SINCE HE HAD RETURNED FROM KOREA HE AND HIS WIFE LIVED in mutual disregard, which turned three times a month into animal passion then diminished on the sharp incline to hatred, at last collecting in time into silent equal fatigue. His face was ordinarily rimmed with a short white beard and his lips frozen like those of a perch, such a face as you see in shut-ins and winos. But he did not drink much anymore, he simply often forgot his face as he did that of his wife in the blue house behind his store. He felt clever in his beard and believed that his true expressions were hidden.
Years ago when he was a leader of the Scouts he had cut way down on his drink. It seemed he could not lead the Scouts without going through their outings almost full drunk. He would get too angry at particular boys. Then in a hollow while they ran ahead planting pine trees one afternoon he was thrust by his upper bosom into heavy painful sobs.
He could not stand them anymore and he quit the Scouts and the bonded whiskey at the same time. Now and then he would snatch a dram and return to such ecstasy as was painful and barbed with sorrow when it left.
This man Tuck last year stood behind the counter heedless of his forty-first birthday when two lazy white girls came in and raised their T-shirts then ran away. He worried they had mocked him in his own store and only in a smaller way was he certain he was still desirable and they could not help it, minxes. But at last he was more aggrieved over this than usual and he felt stuffed as with hot meat breaking forth unsewed at the seams. Yes girls, but through his life he had been stricken by young men too and became ruinously angry at them for teasing him with their existence. It was not clear whether he wished to ingest them or exterminate them or yet again, wear their bodies as a younger self, all former prospects delivered to him again. They would come in his life and then suddenly leave, would they, would they now? Particular Scouts, three of them, had seemed to know their own charms very well and worked him like a gasping servant in their behalf. Or so it had felt, mad wrath at the last, the whiskey put behind him.
The five boys played in the Mendenhall pool room for a few hours, very seriously, like international sportsmen in a castle over a bog, then they went out on the sidewalks mimicking the denizens of this gritty burg who stood and ambled about like escaped cattle terrified of sudden movements from any quarter. The boys were from the large city some miles north. When they failed at buying beer even with the big hairy Walthall acting like Peter Gunn they didn’t much care anyway because they had the peach wine set by growing more alcoholic per second. Still, they smoked and a couple of them swore long histrionic oaths in order to shake up a meek druggist. Then they got in the blue Chevrolet Bel Air and drove toward their camp on the beach of the Strong River. They had big hearts and somehow even more confidence because there were guns in the car. They hoped some big-nosed crimp-eyed seed would follow them but none did. Before the bridge road took them to the water they stopped at the store for their legitimate country food. They had been here many times but they were all some bigger now. They did not know the name of the man in there and did not want to know it.
Bean, Arden Pal, Lester Silk, Walthall, and Swanly were famous to one another. None of them had any particular money or any special girl. Swanly, the last in the store, was almost too good-looking, like a Dutch angel, and the others felt they were handsome too in his company as the owner of a pet of great beauty might feel, smug in his association. But Swanly was not vain and moved easily about, graceful as a tennis player from the era of Woodrow Wilson, though he had never played the game.
From behind the cash register on his barstool Tuck from his hidden whitened fuzzy face watched Swanly without pause. On his fourth turn up the aisle Swanly noticed this again and knew certainly there was something wrong.
Mister, you think I’d steal from you?
What are you talking about?
You taking a picture of me?
I was noticing you’ve grown some from last summer.
You’d better give me some cigarettes now so we can stamp that out.
The other boys giggled.
I’m just a friendly man in a friendly store, said Tuck.
The smothered joy of hearing this kept the rest of them shaking the whole remaining twenty minutes they roamed the aisles. They got Viennas, sardines, Pall Malls, Winstons, Roi-Tans, raisins; tamales in the can, chili and beans, peanut butter, hoop and rat cheese, bologna, salami, white bread, mustard, mayonnaise, Nehi, root beer, Orange Crush; carrots, potatoes, celery, sirloin, Beech-Nut, a trotline, chicken livers, chocolate and vanilla Moon Pies, four pairs of hunting socks, batteries, kitchen matches. On the porch Swanly gave Walthall the cigarettes because he did not smoke.
Swanly was a prescient boy. He hated that their youth might end. He saw the foul gloom of job and woman ahead, all the toting and fetching, all the counting of diminished joys like sheep with plague; the arrival of beard hair, headaches, the numerous hospital trips, the taxes owed and the further debts, the mean and ungrateful children, the washed and waxen dead grown thin and like bad fish heaved into the outer dark. He had felt his own beauty drawn from him in the first eruption of sperm, an accident in the bed of an aunt by marriage whose smell of gardenia remained wild and deep in the pillow. Swanly went about angry and frightened and much saddened him.
Walthall lived on some acreage out from the city on a farm going quarter speed with peach and pecan trees and a few head of cattle. Already he had made his own peach brandy. Already he had played viola with high seriousness. Already he had been deep with a “woman” in Nashville and he wrote poems about her in the manner of E. A. Poe at his least in bonging rhymes. In every poem he expired in some way and he wanted the “woman” to watch this. Already he could have a small beard if he wanted, and he did, and he wanted a beret too. He had found while visiting relatives around the community of Rodney a bound flock of letters in an abandoned house, highly erotic missiles cast forth by a swooning inmate of Whitfield, the state asylum, to whatever zestfully obliging woman once lived there. These he would read to the others once they were outside town limits and then put solemnly away in a satchel where he also kept his poetry. A year ago Walthall was in a college play, a small atmospheric part but requiring much dramatic amplitude even on the streets thereafter. Walthall bought an ancient Jaguar sedan for nothing, and when it ran, smelling like Britain on the skids or the glove of a soiled duke, Walthall sat in it aggressive in his leisure as he drove about subdivisions at night looking in windows for naked people. Walthall was large but not athletic and his best piece of acting was collapsing altogether as if struck by a deer rifle from somewhere. For Walthall reckoned he had many enemies, many more than even knew of his existence.
Swanly was at some odds with Walthall’s style. He would not be instructed in ways of the adult world, he did not like talking sex. Swanly was cowlicked and blithe in his boy ways and he meant to stay that way. He was hesitant even to learn new words. Of all the boys. Swanly most feared and loathed Negroes. He had watched the Negro young precocious in their cursing and dancing and he abhorred this. The only role he saw fit in maturity was that of a blond German cavalry captain. Among Walthall’s recondite possessions, he coveted only the German gear from both world wars. Swanly would practice with a monocle and cigarette and swagger stick. It was not that he opposed those of alien races so much but that he aspired to the ideal of the Nordic horseman with silver spurs whom he had never seen. The voices of Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis pleased him greatly. On the other hand he was careful never to eat certain foods he viewed as negroid, such as Raisinets at the movies. There was a special earnest purity about him.
The boys had been to Florida two years ago in the 1954 Bel Air owned by the brother of Arden Pal. They were stopped in Perry by a kind patrolman who thought they looked like runaway youth. But his phone call to Pal’s home put it right. They went rightly on their way to the sea but for a while everybody but Swanly was depressed they were taken for children. It took them many cigarettes and filthy songs to get their confidence back. Uh found your high school ring in muh baby’s twat, sang Walthall with the radio. You are muh cuntshine, muh only cuntshine, they sang to another tune. From shore to shore AM teenage castrati sang about this angel or that, chapels and heaven. It was a most spiritual time. But Swanly stared fixedly out the window at the encroaching palms, disputing the sunset with his beauty, his blond hair a crown over his forehead. He felt bred out of a golden mare with a saber in his hand, hair shocked back in stride with the wind. Other days he felt ugly, out of an ass, and the loud and vulgar world too soon pinched his face.
The little river rushed between the milky bluffs like cola. Pal dug into a clay bank for a sleeping grotto, his tarp over it. He placed three pictures of draped bohemian women from the magazine Esquire on the hard clay walls and under them he placed his flute case, pistol, and Mossberg carbine with telescope mounted there beside two candles in holes, depicting high adventure and desire, the grave necessities of men.
The short one called Lester Silk was newly arrived to the group. He was the veteran army brat of several far-flung bases. Now his retired father was going to seed through smoke and ceaseless hoisting on his own petard of Falstaff beers. Silk knew much of weapons and spoke often of those of the strange sex, men and women, who had preyed the perimeters of his youth. These stories were vile and wonderful to the others yet all the while they felt that Silk carried death in him in some old way. He was not nice. Others recalled him as only the short boy, big nose and fixed leer–nothing else. His beard was well on and he seemed ten years beyond the rest.
Bean’s father, a salesman, had fallen asleep on a highway cut through a bayou and driven off into the water. The police called from Louisiana that night. All of the boys were at the funeral. Right after it Bean took his shotgun out hunting meadowlarks. The daughter of his maid was at the house with her mother helping with the funeral buffet. She was Bean’s age. She told Bean it didn’t seem nice him going hunting directly after his father’s funeral. He told her she was only a darkie and to shut up, he made all the rules now. Her feelings were hurt and her mother hugged her, crying, as they watched young Bean go off over the hill to the pine meadows with his chubby black mutt Spike. Bean was very thin now. He had a bad complexion. He ran not on any team but only around town and the gravel roads through the woods. Almost every hour out of school he ran, looking ahead in forlorn agony and saying nothing to anybody. He was The Runner, the boy with a grim frown. When he ran he had wicked ideas on girls. They were always slaves and hostages. His word could free them or cause them to go against all things sacred. Or he would leave them. Don’t leave, don’t leave. I’ll do anything. But I must go. After the death of his father he began going to the police station when he was through with his run. He begged to go along on a call. He hoped somebody would be shot. He wished he lived in a larger city where there was more crime. When he got a wife he would protect her and then she would owe him a great deal. Against all that was sacred he would prevail on her, he might be forced to tie her up in red underwear and attach a yoke to her. Bean was vigilant about his home and his guns were loaded. He regarded trespass as a dire offense and studied the tire marks and footprints neighbor and stranger made on the verge of his lawn. Bean’s dog was as hair-triggered as he was, ruffing and flinching around the house like a creature beset by trespass at all stations. Both of them protected Bean’s mother to distraction. She hauled him to and fro to doctors for his skin and in the waiting room thin Bean would rise to oppose whoever might cross his mother. Of all the boys, Bean most loved Swanly.
Three boys, Bean among them, waded out into a gravel pool now, a pool that moved heavy in its circumference but was still and deep in its center like a woman in the very act of conception. The water moved past them into a deep pit of sand under the bridge and then under the bluffs on either side, terra-cotta besieged by black roots. An ageless hermit bothersome to no one lived in some kind of tin house in the bank down the way a half mile and they intended to worry him. It was their fourth trip to the Strong and something was urgent now as they had to make plans. They were not at peace and were hungry for an act before the age of school job money and wife. The bittersweet Swanly named it school job money whore, and felt ahead of him the awful tenure in which a man shuffles up and down the lanes of a great morgue. Swanly’s father was a failure except for Swanly himself who was beautiful past the genes of either parent. He worshiped Swanly, idolized him, and heeded him, all he said. He watched the smooth lad live life in his walk, talk, and long silent tours in the bathtub. He believed in Swanly as he did not himself or in his wife. It was Swanly’s impression there was no real such thing as maturity, no, people simply began acting like grown-ups, the world a farce of playing house. Swanly of all the others most wanted an act, standing there to his waist in the black water.
The storekeeper Tuck knew for twenty years about the clothesline strung from the shed at the rear of the yard of the house behind the store. The T-bar stood at the near end with high clover at its base. Yet that night two weeks ago. His throat still hurt and had a red welt across it. He ran through his lawn and necked himself on the wire. Blind in the dark in a fury. What was it? All right. He had given himself up to age but although he did not like her he thought his wife would hold out against it. After all she was ten years younger. But he saw she was growing old in the shoulders and under the eyes, all of a sudden. That might cause pity, but like the awful old she had begun clutching things, having her things, this time a box of Red Hots she wouldn’t share, clutching it to her titties, this owning things more and more, small things and big, when he saw that he took a run across the yard, hard on baked mud, apoplectic, and the wire brought him down, a cutlass out of the dark. Now he was both angry and puny, riven and welted and all kind of ointment sticky at his shirt collar. It was intolerable especially now he’d seen the youth, oh wrath of loss, fair gone sprite. His very voice was bruised, the wound deep to the thorax.
Swanly, out in the river in old red shorts, was not a spoiled child. His father intended to spoil him but Swanly would not accept special privileges. He did not prevail by his looks or by his pocket money, a lot at hand always compared with the money of his partners, and he was not soft in any way so far that they knew. He could work, had worked, and he gave himself chores. He went to church occasionally, sitting down and eyed blissfully by many girls, many much older than Swanly. Even to his sluttish pill-addicted mother he was kind, even when she had some pharmaceutical cousin over on the occasion of his father being on the road. He even let himself be used as an adornment of her, with his mild temper and sad charm. She would say he would at any moment be kidnapped by Hollywood. And always he would disappear conveniently to her and the cousin as if he had never been there at all except as the ghost in the picture she kept.
Walthall with his German Mauser was naked in the pool. He had more hair than the others and on his chin the outline of a goatee. On his head was a dusty black beret and his eyes were set downriver at a broad and friendly horizon. But he would go in the navy. There was no money for college right away. His impressions were quicker and deeper than those of the others. By the time he knew something, it was in his roots as a passion. He led all aspirants in passion for music, weapons, girls, books, drinking, and wrestling, where operatic goons in mode just short of drag queens grappled in the city auditorium. Walthall, an actor, felt the act near too. He was a connoisseur and this act would be most delicious. He called the hermit’s name.
Sunballs! Sunballs! hefting the Mauser, Lester Silk just behind him a foot shorter and like a wet rat with his big nose. Swanly stood in patient beatitude but with an itch on, Arden Pal and Bean away at the bluff. You been wantin” it, Sunballs! Been beggin” for it, called Silk.
Come get some! cried Bean, at that distance to Walthall a threatening hood ornament.
None could be heard very far in the noise of the river.
Tuck, who had followed in his car, did hear them from the bridge.
What could they want with that wretch Sunballs? he imagined.
He was not without envy of the hermit. What a mighty wound to the balls it must take to be like that, that hiding shuffling thing, harmless and beholden to no man. Without woman, without friend, without the asking of lucre, without all but butt-bare necessity. Haunt of the possum, coon, and crane, down there. Old Testament specters with birds all over them eating honey out of roadkill. Too good for men. Sunballs was not that old, either. But he was suddenly angry at the man. Above the fray, absent, out, was he? Well.
Tuck knelt beneath a cluster of poison sumac on the rim of the bluff. He saw the three naked in the water. There was Swanly in the pool, the blond hair, the tanned skin. Who dared give a south Mississippi pissant youth such powerful flow and comeliness? Already Tuck in his long depressed thinking knew the boy had no good father, his home would stink of distress. He had known his type in the Scouts, always something deep-warped at home with them, beauty thrown up out of manure like. The mother might be beautiful but this lad had gone early and now she was a tramp needed worship by any old bunch of rags around a pecker. A boy like that you had to take it slow but not that much was needed to replace the pa, in his dim criminal weakness. You had to show them strength then wait until possibly that day, that hour, that hazy fog of moment when thought required act, the kind hand of Tuck in an instant of transfer to all nexus below the navel, no more to be denied than those rapids they’re hollering down, nice lips on the boy too.
You had to show them something, then be patient.
They hated Sunballs? I could thrash Sunballs. I can bury him, he thought. I am their man.
Tuck was angered against the hermit now but sickened too. The line of pain over his thorax he attributed now directly to the hermit. The hermit was confusion.
I am a vampire I am a vampire, Tuck said aloud. They shook me out of my nest and I can’t be responsible for what might happen.
He knew the boy would be back at his store.
The storekeeper’s sons were grown and fattish and ugly. They married and didn’t even leave the community, were just up the road there nearly together. They both of them loved life and the parts hereabouts and he could not forgive them for it.
The boy would know something was waiting for him. It would take time but the something was nearly here. There had been warmth in their exchange, not all yet unpromising.
That night in another heat his wife spoke back to him. You ain’t wanted it like this in a long time. What’s come over you. Now you be kindly be gentle you care for what you want, silly fool.
As he spent himself he thought, Once after Korea there was a chance for me. I had some fine stories about Pusan, Inchon, and Seoul, not all of them lies. That I once vomited on a gook in person. Fear of my own prisoner in the frozen open field there, not contempt as I did explain. But still. There was some money, higher education maybe, big house in downtown Hawaii. But I had to put it all down that hole, he said pulling back from the heat of his spouse. The fever comes on you, you gasp like a man run out of the sea by stingrays. Fore you know it you got her spread around you like a tree and fat kids. You married a tree with a nest in it blown and rained on every which way. You a part of the tree too with your arms out legs out roots down ain’t going nowhere really even in an automobile on some rare break to Florida, no you just a rolling tree.
But you get some scot-free thief of time like Sunballs, he thinks he don’t have to pay the toll. You know somebody else somewhere is paying it for him, though. This person rooted in his tree sweats the toll for Sunballs never you doubt it. That wretch with that joker’s name eases in the store wanting to know whether he’s paying sales tax, why is this bit of bait up two cents from last time? Like maybe I ought to take care of it for him. Like he’s a double agent don’t belong to no country. Times twenty million you got the welfare army, biggest thing ever invaded this USA, say gimme the money, the ham, the cheese, the car, the moon, worse than Sherman’s march. The babysitting, the hospital, throw in a smoking Buick, and bad on gas mileage if you please. Thanks very much kiss my ass. Army leech out this country white and clay-dry like those bluffs over that river down there. Pass a man with an honest store and friendly like me, what you see is a man sucked dry, the suckee toting dat barge. The suckers drive by thirteen to the Buick like a sponge laughing at you with all its mouths, got that music too, mouths big from sucking the national tit sing it out like some banshee rat speared in the jungle.
Tuck had got himself in a sleepy wrath but was too tired to carry it out and would require a good short sleep, never any long ones anymore, like your old self don’t want to miss any daylight, to lift himself and resume. That Swanly they called him, so fresh he couldn’t even handle a Pall Mall.
There he was, the boy back alone like Tuck knew he would be. Something had happened between them. No wonder you kept climbing out of bed with this thing in the world this happy thing all might have come to.
It ain’t pondering or chatting or wishing it’s only the act, from dog to man to star all nature either exploding or getting ready to.
Tuck had seen a lot of him in the pool, the move of him. This one would not play sports. There was a lean sunbrowned languor to him more apt for man than boy games. It went on beyond what some thick coach could put to use.
A sacred trust prevailing from their luck together would drive them beyond all judgment, man and adolescent boy against every ugly thing in that world, which would mean nothing anymore. He would look at fresh prospects again the same as when he the young warrior returned to these shores in “53. It would not matter how leeched and discommoded he had been for three decades. Put aside, step to joy.
You boys getting on all right sleeping over there? Tuck asked Swanly.
Where’d you hear we slept anywhere? The boy seemed in a trance between the aisles, the cans around him assorted junk of lowly needs. His hair was out of place from river, wind, and sand. Smears of bracken were on his pants knees, endearing him almost too much to Tuck. My dead little boyhood, Tuck almost sobbed.
I mean is nature being kind to you.
The boy half looked at him, panting a bit, solemn and bothered.
Are you in the drama club, young man?
You sell acting lessons here at the store?
Good. Very quick. Somebody like you would be.
You don’t know me at all.
Fourth year you’ve been at the river. I’ve sort of watched you grow at the store here, in a way. This time just a little sad, or mad. We got troubles?
We. Swanly peeked straight at him then quickly away.
When I was a little guy, Tuck spoke in his mind, I held two marbles in my hand just the blue-green like his eyes. It was across the road under those chinaberries and us tykes had packed the clay down in a near perfect circle. Shot all day looking at those pretty agates. Too good to play with. My fist was all sweaty around them. I’d almost driven them through my palm. The beauty of the balls. There inside my flesh. Such things drive you to a church you never heard of before, worship them.
I have no troubles, the boy said. No we either. No troubles.
You came back to the real world.
I thought I was in it.
You’ve come back all alone.
Outside there’s a sign that says store, mister.
Down at the river pirates playhouse, you all.
Where you get your reality anyway? said the boy. Gas oil tobacco bacon hooks?
You know, wives can really be the gate of hell. They got that stare. They want to lock you down, get some partner to stoop down to that tiny peephole look at all the little shit with them. If you can forgive my language, ladies.
So you would be standing there ‘mongst the Chesterfields seeing all the big?
Tuck did not take this badly. He liked the wit.
I might be. Some of us see the big things behind all the puny.
The hermit Sunballs appeared within the moment, the screen door slamming behind him like a shot. He walked on filthy gym shoes of one aspect with the soil of his wanderings, ripped up like the roots of it. You would not see such annealed textures at the ankles of a farmer, not this color of city gutters back long past. All of him the color of putty almost, as your eyes rose. The clothes vaporish like bus exhaust. The fingers whiter in the air like a potter’s but he had no work and you knew this instantly. He held a red net sack for oranges, empty. It was not known why he had an interesting name like Sunballs. You would guess the one who had named him was the cleverer. Nothing in him vouched for parts solar. More perhaps of a star gray and dead or old bait or of a sex organ on the drowned. Hair thicket of red rust on gray atop him.
He poured over the tin tops in the manner of a devout scholar. The boy watched him in fury. It was the final waste product of all maturity he saw, a creature fired-out full molded by the world, the completed grown-up.
Whereas with an equal fury the storekeeper saw the man as the final insult to duty, friendless, wifeless, jobless, motherless, stateless, and not even black. He could not bear the nervous hands of the creature over his goods, arrogant discriminating moocher. He loathed the man so much a pain came in his head and his heartbeat had thrown a sweat on him. The presence of the boy broke open all gates and he loathed in particular with a hatred he had seldom known, certainly never in Korea, where people wearing gym shoes and smelling of garlic shot at him. Another mouth, Tuck thought, seeking picking choosing. He don’t benefit nobody’s day. Squandered every chance of his white skin, down in his river hole. Mocks even a healthy muskrat in personal hygiene. Not native to nothing. Hordes of them, Tuck imagined, pouring across the borders of the realm from bumland. His progeny lice with high attitudes.
Tuck saw the revulsion of the boy.
You ten cents higher than the store in Pinola, spoke Sunballs. His voice was shallow and thin as if he had worn it down screaming. A wreckage of teeth added a whistle at the end.
Tuck was invested by red blindness.
But Swanly spoke first. I warn you. Don’t come near me. I can’t be responsible, you.
The hermit whispered a breeze off rags where feral beings had swarmed. Ere be a kind of storeman take his neighbor by the short hairs like they got you dead in an airport and charges for water next thing you know.
What did you say? demanded the storekeeper coming around the register. You say neighbor and airport? You never even crossed through an airport I bet, you filthy mouthbroom.
Sunballs stood back from the beauty of Swanly but was not afraid of the anger of Tuck. He was too taken with this startling pretty boy.
Oh yes, my man, airport I have been in and the airplane crash is why I am here.
He pointed at the oiled floor swept clean by the wife who was now coming in from the rear in attendance to the loud voices, so rare in this shop, where the savage quiet reigned almost perpetual both sides of the mutual gloom, the weary armistice, then the hate and lust and panting. Only lately had her own beauty ebbed and not truly very much. She was younger with long muscular legs and dressed like a well-kept city woman in beach shorts. Her hair was brunette and chopped shortish and she had the skin of a Mexican. Her lips were pulled together in a purse someone might mistake for delight by their expression, not petulance. Her name was Bernadette and when Tuck saw her he flamed with nostalgia, not love. Brought back to his own hard tanned youth returned from the Orient on a ship in San Diego. Swanly looked over to her, and the two of them, boy and married woman, in the presence of the gasping hermit, fell in love.
What’s wrong out here? she asked gently, her eyes never off the boy.
Said they can have it if that’s what’s there in the modern world, continued Sunballs. It was a good job I had too, I’m no liar. They was treating me special flying me to Kalamazoo, Michigan, on a Constellation. We was set upon by them flight stewards, grown men in matching suits, but they was these beatniks underneath, worse, these flight stewards, called, they attended themselves, it didn’t matter men women or children, they was all homos all the time looking in a mirror at each other, didn’t stir none atall for nobody else in their abomination once the airplane began crashing. It took forever rolling back and forth downward near like a corkscrew but we known it was plowing into ground directly. These two funny fellows you know, why when we wrecked all up with several dead up front and screaming, why they was in the back in the rear hull a”humpin” each other their eyes closed “blivious to the crash they trying to get one last “bomination in and we unlatched ourselves, stood up in the hulk and they still goin” at it, there’s your modern world I say, two smoky old queers availing theyselve and the captain come back with half a burnt face say what the hell we got. Ever damn thing about it a crime against nature. No money no Kalamazoo never bring me back in, damn them, yes I seen it what it come down to in your modern world.
Tuck watched Swanly and his wife in long locked estimation of each other, the words of the hermit flying over like faraway geese.
People is going over to the other side of everything, I say, and it all roots out from the evil of price, the cost of everything being so goddamned high. Nothing ain’t a tenth its value and a man’s soul knows it’s true.
What? Tuck said, down from his rage and confused by everybody. You ain’t flapped on like this in the seven years you been prowling round.
Sunballs would not stop. Old man Bunch Lewis up north in the state, he run a store and has a hunchback. The hermit spoke with relish, struck loquacious by the act of love proceeding almost visibly between the boy and the wife, each to each, the female lips moving without words. It behooved him, he thought, to announce himself a wry soldier of the world.
Fellow come in seen Lewis behind the counter with a ten-dollar shirt in his hands. Said Lewis, What’s that on your back? Lewis got all fierce, he say, You know it’s a hump I’m a humpback you son of a bitch. Fellow say, Well I thought it might be your ass, everything else in this store so high. What he say.
Neither the storekeeper nor his wife had ever heard the first word of wit from this man.
The hermit put a hand to his rushy wad of hair as if to groom it. The plain common man even in this humble state can’t afford no clothes where you got the Bunch Lewises a”preying on them, see. After this appeal he paused, shot out for a time, years perhaps.
This isn’t a plain common boy here, though, is he, son? Bernadette said, as if her voice had fled out and she powerless. The question called out of her in a faint tone between mother love and bald lechery. Is it real? Has this boy escaped out of a theater somewheres? demanded the hermit. His eyes were on the legs of the wife, her feet set in fashion huaraches like a jazz siren between the great wars.
You never even looked at my wife before, said Tuck. Pissmouth.
Hush everybody. You getting the air dirty, said Bernadette.
Her own boys were hammy and homely and she wandered in a moment of conception, giving birth to Swanly all over again as he stood there, a pained ecstasy in the walls of her womb. He was what she had intended by everything female about her and she knew hardly any woman ever chanced to see such a glorious boy.
Tuck was looking at her afresh and he was shocked. Why my wife, she’s a right holy wonder, she is, he thought. Or is she just somebody I’ve not ever seen now?
Out of the south Mississippi fifth-grown pines, the rabbitweed, the smaller oaks and hickories, the white clay and the coon-toed bracken, she felt away on palisades over a sea of sweetening terror.
She said something nobody caught. Swanly in shyness and because he could not hold his feelings edged away with a can of sardines and bottle of milk unpaid for, but he was not conscious of this.
I am redeemed, she said again, even more softly.
Sunballs left with a few goods unpaid for and he was very conscious of this. Tuck stared at him directly as he went out the door but saw little. It must have been the hermit felt something was owed for his narration.
The wife walked to the screen and looked out carefully.
You stay away from that boy, she called, and they heard her.
When Tuck was alone behind the register again he sensed himself alien to all around him and his aisles seemed a fantastic dump of road offal brought in by a stranger.
He was in the cold retreat from Chosin marching backwards, gooks in the hills who’d packed in artillery by donkey. You could smell the garlic coming off them at a half mile but My sweet cock that was my living room compared to this now, he thought.
All the fat on him, the small bags under his eyes, the hint of rung at his belt he summoned out of himself. He must renew his person. Some moments would come and he could do this simply by want. Tuck felt himself grow leaner and handsomer.
Walthall had wanted the peach wine to become brandy but alas. He brought his viola to the river camp and Pal his bass flute, two instruments unrecognized by anybody in his school, his city, and they played them passing strange with less artistry than vengeance sitting opposed on a sunken petrified log like an immense crocodile forced up by saurian times, in the first rush of small rapids out of the pool. This river in this place transported them to Germany or the Rockies or New England, anywhere but here, and the other boys, especially the hearkening beatific Swanly, listened, confident paralyzed hipsters, to the alien strains of these two mates, set there in great parlor anguish swooning like people in berets near death.
Bean, the sternest and most religious of them all, set his gun on his knees, feeling a lyric militancy and praying for an enemy. Like the others, this boy was no drinking man but unlike them he did not drink the wine from the fruit jars. For the others, the wine went down like a ruined orchard, acid to the heart, where a ball of furred heat made them reminiscent of serious acts never acted, women never had.
The wine began dominating and the boys were willing slaves. When the music paused Lester Silk, son of the decaying army man who never made anything but fun of poetry and grabbed his scrotum and acted the fairy whenever it occurred at school, said, I believe in years to come I will meet a pale woman from Texas who plays clarinet in the symphony. Then we shall dally, there will be a rupture over my drinking, she’ll tear up my pictures and for penance over the freedoms she allowed me she will go off to the nun mountains in a faraway state and be killed accidentally by masked gunmen. Forever afterward I will whup my lap mournfully in her memory.
Somebody must die when you hear that music out here, I feel it, said Swanly, cool-butted and naked in the little rapids but full hot with the peach wine after five swallows.
Walthall, stopping the viola, wore a necklace of twine and long mail-order Mauser shells. He exclaimed, Send not to ask for when the bell tolls. I refuse to mourn the death by fire of a child’s Christmas on Fern Hill. Do not go gently in my sullen craft, up yours. He raised the fruit jar from his rock.
All that separates me from Leslie Caron must die, said Arden Pal. He held his flute up like a saber, baroque over the flat rocks and frothing tea of the rapids. Pal was a gangling youth of superfluous IQ already experiencing vile depressions. His brain made him feel constantly wicked but he relieved himself through botany and manic dilettantism.
Like a piece of languid Attic statuary Swanly lay out with a sudden whole nudeness under the shallow water. He might have been something caught in the forest and detained for study, like a white deer missing its ilk, because he was sad and in love and greatly confused.
Bernadette cooked two chickens, made a salad, then Irish Creme cookies, for the boys’ health, she said, for their wretched motherless pirates’ diets, and Tuck drove her down to the bridge with it all in a basket. Catastrophic on both sides of the washboard gravel was the erosion where ditches of white limesoil had been clawed into deep small canyons by heavy rains, then swerved into the bogs in wild fingers. Tuck pretended he was confused as to where the boys might be in camp and guessed loudly while pulling off before the bridge into the same place he had been earlier. Ah, he said, the back of their car, Hinds County, I recognize it.
But he said he would wait and that was perfect by Bernadette. Then he followed her, tree to tree, at a distance. Bernadette came to the head of the bluff and he saw her pause, then freeze, cradling the food basket covered in blue cloth with white flowers printed on. Through a nearer gully he saw what she saw.
Hairy Walthall, at the viola with his root floating in the rills, might have seemed father to Swanly, who was hung out like a beige flag in the shallows. She could not see Arden Pal but she heard the deep weird flute. Swanly moved as a liquid one with the river, the bed around him slick tobacco shale, and Bernadette saw all this through a haze of inept but solemn chamber music. She did not know it was inept and a wave of terrible exhilaration overcame her.
Tuck looked on at the boys from his own vantage, stroking the wound to his throat.
The hermit Sunballs was across the river before them in a bower of wild muscadine, prostrate and gripping the lip of the bluff. He owned a telescope, which he was now using. He viewed all of Swanly he could. The others were of no concern. For a while Tuck and his wife could not see him, flat to the earth and the color of organic decay. None of them for that matter would have recognized their own forms rapt and helpless to the quick, each with their soul drawn out through their eyes, beside themselves, stricken into painful silence.
It was habitual with Pal as he played the flute, however, that his eyes went everywhere. He was unsure at first then he thought he had invoked ghosts by his music, the ancient river dead roused from their Civil War ghoulments by the first flute since in these parts. He was startled by this for the seconds the thought lasted then he was frightened because they were on both bluffs and he mistook the telescope pushed out of the vines for a weapon. Perhaps they were the law, but next he knew they were not, seeing one was a woman.
They’re watching you, Swanly!
The boys, except Swanly, came out of the water and thrashed back to the camp incensed and indignant. Pal pointed his flute at the telescope, which receded. Then the hermit’s face came briefly into the frame of vine leaves. He could not tear himself away.
Swanly stood wobbling in the shallows, his hand to the slick shale rock, then at last stood up revealed and fierce in his nakedness. He swayed on the slick rocks, outraged, screaming. Then he vomited.
Keep your eyes off me! Keep away! he bawled upwards at the hermit, who then disappeared.
Pal pointed upwards to the right. They watched too, Swanly! But Swanly didn’t seem to understand this.
Walthall fired his Mauser twice in the air and the blasts made rocking echoes down the river beach to beach.
Bernadette and Tuck melted back onto the rooted path in the high cane and the woman came cautiously with her basket, trailed fifty yards behind by her husband who was trembling and homicidal toward the hermit. Also he knew the boy loved his wife more than him. The boy’s nakedness to him had had no definition but was a long beige flag of taunting and every fine feeling of his seemed mocked and whored by the presence of the hermit. Tuck felt himself only a raving appendage to the event, a thing tacked on to the crisis of his wife.
Yoo hoo! Oh bad bad boys. I’ve got a treat for you, called Bernadette. All wet in their pants they stared up to the woman clearing the cane above them, their beds spread below her. Their sanctuary ruined. Only Swanly knew who she was.
Oh no, is it a woman of the church? said Walthall.
There will always be a woman around to wreck things, said Pal.
No, she’s all right, Swanly intervened, though he was still sick. He came up from the shore roots and struggled into his shorts slowly. He seemed paralyzed and somewhere not with them, an odd sleepiness on him. Be nice, all of you, he added.
Big Mama Busybod, said Walthall. Courtesy of the Southern regions.
Out in the sun they saw she was not a bad-looking case though she seemed arrested by a spiritual idea and did not care her hair was blowing everywhere like a proper woman of the “50s would.
Her husband came behind, mincing over the stone beach. She turned.
I heard the shots, he said.
Fools. Eat, said Bernadette. But she remained startled by Swanly and could not turn her face long from him.
Tuck didn’t understand it, but his jaw began flapping. You boys ever bait a trotline with soap? Yes Ivory soap. Tuck pointed under the bridge where their line was set on the near willow. Tuck was not convinced he even existed now outside the river of want he poured toward Swanly. He was not interested in what he continued to say, like something in a storekeeper’s costume activated by a pullstring and thrust into a playhouse by a child. Fish began biting on the substances of modern industry in the “40s, boys. Why they’re like contemporary men they ain’t even that hungry just more curious. Or a woman. They get curious and then the bait eats them, huh.
Yes sir, said Walthall, annoyed.
Tuck kept on in despondent sagery then trailed off as the boys ate and he next simply sat down on a beach boulder and stared away from them into the late bower of Sunballs across the river.
When he twisted to look he was astounded by the extent of bosom his wife was visiting on Swanly. She was bared like some tropical hula but not. Swanly ate his chicken kneeling in front of her with his bare smooth chest slightly burned red and of such an agreeable shape he seemed made to fly through night winds like the avatar on the bow of a ship. That hussy had dropped her shawl down and Tuck noticed more of her in truth, her mothersome cleavage, than he had in years, faintly freckled and still not a bad revelation. Not in years atop her.
It was eleven years ago when he had pursued illicit love with another woman. This was when his boys were small and cute. He could not get over how happy he was and blameless and blessed-feeling, as if in the garden before the fall. She was a young woman with practical headquarters in the Jackson Country Club, a thing he felt giant pride about, her sitting there in a swimsuit nursing a Tom Collins, high-heeled beach shoes on her feet, talking about storms how she loved them. Now she was a fat woman and his children were fat men and it was not their fatness that depressed him so much as it was watching visible time on them, the horrible millions of minutes collected and evident, the murdered idle thousands of hours, his time more than theirs in their change. They had an unfortunate disease where you saw everything the minute you saw them, the awful feckless waiting, the lack of promise, the bulk of despair. The woman had been attracted to him through his handsome little boys and she would excite him by exclaiming, Oh what wonderful seed you have. He stayed up like a happy lighthouse with rotating beam. She had no children, never would, but she whispered to him he might break her will if he didn’t stop being so good. All the while he had loved Bernadette too, even more, was that possible? The woman didn’t mind. What kind of man am I? Tuck thought. Was time working every perversion it had on him, were there many like him? He felt multiplied in arms and legs, a spider feeling eight ways, he was going into the insect kingdom. Oh yes, lost to the rest.
He loved his boys but my God they were like old uncles, older than him, mellow and knee-slapping around a campfire. He loved his wife, but no he didn’t, it was an embattled apathy each morning goaded into mere courtesy, that was what, and he felt wild as a prophet mocking an army of the righteous below him at the gate.
Now isn’t that better? his wife said to the boys, who had fed themselves with hesitation before they fell to trough like swine.
You’re too thoughtful of us, ma”am, said Swanly.
I’m Bernadette, she said.
You are desperate, thought Tuck. I sort of like it. Hanging all out there, little Mama.
Was it how you like it? she said only to the boy.
My mother never cooked for me like that.
Nobody ever has.
Oh. What’s wrong?
That hermit, you know. He saw me without anything on.
She could see he was still trembling, warm as it was.
I know how it is. She looked more deeply into his eyes. Believe me.
What is it? said Tuck, coming up.
This boy’s been spied on by that creature Sunballs.
Tuck leaned in to Swanly. The boy was evilly shaken like a maiden thing out of the last century. He was all boy but between genders, hurt deep to his modesty. Tuck was greatly curious and fluttered-up. All execrable minutes, all time regained. I would live backwards in time until I took the shape of the boy myself. My own boyself was eat up by the gooks and then this strolling wench, my boyself was hostaged by her, sucking him out to her right in front of me, all over again as with me. Woman’s thing stays hungry, it don’t diminish, it’s always something. A need machine, old beard lost its teeth harping on like a holy fool in the desert. They’re always with themselves having sex with themselves, two lips forever kissing each other down there and they got no other subject. Even so, I feel love for her all over again.
Lester Silk, Bean, and Pal studied this trio isolated there where the water on rills avid over pebbles made a laughing noise. Walthall raised his viola and spread his arms out like a crucified musician and he stood there in silence evoking God knows what but Arden Pal asked the others what was going on.
Wake up and smell the clue, whispered Silk. Walthall wants the woman and our strange boy Swanly’s already got her.
Swanly’s okay, Silk. He’s not strange.
Maybe not till now.
Leave him alone, said Bean. Swanly’s a right guy. He has been through some things that’s all. Ask me.
You mean a dead daddy like you?
I’d say you look hard enough, a dead both, but he wouldn’t admit it. Bean intended to loom there in his acuity for a moment, looking into the breech of his gun which he had opened with the lever. It was a rare lever action shotgun, 20-gauge. Bean worshiped shells and bullets. Ask me, he’s a full orphan.
They blending with him, said Arden Pal. They watched us naked too. She didn’t jump back in the bushes like a standard woman when I caught her.
Swanly came over getting his shirt.
She’s giving me something. I’m feeling poorly, he said.
The rest did not speak and the three, Tuck, Bernadette, and Swanly, walked up the shallow bluff and into the woods.
Silk sighed. I don’t quite believe I ever seen nothing like that. Old store boy there looks like somebody up to the eight count.
Walthall, who had actually had a sort of girl, since with stubborn farm boy will he would penetrate nearly anything sentient, was defeated viola and all. Lord my right one for mature love like that. No more did he heed the calling of his music and he was sore in gloom.
Bean could not sit still and he walked here and there rolling two double-aught buckshot shells in his palm, looking upward to the spying bower of the hermit, but no offending eye there now, as he would love.
They closed the store as Swanly began talking. She went to the house and got something for his belly and some nerve pills too and diet pills as well. Bernadette was fond of both diet and nerve pills, and sometimes her husband was too, quite positively. Some mornings they were the only promise he could fetch in and he protected his thefts of single pills from his wife’s cabinet with grim slyness. In narcosis she was fond of him and in amphetamine zeal he returned affection to her which she mistook for actual interest. The doctor in Magee was a firm believer in Dexamil as panacea and gave her anything she wanted. The pain of wanting in her foreign eyes got next to him. In a fog of charity he saw her as a lovely spy in the alien pines. He saw a lot of women and few men who weren’t in the act of bleeding as they spoke, where they stood. The pharmacist was more a partisan of Demerol and John Birch and his prices were high since arsenals were expensive. His constant letters to Senator McCarthy, in his decline, almost consumed his other passions for living, such as they were. But the pharmacist liked Bernadette too, and when she left, detained as long as he could prolong the difficulty of her prescription, he went in the back room where a mechanic’s calendar with a picture of a woman lying cross-legged in a dropped halter on the hood of a Buick was nailed to the wall and laid hand to himself. One night the doctor and the pharmacist met in this room and began howling like wolves in lonely ardor. Bernadette’s name was mentioned many times, then they would howl again. They wore female underwear but were not sodomites. Both enjoyed urban connections and their pity for Bernadette in her aging beauty out in the river boonies was painful without limit; and thus in the proper lingerie they acted it out.
Swanly, after the pills, began admitting to the peach wine as if it were a mortal offense. Bernadette caught his spirit. They adjourned to the house where he could lie comfortably with her Oriental shawl over him.
We don’t have strong drink here. Not much. She looked to Tuck. You don’t have to drink to have a full experience.
Tuck said, No, not drink. Hardly.
No. I’m having fun just talking. Talking to you is fine. Because I haven’t been much of a talker. That’s good medicine. My tongue feels all light.
Talk on, child. She gave Swanly another pill.
Tuck went to relieve himself and through the window he saw the clothesline over the green clover and he speculated that through time simple household things might turn on you in a riot of overwhelming redundancy. He had heard of a man whose long dear companion, a buckskin cat, had walked between his legs one night and tripped and killed him as he went down headfirst onto a commode. Cheered that this was not him he went back to listen to the boy.
But after all you wouldn’t have just anybody look at you all bared. Surely not that awful person, Bernadette was saying. I’d not let him see me for heaven’s sake.
It seems he ought to pay. I feel tortured and all muddy. I can’t forget it.
Just talk it out, that’s best. It seems there’s always a monster about, doesn’t it?
I feel I could talk all afternoon into the night.
We aren’t going anywhere.
We aren’t going anywhere, added Tuck.
I’m feeling all close to you if that’s all right.
Some people are sent to us. We have been waiting all our lives for somebody and don’t even know it.
Older ones are here to teach and guide the young, Tuck said.
Bernadette glanced at Tuck then looked again. He had come back with his hair combed and he had shaved. He was so soft in the face she felt something new for him. In this trinity already a pact was sealed and they could no more be like others. There was a tingling and a higher light around them. A flood of goodwill took her as if they had been hurled upon a foreign shore, all fresh. The boy savior, child, and paramour at once. Swanly spoke on, it hardly mattered what he said. Each word a pleasant weight on her bosom.
Walthall and the rest stared into the fire sighing, three of them having their separate weather, their separate fundament, in peach wine. Pal could swallow no more and heaved out an arc of puke luminous over the fire, crying, Thar she blows, my dear youth. This act was witnessed like a miracle by the others.
God in heaven, this stuff was so good for a while, said Silk.
Fools, said Bean.
Bean don’t drink because he daddy daid, said Walthall. So sad, so sad, so gone, so Beat.
Yeh. It might make him cry, said Pal.
Or act human, said Silk.
Let it alone. Bean had stood unmoved by their inebriation for two hours, caressing his 20-gauge horse gun.
Teenage love, teenage heart. My face broke out the other night but I’m in love wit yewwww! sang Walthall.
What you think Swanly’s doing, asked Pal.
Teenage suckface. Dark night of the suck.
They are carrying him away, far far away, Silk declared.
Or him them.
Having a bit of transversion, them old boy and girl.
You mean travesty. Something stinketh, I tell you.
The hermit made Swanly all sick. We should put a stop to his mischief, said Bean all sober.
That person saw the peepee full out of ourn good friend ourn little buddy.
This isn’t to laugh about. Swanly’s deep and he’s a hurting man.
Boy, said Pal. He once told me every adult had a helpless urge to smother the young so they could keep company with the dead, which were themselves.
You’d have to love seeing small animals suffer to hurt Swanly. The boy’s damn near an angel. I swear he ain’t even rightly one of us, said Silk. Bean did not care for Silk, who had only joined them lately. But Silk redeemed himself, saying, Christ I’m just murky. Swanly’s deep.
You know what, Walthall spoke, I felt sorry for all three of them when they left here. Yes the woman is aged but fine, but it was like a six-legged crippled thing.
So it was, said Pal. I declare nothing happy is going on wherever they are.