XVIII - The Magic Box
THE SaTURDaY NIGHT OF THE ZEPHYR aRTS COUNCIL aWaRDS ceremony arrived. We all put on our Sunday clothes, jammed into the pickup truck, and headed for the library. My fright level, which had been hovering around eight on a scale of ten, now moved past nine. During the week, my so-called buddies had been telling me what might happen when I got up to read my story. If their predictions came true, I would break out in hives, pee in my pants, and lose my dinner from both ends in one simultaneous rush of shame and agony. Davy Ray had told me that to be safe I ought to put a cork in my butt. Ben had said I'd better be careful walking up to the podium in front of all those people, because that's when likely I'd have my accident. Johnny said he'd known a boy who got up to read something in front of people and he forgot how to read right then and there, had started babbling in what sounded like Greek or Zulu.
Well, I'd decided against the cork. But when I saw the lights on in the library and all the cars parked out front, I started regretting my decision. Mom put her arm around my shoulder. "You're gonna do just fine," she said.
"Yep," Dad said. He was wearing his father's face again, but he had dark hollows under his eyes and I'd heard Mom telling him he might need to start taking some Geritol. She knew something was wrong, of course, but she didn't know how deep the troubled current ran. "Just fine," he told me.
The library's meeting room was full of chairs, and at the front there was a table and the dreaded podium. Worse yet, there was a microphone at that podium! about forty people occupied the chairs, and Mayor Swope, Mrs. Prathmore, Mr. Grover Dean, and some of the other contest judges were moving around hobnobbing. I wanted to shrivel up and squeeze into a corner when Mayor Swope saw us and started walking over, but Dad placed his hand on my shoulder and I stood my ground.
"Hi there, Cory!" Mayor Swope smiled, but his eyes were wary. I figured he thought I might go crazy at any second. "You ready to read your story tonighti"
No sir, I wanted to say. "Yes sir," was what came out.
"Well, I think we're gonna have a good turnout." His attention went to my folks. "I suspect you two are awfully proud of your boy."
"We sure are," Mom said. "There's never been a writer in the family."
"He's surely got the imagination for it." Mayor Swope smiled again; it was a very tight smile. "By the way, Cory: I got my hat out of my closet to get it reshaped. You don't happen to know what became of the-"
"Luther!" a voice interrupted. "Just the man I need to see!"
Mr. Dollar, all dressed up in a dark blue suit and smelling of aqua Velva, pushed up beside the mayor. I was never so relieved to see anyone in my life. "Yes, Perryi" Mayor Swope asked, turning away from me.
"Luther, you've gotta do somethin' about that dang-goned monkey!" Mr. Dollar insisted. "That thing got on my roof last night and neither me nor Ellen could sleep a wink for all the racket it was makin'! The thing even did its business all over my car! I swear, there's gotta be a way to catch it!"
ah, Lucifer. The monkey was still loose in the trees of Zephyr, and woe to the occupant of the house on whose roof Lucifer chose to squat. Because of the resulting furor and threatened lawsuits for property damage, Reverend Blessett had slinked out of town in mid-august and left no forwarding address.
"If you come up with a good idea, you let me know," Mayor Swope answered with a hint of irritation. "Short of askin' the air Force boys to drop a bomb on the town, just about everythin's been tried."
"Maybe Doc Lezander can catch it, or we can pay somebody from a zoo to come in here and..." Mr. Dollar was still talking as Mayor Swope moved away, and Mr. Dollar followed him, prattling about the monkey. My folks and I took our seats, and I fidgeted as more people entered the room. Dr. Parrish came in with his wife, and lo and behold the Demon sashayed in with her fireplug mother and candlestick dad. I tried to shrink down in my chair, but she saw me and waved gleefully. Luckily there were no vacant chairs around us, or I'd have walked up to the podium with a booger on the back of my neck. Then my senses got another shock as Johnny Wilson and his parents came in. It wasn't two minutes later that Ben and his mother and dad entered, with Davy Ray and his folks close behind them. I was going to have to brave their leering mugs, but in truth I was glad to see them. as Ben had once told me, they were good old buddies.
It must be said that the people of Zephyr were supportive of their own. Either that, or there wasn't much good on television on Saturday nights. a closet was opened and more folding chairs brought out. The crowd hushed for a few seconds as Vernon Thaxter, wearing only the last shade of his summer tan, strode into the room with a big smile on his face. But people were used to Vernon by now, and they'd learned where to look and where not to. "That feller's still nekkid, Momma!" the Demon pointed out, but except for a few muffled chuckles and flushed faces, nobody made a scene. Vernon pulled a chair into a corner at the back of the room and sat there, contented as a cow. Bull, I mean.
By the time Mayor Swope and Mrs. Prathmore took a box full of plaques up to the table at the front, there were around seventy lovers of fine literature present. Mr. Grover Dean, a slender man of middle age who wore a neatly combed brown wig and round glasses with silver frames, went to the front, carrying a satchel, and he sat down at the table with the mayor and Mrs. Prathmore. He unzipped the satchel and slid out a stack of papers that I presumed were the winning entries in the three categories of short story, essay, and poetry.
Mayor Swope got up and tapped the microphone at the podium. He was greeted with a squeal of feedback and a noise like an elephant breaking wind, which brought a chorus of guffaws and made Mayor Swope motion for the man who operated the sound system. Everybody quietened at last, the microphone was adjusted, and the mayor cleared his throat and was about to speak when a ripple of whispers crossed the audience. I looked back toward the door, and my pounding heart leaped like a catfish. The Lady had just walked in.
She was dressed in violet, with a pillbox hat and gloves. There was a veil of fine netting over her face. She looked frail, her bluish-black arms and legs as thin as sticks. Supporting her with an ever-so-discreet hand to her elbow was Charles Damaronde, he of the massive shoulders and werewolf's eyebrows. Walking three steps behind the Lady was the Moon Man, carrying his cane and wearing a shiny black suit and a red necktie. He was hatless, his dark-and-light-divided face and forehead there for all to see.
I think you could've heard a pin drop. Or, more precisely, a booger fall from the Demon's nose. "Oh my," Mom whispered. Dad shifted nervously in his chair, and I believe he might've gotten up and walked out if he hadn't had to stay for me.
The Lady scanned the audience from behind her veil. all the chairs were taken. I got a quick glimpse of her green eyes-just a glint-but it was enough to make me think I smelled steamy earth and swamp flowers. Then, suddenly, Vernon Thaxter stood up and with a bow offered his chair to her. She said, "Thank you, sir," in her quavery voice and sat down, and Vernon remained standing at the back of the room while Charles Damaronde and the Moon Man stood on either side of the elegant Lady. a few people-not many, only five or six-got up not to offer their chairs but to stalk out. They weren't scared of her like Dad was; it was their indignation that black people had entered a room full of whites without asking permission. We all knew that, and the Lady did, too. It was the time we lived in.
"I guess we can get started," Mayor Swope began. He kept looking around at the crowd, then toward the Lady and the Moon Man, back to the crowd again. "I want to welcome you all to the awards ceremony of the 1964 Zephyr arts Council Writing Contest. First off, I'd like to thank every one of the participants, without whom there could be no contest."
Well, it went on like that for a while. I might have drowsed off if I hadn't been so full of ants. Mayor Swope introduced all the judges and the arts Council members, and then he introduced Mr. Quentin Farraday, from the adams Valley Journal, who was there to take pictures and interview the winners. Finally, Mayor Swope sat down and Mrs. Prathmore took his place at the podium to call up the third-place winner in the essay division. an elderly woman named Delores Hightower shuffled up, took her essay from Mr. Dean, and read to the audience for fifteen minutes about the joys of an herb garden, then she was given her plaque and she sat down again. The first-place essay, by a beefy, gap-toothed man named George Eagers, concerned the time he had a flat tire near Tuscaloosa and the one and only Bear Bryant had stopped to ask him if he needed some help, thus proving the Bear's divinity.
The poetry division was next. Imagine my surprise when the Demon's mother stood up to read the second-place poem. This was part of it: "Rain, rain, go away,"/ said the sun, on a summer day./ "I have lots of shinin' to do yet,/ and those dark clouds make me get/ To cryin'." She read it with such emotion, I feared she was going to get to crying and rain on the whole room. The Demon and her father applauded so loud at the end of it, you'd have thought it was the Second Coming.
The first-place poem, by a little wrinkled old lady named Helen Trotter, was in essence a love letter, the first rhyme of which was: "He's always there to show he cares,/ whatever's right, that's what he dares," and the last rhyme: "Oh, how I love to see the smiling face/ Of our great state governor, George C. Wal-lace."
"Groan," Dad whispered. The Lady, Charles Damaronde, and the Moon Man were gracious enough to make no public comment.
"and now," Mrs. Prathmore announced, "we move into the short-story division."
I needed that cork. I needed it bad.
"This year we have the youngest winner ever on record since we began this contest in 1955. We had a little difficulty deciding if his entry was a short story or essay, since it's based on an actual event, but in the end we decided he showed enough flair and descriptive imagination to consider it a short story. Now, welcome if you will, our third-place winner, reading his story entitled 'Before the Sun': Cory Mackenson." Mrs. Prathmore led the applause. Dad said, "Go get 'em," to me, and somehow I stood up.
as I walked to the podium in a trance of terror, I heard Davy Ray giggling and then a soft pop as his dad cuffed him on the back of the neck. Mr. Dean gave me my story, and Mrs. Prathmore bent the microphone down so it could gather my voice. I looked out at that sea of faces; they all seemed to blur together, into a collective mass of eyes, noses, and mouths. I had a sudden fright: was my zipper upi Did I dare to look and seei I caught sight of the Journal photographer, his bulky camera poised. My heart was beating like the wings of a caged bird. Queasiness roiled in my belly, but I knew that if I threw up, I could never again face the light of day. Somebody coughed and somebody else cleared his throat. all eyes were on me, and in my hands the paper was shaking.
"Go ahead, Cory," Mrs. Prathmore urged.
I looked at the title, and I started to read it, but what felt like a spiny egg seemed to be lodged in my throat where the words were formed. Darkness lapped around the edges of my vision; was I about to pass out in front of all these peoplei Wouldn't that make a dandy front-page picture for the Journali My eyes rolled back in my head, my body tumbling for the floor, my underpants white in the maw of my open zipperi
"Just take your time," Mrs. Prathmore said, and in her voice I heard her nerves starting to shred.
My eyes, which felt as if they were about to burst from my head, danced over the audience. I saw Davy Ray, Ben, and Johnny. None of them were grinning anymore; this was a bad sign. I saw Mr. George Eagers look at his wristwatch; another bad sign. I heard some malicious monster whisper, "He's scared, poor little boy!"
I saw the Lady rise to her feet at the back of the room. Behind her veil her gaze was cool and placid, like still green waters. She lifted her chin, and that movement spoke a single word: Courage.
I pulled in a breath. My lungs rattled like a freight train crossing a rickety bridge. I was here; this was my moment. I had to go on, for better or worse.
I said, "'Before the-'" My voice, thunderous through the microphone, shocked me silent again. Mrs. Prathmore placed her hand against my back, as if to steady me. "'-Sun,'" I went on. "By C-C-Cory Mackenson."
I started reading. I knew the words; I knew the story. My voice seemed to belong to someone else, but the story was part of me. as I continued on, from sentence to sentence, I was aware that the coughing and throat clearing had ceased. No one was whispering. I read the story as if traveling a trail through a familiar woods; I knew the way to go, and this was a comfort. I dared to glance up again at the audience, and when I did I felt it.
This was to be my first experience with it, and like any first experience, the feeling stays with you forever. What this was exactly I can't say, but it drove into my soul and made a home there. Everyone was watching me; everyone was listening to me. The words coming out of my mouth-the words I'd conceived and given birth to-were making time null and void; they were bringing together a roomful of people into a journey of common sights, sounds, and thoughts; they were leaving me and traveling into the minds and memories of people who had never been at Saxon's Lake that chill, early morning in March. I could tell when I looked at them that those people were following me. and the greatest thing-the very greatest thing-is that they wanted to go where I led them.
all this, of course, I reasoned out much later. What struck me at the moment, beside getting to the end, was how quiet and still everybody had become. I had found the key to a time machine. I had discovered a current of power I'd never dreamed I possessed. I had found a magic box, and it was called a typewriter.
That voice coming out of me seemed to get stronger. It seemed to speak with expression and clarity rather than being a mumbled drone, which is how it had begun. I was amazed and elated. I actually-wonder of wonders-was enjoying reading aloud.
I reached the final sentence, and ran out of story.
My mother started applauding first. Then my dad, and the others in the room. I saw the Lady's violet-gloved hands clapping. The applause felt good; but it wasn't nearly as good as that feeling of leading people on a journey and them trusting you to know the way. Tomorrow I might want to be a milkman like Dad, or a jet pilot or a detective, but at that instant I wanted to be a writer more than anything on earth.
I accepted my plaque from Mayor Swope. When I sat down, people around me clapped me on the back, and I could tell by the way my mom and dad smiled that they were proud of me. I didn't mind that my name was misspelled on the plaque. I knew who I was.
The second-place winner, by Mr. Terrence Hosmer, was about a farmer trying to outsmart a flock of ravens after his corn crop. The first-place winner, by Mrs. ada Yearby, concerned the midnight kneeling down of the animals at the birth of Jesus Christ. Then Mayor Swope thanked everyone for coming and said that we could all go home. On the way out, Davy Ray, Johnny, and Ben swarmed around me, and I believe I got more attention than even Mrs. Yearby. The Demon's mother waddled up to congratulate me, and she looked at my mother with her broad, mustached face and said, "You know, Brenda's birthday party is next Saturday and Brenda sure would like your boy to be there. You know, I wrote that poem for Brenda, 'cause she's a real sensitive child. Would your boy come to Brenda's birthday partyi He don't have to bring no present or nothin'."
Mom looked at me for a cue. I saw the Demon, standing with her father across the room. The Demon waved at me and sniggered. Davy Ray elbowed me in the ribs; he didn't know how close he was to getting killed. I said, "Gee, Mrs. Sutley, I think I might have some chores to do at home on Saturday. Don't I, Momi"
Mom, God love her, was quick. "Yes, you sure do! You've got to cut the grass and help your father paint the porch."
"Huhi" Dad said.
"It's got to be done," Mom told him. "Saturday's the only day we can all work on it together."
"and maybe I can get some guys to help," I offered, which made my buddies find wings on their feet.
"Well, if you wanna come to Brenda's party, she sure would like it. She's havin' her relatives over and all." Mrs. Sutley gave me a defeated smile. She knew. Then she returned to the Demon and said something to her and the Demon gave me that exact same smile. I felt like a heel on a dung-stained boot. But I couldn't encourage the Demon, I just couldn't! It was inhuman to ask me to. and oh brother, I could just imagine what the Demon's relatives must be like! That group would make the Munsters appear lovely.
We were almost out the door when a quiet voice spoke: "Tomi Tom Mackensoni"
My dad stopped and turned around.
He was in the presence of the Lady.
She was smaller than I remembered. She barely stood to my father's shoulders. But there was a strength in her that ten men couldn't have matched; you could see the force of life in her as you can see it in a weathered tree that has bent before the winds of countless storms. She had approached us without Mr. Damaronde or the Moon Man, who stood waiting at a distance.
"Hello again," Mom said. The Lady nodded at her. My dad wore the expression of a man trapped in a dark closet with a tarantula. His eyes were skittering around, searching for a way out, but he was too much of a gentleman to be rude to her.
"Tom Mackenson," she repeated. "You and your wife sure have raised a talented boy."
"I... we... we've done our best, thank you."
"and such a good speaker," the Lady went on. She smiled at me. "You've done well," she said.
"Thank you, ma'am."
"How's that bicycle doin'i"
"Fine. I named it 'Rocket.'"
"That's a nice name."
"Yes ma'am. and..." Tell her, I decided. "and it's got an eyeball in the headlight."
Her brows lifted, ever so slightly. "Is that a facti"
"Cory!" Dad scolded. "Don't make up such things!"
"Seems to me," the Lady said, "a boy's bicycle needs to see where it's goin'. Needs to see whether there's a clear road or trouble ahead. Seems to me a boy's bicycle needs some horse in it, and some deer, and maybe even a touch of rep-tile. For cleverness, don't you knowi"
"Yes ma'am," I agreed. She knew Rocket, all right.
"That was kind of you to give Cory a bike," Dad said to her. "I'm not one to accept charity, but-"
"Oh, it wasn't charity, Mr. Mackenson. It was repayment for a good deed. Mrs. Mackenson, is there anythin' at your house that Mr. Lightfoot needs to fixi"
"No, I think everythin's workin' just fine."
"Well," she said, and she stared at my father. "You never know when things are likely to suffer a breakdown."
"It was good to see you, Mrs... uh... Lady." Dad took my mother's elbow. "We'd better be gettin' on home now."
"Mr. Mackenson, we have some matters to discuss," the Lady said as we all started moving away. "I believe you understand when I say they're matters of life and deathi"
Dad stopped. I saw a muscle in his jaw work. He didn't want to turn back to her, but she was pulling at him. Maybe he felt her life force-her raw, primal power-heat up a notch, just as I did. He seemed to want to take another step away from her, but he just couldn't do it.
"Do you believe in Jesus Christ, Mr. Mackensoni" the Lady asked.
This question broke through his final barricade. He turned around to face her. "Yes, I do," he said solemnly.
"as do I. Jesus Christ was as perfect as a human bein' can be, yet he got mad and fought and wept and had days of feelin' like he couldn't go on another step. Like when the lepers and the sick folks almost trampled him down, all of 'em beggin' for miracles and doggin' him till he was about miracled out. What I'm sayin', Mr. Mackenson, is that even Jesus Christ needed help sometimes, and he wasn't too proud to ask for it."
"I don't need..." He let it go.
"You see," the Lady said, "I believe everybody has visions, now and again. I believe it's part of the human animal. We have these visions-these little snippets of the big quilt-but we can't figure out where they fit, or why. Most times they come in dreams, when you're sleepin'. Sometimes you can dream awake. Just about everybody has 'em, only they can't fathom the meanin'. Seei"
"No," Dad said.
"Oh yes, you do." She raised a reedy finger. "Folks get all wrapped up in the sticky tape of this world, makes 'em blind, deaf, and dumb to what's goin' on in the other one."
"The other onei Other whati"
"The other world across the river," she answered. "Where that man at the bottom of Saxon's Lake is callin' to you from."
"I don't want to hear any more of this." But he didn't move.
"Callin' you," she repeated. "I'm hearin' him, too, and he's wreckin' my damn sleep, and I'm an old woman who needs some peace." She took a step closer to my father, and her eyes had him. "That man needs to tell who killed him before he can pass on. Oh, he's tryin', he's tryin' mighty hard, but he can't give us a name or a face. all he can give us are those little snippets of the big quilt. If you were to come see me, and let's us put our thinkin' caps on, maybe we could start sewin' those snippets together. Then you could get a good night's sleep again, so could I, and he could go on where he belongs. Better still: we could catch us a killer, if there's a killer here to be caught."
"I don't... believe in... that kind of non-"
"Believe it or don't believe it, that's your choice," the Lady interrupted. "But when that dead man comes callin' on you tonight-and he will-you won't have any choice but to hear him. and my advice to you, Mr. Mackenson, is that you ought to start listenin'."
Dad started to say something; his mouth opened, but his tongue couldn't jimmy the words out.
"Excuse me," I said to the Lady. "I wanted to ask you... if you've been... like... havin' any other dreams."
"Oh, most all the time," she said. "Trouble is, at my age, most all my dreams are reruns."
"Well... I was wonderin' if... you've been havin' any dreams about four girls."
"Four girlsi" she asked.
"Yes ma'am. Four girls. You know. Dark, like you. and they're all dressed up, like it's a Sunday."
"No," she said. "I can't say that I have."
"I dream about 'em a lot. Not every night, but a lot. What do you suppose it meansi"
"Snippet of a quilt," she said. "Could be somethin' you already know, but you don't know you know."
"Might not be spirits talkin'," she explained. "Might just be your ownself, tryin' to figure somethin' out."
"Oh," I said. This must be why the Lady was picking up Dad's dreams but not mine; mine were not the ghosts of the past, but a shadow of the future.
"You'll have to come over to Bruton and see our new museum when it's done," the Lady said to Mom. "We've raised money to start buildin' onto the recreation center. Should be finished in a couple of months. Gonna have a nice exhibition room."
"I've heard about it," Mom said. "Good luck."
"Thank you. Well, I'll let you know when the openin' ceremony's gonna be. Remember what I've told you, Mr. Mackenson." She offered her violet-gloved hand, and my father took it. He might be fearful of the Lady, but he was first and foremost a gentleman. "You know where I live."
The Lady rejoined her husband and Mr. Damaronde, then they walked out into the warm, still night. We went out soon after them, and we saw them drive away in not the rhinestone Pontiac but a plain blue Chevrolet. The last of the attendees were talking on the sidewalk, and they took the time to tell me again how much they'd enjoyed my reading. "Keep up the good work!" Mr. Dollar said, and then I heard him brag to another man, "You know, I cut his hair. Yessir, I've been cuttin' that boy's hair for years!"
We drove home. I kept my plaque on my lap, clenched with both hands. "Momi" I asked. "What kind of museum's gonna be in Brutoni They gonna have dinosaur bones and stuffi"
"Nope," my father told me. "It's gonna be a civil rights exhibit. I guess they'll have letters and papers and pictures, that kind of thing."
"Slave artifacts is what I hear," Mom said. "Like leg chains and brandin' irons, would be my guess. Lizbeth Sears told me she heard the Lady sold that big Pontiac and donated the money toward the buildin' costs."
"I'll bet whoever burned that cross in her front yard isn't exactly whistlin' 'Dixie' about this," Dad observed. "The Klan'll have somethin' to say, that's for sure."
"I think it's a good thing," Mom said. "I think they need to know where they've been to know where they're goin'."
"Yeah, I know where the Klan wishes they'd go, too." Dad slowed down and turned the pickup truck onto Hilltop Street. I caught a glimpse of the Thaxter mansion through the trees, its windows streaming with light. "She had a hard grip," Dad said, almost to himself. "The Lady, I mean." We knew who he was talking about. "Had a hard grip. and it was like she was lookin' right into me, and I couldn't stop her from seein' things that-" He seemed to realize we were still there, and he abruptly canceled that line of thought.
"I'll go with you," Mom offered, "if you want to go see her. I'll stay right by your side the whole time. She wants to help you. I wish you'd let her."
He was silent. We were nearing the house. "I'll think about it," he said, which was his way of saying he didn't want to hear any more talk about the Lady.
Dad might know where the Lady lived, and he might need her help to exorcise the spirit that called to him from the bottom of Saxon's Lake, but he wasn't ready yet. Whether he was ever going to be ready or not, I didn't know. It was up to him to take the first step, and nobody could make him do it. I had to concern myself with other problems for now: the dream of the four black girls, the Demon's crush on me, how I was going to survive Leatherlungs, and what I was going to write about next.
and the green feather. always the green feather, its unanswered questions taunting me from one of the seven mystic drawers.
That night, Dad hung the plaque on a wall in my room for me, right over the magic box. It looked nice, up there between the pictures of a large fellow with bolts in his neck and a dark-caped individual with prominent teeth.
I had been charged with power and tasted life tonight. I had taken my own first step, however awkward, to wherever I was going. This feeling of sheer exhilaration might fade, might wane under the weight of days and dimmish in the river of time; but on this night, this wonderful never-to-be-again night, it was alive.
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