Lee's Writing Journey

June 13, 2011

Klan Country, A Novel in Progress

Filed under: literary fiction — Lee Titus Elliott @ 11:52 am
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Klan Country

A Novel in Progress

 

“Ah, the family,” she said, releasing her breath and sitting back quietly, “the whole hideous institution should be wiped from the face of the earth. It is the root of all human wrongs,” she ended and relaxed, and her face became calm. She was trembling.
                              —Katherine Anne Porter, “Old Mortality”

I

Once more it was five before nine on a Saturday morning (this one in May, five days after Kent State) and once more, as punctual as the sun, my Grandfather Woodall stood white-haired and erect on the brick pavement beside the Old Well, his blue gaze fixed across Cameron Avenue and down the wide brick walkway that ran between South Building and the Playmakers Theater. From my window high in Old East (a window shut still, out of shame shut still, though it was warm outside, warm as July), I could look down and see him from the rear: tall and elegant in his tailored and pressed salt-and-pepper suit, his black dress shoes polished as mirrors, his neat, gray Homburg held out with both veined hands in front of him, close over his waist.

Standing so, arrayed so, his stage set that little, round Vesta-temple with the Doric columns and copper dome and wrought-iron drinking fountain in the center, he reminded me of a Confederate general in retirement, posing for a photograph—an Early or an Anderson or a Longstreet in one of his Freeman books back in Raleigh. I squinted hard from my shut window and for a sudden, aching wave in my chest, could see—believe!—I wasn’t up here, in this closed, overwarm room, tie wretchedly askew, dress shoes scuffed, shirt and trousers rumpled like a street drunk’s, every pore of me sweating and stinking, shit smell and semen smell welling up out of my crotch like a grim mist, some strange college boy’s semen sticky as rotten glue on the roof of my mouth. No, I was down there, once more crossing Cameron and striding straight to him over the antique brick, dressed neat in the dark, pressed trousers, the white, starched long-sleeved shirt and dark tie, the dress shoes as black and mirror-polished as his own, in my left hand gripped the big, black brief case he’d presented me for my high school graduation in June ’66. And all through my striding to him (so I heard—believed!) ran in my mind the verses from the Fourth Georgic I’d just translated (and memorized) in Dr. Applewhite’s Virgil class—verses poised to spring from my lips, in not quite theatrical orotundity, the moment I stopped before him and reached out to grip his proffered hand.

I shut my eyes and could see—believe!—how it would go between us in the four hours following: how, hard upon our ritual grip and my verses from Virgil, he’d intone his own mock-solemn, “Si vales, valeo; bonum est,” and then, clearing his throat, as if about to give a speech, ask once more: Would I accompany him “this fine morning” (even if it were raining or overcast, it would ever be fine—“a fine morning”) down to “Klan Country” (“Heh, heh, heh,” he’d be sure to utter) and the old Woodall homeplace, “seat” of his father’s father and my “distaff side”? As I was “well cognizant,” his brother, my great-uncle Merrick, had put it up for sale at last, and he, “this old Dee-di” of mine, eighty-one and retired for good, away at last from “the consumptives” and the X-rays and all the weekly traveling—he, “an old widower of leisure now,” with no salaried employment or “future prospects thereof,” had “purposed” to purchase “said seat” and in his “hiemal years” restore it to its “antebellum state.” He’d perform “the light labor” himself, whatever little painting and repair “this old carcass” could accomplish. The remainder he’d commission to contractors: the new foundation and new roof and the filling of the columns eaten hollow and much more than he could name just now, my “old forgetful Dee-di.” Would I “therefore”—I, his only grandson and “sole male sustainer” of the Woodall line (my uncle had two daughters “merely” and, at 33, mumps had “rendered him sterile”)—would I go down with him “this fine Saturday” and meet my great-uncle Merrick there? (Grandfather had telephoned him we’d meet him at one, “on the lower veranda.”) If we left now, we’d have the leisure to stop by Rosewood and see Mrs. Loreena Wooten, a widow herself and his “future helpmeet.” And we’d have time to walk the Bentonville battleground and tour Ava Gardner’s schoolhouse and teacherage—and even visit the old clapboard church my great-great-grandfather (“Union Man that he was, yessir,”) had built “for the colored people.” Of course, he’d drive me himself, “with all due pleasure, Dr. Lockhart.”

I opened my eyes and looked down at him, and from his steady head, his stance so willfully still he seemed nearly to tremble, I knew he was playing it all through to the end, in a mind’s eye keen and fatalistic: how it had gone between us every Saturday since the twenty-eighth of March (he’d first arrived at my dorm room on the twenty-first, with no warning, not even a phone call) and how surely it would go between us again today, “this fine morning”: how the word “pleasure” would have barely come out of his mouth when I’d have said, in that aloof, resonant professor’s voice (which already infected me then and often infects me still—even on stage—twenty-six years later): I “deeply” apologized, but I could not accompany him “just yet”—not today at least. I had another examination for which to study—my Latin comprehensives—and a “lengthy paper”—this one on the Georgics. And that night (and I’d have been sure to say this with a wink, sly and conspiratorial), I’d made “a prior engagement”—with a “Linda Maupin” or a Teresa Cheshire” or an “Elaine Trentman”—whatever old-Raleigh, blue-blood name would have emerged in my mind just then. (Of course, I was lying about the “prior engagement,” as I’d been lying about it the six Saturdays previous.) But—I’d have gone on—“my schedule” would permit an hour for “light luncheon,” perhaps at Harry’s downtown.

And then he, his voice going tight and clipped, like that of the Army Medical Corps colonel he’d been for thirty years—his first career, long ago—this narrowed voice the only sign of his (I knew) deep disappointment: “That will be satisfactory, sir. We shall drive to the homeplace on a Saturday forthcoming. I shall telephone your great-uncle Merrick not to expect us today. He has long advertised for the sale but has assured me by certified letter, in accordance with my request, that he shall not first negotiate with another party other than myself.” Here he would have raised a hand from the brim of the Homburg he held, touched forefinger to thumb, and gone on, “Of course, I know—and you, likely, as well, Dr. Lockhart—how large a salis granum his word’s been worth. But after all these years—Lord, I haven’t seen him in twenty!—he may have changed. People do change, you know. Just give ’em time, yessir, and they change—most people, anyway.”

Then, setting the Homburg on his head, straightening it just so, he’d have bowed slightly and said, with no trace of irony, his voice broadening back, “So I shall lunch with you at noon, Dr. Lockhart—at your Harry’s downtown. Meanwhile, to pass the morning profitably, I shall visit the North Carolina Collection and there peruse, with interest, your great-great-grandfather’s letters to Governor Zebulon Baird Vance and President Ulysses Simpson Grant.”

In the three hours following, while he’d have “perused” among the faded and brittle sheets of foolscap, I’d have returned with the briefcase to my overwarm room, ,taken the Oxford Vergili Opera and the Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary out of the briefcase and set them side by side on my desk. I’d have then opened the Vergili Opera to the Fourth Georgic and bookmarked it with a cheap Bic. Then, setting the briefcase by the bureau dresser, I’d have desultorily swept and dusted, changed my soiled and wrinkled bedsheets, and taken a brief nap on the coolness of the freshly laundered ones.

At noon precisely we, the two of us, would’ve been seated across from each other in a cramped, stuffing-sprouted booth in smoky Harry’s, and over the hour there—not a second longer or less—Grandfather would have slapped down onto the stained Formica the enlarged, cracked, yellowed black-and-white photograph of an antebellum façade, the old Woodall homeplace, to be sure: the window shutters missing, the panes cracked and broken, the now-wooden porch steps black-weathered and sagging, and the far-right column gone from the lower portico, replaced by an old creosote pole twice as thick as the remaining columns—which were white still, though chipped and splintered in places. Over the whole façade, the paint was peeling everywhere, like the truck of an old sycamore.

Without touching the steak sandwich Grandfather had ordered, he’d have regaled me once more with the statistics and facts of the old house and the Civil War anecdotes of events rumored to have taken place there: how the “Federals” had dumped dead chickens onto Mrs. Woodall’s grand piano and how the fellow-Mason Federal officer, ordered to “fire” the house, had refused to do so when he saw the Masonic emblem hanging above the parlor mantelpiece, and on and on ad nauseam: tales I’d heard from him since I was five or six—“history,” Grandfather called them. And all the while his face would have been flushed deeply, his voice oddly breathless and manic, now and then breaking high and hoarse, like an excited boy’s.

Then, the anecdotes finished, Grandfather would have slapped down another photo, also black-and-white but smaller and much more recent. It showed the face and neck of a handsome woman—in her midfifties, maybe—her (no doubt, dyed) dark hair styled in the high, Jackie Kennedy bouffant hairdo so popular in the sixties. Even in middle age, she had the bright eyes, the fine, straight noise, the full lips, and the high cheekbones of the beauty queen she had been—“crowned Miss Goldsboro back in 1931.” “And this feminam pulcherrimam, Dr. Lockhart—Mrs. Loreena Wooten,” he’d have said, “it is my intention to wed, once the homeplace is mine and its interior has grown fit for her presence. When we drive down to the homeplace on a future Saturday, I’ll take you to meet her, just outside Rosewood. Oh, you wouldn’t believe all her talents—photography, painting, sculpture, gardening—and more—Lord, I can’t keep count of ’em! And she’s always been so nice to me—so eager to see me. She’s out the X-ray trailer door before I can even get out of the car!” And on and on the old man would have rambled, rolling out nearly the same words I’d heard from him in Harry’s the six Saturdays previous.

Of course, all the while I’d have been spooning up my watery chowder in quick slurps, wolfing the underdone Reuben sandwich, gulping down the Mason jar of oversweetened iced tea, glancing covertly at my wristwatch, in torment for us to quit that smoke-hazed place and walk back across campus—him to his old white Chrysler, me to the clear still of my room, the Fourth Georgic open on my desk, the cheap Bic gripped in my right hand and poised above a sheet of legal pad. Grandfather would have taken a sip from his own Mason jar of oversweetened iced tea and then a bite out of his steak sandwich, chewing it slowly. Then he would have covered his mouth with his hand, cleared his throat long and loud, as if he were about to give a speech, and said—words I remembered verbatim from the letter he’d sent me seven Saturdays ago:

 

I recognize that some of the family will object loudly to my enterprises—your mother and your uncle Claude, especially. In fact, I can already hear them: “What? An eighty-year-old man living out there—in the country? And living there all by himself? And in that house in its condition? And with no central heat? Why, he’ll catch double pneumonia, just like his own mother in that drafty old house in Goldsboro. And remarrying at his age—and this common Loreena person at that?” And on and on and on, the same sort of shrill complaints which I heard your grandmother whine for over forty years—and which now, in my old age, I no longer wish to endure. Hence, I ask you, Dr. Lockhart, that you keep my two new enterprises confidential, at least until the sale of that grandeur is accomplished, at which time I shall write your mother and uncle and shall all reveal and at length.

 

Just so I yearned for it all—oddly, even the parts I resented—to come round again as I stood that Saturday morning in May behind my shut window high in Old East, gazing down at him so grand and erect beside the Old Well, the nine-o’clock sun just now brimming over the Playmakers pediment and glowing him full—from his silver crown to the shining black tips of his shoes.

In fact, a little over an hour ago, just as I stepped outside the dormitory, lugging the briefcase into the cool shadow of the quadrangle, I foresaw clear as a movie the whole Saturday ritual. And I intended to play it through once more. I saw no reason on earth to do any different.

But a few yards down the brick walkway, I noticed the quadrangle all silent but for sparrows chirping under eaves, and I raised my head from its accustomed stoop and saw not one of the dozens of students morose, disheveled, sullen-eyed—sauntering resentfully to their Saturday classes in Saunders or Bingham or Murphy or Dey. Only I was in this place, hearing my long, pounding strides.

I crossed Cameron, strode between the Playmakers and South Building, and came out into the larger, sun-splashed quadrangle, the great, white portico of Wilson Library shining far ahead of me. This place, too, was all empty. Just squirrels were there, scurrying up thick oak trunks, and robins pecked in the grass and among the thick claws of the oak roots.

I hurried past a sign—it caught my eye: a large square of white-painted plywood nailed to a stake driven into the ground. I stopped and swung around and strode back to it and stopped and stooped and, gripping the briefcase still, read the black-painted capitals, printed slightly askew. I pored slowly, slowly over them, and I read them slowly once more, as if they held me under a spell:

 

RALLY FOR PEACE!!!!

MCCORKLE PLACE AND FRANKLIN STREET

SHARP NOON SATURDAY MAY 9

SPEAKERS: ROBBIE BELLO STUDENT BODY PRESIDENT

AND MAYBE ABBIE HOFFMAN!!!!

COME HONOR OUR FALLEN COMRADES

KENT STATE MAY 4, 1970

A DAY THAT SHALL “LIVE IN INFAMY”!!!!

LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION!!!!

 

Under the skewed capitals was tacked a dim, grainy photograph torn raggedly out of a newspaper. It showed a girl, seventeen or eighteen, dressed in dark pants, a dark blouse with sleeves to the elbows, a light-colored kerchief tied loosely around her neck. Her long dark hair was swept back to show a high clear forehead. She was kneeling on a street pavement, her slender white arms stretched out in front of her. Her mouth was open wide, as if she were yelling, shrieking, weeping—I couldn’t tell. She faced the body of a young man stretched out limp on his stomach, an arm stiff-straight down his side, his face twisted away from the camera, cheek firm on the pavement. He was dressed in dark jeans and a light-colored windbreaker, and his thick dark hair, mashed by the pavement, was bunched high around his head. From the other side of him—some torn place I couldn’t see—a thin dark stream—blood, I knew—ran twisting over the pavement and between the girl’s bent knees and on behind her, gathering in a ragged puddle at the curbside. To the right of the two of them stood a neatly long-haired young man in a worn, light-colored blazer, an open-collared shirt, and bell-bottom jeans and boots. His face was twisted away from them, staring bewildered into the distance. Beyond the three stretched flat ground and a high chain-link fence and then the flat ground again. Students were milling about, as bewildered as the one in the blazer and bell-bottoms. Some were gazing beyond the fence—at the retreating soldiers of the National Guard (I later learned). But most were gazing numbly at the dead boy, the grieving girl.

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That clipped photograph I’d already seen but taken spare notice of. Just Wednesday afternoon, my roommate Victor Katz had slapped it hard on my desk, covering my open Fourth Georgic over which I’d been dutifully bent. Then he’d fairly screamed at me, in that self-righteous, “activist” shrill I found so irritating, “And here you can read Vir-gil [he’d spat out the g as if it were something rotten] when they’re murdering kids! Shame on you, Lockhart Titus! Shame! Shame! Shame! But at least you can redeem your prissy self, ’cause we’re rallying on Franklin tonight—and marching—permit or no permit. Let ’em cram us all in the paddy wagon—who gives a flying fuck? Anyway, you be down there, hear? Franklin and McCorkle. Eight sharp!” And before I could finish my usual, “I’m so sorry, but I’m due for a major exam tomorrow,” he’d spat, “Due—I know—like having a goddamn baby—and a re-tard at that! Fuck it!” And he’d whipped around and burst out of our room, slamming the door so hard behind him his framed Easy Rider poster (Dennis Hopper glaring from a Harley) dropped to the floor, splintering glass all the way out from under his bed. (I knew he’d just yell, “Fuck it!” when he got back and then sweep up the glass and roll up the poster and cardboard backing and dump it all into the trash barrel in the hallway and forget about it. “It’s just a thing!” he’d mutter: “Un-im-por-tant.”) But then, after the door slammed, the glass splinters inches from my feet, I could hear his big boots pounding down the hall, then fading as the stairwell door slammed shut. When there was quiet again, I merely glanced at the clipped photo, without seeing it, and whisper-sighed wearily, like a resigned old man, “It’s just not you, Lock—not your way, your life.” Then I tossed the photo flat into the waste basket beside my desk and hunched once more, dutifully—yet, deep inside, ruefully—over the Fourth Georgic.

About “that war” I had no opinion one way or the other. It was some far-away “foreign matter” that had no connection to me at all—other than the bothersome steps (I knew not what) I’d have to take to extend my draft deferment in June, or somehow get classified 4-F. In those tunnel-mirrored days, I was just a classics scholar, my mind set on summa cum laude and then graduate school at Princeton, where I’d already been accepted. Besides, I loathed—and shunned—loud, cursing “demonstrators,” especially the scruffy, long-haired “revolutionaries” with their self-righteous slogans and abrasive voices and megaphones and crudely hand-lettered posters and chanting rallies along Franklin Street.

But why hadn’t I asked Victor to move out long ago? Or why hadn’t I moved out myself and rented a cheap room in an old widow’s bungalow? For ever since we’d begun to room together, the first day of our freshman year (we’d been thrown together by lottery), I’d found him that loud, scruffy, self-righteous type I couldn’t bear. And day after day I’d had to hear him scold me in that shrill, quarrelsome way of his—for my “aloof prissiness.” Hearing him, how I’d winced with irritation inside!

But—oddly for an “activist” sort (who’d usually major in Political Science or Sociology or even Religion)—he held a very different ambition, a passion that had fiercely attracted me, in grade school and high school, and that attracted me now, a vocation for theater—for six years now my secret love, my mere fantasy-calling. A drama major, he played the leads, always the leads, in student productions—Dionysus, Orestes, Hamlet, Stanley in Streetcar, and more—all those roles so much like him: radiant with a dark and angry vitality.

And yes (and of this I was only vaguely, shamefully aware), he held other charms englowed with the first: the full sensuous lips, the straight white teeth revealed in a startling grin (rare) or a taut grimace (more often), the handsome, east-Mediterranean molding of his face, the high, thick, black curly hair, the wide, lake-brown eyes ever staring, ever piercing me, and, above all, the defined chest muscles under his T-shirts. (After rising, he did push-ups every morning, without fail.) So whenever we’d finished a falling out over my “aloof prissiness,” I’d squirm with resentment the whole night afterward and decide “with finality” to say to him next day (I’d even memorized the lines): “I’m terribly sorry, Victor, but this isn’t working out—our rooming together. Would you find another place to stay? I’ll help you search—help you move, even.” But next morning, in early dark, in the dim light of the desk lamp, I’d be bent wide-eyed and dry-mouthed over him as he slept on his back in his rumpled bed, that high shock of curly black hair spread over his coffee-stained pillow, that chest naked, hairy, defined and, when the heat was too high, coiled with the threads and tiny beads of his sweat, and I’d feel myself harden—fiercely, painfully—and so relent and “forget” to bring up “the subject” in the few minutes we gulped coffee together before rushing off to classes.

So, yes, I’d seen that photo Wednesday afternoon, and three days later, on that Saturday morning in May, a little past eight o’clock, I saw it again, tacked to the plywood sign, under the rally announcement. I was about to stride on—I was late for class—but found I couldn’t take my eyes off the kneeling girl, the shocked grief in her open mouth and outstretched arms. It came to me suddenly she was weeping in that deep, wrenched, down-in-the-lungs way I’d only—so far—heard once in my life, dredged up painfully out of myself, years ago, in circumstances that, at twenty-two, I’d long damped from memory. I gazed at her a while longer, shuddered violently, then shook my head to steady myself and swung around and strode on, faster now, over the antique brick and then, taking two at a time, up the broad stair steps of Murphy Hall and through the double swinging doors and into the small, bare vestibule. I glanced at the restroom’s double doors to my left, shook my head sharply, then lunged through a second pair of swinging doors and into the corridor and stopped, the gripped black briefcase a great weight by my side. This place, too, was empty, like the campus, and I slowed, as if entering a church, and heard my footsteps echoing. When I entered Room 204, my vast, high-ceilinged Virgil room (much too large for a class of twelve students), I saw empty school desks in neat rows and, on the blackboard, a note in Dr. Applewhite’s neat cursive, “Out of respect for the Kent State fallen, once again no class shall be conducted today. For Tuesday, May 12 (we shall meet then), translate the next fifty lines of the Fourth Georgic.”

I scanned the rows of empty desks, heard a sharp clank from a cooling radiator, then saw in my mind the grieving girl from the photograph. My stomach fell as I felt for the first time in five years (an eternity when you are twenty-two) how lonely my life was and how utterly deep a lonesomeness it had been. I remembered how, for four years nearly, I’d lived only for my cramped routine: the striding to classes, the hunched studying over the scratched, wobbly table I called “the desk,” the occasional yet ever formal, cerebral conversations with Victor over our gulps of morning coffee, the rushed, solitary meals at Lenoir Hall and the Carolina Inn, and, in the summers, (yes, summers even—what might have been bright, carefree, Frisbee-flinging Junes, Julys, Augusts, or, better, enlivening work outdoors, as a camp counselor, perhaps) my lonely job at Wilson Library: shelving books, filing cards in narrow drawers, steering by their cool, bony wrists bespectacled, owl-eyed old ladies into the stacks—to their adored books they could barely read, much less see to find. As I stood in that vast, silent classroom, I saw the past four years (except for rare, strange fits of mine this past April—and rare, strange fits of Grandfather, too—this strange, maddening April wholly uncharacteristic of both of us)—saw those four years as a life without energy or heart or connection or desire. A life without soul. Dead as that clank of the old Murphy radiator.

Lugging the heavy briefcase still, I squeezed between the empty desks to a high window flung wide open, the blinds raised as high as they could go. I stared down upon the quadrangle and saw, just by chance—a blessing? a curse?—I’ll never know for sure, even now, twenty-six years later—saw a young man, maybe eighteen, walking close beside his girlfriend, their arms curved tightly around each other’s waists. They were dressed in faded blue jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts and floppy leather sandals. They stopped midstride a moment by a great white oak and, embracing softly, tenderly, kissed each other on the mouth—a long, deep, tongue-swirling kiss, the girl sweetly groaning. Then they drew apart, slowly, and the boy reached up to brush a fly from her long dark hair. Then they walked on, slowly, hand in hand, their sandals slapping the brick pavement.

Again, I saw in my mind the grieving girl in the photograph, her mouth wrenched open, crying out the anguish in her young heart, and I felt deep down this Saturday would go different from the others—would have to go different—or I’d take a knife and rip myself open.

Knowing now—but without the words—what it was I first must do, I swung around and strode out of the classroom, kicking aside the close-spaced desks and lugging the black briefcase like a heavy wooden leg I longed to be rid of. I strode down the corridor and through the paired swinging doors and into the vestibule and stopped.

To my right was that other pair of swinging doors—metal gray, scratched everywhere with graffiti, and, as always, unlatched. Taped on the wall to the right of them was a page torn from The Daily Tar Heel, showing Victor’s photograph. I recognized the large head, the high shock of curly hair, the staring eyes and creased forehead, the thick lips—now shut tightly. The headline read, “Student Activists Arrested for Trespassing,” and the article below told how Victor and “a few activist cohorts” had broken into South Building late Wednesday night and “barricaded” themselves inside, “vowing” by megaphone they’d never come out until Chancellor Sitterson had “publicly condemned the Kent State murderers.” But the Chancellor—the article ran on—“refused to accede to the demands of criminals,” and three hours later, the State Patrol was “summoned,” the building “stormed,” and the activists “forcibly evicted.” Going limp, they were “physically carried” to Highway Patrol cars, driven to the Hillsboro jail, and released “on unsecured bond.”

I leaned close to Victor’s photograph and stared at the bulged, bloodshot eyes that, in my bewilderment of the morning, seemed to yell at me: “So you wouldn’t come to our Wednesday rally, prissy, shirking son of a bitch! I know you! Well, girl, since you’re so close now—inches away—maybe you can dredge up the Lockhart guts to enter this thy portal and stride down these thy stair steps and into the shrine you’ve been longing for years to enter and there do the other act that makes you you—what you refuse to admit is in you, a part of you, like your arm, your leg, your ‘unmentionables’ (as you’d prissy-say)—ha!—won’t even admit it to yourself. Yeah, baby, I’ve seen those Blue Boys and muscle mags of yours, sticking out from under your mattress when you hadn’t shoved them in enough. So I know what you want—what you’ve been wanting for fucking years! Besides, I’ve seen the way you stare at me early mornings—yeah, I’m awake as an owl, eyes squinted and just a-suckin’ it all in—pardon the pun, baby. So since you wouldn’t join us Wednesday night and won’t today either—noon to fuckin’ midnight if we have to!—at least long live this revolution—down there—in thy basement shrine of cum and stalls and piss and men. There’s one guy waiting at least—and about your age, too, and just as lonely and hungry as you are—waiting for a suck or a fuck or just a kiss—one deep, deep tounging kiss—so he may as well be yours, baby! And when you’re oh, yeah! satisfied—maybe even cornhole satisfied—then you can dredge up those Lockhart guts to long-leg it down to McCorkle and Franklin and join us and yell!”

Of course, his eyes—his words—were my words speaking to me in my mind, in hushed and frantic whispering: words luring me, hardening me, until I felt a wetness, a slow and sweet-painful ooze. In a clench of fear, I was about to swing around, as I’d swung around many times before, in the late nights I’d finished studying in a Murphy classroom and then left it, breathlessly, and stridden down to the vestibule and caught sight of those swinging, unlatched doors and even pushed through them and stepped—softly, slowly—down the four stair steps, lugging my briefcase, then leaned an ear against another pair of doors, likewise unlatched, gateway to the shrine of my deep heart’s need, and, leaning so, ears as alert and keen as the throbbing in my groin, heard the soft groans and moans, the moist, rhythmic slaps of balls against buttocks, then the louder groans and shrieks of orgasm. How I’d swung around, terror-clenched, and stridden back up the steps and out into the cool, clear night and yelled, “Thank God! Thank God! Thank God!”

So on that Saturday morning, I was just about to swing around again and stride back to the safe serene of my room, gripped in the years-long terror of being myself truly. (Yes, there is ever a terror, a danger, in that—blooming into the man, or woman, wholly different from the person your parents expected, knew, you would turn out to be: the terror because of your new, dizzying freedom and your whole, shuddering openness to the deep, past, scarring wounds in your own—owned—soul.) But then I caught Victor’s eyes again, the bulged, bloodshot eyes in the photograph: saw the rage and passion in them—for acting, living, loving—and I saw once more, in contrast, like a movie in fast forward, my years of stooped head and shirt collars buttoned to the neck and tightly knotted ties and the heavy, black brief briefcase and the solitary studying and all its imprisoning ennui—the isolation, the shame, the death-in-life. And, as if some strange new flame had surged up in me—a flame stranger than all my odd behaviors since this strange, maddening April—a sudden, fierce flame that seemed to pierce from Victor’s eyes, I dropped that grim briefcase like a rock, feeling the floor shudder, and heaved myself through the swinging doors and strode (no stepping “softly, slowly” now) down the four, broad stair steps and shoved through the second pair of swinging doors and into the large, echoing restroom with the six stalls along the left side and the six urinals along the right, the six stained sinks side by side at the far end of the room before me.

The only light filtered in from the four, wide, green-frosted windows above the sinks, windows without latches, not meant to be opened. The light—a dingy, washed-out green—reminded me of the light I had seen in a gas chamber once, when I was ten, and a playmate and I had decided one summer day, on a lark, to dress in suits and ties and catch the bus to south Raleigh and tour Central Prison. The light in the restroom was that same light—sick-green yet oddly alluring.

So quiet it was in that place I felt it was only I there, and I breathed disappointment and relief at the same time. Then I felt so sudden a wave of exhaustion my head swam a little. To steady it, I entered a stall at the far end of the dim room, by one of the stained sinks, quietly lowered the toilet seat and, seeing it was dry, sat on it with my pants still on. I leaned over and cupped my chin in my hand, Thinker-like. For a time I could hear only the sound of my slow breathing—sigh-like, despairing.

Then, in the stall beside me, I heard a footstep, a rustle of cloth, the long, slow rattle of a tissue holder being turned, then the faint rip of the tissue. I stared down to my right just as a thick finger protruded under the stall edge, wrapped thickly in the tissue. As if it were some strange snake charming me, luring me, I rose slowly from my toilet seat and stepped quietly out of the stall and faced the scratched metal door next to mine. I knocked once, gently, shyly, my heart pounding. There was silence a moment inside the stall, then a catch of breath and a belt buckle clinking. Then: the soft, slow sliding down of pants over thighs (jeans, surely—tight ones!), then the elastic band of briefs, the same slow sliding down, paused to be raised over knees, then the continued sliding down—over smooth calves? or hairy ones? I could only wonder. I heard then the quick, rhythmic flicks of a shirt being unbuttoned, then the shirt sliding back over shoulders, down arms, then the soft plop when it hit the tile floor. Then I heard the same smooth sliding of an undershirt being removed and the same little plop.

I squatted and, peering under the door rim, saw thick, black, scuffed hiking boots with thick, white socks mud-stained and folded tightly over the rims of the boots. These would stay on him—how I knew, I didn’t know—I just knew. (Perhaps I knew—I see now—from the Blue Boys from that “bookstore” in east Durham—the slick, musty magazines of grainy photos of “macho” exhibitionists. Yes, long before that Saturday May morning, I’d learned effeminate men weren’t the only ones “that way.” Quite the contrary!)

I stood up, and a latch slid back, sharply, echoing in the large room, and the stall door swung sharply inward, gripped all the way to metal-slap by a meaty, veined hand with thick, flat-tipped fingers and nails trimmed to the quick. The hand was all smooth on the back, not a hair anywhere. It was the huge hand of a wrestler on the team, so it seemed to me then, in my welling fantasy. Through the open door propped by a boot, I saw, even in the dim green of the stall, a crew-cut, heavily muscled guy, about my age, sitting naked on the toilet seat, his thick, shaved thighs spread wide, his thick member erect to his belly button and curving back slightly over the fringe of black hair that ran down, like some dark-alive wire, to his shaved crotch. His arms were raised, spread, elbows bent, into a biceps pose, the defined peaks raised sharp, the inner arms mapped with twisted veins. His chest, all smooth (and, oddly, pale as a sheet) was flexed into twin, slightly quivering mounds with a deep rift down the center of them. The nipples were dark pink and the size of quarters, the center tips raised into hard little cones. His neck was wrestler-thick, and, over his broad, slightly puffy, pimple-cluttered face spread a wide, gap-toothed grin with thick, salmon-colored lips. His eyes—their color invisible—were deep-set under ridged brows, their thick hair meeting above a flat, squashed-in nose. He was a guy right out of the pages of Honcho or Torso or the photo spreads in Blue Boy devoted to wrestling and S & M. For a moment, my head swam, and I thought I was back in my dorm room, alone, the door latched from inside, my eyes peering hungrily at one of those photos. But then the smell—of sharp urine mixed with Clorox—brought me back to the dim green, and I knew this guy was no grainy, fantasy-photo, but sat on that toilet realsolid—absolutely here.

I waited for him to speak, but he kept that wide, gap-toothed smile, that stare under hooded eyes, the thick arms and thick chest flexed and quivering, the member wholly erect and just beginning to ooze from the tip—a tiny, clear bubble that swelled, burst, then slid slowly, in twin curving threads, down the circumcised head.

When the silence and his grinning and the oozing and the flexing became too much to bear—from either of us—I knew (or thought I knew) what it was he wanted me to do—wanted us to do. And so with no words between us, he slid his boot from against the door, and, stepping inside the stall, I turned and closed the door all the way and latched it behind me. Then, facing him, I stepped to him as close as I could and bent my puckered lips to his.

“Naw. No girl stuff!” he yelled, his words like a slap.

I would have swung around and left right then, but I was too “hard” for that—too painful—too welling for him.

Knowing now what he really wanted, I knelt on the cool tile floor and, in surprise to myself (since I’d only read of this “act” before, in those Blue Boys bought, eyes lowered, from that “bookstore” in east Durham), I bent over his erect member and, as if I had done it all my life, gripped its base with my right fist, feeling the rock tautness, the thick, rubbery vein, the sparse stubble of shaved hair. Then I opened my mouth as wide is it could go and, cupping my lips gently around the whole head, tasted the thick rim, the rubbery firmness—smelled the heavy, male-crotch smell. And I began the slow rhythmic sliding I could only imagine, hungrily, for so many years, as I’d waited to burst into white bloom in my bed: my gripping mouth plunging down to shaft-base where my fingers were gently clamped, then sliding back up to the head and coming off it with a loud slurp! Then plunging down again, sucking up again—down and up, down and up, moistening with my spit the whole, hard, curved-back shaft, all the while hearing his low, prolonged groan and then a hoarse, deep “Yeah, oh, yeeeeeee-ah!

I must have pumped a minute before he came, groaning, in a thick, warm jet on my tongue—a taste sweet, yet slightly astringent, like the smell of a gym or an indoor pool. Suddenly, silent now, he came twice more in my mouth, and I swallowed, savoring each warm, bittersweet burst, while under my fly my own member stood, arcing back—pained, taut, oozing.

“Taste good, yeah!” he whispered, and he reached out a meaty hand and felt my crouch, the bulge and the tautness. “Feels like you’re ready for me, baby!”

I slid my mouth off him and wiped away the single strand of mixed saliva and semen. Then, as if in a dance, we rose at the same time, slowly, gracefully—I from my knees, he from his toilet seat, and he turned around and knelt and pressed the palms of his huge hands tight to the sides of the toilet tank and thrust his rear hard upward. I saw two round, taut glutes, as smooth and pale as the rest of him, and, between the glutes, the darker, hairless cleft of his anus. (Yes, he’d shaved that, too.)

“Don’t worry, baby, I’ve douched,” he said aloud, his voice lilting suddenly, girl-like, on the “douched.”

I saw that dark crevice of his anus inviting me, and, from my years of Blue Boys, from my recent weeks of intent listening outside the restroom doors—to the breathy groans, the rhythmic slapping of balls against buttocks—I knew, once more, exactly what to do: how to perform the whole lust-crazed, and, at that time in my life, shamefully relished ritual.

Quickly, breathlessly, I unbuckled my belt and shoved down pants and underwear to my shoes. Three or four times I fingered saliva off my tongue and onto my cock, spreading it thick around the taut head and down the shaft, and then, kneeling again and gripping it, I began to slide it slowly into him. I heard his breath catch, and I whispered, “Slower? Am I hurting you?” And he cried out, in pain, “No! Fuck me hard, baby! Make me bleed!”

I pushed all the way in, felt the soft-hard doughnut in him that kept me from going deeper, heard him shriek, “Aw yeeeeeee-ah!”—and cried out myself, “Oh, God, Jesus!” all the while wondering in my mind, Is this Ihere, now, doing this, yelling this?

I could not recognize myself. This couldn’t be I. And for a moment I felt as if I, the real I, were standing back against the stall door, watching the whole scene, dispassionately, my elbows folded: two young men—one tall and lanky, the other his thick and muscular opposite—fucking like dogs, or, to put it literarily, performing the sodomy to which Dante assigned a whole circle of Hell, a whole ring of Purgatory.

And then I—this not-I, this not-Lockhart Elledge—must have shed, slid off, shook loose—I don’t know how to say it—all those celibate, armored, held-in years like layer upon layer of old numbed and leathered skin. For, like a seasoned yet still hungry lover, I leaned upon his broad back ridged with muscle, clamped my skinny arms around his thick shoulders, felt in my elbows’ hollows the hard, bunched curves of his deltoids: yes, I clamped—hugged—him so hard I trembled, and began to pump into him as hard as I could, in and back, in and back, in and back, taking care to stay in him, never slide out of him. (“Seasoned yet hungry”—there were no other words.)

I bent my head down and around him, saw his meaty grip pumping his own member, grown stiff again, and after I’d pumped a minute maybe, I came in a huge relieving burst, filling him full (or so it seemed, in my wild fantasy), and right after, thick jets of white flew out of him, splattering the toilet bowl.

While he groaned loudly, echoing in the vast room, I kept silent, thinking—no, longing—it would happen: Yes, he—the old fart—he’s come to the swinging doors now, seeking me here, knowing, somehow, exactly where he’ll find me and what I’ll be doing, and now he’s pushing himself slowly, weakly through the swinging doors and entering the vast, urine-smelling room, stopping a moment to adjust old eyes to the dim green. He steps forward now, slowly, in his old man’s listing gait. He steps, knowing, to the next-to-last stall from the row of sinks. Now, with a veined hand, he pushes the stall door, but it won’t open, so he leans his spider-veined face to a slit between the door hinges, and, yes, even with his old eyes, squinting till they tear, he sees me inside—me, his only grandson, the Professor Classicus Futurus, the family scion of “highest hopes” and “limitless expectations” (as he wrote me on a postcard once—years ago). Yes, the stuck-up old fart, he sees me, this “scion,” now kneeling on dirty semen-stained tile, locked inside the bowels of some “common,” pea-brained athlete, my arms tight as a lover’s—a pervert’s, rather—around the crudely overpumped shoulders—me, the sole, fertile male “sustainer” of the Woodall line, pumping his last, thick, white burst as crudely as one dog into another, while the crude, “common,” pea-brained athlete cries out, “Fuck me hard, baby! Make me bleed!”

(But, of course, the old man never enters this dim green and never will. He now stands erect and elegant beside the Old Well, old, watery blue eyes fixed across Cameron and down the wide, brick walkway, waiting . . . )

When I filled the wrestler all I could, I felt at once the old emptiness and melancholy after orgasm, then the old, filling shame, and I thought, angrily, No, Lock, you’re not that. You should know better! You’re better than that! How I hate that! It’s not your direction! Can’t you realize? Can’t you learn? Just like your whoring father—never could learn!—and shot dead in a Phenix City whorehouse before you were born or when I was just a baby two years old, I can’t remember! (And I couldn’t remember, not then.)

I slid out of him, quickly, and without even wiping the shit off me, I stood and jerked up my underwear and dress pants and buckled my belt and swung around and unlatched the door and rushed out of the stall. As I strode to the swinging doors, I heard him shout, “Hey, what’s the rush, darlin’? You’re good, baby! Nice big dick! But you got to learn to hold it longer—fuck me till I bleed! So how ’bout tonight? Say nine? Same place? Same stall? I’ll be waitin’ on yuh, pumpin’ for yuh. And maybe we’ll do the girl-stuff. Your lips—they pretty sexy, too!”

He went on longer—hoarsely, longingly, desperately (or so it seemed to me then)—but I could no longer hear him, since I’d left that dirty, urine-stinking room, that dim, nauseous green which—especially now, fiercely—called to mind the gas chamber I had seen when I was ten and dressed in a suit, in the summertime.

Beyond the second pair of doors I gripped up the heavy, black briefcase and strode out of the vestibule and into the sunny air, shoving all that pervert- stuff—that not-Lockhart Elledge—behind me.

But when I came within sight of the Playmakers and saw, in the oak-shaded distance, my Grandfather Woodall standing beside the Old Well, peering just now at his big pocket watch, I tasted the sticky semen on the roof of my mouth, smelled the vile shit welling up out of my crotch and the sharp sweat from my perverted exertions, saw the new ragged wrinkles and creases in my newly pressed pants and starched shirt, and I knew I could not go meet him now and grip his proffered hand—not in this dishevelment—this not-me.

So I sneaked—there’s no other word—around the other end of the Playmakers, the portico end, and entered Old East by a side door and strode up the three flights of stairway and into my room and shut the door behind me. I dropped the briefcase on the bed and went to the shut window before my desk and looked down at the Old Well and saw him standing beside it, gray Homburg held out with both veined hands in front of him, his blue gaze fixed across Cameron at the brick walkway between South Building and the Playmakers Theater. Seeing him so erect and elegant there, the sun just now glowing him full, from his silver crown to the shining black tips of his shoes—and remembering, too, how it had gone between us every Saturday morning since the twenty-eighth of March—the whole blessed, because expected, ritual!—and wanting—longing—that it should come round so again, I saw it was five before nine by the clock on my desk, and I thought, Yes, if I hurried, I’d have time to shower and change clothes and rinse my mouth and go out the side door and come around the Playmakers and stride to him, carrying the heavy briefcase—I, the Lockhart-TitusElledge-Classics-Man he’s always known me to be (for four years anyway)—my right hand, as I’ll approach him, stretched out to grip his proffered one. So—yes—I can still make it all come round again, and it’ll be as if all that—in that sick-green restroom—never happened—all that “pervert stuff.” (So I called it then, twenty-six years ago, in my innocence, my ignorance).

But, again, I tasted the semen, felt it sticky and sordid on my palate, like rotten glue, and, again, I smelled the shit welling in sharp waves from out of my crotch, and I remembered that girl in the photograph, her mouth wrenched wide in grief, remembered the empty campus and the canceled class and Dr. Applewhite’s neat cursive on the blackboard, remembered the big peace rally planned for tonight: knew McCorkle Place was already being filled with herds of long-haired, patches-jeaned “peaceniks” and leather-goods hawkers and ponytailed technicians setting up podiums and speakers and amplifiers and microphones and the white, portable toilets that, even empty, always seemed to spread their stink of urine. And I knew at noon Grandfather and I, in our dress clothes and ties, would have to cross that noisy, smelly quadrangle on our way to Harry’s and then cross it again on our way back, Grandfather to his old Chrysler, I to my dorm room in Old East. And I knew that night even my shut windows could not muffle the vulgar rock music from even as far away as McCorkle—could not muffle the harsh ranting of the speakers and the ugly cheers and the insipid slogan so popular since a recent speech of Nixon’s—that vulgar chant and response: “What do we want? [Pause.] PEACE!” [Pause.] “When do we want it?” [Pause.] NOW!”

And I knew, my mind still cluttered by the daylong distraction—and, yes, my shame still lingering from the morning hour in the Murphy Hall restroom—I’d rise irritably from the Fourth Georgic now and again all through the noisy evening and sweating miserably in the overwarm room, pace about, fingers in ears, and shout, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up, faggots!” And then, oddly, to calm myself, I knew I’d step, ears still plugged, to the window above my bed, shut tight, like the other, and leaning sideways, stare down on the pinewood of the sill and read once more the mysterious graffiti—the “inscription,” rather—carved carefully, it seemed, by a small pocket knife: that “CARPE DIEM, QUAM MINIMUM CREDULA POSTERO. BUT NOT FOR ME. NOT ANY MORE. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. I THINK IT’S FIVE. I’LL ADD ANOTHER. NEVER. 8 MAY 19—” For four years nearly, I’d often wondered about it: Who’d carved it? And why so carefully? It must have taken him hours. And what was he thinking—feeling? In what year was it carved? It looked old, was all I could surmise from the faded and shallow cuts of the high, neat, perfectly aligned all-capitals, polished over by the years—decades!—of janitors. (Victor never noticed it, and I never brought it to his attention. It was my odd, private prayer, meant for my eyes only—and for some deep, unknown place in my soul.)

And I knew that at nine that night the wrestler would be awaiting me, tempting me, naked on his toilet seat, in that dim-green death chamber in the basement of Murphy Hall.

Remembering—and foreseeing—all this prickly and black disorder distorting my for so long serene and bright and studious Saturdays, I realized, with a breath-clench of fear, that I could not stay in this room today and sit all daylight and into the night (perhaps grabbing a bite at Lenoir) before my open Fourth Georgic and translate those suddenly tiresome lines, all the while tasting the residue of that common hunk’s semen in my mouth which I knew would take hours to clear, no matter how often I’d rise to go out to the restroom and rinse and gargle. No, in fact, I wouldn’t—couldn’t—stay anywhere else on campus or even in town.

But where would I go—escape? I dreaded a bus ride or a hitchhike home (where, since my last visit on March 21, a Saturday, I had decided never to visit again, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter and birthdays—and only then to satisfy my mother’s constant pleading—“for my sake,” she had whined, “and for the family.”) In fact, ever since that Saturday, just the thought of home—the being there—depressed me: my always slightly chill upstairs bedroom, my Georgics open on the rickety, fake-pine, little-boy’s desk by the red-curtained window—desk and curtains I had known, in the despair of familiarity, since I was five or six.

So—Where? Where? I flailed inwardly.

My eyes on Grandfather glowing in full sun now, like a classic statue, I saw in my mind, at first in far, aching distance, at the beginning of a long, straight, dirt drive flanked by tall pines, the sunlit, white façade of an antebellum house, the middle third of it a double portico of balustrades and four Ionic columns. Under a green, low-pitched roof shone a triangular pediment with a little arched window in the center—a third eye, if you will, winking back the sun. As I came closer, I saw, near the left end of the portico, a huge, old oak in full leaf, its thick branches arcing over the drive. A white-brick chimney stood high at each corner of the great house. Closer still, I saw the large upper and lower double windows on each side of the porticos, their green shutters now attached, but closed. And I saw, in the center of the lower portico, the broad, white, intricately molded double door, just now opening inward, inviting me . . .

I saw a great serenity in that place I had nearly forgotten ever was, and, with its white-glowing image in my mind, its façade nearly like that of a temple at Paestum or Delphi, I saw a refuge—a soul restorative—where just by breathing of the pine-winey floorboards and the remnant leaves of tobacco hung every September in one of the upper rooms, I could cleanse away all my sick-green shame and black distraction of the morning. And I decided that this Saturday I’d at last, like some long-withholding lover, surrender myself and, hard upon our ritual grip, say—cry out even, like a breathless boy: “Yes, Grandfather, I’ll drive down with you today. We can stop by Bentonville and tour the battlefield and then visit Mrs. Wooten in Rosewood and then meet Uncle Merrick on the lower portico, and when the papers are signed and you own your dream (or nearly own it) [I knew the closing might take weeks to complete], we can stop by Ava Gardner’s school—I’ve never seen it—the inside of it—and, if we have the time, that old church your grandfather Blow-Your-Horn-Billy built for the colored people—I’ve never seen it either—the inside.” (I had seen the interior—but just once—and the ten years since had damped the episode from memory—to which I’ll come in due time.)

So I had planned to say to him, in a relieving, longing burst. But first I had to clean myself—shower and scrub—then change into clean, pressed dress slacks and starched white shirt and tie, had to rinse and gargle as hard as I could.

I hurried through all of it—so fast I forgot to pack laundry and clean clothes, forgot even my books and briefcase. In ten minutes, I was down the stairs and out the front door, walking slowly and quietly toward him, arms swinging loosely. I came up behind him, not quite on tiptoe, and said right out not the long, boyishly breathless speech I’d planned—wanted—but the simple, almost perfunctory, “Dee-di, does Uncle Merrick know we’re on our way?” (“Dee-di”—this was the first time I’d called him that since I was twelve. For years—the few times I’d seen him—I’d addressed him as “Grandfather,” even to his face, or, jocularly, as “Dr. Claude Alexander Woodall, Medical Man.”)

He gave a little jerk of surprise and turned around, listing slightly, and faced me and, holding his Homburg in his left hand, stretched out his right. I gripped it, dutifully, and then, as he set the Homburg on his head, straightening it just so, his face began to flush with pleasure, and his eyes brightened behind the thick glasses, and he said, in his old voice laced with catarrh, “So you’ve at last received a break in your hard studying, Dr. Lockhart—but—why—you’re supposed to—” He waved a veined hand back toward South Building and the Playmakers, my usual route to him.

“My class was canceled,” I said. “You know—all the peace people and that sort of thing.”

He nodded, chuckling, “Yessir,” and, tapping his foot in rhythm, softly chanted, “‘All we want is peace, peace, peace.’” Then he laughed, “Heh heh, all that carrying on.” I laughed with him, conspiratorially: all that common, herd behavior was beneath us.

Then he cleared his throat and said, “My car’s in the Playmakers lot. We can be down in Klan Country in an hour and a half.” Here he laughed at some private joke and whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, “Yessir, your old Uncle Merrick, he was one of ’em, maybe still is.”

II

My grandfather and I entered the Chrysler and shut our doors, and I felt at once the close, stale heat of the old car (a ’62), and, with the heat, as if woven into it, the warm, thick odor—partly of sweat, partly of mothballs and dry cleaning fluid, partly the indefinable smell of old male bodies: a smell I remembered from years ago—from his paired bedroom closets back in Raleigh.

With a hoarse “Whew!” he rolled his window down, and I rolled down mine, and as we swung out of the parking lot and drove up past Forest Theater toward Raleigh Road, a rushing breeze took all that heat away.

But the smell lingered—that multitudinous smell, holding in my mind some cramped and cramping memory. I strained to name it—to picture it—but before it could come clear in my mind, we had already left town—had, in fact, come off the long, downhill divided highway and onto the narrow, flat two-laner. And he, my Grandfather Woodall, his face flushed with a sudden, manic nostalgia, had begun to speak, a veined hand gesturing now and again at the roadsides flanked by thick pines and scrub oaks stringed lush with kudzu. He was speaking of May 1909:

“Yessir, exactly May, maybe this very date, and a Saturday, too, like now, about nine—clear and sunny, cool-warm as June. The night before, my two Kappa Sigma buddies and I had just taken a notion, ‘Hey, let’s walk to Nelson tomorrow and catch the noon train to Goldsboro. We can be home by nightfall.’ (We didn’t even think to hitchhike—we wanted the walk, young folks we were back then.) So with knapsacks of books and clothes strapped to our shoulders, we started out next day, Saturday, just now, striding fast along the roadside to get to Nelson by noon. ’Course, the nine miles was dirt then, and single-lane, the pines and scrub oaks thick up to the road edge—no grassy shoulders in those days, nosir. Every so often a Model T’d chug by, coating us in dust. Lord, we patted and brushed until our shoulders hurt! We walked fast, like I said—long-striding—’cause we knew the train left Nelson at noon. We’d found out that much ahead of time, anyway. All we could hear—’cept for the T’s passing about every half hour—were our own pounding strides and now and then a jay-squawk and the mourning doves woo-woo-wu-wooing, you know how they do—“tua cura, palumbes,” as old Maro coos it. But that was all: it was that quiet, 1909-quiet. And the more we strode and the faster we strode, the more we felt like striding—Lord, we could stride on forever in those years! Don’t ever get old, Dr. Lockhart. Don’t ever get old.”

He went silent a moment, and the smell struck me again, the shrouding old-man part of it that I remembered from his double closets years ago.

He cleared his throat long and deep and rasped on: “So sure enough, a minute before noon, we arrived at Nelson—just a little, tin-roofed platform by the single track, and beside it a sign, “Nelson,” on a stake stuck in the ground. Lord, we were just in time, hearing the old steam engine whistling a half mile away, and in a minute its squeal and clatter and long shrill of steam as it pulled up by the platform and stopped.”

He went silent again as we passed under the railroad bridge and stopped at an intersection. A few yards to our left stood a small, “official,” rectangular sign on a creosote post driven into bare clay: NELSON—black capitals on white, rust-edged metal. Beyond the sign I saw no covered platform where a train might stop—just the glittering metal of a single railroad track high on a clay embankment covered with weeds and crabgrass. Across the highway stood four, identical Carolina-T farmhouses spaced far apart, weather-blackened, their front windows broken out, beer cans and cellophane wrappers scattered over the sagging and stepless front porches. I squinted at the glittering rails and pictured that little, tin-roofed platform and the three knapsacked young men leaping onto it in their loose-fitting, long-sleeved, coarse, cotton shirts and their berets and tan breeches and brown knee socks and black brogans, their young faces flushed to beet-color from the nine-mile hike. And in my grandfather’s silence, I caught that smell again—now the astringent, mixed sweat and dry cleaning fluid and then, suddenly, a new smell: the harsh soap, nearly like lye, that he must have used as a boy and a young man and all through his middle age—soap he was showering with even now, at eighty-one.

He jerked his head to the left, then swung right, and we were driving the two-lane road that continued 54. We rode in silence awhile, following the railroad atop the high, weedy, clay-patched embankment.

“What’re you thinking of, Dr. Lockhart?” Grandfather broke suddenly, clearing his throat.

I tasted the wrestler-hunk’s semen still sticking to the roof of my mouth and so thought of him and the dim-green restroom and tonight and nine o’clock.

But I said, to damp the taste, the sudden shame (and unaware of my pun), “Oh, just Nelson. It isn’t much, is it?”

He whispered a hoarse “heh heh” and said, “Nosir, wasn’t much in ought nine, either. Just those same old Carolina T’s, but newer, painted, and with folks living in them. Those and the tin-roofed platform by the tracks. Up till ’45 even, you could see young men in threes or fours striding out the nine miles from the Hill to catch the train headed east. (Now the Greensboro and Winston and Asheville boys had it easy—just a miler into Carrboro— University Station.) The shed here’s gone now, of course—dismantled in ’46 when 54 was paved at last and the boys could catch rides in a minute, or the post-War boom gave their fathers money to buy ’em cars. The Southern Railway people didn’t see any use in keeping it.”

He went silent again and after a mile maybe, began whispering to himself, his thin, pale-pruned lips faintly twitching. Every so often I’d hear, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in,” punctuated, oddly, with a faint “heh heh.” He was far away from me now—only his smell lingering: those complications of smells.

Suddenly the smells brought back, clear as on a movie screen, that cramped and cramping memory. It was a day in mid-May 1966, a Saturday, to be sure—the day I last rode with him into “Klan Country” and the old Woodall homeplace. I recall it so vividly because it was the day—on our way back to Raleigh in late afternoon, just as we left Smithfield and crossed the Neuse River Bridge, passed the huge billboard that faced drivers entering town, the billboard of crudely painted men shrouded in white gowns and hoods and holding aloft fiery torches, and, beneath the ugly figures, the hand-printed WELCOME TO JOHNSTON COUNTY! THIS IS KLAN COUNTRY!—that I announced to him I was “cured at last” of my “inversion”—my “mental illness,” at least as far as Dr. Aldred “was concerned.” And to prove I was “cured,” I told him I was “escorting” a “Linda Fuller” to the Senior Prom on the last Saturday in May. She was “a respectable girl” (so I assured him)—a girl of “good family.” In fact, she lived on White Oak Road, his street, though “residing” on the block near Five Points, which, as he knew, was a “more modest” section than his, with its nearly identical ’40s bungalows all crowded together on narrow lots. Still, it was White Oak Road, and he knew what that meant: junior college at St. Mary’s, the last two years at Hollins or Sweet Briar, a trip to Europe after graduation, and her “debut” at Memorial Auditorium in June of her twenty-third year.

 

*  *  *  *  *  *

 

At noon that last Saturday (I remembered), Grandfather had showed up at our house and invited me “for a short drive, Mr. Lockhart Titus—to give you a break from your hard studying.” I did need the break, and I was curious about Grandfather’s sudden, and unexpected, invitation. (He usually telephoned ahead if he was to drive me anywhere.) So I climbed into the old Chrysler, and we headed downtown.

On the way, he rasped, “Since tonight, Mr. Lockhart Titus, you shall be escorting that respectable girl, Miss Linda Fuller, to the site of your Senior Promenade and since it is an old custom that in such circumstances, the male do the driving, it is my intention to present you with an afternoon’s worth of lessons.”

Before the Prom, I had not considered that “old custom”—and I shuddered inwardly at the prospect of “an afternoon’s worth of lessons.” For a complication of reasons I could not then account for, driving had long terrified me, and I had wanted to postpone learning it as long as I could. So in the hope (in vain, as it turned out) that Grandfather would take me back home, I blurted out, “But I don’t have a license! Or even a learner’s permit!”

“A license or permit shall not be necessary for this occasion, Mr. Lockhart Titus,” he rasped. “You shall be driving but a short distance and with barely an ounce of champagne in your system, if that, and I am sure that after my lessons today, you shall drive with such exceeding care that no police officer shall even think of pulling you over. And besides, do you intend for Miss Fuller to drive you? Or myself? Or even your mother?”

The mere thought of any of them in the driver’s seat on the way to this prom—the proof that I “was cured at last” of my “inversion,” my “mental illness”—chilled me more than the prospect of driving. So seeing no way out of my dilemma, I faked a smile, slapped the dashboard, and joked loudly (remembering a race car magazine I had seen on our coffee table, left behind by one of Mother’s old boyfriends), “Let’s floor this old rod, Cale Yarborough!”

We both laughed, and in a minute we arrived at a large, vacant parking lot beside the State Board of Health, changed seats, and began the lesson. The rest of the afternoon, to Grandfather’s patient advice, I practiced punching those old ’62 Chrysler buttons for Forward and Park and Reverse, accelerating smoothly, backing up (my head twisted around, my right arm stretched out over the top of the front seat, my eyes remaining steady on the asphalt behind me until the old car stopped completely), using the parking brake, making the “quick stop” for emergencies—and more. Grandfather even had me drive around the block (the streets mostly empty on Saturday, when few State employees came to work) so that I could practice the hand signals, turning right and left, and, at stop signs, coming to a “complete stop, Mr. Lockhart Titus.”

 

*  *  *  *  *  *

 

These Klan Country “excursions into history,” as Grandfather called them, were taken every Saturday—including the summer ones—from May ’65 to May ’66, and were an unspoken corequisite of my “therapy” with Dr. Aldred: these afternoon ritual journeys down to the Bentonville Battleground, the old Woodall homeplace, the now-abandoned red-brick schoolhouse where Ava Gardner had been taught, the white clapboard teacherage beside it (where Ava and her family had served the Brogden teachers in the twenties and thirties), and, finally, the old white clapboard church, never locked, ever shuttered, that my great-great-grandfather, Unionist Blow-Your-Horn Billy Woodall, had built “for the colored people,” just a year past “the Surrender.”

My grandfather and I would stop before these “shrines” (as he’d call them, laughing softly)—and without ever walking the battleground (we’d just park before the Harper House and watch it for a time), and without ever setting foot in the schoolhouse or the teacherage or even in the homeplace or the old colored church, just standing outside of them in raw cold in January or sweating heat in July—he’d recount some long, digressive anecdote linked to the “shrine,” a tale ending always with some homily about my Southern “roots” nourished by “tragic devotion to a lost cause,” about the “people” I “came from” and their “integrity” and “honor” and, in my great-great-grandfather’s case, their “unsparing generosity to those less fortunate.” In front of Ava Gardner’s school, he’d speak, his face as flushed as a teenager’s in love, about “the lady”—“the beauty”—who had sprung from the Woodall “homeland” and who graced it even now—in the memory of her teacher, my great-aunt Venice, in one of the classrooms in the old Brogden schoolhouse, and in that abandoned teacherage beside it.

Just as we started the drive back to Raleigh, he would clear his throat and speak, as if in peroration, of my ancestors’ “fulfilled and fulfilling roles as dutiful parents of upright and virtuous children.” These “visitations,” if you will, along with my thrice-a-week “talk-and-aversion” sessions with Dr. Aldred, were intended to return me to “normalcy”: the “condition” of a red-blooded but “intellectual” Southern young man of the higher class, who, in his late twenties or early thirties, after he’d received his doctorate, summa cum laude, in Latin and Greek, would “settle down” in Chapel Hill or at Duke and marry a “goodly lady of like background” who would bear him two or three children (preferably male) to carry on the Woodall line for yet another generation—“at least on the distaff side.”

(Of course, Grandfather would vocally underscore distaff since he knew as well as I that I was named in toto after my father, Lockhart Titus Elledge, Sr.—my dead, “deadbeat,” “no ’count” father who, under mysterious circumstances, had been stabbed to death—so it was rumored—in a sleazy whorehouse in Phenix City, Alabama, three months before I and my twin Lucinda were born. To Mother, the word distaff never entered her head—not because she didn’t know what it meant, but because, to her, I was a Woodall now, through and through, and would remain a Woodall forevermore—despite the obvious high cheekbones and prominent jawline and dimpled chin my father’s “fatal” sperm had bequeathed me. In fact, Mother—so she claimed, again and again—would have changed her last name back to her maiden one, except that for a decade, she had written news articles and a daily column as “Joan Elledge” for a local newspaper and for three years now, had hosted a morning cooking-and-interview show, Femme Fare with Joan Elledge, on local television.)

As for this “inversion” of mine (what Dr. Aldred termed it), Grandfather and I had recognized it much earlier, when I was twelve—but we kept it a secret, not even mentioning between us. In fact, it was never revealed in the clear light of family until an “incident” (all Mother and Grandfather ever called it—the “unsavory” details they never uttered aloud) that happened when I was seventeen and nearing the end of my junior year at Broughton High.

I was an actor in the Golden Masquers, and, because I was tall and my voice deep, I had been assigned the role of Cothurnus in a Millay one-act, Aria da Capo. Oddly—given my twenty-six years in theater at forty-eight—I recall little of the part and even less of the play, but I do remember—even now, nearly three decades later—the piercing mildew of the thin mattress (discarded from who knew where!) that lay folded in a corner of the narrow backstage. And I remember how the whole of that April, Monday through Friday, he and I would spread that mattress onto the splintered and pitted stage floor, moving in slow and, oh, so acheful silence, though it was 4:30 in the afternoon and rehearsals were done and for a half hour (until the janitors would arrive), we had the whole echoing auditorium to ourselves.

Did I say “he and I” and not “she and I”?

His name was Kenny Vaughn. He was sixteen, an October boy and so a few months younger than I. Since September, the Masquers had performed Anastasia, Dust of the Road, You Can’t Take It With You, and now, in April, had begun rehearsals for Aria. I first saw him when he showed up at the tryouts for Anastasia and spoke the lines for Prince Paul in a delivery so monotonous, so halting and stumbling—like a child learning aloud The Pledge of Allegiance—that Mrs. Peacock, after allowing him to finish, smiled Southern-lady-gracious and said, “Thank you so much, Kenny. We’ll be in touch. Next, please. Yes—Jean Watson—Anna-Anastasia herself!”

But because Kenny was broad-shouldered and tall for his age (taller than I even), and took “shop,” Mrs. Peacock sent him a note the next day, to his homeroom, asking him to “TAKE COMPLETE CHARGE OF THE STAGE CREW—FOR ALL OUR PRODUCTIONS.” (Yes, she capped the whole request, knowing it would make Kenny proud—especially since he’d know he’d be ALL the crew in our smaller productions and in charge of two or three crew members in our larger ones.)

And just as she must have expected, the very same day, Kenny rushed into her classroom at half past three and, even when some students were present, blurted out breathlessly, “Wow, like thanks, Mizz Peacock! Like—you can’t imagine! Oh, wow, I’ll be there every day—come in Saturdays, too—for the props and everything!”

(Yes, he was that open, that innocent—the naïf among us Masquers “sophisticates.”) And every Monday-through-Friday for the several weeks of rehearsals following, at precisely 3:30 in the afternoon, he’d jog, arms pumping, down the middle aisle of the auditorium and, ignoring the stage steps, slap, palm-down, broad, thick-fingered hands onto the stage floor and push himself up onto it, as gracefully as a gymnast, and then turn and face us in our seats, and, grinning broadly, his freckled face flushed with pleasure, bow low before us, forearm tight over his waist, as he’d hear our delighted applause. (We Broughton “sophisticates” all loved Kenny, in that slightly patronizing way we “loved” someone physically crippled or mentally “deficient.”) He’d be changed from his J. C. Penney’s button-down shirt and polished-cotton slacks and black loafers into ragged, dirt-stained sneakers, faded blue jeans, and a torn, white T-shirt with the tail out and worn thin from repeated washing. I’d be sitting in the front row (of course!), and glancing up from my lines—of the raging Count in Anastasia and, later, of the mournful tramp in Dust, of the stuffed-shirt Mr. Kirby in the Hart-Kaufman play, and now, in April, of somber Cothurnus in Aria—I’d notice, right away, as he scrambled onto the stage and turned and bowed and rose again, the startling blue eyes and the light brown hair tousled over his forehead, the sinewy forearms with the veins showing, the jeans tight as skin against his crotch and round firm butt, the T-shirt tears that showed the sinewy ridges of his freckled shoulders.

And when his blue eyes would meet mine (and, yes, they always would, every time I’d glance up at him), I’d quick-bend down at my angry or mourning or stuffed-shirt or somber lines and, tingling red with shame, feel myself harden under my fly—a sudden, startling rock-hardening, like a fist striking me pleasurably, down there.

It began, this “incident” between us, on an April Fool’s afternoon, when, on a sudden whim strange to me—a not-me—I waited until the other actors and Mrs. Peacock and few spectators (mostly parents) had left the auditorium, and I stepped up to the stage and without a word to him, just started lifting one prop after another and lugging it backstage. He did the same, without a word to me either, and helped me move the larger props and the big flats, glancing at me now and again, a blue eye of his winking at me, sly and conspiratorial (or so I saw it then—my not-Lockhart Elledge). After we swept the stage floor, our chores were done, and in the echoing auditorium, we sat close beside each other, stage-edge, our legs dangling down. We’re just resting, part of me thought—the real me—but that other I—the not-I—felt dry in my mouth and shivered pleasurably and wondered, Will he kiss me? Or should I start it? I remember his sudden turning, as if he were reading my mind, and then his leaning over and his sudden, startling kiss on my mouth, and then, without thinking, my kiss in return, my tongue relishing his thick lips, parting them, relishing his warm tongue, and then his tongue swirling, relishing mine.

The Thursday following, we discovered the mattress, and to our deep delight, no longer having to sit, we rolled it out to mid-stage. After Kenny, grinning, focused a deep red spotlight on it, we fairly plunged upon its cool mustiness and began, wildly, passionately, the embracing, the caressing, the rubbing of our shoulders, arms, calves, thighs, the thick, hard bulges in our pants (his tight blue jeans, my loose khakis.) Then we kissed and kissed and kissed each other until our upper lips were bruised—purple-red as raspberries in the long, cracked mirror backstage.

By mid-April, we had shoved off our clothes (having latched the doors to the wings and backstage and fastened together the closed stage curtains with three, large safety pins) and had begun the bare-skin fondling, the cuddling, and that other kind of rubbing—the frottage, if you will. For one shining hour of a Friday, we tasted each other, simultaneously: his cock long and thin, sweetly bitter with his smegma (he wasn’t circumcised), mine short, fat, bald—and smelling (so he moaned) “like sweet chlorine.” By the last Thursday of April, after so many awkward—and painful—failures, we at last entered each other and bloomed inside—me into him, then him into me.

It was during our final “cornhole” (so he crudely called it—I preferred “Uranian bliss,” poetaster that I was in those days) when we were caught. A janitor—a tiny, shriveled, old white man, the only white among the rest of them—and a zealous Southern Baptist to boot—happened to arrive around fifteen minutes early that afternoon—the last day of April, a Friday, I remember the day exactly. He must have seen the stage curtains awry and stepped closer, on tiptoe likely—he was that quiet. Then, seeing the three large safety pins and knowing “somethin’ won’t quite right” (as he must have told Mr. Holliday Monday morning), he quietly unfastened them, one by one, set them quietly on the stage rim, and gimped through the parted curtains. Before Kenny and I could uncouple, he saw, center stage, on the mattress lit by the red spotlight, my legs thrown back over my shoulders and then our two naked butts, Kenny’s above mine and so tightly joined they looked like one taut moon of flesh. As Kenny groaned with his orgasm inside me, I remember shouting—even as I saw Mr. Whipple standing over us, jowls red and quivering, “God, Kenny, I love you so! Fill me full!” and then, my right hand pumping furiously, I streamed out my own white bloom into the cleft of Kenny’s molded chest.

I don’t remember the details of what happened next—just a shameful parting: Kenny dressing quickly and, nearly tearing the lever off it, rushing out the exit door—my last sight of him, ever—and I, suffused with shame, guilt, and sweet recollection, all at the same time, stretched naked on my back, on the thin smelly mattress, sweating in the red spotlight, hearing old Mr. Whipple gimp down the stage steps and up the auditorium aisle, all the while muttering to himself—curses? prayers?—I could not hear to tell.

Monday afternoon, I arrived promptly at 3:30 in the cramped, overwarm principal’s office while Mother and Mr. Holliday were already “conferring.” The office reeked of pipe tobacco, and Mr. Holliday had his pipe’s stem-end clenched in the corner of his mouth. After asking me to “sit, please, Lockhart,” in a wooden school desk across from the two of them, he told me Mr. Whipple had come to his office “first thing” in the morning and reported my “sordid and indecent act” and knowing “Kenny’s daddy” (from Hayes-Barton Baptist), had already phoned him and told him about it. “Of course,” Kenny had “confessed on the spot,” and Mr. Vaughn had “removed” him from Broughton for the rest of the school year—“for reasons of ill health.” And he had “made arrangements” for Kenny to attend a military academy in South Carolina, starting in the summer. The school had a reputation for “straightening out troubled youngsters.”

I remember how my stomach fell, how my heart tightened, but before I could think, “I’ll never see him again,” Mr. Holliday went on: that, “to be brief and to the point” (since he had a faculty meeting to attend), I had been “dropped indefinitely” from the Golden Masquers, that, “of course, there’d be no Honor Society, and no Princeton either,” he was “afraid”—that I’d have to “settle for UNC” with the Latin scholarship I had already won.  But I could avoid “suspension for the rest of the year” and a “messy” trial in District Court—I was seventeen and so considered “an adult offender” (“for after all, Mrs. Elledge, sodomy is a felony in the state of North Carolina, punishable by up to ten years in prison”)—if Mother and Grandfather would arrange “visits” with a psychiatrist (he pronounced it “sy-ky-a-trist”) at least three afternoons a week—for “oh, maybe a year”—and have “the doctor” report to him “on a weekly basis.” “Dix Hill” (as nearly everyone in the state called Dorothea Dix Hospital) had residents that didn’t charge much, so there’d be no “unnecessary financial burden” on my family. And, “more important,” if I saw a resident—who’d likely be from “up north somewhere or even a foreigner”—I could prevent all the “talk” that would surely tarnish the Woodall family’s “reputation.” Mr. Holliday knew of a “youngster” in his neighborhood who’d had a “condition” like mine, and, after just a year of therapy (he pronounced it “thurpy”), he began dating girls—even took one to the Senior Prom. “And she was a stunner, too, Mrs. Elledge, let me tell you,” he laughed aloud. “So, you see, Mrs. Elledge, anything’s possible with all the new tricks these sy-ky-a-trists have up their sleeves nowadays.”

The whole time of Mr. Holliday’s speech, I noticed Mother had turned her head from him and was gazing out the window into the white-brick courtyard with the single, small dogwood—in green leaf now—planted in the center of it, and, on the edge of Mr. Holliday’s desk, her right-hand fingers drummed softly, fitfully—impatiently. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, just the dyed-blonde hair styled in the high, Jackie Kennedy bouffant still popular in ’65. When Mr. Holliday finished speaking, she said, flatly but with a tinge of complaint, still gazing out the window, “I’m just not handling it, Mr. Holliday. All this sick business—all this therapy. It’s all just so embarrassing. His grandfather can take care of it.”

 

“So we got to Goldsboro in two hours and a half. They were slow trains back then, yessir. Still slow, too, heh heh.”

My grandfather was speaking aloud again, abrupting me out of that cramped, overwarm office reeking of pipe tobacco and back into the old Chrysler with the wind rushing on my face through the open window, the old-man-sweat-smell lingering still, mixed with the harsh soap and dry cleaning fluid.

We had long passed Cary and come into Raleigh and were now driving by the Fairgrounds and Dorton Arena, its ugly, pale green panels and black-glittering windows shivering me then and shivering me now, over half my life later.

Grandfather rasped: “My schoolmates—they were Burton Evans and Marshall Bell—Burton was killed in the trenches, November ’18, and the ’18 flu took Marshall about the same time.”

He went silent a moment, then swallowed. I saw his lips quiver, and then he shook his head, once, sharply, as if to clear himself, and rasped on: “So we arrived at the station about half past two and walked to our separate homes, Burt and Marshall to Edgerton where they lived a block apart, and I to Elm and that old, cob-webby Victorian cave I grew up in—you know, the house Mother (your great-grandmother) caught double pneumonia in back in ’33 when I was stationed in Panama. After Mother died in that automobile accident in ’42, the family made it a rooming house, where your great-aunt Rosalie lived until she died, all by herself, in that drafty turret room she’d chosen to rent—who knows why. Yessir, that poor woman just got old and cold and worn out and starved herself. Dead a week before anyone knew. I’ll never forget those puckered, black lips. Was I that found her, you know. Starvation lips, yessir. Lord, was I glad when ’60 came along and Merrick and I sold that drafty thing to the town and they demolished it for a parking lot.

“So I strode inside the cave that Saturday, 1909, worn out from the walk and the train ride, and spent the rest of the day and half of Sunday just lying out on the parlor sofa, looking at my Georgics now and then, just flickering through it, you know—to say I studied some. And next day, noon, Burton, Marshall, and I caught the train back to Nelson and strode our nine miles back to campus. We arrived just at twilight—Lord, a beautiful twilight if there ever was, those cirrus clouds—you know, those change-of-weather clouds, like huge plumes—all streaked in red and purple and orange, even a tinge of green here and there—and those starlings whippering over us in huge black flocks and then roosting and whistling in the oak crowns and the elms. Yessir, we still had elms back then, a few of ’em, anyway. Lord, we all three felt so giddy we ran like colts the last half mile to our dormitories. It was that gorgeous.”

“Gorgeous.” I’d never heard him use that word before. It was a woman’s word—or a queer’s.

I turned and saw his face deep red—maroon nearly—and his cheeks and turkey neck quivering, like a calm lake touched by sudden wind. Fearing for his blood pressure, I flailed to find words that would soothe him. But he must have found those soothing words in his mind, as his face at once lightened, stilled, and he settled back into the faint self-whispering, the soft laugh breaking out of it now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.”

As we came onto Hillsboro Street and drove down it, fitfully, every stoplight going red, it seemed, I remembered the last time I had seen that deep, deep red, that strange quivering of cheek and jowl. Then it had come not from the delight of reminiscence but from anger—rage, rather—like a match thrown into a pool of gasoline.

I was twelve years old, and my grandfather had driven me out to his farm in Johnston County, as he had done every Saturday since I was five. These trips weren’t the partly forced “therapeutic” ones of my mid-adolescence, but excursions I gladly undertook with him, sometimes bringing along a school buddy, and often Lucinda. The trips—I see now, over four decades later—were a sort of fathering ritual he may have felt obliged—but gratefully so—to grant me and Lucinda: a ritual to replace, as much as he could in his old age—the father we never had.

On the Saturday of his rage (and this, too, happened in May, oddly, but the latter part of it, when white-blooming honeysuckle filled the roadside ditches), just he and I had driven to the farm, around eight in the morning, as we always had. Since mid-April of that year, 1960, I and the tenant’s son—fourteen, crew-cut, big-boned, tall as a man—had “lain together” in one of the pair of tobacco barns linked by a long, open, tin-roofed shed. It was the old-fashioned kind of barn one seldom sees anymore: axe-skinned logs chinked with cement, the roof just tar paper tacked to the rafters, a small, square opening on the end that faced the shade of the open shed. It stood—along with the shed and the opposite barn—just across the dirt drive from the clapboard tenant house where he lived with his parents and younger brother. (Oh, yes, his name was Elton—Elton Whitaker.

It began, this “lying together,” quite by accident. On a Saturday in that mid-April, while Grandfather and Mr. Whitaker were inspecting the tobacco beds a half mile away, in a small cleared space well beyond the tree line, I was dawdling about the Whitakers’ backyard, a little bored, kicking desultorily at the white dirt, watching little puffs of it rise which the faint breeze caught and spiraled and thinned. I was hearing Mrs. Whitaker pounding rhythmically on some spread dough from the open kitchen window, all the while humming to herself some twangy country song. It must have been noon, or nearly so, and the day was overcast, yet warm, for April—warm enough for my khaki shorts with my new white T-shirt tucked in.

As I kicked my way slowly toward one of the tobacco barns—it was the barn nearer the open fields and the tree line, the barn with its cement chinking eaten away here and there, leaving long ragged holes—I heard, coming faint from inside, breathy grunts, two in succession, then two more, then a silence, then two more, the first pair high-pitched, the second low and groaning. And, now and then, in and out of the paired grunts, came a thump!—muffled and flat, as if against packed dirt. Then, the low voice—low as a grown man’s: “Pinned yuh, now—a gen-u-ine Elton Whitaker death-clamp.” Then, after a silence, came “Unh, unh, UNH,” harsh and loud, from the same low voice, tinged with the Johnston County twang I’d heard so often from Mr. Whitaker. Then I heard the higher, almost girlish voice: “Ow, you’re hurtin’ me, Elton! Lemme up, hear? I’ll tell Pop!” And right after: the lower voice, groaning loud and long, “Oooooooooh yeeeeeee-ah! Did me a gob! You get your’n, Elway?”

“Get off me! I’ll tell Pop! Nasty, Elton! Just plain nasty!”

I came to a high crack in the chinking, and raising myself on tiptoe, my hand shading my eyes, I peered inside. Both brothers were crew-cut and bare to the waist, and they wore tight, pale blue jeans. Elton—tall, big-boned, and carrying the muscles of a twenty-year-old (or so it seemed to me then)—was lying prone on small, thin-boned Elway, covering his chest, stomach, legs, feet, and Elton’s hips were pumping hard and rhythmic as he groaned on: “Oh, yeah, there’s another one, and another! I’m fillin’ yer jeans crotch, Elway!” I noticed right away Elton’s big biceps and forearms, the veins ridging out as he gripped Elway’s squirming shoulders.

Suddenly Elway went still, and he grinned broadly and in his high-pitched voice shrieked, “Awwwwww, yeeeeeee-ah! Me, too now. Nasty feels so good, Elton!”

I felt the sudden, painful hardening in my shorts, that abrupt, brutal thickening, and without thought, as if I were possessed by some strange demon I could not name, let alone understand, I ran around into the shade of the tin-roofed shed and, ducking my head (I was nearly six feet tall, even then), stepped through the barn’s small opening.

“Shit fire!” Elton yelled, and in a second, the two of them had scrambled up and grabbed their T-shirts from the dirt floor and slipped them on, and Elway rushed past me and out of the opening, nearly tripping, and yelling shrilly, “Nasty! Nasty! We did nasty, Elton! I’m tellin’ Pop! I am! I am!”

But Elton stayed, and with his T-shirt on, tucked in so tight it clung to his thick, mounded chest (from all those push-ups, the thought flew to me), he just stared at me quietly for a long time, his dark, deep-set eyes flickering from my face to my feet, from my feet to my face, and back down again.

When he spoke, he sounded like gravel rattling in a jar.

“So yer—”

“Lock,” I said. “For Lockhart. What Grandfather calls me.”

“So yer grandpa who we work fer? The owner?”

I nodded.

He spat a thick, white wad into the packed dirt—abrupt, hard, echoing.

Then he went on, “Yer voice like mine, yuh know that? And yer how old?”

“Twelve. Thirteen next March—March twentieth.”

“And I reckoned I was a young ’un fer it to be deep like that. And yuh got a apple, like me, big pointy one. Fourteen now. Fifteen August.”

He turned and, facing me all the while, began walking a slow, tight, meandering circle around me.

“And yer tall, too. Tall as me. Nigh six foot, hey?”

I nodded, throat dry as the packed dirt.

“But, Lord,”—and here he scrunched his squashed nose—“yer skinny—skinny as Elway. Skinnier.”

He flung out a hand, thick-fingered, grimy, and, touching my T-shirt, gently, just above my belt, pinched a little wad of it and, ever gently, as if it were fragile, drew the whole shirt-front up out of my shorts and all the way to my neck.

“Shit fire! I can see yer fuckin’ ribs! Just like Elway yonder. He ain’t gone tell Pop. He always says that. He knows what I’ll do to him.”

He looked down at my shorts.

“Hey hey! Yuh got a boner, too! Looks like a nine-incher to me. A gagger, sure enough.”

Then he let the shirt-front drop and stepped past me toward the barn opening, his tobacco-and-dirt smell lingering after him, like some odd, exotic perfume.

Before ducking through the aperture, he turned back to me and said, “Meet yuh next week? Same time, same place, hey? I’ll tell Elton get lost.”

 

In that space, shuddering alone now, I smelled at once the heady odor of the tobacco bits strewn here and there over the packed, white dirt, and, in an odd frenzy, I dropped to the my belly and, sliding a hand under my belt, made a fist and pumped on the rock-hard “gagger.” In less than a minute, I burst into bloom—a low, white groan rising and petaling from crotch to belly to heart to throat, throbbing. (Even now, on my occasional visits to Durham to give master classes in acting, I need only sniff the heady odor of cured tobacco pervading all of downtown, and I can recall, with deep pleasure, that April Saturday decades ago—when tobacco smell and orgasm became forever mingled in my soul.)

 

So as the leaves unfurled and greened through the rest of April and most of May, they all began, like sweet, exotic flowers opening: those Saturday “matches” when, as soon as Grandfather and Mr. Whitaker set out to inspect the tobacco beds, as soon as Elton yelled at Elway ever poking his tow crew cut through the barn opening, “Get lost, bitch!” we, Elton and I, lay side by side in the tobacco barn, in the center of the white-dirt floor, where the tobacco bits and slivers lay thickest. We lay on our backs, his beefy, tight-jeaned thigh pressed hard against my skinny one, bare and hairless below the cuffs of my shorts.

We lay still, a minute maybe, and then Elton twisted over on his side and slid a huge, rough hand under my thigh and lifted it up and back as high as it could go. He curved his other arm, like a muscled snake, behind my neck and all the way around to my throat, as if embracing it, and then, bringing his thick, slightly parted lips so close to mine I could nearly have kissed them, he yelled in my face, his breath tinged with mint candy and old chewing tobacco, “Cradle, yeah man!” This the one ain’t nobody slips, baby! Yer bam! bam! bam! pinned to the mat! Helpless, baby!”

I didn’t struggle at all. In fact, I relished this rough, ritual play—like a strange flesh-ceremony: his tight holding and squeezing, the thick, rock-hard arm muscles around my neck, the thick, parted lips an inch from mine. And I relished the other “holds” he showed me, in slow and patient succession: “the figure four,” the “full nelson,” “the sleeper” (though I didn’t go to sleep), “Ric Flair’s death grip,” and many others. His “demonstrations” must have lasted an hour—“holds” and “moves” he would have learned from the wrestling magazines in a Smithfield drugstore (the Whitakers couldn’t afford television).

After an hour of demonstrating the “holds,” he was breathing hard, thick chest heaving, breath smelling of that mint candy and old chewing tobacco. Then he released me from the final hold, and we lay back, side by side, going still for a minute, his tight-jeaned thigh brushing mine. Suddenly he reached over and grabbed at my crotch and, feeling my “boner,” started to rub on it through the khaki.

“Turned yuh rock-hard, yeah!” he broke. Let’s spurt yuh on out now—hit yer face smack center!”

After twisting onto his side, slowly and tenderly he unbuckled my belt and eased down my shorts and underwear, his eyes going wide at my “boner” arcing back, its oozing tip nearly touching my belly button. “Lord, a big ’un—and only twelve year old!” he whispered hoarsely, like a prayer. Then he spat twice into his right palm and, making a fist, grasped my shaft with it and began a slow rubbing—down and up, down and up, down and up. In less than a minute, I groaned loudly and spurted a thick, white jet that smacked me squarely in the forehead, then dribbled down over my eyebrows. Then he released my shaft and brought his lips to my forehead and eyebrows and started slowly licking the semen, every so often shutting his mouth to swallow it.

“Hmmmmm, not bad,” he whispered, hoarse from the semen. “Like Clorox and sweet gum all mixed up.”

Then he wiped his lips with the back of his hand and broke, “But yer too fuckin’ fast, baby. You need to learn control. Keep it slow, hold it, savor it—all the way down yer insides. Five minutes, leastways—then comes yer spurt and me tastin’ yuh, swallowin’ yuh. Yuh got nice, thick cream, baby—nearabout sweet as molasses.”

We lay back still for a time, and then he grabbed an old, ragged tobacco leaf off the packed dirt and, gently, thoroughly, wiped the remaining semen off my forehead and eyebrows. He brought the leaf to his mouth and tongued the semen off it, gently, like kissing it, then tossed it into a dark corner. Then he reached forward and, just as gently, pulled my underwear to my waist and pulled up my shorts and buckled my belt. He rose then and stepped softly, as if in a church, toward the barn opening. Before stooping and stepping outside into the shadow of the shed, he turned and winked, “Next week, same time, same place, hey?”

 

All through the intervening days—that painfully slow Sunday-through-Friday—I could not keep my mind off him. At school, in the pages of my math book or speller, the numbers and words would dissolve into his leer, his thick lips, the slightly squashed nose with the pimple at the tip of it, his heavy-ridged brows and eyes set so deep I could never tell their color. At night, in my bed, I’d see him whirling and dancing naked on the pale ceiling: the hard, defined arm muscles, the naked, thick, mounded chest with the deep cleft down the center of it, the ridged shoulders, the thick thighs. (I learned later that he “worked out” after school with rusty dumbbells and barbells in the other tobacco barn—partner to the one we lay in.) After watching him awhile—whirling and dancing and leering above me, in the faint light of a street lamp diffusing into my room—I’d roll over in my bed and shutting my eyes to keep that vision fixed, like a photograph, I’d slide a fist under the elastic waist of my pajama bottoms and pump on the rock-hard “gagger” until I burst, feeling the thick wetness soak in warm, thick jets through the crotch cloth. I suppose a psychiatrist would have called Elton the object of my “preadolescent homoeroticism”—a brief “phase” quite “natural” for boys of twelve. But for me he was much more than that dry diagnosis: he was a genius in the flesh—of the flesh—ever filling me, ever hardening me, ever oozing me, ever bursting me—like a star—with sweetest pain: a dark yet lovely angel. He was gorgeous. There was no other word.

And so it happened that, Saturday after Saturday, the light green of April merging into the darker green of May, we’d meet in that tobacco-redolent shrine and “wrestle” awhile and then end our “matches” with his rhythmic rubbing and my sweet pain and the nacreous stream striking my forehead, leaving a mark of strange inverted holiness, like Father Moody’s ash-thumbprint on Ash Wednesday.

For a time Elton’s shout—“Get lost, bitch!”—was enough to keep Elway from the barn. As soon as we heard the rapid footsteps approaching, Elton would raise his head and yell, and the steps would retreat and fade. But on the second May Saturday, when he had me curled in his “cradle,” his thick lips leering so near mine I ached to kiss them, we heard the rapid steps once again, and once again Elton raised his head and shouted, “Get lost, bitch!” But the steps kept nearing us, and soon we heard scrapes just outside the barn—shoes climbing the logs. Mid-cradle we craned our necks and saw a pair of wide, deep-blue eyes staring down on us through a ragged slit in the chinking. At once Elton released me and abrupted to his feet and strode to the slit and the eyes and yelled, “Elway! You hear me? I’ll—” The eyes darted away, and after a long, fitful scraping down and thud, footsteps scuttered and faded.

Yet on the Saturday following, now in the middle of the “figure four,” the eyes returned to the ragged slit—deep-blue and staring, whether in horror or voyeuristic wonder, I couldn’t tell—and Elton again abrupted to his feet and yelled and the eyes flickered away.

On the fourth May Saturday (I’ll remember that day forever: the bright sunshine and shimmery heat—like mid-July—and the new green oats waving in the rough breeze in the fields nearby), Elton and I lay down once more, at noon, side by side in the redolent barn. Once more I was expecting him to cradle me, and I’d even planned, in an aching fit of fancy, a quick kiss on his lips. But he just lay still for a time, and then he broke, “That bitch Elway—he’ll see yuh spurtin’ soon and my hand on yer dick, and you and me, we’ll both get whupped—leastways I will. You—yer grandpa’ll just send yuh to one of them head doctors don’t do yuh no good noway.”

He rubbed at his tight jeans crotch—at the sudden tubular bulge there—then broke again, “We need us another place, baby. Where Elway can’t see nothin’, don’t know nothin’. And we need it now—today. And it come to me just now what it is and where it’s at. Let’s git gone.”

 

In a half hour we were crossing Brogden Road and then clambering through a weedy ditch and up a low slope of early day lilies planted in neat double rows. Straight ahead of us, maybe twenty yards distant, sat the old clapboard church I’d seen for years but never entered.

Grandfather and I would pass it on the way to his farm, and he would fling a hand at it and clear his throat, “That’s the church your great-great-grandfather built for the colored people in 1868. He was Republican, you know—Lincoln Republican. He paid colored servants, and even field workers—not much, but enough so you couldn’t call ’em slaves. Yessir, a real Union man, Blow-Your-Horn-Billy was.” In that brief glimpse as we’d pass it, I’d see how lonely—how melancholy—it all looked: the boxy shape; the rusty, high-pitched tin roof splotched with tar patches; the stub of old-brick chimney poking up from left-center; the narrow door ever shut, a square, clapboard-shuttered window on each side of it; and, along the sides of the church, three other windows—squared, shuttered, spaced equally apart. The whole was painted white, with here and there black-weathered strips where the paint had flaked off.

As Elton and I approached it that fourth May Saturday, the church looked the same—but gone was the loneness, the melancholy I had seen in those earlier brief glimpses. With Elton close beside me, tight-jeaned and muscled and reeking of sweat, his thin T-shirt stretched taut over his chest, his whole body emanating heat, the church seemed some exotic pleasure palace, the tin roof shimmering like mirage water on a distant stretch of highway July and August noons.

Slope-rim, we broke into a stride, and when we reached the narrow door, we stopped and Elton broke, “Ain’t no one gone see us here—not Saturdays leastways. Old nigger church—and I mean old nigger. Just ten or ’leben of ’em left now, and not a one under seb’nty.”

He reached for the porcelain knob and twisted it, and the door swung open, slowly, squeaking faintly on its hinges.

“Them old niggers trust ever-body. Never got used to lockin’. And lucky for us, baby—oh, yeah!” He drew it out loud and deep: “oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah.” But then his voice suddenly dropped, and he whispered, as if in awe of something he could not name, “Be sure and shut the door when you step on in.”

Throat dry now, my “thing” hardening, I could only nod and follow him inside, shutting the door quietly behind me, the hinge-squeak drawing itself out, plaintively, like an ancient spirit wailing.

At first, there was absolute dark all around us—just the thick smell of wildflowers in an enclosed space, and, here and there, scents of furniture polish and Lysol.

Soon the dark paled from the strips of light streaming through cracks in the window shutters, and I could make out a dozen or so rough-hewn benches in close rows, a pine-floor aisle dividing them down the center. A little way ahead of us sat the “altar”—just a sheet of plywood set on sawhorses and covered with a white bedsheet. Day lilies in Coke bottles lined the rear of the “altar,” and in the center of it stood a figurine of Jesus with his halo—made of plastic or papier-mâché, I wasn’t sure. It was the sort of figurine you’d buy in a five-and-ten at Easter time. Before the statue sat a small tin cup from the last century and, beside the cup, a small tin plate, likewise old—yet, as I saw in the dim light, both of them clean and polished to gleaming. Gradually, I made out bits of white bread on the plate and in the cup some dark liquid filling it to the brim: grape juice, not wine, I was certain, since Grandfather had said the old church was colored Freewill, where they didn’t drink—“or weren’t supposed to, anyway, heh heh.”

“Come on,” Elton whispered. “There’s a wrestle-and-jerk-off space  just a-waiting on us, hungry-like—under that there plywood.”

We moved slowly up the narrow aisle and through the redolent dimness, our footsteps faint and rhythmic. Just beyond the first row of benches, we lay down side by side, I in the dimness beside the benches, Elton in the darker space below the plywood. So intent we were—so full—we barely felt the flat nails and sharp, protruding knots of the pine floor beneath us.

“This even better ’n that old barn, hey, baby?” Elton broke. “That Jesus up there watchin’ us. Bet him getting’ a boner, too. Let’s skip the wrestle stuff and pump yer cream.”

Being a Catholic—and an altar boy, too—I felt a sharp clench of shame at Elton’s “That Jesus up there watchin’ us,” but his heat and sweat and tobacco smell overwhelmed my shame, and I let him perform his role in our barn ritual: unzipping my fly, then slipping down my shorts and underpants—all slowly, gently. Then his fist clenching my “boner” and the slow intent pumping until I groaned and bloomed, the semen striking my forehead in warm splotches. Then Elton groaning, “Yeah, oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah! Milk fer me, baby! Give me yer cream!” And last, something new from him—delectable: cupping his thick lips around my whole taut head and sucking out the warm, white life that was left.

“Like honey from a comb, yeah man!”

Just then, like a snake striking, the front door flew open—kicked hard by some thick boot—and door and frame crashed to the floor in a great splintering. The May light threw a bright stream straight toward us, just as Elton was coming off my “boner” with a loud slurp! and then wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

I craned up and saw Mr. Whitaker in the doorway, dressed in overalls—and dark-faced in the blaring light behind him. Beside him and a little to the rear stood Grandfather holding his Homburg out in front of him. A little way beyond them stood Elway, also in overalls, tow head hung low. In a swift pounding of boots, Mr. Whitaker strode up the aisle and, reaching down, gripped Elton by the shoulder, pinched flesh till Elton yelled, and then dragged him to standing and, without a breath, slapped his cheeks over and over, rhythmically, Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap!

“You git on home now, boy! Yuh ain’t no per-vert queer. That faggot yonder’s teachin’ yuh!

He dragged Elton by the shoulder down the aisle and out of the church, kicking aside the splintered door. Hat held before him, my grandfather stood aside to let them pass, and Elway spun around and rushed off, his tow head winking in the sunlight. Mr. Whitaker stopped midstride a moment and glaring at Grandfather, yelled, “I don’t give a rabbit-shit if you’re my boss or not. You can evict me if you damn well want to. But you keep that queer boy of your’n ’way from mine! He never in his life— And in a holy place, too! God-a-mighty! Even if it’s just a nigger one! Lucky Elway had the sense to follow them two. Like stalkin’ deer he’d be readyin’ to shoot.”

The boots pounded again and then faded, and there was just I, naked still and lying on my back on the gouging, pinching floor between the altar and the front benches, while outside the church, in the blaring sunlight, Grandfather stood silent and expressionless, waiting for me, his Homburg still held out in front of him.

In a half hour we were on our way back to Raleigh, Grandfather staring straight ahead as he drove, teeth clenched, jaws quivering. His face was so red I remembered the Sunday evenings when Grandmother would hold the stethoscope over his wrist while he’d squeeze the little rubber bulb, and I feared the pressure was over two hundred by now and he’d have a stroke for sure. He whispered over and over, “I could kill that fellah! Damn lyin’ common son of a bitch!” I slid over and hunched tightly against my door, fearing any minute he’d explode in one of the outbursts of temper my mother had often told me about but so far I had never witnessed. But he kept his rage inside all the way home, the only outward sign of it those red, quivering jaws and the barely audible, “I could kill that damn lyin’ common son of a bitch!”—repeated over and over, like a strange litany.

In an hour we reached my house and he let me out into the carport. His face, I noticed, had lost that scary red and turned flesh-clear and relaxed again.

Usually, on our Saturday parting, he’d clear his throat and say, “Well, Mr. Lockhart—until next Saturn’s day, si vales, valeo; bonum est.” But this last May Saturday he said no word at all, just stared straight and expressionless at the windshield and waited until I opened my door and stepped out. My chest clenched with shame, I knew what his silence meant and said no word to him.

From the carport, not even looking back, in my shame, in my hurt nearly to tears, I heard the old car—this one a Cadillac, a ’52—back slowly over the loose gravel of the drive and into the turnaround. The gearshift clicked faintly, the engine raced a little as the clutch engaged, and the old car crunched its slow, shaming way up the gravel drive and into the street.

The next Saturday—the first June Saturday—I woke at six, as usual, and dressed in T-shirt and sneakers and clean khaki shorts and, skipping home breakfast (Mother and Lucinda slept late weekends), stepped out to the carport to wait for the old Cadillac to crunch once more down the drive and stop at the edge of the carport, a silver-haired crown leaning out the driver’s open window and intoning, “Si vales, valeo, Mr. Lockhart.” In my denial of last Saturday—of what had happened—I pictured in my mind—exquisitely, nostalgically, as if it had been already lost to me—the overwarm, bacon-smelling Broiler on Hillsboro Street where we’d stop for breakfast (Grandfather for his coffee and ice water and two sunny-side eggs and sausage, I for the blueberry pancakes and orange juice) and then the even deeper June green blurring by us as we’d roll down U.S. 70 East at Grandfather’s steady 55, the wind rushing in pine smells through our open windows and Grandfather, as always, whispering to himself, a light laugh erupting now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.” And I pictured myself content as a baby beside him—while deep down in my mind playing through those exquisite “games” with Elton that, in my denial, my naïveté, I knew would surely come round again in spite of Mr. Whitaker’s outburst. (Surely he’d forgotten it—all of it—by now.) And it all would happen not in the old colored church, to be sure, but in the same barn again, on the tobacco-littered, packed-dirt floor, or perhaps in the barn opposite, or in another place Elton knew we could lie beside each other, unwatched by anyone.

I must have waited in the carport for an hour, then two, then three, as the sun brimmed from behind our house and yellowed the front lawn, bitten here and there with pine-trunk shadows. Around nine, Mother called sleepily, from her bedroom window facing the carport, “Dee-di’s not here yet? Oh, God, I hope it’s not his blood—. I’d better phone him.”

“No, Mother, let me call,” I said, stomach clenching. I didn’t want her to hear what I feared he might tell her.

I hurried into the kitchen and on the wall phone dialed the familiar number. Of course, it had to be Grandmother who answered.

“Ma-ma,” I spoke slowly, loudly, “is Dee-di in?”

“Is this Joan? Venice? Lucinda?” (I could picture her twisting the volume dial on her telephone.) “Oh, Lock, it’s you. Yes, he’s right here, reading the paper.”

“Is he going out to the farm today?”

“Alarm clock? Goodness gracious—I should hope not. He’s never needed one in his life. No—he’s been up since five, as always. Claude, it’s for you. Lock.”

There was a breath of newspaper rattling, and then a long clearing of a throat, and then an orotund voice, but flat, inflectionless, as if speaking lines memorized for a play: “There’s a new man handling the farm business. He’s working with Mr. Whitaker, so there’s no need to travel there in future.” I couldn’t help noticing he didn’t say, “We won’t be traveling,” just the impersonal “there’s no need”—as if he were locking what had happened into one of the dozens of old tin boxes in his bedroom closets.

“You be good now, Lock,” came the flat, inflectionless voice again. Here’s Ma-ma. She wants to say goodbye.”

So that was the end of it—the Saturday ritual I’d known and loved since I was five—and exquisitely relished since early April of my thirteenth year on this Earth.

And I never saw Elton or Elway or Mr. Whitaker again.

And for over thirty years, I didn’t set foot on Grandfather’s farm—later Uncle Claude’s after Grandfather died.

 

On my trip down to Durham just a month ago—mid-April—I drove out to Brogden one free morning, and from the rented car stopped on a shoulder, I gazed on the old “colored” church, a ruin now: the shutters gone, the window panes broken out, great ragged breaches in the rotting clapboards, the yard grown up in weeds, the timber all around cut (and sold, apparently)—the tall, thick pines, the sweet gums, the three or four huge white oaks. And later, a mile east, and again from the shoulder-parked rented car, I gazed on the few brick walls left standing of Ava Gardner’s school (“Brogden School,” officially) and then on the clapboard teacherage beside it, painted newly white. Ava Gardner Museum was printed in large, black, cursive letters above the white door frame, and a new Honda Civic was parked in the semicircular driveway. The lawn was carefully mowed and planted here and there with neat rows and circles of daffodils and brightly colored tulips. Through a front window, I saw pictures and mannequins of the actress in various poses and in brightly colored dresses from the forties and fifties. I was tempted to go in and visit, but for a reason I couldn’t account for, I shuddered at the thought of it and turned the rented car around and headed to Grandfather’s farm (now Uncle Claude’s). I stood for an hour in the sunny, white-dirt backyard of the tenant house. The place was empty now, its back stoop sagging, rotting. I looked out at the paired tobacco barns linked by the tin shed. Bits of brown tobacco leaf littered the packed dirt under it, so I knew the barns were used still—not yet replaced by those characterless tobacco-curing prefabs that had begun to sprout all over as the old log-and-cement-chinked barns fell to rust and termites and weather and neglect. I learned later that the farmer across the road was renting Uncle Claude’s farm and hiring Hispanic migrants to live in the tenant house in July, August, September, and spray the leathery leaves and strip them from the stalks and hang them from the long poles in the barns.

 

So beginning on that first June Saturday, 1960, without Grandfather’s farm and the green, pine-scented journeys there and, especially, without Elton and his tight jeans and heat and muscle, I began the lonely Saturday ritual that would last until I met Kenny Vaughn in my junior year at Broughton. The ritual was hours spent alone in my upstairs bedroom, door latched from inside, my eyes fixed on cut-out Boy’s Life “Toughen Up” photos as I’d lie on the braided rug, my pants-fly rubbing against a towel wadded and fisted under it. The photos were of boys of fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, when their muscles started showing, hardening, even veining a little: boys bare to the waste, in chest poses their pectorals mounding slightly, a shallow cleft down the center of them, and while lifting barbells or chinning themselves, their biceps filling the rolled hems of their T-shirts, and in wrestling drills, arching themselves into “bridges” so high and peaked their “things” would tube through the tight training pants. What ecstatic relief I’d feel when I’d burst and the thick wetness would rill through my underpants like a sweetly painful spring! And all through that all-too-brief burst, I’d groan, “Oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah!” into a washcloth held over my mouth—so Lucinda couldn’t hear me in her room next to mine.

 

“Heh heh, old Venice McGee Woodall. Always did like those cacti—ever since the family threw her out in ’36.”

Clearing his throat, Grandfather was speaking aloud again.  I looked up from the ragged floor mat and saw we had turned off Hillsboro Street and come onto West Park Drive in Cameron Park and were now crunching up the steep gravel driveway I remembered from so many Christmas breakfasts. Ahead of us loomed the paint-peeling, slightly sagging Victorian house where my great-aunt Venice had been residing for three decades, renting upstairs rooms to State College students. Along the long, curving porch railing were perched great clay pots of ferrocactus, their broad barrels clustered thick with sharp, yellow spines and projecting high above the railing. The spines looked like the nails and jagged shards of glass along the rim of a prison wall. “My mean cactus,” she called them. “To keep out the nigger thieves.”

For a moment, I saw her in my mind: a short woman, not quite as heavyset as Grandmother, her hair tied back into a bun and still, at 75, jet-black from dyeing. Her face was smile-lined yet youthfully kept, careful discs of rouge smoothed over the cheekbones. In memory, I could hear her ask us, one at time, just as we entered her front door Christmas mornings, “How’s your love life?”

From the Chrysler, I looked for her old, gray, humpbacked Plymouth, but her parking space was just white gravel, and Grandfather said, “She’s out shopping for her ‘college boys’—her Saturday chores. Poor old forgetful Dee-di. Haven’t seen her since Christmas—just thought we’d pay her a visit. Maybe we’ll drop by on our way back. You know about your great-aunt Venice, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart?”

I knew it was useless to nod, or even mutter, “Yes,” so I just let him roll out the story I’d heard so many times I’d lost count: from him, from Mother, and from Grandmother when she was alive.

“You know,” he began, “she taught Ava Gardner at the old Brogden School—back in ’27 or ’28—six-seven years after she met your great uncle Merrick and married him. Thought he was ‘cute.’ Heh heh. That’s what she said—‘cute.’ Well, it turned out he wasn’t so ‘cute’ when he caught the consumption in ’34.  His case—what Papa told me—was about the worst he’d ever seen. Lord, Merrick coughed up blood ten-eleven times a day and leaned down to a hundred pounds from his normal one seventy. Why, Venice said she could even see his heart beating through his shirt! And he grew pale as milk and shaky as a man twice his forty-one years. He was a goner, no question about it, as antibiotics didn’t exist back then. But Papa must’ve had hope for him, ’cause he sent him to the sanatorium down in Raeford, where he stayed just half a year and, yessir, got well—was pronounced ‘totally cured,’ nigh a miracle in those days for a man in such poor shape.

“But your great-aunt Venice, heh heh, old careful Aunt Venice—no, finicky Aunt Venice—no, smart Aunt Venice (or thought she was)—she was certain Merrick ‘still had a germ or two’—the way she put it. So to keep him from infecting her and their two boys—you know your second cousins Merrick and Claude, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart? Turned out well—those boys did. Merrick III a brain surgeon out in California, Claude W. a lawyer back in Goldsboro. Anyway, to keep Merrick Junior’s supposed “germ or two” off ’em, Venice had a little ‘guest house’ built for Merrick behind their big, white-brick Colonial in Smithfield. She cozied it up with a heat stove and a cook stove and an ice box and a few sticks of furniture—bed, dresser, two-three hard chairs, a sofa—all any man (she said) could possibly need. And the surprising thing was, he agreed to it—old money-grubbing Merrick—yessir, he agreed to take up actual residence in that unpainted shack of clapboards and tin roof. And what was more surprising, at her request, he even agreed to sign over everything to her—the big house, the two tobacco farms, the hotel and restaurant in Goldsboro, and every cent he had in the bank. And he gave her complete custody of their two boys—even surrendered visitation rights—yessir, his own sons! He gave it all to her with a single stroke of the pen, Judge Rainey and his two secretaries witnessing.

“I’ve never understood it. Maybe the sickness had just worn him out—clouded his brain somehow. TB will do that sometimes. Even the getting over it.

“So there she was, your great-aunt Venice McGee Woodall—a wealthy woman of leisure for the rest of her life (or so she opined—heh heh), and the boys all set for the University without having to work their way through—and not even needing the University unless they desired it. Yessir, all three of ’em members of the ‘moneyed class’—of which there were mighty few in Johnston County back in ’35.

“But, Lord, wouldn’t you know it? All of a sudden, along about March ’36, old Merrick’s ‘cloud’ must have lifted, broken up—something—and one morning, ’round ten o’clock (fifteen March, I believe it was), he stomped out of that shack and around the big house and through the front door and into the parlor where Venice was lounging in a silk robe on the sofa. And he fairly shouted at her, ‘Mrs. Venice McGee Woodall, your lawfully wedded husband is alive and well again and has been so alive and well for a long time now. And he would appreciate it that those signed sheets of paper be returned to his possession for permanent shredding and destruction. And he would appreciate his own room back—the upstairs room in this house—the home rightfully his—and his soft double bed and you, his rightful wife, beside him on the mattress. He would appreciate it, in brief, that he be restored his rightful position as head of the Merrick Alexander Woodall household.’ Heh heh, old Merrick never did have much vocabulary.

“But Venice said, sharp as those cactus spines yonder, ‘Mr. Merrick Alexander Woodall, those papers have been notarized and filed in the Johnston County Courthouse—they’re finalized.  What the Honorable Judge Rainey has done, I can not undo, even if I desired it. And besides, you know about—what do they call them?—yes, “remissions.” You’ve just been remission-ing, Mr. Merrick Woodall, and you know as well as I do you’ll be coughing up blood again, sooner or later, and must be sent back to Raeford. And, besides, even if you’re not re-missioning, the consumption never does go away altogether—you’ve got a germ or two inside you and always shall. And I’m not about to endanger either myself or those children! Why, right now, in your presence, I may be so endangered! So you must return to the guest house, Mr. Woodall—this minute!’

“And you know what, Dr. Lockhart? He didn’t say a word to her—fact, never spoke to her for the rest of his life. Nosir, he just spun around and walked out of the house and down the five long blocks to the post office and a telephone—about the longest walk he ever took in his life—heh heh—and phoned up Father and Mother in Goldsboro. I don’t know who answered, but inside an hour, three-four hours before the boys came home from school, Aunt Venice received a phone call from the Honorable Judge Rainey, asking if she’d please meet him at the courthouse, in his office; he wanted to ‘straighten out’ her will—some items ‘looked peculiar’ about it. So gullible old Venice (Lord, it’s a mystery she still didn’t know the Woodalls through and through—so much meaner than her even—meaner than her cacti!)—she drove to the courthouse and sat in Judge Rainey’s waiting room—and waited, and waited, and waited—three or four hours—just enough time for it all to have happened. Then, when she knocked on his office door and heard not a word, not a sound, and then twisted the knob and found it stiff—locked—it all suddenly came to her—maybe just a hint, like a brush of cold air in mid-July—that Woodall meanness nigh everybody in the county had known about for years, but her. And in five minutes, driving fifty down Market Street, she was back at her home—if you could call it a home now. Nosir, ’twas just a house, just four walls of a two-story, white-brick Colonial, ’cause inside there wasn’t a thing—nosir, nothin’—not a rug or a mirror or a lamp, not a stick of furniture or a curtain or a blind in a window, not even a bar of used soap or a towel or a face cloth—and, of course not a plate or a pot to cook in. They’d even screwed out the light bulbs—and here it was nigh three-four hours to dark and the boys coming home from school and hungry as bears, as boys are. And knowing this—their hunger—I suspect the first thing she did was stride in the kitchen to look in the ice box—but, Lord, they’d taken that, too—and the stove and even the cupboards (they’d crow-barred them out). And where the sink used to be were bent pipes and torn plaster. Lord, they must’ve hired a mighty big colored man to yank it out so thoroughly! Next, she must’ve stridden out back to ‘the guest house’ and gone inside and seen that whole shack empty, too—yessir, its ice box and sink and stove ripped out, too. Then she must’ve gone back into the big Colonial and stridden upstairs and, opening the closets, hers and the boys’, saw just bare cedar and empty shelves and hanging dowels—no clothes hangers, not even a stray one!

“So there she was—not Mrs. Merrick Woodall much longer (and she knew it), but just plain Venice Whitfield McGee from Mount Olive. Yessir, there she was, sitting maybe in the middle of that bare, living room floor, legs bent, arms crossed over shins, a cheek resting on her knees, her only clothes that silk gown on her back and the bedroom slippers on her feet. She must have reached out and clutched at her pocketbook beside her and even shaken it to hear her car keys and house keys and a few quarters and dimes and nickels. And she must have glanced out the front door, still open, and seen her own bright red Fordor Model A parked in the semicircular driveway. So at least she had something they hadn’t taken away from her. And she remembered the savings account she’d started years ago, secretly, in a Princeton bank—just for her—about four or five thousand dollars in it now—a lot of money in 1936. But knowing all that mustn’t have assuaged her much at the moment, with just the dark, bare pine paneling around her and the empty light sockets on the ceiling and shadow filling that empty house as the afternoon deepened toward dusk.

“Then her heart must have rolled when she thought of the door lock. I’m sure she stood and strode to the front door and tried the key she’d jerked out of her purse. And when it wouldn’t turn, she must have whispered—finally!—what everybody else in the county had known for years, ‘Mean, mean, mean!’ Lord, they’d even had time to change the locks! (She knew her keys wouldn’t turn the back lock either, or even the locks to the ‘guest house.’) And then I’m sure it came to her, like a snake striking, why they’d not locked her out: they’d wanted her to see what they’d done to her—to see their punishment for her stubbornness, her refusal to bend to Merrick’s will. And once again, ‘Mean, mean, mean!’ must have come out of her mouth, loud now, shrill and echoing in that barren room.

“Her heart must have rolled again when she knew from the light outside it was a little past four and the boys still hadn’t shown. ‘My boys,’ she must have thought, teeth gritting. ‘They can’t take them away! I was a good mother! Am now!’ She must have pictured them now in the big Goldsboro Victorian of her father-in-law, Merrick explaining to their wide-green and bewildered eyes, in that droning, patient way of his, ‘this new turn of events between your mother and myself.’

“But then, from outside, she must have heard footsteps on the brick walkway and then, through the open door, the two boys crying out together, ‘Ma! Everything’s gone!’ And she must have looked up and seen the two of them with their book satchels—same height nearly and same wide, green eyes and tow heads—like twins except Merrick was thirteen, Claude ten. When she set eyes on them—saw even their grimy faces and rumpled hair and shirttails out and the smudges on their shirts and shorts and knee socks—that question must have come to her for the first time in her life. You know it, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart? What she’s ever asking you and me and your mother and sister and your grandmother when she was alive, asking each of us singly as we’d enter that old Victorian for Christmas day breakfast—you know—”

“‘How’s your love life?’” I muttered in monotone, having grown depressed—and, oddly, irritated—by the old story. Really, the old man was drawing it out way too long—longer than I’d ever heard it before—even from him.

Then, thank goodness, he stopped it sudden, and, twisting his head around, backed the Chrysler slowly, swerving right and left a little, down the steep drive. We made our slow way back to Hillsboro Street and turned in the direction of downtown. As I kept my eyes on the ragged floor mat,  he resumed the old whispering, an abrupt laugh erupting out of it now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.”

I remembered the rest of Aunt Venice’s story—how it went through this Saturday, five days after Kent State: how, within a week after that March 15, papers for separation were filed in the courthouse and how, for reasons unknown to anyone, she signed away all rights to Uncle Merrick’s property—on the condition she have sole custody of the boys and Merrick be never permitted to visit them as long as he lived. And, again for reasons unknown to anyone, he agreed to that: gave up all rights to his own sons—and has never seen them to this day. A month later, she and the boys moved to Raleigh and the big Victorian house in Cameron Park. (She rented it first, then years later bought it.) She found a teaching job in some elementary school downtown and began renting the three upstairs bedrooms to State students. With her teacher’s salary—bare bones in the thirties (and for decades after that)—and the students’ twenty dollars a month for room and board, she managed to support her and her boys until first Merrick and then Claude went to Chapel Hill, Merrick in ’41, Claude in ’44. They bused tables to pay for most of their four years, and, once in a while, Aunt Venice mailed them a check for five or ten dollars. When they graduated, they stayed on the Hill—Merrick on scholarship for medical school, Claude on scholarship for law. Then Claude moved to Goldsboro, married, joined a law firm and started a family, built a big house in the suburbs where he lives still. Merrick moved to Los Angeles for a residency at USC and, falling in love with the mountains and the desert, settled in San Bernardino. He’s there today—married, a prominent neurosurgeon, his three children teenagers. Meanwhile, Aunt Venice taught—and taught and taught—for thirty years taught, and invited us Woodalls for Christmas breakfast, greeting each of us, individually, with her hushed, faintly seductive “How’s your love life?”—not expecting an answer and never receiving one, except for brief blushes from Grandfather and Grandmother and Mother, a wide-eyed wonder from Lucinda (until she was twenty-one, she’d never had a “love life”), and a shrug and “Okay, I guess” from me. In ’66 she retired from the school system. And through this May Saturday, she’s taught as a substitute now and then and continued renting rooms to new State students and attending First Presbyterian downtown Sundays. Her boys visit her three or four times a year—oddly, Merrick more often than Claude.

And never once during her time in Raleigh did she speak of her years with Uncle Merrick. It’s as if she were truly born not on April 16, 1895, but on that waning afternoon in mid-March 1936, when, seated on the pine floor of that empty house in Smithfield, she looked up from her knees and saw her two grimy, wide-eyed, bewildered boys, and that question first came to her—her own private question she expected no one to answer—a question meant merely for herself: “How’s your love life?” Whether she ever gave herself an answer, I’ll never know. Likely she just kept asking it, over and over, like a comforting mantra.

 

“Esso coming up. Here’s where the old New Yorker gets her high-octane liquor. And your old Dee-di relieves his bladder—full of just low-octane coffee, but high enough to hurt like the devil. Don’t ever get old, Dr. Lockhart. Don’t ever get old.”

I looked up just as we came beside the high test pump. A uniformed attendant, maybe seventy, came hobbling out of the old stucco station and up to Grandfather’s window.

“Fill ’er  up, Dr. Woodall, sir?

“Yessir, Mr. Lee. This old jalopy needs a double on the rocks, heh heh.”

“Yes sir, Doctor. Right away, Doctor.”

While the attendant shoved the gasoline nozzle into the rear of the car and pressed the lever, Grandfather opened the car door and, slowly, painfully, twisted himself out of the front seat and walked slowly, slightly bent forward, toward the men’s rest room on the right side of the station.

All the long while he was there—and I knew he’d be there a long time, for even starting his flow was surely an agony—I heard the attendant snap the nozzle onto the gas pump and watched him hobble back to the station; saw ahead of me sudden patches of flat, gray clouds; felt breeze gust through the open windows, bearing smells of oil and gasoline; heard the traffic roar by on Hillsboro Street.

For a reason I couldn’t account for, I squinted to my right, through my open window, and saw in my mind, maybe a quarter mile distant—beyond the service station and the State College campus and Western Boulevard—the great three-story building of brick and mortar and hundreds of metal-barred windows, squatting on a hill of great white oaks and manicured lawn and brick walkways and concrete benches. It was Dorothea Dix Hospital, a state mental institution known among the locals as “Dix Hill.” To my mother (and, no doubt, many others as well), it was called “the booby hatch” or the “snake pit.”

Then I squinted to my left, through Grandfather’s open window, and saw, again in my mind, and again a quarter mile distant, beyond Hillsboro Street and Cameron Park and Cameron Village Shopping Center, the two-story, high-windowed, brownstone Broughton High School, from which I was graduated in June ’66.

Suddenly flickered into my mind, like the stopped frame of an old home movie, my tall, bony body five years before—aged seventeen, encased (as it were) in the dark, nondescript slacks, the dark, nondescript long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck, the black, nondescript dress shoes tightly laced and polished as mirrors. My hair was cut in the “Oxford” fashion so popular among “intellectual” youth in the ’50s and ’60s: short all around except for the neatly trimmed bangs combed to the side with water and showing a high, flat forehead marked with bits of acne. My face—very pale, sharp-boned, gaunt—had thin, tight lips like an old scar.

At the start of my “therapy,” on that first May Wednesday five years ago, a little before three thirty in the afternoon, I stood in the cool shadow of Broughton’s east wing, on the tulip-lined edge of the teacher’s parking lot, clutching to my chest a fat, tabbed ring binder and four or five thick textbooks. A yard behind me was the shut metal-gray door that led to the auditorium, the backstage part of it, which held the props and the flats and the masks and the tubes of the heady makeup. With a deep gut-hurt—but just a breath of it—I yearned—longed—to turn around and stride to that door and open and enter it and then stride down to a front seat in the auditorium and sit and wait my turn to rehearse Cothurnus’s lines. And knowing that was not possible—ever again—I yearned—longed—to gaze back upon that door and—at least!—see it swing open and watch Kenny, his full heat-self, stride out in his torn T-shirt and pale blue jeans and wide, slightly gap-toothed grin, a stubby-fingered, callus-palmed hand raised to greet me, a “Hi, Lock!” lilting from his thick lips.

But knowing that, too, was not possible—ever again—I held my dull stare on the loose gravel of an empty parking space before me, waiting for the car—not the usual old, white Chrysler but the much newer Chevrolet, the gray, nondescript “state car”—that would, any second now, crunch forward to fill it.

And “sure enough” (as Kenny would have said—should have said), I saw the 3:30 on my wrist watch and staring upward, outward, saw that gray, characterless car, like a steel uniform, swing slowly from St. Mary’s Street and into the lot, glide gravel-crunching toward me, swing into the vacant space, and stop, the smooth engine rising in pitch as the transmission clicked into Park.

I stepped forward and pulled open the passenger door, but Grandfather, without looking at me, just staring straight ahead, cleared his throat and said, “The rear seat, Dr. Lockhart. This old Dee-di’s your chauffeur today—and each Monday and Wednesday and Friday hereafter—for the space of a year. And it is my wish that you lie down upon said seat so that you are not visible from the outside. This automobile is state-owned, so only your old Dee-di is permitted inside. Heh heh. You know how these state bureaucrats are.”

So I shut the front door and pulled open the rear one and ducked inside. I set my ring binder and pile of textbooks carefully on the vinyl-matted floor and lay prone on the cool vinyl seat, legs scrunched up, shoe soles pressed hard against the opposite door panel. (I was six feet two—tall in those days, even for seventeen.)

Then the smell hit me—that astringent, chemical scent of a new car. I’ll smell it forever,  in mind’s nose, when I remember those Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays, that time of afternoon (bright green in April and May, melancholy and yearning brown and red and orange in October and November, cold and barren-branched in December, January, February), and those twisting, stomach-clenching journeys from Broughton to Dix Hill and back.

I caught sight of my old Virgil text on the car floor, covered in a tight, dark brown book jacket with the words SELECTIONS FROM VIRGIL neatly printed on it in my own hand, and I felt a great gut-clench of shame as the car backed left, then lurched forward, swinging right, then straightening, slowed in a gentle crunching over the gravel and then bumped out, swinging right, into the smooth asphalt of the street.

I felt the car accelerate smoothly, then slow, stop-and-idle, then, swinging right, accelerate again, then slow and stop, swing left, accelerate—a half hour maybe of rights and lefts, slows and stops, smooth accelerations through the midafternoon traffic of St. Mary’s Street and Hillsboro Street and Pullen Drive and Western Boulevard and Boylan Avenue.

The whole drive Grandfather stayed silent. There was none of his self-whispering, the soft laugh erupting out of it now and again, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.” It was as if he, too, must have been feeling that same, great gut-clench of shame.

And the whole drive, to keep from thinking about it, I shut my eyes and in my mind saw myself back at Broughton, seated down front in the auditorium, waiting for “my” lines in the Millay one-act—“my” Cothurnus. (Of course, in the state car I knew some other actor, as tall and deep-voiced as I, had taken it over—but I didn’t know who and didn’t care.) In my mind, as the car moved, I was hearing Pierrot and Columbine chatter away, but, again in my mind, I wasn’t listening to them, as my eyes kept darting from the script on my lap to the right side of the stage—to catch a glimpse of tight-jeaned him winking blue-eyed out at me. In the car, I strained to play it all the way through, to that shining hour before we were caught, like a film relished longingly in slow motion. But then the film started flickering in scraps and shards, then whited away altogether, and I whispered to myself, “You’ll never see that place again, or anything like it. That’s all away from you—forever, Lock. Like him—away forever.”

I opened my eyes and saw once more the brown-sheathed Virgil text on the car floor. After staring on it for a time, I whispered to myself those lines I’d already memorized, “Arma virumque cano. . . . ”—all the way down to “Romanam condere gentem”—long past the part Mrs. Fisher had required of us. And as I whispered those lines, the virumque kept echoing above them, now like a resonant and comforting litany. When I finished the whispering—soft enough so Grandfather couldn’t hear it—I  thought, each word like a funeral’s drumbeat, Lock, your new life is this: these lines, and Latin (and Greek as well), and the major in both at UNC, and in a few years, Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Jr., Ph.D. No, Dr. Lockhart Titus Woodall, Ph.D. I may as well visit a courtroom and have it changed to that. So you may as well get used to it—“bite this bullet” (as Grandfather would say to me in November ’69—referring to himself).

Soon I felt the car swerve gently to the right off a street—it must have been Boylan Avenue—and then up and around a long, curving drive. It braked and stopped—by the entrance, I was sure, where patients are let out and walk—or are taken—into the building. Grandfather cleared his throat and rasped, “Well, here you are, Dr. Lockhart.” Then, rapidly, anxiously: “Don’t get up yet. Lie still. Let me see.” I heard a sheet of paper rattling and then Grandfather: “It’s on the third floor, Room 312, a Dr. Aldred. I’m certain there’s a name plate. It should be easy to find. If you have difficulty, I am certain a receptionist can help—on the ground floor, I believe. When I give the signal, rise quickly and leave the car as rapidly as you can, through the door by your head. You’ll have no need for your books. When your hour is done, I’ll be waiting in the car, parked in the lot on your left, by the bronze statue—frowning Miss Dix herself, heh heh. All clear now. You can leave—but hurry.”

As quickly as I could, I gripped the door handle and scrambled out of the car and onto the paved drive, my eyes wincing in the sudden sunlight. I strode up a wide brick walkway, flanked by a neatly trimmed hedge. From the columned brick porch, I pushed my way through heavy doors and came into a vast, high-ceilinged lobby and stopped. The room was lit dimly with fluorescent panels that blinked on and off now and then. Brown vinyl easy chairs and sofas were arranged in neat squares, all of them empty. The floor was cream-colored linoleum with scuff marks and various stains of one kind or another, and on the white cracked-plaster walls were hung, here and there, large idealized portraits of three or four “donors,” of the state governor when the hospital was opened in 1856, and, of course, of Dorothea Dix herself, a somber, tight-lipped, spinster-appearing woman dressed in the ruffles of the last century. I looked for a receptionist but saw none, not even a counter or a cubicle where one might be sitting.

Straight ahead, an aisle led between the sofa backs and the chair backs into a wide corridor. I resumed my stride, hearing my steps echoing in the lonely space, and came into the corridor, found a stairway on my right, and strode up it to the second floor and came out into another corridor, as wide and silent as the first. Dozens of gray-metal doors, spaced equally apart, lined both sides of the hallway. The doors had been raised high enough for large spaces underneath them, and I sensed that trays of food were slid through the spaces by attendants—promptly at six in the morning, at noon, and at six in the evening. I imagined the furniture in the rooms: an army-style folding cot, a mattress with stained and soiled bedcovers, a chair, a small table (cot, chair, and table bolted to the floor, and no pillow on the cot—to lessen the chances of suicide), a sink with “edible” soap in gray dispensers, even a toilet, but without a lid. I shuddered violently, shook my head to clear it, and for the first time, I caught the smell of the hallway: Lysol mixed with the odor of cooked cabbage: very like the smell of the Central Prison cellblocks I had visited when I was ten and dressed in a suit in the summertime.

Remembering the offices were on the next floor, I turned to the left and, finding the stairwell, long-legged it up the flights and came out into another quiet, high-ceilinged corridor—this one smelling of nothing at all. Identical, gray-metal doors with numbers on white rectangles (no name plates) were ranked along both sides of it. I stepped slowly past Room 300 and 302, and so on, until I came, a long way later, to Room 312. The door was shut, so I sat in the metal folding chair beside it.

In five minutes or so, the door swung outward, I glanced up, and a young man in a clean, starched white coat stepped out, holding a clipboard with papers clamped to an end of it. A brown metal name plate with “Dr. Roger Aldred” etched on it in white hung by a thin leather strap around his neck.

“Mr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Jr.,” he said, glancing down at me, his young, British-accented voice rising in inflection. He must have been barely twenty-five, and his accent was a mild one, as if he had come from English-speaking Canada, or South Africa, or the British upper classes. (I learned later that he was the son of some Count in Cornwall and had received his M.D. at the Royal College of Physicians in London.) From my metal chair, he looked a tad under six feet tall, and he had a head of black curly hair neatly trimmed and, except for a tinge of British pink on his cheeks, a face out of GQ magazine. (Yes, I had already, for years now, lingered over issues of GQ when Mother took me and Lucinda to the drugstore—lingered over the slick-paged male beauties as I stood in a dark corner or behind a rack of comic books.)

Soon we were seated in his cramped, windowless office, the walls white plaster with brown water stains trailing here and there, the floor a cream-colored tile with scuff marks on it. He sat in a metal folding chair beside his bare metal desk, I in a similar chair across from him. For a long, itching time, we sat in silence, he with one leg folded on top of the other, his veined and slender-fingered hand scribbling notes with a Bic on the top page clamped to his clipboard. Now and then, he paused to glance up at me for a few seconds, as if he were sketching me.

When he finished the scribbling, I expected him to say something, but he just laid the Bic and the clipboard quietly—fastidiously—on his desk and rose and turned around and reached up to a metal tube near the ceiling and gripping a small metal hook, pulled down, with a loud squeak, a white screen yellowed and cracked here and there—the kind used for showing slides or home movies. Then he turned again and stepped slowly and quietly past me. (I caught a whiff of aftershave or cologne, I wasn’t sure.) I craned around and watched him switch on a slide projector set on a metal shelf protruding from the wall. He pinched a slide out of a rack beside the projector and tapped it into the projector tray, then stepped back, past me, again slowly and quietly, to his desk and the screen beside it.

I craned back to the screen and saw projected on it, in grotesquely vivid color, a blonde girl, maybe eighteen, lying on a pink towel on some sunny beach, a vast body of blue, still water behind her. She was slender, tanned all over—and naked but for a flowered bikini bottom. Her breasts were large, full, firm, and had nipples the size of quarters. She sat in a pose one might call “languorous”—leaning backward, her palms placed flat behind her on the towel, her head hung to one side, blonde hair in her eyes, her lips pouty and slightly parted. After a minute or so, Dr. Aldred said, flatly, in a voice-in-training, as it were, “So, Mr. Elledge, in your own words, tell me what you think about that.” (Not “her,” but “that.”)

This Playboy centerfold female (of which I had seen plenty in my ninth grade friend’s collection) repelled me, but I said, nearly whispering, “Oh, she’s okay, I guess.”

“Okay, you guess,” Dr. Aldred said, again in the flat, resident-in-training’s voice, and he leaned to his desk and with the Bic scribbled something on his clipboard. Then he stood and said, “Well, we have ways of measuring that response. Next session, we’ll find out what you mean by ‘okay’ and ‘I guess.’ Now for the opposite, Mr. Elledge.”

He stepped past me to the slide projector. Staring straight ahead still, I heard a faint click, and on the screen the woman flipped away and in her place appeared a young man, likewise sitting on a beach, on a towel, this one jet black, and as in the other slide, a vast body of blue, still water lay behind him. Like the girl, he leaned backward, his palms pressed flat behind him on the towel, but unlike her, he stared straight at the camera, his deep blue eyes in stark contrast to his tanned face. He wore red, tight bikini briefs, out of which his long, thick “thing” and testicles bulged. Like the girl, he was tanned everywhere, but he was deep-chested in the way of a male and muscular in his shoulders and arms—a model’s build, not a muscle man’s. He looked older than the young woman—maybe twenty-five, Dr. Aldred’s age—and oddly, there wasn’t a hair anywhere on him except the hair on his head—black and thick and tousled, a GQ-beach-wind-blown look—and a thick, black mustache above his full, red upper lip. I swallowed and felt my “thing” harden fiercely, and in guilt and shame, I clamped both palms over my fly. But I wasn’t so naïve that I didn’t notice Dr. Aldred had noticed—the sudden hard swallow, the quick covering of my crotch—but I tried to conceal my fierce attraction as best as I could and so, to please him, I mumbled, without his even asking, “Oh, he’s okay, I guess. But, I guess, she’s maybe, oh, better.”

Dr. Aldred stepped past me to his desk and turned and faced me. “‘He’s okay,’ you guess, but, you guess, ‘maybe she’s, oh, better,’” he said flatly and leaned down to his clipboard and scribbled something on it. He stood straight then and said, eyes cast down, “We have ways, Mr. Elledge, of measuring the truth of your responses. Next session, we’ll find out what ‘okay’ means, and ‘I guess,’ and ‘maybe she’s, oh, better.’”

He stepped past me, switched off the projector, then stepped back to the screen and with a faint tug on its hook, let it slap up sharply into the metal tube. Then he sat in his metal chair and took Bic and clipboard from the bare desk and folding his knees and setting the clipboard on them, just let the Bic rest on the paper clipped to it.

Then he said, “Well, Lockhart, I’m listening,” his face suddenly relaxed now, nearly smiling, his voice lilting.

It was the first time he had called me “Lockhart,” and I felt a warm shiver all through me, and, for a reason I could not account for, I wanted—yearned—to tell him about Elton and our barn and church and about the Boy’s Life pictures and about Kenny and all the delectable and wondrous acts we had performed together—everything. My mind flooded and flamed with images: Elton slurping off my cock, Jeff Thornton’s mounded pectorals in that picture cut from Boy’s Life, Kenny’s deep-swirling kisses—and I opened my mouth to pour out the flood and flame of words.

But then I stared at Dr. Aldred’s curly hair and handsome face, going rigid and tight-lipped now, and at the white coat and the brown metal plate with his name white-etched on it and then at the clipboard and his fingers tapping the cap of the Bic against the metal clamp—tapping quickly, impatiently—and I shut my mouth tightly, stared down at the backs of my hands that now covered a limpness, and stayed silent.

After what must have been twenty minutes or so—which seemed to creep forever, tingling down my back—Dr. Aldred said, flat, expressionless, the affectionate lilt damped from his voice, “Well, Mr. Elledge, our time is up today. We’ll perform the tests next time—and discover what you mean by ‘He’s okay, I guess, but maybe she’s, oh, better.’”

He put the clipboard and the Bic on the desk and rose and walked to the door and opened it and, with a slight bow and sweep forward of his right arm, showed me out of the office. As I left past him, I caught again that sweet whiff on him—it was cologne, I was sure now—and then stepped quickly down the corridor and down the flights of stairs to the Lysol-and-cabbage-smelling “inmate” corridor and then down other flights of stairs to the ground corridor and into the great lobby, empty still. I pushed myself through the heavy front doors and came out into the wincing sunlight.

Soon, lying once more belly-down on the rear seat of the state car, legs scrunched up, feet pressed solid against the opposite door, my face—and nose—flat on the new vinyl, smelling the sharpness of it, the depressing astringency, I felt the Chevrolet back, then slowly swerve right and straighten, dip down the long, curving drive, and bump back onto Boylan Avenue. Then I felt the long, slow ride back, fitful with rush-hour stops and starts.

I heard the car crunch over gravel and then Grandfather clear his throat and rasp, “Well, Dr. Lockhart, here you are. You may rise and leave at your leisure.” I was certain (though the journey did seem short—and in rush hour, too) that we were parked on the lip of the carport, behind Mother’s Falcon. But when I rose, unfurling, and looked out, I saw we were parked once more in the Broughton faculty lot—empty now except for five o’clock shadow.

“I need to drive this limousine back to work,” Grandfather chuckled. You know where the bus stop is—Peace and Glenwood, over by Whack-Whack’s, heh heh. Fine exercise, walking is—and all those books, they’ll help, too.”

My chest clenched with hurt as it came to me the true reason he hadn’t driven me home. Mother would have arrived back from the station, and Grandfather must have remembered she’d said, many times over Monday and Tuesday, to him and to me, that she’d “have nothing to do” with my therapy—my “shrink,” as she’d referred to Dr. Aldred. “It’s all so embarrassing,” she’d said. “All such craziness. My son a homosexual—and a practicing one at that. You two deal with it and don’t say a word to me about it.”

 

And she never mentioned “the incident” again. In our infrequent letters—she’s seventy-four now—she never mentions my life in New York—not even my career in theater. She writes of Raleigh weather (“so hot today,” or “freezing cold today, like that room Aunt Rosalie died in”), complains of her tinnitus and “increasing deafness,” complains that Lucinda “never” visits her though she lives a half hour away, and ends in wishing for my “happiness” in whatever I “decide to do” with my life.

 

So I opened the car door and slid slowly out of the back seat and stood on the gravel lot, then leant down to gather my ring binder and the four or five textbooks, and rising again, held them in an awkward, skewed stack to my chest. (“Just like a girl,” I remembered a grade school bully taunting me once.)

From the row of tulips near the stage door, I watched the gray, characterless Chevrolet, like a uniform, crunch slowly out of the lot and onto St. Mary’s, steer right, and head toward Peace and then—I knew—back downtown to the State Board of Health.

When the car vanished from my sight, I walked, books and ring binder sliding awkwardly against my chest, the several circuitous blocks through a shabby neighborhood of bungalows and rooming houses, crossed Glenwood Avenue, and came to the corner of St. Mary’s and Peace and stood by the creosote pole with the yellow band painted around it. Behind me, I knew, stood the red-and-white-swirling cone that marked the barbershop where Grandfather would take me when I was seven, eight, nine—“Old Whack-Whack’s,” as he’d call it, chuckling. But before I could think more on it, that innocent time, the 5:30 bus, labeled “Glenwood Avenue Anderson Heights,” approached, roaring and clattering, then slowed and stopped with a whoosh of air brakes, and the side front door folded open. I stepped up inside, a bit wobbly with the books and binder held on my chest.

“Got you some homework, bo’,” the driver said good-naturedly—a balding, paunchy, tobacco-chewing, middle-aged white man in a gray uniform, his “D. R. Manning” name plate slid in a slot up to his right. Except for me and him, the bus was empty. It growled and lurched forward, and I swayed down the narrow aisle to the wide rear seat and sat on it and stacked my books and ring binder neatly beside me and set a firm hand on them to keep them from sliding.

Suddenly my stomach fell—not because Kenny wasn’t sitting beside me in the rear, as he always did on the 5:30 bus that April, an hour after rehearsals were over (I had already squeezed him from memory altogether—yes, that quickly: since Dr. Aldred and his slides and my sudden, fierce determination to become a “normal” woman-loving man—to please Mother and Grandfather)—no, not because Kenny wasn’t sitting where my books were stacked, but because it came to me that this bus held none of the five-o’clock crowd of male-muscled athletes fresh out of sports practices, their faces still red, still sweating, in April and May their veined, pumped biceps arching out from T-shirt sleeves rolled to the armpits, a soggy hair peeping out here and there. And on that five-o’clock bus before April Fool’s, from the rear seat where I’d sit alone (Kenny’d still be at school, still working on “his” props and flats), I’d watch the athletes all knocking each other with their elbows, laughing loudly (for no reason at all but after-school ebullience—jubilation!), and flirting with the girls—either cheerleaders, who’d flirt back, or the female Golden Masquers, who’d twist their faces away, ignoring them.

Shutting my eyes as the old bus clattered and labored along, I pictured in my mind those dozen or so male-muscled athletes—one of whom was named Ted, a tall, crew-cut, broad-shouldered cutup, always flirting with the cheerleaders. He had huge, high pectorals twin-mounding in April, May, June, from under a T-shirt a size too small for him, and a pair of peaked, vein-coiled biceps arching up (again in spring) from under shirt sleeves rolled to his ridged shoulders. As I pictured him, clear as a color slide on a screen, I felt my “thing” harden—sudden, fast, painful—like that fist striking me pleasurably, down there. By the time the bus reached Five Points (and stopped for the endless-seeming light), I felt the ache wave upward along the slender ridge of hair strung from cock root to belly button. Then I felt the delicious slow-welling ooze, and my heart raced and my mouth turned dry as old sunned wood. I steadied my books with my left hand while with my right I began to rub at my fly—so taut now the zipper showed in a brass gleam. To cover it—and my hand—from the driver’s rearview mirror, I twisted my legs to the side as far as I could. And I rubbed and rubbed—faster, faster—felt the delicious ache wave up past my belly, shivering, nearly unbearable, all the way up to my throat, forming moans, groans—words, even, which I dared not speak aloud: “Oh, yeeeeeee-ah, Ted, fuck me hard, muscleman!” It was all I could do to keep from bursting right there.

But I managed—somehow—to keep the ooze to ooze alone as the bus whooshed and swayed down Anderson, shook and clattered past Grandfather’s red-brick Colonial on the corner with White Oak, then cut right onto Kenmore, then left onto Kittrell, sped at least fifty down the long straight hill I’d bike down as a child, as fast as I could, arms spread wide, and then up the short incline. As it approached the creosote pole with the yellow band around it, I stood, swaying, and pulled the cord above a window, heard the sharp beep, and then the bus slowed, and the rear door unfolded. Quickly, clumsily, I gathered my books and ring binder to my chest and, feeling face flushed at my hard-on, at the zipper gleam still showing, I hurried out the door before the bus could stop all the way.

The driver yelled, “Hey, bo’, wait till I stop! You know better!” And then, laughing, “Got you a gal waitin’ on you. Lord, Lord! Biggest wad I ever seen on a young ’un! You have a good time, now—but, Lord, be careful! Don’t want no babies at sixteen!”

He went on longer, but I was no longer hearing him, and fairly flew toward our house, the binder and books sliding and bouncing on my chest, two or three of them dropping on the lawn (I didn’t care—I’d fetch them later).

All the afternoons of that April, it would be, like now, six o’clock when I got off the bus, so Mother and Lucinda would be home, Mother napping the thirty minutes before fixing supper, in her room beside the kitchen, and Lucinda studying in her room upstairs, door shut tight. And before that April, it would be 5:30 when I arrived home (Kenny still back stage, still working on “his” props and flats), and Mother would be in her room, maybe reading before her nap, and Lucinda in hers (again, door shut tight), perhaps sketching a little before starting her homework. In the afternoons between rehearsals, I’d arrive home at four (Kenny having left the bus at Five Points and walked to his bungalow on Bickett St., down near the railroad tracks—I’d never seen it), and Mother would still be at the TV station and Lucinda still at school, painting in Mrs. Allison’s studio.

So at six o’clock, five thirty, and four o’clock, I could enter the front door unnoticed and step softly into the living room and up the stairs and quietly passing Lucinda’s shut door, enter my bedroom and close and latch the door behind me. I’d toss my books on my bed, then reach under the mattress for the “Toughen Up” photos I’d cut meticulously out of the my Boy’s Life magazines (yes, I still subscribed, though I hadn’t attended an Explorer meeting in over a year).

Today, however, that first Wednesday in May, through the flung open windows, I could hear Mother and Lucinda clattering pots and plates and utensils in the kitchen, fixing dinner a half hour early. And just why so early on that May Wednesday, I wasn’t sure—perhaps out of some morbid curiosity (so I presumed, in my depression): what did a seventeen-year-old “crazy pervert” look like—the person I had surely become to them, nearly overnight? And what would that “crazy pervert” say or do after seeing his first “shrink” ever? Or perhaps they felt only pity (a feeling I loathed then and loathe even now, thirty years later)—that I, the now “mentally ill” son, needed his supper early so he could study and get to bed by nine, an hour sooner than usual: he, the poor boy, needed his rest, like a patient just come home from surgery at a hospital.

Anyway, for whatever reason they were cooking so early, and since, while this or that was baking or stewing or boiling, Mother would likely be sitting on the living room sofa, just smoking, and Lucinda would likely be watching The Three Stooges reruns on the television in the small adjoining den, I knew I couldn’t go in the front door and into the living room and up the stairs, especially with that bulge still in my pants.

So I strode to the right, along the brilliant row of tulips Lucinda had planted, and around to the back of the house and down the cinderblock steps and through the plywood door and into the dim, cramped, musty basement and heaved my ring binder and books into a corner, not caring if they’d be torn or scarred or the bindings broken.

So full I was, so aching, so oozing, I squeezed eyes shut, Ted now full naked in my mind. I dropped fully clothed to the floor and despite the rough, dusty concrete, wedged a hand under my fly and keeping eyes shut, began to rub at the taut member—slowly at first, to savor as long as I could Ted in my mind now flexing chest and arms before me, on his face that wide, white-toothed grin when he’d flirt with the girls on the bus.

“Oh, Ted, oh, Ted, flex that bicep,” I yelled—no need now for a cloth over my mouth, as in the den above me the television was loud with The Three Stooges wisecracks and smacks on the face and blows in the ribs and the sharp groans following, and Lucinda was shrieking with laughter or stepping into the kitchen to stir the mixed vegetables and the spaghetti or the frozen green beans and the “poor man’s chop suey”—whatever we were having for supper.

I began to rub faster—and faster still—and, oddly, Ted’s muscle and grin vanished at once, like a slide clicked away, and in Ted’s place, like a new slide clicked into view, appeared Dr. Aldred—just his handsome face and thick lips and black curly hair neatly trimmed, and I remembered the sudden lilt in his voice when he had called me “Lockhart” for the first time. And suddenly I came in a rich, lush burst, feeling the thick wetness jet into my briefs and then pulse thick under my shirt—all the way to the belly button.

Then, as usual, I felt the old, vast, deep emptiness—the postorgasmic melancholy, as it were. But this time, with Dr. Aldred’s handsome face and voice-lilt still lingering in memory, I felt, too, a wincing guilt and shame: not only had I broken some unspoken prohibition of his (and so had disappointed him); I had also, with Ted so brightly in my mind just seconds beforehand, somehow betrayed him—Roger.

I turned over on that cold, rough concrete and opened my eyes and just stared for a time at the bare, cobwebbed rafters. I soon squeezed the “betrayal” out of my mind. But though I strained to do so, I couldn’t squeeze out the shame and guilt that here, now, barely an hour after my first visit to Dix—for my “cure”—I had once again, in Mother’s words, behaved “that way.”

Then I knew, without the words, that I would never change, no matter how often I’d see Dr. Aldred, no matter how many treatments I’d receive from him—the “talk” therapy and even the dreaded “aversion” therapies I was so desiring to undergo (yes, I was that willing to be “cured” and “normal” again—to please Grandfather and Mother and even Lucinda, though she never mentioned my homosexuality as anything “abnormal” and never has, to this day). (Yes the “aversion” therapies were still practiced in the ’60s and even through the early ’70’s—until the APA declared “homosexuality” no longer a disorder.)

No, I thought with deep chest-clench, staring at the cobwebs on the rafters, I’d never never never never never change. I’d never become that red-blooded, heterosexual adult male with wife and children and house and white picket fence and heterosexual golf-playing and basketball-watching buddies on the weekends. I’d forever be “queer,” a “faggot”—one of those lone and lonely men seeking “gratification” (Father Moody’s word after he’d hear my confession) in dark, solitary “tearooms” and night-shrouded public parks and certain “clubs” (read “bathhouses”) with dim, semen-smelling rooms and old, semen-rank mattresses established in big cities for such “perverts” like me. I’d be Geoffrey in The Taste of Honey, walking out into the darkness, into a self-loathing, likely suicidal future.

 

“Creech house coming up, about a mile. You remember that old Creech house, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart?”

Grandfather was speaking aloud again. So absorbed had I been in my remembered first journey to Dix and the first therapy and the trip back to Broughton and all the rest of it—that first May Wednesday afternoon—I had not noticed what must have been Grandfather’s slow listing return to the old Chrysler, the long whir and catch of the engine and its rough idling, then what must have been the fitful, stop-lit drive through downtown and then the smoother one out of the city and, on our left, past the smoke-billowing refineries and the red-brick “colored” motel (Johnson’s) squatting in front of them, maybe a single car in the lot, a new Cadillac or Oldsmobile—and then, on our right, past the tall brick tower with the dozens of square gaps where glittering windows should have been, this tower the interior of which apprentice firemen would set ablaze piled bales of hay and then practice leaning long ladders against the brick walls and jetting water onto the flames through thick “power” hoses.

No, I noticed none of these long-ago yet so familiar landmarks, and when Grandfather spoke aloud, I was startled suddenly, as from a dream, and saw we had long passed the short four-lane section of U. S. 70 and were now driving the seamed and bumpy two-lane part of it that would take us around Clayton. Some twenty minutes later, the highway would widen to four lanes again and bear us past the Smithfield town cemetery, past the Klan Country billboard, over the Neuse River Bridge, and into Smithfield itself—its downtown Market Street.

Out of my open window, fields of new oats rushed by in a blur of light green, then thick stands of tall pines, their bracing fragrance brushing against my face, and last, high clay banks stringed with kudzu and along the ridge of the banks, the twin rails of a railroad running alongside the highway awhile and then curving into distance, beyond the tree line of a plowed, bare-dirt field or one grown up in weeds and May wildflowers. I noticed the overcast (just patches at the service station) had grown whole—thick, matted, metal-colored, not a sun ray anywhere. As if reading my mind, Grandfather rasped, “Looks like a storm coming up—but it’s supposed to clear up midafternoon or thereabouts.”

I stared straight ahead through the windshield and saw, come rushing toward us on our right, sitting not ten yards from the highway, that old Creech house, an abandoned, weather-blackened Carolina T surrounded by great oaks in full leaf.

“The Creech house,” I muttered. Where all those murders—”

“No, just one murder,” Grandfather rasped, and cleared his throat. “But it was such an awful thing it seemed like a dozen of ’em, yessir.  That boy they killed was queer, you know. Just sixteen, seventeen, and murdered by his own brothers. Story was the family got so exasperated they sent him to—you know—”

“Dix Hill,” I muttered. “For ‘the therapies.’” (Grandfather knew, so I didn’t have to tell him what kinds.)

The old house rushed by so quickly I caught just a glimpse of it—the sagging, wide-open front door and the dark beyond it—but in that glimpse, from the bits and pieces of the news article I’d read two or three years before, I could imagine the whole, wincing, shuddering scene: the small, slender boy in overalls, tiny and slight of build for sixteen—“barely five feet tall,” the article said—squatting, leaning over the bare-wood floor until his forehead touched it, his stick-like arms and fine-fingered hands covering his thin neck and small head, desperate to protect them, and squalling tearfully, panic-stricken, and the four older brothers, likewise in overalls, maybe eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, and all wielding baseball bats and, teeth gritted, red-faced, eyes bulging with hatred, raising the bats simultaneously above their shoulders and hurling them as hard as they could on the curled, curved boy—so hard-hurled their bare arms were red and popped with sweat—and with each thud thud thud bits of blood and flesh flying out of the boy’s forearms and head and neck. And all the while the terrified boy was crying out in a squealing voice, “Jamie [or Johnny, or Robbie—whatever his name might have been], don’t leave me! Help me! Help me!” But Jamie (or Johnny or Robbie—the boy’s twin—he must have had a twin!) had long fled out the back door and, eyes bulged in terror and disbelief, was far from the murdering house by now—much too far to hear not only the boy’s high squeals but the four older brothers’ repeated, nearly simultaneous, gravel-voiced yells, “Faggot! Fuckin’ queer! We’ll slam the per-vert out of yuh!”

I shook my head sharply, and the stomach-clenching sight cleared from my mind, and I saw were passing new green oats again and the thick stands of fragrant pine.

“Lucky for them the jury ‘understood’,” Grandfather rasped. “Just gave ’em second-degree murder.” A murder ‘in the heat of anger,’ you might say. Lord, those brothers just couldn’t help themselves. I guess the family was so darned frustrated—tried nearabout everything and seemed like nothing helped a-tall. Even that new-fangled therapy where they make you vomit and such. And the judge—Judge Rainey, Jr., wouldn’t you know?—he ‘understood,’ too. Just sentenced ’em six years, with a chance for parole in six months.”

Grandfather went silent for a swallow and then cleared his throat and rasped on, “You can’t imagine, Dr. Lockhart, how relieved we all were, especially your mother and I, on the day you told me you were ‘cured.’ Yessir, we were driving in this same old car in the spring of your senior year at Broughton. We’d just left Smithfield, headed back to Raleigh, and it was a May Saturday like this one, but all sunny, not a cloud anywhere. I know you’re also mighty pleased that old trouble’s over and done. Who’re you dating now? Linda? Elaine? Teresa? All those girls from fine people!”

When I didn’t answer, so absorbed I was watching the calming new oats blur green past my window, he must have turned and winked at me, then rasped, “So?”

“Linda Fuller,” I lied, turning to face him, and then I muttered, lamely, in my voice a tiny anger-edge Grandfather seemed not to notice, “She’s quite bright. Majoring in premed. Wants to be a psychiatrist.”

“Lord, a female—and a doctor—and a psychiatrist! These modern women! Heh heh. Your mother was one of em’—had to be when you and Lucinda were little. Still is. And she’ll go on working long past the time you both graduate—until they force her out, from the television station or something after that. She’s gotten so used to it. Just like your old Dee-di.”

Over the following fifteen minutes into Smithfield, I bent my head over the ragged floor mat and squeezed eyes shut. As the wind rushed in brisk, pine scents by my ear, I remembered what happened later that summer and into early autumn—between the Senior Prom, the second Saturday after I’d announced to Grandfather I was “cured,” and the beginning of my first semester in Chapel Hill.

I remembered, first, Prom Night, when I took this “Linda Fuller” (whose face I’d forgotten by Sunday morning) to the formal dance held, as always, at the Carolina Country Club. There we nibbled on the hors d’oeuvres, sipped champagne (to the envy of those who hadn’t turned eighteen), and danced, formally, fake-smiling, our crotches and chests so far apart I could barely smell the cologne she’d sprayed all over herself. (She tried, subtly, to edge closer to me, but I kept her away with elbows held so rigidly they ached.) We left, mutually-abruptly, a little before ten, and, on our way back to Grandfather’s in his Chrysler (which, of course, he had insisted that I borrow for the night), she first stared silently through her window, just watching aimlessly, I supposed, the yard lights and house lights on Glenwood Avenue flickering by. Then, maybe a couple of blocks from her house, she turned to me abruptly and blurted out, her voice edged with anger, “Lockhart, are you still a homosexual?” (My “condition” and “therapy” and eventual “cure” had pretty much spread all over Broughton.)

Startled, I stammered, “Of course, in the technical—I mean—medical sense—”

“Skip it,” she bit. “Just take me home.”

I’d barely stopped the car by her walkway before she snatched up her purse from between us, unlatched and threw open her door, burst out of the car, and fairly flew toward the lighted porch, her high heels clicking—desperately, it seemed—like those of a woman being chased. When the clicking stopped and her white formal gown flickered away and her front door slammed shut, I shoved out of my mind all the “careful driving” I’d been taught just a few hours ago: I swung a squealing U-turn in the street, barely missing a parked car and bumping over the sidewalk, and raced down White Oak to Grandfather’s, whispering—relieved, madly joyful, “That’s over, Lock, thanks be to God!” (Of course, I never saw her again.)

He—Grandfather—was standing, hand on hip, in his dimly lit garage, waiting for me as I edged the Chrysler inside it. He was still dressed in his suit trousers and white shirt and tie, but no suit coat was on him now, and no gray Homburg. Just as I switched off the engine, he dropped his hip-hand into a trousers pocket and took out his big watch and glanced at it, his head startling back a little. Then, slipping the watch back, he walked to my window, listing slightly, and cranked midair that I roll it down. When I did so, he leaned inside the car a little and peered at me through his thick glasses and watery blue eyes and sniffed two or three times.

“Heh heh,” he rasped, then cleared his throat, “Smells like you did all right, Mr. Lockhart. And mighty quick, too. Lord, I bet she was—” Here he just winked at me, thinking I’d know what he meant. (I did, of course: even being “homo,” I wasn’t that naïve about the lovemaking ways of heterosexual couples.) Then he drew his silver crown from the car and turned and walked, again slowly, listing a little, around the front of the car and up the steep wooden steps to the main floor of the big Colonial. All the while I was hearing him laugh, softly, over and over, like a mantra, as if he wanted—needed—to believe it (or wanted—needed—not to deny it—the truth of it): “Heh heh. You did all right, Mr. Lockhart Titus. Did all right, quick though it was, yessir. I bet she was—you know—. Heh heh. All right. Mr. Lockhart Titus did all right.”

And I remembered the weekend following—the June Sunday Graduation when, just after the whole 600-odd of us flowed out of that sweaty and stuffy Memorial Auditorium and stepped out into the cool June night air, Grandfather walked up to me, all by himself (Mother and Laura were waiting for me in Mother’s Falcon in the parking lot), and, dutifully, I reached out to grip his proffered hand. I saw his other hand gripping a large, black briefcase, nearly like a small suitcase, with sides that would expand to hold as many books as one could cram into it. When we released our handshake, he held it out in front of him with both hands, arms trembling. I noticed right away the gold-colored handle with the name “Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Ph.D.” etched onto it. After slowly, gently lowering the briefcase to the concrete, placing it in front of my polished dress shoes, he cleared his throat and rasped, “Here I bequeath unto you a gift of congratulations, Mr. Lockhart Titus Elledge—four years hence, Mr. Lockhart Elledge, Artium Baccalaureus in linguis Latina et Graeco. And then the Ivy League and, four years thence, Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Ph.D. and Classics Man.” How I shivered, inwardly, at that bestowed epithet!

And I remembered the Sunday after that—yes, so keenly remembered—when Grandfather stopped by our house at noon, entering the carport door into the kitchen without knocking, as he always did in his proprietary way (he had given Mother the down payment for the house). Dressed, as always, in his pressed salt-and-pepper suit, white starched shirt, thin blue tie, and Homburg, he saw me in the kitchen by the ironing board, dressed still in my church clothes, pressing my Explorer shirt.

He took off his Homburg and sat at the dining table and rasped, “I’ll be taking you out to the camp today, Mr. Lockhart. Your mother doesn’t feel well and asked me to drive you.”

Over the past four summers, Mother had driven me to Camp Durant, beginning on the Sunday of “work week,” when the staff set up the camp for the season, and then on every Sunday thereafter, through the middle of August. And I’d assumed she’d drive me out today: she was in the living room, reading the Sunday paper, and she’d be ready to go—so I’d assumed—when I finished ironing and changing and packing and said I was ready. She hadn’t seemed ill at all to me; in fact, she’d gone outside at seven in the morning, two hours before Mass, and mowed the whole quarter-acre lawn—a chore that had been mine since I was twelve. So Grandfather was lying, I knew (he’d say, euphemistically, he was “prevaricating”), and I shivered as gut-deep as I had on that afternoon over a year ago in Mr. Holliday’s office. (At eighteen, I still hadn’t learned to drive well enough to apply for a learner’s permit. Yes, Grandfather had given me that brief lesson on that Saturday afternoon two weeks before, but he and Mother had usually been too “worn out” from work to teach me—even on the weekends—and play rehearsals had taken up the hour for Driver’s Ed. Besides, my long-held, and irrational, terror of driving had kept me from asking them for lessons.)

To calm myself, I made light of this sudden change of drivers and joked, lamely, “Well, it’s supposed to pour this afternoon, so we can break out the tin cup.” (The Chrysler had already begun to leak in the passenger’s corner of the windshield.)

“Yessir,” he rasped, “Heh heh, that old tin cup. Your great-grandfather drank his pop and beer and wine and bourbon from that cup—every day of his life—at formal meals even. Story was it came from a Federal officer—a fellow Mason of your great-great-grandfather, Blow-Your-Horn-Billy. He gave it to your great-grandfather when he was six: yessir, he bowed deeply and told him and his mother he’d spare the house—the old homeplace, you know—on account of the Masonic emblem above the parlor mantelpiece. Blow-Your-Horn-Billy was over in Smithfield with the Home Guard. He’d been elected Major of it, you know.”

He waited silently, fiddling with his tie now and then and tapping at his Homburg on the table as I finished ironing the dark green Explorer shirt, then the pleated olive shorts and the yellow neckerchief with “Camp Durant Staff 1966” stitched on it in bright red.

I walked into the living room, past Mother reading the newspaper (with no word from her), stepped, slowly and heavily, up the flight of stairs into my bedroom, changed into the pressed uniform, and then, in spite of my deep gut-shivering, held up the neckerchief and carefully, neatly folded it a few inches down from its triangular base. Before the bathroom mirror, I wrapped it, again carefully and neatly, around my neck and, picking up my hand-painted, totem pole slide from the edge of the sink, slid its loop up through the folded tails of the neckerchief—all the way to my throat. I turned around and with Lucinda’s hand mirror made sure the bright emblem on back—“Camp Durant Staff 1966”—blazed for all to see. Then I slipped on my long green knee socks and the garters with their short red sashes, and then the black Sunday shoes already carefully polished. When I finished packing, I gripped up my knapsack and suitcase and stepped down to the living room, again past Mother—and again with no word from her, no “See you next Sad-dy, Locky”—just a rattling of the News and Observer as she turned a page.

From the kitchen, Grandfather and I headed out to the Chrysler, and in all silence, he drove me the ten overcast miles out narrow U. S. 1, flanked by pine stands and clay banks and kudzu, turned left onto Neuse Road, crossed with a faint bump the Seaboard railroad tracks, passed the lopsided, paint-peeling shack with the hand-painted sign “Neuse Holiness Church,” and turned left again, into the wide, rolling gravel road that led us into the camp.

 

You see, during the summers after my freshman and sophomore years, and even (for some reason I could not—and cannot—account for) during the summer after my junior year when Grandfather would drive me just once a week, on Monday, to my therapy with Dr. Aldred, I worked as a counselor at the Scout camp. I taught Morse code and compass and mapping and various merit badges—Signaling, First Aid, and, in my third summer, Nature, Reptile Study, Soil and Water Conservation, and Wildlife Management. And in that third summer, to my deepest delight (and likely also as an antidote to the milder ammonia-and-smelling-salts “aversion therapy” with which Dr. Aldred was then treating me), I wrote and directed the Wednesday “visitor’s night” Indian pageant—or “outdoor drama” as I preferred calling it: a play about Osceola and his treacherous capture. Of course, the “drama” was marked by all the flaws of a seventeen-year-old novice: a melodramatic script with clichéd, long-winded speeches, crowd-pleasing canoes gliding over the lake with Indians in them holding flaming torches (pine poles wrapped in burlap at their tips and drenched in kerosene), a “snake dance” with the dancer gripping a six-foot black snake in his mouth (a dance found in no authentic tribal repertoire), a prolonged (and clumsily choreographed) “battle scene,” complete with a kerosene-drenched, not-quite-authentic, pine-bough-on-chicken-wire-covered “chickee” bursting into flame. I played loose with facts all script long—even invented a son for Osceola, a son handsome and muscled, who was brutally slain in the battle scene. And most spectacular (and least authentic) of all was the accompanying music—taped excerpts from Aaron Copeland, Grofé (the Grand Canyon “Sunrise” movement), and even Wagner and Gustav Mahler—blaring from loudspeakers hung in the trees that ringed the “stage” (the campfire circle with its crudely carpentered benches for seats). Yet, for all its flaws and exaggerations, I loved that pageant and all the performances—even the one when the tape got tangled on the player and the “funeral” of Osceola’s “son”—his body laid in a canoe with a single lit torch in the bow and then paddled out into the lake—had to be performed in silence, without the final ten minutes of that glory of the “immolation” scene from Die Götterdammerung. When the play’s performance shone, how I reveled in the applause and shouts of the audience! (And how deeply disappointed I was—to the point of melancholy—when a sudden thunderstorm would balloon and rain “my” pageant out!)

As for the place—this Camp Durant—I’d fallen in love with it long before, when I was a camper there at age eleven, twelve, and thirteen. I loved the large “lower” lake curving gently and gracefully beyond a peninsula of trees and all ringed with hardwoods—except for a single, tall pine at the lake-edge of the fire circle. And I loved the wide, gravel, gently curving dam lined with trumpet vines and honeysuckle and clumps of orange day lilies and, now and then, unexpectedly, a single tall mallow, its great white cup full-open to the sun. How I relished just walking over that dam in the cool sunlit early mornings, when the lake lay smooth as a mirror! And I loved the “upper” lake as well—much smaller than the lower: an oval pond ringed with scrub oaks and redolent pine saplings. And when I taught Nature merit badge, I loved showing the kids the trees along the nature trail, touching the leaves and naming each tree aloud—the “tulip poplar,” “the mimosa,” “the black cherry,” the “yellow” pine (two needles) and the “loblolly” pine (three needles), the beech (with its trunk one could initial with a pocket knife), the eastern hornbeam (“muscle wood”)—and all the varieties of oaks and how to tell the difference between them: northern red oak, southern red oak, black oak, white oak, blackjack oak, turkey oak, willow oak—and more. I loved, especially, that half-way “rest stop” along the mile trail—the twin mounds of rock through which a small creek flowed. The kids and I would sit on the rocks and rest a bit, not saying much. (The other staffers called it “pussy rock”—but I felt that name crude and preferred “valley rock”—and the campers, the ones I taught anyway, would ever remember it—so I hoped, believed—as “valley rock,” not that vulgar, other epithet.)

Most of all, I loved the older men there: the scoutmasters and their assistants and the camp directors and the program directors and the other adult leaders. I suppose I saw in them, in some semiconscious way, as the father I never had—the fathers!

Of course, I was struck now and again by a handsome, well-muscled sixteen-year-old, either a camper or a staffer, but I just kept their “gorgeous” images in my mind—and kept my right hand powerfully busy, late at night in the Nature Lodge, when I knew the three other counselors were sound asleep.

 

Grandfather parked the Chrysler by the gate of totem poles and rasped, “Sit here, Mr. Lockhart. I’ll be back directly.”

I watched his Homburg bob down the lawn toward the Training Lodge where “work week” began with various camp songs, the Camp Director’s welcoming speech, and everyone introducing themselves. I saw Joe White and Mike Martin sitting on top of an old picnic table, dressed in T-shirts and well-worn jeans and sneakers. They waved at me; I didn’t wave back, hands lead-heavy in my lap. Suddenly, from the driver’s open window, yelled Cotton Tyler’s voice, “Hey, Elledge, you’re in uniform! And this here work week! Better change in the car, bo’!” Then he laughed, “Come on, man, you’ll be late!” and sprinted down the lawn and sat on the table beside Joe and Mike, dressed, like them, in T-shirt and jeans.

I remember it was around noon and still overcast—cool for mid-June. Just as the clouds suddenly thickened and purpled, a small rain began to wet the windshield, and Grandfather walked, Homburg bobbing, up the lawn, slowly, listing slightly, brushing raindrops from his suit. As soon as he slid into the driver’s seat, the small rain burst into a shower, and I saw Joe and Mike and Cotton leap off the picnic table and rush, hands over head, into the Training Lodge.

The rain began to drum on the Chrysler roof, some of it dripping from the right corner of the windshield onto the dashboard. Grandfather reached into the glove compartment and took out the old tin cup, tarnished with age, and placed it under the dripping. He started the car and rasped, “Now hold the cup steady, Mr. Lockhart.” I reached out and held it, and he backed the car, swinging right, then swung left and started forward, down the wide, graveled, rolling road out of camp. In and out of the drumming rain—drumming loudly now—came the steady drip drip drip into the cup.

When we reached the stop sign at Neuse Road, the rain had slowed to a sprinkle. I already knew what Grandfather had said to Mr. Earnest, the Camp Director, and when he cleared his throat to tell me, I nearly blurted a not-Lockhart Elledge, “Damn it, garrulous old fool, I know what you said and he said, you needn’t rub it in, I don’t want to hear about it!” But I stayed silent and let him rasp on: “Mr. Earnest and I agreed that, under the present circumstances, even though you’re considered ‘cured,’ you’d be better off working elsewhere this summer. Given your interest in reading, Mr. Earnest suggested Olivia Raney Library downtown, and I wholeheartedly agreed. The salary shall be much better than he can offer, and I know Mrs. Woolrich—have known her for decades—why, she was Carmen’s bridesmaid, you know—took the train all the way up to Philadelphia back in October ’19. She’ll be glad to hire you on. And—” Here he paused, blushed deep red, and cleared his throat longer and louder than I had ever heard before: “And, of course, in the library, there’ll be no, you know—no, temptation. [How little he knew of library “tearooms”!] You’re cured, there’s no doubt. Dr. Aldred has said so. But we don’t want this ‘cure’ to be any temporary ‘remission,’ do we now, Mr. Lockhart?” He laughed softly, “Lord, Lord, old Aunt Venice. Never had the slightest thought old Merrick would remission on her—and permanently, too!”

Just before we turned onto the paved road, I looked back at the rolling, pine-flanked, gravel road and felt a sudden great hurt well up in me. I turned my face to my window so Grandfather couldn’t see the sudden burst of wetness. All the way home, I kept my eyes on the rain sliding in thin, curving rills down the window pane.

Since that June Sunday three decades ago, I have never set foot on my sacred place.

 

Mike Martin and I still keep up, and in a recent e-mail, he wrote that the camp had been bought by the City of Raleigh in 1978 and renamed “Durant Nature Park”; that it was now ringed by shopping centers and industrial warehouses and town house complexes; that Neuse Road had been four-laned and was now “Durant Road”; that “city buzz” had “pretty much killed” the night chirps of crickets and tree frogs; and that “all that concrete runoff” had washed out the campfire circle—“just a gully of clay now.”

“The area has changed so much you wouldn’t recognize it,” he wrote. “So when you drive down to N. C. again, you may as well stay in Durham—and save your gas money.”

 

“Smithfield five, Goldsboro thirty-three,” Grandfather rasped from out of the faint self-whispering. “And there’s that old picnic table. We all used to eat there on the way to Morehead, you remember, Dr. Lockhart? Lord, road sign and table been there forever, seems so.”

Opening my eyes, I glanced up to see the rust-edged mileage sign whip by, caught a glimpse of the rotting table-and-benches in front of a cattle pasture fenced with barbed wire. I swept my tongue over the roof of my mouth: the hunk’s semen-taste, its shaming stickiness, had nearly vanished, just a hint of it remaining still, like fading Novocain hours after a dentist visit.

And with my face to my open window, the pasture-green and strands of barbed wire rushing by, I wondered, in wonder, Why aren’t you back in your dorm room, Lock? Your comps, they’re Monday. And the paper on Virgil due Tuesday. Why this ridiculous, time-wasting trip with a Dr. Claude Alexander Woodall, Homo Medicus, to a place, a “Klan Country,” you’d sworn four years ago, nearly to the day, you’d never set foot in again? I’d be in my room right now, writing the paper. I could have used Victor’s ear plugs—his “studying plugs.” And that brainless hunk—that’s not your direction, Lock. Just a misdemeanor this morning—a tiny lapse, an indiscretion, no more than that. You know who you are, Lock—by now—surely!

I felt a chest-clench, the kind you feel after a nightmare, and then in the wind rushing by, I shook my head to clear its memory—that sick-green restroom and all the rest. Then I felt a huge relief, and thought, It’s just a tiny diversion, this little trip—to get the old man off your back. And you need a break anyway. Away from the Hill for a while. We’ll see his damn homeplace and be back on campus before four. You’ll just pull an all-nighter or two.

I bent back down to the ragged floor mat, squeezed eyes shut again, and to the sounds of the wind rushing past (now scented with cow manure) and of my grandfather once more whispering to himself, that faint laugh erupting out of it, “I should’ve told that fellah where to head in,” I remembered how rarely I saw him after that aborted camp Sunday—that huge loss in my heart, my soul—that deep, deep hurt.

Of course, there was no further need for the “therapeutic” journeys to the “shrines” of “Klan Country.” And after that Sunday, for reasons unknown to us, Grandfather never set foot in our house again. For the rest of June and most of July, Mother would now and then wonder aloud, “Why’s our Dee-di never here anymore?” And from Lucinda: “Mom, why doesn’t Dee-di visit us like he used to?” And from me (faintly sarcastic): “Guess he’s still reading the N & O—the paper he ‘never finishes.’?”

Of course, our questions were only rhetorical, and I suppose were meant to be, since for a long time we had resented the old man’s unannounced visits, which could occur at almost any moment throughout the year—a Tuesday night, say, around eight, or, more often, a Sunday noon or midafternoon. When we’d hear the slow, familiar scraping of shoes on the carport doormat, Mother would whisper, “Oh, God, can’t he at least phone?” and then retreat to the old brown couch in the den, shut the sliding door, and switch on the television. And Lucinda would rush up the stairs to her room and shut and lock the door behind her.

That would leave me alone to greet the old man, since I’d often be sitting on the couch in the living room, before the coffee table, or at the table in the kitchen, immersed in studying or reading. (My room, unlike Lucinda’s, had no heat vents and so was always slightly chill, even in spring and fall. And in summer, not a breath of breeze fluttered the curtains of the two open windows: the prevailing wind, north in summer, blew from Lucinda’s side of the house.) So before I could rise and make my escape—to somewhere besides my room, Grandfather would have already, without knocking, opened the unlocked or locked carport door (he had his own key) and stepped inside, “Si vales, valeo; bonum est, Mr. Lockhart,” rasping out of his mouth—softly if he saw me in the kitchen, louder if, peering up the small hallway, he saw me on the living room sofa. Dutifully (yet resentfully), I’d rise from wherever I was and welcome the old man inside. I’d ask him to sit at the kitchen table and pour him some coffee and ice water. Then he’d make idle chatter: about Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and “what a mess it all was;” or the recent “ill fortunes” of the Carolina football team; or the local politician Kidd Brewer’s conviction for bid-rigging and that “scandalous going-in party” at his fancy house on top of a hill by the Durham highway—and so on, ad nauseam. After a half hour or so, I’d rise and show him out, bidding him an orotund (and faintly sarcastic) farewell, “Ave atque vale, Dr. Claudius.” But by July’s end of that library summer, not one of us ever mentioned his odd and mysterious absence—such relief we, especially I, must have felt!

I wondered then—but without the words—and I wonder now, three decades later, whether it was some shaming and tense conflict that kept Grandfather away that summer.

As my “Dee-di”—that warm, familiar name—he must have known the sheer shimmering pleasure Camp Durant granted me in the summer: the teaching (especially the nature merit badges), and the Osceola “outdoor drama,” and the neat staff uniforms with their bright neckerchiefs, and the camp ritual of flag-raising-and-lowering, and at ten at night Perry Como’s Lord’s Prayer followed by the bugled “Taps” played on scratchy 78s through old horn-shaped speakers atop Campbell Lodge—and, more than anything, just the place—the pine-smells and the clay-smells and the skies ever-seeming blue—and that gracefully angular lake from which a breeze never seemed to cease! And yes, it was a pleasure I’m sure he shared with me every Wednesday night when he’d drive Grandmother and Mother and Lucinda to the performances of “my” Vision of the Sun. (Indeed, he never missed a show, except for the single rainout we had that summer of ’65.)

But as Claude Alexander Woodall, M.D., Colonel, United States Army, Retired, and in ’66, Chief of the Tuberculosis Control Division of the North Carolina State Board of Health (his second career, since ’48), he must have been so glued to a “conscience”—social? Southern? medical?  moral? who knows?—that he found it “necessary” that I not even be tempted into a “regression” from my “cure” by the young males that swarmed the camp mid-June to mid-August.

That tense and shaming conflict must have led to such twisting agony in him he had to ignore it—or explode in one of the outbursts of temper Mother had so often told me about.  So to keep his mind off it, he decided to stay away from our house for good—not even stepping on our property or driving down our street. No, on those weeknights and Sundays when he felt restless and homebound, once more wearied by Grandmother’s ceaseless complaints, all he’d rather do was either stay homebound—and read the newspaper over and over and watch a Yankees game on television (and, later, the Redskins and ACC basketball) and read extra rolls of lung X-rays—or on Saturdays and Sundays, go out to breakfast and lunch at the Broiler, then take the Hillsboro Street eight-block walk to the Capitol and back.

To make sure I wouldn’t see him any more than I had to, beginning the Monday after that aborted camp Sunday, the Monday I was “officially” hired at Olivia Raney as a “circulation assistant,” and ending September 10, the day before I moved to Chapel to begin my freshman year (so I could avoid, for the first time ever, the family’s annual Labor Day week’s vacation in Morehead City), I volunteered (and was permitted) to work all the additional shifts. So besides the eight-to-five schedule Monday through Friday, I worked six to nine at night, having wolfed a hamburger and fries from the old Capitol vendor in his kiosk—whirled ever about by pigeons, his “friends,” as he’d call them. And I worked one to five Saturdays and Sundays. To avoid our ten o’clock mass at Our Lady of Lourdes (and the certainty I’d see Grandfather when Mother would pick up Grandmother), I lied the library had begun to “experiment” with “extended hours” on Sundays, staying open nine to one, and I simply had to be there—there was no one else.

Mother raised an eyebrow, but she apparently believed me, and because so few buses ran on Sundays, she even drove me before church to the nondescript concrete building at the end of Hillsboro Street, within sight of the Capitol. She let me out, sighing, “Oh, Locky, I hope you don’t lapse.” (From being a practicing Catholic, she meant.) And then she drove home.

I had been entrusted with the key, and not five minutes after entering (and locking) the door behind me, hoping in terror no other employee would come in Sunday mornings, I found, under the 700s, a book on college wrestling, flipped to a photo of two young men demonstrating the “figure-four,” dropped my body to the old, stained, musty carpet and fist under my fly, stared at the taut, tubular bulge in the crotch of the pinned wrestler’s tight training pants. I rubbed away until in a minute (likely less), I groaned, then felt the warm jets filling my briefs.

Then, until one in the afternoon, I went out and wandered the nearly empty downtown streets, my whole body radiant with pleasure, even when it showered and I had to carry an umbrella. (Of course, I stayed away from Hillsboro Street, where I might chance meeting Grandfather on his after-lunch walk from the Broiler to the Capitol and back.)

One Sunday near the end of July, I wandered as far as the warehouse district near West Street, and much to my surprise (and conspiratorial delight), I passed, strolling toward me on the other side of West, Dr. Aldred in a tight T-shirt and tight, faded Levis and hiking boots. He walked beside a man about his age—similarly dressed but long-haired and mustachioed: a faint resemblance of the Marlboro Man in the magazines and on highway billboards. Without stopping, Dr. Aldred waved at me and lilted, “Hi, Lock! Happy Sun-day!” His companion, even handsomer than he, and more “butch,” waved as well but said nothing. After they passed me, I heard Dr. Aldred mumble something and then the two laugh, good-naturedly. I felt certain he was telling his friend about my “case” and all similar “cases”, “incurable absolutely, if there’s really any ‘illness’ to be cured,” having said the same to me on our last day of therapy—and having said besides, “Let’s just record you’re cured. I’ll  note that now, in writing.” And I was certain he was also telling his friend what I had heard him say so often in the year of my Dix visits, “As you and I and all of us know, who know Dorothy!”

 

On a  late-August Saturday morning my mother read in the newspaper—“God, on the front page!” she said, fretfully—that Dr. Aldred had been arrested by an undercover policeman for a “crime against nature” in one of the decrepit, empty warehouses along West Street. There was a sheepish photo of him beside the article, his wrists in handcuffs, an expressionless policeman leading him away from the “scene of the crime.” That twilight, after a tense and silent supper, Mother asked me into her room, shut and locked the door behind her, and burst out in her angry-hysterical way, “That lying son-of a-bitch per-vert! Hardly a ‘cure,’ as you put it! And straight to your grandfather’s face, who’s never told a lie in his life! And that lying note to Mr. Holliday! I’m glad Dee-di had the sense to take you out of that camp! That per-vert didn’t molest you, did he?” And on and on—eventually comparing me and Dr. Aldred and even all “homosexuals” to my “lying son-of-a-bitch psychopathic father!” When I heard this last, I lost all control and shouted, “Goddamn bitch,” and started beating on her shoulders, and she beat back on mine, then cried, “You hurt me, you per-vert crazy! You’ve always belonged in Dix! I wish I’d had you committed years ago! God!”

Shouting, “Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!” and weeping uncontrollably—in that deep, wrenched, down-in-the-lungs way of the girl in the Kent State photograph—I ran out of her room and out of the house and down Kittrell to Fallon Park. By the trickling creek there, in the dimming twilight, I sat on a stone and wept on, thinking once more of the solitary “lying-son-of-a-bitch-psychopathic-father” fate that now seemed more than ever to lie ahead of me. Suddenly I remembered I’d heard—perhaps from Kenny?—that Fallon Park was called “Fellatio Park” by the Raleigh homosexuals, and I went silent, felt a surge below my belt, and glanced carefully around the circular lawn fringed with pines, a single, large weeping willow in the center of it. In my wild-desperate imagination (out of a longing for some warmth, some loving), I thought I saw a guy my age standing by the willow, staring at me—but it was only a pine sapling shaped curiously like a person, and I realized I was alone in “Fellatio Park” and took the slow walk back to my house. After that night, Mother never mentioned Dr. Aldred or my therapy again. As for Dr. Aldred, I read a brief notice in the obituaries of his suicide a week later. He had obviously been fired from Dix and his license to practice had been taken away. So drained I was, I couldn’t even weep, just crumpled the newspaper page and threw it in the trash.

 

Of course, I digress—but out of necessity here.

 

Returning to my library Sundays: I couldn’t very well lie that Olivia Raney stayed open Sunday nights (though how wished it were so!): no one, not even Lucinda and Grandmother, would believe that. So I was forced to endure the Sunday suppers in my grandparents’ ornate dining room. During that two-hour torture, and especially during the few minutes Grandfather and I sat alone at the table (while Grandmother and the maid Miss Mary and Lucinda and Mother cleared away the dishes and prepared dessert), we never said a word to each other. He’d flip his dessert spoon over and over or slip his pocket watch out of his suit trousers and glance at it and slip it back in again. And I’d just stare silently at the wide mirror above the sideboard, seeing the long, gaunt, expressionless face with the high forehead and the short, bangs-combed-to-the-side “Oxford” haircut, the chin and cheekbones prominent, a deep dimple chin-center—except for the haircut, the “spitting” image of my dead, “deadbeat,” “whoring,” “lying,” “psychopathic” father.

 

These Sunday tortures ended—thankfully!—on the mid-September Sunday I was driven to Chapel Hill for my freshman year. That afternoon, I was driven not by Grandfather in his Chrysler but by Mother in her Falcon. I had asked Mother to drive me on the specious grounds that her car—a compact station wagon nearly half the size of the Chrysler—had more space for my “belongings.” The entire thirty miles along curving Highway 54 was filled with her chatter about my taking “nice” girls to dinner and the movies and the theater, and “rushing” for Kappa Sigma, my grandfather’s fraternity. “He’d be so happy!” she lilted. “You can see his picture on the living room wall—oh, so young! He took me there when I was twenty and we visited Aunt Peggy. She was housemother for a girl’s dorm—oh, God—what—? Yes, Cobb Hall, that was it. You remember Aunt Peggy, don’t you, Locky? I took you to see her when you were twelve. That old colored woman shouted, ‘Man on the hall!’ And all those doors slammed shut. God, you were just twelve and ‘Man on the Hall!’ Tickles me to death . . . . ” And on she went, in her socialite’s wandering way. For a time, I would look at her and nod politely or say, “Yes, that’s true,” or, “Yes, I remember”—but without enthusiasm. Then, as we started that long, curving climb to The Hill, I went silent and just stared out the window—at the old stucco Brady’s Restaurant and then at the oak trees and the old elegant houses rushing by. Without seeming to notice, she chattered on.

 

Just before dark, I was alone, sitting at a scratched, wobbly table—my “desk”—in my third-floor room of Old East Dormitory. I was writing my obligatory letter to Mother: that I thanked her “immensely” for driving me over; that I was “looking forward” to seeing her and Lucinda “Saturday morning, around eleven”; but that, “to my great regret and with my deepest apologies to Grandfather and Grandmother,” I’d have to miss their “Sunday supper for this weekend and for many weekends in the foreseeable future”; that I had “no choice otherwise,” since, from my “recent inquiries” at the Chapel Hill bus station, I had learned no buses left from Raleigh to The Hill Sunday evening and “I must, therefore, return at four in the afternoon.”

Of course, in my resolve to avoid those Sunday suppers, I was lying, and I knew Mother would write back in complaint, trying to twinge me with guilt:

 

Dear Locky,

Your Grandfather will miss you so! And all your life, practically, you and he were so close! And you know good and well you’d have no daddy at all if it weren’t for him [and so on and so forth].

 

But I also knew she’d not bother to check the bus schedules—so I’d be free at last from those Sunday horrors—no, those prickling, eye-averting shames—at least until Thanksgiving, Christmas, the semester break in January, and the Easter holidays in spring. I was certain I could endure those few Sunday shames—or even find a way to escape them altogether.

 

You may be wondering why I did not—would not—choose to stay on campus most of weekend (Saturday afternoons and, as it turned out, Sunday mornings and afternoons)—why, in fact, I had decided on that course of action as far back as high school graduation. From the stories I’d heard from Broughton classmates with older siblings at Chapel Hill, I’d learned the dormitories on weekends were loud with blaring stereos and drunken partying, despite the “official” prohibition of alcoholic beverages. (The residence hall “advisors,” themselves college boys, just “looked the other way” and joined in the partying and drinking.)  I’d heard, too, of the horrid sounds and smells of twenty or thirty boys vomiting at once in the dormitory lavatories Sunday mornings, each of them “hugging his own toilet.” Ugh! There was no way I’d stay on campus—even in the library or classroom buildings, which, nearly empty on weekends, I feared would so depress me I couldn’t concentrate or I’d drowse into long naps and jerk awake again.

 

Losing my resolve for a moment, I shuddered with guilt and was about to toss the letter to Mother into the waste basket and compose another: that “I would indeed be present for Sunday supper, as the last bus left for Chapel Hill at nine.” But then, remembering those awkward, shame-prickling August silences between Grandfather and me, I quickly, with a barely legible scrawl, finished the letter, “Your loving son, Lock,” then folded it and slid it into one of the envelopes Mother had packed for me, sealed it with a sour tongue, licked one of the FDR stamps from a book of them she’d handed me when we’d arrived, fingered it skewed and upside down onto the left corner of the envelope, then strode downstairs and much relieved, my guilt vanished like a lake mist at dawn, slid the envelope into the mail chute.

 

From Sunday until Wednesday, when classes would start, I had the room to myself, and I thought—with relief—I’d have no roommate, I’d been overlooked somehow. But Wednesday, around eight in the morning, just after I’d packed the big briefcase with my texts for Latin 21, Botany 101, and Modern Civilization, came a hard, quick rapping at the latched door, and then a sharp kick on the wood and a nasal voice, “Hey, I’m your roommate, man, whoever thou art!”

I strode to the latch and slid it back and opened the door, and with a sharp catch of breath that no one could fail to notice, I saw this handsome, thick-lipped, black-curly-haired hippie around my age, in tight, patched, pale-blue Levis, wide leather belt, and black, faded T-shirt with the peace symbol pressed on it—you, know, the ☮—but this one a brilliant sun yellow. And under the symbol, two bright red masks were pressed side by side on the shirt—the Thespian faces, smiling and grieving, of comedy and tragedy. An old, patched, olive-drab knapsack hung down his back, strapped tightly to his broad shoulders. What made him look even handsomer—“more gorgeous” are the words—was what seemed a three-day growth of black along his jaw line and over his cheeks and upper lip and dimpled chin. A wide, white-toothed grin spread over his face as he reached out his hand to shake mine. I gripped it at first dutifully, weakly, as I’d grip Grandfather’s, but when he tightened his own grip and I saw the veins in his hairy forearm stand out, I tightened mine and felt myself harden pleasurably—down there. (And I felt at once shame and fear he had noticed it and would snatch his hand away and yell, spit flying, “Get the fuck away from me, faggot!”) But he said, his voice deep, clear, warm, “Hey, man, I’m Victor—Victor Katz—Jew-boy from Charleston.”

“Lockhart—Lockhart Elledge, I said hoarsely, nearly whispering, still gripping tightly the warm, powerful hand. “But people call me Lock—which is fine.”

“Hey—looks like I woke you up. Sorry, man,” and his grin rounded into an o of concern.

“Oh, no, I said,” putting on my mother’s social cheeriness as we released our grip. “Since no one showed up by Monday, I just didn’t expect anyone—certainly not—”

“Well,” he interrupted, with a grin and a wink, “you got him now—a good ole Charleston Jew-boy hippie!”—and then, laughing, “God, this room hasn’t changed since eighteen sixty five!”

I felt so relieved he’d interrupted me before I could finish—could say what I so longed to say but hadn’t yet had the courage—or maybe downright audacity—to do so: “I just didn’t expect anyone as absolutely gorgeous as you!”

He was just now slinging his old knapsack onto the floor at the foot of his bed. Then he just flopped on the bare, striped mattress, and laying his curly hair on the bare, striped pillow, he closed his thick-lidded eyes. In a minute I could hear his slow, even breaths of sleep.

As if in a waking dream, I sat before my desk, and for the five minutes or so before Latin class, I just stared out the high, open window, my eyes fixed on the round, copper-crowned Venus temple of the Old Well, its old, wrought-iron water fountain in the center, its base fringed with bunches of yellow and pink and white chrysanthemums. Every so often, a boy in shorts and T-shirt, shouldering a knapsack, or a sorority-looking girl in a “stylish” dress and blouse, holding her books to her chest, would step into the temple and drink from the fountain. A strange, warm wave of delight spread through me, foot to crown, and I whispered, in wonder, “Lock, you’re free. Free as Victor. Free as those students drinking from Venus herself.”

Before I could stay longer in this new delight, I saw it was three of nine on the desk clock, and rising and gripping up the big briefcase, I rushed out of the room and down the flights of stairs and into the cool shade of the quadrangle. And I joined the hundreds of students—some sauntering sleepy eyed, some, like me, striding fast—to their nine-clock classes in Murphy or Saunders or Bingham or Dey.

After supper, alone in my room (Victor had gone out to do laundry), I sat again before my desk and once more gazed with tingling joy at the quadrangle and Old Well—soft and silent now in the Chapel Hill twilight. I suddenly smelled the slightly bitter scent of chrysanthemums closer by. I glanced to my left and saw a large pot of yellow ones on Victor’s desk. They seemed to glow in the darkening room.

 

“Lord, Lord, it’s still there, that old billboard, ‘Welcome to Johnston County! This is Klan Country!’” Grandfather laughed, abrupting me out of the soft, still, twilit room scented with that pot of chrysanthemums and back into the wind-rushing, pine-and-old-man-smelling Chrysler. As we whipped past the billboard, I could just glimpse a white hood on someone’s head and a cartoonish torch held above it. In a few seconds, we crossed the Neuse River bridge and entered Smithfield, that town so full of Aunt Venice and Uncle Merrick and the origin of Venice’s mantra, “How’s your love life?” that I began to tremble inwardly as we started down Market Street, flanked by the old courthouse (with the Confederate monument in front of it) and then by the various stores—Barefoot’s Hardware, Woolworth’s, Rose’s, Ruth’s Café, and more: the usual sorts of shops along string-straight, coastal plain main streets.

May 26, 2011

Common Ferrell, A Novella

Filed under: literary fiction — Lee Titus Elliott @ 3:20 pm
Tags: , ,

COMMON FERRELL

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.

 

I

 

Whenever I am driving alone at night, speeding in anger down some broken country blacktop flanked with dark pines and claybanks and here and there paired strands of barbed wire stretched taut between black posts (and I do this often of late, after squalling quarrels with my wife, loud tirades at my young son, ulcerous days at the newspaper where I edit copy in a clattering room), there comes a moment, perhaps an hour into the drive, when his name suddenly wells up in me, “Ferrell Marston,” like the groan of some wounded animal, and I slow the car and calm myself and, seeming soon to float, to drift, to fall deeper and deeper into an ever more mournful night, I begin to remember as clear and wincing as in a mirror that weekend of twenty years ago when he stayed with us on Bogue Sound.

It was the very core of August 1963. I fourteen. I went down on a Friday afternoon with my grandparents, mother, and sister to our beach cottage in Morehead City. Ferrell Marston was to meet us there and stay with us our two weeks, sleeping with me in the little back room that faced the street. He came all right—drove the whole hundred miles from Brogden in his own car, arriving before we did. I remember he didn’t grip Grandfather’s proffered hand, didn’t help us carry in the luggage, didn’t even grunt to Mother when she called out brightly how was his trip. He just sat hunched and sullen on his car hood, chewing something and leaning over now and again to spit it on the grass. When I came out of the cottage for the last suitcase, he slouched up to me, carrying shoulder-slung a grease-stained pillow case lumpy with clothes, and muttered, “Where’s muh room?” When I told him, “My room, you’ll be sleeping with me,” and showed him inside and pointed it out, he slouched into it without a word and let the spring door slam behind him.

He stayed there the rest of the afternoon and all through supper—“just trip-worn out, the poor baby,” Mother “supposed.” After dessert I told everyone I was “worn out” myself and asked to “be excused,” and, skipping our twilight “porch-sit,” came in the room and found him asleep on the big rollaway bed we were to share. Out of long habit I reached for the dresser drawer at the foot of the bed, to pull out pajamas and change into them. But then I heard his faint whistling snore and I turned and saw he lay sprawled in his clothes over the white sheet, like some brown animal or other, and I told myself I was too tired to change—“just exhausted,” as Mother would sigh after a hard day at the newspaper—and so in shorts and T-shirt I eased into a space between him and the window and lay back on a pillow at his feet.

Even now, twenty years later, I can smell that cramped twilit room: the damp mildewed mattress and sour pillow, the mothball smell of my grandparents’ old clothes hanging in dark bags in the doorless closet, the faint kerosene of the bulky heat-stove stored for the summer in a corner by the door, the faintly sweet scents of crepe myrtle blossoms borne in on a land breeze through the window propped open by a stick. And there was Ferrell’s odor, too: a sharp compound of sweat and motor oil and burnt cigarettes. I remember how, the moment I lay on the mattress, I arched my back and took a slow deep breath of him. I held it a moment like an exotic smoke, and then slowly exhaled, shivering with a mysterious pleasure. Aroused, I sat up then and leaned back on my elbows and looked him all over.

Though two years older than me, he looked just my size and build, five-four, one-ten. But he was different in every other way. For one thing, there was the whistling snore and the animal-like sprawl over the white sheet, his arms thrown carelessly above his head and bent sharply at the elbows. I slept with my hands at my sides or clasped between my legs—“like a sweet little boy, when he wants to be,” as Mother would say—and my breaths would come as clear and quiet as a gentle breeze—or so Mother said. And he wore faded blue-jean cutoffs streaked with grease and a wrinkled khaki workshirt with the sleeves scissored off. I wore a light green T-shirt so new the creases still showed, and my shorts were pearl-colored Bermudas of polished cotton. And he was dark as a tobacco leaf, and wiry, and had little biceps that stuck out hard and round as walnuts even as he slept. My skin was so Scot-fair it never tanned, just burned, and even when I’d flex, my arm muscles would barely show, still sheathed in child-fat. His face was different, too: narrow, pinched, chinless, with a flat squashed-looking nose like a brown mushroom, and cheeks that were hollow and berried with acne. My face was round as the moon, and child-chubby, freckled all over. His hair bristled up in short black tufts, some of them smeared down with a kind of grease. My hair was a thick blonde haystack that was always tangly, especially when I’d sweat.

From my pillow, I played a childish game. A little round dressing mirror with flecks of rust around the rim hung downtilted on the wall above his head. I stared up into it and watched my face a moment, then stared down at his face and then up into the mirror again. I squinted hard: sprouted short black tufts on my head, hollowed my cheeks, squashed my nose, turned all my freckles into clumps of purple acne. Then I raised my right arm until it showed in the mirror and, squinting still, tanned it dark as tobacco and flexed up a hillock on it with a thick vein twisting purple along the ridge. I held the pose till my arm hurt and then relaxed it and looked down at him and, squinting still, whispered, “What’s he thinking—dreaming?” I strained hard to see it—his dream and maybe my dream, too. I strained until my eyes ached but couldn’t picture it or even find words for it. There was only the purple-blotched brown of his pinched face and the black-brown-khaki-palebluejean blur of the rest of him, and the soft whistling snore, and that sharp smell of sweat and motor oil and burnt cigarettes.

It came to me suddenly that knowing his dream was not possible, not now anyway, for I knew nearly nothing about him, and so I relaxed my eyes and lay back on the pillow and stared at the cracks in ceiling.

I began to think how the whole drive down from Raleigh that afternoon—and for a long time before that—he’d been hardly more than a name to me—some cousin from a side of the family we never “had much to do with” (as Grandfather would say) except at the funerals of relatives where Grandfather would raise his hat at them and speak politely. His mother, I remembered, was Aunt Emily, Grandfather’s little sister, twenty years his junior. She had married a man “out of her class,” as Grandfather said. “The fellah” was a Raeford Marston, one of a dirt-farm family out of Brogden who raced cars on the weekends. Hardly the big-time Pettys or Yarboroughs—“not by a long shot,” Grandfather’d snort—they’d twice a year go to the junk yards and buy beat-up cars that wouldn’t run—big Fords and Buicks and Plymouths and Chevys (and in later years, when I was eighteen and nineteen and twenty, Challengers, GTOs, Chevelles, Malibus) and tow them to Smithfield and the tin-roofed sheds they’d rented behind a Gulf station down on the river. There they’d sand out the dents and paint the bodies bright colors, bolt in big V-8s with double carburetors, install special shocks and racing gears and stabilizers, and, for dragsters, jack the rear ends onto fat tires. In short, they’d do all they could to “modify,” as Grandfather would chuckle. And when they’d finished with their “souped up” Ford or “hot” ’57 Chevy, they’d rev it up and “blow out the carbon” and then tow it to the dirt tracks or dragstrips near towns like Warsaw, Wilson, Turkey.

And Grandfather had to hand it to them: in spite of all their violence and quite often irresponsible behavior, some of them alcoholics even (the crazy kind, not the melancholy), they did right well for themselves, considering, two brothers and a sister winning a respectable number of dirt-track races all over the state and even Virginia. But Aunt Emily, poor unlucky girl, was doomed to marry Uncle Raeford, the middle brother, who never won a thing, never placed even, kept blowing tires or engines, or another car would swipe him and he’d wreck too bad to finish. “In childish rage,” Grandfather “supposed”—one could “never tell about those people”—Uncle Raeford would buy “gallons” of cheap wine and “go on a bender for a day or two and become so ill your poor Aunt Emily would have to drive him to Cherry to dry out.”

Suddenly in the little room I remembered the June Sunday when I was nine and Grandfather was driving me out to his farm in Johnston County. We had just arrived in Smithfield and were stopped at the long traffic light a little beyond the Neuse River bridge. For a moment it was all still around us, as only a Sunday can be still. Then suddenly, very loud, we heard the deep guttural roars of a car engine being gunned, over and over, in steady rhythm. Smiling faintly, Grandfather flung a veined hand out his window and waved back behind us toward the river. “It’s from down there, Lunsford,” he said, and I twisted around in my seat and looked where he pointed and saw, behind an old abandoned-looking Gulf station, three tin-roofed sheds set in a row under some sycamores. The yard around them was white dirt splotched with oil, and scattered over it were all sorts of engine parts shiny with grease. Facing the sheds squatted three dragstrip ’57 Chevys, rears jacked up, hoods painted brightly with ads for auto parts. From the rear of the middle car surged two white streams of exhaust as the roaring went on in harsh gusts, steady, rhythmic, insistent. Still waving, Grandfather said, in a tone half-droll, half-contemptuous, “That’s your little old Uncle Raeford down there, blowing out his carbon. He’s that fellah your Aunt Emily married. I don’t believe you’ve met those people.”

“Are they trash, Dee-di?” I remembered asking, for no other reason than that I’d never met real trash before—hookworm, ‘backa-spittin’, hog-wallering trash—and trash, I thought then (from the way Grandfather had kept me from his tenants, telling me to stay in the car while he went to the house to talk “business”) was about the worst thing a man could be in Grandfather’s eyes—worse than a “dead-beat” even.

“No, they’re just common,” he said, snorting over the word, and the light clicked green at last, and we drove on.

For a long time after that, remembering his contemptuous snort, I thought Grandfather merely scorned such people—would give them a “wide berth” if a crowd of them came toward him on a walk. But I learned his attitude was far different—puzzling even—when Aunt Emily came to visit him the Sunday before our vacation and asked him if Ferrell could stay with us our two weeks at the beach. Grandfather had invited me over to meet her—just why, I never knew—and so I sat out the thirty minutes in his blind-darkened living room and heard her whole story.

It seemed Uncle Raeford had blown an engine “over Wilson” and “in sorrow” had gone on a bender, a week this time, and had “got so dreadful sick” she’d had to drive him “clear on up to Butner” to dry out, and so “the homelife was in a mess,” what with Emily having to work night shift at the blanket factory and wait tables in the daytime and “the husband laid out and all.”

Once more, as I lay in the cramped twilit room, I could hear in memory her high-voiced and diffident murmuring while she sat on the Queen Anne sofa, among the oriental screens and Colonial secretary and Dresden cupids, and asked Grandfather if, considering “all what done come on us,” there’d be room for Ferrell, her only “young ‘un,” in the cottage at first, and then in the old servants’ quarters in my grandparents’ basement, “until the homelife settled down.” He could sleep “most anywheres,” on the floor even. “Bein’ a little ‘un, like your grandson yonder” (she faced me briefly, then looked at her lap) “he don’t take up a whole lot of space.”

When she finished, Grandfather, who had been standing over her, hands on hips, now and again wincing at her words (“quite harsh with the common idiom,” he later told me), turned abruptly to the Windsor chair where I sat catercorner to them both, the point of a triangle. Hands on hips still, he took a long deep breath and then sighed it out, very slowly, whispering “Lord! Lord! Lord!” and shaking his head. Then he shrugged at me, as if to say, “Lunsford, what do you do with these ‘common’?” I didn’t know how to answer him, so I just shrugged back, faintly, and he faced Emily again and, hands on hips, put on this sad weary smile and said, “Sure, Emily, we’d be glad to have him. I don’t see why we can’t be of service to you. He can sleep on the sofa, or on the porch, or even in the little room. I’m sure Lunsford wouldn’t mind. They’ll get along just fine. You tell him to drive on down and meet us there. We Hilliards are at your service. We know how it is, Emily.”

Shoulders slumped, eyes on her lap, Emily murmured her thanks and then flinched up and looked away from him, in my general direction. Her face had the ugliest scowl I had ever seen on a woman. But I only caught a flicker of it, for when she saw me staring at her, she bent her head again, murmured shyly, “Thank y’all, William. We sure do ‘preciate it,” and then lurched up from the sofa, gave a fierce tug at the waist of her house dress, and walked rapidly into the hallway. Grandfather shrugged faintly at me, and then I rose and we followed after her, arriving at the door just in time to show her out.

In Grandfather’s words to her I didn’t think it was scorn I’d heard at all—not even the faintest mockery. There seemed at the time just pity in his tone, a genuine compassion, though a little sad and weary. He was just showing kindness to kin gone wrong and in distress, was just doing his duty to comfort and succor them like any aristocratic southerner who felt strong ties of blood. And yet, even then, as I watched Emily hurry down the front steps and get into her old humpbacked Buick, I wondered (but only briefly) if it weren’t something in the expression of Grandfather’s pity—the weariness or the sadness—or even the pity itself—that had brought that scowl to her face, a scowl so sudden and violent that even she must have been shocked by it and so hid it when she caught me watching her. I remembered how after she drove away, I told Grandfather I had to “be excused” and went to the upstairs bathroom and out of some impulse I couldn’t account for looked in the mirror above the sink and tried to mimic that scowl. I wrenched my mouth into the ugliest look I could imagine at fourteen, and then I stared on it and whispered, “It’s like she’d swallowed Draino, but without expecting it.” My stomach coiled tight as a rope being twisted and I felt a sudden wave of nausea. I flicked eyes from the mirror, and when the nausea passed, I ran downstairs for a Coke.

Suddenly, now, here, a week later and 150 miles away, Ferrell’s leg twitched beside me, like a dog having a dream. I felt it quiver on my ribs and then remembered Emily’s scowl—that ugly flicker—and shuddered and flinched away, slid up toward the window as far as I could. From there I looked back at him, saw his leg twitch again, smelled his harsh odor, and in a sudden rapture, as if I had been put under the spell of twilight and that oil-smelling room and that brown-muscled presence of Ferrell—not a cousin really, or even a boy or a person with name and attributes, but some dark brute force for which I had no name as yet—I whispered the word common over and over, slowly, savoring the dark resonant hum of it—common common common—all the while thinking not of Grandfather’s “Lord! Lord! Lord!” whispered in weary pity, but (and these so clear and sharp in memory I could almost hear them over the crickets outside) the deep rhythmic roars of the ’57 dragster Uncle Raeford was blowing the carbon out of that June Sunday in Smithfield stillness. I felt a strange spine-thrilling power in those roars—a force all the more sweet and alluring because angry, violent, dangerous. And so for a moment I longed for Ferrell’s twitches, yearned to feel again their hard quivering. And I suppose I would have slid back down to bed-center if I hadn’t again remembered Emily’s scowl flickering over her face. I shuddered with revulsion, as if I’d tasted something rotten, and wrenched from Ferrell and poked my nose out the window and pressed it against the screen. I shut eyes, to squeeze that scowl away, and then, to keep it away, began to recall our little summer ritual of all the Fridays before this one. I remembered it in detail so bright and clear I felt a strange sweet ache, as if part of it had already been lost to me.

We’d always arrive in late afternoon, a little past five, when shadows had begun to lengthen on the lawns, when Bogue Sound would be glittering in the canting sunlight, fresh with whitecaps in a southerly wind. In Grandfather’s white Chrysler we’d come bumping down 16th Street with its ruts and grey sand and white bits of shells, and just as we passed the cottonwood tree beside Mr. Guthrie’s blue bungalow, the leaves all shining in the wind, there it would appear before us, in the middle of the brown-green lawn, our little summer refuge! Grandfather would sigh gruffly, “There’s the old place, yessir, old Bogue Rest.” And then Grandmother would whine, half complaining, half in relief, “My, such a long trip. You made good time, Billy.” And Mother and Clara would sing, “Here we are in More-head! La la la-la la!”—Clara piping sweetly above Mother’s husky contralto. As for me, I’d never speak aloud my pleasure: I’d just poke my head out the rolled down window and whisper over and over, into the wind, “Glory eternal! Glory eternal!”

I suppose “glory eternal” came to my tongue because the view would have emerged once more unblemished, uncluttered, unchanged, like a treasured print that hangs for years above your bed. On our slow gently bumpy approach down the last block of 16th Street (which dead-ended at the Sound), I’d gaze with goosebumped delight on that plain narrow little cottage with its shining tin roof and red stub of brick chimney, its light-grey clapboards and shutters yellow as primroses, its shingle-roofed “stoop” that faced the sandy dead-end and sent down a black wrought-iron railing and three red-brick stair steps into the grass. (The screened porch was hidden from us, as it faced the Sound, but in the Chrysler I could picture it keen as daylight: the white balusters slender and faintly bowed, the wide floorboards the coolest and darkest green you can imagine, the broad screen wavering with little whistles in the wind.) I’d watch with especial delight the hydrangea bushes that grew high and thick along the street side of the house, their tips brushing the sills of the four windows. All summer long, I remembered, they were filled with big hearty blossoms, as blue as the veins on Grandfather’s hands.

As soon as Grandfather pulled up by the stoop, we’d emerge glad-groaning from the heat of the car and stretch with little sighs of pleasure in the rough breeze. Then we’d set to lugging in the suitcases and the ice chest and Grandmother’s sacks and boxes of food. We’d have hardly arrived in our rooms before Mother would start dragging the wicker furniture and wooden rockers out to the porch. After unpacking and setting our rooms in order, we’d eat Grandmother’s snack-supper of potato salad and cold cuts and then go out to the porch and sit in the wicker chairs and white wooden rockers and watch twilight ease into night.

Around eight o’clock, the wind would fade to fitful breaths, the Sound waves into a gentle shushing, and the banks lights would begin to blink on, a few at a time. By full dark there’d be a whole swarm of them far to our right, sending down little eels of glimmering over the Sound. That swarm marked the Amusement Park with its rides and mini-golf and beer bars, where Marines would go Saturday nights, on leave from Cherry Point. In the center of the banks, straight across from us, shone scattered street lamps and the dim lights of cottages. If we stared long enough in that direction (and if we felt in the mood Clara and I would make a game of this, to see who could find it first), we could see the faint glow in the cupola of the Dunes Club where we’d go next morning. To our left, going toward banks-end, the lights grew scarcer, diminishing slowly to blackness. That blackness was Fort Macon, a state park of beach and dunes and a Civil War fort sunk into the ground. Some evenings we’d roast wieners there and Clara and I would tour the fort afterwards, shouting with delight through the dark and echoing rooms.

Mid-Sound stood a flash beacon to mark the channel. A little into full dark Clara and I would be sitting in the rockers, side by side, and we would rock in time to the flashes and count them aloud—six flashes, then a pause, then six again. Often a barge and tugboat would float by, far out in the channel, behind the beacon. It would move soundlessly awhile, and then its horn would sound three long moans. Grandfather would take up his binoculars from the wicker table and fit them to his eyes and, as if on cue, we would all gaze to our right and down the dark reach and see the tiny green lights strung along the girders of the drawbridge a mile away. We’d hear a little siren and then the tinkling of a little bell—all very faint in the offing—and then the bridge would begin to revolve. Goosebumped with bliss, we’d watch the green lights swing out slowly over the Sound.

These nights our talk would be fitful and relaxed, the trivial, desultory chit-chat of families on vacation. From Grandmother, slapping at her wrists, we’d hear sighed complaints about mosquitoes and holes in the screen; from Mother, our “plans” for tomorrow in detailed and patient enumeration, a list that would end with her wailing, “Aren’t we having a goooood tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime?” From Grandfather we’d hear rumbled facts of Fort Macon—bits of history and anecdote. If a full moon had risen and now floated high before us, straight out over the Sound, Clara would sing, rocking slowly in her chair, “Pretty moon! White little moon! Little lamp glowing so fair!”—a high hoarse child-song so soft and so frail, so like a breath of crystal, that the rest of us would hold still to hear it.

When her song was over, Mother and Grandmother would light cigarettes and smoke them for a time, orange tips glowing in the dark, and for awhile no one would say a word and we’d hear just crickets and the soft shushing of Sound waves and now and then the burr and whine of a mosquito.

Then would come the stories—first Grandfather’s, then Grandmother’s, then Mother’s, invariably in that order. Grandfather would tell us moody Civil War stories I didn’t like much—about Colonel White, for instance, who was “just a boy of 27" when he commanded Fort Macon. He had serious epilepsy, “poor fellah,” and was “so arrogant” during the battle, abusing his own men, “officers and enlisted alike,” that when the fort was finally captured the Federals had to “spirit him away” and “lock him up” and so guard him from “their rancor” “Free, that poor fellah wouldn’t have survived an hour on the deck of the Alice Price—no sir, he wouldn’t.” And, what was worse for “the poor fellah,” they had to tie him down and post the guards by his own bed, as he’d “yearned” for victory or a glorious death and, having attained neither, sank into “melancholy” and “made attempts” on his life. He died finally, just after the war, of a “grand mal seizure” in Louisiana somewhere.

From Grandmother we’d hear old German legends her mother had told her—of evil Bishop Hatto, for instance, and why rats drove him to a castle on an island in the Rhine. How we’d shiver with pleasure, Clara and I, when she’d tell how Hatto locked up the peasants and fired the building and shrilled (and here she’d put on her “old witch” voice) “Hear! Hear! How the mice squeak!”

Mother would tell us ghost stories she had learned as a Campfire Girl in the ’30’s and, what was scarier, stories of the strange things that happened in the year after her divorce when Clara and I were little and the three of us lived in the cottage. My favorite was her story about the Marine, and when she’d finished “The Golden Arm” or “The Headless Horseman,” I’d ask, boyishly breathless, “Mom, tell us about the Marine!” “Oh, not now, honey,” she’d laugh (meaning—I knew—she was itching to tell it), and so, laughing, I’d plead, “Aw, come on, Shorty—“ (she was five eleven, tall as Grandfather) “—tell us about that old Marine who almost did you in!” And then Clara would join me and we’d plead together, shrieking with laughter, “Tell us about the Marine, Mom, tell us about the Marine! We wanna hear about the Marine!” And at last she’d laugh, “Okay, kiddos, hush now,” and take a long bright-orange drag on her cigarette, slowly sigh out the smoke, and then begin her story in a moaning shivery voice, like a wind through a dark tunnel. She’d tell how it was one March night ten years ago, chilly as December and the wind “mooooooooooaning away,” and all three of us asleep in the cottage, in the big pink corner room with the window that faced the Lockhart’s house next door. Mother and I were in the twin beds, Clara was in her crib, a portable heater glowed in the middle of the room— “baaaaaaaaale-ful-ly,” she laughed in a long witch’s cackle.

Around midnight she was awakened by “this peculiar noise” coming from the Lockhart’s, “apparently.” And the noise went (and she poked at the dark with her glowing weed) clank! (pause) clank! (pause) clank-clank! (pause) clank! “Just like that!” (How Clara and I would shiver in our chairs!)

She knew “good and well” the Lockharts weren’t home (they’d “flown off” to Paris), so what she did next was climb out of bed—“Lord, was it cold!”—and “tippy-toe” to the window and raise the blinds and “peer out.” But she saw “nothing peculiar” and so climbed back in bed, thinking it was a dog in the trash can—“some flea-bitten hound.” But no sooner had she laid her “weary head” on the pillow than clank! (pause) clank! (pause) clank-clank! (pause) clank! came the noise again. “Really anxious” now, she got up again and, slipping on her robe and slippers, left the room and “hurried” for the kitchen, intending to go out to the front stoop where she could “hear properly” and so know whether to call the police. She got all the way to the door, had her hand on the knob, even, and was just—about—to—twiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiist—it (“How awful! Mommy!” Clara and I would shriek with delight—we knew the story by heart) when “baby Clara” woke—“luckily, thank God!”—and began “squalling away” for her milk, and so Mother turned back to nurse her. An hour later she was in bed again, and she “perked up” her ears for the clank! (pause) clank! (pause) clank-clank! (pause) clank! But there was only the wind “moooooooooooooan-moooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooan-mooooooooooooooooooooooooaning” as it blew upon the porch screen and down into the chimney, and she soon fell sound asleep.

Next morning “little gimpy-legged Mr. Guthrie” limped over from his bungalow across Shackleford Street and knocked and told Mother he’d heard a noise last night—“a roit stroynge noise,” Mother mimicked—and so got out of bed “to investigate” and looked out at our cottage and saw on our stoop, in the light of the streetlamp, a man “in service clothes”—a Marine out of Cherry Point, “seemed like” to him—and he was standing beside the door-hinges, his back tight against the wall, so if anyone came out—Mother, for instance—the swung-open door would hide him from her. And clenched in his right hand—Mr. Guthrie saw it “wink” in the streetlight—was just about the biggest pistol he had ever seen—a forty-five, seemed like, and it was “raised up and ready to fire,” near as he could “make out.” (Apparently, as Mr. Guthrie later told Mother, having found it out from some of the neighbors, the Marine was “standing guard” while his buddies, “two or three of ’em,” were tapping the hubcaps off the Lockharts’ Cadillac they’d left canvas-covered under the cedars on the other side of their house.) “And he had that big old pistol pointed right at our door!” Mother would wail, in teasingly piteous alarm. “Exactly where your poor ignorant mother was about to walk out in nothing but her bathrobe and slippers! Bam! Pow! And you’d have been poor little orphans without a home in this world!” At her punch line Clara and I would cover our eyes and squeal, “How awful! Mommy!” and shiver blissfully in our rockers.

Sometimes, in the quiet after her story, a “souped” car would roar from somewhere on the banks, and Mother would crush out her cigarette in the ash tray on the wicker table and remark, her tone fretful now, no longer funny, “Honestly! There go the Marines again! Don’t you be one of them, Lunsford.” And I’d say, dutifully, and even cheerfully, to restore our bantering mood, “No, ma’am, I won’t! I’ll cut my toes off first—like Uncle Harry in Korea.”

(My father had been “one of them”—“an enlisted fellah,” as Grandfather, a retired Colonel, had called him, chuckling. He had fought on Corregidor and at Guadalcanal and been decorated often. He abandoned us when I was three, Clara six months—I didn’t know why and have never really known to this day—and left the Marines and went to live out west somewhere. I had never seen him or heard from him—not a phone call, not a post card, nothing. To me he was only some Marine I should never be and so was seldom on my mind. I had nearly forgotten he had ever existed. Grandfather was my father, pure and simple.)

The stories would go on till ten and then everyone but me would stretch and yawn and go inside to bed.

And then, alone at last, I was free to enter “the moment.”

Not “night moment” or “black moment” or “shadow moment”—nothing with so obvious a name as that. My child’s name for it was “Jigger Moment,” which made no sense at all, of course, and yet seemed right at the time—evoked more palpably than any other name its strange angry power. This “moment” wasn’t a werewolf or Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of thing that would just “come over” me, having emerged suddenly and violently out of the moiling depths of my subconsciousness. I knew what I was doing: my will was alert, keen, focused. Call it a boy’s meditation, if you will, a kind of self-hypnosis when imagination roams free. Or call it just my private little movie I could show myself whenever I wanted. I’d played it Friday nights for three summers running, and it followed the same script, over and over.

First, sitting rigid in the rocker, bent toward the porch screen, legs tensed, arms held stiff-straight out before me, eyes staring wide till they ached, I’d gaze for a time over the water, toward the Amusement Park. Then, very slowly, I’d squint till the swarm of lights blurred to a bright mist that pulsed under my lashes. Then, in the breathless quiet, I’d hear come bursting out of that swarm a flurry of drums and electric guitars, and right after, a wail of old rock and roll—a Buddy Holly tune or “Poison Ivy” or “The Bristol Stomp”—male-sung in quavering falsetto. Then the wail and drums and guitars would die away and I’d hear—first one and then another right after, and then another and another—the hard brawling motors of modified cars, and they’d be soaring in second gear so taut and high I’d moan, “Explode! They’re about to exploooooooooooode!” and legs tensed, mouth wide on my o, I’d wait for the roars, the mushrooms of sparks and flame—what ecstasy! But just at their peak of gear they would loop into high; then, slowing, downshifting, they’d begin to soar again, like wild things in jungle night. Over the summers I’d come to know them so well I’d given them names. There was “The Dynamo,” a taut whine so stretched out to sharpness it could cut an arm off or a leg or a head, even—clean as concertina wire. “Mr. Growler” was a loose heavy motor with a thunderstorm in it that could blow down oaks and warehouses. And there was “The Yowler,” all shrill and wild, like a woman being strangled in a horror movie. My favorite was “The Cat,” a huge thick snarl that ran all the way down my spine—just rasping to eat any old Mr. Guthrie alive.

Hearing them all, one soaring up after another, I felt transformed: I was no longer Lunsford Albright of the Hilliard family but some lone Marine on leave from Cherry Point and come away to the Park for a night of freedom and power—a compact tight-skinned male of twenty or so, with crew-cut head and tight jeans and T-shirt and tattoos of bright red and purple and green and naked women and mermaids and fish and snakes all tangled up together, and my right arm had a ball-shaped muscle that rolled when I raised a cigarette and dragged on it till it glowed orange in the dark, and my chest flared out high and thick over the arm pits, a deep deep cleft down the center—a man alone and wild and free, without mind or conscience, obeying body only. And I’d be over there, that male, in the midst of that swarming light, in a blood-colored Plymouth with gold stripes, gunning it to 80 and 85 and 90 down the straight black road to Fort Macon, and I’d see another car far ahead, its red tail lights glowing at me, daring me, and I’d gain on it till I saw it in my headlights—a Plymouth blood-red and gold-striped, just like mine, the taillights hatefully crimson, taunting me, daring me—and I’d tail it awhile, a half mile maybe, and then swerve out and around and come beside it and with a single hard pull on the wheel knock it into the ditch with an immense scrape and then rocket on down the road, seeing it burst into a great mushroom of flame as I glanced up in my rear-view mirror, and in the rocking chair my heart would beat wildly.

“The Moment” would last ten minutes at most, and then, exhausted, I’d sink back into the rocker and relax my eyes and the banks lights would grow clear and distinct again—little winking points except for the Park’s bright swarm—and I’d see the beacon with its six sure flashes, a pause, then six again, and the wild engine-cries would die away into the swarm of lights and I’d hear only the softly shushing Sound waves and the faint burr and hum of a mosquito outside the porch screen. Then I’d stand, reeling a little—and feeling a little sick, too—and grope my way through the dark cottage to my room and flop into bed and sleep like a baby till morning.

“That was Friday’s ritual—long ago,” I whispered, my nose still pressed to the window screen. I opened my eyes on the fading twilight and let my gaze wander awhile: I saw the darkened lawn scattered with pale specks of primroses, saw beyond it the crepe myrtles ranked close and dark along the sidewalk, their blooms faintly sweet, even from here. Across Shackleford Street loomed the cottonwood tree, tall and glittery in the daylight, now a dark elongated blur. Beside it squatted Mr. Guthrie’s pale bungalow, above which chimney swifts were whippering and whirling. On the corner of 16th and Shackleford the street lamp was already glowing.

Nearer, right under my nose, I noticed the hydrangea blooms. In the twilight they were reddish purple, the color of a bruise. Just then I glanced up and caught sight of the car—Ferrell’s car. It was parked just outside the window and a little to my right, hood pointed at the dirt dead end, right rear fender brushing the hydrangea bushes. If it hadn’t been for the screen I could have leaned out and touched it. It was a ’57 Chevy with high sharp tail-fins and all maroon-colored and solid, though dented in places. Double tail pipes stuck out from the rear, one on either side, and the rear end was jacked onto fat wide dragging tires.

Seeing that car, I remembered how this Friday had gone so differently from the others. For one thing, I had skipped the breezy “porch-sit” after supper and had come here instead, to this cramped stuffy room, thinking I was worn out from the trip. And yet I lay wide awake, curious about a cousin I had never met before and whom we Hilliards all considered “common.”

But there’d been other changes—even from the start: that car, for instance, and the sullen brown-muscled teenager slouched upon it. How they seemed to clutter everything—our little summer refuge! I remembered that was the first thing I thought after we passed the cottonwood tree and the cottage emerged light-grey and pale-yellow before us, and there on the lawn before it, beside the hydrangea bushes, squatted this maroon-colored and rear-jacked dragster, squared-off hood slicing down toward the dirt dead end we were just about to enter. And slouched on that hood sat dark barefooted Ferrell in his cutoffs and sleeveless khaki: hands in lap, mouth chewing on something, slit eyes watching us sullenly as we approached in Grandfather’s white Chrysler.

We were all quietly tense, with none of our old singing and sighs. And instead of pulling up and parking by the stoop, Grandfather stopped the car just as he came in line with the Chevy, and, leaving the engine running, groaned out and started toward Ferrell, walking ramrod-straight, though listing now and then, a little tired. From the back seat I could see his jaw tighten and so was expecting him to do what he always did when a guest parked on our lawn—to ask Ferrell, politely, to move it and park it on the street, and then to explain in his patient throat-clearing way that beach lawns were “difficult enough” to grow without “unnecessary shade.” But halfway to Ferrell he surprised me: he stopped and rested his hands on his hips and just looked that car and Ferrell over, smiling sadly and wearily and shaking his head. Then he took three tired steps to Ferrell and reached out his right hand and said, “Good to have you, Son.” But Ferrell didn’t reach for it, didn’t even take his hands from his lap. He just kept chewing at that thing in his mouth and watching Grandfather through his sullen slits. The two of them held their attitudes awhile—for thirty seconds maybe—Grandfather holding out his hand, Ferrell watching and chewing, and all I could hear was our tense breathing in the car and the fitful gusts of wind tearing into a cedar tree behind us. Then, quite suddenly, in a single smooth motion, Ferrell leaned over and away from Grandfather and spat something neatly onto the grass. It was a brown gob of tobacco spit and it landed an inch from Grandfather’s polished shoe. I felt us cringe in the car—“Honestly!” Mother whispered—and I expected Grandfather to blow his top—to tongue lash him then and there—as he would have done me had I been half that “smart.” But he surprised me again: he let his arm drop limp and put on that sad weary smile he’d given Emily the Sunday before and said, very loud in the stillness, as if he were giving a speech, “You come on in, Son, and make yourself at home when you feel like it. Aunt Carmen’ll have supper on directly. We’re glad to have you, Son. Our home is your home as long as you need it. We Hilliards know how it is, Son, and are at your beck and call.” Then he turned around abruptly—a little too abruptly, it seemed to me, even then—and walked back tired yet ramrod-straight toward the car, shaking his head and mouthing, “Lord! Lord! Lord!”

Lying in the little back room four hours later, nose pressed to screen, eyes wide upon Ferrell’s Chevy, I thought very likely Grandfather hadn’t seen it at all the way I had seen it. He’d only seen it, first, as a violation of his rules—an automobile parked on the lawn. But when he’d had that thirty seconds to study it and notice Ferrell so slouched and rude upon it, the car, became, in his eyes, just one more proof that Ferrell was “pitiably common,” and therefore was a thing to be tolerated because excused.

But I saw it differently—not as a violation or as a proof of where Ferrell “came from,” but as the thing I thought it really was—a dragstrip ’57 that could blow the doors off any other car on the track—a brute maroon-muscled machine of freedom and power. And so from the window of my cramped little room, I watched it lovingly—passionately—there was no other word.

As night came on, the maroon-color faded to dark until all I could make out was the shape: the hard squared-off bulk with those tail-fins sharp as blades and that rear-end jacked up and those enormous dragging tires. I squeezed eyes into a squint and held it a minute and that dark bulk began to look alive, just sleeping. It was a demon now, a dragon with knife-blade wings, and I thought I could hear its huge engine snoring faintly, could see its dark skin rising and sinking where the hood was. The thing was breathing! It would wake at any moment, I was sure, and rear up and swallow me down and in its belly I’d stay awhile and then rear up out of it naked and changed—some brown-muscled animal I’d never known before . . .

“Like that son bitch, hunh?”

I whipped around, bumped my head on the sash. Ferrell was leaning back on his elbows, wide awake, not even yawning. In the faint light his eyes were a pair of slits, the pupils barely visible. I rubbed the crown of my head. Had he been awake the whole time, watching me through a squint?

“Shit, don’t bash yer skull in. Just ast yuh a question.” His voice was deeper than mine, like gravel rattling in a jar.

“Yuh like that son bitch, don’t yuh? Like to ride with me sometime?”

I felt my gut coil and shook my head. The Chevy had charmed me, yes, but from out there—a safe distance. Getting inside—now that would be something else.

“You afraid of it?” he said, reading my mind. I didn’t answer, just stared at him as he spoke, saw crooked rust-colored teeth with big spaces between them.

“Shit, you a dumb mute or somethin’?” he graveled on. “Naw, yer prob’ly afraid of it like ever-goddamn-body else, just don’t want to say it out. Suit yerself then. Ain’t nobody ever ridden with me yet, not even muh old man, not that I’d ever want him to, the sorry drunken fuck. But it don’t bother me none, don’t make me no never mind, yuh not ridin’ with me. And it’s muh own little fucker anyway, just mine—my little fucker.” His voice dug deep and harsh on the “fucker,” nearly hawking it.

I knew schoolmates who cussed, and worse than he did, but with them it was just a game where they’d yell out the words over and over, all the while snickering and howling, relishing the strange crude sounds. With Ferrell, though, it was serious. His cusses seemed to mean something—whether sad or angry or just hateful, I couldn’t tell, not yet. And yet, strange to say (and even then I felt it strange), I wasn’t afraid of his harsh “fucker.” I was charmed by it, rather, and even a little charged and excited, as if it were a present he’d brought me all the way from Brogden—some exotic bug or snake—and the giving of it were a sign that it was I he had chosen, from all boys everywhere, to take into his confidence.

My feeling was strengthened when he graveled, “I got a thing for yuh,” and rolled away from me and reached down to the floor and after groping under the bed a moment dragged out his stained pillow case lumpy with clothes and picked apart the thick knot at the top of it. He reached inside and gripped out a box of kitchen matches and a pack of Pall Malls—Mother’s brand in ’63, I remember now. After retying the knot he thrust the pillow case back under the bed and put box and pack on the sheet between us and then stripped open the pack and tipped me a cigarette. I remembered Grandfather saying it would stunt my growth and said, “No, thanks,” and he said, “Suit yerself, baby, don’t want us to stunt yer growth now, nosiree. Anyway, it don’t make me no never mind, ain’t nobody ever ridden with me yet.” I watched him pinch a cigarette out of the pack and then swoop down quick as a snake and strike a kitchen match on a nail head on the floor. He swooped back up, match flaring, and lit his weed and flicked the blown match out on the floor somewhere. Then he took a long deep drag on the cigarette, held it a moment, then pursed his lips and blew smoke rings in spaced puffs—one, two, three, four—all smooth and easy, as if he’d been smoking for quite a while. He rolled over and shoved pack and box under the bed and then leaned back on his pillow and rasped on with his talk, pausing now and again to take a drag on his cigarette. The orange tip of it glowed brighter and brighter as the dusk deepened in the little room.

“Ever-one’s got one, don’t yuh know. Got a fucker in ’em. Yeah, baby—Melvin, Alvin—what’s yer name, anyway?”

I told him.

Jesus, they sure did tack a name to yuh! Fuck-named me, too. Couldn’t give me Tim or John or Joe or Buddy, but some old fart’s last name—some great uncle for Christ fucking sake—Uncle Ferrell.” (He pronounced it “furl,” slurring it harshly, as if he hated the sound of it.) “Yeah, baby, we all got our fuckers—your old man, too—what I seen of him.”

“No, he’s Grandfather,” I said, and then, on some impulse I couldn’t account for, “I don’t have a father.”

Ferrell laughed, “Shit on a fuckin’ toadstool! Yuh don’t have no daddy-o to slap yuh around a little? Yuh shittin’ me, baby.”

I shook my head and, strangely, shrugged. “No, don’t have one, unless it’s Grandfather. Did once but not any more. He went off . . .” Until now I’d never mentioned my father to anyone but Mother and so felt uncomfortable all of a sudden, and a little scared, and said, “Wait a sec,” and slipped out of bed and went to the door and stood a moment and stared at it. Through the tiny screened louvers I could hear the rest of the family murmuring on the porch. Grandfather rumbled something, at which Mother laughed brightly, and for a moment I longed to go out there and sit beside Clara in the rocker and tell Grandfather I’d rather Ferrell sleep somewhere else, on the sofa maybe. But then I heard Ferrell blow his smoke out, going aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! so long and snarly, and I shivered all over with a strange and fearful pleasure and didn’t go out. Instead I gripped the edge of the heavy inner door now flush against the wall and slowly pushed it shut and eased the bolt into the metal slot. Ferrell’s voice carried, I told myself, and I didn’t want the family to hear him just then.

So I came back to the bed and lay down in my old space between him and the window, and he snarled on, “That’s what I mean, Melvin. I said old man. And he’s got his fucker, too—deep down, maybe—deeper than he had it twenny years ago. Shit Christ, it’s done dug down so deep by now he prob’ly don’t even know he’s got it. But it’s in him all right. I can see it when he’s feelin’ sorry for me. Saw it not three hour ago, right outside there”—he poked his cigarette at the window—“right up front muh machine. Shit smelly fuck, you cain’t tell me that won’t no pore-dirt-trash-farm-boy-son-of-dead-beat-crap-smile on his face.”

“He was just being polite,” I said, knowing—but not yet believing—that it was not so.

And Ferrell laughed—a hard groaning croak that chilled me, and then he mocked me, in crooning falsetto, “Oooooooooooh so polite to me!” and poked his cigarette at the window and snarled on, “Now that machine out there, it ain’t got a fucker, Melvin, because it is a fucker, all by itself, pure un-al-loyed, unadulterated fucker—fucker just for the meanness of it, and the power and the control—and yet it’s good fucker ’cause it’s all straight-out-and-up-front-and-in-the-open fucker, ‘taint hid off somewheres where you cain’t get to it, see what it’s like, whether it’s cunt-bitin’ secret-mean or open-mean as a buck-nigger’s dick rammin’ double time on a Saturday night. It’s a loud mean-ass good ole solid eight-rod 357 with a shit-greasy stick and double-carbs big as a mule’s hiney. It’s like rasslin’ a man in a ring—raisin’ him high up over yer head and spinnin’ him round till he gets so dizzy he pukes his guts out and then slammin’ him down wham! so hard the whole ring shakes—all that power, that control—but it’s good, see, ’cause it’s up front and in the open—no slimy hid-off-in-the-dark-mother-fuckin’ ‘Good to have you, Son, you come on in when you feel like it and make yourself at home.’

“And it’ll lay a streak, I ain’t lyin’ to yuh—fifty feet if yuh speed-shift it. Whomp all them shitheads’ doors clean off their hinges. Shit, I get nigger-tired just picturin’ it, and feelin’ it, too, like it was real, yuh know? Like happenin’ right now? You ever do that, baby? Picture a fucker all squally and rubber-smelly and wild and hard like that?

“Or secret maybe—like I’m thinkin’ right now—yeah, I can play yer old man’s game, too—and better ‘n him even. Picture it—this second fucker, cousin fucker—secret as a black widah under a broke-off piece of asphalt and she’s been under that asphalt for days and days, just hatin’, and then one day she just gets a notion and scutters on out over this broke-up blacktop and crosses a ditch of briars and weeds and scutters up the rotty stair steps of some nigger shack or other. Yeah, baby, her old bitch-self comes creepin’ in some moldy old room in the dark and finds her man dead asleep on a fuck-stinkin’ mattress and then scutters and gropes on him feet to dick to belly to neck, lookin’ for the jugular, and then she finds it and what next, baby? Just a little prickin’ kiss and that’s all she wrote? And if it’s sharp enough you’ll hear that shot of blood come whooshin’ up and splashin’ on the ceilin’ and him wheezin’ out his fuckin’ life? Hell, no, baby—you won’t hear that shit a-tall—that’s anygoddamnbody’s fucker. Naw, this fucker, widah-fucker, she just pricks him easy—a pore-son-of-dead-beat smooch, don’t yuh know, and sexy as shit—pricks him a inch from the jugular, and oozes her poison in, slow and careful, with all the control she’s got, oozy bitch, and then she creeps off the mattress and back to the windah sill and just sits back and watches while her man—her fuckee, see—grows legs, baby, more and more legs, till he’s got six of ’em and all hairy and full of joints, and he gets real tiny and all belly and hourglass and that belly’s achin’ sharp like a rope twistin’ and in a minute his dick’s a toothpick and balls shrunk down to nothin’ and he’s as widah as she is—so deep down gut-fire hurtin’ he’s secret fucker and hatin’ ever man that was borned. Yeah, muh machine and me—we’re so gut-coilin’ hatin’ we can do like that, too—just like yer old man, but meaner. Jesus! Yer heart beat fast just thinkin’ about it? And don’t it wear yuh out? Wears me out—been wearin’ me out for muh sixteen fuckin’ years—and done so wore me out I’m tired as a old limp-dick nigger fallin’ asleep in his own outhouse. So stop buggin’ eyes at me, Melford, Alford, Lunsford—Jesus, they sure fuck-named us—stop buggin’ at me now and let me get muh beauty sleep.”

He yawned deep and theatrically, patting at his mouth, and took one last drag on his cigarette—the longest and brightest orange yet, it seemed to me—and then leaned down and carefully twisted and crushed the butt on the floor, singing high and hoarse, “Don’t want no fuckin’ home fire around here, no burnin’ up the Hilliard people oh so po-lite to me.” Then he flopped his face on the sheet and shut eyes and was snoring in a minute.

In memory I saw Grandfather standing white-haired and tall, in dark-blue tie and salt-and-pepper suit, hands on hips, head bent thoughtfully over Emily, who sat on the Queen Anne sofa in her wrinkled ill-fitting house dress. In his “Sure, Emily, we’d be glad to have him,” I had thought I heard only kind pity, if not sincere, perhaps, then at least hospitable and polite, certainly innocuous, in the way not only of our family, but of other patrician families in our state, even in this less patrician part of the South, even in 1963. Grandfather, I had thought, was just doing his part to aid distressed kin. But now, as I went over in my mind Ferrell’s strange and bitter talk—and recalled in a sudden flash that ugly scowl flickering over his mother’s face—I thought of the way Ferrell would have mocked Grandfather, crooning “Suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuure, Emily” in his cynical falsetto, and for the first time in my life I heard a forest of “fuckers” in Grandfather’s “sure”—“widah-fuckers” oozing their poison in.

Suddenly—and I couldn’t say why, not then anyway—I longed to know this Ferrell better, to become his buddy even. And as I watched him snoring and dark on the pale sheets, I thought, “What’s he saying to me now, in his dream? Is he asking me to ride with him? Or is he telling me something new and strange and powerful—what Mother knows (and Grandfather and Grandmother, for that matter)—what all grownups have known since they were thirty and thirty-five and forty but won’t ever speak aloud, just why I don’t know?” But then I remembered his groaning croak of a laugh, and his “black widah” and all the bitter anger in his talk, like Emily’s scowl, only harsher, longer, drawing itself out as if it wouldn’t ever stop till he died somehow, and I shuddered and thought, “Do I really want to hear him any more? Do I want to hear things—secrets (the word bloomed before me like a gaudy and poisonous flower)—secret things he hasn’t told me yet, that he’s been storing down in the deep dark bottom of him, waiting till the day when I—he—we—?”

I was reeling now, snatching short quick breaths. To steady myself, I squeezed him from my mind and poked my head out the window again, pressed nose to screen.

It was full dark now. In the light of the streetlamp the big Chevy threw a long shadow over the lawn. “It must be after ten,” I thought. “They’ve left the porch by now and gone to bed, and I’m not out there, alone and squinting in the rocker. I’ve forgotten it—my Jigger Moment.” That oversight was the biggest change of all that day—a serious lapse, an extraordinary breach in a three-year ritual. I felt afraid for a moment and snatched in a breath and thought, “There’s still time; I can go out now and sit in the rocker and squint.” But then I realized, with a strange and glowing shudder, that I really hadn’t forgotten it and so needn’t go out to the porch at all. My “Jigger Moment” was no longer out on the banks, in the blood-red Plymouth, rocketing through the swarm of lights, but had come inside the cottage—our cottage, the Hilliard cottage—and lay in this cramped and musty bedroom—lay right beside me, in fact, nearly brushing my legs and breathing in little snarls. And it had come to our lawn and sat just outside the window, likewise snoring, snarling, like a sharp-finned dragon in the night, brushing the hydrangea bushes. It—“the moment”—was in Ferrell himself and his maroon-colored, rear-jacked Chevy.

II

Toward morning, after finally falling asleep, I had a curious dream. I remember I was standing alone in a dark room in a cottage much like ours, only it was bare of furniture and the windows had shutters over them with long twisting cracks through which white daylight glowed, paling the darkness. The walls were askew around me, leaning at odd angles, and the floorboards were buckled in places and had slits between them that showed grey sand and white shell-fragments underneath. I had been standing there a minute maybe when suddenly I caught a whiff of tobacco smoke. I looked down and saw a yard from my feet a puckered cigarette butt wedged into one of the slits. In the light from the shutter-cracks I could see smoke wisping up from it. Then I was hearing a noise—a swishing sound, faint and rhythmic. I looked up from the butt and saw, at first, just pale darkness and then, emerging slowly out of it, an old colored man pushing a push broom along the floor. He was dressed in khaki work pants and a long-sleeved khaki shirt, all starched and pressed. He was small-boned and short, about my height, and his face was as creased as Grandfather’s, his head bald but for a fringe of grizzle around the base of his skull. Head bent over, he came slowly nearer me, pushing his broom in short rhythmical strokes—swish (pause), swish (pause), swish-swish (pause), swish—just like that, I remember exactly. And as he swept he moaned some bluesy field-song, punctuating the verses with faint whoops and sighs. He swept nearer and nearer me, taking his time, pushing the broom in those short rhythmical strokes. When he came within a yard of me, I hoped he’d notice the butt and then stop and lean over and pinch it up and crush it out on the wood. And he did catch sight of it—I saw his grizzled eyebrows arch a little—but he only swept around it and came beside me and stopped, not once looking at me, as if I weren’t there. He stooped over then and with a great groan rubbed his belly and then lowered himself into a squat and set the broom handle on the floor. Then, squatting still, he drew a kitchen match and the stub of an old stogie out of his shirt-pocket, struck the match on a nail head on the floor, and then rose to his feet with another great groan and lit the stogie and took a few quick puffs, mouthing it indifferently, without any pleasure. He turned then and looked down at my feet, then bent over and with a great groan squatted again. He stared a moment at the cigarette butt that was smoldering still, sending up its wisp of smoke. Then he yawned—long and wailing—and reached the stogie down and slowly twisted it into a slit, right beside the cigarette.

“Isn’t that dangerous?” I remember saying, my voice deep and hollow, as in an empty basement. “Shouldn’t you pick them up, put them out?”

He deep-groaned to his feet, slowly, wearily, and then stared off into the darkness before me and moaned rhythmically, as if he were going on with his field song, “Naw. It won’t do no good, Lawd, no. I pinch it up and put it out, and, Laaaaaawd, yeah, someone else gone come along, put down another and all out of meanness. Don’t do no good, no more, pinch up, put out. Done pinched, put out for fawty years—saved every house I sweep from bein’ burnt down to the ground. Yeah, Lunsford, honey, been pinchin’ up and puttin’ out for fawty years, and I see just now, just this minute—right here, right now—done come to see it won’t do, no, Lawd—won’t do, no, Lawd—won’t do no good to put it out no mo’. All folks done got it in ’em, one way, another, done got it way down in their deep belly the day they was born, and gone keep it gnawin’ in ’em till the day they die. You come on ahead and follow me now.” He turned around and bent over—no groaning now—and gripped up his broom by the handle and then turned back and began sweeping away from me, into the pale dark and the greater dark beyond it. I watched him until his pale shirt vanished and then looked down and saw the two butts smoldering side by side. The wood around them had begun to turn black. Suddenly the smoke began to thicken and surge, filling the room with an asphalt smell that stung my eyes to watering. Chill with fear, I reached out my arms and stepped over the butts and began to grope into the dark, seeking the old colored man. For some reason I thought only he could pinch them up and put them out; they’d be much too hot for my tender skin. So, arms outstretched, I groped through the pale dark and into the greater dark until my fingertips touched the smooth plaster of a wall. Moving slowly sideways, I fingered the wall waist-high until I felt the cool brass of a door knob. I gripped the knob and twisted it and pulled a wide door all the way open, backing away as I did so. I stepped to the threshold then and looked down before me and saw no floor at all, just dark—chill black dark that smelled musty as a basement shut up for years. I gazed down a long time, and slowly into my hearing came the harsh rhythmic swishing of a push broom over cement—swish (pause), swish (pause) swish-swish (pause), swish. And then I heard, faint at first but rising quickly to susurrus crescendo, little scratchy scutterings, like the sounds of thousands of spiders scurrying over old lumber. I shuddered deeply, felt my belly coil tight and cold. Then, suddenly, without knowing why, I stepped over the threshold and began to tumble down dizzily and with terrific speed into the cool musty spider-scuttering dark.

I jerked awake, the room spinning, my head bent back over the end of the bed. I rolled over and stared at the pillow (it had fallen to the floor) until the spinning stopped and then rolled onto my back again. Keeping my eyes off Ferrell as much as I could—I didn’t want to see him just then—I eased out of bed and pulled open the dresser drawer quietly and drew out some swim trunks and a clean tee-shirt and changed into them. Then I eased back the bolt of the big door and padded barefoot into the living room, latching the louver door quietly behind me.

This early waking was odd for me, as I’d usually sleep till eight or later, waking slow and content to the smells of bacon and of coffee being perked and the sounds of frying in the kitchen and of Grandfather and Mother rattling the morning paper and talking softly on the porch. But today I was awake before anyone, and dressed, and moving about.

The room was filled with yellow dawn light streaming in through the picture window. I padded to a pool of it in the middle of the big braided rug and stood there and relished the warmth with my toes. I was facing the mirror above the marble-topped utensil chest. I saw the picture window reflected in it and the bright Sound and banks beyond, then saw myself—a short small-boned boy with thick blond hair and freckled face and chubby cheeks, dressed in green swim trunks and a faded blue tee-shirt that clung tight to his chest and, shrunk from washing, showed a pale strip of belly. I watched that boy a moment—“Me, Lunsford Albright,” I whispered—and then spoke softly, “I didn’t have that dream, it never happened,” and squeezed both dream and Ferrell from my mind and spun around and padded out to the porch.

It was a fresh, pale blue morning, the breeze just a breath out of the Sound, barely rippling the porch screen. The water was smooth and purplish-grey, like a grape. To my left, above banks-end, the sun was rising yellow-orange, flooding the lawn where tiny primroses were open—yellow, dew-dropped, fragile. A little mongrel dog was trotting along, stopping every so often and sniffing at them. Startled suddenly, it flicked up its head, spotted a bird long-legged on the beach, near a wavering line of seaweed, and tore after it, leaping up in a little sandstorm just as the bird flew off, squawking.

It was a black-capped tern. I watched it soar in spirals, headed for the banks. I took up Grandfather’s binoculars from the wicker table and looked through them and tried to focus on it, but I couldn’t as it flew too fast for me, so I just scanned the banks, the long blue-grey faintly undulating line of it. I tingled with pleasure when I thought how I’d be over there in a few hours, sitting in a captain’s chair by a glass of iced Coke on a napkin in the sand. I quit scanning and focused the binoculars on a spot directly across from me. There, glass-center, between two white dunes, sat our green-and-white-shingled Club—our Dunes Club. At both ends of it were long green window-shining wings that angled toward the invisible ocean, as if to embrace it. Out of the center of the roof rose the green round-topped cupola, its little lamp still glowing. It was a lonely thing, deliciously sad in the pale-blue haze of the early morning, and yet it looked serene and content as it gazed out over Sound and sea.

“Jesus, do you people look!”

I whirled, flinched the binoculars from my eyes. Ferrell leaned in the doorway, wearing the same soiled and wrinkled clothes he’d slept in. His sleeveless shirt stretched tight over his flared chest, and his arms hung down muscle-curved and veiny. I noticed his legs this time: they were brown as his arms but very thin and smooth. Their only bulges were the knees, which stuck out bony and pitted, like little skulls. He padded out barefoot onto the porch, slit-eyes squinting in the light.

“Yeah, baby,” he went on, sneering now, his speech slurred with sleep. “I bet yer sister looks, yer mama looks, and her mama, too, and yer old man—Jesus, I bet he sits for hours on this here stoop and stares off and talks, talks, talks—ain’t that right? Tells his dumbass stories. Anything to keep his fucker deep. Just lookin’ and talkin’ and tellin’ stories is all you people do.”

I started to tell him it was Mother who told the stories, most of them, but he raised a grease-smudged hand to his cheek and scratched a pimple and his nut of bicep swelled, a purple vein wavering down the ridge of it.

“Yuh still ain’t wantin’ to ride with me, are yuh?” he said, his speech suddenly clear now, the sleep gone out of it. “It’s sittin’ right out back waitin’ on us.”

For a moment I wanted to reach out and touch that little vein, to put gravel in my voice and snarl, “Yeah, let’s drive the fuck out of it.” But then I remembered his harsh “fucker” and “black widah” and then flickers of my dream—the asphalt smoke, the basement dark, the susurrus spiders—and I shivered and didn’t answer him. Instead I held out the binoculars and said, “Have a look—the banks—over there. They’re—well—you know—pretty—“

He grunted, smiled sassily, and I felt a curious friendliness flicker out of him, but then the smile creased back into a sneer as he snatched the glasses and squeezed them to his eyes. I helped him focus them and told him to look straight across from us, make the beacon his “reference point.”

“Look for this big building—green and white,” I said. “And then aim for the roof—a little green cupola with a light in it. Take your time. The lenses are real sensitive—hard to steady and all.”

As he held the glasses to his eyes, I watched his arm muscles, smelled his harsh sweat and motor oil and burnt cigarettes, heard his slow whistling breaths like little snarls in the night, and I suddenly longed to invite him to our Club. (Grandfather, I knew, would ask him—out of politeness and however reluctantly—but I wanted to be the first to do it.) He’d go with us, in Grandfather’s white Chrysler, and, yes, he’d sit in the back seat right beside me, our ribs touching, and when we got to the Club, I’d show it off to him like a new toy, as if to say, “See, Ferrell, this is how we Hilliards spend summer.” I’d take him first to the big screened porch where we’d sit in rockers, side by side, and hear the Kinston matrons gossip in low rich murmurs, hear their husbands talk of golf and stocks and baseball and laugh over Cousin Porter’s recent “elopement.” Around noon I’d fling a hand down to the beach below and show him the kids of seven or eight crawling over the wet sand, peering for periwinkles, and then old Mr. Thompson smoothing back his white hair and striding baggy-trunked into the surf, swimming powerfully through the breakers. I’d take him inside next and show him the ballroom and the juke box and play him “Peggy Sue” and “Purple People Eater” and “Poison Ivy,” and he’d watch me and Clara bop over the shining floor, our hips brushing the white curtains that, swollen with breeze, would billow in from the windows. Last, around two o’clock, I do the thing I’d been waiting for all day: I’d take him down swimming in front of the Club, where we’d float and splash side by side in the warm gentle swells of an August ocean. I saw this last, I suppose, as a ceremony that would proclaim us “buddies.”

“See it yet?” I asked. “It’s like a tower, only squat and round, and there’s a light in it.”

“Naw, don’t see nuthin’. Just this bright shit.”

Ignoring his words, I prattled on, “That’s our Dunes Club. We go every single day we’re down here. You come with me, hunh? I can bring a guest. Grandfather says so. And you ride with us, okay?”

“Shit, I got better things to do,” he said, and shoved the binoculars back to me. But he stayed where he was, so I laid the glasses on the wicker table and chattered on, “It’s a real neat place! We swim and drink Cokes and lie out on the sand—stay all day long if we want to.” In breathless summary I listed all we saw and heard and did there. “So you ride with us, okay?” I waited, tense, while he stared off at the banks and breathed in faint whistles, as if he might be thinking about it.

“Naw,” he said, finally. “Got better shit to do, and anyway I’m wore out as a old nigger on a Saturday night.” He yawned deeply and patted at his mouth.

But I didn’t—wouldn’t—give up and so flailed again for some charm that would lure him. Suddenly, I saw it, like a rare shell stumbled upon in the sand, and I flapped a hand toward the banks and over to our left and sang high and excited, “I got a cousin over there. And his name’s Buford and he’s rich as sin. And he’s got this little motorbike his dad ordered him—had it special made—just for him—and it’s got these tires so we can ride the dunes, and he’ll let us ride it we just ask him. And when we’re done, we can buddy up, all three of us, and walk the beach—go clear to the Park, the Arcade, play the Eighteen Tricky Holes! And you know what? He stays over there, all summer long! In the biggest house you’ve ever seen! And, you know, he’s your cousin, too. Closer cousin than me even, what Grandfather says. So come with me, hunh?”

Ferrell glanced where I waved and said, “Over there, hunh?” And I thought for a moment he’d say yes, he’d come. But he only yawned again, theatrically, and patted his mouth and slurred, “Naw, maybe tomorrah. Need muh beauty sleep.” He spun around abruptly, as if I weren’t there, and padded inside. When his pale shirt vanished, I muttered, angry yet hurt, half-hoping he’d hear me, “Forget it, sonny. They wouldn’t let you in. Little piece of common trash!”

The last words surprised me, for whenever I felt sore at anyone, I’d never speak it aloud, even to myself. I’d do what Mother and Grandfather said a “nice boy” should do and said they did themselves: I’d “swallow it” and “cheer up” and put my mind on “something pleasant.” But that bright morning the words just burst out of me, as if they had a will of their own: “Little piece of common trash!” I stood still a moment and shivered at their memory. Then I took up the binoculars again and, doing just as Grandfather might have done after a bad day at the health department, scanned the banks until I caught sight of the cupola and its little lamp. It glowed serene and content, as always, but cheerful now, no longer sad and lonely.

At breakfast, over platters of bacon and beaten biscuits and fluffy scrambled eggs, I felt my cheerful child-self again and was soon sharing in the conversation and good-eating sighs of the rest of the family. I remember the scene as if it had been photographed: the table, a long pine drop-leaf with matching lazy Susan, ran the length of the picture window. Grandfather and Grandmother sat at the ends in matching pine chairs. Mother and Clara sat facing the window, on cane-bottom chairs Grandmother had bought especially for the cottage. I sat opposite them, in a similar chair, my back brushing fresh hydrangeas in a bowl on the window sill. Beside me was a green china plate and silverware and glasses filled with orange juice and milk—a place set for Ferrell, who was still in the little room—“sleeping away,” I thought, “like a wormy old dog under a chinaberry tree.” Relishing a piece of raisin toast and watching the bright Sound reflected in the coffee pot, I was just beginning to forget the little trash when there came a lull in the chatter and Grandmother said, very loud, “Is Ferrell still in the bed?”

Mother flinched and looked in her lap; Grandfather set his fork down tap! on the plate, a little too loud, and grumbled something to himself. And the table turned so quiet I could hear Ferrell’s whistling snore from beyond the louver door of the little room. Grandmother had broken our unspoken rule we’d all kept to this moment: we were never to mention Ferrell by name. Among ourselves he was “that boy” or “that child” or “the Marston child,” as if he were a cripple or a criminal or a “mental case” too “sick-crazy” to help himself—a kind of person whose name we’d never speak aloud among ourselves and whom we’d rarely talk about unless to scorn or pity him. (My father, for example, was never named among us: he was “Joan’s unfortunate former husband” or “that enlisted fellah” or “that dead-beat who abandoned his children,” or, when Mother’d get sore at me, “that psychopath” she hoped “desperately” I would “never, ever, horribly grow up to be.” He was never his own name—“Lunsford Albright,” the same as mine but without the junior trailing it.)

“Oh, he’s just taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaared,” I drawled loudly and cheerfully and winked at Grandfather, hoping that would shut Grandmother up. I wanted to forget the ungrateful trash. I was enjoying my toast too much.

“Well, no wonder, the poor, poor baby!” Mother sang in the honey-sticky voice she’d put on whenever she was feeling sorry for someone. “Driving a hundred miles in this heat! It’d tire me out and I’ve been driving twenty-five years!”

“Now,” I thought, head bent over my plate, “they’ll leave off and let me eat in peace.”

But Grandmother, twisting at the hearing aid pinned to her house dress, complained loudly, “Well, he’s slept over twelve hou-ers—you’d think—“

”Let it ride, Carmen,” Grandfather said, worried, I supposed, that Ferrell might have awakened and, having heard her, would shamble out of the room and sit at the table and slouch sullen and grim-faced all through the meal. And Grandmother did “let it ride,” but not without rolling her eyes at the ceiling, as if to say “the child” was a Marston and that explained everything.

Suddenly Clara, who’d been eating quietly the whole time, seeming far away from all of us and all the Ferrells of this world, flung her little white hand at the picture window behind me.

“Look, Luns!” she cried. I bent around and saw a gull long-legged on the bird-bath in the middle of the lawn. It was just an ordinary gull, and scruffy at that, but Mother sang, “Now, isn’t that perfectly gorgeous?” And Grandfather, shifting around in his seat, sighed, “Now that’s really something!” And Grandmother, shifting, too, twisted at the box on her bosom and whined like a cat crying for its food, “What you talking about, Billy? Oh, yes”—catching sight of the bird now, brightening for a moment out of the habitual frown of old people who have been hard of hearing for a long time—“that’s a pretty gull!”

Usually I’d join them in their delight, speaking their words even, but that morning, hearing them all croon and sigh, I couldn’t help remembering, with a pleasure strangely cruel, Ferrell’s words to me on the porch not an hour before. And I couldn’t help taking those words and embellishing them a little, sniggering them inside me, in his idiom: “You people sure do look! Jesus, what a bunch of caterwaulin’ rubberneckers! Lord, you all take the fuckin’ cake!”

At eleven o’clock we loaded the Chrysler with towels and paperbacks and changes of clothes and, leaving Ferrell asleep in the cottage, drove over to the Club. Usually I’d relish this part of our ritual—especially the “crossing,” that easy tire-clicking drive over the drawbridge that linked the mainland with the banks. As we’d come onto it I’d look up with delight at the great girders rising up before us, charged with sunlight. From my seat by the rear window I could see the Sound curve gracefully back behind us, its channel running dark down the middle. The water near the shore would be green-tinted now, no longer grape-grey, and the little swells would roll higher than they had in the early morning, a few of them breaking into strings of white. After we’d passed under the girders, Clara and I would crane back to our left and play “Spot the Cottage.” Our object was to pick out “our” cottage from the dozen or so that lined that part of shore. It was easy to find, being the only plain one among the much grander two-story cottages owned by families “in money.” We had “spotted the cottage” every summer since I could remember, and yet, when we’d pick it out, our little refuge, we’d always sing, “See it, Mom, see it? Dee-di! Ma-ma! Look!” as if we had done it for the first time. And we’d fling arms out the window and wave wildly at that light-grey speck flecked with pale-yellow and the gleams of tin.

And I loved the rest of it, too: how once beyond the bridge we’d pass gas stations and hamburger stands and diners with all their heady smells, then come to a stoplight and turn left onto Fort Macon Road, drive past high white dunes fringed with sea-oats, past great shingled cottages and thick groves of live oaks and cedars, their crowns flattened and sculpted by the wind. We’d come then to the DUNES CLUB sign and turn into the lot that would already be crowded with cars—Chryslers and Cadillacs mostly, and a few of the fancier Buicks, a Ford or two maybe, seldom a Chevrolet. As Grandfather eased the car forward, searching for a parking place, I’d relish the slow rearing up of the great shingled clubhouse, long green-white wings embracing the sea, cupola still glowing. After we parked, Clara and I would burst from the car with delighted whoops and scramble barefooted over the hot cement and up the green stair steps, crying “Ow! Ow! Ow!” as our feet arched over the hot wood. How we’d sigh, in ecstasy, when we stepped into the ballroom with its cool wood floor always shining and its white curtains billowing inward! We’d wait there till the grownups arrived, and then we’d hear, as they strolled toward the five of us with drinks in their hands, the bright ritual greetings from the Edgertons, one of our Sound neighbors “in money”: “How you, William? Is that Lunsford? And Clara? Woo—oo! Y’all sure have grown! My! Come on over and see us sometime!” We’d all go to “the bar” then, that dark cool faintly lime-scented room with the shining mirrors along the walls and the rows of glasses turned upside down and the big-bellied colored men in white coats and black bow ties. There Grandfather would order “weak gins” for himself and “the wife and daughter” and “iced sodas” (meaning Cokes) for “the grandchildren.” Bearing our cool, sweating tumblers, we’d sashay out of “the bar” and through the broad screened porch and out into the sun and down the hot steps and into the hotter sand that would squeak under our feet. In a few minutes we’d all be sitting in cool, freshly opened captain’s chairs, under umbrellas lifeguard-wrestled into the sand.

That morning, however, our ritual passed and, except for fragments occasionally, I barely noticed it. For Grandmother had said, just as we started over the bridge, “I hope that boy behaves in my house!”

“Now, Carmen,” Grandfather said gruffly, and I was expecting him to say, “Let it ride,” and I could squeeze the little trash out of my mind again. But he paused a moment and then cleared his throat and said, “There’s half Emily in that boy, so he’ll be just fine. He’ll ‘get his sleep out’ and then ‘go on about his bidness.’” (He laughed softly at these “common” expressions.) “Don’t you worry one bit about the house, Carmen. That boy’s all right, poor fellah.”

Suddenly I felt a dull black weight clamp down on me. It was like my heavy “blues” at Christmas when I’d see the grownups dressed up for church—in the same old clothes and smiles they’d worn for years and years and years, it seemed. And I saw our ritual as inexplicably dreary, boring even. Hunched down in the seat, I let Clara alone play “Spot the Cottage” and for the rest of the “crossing” fixed my mind on Ferrell asleep in my room—that brown sprawling body in the cutoffs and sleeveless shirt, those nut-taut balls of arm muscle, that pinched face dark and acne-bruised on the white sheet, the way the snores would be snarling in my absence—not whistling now, I was sure, but deep raspy breaths—fucker, fucker, fucker—vicious and cruel and pitiless, true, yet powerful and alive and promising a freedom I had never felt before.

Just as we turned onto Fort Macon Road Mother reached back from the front seat and tapped me on the knee and said I wasn’t my “usual chattering self”—I seemed “preoccupied.” I glanced up and shrugged and forced a smile full of teeth and said I was “fine, just thinking,” and then hunched down and went back to Ferrell again—kept mind on him all the way to our plunge into the cool captain’s chairs under the umbrella.

There, while the rest of the family chattered around me, I faced the breezy ocean and shut my eyes and tried to picture him in our cottage—what he’d be doing there, now, moment by moment, in the warm moist musty smells of the place.

Is he awake yet? Yes. A tug horn has moaned him up. He yawns and stretches, arching his back off the bed, like a cat. He slinks up and pads out to the living room, fingering a pimple on his cheek. He lunges for the porch, to kick out the screen, but no, he stops, he’ll do something smaller, meaner. But what? He cracks a grin—he’s thought of a crime—and pads into the kitchen and filches grapes out of the fridge—those expensive Thompson seedless Grandmother bought. He pops them in his mouth, swiftly, hardly tasting them, devours the whole cluster, flings the carcass into the sink—no, better yet, he sets it back in the fridge, on the top shelf and up front, so it’s the first thing Grandmother sees when she opens the door. He knows we won’t punish him—he can do anything he wants—anything—as he’s “that boy,” “Emily’s child,” and we’re sorry for him, poor fellah, because he’s so common and his daddy’s such a dead-beat, always blowing engines and going on benders and the home life’s in a mess. He whips around now and pads into the living room, to the marble-topped utensil chest across from the dining table. If he wanted to he could look up and see himself in the mirror above it, could see beyond him the bright Sound and blue-grey banks framed in the picture window, but he doesn’t as he’s lunging for the Dresden clock with the pink flowers and cupids. He grabs it and throws it up and catches it a few times, then turns it over and over, snickering, “You people!”

(I heard the fucker fucker deep in his mind and tingled with a cruel and violent pleasure, wondered what Grandmother would say if she saw “that boy” with her clock. She’d have a “duck,” as Grandfather would say—a “duck” sure enough now.)

He decides he won’t hurt it—that’s too easy for him, not mean enough—and sets it back clank on the chest, not quite hard enough to break it. He turns and crosses the braided rug to the dark corner by the dining table, near Grandmother’s chair, looks up at the cuckoo clock black against the brown paneling, the pair of thin black chains looping down below it.

(Tingling once more, I remembered Grandfather’s gruff warning whenever Clara and I would go near it, “Don’t touch those chains, children. You’ll knock it down and cut your head open.”)

He fingers the chains, tugs at them once or twice, but not quite hard enough to dislodge the clock, thinking, no, it wouldn’t be mean enough either—not like the grapes. He turns and pads past picture window, his mind on a new meanness: What the hell, kick the screen out, why not? He’s bored as shit. He legs it to the porch, the floor pounding and shaking, and—

“Luns! Luns, buddy!” I opened my eyes and saw green glare of ocean and then the chairs empty around me. The family had gone off for a walk. “Luns! Luns!” came the cry again, a hoarse little piping, like a bird.

I craned to my left, saw, far off, Buford Whitfield running toward me with his little arms wind milling and his feet kicking back the sand. He wore blue Cub Scout shorts and a yellow T-shirt with the Webelos triangle. When he reached the umbrella he leaned down in my face and shook the hair out of his eyes—it was white-blonde, I remember, the color of corn silk—and began to prattle away about his birthday present, a “neat little motorbike” his dad had ordered him “special made.” It was “one of a kind” and would go “twenty miles an hour” and had “gear shifts”—just a “couple speeds” but enough to let you “feel it.” And it had thick tires so you could “ride it in the sand.” But he’d found a better place than “wallowy old sand” and that was an old parking lot just over the dunes from his house. It was “really neat.” He’d been riding there all day long and wanted me to ride with him, “just us two together,” me “front,” him “back,” or whichever I wanted. Could I “come over right now, hunh?” His “mom” would “make us lunch.”

He stopped his chatter and grinned—rather conceitedly, I thought—showing pink gums and tiny white teeth with spaces between them. I flicked my eyes away from him and looked out on the ocean that was now metal-colored under a little cloud that hid the sun. I yawned and stretched theatrically, patting my mouth, then looked back at him, noticed his button-nose with freckles and sunburn on the tip, wondered what he’d look like with blood trickling out of it, and then blanked the picture, afraid of it. I waved at the empty chairs around me and shrugged and said in a flat voice, to disguise my fear, “Sorry. Not now. Got to wait. Need permission and all. And I’m a little tired anyway. Maybe later.”

“You can leave a note,” he piped excitedly, “on a napkin, here—!” He went for my glass of Coke with the napkin under it. I quick-grabbed his wrist, felt it frail as sticks, wondered it I’d break it, then flicked it away as if it were a snake that had bitten me. Then I snapped away from him and looked at the sea, still metal-colored under the cloud.

“I can’t and that’s all there is to it,” I said in the hardest, coldest voice I could imagine at fourteen.

“Okay,” he piped, softer now, hurt. “Maybe tomorrow, when you get permission.” I heard his feet scutter away in the sand, his high voice crooning a little uuuuuuuuuuuudn!—like the revving of his little bike, presumably.

Then it was quiet but for the waves, and I grew sullen and sank back in the captain’s chair and shut my eyes and brooded on him. His mother, I remembered, was Cousin Marjorie, Grandfather’s niece. She’d married Kinston money—“dead-beat money,” as Grandfather’d put it once, “but at least it’s money—more than your Aunt Emily’ll ever see in her life.” She’d married a Ben Whitfield who had “serious asthma” and was in and out of the hospital and owned five tobacco farms and a couple of warehouses. They had a three-story house in Kinston with an elevator and six white telephones—“the most pretentious and tasteless home I have ever had the occasion to visit,” Grandfather said. All summer long they’d stay at the beach, in their fancy cottage on the ocean, so by August they’d be brown as pennies. Grandfather called them “the three bears,” chuckling softly, and said Uncle Ben acted “arrogant” when he was well and never worked a day in his life.

Eyes shut, I pictured Buford leaning his face into mine—saw that button nose, those pink gums and little white teeth, that conceited grin—and then remembered why I didn’t much care for him. To me he was a goody-goody “brain” that all the grownups fussed over. He went to an expensive Episcopal school in Raleigh (staying the week with a Whitfield relation) and brought home A’s in everything. I’d make A’s in English, history, spelling—subjects like that—but never in math and only now and then in science, and so when I’d bring home a report card with its C or two and a minus mark beside “shows initiative,” Grandfather would say, over Sunday supper, in the presence of Clara and Mother and Grandmother, “Now take Buford Whitfield, he’s a real scholar, that child is. And he shows initiative. That boy can do anything he sets his mind to and do it well.” Hearing his words, how I’d wince—and squirm—in my chair!

But, strange to say, it was only at home or Grandfather’s house that I’d squirm so. At the beach my resentment would vanish, as if cleansed away by the salt-wind and bright sun and warm buoyant ocean and all the contenting rituals. Even in our rare games together—our “tag” and “chase” and kickball and especially badminton where I’d beat him every time—I’d feel such delight in everything I’d forget to feel nettled around him.

That morning, however, after he’d so suddenly piped at me and forced his foolish face in mine and chattered on about his bike, grinning with such conceit—had dragged me so rudely out of Ferrell in our cottage—I spoke to him in the cold voice and, after he’d scuttered away, shut eyes against the sea and brooded on him. And long after he scuttered away, I went on brooding and brooding . . .

I remembered the Sunday morning just three weeks ago when Grandfather took the two of us on a tour of Fort Macon. Grandfather would rumble on about this or that “officer’s quarters” or “mess room” or “emplacement,” and while Buford would listen, alert and smiling, showing the pink gums, the tiny white teeth, I’d kick sullenly at the brick flooring, wishing it was just me and Grandfather there, the two of us. And I remembered him that same night at the Club, Buffet Night, and how impeccably dressed he was in his white shoes and white summer suit with the light blue handkerchief sticking out of his coat pocket—“a perfect little gentleman,” as Grandfather said, without irony. For a moment, in my captain’s chair, in the orange glare of the sunlight behind my closed eyelids, I imagined him some future summer Sunday, on a playground back home, dressed impeccably in that same white suit, and then the school bully, a crew-cut lunkhead, running up suddenly with fists raised and punching him whop! on that button nose, the blood spurting out and then trickling in little rivulets over the white.

My heart raced a moment and then I shuddered and squeezed away the scene and went back to Ferrell in our cottage:

He’s standing by the porch door, thinking of the screen and kicking it to pieces. But he doesn’t go out, as something’s caught his eye, on the brown paneling by Grandfather’s chair. He sees the three black-framed engravings arranged diagonally, one under the other: first, the Lorelei Rock jutting high and broad over a bend in the Rhine, sailboat and paddle steamer in the foreground; then the Romantic castle Marksburg perched on its wild and lonely crag; and, finally, down at the bottom, the Mausturm, a medieval tower topped with battlements and sitting alone on a rocky island in the Rhine. This last picture seizes him like a tight fist, as he hunches over and stares at it a long time. What’s he seeing? Anyone else—my family, for instance—would see just the puffy clouds, the fairy-tale trees, the little sailboat on the river, and we’d sigh in beach-breeze ecstasy. Only later, after gazing for a long time—and each of us alone, perhaps, and deep in a momentary “blues” after some fierce quarrel or other—would we notice, arching out stiff from a hole below one of the battlements, a long strange rope-like thing with a great furry knot at the end of it. (How we’d grimace and grunt with disgust and then go out to the porch and gaze on the banks and force ourselves to “think of something pleasant”!) Ferrell, now, he sees it right away—no puffy clouds or gay sailboat or fairy-tale trees for him: he sees right away the thing for what it is—the long bobbed tail of a monstrous rat.

If you were Ferrell at that moment—and I was Ferrell, but only for a moment, having made myself Ferrell (or as nearly him as I could imagine at fourteen)—you would feel, as I felt, a sudden black rage quivering at a world that permitted rat’s tails to arch out stiff from breezy castles on islands in the Rhine.

And I, Ferrell now, unhunch myself and turn around and pad in three long strides to the red-and-white sofa under the knotty-pine mantel-piece and kneel on its hard buttony cushions and bend an ear to the wall, to the red pie-pan covering the draft hole of the chimney, and though the thin foil I—Ferrell—hear the sea wind moan in unbearable anguish, and then I—Ferrell—shout out suddenly—as there’s no one in the cottage to hear, no one to flinch at my name spoken aloud, no one to set a fork down tap! too loud on a plate, no one to roll eyes over me or moan with pity at my pain—I, Ferrell, shout out suddenly and wildly, spit spraying all over the sofa “Fucker! Fucker! Fucker!” And from my chair I thought, in a dark and fearful wonder, eyes squeezed tight as they could go, He’s tainted it—our cottage, the Hilliard cottage. It’s absorbed him in every room—all of him!—his sweat-smell, his motor oil, his burnt cigarettes, his fingerprints on the furniture and Grandmother’s things, his fucker so harsh and hating, yet so groaning, so grieving, as if he just now learned some world he knew and loved has ended for him.

“Luns! Wake up! Let’s go swimmin’!” I snapped eyes open, blinked painfully at the ocean glare, saw Clara a yard in front of me and, down to my right, our grandparents and Mother strolling back from their walk, carrying paper sacks heavy with shells.

I watched Clara’s ash-blonde bangs all tangly in the wind, her chubby face (freckled just like mine), her plump little-girl’s body in a frilly polka-dot bathing suit, her feet dancing sand all over, and I felt suddenly light-hearted and relieved after all my dark and lonely dreaming.

“Come on!” she cried and then whirled and, with little arms wind milling, ran toward the waves and kicked into them, slapped them with delight, and I squeezed Ferrell from my mind. “Forever,” I whispered. “I’m tired of him. He’s too dark. Let him sleep.” And slipping off my tee-shirt, I sprinted out of my chair and down the sand and into the water after her.

Usually, in our swims together, we’d hold hands and leg-paddle in circles, splash each other, fling arms at the horizon and holler, “Let’s swim to Spain!” But that morning, as soon as I entered the water and felt the warm rollers heave up lazily against me, ballooning my trunks, I felt suddenly listless and sad and bored, as if a big cold anvil were in my belly. To lift myself out of it—“to cheer up,” as Mother would say—I turned around to gaze upon the warm, serenely glowing cupola. But my eyes fell on three friends of Mother’s whose names I have long forgotten. They were “society ladies” from Kinston and Goldsboro and were sitting out on the deck with gin-and-tonics in their hands. They were brown-faced blonde-dyed lip-sticked women of middle age—rather like Mother but older and matronly fat in frilly bathing suits. Seeing them sit so sag-fleshed and indolent there—“Just waiting to die,” I remember whispering angrily, “just drinking and stuffing themselves till they bloat on up and die”—I felt even heavier, sadder, like Mother’s “blues” when she’d get one of her “sick headaches” and start to cry and throw up and have to “take to the bed.”

Clara called, “Come on, Luns! Let’s swim to Spain!” but I yelled, “Don’t feel like it,” and after back-floating listlessly awhile, shouted, “Goin’ in!” and swam to shore. I heard her cross protests, but they faded soon into her usual squeals of delight.

Listless still, I decided to “perk myself up,” as Mother would say when she was down. I’d walk the mile and a half to banks-end—the Fort Macon breakwater of black boulders where you could long-leg it out to the very end and stand by yourself and watch Sound meet ocean and feel wave-spray flung up against you.

I slathered myself with sun lotion and began to walk down the hard sand. The cottages became more and more scattered, and soon I was walking a deserted beach quiet but for the cries of gulls and the snarling crests of waves followed by deep roars when they broke. I began to lope, my spirits high again. At this rate I’d make the breakwater in half an hour and be gazing on the wine-dark sea.

But then I was hearing something in the lull between the waves, from beyond the high dunes to my left. I stopped, put hands on hips, and listened. It was a faint buzzing that would start out low, nearly rumbling, then rise to a shrill prolonged snarl, then die down into the rumbling again. It came in spurts, like a fly in a closed room.

I knew it right away for Buford’s birthday present—the motorbike his dad had ordered him “special made.” At first I was only cross with it and plugged fingers in my ears and went on walking. But it kept piercing me, ugly and persistent, like a mosquito whining over your bed at night, and I heard in it those words of Grandfather’s over so many Sunday dinners: “Now take that Buford, he’s a real scholar!” and “Now Buford, he knows his history!” and “Buford’s a fine little gentleman!” And hearing that shrill snarl and Grandfather’s words rumbling beneath it, my crossness turned slowly sullen, and I said aloud, surprised and afraid even as I said it, “I’ll just go see that fucker making that racket.”

I ran to a dune and flailed wildly to the top, feet barely arching over the hot sand. At the crest I looked down and saw spread out before me, surrounded by high white oat-fringed dunes, a large square of sand-streaked asphalt, pitted and broken in places. It was the parking lot of a hotel that had burned down before I was born. Mother and my father spent part of their honeymoon there in the summer of ’49. Mother still talks about it—what a “smelly old dump” it was and how she was “sick to her stomach” the whole week and it was “perfectly dreadful.” It burned down the day after they left—“seriously,” she “wasn’t kidding.” “The old dump must’ve caught my disease,” she’d laugh for years afterward—and laughs so even unto this day.

Buford was buzzing his motorbike around and around the asphalt, in a broad circle, deftly avoiding the pits and ragged potholes. The bike was dark blue with yellow stripes and a yellow seat and yellow grips on the handlebars. The colors matched his Cub Scout shorts and yellow T-shirt, which he wore still, the shirt-tail out and flying, like a little flag.

I shut eyes and plugged ears a moment and pictured the place empty and alone, a hot sandy waste, like some canyon out west somewhere with tumbleweeds rolling over it, and off in the distance some older man coming toward me, about 40 or 50, riding a white horse. I felt suddenly a deep sadness I couldn’t account for, and then, to damp it, unplugged my ears and snapped my eyes open.

Buford suddenly slowed in his circle and buzzed to the opposite end of the lot, where he stopped and turned the bike to face me. Hunching over the handlebars, he peered in my direction, as if sighting a path to me. Then with a shrill shout he gunned the bike over the asphalt, head bent so low his corn silk hair flopped in his face. Half-way over, he gave his head a toss to clear his eyes and, mouth gaped, yelled a loud uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudn! to match the revving of the little engine. He shrilled straight toward me, then slowed to rumbling and stopped where the asphalt ended. There, some twenty yards away, he waved his stubby arms excitedly and piped out, “Hey, Luns!”

I folded my arms tight against me and sauntered down to the foot of the dune and stopped there. He’d have to come to me if he wanted to talk. I wasn’t walking one foot further.

He dismounted the bike and with the engine still rumbling ran with it over the sand, his hair flying. He came so close I could smell his salty child-sweat and the bubble gum on his breath. He grinned at me and piped, panting, “I just knew you’d come, Luns, buddy! Like my present? Isn’t it a neat little bike? Dad had it special made. Cost a hundred dollars! Wanna ride it with me?”

“No thanks,” I said, in that voice so cold and strange to me, even then, and I flailed for some even colder and harsher reply—a real barb—so I could hear him hurt again. I found it when I remembered Ferrell on our porch that morning and the words he’d flung at me, and I said, “I got better shit to do.”

But he kept that conceited grin on his face, as if he hadn’t heard me, and piped, “Then I’ll see you tomorrow maybe! At the Club! I’m bringin’ her over—for the first time ever! So long, Luns, buddy!” He turned the bike around and ran it back to the asphalt and then straddled it and gunned it into a wide shrilling circle, head flung back, ecstatic in his silly and futile ritual.

“Don’t dig it, hunh?”

I whirled. Ferrell stood dark and slit-eyed against the white dune. He had a brown fist on his pale-jeaned hip and in his other hand pinched a dead cigarette, wrinkled and twisted, one end of it chewed slightly.

“Ferrell! How’d you—“

”Yuh tole me yerself,” he laughed harshly. “’A little green tower with a light in it,’ remember? I didn’t see nuthin’ but bright shit but I remember where yuh pointed. And once I got to yer club it was easy—just saw yer folks and they tole me. That bitch at the check-in desk won’t about to let me in till yer old man spies me. He’s off at the other side of the room, jawin’ and jokin’ with another old fart—about sixty and so ginned up I can smell it where I stand—and yer old man sees me and comes over and says, ‘Mizz Lucy, he’s all right, one of our party’—shit like that—and then he puts on the shit-eatin’ smile and lowers his voice and says like he’s got a stick up his ass or a pine cone, one, ‘Aunt Emily’s boy, you know….’—like me and the old lady was just mule turds on a blacktop. And he nods at the bitch and then at me and says, ‘Good to have you, Son, glad you came over,’ not meanin’ a toad-shit of it, of course, and then he tells me yuh’d walked out this way—to see yer cousin Buford, he ‘expected’—and tole me how to get here, so I walk on down and here I fuckin’ am. Yuh see, baby, I got runny-shit bored sleepin’ all by my lonesome in that shack of you people’s—Jesus, just the fuckin’ wind wooooo-woooo-woooooin’ all the damn time—so I got in the machine and come on over.”

I started to ask him if he’d eaten the grapes or pulled down the clock, but I didn’t have time as he poked at the air behind me with his dead cigarette: “That shithead Buford? Fuckin’ noise makes me mad. Looked like you won’t diggin’ it either.”

I whirled. Buford was cutting a long figure eight over and over in the middle of the asphalt, the bike revving up taut and shrill on the straight stretch, then dropping to a little rumble as it slowed for the curve.

“Yeah,” Ferrell went on, “looked like you was really hatin’ that pissant, a-hatin’ him to death. I could tell by the way you were standin’, stiff as a old board nailed upside a pine tree. Just a-hatin’ him to death. And don’t he deserve it, too! Jesus! Like a big-ass fuckin’ bee!”

“No, I—, I—, he’s all right, I guess,” I said, high and breathless, “just a cousin, you know, sort of stuck up a little, that’s all—just a little bee, like you said, and—“ And I flailed for words that could explain to him what I felt about Buford. Then, I didn’t think it was hate, it could never be hate, such a “dangerous and futile emotion,” as Grandfather called it. No, it wasn’t hate I felt, surely, but just a confused and shapeless irritation, like being nipped at by a gnat on a summer night, and perhaps it would have gone on being so forever had Ferrell Marston not come to visit us in that humid and heat-charged core of August twenty years ago.

I stuttered on, flailing, “I—, I—, he’s just a cousin, wears white suits, pretty smart in school, gets A’s every time, and—“

Ferrell reared back, his brown neck sharp with his Adam’s apple, and broke into a long deep hack-laughing, “Shit, you people! Yuh all got yer fucker, Jesus, ever one of yuh! And deep in yer fuckin’ outhouse!”

And then they rushed out, like a sharp and painful vomiting—words I had never known were in me, words that shamed and grieved me even then, yet made me feel curiously alive and free and powerful. Every so often, when the shame wrenched my stomach, I thought of cutting them off right then and there and whirling about and running back to the Club and jumping into the surf with Clara, who was still swimming, I was sure, her little fingers wrinkled as prunes. But I couldn’t stop—and couldn’t leave him—for once the words had burst out of me they seemed to fuel themselves and flame higher and hotter, like some fire storm in California, and in those rare moments when I could not dredge up the word I wanted—needed—, I’d turn to Ferrell, my mouth in an ugly wrench (I felt it), and he’d snarl it out and so prompt me, all the while poking and waving his cigarette, as if he were conducting me.

“Naw, I ain’t diggin’ it!” I snarled. “He’s a little green—green—“

”Snotball,” Ferrell burst, prompting me, fueling me.

“Snotball,” I echoed. “A little greasy green snotball—and stuck up? Jesus, just ’cause his old man owns Kinston, of all hick places—owns the whole fuckin’ town—and he embezzled his money more ‘n likely, and don’t do a goddamn thing all day but sit on his—his—“

”Bleedin’ asshole,” Ferrell prompted, and then waved his cigarette and shouted, “Weeeeeeee-u! Yer gettin’ it, baby!”

“Yeah, nigger-fucked bleedin’ asshole”—I sniggered at my embellishment—“and watch his black buck-niggers pick and haul and fetch, but the snot thinks he’s hot stuff—“

”Shit, baby—hot perfumed nigger shit! I’ll learn yuh yet!”

“Hot White Shoulders shit!” I yelled. “What my old old lady puts on for Sunday dinner, stinks up the whole goddamn fuckin’ shitass house!” I felt a prick of shame even as I said this, but Ferrell sniggered, so I hardened myself and vomited on: “And just because he makes honor roll ever goddamn six weeks he Lords it all over ever body, talks down to you in a little—little—“

”Queer-pussy whine.”

“Yeah, queer-pussy whine,” and here I piped hoarsely, swishing my hips, “’Lunsford, honey, would you be so kind and ride my little bike with me? And then you can come eat lunch with me.’”

“Meanin’ eat you for lunch,” Ferrell sniggered, and then broke deep, poking his cigarette behind me, “How’s the shit-eater get his grades? He don’t look any smarter than a flea kissin’ a mule turd on a blacktop. A real re-tard.”

I turned around and watched Buford cut the same tight circle over and over, head thrown back, silly smile on his face, and then I faced Ferrell again and said, flailing, “He—, uh, well, he—“

”Sneaks,” Ferrell prompted. “Sneaks like a little green shit-snake—“

”Yeah, sneaks,” I echoed, and the whole scene rose up before me. “Sneaks in the classroom while ever-one’s gone to lunch and looks in the teacher’s roll book and picks up her red pen and goin’ real slow, real careful, writes a 94 over that 88! Cheats his eyes out, what that little fucker does!”

“Woooooooooooo-weeeeeee, baby! I’m through with you and you’ll be King Smelly Shit hisself—better ‘n me even! So okay now, yuh ain’t diggin’ the pissant, so what do yuh do to him? I ain’t heppin’ yuh now, yer on yer own, baby.”

“I’d—I’d—I’d pay back the little snot, Lordin’ it all over me! Show him who’s boss!”

“Yuh ain’t listenin’, baby—I says what do yuh do to him, not howfor or whycome. Give me the what, baby—the facks, the facks!”

“I’d—I’d—tie him up and beat the shit out of him if I could catch him—the little snot!”

“Aw, come on, baby, that’s pretty old—bad TV shit. Anyfuckin’body’d do that—and besides it’s fee-cees now. When yer beatin’ a man up you beat the fee-cees out of him, not the shit.”

“Okay, then, I’d—, uh, I’d—“ I flailed but couldn’t think of any one thing I could do that would really hurt the little snot. He had everything a boy could want (or so I thought): brains, money, expensive things to play with, a daddy in the house, and he was good, too, as Mother liked to point out—“polite,” “trustworthy,” “not a bit spoiled.” I could only hurt him—and I only felt this, not yet old enough to put it into words—in some deep down place in him tender as marrow, where lurked some secret grief of which even he was unaware. But what that grief was I couldn’t feel, not then, not yet, and so all I could do was yell out, nearly sobbing in my frustration, “I’d fuck him over! I’d fuck him over! I’d fuck him over!” at the top of my voice.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!” Ferrell broke and poked behind me with his cigarette. “Cut it. The snot’s coming over.” I heard the bike rumbling in idle and then whirled and saw Buford running it toward us through the sand. Ferrell said, awed, “Jesus, baby, yer shakin’ like a cottonwood tree. That kid really gnaws yuh.”

“Naw, he’s all right,” I said, exhausted suddenly, and I remembered the cottonwood tree I’d seen and loved just yesterday and so many Fridays long ago, its leaves trembling silver in the wind. I felt my lips quiver and to stop it pinched my nose and stared down on a tiny fragment of pink conch shell half-buried in the sand. The bike rumbled closer and then stopped, a yard away from us, idling loudly.

“Hey, Lunsford,” Buford piped. “Who’s your friend? He can ride, too! We’ll take turns! Isn’t it a neat little bike?”

I kept my eyes on the shell-fragment and made a cold hard ball in myself, black as asphalt and as bitter.

“Hey buddy-ro,” Ferrell broke harshly. “Yer ma’s callin’ yuh. Lunchtime!”

There was wave-roar for a moment and then Buford spoke, softer now, a shuddery hurt in his voice, as if he’d just seen a kitten mashed dead on a highway, “Okay. Tomorrow maybe. At the Club. Be seein’ you, Lunsford.”

The bike sputtered, revved loudly, then buzzed away from us and was soon snarling up shrilly through the gears, cutting, I imagined, its silly circles.

“Shit,” Ferrell said. “He’s done already forgotten us. Look at him makin’ it with that machine. Christ, it’s like it’s his bitch or somethin’. Time for you and me to take a ride, ain’t it?”

I kept my eyes on the shell a moment longer and then whirled, yelling, “Race you to the water!” and clambered up and over the dunes and sprinted down the beach toward the surf. I wanted to escape that hot waste with its lonesome dunes and asphalt lot of ragged potholes like grotesque sores—“Mother’s ‘dump’ even now,” I thought. I wanted to cleanse myself of all that sweaty nastiness, that strange ugly cursing, that bitterness.

When I reached the wave-lines on the hard sand, I stopped and listened for Ferrell but he wasn’t behind me. I whirled. He’d only reached the bottom of the dune and was slouching toward me, nibbling bits of ashes from his dead cigarette and spitting them aside. I ran back to him, yelling, “Come on in!”

“Naw,” he said. “Don’t swim none.”

“You don’t need to swim. You just flop and splash around and let the salt keep you up.” I grabbed his arm. He jerked it away as if a snake had bitten it and wrenched his mouth and broke out spit-spraying, “Don’t touch muh bod, queer! Don’t ever lay a finger on me! Don’t nobody touch Ferrell Marston lessen he’s to hurt him or kill him, one. I done learned that much in muh sixteen fuckin’ years. And another thing: I ain’t never settin’ foot in no pond, and this here peasoup, you take away them swells and it’s just another shit-greasy, frog-cruddy pond as far as I’m concerned!”

I flinched around so he wouldn’t see my lips quiver and raced in by myself, heart tight with hurt. When I reached the surf, I kicked at it and whispered, “I wouldn’t even spit on you, white trash common as dirt!”

I waded into the rollers until I was waist-deep and, to lighten my mood, skimmed arms over the water, scattering spray and foam. But then came slow into my hearing the taut shrill snarl of Buford’s motorbike—“what his daddy’d ordered special—just for him,” I remember whispering—and the ocean looked suddenly dull and tiresome and sad—a warm flat greenish soup, Ferrell’s pond indeed.

I turned around and with head bent waded listlessly back to shore, seeing stretched out ahead of me the rest of a long hot dull weary sad afternoon. But then, just as I reached the wave-line, I glanced up and saw Ferrell hadn’t left me. He sat maybe ten yards up the sand with his skull knees drawn up to him, his brown arms hugging them tightly. His slit-eyes looked out before him—whether at me or his “soup” I couldn’t tell. The chewed end of his cigarette stuck out of his shirt pocket. I dawdled up to him, more out of dull weariness than anything else—or so I told myself—and plopped down beside him and hugged my knees as tightly as he did and stared off at the ocean, hearing wave-roar and now and then Buford’s bike snarling up to shrillness.

Way out at sea big peaked cumulus clouds had begun to soar. I gazed on them—to “raise my spirits”—and thought for a moment of sprinting back to the Club and sitting by Clara in a cool captain’s chair under the umbrella and watching with delight those same peaked clouds. Yes, and when we got home, I’d ask Grandfather if Ferrell could sleep on the sofa, and then tomorrow, Sunday, I’d go to the Club in Grandfather’s Chrysler, leaving Ferrell to sleep like a dirt-farm dog, and race Clara up the hot green steps and into the cool-smelling ballroom and out over the hot sand and into the shade of the umbrella and everything would be as it used to be—cheerful, serene, content.

But then I heard, snarling in and out of the wave-roar, Buford’s little motorbike, and I saw how it really would be—tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that and on and on till the dull dead two weeks would be over: the Kinston ladies sitting smug and fat and brown-faced on the deck, sipping at their gins and just waiting to die, and then Buford bringing his bike over and buzzing it back and forth in front of the Club, grinning the pink gums and the tiny white teeth, and under the umbrella Grandfather making so much of him while I squirmed in my chair, and the whole time, a mile away, Ferrell lying by the pie-pan, runny-shit-bored—and maybe something else, too—grieving or hating, I wasn’t sure—moaning fucker fucker fucker and so us apart still, me here, him there, the big Chevy just outside the window, snoring warm and huge, waiting on us, and seeing all this as clear as I saw the banks through Grandfather’s binoculars not five hours ago, I knew I could not walk back to the Club and join Clara and hear with the old delight her piping laughter, “See, Luns? Cotton candy clouds!” I could never feel that old child-self again.

And yet I couldn’t stay by Ferrell either, for hadn’t he just flinched from me and called me “queer”? And this morning, when I asked him to ride over with us, hadn’t he yawned so rudely and flung at me he had “better shit to do”? So we could never be “buddies,” not on my terms anyway, that was certain. So what was the point of staying?

And yet in my weary “blues” I thought I had nowhere else to go. So I just stayed in my dark funk and went on sitting beside him and stared dull-eyed on the pea-soup sea, squirming now and then as Buford’s bike snarled up shrill as wire, then died to rumbling, snarled up shrill, then died to rumbling, snarled up shrill, then died to rumbling.

Soon, in and out of the snarling, I could smell Ferrell’s sweat and motor oil, could hear his whistling breaths, could almost feel (glancing at him now) the heat hotter than the day glowing from his flared chest as it rose high and then fell deep, gusting a whiff of burnt cigarettes. And as I heard it rise high, fall deep, rise high, fall deep, rise high, fall deep, the bike-snarl became no more to me than an insect I’d trapped in a glass jar, and I imagined that brute ’57 maroon-colored and solid somewhere—in the Club lot maybe—a sharp-finned warm-breathing dragon among all the cold dead clods of Cadillacs and Chryslers.

Suddenly inspired, knowing now the way, the only way, to become “buddies” with him, I turned to his pinched and sullen profile, cheeks grape-purple with acne, and put gravel in my voice as well as I could at fourteen and said, “Where’s your car—I mean, your machine? This pea-soup dulls me out, and I ain’t diggin’ that pissant buzzing either.”

He flicked a glance at me, then faced straight ahead and slurred “Over on the road.”

“Not in the lot?”

“Naw, figured somebody’d fuck-bash it with one of them Caddies. Why yuh ask? Thought yuh were scared of it.”

“Naw,” I said. “Not no more. Let’s drive the fuck out of it!”

A slow lazy grin spread across his face. “Hey! Hey! HEY!” he sang, his voice cracking high now, almost boyish, and his eyes swelled out of their slits like a frog’s. “Yer gettin’ it now, baby, showin’ some sense! When yuh want—“

”Tonight. After supper.”

“Smooth as shit, baby. And where to?”

I felt a friendliness flare out of him like warm muscle, and I lurched to my feet and whirled and he lurched up and whirled after me and I flapped a hand beyond the dunes, beyond the sand-waste, beyond Buford’s buzzing, toward Fort Macon Road.

“We’ll drag over thar,” I sang, putting on as thick a dirt-farm voice as I could imagine at fourteen. “It’s a ree-ul fuckin’ strip, lemme teh-yuh, Bobby Joe, and not a body drives it after eight. And yuh teach me, hunh? Seein’ as yuh know all ’bout them thar cars—I mean ma-sheens—and draggin’ tars and jack-up rears and such. Yeah, we’ll drag the fuck out of it, tear the goddamn tar off of it clean on down to the dirt, whomp ever goddamn door off them fuckers, jest you and me, hunh?”

He was staring frog-eyed at the dunes where I waved, and I reached out to touch him, thinking I had him now, we’d be buddies now, I’d found my charm to lure him. But then I remembered how he’d flinched from me earlier and thought better of it and drew my hand back and just stared at him, mouth still open on my hunh?

His face went slowly sullen, eyes receding into slits, grin dissolving into grim frown, and he turned around, slowly, and I followed him, turning slowly, and watched him look slit-eyed at the ocean again. He held that grim sullen look a moment and then pinched his cigarette out of his shirt pocket and began to chew on it absently. After a minute of wave-roar and gulls’ cries, he said in a flat cold dead voice I’d not yet heard in him: “Sure thing. Don’t make me no never mind. After supper, then. ‘Round dust-dark.”

With a sudden angry stabbing, he stuck his cigarette back in his shirt pocket and pinched a shred of tobacco off his lip and flicked it away. Then, eyes lowered, he brushed past me and started slouching back toward the Club.

I didn’t follow him—why, I don’t know. Perhaps it was the sudden exhaustion I felt just then, as if I’d run a mile and swum three hours as well. Or perhaps it was that strange change in him: that sudden wide-eyed singing, like a boy, and that friendliness flaring out of him like pumped muscle—and then, like a single light switched off in a room at night, that grim slit-eyed look again and the angry stabbing of his weed and the flat dead cold in his “Sure thing, don’t make me no never mind.” It was as if when I yelled, “Let’s drive the fuck out of it!” he saw me as a friend at last, another warm muscle to drag with down a dark straight road in the night; but then, when I lurched up and waved beyond the dunes and yelled, my words must have festered some lump in him as dark and ugly as Emily’s scowl flickering over her mouth—that lump some dark purpose which was unknown even to himself and which had driven him down like a fate to my cramped room in that core of August 1963.

I only know this now, twenty years later. Then, I was merely puzzled by his change, and a little afraid, and just stood and watched him slouch away, shrinking slowly to a small brown stick with a tiny knot of black at the top of it. Soon he was just the black knot. Then I saw only the russet-tinged white of the empty beach, a little pearly cumulus cloud floating high above the dunes. Buford’s bike once more snarled up to shrillness, died down to rumbling, then stopped and was quiet, and all I was hearing were the waves and the sharp cries of a gull flying over. Then I noticed I was shivering. The pearly cloud had just hidden the sun and the wind was picking up. Chafing my arms, I started slowly back to the Club.

III

That evening Ferrell came to supper, his first meal with us. (Before, he’d eaten cold cuts in my room that Grandmother had left for him in the refrigerator.) We sat beside each other, our backs to the picture window. All through the meal his smell was thick and sour still (he hadn’t bathed since he’d been with us and he wore the same cutoffs and sleeveless shirt), but none of us Hilliards showed we noticed it: no noses crinkled, no eyebrows arched, no mouths pursed in disgust. We all chattered on as if he weren’t there.

But every now and then I’d go quiet and withdraw from the rest of them and, feeling suddenly impish and perverse, hope Ferrell would lick his knife with an ugly flourish or spit squash blatantly into a napkin or pick at his teeth with a dirty fingernail—behavior I knew Grandfather “could not abide.” And if this wouldn’t get a rise out of the old man, I’d hope he’d croon sarcastically over the “de-veined” shrimps in the salad or interrupt one of Grandfather’s anecdotes with “Save it for the sermon, Reverend,” or words equally as rude.

But he “minded his manners,” as Grandmother would say: held the fork as we Hilliards did and chewed slowly and quietly, keeping his eyes lowered.

And he didn’t say a word until, halfway through the peaches and cream, during a lull in the chit-chat, he raised his head and brayed at Mother straight out, “Yuh mind, ma’am, I take yer boy to the beach tonight? I’m drivin’ over.”

Mother flinched, kept her dessert spoon midair a moment, frowned as if to say, “Honestly! Why didn’t that boy stay in bed!” and then set the spoon down with a sharp tap on the plate. She wiped her frown off with a napkin and then put on her “let’s-be-happy” smile and sang breathily to Ferrell, “Oh, that sounds like such fun! Luns just loves the Eighteen Trickly Holes, don’t you, darling? Just drive carefully now, you promise?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ferrell muttered. “It ain’t no race track over yonder.”

She flinched and frowned again—just a flicker this time—then put her smile back on and sang, “Y’all have a good time now. I’m sure you’ll just love our little Atlantic Beach!”

“We’ll do all right,” Ferrell said, a sudden harshness in his voice, as if he were cursing. There was silence a few seconds while his dark voice seemed to echo around us, and then Clara piped for the water pitcher, and, as if on cue, the chitchat began again—light, empty, trivial, the same dull words I’d heard all my life.

By eight o’clock supper was done, and Ferrell and I quit the cottage and went out to the twilit lawn, the wind barely a breath now, and entered our beast. The seat-vinyl was wet with dew from the left-open windows, and I shivered with pleasure when I sat on it. Ferrell started the engine and immediately gunned it in three great floor-vibrating roars, and I felt my whole body tremble with their crude power. He let it idle quietly for a moment and then slowly released the clutch, and we eased out into the dead end and then onto Shackleford and started rumbling slowly toward the bridge.

Three blocks from the cottage we stopped for a light and I thought, “They’re sitting on the porch now, craning and gawking and sighing and saying dumbass shit to each other, telling dumbass stories. But I’m here, away from them—at last!” I tensed my whole body, felt the rear-jacked wheels in the forward tilt of my stomach, squeezed eyes shut, and like a tightly coiled spring waited for the green light and the “scratch off”—my lunge into ecstasy. I could already hear that lifter-bare 357 roaring to life, could already smell the burnt rubber and exhaust reek, could already hear the wild and thrilling cry as it soared up through the gears. It would be the Cat in second, I was sure, and Mr. Dynamo in high.

But when the light clicked green, the Chevy just eased forward, the clutch being slowly released, and soon we were rumbling thirty or thirty-five. My eyes still shut, I heard Ferrell laugh harshly above the engine, “Jesus! Look at yuh! Fool wants to bust it out all at once! Never no patience! Two things yuh got to learn, baby. One’s control and the second’s finesse, and yuh cain’t have one without the other. Yuh got to work yer way up gra-du-al, pumpin’ slow and easy, lettin’ the little spark-pain rise oh so slow to the big-gob pain, the God-good pain that shivers yuh all down in yer insides, and then, baby—then, when yuh just cain’t for sweet-ass Jesus’ sake, keep it back noooooooooooooooo more longer, yuh unh! unh! unh!—bust it on out like a snake spittin’. Shit, quit that tensin’ up, just like a damn girl!”

I relaxed and opened my eyes. We were turning left onto the bridge. It was the end of twilight, the sky the color of a bruise. Ferrell drove a steady thirty-five. Ahead of us loomed the bridge-girders, blooming with the green lights. The Sound was the same bruised violet as the sky, and the banks lights were already glowing. Marines would be roaring there now, in brute cars like this one, their faces flushed and sweating, curled in cigarette smoke.

We were passing under the girders when Ferrell slowed to twenty-five and broke, “Yeah, Alford, baby, yuh got to go gra-du-al yuh want to be a fucker—prime-meat fucker, I’m meanin’ now.” He slowed to twenty, then ten, then five miles an hour. A car honked fretfully behind us, and when the other lane was clear, swerved around and passed us, engine whining in second gear. It was a white Impala, ’60 model, with wings in back and two pairs of taillights. The driver—I barely glimpsed him—was a lantern-jawed man of twenty-five or so with black-framed glasses and shock of brown hair—not a Marine.

“Yeah, show finesse, baby, finesse,” Ferrell broke on, not seeming to notice that a car had passed him—and an ordinary car at that. “Like yer old man yestiddy—strollin’ up to me so gra-du-al, takin’ his time, thinkin’, yuh see, showin’ finesse, and then his hand flingin’ out like a snake strikin’—fuck, just like that.” Ferrell reached out and slapped the dashboard and then muttered on, “Yeah, yuh got to claw a dead worm up out of the goddamn dirt and ram it deep in yer mind and twist and wrench it around a little, testin’ it like, one side and then another, and then, when yuh know, go whomp! fuck! got him! Yeah, baby, yuh got to have a thing in mind ‘fore yuh fuck a body over.”

I shivered violently at his talk, but before I had time to think about it, our beast lunged into speed and we squealed off the bridge and onto the causeway, a narrow two-laner. The speedometer, glowing green, needled to forty, fifty, sixty. Ferrell’s jaw tensed in the glow, his lips tight and grim. Ahead of us loomed the orange taillights of the Impala. In the other lane a single headlight was nearing fast—a motorcycle’s. Just as we seemed about to ram the Impala, Ferrell jerked the wheel with one hand and then the shift-lever with the other and we swerved out and snarled to eighty and shot past the Impala and then squalled back into our lane just as the ‘cycle swerved left and bobbed, wheels running off the shoulder a moment, and then flashed by us in a blur, the little horn keening.

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEYOW!” Ferrell sang and looped our beast into high. “That bike bastard’s really bitchin’ now, ain’t he? And that skinny moron queer in the ‘Pala, too. Bet he’s squealin’ like a pig under a hacksaw. And yuh know why, Alford? It’s ’cause I worked up itty-bitty slow and gra-du-al, and then grabbed me up some slimy dead worm out of the deep dirt and rammed it in muh mind and stroked it awhile, testin’ it like, and then whomp!—fucked ’em over fast. Looked like the bike bastard drove him a Harley all fucked up with them skinny-assed forks. Tell me, Alford, where’s that pinshit live? Buford, that it? Yer cousin Buford—and mine, too, I remember right. Where’s he live at?”

We had slowed to forty, the speed limit, and were approaching the bright swarm of lights that marked the Amusement Park. At Ferrell’s words, a cold fear ran all over me and my belly coiled tight as a clenched fist.

“Naw,” I said. “I don’t have nothin’ against Buford. He’s okay, he—“

“Cut it. I’m just askin’ yuh where he lives at—his house, baby—where he shits, brushes his teeth, keeps his bike.”

We entered the park and began to circle it slowly, passing Ferris wheel, bumper cars, arcade, then a brightly lit beer bar outside of which a hulking marine with tattoos on his arms stood smoking a cigarette. When we came before the Eighteen Tricky Holes, I began to shiver violently and felt like getting out right there and then, jumping out while the car was moving if I had to, and walking straight back to the cottage. They’d be out on the porch still. Grandfather’d be telling a story . . .  

“Well,” Ferrell broke, “yuh gone answer or be a bitch? Where’s that pinshit live at?”

“Naw,” I said, shivering still, mouth dry as cotton. “Let’s leave Buford alone. He’s all right—he’s just—”

“Cut it,” he said coldly. “Yuh won’t answer, we’ll just take yuh on back to Mama.” He gunned the Chevy and we lurched into speed, squealing around the last quarter mile of the circle, the lights blurring by us. And I thought of tomorrow and the Club and Buford bringing his bike over and snarling it back and forth on the beach and Grandfather talking about him while I squirmed in my chair and how depressing it would be, and my shivering went away and I muttered, “Okay, I’ll tell you. When you get to the light, turn like you’re going to the Club. But we ain’t going to touch him, no beatin’ any fee-cees out of him.”

Ferrell hacked a laugh and then slowed the car and said, “Yuh ain’t hearin’ me, baby. I didn’t say nothin’ about no fee-cees. I said show me his house, where he keeps his goddamn fuckin’ bike. Jesus, wasn’t you the one bitchin’ about it all afternoon? Yuh know, baby—that jigger he was makin’ it with, like it was his bitch or somethin’. Yuh remember that shit-eatin’ grin. Puts me in mind of a tom-cat upside his only goddamn pine tree in the whole goddamn worl’.”

We finished the circle, came to the light, and swung onto Fort Macon Road and started down it. Ferrell kept the Chevy at an even thirty-five.

Suddenly his plan became clear to me: “You going to steal it, then?”

Ferrell hacked a laugh, “You and me gone steal it, just us two fuckers.”

“And do what with it?”

“We’ll get to that when we come to it. When yuh fuck a body over, yuh don’t know how yuh’ll do it till yuh start the process, dig?”

“Yeah, I see,” I said, thinking he meant we’d steal it and dump it in the woods by the road, and Sunday morning I could go to the Club and not have to hear it, and I’d have Ferrell with me and we’d swim together.

“Yeah, man,” I sang out, light-hearted for the first time that night. “You know, Ferrell, you’re really smart. Stealin’ his bike, I’d never think of that.”

He didn’t say anything, not even a grunt—just hunched himself sullenly over the wheel and slit eyes down the dark road flanked with live oak and clusters of cottages. My lightheartedness went away and I shivered on the vinyl.

The Club sign loomed before us and then whipped past. I had time for only a glance up the drive, but in that glance I saw everything: the lot full of cars bright under floodlights, the long dark-shingled facade framed by pale dunes, the dark cupola with its little lamp cheerfully glowing. The ballroom windows were raised wide, the curtains rippling and billowing, and into the lighted frames couples in white suits and dresses danced now and then, holding each other. For that bright aching moment I wanted us to stop right there—wanted it so much I could see us turning into the lot and then parking and bursting out and scrambling up the steps now cool in the dark and entering the ballroom with its polished wood floor shining under soft lights, its cool breeze full of soft perfume-smelling talk and “Blue Moon” or “Love Me Tender” played on the juke box, and from outside, surging now and then into the talk and the music, the faint lonely roar of the ocean that would still be warm from the sun. For a moment I wanted all this—wanted Ferrell and me to be there, inside, moving among the dancers. But then I heard in memory the conceited little snarling of Buford’s bike, saw again the pea-soup “pond” Ferrell hated, felt again his chest-flaring heat as he’d sat beside me on the sand, breathing in his whistles. And I squeezed the Club from my mind and leaned forward and slapped the dashboard and yelled, “Let’s drive this baby!”

Ferrell laughed, “Yer dumber than Buford if anybody could be dumber than that pin shit. We got us a job first, baby, yuh forgettin’. Then we’ll drag. We got us all night to drag, honey chile. Finesse, baby, finesse!”

“I know,” I muttered, suddenly sullen again. “I ain’t got no control.”

We had passed a cluster of beach houses and were riding between dark walls of live oak and cedar. I strained eyes for the Whitfield’s private streetlamp and soon saw it sticking up a few hundred yards ahead of us, a good ways into the trees and shining up over them.

“Slow this monster, “ I said, pointing ahead to a break in the trees. “You turn in here.”

“Turn in, shit,” Ferrell said. “Don’t yuh know nuthin’?”

He cut the engine and braked, easing our beast off the road and into a turnaround where I felt it sink a little in the sand. He was out his side before I could say anything. I got out then and loped after his pale khaki as it bobbed down the narrow white-graveled drive. I followed him around a long curve, flanked by dark cedars, and then suddenly the trees spread away from us and made a large circle and we were standing before the house, in the full light of the streetlamp.

“Get back, fool!” Ferrell whispered. We scurried to a rack of trashcans near the line of trees and crouched down behind them. Looming before us was a large two-story beach-house set high up on piles hidden by latticework. It was dark-shingled and had windows with dark-striped awnings slanted down before them. Between us and the house two white New Yorkers of recent model were parked on a cement pad fringed with potted geraniums. The streetlamp stuck up from the corner of the pad farthest away from us, beside the back steps. Against the dark pole leaned the little blue-and-yellow motorbike, its tires glistening with sand grains under the light.

Seeing the big house, the fancy cars, the private streetlamp, the driveway and parking pad that even in ’63 must have cost ten thousand dollars, I squirmed with anger and said, my voice just above a whisper, “Hell, stealing it won’t hurt him one bit! His daddy owns Kinston; he’ll just go to that mechanic and order him—“

”Cut it,” Ferrell whispered. “I know yer madder ‘n hell about that. Makes me mad, too, now I’m thinkin’ of it. But now I’m rememberin’ that shit-eatin’ grin, how he was gettin’ off on it, like a tom-cat upside a pine tree. And I’m thinkin’ now—fuckers think, yuh know, they’re always thinkin’—I’m thinkin’, shit no, we don’t just steal it—we ain’t just sneak-thieves. Naw, baby, we de-stroy it, we dam-age it, piece by piece, so he cain’t never ride it even one more time.”

“But still,” I whispered, “his daddy owns—“ (I thought he meant tear the bike up and then throw it off in the woods someplace.)

“Yuh ain’t listenin’, fool. I said we destroy it, whomp it apart, ever little piece of it, so the pin shit sees it that way—sees it tomorrah mornin’—all piled up—smashed—comes out the door with that Cheshire-cat grin on his face and maybe his eyes closed to do the surprise bit all over again—I know the type—yuh told me about him, didn’t yuh?—and comin’ up to it itty-bitty slow he’ll stop a foot away and then snap his eyes open and presto! he’ll see garbage, baby, garbage!”

“Sssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” I said. Ferrell had broken out of his whisper, going hard on the garbage, as if he hated saying it. My belly clenched cold. “I’m goin’ home,” I said, and lurched up to run back to the road.

“Naw yuh don’t, fucker!” Ferrell gripped my arm and began pulling on me. I squirmed and wrenched, but his grip was too strong for me, and in a few seconds he had me back down beside him, our ribs touching. He leaned in my face and whispered harshly, “Yer goin’ through with it, fucker. It was you done started it, way back—on yer porch, remember? ‘I got a cousin over there,’ remember? But I’m thinkin’ now maybe yer old man—maybe it was him done started it way before that, stickin’ his arm out like a goddamn snake. But he’s so limp-dick old he done long forgot he ever had a fucker, and anyway he’s gone beddy-bye, baby, and yer still young as a green snake just out of Mama’s cunt and I got yer freckled ass aside me and so yer gone finish it now—what you started, what all you freckle-ass Hilliards started with yer low-down oozy secret-fucker, yer secret-hatin’ pity. Naw, baby, yuh ain’t cuttin’ out on me now.” He dug his nails in my arm till I nearly cried out, and then flicked it away like an old stick, and I stayed crouched beside him, drained suddenly and knowing in a child’s wordless way that I couldn’t leave him—not yet anyway. Grandfather had started it with his proffered hand and sighing pity and I had taken it up when I told him about Buford, and now it was me had to finish it.

We stayed quiet a moment, breathing beside each other, and then my mood lightened a little when it suddenly occurred to me how smart this Ferrell was: not just stealing the bike but trashing it and then letting Buford see the garbage—that was really the worst thing we could do to the little snot.

“You know, Ferrell,” I whispered. “This is worse than killing him even. Dead, Dee-di’d still bring him up—what a saint he was and all. But now—“

”A heap-fuck worse than killin’ him,” Ferrell broke, coming out of his whisper. “Now let’s cut the fuckin’ talk and sneak up on it.”

We got down on our bellies and like commandos crawled over the gravel and then the cement of the parking pad. When we reached the bike we rose and surrounded it and, gripping seat and handlebars, lifted it and began to lug it between us, walking, for silence, over the carpet of cedar needles along the edge of the drive. At first the thing was dew-clammy in our hands and heavier than we’d imagined, and we whispered curses as we carried it. But halfway to the car it seemed suddenly lighter, and we stepped faster, and the seat-vinyl grew warm and pliant in my grip. I fancied I was molding it like clay, like flesh—forcing breath out of it, strangling it, and I felt for the first time that night the sensation of the “Jigger Moment”—that raw angry spasm of Marine-muscle freedom and power.

In a minute we had it by our beast and then laid it in the trunk, carefully, as if it were a sleeping calf. Then we pulled down the trunk lid as far as we could and tied it to the bumper with some oily rags Ferrell had gripped up from beside the spare tire. I started around for my seat.

“Unh-unh,” Ferrell said. “Not yet. I need yer little ole freckly arms, he-man.” He gripped a flashlight out of the glove compartment and flicked it on and started for the dark trees. I followed him through close cedars and live oak and into a tiny clearing where he bent over and, running the light-beam along the ground, began groping for twigs, sticks, fallen limbs. Some he flung aside, muttering, “Wet as goddamn pussies!” The dry ones he grabbed up and laid in my arms stretched out before me. When he’d picked the clearing as clean as he could, he pinched a pocket knife out of his back pocket and cut tiny twigs from the cedars and stripped bark from their trunks and laid the stuff on top of my load. When my arms were full, wood touching my chin, he sent me back to our beast where I shoved the load with a great rustling into the back seat. Then I whirled and ran back to the clearing and he loaded me again. Five armloads later he came to the car and peered in the back seat and, seeing the wood heaped up to the roof, muttered, “Enough for tonight, baby. For this drag anyways.”

Then we were riding again, our nostrils tingling with raw cedar. We passed the sign for Fort Macon Park and a quarter mile further, found a break in the trees, a sand-track, and turned into it and drove toward the beach. Our beast slewed and wallowed, but then the fat tires gripped at last and we gunned through a break in the dunes and rolled out to the beach and stopped, parallel to the ocean. Ferrell cut the engine and then the headlights and broke, “Now we’ll rest a little. Got us a long way tonight, baby.”

It was black night, without a moon, but the stars were myriad and close and gave light enough to show me, some hundred yards ahead, the black jagged line of the breakwater, the rocks thrusting up in sharp points. Beyond was the black reach of the inlet scattered with the gently bobbing lights of buoys and shrimp boats going out to sea. Beyond the reach floated a pink mist of light over Beaufort. To our left, scattered over the pale dunes, were the little black rectangles of picnic tables. By one of them Clara and I had roasted marshmallows just two Saturdays ago. Further to our left, toward the inlet, blocked from our sight by the high pale dunes, was the sunken brick fort where that same Saturday I had rambled with Clara through the dark rooms, exploring them with delight. I was seized with a sudden longing—a strange sweet ache—but I didn’t have time to think about it, as Ferrell slapped the dashboard, jerked on the headlights, and muttered, “Let’s get this over with, fucker.”

We burst out and ran back and untied the trunk and lifted the bike out and set it on the sand. We rolled it down fifty yards toward the breakwater and placed it in the beams of the headlights, handlebars facing the car. Then we ran to the beast and loaded our arms with the sticks and limbs and wood-shavings and ran back and began stacking the wood into a teepee a few yards from the bike. A few armloads later, we had the teepee high as we were. Then we sloshed kerosene on the wood from a Clorox bottle Ferrell’d gripped out of the trunk. Then we lit it with his kitchen matches and watched flame shoot up in one tremendous whoosh!—so sudden and fierce it drowned the ocean a moment. When the flames had crawled over the whole tee-pee, we ran back to our beast and scrambled in and Ferrell started the engine and gunned it seven times, in deep heavy roars. (I counted them aloud, savoring every number.) Then he backed it up a long slow-whining way and eased it to a stop, took a deep breath, and then muttered, “Here’s yer drag, baby.”

We shot forward, roaring and slewing in the sand. I watched fire and handlebars lunge at us and I shut eyes, waiting eagerly for the metal-burst, the wild snapping and crumpling. But Ferrell downshifted, tires spun, our beast slewed, then straightened, then stopped, and when I opened my eyes the bike stood whole, not a foot from our bumper, and Ferrell broke, “But I ain’t gone hurt muh machine—not even for you, baby. We’ll use that there.” He pointed to the black jagged line of the breakwater. “And that there, burnin’ so fine.” He pointed to the fire that was blazing high now, shooting sparks all over. “And these here—what makes it pure un-al-loyed un-al-dul-ter-ated mean fucker.” He reached under the seat and pulled out two dark heavy-looking tools and laid them side by side on the vinyl between us. In the flickering light of the fire I saw a thick mallet and beside it a hacksaw with a blade as long as my arm. He reached under again and pulled out another saw and another hammer and set them beside the others.

“Did just like a fucker, bringin’ these critters,” he broke. “Didn’t know what I’d use ’em for till I was in the process, had a worm in mind. So grab up yer critters, baby, and let’s trash.”

He was out of the car so fast—nearly bursting the door off its hinges—I had no time to think about how my stomach had fallen when I opened my eyes and saw the bike uncrumpled, still whole, and then how it had coiled with fear at his words and the dark tools he’d laid beside me. Wild to follow him, as if possessed by some spell of him I could not then articulate, I merely gripped their cool handles and felt an excitement new to me, a sort of cold grinning glow, and followed him out into the night.

From this moment on, I didn’t have to ask him directions. I had only to listen to him and ape his every move, like someone learning to dance, and I’d know what thing to grip and when to grip it and what curses to yell and which direction to run and lunge and how far back to rear.

We set our tools by the fire and gripped the bike by seat and handlebars and ran it rolling to the breakwater and paused a moment, to catch our breaths. I heard waves thudding and groaning as they surged up on the rocks.

“Let’s loosen the pussy,” Ferrell said, and we gripped the bike and raised it between us and, facing the breakwater, reared it back high over our heads, paused a moment, then slammed it down on the rocks. “Weeeeeee-u! Full body slam!” Ferrell yelled, and I heard the sharp ping of some little part of it go scuttering over a rock somewhere.

“Again!” Ferrell yelled, and we lunged for the thing and clawed it and gripped it and raised it and reared back and slammed it down. And again we slammed it, and again, and again, until Ferrell said, “That’s enough, baby. We got her loose. Let’s slice her now.”

We lugged it rattling in our hands to the fire and in the light of the flames did our cold obsessive work. We gripped up our hacksaws and with slow wheezing strokes cut the handlebars into little discs. Then we severed the wheel spokes, shredded the tires and seat-vinyl and little grips we’d yanked off the handlebars. With the thick mallets we shattered the side-view mirror and broke off the fenders and crumpled them, dented the frame where the breakwater hadn’t. Then we gathered the discs and the cut spokes and the shreds of seat and grips and tires and laid them in three separate piles. Then we raised the beaten frame and held it over the fire, and Ferrell yelled, “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEYOW! A goddamn skunk done got fuck-squashed in the road!” When the frame began to soften we bent it nearly double and set it on the sand and with our mallets hammered on it wildly. In half an hour we had the whole thing garbage—one steaming mass of crumpled frame and three little piles of pieces—spoke-lengths, discs of handlebars, shreds of seat and grips and tires.

Leaving the fire to burn itself out, we loaded the wreck into the trunk and closed the lid—no need to tie it now—and then scrambled back in our beast and roared slewing and spinning to the blacktop and then on back to Buford’s, yelling wildly out the windows, at the tops of our lungs.

We parked in the same turnaround and in three trips sneaked the “garbage” down the long curved driveway to the parking pad. We laid the mangled frame under the streetlamp and the other parts in three neatly squared piles around it.

Our whole way back to the cottage Ferrell drove an even thirty-five. We didn’t say anything for a long time. It seemed we’d forgotten my drag—tearing up that Fort Macon Road. Exhausted, I began to drift off just as we reached the bridge and started over it.

“Home, sweet home,” Ferrell broke, and I jerked awake. In my drowsiness I nearly yelled, “Hey, Ferrell, let’s pick out our cottage!” But then I squinted at the shore and saw only darkness with a few dim lights scattered here and there, and I was brought back to myself and remembered where I was—in a dragstrip demon that smelled of motor oil and male-sweat—and I remembered that it was night—long past midnight—and what I had done, my ears still ringing with engine roar and strange wild yells and, fainter, in a little dim place back in my brain, the paired rhythmic wheezings of two hacksaws on metal, and I knew with a sudden icy fear that I could never play that game again and so stopped myself. The girders loomed before us, glowing green. We passed under them. I did not look up.

Back at the cottage we found a note on the stoop door—from Grandfather—that we be sure and lock it. I told Ferrell I wanted to stay on the stoop awhile, and he grunted, “Suit me, baby,” and went inside. I heard his floor-pounding steps through the living room and then the sharp slam of the louver door. “Let him wake ’em all, I don’t give a shit,” I whispered, and shut the stoop door sharply.

I watched its pale wood a moment and then, without knowing why, I about-faced and stepped to my right and pressed my back stiff against the clapboards, right beside the door-hinges. Then, very slowly, I raised my right hand and curled it till it gripped an invisible pistol, a black .45, heavy and shining in the streetlight. Then I gritted teeth, bugged eyes, tightened every muscle until I felt like the Marine in Mother’s story, big gun cocked and ready to shoot her dead if she came out to the stoop. I held that pose a long time and then suddenly began to shiver uncontrollably. I breathed deep to still myself but felt a spasm of nausea and let arm fall and lurched to the stoop railing and gripped it and bent over and in wave after gut-coiling wave heaved supper into the hydrangea bushes. It went on a minute maybe, wrenching me, shaking me, balling sweat all over. When it stopped finally, I lurched around and stumbled inside and quietly bolted the door behind me. Then I padded through the dark cottage and into my room. I eased up beside Ferrell and turned on my side and fell at once into sleep.

I dreamed I was swimming with Clara in front of the Club. It was a windy, blue, cloud-puffy day. The water was smooth and turquoise-green, and the waves were high—ten-foot swells, it seemed—higher than I’d ever seen before. We were dogpaddling far beyond the end of the fishing pier, in water over our heads, and we rose and fell with the gently heaving swells, laughing wildly when we reached the crests. Suddenly I caught a roller far out and much higher, thirty feet at least. It was of darker green than the others and more ruffled in the wind, and near its crest schools of fish were flicking and splashing.

“That one’s for me,” I yelled. “I’m ridin’ it!”

Clara’s eyes widened. “Luns, we’d better go in. Mommy’s calling us.”

“I’m ridin’ it, and you can’t stop me!” I yelled crossly.

She began to cry in a long bitter wailing broken with breath-catches, as she would when she was four and five and I’d tease her. She started dogpaddling back toward the beach, still crying in that bitter wail, as if she’d learned that something dear to her was dead and she could never get it back.

But I wasn’t to be moved. Arms flailing, I swam furiously at the wave, wanting to catch it at the moment it would start to break. But a current snatched at me, pulled me sideways, and I floundered while the wave went on soaring. It crested suddenly and then I was down in its trough, staring upward at snarling foam. I wrenched myself around, glanced shoreward. Clara was standing on the beach, waving at me and wailing, “Oh, Luns! Luns! I’ll never see you again!”

IV

I sat up, heart pounding, but then caught Ferrell’s dark shape against the pale sheets and above it the little round mirror shining in the light of the streetlamp, and I remembered where I was and lay back on the pillow. Afraid to fall asleep again, I just stared for a time at the light-paled ceiling. Soon morning began to grey outside, and I put the dream out of my mind and breathed deeply of the breeze that had begun to swell in through the open window, fluttering the curtains. It bore the sweet crepe myrtle and the flapping of Mother’s and Clara’s bathing suits hanging on the line.

Then I was hearing something different—from out beyond louver door and living room and porch—from right out in the middle of the Sound—a low buzz, faint at first, like a fly, but then rising quickly into a loud tight snarl—a motorboat accelerating. I poked fingers in my ears and eased out of bed and quietly shut and bolted the big door and then eased back into bed again. The snarl grew fainter, but it pierced me still, echoing off the bungalows across the street. I sat up and grabbed the window stick and yanked it out and the sash banged on the sill, and then it was quiet, the snarling gone but for a shadow now and then. Ferrell groaned and fluttered but didn’t wake, slid back to his whistling snore. I lay back on my pillow. In a minute the room turned uncomfortably warm.

“But I’ll be out of here soon, cool in an hour,” I whispered. “Yes, and after breakfast we’ll drive to the Club, in the Chevy, just the two of us, and meet the family there, and I can show him the Club, at last, and he can watch Clara and me bop over the floor, and then I can take him swimming.”

At breakfast an hour later, Ferrell ate six pieces of bacon and two helpings of scrambled eggs. He shoveled the food down, smacking his lips and belching, but none of us Hilliards showed we noticed it. Mother and Grandfather and Grandmother and Clara just prattled on with their chitchat and passed him the bowls when he asked for them.

As for me, I was yawning so much I hardly ate at all—just picked at my cornflakes, nibbled some banana. Mother, noticing, said, “Lunsford, you’re just picking,” and then she mimicked my yawn and said, “Up late, hunh?”

She was trying to be “pleasant,” but to me at that moment her tone was insinuating, accusing, and I snapped, “Not as late as you, Miss Joan, when we were babies and you stayed out with your boyfriends till two o’clock in the damn morning.”

Her mouth fell open. The whole table—even Ferrell— turned so quiet I could hear a child scream suddenly with laughter down by the Sound. I pinched my nose to keep from bursting into tears and then grumped, “We’ll see who’s pickin’!” While the table stayed quiet, everyone staring at me, I reached over and forked two strips of bacon and gobbled them down and then emptied my juice glass in a swallow. Then I patted my chest and belched long and loud. Ferrell burst into a long wild hack-laugh, spraying out bits of food. Grandfather went red for a moment, but then chuckled softly, shaking his head, and as if on cue, Mother began to laugh in her high bright way, and then Clara, in her piping, and last, Grandmother, in her soft and tentative mewing, all the while twisting at her hearing aid. I tried to join in, to laugh easily and naturally with the rest of them, but I couldn’t. All I managed were a few forced yelps. Seeing them all in stitches, I felt far removed from them, like some wandering waif standing outside in a cold mist-rain and peering in at them through a window.

It was Ferrell who brought me out of it, braying, “No wonder he cain’t eat ‘lessen he forces hisself. You should of seed him when that Ferris wheel stopped and we was straight up top and lookin’ out and nothin’ but night and way down just itty-bitty folks. Thought I’d have to spit on him to keep him from faintin’.” At that they all broke up again, and this time I managed some genuine giggles and felt better. “After all,” I thought, “if Ferrell’s forgotten it, why shouldn’t I?”

Around eleven o’clock my grandparents, Mother, and Clara drove over to the Club in the Chrysler; Ferrell and I rode over a half-hour later, in the Chevy. It was a bright fresh morning, even better than yesterday. As we rumbled over the bridge the sky arced pale blue all around us, white jet-plumes criss-crossing it. Behind us a few cumulus clouds were piling up in fluffy peaks, but they were scattered and far away.

Ferrell drove an even thirty-five, but he acted differently from last night. He’d wave at cars coming toward us and snap his fingers now and then, in time to some tune inside him. “It doesn’t bother him in the least,” I thought. “He’s forgotten every bit of it.”

I looked down at my knees and saw my freckled hands clamped on them, saw the scrapes and the broken nails and the bruises and with a shudder of shame remembered the wild fierce joy that had shot through me when we raised the little bike and slammed it on the breakwater. To soothe myself, I looked out the window at the blue sky, but it seemed to mock me now, so I folded my arms, pressed my hands under my arm pits, and stared down at a little torn place in the floor mat.

“What yuh lookin’ so hang-dog fer?” Ferrell broke. “Just like muh old lady when the drunk fuck passes out on the back stoop—always that hang-dog stare.”

“Ferrell,” I said, then swallowed, staring at the torn place.

“Yeah? Spit it out, baby. Mama won’t hurt.”

“I—I—didn’t think I could enjoy it.”

“Shit-what, baby? What’s our little fucker couldn’t enjoy?”

“Last night—what we did.”

“Jesus, yuh fuckin’ people! It was yer own self wanted to pay back the pinshit. Thems were yer own words, baby—pay him back, yuh said. ‘Tie him up and beat the shit out of him.’ Thems were yer own words, too. And we did just that, baby—but my way: we made him feel yer fucker.”

“I know,” I said, looking up at his sneer. “But I didn’t know I could enjoy it. I loved it. It was like— like—“

”Beatin’ yer meat.”

“Yeah, like that, only better maybe.”

What he said next has stuck with me ever since: “Well, Alford, baby—now you know.” He went hard and angry on the know and then hawked it up and spat it out the window. Then he faced straight ahead and grinned and began to hum something country, as if he’d blanked it from his mind forever. I faced front, saw heat-glints far ahead on the blacktop. They kept receding from us as we drove, seemed to ache in me, to groan. The blue sky went on mocking me.

We turned into the Club lot and parked near the gate, away from the other cars, our windshield facing the clubhouse. I saw the shingled green-and-white facade, the cupola with its lamp glowing, the long high stairs of green steps hot-yellow in the sun. I spotted Grandfather’s Chrysler parked in a cluster of Cadillacs and for a moment felt warm and easy again. Really, why shouldn’t I forget it, too? It never happened, really. That was night and Saturday, and this was morning, Sunday, another day, and tomorrow would put it one day further behind me. But then I caught, parked by the steps, one of the Whitfields’ New Yorkers—after last night I could recognize them anywhere—and my stomach fell and knotted cold as I knew I wouldn’t—couldn’t—go inside, not with Ferrell anyway.

So I said to him, pointing at the clubhouse, “Let’s walk around to the beach. You don’t want to go through there and hear all them bitches talk about their diamonds. And that juke box—God, it’s awful—corny shit like ‘Purple People Eater’—went out ages ago!”

“Suit me,” he said and yawned deeply. “Jeeee-sus. Tired as a nigger already and it not yet lunchtime.”

We got out of the car and crossed the lot and started around the wing on the right, headed toward the ocean. We climbed over the sand fence and then I skittered ahead of him. I wanted to plunge in the ocean right away—an ocean I knew would be gentle-swelled, turquoise, charged with light and warmth, as I’d known it in every August since I could remember. I broke into a smile just as I came over a mound of sand and saw everything spread out before me just as I’d expected: the tide half-way to full, the water smooth-swelled, turquoise, flecked with golden light, the beach empty of everyone but me. (Sundays the lifeguard didn’t come till noon.) I ran to the lifeguard tower, leaving Ferrell far behind me, and kicked off sandals, slipped off tee shirt and flung it aside, then sprinted down toward the water.

I’d run as far as the tide-line when I heard a shriek far behind me, and then a long loud wailing.

“Someone’s dying!” I thought. “It’s a woman and Ferrell’s killed her!” I whirled, looking for a woman lying on the sand, a hacksaw sliced deep in her neck and blood welling out. But I saw only Ferrell leaning his hip against the lifeguard tower, his mouth grim, his eyes slitted coldly at the ocean.

“Luuuuuuuuuuns! Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuns! Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuns!” the voice wailed. It was a weird, ambiguous keening, excited yet mournful at the same time. “Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuns?” it sang again, querying now, worried, and I knew then the voice was Mother’s and looked up at the porch. The screen door flapped open and she came out in her yellow strapless swim suit with the red dolphins on it. She waved at me, then pulled at me with her whole arm, wailing, “Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuns! Come see Cousin Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar-jorie!”

That was Buford’s mother, Grandfather’s niece. She was a stout, florid-faced woman of forty or so and was full of jokes and stories and had a wild laugh that Grandfather would call “whooping” and then laugh himself. When I got to be eleven she’d ask me whenever she saw me, “How’s your love life?” and then wink at me as if I knew what she meant. I didn’t completely—Mother never brought boyfriends home and Grandfather and Grandmother slept in separate beds—but I’d say “fine” anyway, as I liked her more than any other relative, including Mother and even Clara sometimes. I was always eager to see her, seldom missing the chance to rush down from my room and kiss her rouged perfumed cheek when she’d come to visit us in Raleigh. So I grabbed up my T-shirt and slipped it on and ran past Ferrell (he never glanced at me, just kept his slit-eyed ocean-stare) and then scrambled up the hot steps to the porch.

When I entered its cool breeze and heard the soft murmuring of old couples in rocking chairs, I felt with a sudden relief I’d never met Ferrell, never heard of him even. I’d go sit with the family awhile and relish their chitchat and Cousin Marjorie’s stories and her great “whooping” laugh and then we’d all sashay to the beach and swim and sun for awhile and at three o’clock I’d ride home with them in the Chrysler.

They were seated at a long table at the far end of the porch. Cousin Marjorie sat at the end of the table, her back to me. She wore her dark-blue Sunday suit and her red hair was done up behind her in a bun. She was shaking her head slowly and murmuring something. A colored waiter in a white coat set a glass of water beside her, stood bent over a moment, as if listening, and then looked away quickly and frowned and came rushing past me, shaking his head. The family was bent over the table, leaning at her, quiet. This was new. Usually they’d be howling at one of her stories—about Aunt Libburse playing the piano to soothe the snake handlers in Balsam, or Aunt Sue-Babe forgetting her enema bag at the start of a world cruise and forcing the ship captain to turn back to port to get it.

But now there was quiet among them, except for Marjorie’s low murmuring. Mother looked up, scanned the porch, saw me finally and waved me over, then pulled out a chair quietly beside her. By the time I’d padded over and sat down, Cousin Marjorie had stopped talking. I stared up at her, saw her cheeks traced with tears, her eyes red. She was dabbing at them with a napkin.

“Here’s Lunsford,” Mother murmured. “They’re such good friends. Tell him about it.”

Marjorie looked at me and brightened a moment and said in her warm rich voice, “Oh, Luns! I’m so glad you’re here. Buford would love to see you. You’d help him so. He’s so depressed.” She choked back a sob and blew her nose and Mother patted her on the shoulder.

I remember squirming in my chair and thinking, “How dumb to cry about something so silly! Hell, it was just a pissant motorbike!”

But my stomach fell as she went on with her murmuring, sniffling occasionally and dabbing at her eyes with the napkin, “Oh, it’s not the toy. Lord, Ben can order him a hundred, and just as nice. It’s just the way they did it—all so thorough—so planned, don’t you know? Every little part crushed or burnt or shattered or ripped—even his little grips on the handlebars. And even worse was the neatness of it—all the pieces piled in little stacks—I think that was what really downed him. Coming outside—he was the first one up—Lord, I’d give anything if I’d been sleepless last night and gone out and seen it first and cleaned it up, lied to him later someone had stolen it, and then asked Ben to order him another—but Ben and I had taken sleeping pills and so Buford was up before us and came out and saw the little frame crushed and broken and the three neat squared stacks around it. I think that was what really downed him—the awful neatness, as if somebody hated him so much they’d go to all that trouble. That’s what he told me when he came in my room and pushed at me till I woke. He said, in that dull flat tone I’ll never forget, ‘Mommy, someone hates me to death.’ Just that, not a word more. And then he turned and walked back to his room and lay in his bed and just stared at the ceiling—wouldn’t touch his breakfast. And Ben and I went out and loaded that wreck in the trunk and hauled it to the landfill. And we came back and swept up every little last piece of it. And every hour Ben goes in his room and promises him a new one, but he still won’t eat, just lies there, staring wide-eyed and sometimes speaking in that dull flat tone, ‘Someone hates me to death.’”

She took a sip of water, and Mother patted her on the shoulder and murmured it was “just vandals—some crazy Marines high on dope or drunk—just a dumb prank, honestly,” and then Grandfather cleared his throat and began to grumble about “police” and “court” and “investigation,” and Grandmother twisted at her hearing aid and whined, “I think it’s just awwwwwwwwwww-ful! Just mean, mean, mean!”

They went on that way awhile, and after a time I stopped hearing them and refused even to look at them any more, not even at Clara, who’d been sitting the whole time across from me, sipping glumly at her lemonade. Instead I aimed eyes past them and out through the screen and onto the white beach that beachcombers and bathers and surf fishermen had just begun to fill. Old ladies were strolling in yellow-flowered bathing suits. Kids of six or seven were scrambling back and forth over the wet sand, near the wave-line, peering for periwinkles. A boy and his father were tossing a football back and forth—the boy about twelve, blond and floppy-haired and skinny, the father bald and stocky and broad-shouldered, about forty or so. With a great shout he’d throw the ball high and spiraling and the boy would scramble backward, hands outstretched, then leap up and catch it and bury it in the pit of his belly. He’d stagger a moment, then recover himself and fire it back. Far away from all of them—old ladies, periwinkle kids, boy and father—Ferrell still leaned his hip against the lifeguard tower. He faced the Club now and was picking his nose and wiping the stuff neatly on the white wood.

“Hey, Luns! Let’s go swimmin’!” It was Clara behind me, piping excitedly. The rest of the family had left the table and were strolling down the porch. So intent I’d been on the beach below I hadn’t heard the chairs scrape back. Mother had her hand on Marjorie’s shoulder and was cooing, “There now. A walk’ll do you good. Some of that salt air and in no time at all—“

”Luns! Come on! Come swimmin’!” Clara piped, and she put her arms around me and squeezed me hard.

“Naw, get away!” I snapped. “Not feelin’ good.” I pried her arms off me and flicked them away.

“Okay,” she piped, hurt. “Be a meany!” and she scrambled after the rest of them.

From my chair I watched them gather at the porch door and then flow down the stairs and over the slatted boardwalk, Grandfather leading them in his pale blue trousers, his white shirt ballooning over his stomach. They passed the lifeguard tower (not noticing Ferrell—or perhaps ignoring him—I wasn’t sure) and came to the tide line and waited there. A boy of sixteen or seventeen had come to the top of the tower and now sat on a slatted seat there, gazing seaward, unaware of Ferrell down behind him. He was tanned and slender and was dressed in white trunks. When he glanced to right or left, I’d see his nose coated white with zinc oxide.

From the tide line Grandfather turned and called something and gestured at him, and the boy rose and climbed down briskly. He gripped up four folded captain’s chairs from a stack beside the tower and lugging two on each arm loped over to Grandfather and snapped them open and pushed them firmly into the sand. Then he loped to a cluster of umbrellas leaning against the tower and cradled up one of them and loped back to the group. He raised it high over his head like a spear and then, rearing back a little, thrust the pole down deep into the sand and then jerked it briskly side to side and back and forth until it was firmly planted. When he got the canvas spread—a bright red one with yellow stripes—Grandfather shook his hand (the boy’s grip was hard—I could tell by the veins standing out) and tipped him a quarter. The boy said, “Thank you, sir,” then loped back to the tower, climbed the ladder deftly, and then sat back in the white slatted seat, his vertebrae like a string of lozenges down his brown back. Sitting there, alert, innocent, powerfully watchful as he gazed on the sea and the bathers, he seemed to me then freer than any person alive, and I ached body and soul to be up there, now, sitting in his place.

Then I noticed Ferrell. He had moved to an old creosote pile between the tower and the porch and was rubbing his back up and down over the rotting wood, scratching himself like an animal, his mouth gaped stupidly. I clattered my chair back, nearly knocking it over, and ran down the porch and out to the steps, the couples all staring at me. When I reached the hot sand, I waved at him and shouted his name. He glanced up, grinned his brown gapped teeth, and then came to me, slouching and shambling, scratching the back of his neck in that shiftless hangdog manner of his kind. I thought, “He’s common as dirt, he really is!” and wanted to hit him—saw a flicker of myself slugging him with my fists, over and over, while he squirmed helplessly in the sand. But suddenly I felt tired, spent, empty, some strange grief stirring in the bottom of me, and I didn’t even want to touch him. I wanted to escape all this brightness—this “bright shit,” as he’d put it.

“Hurry up!” I yelled. “Let’s ride!”

“Sure, baby. Let me scratch muh pimple.”

“Shut it and hurry up. I hate this place.” He’d come a yard from me, his smell turning my stomach.

“Okay, baby. Where to?”

“Anywhere. Just away from here. Bogue Inlet, that’ll do.” (The inlet marked the other end of the banks, twenty miles away.)

“Suit me, baby. Gettin’ bored with them waves goin’ flap, flip, flop—“

“Shut it and get goin’!” I yelled and raised my fist at him and then, surprised at myself, a little afraid, whirled and started loping back to the car.

Ferrell kept up with me this time, and when we reached the lot he ran ahead of me and got to the car a few seconds before I did and yanked open the passenger door and rolled the window up in a flurry and then slammed the door shut and stood by it, his hand on the handle.

When I reached him, he bowed deeply and cooed, “Madame, may I have the pleasure?”

“Shut up,” I muttered.

“Tem-per! Tem-per!” he said, wagging a finger. Then: “Hey, baby, look at us!” He stepped back and stood beside me and pointed at the door window. Reflected in it were our two little bodies much distorted. The glass so warped and widened our chests, bellies, arms, thighs we looked like grown men of thirty or so, grotesquely muscled. Our faces were tiny dark eggs on thick necks and were gray-shadowed and featureless. And our clothes were gray—the khaki shirt and faded cut-offs, the light-blue T-shirt and green trunks—gray as rat’s fur, I remember thinking.

“Twins! Hey! hey!” Ferrell shouted and snapped his fingers. He legged it around the hood of the car and yanked open his door and slipped into the driver’s seat and started the engine, gunning it in deep rhythmic roars. I stared a moment more at that warped gray-muscled shape of myself, and then Ferrell shouted something and gunned the engine until the hood quivered, and I yanked the door open and squeezed the warped shape from my mind and slipped in beside him and rolled down the window.

We squealed out of the lot and then down Fort Macon Road, roaring toward the Amusement Park, the speedometer twitching to seventy.

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEYOW!” Ferrell cried. “We’re twins, baby—brothers! I knew yuh’d really ride with me I give yuh time!”

And the shapes came back to me, looming painfully in memory: those warped rat-gray bodies in the window glass. I knew then what he meant by ride and my gut coiled in disgust and shame.

Then the fear hit me I’d be bound to him for life. I’d ride with him forever, entombed in this crude and guttural beast, cursing and jeering at everyone. For the first time I glimpsed his soul: a lone rat-colored gnome crouched in urine-smelling darkness in a Rhine tower, his legs quivering with hate. He knew too much about people too early and had taught me what I now wished I had never known. He’d dug down deep into the darkest mines of ourselves and fisted up all the “bright shit”—as he’d put it—and spread it out in black-gleaming shards before me. He’d dug up, for one thing, Grandfather’s snobbish scorn glittered over with weary pity. And, what was worse, much harder to bear (as I felt even then, felt belly coil tight till I nearly cried out) he’d dug up my own squirming envy of Buford—a hatred so long so deep in me I’d hardly known it was there. If I stayed with him (I wondered, feared), what else would he fist up to show me? What “bright shit” in Mother and in Grandmother and, yes, even in Clara, “our little angel”? I didn’t want to know any more. He was too dark altogether. I had to break away.

We had just crossed the intersection with the causeway and were roaring down the long lonely road toward the Inlet, a narrow black-top flanked close with stunted live oaks and cedars.

“Slow this— this— creature,” I said, spitting it out. “I want to talk.” He kept it at sixty.

“I said slow it, bastard.”

“Sure thing, baby.” He mashed the brake pedal and down-shifted. I lunged into the dashboard, bruising my shoulder. Then we were doing thirty.

“What’s the shit now?” he said. “Still wearin’ the rag?”

“That was a dirty rotten thing to do,” I said.

“Sorry, baby. I meant to check them brakes last week, and anyway yer really a pain in the ass sometimes—make a man mad, yuh—“

”Shut up. I didn’t mean that.”

“Jesus—well, what? Spit it out, Sugarpie.”

“Buford—what we did. We were sneaks, dirty little sniveling gutter things, mean rotten gully-dirt gutter sneaks—“

”Cut it or I’ll slug you!” He had a fist raised. The car swerved, then straightened again.

I felt a thick sob surge up in me. “My Dee-di—that lifeguard—“ My lips were quivering. I pinched my nose and turned away, watched the trees blur by.

“Stop!” I yelled suddenly and faced him. “Now! Let me out! I’ll jump!” I grabbed the door handle, knowing I would jump—I didn’t care if I died or not.

“Jesus!” he whispered, awed, and then braked smoothly and pulled over into a turnaround.

When the car was stopped I thrust open the door and scrambled out and started running as fast as I could back toward the causeway. The asphalt was hot on my feet, but I barely felt it.

“Stop, bitch!” Ferrell yelled. I craned back and saw him loping after me.

I whirled around and ran at him, shaking a fist, “Leave me fuckin’ alone! I’ll kill you dead you lay a finger on me!”

He yelled, “Cut it, shit-face!” but he stayed where he was, arms at his sides, fists clenched.

I suddenly noticed the Chevy behind him: the jacked rear end, the fat black tires glittering with sand-grains, the double tail pipes with smoke still curling from them. It was ugly—a big crude bulk of maroon-colored bully. I hated it.

I ran my eyes along the crumbling road shoulder and spotted a large chunk of asphalt and reached down and grabbed it and ran at Ferrell, arm raised as if to hurl it at him. He staggered back, mouth gaped, and then I plunged away from him and toward the car and hurled the big chunk as hard as I could at the rear window. It hit pane-center, collapsing the whole glass in a great rush of splintering. I spotted another large chunk by the road and reached for it, but I heard Ferrell’s foot-slaps and looked up and saw him running at me, silent, grim, his mouth working.

I whirled and ran back toward the causeway. Then I heard him panting behind me and I stopped and whirled again and hollered at him, in a blind, spit-spraying rage, with every so often some great unnamable grief rising up out of me in a choked sob, “You little puke fuck white filth trash! Don’t you lay a finger on me! You climb in that shitass car and get the fuck away from me! And don’t you ever set your filthy feet in my house again! Don’t you ever come near us again! You shamble-footed shit-eating turnip-eating little sneak—little common dead-beat! Just like your daddy, you hear? You’re just like your goddamn daddy! So don’t you touch me! You touch me, my granddaddy’ll have your ass in jail in five minutes! You get on back to your little shack, you little piece of common trash!”

He’d stopped dead, mouth open, and just stared at me, awed, arms loose at his sides. Rage-blind—but way down deep hurt at the same time, gut-coiling hurt and ashamed—I ran at the chunk and fisted it up and hurled it at him—it missed him by a yard—and then whirled and started running back toward the causeway.

Some hundred yards down I heard the Chevy catch and roar and then squeal away from me. I stopped and turned around and gazed up the blacktop where he had gone. I felt that strange unnamable grief well up in me, then damped it down and made a cold hard ball in myself and muttered, “So he’s leaving, good riddance. He’ll catch the ferry at the inlet and take the highway back to Brogden or Turkey or Warsaw or whatever pee-spot he lives in, I couldn’t care less.”

I turned around and swerved into shaded wiregrass along the tree line and started loping back to the causeway. When I reached the intersection, I turned left, toward the bridge and slowed to a walk. Ahead of me the cumulus clouds, so distant and scattered in the morning, had come much closer and bunched together and darkened and soared, sending out white mare’s tails that were already dimming the sunlight. Across the Sound, over Morehead, the sky was deep purple. Suddenly a tree of lightning flashed across it and loud thunder broke after, and I began to lope again. I reached the bridge-girders just as rain burst over me, a thick gray shower. Cars whipped by me, spraying me and soaking me through. Suddenly that strange unnamable grief rose up in me again and I wondered where Ferrell was now, driving through the shower. He’d be somewhere this side of New Bern, I imagined, hunched grim over the wheel, driving 70 or 80, straining to see ahead and muttering his fucker fucker fucker while the rain gusted chill on his back through the shattered rear window. And he’d be thinking of me, I was sure, and my rage and wild curses and the glass splintering and the chunk of asphalt now like a dark steaming brooding lump on the vinyl of the back seat behind him. He’d be thinking of all my hot quivering hatred of him, but I didn’t care. The little trash was gone from me now, forever—gone back to his gully-dirt rat hole to sleep till he died somehow. So I squeezed him out of my mind and ran on, thrusting face in the rain, counting my paces.

V

By the time I reached 16th Street and the cottonwood tree and stood before the cottage, the rain had become a sprinkle and the clouds were breaking up, showing streaks of pale blue over the Sound. It looked about five o’clock. The Chrysler was parked by the stoop, all rinsed and white from the rain. (They’d come back at three, I supposed—about the time I was cussing that hick.) Without the Chevy smudging it, the cottage looked its old self again—the shining tin roof, the grey clapboards, the pale-yellow shutters, the hydrangeas blue as the veins in Grandfather’s hands—a picture. I breathed deep of the clean fresh thunderstorm smell and almost burst out laughing as I ran over the lawn and up the stoop steps and into the kitchen. He was really gone from me—poof!—just like that!—not a trace of him left! I’d pretend he’d never come. It was easy to pretend. We had twelve days more. I’d start over, as if nothing had ever happened. I stepped light-hearted into the living room.

They were all sitting there, except Clara, who was probably napping. Grandfather sat on the sofa, reading his newspaper, one pale-blue trouser leg crossed over the other. To his left and right sat Mother and Grandmother in wicker arm chairs. They were dressed in shorts and halters and were reading thick paperbacks.

“Hey, everyone, I’m back!” I said brightly.

“Lunsford!” Mother cried, and set her book in her lap. “Why, you’re soa-king wet! And where’s that boy? Didn’t he drive you home?”

“Yes, indeed, where is Emily’s boy?” Grandfather said. He’d lowered his paper and was staring up at me through his thick glasses. His eyes were watery blue and looked old and tired.

Mother reached over and tapped Grandmother on the knee. She looked up from her book and twisted a knob on her hearing aid and said, “Oh, Lunsford! It’s you! And you’re all wet! Where’s that child?”

My light-heartedness vanished and I felt that strange dark grief well up in me again. I said, “Just a sec,” and strode to a dining chair and dragged it back over and sat on it and patted my chest and pretended to pant a moment, groping for a lie. At last I said, “Lemme get a breath—whew—ran ten miles, seems like. Ferrell? He’s gone back home. Said he had to work tonight. Filling station.”

“But he didn’t tell us,” Mother said fretfully. “He’s supposed to stay with us, he knows that! And he left you out in the rain? To get home by yourself?”

“No,” I said. “I—he—I—wanted to walk. Needed the exercise. Didn’t know it would rain—so—hard—“ My lips began to quiver and I cupped a hand over them and pinched my nose.

But Mother didn’t seem to notice, for she shook her bracelets at me and cried out, fretful and shrill, “Honestly, Lunsford! You’re soa-king wet! Go to your room and get out of those clothes!”

Then she turned to Grandmother and said, very slowly, “Mama, the child’s—gone—home.”

“Hoooooooooooooooooooooooome? Why, he’s supposed to—“

”I know, Mama, but he went home and didn’t tell us.”

Grandmother muttered coldly, rolling her eyes, “Well, that’s gratitude. Didn’t even thank us. Not even good-bye. Figures.” She wagged her head and took up her book again.

“Lord, Lord, Lord,” Grandfather sighed. “I’ll have to phone poor Emily, I suppose.” And he raised his paper and started reading again.

That left Mother to spin out the refrain: “It’s a crying shame he isn’t more like Emily. At least she’s got some class.”

Suddenly, without knowing why, I snatched my hand off my nose and lurched to my feet and shouted, “Why don’t you let the kid be! All you people do is snipe at him and buzz at him and claw at him and just loving it all at the same time, like you felt better knowing he was worse than you—a lowdown good-for-nothin’ dead-beat piece of common trash!”

They were all out of their reading now and staring at me, and I swallowed and shouted on, “All of you people, quit harpin’ on him! Don’t ever mention him! I don’t want to hear about him ever again!”

I whirled and ran out to the porch and then out the screen door and down the wet lawn toward the Sound. As I passed the bird bath, I heard Mother wail from the porch, “Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuns! What’s the matter? Luns! Come back!” But I ran on and didn’t answer, and she didn’t come out after me.

From the damp sand I looked out at the sky, clear now but for a rosy cloud-plume arching over me. A breeze blew cool and brisk from the water, and I breathed deeply of it and caught a whiff of gasoline from some motorboats tied to stakes a few yards out. I felt that dark grief again in the pit of my stomach and wondered where Ferrell was now—past Kinston for sure, the shower broken up for him as well. I shut eyes and strained to see him driving, but found, with a shudder, that I could hardly picture him at all. I could see only the anonymous “common” faces of all the country boys I’d seen in Goldsboro and Smithfield and Wilson when Grandfather took me there on his “farm business”: the pinched, acne-blotched faces of wiry adolescents yawning in sleeveless shirts in tobacco warehouses or leaning sullenly against the fenders of “modified” Plymouths and Fords and ’57 Chevys parked before filling stations or hamburger “joints.” I stood by the Sound for an hour, straining to see him different from the rest of his kind. And I suppose I would have stood there the rest of the afternoon and into the night if Mother hadn’t wailed querulously from the porch, “Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuns! Sup-per! Don’t keep the family waiting now!”

I returned to the cottage and sat in my chair and ate, silently, quickly, withdrawn from everyone, straining to see him. He’s on the Goldsboro Bypass now, ten miles from his home. He looks in the rear view mirror and he sees some dark-shadowed face like in a picture taken under a shade tree, a face without nose or lips or eyes or chin—just blank face, dark unnamable face—what face nearer him than that maroon muscle-Plymouth looming up behind him, roaring through the gapped rear window? So I strained and strained, absorbed in my lonely fantasy, while the family chatted brightly around me.

By supper’s end I’d worn myself out with thinking and went out to the porch with the rest of the family and just sat in the rocker beside Clara and stared dull-eyed and spent, while the chit-chat went on around me.

A little past sunset there came a lull in the talk and Grandfather glanced at his watch and gruffed, “I guess I’d better phone the factory now, before she goes on break,” and he rose with a sigh and went into the living room. I went on sitting awhile, in my dazed stupor, until Mother sang, “Aren’t we having a goooooood tiiiiiiiiiiiiime?” and began to list “the plans for tomorrow.” Roused suddenly, I lurched up and left Clara rocking and sigh-humming (she was far away from everything) and went into the living room.

I padded to a wicker chair and sat in it and watched Grandfather bent over the phone beside the sofa, the receiver to his ear. He glanced at me and then spoke into the phone, “That’s correct, Emily. He just decided he’d leave us . . . No, he didn’t tell a soul . . .  That’s right, he just drove away . . . ”

He cupped the mouth-piece with his hand and turned to me and asked if “that boy” had taken “his belongings” with him. I felt a strange stirring of anger and shrugged and then shook my head, and he spoke into the phone, “No, they’re in Lunsford’s room. We’ll bring them home and you can retrieve them at your leisure. We know how it is, Emily . . . Yes . . . That’s correct . . . We’re glad to be of service to you, Emily . . . ”

At that I clenched a fist to keep myself from cursing aloud and then lurched up and strode floor-pounding into my room and bolted the big door behind me so I wouldn’t have to hear him any more.

It was cramped-hot in there, so I went to the window and scraped up the sash and propped it with the stick. I stood quiet a moment, and then, not knowing why, I went around and knelt beside the bed and peered under it. I saw right away the pale pear-shape of Ferrell’s pillow case and reached under and gripped it by the knotted neck and dragged it out and then stood up and lifted it. I was surprised at how light it was. I set it on the bed and sat down beside it, feet on floor, and stared at it. It was lumpy with clothes and had grease stains on it and little ragged tears where parts of his clothes stuck out—pale blue-jean here, a wad of khaki there.

“He’s home by now,” I whispered, the words coming to me as if out of a dark sad dream one never knows the end to. “It’s a three hour trip for him, so he’s in his room now, a dim room as small and cramped as this one, but mustier maybe, and dirtier, and smelling of propane, not kerosene. He’s lying on his bed, a single one without sheets, just stained bare mattress. He lies on his back and slits eyes at a pale ceiling with cobwebs and paint-peels hanging down. His lips are sneering, and under his head his hands are folded, and he’s thinking . . .  What’s he thinking?”

I shut my eyes and once more I strain to picture him—his face, his thoughts, what makes him different from the rest of the “common”—but no clear image emerges in me. I can only see that blank featureless face, can only whisper “common,” “dead-beat,” “shambling,” “shiftless.”

So I open my eyes and reach over and untie the knot in the pillow case and flare the neck and reach inside and begin to lift out his clothes, one article at a time, and set them in separate neatly squared piles on the sheet beside me. I find two pairs of cut-off jeans, two shirts of sleeveless khaki, two pairs of underpants with elastic bands, two pairs of socks—thin blue nylon ones with fresh stitches in the heels. Everything is neatly folded and smells of wash powder and Clorox.

I remember suddenly the big oak drawers full of socks and shirts in Grandfather’s room in Raleigh, the nylon socks Grandmother darned with her own hands, the dress-shirts she had laundered and starched, shirts fresh-smelling and folded with tight creases.

In the bottom of the pillow case I find a long brown shoe box faded and worn along the edges. I lift it out and set it beside the piles of clothes and take off the lid. Packed neatly inside are a toothbrush with a strip of tissue around it, a tube of toothpaste neatly rolled from the bottom, a small bottle of aspirin, a washcloth folded tightly, a bar of soap—Ivory: I remember the brand to this day. One at a time I set out every article on the bed, arranging them in a circle around the four piles of clothes. For a long time I stare at them, and then I remember our medicine cabinet back home: the aspirin bottles and toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes and bars of Ivory soap—all ranked on three separate shelves—Clara’s, Mother’s, mine.

I stare and stare at all the things on the bed while the dusk deepens outside and dark gathers in the little room. Soon full night is all around me, paled a little by the light of the streetlamp shining in through the window.

Now I can see him in his bed. He lies very quiet and still there, brown arms stiff at his sides, black head on a bunched and gray-moldy pillow. All around him the old farmhouse is quiet but for a creak of board now and then and the faint scuttering of a mouse somewhere. His eyes—I see now—are wide and staring, not slitted. His lips are parted slightly—not grinning, not sneering, not scowling, hardly anything at all—just parted, as if he is wondering, What now? What do I feel now? Or as if he were waiting for someone, a man, to drive up behind the house and get out of his car and enter the kitchen with soft steps and pad to his room and lean over and smile at him, fragrant with the sweat and whiskey and cigar smoke of a mature male—a man he knows with deep down grief will never come back to him because he is dead—died long ago of some numbing grief no one can find a name for.

He breathes slow and even for a time, the sweat-streaked khaki rising and falling, and then, suddenly, he stops, sucks in a breath, holds it, swallows, eyes staring metal-green as the sea under a cloud. Then he snaps eyes shut and his whole face goes wrenched in a spasm of agony. He holds that wrenched pained look a moment—“like grief itself,” I whisper, awed—and then blows breath out with a “Shit!” Then he opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling again, lips parted, breaths coming slow and even, sweated khaki rising and falling.

I stretch out on the bed, between his things and the window, and touch, one at a time, his separate clothes, feeling their worn softness from repeated washings. Then I tap, one at a time, the cool toilet things arranged in their circle. A puff of land breeze chills me a moment, and I whisper, “It’s a little after eight, so I know they’re still on the porch, laughing brightly, talking gently. But I can’t hear them through the bolted door. I can’t even imagine the words they’re saying, their hums and sighs. It’s like I left them years ago and I’ve been away so long they’re strangers to me.”

A choked sob burst out of me, and I turned over and buried my face in the pillow and began to weep in long bitter wails, open now, fully released. I wept for Buford, for Ferrell, and for myself and what I had lost. And I wept for that more grievous and profound loss that I was too young then to put into words but must have felt deep down the whole time Ferrell stayed with us—that loss of ten years earlier when a man, bruised deep by some loss of his own (what it was I never knew) came one Christmas noon to Mother hanging out wash behind Grandfather’s house and told her in a voice hollow with shame, “You’re well taken care of here,” and then (perhaps) came up to my bed where I napped and (perhaps) fondled me and kissed me goodbye, giving off pipe tobacco and after-shave, and then got in his battered car (he’d had a wreck in Camp LeJeune) and drove away in a snowstorm and never phoned or wrote or anything.

I wept a long time and then fell into deep sleep, Ferrell’s things in full night now, ranked like strange dark wondering angels beside me.

Klan Country, A Novel in Progress, Part II

Filed under: literary fiction — Lee Titus Elliott @ 3:11 pm
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II

My grandfather and I entered the Chrysler and shut our doors, and I felt at once the close, stale heat of the old car (a ’62), and, with the heat, as if woven into it, the warm, thick odor—partly of sweat, partly of mothballs and dry cleaning fluid, partly the indefinable smell of old male bodies: a smell I remembered from years ago—from his paired bedroom closets back in Raleigh.

With a hoarse “Whew!” he rolled his window down, and I rolled down mine, and as we swung out of the parking lot and drove up past Forest Theater toward Raleigh Road, a rushing breeze took all that heat away.

But the smell lingered—that multitudinous smell, holding in my mind some cramped and cramping memory. I strained to name it—to picture it—but before it could come clear in my mind, we had already left town—had, in fact, come off the long, downhill divided highway and onto the narrow, flat two-laner. And he, my Grandfather Woodall, his face flushed with a sudden, manic nostalgia, had begun to speak, a veined hand gesturing now and again at the roadsides flanked by thick pines and scrub oaks stringed lush with kudzu. He was speaking of May 1909:

“Yessir, exactly May, maybe this very date, and a Saturday, too, like now, about nine—clear and sunny, cool-warm as June. The night before, my two Kappa Sigma buddies and I had just taken a notion, ‘Hey, let’s walk to Nelson tomorrow and catch the noon train to Goldsboro. We can be home by nightfall.’ (We didn’t even think to hitchhike—we wanted the walk, young folks we were back then.) So with knapsacks of books and clothes strapped to our shoulders, we started out next day, Saturday, just now, striding fast along the roadside to get to Nelson by noon. ’Course, the nine miles was dirt then, and single-lane, the pines and scrub oaks thick up to the road edge—no grassy shoulders in those days, nosir. Every so often a Model T’d chug by, coating us in dust. Lord, we patted and brushed until our shoulders hurt! We walked fast, like I said—long-striding—’cause we knew the train left Nelson at noon. We’d found out that much ahead of time, anyway. All we could hear—’cept for the T’s passing about every half hour—were our own pounding strides and now and then a jay-squawk and the mourning doves woo-woo-wu-wooing, you know how they do—“tua cura, palumbes,” as old Maro coos it. But that was all: it was that quiet, 1909-quiet. And the more we strode and the faster we strode, the more we felt like striding—Lord, we could stride on forever in those years! Don’t ever get old, Dr. Lockhart. Don’t ever get old.”

He went silent a moment, and the smell struck me again, the shrouding old-man part of it that I remembered from his double closets years ago.

He cleared his throat long and deep and rasped on: “So sure enough, a minute before noon, we arrived at Nelson—just a little, tin-roofed platform by the single track, and beside it a sign, “Nelson,” on a stake stuck in the ground. Lord, we were just in time, hearing the old steam engine whistling a half mile away, and in a minute its squeal and clatter and long shrill of steam as it pulled up by the platform and stopped.”

He went silent again as we passed under the railroad bridge and stopped at an intersection. A few yards to our left stood a small, “official,” rectangular sign on a creosote post driven into bare clay: NELSON—black capitals on white, rust-edged metal. Beyond the sign I saw no covered platform where a train might stop—just the glittering metal of a single railroad track high on a clay embankment covered with weeds and crabgrass. Across the highway stood four, identical Carolina-T farmhouses spaced far apart, weather-blackened, their front windows broken out, beer cans and cellophane wrappers scattered over the sagging and stepless front porches. I squinted at the glittering rails and pictured that little, tin-roofed platform and the three knapsacked young men leaping onto it in their loose-fitting, long-sleeved, coarse, cotton shirts and their berets and tan breeches and brown knee socks and black brogans, their young faces flushed to beet-color from the nine-mile hike. And in my grandfather’s silence, I caught that smell again—now the astringent, mixed sweat and dry cleaning fluid and then, suddenly, a new smell: the harsh soap, nearly like lye, that he must have used as a boy and a young man and all through his middle age—soap he was showering with even now, at eighty-one.

He jerked his head to the left, then swung right, and we were driving the two-lane road that continued 54. We rode in silence awhile, following the railroad atop the high, weedy, clay-patched embankment.

“What’re you thinking of, Dr. Lockhart?” Grandfather broke suddenly, clearing his throat.

I tasted the wrestler-hunk’s semen still sticking to the roof of my mouth and so thought of him and the dim-green restroom and tonight and nine o’clock.

But I said, to damp the taste, the sudden shame (and unaware of my pun), “Oh, just Nelson. It isn’t much, is it?”

He whispered a hoarse “heh heh” and said, “Nosir, wasn’t much in ought nine, either. Just those same old Carolina T’s, but newer, painted, and with folks living in them. Those and the tin-roofed platform by the tracks. Up till ’45 even, you could see young men in threes or fours striding out the nine miles from the Hill to catch the train headed east. (Now the Greensboro and Winston and Asheville boys had it easy—just a miler into Carrboro— University Station.) The shed here’s gone now, of course—dismantled in ’46 when 54 was paved at last and the boys could catch rides in a minute, or the post-War boom gave their fathers money to buy ’em cars. The Southern Railway people didn’t see any use in keeping it.”

He went silent again and after a mile maybe, began whispering to himself, his thin, pale-pruned lips faintly twitching. Every so often I’d hear, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in,” punctuated, oddly, with a faint “heh heh.” He was far away from me now—only his smell lingering: those complications of smells.

Suddenly the smells brought back, clear as on a movie screen, that cramped and cramping memory. It was a day in mid-May 1966, a Saturday, to be sure—the day I last rode with him into “Klan Country” and the old Woodall homeplace. I recall it so vividly because it was the day—on our way back to Raleigh in late afternoon, just as we left Smithfield and crossed the Neuse River Bridge, passed the huge billboard that faced drivers entering town, the billboard of crudely painted men shrouded in white gowns and hoods and holding aloft fiery torches, and, beneath the ugly figures, the hand-printed WELCOME TO JOHNSTON COUNTY! THIS IS KLAN COUNTRY!—that I announced to him I was “cured at last” of my “inversion”—my “mental illness,” at least as far as Dr. Aldred “was concerned.” And to prove I was “cured,” I told him I was “escorting” a “Linda Fuller” to the Senior Prom on the last Saturday in May. She was “a respectable girl” (so I assured him)—a girl of “good family.” In fact, she lived on White Oak Road, his street, though “residing” on the block near Five Points, which, as he knew, was a “more modest” section than his, with its nearly identical ’40s bungalows all crowded together on narrow lots. Still, it was White Oak Road, and he knew what that meant: junior college at St. Mary’s, the last two years at Hollins or Sweet Briar, a trip to Europe after graduation, and her “debut” at Memorial Auditorium in June of her twenty-third year.

 

*  *  *  *  *  *

 

At noon that last Saturday (I remembered), Grandfather had showed up at our house and invited me “for a short drive, Mr. Lockhart Titus—to give you a break from your hard studying.” I did need the break, and I was curious about Grandfather’s sudden, and unexpected, invitation. (He usually telephoned ahead if he was to drive me anywhere.) So I climbed into the old Chrysler, and we headed downtown.

On the way, he rasped, “Since tonight, Mr. Lockhart Titus, you shall be escorting that respectable girl, Miss Linda Fuller, to the site of your Senior Promenade and since it is an old custom that in such circumstances, the male do the driving, it is my intention to present you with an afternoon’s worth of lessons.”

Before the Prom, I had not considered that “old custom”—and I shuddered inwardly at the prospect of “an afternoon’s worth of lessons.” For a complication of reasons I could not then account for, driving had long terrified me, and I had wanted to postpone learning it as long as I could. So in the hope (in vain, as it turned out) that Grandfather would take me back home, I blurted out, “But I don’t have a license! Or even a learner’s permit!”

“A license or permit shall not be necessary for this occasion, Mr. Lockhart Titus,” he rasped. “You shall be driving but a short distance and with barely an ounce of champagne in your system, if that, and I am sure that after my lessons today, you shall drive with such exceeding care that no police officer shall even think of pulling you over. And besides, do you intend for Miss Fuller to drive you? Or myself? Or even your mother?”

The mere thought of any of them in the driver’s seat on the way to this prom—the proof that I “was cured at last” of my “inversion,” my “mental illness”—chilled me more than the prospect of driving. So seeing no way out of my dilemma, I faked a smile, slapped the dashboard, and joked loudly (remembering a race car magazine I had seen on our coffee table, left behind by one of Mother’s old boyfriends), “Let’s floor this old rod, Cale Yarborough!”

We both laughed, and in a minute we arrived at a large, vacant parking lot beside the State Board of Health, changed seats, and began the lesson. The rest of the afternoon, to Grandfather’s patient advice, I practiced punching those old ’62 Chrysler buttons for Forward and Park and Reverse, accelerating smoothly, backing up (my head twisted around, my right arm stretched out over the top of the front seat, my eyes remaining steady on the asphalt behind me until the old car stopped completely), using the parking brake, making the “quick stop” for emergencies—and more. Grandfather even had me drive around the block (the streets mostly empty on Saturday, when few State employees came to work) so that I could practice the hand signals, turning right and left, and, at stop signs, coming to a “complete stop, Mr. Lockhart Titus.”

 

*  *  *  *  *  *

 

These Klan Country “excursions into history,” as Grandfather called them, were taken every Saturday—including the summer ones—from May ’65 to May ’66, and were an unspoken corequisite of my “therapy” with Dr. Aldred: these afternoon ritual journeys down to the Bentonville Battleground, the old Woodall homeplace, the now-abandoned red-brick schoolhouse where Ava Gardner had been taught, the white clapboard teacherage beside it (where Ava and her family had served the Brogden teachers in the twenties and thirties), and, finally, the old white clapboard church, never locked, ever shuttered, that my great-great-grandfather, Unionist Blow-Your-Horn Billy Woodall, had built “for the colored people,” just a year past “the Surrender.”

My grandfather and I would stop before these “shrines” (as he’d call them, laughing softly)—and without ever walking the battleground (we’d just park before the Harper House and watch it for a time), and without ever setting foot in the schoolhouse or the teacherage or even in the homeplace or the old colored church, just standing outside of them in raw cold in January or sweating heat in July—he’d recount some long, digressive anecdote linked to the “shrine,” a tale ending always with some homily about my Southern “roots” nourished by “tragic devotion to a lost cause,” about the “people” I “came from” and their “integrity” and “honor” and, in my great-great-grandfather’s case, their “unsparing generosity to those less fortunate.” In front of Ava Gardner’s school, he’d speak, his face as flushed as a teenager’s in love, about “the lady”—“the beauty”—who had sprung from the Woodall “homeland” and who graced it even now—in the memory of her teacher, my great-aunt Venice, in one of the classrooms in the old Brogden schoolhouse, and in that abandoned teacherage beside it.

Just as we started the drive back to Raleigh, he would clear his throat and speak, as if in peroration, of my ancestors’ “fulfilled and fulfilling roles as dutiful parents of upright and virtuous children.” These “visitations,” if you will, along with my thrice-a-week “talk-and-aversion” sessions with Dr. Aldred, were intended to return me to “normalcy”: the “condition” of a red-blooded but “intellectual” Southern young man of the higher class, who, in his late twenties or early thirties, after he’d received his doctorate, summa cum laude, in Latin and Greek, would “settle down” in Chapel Hill or at Duke and marry a “goodly lady of like background” who would bear him two or three children (preferably male) to carry on the Woodall line for yet another generation—“at least on the distaff side.”

(Of course, Grandfather would vocally underscore distaff since he knew as well as I that I was named in toto after my father, Lockhart Titus Elledge, Sr.—my dead, “deadbeat,” “no ’count” father who, under mysterious circumstances, had been stabbed to death—so it was rumored—in a sleazy whorehouse in Phenix City, Alabama, three months before I and my twin Lucinda were born. To Mother, the word distaff never entered her head—not because she didn’t know what it meant, but because, to her, I was a Woodall now, through and through, and would remain a Woodall forevermore—despite the obvious high cheekbones and prominent jawline and dimpled chin my father’s “fatal” sperm had bequeathed me. In fact, Mother—so she claimed, again and again—would have changed her last name back to her maiden one, except that for a decade, she had written news articles and a daily column as “Joan Elledge” for a local newspaper and for three years now, had hosted a morning cooking-and-interview show, Femme Fare with Joan Elledge, on local television.)

As for this “inversion” of mine (what Dr. Aldred termed it), Grandfather and I had recognized it much earlier, when I was twelve—but we kept it a secret, not even mentioning between us. In fact, it was never revealed in the clear light of family until an “incident” (all Mother and Grandfather ever called it—the “unsavory” details they never uttered aloud) that happened when I was seventeen and nearing the end of my junior year at Broughton High.

I was an actor in the Golden Masquers, and, because I was tall and my voice deep, I had been assigned the role of Cothurnus in a Millay one-act, Aria da Capo. Oddly—given my twenty-six years in theater at forty-eight—I recall little of the part and even less of the play, but I do remember—even now, nearly three decades later—the piercing mildew of the thin mattress (discarded from who knew where!) that lay folded in a corner of the narrow backstage. And I remember how the whole of that April, Monday through Friday, he and I would spread that mattress onto the splintered and pitted stage floor, moving in slow and, oh, so acheful silence, though it was 4:30 in the afternoon and rehearsals were done and for a half hour (until the janitors would arrive), we had the whole echoing auditorium to ourselves.

Did I say “he and I” and not “she and I”?

His name was Kenny Vaughn. He was sixteen, an October boy and so a few months younger than I. Since September, the Masquers had performed Anastasia, Dust of the Road, You Can’t Take It With You, and now, in April, had begun rehearsals for Aria. I first saw him when he showed up at the tryouts for Anastasia and spoke the lines for Prince Paul in a delivery so monotonous, so halting and stumbling—like a child learning aloud The Pledge of Allegiance—that Mrs. Peacock, after allowing him to finish, smiled Southern-lady-gracious and said, “Thank you so much, Kenny. We’ll be in touch. Next, please. Yes—Jean Watson—Anna-Anastasia herself!”

But because Kenny was broad-shouldered and tall for his age (taller than I even), and took “shop,” Mrs. Peacock sent him a note the next day, to his homeroom, asking him to “TAKE COMPLETE CHARGE OF THE STAGE CREW—FOR ALL OUR PRODUCTIONS.” (Yes, she capped the whole request, knowing it would make Kenny proud—especially since he’d know he’d be ALL the crew in our smaller productions and in charge of two or three crew members in our larger ones.)

And just as she must have expected, the very same day, Kenny rushed into her classroom at half past three and, even when some students were present, blurted out breathlessly, “Wow, like thanks, Mizz Peacock! Like—you can’t imagine! Oh, wow, I’ll be there every day—come in Saturdays, too—for the props and everything!”

(Yes, he was that open, that innocent—the naïf among us Masquers “sophisticates.”) And every Monday-through-Friday for the several weeks of rehearsals following, at precisely 3:30 in the afternoon, he’d jog, arms pumping, down the middle aisle of the auditorium and, ignoring the stage steps, slap, palm-down, broad, thick-fingered hands onto the stage floor and push himself up onto it, as gracefully as a gymnast, and then turn and face us in our seats, and, grinning broadly, his freckled face flushed with pleasure, bow low before us, forearm tight over his waist, as he’d hear our delighted applause. (We Broughton “sophisticates” all loved Kenny, in that slightly patronizing way we “loved” someone physically crippled or mentally “deficient.”) He’d be changed from his J. C. Penney’s button-down shirt and polished-cotton slacks and black loafers into ragged, dirt-stained sneakers, faded blue jeans, and a torn, white T-shirt with the tail out and worn thin from repeated washing. I’d be sitting in the front row (of course!), and glancing up from my lines—of the raging Count in Anastasia and, later, of the mournful tramp in Dust, of the stuffed-shirt Mr. Kirby in the Hart-Kaufman play, and now, in April, of somber Cothurnus in Aria—I’d notice, right away, as he scrambled onto the stage and turned and bowed and rose again, the startling blue eyes and the light brown hair tousled over his forehead, the sinewy forearms with the veins showing, the jeans tight as skin against his crotch and round firm butt, the T-shirt tears that showed the sinewy ridges of his freckled shoulders.

And when his blue eyes would meet mine (and, yes, they always would, every time I’d glance up at him), I’d quick-bend down at my angry or mourning or stuffed-shirt or somber lines and, tingling red with shame, feel myself harden under my fly—a sudden, startling rock-hardening, like a fist striking me pleasurably, down there.

It began, this “incident” between us, on an April Fool’s afternoon, when, on a sudden whim strange to me—a not-me—I waited until the other actors and Mrs. Peacock and few spectators (mostly parents) had left the auditorium, and I stepped up to the stage and without a word to him, just started lifting one prop after another and lugging it backstage. He did the same, without a word to me either, and helped me move the larger props and the big flats, glancing at me now and again, a blue eye of his winking at me, sly and conspiratorial (or so I saw it then—my not-Lockhart Elledge). After we swept the stage floor, our chores were done, and in the echoing auditorium, we sat close beside each other, stage-edge, our legs dangling down. We’re just resting, part of me thought—the real me—but that other I—the not-I—felt dry in my mouth and shivered pleasurably and wondered, Will he kiss me? Or should I start it? I remember his sudden turning, as if he were reading my mind, and then his leaning over and his sudden, startling kiss on my mouth, and then, without thinking, my kiss in return, my tongue relishing his thick lips, parting them, relishing his warm tongue, and then his tongue swirling, relishing mine.

The Thursday following, we discovered the mattress, and to our deep delight, no longer having to sit, we rolled it out to mid-stage. After Kenny, grinning, focused a deep red spotlight on it, we fairly plunged upon its cool mustiness and began, wildly, passionately, the embracing, the caressing, the rubbing of our shoulders, arms, calves, thighs, the thick, hard bulges in our pants (his tight blue jeans, my loose khakis.) Then we kissed and kissed and kissed each other until our upper lips were bruised—purple-red as raspberries in the long, cracked mirror backstage.

By mid-April, we had shoved off our clothes (having latched the doors to the wings and backstage and fastened together the closed stage curtains with three, large safety pins) and had begun the bare-skin fondling, the cuddling, and that other kind of rubbing—the frottage, if you will. For one shining hour of a Friday, we tasted each other, simultaneously: his cock long and thin, sweetly bitter with his smegma (he wasn’t circumcised), mine short, fat, bald—and smelling (so he moaned) “like sweet chlorine.” By the last Thursday of April, after so many awkward—and painful—failures, we at last entered each other and bloomed inside—me into him, then him into me.

It was during our final “cornhole” (so he crudely called it—I preferred “Uranian bliss,” poetaster that I was in those days) when we were caught. A janitor—a tiny, shriveled, old white man, the only white among the rest of them—and a zealous Southern Baptist to boot—happened to arrive around fifteen minutes early that afternoon—the last day of April, a Friday, I remember the day exactly. He must have seen the stage curtains awry and stepped closer, on tiptoe likely—he was that quiet. Then, seeing the three large safety pins and knowing “somethin’ won’t quite right” (as he must have told Mr. Holliday Monday morning), he quietly unfastened them, one by one, set them quietly on the stage rim, and gimped through the parted curtains. Before Kenny and I could uncouple, he saw, center stage, on the mattress lit by the red spotlight, my legs thrown back over my shoulders and then our two naked butts, Kenny’s above mine and so tightly joined they looked like one taut moon of flesh. As Kenny groaned with his orgasm inside me, I remember shouting—even as I saw Mr. Whipple standing over us, jowls red and quivering, “God, Kenny, I love you so! Fill me full!” and then, my right hand pumping furiously, I streamed out my own white bloom into the cleft of Kenny’s molded chest.

I don’t remember the details of what happened next—just a shameful parting: Kenny dressing quickly and, nearly tearing the lever off it, rushing out the exit door—my last sight of him, ever—and I, suffused with shame, guilt, and sweet recollection, all at the same time, stretched naked on my back, on the thin smelly mattress, sweating in the red spotlight, hearing old Mr. Whipple gimp down the stage steps and up the auditorium aisle, all the while muttering to himself—curses? prayers?—I could not hear to tell.

Monday afternoon, I arrived promptly at 3:30 in the cramped, overwarm principal’s office while Mother and Mr. Holliday were already “conferring.” The office reeked of pipe tobacco, and Mr. Holliday had his pipe’s stem-end clenched in the corner of his mouth. After asking me to “sit, please, Lockhart,” in a wooden school desk across from the two of them, he told me Mr. Whipple had come to his office “first thing” in the morning and reported my “sordid and indecent act” and knowing “Kenny’s daddy” (from Hayes-Barton Baptist), had already phoned him and told him about it. “Of course,” Kenny had “confessed on the spot,” and Mr. Vaughn had “removed” him from Broughton for the rest of the school year—“for reasons of ill health.” And he had “made arrangements” for Kenny to attend a military academy in South Carolina, starting in the summer. The school had a reputation for “straightening out troubled youngsters.”

I remember how my stomach fell, how my heart tightened, but before I could think, “I’ll never see him again,” Mr. Holliday went on: that, “to be brief and to the point” (since he had a faculty meeting to attend), I had been “dropped indefinitely” from the Golden Masquers, that, “of course, there’d be no Honor Society, and no Princeton either,” he was “afraid”—that I’d have to “settle for UNC” with the Latin scholarship I had already won.  But I could avoid “suspension for the rest of the year” and a “messy” trial in District Court—I was seventeen and so considered “an adult offender” (“for after all, Mrs. Elledge, sodomy is a felony in the state of North Carolina, punishable by up to ten years in prison”)—if Mother and Grandfather would arrange “visits” with a psychiatrist (he pronounced it “sy-ky-a-trist”) at least three afternoons a week—for “oh, maybe a year”—and have “the doctor” report to him “on a weekly basis.” “Dix Hill” (as nearly everyone in the state called Dorothea Dix Hospital) had residents that didn’t charge much, so there’d be no “unnecessary financial burden” on my family. And, “more important,” if I saw a resident—who’d likely be from “up north somewhere or even a foreigner”—I could prevent all the “talk” that would surely tarnish the Woodall family’s “reputation.” Mr. Holliday knew of a “youngster” in his neighborhood who’d had a “condition” like mine, and, after just a year of therapy (he pronounced it “thurpy”), he began dating girls—even took one to the Senior Prom. “And she was a stunner, too, Mrs. Elledge, let me tell you,” he laughed aloud. “So, you see, Mrs. Elledge, anything’s possible with all the new tricks these sy-ky-a-trists have up their sleeves nowadays.”

The whole time of Mr. Holliday’s speech, I noticed Mother had turned her head from him and was gazing out the window into the white-brick courtyard with the single, small dogwood—in green leaf now—planted in the center of it, and, on the edge of Mr. Holliday’s desk, her right-hand fingers drummed softly, fitfully—impatiently. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, just the dyed-blonde hair styled in the high, Jackie Kennedy bouffant still popular in ’65. When Mr. Holliday finished speaking, she said, flatly but with a tinge of complaint, still gazing out the window, “I’m just not handling it, Mr. Holliday. All this sick business—all this therapy. It’s all just so embarrassing. His grandfather can take care of it.”

 

“So we got to Goldsboro in two hours and a half. They were slow trains back then, yessir. Still slow, too, heh heh.”

My grandfather was speaking aloud again, abrupting me out of that cramped, overwarm office reeking of pipe tobacco and back into the old Chrysler with the wind rushing on my face through the open window, the old-man-sweat-smell lingering still, mixed with the harsh soap and dry cleaning fluid.

We had long passed Cary and come into Raleigh and were now driving by the Fairgrounds and Dorton Arena, its ugly, pale green panels and black-glittering windows shivering me then and shivering me now, over half my life later.

Grandfather rasped: “My schoolmates—they were Burton Evans and Marshall Bell—Burton was killed in the trenches, November ’18, and the ’18 flu took Marshall about the same time.”

He went silent a moment, then swallowed. I saw his lips quiver, and then he shook his head, once, sharply, as if to clear himself, and rasped on: “So we arrived at the station about half past two and walked to our separate homes, Burt and Marshall to Edgerton where they lived a block apart, and I to Elm and that old, cob-webby Victorian cave I grew up in—you know, the house Mother (your great-grandmother) caught double pneumonia in back in ’33 when I was stationed in Panama. After Mother died in that automobile accident in ’42, the family made it a rooming house, where your great-aunt Rosalie lived until she died, all by herself, in that drafty turret room she’d chosen to rent—who knows why. Yessir, that poor woman just got old and cold and worn out and starved herself. Dead a week before anyone knew. I’ll never forget those puckered, black lips. Was I that found her, you know. Starvation lips, yessir. Lord, was I glad when ’60 came along and Merrick and I sold that drafty thing to the town and they demolished it for a parking lot.

“So I strode inside the cave that Saturday, 1909, worn out from the walk and the train ride, and spent the rest of the day and half of Sunday just lying out on the parlor sofa, looking at my Georgics now and then, just flickering through it, you know—to say I studied some. And next day, noon, Burton, Marshall, and I caught the train back to Nelson and strode our nine miles back to campus. We arrived just at twilight—Lord, a beautiful twilight if there ever was, those cirrus clouds—you know, those change-of-weather clouds, like huge plumes—all streaked in red and purple and orange, even a tinge of green here and there—and those starlings whippering over us in huge black flocks and then roosting and whistling in the oak crowns and the elms. Yessir, we still had elms back then, a few of ’em, anyway. Lord, we all three felt so giddy we ran like colts the last half mile to our dormitories. It was that gorgeous.”

“Gorgeous.” I’d never heard him use that word before. It was a woman’s word—or a queer’s.

I turned and saw his face deep red—maroon nearly—and his cheeks and turkey neck quivering, like a calm lake touched by sudden wind. Fearing for his blood pressure, I flailed to find words that would soothe him. But he must have found those soothing words in his mind, as his face at once lightened, stilled, and he settled back into the faint self-whispering, the soft laugh breaking out of it now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.”

As we came onto Hillsboro Street and drove down it, fitfully, every stoplight going red, it seemed, I remembered the last time I had seen that deep, deep red, that strange quivering of cheek and jowl. Then it had come not from the delight of reminiscence but from anger—rage, rather—like a match thrown into a pool of gasoline.

I was twelve years old, and my grandfather had driven me out to his farm in Johnston County, as he had done every Saturday since I was five. These trips weren’t the partly forced “therapeutic” ones of my mid-adolescence, but excursions I gladly undertook with him, sometimes bringing along a school buddy, and often Lucinda. The trips—I see now, over four decades later—were a sort of fathering ritual he may have felt obliged—but gratefully so—to grant me and Lucinda: a ritual to replace, as much as he could in his old age—the father we never had.

On the Saturday of his rage (and this, too, happened in May, oddly, but the latter part of it, when white-blooming honeysuckle filled the roadside ditches), just he and I had driven to the farm, around eight in the morning, as we always had. Since mid-April of that year, 1960, I and the tenant’s son—fourteen, crew-cut, big-boned, tall as a man—had “lain together” in one of the pair of tobacco barns linked by a long, open, tin-roofed shed. It was the old-fashioned kind of barn one seldom sees anymore: axe-skinned logs chinked with cement, the roof just tar paper tacked to the rafters, a small, square opening on the end that faced the shade of the open shed. It stood—along with the shed and the opposite barn—just across the dirt drive from the clapboard tenant house where he lived with his parents and younger brother. (Oh, yes, his name was Elton—Elton Whitaker.

It began, this “lying together,” quite by accident. On a Saturday in that mid-April, while Grandfather and Mr. Whitaker were inspecting the tobacco beds a half mile away, in a small cleared space well beyond the tree line, I was dawdling about the Whitakers’ backyard, a little bored, kicking desultorily at the white dirt, watching little puffs of it rise which the faint breeze caught and spiraled and thinned. I was hearing Mrs. Whitaker pounding rhythmically on some spread dough from the open kitchen window, all the while humming to herself some twangy country song. It must have been noon, or nearly so, and the day was overcast, yet warm, for April—warm enough for my khaki shorts with my new white T-shirt tucked in.

As I kicked my way slowly toward one of the tobacco barns—it was the barn nearer the open fields and the tree line, the barn with its cement chinking eaten away here and there, leaving long ragged holes—I heard, coming faint from inside, breathy grunts, two in succession, then two more, then a silence, then two more, the first pair high-pitched, the second low and groaning. And, now and then, in and out of the paired grunts, came a thump!—muffled and flat, as if against packed dirt. Then, the low voice—low as a grown man’s: “Pinned yuh, now—a gen-u-ine Elton Whitaker death-clamp.” Then, after a silence, came “Unh, unh, UNH,” harsh and loud, from the same low voice, tinged with the Johnston County twang I’d heard so often from Mr. Whitaker. Then I heard the higher, almost girlish voice: “Ow, you’re hurtin’ me, Elton! Lemme up, hear? I’ll tell Pop!” And right after: the lower voice, groaning loud and long, “Oooooooooh yeeeeeee-ah! Did me a gob! You get your’n, Elway?”

“Get off me! I’ll tell Pop! Nasty, Elton! Just plain nasty!”

I came to a high crack in the chinking, and raising myself on tiptoe, my hand shading my eyes, I peered inside. Both brothers were crew-cut and bare to the waist, and they wore tight, pale blue jeans. Elton—tall, big-boned, and carrying the muscles of a twenty-year-old (or so it seemed to me then)—was lying prone on small, thin-boned Elway, covering his chest, stomach, legs, feet, and Elton’s hips were pumping hard and rhythmic as he groaned on: “Oh, yeah, there’s another one, and another! I’m fillin’ yer jeans crotch, Elway!” I noticed right away Elton’s big biceps and forearms, the veins ridging out as he gripped Elway’s squirming shoulders.

Suddenly Elway went still, and he grinned broadly and in his high-pitched voice shrieked, “Awwwwww, yeeeeeee-ah! Me, too now. Nasty feels so good, Elton!”

I felt the sudden, painful hardening in my shorts, that abrupt, brutal thickening, and without thought, as if I were possessed by some strange demon I could not name, let alone understand, I ran around into the shade of the tin-roofed shed and, ducking my head (I was nearly six feet tall, even then), stepped through the barn’s small opening.

“Shit fire!” Elton yelled, and in a second, the two of them had scrambled up and grabbed their T-shirts from the dirt floor and slipped them on, and Elway rushed past me and out of the opening, nearly tripping, and yelling shrilly, “Nasty! Nasty! We did nasty, Elton! I’m tellin’ Pop! I am! I am!”

But Elton stayed, and with his T-shirt on, tucked in so tight it clung to his thick, mounded chest (from all those push-ups, the thought flew to me), he just stared at me quietly for a long time, his dark, deep-set eyes flickering from my face to my feet, from my feet to my face, and back down again.

When he spoke, he sounded like gravel rattling in a jar.

“So yer—”

“Lock,” I said. “For Lockhart. What Grandfather calls me.”

“So yer grandpa who we work fer? The owner?”

I nodded.

He spat a thick, white wad into the packed dirt—abrupt, hard, echoing.

Then he went on, “Yer voice like mine, yuh know that? And yer how old?”

“Twelve. Thirteen next March—March twentieth.”

“And I reckoned I was a young ’un fer it to be deep like that. And yuh got a apple, like me, big pointy one. Fourteen now. Fifteen August.”

He turned and, facing me all the while, began walking a slow, tight, meandering circle around me.

“And yer tall, too. Tall as me. Nigh six foot, hey?”

I nodded, throat dry as the packed dirt.

“But, Lord,”—and here he scrunched his squashed nose—“yer skinny—skinny as Elway. Skinnier.”

He flung out a hand, thick-fingered, grimy, and, touching my T-shirt, gently, just above my belt, pinched a little wad of it and, ever gently, as if it were fragile, drew the whole shirt-front up out of my shorts and all the way to my neck.

“Shit fire! I can see yer fuckin’ ribs! Just like Elway yonder. He ain’t gone tell Pop. He always says that. He knows what I’ll do to him.”

He looked down at my shorts.

“Hey hey! Yuh got a boner, too! Looks like a nine-incher to me. A gagger, sure enough.”

Then he let the shirt-front drop and stepped past me toward the barn opening, his tobacco-and-dirt smell lingering after him, like some odd, exotic perfume.

Before ducking through the aperture, he turned back to me and said, “Meet yuh next week? Same time, same place, hey? I’ll tell Elton get lost.”

 

In that space, shuddering alone now, I smelled at once the heady odor of the tobacco bits strewn here and there over the packed, white dirt, and, in an odd frenzy, I dropped to the my belly and, sliding a hand under my belt, made a fist and pumped on the rock-hard “gagger.” In less than a minute, I burst into bloom—a low, white groan rising and petaling from crotch to belly to heart to throat, throbbing. (Even now, on my occasional visits to Durham to give master classes in acting, I need only sniff the heady odor of cured tobacco pervading all of downtown, and I can recall, with deep pleasure, that April Saturday decades ago—when tobacco smell and orgasm became forever mingled in my soul.)

 

So as the leaves unfurled and greened through the rest of April and most of May, they all began, like sweet, exotic flowers opening: those Saturday “matches” when, as soon as Grandfather and Mr. Whitaker set out to inspect the tobacco beds, as soon as Elton yelled at Elway ever poking his tow crew cut through the barn opening, “Get lost, bitch!” we, Elton and I, lay side by side in the tobacco barn, in the center of the white-dirt floor, where the tobacco bits and slivers lay thickest. We lay on our backs, his beefy, tight-jeaned thigh pressed hard against my skinny one, bare and hairless below the cuffs of my shorts.

We lay still, a minute maybe, and then Elton twisted over on his side and slid a huge, rough hand under my thigh and lifted it up and back as high as it could go. He curved his other arm, like a muscled snake, behind my neck and all the way around to my throat, as if embracing it, and then, bringing his thick, slightly parted lips so close to mine I could nearly have kissed them, he yelled in my face, his breath tinged with mint candy and old chewing tobacco, “Cradle, yeah man!” This the one ain’t nobody slips, baby! Yer bam! bam! bam! pinned to the mat! Helpless, baby!”

I didn’t struggle at all. In fact, I relished this rough, ritual play—like a strange flesh-ceremony: his tight holding and squeezing, the thick, rock-hard arm muscles around my neck, the thick, parted lips an inch from mine. And I relished the other “holds” he showed me, in slow and patient succession: “the figure four,” the “full nelson,” “the sleeper” (though I didn’t go to sleep), “Ric Flair’s death grip,” and many others. His “demonstrations” must have lasted an hour—“holds” and “moves” he would have learned from the wrestling magazines in a Smithfield drugstore (the Whitakers couldn’t afford television).

After an hour of demonstrating the “holds,” he was breathing hard, thick chest heaving, breath smelling of that mint candy and old chewing tobacco. Then he released me from the final hold, and we lay back, side by side, going still for a minute, his tight-jeaned thigh brushing mine. Suddenly he reached over and grabbed at my crotch and, feeling my “boner,” started to rub on it through the khaki.

“Turned yuh rock-hard, yeah!” he broke. Let’s spurt yuh on out now—hit yer face smack center!”

After twisting onto his side, slowly and tenderly he unbuckled my belt and eased down my shorts and underwear, his eyes going wide at my “boner” arcing back, its oozing tip nearly touching my belly button. “Lord, a big ’un—and only twelve year old!” he whispered hoarsely, like a prayer. Then he spat twice into his right palm and, making a fist, grasped my shaft with it and began a slow rubbing—down and up, down and up, down and up. In less than a minute, I groaned loudly and spurted a thick, white jet that smacked me squarely in the forehead, then dribbled down over my eyebrows. Then he released my shaft and brought his lips to my forehead and eyebrows and started slowly licking the semen, every so often shutting his mouth to swallow it.

“Hmmmmm, not bad,” he whispered, hoarse from the semen. “Like Clorox and sweet gum all mixed up.”

Then he wiped his lips with the back of his hand and broke, “But yer too fuckin’ fast, baby. You need to learn control. Keep it slow, hold it, savor it—all the way down yer insides. Five minutes, leastways—then comes yer spurt and me tastin’ yuh, swallowin’ yuh. Yuh got nice, thick cream, baby—nearabout sweet as molasses.”

We lay back still for a time, and then he grabbed an old, ragged tobacco leaf off the packed dirt and, gently, thoroughly, wiped the remaining semen off my forehead and eyebrows. He brought the leaf to his mouth and tongued the semen off it, gently, like kissing it, then tossed it into a dark corner. Then he reached forward and, just as gently, pulled my underwear to my waist and pulled up my shorts and buckled my belt. He rose then and stepped softly, as if in a church, toward the barn opening. Before stooping and stepping outside into the shadow of the shed, he turned and winked, “Next week, same time, same place, hey?”

 

All through the intervening days—that painfully slow Sunday-through-Friday—I could not keep my mind off him. At school, in the pages of my math book or speller, the numbers and words would dissolve into his leer, his thick lips, the slightly squashed nose with the pimple at the tip of it, his heavy-ridged brows and eyes set so deep I could never tell their color. At night, in my bed, I’d see him whirling and dancing naked on the pale ceiling: the hard, defined arm muscles, the naked, thick, mounded chest with the deep cleft down the center of it, the ridged shoulders, the thick thighs. (I learned later that he “worked out” after school with rusty dumbbells and barbells in the other tobacco barn—partner to the one we lay in.) After watching him awhile—whirling and dancing and leering above me, in the faint light of a street lamp diffusing into my room—I’d roll over in my bed and shutting my eyes to keep that vision fixed, like a photograph, I’d slide a fist under the elastic waist of my pajama bottoms and pump on the rock-hard “gagger” until I burst, feeling the thick wetness soak in warm, thick jets through the crotch cloth. I suppose a psychiatrist would have called Elton the object of my “preadolescent homoeroticism”—a brief “phase” quite “natural” for boys of twelve. But for me he was much more than that dry diagnosis: he was a genius in the flesh—of the flesh—ever filling me, ever hardening me, ever oozing me, ever bursting me—like a star—with sweetest pain: a dark yet lovely angel. He was gorgeous. There was no other word.

And so it happened that, Saturday after Saturday, the light green of April merging into the darker green of May, we’d meet in that tobacco-redolent shrine and “wrestle” awhile and then end our “matches” with his rhythmic rubbing and my sweet pain and the nacreous stream striking my forehead, leaving a mark of strange inverted holiness, like Father Moody’s ash-thumbprint on Ash Wednesday.

For a time Elton’s shout—“Get lost, bitch!”—was enough to keep Elway from the barn. As soon as we heard the rapid footsteps approaching, Elton would raise his head and yell, and the steps would retreat and fade. But on the second May Saturday, when he had me curled in his “cradle,” his thick lips leering so near mine I ached to kiss them, we heard the rapid steps once again, and once again Elton raised his head and shouted, “Get lost, bitch!” But the steps kept nearing us, and soon we heard scrapes just outside the barn—shoes climbing the logs. Mid-cradle we craned our necks and saw a pair of wide, deep-blue eyes staring down on us through a ragged slit in the chinking. At once Elton released me and abrupted to his feet and strode to the slit and the eyes and yelled, “Elway! You hear me? I’ll—” The eyes darted away, and after a long, fitful scraping down and thud, footsteps scuttered and faded.

Yet on the Saturday following, now in the middle of the “figure four,” the eyes returned to the ragged slit—deep-blue and staring, whether in horror or voyeuristic wonder, I couldn’t tell—and Elton again abrupted to his feet and yelled and the eyes flickered away.

On the fourth May Saturday (I’ll remember that day forever: the bright sunshine and shimmery heat—like mid-July—and the new green oats waving in the rough breeze in the fields nearby), Elton and I lay down once more, at noon, side by side in the redolent barn. Once more I was expecting him to cradle me, and I’d even planned, in an aching fit of fancy, a quick kiss on his lips. But he just lay still for a time, and then he broke, “That bitch Elway—he’ll see yuh spurtin’ soon and my hand on yer dick, and you and me, we’ll both get whupped—leastways I will. You—yer grandpa’ll just send yuh to one of them head doctors don’t do yuh no good noway.”

He rubbed at his tight jeans crotch—at the sudden tubular bulge there—then broke again, “We need us another place, baby. Where Elway can’t see nothin’, don’t know nothin’. And we need it now—today. And it come to me just now what it is and where it’s at. Let’s git gone.”

 

In a half hour we were crossing Brogden Road and then clambering through a weedy ditch and up a low slope of early day lilies planted in neat double rows. Straight ahead of us, maybe twenty yards distant, sat the old clapboard church I’d seen for years but never entered.

Grandfather and I would pass it on the way to his farm, and he would fling a hand at it and clear his throat, “That’s the church your great-great-grandfather built for the colored people in 1868. He was Republican, you know—Lincoln Republican. He paid colored servants, and even field workers—not much, but enough so you couldn’t call ’em slaves. Yessir, a real Union man, Blow-Your-Horn-Billy was.” In that brief glimpse as we’d pass it, I’d see how lonely—how melancholy—it all looked: the boxy shape; the rusty, high-pitched tin roof splotched with tar patches; the stub of old-brick chimney poking up from left-center; the narrow door ever shut, a square, clapboard-shuttered window on each side of it; and, along the sides of the church, three other windows—squared, shuttered, spaced equally apart. The whole was painted white, with here and there black-weathered strips where the paint had flaked off.

As Elton and I approached it that fourth May Saturday, the church looked the same—but gone was the loneness, the melancholy I had seen in those earlier brief glimpses. With Elton close beside me, tight-jeaned and muscled and reeking of sweat, his thin T-shirt stretched taut over his chest, his whole body emanating heat, the church seemed some exotic pleasure palace, the tin roof shimmering like mirage water on a distant stretch of highway July and August noons.

Slope-rim, we broke into a stride, and when we reached the narrow door, we stopped and Elton broke, “Ain’t no one gone see us here—not Saturdays leastways. Old nigger church—and I mean old nigger. Just ten or ’leben of ’em left now, and not a one under seb’nty.”

He reached for the porcelain knob and twisted it, and the door swung open, slowly, squeaking faintly on its hinges.

“Them old niggers trust ever-body. Never got used to lockin’. And lucky for us, baby—oh, yeah!” He drew it out loud and deep: “oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah.” But then his voice suddenly dropped, and he whispered, as if in awe of something he could not name, “Be sure and shut the door when you step on in.”

Throat dry now, my “thing” hardening, I could only nod and follow him inside, shutting the door quietly behind me, the hinge-squeak drawing itself out, plaintively, like an ancient spirit wailing.

At first, there was absolute dark all around us—just the thick smell of wildflowers in an enclosed space, and, here and there, scents of furniture polish and Lysol.

Soon the dark paled from the strips of light streaming through cracks in the window shutters, and I could make out a dozen or so rough-hewn benches in close rows, a pine-floor aisle dividing them down the center. A little way ahead of us sat the “altar”—just a sheet of plywood set on sawhorses and covered with a white bedsheet. Day lilies in Coke bottles lined the rear of the “altar,” and in the center of it stood a figurine of Jesus with his halo—made of plastic or papier-mâché, I wasn’t sure. It was the sort of figurine you’d buy in a five-and-ten at Easter time. Before the statue sat a small tin cup from the last century and, beside the cup, a small tin plate, likewise old—yet, as I saw in the dim light, both of them clean and polished to gleaming. Gradually, I made out bits of white bread on the plate and in the cup some dark liquid filling it to the brim: grape juice, not wine, I was certain, since Grandfather had said the old church was colored Freewill, where they didn’t drink—“or weren’t supposed to, anyway, heh heh.”

“Come on,” Elton whispered. “There’s a wrestle-and-jerk-off space  just a-waiting on us, hungry-like—under that there plywood.”

We moved slowly up the narrow aisle and through the redolent dimness, our footsteps faint and rhythmic. Just beyond the first row of benches, we lay down side by side, I in the dimness beside the benches, Elton in the darker space below the plywood. So intent we were—so full—we barely felt the flat nails and sharp, protruding knots of the pine floor beneath us.

“This even better ’n that old barn, hey, baby?” Elton broke. “That Jesus up there watchin’ us. Bet him getting’ a boner, too. Let’s skip the wrestle stuff and pump yer cream.”

Being a Catholic—and an altar boy, too—I felt a sharp clench of shame at Elton’s “That Jesus up there watchin’ us,” but his heat and sweat and tobacco smell overwhelmed my shame, and I let him perform his role in our barn ritual: unzipping my fly, then slipping down my shorts and underpants—all slowly, gently. Then his fist clenching my “boner” and the slow intent pumping until I groaned and bloomed, the semen striking my forehead in warm splotches. Then Elton groaning, “Yeah, oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah! Milk fer me, baby! Give me yer cream!” And last, something new from him—delectable: cupping his thick lips around my whole taut head and sucking out the warm, white life that was left.

“Like honey from a comb, yeah man!”

Just then, like a snake striking, the front door flew open—kicked hard by some thick boot—and door and frame crashed to the floor in a great splintering. The May light threw a bright stream straight toward us, just as Elton was coming off my “boner” with a loud slurp! and then wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

I craned up and saw Mr. Whitaker in the doorway, dressed in overalls—and dark-faced in the blaring light behind him. Beside him and a little to the rear stood Grandfather holding his Homburg out in front of him. A little way beyond them stood Elway, also in overalls, tow head hung low. In a swift pounding of boots, Mr. Whitaker strode up the aisle and, reaching down, gripped Elton by the shoulder, pinched flesh till Elton yelled, and then dragged him to standing and, without a breath, slapped his cheeks over and over, rhythmically, Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap!

“You git on home now, boy! Yuh ain’t no per-vert queer. That faggot yonder’s teachin’ yuh!

He dragged Elton by the shoulder down the aisle and out of the church, kicking aside the splintered door. Hat held before him, my grandfather stood aside to let them pass, and Elway spun around and rushed off, his tow head winking in the sunlight. Mr. Whitaker stopped midstride a moment and glaring at Grandfather, yelled, “I don’t give a rabbit-shit if you’re my boss or not. You can evict me if you damn well want to. But you keep that queer boy of your’n ’way from mine! He never in his life— And in a holy place, too! God-a-mighty! Even if it’s just a nigger one! Lucky Elway had the sense to follow them two. Like stalkin’ deer he’d be readyin’ to shoot.”

The boots pounded again and then faded, and there was just I, naked still and lying on my back on the gouging, pinching floor between the altar and the front benches, while outside the church, in the blaring sunlight, Grandfather stood silent and expressionless, waiting for me, his Homburg still held out in front of him.

In a half hour we were on our way back to Raleigh, Grandfather staring straight ahead as he drove, teeth clenched, jaws quivering. His face was so red I remembered the Sunday evenings when Grandmother would hold the stethoscope over his wrist while he’d squeeze the little rubber bulb, and I feared the pressure was over two hundred by now and he’d have a stroke for sure. He whispered over and over, “I could kill that fellah! Damn lyin’ common son of a bitch!” I slid over and hunched tightly against my door, fearing any minute he’d explode in one of the outbursts of temper my mother had often told me about but so far I had never witnessed. But he kept his rage inside all the way home, the only outward sign of it those red, quivering jaws and the barely audible, “I could kill that damn lyin’ common son of a bitch!”—repeated over and over, like a strange litany.

In an hour we reached my house and he let me out into the carport. His face, I noticed, had lost that scary red and turned flesh-clear and relaxed again.

Usually, on our Saturday parting, he’d clear his throat and say, “Well, Mr. Lockhart—until next Saturn’s day, si vales, valeo; bonum est.” But this last May Saturday he said no word at all, just stared straight and expressionless at the windshield and waited until I opened my door and stepped out. My chest clenched with shame, I knew what his silence meant and said no word to him.

From the carport, not even looking back, in my shame, in my hurt nearly to tears, I heard the old car—this one a Cadillac, a ’52—back slowly over the loose gravel of the drive and into the turnaround. The gearshift clicked faintly, the engine raced a little as the clutch engaged, and the old car crunched its slow, shaming way up the gravel drive and into the street.

The next Saturday—the first June Saturday—I woke at six, as usual, and dressed in T-shirt and sneakers and clean khaki shorts and, skipping home breakfast (Mother and Lucinda slept late weekends), stepped out to the carport to wait for the old Cadillac to crunch once more down the drive and stop at the edge of the carport, a silver-haired crown leaning out the driver’s open window and intoning, “Si vales, valeo, Mr. Lockhart.” In my denial of last Saturday—of what had happened—I pictured in my mind—exquisitely, nostalgically, as if it had been already lost to me—the overwarm, bacon-smelling Broiler on Hillsboro Street where we’d stop for breakfast (Grandfather for his coffee and ice water and two sunny-side eggs and sausage, I for the blueberry pancakes and orange juice) and then the even deeper June green blurring by us as we’d roll down U.S. 70 East at Grandfather’s steady 55, the wind rushing in pine smells through our open windows and Grandfather, as always, whispering to himself, a light laugh erupting now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.” And I pictured myself content as a baby beside him—while deep down in my mind playing through those exquisite “games” with Elton that, in my denial, my naïveté, I knew would surely come round again in spite of Mr. Whitaker’s outburst. (Surely he’d forgotten it—all of it—by now.) And it all would happen not in the old colored church, to be sure, but in the same barn again, on the tobacco-littered, packed-dirt floor, or perhaps in the barn opposite, or in another place Elton knew we could lie beside each other, unwatched by anyone.

I must have waited in the carport for an hour, then two, then three, as the sun brimmed from behind our house and yellowed the front lawn, bitten here and there with pine-trunk shadows. Around nine, Mother called sleepily, from her bedroom window facing the carport, “Dee-di’s not here yet? Oh, God, I hope it’s not his blood—. I’d better phone him.”

“No, Mother, let me call,” I said, stomach clenching. I didn’t want her to hear what I feared he might tell her.

I hurried into the kitchen and on the wall phone dialed the familiar number. Of course, it had to be Grandmother who answered.

“Ma-ma,” I spoke slowly, loudly, “is Dee-di in?”

“Is this Joan? Venice? Lucinda?” (I could picture her twisting the volume dial on her telephone.) “Oh, Lock, it’s you. Yes, he’s right here, reading the paper.”

“Is he going out to the farm today?”

“Alarm clock? Goodness gracious—I should hope not. He’s never needed one in his life. No—he’s been up since five, as always. Claude, it’s for you. Lock.”

There was a breath of newspaper rattling, and then a long clearing of a throat, and then an orotund voice, but flat, inflectionless, as if speaking lines memorized for a play: “There’s a new man handling the farm business. He’s working with Mr. Whitaker, so there’s no need to travel there in future.” I couldn’t help noticing he didn’t say, “We won’t be traveling,” just the impersonal “there’s no need”—as if he were locking what had happened into one of the dozens of old tin boxes in his bedroom closets.

“You be good now, Lock,” came the flat, inflectionless voice again. Here’s Ma-ma. She wants to say goodbye.”

So that was the end of it—the Saturday ritual I’d known and loved since I was five—and exquisitely relished since early April of my thirteenth year on this Earth.

And I never saw Elton or Elway or Mr. Whitaker again.

And for over thirty years, I didn’t set foot on Grandfather’s farm—later Uncle Claude’s after Grandfather died.

 

On my trip down to Durham just a month ago—mid-April—I drove out to Brogden one free morning, and from the rented car stopped on a shoulder, I gazed on the old “colored” church, a ruin now: the shutters gone, the window panes broken out, great ragged breaches in the rotting clapboards, the yard grown up in weeds, the timber all around cut (and sold, apparently)—the tall, thick pines, the sweet gums, the three or four huge white oaks. And later, a mile east, and again from the shoulder-parked rented car, I gazed on the few brick walls left standing of Ava Gardner’s school (“Brogden School,” officially) and then on the clapboard teacherage beside it, painted newly white. Ava Gardner Museum was printed in large, black, cursive letters above the white door frame, and a new Honda Civic was parked in the semicircular driveway. The lawn was carefully mowed and planted here and there with neat rows and circles of daffodils and brightly colored tulips. Through a front window, I saw pictures and mannequins of the actress in various poses and in brightly colored dresses from the forties and fifties. I was tempted to go in and visit, but for a reason I couldn’t account for, I shuddered at the thought of it and turned the rented car around and headed to Grandfather’s farm (now Uncle Claude’s). I stood for an hour in the sunny, white-dirt backyard of the tenant house. The place was empty now, its back stoop sagging, rotting. I looked out at the paired tobacco barns linked by the tin shed. Bits of brown tobacco leaf littered the packed dirt under it, so I knew the barns were used still—not yet replaced by those characterless tobacco-curing prefabs that had begun to sprout all over as the old log-and-cement-chinked barns fell to rust and termites and weather and neglect. I learned later that the farmer across the road was renting Uncle Claude’s farm and hiring Hispanic migrants to live in the tenant house in July, August, September, and spray the leathery leaves and strip them from the stalks and hang them from the long poles in the barns.

 

So beginning on that first June Saturday, 1960, without Grandfather’s farm and the green, pine-scented journeys there and, especially, without Elton and his tight jeans and heat and muscle, I began the lonely Saturday ritual that would last until I met Kenny Vaughn in my junior year at Broughton. The ritual was hours spent alone in my upstairs bedroom, door latched from inside, my eyes fixed on cut-out Boy’s Life “Toughen Up” photos as I’d lie on the braided rug, my pants-fly rubbing against a towel wadded and fisted under it. The photos were of boys of fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, when their muscles started showing, hardening, even veining a little: boys bare to the waste, in chest poses their pectorals mounding slightly, a shallow cleft down the center of them, and while lifting barbells or chinning themselves, their biceps filling the rolled hems of their T-shirts, and in wrestling drills, arching themselves into “bridges” so high and peaked their “things” would tube through the tight training pants. What ecstatic relief I’d feel when I’d burst and the thick wetness would rill through my underpants like a sweetly painful spring! And all through that all-too-brief burst, I’d groan, “Oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah!” into a washcloth held over my mouth—so Lucinda couldn’t hear me in her room next to mine.

 

“Heh heh, old Venice McGee Woodall. Always did like those cacti—ever since the family threw her out in ’36.”

Clearing his throat, Grandfather was speaking aloud again.  I looked up from the ragged floor mat and saw we had turned off Hillsboro Street and come onto West Park Drive in Cameron Park and were now crunching up the steep gravel driveway I remembered from so many Christmas breakfasts. Ahead of us loomed the paint-peeling, slightly sagging Victorian house where my great-aunt Venice had been residing for three decades, renting upstairs rooms to State College students. Along the long, curving porch railing were perched great clay pots of ferrocactus, their broad barrels clustered thick with sharp, yellow spines and projecting high above the railing. The spines looked like the nails and jagged shards of glass along the rim of a prison wall. “My mean cactus,” she called them. “To keep out the nigger thieves.”

For a moment, I saw her in my mind: a short woman, not quite as heavyset as Grandmother, her hair tied back into a bun and still, at 75, jet-black from dyeing. Her face was smile-lined yet youthfully kept, careful discs of rouge smoothed over the cheekbones. In memory, I could hear her ask us, one at time, just as we entered her front door Christmas mornings, “How’s your love life?”

From the Chrysler, I looked for her old, gray, humpbacked Plymouth, but her parking space was just white gravel, and Grandfather said, “She’s out shopping for her ‘college boys’—her Saturday chores. Poor old forgetful Dee-di. Haven’t seen her since Christmas—just thought we’d pay her a visit. Maybe we’ll drop by on our way back. You know about your great-aunt Venice, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart?”

I knew it was useless to nod, or even mutter, “Yes,” so I just let him roll out the story I’d heard so many times I’d lost count: from him, from Mother, and from Grandmother when she was alive.

“You know,” he began, “she taught Ava Gardner at the old Brogden School—back in ’27 or ’28—six-seven years after she met your great uncle Merrick and married him. Thought he was ‘cute.’ Heh heh. That’s what she said—‘cute.’ Well, it turned out he wasn’t so ‘cute’ when he caught the consumption in ’34.  His case—what Papa told me—was about the worst he’d ever seen. Lord, Merrick coughed up blood ten-eleven times a day and leaned down to a hundred pounds from his normal one seventy. Why, Venice said she could even see his heart beating through his shirt! And he grew pale as milk and shaky as a man twice his forty-one years. He was a goner, no question about it, as antibiotics didn’t exist back then. But Papa must’ve had hope for him, ’cause he sent him to the sanatorium down in Raeford, where he stayed just half a year and, yessir, got well—was pronounced ‘totally cured,’ nigh a miracle in those days for a man in such poor shape.

“But your great-aunt Venice, heh heh, old careful Aunt Venice—no, finicky Aunt Venice—no, smart Aunt Venice (or thought she was)—she was certain Merrick ‘still had a germ or two’—the way she put it. So to keep him from infecting her and their two boys—you know your second cousins Merrick and Claude, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart? Turned out well—those boys did. Merrick III a brain surgeon out in California, Claude W. a lawyer back in Goldsboro. Anyway, to keep Merrick Junior’s supposed “germ or two” off ’em, Venice had a little ‘guest house’ built for Merrick behind their big, white-brick Colonial in Smithfield. She cozied it up with a heat stove and a cook stove and an ice box and a few sticks of furniture—bed, dresser, two-three hard chairs, a sofa—all any man (she said) could possibly need. And the surprising thing was, he agreed to it—old money-grubbing Merrick—yessir, he agreed to take up actual residence in that unpainted shack of clapboards and tin roof. And what was more surprising, at her request, he even agreed to sign over everything to her—the big house, the two tobacco farms, the hotel and restaurant in Goldsboro, and every cent he had in the bank. And he gave her complete custody of their two boys—even surrendered visitation rights—yessir, his own sons! He gave it all to her with a single stroke of the pen, Judge Rainey and his two secretaries witnessing.

“I’ve never understood it. Maybe the sickness had just worn him out—clouded his brain somehow. TB will do that sometimes. Even the getting over it.

“So there she was, your great-aunt Venice McGee Woodall—a wealthy woman of leisure for the rest of her life (or so she opined—heh heh), and the boys all set for the University without having to work their way through—and not even needing the University unless they desired it. Yessir, all three of ’em members of the ‘moneyed class’—of which there were mighty few in Johnston County back in ’35.

“But, Lord, wouldn’t you know it? All of a sudden, along about March ’36, old Merrick’s ‘cloud’ must have lifted, broken up—something—and one morning, ’round ten o’clock (fifteen March, I believe it was), he stomped out of that shack and around the big house and through the front door and into the parlor where Venice was lounging in a silk robe on the sofa. And he fairly shouted at her, ‘Mrs. Venice McGee Woodall, your lawfully wedded husband is alive and well again and has been so alive and well for a long time now. And he would appreciate it that those signed sheets of paper be returned to his possession for permanent shredding and destruction. And he would appreciate his own room back—the upstairs room in this house—the home rightfully his—and his soft double bed and you, his rightful wife, beside him on the mattress. He would appreciate it, in brief, that he be restored his rightful position as head of the Merrick Alexander Woodall household.’ Heh heh, old Merrick never did have much vocabulary.

“But Venice said, sharp as those cactus spines yonder, ‘Mr. Merrick Alexander Woodall, those papers have been notarized and filed in the Johnston County Courthouse—they’re finalized.  What the Honorable Judge Rainey has done, I can not undo, even if I desired it. And besides, you know about—what do they call them?—yes, “remissions.” You’ve just been remission-ing, Mr. Merrick Woodall, and you know as well as I do you’ll be coughing up blood again, sooner or later, and must be sent back to Raeford. And, besides, even if you’re not re-missioning, the consumption never does go away altogether—you’ve got a germ or two inside you and always shall. And I’m not about to endanger either myself or those children! Why, right now, in your presence, I may be so endangered! So you must return to the guest house, Mr. Woodall—this minute!’

“And you know what, Dr. Lockhart? He didn’t say a word to her—fact, never spoke to her for the rest of his life. Nosir, he just spun around and walked out of the house and down the five long blocks to the post office and a telephone—about the longest walk he ever took in his life—heh heh—and phoned up Father and Mother in Goldsboro. I don’t know who answered, but inside an hour, three-four hours before the boys came home from school, Aunt Venice received a phone call from the Honorable Judge Rainey, asking if she’d please meet him at the courthouse, in his office; he wanted to ‘straighten out’ her will—some items ‘looked peculiar’ about it. So gullible old Venice (Lord, it’s a mystery she still didn’t know the Woodalls through and through—so much meaner than her even—meaner than her cacti!)—she drove to the courthouse and sat in Judge Rainey’s waiting room—and waited, and waited, and waited—three or four hours—just enough time for it all to have happened. Then, when she knocked on his office door and heard not a word, not a sound, and then twisted the knob and found it stiff—locked—it all suddenly came to her—maybe just a hint, like a brush of cold air in mid-July—that Woodall meanness nigh everybody in the county had known about for years, but her. And in five minutes, driving fifty down Market Street, she was back at her home—if you could call it a home now. Nosir, ’twas just a house, just four walls of a two-story, white-brick Colonial, ’cause inside there wasn’t a thing—nosir, nothin’—not a rug or a mirror or a lamp, not a stick of furniture or a curtain or a blind in a window, not even a bar of used soap or a towel or a face cloth—and, of course not a plate or a pot to cook in. They’d even screwed out the light bulbs—and here it was nigh three-four hours to dark and the boys coming home from school and hungry as bears, as boys are. And knowing this—their hunger—I suspect the first thing she did was stride in the kitchen to look in the ice box—but, Lord, they’d taken that, too—and the stove and even the cupboards (they’d crow-barred them out). And where the sink used to be were bent pipes and torn plaster. Lord, they must’ve hired a mighty big colored man to yank it out so thoroughly! Next, she must’ve stridden out back to ‘the guest house’ and gone inside and seen that whole shack empty, too—yessir, its ice box and sink and stove ripped out, too. Then she must’ve gone back into the big Colonial and stridden upstairs and, opening the closets, hers and the boys’, saw just bare cedar and empty shelves and hanging dowels—no clothes hangers, not even a stray one!

“So there she was—not Mrs. Merrick Woodall much longer (and she knew it), but just plain Venice Whitfield McGee from Mount Olive. Yessir, there she was, sitting maybe in the middle of that bare, living room floor, legs bent, arms crossed over shins, a cheek resting on her knees, her only clothes that silk gown on her back and the bedroom slippers on her feet. She must have reached out and clutched at her pocketbook beside her and even shaken it to hear her car keys and house keys and a few quarters and dimes and nickels. And she must have glanced out the front door, still open, and seen her own bright red Fordor Model A parked in the semicircular driveway. So at least she had something they hadn’t taken away from her. And she remembered the savings account she’d started years ago, secretly, in a Princeton bank—just for her—about four or five thousand dollars in it now—a lot of money in 1936. But knowing all that mustn’t have assuaged her much at the moment, with just the dark, bare pine paneling around her and the empty light sockets on the ceiling and shadow filling that empty house as the afternoon deepened toward dusk.

“Then her heart must have rolled when she thought of the door lock. I’m sure she stood and strode to the front door and tried the key she’d jerked out of her purse. And when it wouldn’t turn, she must have whispered—finally!—what everybody else in the county had known for years, ‘Mean, mean, mean!’ Lord, they’d even had time to change the locks! (She knew her keys wouldn’t turn the back lock either, or even the locks to the ‘guest house.’) And then I’m sure it came to her, like a snake striking, why they’d not locked her out: they’d wanted her to see what they’d done to her—to see their punishment for her stubbornness, her refusal to bend to Merrick’s will. And once again, ‘Mean, mean, mean!’ must have come out of her mouth, loud now, shrill and echoing in that barren room.

“Her heart must have rolled again when she knew from the light outside it was a little past four and the boys still hadn’t shown. ‘My boys,’ she must have thought, teeth gritting. ‘They can’t take them away! I was a good mother! Am now!’ She must have pictured them now in the big Goldsboro Victorian of her father-in-law, Merrick explaining to their wide-green and bewildered eyes, in that droning, patient way of his, ‘this new turn of events between your mother and myself.’

“But then, from outside, she must have heard footsteps on the brick walkway and then, through the open door, the two boys crying out together, ‘Ma! Everything’s gone!’ And she must have looked up and seen the two of them with their book satchels—same height nearly and same wide, green eyes and tow heads—like twins except Merrick was thirteen, Claude ten. When she set eyes on them—saw even their grimy faces and rumpled hair and shirttails out and the smudges on their shirts and shorts and knee socks—that question must have come to her for the first time in her life. You know it, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart? What she’s ever asking you and me and your mother and sister and your grandmother when she was alive, asking each of us singly as we’d enter that old Victorian for Christmas day breakfast—you know—”

“‘How’s your love life?’” I muttered in monotone, having grown depressed—and, oddly, irritated—by the old story. Really, the old man was drawing it out way too long—longer than I’d ever heard it before—even from him.

Then, thank goodness, he stopped it sudden, and, twisting his head around, backed the Chrysler slowly, swerving right and left a little, down the steep drive. We made our slow way back to Hillsboro Street and turned in the direction of downtown. As I kept my eyes on the ragged floor mat,  he resumed the old whispering, an abrupt laugh erupting out of it now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.”

I remembered the rest of Aunt Venice’s story—how it went through this Saturday, five days after Kent State: how, within a week after that March 15, papers for separation were filed in the courthouse and how, for reasons unknown to anyone, she signed away all rights to Uncle Merrick’s property—on the condition she have sole custody of the boys and Merrick be never permitted to visit them as long as he lived. And, again for reasons unknown to anyone, he agreed to that: gave up all rights to his own sons—and has never seen them to this day. A month later, she and the boys moved to Raleigh and the big Victorian house in Cameron Park. (She rented it first, then years later bought it.) She found a teaching job in some elementary school downtown and began renting the three upstairs bedrooms to State students. With her teacher’s salary—bare bones in the thirties (and for decades after that)—and the students’ twenty dollars a month for room and board, she managed to support her and her boys until first Merrick and then Claude went to Chapel Hill, Merrick in ’41, Claude in ’44. They bused tables to pay for most of their four years, and, once in a while, Aunt Venice mailed them a check for five or ten dollars. When they graduated, they stayed on the Hill—Merrick on scholarship for medical school, Claude on scholarship for law. Then Claude moved to Goldsboro, married, joined a law firm and started a family, built a big house in the suburbs where he lives still. Merrick moved to Los Angeles for a residency at USC and, falling in love with the mountains and the desert, settled in San Bernardino. He’s there today—married, a prominent neurosurgeon, his three children teenagers. Meanwhile, Aunt Venice taught—and taught and taught—for thirty years taught, and invited us Woodalls for Christmas breakfast, greeting each of us, individually, with her hushed, faintly seductive “How’s your love life?”—not expecting an answer and never receiving one, except for brief blushes from Grandfather and Grandmother and Mother, a wide-eyed wonder from Lucinda (until she was twenty-one, she’d never had a “love life”), and a shrug and “Okay, I guess” from me. In ’66 she retired from the school system. And through this May Saturday, she’s taught as a substitute now and then and continued renting rooms to new State students and attending First Presbyterian downtown Sundays. Her boys visit her three or four times a year—oddly, Merrick more often than Claude.

And never once during her time in Raleigh did she speak of her years with Uncle Merrick. It’s as if she were truly born not on April 16, 1895, but on that waning afternoon in mid-March 1936, when, seated on the pine floor of that empty house in Smithfield, she looked up from her knees and saw her two grimy, wide-eyed, bewildered boys, and that question first came to her—her own private question she expected no one to answer—a question meant merely for herself: “How’s your love life?” Whether she ever gave herself an answer, I’ll never know. Likely she just kept asking it, over and over, like a comforting mantra.

 

“Esso coming up. Here’s where the old New Yorker gets her high-octane liquor. And your old Dee-di relieves his bladder—full of just low-octane coffee, but high enough to hurt like the devil. Don’t ever get old, Dr. Lockhart. Don’t ever get old.”

I looked up just as we came beside the high test pump. A uniformed attendant, maybe seventy, came hobbling out of the old stucco station and up to Grandfather’s window.

“Fill ’er  up, Dr. Woodall, sir?

“Yessir, Mr. Lee. This old jalopy needs a double on the rocks, heh heh.”

“Yes sir, Doctor. Right away, Doctor.”

While the attendant shoved the gasoline nozzle into the rear of the car and pressed the lever, Grandfather opened the car door and, slowly, painfully, twisted himself out of the front seat and walked slowly, slightly bent forward, toward the men’s rest room on the right side of the station.

All the long while he was there—and I knew he’d be there a long time, for even starting his flow was surely an agony—I heard the attendant snap the nozzle onto the gas pump and watched him hobble back to the station; saw ahead of me sudden patches of flat, gray clouds; felt breeze gust through the open windows, bearing smells of oil and gasoline; heard the traffic roar by on Hillsboro Street.

For a reason I couldn’t account for, I squinted to my right, through my open window, and saw in my mind, maybe a quarter mile distant—beyond the service station and the State College campus and Western Boulevard—the great three-story building of brick and mortar and hundreds of metal-barred windows, squatting on a hill of great white oaks and manicured lawn and brick walkways and concrete benches. It was Dorothea Dix Hospital, a state mental institution known among the locals as “Dix Hill.” To my mother (and, no doubt, many others as well), it was called “the booby hatch” or the “snake pit.”

Then I squinted to my left, through Grandfather’s open window, and saw, again in my mind, and again a quarter mile distant, beyond Hillsboro Street and Cameron Park and Cameron Village Shopping Center, the two-story, high-windowed, brownstone Broughton High School, from which I was graduated in June ’66.

Suddenly flickered into my mind, like the stopped frame of an old home movie, my tall, bony body five years before—aged seventeen, encased (as it were) in the dark, nondescript slacks, the dark, nondescript long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck, the black, nondescript dress shoes tightly laced and polished as mirrors. My hair was cut in the “Oxford” fashion so popular among “intellectual” youth in the ’50s and ’60s: short all around except for the neatly trimmed bangs combed to the side with water and showing a high, flat forehead marked with bits of acne. My face—very pale, sharp-boned, gaunt—had thin, tight lips like an old scar.

At the start of my “therapy,” on that first May Wednesday five years ago, a little before three thirty in the afternoon, I stood in the cool shadow of Broughton’s east wing, on the tulip-lined edge of the teacher’s parking lot, clutching to my chest a fat, tabbed ring binder and four or five thick textbooks. A yard behind me was the shut metal-gray door that led to the auditorium, the backstage part of it, which held the props and the flats and the masks and the tubes of the heady makeup. With a deep gut-hurt—but just a breath of it—I yearned—longed—to turn around and stride to that door and open and enter it and then stride down to a front seat in the auditorium and sit and wait my turn to rehearse Cothurnus’s lines. And knowing that was not possible—ever again—I yearned—longed—to gaze back upon that door and—at least!—see it swing open and watch Kenny, his full heat-self, stride out in his torn T-shirt and pale blue jeans and wide, slightly gap-toothed grin, a stubby-fingered, callus-palmed hand raised to greet me, a “Hi, Lock!” lilting from his thick lips.

But knowing that, too, was not possible—ever again—I held my dull stare on the loose gravel of an empty parking space before me, waiting for the car—not the usual old, white Chrysler but the much newer Chevrolet, the gray, nondescript “state car”—that would, any second now, crunch forward to fill it.

And “sure enough” (as Kenny would have said—should have said), I saw the 3:30 on my wrist watch and staring upward, outward, saw that gray, characterless car, like a steel uniform, swing slowly from St. Mary’s Street and into the lot, glide gravel-crunching toward me, swing into the vacant space, and stop, the smooth engine rising in pitch as the transmission clicked into Park.

I stepped forward and pulled open the passenger door, but Grandfather, without looking at me, just staring straight ahead, cleared his throat and said, “The rear seat, Dr. Lockhart. This old Dee-di’s your chauffeur today—and each Monday and Wednesday and Friday hereafter—for the space of a year. And it is my wish that you lie down upon said seat so that you are not visible from the outside. This automobile is state-owned, so only your old Dee-di is permitted inside. Heh heh. You know how these state bureaucrats are.”

So I shut the front door and pulled open the rear one and ducked inside. I set my ring binder and pile of textbooks carefully on the vinyl-matted floor and lay prone on the cool vinyl seat, legs scrunched up, shoe soles pressed hard against the opposite door panel. (I was six feet two—tall in those days, even for seventeen.)

Then the smell hit me—that astringent, chemical scent of a new car. I’ll smell it forever,  in mind’s nose, when I remember those Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays, that time of afternoon (bright green in April and May, melancholy and yearning brown and red and orange in October and November, cold and barren-branched in December, January, February), and those twisting, stomach-clenching journeys from Broughton to Dix Hill and back.

I caught sight of my old Virgil text on the car floor, covered in a tight, dark brown book jacket with the words SELECTIONS FROM VIRGIL neatly printed on it in my own hand, and I felt a great gut-clench of shame as the car backed left, then lurched forward, swinging right, then straightening, slowed in a gentle crunching over the gravel and then bumped out, swinging right, into the smooth asphalt of the street.

I felt the car accelerate smoothly, then slow, stop-and-idle, then, swinging right, accelerate again, then slow and stop, swing left, accelerate—a half hour maybe of rights and lefts, slows and stops, smooth accelerations through the midafternoon traffic of St. Mary’s Street and Hillsboro Street and Pullen Drive and Western Boulevard and Boylan Avenue.

The whole drive Grandfather stayed silent. There was none of his self-whispering, the soft laugh erupting out of it now and again, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.” It was as if he, too, must have been feeling that same, great gut-clench of shame.

And the whole drive, to keep from thinking about it, I shut my eyes and in my mind saw myself back at Broughton, seated down front in the auditorium, waiting for “my” lines in the Millay one-act—“my” Cothurnus. (Of course, in the state car I knew some other actor, as tall and deep-voiced as I, had taken it over—but I didn’t know who and didn’t care.) In my mind, as the car moved, I was hearing Pierrot and Columbine chatter away, but, again in my mind, I wasn’t listening to them, as my eyes kept darting from the script on my lap to the right side of the stage—to catch a glimpse of tight-jeaned him winking blue-eyed out at me. In the car, I strained to play it all the way through, to that shining hour before we were caught, like a film relished longingly in slow motion. But then the film started flickering in scraps and shards, then whited away altogether, and I whispered to myself, “You’ll never see that place again, or anything like it. That’s all away from you—forever, Lock. Like him—away forever.”

I opened my eyes and saw once more the brown-sheathed Virgil text on the car floor. After staring on it for a time, I whispered to myself those lines I’d already memorized, “Arma virumque cano. . . . ”—all the way down to “Romanam condere gentem”—long past the part Mrs. Fisher had required of us. And as I whispered those lines, the virumque kept echoing above them, now like a resonant and comforting litany. When I finished the whispering—soft enough so Grandfather couldn’t hear it—I  thought, each word like a funeral’s drumbeat, Lock, your new life is this: these lines, and Latin (and Greek as well), and the major in both at UNC, and in a few years, Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Jr., Ph.D. No, Dr. Lockhart Titus Woodall, Ph.D. I may as well visit a courtroom and have it changed to that. So you may as well get used to it—“bite this bullet” (as Grandfather would say to me in November ’69—referring to himself).

Soon I felt the car swerve gently to the right off a street—it must have been Boylan Avenue—and then up and around a long, curving drive. It braked and stopped—by the entrance, I was sure, where patients are let out and walk—or are taken—into the building. Grandfather cleared his throat and rasped, “Well, here you are, Dr. Lockhart.” Then, rapidly, anxiously: “Don’t get up yet. Lie still. Let me see.” I heard a sheet of paper rattling and then Grandfather: “It’s on the third floor, Room 312, a Dr. Aldred. I’m certain there’s a name plate. It should be easy to find. If you have difficulty, I am certain a receptionist can help—on the ground floor, I believe. When I give the signal, rise quickly and leave the car as rapidly as you can, through the door by your head. You’ll have no need for your books. When your hour is done, I’ll be waiting in the car, parked in the lot on your left, by the bronze statue—frowning Miss Dix herself, heh heh. All clear now. You can leave—but hurry.”

As quickly as I could, I gripped the door handle and scrambled out of the car and onto the paved drive, my eyes wincing in the sudden sunlight. I strode up a wide brick walkway, flanked by a neatly trimmed hedge. From the columned brick porch, I pushed my way through heavy doors and came into a vast, high-ceilinged lobby and stopped. The room was lit dimly with fluorescent panels that blinked on and off now and then. Brown vinyl easy chairs and sofas were arranged in neat squares, all of them empty. The floor was cream-colored linoleum with scuff marks and various stains of one kind or another, and on the white cracked-plaster walls were hung, here and there, large idealized portraits of three or four “donors,” of the state governor when the hospital was opened in 1856, and, of course, of Dorothea Dix herself, a somber, tight-lipped, spinster-appearing woman dressed in the ruffles of the last century. I looked for a receptionist but saw none, not even a counter or a cubicle where one might be sitting.

Straight ahead, an aisle led between the sofa backs and the chair backs into a wide corridor. I resumed my stride, hearing my steps echoing in the lonely space, and came into the corridor, found a stairway on my right, and strode up it to the second floor and came out into another corridor, as wide and silent as the first. Dozens of gray-metal doors, spaced equally apart, lined both sides of the hallway. The doors had been raised high enough for large spaces underneath them, and I sensed that trays of food were slid through the spaces by attendants—promptly at six in the morning, at noon, and at six in the evening. I imagined the furniture in the rooms: an army-style folding cot, a mattress with stained and soiled bedcovers, a chair, a small table (cot, chair, and table bolted to the floor, and no pillow on the cot—to lessen the chances of suicide), a sink with “edible” soap in gray dispensers, even a toilet, but without a lid. I shuddered violently, shook my head to clear it, and for the first time, I caught the smell of the hallway: Lysol mixed with the odor of cooked cabbage: very like the smell of the Central Prison cellblocks I had visited when I was ten and dressed in a suit in the summertime.

Remembering the offices were on the next floor, I turned to the left and, finding the stairwell, long-legged it up the flights and came out into another quiet, high-ceilinged corridor—this one smelling of nothing at all. Identical, gray-metal doors with numbers on white rectangles (no name plates) were ranked along both sides of it. I stepped slowly past Room 300 and 302, and so on, until I came, a long way later, to Room 312. The door was shut, so I sat in the metal folding chair beside it.

In five minutes or so, the door swung outward, I glanced up, and a young man in a clean, starched white coat stepped out, holding a clipboard with papers clamped to an end of it. A brown metal name plate with “Dr. Roger Aldred” etched on it in white hung by a thin leather strap around his neck.

“Mr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Jr.,” he said, glancing down at me, his young, British-accented voice rising in inflection. He must have been barely twenty-five, and his accent was a mild one, as if he had come from English-speaking Canada, or South Africa, or the British upper classes. (I learned later that he was the son of some Count in Cornwall and had received his M.D. at the Royal College of Physicians in London.) From my metal chair, he looked a tad under six feet tall, and he had a head of black curly hair neatly trimmed and, except for a tinge of British pink on his cheeks, a face out of GQ magazine. (Yes, I had already, for years now, lingered over issues of GQ when Mother took me and Lucinda to the drugstore—lingered over the slick-paged male beauties as I stood in a dark corner or behind a rack of comic books.)

Soon we were seated in his cramped, windowless office, the walls white plaster with brown water stains trailing here and there, the floor a cream-colored tile with scuff marks on it. He sat in a metal folding chair beside his bare metal desk, I in a similar chair across from him. For a long, itching time, we sat in silence, he with one leg folded on top of the other, his veined and slender-fingered hand scribbling notes with a Bic on the top page clamped to his clipboard. Now and then, he paused to glance up at me for a few seconds, as if he were sketching me.

When he finished the scribbling, I expected him to say something, but he just laid the Bic and the clipboard quietly—fastidiously—on his desk and rose and turned around and reached up to a metal tube near the ceiling and gripping a small metal hook, pulled down, with a loud squeak, a white screen yellowed and cracked here and there—the kind used for showing slides or home movies. Then he turned again and stepped slowly and quietly past me. (I caught a whiff of aftershave or cologne, I wasn’t sure.) I craned around and watched him switch on a slide projector set on a metal shelf protruding from the wall. He pinched a slide out of a rack beside the projector and tapped it into the projector tray, then stepped back, past me, again slowly and quietly, to his desk and the screen beside it.

I craned back to the screen and saw projected on it, in grotesquely vivid color, a blonde girl, maybe eighteen, lying on a pink towel on some sunny beach, a vast body of blue, still water behind her. She was slender, tanned all over—and naked but for a flowered bikini bottom. Her breasts were large, full, firm, and had nipples the size of quarters. She sat in a pose one might call “languorous”—leaning backward, her palms placed flat behind her on the towel, her head hung to one side, blonde hair in her eyes, her lips pouty and slightly parted. After a minute or so, Dr. Aldred said, flatly, in a voice-in-training, as it were, “So, Mr. Elledge, in your own words, tell me what you think about that.” (Not “her,” but “that.”)

This Playboy centerfold female (of which I had seen plenty in my ninth grade friend’s collection) repelled me, but I said, nearly whispering, “Oh, she’s okay, I guess.”

“Okay, you guess,” Dr. Aldred said, again in the flat, resident-in-training’s voice, and he leaned to his desk and with the Bic scribbled something on his clipboard. Then he stood and said, “Well, we have ways of measuring that response. Next session, we’ll find out what you mean by ‘okay’ and ‘I guess.’ Now for the opposite, Mr. Elledge.”

He stepped past me to the slide projector. Staring straight ahead still, I heard a faint click, and on the screen the woman flipped away and in her place appeared a young man, likewise sitting on a beach, on a towel, this one jet black, and as in the other slide, a vast body of blue, still water lay behind him. Like the girl, he leaned backward, his palms pressed flat behind him on the towel, but unlike her, he stared straight at the camera, his deep blue eyes in stark contrast to his tanned face. He wore red, tight bikini briefs, out of which his long, thick “thing” and testicles bulged. Like the girl, he was tanned everywhere, but he was deep-chested in the way of a male and muscular in his shoulders and arms—a model’s build, not a muscle man’s. He looked older than the young woman—maybe twenty-five, Dr. Aldred’s age—and oddly, there wasn’t a hair anywhere on him except the hair on his head—black and thick and tousled, a GQ-beach-wind-blown look—and a thick, black mustache above his full, red upper lip. I swallowed and felt my “thing” harden fiercely, and in guilt and shame, I clamped both palms over my fly. But I wasn’t so naïve that I didn’t notice Dr. Aldred had noticed—the sudden hard swallow, the quick covering of my crotch—but I tried to conceal my fierce attraction as best as I could and so, to please him, I mumbled, without his even asking, “Oh, he’s okay, I guess. But, I guess, she’s maybe, oh, better.”

Dr. Aldred stepped past me to his desk and turned and faced me. “‘He’s okay,’ you guess, but, you guess, ‘maybe she’s, oh, better,’” he said flatly and leaned down to his clipboard and scribbled something on it. He stood straight then and said, eyes cast down, “We have ways, Mr. Elledge, of measuring the truth of your responses. Next session, we’ll find out what ‘okay’ means, and ‘I guess,’ and ‘maybe she’s, oh, better.’”

He stepped past me, switched off the projector, then stepped back to the screen and with a faint tug on its hook, let it slap up sharply into the metal tube. Then he sat in his metal chair and took Bic and clipboard from the bare desk and folding his knees and setting the clipboard on them, just let the Bic rest on the paper clipped to it.

Then he said, “Well, Lockhart, I’m listening,” his face suddenly relaxed now, nearly smiling, his voice lilting.

It was the first time he had called me “Lockhart,” and I felt a warm shiver all through me, and, for a reason I could not account for, I wanted—yearned—to tell him about Elton and our barn and church and about the Boy’s Life pictures and about Kenny and all the delectable and wondrous acts we had performed together—everything. My mind flooded and flamed with images: Elton slurping off my cock, Jeff Thornton’s mounded pectorals in that picture cut from Boy’s Life, Kenny’s deep-swirling kisses—and I opened my mouth to pour out the flood and flame of words.

But then I stared at Dr. Aldred’s curly hair and handsome face, going rigid and tight-lipped now, and at the white coat and the brown metal plate with his name white-etched on it and then at the clipboard and his fingers tapping the cap of the Bic against the metal clamp—tapping quickly, impatiently—and I shut my mouth tightly, stared down at the backs of my hands that now covered a limpness, and stayed silent.

After what must have been twenty minutes or so—which seemed to creep forever, tingling down my back—Dr. Aldred said, flat, expressionless, the affectionate lilt damped from his voice, “Well, Mr. Elledge, our time is up today. We’ll perform the tests next time—and discover what you mean by ‘He’s okay, I guess, but maybe she’s, oh, better.’”

He put the clipboard and the Bic on the desk and rose and walked to the door and opened it and, with a slight bow and sweep forward of his right arm, showed me out of the office. As I left past him, I caught again that sweet whiff on him—it was cologne, I was sure now—and then stepped quickly down the corridor and down the flights of stairs to the Lysol-and-cabbage-smelling “inmate” corridor and then down other flights of stairs to the ground corridor and into the great lobby, empty still. I pushed myself through the heavy front doors and came out into the wincing sunlight.

Soon, lying once more belly-down on the rear seat of the state car, legs scrunched up, feet pressed solid against the opposite door, my face—and nose—flat on the new vinyl, smelling the sharpness of it, the depressing astringency, I felt the Chevrolet back, then slowly swerve right and straighten, dip down the long, curving drive, and bump back onto Boylan Avenue. Then I felt the long, slow ride back, fitful with rush-hour stops and starts.

I heard the car crunch over gravel and then Grandfather clear his throat and rasp, “Well, Dr. Lockhart, here you are. You may rise and leave at your leisure.” I was certain (though the journey did seem short—and in rush hour, too) that we were parked on the lip of the carport, behind Mother’s Falcon. But when I rose, unfurling, and looked out, I saw we were parked once more in the Broughton faculty lot—empty now except for five o’clock shadow.

“I need to drive this limousine back to work,” Grandfather chuckled. You know where the bus stop is—Peace and Glenwood, over by Whack-Whack’s, heh heh. Fine exercise, walking is—and all those books, they’ll help, too.”

My chest clenched with hurt as it came to me the true reason he hadn’t driven me home. Mother would have arrived back from the station, and Grandfather must have remembered she’d said, many times over Monday and Tuesday, to him and to me, that she’d “have nothing to do” with my therapy—my “shrink,” as she’d referred to Dr. Aldred. “It’s all so embarrassing,” she’d said. “All such craziness. My son a homosexual—and a practicing one at that. You two deal with it and don’t say a word to me about it.”

 

And she never mentioned “the incident” again. In our infrequent letters—she’s seventy-four now—she never mentions my life in New York—not even my career in theater. She writes of Raleigh weather (“so hot today,” or “freezing cold today, like that room Aunt Rosalie died in”), complains of her tinnitus and “increasing deafness,” complains that Lucinda “never” visits her though she lives a half hour away, and ends in wishing for my “happiness” in whatever I “decide to do” with my life.

 

So I opened the car door and slid slowly out of the back seat and stood on the gravel lot, then leant down to gather my ring binder and the four or five textbooks, and rising again, held them in an awkward, skewed stack to my chest. (“Just like a girl,” I remembered a grade school bully taunting me once.)

From the row of tulips near the stage door, I watched the gray, characterless Chevrolet, like a uniform, crunch slowly out of the lot and onto St. Mary’s, steer right, and head toward Peace and then—I knew—back downtown to the State Board of Health.

When the car vanished from my sight, I walked, books and ring binder sliding awkwardly against my chest, the several circuitous blocks through a shabby neighborhood of bungalows and rooming houses, crossed Glenwood Avenue, and came to the corner of St. Mary’s and Peace and stood by the creosote pole with the yellow band painted around it. Behind me, I knew, stood the red-and-white-swirling cone that marked the barbershop where Grandfather would take me when I was seven, eight, nine—“Old Whack-Whack’s,” as he’d call it, chuckling. But before I could think more on it, that innocent time, the 5:30 bus, labeled “Glenwood Avenue Anderson Heights,” approached, roaring and clattering, then slowed and stopped with a whoosh of air brakes, and the side front door folded open. I stepped up inside, a bit wobbly with the books and binder held on my chest.

“Got you some homework, bo’,” the driver said good-naturedly—a balding, paunchy, tobacco-chewing, middle-aged white man in a gray uniform, his “D. R. Manning” name plate slid in a slot up to his right. Except for me and him, the bus was empty. It growled and lurched forward, and I swayed down the narrow aisle to the wide rear seat and sat on it and stacked my books and ring binder neatly beside me and set a firm hand on them to keep them from sliding.

Suddenly my stomach fell—not because Kenny wasn’t sitting beside me in the rear, as he always did on the 5:30 bus that April, an hour after rehearsals were over (I had already squeezed him from memory altogether—yes, that quickly: since Dr. Aldred and his slides and my sudden, fierce determination to become a “normal” woman-loving man—to please Mother and Grandfather)—no, not because Kenny wasn’t sitting where my books were stacked, but because it came to me that this bus held none of the five-o’clock crowd of male-muscled athletes fresh out of sports practices, their faces still red, still sweating, in April and May their veined, pumped biceps arching out from T-shirt sleeves rolled to the armpits, a soggy hair peeping out here and there. And on that five-o’clock bus before April Fool’s, from the rear seat where I’d sit alone (Kenny’d still be at school, still working on “his” props and flats), I’d watch the athletes all knocking each other with their elbows, laughing loudly (for no reason at all but after-school ebullience—jubilation!), and flirting with the girls—either cheerleaders, who’d flirt back, or the female Golden Masquers, who’d twist their faces away, ignoring them.

Shutting my eyes as the old bus clattered and labored along, I pictured in my mind those dozen or so male-muscled athletes—one of whom was named Ted, a tall, crew-cut, broad-shouldered cutup, always flirting with the cheerleaders. He had huge, high pectorals twin-mounding in April, May, June, from under a T-shirt a size too small for him, and a pair of peaked, vein-coiled biceps arching up (again in spring) from under shirt sleeves rolled to his ridged shoulders. As I pictured him, clear as a color slide on a screen, I felt my “thing” harden—sudden, fast, painful—like that fist striking me pleasurably, down there. By the time the bus reached Five Points (and stopped for the endless-seeming light), I felt the ache wave upward along the slender ridge of hair strung from cock root to belly button. Then I felt the delicious slow-welling ooze, and my heart raced and my mouth turned dry as old sunned wood. I steadied my books with my left hand while with my right I began to rub at my fly—so taut now the zipper showed in a brass gleam. To cover it—and my hand—from the driver’s rearview mirror, I twisted my legs to the side as far as I could. And I rubbed and rubbed—faster, faster—felt the delicious ache wave up past my belly, shivering, nearly unbearable, all the way up to my throat, forming moans, groans—words, even, which I dared not speak aloud: “Oh, yeeeeeee-ah, Ted, fuck me hard, muscleman!” It was all I could do to keep from bursting right there.

But I managed—somehow—to keep the ooze to ooze alone as the bus whooshed and swayed down Anderson, shook and clattered past Grandfather’s red-brick Colonial on the corner with White Oak, then cut right onto Kenmore, then left onto Kittrell, sped at least fifty down the long straight hill I’d bike down as a child, as fast as I could, arms spread wide, and then up the short incline. As it approached the creosote pole with the yellow band around it, I stood, swaying, and pulled the cord above a window, heard the sharp beep, and then the bus slowed, and the rear door unfolded. Quickly, clumsily, I gathered my books and ring binder to my chest and, feeling face flushed at my hard-on, at the zipper gleam still showing, I hurried out the door before the bus could stop all the way.

The driver yelled, “Hey, bo’, wait till I stop! You know better!” And then, laughing, “Got you a gal waitin’ on you. Lord, Lord! Biggest wad I ever seen on a young ’un! You have a good time, now—but, Lord, be careful! Don’t want no babies at sixteen!”

He went on longer, but I was no longer hearing him, and fairly flew toward our house, the binder and books sliding and bouncing on my chest, two or three of them dropping on the lawn (I didn’t care—I’d fetch them later).

All the afternoons of that April, it would be, like now, six o’clock when I got off the bus, so Mother and Lucinda would be home, Mother napping the thirty minutes before fixing supper, in her room beside the kitchen, and Lucinda studying in her room upstairs, door shut tight. And before that April, it would be 5:30 when I arrived home (Kenny still back stage, still working on “his” props and flats), and Mother would be in her room, maybe reading before her nap, and Lucinda in hers (again, door shut tight), perhaps sketching a little before starting her homework. In the afternoons between rehearsals, I’d arrive home at four (Kenny having left the bus at Five Points and walked to his bungalow on Bickett St., down near the railroad tracks—I’d never seen it), and Mother would still be at the TV station and Lucinda still at school, painting in Mrs. Allison’s studio.

So at six o’clock, five thirty, and four o’clock, I could enter the front door unnoticed and step softly into the living room and up the stairs and quietly passing Lucinda’s shut door, enter my bedroom and close and latch the door behind me. I’d toss my books on my bed, then reach under the mattress for the “Toughen Up” photos I’d cut meticulously out of the my Boy’s Life magazines (yes, I still subscribed, though I hadn’t attended an Explorer meeting in over a year).

Today, however, that first Wednesday in May, through the flung open windows, I could hear Mother and Lucinda clattering pots and plates and utensils in the kitchen, fixing dinner a half hour early. And just why so early on that May Wednesday, I wasn’t sure—perhaps out of some morbid curiosity (so I presumed, in my depression): what did a seventeen-year-old “crazy pervert” look like—the person I had surely become to them, nearly overnight? And what would that “crazy pervert” say or do after seeing his first “shrink” ever? Or perhaps they felt only pity (a feeling I loathed then and loathe even now, thirty years later)—that I, the now “mentally ill” son, needed his supper early so he could study and get to bed by nine, an hour sooner than usual: he, the poor boy, needed his rest, like a patient just come home from surgery at a hospital.

Anyway, for whatever reason they were cooking so early, and since, while this or that was baking or stewing or boiling, Mother would likely be sitting on the living room sofa, just smoking, and Lucinda would likely be watching The Three Stooges reruns on the television in the small adjoining den, I knew I couldn’t go in the front door and into the living room and up the stairs, especially with that bulge still in my pants.

So I strode to the right, along the brilliant row of tulips Lucinda had planted, and around to the back of the house and down the cinderblock steps and through the plywood door and into the dim, cramped, musty basement and heaved my ring binder and books into a corner, not caring if they’d be torn or scarred or the bindings broken.

So full I was, so aching, so oozing, I squeezed eyes shut, Ted now full naked in my mind. I dropped fully clothed to the floor and despite the rough, dusty concrete, wedged a hand under my fly and keeping eyes shut, began to rub at the taut member—slowly at first, to savor as long as I could Ted in my mind now flexing chest and arms before me, on his face that wide, white-toothed grin when he’d flirt with the girls on the bus.

“Oh, Ted, oh, Ted, flex that bicep,” I yelled—no need now for a cloth over my mouth, as in the den above me the television was loud with The Three Stooges wisecracks and smacks on the face and blows in the ribs and the sharp groans following, and Lucinda was shrieking with laughter or stepping into the kitchen to stir the mixed vegetables and the spaghetti or the frozen green beans and the “poor man’s chop suey”—whatever we were having for supper.

I began to rub faster—and faster still—and, oddly, Ted’s muscle and grin vanished at once, like a slide clicked away, and in Ted’s place, like a new slide clicked into view, appeared Dr. Aldred—just his handsome face and thick lips and black curly hair neatly trimmed, and I remembered the sudden lilt in his voice when he had called me “Lockhart” for the first time. And suddenly I came in a rich, lush burst, feeling the thick wetness jet into my briefs and then pulse thick under my shirt—all the way to the belly button.

Then, as usual, I felt the old, vast, deep emptiness—the postorgasmic melancholy, as it were. But this time, with Dr. Aldred’s handsome face and voice-lilt still lingering in memory, I felt, too, a wincing guilt and shame: not only had I broken some unspoken prohibition of his (and so had disappointed him); I had also, with Ted so brightly in my mind just seconds beforehand, somehow betrayed him—Roger.

I turned over on that cold, rough concrete and opened my eyes and just stared for a time at the bare, cobwebbed rafters. I soon squeezed the “betrayal” out of my mind. But though I strained to do so, I couldn’t squeeze out the shame and guilt that here, now, barely an hour after my first visit to Dix—for my “cure”—I had once again, in Mother’s words, behaved “that way.”

Then I knew, without the words, that I would never change, no matter how often I’d see Dr. Aldred, no matter how many treatments I’d receive from him—the “talk” therapy and even the dreaded “aversion” therapies I was so desiring to undergo (yes, I was that willing to be “cured” and “normal” again—to please Grandfather and Mother and even Lucinda, though she never mentioned my homosexuality as anything “abnormal” and never has, to this day). (Yes the “aversion” therapies were still practiced in the ’60s and even through the early ’70’s—until the APA declared “homosexuality” no longer a disorder.)

No, I thought with deep chest-clench, staring at the cobwebs on the rafters, I’d never never never never never change. I’d never become that red-blooded, heterosexual adult male with wife and children and house and white picket fence and heterosexual golf-playing and basketball-watching buddies on the weekends. I’d forever be “queer,” a “faggot”—one of those lone and lonely men seeking “gratification” (Father Moody’s word after he’d hear my confession) in dark, solitary “tearooms” and night-shrouded public parks and certain “clubs” (read “bathhouses”) with dim, semen-smelling rooms and old, semen-rank mattresses established in big cities for such “perverts” like me. I’d be Geoffrey in The Taste of Honey, walking out into the darkness, into a self-loathing, likely suicidal future.

 

“Creech house coming up, about a mile. You remember that old Creech house, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart?”

Grandfather was speaking aloud again. So absorbed had I been in my remembered first journey to Dix and the first therapy and the trip back to Broughton and all the rest of it—that first May Wednesday afternoon—I had not noticed what must have been Grandfather’s slow listing return to the old Chrysler, the long whir and catch of the engine and its rough idling, then what must have been the fitful, stop-lit drive through downtown and then the smoother one out of the city and, on our left, past the smoke-billowing refineries and the red-brick “colored” motel (Johnson’s) squatting in front of them, maybe a single car in the lot, a new Cadillac or Oldsmobile—and then, on our right, past the tall brick tower with the dozens of square gaps where glittering windows should have been, this tower the interior of which apprentice firemen would set ablaze piled bales of hay and then practice leaning long ladders against the brick walls and jetting water onto the flames through thick “power” hoses.

No, I noticed none of these long-ago yet so familiar landmarks, and when Grandfather spoke aloud, I was startled suddenly, as from a dream, and saw we had long passed the short four-lane section of U. S. 70 and were now driving the seamed and bumpy two-lane part of it that would take us around Clayton. Some twenty minutes later, the highway would widen to four lanes again and bear us past the Smithfield town cemetery, past the Klan Country billboard, over the Neuse River Bridge, and into Smithfield itself—its downtown Market Street.

Out of my open window, fields of new oats rushed by in a blur of light green, then thick stands of tall pines, their bracing fragrance brushing against my face, and last, high clay banks stringed with kudzu and along the ridge of the banks, the twin rails of a railroad running alongside the highway awhile and then curving into distance, beyond the tree line of a plowed, bare-dirt field or one grown up in weeds and May wildflowers. I noticed the overcast (just patches at the service station) had grown whole—thick, matted, metal-colored, not a sun ray anywhere. As if reading my mind, Grandfather rasped, “Looks like a storm coming up—but it’s supposed to clear up midafternoon or thereabouts.”

I stared straight ahead through the windshield and saw, come rushing toward us on our right, sitting not ten yards from the highway, that old Creech house, an abandoned, weather-blackened Carolina T surrounded by great oaks in full leaf.

“The Creech house,” I muttered. Where all those murders—”

“No, just one murder,” Grandfather rasped, and cleared his throat. “But it was such an awful thing it seemed like a dozen of ’em, yessir.  That boy they killed was queer, you know. Just sixteen, seventeen, and murdered by his own brothers. Story was the family got so exasperated they sent him to—you know—”

“Dix Hill,” I muttered. “For ‘the therapies.’” (Grandfather knew, so I didn’t have to tell him what kinds.)

The old house rushed by so quickly I caught just a glimpse of it—the sagging, wide-open front door and the dark beyond it—but in that glimpse, from the bits and pieces of the news article I’d read two or three years before, I could imagine the whole, wincing, shuddering scene: the small, slender boy in overalls, tiny and slight of build for sixteen—“barely five feet tall,” the article said—squatting, leaning over the bare-wood floor until his forehead touched it, his stick-like arms and fine-fingered hands covering his thin neck and small head, desperate to protect them, and squalling tearfully, panic-stricken, and the four older brothers, likewise in overalls, maybe eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, and all wielding baseball bats and, teeth gritted, red-faced, eyes bulging with hatred, raising the bats simultaneously above their shoulders and hurling them as hard as they could on the curled, curved boy—so hard-hurled their bare arms were red and popped with sweat—and with each thud thud thud bits of blood and flesh flying out of the boy’s forearms and head and neck. And all the while the terrified boy was crying out in a squealing voice, “Jamie [or Johnny, or Robbie—whatever his name might have been], don’t leave me! Help me! Help me!” But Jamie (or Johnny or Robbie—the boy’s twin—he must have had a twin!) had long fled out the back door and, eyes bulged in terror and disbelief, was far from the murdering house by now—much too far to hear not only the boy’s high squeals but the four older brothers’ repeated, nearly simultaneous, gravel-voiced yells, “Faggot! Fuckin’ queer! We’ll slam the per-vert out of yuh!”

I shook my head sharply, and the stomach-clenching sight cleared from my mind, and I saw were passing new green oats again and the thick stands of fragrant pine.

“Lucky for them the jury ‘understood’,” Grandfather rasped. “Just gave ’em second-degree murder.” A murder ‘in the heat of anger,’ you might say. Lord, those brothers just couldn’t help themselves. I guess the family was so darned frustrated—tried nearabout everything and seemed like nothing helped a-tall. Even that new-fangled therapy where they make you vomit and such. And the judge—Judge Rainey, Jr., wouldn’t you know?—he ‘understood,’ too. Just sentenced ’em six years, with a chance for parole in six months.”

Grandfather went silent for a swallow and then cleared his throat and rasped on, “You can’t imagine, Dr. Lockhart, how relieved we all were, especially your mother and I, on the day you told me you were ‘cured.’ Yessir, we were driving in this same old car in the spring of your senior year at Broughton. We’d just left Smithfield, headed back to Raleigh, and it was a May Saturday like this one, but all sunny, not a cloud anywhere. I know you’re also mighty pleased that old trouble’s over and done. Who’re you dating now? Linda? Elaine? Teresa? All those girls from fine people!”

When I didn’t answer, so absorbed I was watching the calming new oats blur green past my window, he must have turned and winked at me, then rasped, “So?”

“Linda Fuller,” I lied, turning to face him, and then I muttered, lamely, in my voice a tiny anger-edge Grandfather seemed not to notice, “She’s quite bright. Majoring in premed. Wants to be a psychiatrist.”

“Lord, a female—and a doctor—and a psychiatrist! These modern women! Heh heh. Your mother was one of em’—had to be when you and Lucinda were little. Still is. And she’ll go on working long past the time you both graduate—until they force her out, from the television station or something after that. She’s gotten so used to it. Just like your old Dee-di.”

Over the following fifteen minutes into Smithfield, I bent my head over the ragged floor mat and squeezed eyes shut. As the wind rushed in brisk, pine scents by my ear, I remembered what happened later that summer and into early autumn—between the Senior Prom, the second Saturday after I’d announced to Grandfather I was “cured,” and the beginning of my first semester in Chapel Hill.

I remembered, first, Prom Night, when I took this “Linda Fuller” (whose face I’d forgotten by Sunday morning) to the formal dance held, as always, at the Carolina Country Club. There we nibbled on the hors d’oeuvres, sipped champagne (to the envy of those who hadn’t turned eighteen), and danced, formally, fake-smiling, our crotches and chests so far apart I could barely smell the cologne she’d sprayed all over herself. (She tried, subtly, to edge closer to me, but I kept her away with elbows held so rigidly they ached.) We left, mutually-abruptly, a little before ten, and, on our way back to Grandfather’s in his Chrysler (which, of course, he had insisted that I borrow for the night), she first stared silently through her window, just watching aimlessly, I supposed, the yard lights and house lights on Glenwood Avenue flickering by. Then, maybe a couple of blocks from her house, she turned to me abruptly and blurted out, her voice edged with anger, “Lockhart, are you still a homosexual?” (My “condition” and “therapy” and eventual “cure” had pretty much spread all over Broughton.)

Startled, I stammered, “Of course, in the technical—I mean—medical sense—”

“Skip it,” she bit. “Just take me home.”

I’d barely stopped the car by her walkway before she snatched up her purse from between us, unlatched and threw open her door, burst out of the car, and fairly flew toward the lighted porch, her high heels clicking—desperately, it seemed—like those of a woman being chased. When the clicking stopped and her white formal gown flickered away and her front door slammed shut, I shoved out of my mind all the “careful driving” I’d been taught just a few hours ago: I swung a squealing U-turn in the street, barely missing a parked car and bumping over the sidewalk, and raced down White Oak to Grandfather’s, whispering—relieved, madly joyful, “That’s over, Lock, thanks be to God!” (Of course, I never saw her again.)

He—Grandfather—was standing, hand on hip, in his dimly lit garage, waiting for me as I edged the Chrysler inside it. He was still dressed in his suit trousers and white shirt and tie, but no suit coat was on him now, and no gray Homburg. Just as I switched off the engine, he dropped his hip-hand into a trousers pocket and took out his big watch and glanced at it, his head startling back a little. Then, slipping the watch back, he walked to my window, listing slightly, and cranked midair that I roll it down. When I did so, he leaned inside the car a little and peered at me through his thick glasses and watery blue eyes and sniffed two or three times.

“Heh heh,” he rasped, then cleared his throat, “Smells like you did all right, Mr. Lockhart. And mighty quick, too. Lord, I bet she was—” Here he just winked at me, thinking I’d know what he meant. (I did, of course: even being “homo,” I wasn’t that naïve about the lovemaking ways of heterosexual couples.) Then he drew his silver crown from the car and turned and walked, again slowly, listing a little, around the front of the car and up the steep wooden steps to the main floor of the big Colonial. All the while I was hearing him laugh, softly, over and over, like a mantra, as if he wanted—needed—to believe it (or wanted—needed—not to deny it—the truth of it): “Heh heh. You did all right, Mr. Lockhart Titus. Did all right, quick though it was, yessir. I bet she was—you know—. Heh heh. All right. Mr. Lockhart Titus did all right.”

And I remembered the weekend following—the June Sunday Graduation when, just after the whole 600-odd of us flowed out of that sweaty and stuffy Memorial Auditorium and stepped out into the cool June night air, Grandfather walked up to me, all by himself (Mother and Laura were waiting for me in Mother’s Falcon in the parking lot), and, dutifully, I reached out to grip his proffered hand. I saw his other hand gripping a large, black briefcase, nearly like a small suitcase, with sides that would expand to hold as many books as one could cram into it. When we released our handshake, he held it out in front of him with both hands, arms trembling. I noticed right away the gold-colored handle with the name “Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Ph.D.” etched onto it. After slowly, gently lowering the briefcase to the concrete, placing it in front of my polished dress shoes, he cleared his throat and rasped, “Here I bequeath unto you a gift of congratulations, Mr. Lockhart Titus Elledge—four years hence, Mr. Lockhart Elledge, Artium Baccalaureus in linguis Latina et Graeco. And then the Ivy League and, four years thence, Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Ph.D. and Classics Man.” How I shivered, inwardly, at that bestowed epithet!

And I remembered the Sunday after that—yes, so keenly remembered—when Grandfather stopped by our house at noon, entering the carport door into the kitchen without knocking, as he always did in his proprietary way (he had given Mother the down payment for the house). Dressed, as always, in his pressed salt-and-pepper suit, white starched shirt, thin blue tie, and Homburg, he saw me in the kitchen by the ironing board, dressed still in my church clothes, pressing my Explorer shirt.

He took off his Homburg and sat at the dining table and rasped, “I’ll be taking you out to the camp today, Mr. Lockhart. Your mother doesn’t feel well and asked me to drive you.”

Over the past four summers, Mother had driven me to Camp Durant, beginning on the Sunday of “work week,” when the staff set up the camp for the season, and then on every Sunday thereafter, through the middle of August. And I’d assumed she’d drive me out today: she was in the living room, reading the Sunday paper, and she’d be ready to go—so I’d assumed—when I finished ironing and changing and packing and said I was ready. She hadn’t seemed ill at all to me; in fact, she’d gone outside at seven in the morning, two hours before Mass, and mowed the whole quarter-acre lawn—a chore that had been mine since I was twelve. So Grandfather was lying, I knew (he’d say, euphemistically, he was “prevaricating”), and I shivered as gut-deep as I had on that afternoon over a year ago in Mr. Holliday’s office. (At eighteen, I still hadn’t learned to drive well enough to apply for a learner’s permit. Yes, Grandfather had given me that brief lesson on that Saturday afternoon two weeks before, but he and Mother had usually been too “worn out” from work to teach me—even on the weekends—and play rehearsals had taken up the hour for Driver’s Ed. Besides, my long-held, and irrational, terror of driving had kept me from asking them for lessons.)

To calm myself, I made light of this sudden change of drivers and joked, lamely, “Well, it’s supposed to pour this afternoon, so we can break out the tin cup.” (The Chrysler had already begun to leak in the passenger’s corner of the windshield.)

“Yessir,” he rasped, “Heh heh, that old tin cup. Your great-grandfather drank his pop and beer and wine and bourbon from that cup—every day of his life—at formal meals even. Story was it came from a Federal officer—a fellow Mason of your great-great-grandfather, Blow-Your-Horn-Billy. He gave it to your great-grandfather when he was six: yessir, he bowed deeply and told him and his mother he’d spare the house—the old homeplace, you know—on account of the Masonic emblem above the parlor mantelpiece. Blow-Your-Horn-Billy was over in Smithfield with the Home Guard. He’d been elected Major of it, you know.”

He waited silently, fiddling with his tie now and then and tapping at his Homburg on the table as I finished ironing the dark green Explorer shirt, then the pleated olive shorts and the yellow neckerchief with “Camp Durant Staff 1966” stitched on it in bright red.

I walked into the living room, past Mother reading the newspaper (with no word from her), stepped, slowly and heavily, up the flight of stairs into my bedroom, changed into the pressed uniform, and then, in spite of my deep gut-shivering, held up the neckerchief and carefully, neatly folded it a few inches down from its triangular base. Before the bathroom mirror, I wrapped it, again carefully and neatly, around my neck and, picking up my hand-painted, totem pole slide from the edge of the sink, slid its loop up through the folded tails of the neckerchief—all the way to my throat. I turned around and with Lucinda’s hand mirror made sure the bright emblem on back—“Camp Durant Staff 1966”—blazed for all to see. Then I slipped on my long green knee socks and the garters with their short red sashes, and then the black Sunday shoes already carefully polished. When I finished packing, I gripped up my knapsack and suitcase and stepped down to the living room, again past Mother—and again with no word from her, no “See you next Sad-dy, Locky”—just a rattling of the News and Observer as she turned a page.

From the kitchen, Grandfather and I headed out to the Chrysler, and in all silence, he drove me the ten overcast miles out narrow U. S. 1, flanked by pine stands and clay banks and kudzu, turned left onto Neuse Road, crossed with a faint bump the Seaboard railroad tracks, passed the lopsided, paint-peeling shack with the hand-painted sign “Neuse Holiness Church,” and turned left again, into the wide, rolling gravel road that led us into the camp.

 

You see, during the summers after my freshman and sophomore years, and even (for some reason I could not—and cannot—account for) during the summer after my junior year when Grandfather would drive me just once a week, on Monday, to my therapy with Dr. Aldred, I worked as a counselor at the Scout camp. I taught Morse code and compass and mapping and various merit badges—Signaling, First Aid, and, in my third summer, Nature, Reptile Study, Soil and Water Conservation, and Wildlife Management. And in that third summer, to my deepest delight (and likely also as an antidote to the milder ammonia-and-smelling-salts “aversion therapy” with which Dr. Aldred was then treating me), I wrote and directed the Wednesday “visitor’s night” Indian pageant—or “outdoor drama” as I preferred calling it: a play about Osceola and his treacherous capture. Of course, the “drama” was marked by all the flaws of a seventeen-year-old novice: a melodramatic script with clichéd, long-winded speeches, crowd-pleasing canoes gliding over the lake with Indians in them holding flaming torches (pine poles wrapped in burlap at their tips and drenched in kerosene), a “snake dance” with the dancer gripping a six-foot black snake in his mouth (a dance found in no authentic tribal repertoire), a prolonged (and clumsily choreographed) “battle scene,” complete with a kerosene-drenched, not-quite-authentic, pine-bough-on-chicken-wire-covered “chickee” bursting into flame. I played loose with facts all script long—even invented a son for Osceola, a son handsome and muscled, who was brutally slain in the battle scene. And most spectacular (and least authentic) of all was the accompanying music—taped excerpts from Aaron Copeland, Grofé (the Grand Canyon “Sunrise” movement), and even Wagner and Gustav Mahler—blaring from loudspeakers hung in the trees that ringed the “stage” (the campfire circle with its crudely carpentered benches for seats). Yet, for all its flaws and exaggerations, I loved that pageant and all the performances—even the one when the tape got tangled on the player and the “funeral” of Osceola’s “son”—his body laid in a canoe with a single lit torch in the bow and then paddled out into the lake—had to be performed in silence, without the final ten minutes of that glory of the “immolation” scene from Die Götterdammerung. When the play’s performance shone, how I reveled in the applause and shouts of the audience! (And how deeply disappointed I was—to the point of melancholy—when a sudden thunderstorm would balloon and rain “my” pageant out!)

As for the place—this Camp Durant—I’d fallen in love with it long before, when I was a camper there at age eleven, twelve, and thirteen. I loved the large “lower” lake curving gently and gracefully beyond a peninsula of trees and all ringed with hardwoods—except for a single, tall pine at the lake-edge of the fire circle. And I loved the wide, gravel, gently curving dam lined with trumpet vines and honeysuckle and clumps of orange day lilies and, now and then, unexpectedly, a single tall mallow, its great white cup full-open to the sun. How I relished just walking over that dam in the cool sunlit early mornings, when the lake lay smooth as a mirror! And I loved the “upper” lake as well—much smaller than the lower: an oval pond ringed with scrub oaks and redolent pine saplings. And when I taught Nature merit badge, I loved showing the kids the trees along the nature trail, touching the leaves and naming each tree aloud—the “tulip poplar,” “the mimosa,” “the black cherry,” the “yellow” pine (two needles) and the “loblolly” pine (three needles), the beech (with its trunk one could initial with a pocket knife), the eastern hornbeam (“muscle wood”)—and all the varieties of oaks and how to tell the difference between them: northern red oak, southern red oak, black oak, white oak, blackjack oak, turkey oak, willow oak—and more. I loved, especially, that half-way “rest stop” along the mile trail—the twin mounds of rock through which a small creek flowed. The kids and I would sit on the rocks and rest a bit, not saying much. (The other staffers called it “pussy rock”—but I felt that name crude and preferred “valley rock”—and the campers, the ones I taught anyway, would ever remember it—so I hoped, believed—as “valley rock,” not that vulgar, other epithet.)

Most of all, I loved the older men there: the scoutmasters and their assistants and the camp directors and the program directors and the other adult leaders. I suppose I saw in them, in some semiconscious way, as the father I never had—the fathers!

Of course, I was struck now and again by a handsome, well-muscled sixteen-year-old, either a camper or a staffer, but I just kept their “gorgeous” images in my mind—and kept my right hand powerfully busy, late at night in the Nature Lodge, when I knew the three other counselors were sound asleep.

 

Grandfather parked the Chrysler by the gate of totem poles and rasped, “Sit here, Mr. Lockhart. I’ll be back directly.”

I watched his Homburg bob down the lawn toward the Training Lodge where “work week” began with various camp songs, the Camp Director’s welcoming speech, and everyone introducing themselves. I saw Joe White and Mike Martin sitting on top of an old picnic table, dressed in T-shirts and well-worn jeans and sneakers. They waved at me; I didn’t wave back, hands lead-heavy in my lap. Suddenly, from the driver’s open window, yelled Cotton Tyler’s voice, “Hey, Elledge, you’re in uniform! And this here work week! Better change in the car, bo’!” Then he laughed, “Come on, man, you’ll be late!” and sprinted down the lawn and sat on the table beside Joe and Mike, dressed, like them, in T-shirt and jeans.

I remember it was around noon and still overcast—cool for mid-June. Just as the clouds suddenly thickened and purpled, a small rain began to wet the windshield, and Grandfather walked, Homburg bobbing, up the lawn, slowly, listing slightly, brushing raindrops from his suit. As soon as he slid into the driver’s seat, the small rain burst into a shower, and I saw Joe and Mike and Cotton leap off the picnic table and rush, hands over head, into the Training Lodge.

The rain began to drum on the Chrysler roof, some of it dripping from the right corner of the windshield onto the dashboard. Grandfather reached into the glove compartment and took out the old tin cup, tarnished with age, and placed it under the dripping. He started the car and rasped, “Now hold the cup steady, Mr. Lockhart.” I reached out and held it, and he backed the car, swinging right, then swung left and started forward, down the wide, graveled, rolling road out of camp. In and out of the drumming rain—drumming loudly now—came the steady drip drip drip into the cup.

When we reached the stop sign at Neuse Road, the rain had slowed to a sprinkle. I already knew what Grandfather had said to Mr. Earnest, the Camp Director, and when he cleared his throat to tell me, I nearly blurted a not-Lockhart Elledge, “Damn it, garrulous old fool, I know what you said and he said, you needn’t rub it in, I don’t want to hear about it!” But I stayed silent and let him rasp on: “Mr. Earnest and I agreed that, under the present circumstances, even though you’re considered ‘cured,’ you’d be better off working elsewhere this summer. Given your interest in reading, Mr. Earnest suggested Olivia Raney Library downtown, and I wholeheartedly agreed. The salary shall be much better than he can offer, and I know Mrs. Woolrich—have known her for decades—why, she was Carmen’s bridesmaid, you know—took the train all the way up to Philadelphia back in October ’19. She’ll be glad to hire you on. And—” Here he paused, blushed deep red, and cleared his throat longer and louder than I had ever heard before: “And, of course, in the library, there’ll be no, you know—no, temptation. [How little he knew of library “tearooms”!] You’re cured, there’s no doubt. Dr. Aldred has said so. But we don’t want this ‘cure’ to be any temporary ‘remission,’ do we now, Mr. Lockhart?” He laughed softly, “Lord, Lord, old Aunt Venice. Never had the slightest thought old Merrick would remission on her—and permanently, too!”

Just before we turned onto the paved road, I looked back at the rolling, pine-flanked, gravel road and felt a sudden great hurt well up in me. I turned my face to my window so Grandfather couldn’t see the sudden burst of wetness. All the way home, I kept my eyes on the rain sliding in thin, curving rills down the window pane.

Since that June Sunday three decades ago, I have never set foot on my sacred place.

 

Mike Martin and I still keep up, and in a recent e-mail, he wrote that the camp had been bought by the City of Raleigh in 1978 and renamed “Durant Nature Park”; that it was now ringed by shopping centers and industrial warehouses and town house complexes; that Neuse Road had been four-laned and was now “Durant Road”; that “city buzz” had “pretty much killed” the night chirps of crickets and tree frogs; and that “all that concrete runoff” had washed out the campfire circle—“just a gully of clay now.”

“The area has changed so much you wouldn’t recognize it,” he wrote. “So when you drive down to N. C. again, you may as well stay in Durham—and save your gas money.”

 

“Smithfield five, Goldsboro thirty-three,” Grandfather rasped from out of the faint self-whispering. “And there’s that old picnic table. We all used to eat there on the way to Morehead, you remember, Dr. Lockhart? Lord, road sign and table been there forever, seems so.”

Opening my eyes, I glanced up to see the rust-edged mileage sign whip by, caught a glimpse of the rotting table-and-benches in front of a cattle pasture fenced with barbed wire. I swept my tongue over the roof of my mouth: the hunk’s semen-taste, its shaming stickiness, had nearly vanished, just a hint of it remaining still, like fading Novocain hours after a dentist visit.

And with my face to my open window, the pasture-green and strands of barbed wire rushing by, I wondered, in wonder, Why aren’t you back in your dorm room, Lock? Your comps, they’re Monday. And the paper on Virgil due Tuesday. Why this ridiculous, time-wasting trip with a Dr. Claude Alexander Woodall, Homo Medicus, to a place, a “Klan Country,” you’d sworn four years ago, nearly to the day, you’d never set foot in again? I’d be in my room right now, writing the paper. I could have used Victor’s ear plugs—his “studying plugs.” And that brainless hunk—that’s not your direction, Lock. Just a misdemeanor this morning—a tiny lapse, an indiscretion, no more than that. You know who you are, Lock—by now—surely!

I felt a chest-clench, the kind you feel after a nightmare, and then in the wind rushing by, I shook my head to clear its memory—that sick-green restroom and all the rest. Then I felt a huge relief, and thought, It’s just a tiny diversion, this little trip—to get the old man off your back. And you need a break anyway. Away from the Hill for a while. We’ll see his damn homeplace and be back on campus before four. You’ll just pull an all-nighter or two.

I bent back down to the ragged floor mat, squeezed eyes shut again, and to the sounds of the wind rushing past (now scented with cow manure) and of my grandfather once more whispering to himself, that faint laugh erupting out of it, “I should’ve told that fellah where to head in,” I remembered how rarely I saw him after that aborted camp Sunday—that huge loss in my heart, my soul—that deep, deep hurt.

Of course, there was no further need for the “therapeutic” journeys to the “shrines” of “Klan Country.” And after that Sunday, for reasons unknown to us, Grandfather never set foot in our house again. For the rest of June and most of July, Mother would now and then wonder aloud, “Why’s our Dee-di never here anymore?” And from Lucinda: “Mom, why doesn’t Dee-di visit us like he used to?” And from me (faintly sarcastic): “Guess he’s still reading the N & O—the paper he ‘never finishes.’?”

Of course, our questions were only rhetorical, and I suppose were meant to be, since for a long time we had resented the old man’s unannounced visits, which could occur at almost any moment throughout the year—a Tuesday night, say, around eight, or, more often, a Sunday noon or midafternoon. When we’d hear the slow, familiar scraping of shoes on the carport doormat, Mother would whisper, “Oh, God, can’t he at least phone?” and then retreat to the old brown couch in the den, shut the sliding door, and switch on the television. And Lucinda would rush up the stairs to her room and shut and lock the door behind her.

That would leave me alone to greet the old man, since I’d often be sitting on the couch in the living room, before the coffee table, or at the table in the kitchen, immersed in studying or reading. (My room, unlike Lucinda’s, had no heat vents and so was always slightly chill, even in spring and fall. And in summer, not a breath of breeze fluttered the curtains of the two open windows: the prevailing wind, north in summer, blew from Lucinda’s side of the house.) So before I could rise and make my escape—to somewhere besides my room, Grandfather would have already, without knocking, opened the unlocked or locked carport door (he had his own key) and stepped inside, “Si vales, valeo; bonum est, Mr. Lockhart,” rasping out of his mouth—softly if he saw me in the kitchen, louder if, peering up the small hallway, he saw me on the living room sofa. Dutifully (yet resentfully), I’d rise from wherever I was and welcome the old man inside. I’d ask him to sit at the kitchen table and pour him some coffee and ice water. Then he’d make idle chatter: about Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and “what a mess it all was;” or the recent “ill fortunes” of the Carolina football team; or the local politician Kidd Brewer’s conviction for bid-rigging and that “scandalous going-in party” at his fancy house on top of a hill by the Durham highway—and so on, ad nauseam. After a half hour or so, I’d rise and show him out, bidding him an orotund (and faintly sarcastic) farewell, “Ave atque vale, Dr. Claudius.” But by July’s end of that library summer, not one of us ever mentioned his odd and mysterious absence—such relief we, especially I, must have felt!

I wondered then—but without the words—and I wonder now, three decades later, whether it was some shaming and tense conflict that kept Grandfather away that summer.

As my “Dee-di”—that warm, familiar name—he must have known the sheer shimmering pleasure Camp Durant granted me in the summer: the teaching (especially the nature merit badges), and the Osceola “outdoor drama,” and the neat staff uniforms with their bright neckerchiefs, and the camp ritual of flag-raising-and-lowering, and at ten at night Perry Como’s Lord’s Prayer followed by the bugled “Taps” played on scratchy 78s through old horn-shaped speakers atop Campbell Lodge—and, more than anything, just the place—the pine-smells and the clay-smells and the skies ever-seeming blue—and that gracefully angular lake from which a breeze never seemed to cease! And yes, it was a pleasure I’m sure he shared with me every Wednesday night when he’d drive Grandmother and Mother and Lucinda to the performances of “my” Vision of the Sun. (Indeed, he never missed a show, except for the single rainout we had that summer of ’65.)

But as Claude Alexander Woodall, M.D., Colonel, United States Army, Retired, and in ’66, Chief of the Tuberculosis Control Division of the North Carolina State Board of Health (his second career, since ’48), he must have been so glued to a “conscience”—social? Southern? medical?  moral? who knows?—that he found it “necessary” that I not even be tempted into a “regression” from my “cure” by the young males that swarmed the camp mid-June to mid-August.

That tense and shaming conflict must have led to such twisting agony in him he had to ignore it—or explode in one of the outbursts of temper Mother had so often told me about.  So to keep his mind off it, he decided to stay away from our house for good—not even stepping on our property or driving down our street. No, on those weeknights and Sundays when he felt restless and homebound, once more wearied by Grandmother’s ceaseless complaints, all he’d rather do was either stay homebound—and read the newspaper over and over and watch a Yankees game on television (and, later, the Redskins and ACC basketball) and read extra rolls of lung X-rays—or on Saturdays and Sundays, go out to breakfast and lunch at the Broiler, then take the Hillsboro Street eight-block walk to the Capitol and back.

To make sure I wouldn’t see him any more than I had to, beginning the Monday after that aborted camp Sunday, the Monday I was “officially” hired at Olivia Raney as a “circulation assistant,” and ending September 10, the day before I moved to Chapel to begin my freshman year (so I could avoid, for the first time ever, the family’s annual Labor Day week’s vacation in Morehead City), I volunteered (and was permitted) to work all the additional shifts. So besides the eight-to-five schedule Monday through Friday, I worked six to nine at night, having wolfed a hamburger and fries from the old Capitol vendor in his kiosk—whirled ever about by pigeons, his “friends,” as he’d call them. And I worked one to five Saturdays and Sundays. To avoid our ten o’clock mass at Our Lady of Lourdes (and the certainty I’d see Grandfather when Mother would pick up Grandmother), I lied the library had begun to “experiment” with “extended hours” on Sundays, staying open nine to one, and I simply had to be there—there was no one else.

Mother raised an eyebrow, but she apparently believed me, and because so few buses ran on Sundays, she even drove me before church to the nondescript concrete building at the end of Hillsboro Street, within sight of the Capitol. She let me out, sighing, “Oh, Locky, I hope you don’t lapse.” (From being a practicing Catholic, she meant.) And then she drove home.

I had been entrusted with the key, and not five minutes after entering (and locking) the door behind me, hoping in terror no other employee would come in Sunday mornings, I found, under the 700s, a book on college wrestling, flipped to a photo of two young men demonstrating the “figure-four,” dropped my body to the old, stained, musty carpet and fist under my fly, stared at the taut, tubular bulge in the crotch of the pinned wrestler’s tight training pants. I rubbed away until in a minute (likely less), I groaned, then felt the warm jets filling my briefs.

Then, until one in the afternoon, I went out and wandered the nearly empty downtown streets, my whole body radiant with pleasure, even when it showered and I had to carry an umbrella. (Of course, I stayed away from Hillsboro Street, where I might chance meeting Grandfather on his after-lunch walk from the Broiler to the Capitol and back.)

One Sunday near the end of July, I wandered as far as the warehouse district near West Street, and much to my surprise (and conspiratorial delight), I passed, strolling toward me on the other side of West, Dr. Aldred in a tight T-shirt and tight, faded Levis and hiking boots. He walked beside a man about his age—similarly dressed but long-haired and mustachioed: a faint resemblance of the Marlboro Man in the magazines and on highway billboards. Without stopping, Dr. Aldred waved at me and lilted, “Hi, Lock! Happy Sun-day!” His companion, even handsomer than he, and more “butch,” waved as well but said nothing. After they passed me, I heard Dr. Aldred mumble something and then the two laugh, good-naturedly. I felt certain he was telling his friend about my “case” and all similar “cases”, “incurable absolutely, if there’s really any ‘illness’ to be cured,” having said the same to me on our last day of therapy—and having said besides, “Let’s just record you’re cured. I’ll  note that now, in writing.” And I was certain he was also telling his friend what I had heard him say so often in the year of my Dix visits, “As you and I and all of us know, who know Dorothy!”

 

On a  late-August Saturday morning my mother read in the newspaper—“God, on the front page!” she said, fretfully—that Dr. Aldred had been arrested by an undercover policeman for a “crime against nature” in one of the decrepit, empty warehouses along West Street. There was a sheepish photo of him beside the article, his wrists in handcuffs, an expressionless policeman leading him away from the “scene of the crime.” That twilight, after a tense and silent supper, Mother asked me into her room, shut and locked the door behind her, and burst out in her angry-hysterical way, “That lying son-of a-bitch per-vert! Hardly a ‘cure,’ as you put it! And straight to your grandfather’s face, who’s never told a lie in his life! And that lying note to Mr. Holliday! I’m glad Dee-di had the sense to take you out of that camp! That per-vert didn’t molest you, did he?” And on and on—eventually comparing me and Dr. Aldred and even all “homosexuals” to my “lying son-of-a-bitch psychopathic father!” When I heard this last, I lost all control and shouted, “Goddamn bitch,” and started beating on her shoulders, and she beat back on mine, then cried, “You hurt me, you per-vert crazy! You’ve always belonged in Dix! I wish I’d had you committed years ago! God!”

Shouting, “Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!” and weeping uncontrollably—in that deep, wrenched, down-in-the-lungs way of the girl in the Kent State photograph—I ran out of her room and out of the house and down Kittrell to Fallon Park. By the trickling creek there, in the dimming twilight, I sat on a stone and wept on, thinking once more of the solitary “lying-son-of-a-bitch-psychopathic-father” fate that now seemed more than ever to lie ahead of me. Suddenly I remembered I’d heard—perhaps from Kenny?—that Fallon Park was called “Fellatio Park” by the Raleigh homosexuals, and I went silent, felt a surge below my belt, and glanced carefully around the circular lawn fringed with pines, a single, large weeping willow in the center of it. In my wild-desperate imagination (out of a longing for some warmth, some loving), I thought I saw a guy my age standing by the willow, staring at me—but it was only a pine sapling shaped curiously like a person, and I realized I was alone in “Fellatio Park” and took the slow walk back to my house. After that night, Mother never mentioned Dr. Aldred or my therapy again. As for Dr. Aldred, I read a brief notice in the obituaries of his suicide a week later. He had obviously been fired from Dix and his license to practice had been taken away. So drained I was, I couldn’t even weep, just crumpled the newspaper page and threw it in the trash.

 

Of course, I digress—but out of necessity here.

 

Returning to my library Sundays: I couldn’t very well lie that Olivia Raney stayed open Sunday nights (though how wished it were so!): no one, not even Lucinda and Grandmother, would believe that. So I was forced to endure the Sunday suppers in my grandparents’ ornate dining room. During that two-hour torture, and especially during the few minutes Grandfather and I sat alone at the table (while Grandmother and the maid Miss Mary and Lucinda and Mother cleared away the dishes and prepared dessert), we never said a word to each other. He’d flip his dessert spoon over and over or slip his pocket watch out of his suit trousers and glance at it and slip it back in again. And I’d just stare silently at the wide mirror above the sideboard, seeing the long, gaunt, expressionless face with the high forehead and the short, bangs-combed-to-the-side “Oxford” haircut, the chin and cheekbones prominent, a deep dimple chin-center—except for the haircut, the “spitting” image of my dead, “deadbeat,” “whoring,” “lying,” “psychopathic” father.

 

These Sunday tortures ended—thankfully!—on the mid-September Sunday I was driven to Chapel Hill for my freshman year. That afternoon, I was driven not by Grandfather in his Chrysler but by Mother in her Falcon. I had asked Mother to drive me on the specious grounds that her car—a compact station wagon nearly half the size of the Chrysler—had more space for my “belongings.” The entire thirty miles along curving Highway 54 was filled with her chatter about my taking “nice” girls to dinner and the movies and the theater, and “rushing” for Kappa Sigma, my grandfather’s fraternity. “He’d be so happy!” she lilted. “You can see his picture on the living room wall—oh, so young! He took me there when I was twenty and we visited Aunt Peggy. She was housemother for a girl’s dorm—oh, God—what—? Yes, Cobb Hall, that was it. You remember Aunt Peggy, don’t you, Locky? I took you to see her when you were twelve. That old colored woman shouted, ‘Man on the hall!’ And all those doors slammed shut. God, you were just twelve and ‘Man on the Hall!’ Tickles me to death . . . . ” And on she went, in her socialite’s wandering way. For a time, I would look at her and nod politely or say, “Yes, that’s true,” or, “Yes, I remember”—but without enthusiasm. Then, as we started that long, curving climb to The Hill, I went silent and just stared out the window—at the old stucco Brady’s Restaurant and then at the oak trees and the old elegant houses rushing by. Without seeming to notice, she chattered on.

 

Just before dark, I was alone, sitting at a scratched, wobbly table—my “desk”—in my third-floor room of Old East Dormitory. I was writing my obligatory letter to Mother: that I thanked her “immensely” for driving me over; that I was “looking forward” to seeing her and Lucinda “Saturday morning, around eleven”; but that, “to my great regret and with my deepest apologies to Grandfather and Grandmother,” I’d have to miss their “Sunday supper for this weekend and for many weekends in the foreseeable future”; that I had “no choice otherwise,” since, from my “recent inquiries” at the Chapel Hill bus station, I had learned no buses left from Raleigh to The Hill Sunday evening and “I must, therefore, return at four in the afternoon.”

Of course, in my resolve to avoid those Sunday suppers, I was lying, and I knew Mother would write back in complaint, trying to twinge me with guilt:

 

Dear Locky,

Your Grandfather will miss you so! And all your life, practically, you and he were so close! And you know good and well you’d have no daddy at all if it weren’t for him [and so on and so forth].

 

But I also knew she’d not bother to check the bus schedules—so I’d be free at last from those Sunday horrors—no, those prickling, eye-averting shames—at least until Thanksgiving, Christmas, the semester break in January, and the Easter holidays in spring. I was certain I could endure those few Sunday shames—or even find a way to escape them altogether.

 

You may be wondering why I did not—would not—choose to stay on campus most of weekend (Saturday afternoons and, as it turned out, Sunday mornings and afternoons)—why, in fact, I had decided on that course of action as far back as high school graduation. From the stories I’d heard from Broughton classmates with older siblings at Chapel Hill, I’d learned the dormitories on weekends were loud with blaring stereos and drunken partying, despite the “official” prohibition of alcoholic beverages. (The residence hall “advisors,” themselves college boys, just “looked the other way” and joined in the partying and drinking.)  I’d heard, too, of the horrid sounds and smells of twenty or thirty boys vomiting at once in the dormitory lavatories Sunday mornings, each of them “hugging his own toilet.” Ugh! There was no way I’d stay on campus—even in the library or classroom buildings, which, nearly empty on weekends, I feared would so depress me I couldn’t concentrate or I’d drowse into long naps and jerk awake again.

 

Losing my resolve for a moment, I shuddered with guilt and was about to toss the letter to Mother into the waste basket and compose another: that “I would indeed be present for Sunday supper, as the last bus left for Chapel Hill at nine.” But then, remembering those awkward, shame-prickling August silences between Grandfather and me, I quickly, with a barely legible scrawl, finished the letter, “Your loving son, Lock,” then folded it and slid it into one of the envelopes Mother had packed for me, sealed it with a sour tongue, licked one of the FDR stamps from a book of them she’d handed me when we’d arrived, fingered it skewed and upside down onto the left corner of the envelope, then strode downstairs and much relieved, my guilt vanished like a lake mist at dawn, slid the envelope into the mail chute.

 

From Sunday until Wednesday, when classes would start, I had the room to myself, and I thought—with relief—I’d have no roommate, I’d been overlooked somehow. But Wednesday, around eight in the morning, just after I’d packed the big briefcase with my texts for Latin 21, Botany 101, and Modern Civilization, came a hard, quick rapping at the latched door, and then a sharp kick on the wood and a nasal voice, “Hey, I’m your roommate, man, whoever thou art!”

I strode to the latch and slid it back and opened the door, and with a sharp catch of breath that no one could fail to notice, I saw this handsome, thick-lipped, black-curly-haired hippie around my age, in tight, patched, pale-blue Levis, wide leather belt, and black, faded T-shirt with the peace symbol pressed on it—you, know, the ☮—but this one a brilliant sun yellow. And under the symbol, two bright red masks were pressed side by side on the shirt—the Thespian faces, smiling and grieving, of comedy and tragedy. An old, patched, olive-drab knapsack hung down his back, strapped tightly to his broad shoulders. What made him look even handsomer—“more gorgeous” are the words—was what seemed a three-day growth of black along his jaw line and over his cheeks and upper lip and dimpled chin. A wide, white-toothed grin spread over his face as he reached out his hand to shake mine. I gripped it at first dutifully, weakly, as I’d grip Grandfather’s, but when he tightened his own grip and I saw the veins in his hairy forearm stand out, I tightened mine and felt myself harden pleasurably—down there. (And I felt at once shame and fear he had noticed it and would snatch his hand away and yell, spit flying, “Get the fuck away from me, faggot!”) But he said, his voice deep, clear, warm, “Hey, man, I’m Victor—Victor Katz—Jew-boy from Charleston.”

“Lockhart—Lockhart Elledge, I said hoarsely, nearly whispering, still gripping tightly the warm, powerful hand. “But people call me Lock—which is fine.”

“Hey—looks like I woke you up. Sorry, man,” and his grin rounded into an o of concern.

“Oh, no, I said,” putting on my mother’s social cheeriness as we released our grip. “Since no one showed up by Monday, I just didn’t expect anyone—certainly not—”

“Well,” he interrupted, with a grin and a wink, “you got him now—a good ole Charleston Jew-boy hippie!”—and then, laughing, “God, this room hasn’t changed since eighteen sixty five!”

I felt so relieved he’d interrupted me before I could finish—could say what I so longed to say but hadn’t yet had the courage—or maybe downright audacity—to do so: “I just didn’t expect anyone as absolutely gorgeous as you!”

He was just now slinging his old knapsack onto the floor at the foot of his bed. Then he just flopped on the bare, striped mattress, and laying his curly hair on the bare, striped pillow, he closed his thick-lidded eyes. In a minute I could hear his slow, even breaths of sleep.

As if in a waking dream, I sat before my desk, and for the five minutes or so before Latin class, I just stared out the high, open window, my eyes fixed on the round, copper-crowned Venus temple of the Old Well, its old, wrought-iron water fountain in the center, its base fringed with bunches of yellow and pink and white chrysanthemums. Every so often, a boy in shorts and T-shirt, shouldering a knapsack, or a sorority-looking girl in a “stylish” dress and blouse, holding her books to her chest, would step into the temple and drink from the fountain. A strange, warm wave of delight spread through me, foot to crown, and I whispered, in wonder, “Lock, you’re free. Free as Victor. Free as those students drinking from Venus herself.”

Before I could stay longer in this new delight, I saw it was three of nine on the desk clock, and rising and gripping up the big briefcase, I rushed out of the room and down the flights of stairs and into the cool shade of the quadrangle. And I joined the hundreds of students—some sauntering sleepy eyed, some, like me, striding fast—to their nine-clock classes in Murphy or Saunders or Bingham or Dey.

After supper, alone in my room (Victor had gone out to do laundry), I sat again before my desk and once more gazed with tingling joy at the quadrangle and Old Well—soft and silent now in the Chapel Hill twilight. I suddenly smelled the slightly bitter scent of chrysanthemums closer by. I glanced to my left and saw a large pot of yellow ones on Victor’s desk. They seemed to glow in the darkening room.

 

“Lord, Lord, it’s still there, that old billboard, ‘Welcome to Johnston County! This is Klan Country!’” Grandfather laughed, abrupting me out of the soft, still, twilit room scented with that pot of chrysanthemums and back into the wind-rushing, pine-and-old-man-smelling Chrysler. As we whipped past the billboard, I could just glimpse a white hood on someone’s head and a cartoonish torch held above it. In a few seconds, we crossed the Neuse River bridge and entered Smithfield, that town so full of Aunt Venice and Uncle Merrick and the origin of Venice’s mantra, “How’s your love life?” that I began to tremble inwardly as we started down Market Street, flanked by the old courthouse (with the Confederate monument in front of it) and then by the various stores—Barefoot’s Hardware, Woolworth’s, Rose’s, Ruth’s Café, and more: the usual sorts of shops along string-straight, coastal plain main streets.

Klan Country, A Novel in Progress, Part I

Filed under: literary fiction — Lee Titus Elliott @ 3:01 pm
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Klan Country

A Novel

 

“Ah, the family,” she said, releasing her breath and sitting back quietly, “the whole hideous institution should be wiped from the face of the earth. It is the root of all human wrongs,” she ended and relaxed, and her face became calm. She was trembling.
                              —Katherine Anne Porter, “Old Mortality”

I

Once more it was five before nine on a Saturday morning (this one in May, five days after Kent State) and once more, as punctual as the sun, my Grandfather Woodall stood white-haired and erect on the brick pavement beside the Old Well, his blue gaze fixed across Cameron Avenue and down the wide brick walkway that ran between South Building and the Playmakers Theater. From my window high in Old East (a window shut still, out of shame shut still, though it was warm outside, warm as July), I could look down and see him from the rear: tall and elegant in his tailored and pressed salt-and-pepper suit, his black dress shoes polished as mirrors, his neat, gray Homburg held out with both veined hands in front of him, close over his waist.

Standing so, arrayed so, his stage set that little, round Vesta-temple with the Doric columns and copper dome and wrought-iron drinking fountain in the center, he reminded me of a Confederate general in retirement, posing for a photograph—an Early or an Anderson or a Longstreet in one of his Freeman books back in Raleigh. I squinted hard from my shut window and for a sudden, aching wave in my chest, could see—believe!—I wasn’t up here, in this closed, overwarm room, tie wretchedly askew, dress shoes scuffed, shirt and trousers rumpled like a street drunk’s, every pore of me sweating and stinking, shit smell and semen smell welling up out of my crotch like a grim mist, some strange college boy’s semen sticky as rotten glue on the roof of my mouth. No, I was down there, once more crossing Cameron and striding straight to him over the antique brick, dressed neat in the dark, pressed trousers, the white, starched long-sleeved shirt and dark tie, the dress shoes as black and mirror-polished as his own, in my left hand gripped the big, black brief case he’d presented me for my high school graduation in June ’66. And all through my striding to him (so I heard—believed!) ran in my mind the verses from the Fourth Georgic I’d just translated (and memorized) in Dr. Applewhite’s Virgil class—verses poised to spring from my lips, in not quite theatrical orotundity, the moment I stopped before him and reached out to grip his proffered hand.

I shut my eyes and could see—believe!—how it would go between us in the four hours following: how, hard upon our ritual grip and my verses from Virgil, he’d intone his own mock-solemn, “Si vales, valeo; bonum est,” and then, clearing his throat, as if about to give a speech, ask once more: Would I accompany him “this fine morning” (even if it were raining or overcast, it would ever be fine—“a fine morning”) down to “Klan Country” (“Heh, heh, heh,” he’d be sure to utter) and the old Woodall homeplace, “seat” of his father’s father and my “distaff side”? As I was “well cognizant,” his brother, my great-uncle Merrick, had put it up for sale at last, and he, “this old Dee-di” of mine, eighty-one and retired for good, away at last from “the consumptives” and the X-rays and all the weekly traveling—he, “an old widower of leisure now,” with no salaried employment or “future prospects thereof,” had “purposed” to purchase “said seat” and in his “hiemal years” restore it to its “antebellum state.” He’d perform “the light labor” himself, whatever little painting and repair “this old carcass” could accomplish. The remainder he’d commission to contractors: the new foundation and new roof and the filling of the columns eaten hollow and much more than he could name just now, my “old forgetful Dee-di.” Would I “therefore”—I, his only grandson and “sole male sustainer” of the Woodall line (my uncle had two daughters “merely” and, at 33, mumps had “rendered him sterile”)—would I go down with him “this fine Saturday” and meet my great-uncle Merrick there? (Grandfather had telephoned him we’d meet him at one, “on the lower veranda.”) If we left now, we’d have the leisure to stop by Rosewood and see Mrs. Loreena Wooten, a widow herself and his “future helpmeet.” And we’d have time to walk the Bentonville battleground and tour Ava Gardner’s schoolhouse and teacherage—and even visit the old clapboard church my great-great-grandfather (“Union Man that he was, yessir,”) had built “for the colored people.” Of course, he’d drive me himself, “with all due pleasure, Dr. Lockhart.”

I opened my eyes and looked down at him, and from his steady head, his stance so willfully still he seemed nearly to tremble, I knew he was playing it all through to the end, in a mind’s eye keen and fatalistic: how it had gone between us every Saturday since the twenty-eighth of March (he’d first arrived at my dorm room on the twenty-first, with no warning, not even a phone call) and how surely it would go between us again today, “this fine morning”: how the word “pleasure” would have barely come out of his mouth when I’d have said, in that aloof, resonant professor’s voice (which already infected me then and often infects me still—even on stage—twenty-six years later): I “deeply” apologized, but I could not accompany him “just yet”—not today at least. I had another examination for which to study—my Latin comprehensives—and a “lengthy paper”—this one on the Georgics. And that night (and I’d have been sure to say this with a wink, sly and conspiratorial), I’d made “a prior engagement”—with a “Linda Maupin” or a Teresa Cheshire” or an “Elaine Trentman”—whatever old-Raleigh, blue-blood name would have emerged in my mind just then. (Of course, I was lying about the “prior engagement,” as I’d been lying about it the six Saturdays previous.) But—I’d have gone on—“my schedule” would permit an hour for “light luncheon,” perhaps at Harry’s downtown.

And then he, his voice going tight and clipped, like that of the Army Medical Corps colonel he’d been for thirty years—his first career, long ago—this narrowed voice the only sign of his (I knew) deep disappointment: “That will be satisfactory, sir. We shall drive to the homeplace on a Saturday forthcoming. I shall telephone your great-uncle Merrick not to expect us today. He has long advertised for the sale but has assured me by certified letter, in accordance with my request, that he shall not first negotiate with another party other than myself.” Here he would have raised a hand from the brim of the Homburg he held, touched forefinger to thumb, and gone on, “Of course, I know—and you, likely, as well, Dr. Lockhart—how large a salis granum his word’s been worth. But after all these years—Lord, I haven’t seen him in twenty!—he may have changed. People do change, you know. Just give ’em time, yessir, and they change—most people, anyway.”

Then, setting the Homburg on his head, straightening it just so, he’d have bowed slightly and said, with no trace of irony, his voice broadening back, “So I shall lunch with you at noon, Dr. Lockhart—at your Harry’s downtown. Meanwhile, to pass the morning profitably, I shall visit the North Carolina Collection and there peruse, with interest, your great-great-grandfather’s letters to Governor Zebulon Baird Vance and President Ulysses Simpson Grant.”

In the three hours following, while he’d have “perused” among the faded and brittle sheets of foolscap, I’d have returned with the briefcase to my overwarm room, ,taken the Oxford Vergili Opera and the Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary out of the briefcase and set them side by side on my desk. I’d have then opened the Vergili Opera to the Fourth Georgic and bookmarked it with a cheap Bic. Then, setting the briefcase by the bureau dresser, I’d have desultorily swept and dusted, changed my soiled and wrinkled bedsheets, and taken a brief nap on the coolness of the freshly laundered ones.

At noon precisely we, the two of us, would’ve been seated across from each other in a cramped, stuffing-sprouted booth in smoky Harry’s, and over the hour there—not a second longer or less—Grandfather would have slapped down onto the stained Formica the enlarged, cracked, yellowed black-and-white photograph of an antebellum façade, the old Woodall homeplace, to be sure: the window shutters missing, the panes cracked and broken, the now-wooden porch steps black-weathered and sagging, and the far-right column gone from the lower portico, replaced by an old creosote pole twice as thick as the remaining columns—which were white still, though chipped and splintered in places. Over the whole façade, the paint was peeling everywhere, like the truck of an old sycamore.

Without touching the steak sandwich Grandfather had ordered, he’d have regaled me once more with the statistics and facts of the old house and the Civil War anecdotes of events rumored to have taken place there: how the “Federals” had dumped dead chickens onto Mrs. Woodall’s grand piano and how the fellow-Mason Federal officer, ordered to “fire” the house, had refused to do so when he saw the Masonic emblem hanging above the parlor mantelpiece, and on and on ad nauseam: tales I’d heard from him since I was five or six—“history,” Grandfather called them. And all the while his face would have been flushed deeply, his voice oddly breathless and manic, now and then breaking high and hoarse, like an excited boy’s.

Then, the anecdotes finished, Grandfather would have slapped down another photo, also black-and-white but smaller and much more recent. It showed the face and neck of a handsome woman—in her midfifties, maybe—her (no doubt, dyed) dark hair styled in the high, Jackie Kennedy bouffant hairdo so popular in the sixties. Even in middle age, she had the bright eyes, the fine, straight noise, the full lips, and the high cheekbones of the beauty queen she had been—“crowned Miss Goldsboro back in 1931.” “And this feminam pulcherrimam, Dr. Lockhart—Mrs. Loreena Wooten,” he’d have said, “it is my intention to wed, once the homeplace is mine and its interior has grown fit for her presence. When we drive down to the homeplace on a future Saturday, I’ll take you to meet her, just outside Rosewood. Oh, you wouldn’t believe all her talents—photography, painting, sculpture, gardening—and more—Lord, I can’t keep count of ’em! And she’s always been so nice to me—so eager to see me. She’s out the X-ray trailer door before I can even get out of the car!” And on and on the old man would have rambled, rolling out nearly the same words I’d heard from him in Harry’s the six Saturdays previous.

Of course, all the while I’d have been spooning up my watery chowder in quick slurps, wolfing the underdone Reuben sandwich, gulping down the Mason jar of oversweetened iced tea, glancing covertly at my wristwatch, in torment for us to quit that smoke-hazed place and walk back across campus—him to his old white Chrysler, me to the clear still of my room, the Fourth Georgic open on my desk, the cheap Bic gripped in my right hand and poised above a sheet of legal pad. Grandfather would have taken a sip from his own Mason jar of oversweetened iced tea and then a bite out of his steak sandwich, chewing it slowly. Then he would have covered his mouth with his hand, cleared his throat long and loud, as if he were about to give a speech, and said—words I remembered verbatim from the letter he’d sent me seven Saturdays ago:

 

I recognize that some of the family will object loudly to my enterprises—your mother and your uncle Claude, especially. In fact, I can already hear them: “What? An eighty-year-old man living out there—in the country? And living there all by himself? And in that house in its condition? And with no central heat? Why, he’ll catch double pneumonia, just like his own mother in that drafty old house in Goldsboro. And remarrying at his age—and this common Loreena person at that?” And on and on and on, the same sort of shrill complaints which I heard your grandmother whine for over forty years—and which now, in my old age, I no longer wish to endure. Hence, I ask you, Dr. Lockhart, that you keep my two new enterprises confidential, at least until the sale of that grandeur is accomplished, at which time I shall write your mother and uncle and shall all reveal and at length.

 

Just so I yearned for it all—oddly, even the parts I resented—to come round again as I stood that Saturday morning in May behind my shut window high in Old East, gazing down at him so grand and erect beside the Old Well, the nine-o’clock sun just now brimming over the Playmakers pediment and glowing him full—from his silver crown to the shining black tips of his shoes.

In fact, a little over an hour ago, just as I stepped outside the dormitory, lugging the briefcase into the cool shadow of the quadrangle, I foresaw clear as a movie the whole Saturday ritual. And I intended to play it through once more. I saw no reason on earth to do any different.

But a few yards down the brick walkway, I noticed the quadrangle all silent but for sparrows chirping under eaves, and I raised my head from its accustomed stoop and saw not one of the dozens of students morose, disheveled, sullen-eyed—sauntering resentfully to their Saturday classes in Saunders or Bingham or Murphy or Dey. Only I was in this place, hearing my long, pounding strides.

I crossed Cameron, strode between the Playmakers and South Building, and came out into the larger, sun-splashed quadrangle, the great, white portico of Wilson Library shining far ahead of me. This place, too, was all empty. Just squirrels were there, scurrying up thick oak trunks, and robins pecked in the grass and among the thick claws of the oak roots.

I hurried past a sign—it caught my eye: a large square of white-painted plywood nailed to a stake driven into the ground. I stopped and swung around and strode back to it and stopped and stooped and, gripping the briefcase still, read the black-painted capitals, printed slightly askew. I pored slowly, slowly over them, and I read them slowly once more, as if they held me under a spell:

 

RALLY FOR PEACE!!!!

MCCORKLE PLACE AND FRANKLIN STREET

SHARP NOON SATURDAY MAY 9

SPEAKERS: ROBBIE BELLO STUDENT BODY PRESIDENT

AND MAYBE ABBIE HOFFMAN!!!!

COME HONOR OUR FALLEN COMRADES

KENT STATE MAY 4, 1970

A DAY THAT SHALL “LIVE IN INFAMY”!!!!

LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION!!!!

 

Under the skewed capitals was tacked a dim, grainy photograph torn raggedly out of a newspaper. It showed a girl, seventeen or eighteen, dressed in dark pants, a dark blouse with sleeves to the elbows, a light-colored kerchief tied loosely around her neck. Her long dark hair was swept back to show a high clear forehead. She was kneeling on a street pavement, her slender white arms stretched out in front of her. Her mouth was open wide, as if she were yelling, shrieking, weeping—I couldn’t tell. She faced the body of a young man stretched out limp on his stomach, an arm stiff-straight down his side, his face twisted away from the camera, cheek firm on the pavement. He was dressed in dark jeans and a light-colored windbreaker, and his thick dark hair, mashed by the pavement, was bunched high around his head. From the other side of him—some torn place I couldn’t see—a thin dark stream—blood, I knew—ran twisting over the pavement and between the girl’s bent knees and on behind her, gathering in a ragged puddle at the curbside. To the right of the two of them stood a neatly long-haired young man in a worn, light-colored blazer, an open-collared shirt, and bell-bottom jeans and boots. His face was twisted away from them, staring bewildered into the distance. Beyond the three stretched flat ground and a high chain-link fence and then the flat ground again. Students were milling about, as bewildered as the one in the blazer and bell-bottoms. Some were gazing beyond the fence—at the retreating soldiers of the National Guard (I later learned). But most were gazing numbly at the dead boy, the grieving girl.

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That clipped photograph I’d already seen but taken spare notice of. Just Wednesday afternoon, my roommate Victor Katz had slapped it hard on my desk, covering my open Fourth Georgic over which I’d been dutifully bent. Then he’d fairly screamed at me, in that self-righteous, “activist” shrill I found so irritating, “And here you can read Vir-gil [he’d spat out the g as if it were something rotten] when they’re murdering kids! Shame on you, Lockhart Titus! Shame! Shame! Shame! But at least you can redeem your prissy self, ’cause we’re rallying on Franklin tonight—and marching—permit or no permit. Let ’em cram us all in the paddy wagon—who gives a flying fuck? Anyway, you be down there, hear? Franklin and McCorkle. Eight sharp!” And before I could finish my usual, “I’m so sorry, but I’m due for a major exam tomorrow,” he’d spat, “Due—I know—like having a goddamn baby—and a re-tard at that! Fuck it!” And he’d whipped around and burst out of our room, slamming the door so hard behind him his framed Easy Rider poster (Dennis Hopper glaring from a Harley) dropped to the floor, splintering glass all the way out from under his bed. (I knew he’d just yell, “Fuck it!” when he got back and then sweep up the glass and roll up the poster and cardboard backing and dump it all into the trash barrel in the hallway and forget about it. “It’s just a thing!” he’d mutter: “Un-im-por-tant.”) But then, after the door slammed, the glass splinters inches from my feet, I could hear his big boots pounding down the hall, then fading as the stairwell door slammed shut. When there was quiet again, I merely glanced at the clipped photo, without seeing it, and whisper-sighed wearily, like a resigned old man, “It’s just not you, Lock—not your way, your life.” Then I tossed the photo flat into the waste basket beside my desk and hunched once more, dutifully—yet, deep inside, ruefully—over the Fourth Georgic.

About “that war” I had no opinion one way or the other. It was some far-away “foreign matter” that had no connection to me at all—other than the bothersome steps (I knew not what) I’d have to take to extend my draft deferment in June, or somehow get classified 4-F. In those tunnel-mirrored days, I was just a classics scholar, my mind set on summa cum laude and then graduate school at Princeton, where I’d already been accepted. Besides, I loathed—and shunned—loud, cursing “demonstrators,” especially the scruffy, long-haired “revolutionaries” with their self-righteous slogans and abrasive voices and megaphones and crudely hand-lettered posters and chanting rallies along Franklin Street.

But why hadn’t I asked Victor to move out long ago? Or why hadn’t I moved out myself and rented a cheap room in an old widow’s bungalow? For ever since we’d begun to room together, the first day of our freshman year (we’d been thrown together by lottery), I’d found him that loud, scruffy, self-righteous type I couldn’t bear. And day after day I’d had to hear him scold me in that shrill, quarrelsome way of his—for my “aloof prissiness.” Hearing him, how I’d winced with irritation inside!

But—oddly for an “activist” sort (who’d usually major in Political Science or Sociology or even Religion)—he held a very different ambition, a passion that had fiercely attracted me, in grade school and high school, and that attracted me now, a vocation for theater—for six years now my secret love, my mere fantasy-calling. A drama major, he played the leads, always the leads, in student productions—Dionysus, Orestes, Hamlet, Stanley in Streetcar, and more—all those roles so much like him: radiant with a dark and angry vitality.

And yes (and of this I was only vaguely, shamefully aware), he held other charms englowed with the first: the full sensuous lips, the straight white teeth revealed in a startling grin (rare) or a taut grimace (more often), the handsome, east-Mediterranean molding of his face, the high, thick, black curly hair, the wide, lake-brown eyes ever staring, ever piercing me, and, above all, the defined chest muscles under his T-shirts. (After rising, he did push-ups every morning, without fail.) So whenever we’d finished a falling out over my “aloof prissiness,” I’d squirm with resentment the whole night afterward and decide “with finality” to say to him next day (I’d even memorized the lines): “I’m terribly sorry, Victor, but this isn’t working out—our rooming together. Would you find another place to stay? I’ll help you search—help you move, even.” But next morning, in early dark, in the dim light of the desk lamp, I’d be bent wide-eyed and dry-mouthed over him as he slept on his back in his rumpled bed, that high shock of curly black hair spread over his coffee-stained pillow, that chest naked, hairy, defined and, when the heat was too high, coiled with the threads and tiny beads of his sweat, and I’d feel myself harden—fiercely, painfully—and so relent and “forget” to bring up “the subject” in the few minutes we gulped coffee together before rushing off to classes.

So, yes, I’d seen that photo Wednesday afternoon, and three days later, on that Saturday morning in May, a little past eight o’clock, I saw it again, tacked to the plywood sign, under the rally announcement. I was about to stride on—I was late for class—but found I couldn’t take my eyes off the kneeling girl, the shocked grief in her open mouth and outstretched arms. It came to me suddenly she was weeping in that deep, wrenched, down-in-the-lungs way I’d only—so far—heard once in my life, dredged up painfully out of myself, years ago, in circumstances that, at twenty-two, I’d long damped from memory. I gazed at her a while longer, shuddered violently, then shook my head to steady myself and swung around and strode on, faster now, over the antique brick and then, taking two at a time, up the broad stair steps of Murphy Hall and through the double swinging doors and into the small, bare vestibule. I glanced at the restroom’s double doors to my left, shook my head sharply, then lunged through a second pair of swinging doors and into the corridor and stopped, the gripped black briefcase a great weight by my side. This place, too, was empty, like the campus, and I slowed, as if entering a church, and heard my footsteps echoing. When I entered Room 204, my vast, high-ceilinged Virgil room (much too large for a class of twelve students), I saw empty school desks in neat rows and, on the blackboard, a note in Dr. Applewhite’s neat cursive, “Out of respect for the Kent State fallen, once again no class shall be conducted today. For Tuesday, May 12 (we shall meet then), translate the next fifty lines of the Fourth Georgic.”

I scanned the rows of empty desks, heard a sharp clank from a cooling radiator, then saw in my mind the grieving girl from the photograph. My stomach fell as I felt for the first time in five years (an eternity when you are twenty-two) how lonely my life was and how utterly deep a lonesomeness it had been. I remembered how, for four years nearly, I’d lived only for my cramped routine: the striding to classes, the hunched studying over the scratched, wobbly table I called “the desk,” the occasional yet ever formal, cerebral conversations with Victor over our gulps of morning coffee, the rushed, solitary meals at Lenoir Hall and the Carolina Inn, and, in the summers, (yes, summers even—what might have been bright, carefree, Frisbee-flinging Junes, Julys, Augusts, or, better, enlivening work outdoors, as a camp counselor, perhaps) my lonely job at Wilson Library: shelving books, filing cards in narrow drawers, steering by their cool, bony wrists bespectacled, owl-eyed old ladies into the stacks—to their adored books they could barely read, much less see to find. As I stood in that vast, silent classroom, I saw the past four years (except for rare, strange fits of mine this past April—and rare, strange fits of Grandfather, too—this strange, maddening April wholly uncharacteristic of both of us)—saw those four years as a life without energy or heart or connection or desire. A life without soul. Dead as that clank of the old Murphy radiator.

Lugging the heavy briefcase still, I squeezed between the empty desks to a high window flung wide open, the blinds raised as high as they could go. I stared down upon the quadrangle and saw, just by chance—a blessing? a curse?—I’ll never know for sure, even now, twenty-six years later—saw a young man, maybe eighteen, walking close beside his girlfriend, their arms curved tightly around each other’s waists. They were dressed in faded blue jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts and floppy leather sandals. They stopped midstride a moment by a great white oak and, embracing softly, tenderly, kissed each other on the mouth—a long, deep, tongue-swirling kiss, the girl sweetly groaning. Then they drew apart, slowly, and the boy reached up to brush a fly from her long dark hair. Then they walked on, slowly, hand in hand, their sandals slapping the brick pavement.

Again, I saw in my mind the grieving girl in the photograph, her mouth wrenched open, crying out the anguish in her young heart, and I felt deep down this Saturday would go different from the others—would have to go different—or I’d take a knife and rip myself open.

Knowing now—but without the words—what it was I first must do, I swung around and strode out of the classroom, kicking aside the close-spaced desks and lugging the black briefcase like a heavy wooden leg I longed to be rid of. I strode down the corridor and through the paired swinging doors and into the vestibule and stopped.

To my right was that other pair of swinging doors—metal gray, scratched everywhere with graffiti, and, as always, unlatched. Taped on the wall to the right of them was a page torn from The Daily Tar Heel, showing Victor’s photograph. I recognized the large head, the high shock of curly hair, the staring eyes and creased forehead, the thick lips—now shut tightly. The headline read, “Student Activists Arrested for Trespassing,” and the article below told how Victor and “a few activist cohorts” had broken into South Building late Wednesday night and “barricaded” themselves inside, “vowing” by megaphone they’d never come out until Chancellor Sitterson had “publicly condemned the Kent State murderers.” But the Chancellor—the article ran on—“refused to accede to the demands of criminals,” and three hours later, the State Patrol was “summoned,” the building “stormed,” and the activists “forcibly evicted.” Going limp, they were “physically carried” to Highway Patrol cars, driven to the Hillsboro jail, and released “on unsecured bond.”

I leaned close to Victor’s photograph and stared at the bulged, bloodshot eyes that, in my bewilderment of the morning, seemed to yell at me: “So you wouldn’t come to our Wednesday rally, prissy, shirking son of a bitch! I know you! Well, girl, since you’re so close now—inches away—maybe you can dredge up the Lockhart guts to enter this thy portal and stride down these thy stair steps and into the shrine you’ve been longing for years to enter and there do the other act that makes you you—what you refuse to admit is in you, a part of you, like your arm, your leg, your ‘unmentionables’ (as you’d prissy-say)—ha!—won’t even admit it to yourself. Yeah, baby, I’ve seen those Blue Boys and muscle mags of yours, sticking out from under your mattress when you hadn’t shoved them in enough. So I know what you want—what you’ve been wanting for fucking years! Besides, I’ve seen the way you stare at me early mornings—yeah, I’m awake as an owl, eyes squinted and just a-suckin’ it all in—pardon the pun, baby. So since you wouldn’t join us Wednesday night and won’t today either—noon to fuckin’ midnight if we have to!—at least long live this revolution—down there—in thy basement shrine of cum and stalls and piss and men. There’s one guy waiting at least—and about your age, too, and just as lonely and hungry as you are—waiting for a suck or a fuck or just a kiss—one deep, deep tounging kiss—so he may as well be yours, baby! And when you’re oh, yeah! satisfied—maybe even cornhole satisfied—then you can dredge up those Lockhart guts to long-leg it down to McCorkle and Franklin and join us and yell!”

Of course, his eyes—his words—were my words speaking to me in my mind, in hushed and frantic whispering: words luring me, hardening me, until I felt a wetness, a slow and sweet-painful ooze. In a clench of fear, I was about to swing around, as I’d swung around many times before, in the late nights I’d finished studying in a Murphy classroom and then left it, breathlessly, and stridden down to the vestibule and caught sight of those swinging, unlatched doors and even pushed through them and stepped—softly, slowly—down the four stair steps, lugging my briefcase, then leaned an ear against another pair of doors, likewise unlatched, gateway to the shrine of my deep heart’s need, and, leaning so, ears as alert and keen as the throbbing in my groin, heard the soft groans and moans, the moist, rhythmic slaps of balls against buttocks, then the louder groans and shrieks of orgasm. How I’d swung around, terror-clenched, and stridden back up the steps and out into the cool, clear night and yelled, “Thank God! Thank God! Thank God!”

So on that Saturday morning, I was just about to swing around again and stride back to the safe serene of my room, gripped in the years-long terror of being myself truly. (Yes, there is ever a terror, a danger, in that—blooming into the man, or woman, wholly different from the person your parents expected, knew, you would turn out to be: the terror because of your new, dizzying freedom and your whole, shuddering openness to the deep, past, scarring wounds in your own—owned—soul.) But then I caught Victor’s eyes again, the bulged, bloodshot eyes in the photograph: saw the rage and passion in them—for acting, living, loving—and I saw once more, in contrast, like a movie in fast forward, my years of stooped head and shirt collars buttoned to the neck and tightly knotted ties and the heavy, black brief briefcase and the solitary studying and all its imprisoning ennui—the isolation, the shame, the death-in-life. And, as if some strange new flame had surged up in me—a flame stranger than all my odd behaviors since this strange, maddening April—a sudden, fierce flame that seemed to pierce from Victor’s eyes, I dropped that grim briefcase like a rock, feeling the floor shudder, and heaved myself through the swinging doors and strode (no stepping “softly, slowly” now) down the four, broad stair steps and shoved through the second pair of swinging doors and into the large, echoing restroom with the six stalls along the left side and the six urinals along the right, the six stained sinks side by side at the far end of the room before me.

The only light filtered in from the four, wide, green-frosted windows above the sinks, windows without latches, not meant to be opened. The light—a dingy, washed-out green—reminded me of the light I had seen in a gas chamber once, when I was ten, and a playmate and I had decided one summer day, on a lark, to dress in suits and ties and catch the bus to south Raleigh and tour Central Prison. The light in the restroom was that same light—sick-green yet oddly alluring.

So quiet it was in that place I felt it was only I there, and I breathed disappointment and relief at the same time. Then I felt so sudden a wave of exhaustion my head swam a little. To steady it, I entered a stall at the far end of the dim room, by one of the stained sinks, quietly lowered the toilet seat and, seeing it was dry, sat on it with my pants still on. I leaned over and cupped my chin in my hand, Thinker-like. For a time I could hear only the sound of my slow breathing—sigh-like, despairing.

Then, in the stall beside me, I heard a footstep, a rustle of cloth, the long, slow rattle of a tissue holder being turned, then the faint rip of the tissue. I stared down to my right just as a thick finger protruded under the stall edge, wrapped thickly in the tissue. As if it were some strange snake charming me, luring me, I rose slowly from my toilet seat and stepped quietly out of the stall and faced the scratched metal door next to mine. I knocked once, gently, shyly, my heart pounding. There was silence a moment inside the stall, then a catch of breath and a belt buckle clinking. Then: the soft, slow sliding down of pants over thighs (jeans, surely—tight ones!), then the elastic band of briefs, the same slow sliding down, paused to be raised over knees, then the continued sliding down—over smooth calves? or hairy ones? I could only wonder. I heard then the quick, rhythmic flicks of a shirt being unbuttoned, then the shirt sliding back over shoulders, down arms, then the soft plop when it hit the tile floor. Then I heard the same smooth sliding of an undershirt being removed and the same little plop.

I squatted and, peering under the door rim, saw thick, black, scuffed hiking boots with thick, white socks mud-stained and folded tightly over the rims of the boots. These would stay on him—how I knew, I didn’t know—I just knew. (Perhaps I knew—I see now—from the Blue Boys from that “bookstore” in east Durham—the slick, musty magazines of grainy photos of “macho” exhibitionists. Yes, long before that Saturday May morning, I’d learned effeminate men weren’t the only ones “that way.” Quite the contrary!)

I stood up, and a latch slid back, sharply, echoing in the large room, and the stall door swung sharply inward, gripped all the way to metal-slap by a meaty, veined hand with thick, flat-tipped fingers and nails trimmed to the quick. The hand was all smooth on the back, not a hair anywhere. It was the huge hand of a wrestler on the team, so it seemed to me then, in my welling fantasy. Through the open door propped by a boot, I saw, even in the dim green of the stall, a crew-cut, heavily muscled guy, about my age, sitting naked on the toilet seat, his thick, shaved thighs spread wide, his thick member erect to his belly button and curving back slightly over the fringe of black hair that ran down, like some dark-alive wire, to his shaved crotch. His arms were raised, spread, elbows bent, into a biceps pose, the defined peaks raised sharp, the inner arms mapped with twisted veins. His chest, all smooth (and, oddly, pale as a sheet) was flexed into twin, slightly quivering mounds with a deep rift down the center of them. The nipples were dark pink and the size of quarters, the center tips raised into hard little cones. His neck was wrestler-thick, and, over his broad, slightly puffy, pimple-cluttered face spread a wide, gap-toothed grin with thick, salmon-colored lips. His eyes—their color invisible—were deep-set under ridged brows, their thick hair meeting above a flat, squashed-in nose. He was a guy right out of the pages of Honcho or Torso or the photo spreads in Blue Boy devoted to wrestling and S & M. For a moment, my head swam, and I thought I was back in my dorm room, alone, the door latched from inside, my eyes peering hungrily at one of those photos. But then the smell—of sharp urine mixed with Clorox—brought me back to the dim green, and I knew this guy was no grainy, fantasy-photo, but sat on that toilet realsolid—absolutely here.

I waited for him to speak, but he kept that wide, gap-toothed smile, that stare under hooded eyes, the thick arms and thick chest flexed and quivering, the member wholly erect and just beginning to ooze from the tip—a tiny, clear bubble that swelled, burst, then slid slowly, in twin curving threads, down the circumcised head.

When the silence and his grinning and the oozing and the flexing became too much to bear—from either of us—I knew (or thought I knew) what it was he wanted me to do—wanted us to do. And so with no words between us, he slid his boot from against the door, and, stepping inside the stall, I turned and closed the door all the way and latched it behind me. Then, facing him, I stepped to him as close as I could and bent my puckered lips to his.

“Naw. No girl stuff!” he yelled, his words like a slap.

I would have swung around and left right then, but I was too “hard” for that—too painful—too welling for him.

Knowing now what he really wanted, I knelt on the cool tile floor and, in surprise to myself (since I’d only read of this “act” before, in those Blue Boys bought, eyes lowered, from that “bookstore” in east Durham), I bent over his erect member and, as if I had done it all my life, gripped its base with my right fist, feeling the rock tautness, the thick, rubbery vein, the sparse stubble of shaved hair. Then I opened my mouth as wide is it could go and, cupping my lips gently around the whole head, tasted the thick rim, the rubbery firmness—smelled the heavy, male-crotch smell. And I began the slow rhythmic sliding I could only imagine, hungrily, for so many years, as I’d waited to burst into white bloom in my bed: my gripping mouth plunging down to shaft-base where my fingers were gently clamped, then sliding back up to the head and coming off it with a loud slurp! Then plunging down again, sucking up again—down and up, down and up, moistening with my spit the whole, hard, curved-back shaft, all the while hearing his low, prolonged groan and then a hoarse, deep “Yeah, oh, yeeeeeee-ah!

I must have pumped a minute before he came, groaning, in a thick, warm jet on my tongue—a taste sweet, yet slightly astringent, like the smell of a gym or an indoor pool. Suddenly, silent now, he came twice more in my mouth, and I swallowed, savoring each warm, bittersweet burst, while under my fly my own member stood, arcing back—pained, taut, oozing.

“Taste good, yeah!” he whispered, and he reached out a meaty hand and felt my crouch, the bulge and the tautness. “Feels like you’re ready for me, baby!”

I slid my mouth off him and wiped away the single strand of mixed saliva and semen. Then, as if in a dance, we rose at the same time, slowly, gracefully—I from my knees, he from his toilet seat, and he turned around and knelt and pressed the palms of his huge hands tight to the sides of the toilet tank and thrust his rear hard upward. I saw two round, taut glutes, as smooth and pale as the rest of him, and, between the glutes, the darker, hairless cleft of his anus. (Yes, he’d shaved that, too.)

“Don’t worry, baby, I’ve douched,” he said aloud, his voice lilting suddenly, girl-like, on the “douched.”

I saw that dark crevice of his anus inviting me, and, from my years of Blue Boys, from my recent weeks of intent listening outside the restroom doors—to the breathy groans, the rhythmic slapping of balls against buttocks—I knew, once more, exactly what to do: how to perform the whole lust-crazed, and, at that time in my life, shamefully relished ritual.

Quickly, breathlessly, I unbuckled my belt and shoved down pants and underwear to my shoes. Three or four times I fingered saliva off my tongue and onto my cock, spreading it thick around the taut head and down the shaft, and then, kneeling again and gripping it, I began to slide it slowly into him. I heard his breath catch, and I whispered, “Slower? Am I hurting you?” And he cried out, in pain, “No! Fuck me hard, baby! Make me bleed!”

I pushed all the way in, felt the soft-hard doughnut in him that kept me from going deeper, heard him shriek, “Aw yeeeeeee-ah!”—and cried out myself, “Oh, God, Jesus!” all the while wondering in my mind, Is this Ihere, now, doing this, yelling this?

I could not recognize myself. This couldn’t be I. And for a moment I felt as if I, the real I, were standing back against the stall door, watching the whole scene, dispassionately, my elbows folded: two young men—one tall and lanky, the other his thick and muscular opposite—fucking like dogs, or, to put it literarily, performing the sodomy to which Dante assigned a whole circle of Hell, a whole ring of Purgatory.

And then I—this not-I, this not-Lockhart Elledge—must have shed, slid off, shook loose—I don’t know how to say it—all those celibate, armored, held-in years like layer upon layer of old numbed and leathered skin. For, like a seasoned yet still hungry lover, I leaned upon his broad back ridged with muscle, clamped my skinny arms around his thick shoulders, felt in my elbows’ hollows the hard, bunched curves of his deltoids: yes, I clamped—hugged—him so hard I trembled, and began to pump into him as hard as I could, in and back, in and back, in and back, taking care to stay in him, never slide out of him. (“Seasoned yet hungry”—there were no other words.)

I bent my head down and around him, saw his meaty grip pumping his own member, grown stiff again, and after I’d pumped a minute maybe, I came in a huge relieving burst, filling him full (or so it seemed, in my wild fantasy), and right after, thick jets of white flew out of him, splattering the toilet bowl.

While he groaned loudly, echoing in the vast room, I kept silent, thinking—no, longing—it would happen: Yes, he—the old fart—he’s come to the swinging doors now, seeking me here, knowing, somehow, exactly where he’ll find me and what I’ll be doing, and now he’s pushing himself slowly, weakly through the swinging doors and entering the vast, urine-smelling room, stopping a moment to adjust old eyes to the dim green. He steps forward now, slowly, in his old man’s listing gait. He steps, knowing, to the next-to-last stall from the row of sinks. Now, with a veined hand, he pushes the stall door, but it won’t open, so he leans his spider-veined face to a slit between the door hinges, and, yes, even with his old eyes, squinting till they tear, he sees me inside—me, his only grandson, the Professor Classicus Futurus, the family scion of “highest hopes” and “limitless expectations” (as he wrote me on a postcard once—years ago). Yes, the stuck-up old fart, he sees me, this “scion,” now kneeling on dirty semen-stained tile, locked inside the bowels of some “common,” pea-brained athlete, my arms tight as a lover’s—a pervert’s, rather—around the crudely overpumped shoulders—me, the sole, fertile male “sustainer” of the Woodall line, pumping his last, thick, white burst as crudely as one dog into another, while the crude, “common,” pea-brained athlete cries out, “Fuck me hard, baby! Make me bleed!”

(But, of course, the old man never enters this dim green and never will. He now stands erect and elegant beside the Old Well, old, watery blue eyes fixed across Cameron and down the wide, brick walkway, waiting . . . )

When I filled the wrestler all I could, I felt at once the old emptiness and melancholy after orgasm, then the old, filling shame, and I thought, angrily, No, Lock, you’re not that. You should know better! You’re better than that! How I hate that! It’s not your direction! Can’t you realize? Can’t you learn? Just like your whoring father—never could learn!—and shot dead in a Phenix City whorehouse before you were born or when I was just a baby two years old, I can’t remember! (And I couldn’t remember, not then.)

I slid out of him, quickly, and without even wiping the shit off me, I stood and jerked up my underwear and dress pants and buckled my belt and swung around and unlatched the door and rushed out of the stall. As I strode to the swinging doors, I heard him shout, “Hey, what’s the rush, darlin’? You’re good, baby! Nice big dick! But you got to learn to hold it longer—fuck me till I bleed! So how ’bout tonight? Say nine? Same place? Same stall? I’ll be waitin’ on yuh, pumpin’ for yuh. And maybe we’ll do the girl-stuff. Your lips—they pretty sexy, too!”

He went on longer—hoarsely, longingly, desperately (or so it seemed to me then)—but I could no longer hear him, since I’d left that dirty, urine-stinking room, that dim, nauseous green which—especially now, fiercely—called to mind the gas chamber I had seen when I was ten and dressed in a suit, in the summertime.

Beyond the second pair of doors I gripped up the heavy, black briefcase and strode out of the vestibule and into the sunny air, shoving all that pervert- stuff—that not-Lockhart Elledge—behind me.

But when I came within sight of the Playmakers and saw, in the oak-shaded distance, my Grandfather Woodall standing beside the Old Well, peering just now at his big pocket watch, I tasted the sticky semen on the roof of my mouth, smelled the vile shit welling up out of my crotch and the sharp sweat from my perverted exertions, saw the new ragged wrinkles and creases in my newly pressed pants and starched shirt, and I knew I could not go meet him now and grip his proffered hand—not in this dishevelment—this not-me.

So I sneaked—there’s no other word—around the other end of the Playmakers, the portico end, and entered Old East by a side door and strode up the three flights of stairway and into my room and shut the door behind me. I dropped the briefcase on the bed and went to the shut window before my desk and looked down at the Old Well and saw him standing beside it, gray Homburg held out with both veined hands in front of him, his blue gaze fixed across Cameron at the brick walkway between South Building and the Playmakers Theater. Seeing him so erect and elegant there, the sun just now glowing him full, from his silver crown to the shining black tips of his shoes—and remembering, too, how it had gone between us every Saturday morning since the twenty-eighth of March—the whole blessed, because expected, ritual!—and wanting—longing—that it should come round so again, I saw it was five before nine by the clock on my desk, and I thought, Yes, if I hurried, I’d have time to shower and change clothes and rinse my mouth and go out the side door and come around the Playmakers and stride to him, carrying the heavy briefcase—I, the Lockhart-TitusElledge-Classics-Man he’s always known me to be (for four years anyway)—my right hand, as I’ll approach him, stretched out to grip his proffered one. So—yes—I can still make it all come round again, and it’ll be as if all that—in that sick-green restroom—never happened—all that “pervert stuff.” (So I called it then, twenty-six years ago, in my innocence, my ignorance).

But, again, I tasted the semen, felt it sticky and sordid on my palate, like rotten glue, and, again, I smelled the shit welling in sharp waves from out of my crotch, and I remembered that girl in the photograph, her mouth wrenched wide in grief, remembered the empty campus and the canceled class and Dr. Applewhite’s neat cursive on the blackboard, remembered the big peace rally planned for tonight: knew McCorkle Place was already being filled with herds of long-haired, patches-jeaned “peaceniks” and leather-goods hawkers and ponytailed technicians setting up podiums and speakers and amplifiers and microphones and the white, portable toilets that, even empty, always seemed to spread their stink of urine. And I knew at noon Grandfather and I, in our dress clothes and ties, would have to cross that noisy, smelly quadrangle on our way to Harry’s and then cross it again on our way back, Grandfather to his old Chrysler, I to my dorm room in Old East. And I knew that night even my shut windows could not muffle the vulgar rock music from even as far away as McCorkle—could not muffle the harsh ranting of the speakers and the ugly cheers and the insipid slogan so popular since a recent speech of Nixon’s—that vulgar chant and response: “What do we want? [Pause.] PEACE!” [Pause.] “When do we want it?” [Pause.] NOW!”

And I knew, my mind still cluttered by the daylong distraction—and, yes, my shame still lingering from the morning hour in the Murphy Hall restroom—I’d rise irritably from the Fourth Georgic now and again all through the noisy evening and sweating miserably in the overwarm room, pace about, fingers in ears, and shout, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up, faggots!” And then, oddly, to calm myself, I knew I’d step, ears still plugged, to the window above my bed, shut tight, like the other, and leaning sideways, stare down on the pinewood of the sill and read once more the mysterious graffiti—the “inscription,” rather—carved carefully, it seemed, by a small pocket knife: that “CARPE DIEM, QUAM MINIMUM CREDULA POSTERO. BUT NOT FOR ME. NOT ANY MORE. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. I THINK IT’S FIVE. I’LL ADD ANOTHER. NEVER. 8 MAY 19—” For four years nearly, I’d often wondered about it: Who’d carved it? And why so carefully? It must have taken him hours. And what was he thinking—feeling? In what year was it carved? It looked old, was all I could surmise from the faded and shallow cuts of the high, neat, perfectly aligned all-capitals, polished over by the years—decades!—of janitors. (Victor never noticed it, and I never brought it to his attention. It was my odd, private prayer, meant for my eyes only—and for some deep, unknown place in my soul.)

And I knew that at nine that night the wrestler would be awaiting me, tempting me, naked on his toilet seat, in that dim-green death chamber in the basement of Murphy Hall.

Remembering—and foreseeing—all this prickly and black disorder distorting my for so long serene and bright and studious Saturdays, I realized, with a breath-clench of fear, that I could not stay in this room today and sit all daylight and into the night (perhaps grabbing a bite at Lenoir) before my open Fourth Georgic and translate those suddenly tiresome lines, all the while tasting the residue of that common hunk’s semen in my mouth which I knew would take hours to clear, no matter how often I’d rise to go out to the restroom and rinse and gargle. No, in fact, I wouldn’t—couldn’t—stay anywhere else on campus or even in town.

But where would I go—escape? I dreaded a bus ride or a hitchhike home (where, since my last visit on March 21, a Saturday, I had decided never to visit again, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter and birthdays—and only then to satisfy my mother’s constant pleading—“for my sake,” she had whined, “and for the family.”) In fact, ever since that Saturday, just the thought of home—the being there—depressed me: my always slightly chill upstairs bedroom, my Georgics open on the rickety, fake-pine, little-boy’s desk by the red-curtained window—desk and curtains I had known, in the despair of familiarity, since I was five or six.

So—Where? Where? I flailed inwardly.

My eyes on Grandfather glowing in full sun now, like a classic statue, I saw in my mind, at first in far, aching distance, at the beginning of a long, straight, dirt drive flanked by tall pines, the sunlit, white façade of an antebellum house, the middle third of it a double portico of balustrades and four Ionic columns. Under a green, low-pitched roof shone a triangular pediment with a little arched window in the center—a third eye, if you will, winking back the sun. As I came closer, I saw, near the left end of the portico, a huge, old oak in full leaf, its thick branches arcing over the drive. A white-brick chimney stood high at each corner of the great house. Closer still, I saw the large upper and lower double windows on each side of the porticos, their green shutters now attached, but closed. And I saw, in the center of the lower portico, the broad, white, intricately molded double door, just now opening inward, inviting me . . .

I saw a great serenity in that place I had nearly forgotten ever was, and, with its white-glowing image in my mind, its façade nearly like that of a temple at Paestum or Delphi, I saw a refuge—a soul restorative—where just by breathing of the pine-winey floorboards and the remnant leaves of tobacco hung every September in one of the upper rooms, I could cleanse away all my sick-green shame and black distraction of the morning. And I decided that this Saturday I’d at last, like some long-withholding lover, surrender myself and, hard upon our ritual grip, say—cry out even, like a breathless boy: “Yes, Grandfather, I’ll drive down with you today. We can stop by Bentonville and tour the battlefield and then visit Mrs. Wooten in Rosewood and then meet Uncle Merrick on the lower portico, and when the papers are signed and you own your dream (or nearly own it) [I knew the closing might take weeks to complete], we can stop by Ava Gardner’s school—I’ve never seen it—the inside of it—and, if we have the time, that old church your grandfather Blow-Your-Horn-Billy built for the colored people—I’ve never seen it either—the inside.” (I had seen the interior—but just once—and the ten years since had damped the episode from memory—to which I’ll come in due time.)

So I had planned to say to him, in a relieving, longing burst. But first I had to clean myself—shower and scrub—then change into clean, pressed dress slacks and starched white shirt and tie, had to rinse and gargle as hard as I could.

I hurried through all of it—so fast I forgot to pack laundry and clean clothes, forgot even my books and briefcase. In ten minutes, I was down the stairs and out the front door, walking slowly and quietly toward him, arms swinging loosely. I came up behind him, not quite on tiptoe, and said right out not the long, boyishly breathless speech I’d planned—wanted—but the simple, almost perfunctory, “Dee-di, does Uncle Merrick know we’re on our way?” (“Dee-di”—this was the first time I’d called him that since I was twelve. For years—the few times I’d seen him—I’d addressed him as “Grandfather,” even to his face, or, jocularly, as “Dr. Claude Alexander Woodall, Medical Man.”)

He gave a little jerk of surprise and turned around, listing slightly, and faced me and, holding his Homburg in his left hand, stretched out his right. I gripped it, dutifully, and then, as he set the Homburg on his head, straightening it just so, his face began to flush with pleasure, and his eyes brightened behind the thick glasses, and he said, in his old voice laced with catarrh, “So you’ve at last received a break in your hard studying, Dr. Lockhart—but—why—you’re supposed to—” He waved a veined hand back toward South Building and the Playmakers, my usual route to him.

“My class was canceled,” I said. “You know—all the peace people and that sort of thing.”

He nodded, chuckling, “Yessir,” and, tapping his foot in rhythm, softly chanted, “‘All we want is peace, peace, peace.’” Then he laughed, “Heh heh, all that carrying on.” I laughed with him, conspiratorially: all that common, herd behavior was beneath us.

Then he cleared his throat and said, “My car’s in the Playmakers lot. We can be down in Klan Country in an hour and a half.” Here he laughed at some private joke and whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, “Yessir, your old Uncle Merrick, he was one of ’em, maybe still is.”

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