XI - I Get around
OUR PREDICTIONS OF THE FUTURE WERE CORRECT.
after the parental horror and the angry phone calls, Sheriff amory made a call on the Branlins. He did not, as he told my dad, find Gotha and Gordo at home. But he told their parents that the boys had broken Johnny Wilson's nose and come close to fracturing his skull, and this was what Mr. Branlin replied, with a shrug: "Well, Sheriff, I kinda figure boys will be boys. Might as well learn 'em when they're young that it's a tough old world."
Sheriff amory had clamped his anger down tight and stuck his finger in Mr. Branlin's rheumy-eyed face. "Now, you listen to me! You control those boys of yours before they end up in reform school! Either you do it or I will!"
"Don't matter none," Mr. Branlin had said as he sat in front of the television in a room where dirty shirts and socks were scattered around and Mrs. Branlin moaned about her bad back from the bedroom. "They ain't scared of me. ain't scared of nobody on earth. They'd burn a reform school smack to the ground."
"You tell 'em to come see me, or I'll come here and get 'em!"
Mr. Branlin, probing his molars with a toothpick, had just grunted and shaken his head. "You ever try to catch the wind, J.T.i Them boys are free spirits." He had lifted his gaze from the Calling-for-Cash afternoon movie and stared up at the sheriff, the toothpick between his teeth. "Say my two sons beat the asses of four other boysi Sounds to me like Gotha and Gordo were fightin' in self-defense. They'd have to be crazy to pick a fight with four boys at once, don't you figurei"
"It wasn't self-defense, from what I've heard."
"From what I've heard"-Mr. Branlin paused to examine a brown glob on the end of his toothpick-"that Mackenson boy threw a baseball at Gordo and came near breakin' his shoulder. Gordo showed me the bruise, and it's as black as the ace of spades. Those people want to push this thing, I reckon I might have to press charges against that Mackenson kid." The toothpick and the brown glob went back into his mouth. He returned his attention to the movie, which starred Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. "Yeah, those Mackensons go to church all high-and-mighty, and they teach their kid to throw a baseball at one of my boys and then whimper and whine when he gets his clock cleaned." He snorted. "Some Christians!"
In this matter, though, Sheriff amory prevailed. Mr. Branlin agreed to pay Dr. Parrish's bill and for the medicine Johnny was going to need. Gotha and Gordo had to sweep and mop the jail and couldn't go to the swimming pool for a week by order of the sheriff, which I knew, of course, simply stoked their rage at Davy Ray and me. I had to have six stitches to seal the gash on my lower lip-an experience almost as bad as getting the lip split in the first place-but Mr. Branlin refused to pay for it on account of my throwing the baseball at Gordo. My mother pitched a fury, but my father let it go. Davy Ray went to bed with an ice pack, his violet-bruised face looking like two miles of bad road. as I learned from my dad, Johnny's concussion was severe enough to put him on his back until Dr. Parrish gave him the green light, which might be a couple of weeks or more. Even when Johnny was back on his feet, he was not to do any running or roughhousing and he couldn't even ride his bike, which his father had rescued intact from beneath the bleachers. So the Branlins had done something even worse than beating us up: they'd stolen part of Johnny Wilson's summer away from him, and he would never again be twelve years old in June.
It was about this time that, sitting on my bed with my eyes puffed up and the curtains drawn against the stinging light, I put my stack of Famous Monsters magazines in my lap and began to cut out some of the pictures with scissors. Then I got a roll of Scotch tape and started taping the pictures up on my walls, on my desk, on my closet door, and just about anywhere that would hold adhesive. When I finished, my room was a monster museum. Staring down at me were Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera, Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Boris Karloff's Frankenstein and Mummy. My bed was surrounded by moody black and white scenes from Metropolis, London after Midnight, Freaks, The Black Cat, and The House on Haunted Hill. My closet door was a collage of beasts: Ray Harryhausen's Ymir battling an elephant, the monster spider stalking the Incredible Shrinking Man, Gorgo wading across the Thames, the scar-faced Colossal Man, the leathery Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Rodan in full flight. I had a special place above my desk-a place of honor, if you will-for Vincent Price's suave, white-haired Roderick Usher and Christopher Lee's lean and thirsty Dracula. My mother came in, saw what I had done, and had to hold on to the door's edge to keep from falling down. "Cory!" she said. "Take these awful pictures off the walls!"
"Whyi" I asked her, my lower lip straining against its stitches. "It's my room, isn't iti"
"Yes, but you'll have nightmares with these things starin' at you all the time!"
"No I won't," I said. "Honest."
She retreated graciously, and the pictures stayed up.
I had nightmares about the Branlins, but not about the creatures who adorned my walls. I took comfort in the belief that they were my watchdogs. They would not allow the Branlins to crawl through my window after me, and they spoke to me in the quiet hours of strength and endurance against a world that fears what it does not understand.
I was never afraid of my monsters. I controlled them. I slept with them in the dark, and they never stepped beyond their boundaries. My monsters had never asked to be bora with bolts in their necks, scaly wings, blood hunger in their veins, or deformed faces from which beautiful girls shrank back in horror. My monsters were not evil; they were simply trying to survive in a tough old world. They reminded me of myself and my friends: ungainly, unlovely, beaten but not conquered. They were the outsiders searching for a place to belong in a cataclysm of villagers' torches, amulets, crucifixes, silver bullets, radiation bombs, air force jets, and flamethrowers. They were imperfect, and heroic in their suffering.
I'll tell you what scared me.
One afternoon I picked up an old copy of Life from a stack of magazines Mom was about to throw out, and I sat on the porch and looked through it with Rebel sprawled beside me, the cicadas droning from the trees and the sky as still as a painting. In this magazine were photographs of what had happened in Dallas, Texas, in November of 1963. There were sunny pictures of the president and his wife in a long black convertible, and he was smiling and waving to the crowd. Then, in a blur, it all changed. Of course I had seen that guy Oswald get killed on television, and what I remembered about that was how small the shot had sounded, just a pop and not at all like the cannon booms of Matt Dillon's six-shooter on "Gunsmoke." I remembered how Oswald had cried out as he fell. I made a louder noise than that stubbing my toe on a rock.
as I looked at the photographs of President Kennedy's funeral-the riderless horse, the dead man's little boy saluting, rows of people standing to watch the coffin go past-I realized what to me was a peculiar and scary thing. In those pictures, you can see black pools spreading. Maybe it was just the light, or the film, or something, but those pictures seemed to me to be filling up with darkness. Black shadows hang in the corners; they spread tendrils across men in suits and weeping women, and they connect cars and buildings and manicured lawns with long fingers of shadow. Faces are shrouded with darkness, and it has gathered around people's shoes like ponds of tar. The darkness seems like a living thing in those pictures, something growing among the people like a virus and hungrily stretching right off the frame.
Then, on another page, there was a photograph of a man on fire. He is baldheaded and Oriental, and he wears the flames like a cloak as he sits cross-legged in the street. His eyes are closed, and though the fire is eating up his face he is as serene as my dad listening to Roy Orbison on the radio. The caption said this had happened in a city called Saigon, and the Oriental man was a monk who poured gasoline on himself, sat down, and lit a match.
and there was a third picture that haunts me yet. It shows a burned-out church, the stained-glass windows shattered and firemen picking through the ruins. a few black people are standing around, their expressions dull with shock. The trees in front of the church have no leaves on them, though the caption said this event happened on September fifteenth of 1963, before summer's end. The caption said this was what was left of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, after somebody planted a bomb that went off as Sunday school was just letting out and four girls died in the blast.
I looked out, across my hometown. I looked at the green hills and the blue sky, and the distant roofs of Bruton. Beside me, Rebel whimpered in a dog's dream.
I never knew what hate really was until I thought of somebody wrapping up a bomb and putting it in a church on a Sunday morning to kill little girls.
I wasn't feeling very well. My head, still lumpy from Gotha Branlin's fist, was hurting. I went to my room and lay down, and there amid my monsters I fell asleep.
This was early summer in Zephyr: an awakening to hazy morning heat, the sun gradually burning the haze off and the air getting so humid your shirt stuck to your skin by the time you'd walked to the mailbox and back. at noon the world seemed to pause on its axis, and not a bird dared to wing through the steaming blue. as afternoon rambled on, a few clouds rimmed with purple might build up from the northwest. You could sit on the porch, a glass of lemonade at your side and the radio tuned to a baseball game, and watch the clouds slowly roll toward you. after a while you might hear distant thunder, and a zigzag of lightning would make the radio crackle. It might shower for thirty minutes or so, but most times the clouds just marched past with a rumble and grunt and not a drop of rain. as evening cooled the earth, the cicadas droned in their hundreds from the woods and lightning bugs rose from the grass. They got up in the trees and blinked, and they lit up the branches like Christmas decorations here on the edge of July. The stars came out, and some phase of the moon. If I played my cards right, I could talk my folks into letting me stay up late, like until eleven or so, and I would sit in the front yard watching the lights of Zephyr go out. When enough lights were extinguished, the stars became much brighter. You could look up into the heart of the universe, and see the swirls of glowing stars. a soft breeze blew, bringing with it the sweet perfume of the earth, and the trees rustled quietly in its passage. It was very hard, at times like this, not to think that the world was as well-ordered and precise as the Cartwright ranch on "Bonanza," or that in every house lived a "My Three Sons" family. I wished it were so, but I had seen pictures of a spreading dark, a burning man, and a bomb-wrecked church, and I was beginning to know the truth.
I got to know Rocket better, when my folks would let me ride again. My mom told it to me straight: "You fall down and bust that lip open again, it's back to Dr. Parrish's and this time it'll be fifteen or twenty stitches!" I knew better than to push my luck. I stayed close to the house, and I pedaled Rocket around as gingerly as riding one of those swaybacked ponies that plods in circles at the county fair. Sometimes I thought I caught a glimpse of the golden eye in the headlamp, but it was never there when I looked directly at it. Rocket accepted my careful touch, though I sensed in the smoothness of the pedals and chain and the snap of the turns that Rocket, like any high-strung Thoroughbred, wanted to run. I had the feeling that I had a lot to learn yet about Rocket.
My lip healed. So did my head. My pride stayed bruised, though, and my confidence was fractured. Those injuries, the ones that didn't show, I would have to live with.
One Saturday my folks and I went to the public swimming pool, which was crowded with high-school kids. I have to tell you that it was for whites only. Mom jumped eagerly into the choppy blue water, but Dad took a seat and refused to leave it even when we both begged him to come in. I didn't think until later that the last time Dad had been swimming, he'd seen a dead man sink into Saxon's Lake. So I sat with him for a while as Mom swam around, and I had the opportunity to tell him for the third or fourth time about Nemo Curliss's throwing ability. This time, though, I had his undivided attention, because there was no television or radio nearby and he wanted to focus on something beside the water, which he seemed not to want to look at. He told me I ought to tell Coach Murdock about Nemo, that maybe Coach Murdock could talk Nemo's mother into letting him play Little League. I filed that suggestion away for later.
Davy Ray Callan, his six-year-old brother, andy, and their mom and dad showed up at the pool in the afternoon. Most of the bruises had vanished from Davy's face. The Callans sat with my folks, and their talk turned to what ought to be done about the Branlin boys, that we weren't the only ones who'd been beaten up by that brood. Davy and I didn't especially want to relive our defeat, so we asked our folks for money to go get a milk shake at the Spinnin' Wheel and, armed with dollar bills, we headed off in our flipflops and sunburns while andy squalled and had to be restrained from tagging after us by Mrs. Callan.
The Spinnin' Wheel was just across the street from the pool. It was a white-painted stucco building with white stucco icicles hanging from the roof's edge. a statue of a polar bear stood in front of it, adorned with such spray-painted messages as "Nobody Else Will Beat Our Score, We're The Seniors '64" and "Louie, Louie!" and "Debbie Loves Goober" among other declarations of independence. Davy and I guessed Mr. Sumpter Womack, who owned and managed the Spinnin' Wheel, thought that "Goober" was some guy's name. Nobody told him differently. The Spinnin' Wheel was what might be called a teen hangout. The lure of hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, and thirty different flavors of milk shakes-from root beer to peach-kept the parking lot full of high school guys and girls in their daddy's cars or pickups. This particular Saturday was no exception. The cars and trucks were packed in tight, their windows open and the radio music drifting out over the lot like sultry smoke. I recalled that I had once seen Little Stevie Cauley, in Midnight Mona, parked here with a blond girl who leaned her head against his shoulder, and Little Stevie had glanced at me, his hair coal black and his eyes as blue as swimming-pool water, as I'd walked past. I had not seen the girl's face. I wondered if that girl, whoever she had been, knew that Little Stevie and Midnight Mona now haunted the road between Zephyr and Union Town.
Davy, ever the daring one, bought a jumbo peppermint milk shake and got fifty cents back. He talked me out of getting plain vanilla. "You can get plain vanilla anytime!" he said. "Try..." He scanned the chalkboard that listed all the flavors. "Try peanut butter!"
I did. I have never been sorry, because it was the best milk shake I ever tasted, like a melted and frozen Reese's cup. and then it happened.
We were walking across the parking lot, under the burning sun, with our shakes freezing our hands in the big white paper cups that had Spinnin' Wheel in red across the sides. a sound began: music, first from a few car radios and then others as teenaged fingers turned the dial to that station. The volume dials were cranked up, and the music flooded out from the tinny speakers into the bright summer air. In a few seconds the same song was being played from every radio on the lot, and as it played, some of the car engines started and revved up and young laughter flew like sparks.
I stopped. Just couldn't walk anymore. That music was unlike anything I'd ever heard: guys' voices, intertwining, breaking apart, merging again in fantastic, otherworldly harmony. The voices soared up and up like happy birds, and underneath the harmony was a driving drumbeat and a twanging, gritty guitar that made cold chills skitter up and down my sunburned back.
"What's that, Davyi" I said. "What's that songi"
...Round... round... get around... wha wha wha-oooooo...
"What's that songi" I asked him, close to panic that I might never know.
"Haven't you heard that yeti all the high-school guys are singin' it."
...Gettin' bugged drivin' up and down the same ol' strip... I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip...
"What's the name of iti" I demanded, standing at the center of ecstasy.
"It's on the radio all the time. It's called-"
Right then the high-school kids in the lot started singing along with the music, some of them rocking their cars back and forth, and I stood with a peanut butter milk shake in my hand and the sun on my face and the clean chlorine smell of the swimming pool coming to me from across the street.
"-by the Beach Boys," Davy Ray finished.
"The Beach Boys. That's who's singin' it."
"Man!" I said. "That sounds... that sounds..."
What would describe iti What word in the English language would speak of youth and hope and freedom and desire, of sweet wanderlust and burning bloodi What word describes the brotherhood of buddies, and the feeling that as long as the music plays, you are part of that tough, rambling breed who will inherit the earthi
"Cool," Davy Ray supplied.
It would have to do.
...Yeah the bad guys know us and they leave us alone... I get arounnnnddddd...
I was amazed. I was transported. Those soaring voices lifted me off the hot pavement, and I flew with them to a land unknown. I had never been to the beach before. I'd never seen the ocean, except for pictures in magazines and on TV and movies. The Beach Boys. Those harmonies thrilled my soul, and for a moment I wore a letter jacket and owned a red hotrod and had beautiful blondes begging for my attention and I got around.
The song faded. The voices went back into the speakers. Then I was just Cory Mackenson again, a son of Zephyr, but I had felt the warmth of a different sun.
"I think I'm gonna ask my folks if I can take guitar lessons," Davy Ray said as we crossed the street. Git-tar, he pronounced it.
I thought that when I got home I would sit down at my desk and try to scratch out a story in Ticonderoga #2 about where music went when it got into the air. Some of it had gotten into Davy Ray, and he was humming that song as we returned to the pool and our parents.
The Fourth of July sizzled in. There was a big barbecue picnic in the park, and the men's team-the Quails-lost to the Union Town Fireballs by seven to three. I saw Nemo Curliss watching the game as he sat crushed between a brunette woman in a red-flowered dress and a gangly man who wore thick glasses and was sweating through his once-crisp white shirt. Nemo's father didn't spend much time with his son and wife. He got up after the second inning and walked off, and I later saw him prowling through the picnic crowd with a book full of shirt swatches and a desperate look on his face.
I had not forgotten about the man in the green-feathered hat. as I sat with my folks at a picnic table in the shade, munching barbecued ribs as the elderly men threw horseshoes and the teenaged guys heaved footballs, I scanned the crowd for that elusive feather. It dawned on me, as I searched, that the hats of winter had been put away, and every hat in evidence was made of straw. Mayor Swope wore a straw fedora as he moved through the throngs, puffing his pipe and glad-handing barbecue-sauced palms. Straw hats adorned the heads of Fire Chief Marchette and Mr. Dollar. a straw boater with a bright red band was perched on the bald skull of Dr. Lezander, who came over to our table to examine the scar's pale line on my lower lip. He had cool fingers, and his eyes peered into mine with steely intensity. "Those fellows ever cause you any more trouble," he said in his Dutch dialect, "you just let me know. I'll introduce them to my gelding clippers. Ehi" He nudged me with an elbow and grinned, showing his silver tooth. Then his heavyset wife, Veronica, who was also Dutch and whose long-jawed face reminded me of a horse, came up with a paper plate piled high with ribs and pulled Dr. Lezander away. Mrs. Lezander was a cool sort; she didn't have a lot to do with any of the other women, and Mom told me that she understood Mrs. Lezander's older brother and his family had been killed fighting the Nazis in Holland. I figured something like that could hurt your trust in people. The Lezanders had escaped from Holland before the country had fallen, and Dr. Lezander himself had shot a Nazi soldier with a pistol as the man burst through the door of his house. This was a subject that fascinated me, since Davy Ray, Ben, Johnny, and I played army out in the woods, and I wanted to ask Dr. Lezander what war was really like but Dad said I was not to bring it up, that such things were best left alone.
Vernon Thaxter made an appearance at the picnic, which caused the faces of women to bloom red and men to pretend to be examining their barbecue with fierce concentration. Most people, though, acted as if Moorwood Thaxter's son was invisible. Vernon got a plate of barbecue and sat under a tree at the edge of the baseball field; he wasn't totally naked on this occasion, however. He was wearing a floppy straw hat that made him look like a happily deranged Huckleberry Finn. I believe Vernon was the only man Mr. Curliss didn't approach with his shirt sample book.
During the afternoon I heard the Beach Boys' song several times from transistor radios, and every time it seemed better than the last. Dad heard it and wrinkled his nose as if he'd smelled sour milk and Mom said it made her ears hurt, but I thought it was great. The teenagers sure went wild over it. Then, as it was playing for about the fifth time, we heard a big commotion over where some high school guys were throwing a football not far from us. Somebody was bellowing like a mad bull, and Dad and I pushed through the gawkers to see what it was all about.
and there he was. all six-foot-six of him, his curly red hair flying around his head and his long, narrow face pinched even tighter with righteous rage. He wore a pale blue suit with an american flag pin on his lapel and a small cross above it, and his polished black size-fourteen wingtips were stomping the devil out of a little scarlet radio. "This. Has. Got. To. Cease!" he bellowed in time with his stomps. The guys who'd been playing football just stared at the Reverend angus Blessett in open-mouthed amazement, and the sixteen-year-old girl whose radio had just been busted to splinters was starting to cry. The Beach Boys had been silenced under the boot, or, in this case, the wingtip. "This Satan's squallin' has got to cease!" Reverend Blessett of the Freedom Baptist Church hollered to the assembled throng. "Day and night I hear this trash, and the Lord has moved me to strike it down!" He gave the offending radio a last stomp, and wires and batteries flew from the wreckage. Then Reverend Blessett looked at the sobbing girl, his cheeks flushed and sweat glistening on his face, and he held out his arms and approached her. "I love you!" he yelled. "The Lord loves you!"
She turned and fled. I didn't blame her. If I'd had a nifty radio smashed right in front of me, I wouldn't feel like hugging anybody either.
Reverend Blessett, who'd been embroiled last year in a campaign to ban the Lady's Good Friday ritual at the gargoyle bridge, now turned his attention to the onlookers. "Did you see thati The poor child's so confused she can't recognize saint from sinner! You know whyi 'Cause she was listenin' to that wailin', unholy trash!" He aimed a finger at the dead radio. "Have any of you bothered to listen to what's fillin' our children's ears this summeri Have youi"
"Sounds like bees swarmin' on a donkey to me!" somebody said, and people laughed. I looked over and saw Mr. Dick Moultry's sweat-wet bloat, the front of his shirt splotched with barbecue sauce.
"Laugh if you want to, but before God it's no laughin' matter!" Reverend Blessett raged. I don't think I ever heard him speak in a normal voice. "You give that song one listen, and the very hairs will rise up on the back of your necks just like it did on mine!"
"aw, come on, Reverend!" My father was smiling. "It's just a song!"
"Just a songi" Reverend Blessett's shiny face was suddenly up in my dad's, and his ash-colored eyes were wild under eyebrows so red they looked painted on. "Just a song, did you say, Tom Mackensoni What if I was to tell you this 'just a song' was makin' our young people itch with immoralityi What if I was to tell you it preaches illicit sexual desires, hotrod racin' in the streets, and big-city evili What would you say then, Mr. Tom Mackensoni"
Dad shrugged. "I'd say that if you heard all that in one listen, you must have ears like a hound dog. I couldn't understand a single word of it."
"ah-ha! Yes! See, that's Satan's trick!" Reverend Blessett stabbed my father's chest with an index finger that had barbecue sauce under the nail. "It gets into our children's heads without them even knowin' what they're hearin'!"
"Huhi" Dad asked. By this time Mom had come up beside us and was holding on to Dad's arm. Dad had never cared much for the reverend, and maybe she was afraid he might blow his top and take a swing.
Reverend Blessett retreated from my father and surveyed the crowd again. If there's anything that pulls people in, it's a loudmouth and the smell of Satan in the air like charred meat on a griddle. "You good folks come to the Freedom Baptist Church at seven o'clock on Wednesday night and you'll hear for yourselves exactly what I'm talkin' about!" His gaze skittered from face to face. "If you love the Lord, this town, and your children, you'll break any radio that plays that Satan-squallin' garbage!" To my dismay, several people with dazed eyes hollered that they would. "Praise God, brothers and sisters! Praise God!" Reverend Blessett waded through the crowd, slapping backs and shoulders and finding hands to shake.
"He got sauce on my shirt," Dad said, looking down at the stain.
"Come on, fellas." Mom pulled at him. "Let's get under some shade."
I followed them, but I looked back to watch Reverend Blessett striding away. a knot of people had closed around him, all of them jabbering. Their faces seemed swollen, and a dark sweat stain the shape of a watermelon wedge had grown on the back of the reverend's coat. I couldn't figure this out; the same song I'd first heard that day in the Spinnin' Wheel's parking lot was unholyi I didn't know very much about big-city evil, but I didn't itch with immorality. It was just a cool song, and it made me feel... well, cool. Even after all the listenings, I still couldn't decipher what the chorus was after the I get around part, and neither could Ben, Davy Ray, or Johnny, who still had a wrapping of bandages across his beak and couldn't yet leave his house. I was curious; what had Reverend Blessett heard in the song that I had noti
I decided I wanted to find out.
That night fireworks blossomed red, white, and blue over Zephyr.
and sometime after midnight, a cross was set afire in front of the Lady's house.
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