Lee's Writing Journey

May 26, 2011

Common Ferrell, A Novella

Filed under: literary fiction — Lee Titus Elliott @ 3:20 pm
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For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.




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.


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.


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!”


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.


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.


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