Authors: Jeff Fields
Tags: #General Fiction
The Ape Yard was peaceful. People came and went, bowing respectfully to the officers as they passed.
The Poncini quarry sat quietly in the sun.
Mr. Burroughs paced. He twiddled his fingers. Finally he lunged through the school-bus door, seizing the horn with both hands and holding it for a full thirty-second blast, scaring Mr. Rampey half out of his wits.
Boarders began emerging from the house and groping their way down the steps.
"You can just stop that, Horace Burroughs," scolded Mrs. Cline, "I'm nervous enough as it is."
Mr. Rampey put his head out the school-bus door. "Look Horace, I'm the driver. If you want the horn blowed . . ."
Mr. Burroughs urged them.
"I still say Esther will choose the corner room," said Mrs. Porter.
"We agreed now," said Mrs. Bell, "Esther can have whichever room she likes." She turned to the others. "Did everyone get a good look at everything, so we can describe it all to her?"
"That's why I'm taking pictures," said Mrs. Cline, winding her Kodak. "Oh, I forgot to get one of the outside!" She trotted up the road, looking for an angle.
"But if we're leaving now," said Mrs. Bell, "when will you have time to get them developed?"
"There'll be time!" wailed Mr. Burroughs. "It'll be a week before this crowd gets off!"
"Jayell," said Mrs. Metcalf, taking his arm, "I hate to say it, but I may be allergic to that paint you're using in there. I got real dizzy headed."
"Oh, damn," said Jayell, "I'll bet they're using the wrong paint. I got special nonallergenic paint for this house. Don't you worry, Mrs. Metcalf, I'll have it all redone while you're gone."
"Oh, thank you," said Mrs. Metcalf, greatly relieved. "You know, not everyone understands about my allergies, Jayell."
"I do," nodded Jayell sympathetically, "I do." He helped her aboard the bus.
Mr. Burroughs turned to Mr. Rampey. "Lester, would you kindly give your horn another squeeze for me?"
Mr. Rampey obliged, and revved the engine a couple of times to boot.
Farette shooed Ruby on the bus ahead of her. "Get on Ruby, I can't stand this racket!"
"You sure you counted them lunch boxes right, now?"
"I counted 'em," said Ruby. "Wait a minute, I left my pocket book on the steps."
"Woody!" shouted Mr. Burroughs. "Where's Woodall?"
"He's tryin' to find the door on the other side of the bus," called Mr. Rampey, "you better come around and get him."
"Jayell," said Mr. Jurgen, "I don't like to complain, but don't you think those steps are a bit steep for these old people?"
"I think maybe you're right," said Jayell. "I'll take care of it."
One by one they got aboard the bus and selected a seat. That is, all except Mrs. Porter, who went from one to another trying to find one that would suit her for the long ride, and figuring which side the sun would be on so it wouldn't shine in her eyes. Mr. Burroughs came around the hood leading Mr. Woodall, who eyed the elusive door as though suspecting some vague conspiracy. He broke free and hastened through it before it could get away from him again.
"You sure you won't come with us, boy," said Mr. Burroughs.
"No, sir," I said, avoiding Jayell's and Phaedra's eyes, "but you be sure and give Miss Esther my love."
"I still think it's foolishness," said Mrs. Cline, huffing up the incline with her camera, "to just go barreling off up the country without even lettin' anybody know we're comin'!"
"They'll know when we get there," said Mr. Burroughs, "get aboard, please."
"What?" laughed Phaedra, incredulous. "You mean they don't even know you're coming? Why, what if that son of hers won't let her go?"
Mr. Burroughs jutted his head forward, lowering his brows menacingly. "Then it'll be his duty to try and stop us, won't it!" He swung aboard the bus as Mr. Rampey scraped his way to low gear. "My most fervent prayer," he roared above the noise, "is that the son of a bitch will try!" And with the long sweep of an executioner's arm, he shut the door with a bang.
The bus rattled off down the hillânarrowly missing trees and dodging workers, hats and handkerchiefs waving out of the windowsâand assaulted the Atlanta highway.
Jayell shook his head. "God help anybody that tries to stop that crowd."
"You know," said Phaedra, "I think I understand it now, for the first time."
"Why young girls fall in love with old men." She made a little growl in her throat and turned a mischievous smile on a puzzled Jayell.
I was walking the bike cart around from behind the lumber pile. Jayell came to take a handlebar and help me.
"Well, Earl," he said, "I guess there's no changing your mind?"
""No," I said. I got aboard the bike.
"I still don't understand why you've got to go," said Phaedra, "just when things are finally working out."
"They've worked out for you," I said. "You've all got what you wanted. I still don't know what I want, and I just want to bum around awhile and try and find out."
"At fifteen?" she said. "Come on, Earl."
"I know . . . IâI just don't want to stay here any longer." I rocked down on the starter and revved the engine, eager to be away.
"But what about school? There's a law, you know."
"There's plenty of time," I said, "and I know how to stay away from the law." I grinned at Jayell. "They won't even know I'm alive."
Well," said Jayell, "your life's been so screwed up to this point it's no wonder you don't know what you want to do. Go on, look around, Early boy, it won't do you any harm. There's a thing inside all of us trying to tell us what we are. You listen to yours. You'll know in time. But do think about school again. I don't know what life's got for you, but it's not here in these quarries and mills. Maybe you'll find it there. Besides," he added with a wry grin, "you can take my word for it as one who knowsâyou'll never make a living with those hands."
"I'll remember that," I said, grinning.
I shook hands with Jayell and grabbed Phaedra and kissed her hard on the mouth and rolled off down the hill.
The store was stripped of its merchandise. Every shelf was bare. The meat cases and drink box stood empty, their doors thrown open and airing. The vegetable bins held only a few scattered pods and shucks. Balls of trash littered the floor.
Tio brought out a box of groceries and set it in the cart. "That's all I could put aside," he said. "Maybe last you a couple of weeks if you eat light and stretch it."
"They really cleaned you out, didn't they?"
He shook his head. "I never saw anything like it. They'd have bought the kitchen stove if they could'a got it. It'll take a month to get the place restocked. You need some gas? Here, pull over to the pumps and I'll squeeze you out what's left."
"I don't need any. Got a full tank."
Tio looked me over. He peered in the cart. "You got a coat? You gon' freeze on that bike come winter. I got one upstairs I never wear, I'll get It for you."
"No, I'm all right." I pulled Em's old army blanket out of the cart and showed him where I had cut a hole in the middle to make a poncho out of it. "See? I'm just fine."
He thought a minute and took off his trademark, his hat with the square holes in the crown, and set it on my head. He stood back and clapped his hands. "Now, ain't you some dude!"
"You'll be dead of pneumonia in a week," I said.
"Well," he said, folding his arms, "which way you goin'?"
It came to me for the first time that I hadn't even given it a thought. I thought quickly, as Tio would expect at least a direction. I looked around, trying to visualize land beyond the familiar terrain, realizing for the first time how small were the borders of childhood.
"Just away will do for now," I said.
Tio shook his head. "I might'a known." He was about to say something else when he was interrupted by a shrill, panic-stricken cry from the rear of the store.
Racing around the corner together, we came upon Mr. Teague, his head bandages loose and hanging, dangling upside down with his legs caught in the automatic freight elevator that had risen to the second floor.
Tio put his hands on his hips. "Mist' Teague, you sposed to be lyin' down!"
Tio went to the derrick and began shifting levers and sorting chains. "I told you not to try and work this thing. What you call yourself doin' anyhow?"
"Trying to get that load of produce off this dock before it rots, like you were told to do an hour ago!"
"I told you I'd get it in," said Tio petulantly, paying out chain. "Don't know what I'm gon' do with you."
"You're going to kill us, that's what!" cried Mr. Teague, groping frantically for the floor. "You will succeed where Bobo and all his cutthroats failed! I have every confidence!"
"Well, you two don't need me anymore," I said.
"Hey," called Tio, "if youâuhâhappen to run acrost anybody we know, tell him I said hello."
"I'll do that," I said, backing. It was hard enough, leaving, and he wasn't making it any easier.
"Andâif you ever need anythingâwell, you know where we live."
I waved, and rounded the corner.
The trees whipped by in the morning hills, making the sun flash and sparkle as it came chasing and dancing like a hound along the crests of the smoky ridges. The road swung perilously around the tight, narrow curves, but I held the throttle wide open, even through the blinding pools of fog that still lay deep in the hollows. The aged bike trembled and shuddered with the strain as we severed the mists of the Georgia hills and lunged through the breaking morning.
Away now. Just away, and quickly.
For already they were fading, those times of childhood creeks, of gulley fortresses and vine-covered banks, of blue steel dawns and amber afternoons.
Had they been real, those bright, illusive images that drifted, even now, so distantly across my mind? Was there ever a time when I actually touched themâand was so sure they would never end? Or were they only dreamsâas Jayell said, the ravings of angels, a kind of lyric madness that flashes for a moment, and jades with the echoes of their cries.
That gave Jayell the courage to build his fantasy village, his place, in a conformist world he couldn't accept? That made Mr. Teague and Tio believe they could keep their small world intact amid the change that erupted and swirled around them? That stirred Miss Esther and a house of forgotten old people to do battle with time itself?
Only dreams, with which an Indian opened to sunlight and whistling adventure and unthinking joy the shrouded mind of a sick and frightened boy?
If so, could I stay there and watch it all fade away? Could I be there for the word, that might already be on its way, that my friend, Em Jojohn, had died?
No, I had to be gone while those houses still stood at Wolf Mountain, while the old folks still pulsed with their thunder and fire, while
TEAGUE & SON
's grocery still thrived.
Let Jojohn always be free in my mind to wander his rainswept highways and holler down his ghosts, to pamper his fraudulent stomach (and fight and love on his own terms too!), to sleep where he could, leave when he would, do his crazy dance and chant his wordless song and kick off his boots, on the proper excuse, to feel the dew and get his bare feet in the earth.
Away now. While I still dared to believe in dreams.
While I still could hear the angels cry.