She called it â€˜soakâ€™. â€œYou know what the dry eye is?â€
â€œNo,â€ I said.
â€œYou get the dry eye from crying and sleeping too hard,â€ she said. â€œMakes a personâ€™s eyes swell out. Like yours is now. I bet they was stuck together when you woke up.â€
â€œUh huh,â€ I said.
â€œWell,â€ Granny said, â€œtheyâ€™ll be fine after while.â€
I was glad there wasnâ€™t anything the matter with my eyes. I cut out another piece of egg white and put it in my mouth. I let it stay there.
Granpawâ€™s words crawled out over the table. â€œYou ever seeed a black snake, boy?â€
The piece of egg white slid over my tongue.
Granny stood with the spoonful of soak. â€œStop that now, Strode. Poor little thang cried hisself to sleep last night.â€
Granpaw put a mean eye on Granny, then turned it back on me. â€œI killed me one tâ€™other day. You know theyâ€™s two kind of black snake?â€
The egg white slid down my throat. â€œNo, Granpaw.â€
â€œWell, they is!â€ he almost shouted. His voice then shrank to just above a whisper. â€œOneâ€™s regular and tâ€™otherâ€™nâ€™s a racer. One I killed come at me with its head all raised. And I killed it! Killed it deaderâ€™n four oâ€™clock! Now. What do you think of that?â€ Seemed like all the holes on Granpawâ€™s face had opened at the same time â€“ the mouth hole, the eye holes, the nose holes â€“ even the little blue-purply holes on his chin, the ones Granny said he got from the fever.
Out the screen door I could see the barn. I could see sunshine beating down all over the yard. â€œI donâ€™t know Granpaw. I donâ€™t know what to think.â€
â€œI killed it with a grubbing hoe. Chopped its head plum off, back of that barn.â€ Granpaw jerked his head back toward the screen. â€œAinâ€™t that somethinâ€™?â€
I looked down at my plate. Three long strips of bacon lay on the side, all bubbled out and swimming in grease. I picked at one with my fork. â€œI donâ€™t know, Granpaw. Did it bite you?â€
Granny snorted. â€œIt ought toâ€™ve child! Mightâ€™ve learned him a thang or two!â€ She held the spoon over the cup just below her mouth â€“ full of that brown spongy stuff â€“ laughing so hard now some drops of coffee fell down the front of her dress. â€œFooling with them black snakes! You know betterâ€™n that!â€
â€œHesh up woman! Me and Orbieâ€™s talking here.â€ Lizard skin came down over one of Granpawâ€™s eyes, went back up again. A wink. He was making us out to be like partners.
I didnâ€™t want to be a partner. I looked at my plate.
Granny slurped up the soak from her spoon, one eye on Granpaw. â€œYou ainâ€™t supposed to killâ€™em no how. They eat rats.â€ A brown drop found a wrinkle under her lip and slid in.
â€œBlack snakes is good for rats but thisâ€™n â€“ it was one of them racers I think â€“ it come at me so quick!â€ Granpaw jerked back from the table, raising both hands; big gray calluses all up and down his fingers. Again his voice crawled out over the table. â€œWith its head all raised, and a slick black tongue, spittinâ€™ and slaverinâ€™ out its mouth. That one was ugly. Slickerâ€™n dog shit too! Why, wasnâ€™t nothinâ€™ I could do but grab up a grubbing hoe!â€ He popped the tabletop with both hands. â€œChopped its head plum off, thatâ€™s what I done! Wasnâ€™t no time to think.â€
He reached up around his neck and pulled a leather drawstring over his head. Attached was a small leather pouch. â€œLooky here boy.â€ He tossed the pouch with the string over the table, landing it a little ways from my plate. â€œThereâ€™s its head, in there! Open it!â€
I sat back in my chair, frozen, thinking of that snakeâ€™s head in there, its tongue slicking out at me, dead.
â€œGo on, boy. What you scared of?â€
â€œGet that nasty thang out of here!â€ Granny snatched up the pouch and flung it back Granpawâ€™s way. It hit him in the chest and thumped down on the table. â€œScare that child so bad he wonâ€™t never want to go outside!â€
Granpaw doubled over; laughing so hard I thought he might be near to choking. Then he just stopped everything and cocked his brow. â€œIâ€™ll skin it back for ye, if you want me to. You can put its skull on a string for a necklace. What do you think of that?â€
â€œI donâ€™t want no damned snake head Granpaw!â€ My fork got away from me then, clanking loudly against my plate. A strip of bacon flipped over and landed on the table, a greasy dead piece of meat.
Granpaw hee-hawed and slapped his legs. â€œWhatâ€™s the matter boy? Itâ€™d be like one of them charms, by grabs!â€ His gray eye fixed me where I sat. â€œWhereâ€™d you learn to cuss like that anyhow?â€
Granny flapped at him. â€œGet out Strode! Go on! Go do them chores like you was aiming to! Orbie donâ€™t need you making fun of him, poor thing. All the way down here from Detroit. He donâ€™t need that kind of foolishness! Besides we going to pick blackberries this morning and I got to get this table cleared.â€ She pointed toward the door. â€œGet out now!â€
Granpaw, still laughing, got up from the table. He took one limping step and looked around at the kitchen. â€œWhereâ€™s my hat, Mattie?â€
With her spoon, Granny pointed toward the door. â€œOut there where you left it, I reckon. Get on now!â€
â€œCainâ€™t nobody have fun around here.â€ Granpaw picked up the pouch and ditch-stepped it over to me. â€œLooky here boy. Ainâ€™t nothinâ€™ in that but chewing tabacco.â€ He opened the pouch and held it down for me to see. Sure enough thatâ€™s all there was â€“ just a gnarled hunk of black chewing tobacco curled in there like a snake with one end bit off.
â€œNow ainâ€™t that something to be scared of?â€ Granpaw winked and cupped the top of my head with a hand thick as a baseball mitt. I tried to jerk loose but the hand was too strong. Looking right down into my eyes, he said, â€œYou down here with us hillbillies now son, and ainâ€™t a one of us got a lick of sense. Why, if we did, we wouldnâ€™t know what to do with it!â€ He threw back his head, laughing. Then a tired sound came in his voice. â€œI reckon youâ€™ll learn that soon enough though.â€ He let go of my head, raised himself on one leg and let his body down on the other. He went out the screen door that way, went out and let it slam.
I watched him standing out there on the porch, looking up at the sky, the palms of his hands on his butt, the elbows stuck out in back of him. â€œYep, heâ€™ll learn. Heâ€™ll learn soon enough,â€ Granpaw said to the sky. Then he walked his bum leg down the steps and was gone.
Granny set her cup with the spoon in a big empty tub and started piling Granpawâ€™s dirty dishes. â€œPay Strode no mind, youngun. Going on about them black snakes. You wouldnâ€™t think he was a preacher the way he does. Ornery old devil.â€
I stared out the door Granpaw had gone. The barn sat out there with its main and two hay loft doors wide open â€“ a black skull laughing at the day.
Who did he think he was anyhow? Scaring me like that?
Granny wiped egg yellow and brown coffee circles off the top of the table. Then she grabbed a hot kettle from the stove, brought it over to the tub and poured hot water in. A cloud of steam rushed up to the ceiling and crawled away. â€œWe wonâ€™t have to bother with him now no how, this your first day and all.â€ She began ladling cold water into the tub from a bucket by the door. â€œYou havenâ€™t said two words since you been down here. What you been doing up in Detroit?â€
â€œNothing, Granny. Playing.â€
â€œPlaying at what?â€
â€œBall. With my friends.â€
Granny busied herself over the dishes. â€œTheyâ€™s kids down here too you know.â€
â€œNo there ainâ€™t,â€ I said.
â€œWho said they ainâ€™t?â€
I looked at my plate. Two orange eggs looked back. â€œMomma,â€ I said.
â€œShe donâ€™t know. She ainâ€™t been around to know.â€ Granny stood now, toweling off her hands. â€œHow come you so quiet? You never used to be.â€
â€œIâ€™m thinking Granny.â€
â€œThinking?â€ Granny laughed. â€œYou too young to be thinking. You remind me of some old farmer a worrying over his crops.â€
I poked one of the eggs and watched the orange run out. â€œI canâ€™t eat these Granny. I ainâ€™t hungry.â€
Granny reached down and got a hold of my plate. Her white hair was pulled straight back, gathered on either side into pincushion-sized buns. One white strand floated out over her ear like a stray feather. â€œGo on outside then. The hogsâ€™ll eat these and be thankful.â€ She dumped the eggs into a dented bucket and set my plate off to the side. â€œIâ€™ll finish these dishes and weâ€™ll go. We got a lot to do, you and me. Picking them blackberries.â€
I left my dump truck and Granpawâ€™s cross under the table and went out onto the back porch. I put my hands in my back pockets and looked up at the sky like Granpaw. I couldnâ€™t see the sun but I knew it was up there â€“ somewhere behind the blinding white clouds. Cows decorated with splotches of white on black grazed the hillside above the barn. Pigs sniffed and snuffled inside a fenced yard near the house. A few lay sleeping in the shade of a little blue and white egg-shaped trailer that squatted in the tall weeds next to the fence. There was a chicken yard too, and a foreshortened wagon road that ended at the barn, which separated the chicken yard from the pig yard, two red clay tracks with a grassy hump down the middle.
â€œOrbie!â€ Granny called. Through the screen door I could see her still picking up utensils and wiping the table, sending out her words while she worked. â€œYou be careful about that well now! Storm blowed the roof cockeyed and I think some of them stones is loose. I donâ€™t want you falling in.â€
â€œOkay Granny,â€ I said.
â€œWeâ€™d be worried to death, not knowing where youâ€™d gone off to.â€
â€œOkay.â€ Already I was beginning to sweat. I went down the steps and out along the side of the house. Grasshoppers were flying every which way over the patchy grass yard, bright black wings snapping like cellophane. A weather-warped rain barrel leaned under a pipe from the roof, empty and smelling of mold. I went on out to the front yard. Grannyâ€™s Jesus Tree was out there, just a few feet away from the house, twisting up out of the ground like a bunch of ropes tied together; its thorny crown was just even with the low edge of the porchâ€™s overhang.
A faded picture of Jesus Grannyâ€™d found at a flea market was wedged in between the branches. It was dented on one corner, washed out looking and stained with rainwater. It showed Jesus lying face down on a thick stone cross rising slantwise out of what looked like a stormy, though faded, yellow sea. Yellow waves lashed at Jesusâ€™ feet, and a washed out angry sky swirled overhead. His back was all bony and gashed and bleeding, and His faded hands were driven through with thick gray spikes. His face lay flat against the stone, and though I looked for it, I could see no love in his eyes anywhere, just misery and gloom. Didnâ€™t look to me like He could save himself let alone the world.
Across the gravels of Bounty Road I could see Old Man Harlanâ€™s store. Old Man Harlanâ€™s real name was Nealy. Nealy Harlan. The store looked about the size of a small garage but with a porch and a door and a window on the front, white with red trim. Up the hill stood the big house where Old Man Harlan lived with his hunchback cousin, Bird Pruitt.
Bounty Road went in front of Old Man Harlanâ€™s house and down past the store where it crossed Nub Road, also gravel. That place, where the roads crossed, was called Harlanâ€™s Crossroads; called that because Old Man Harlan owned all the land around it â€“ the store, Granny and Granpaw's place, the graveyard where Daddy was buried and the corner Granpaw had his tobacco on.
Down from the Jesus Tree and closer to the road sat Granny and Granpawâ€™s well, above it a round roof of flowers growing out of tin cans. It was tilted backwards, the roof was, and looked a little bit like a church ladyâ€™s hat that was being blown back by the wind â€“ except today there wasnâ€™t any wind. There wasnâ€™t even a breeze. All kinds of flowers were growing up there. Bloody red ones, smiling on green veins. Some with yellow hair and orange eyes. Blue flowers too, bunches of them, little trumpets turned up to the sun, Joshuaâ€™s horns, Momma called them, ready to blast out, ready to make everything come tumbling down.
The screen door on the front porch suddenly squalled open. It was Granny. She stepped out onto the noisy plank floor, holding two buckets, one in each hand, a big white bucket with a rusty lip, and a bright silver one that looked like an oversized tin can with the label peeled off.
â€œItâ€™s early for blackberries,â€ she said, â€œbut summerâ€™s early too. We get lucky, weâ€™ll find us a few.â€
Weâ€™d climbed the hill back of the barn, and now stood looking out over Harlanâ€™s Crossroads. â€œIâ€™ll tell you whatâ€™s the truth youngun,â€ Granny said. â€œWe donâ€™t get rain soon, Harlanâ€™s Crossroads gonna blow away. Sure is purdy though. Look away over yonder. See that shining?â€
I could see over the four corners of the crossroads, over Granpawâ€™s field of shiny leaf tobacco.
â€œLook up Bounty there,â€ Granny said. â€œThat shining there.â€ Light flashed back from where she was pointing. â€œThatâ€™s new tin. Storm blowed a tree over, right onto Moses Mashboneâ€™s roof. He got that tin to fix it with. We done picking, weâ€™ll go see.â€
Moses Mashbone was a medicine preacher who was said to have handled snakes, something Momma had told me. I looked away and out over the hazy blue hills. â€œBounty goes to Circle Stump, donâ€™t it Granny?â€
â€œGoes through Kingdom first, then Circle Stump.â€ Granny pointed off to the left. â€œKingdom Churchâ€™s over that way.â€
â€œColored people live in the Kingdom,â€ I said.
â€œYour Momma tell you that?â€
â€œIt didnâ€™t have a name till they started that Nigger Kingdom business,â€ Granny said. â€œThat bunch over to Circle Stump. Why, coloreds is some of the best folks in the world! You know what they did when the white folks started calling their little section Nigger Kingdom?â€
â€œGot their knives out,â€ I said.
â€œYeah. To cut the Circle Stump people. For calling them names.â€
â€œWhy, they wouldnâ€™t a bit more done that than nothing!â€ Granny said.
â€œWhat did they do then?â€
â€œKept the name of â€˜Kingdomâ€™ without that â€˜Niggerâ€™ part is what. So they had just â€˜Kingdomâ€™, you know, like the Kingdom of Heaven.â€ Granny turned and started along another path up the hill. â€œKingdom Town. Like in the Bible.â€
I hurried to catch up. â€œOh. Like with angels and God and Jesus and all the saved people.â€
â€œThatâ€™s right. Except their Kingdom is right here on earth. Ainâ€™t that a nice idea?â€
I didnâ€™t know if it was nice or not. It sounded good, but you couldnâ€™t have angels and God and Jesus walking around on the ground like people.
â€œChurch house ainâ€™t but a mile from there. Where me and Strode goes. Kingdom Church. Thereâ€™s a little old creek runs in behind it. Kingdom Creek. Cotton mouth all up in there. Poison.â€
â€œMoses picksâ€™em up, donâ€™t he Granny?â€
â€œYeah cotton mouths! Copperheads and rattler too. Kill you deaderâ€™n four oâ€™clock! God protects Moses though. Even if he was to get bit, I donâ€™t reckon it would hurt him any.â€
We came up to Moses Mashboneâ€™s house from the back way, our buckets not even half full of the sorryiest looking blackberries Granny said sheâ€™d ever seen. I was sweating and miserable, thinking over all that had happened, all the things I couldnâ€™t change, worried about Momma and Victor, still mad at them for leaving me.
â€œMoses wonâ€™t be to home, more than likely,â€ Granny said. â€œMiss Alma will be though.â€
â€œThat his wife?â€ I said.
â€œNo,â€ Granny laughed. â€œShe just keeps house. Got kids of her own. And a house in the Kingdom.â€
Mosesâ€™ house was smaller than Granny and Granpawâ€™s, covered over with brown sandy shingles. A tree had fallen across the roof at one end and had knocked the chimney sideways. â€œThat thereâ€™s a big oak,â€ Granny said. â€œMashed in the roof there and everything. Ainâ€™t that a sight?â€ The base of the tree had been pulled right out of the ground, a huge circle of red clay and gnarly black roots.
â€œSame wind blowed our well cockeyed blowed that tree cockeyed. See that tin there?â€ Sheets of tin were leaning up against the back of the house. â€œWhat we seen from up the hill. Moses gonna fix his roof with that.â€
We walked on around to the front of the house. Granny hollered at the door. â€œMiss Alma, you in there!â€
â€œI ainâ€™t got all day girl!â€
Still nobody answered; then came the sound of a door closing, and a voice hollering from within. â€œLawd, Lawd, I cominâ€™! Donâ€™t has to shout now!â€
The screen door opened and out stepped the biggest, blackest colored-woman Iâ€™d ever seen. She looked like the woman on all the pancake boxes â€“ the Aunt Jemima woman â€“ so giant-sized she filled up the whole doorway. Her head was wrapped in a dirty orange rag, tied around in front so the ends stood up like little rabbit ears.
Granny put her hand on my shoulder. â€œThis hereâ€™s Orbie.â€
Miss Alma smiled a mouthful of white-white teeth. Her breasts, titties I called them then, were big as watermelons.
â€œRubyâ€™s boy,â€ Granny said.
â€œWell,â€ Miss Alma said. â€œI shoâ€™ is pleased to meet you!â€
I tried not to look at the watermelons.
â€œHeâ€™ll be staying down here a while,â€ Granny said. â€œTill his Momma gets back.â€
â€œHmmm, hmmm. Well. Look to me like he be shy a little bit. Hmmm, hmmm. He a good lookinâ€™ boy though.â€
â€œI thank so,â€ Granny said.
They both looked at me like it was my turn to talk, but I couldnâ€™t think of anything to say.
â€œWhereâ€™s Moses?â€ Granny said.
â€œOh he be off somewhere,â€ Miss Alma said. â€œYou know how he do.â€
Granny reached one of the buckets of berries up to Miss Alma. â€Ainâ€™t much to look at but theyâ€™ll do for jam.â€
â€œLawd, Lawd,â€ Miss Alma said. â€œMoses be pleased to get deze, shoâ€™ will. Yaâ€™ll come in now. I gots ice tea.â€
â€œNo. We best be getting back, Miss Alma. Thank you kindly.â€ Granny looked up in the sky. A few clouds drifted up there, dark little clouds with white silvery sides. â€œReckon itâ€™ll rain soon?â€
Miss Alma laughed. â€œIt do, I hope dey no wind in it.â€
â€œNo. We donâ€™t need no more of that. Look over there Orbie.â€ Granny gestured toward a little hill of dirt by the fence. A big rusty door slanted up one side. â€œThatâ€™s Mosesâ€™ storm cellar. Only one around except for Nealy Harlanâ€™s. Thereâ€™s a bad storm we come down here.â€
â€œHow come you donâ€™t use Mr. Harlanâ€™s storm cellar?â€ I said. â€œItâ€™s a long way over here, Granny.â€
â€œIt ainâ€™t long if you go the road,â€ Granny said. â€œBesides, Nealy wonâ€™t let nobody use his cellar. Stingy old goat. He donâ€™t even use it himself, him nor Bird neither one. Theyâ€™s a bad storm, they come down here like the rest of us.â€
â€œHave moonshine in dat cellah of his,â€ Miss Alma said.
â€œBarrels of it,â€ Granny said.
â€œHmm, hmm, shoâ€™ do.â€
Daddy told me once about Old Man Harlanâ€™s moonshine; how he sold it to the colored. â€œYou know what moonshine is son? Make you sickerâ€™n a dog!â€ Said Old Man Harlan had to sell his moonshine in secret because of the law. â€œHe might hate the colored, but he donâ€™t hate their money. Never could trust a man like that.â€
When we got back to the crossroads, Granny stepped up a little bank and went into the graveyard. That she did this so suddenly gave me the jitters, but I followed her in anyway. Grave markers stuck up everywhere. Some were badly cracked and crumbling, some so dingy gray and grown over with black stuff you could hardly read the names.
â€œNealy Harlan ought to be horsewhipped for letting it go like this,â€ Granny said. Everywhere there were all kinds of weeds and picker bushes growing. Dandelion fuzz balls. Gawky dead cottonwood claws reaching down from above.
â€œI want you just to look!â€ Granny pointed along where there was a busted out place in the fence. â€œAll the time after us and wonâ€™t even fix his own fence line.â€ On the other side of the busted out place stood a weeping willow tree, its umbrella of leaves drooped and withering in the sun.
Granny pointed again. â€œTheyâ€™re over that way, near where that break is. Your other Granny and Granpaw. Granny and Granpaw Ray.â€
â€œAnd Daddy,â€ I said.
â€œThatâ€™s right. Dead people needs to be took care of too, you know. Not left around like this.â€ Granny motioned her hand out over the graves. â€œAll growed over with weeds.â€
We made our way through picker bushes, around crosses and gravestones, toward the busted out place where a few slats of the fence still lay broken on the ground. Something inside the weeping willow treeâ€™s umbrella of leaves startled me, a dim shape of something or somebody hunched over in there, breathing and alive. It made the hairs on my neck stand up.
â€œI declare!â€ Granny shouted. â€œBird! What you doing in there?â€
The shape parted the leaves with a gnarled cane and waddled out in the sun. It was Bird Pruitt â€“ Old Man Harlanâ€™s hunchback cousin â€“ bent under a lopsided hump and wearing a thick purple dress that drooped dead to the ground.
â€œAinâ€™t you hot in that?â€ Granny said.
â€œAinâ€™t nobodyâ€™s business if I am,â€ Bird said as she waddled up closer. On her head sat a purple pillbox hat, its wiry net bent up in the air like frozen smoke, only purple colored. She reached out with the gnarled cane and poked me in the chest. â€œYou! Rubyâ€™s boy! I never did get to whip you.â€
Missy and me had stayed once with Bird when Momma and Victor went off to Circle Stump with Granny â€“ the first and only other time Victor had been down. Bird said Victor ought to whip me more because my real Daddy never. Said all my real Daddy ever did was spoil me. I told her to shut her old mouth and she came at me with her cane.
â€œLeave him alone,â€ Granny said.
Bird took her cane away. â€œYou are Rubyâ€™s boy, ainâ€™t you?â€
â€œHis names Orbie,â€ Granny said. â€œYou know who he is.â€
Bird kept her eyes on me. â€œYou awful skinny, Rubyâ€™s boy. Have to fatten you up.â€ She reached out for one of my arms.
â€œDonâ€™t,â€ I said, backing away.
Half her teeth were gone, and I could almost see the bone of her skull, just beneath her skin, gray bleached out skin that looked cold and watery even in the sunlight.
â€œStop it Bird,â€ Granny said. â€œHeâ€™s just down here a little while. Ruby and that man of herâ€™s went off to Floridy.â€
Still not taking her eyes off me, Bird said, â€œDaddyâ€™s in the ground now, hainâ€™t he? You will be too, soon. Itâ€™s awful to be in the ground. Awful.â€ She grinned again and looked around at all the graves. â€œAwful, awful,â€ she said, shaking her head. Then, breathing and heaving up under that hump, she began a slow spidery walk around the graves out toward the gate.
â€œShe ainâ€™t easy to figure, that one ainâ€™t,â€ Granny said.
I shivered at the thought of her skull. â€œSheâ€™s crazy, ainâ€™t she Granny?â€
â€œSome will say she is,â€ Granny said. â€œWanders all over everywhere. Nealy donâ€™t know where she is half the time.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t like what she said about Daddy. About him being in the ground.â€
â€œYour Daddy ainâ€™t in the ground, hon; heâ€™s in heaven. Look over here.â€ Granny pointed to some graves near the fence. â€œTheyâ€™re not as bad as I thought theyâ€™d be. Grass needs trimming is all.â€
Crumbling white slabs of stone marked Granny and Granpaw Rayâ€™s graves â€” â€˜Louis Jefferson Rayâ€™ on Granpawâ€™s and â€˜Pearl Anne Rayâ€™ on Grannyâ€™s â€“ and that was all. Daddyâ€™s gravestone looked almost new, shiny gray with a curved top. It said â€œJessie Louis Ray, Born May 6th, 1931, Died August 15th, 1956. Loved By All.â€ There were some dead roses piled at the bottom.
Granny reached down with one hand, grabbed up the roses and pitched them over the fence. She set the remaining bucket of blackberries down and stood there, looking over the graves.
A sad feeling came over me then. I remembered Daddyâ€™s bird claw hand, the one with the baby and ring fingers missing, how it moved through the air when he led singing at church. I remembered when they buried him, how it had rained â€“ a cold misty rain you could feel all the way to the inside of your bones. How Momma had leaned against Granny, Granpaw holding an umbrella over their heads. I remembered the wet light on the stones. The Lordâ€™s Prayer. The red clay around the soles of my shoes. I got all heartbroken then and started to cry. â€œSome man poured fire on Daddy. A colored man.â€
â€œThey Lord,â€ breathed Granny. â€œThey told you that?â€
â€œVictor did,â€ I sobbed. â€œIt burned him alive.â€
Granny shook her head. â€œLord A Mighty.â€
I had so many tears I could hardly see the gravestones.
Granny put her arm around me. â€œCry all you want to, hon; Granny donâ€™t mind.â€
We stood in front of the graves. I cried till I couldnâ€™t cry anymore. Birds hopped and chirped in the cottonwoods overhead, happy, like to say there never was â€“ nor ever would be â€“ anything to be sad about.
â€œDid Granny and Granpaw Ray freeze to death?â€ I asked.
â€œNobody knows that for sure, hon. They had fever. I reckon it was fever and the cold both what killed them. Poor Jessie was just a baby. Now heâ€™s gone on to be with them.â€
It was peaceful by the weeping willow tree. Daddy was gone to be with Granny and Granpaw Ray. I wondered where that could be, if it was really heaven or if it was like Bird said, under the ground, down in some dark place where dead people walk around â€“ like the zombie-people in my body snatcher book.
I wished Daddy could come back alive again â€“ but not like that. I wished he could come back for real.