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Authors: R. J. Ellory

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Candlemoth (10 page)

BOOK: Candlemoth
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    I
think back now, all of us standing there, the Reverend, the witch who ate her
husband, the black kid who floored Marty Hooper in Benny's, and the white
misfit, the gangly pale-skinned youth holding this tiny colored girl. I see it
now as if it were a photograph, and it makes me think of how it should have
been all along. We were the universal family, and there was no difference, and
no separate language, and we all breathed the same air and ate the same food and
shared the same grief.

    It
was a day that went on forever, and I still believe now, in my heart of hearts,
that we all carried a little of that day for the rest of our lives.

    

      

    In
December of 1963 my father had a stroke. He would live for another year, a
little more, but he would never fully recover his speech. My mother was an
anchor, a tower of strength for both him and myself, and without her I believe
he would have died much sooner. The Carolina Company gave him an allowance, a
generous one for all the years he'd served, and even after he died they
continued to pay that allowance to my mother. She went through the motions for
another handful of years, but she was never the same. The spirit that was my
mother had left with her husband, and even as she spoke, even as she helped me
deal with the difficulties I would later experience, I could see so clearly her
pain, her loss, her longing to be once again beside him in whatever hereafter
may exist. Almost as if she was merely awaiting my permission, some sign of my
own independence to surface so she could let go. Let go in the knowledge that I
could care for myself.

    I
think it was in that year that I ceased to be a child and started to become a
man. Nathan went with me on that awkward painful journey into adulthood. I
seemed to strain at the leashes of the past: those lost summer days where we
sat at the edge of Lake Marion with string and bamboo and mischievous thoughts.
The County Fair. The football field. The smell of summer mimosa down Nine Mile
Road. And Caroline Lanafeuille, heart of my heart, soul of my soul, light of my
life and star of my heaven.

    I was
approaching my eighteenth birthday, talk of the
situation
in Vietnam
became ever more prevalent, and Nathan Verney and I sensed trouble on its way.

    

Chapter Five

    

    Today
is Thursday.

    Today
we eat creamed beef on toast. Shit on a shingle they call it, and though shit
on a shingle is something I cannot recall eating before, creamed beef on toast
is a good enough approximation.

    While
I eat Mr. Timmons speaks to me. He tells me a minister will come down to talk
to me today. It is part of the process. Learning how to die I think.

    Mr.
Timmons tells me his wife has been admitted to North Carolina State Hospital.
She has deep vein thrombosis. He tells me she carries too much weight for her
height. He is worried. I feel his worry but there is little I can say. I can
tell that he loves her dearly, and much as my own mother found it difficult to
continue without my father, so Mr. Timmons will find it difficult if his wife
dies. I honestly hope she will recover. Mr. Timmons deals with enough death
already.

    The
minister I will meet. I will speak with him. I will listen to what he has to
say. Personally I think we keep coming back 'til we get it right. I don't believe
in Heaven, and Hell would be so crowded I don't think such a place could exist.
The minister will challenge me, tell me that I have to have
faith,
the
implication being that I have none.

    I do
have faith.

    I
have faith in the truth.

    I have
faith that the sun will rise and set.

    I
have faith that the spirit of Nathan Verney lives and breathes and walks the
world, and one day I will meet him.

    I
have faith in the fact that I am going to die.

    I
recall something then, something that occurred soon after Kennedy's death, and
even as Mr. Timmons returns to his duties I see Nathan's face once more.

    I
close my eyes.

    For
some reason I feel calm inside.

    The
world seems silent, patient perhaps, as if time is being afforded me to reminisce,
to address my own life, to make some sense of it all before it is complete.

    So be
it, I think.

    Grateful
for small mercies.

    

    

    In
March of 1964 Jack Ruby went to Death Row. He'd been found guilty of the first
degree murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the mystical and impressive man who, with
no training or experience, had fired three shots into JFK's motorcade and
killed the King. Despite the complete impossibility of replicating this feat,
even with the highest trained FBI and military marksmen, the Warren Commission,
led by the same man who had earlier been sacked by Jack Kennedy, would complete
their report, their beautiful whitewash, and announce that it would always and
forever be nothing more than a lone gunman.

    I
never believed it. Hadn't believed it from the first.

    In
April Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win an Oscar. He won it for
a film called
Lilies of the Field.
At first it seemed some progress was
being made, but two months later Martin Luther King was back in the Big House
for trying to enforce racial integration in a restaurant in Florida.

    Later
that same month three Civil Rights workers went missing. They would soon be
found dead.

    In
July, Lyndon B. Johnson, the new President of the United States, signed the
Civil Rights Act, a sweeping condemnation of segregated restaurants and buses
and railroad stations and hotels, an Act that denied the right of any man to
choose color as a preference in employment or position.

    Nathan
and Reverend Verney led a congregation of hundreds that day, but later Nathan
told me he didn't think the promised changes would really come within his
lifetime.

    He
didn't know how right he was, though never in the way he intended.

    I
turned eighteen. I was still a virgin. This caused me a deep-seated sense of
concern. As the fall of '64 unfolded I sensed my father's physical condition
worsening, and this served to take my attention away from my lack of sexual
conquest.

    I
watched him die then, through the latter part of October and into November and,
coincident with the Vietcong launching attacks at Bien Hoa and the declaration
of martial law in Saigon, my father the railroad man, the just and lawful
railroad man, slipped away silently.

    I
wanted to bury him in Reverend Verney's churchyard. My mother, understanding,
compassionate, said we could not. The Civil Rights Act 1964 hadn't yet reached
Greenleaf, North Carolina.

    In
February of 1965 Malcolm X was shot and killed and the U.S. started bombing
North Vietnam. In March LBJ sent the Marines in, and within weeks they were
pulling 35,000 recruits a month. Warren Myers, Max's son, was one of those who
went, willingly and with duty in his heart; the son of a man I wouldn't meet
for close on a decade. There was talk of conscription, the Draft, and Nathan
and I would meet and speak of these things - of the war, the promise of the
future, and the fact that we were not ready to die.

    I
don't believe I am a coward. I don't believe I was ever a coward. But the idea
of lying dead in some rain-swollen field in the middle of nowhere haunted me.

    I
remember something from the spring of that year. A man came back, a soldier. He
was older than us, perhaps twenty-three or twenty-four, but his face was that
of a man in his forties. His left leg was missing below the knee, and he walked
with help and a shoulder and a heavy-looking stick. The expression on his face
was one of perpetual sadness, as if he was always on the verge of tears. He had
been there, out there in Vietnam, and he came to Greenleaf to see his cousin
and his cousin brought him to Benny's.

    He
kept talking of the things they had to carry out there.

    Like
the things they carried determined who they were.

    He spoke
of things I didn't understand, this young man with his forty-year-old face.

    Things
called heat tabs, Kool Aid and C-Rations.

    He
spoke of a steel helmet with a liner and a camouflage cover; a steel-centered,
nylon-covered flak jacket; compress bandages and a plastic poncho. He described
an M-16, the cloth bandoliers filled with numerous magazines. He spoke of rods
and steel brushes and gun oil, fragmentation and phosphorus grenades, of
Claymore anti-personnel mines, and sometimes mosquito netting and canvas
tarpaulins. And then he told us there were items of choice, such as razors and
chewing gum, paper to write letters home, playing cards and lucky dice. He
spoke of a young man from Myrtle Beach - not a dozen miles from where we sat -
who carried a rabbit's foot on a string around his neck. Carried it until he
died in the arms of a twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant called Shelby White.

    We
listened, me and Nathan and others I don't recall, and we looked at one another
at moments with the same expression.

    Then,
even then, I knew what was coming, and the fear I'd felt a thousand years
before as I stood on a path with a fish in my hands was nothing compared to
what I was now feeling.

    Nathan
Verney felt it too.

    We
were one and the same, he and I, and I believe now that we knew what was going
to happen.

    And
it did. Not for some time, but it did.

    Like
a wave breaking for the shore, once started it cannot slow or stop or change
its direction.

    And it
was big, big enough to drown us both.

    

       

    After
my father's death and into the summer of 1965 I spent more time away from home,
as if I could see the burden my mother was carrying and did not possess the
strength to share it. I hung out at Benny's, I listened to the same scarred and
scratched records, and I watched for Caroline.

    She
would come down there perhaps once or twice a week, and she would sit with her
friends drinking soda and talking girl-talk. I would sit alone more often than
not, and sense her presence, and feel the distance between us, and remember the
Scotch-taped picture I had carried for so long. Where it was by then I didn't
know, but I could still feel its smooth surface between my fingers, still
recall the sense of longing that possessed me each time I looked at it.

    It
was at the end of July that she first spoke to me. Spoke to me directly. Her
friends had gathered as they ordinarily did, and then one by one they seemed to
fade away. I could not have said how they went, or when, but they did, and sure
enough I turned and saw Caroline seated alone at her table.

    I
tensed. I think I prayed a little. I rose from my stool at the counter and
walked nonchalantly towards her.

    She
turned as I came, and she smiled - Lord how she smiled. That same tilt of the
head, the way her hair fell sideways from her face, and the flicker of tension
around her lips before she let loose with such a radiant smile I could feel
sunshine breaking out.

    'Daniel
Ford,' she said.

    I nodded.

    'You
wanna come sit down?'

    I
nodded again.

    She
laughed. 'Cat got your tongue, Mister Ford?'

    'No,'
I replied, and slid along the seat facing hers.

    'Just
got the words with more than one syllable, right?'

    I
laughed. 'I'm sorry,' I said.

    'For
what?'

    I
shrugged. I didn't know what I was sorry for. Sorry for being a schmuck
perhaps.

    'I
was gonna get another soda,' she said. 'You want one?'

    I
nodded.

    'Yes,
Caroline,' she prompted.

    I
smiled. 'Yes, Caroline.'

    She
turned and waved her hand. Benny nodded from behind the counter and went about
his business.

    'So
how ya doing?' she asked.

    'I'm
okay,' I said. 'My father died you know?' I blushed. I didn't know why I'd said
that. It seemed idiotic, like I was trying to win her over with sympathy.

BOOK: Candlemoth
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