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Before the Sun
"Cory? Wake up, son. It's time."
I let him pull me up from the dark cavern of sleep, and I opened my eyes and looked up at him. He was already dressed, in his dark brown uniform with his name -- Tom -- written in white letters across his breast pocket. I smelled bacon and eggs, and the radio was playing softly in the kitchen. A pan rattled and glasses clinked; Mom was at work in her element as surely as a trout rides a current. "It's time," my father said, and he switched on the lamp beside my bed and left me squinting with the last images of a dream fading in my brain.
The sun wasn't up yet. It was mid-March, and a chill wind blew through the trees beyond my window. I could feel the wind by putting my hand against the glass. Modi, realizing that I was awake when my dad went in for his cup of coffee, turned the radio up a little louder to catch the weather report. Spring had sprung a couple of days before, but this year winter had sharp teeth and nails and he clung to the South like a white cat. We hadn't had snow, we never had snow, but the wind was chill and it blew hard from the lungs of the Pole.
"Heavy sweater!" Mom called. "Hear?"
"I hear!" I answered back, and I got my green heavy sweater from my dresser. Here is my room, in the yellow lamplight and the space heater rumbling: Indian rug red as Cochise's blood, a desk with seven mystic drawers, a chair covered in material as velvety blue-black as Batman's cape, an aquarium holding tiny fish so pale you could see their hearts beat, the aforementioned dresser covered with decals from Revell model airplane kits, a bed with a quilt sewn by a relative of Jefferson Davis's, a closet, and the shelves. Oh, yes, the shelves. The troves of treasure. On those shelves are stacks of me: hundreds of comic books -- Justice League, Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, the Spirit, Blackhawk, Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, Aquaman, and the Fantastic Four. There areBoy's Lifemagazines, dozens of issues ofFamous Monsters of Filmland, Screen Thrills, andPopular Mechanics. There is a yellow wall ofNational Geographies, and I have to blush and say I know where all the African pictures are.
The shelves go on for miles and miles. My collection of marbles gleams in a mason jar. My dried cicada waits to sing again in summer. My Duncan yo-yo that whistles except the string is broken and Dad's got to fix it. My little book of suit cloth samples that I got from Mr. Parlowe at the Stagg Shop for Men. I use those pieces of cloth as carpet inside my airplane models, along with seats cut from cardboard. My silver bullet, forged by the Lone Ranger for a werewolf hunter. My Civil War button that fell from a butternut uniform when the storm swept Shiloh. My rubber knife for stalking killer crocodiles in the bathtub. My Canadian coins, smooth as the northern plains. I am rich beyond measure.
"Breakfast's on!" Mom called. I zipped up my sweater, which was the same hue as Sgt. Rock's ripped shirt. My blue jeans had patches on the knees, like badges of courage marking encounters with barbed wire and gravel. My flannel shirt was red enough to stagger a bull. My socks were white as dove wings and my Keds midnight black. My mom was color-blind, and my dad thought checks went with plaid. I was all right.
It's funny, sometimes, when you look at the people who brought you into this world and you see yourself so clearly in them. You realize that every person in the world is a compromise of nature. I had my mother's small-boned frame and her wavy, dark brown hair, but my father had given me his blue eyes and his sharp-bridged nose. I had my mother's long-fingered hands -- an "artist's hands," she used to tell me when I fretted that my fingers were so skinny -- and my dad's thick eyebrows and the small cleft in his chin. I wished that some nights I would go to sleep and awaken resembling a man's man like Stuart Whitman inCimarron Stripor Clint Walker inCheyenne, but the truth of it was that I was a skinny, gawky kid of average height and looks, and I could blend into wallpaper by closing my eyes and holding my breath. In my fantasies, though, I tracked lawbreakers along with the cowboys and detectives who paraded past us nightly on our television set, and out in the woods that came up behind our house I helped Tarzan call the lions and shot Nazis down in a solitary war. I had a small group of friends, guys like Johnny Wilson, Davy Ray Callan, and Ben Sears, but I wasn't what you might call popular. Sometimes I got nervous talking to people and my tongue got tangled, so I stayed quiet. My friends and I were about the same in size, age, and temperament; we avoided what we could not fight, and we were all pitiful fighters.
This is where I think the writing started. The "righting," if you will. The righting of circumstances, the shaping of the world the way it should have been, had God not had crossed eyes and buck teeth. In the real world I had no power; in my world I was Hercules unchained.
One thing I do know I got from my granddaddy Jaybird, my dad's father: his curiosity about the world. He was seventy-six years old and as tough as beef jerky, and he had a foul mouth and an even fouler disposition, but he was always prowling the woods around his farm. He brought home things that made Grandmomma Sarah swoon: snakeskins, empty hornets' nests, even animals he'd found dead. He liked to cut things open with a penknife and look at their insides, arranging all their bloody guts out on newspapers. One time he hung up a dead toad from a tree and invited me to watch the flies eat it with him. He brought home a burlap sack full of leaves, dumped them in the front room, and examined each of them with a magnifying glass, writing down their differences in one of his hundreds of Nifty notebooks. He collected cigar butts and dried spits of chewing tobacco, which he kept in glass vials. He could sit for hours in the dark and look at the moon.
Maybe he was crazy. Maybe crazy is what they call anybody who's got magic in them after they're no longer a child. But Granddaddy Jaybird read the Sunday comics to me, and he told me stories about the haunted house in the small hamlet of his birth. Granddaddy Jaybird could be mean and stupid and petty, but he lit a candle of wonder in me and by that light I could see a long way beyond Zephyr.
On that morning before the sun, as I sat eating my breakfast with my dad and mom in our house on Hilltop Street, the year was 1964. There were great changes in the winds of earth, things of which I was unaware. All I knew at that moment was that I needed another glass of orange juice, and that I was going to help my dad on his route before he took me to school. So when breakfast was over and the dishes were cleared, after I had gone out into the cold to say good morning to Rebel and feed him his Gravy Train, Mom kissed both Dad and me, I put on my fleece-lined jacket and got my schoolbooks and off we went in the coughy old pickup truck. Freed from his backyard pen, Rebel followed us a distance, but at the corner of Hilltop and Shawson streets he crossed into the territory of Bodog, the Doberman pinscher that belonged to the Ramseys, and he beat a diplomatic retreat to a drumroll of barks.
And there was Zephyr before us, the town quiet in its dreaming, the moon a white sickle in the sky.
A few lights were on. Not many. It wasn't five o'clock yet.The sickle moon glittered in the slow curve of the Tecumseh River, and if Old Moses swam there he swam with his leathery belly kissing mud. The trees along Zephyr's streets were still without leaves, and their branches moved with the wind. The traffic lights -- all four of them at what might be called major intersections -- blinked yellow in a steady accord. To the east, a stone bridge with brooding gargoyles crossed the wide hollow where the river ran. Some said the faces of the gargoyles, carved in the early twenties, were representations of various Confederate generals, fallen angels, as it were. To the west, the highway wound into the wooded hills and on toward other towns. A railroad track cut across Zephyr to the north, right through the Bruton area, where all the black people lived. In the south was the public park where a bandshell stood and a couple of baseball diamonds had been cut into the earth. The park was named for Clifford Gray Haines, who founded Zephyr, and there was a statue of him sitting on a rock with his chin resting on his hand. My dad said it looked as if Clifford was perpetually constipated and could neither do his business nor get off the pot. Farther south, Route Ten left Zephyr's limits and wound like a black cottonmouth past swampy woods, a trailer park, and Saxon's Lake, which shelved into unknown depths.
Dad turned us onto Merchants Street, and we drove through the center of Zephyr, where the stores were. There was Dollar's Barbershop, the Stagg Shop for Men, the Zephyr Feeds and Hardware Store, the Piggly-Wiggly grocery, the Woolworth's store, the Lyric theater, and other attractions along the sidewalked thoroughfare. It wasn't much, though; if you blinked a few times, you were past it. Then Dad crossed the railroad track, drove another two miles, and turned into a gate that had a sign above it: GREEN MEADOWS DAIRY. The milk trucks were at the loading dock, getting filled up. Here there was a lot of activity, because Green Meadows Dairy opened early and the milkmen had their appointed rounds.
Sometimes when my father had an especially busy schedule, he asked me to help him with his deliveries. I liked the silence and stillness of the mornings. I liked the world before the sun. I liked finding out what different people ordered from the dairy. I don't know why; maybe that was my granddaddy Jaybird's curiosity in me.
My dad went over a checklist with the foreman, a big crew-cut man named Mr. Bowers, and then Dad and I started loading our truck. Here came the bottles of milk, the cartons of fresh eggs, buckets of cottage cheese and Green Meadows' special potato and bean salads. Everything was still cold from the ice room, and the milk bottles sparkled with frost under the loading dock's lights. Their paper caps bore the face of a smiling milkman and the words "Good for You!" As we were working, Mr. Bowers came up and watched with his clipboard at his side and his pen behind his ear. "You think you'd like to be a milkman, Cory?" he asked me, and I said I might. "The world'll always need milkmen," Mr. Bowers went on. "Isn't that right, Tom?"
"Right as rain," my dad said; this was an all-purpose phrase he used when he was only half listening.
"You come apply when you turn eighteen," Mr. Bowers told me. "We'll fix you up." He gave me a clap on the shoulder that almost rattled my teeth and did rattle the bottles in the tray I was carrying.
Then Dad climbed behind the big-spoked wheel, I got into the seat next to him, he turned the key, and the engine started and we backed away from the loading dock with our creamy cargo. Ahead of us, the moon was sinking down and the last of the stars hung on the lip of night. "What about that?" Dad asked. "Being a milkman, I mean. That appeal to you?"
"It'd be fun," I said.
"Not really. Oh, it's okay, but no job's fun every day. I guess we've never talked about what you want to do, have we?"
"Well, I don't think you ought to be a milkman just because that's what I do. See, I didn't start out to be a milkman. Granddaddy Jaybird wanted me to be a farmer like him. Grandmomma Sarah wanted me to be a doctor. Can you imagine that?" He glanced at me and grinned. "Me, a doctor! Doctor Tom! No sir, that wasn't for me."
"What'd you start out to be?" 1 asked.
My dad was quiet for a while. He seemed to be thinking this question over, in a deep place. It occurred to me that maybe no one had ever asked him this before. He gripped the spoked wheel with his grown-up hands and negotiated the road that unwound before us in the headlights, and then he said, "First man on Venus. Or a rodeo rider. Or a man who can look at an empty space and see in his mind the house he wants to build there right down to the last nail and shingle. Or a detective." My dad made a little laughing noise in his throat. "But the dairy needed another milkman, so here I am."
"I wouldn't mind bein' a race car driver," I said. My dad sometimes took me to the stock car races at the track near Barnesboro, and we sat there eating hot dogs and watching sparks fly in the collision of banged-up metal. "Bein' a detective would be okay, too. I'd get to solve mysteries and stuff, like the Hardy Boys."
"Yeah, that'd be good," my dad agreed. "You never know how things are gonna turn out, though, and that's the truth. You aim for one place, sure as an arrow, but before you hit the mark, the wind gets you. I don't believe I ever met one person who became what they wanted to be when they were your age."
"I'd like to be everybody in the world," I said. "I'd like to live a million times."
"Well" -- and here my father gave one of his sagely nods -- "that would be a fine piece of magic, wouldn't it?" He pointed. "Here's our first stop."
That first house must've had children in it, because they got two quarts of chocolate milk to go along with their two quarts of plain milk. Then we were off again, driving through the streets where the only sounds were the wind and the barking of early dogs, and we stopped on Shantuck Street to deliver buttermilk and cottage cheese to somebody who must've liked things sour. We left bottles glistening on the steps of most of the houses on Bevard Lane, and my dad worked fast as I checked off the list and got the next items ready from the chilly back of the truck; we were a good team.
Dad said he had some customers down south near Saxon's Lake and then he'd swing back up so we could finish the rest of the street deliveries before my school bell rang. He drove us past the park and out of Zephyr, and the forest closed in on either side of the road.
It was getting on toward six o'clock. To the east, over the hills of pine and kudzu, the sky was beginning to lighten. The wind shoved its way through the trees like the fist of a bully. We passed a car going north, and its driver blinked the lights and Dad waved. "Marty Barklee deliverin' the newspapers." Dad told me. I thought about the fact that there was a whole world going about its business before the sun, and people who were just waking up weren't part of it. We turned off Route Ten and drove up a dirt drive to deliver milk, buttermilk, and potato salad to a small house nestled in the woods, and then we went south toward the lake again. "College," my dad said. "You ought to go to college, it seems to me."
"I guess so," I answered, but that sounded like an awful long distance from where I was now. All I knew about college was Auburn and Alabama football, and the fact that some people praised Bear Bryant and others worshipped Shug Jordan. It seemed to me that you chose which college to go to according to which coach you liked best.
"Gotta have good grades to get into college," Dad said.
"Gotta study your lessons."
"Do detectives have to go to college?"
"I reckon they do if they want to be professional about it. If I'd gone to college, I might've turned out to be that man who builds a house in empty space. You never know what's ahead for you, and that's the -- "
Truth, he was about to say, but he never finished it because we came around a wooded bend and a brown car jumped out of the forest right in front of us and Dad yelped like he was hornet-stung as his foot punched the brake.
The brown car went past us as Dad whipped the wheel to the left, and I saw that car go off Route Ten and down the embankment on my right. Its lights weren't on but there was somebody sitting behind the wheel. The car's tires tore through the underbrush and then it went over a little cliff of red rock and down into the dark. Water splashed up, and I realized the car had just plunged into Saxon's Lake.
"He went in the water!" I shouted, and Dad stopped the milk truck, pulled up the hand brake, and jumped out into the roadside weeds. As I climbed out, Dad was already running toward the lake. The wind whipped and whirled around us, and Dad stood there on the red rock cliff. By the faint pinkish light we could see the car wallowing in the water, huge bubbles bursting around its trunk. "Hey!" Dad shouted with his hands cupped around his mouth. "Get out of there!" Everybody knew Saxon's Lake was as deep as sin, and when that car went down into the inky depths it was gone for good and ever. "Hey, get out!" Dad shouted again, but whoever was behind the wheel didn't answer. "I think he's been knocked cold!" Dad told me as he took off his shoes. The car was starting to turn onto its passenger side, and there was an awful howling sound coming from it that must've been the rush of water pouring into the car. Dad said, "Stand back." I did, and he leaped into the lake.
He was a strong swimmer. He reached the car in a few powerful strokes, and he saw that the driver's window was open. He could feel the suction of water moving around his legs, drawing the car down into the unfathomed deep. "Get out!" he hollered, but the driver just sat there. Dad clung to the door, reached in, and grabbed the driver's shoulder. It was a man, and he wore no shirt. The flesh was white and cold, and my dad felt his own skin crawl. The man's head lolled back, his mouth open. He had short-cropped blond hair, his eyes sealed shut with black bruises, his face swollen and malformed from the pressures of a savage beating. Around his throat was knotted a copper piano wire, the thin metal pulled so tightly that the flesh had split open.
"Oh Jesus," my dad whispered, treading water.
The car lurched and hissed. The head lolled forward over the chest again, as if in an attitude of prayer. Water was rising up over the driver's bare knees. My dad realized the driver was naked, not a stitch on him. Something glinted on the steering wheel, and he saw handcuffs that secured the man's right wrist to the inner spoke.
My dad had lived thirty-four years. He'd seen dead men before. Hodge Klemson, one of his best friends, had drowned in the Tecumseh River when they were both fifteen years old, and the body had been found after three days bloated and covered with yellow bottom mud like a crusty ancient mummy. He'd seen what remained of Walter and Jeanine Traynor after the head-on collision six years ago between Walter's Buick and a logging truck driven by a kid eating pep pills. He'd seen the dark shiny mass of Little Stevie Cauley after firemen doused the flames of the crumpled black dragster named Midnight Mona. He had looked upon the grinning rictus of death several times, had taken that sight like a man, but this one was different.
This one wore the face of murder.
The car was going down. As its hood sank, its tail fins started rising. The body behind the wheel shifted again, and my father saw something on the man's shoulder. A blue patch, there against the white. Not a bruise, no; a tattoo. It was a skull with wings swept back from the bony temples.
A great burst of bubbles blew out of the car as more water rushed in. The lake would not be denied; it was going to claim its toy and tuck it away in a secret drawer. As the car began to slide down into the murk, the suction grabbed my father's legs and pulled him under, and standing on the red rock cliff I saw his head disappear and I shouted "Dad!" as panic seized my guts.
Underwater, he fought the lake's muscles. The car fell away beneath him, and as his legs thrashed for a hold in the liquid tomb, more bubbles rushed up and broke him loose and he climbed up their silver staircase toward the attic of air.
I saw his head break the surface. "Dad!" I shouted again. "Come on back, Dad!"
"I'm all right!" he answered, but his voice was shaky. "I'm comin' in!" He began dog-paddling toward shore, his body suddenly as weak as a squeezed-out rag. The lake continued to erupt where the car disturbed its innards, like something bad being digested. Dad couldn't get up the red rock cliff, so he swam to a place where he could clamber up on kudzu vines and stones. "I'm all right!" he said again as he came out of the lake and his legs sank to the knees in mud. A turtle the size of a dinner plate skittered past him and submerged with a perplexed snort. I glanced back toward the milk truck; I don't know why, but I did.
And I saw a figure standing in the woods across the road.
Just standing there, wearing a long dark coat. Its folds moved with the wind. Maybe I'd felt the eyes of whoever was watching me as I'd watched my father swim to the sinking car. I shivered a little, bone cold, and then I blinked a couple of times and where the figure had been was just windswept woods again.
"Cory?" my dad called. "Gimme a hand up, son!"
I went down to the muddy shore and gave him as much help as a cold, scared child could. Then his feet found solid earth and he pushed the wet hair back from his forehead. "Gotta get to a phone," he said urgently. "There was a man in that car. Went straight down to the bottom!"
"I saw...I saw..." I pointed toward the woods on the other side of Route Ten. "Somebody was -- "
"Come on, let's go!" My father was already crossing the road with his sturdy, soggy legs, his shoes in his hand. I jump-started my own legs and followed him as close as a shadow, and my gaze returned to where I'd seen that figure but nobody was there, nobody, nobody at all.
Dad started the milk truck's engine and switched on the heater. His teeth were chattering, and in the gray twilight his face looked as pale as candle wax. "Damnedest thing," he said, and this shocked me because he never cursed in front of me. "Handcuffed to the wheel, he was. Handcuffed. My God, that fella's face was all beat up!"
"Who was it?"
"I don't know." He turned the heater up, and then he started driving south toward the nearest house. "Somebody did a job on him, that's for sure! Lord, I'm cold!"
A dirt road turned to the right, and my father followed it. Fifty yards off Route Ten stood a small white house with a screened-in front porch. A rose garden stood off to one side. Parked under a green plastic awning were two cars, one a red Mustang and the other an old Cadillac splotched with rust. My dad pulled up in front of the house and said, "Wait here," and he walked to the door in his wet socks and rang the bell. He had to ring it two more times before the door opened with a tinkle of chimes, and a red-haired woman who made three of my mom stood there wearing a blue robe with black flowers on it.
Dad said, "Miss Grace, I need to use your telephone real quick."
"You're allwet!" Miss Grace's voice sounded like the rasp of a rusty saw blade. She gripped a cigarette in one hand, and rings sparkled on her fingers.
"Somethin' bad's happened," Dad told her, and she sighed like a redheaded raincloud and said, "All right, come on in, then. Watch the carpet." Dad entered the house, the chimey door closed, and I sat in the milk truck as the first orange rays of sunlight started breaking over the eastern hills. I could smell the lake in the truck with me, a puddle of water on the floorboard beneath my father's seat. I had seen somebody standing in the woods. I knew I had. Hadn't I? Why hadn't he come over to see about the man in the car? And who had the man in the car been?
I was puzzling over these questions when the door opened again and Miss Grace came out, this time wearing a floppy white sweater over her blue gown. She had on sneakers, her ankles and calves thick as young trees. She had a box of Lorna Doone cookies in one hand and the burning cigarette in the other, and she walked to the milk truck and smiled at me. "Hey there," she said. "You're Cory."
"Yes'tn," I answered.
Miss Grace didn't have much of a smile. Her lips were thin and her nose was broad and flat and her brows were black-penciled streaks above deep-set blue eyes. She thrust the Lorna Doones at me. "Want a cookie?"
I wasn't hungry, but my folks had always taught me never to refuse a gift. I took one.
"Have two," Miss Grace offered, and I took a second cookie. She ate a cookie herself and then sucked on the cigarette and blew smoke through her nostrils. "Your daddy's our milkman," she said. "I believe you've got us on your list. Six quarts of milk, two buttermilks, two chocolates, and three pints of cream."
I checked the list. There was her name -- Grace Stafford -- and the order, just as she'd said. I told her I'd get everything for her, and I started putting the order together. "How old are you?" Miss Grace asked as I worked. "Twelve?"
"No, ma'am. Not until July."
"I've got a son." Miss Grace knocked ashes from her cigarette. She chewed on another cookie. "Turned twenty in December. He lives in San Antonio. Know where that is?"
"Yes ma'am. Texas. Where the Alamo is."
"That's right. Turned twenty, which makes me thirty-eight. I'm an old fossil, ain't I?"
This was a trick question, I thought. "No ma'am," I decided to say.
"Well, you're a little diplomat, ain't you?" She smiled again, and this time the smile was in her eyes. "Have another cookie." She left me the box and walked to the door, and she hollered into the house: "Lainie! Lainie, get your butt up and come out here!"
My dad emerged first. He looked old in the hard light of morning, and there were dark circles under his eyes. "Called the sheriffs office," he told me as he sat in his wet seat and squeezed his feet into his shoes. "Somebody's gonna meet us where the car went in."
"Who the hell was it?" Miss Grace asked.
"I couldn't tell. His face was..." He glanced quickly at me, then back to the woman. "He was beat up pretty bad."
"Must've been drunk. Moonshinin', most likely."
"I don't think so." Dad hadn't said anything over the phone about the car's driver being naked, strangled with a piano wire, and handcuffed to the wheel. That was for the sheriff and not for Miss Grace's or anybody else's ears. "You ever see a fella with a tattoo on his left shoulder? Looked like a skull with wings growin' out of its head?"
"I've seen more tattoos than the Navy," Miss Grace said, "but I can't recall anything like that around here. Why? Fella have his shirt off or somethin'?"
"Yeah, he did. Had that skull with wings tattooed right about here." He touched his left shoulder. Dad shivered again, and rubbed his hands together. "They'll never bring that car up. Never. Saxon's Lake is three hundred feet deep if it's an inch."
The chimes sounded. I looked toward the door with the tray of milk quarts in my arms.
A girl with sleep-swollen eyes stumbled out. She was wearing a long plaid bathrobe and her feet were bare. Her hair was the color of cornsilk and hung around her shoulders, and as she neared the milk truck she blinked in the light and said, "I'm all fucked up."
I think I must've almost fallen down, because never in my life had I heard a female use a word that dirty before. Oh, I knew what the word meant and all, but its casual use from a pretty mouth shocked the fool out of me.
"There's a young man on the premises, Lainie," Miss Grace said in a voice that could curl an iron nail. "Watch your language, please."
Lainie looked at me, and her cool stare made me recall the time I'd put a fork in an electric socket. Lainie's eyes were chocolate brown and her lips seemed to wear a half smile, half sneer. Something about her face looked tough and wary, as if she'd run out of trust. There was a small red mark in the hollow of her throat. "Who's the kid?" she asked.
"Mr. Mackenson's son. Show some class, hear?"
I swallowed hard and averted my eyes from Lainie's. Her robe was creeping open. It hit me what kind of girl used bad words, and what kind of place this was. I had heard from both Johnny Wilson and Ben Sears that there was a house full of whores somewhere near Zephyr. It was common knowledge at the elementary school. When you told somebody to "go suck a whore," you were standing right on the razor's edge of violence. I'd always imagined the whorehouse to be a mansion, though, with drooping willow trees and black servants who fetched the customers mint juleps on the front porch; the reality, however, was that the whorehouse wasn't much of a step up from a broken-down trailer. Still and all, here it was right in front of me, and the girl with cornsilk hair and a dirty mouth earned her living by the pleasures of the flesh. I felt goose bumps ripple up my back, and I can't tell you the kind of scenes that moved like a slow, dangerous storm through my head.
"Take that milk and stuff to the kitchen," Miss Grace told her.
The sneer won out over the smile, and those brown eyes turned black. "I ain't got kitchen duty! It's Donna Ann's week!"
"It's whose week I say it is, missy, and you know why I ought to put you in the kitchen for a wholemonth, too! Now, you do what I tell you and keep your smart mouth shut!"
Lainie's lips drew up into a puckered, practiced pout. But her eyes did not register the chastisement so falsely; they held cold centers of anger. She took the tray from me, and standing with her back to my dad and Miss Grace, she stuck out her wet pink tongue in my face and curled it up into a funnel. Then the tongue slicked back into her mouth, she turned away from me, and dismissed all of us with a buttstrut that was as wicked as a sword slash. She swayed on into the house, and after Lainie was gone Miss Grace grunted and said, "She's as rough as a cob."
"Aren't they all?" Dad asked, and Miss Grace blew a smoke ring and answered, "Yeah, but she don't evenpretendshe's got manners." Her gaze settled on me. "Cory, why don't you keep the cookies. All right?"
I looked at Dad. He shrugged. "Yes, ma'am," I said.
"Good. It was a real pleasure to meet you." Miss Grace returned her attention to my father and the cigarette to the corner of her mouth. "Let me know how everything turns out."
"I will and thanks for lettin' me use the phone." He slid behind the wheel again. "I'll pick up the milk tray next trip."
"Ya'll be careful," Miss Grace said, and she went into the white-painted whorehouse as Dad started the engine and let off the hand brake.
We drove back to where the car had gone in. Saxon's Lake was streaked with blue and purple in the morning light. Dad pulled the milk truck off onto a dirt road; the road, both of us realized, was where the car had come from. Then we sat and waited for the sheriff as the sunlight strengthened and the sky turned azure.
Sitting there, my mind was split: one part was thinking about the car and the figure I thought I'd seen, and the other part was wondering how my dad knew Miss Grace at the whorehouse so well. But Dad knew all of his customers; he talked about them to Mom at the dinner table. I never recalled him mentioning Miss Grace or the whorehouse, however. Well, it wasn't a proper subject for the dinner table, was it? And anyway, they wouldn't talk about such things when I was around, even though all my friends and everybody else at school from the fourth grade up knew there was a house full of bad girls somewhere around Zephyr.
I had been there. I had actually seen a bad girl. I had seen her curled tongue and her butt move in the folds of her robe. That, I figured, was going to make me one heck of a celebrity.
"Cory?" my father said quietly. "Do you know what kind of business Miss Grace runs in that house?"
"I..." Even a third-grader could've figured it out. "Yes sir."
"Any other day, I would've just left the order by the front door." He was staring at the lake, as if seeing the car still tumbling slowly down through the depths with a handcuffed corpse at the wheel. "Miss Grace has been on my delivery route for two years. Every Monday and Thursday, like clockwork. In case it's crossed your mind, your mother does know I come out here."
I didn't answer, but I felt a whole lot lighter.
"I don't want you to tell anybody about Miss Grace or that house," my father went on. "I want you to forget you were there, and what you saw and heard. Can you do that?"
"Why?" I had to ask.
"Because Miss Grace might be a lot different than you, me, or your mother, and she might be tough and mean and her line of work might not be a preacher's dream, but she's a good lady. I just don't want talk gettin' stirred up. The less said about Miss Grace and that house, the better. Do you see?"
"I guess I do."
"Good." He flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. The subject was closed.
I was true to my word. My celebrityhood took flight, and that was that.
I was about to open my mouth to tell him about the figure I'd seen in the woods when a black and white Ford with a bubble light on top and the town seal of Zephyr on the driver's door rounded the corner and slowed to a stop near the milk truck. Sheriff Amory, whose first name was J.T., standing for Junior Talmadge, got out and Dad walked over to meet him.
Sheriff Amory was a thin, tall man whose long-jawed face made me think of a picture I'd seen: Ichabod Crane trying to outrace the Headless Horseman. He had big hands and feet and a pair of ears that might've shamed Dumbo. If his nose had been any larger, he would've made a dandy weathervane. He wore his sheriff's star pinned to the front of his hat, and underneath it his dome was almost bald except for a wreath of dark brown hair. He pushed his hat back up on his shiny forehead as he and my dad talked at the lake's edge and I watched my father's hand motions as he showed Sheriff Amory where the car had come from and where it had gone. Then they both looked out toward the lake's still surface, and I knew what they were thinking.
That car might've sunken to the center of the earth. Even the snapping turtles that lived along the lakeshore couldn't get far enough down to ever see that car again. Whoever the driver had been, he was sitting in the dark right now with mud in his teeth.
"Handcuffed," Sheriff Amory said, in his quiet voice. He had thick dark eyebrows over deep-set eyes the color of coal, and the pallor of his flesh suggested he had an affinity to the night. "You're sure about that, Tom? And about the wire, too?"
"I'm sure. Whoever strangled that fella did a hell of a job. Near about took his head off."
"Handcuffed," the sheriff said again. "That was so he wouldn't float out, I reckon." He tapped his lower lip with a forefinger. "Well," he said at last, "I believe we've got a murder on our hands, don't you?"
"If it wasn't, I don't know what murder is."
As they talked, I got out of the milk truck and wandered over to where I thought I'd seen that person watching me. There was nothing but weeds, rocks, and dirt where he'd been standing. If it had been a man, I thought. Could it have been a woman? I hadn't seen long hair, but then again I hadn't seen much of anything but a coat swirling in the wind. I walked back and forth along the line of trees. Beyond it, the woods deepened and swampy ground took over. I found nothing.
"Better come on to the office and let me write it up," the sheriff told my father. "If you want to go home and get some dry clothes on, that'd be fine."
My dad nodded. "I've got to finish my deliveries and get Cory to school, too."
"Okay. Seems to me we can't do much for that fella at the bottom, anyhow." He grunted, his hands in his pockets. "A murder. Last murder we had in Zephyr was in 1961. You remember when Bo Kallagan beat his wife to death with a bowlin' trophy?"
I returned to the milk truck and waited for my dad. The sun was up good and proper now, lighting the world. Or, at least, the world I knew. But things weighed heavy on my mind. It seemed to me that there were two worlds: one before the sun, and one after. And i f that were true, then maybe there were people who were citizens of those different worlds as well. Some moved easily through the landscape of night, and others clung to the bright hours. Maybe I had seen one of those darktime citizens, in the world before the sun. And -- a chilling thought -- maybe he had seen me seeing him, too.
I realized I had brought mud back into the milk truck. It was smeared all over my Keds.
I looked at the soles, and the earth I had collected.
On the bottom of my left Ked was a small green feather.
Copyright © 1991 by McCammon Corporation
Excerpted from Boy's Life by Robert R. McCammon
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.