Chapter Twenty-Eight

XXVIII  -  Mr. Moultry's Castle

TWO DaYS BEFORE CHRISTMaS, THE TELEPHONE RaNG aND MOM answered it. Dad was stock-clerking at Big Paul's Pantry. Mom said, "Helloi" and found herself talking to Mr. Charles Damaronde. Mr. Damaronde was calling to invite our family to a reception for the Lady at the Bruton Recreation Center, where the civil rights museum had been completed and was set to open on December 26. The reception was on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and it was going to be a casual occasion. Mom asked me if I wanted to go, and I said yes. She didn't have to ask Dad, knowing he wouldn't go, and anyway he had to work on Christmas Eve because big boxes of canned eggnog and pressed turkey slices were backing up on the loading dock.

Dad didn't try to stop us from going. He didn't say a word when Mom told him. He just nodded, his eyes somewhere distant. The big boulder at Saxon's Lake, I guessed. So on Christmas Eve morning Mom drove Dad to work in the pickup truck, and when time to get ready for the reception rolled around, Mom suggested that I wear a white shirt and a tie even though Mr. Damaronde had said to come casual. She put on a nice dress, and we set off for Bruton.

One of the interesting things about living in south alabama is that, though there might be a cold snap in October and maybe even a snow flurry or two in November, Christmas is usually warm. Not summertime warm, of course, but a return to Indian summer. This year was no exception. The sweater I had on was aptly named; I was sweating in it by the time we got to the recreation center, a red brick building next to the basketball court on Buckhart Street. a sign with a red arrow pointed to the Bruton Hall of Civil Rights, which was a white-painted wooden structure a little larger than a house trailer, added on to the recreation center. a red ribbon encircled the entire white building. although the museum's grand opening wasn't for two more days, there were a lot of cars and quite a bit of activity. People-most of them black, but a few white-were going into the recreation center, and we followed them. Inside, in a big room decorated with pine-cone Christmas wreaths and a huge Christmas tree with red and green bows on the branches, people were lining up to sign a guest book, of which Mrs. Velvadine was in charge. Then the line continued to a punch bowl full of lime-colored liquid, and on to other tables that held a holiday bounty: various chips and dips, little sandwiches, sausage balls, two golden turkeys awaiting the knife, and two weighty hams. The last three tables were true groaning boards; atop them was a staggering selection of cakes, puddings, and pies. Dad's eyes would've shot out of his head if he could've but seen all this feast. The mood was happy and festive, people laughing and talking while a couple of fiddlers sawed their strings on a small stage. and it might have been a casual occasion, but people were dressed to the elevens. The Sunday suits and dresses abounded, the white gloves and flowered hats thrived. I think a peacock might've felt nude in all this rainbow splendor. People were proud of Bruton and proud of themselves, and that was clear to all.

Nila Castile came up and hugged my mother. She pressed paper plates into our hands and guided us through the crowd. The turkeys were about to be carved, she said, and if we didn't hurry, all that fine meat would be sucked right off the bones. She pointed out old Mr. Thornberry, who was wearing a baggy brown suit and buck-dancing to the fiddlers' tune. Beside him, Gavin grinned and matched him step for step. Mr. Lightfoot, elegant as Cary Grant in a black suit with velvet lapels, held a paper plate piled high with ham layered on cake layered on pie layered on sandwiches, and he moved through the throng with slow-motion grace. Then our plates were loaded down with food, our punch cups brimmed with lime fizz. Charles Damaronde and his wife appeared, and thanked Mom for coming. She said she wouldn't have missed it for the world. Children scampered around and grandparents chased futilely after them. Mr. Dennis sidled up to me and asked me in mock seriousness if I didn't know who had spread that glue down for poor Mrs. Harper to get stuck in like a fly in molasses. I said I had an idea, but I couldn't say for sure. He asked me if my idea went around picking her nose to beat the band, and I said it might.

Somebody began playing an accordion. Somebody else whipped out a harmonica, and the fiddlers had competition. an elderly woman in a dress the color of fresh orchids started buck-dancing with Mr. Thornberry, and I imagined that at that moment he was very glad he had chosen life. a man with an iron-gray beard grasped my shoulder and leaned his head down beside mine. "Broomstick in his craw, heh heh heh," he said, and gave my shoulder a good hard squeeze before he moved on.

Mrs. Velvadine and another rotund woman, both of them wearing flowered dresses bright enough to shame nature, took the stage and shooed the musicmakers off. Mrs. Velvadine spoke through a microphone, telling everybody how glad the Lady was that they'd come to share this moment with her. The museum they'd worked so hard to build was almost ready, Mrs. Velvadine said. Come the day after Christmas, it would open its doors and tell the story of not only the people of Bruton but the struggles that had brought them to where they were. There are struggles ahead! Mrs. Velvadine said. Don't you think there aren't! But though we have a long way to go, she said, we have come a long way, too, and that's what the museum was meant to show.

as Mrs. Velvadine spoke, Mr. Damaronde came up beside Mom and me. "She wants to see you," he said quietly to my mother. We knew who he meant, and we went with him.

He led us out of the reception area and through a hallway. One room we passed was set up for table tennis, and had a dartboard and a pinball machine. another room held four shuffleboard courts side by side, and a third contained gymnasium equipment and a punching bag. Then we came to a white door, the smell of paint still fresh. He held it open for us as we passed through.

We were in the civil rights museum. The floor was made of varnished timbers, and the lighting was low. Glass display cases held slave and Civil War clothes on black mannequins, as well as primitive pottery, needlework, and lace. a section of bookshelves held maybe a hundred or more thin, leatherbound volumes. They looked like notebooks or diaries. On the walls were large blown-up black and white photographs. I recognized Martin Luther King in one, and in another Governor Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door.

and at the center of this room stood the Lady, dressed in white silk, her thin arms adorned with elbow-length white gloves. She wore a white, wide-brimmed hat, and beneath it her beautiful emerald eyes shone with light.

"This," she said, "is my dream."

"It's lovely," Mom told her.

"It's necessary," the Lady corrected her. "Who on this earth can know where they're going, unless they have a map of where they've beeni Your husband didn't comei"

"He's workin'."

"No longer at the dairy, I understand."

Mom nodded. I had the impression the Lady knew exactly where Dad was.

"Hello, Cory," she said. "You've had some adventures lately, haven't youi"

"Yes ma'am."

"You wantin' to be a writer, you ought to be interested in those books." She motioned toward the shelves. "Know what those arei" I said I didn't. "They're diaries," she said. "Voices of people who used to live all around here. Not just black people, either. anytime somebody wants to find out what life was like a hundred years ago, there are the voices waitin' to be heard." She walked to one of the glass display cases and ran her gloved fingers across the top, checking for dust. She found none, and she grunted with satisfaction. "Everybody needs to know where they've been, it seems to me. Not just blackskins, but whiteskins, too. Seems to me if a person loses the past, he can't find the future either. Which is what this place is all about."

"You want the people of Bruton to remember their ancestors were slavesi" Mom asked.

"Yes, I do. I want 'em to remember it not to feel pity for themselves, or to feel put-upon and deservin' of what they don't have, but to say to themselves, 'Look where I have come from, and look what I have become.'" The Lady turned to face us. "ain't no way out but up," she said. "Readin'. Writin'. Thinkin'. Those are the rungs on the ladder that lead up and out. Not whinin' and takin' and bein' a mind-chained slave. That's the used-to-be world. It ought to be a new world now." She moved around the room, and stopped at a picture of a fiery cross. "I want my people," she said quietly, "to cherish where they've come from. Not sweep it under a rug. Not to dwell on it either, because that's nothin' but givin' up the future. But to say, 'My great-granddaddy pulled a plow by the strength of his back. He worked from sunup to sundown, heat and cold. Worked for no wages but a master's food and a roof over his head. Worked hard, and was sometimes whipped hard. Sweated blood and kept goin', when he wanted to drop. Took the brand and answered Yes, massa, when his heart was breakin' and his pride was belly-down. Did all this when he knew his wife and children might go up on the auction block and be torn away from him in the blink of an eye. Sang in the fields, and wept at night. He did all this and more, and by God... by God, because he suffered this I can at least finish school.'" She lifted her chin in defiance of the flames. "That's what I want 'em to think, and to say. This is my dream."

I left my mother's side, and walked to one of the blown-up photographs. It showed a snarling police dog, its teeth full of shirt as a black man tried to fight away and a policeman lifted a billy club. The next photograph showed a slim black girl clutching schoolbooks and walking through a crowd as rage-swollen white faces shouted derision at her. The third showed...

I stopped.

My heart had jumped.

The third picture showed a burned-out church, the stained-glass windows shattered and firemen picking through the ruins. a few black people were standing around, their expressions dull with shock. The trees in front of the church had no leaves on them.

I had seen this picture before, somewhere.

Mom and the Lady were talking, standing over by the slave-spun pottery. I stared at the picture, and I remembered. I had seen this in the copy of Life magazine Mom was about to throw out.

I turned my head to the left about six inches.

and there they were.

The four black girls of my recurring dream.

Under individual pictures, their names were etched on brass plaques. Denise McNair. Carole Robinson. Cynthia Wesley. addie Mae Collins.

They were smiling, unaware of what the future held.

"Ma'ami" I said. "Ma'ami"

"What is it, Coryi" Mom asked.

I looked at the Lady. "Who are these girls, ma'ami" My voice trembled.

She came over beside me, and she told me about the dynamite time bomb that had killed those girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963.

"Oh... no," I whispered.

I heard the voice of Gerald Hargison, muffled behind a mask as he held a wooden box in his arms: They won't know what hit 'em until they're tap-dancin' in hell.

and Biggun Blaylock, saying: I threw in an extra. For good luck.

I swallowed hard. The eyes of the four dead girls were watching me.

I said, "I think I know."

Mom and I left the recreation center about an hour later. Dad was joining us to go to the candlelight service at church tonight. after all, it was Christmas Eve.

"Hello, Pumpkin! Merry Christmas to you, Sunflower! Come right in, Wild Bill!"

I heard Dr. Lezander before I saw him. He was standing there in the church doorway, wearing a red vest with his gray suit and a red-and-green-striped bow tie. He had a Santa Claus pin on his lapel, and when he smiled, light sparkled off his silver front tooth.

My heart started beating very hard, and moisture sprang to my palms. "Merry Christmas, Calico!" he said to my mother for no apparent reason. He grasped my father's hand and shook it. "How are you, Midasi" and then his gaze fell on me, and he put his hand on my shoulder. "and a very happy holiday to you, too, Six-Guns!"

"Thank you, Birdman," I said.

I saw it then.

His mouth was very, very smart. It kept smiling. But his eyes flinched, almost imperceptibly. Something hard and stony came into them, banishing the Christmas light. and then it was gone again, and the whole thing had been perhaps two seconds. "What are you trying to do, Coryi" His hand wouldn't let me go. "Take my jobi"

"No sir," I answered, my cleverness squeezed away by Dr. Lezander's increasing pressure. He held my gaze for a second longer, and in that second I knew fear. Then his fingers relaxed and left my shoulder and he was looking at the family who entered behind me. "Come on in, Muffin! Merry Yuletide, Daniel Boone!"

"Tom! Come on and hurry it up, boy!"

We knew who that was, of course. Granddaddy Jaybird, Grandmomma Sarah, Grand austin, and Nana alice were there in a pew waiting for us. Grand austin, as usual, looked thoroughly miserable. The Jaybird was on his feet, waving and hollering and making the same kind of ass out of himself here at Christmas as he had at Easter, proving that he was a fool for all seasons. But when he looked at me he said, "Hello, young man" and I saw in his eyes that I was growing up.

During the candlelight service, while Miss Blue Glass played "Silent Night" on the piano and the organ across from her indeed remained silent, I watched the Lezanders, who were sitting five pews ahead of us. I saw Dr. Lezander turn his bald head and look around, pretending to be quickly scanning the congregation. I knew better. Our eyes met, just briefly. He wore an icy smile. Then he leaned toward his wife and whispered in her ear, but she remained perfectly motionless.

I imagined he might have been answering the question: Who Knowsi What he whispered to horse-faced Veronica, there between the "darkness flies" and the "all is light," might well have been: Cory Mackenson knows.

Who are youi I thought as I watched him during Reverend Lovoy's Christmas prayer. Who are you really, behind that mask you weari

We lit our candles, and the church was bathed in flickering light. Then Reverend Lovoy wished us a happy and healthy holiday season, said for us to keep the spirit of Christmas first and foremost in our hearts, and the service came to a close. Dad, Mom, and I went home; tomorrow belonged to the grandparents, but Christmas Eve was ours.

Our dinner this year wasn't as grand as in the past, but I did like eggnog and we had plenty of that, courtesy of Big Paul's Pantry. Then came the gift-opening time. as Mom found carols on a radio station, I unwrapped my presents beneath the Yule pine tree.

From Dad I received a paperback book. It was titled The Golden apples of the Sun, by a writer named Ray Bradbury. "You know, they sell books at Big Paul's, too," Dad told me. "Got a whole rack of 'em. This fella who works in the produce department says that Bradbury is a good writer. Says he's got that book himself and there're some fine stories in it."

I paged to the first story. "The Fog Horn," it was called. Skimming it, I saw it was about a sea monster rising to a foghorn's lament. This story had a boy's touch. "Thanks, Dad!" I said. "This is neat!"

as Dad and Mom opened their own presents, I unwrapped my second package. a photograph in a silver frame slid out. I held it up to the hearth's light.

It was a picture of a face I knew well. This was the face of one of my best friends, though he didn't know it. across the bottom of the photograph was written: To Cory Mackenson, With Best Wishes. Vincent Price. I was thrilled beyond words. He actually knew my name!

"I knew you liked his movies," Mom said. "I just wrote the movie studio and asked 'em for a picture, and they sent one right off."

ah, Christmas Eve! Was there ever a finer nighti

When the presents had been opened and the wrappings swept away, the fire fed another log, and a third cup of eggnog warm in our bellies, Mom told Dad what had happened at the Hall of Civil Rights. He watched the fire crack and sparkle, but he was listening. When Mom was finished, Dad said, "I'll be. I never thought such a thing could happen here." He frowned, and I knew what he was thinking. He'd never thought a lot of things that had happened in Zephyr could ever happen here, starting with the incident at Saxon's Lake. Maybe it was the age that was beginning to take shape around us. The news talked more frequently about a place called Vietnam. Civil strifes broke out in the cities like skirmishes in an undeclared war. a vague sense of foreboding was spreading across the land, as we neared the plastic, disposable, commercial age. The world was changing; Zephyr was changing, too, and there was no going back to the world that used to be.

But: tonight was Christmas Eve and tomorrow was Christmas, and for now we had peace on earth.

It lasted about ten minutes.

We heard the shrieking of a jet plane over Zephyr. This in itself wasn't unusual, since we often heard jets at night either taking off from or landing at Robbins. But we knew the sound of those planes as we knew the freight train's whistle, and this plane...

"Sounds awfully low, doesn't iti" Mom asked.

Dad said it sounded to him like it was skimming the rooftops. He got up to go to the porch, and suddenly we heard a noise like somebody whacking a barrel with a fifty-pound mallet. The sound echoed over Zephyr, and in another moment dogs started barking from Temple Street to Bruton and the roving bands of carolers were forced to give up the holy ghost. We stood out on the porch, listening to the commotion. I thought at first that the jet had crashed, but then I heard it again. It circled Zephyr a couple of times, its wingtip lights blinking, and then it veered toward Robbins air Force Base and sped away.

The dogs kept barking and howling. People were coming out of their houses to see what was going on. "Somethin's up," Dad said. "I think I'll give Jack a call."

Sheriff Marchette had stepped ably into the job J. T. amory had vacated. Of course, with the Blaylocks behind bars, Zephyr's crime wave was over. The most serious task that lay before Sheriff Marchette was finding the beast from the lost world, which had attacked the Trailways bus one day and gave it such a hard knock with its sawed-off horns that the driver and all eight of the passengers were admitted to the Union Town hospital with whiplash.

Dad reached Mrs. Marchette, but the sheriff had already grabbed his hat and run out, summoned away from Christmas Eve dinner by a phone call. Mrs. Marchette told Dad what her husband had told her, and with a stunned expression Dad relayed the news.

"a bomb," he said. "a bomb fell."

"Whati" Mom was already fearing Russian invasion. " Wherei"

"On Dick Moultry's house," Dad said. "Mrs. Moultry told Jack it went right through the roof, the livin' room floor, and into the basement."

"My Lord! Didn't the whole house blow upi"

"No. The bomb's just sittin' in there." Dad returned the receiver to its cradle. "Just sittin' in there with Dick."

"With Dicki"

"That's right. Mrs. Moultry gave Dick a new workshop bench for Christmas. He was in the basement puttin' it together. Now he's trapped down there with a live bomb."

It wasn't very long before the civil defense siren began wailing. Dad got a phone call from Mayor Swope, asking him if he would meet with a group of volunteers at the courthouse and help spread the word from door to door that both Zephyr and Bruton had to be immediately evacuated.

"On Christmas Evei" Dad said. "Evacuate the whole towni"

"That's right, Tom." Mayor Swope sounded at his rope's end. "Do you know a bomb fell out of a jet plane right into-"

"Dick Moultry's house, yeah I've heard. It fell out of a jet planei"

"Right again. and we've gotta get these people out of here in case that damn thing blows."

"Well, why don't you call the air basei Surely they'll come get it."

"I just got off the phone with 'em. Their public relations spokesman, I mean. I told him one of his jets lost a bomb over our town, and you know what he saidi He said I must've been in the Christmas rum cake! He said no such thing happened, that none of their pilots were so careless as to accidentally hit a safety lever and drop a bomb on civilians. He said even if such a thing happened, their bomb deactivation team was not on duty on Christmas Eve, and if such a thing happened, he'd hope the civilians in that town upon which a bomb did not drop ought to have sense enough to evacuate because the bomb that did not fall from a jet plane could blow most of that town into toothpicks! Now, how about thati"

"He's got to know you're tellin' the truth, Luther. He'll send somebody to keep the bomb from explodin'."

"Maybe so, but wheni Tomorrow afternooni Do you want to go to sleep tonight with that thing tickin'i I can't risk it, Tom. We've got to get everybody out!"

Dad asked Mayor Swope to come pick him up. Then he hung up the phone and told Mom she and I ought to take the truck and get to Grand austin and Nana alice's for the night. He'd come join us when the work was done. Mom started to beg him to come with us; she wanted to, as much as rain wants to follow clouds. But she saw that he had decided what was right, and she would have to learn to deal with it. She said, "Go get your pajamas, Cory. Get your toothbrush and a pair of fresh socks and underwear. We're goin' to Grand austin's."

"Dad, is Zephyr gonna blow upi" I asked.

"No. We're movin' everybody out just for safety's sake. The air Force boys'll send somebody to get that thing real soon, I'm sure of it."

"You'll be carefuli" Mom asked him.

"You know it. Merry Christmas." He smiled.

She couldn't help but return it. "You crazy thing, you!" she said, and she kissed him.

Mom and I got some clothes packed. The civil defense siren wailed for almost fifteen minutes, a sound so spine-chilling it even silenced the dogs. already people were getting the message, and they were driving away to spend the night with relatives, friends in other towns, or at the Union Pines Motel in Union Town. Mayor Swope came by to pick up Dad. Then Mom and I were ready to go. Before we walked out the door, the phone rang and it was Ben wanting to tell me they were going to Birmingham to spend the night with his aunt and uncle. "ain't it somethin'i" he said excitedly. "Know what I heardi Mr. Moultry's got two busted legs and a broke back and the bomb's lyin' right on top of him! This is really neat, huhi"

I had to agree it was. We'd never experienced a Christmas Eve quite like it.

"Gotta go! Talk to you later! Oh, yeah... Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas, Ben!"

He hung up. Mom collared me, and we were on our way to Grand austin and Nana alice's house. I'd never seen so many cars on Route Ten before. Heaven help us all if the beast from the lost world decided to attack right about now; there'd be a bomb behind us, cars and trucks tumped over like tenpins, and people flying through the air without wings.

We left Zephyr behind, all lit up for Christmas.

The rest of this story I found out later, since I wasn't there.

Curiosity got the best of Dad. He had to see the bomb. So, as Zephyr and Bruton gradually emptied out, he left the group of volunteers he was riding with and walked a half-dozen blocks to where Mr. Moultry lived. Mr. Moultry's house was a small wooden structure painted pale blue with white shutters. Light was streaming upward through the splintered roof. The sheriff's car was parked out front, its bubble light spinning around. Dad climbed up onto the porch, which had been knocked crooked by the impact. The front door was ajar, the walls riddled with cracks. The bomb's velocity had shoved the house off its foundations. Dad went inside, and he couldn't miss the huge hole in the sagging floor because it had swallowed half the room. a few Christmas tree decorations were scattered about, and a little silver star lay balanced on the hole's ragged edge. The tree itself was missing.

He peered down. Boards and beams were tangled up like a plateful of macaroni. Plaster dust was the Parmesan cheese. There was the meatball of the bomb: its iron-gray tail fins protruded from the debris, its nose plowed right into the basement's dirt floor.

"Get me outta here! Ohhhhh, my legs! Get me to the hospital! Ohhhhh, I'm dyin'!"

"You're not dyin', Dick. Just don't try to move."

Mr. Moultry was lying amid wreckage with a carpenter's workbench on top of him, and atop that a beam as big around as a sturdy oak. It had split, and Dad figured it had been a support for the living room's floor. Lying across the beam that crisscrossed Mr. Moultry was the Christmas tree, its balls and bulbs shattered. The bomb wasn't on top of Mr. Moultry, but it had dug itself in about four feet from his head. Sheriff Marchette knelt nearby, deliberating the mess.

"Jacki It's Tom Mackenson!"

"Tomi" Sheriff Marchette looked up, his face streaked with plaster dust. "You ought to get outta here, man!"

"I wanted to come see it. Not as big as I thought it would be."

"It's plenty big enough," the sheriff said. "If this thing blows, it'll take the house and leave a crater where the whole block used to be."

"Ohhhhh!" Mr. Moultry groaned. His shirt had been torn open by the falling timbers, and his massive gut wobbled this way and that. "I said I'm dyin', damn it!"

"He hurt badi" Dad asked.

"Can't get in there close enough to tell. Says he thinks his legs are broken. Maybe a busted rib or two, the way he's wheezin'."

"He always breathes like that," Dad said.

"Well, the ambulance ought to be here soon." Sheriff Marchette checked his wristwatch. "I called 'em directly I got here. I don't know what's keepin' 'em."

"What'd you tell 'emi That a fella got hit by a fallin' bombi"

"Yes," the sheriff said.

"In that case, I think Dick's in for a long wait."

"Get me outta here!" Mr. Moultry tried to push some of the dusty tangle of lumber off him, but he winced and couldn't do it. He turned his head and looked at the bomb, sweat glistening on his suety cheeks. "Get that outta here! Jesus Christ, help me!"

"Where's Mrs. Moultryi" Dad asked.

"Huh!" Mr. Moultry's plaster-white face sneered. "She took off runnin' and left me here, that's what she did! Wouldn't even lift a finger to help me!"

"That's not quite right. She did call me, didn't shei" the sheriff pointed out.

"Well, what the hell are you good fori Ohhhhhh, my legs! They're broke plumb in two, I'm tellin' ya!"

"Can I come downi" Dad asked.

"Rather you didn't. Rather you got on out of here like any sane man should. But come on if you want to. Be careful, though. The stairs collapsed, so I set up a stepladder."

Dad eased himself down the ladder. He stood appraising the pile of timbers, beams, and Christmas tree on top of Mr. Moultry. "We can probably move that big one," he said. "I'll grab one end if you grab the other."

They cleared the tree aside and did the job, moving the oak-sized beam though their backs promised a rendezvous with deep-heating rub. Mr. Moultry, however, was still in a heap of trouble. "We can dig him out, take him to your car, and get him to the hospital," Dad suggested. "That ambulance isn't comin'."

The sheriff knelt down beside Mr. Moultry. "Hey, Dick. You weighed yourself latelyi"

"Weighed myselfi Hell, no! Why should Ii"

"What did you weigh the last time you had a physicali"

"One hundred and sixty pounds."

"Wheni" Sheriff Marchette asked. "In the third gradei How much do you weigh right now, Dicki"

Mr. Moultry scowled and muttered. Then he said, "a little bit over two hundred."

"Try again."

"aw, shit! I weigh two hundred and ninety pounds! Does that satisfy you, you sadist youi"

"Maybe got two broken legs. Broken ribs. Possible internal injuries. and he weighs two hundred and ninety pounds. Think we can get him up that ladder, Tomi"

"No way," my father said.

"My thoughts right on the button. He's stuck in here until somebody can bring a hoist."

"What do you meani" Mr. Moultry squawked. "I gotta stay herei" He looked fearfully at the bomb again. "Well, for God's sake get that damn thing away from me, then!"

"I'd do that for you, Dick," the sheriff said. "I really would, but I'd have to touch it. and what if the thing's primed to go off and all it needs is a finger's touchi You think I want to be responsible for blowin' you upi Not to mention myself and Tomi No, sir!"

"Mayor Swope told me he talked to somebody at Robbins," Dad said to the sheriff. "Said the fella didn't believe-"

"Yeah, Luther came by here before he and his family hit the trail. He told me all about what that sumbitch said. Maybe the pilot was too scared to let anybody know how bad he messed up. Probably staggered out of a Christmas party and climbed right into the cockpit. all I know for sure is, nobody's comin' from Robbins to get this thing anytime soon."

"What am I supposed to doi" Mr. Moultry asked. "Just lie here and sufferi"

"I can go upstairs and fetch you a pilla, if you like," Sheriff Marchette offered.

"Dicki Dick, you okayi" The voice, tentative and afraid, was coming from upstairs.

"Oh, I'm just dandy!" Mr. Moultry hollered. "I'm just tickled pink"-pank, he pronounced it-"to be layin' down here with two busted legs and a bomb next to my melon! God a'mighty! I don't know who you are up there, but you're a bigger idiot than the fool who dropped that damn bomb in the first... oh. It's you."

"Hi there, Dick," Mr. Gerald Hargison said sheepishly. "How're you doin'i"

"I could just dance!" Mr. Moultry's face was getting splotched with crimson. "Shit!"

Mr. Hargison stood at the edge of the hole and peered down. "That's the bomb right there, is iti"

"No, it's a big goose turd!" Mr. Moultry raged. "'Course it's the bomb!"

While Mr. Moultry thrashed to get free again and only succeeded in raising a storm of plaster dust and causing himself considerable pain, Dad looked around the basement. Over in one corner was a desk, and above it a wall plaque that read a MaN'S HOME IS HIS CaSTLE. Next to it was a poster of a bug-eyed black minstrel tap-dancing, and underneath it the hand-lettered sign THE WHITE MaN'S BURDEN. Dad wandered over to the desk, the top of which was six inches deep in untidy papers. He slid open the upper drawer and was hit in the face by the enormous mammary glands of a woman on a Juggs magazine cover. Underneath the magazine was a hodgepodge of Gem clips, pencils, rubber bands, and the like. an overexposed Kodak picture came to hand. It showed Dick Moultry wearing a white robe and cradling in one arm a rifle while the other embraced a peaked white cap and hood. Mr. Moultry was smiling broadly, proud of his accomplishments.

"Hey, get outta there!" Mr. Moultry swiveled his head around. "It ain't enough I'm layin' here dyin', you've gotta ransack my house, tooi"

Dad closed the drawer on the picture and walked back to Sheriff Marchette. above them, Mr. Hargison nervously scuffed his soles on the warped floor. "Listen, Dick, I just wanted to come by and see about you. Make sure you weren't... you know, dead and all."

"No, I'm not dead yet. Much as my wife wishes that bomb had clunked me right on the brainpan."

"We're headin' out of town," Mr. Hargison explained. "Uh... we probably won't be back until day after Christmas. Probably get back near ten o'clock in the mornin'. Hear me, Dicki Ten o'clock in the mornin'."

"Yeah, I hear you! I don't care what time you get back!"

"Well, we'll get back near ten o'clock. In the mornin', day after Christmas. Thought you might want to know, so you could set your watch."

"Set my watchi are you-" He stopped. "Oh. Yeah. Okay, I'll do that." He grinned, his face sweating as he looked up at the sheriff. "Gerald and me are supposed to help a friend clean out his garage day after Christmas. That's why he's tellin' me what time he'll be back."

"Is that soi" the sheriff asked. "What friend might that be, Dicki"

"Oh... fella lives in Union Town. You wouldn't know him."

"I know a lot of people in Union Town. What's your friend's namei"

"Joe," Mr. Hargison said, at the exact second Mr. Moultry said, "Sam."

"Joe Sam," Mr. Moultry explained, still sweatily grinning. "Joe Sam Jones."

"I don't think you're gonna be helping any Joe Sam Jones clean out his garage the day after Christmas, Dick. I think you'll be in a nice secure hospital room, don't youi"

"Hey, Dick, I'm headin' off!" Mr. Hargison announced. "Don't you worry, you're gonna be just fine." and with that last word the toe of his left shoe nudged the silver Christmas tree star that lay balanced on the hole's ragged edge. Dad watched the little star fall as if in graceful slow motion, like a magnified snowflake drifting down.

It hit one of the bomb's iron-gray tail fins, and exploded in a shower of painted glass.

In the seconds of silence that followed, all four of the men heard it.

The bomb made a hissing sound, like a serpent that had been awakened in its nest. The hissing faded, and from the bomb's guts there came a slow, ominous ticking: not like the ticking of an alarm clock, but rather the ticking of a hot engine building up to a boil.

"Oh... shit," Sheriff Marchette whispered.

"Jesus save me!" Mr. Moultry gasped. His face, which had been flushed crimson a few moments before, now became as white as a wax dummy.

"The thing's switched on," Dad said, his voice choked.

Mr. Hargison's speech was by far the most eloquent. He spoke with his legs, which propelled him across the warped floor, out onto the crooked porch and to his car at the curb as if he'd been boomed from a cannon. The car sped away like the Road Runner: one second there, the next not.

"Oh God, oh God!" Tears had sprung to Mr. Moultry's eyes. "Don't let me die!"

"Tomi I believe it's time." Sheriff Marchette was speaking softly, as if the weight of words passing through the air might be enough to cause concussion. "To vamoose, don't youi"

"You can't leave me! You can't! You're the sheriff!"

"I can't do anythin' more for you, Dick. I swear I wish I could, but I can't. Seems to me you need magic or a miracle right about now, and I think the well's run dry."

"Don't leave me! Get me out of this, Jack! I'll pay you whatever you want!"

"I'm sorry. Climb on up, Tom."

Dad didn't have to be told a second time. He scaled that ladder like Lucifer up a tree. at the top, he said, "I'll steady the ladder for you, Jack! Come on!"

The bomb ticked. and ticked. and ticked.

"I can't help you, Dick," Sheriff Marchette said, and he climbed the ladder.

"No! Listen! I'll do anythin'! Get me out, okayi I won't mind if it hurts! Okayi"

Dad and Sheriff Marchette were on their way to the door.

"Please!" Mr. Moultry shouted. His voice cracked, and a sob came out. He fought against his trap, but the pain made him cry harder. " You can't leave me to die! It's not human!"

He was still shouting and sobbing as Dad and the sheriff left the house. Both their faces were drawn and tight. "Great job this turned out to be," Sheriff Marchette said. "Jesus." They reached the sheriff's car. "You need a ride somewhere, Tomi"

"Yeah." He frowned. "No." and he leaned against the car. "I don't know."

"Now, don't look like that! There's not a thing can be done for him, and you know it!"

"Maybe somebody ought to wait around, in case the bomb squad shows up."

"Fine." The sheriff glanced up and down the deserted street. "are you volunteerin'i"


"Me, neither! and they're not gonna show up anytime soon, Tom. I think that bomb's gonna explode and we'll lose this whole block, and I don't know about you, but I'm gettin' out while I've still got my skin." He walked around to the driver's door.

"Jack, wait a minute," Dad said.

"ain't got a minute. Come on, if you're comin'."

Dad got into the car with him, and Sheriff Marchette started the engine. "Where toi"

"Listen to me, Jack. You said it yourself: Dick needs magic or a miracle, righti So who's the one person around here who might be able to give it to himi"

"Reverend Blessett's left town."

"No, not him! Her."

Sheriff Marchette paused with his hand on the gearshift.

"anybody who can turn a bag of shotgun shells into a bag of garden snakes might be able to take care of a bomb, don't you thinki"

"No, I don't! I don't think the Lady had a thing to do with that. I think Biggun Blaylock was so blasted out of his mind on his own rotgut whiskey that he thought he was fillin' that ammo bag full of cartridges when all the time he was shovelin' the snakes in!"

"Oh, come on! You saw those snakes the same as I did! There were hundreds of 'em! How long would it have taken Biggun to find 'em alli"

"I don't believe in that voodoo stuff," Sheriff Marchette said. "Not one bit."

Dad said the first thing that came to mind, and saying it left a shocked taste in his mouth: "We can't be afraid to ask her for help, Jack. She's all we've got."

"Damn," the sheriff muttered. "Damn and double-damn." He looked at the Moultry house, light rising from its broken roof. "She might be gone by now."

"She might be. She might not be. Can't we at least drive over there and find outi"

Many houses in Bruton were dark, their owners having obeyed the siren and fled the impending blast. Her rainbow-hued dwelling, however, was all lit up. Tiny sparkling lights blinked in the windows.

"I'll wait right here," Sheriff Marchette said. Dad nodded and got out. He took a deep breath of Christmas Eve air and made his legs move. They carried him to the front door. He took the door's knocker, a little silver hand, and did something he never dreamed he would've done in a million years: he announced to the Lady that he had come to call.

He waited, hoping she would answer.

He waited, watching the doorknob.

He waited.

Fifteen minutes after my father took the silver hand, there was a noise on the street where Dick Moultry lived. It was a rumble and a clatter, a clanking and a clinking, and it caused the dogs to bark in its wake. The rust-splotched, suspension-sagging pickup truck stopped at the curb in front of the Moultry house, and a long, skinny black man got out of the driver's door. On that door was stenciled, not very neatly: LIGHTFOOT'S FIX-IT.

He moved so slowly it seemed that movement might be a painful process. He wore freshly washed overalls and a gray cap that allowed his gray hair to boil out from beneath it. In supreme slow motion, he walked to the truck's bed and strapped on his tool belt, which held several different kinds of hammers, screwdrivers, and arcane-looking wrenches. In a slow extension of time he picked up his toolbox, an old metal fascination filled with drawers that held every kind of nut and bolt under the workman's sun. Then, as if moving under the burden of the ages, Mr. Marcus Lightfoot walked to Dick Moultry's crooked entrance. He knocked at the door, even though it stood wide open: One... two...

Eternities passed. Civilizations thrived and crumbled. Stars were born in brawny violence and died doddering in the cold vault of the cosmos.


"Thank God!" Mr. Moultry shouted, his voice worn to a frazzle. "I knew you wouldn't let me die, Jack! Oh, God have mer-" He stopped shouting in mid-praise, because he was looking up through the hole in the living room's floor, and instead of help from heaven he saw the black face of what he considered a devil of the earth.

"Lawdy, lawdy," Mr. Lightfoot said. His eyes had found the bomb, his ear the ticking of its detonation mechanism. "You sure in a big pile'a mess."

"Have you come to watch me get blown up, you black savagei" Mr. Moultry snarled.

"Nossuh. Come ta keep you from gettin' blowed."

"Youi Help mei Hah!" He pulled in a breath and roared through his ravaged throat: " Jack! Somebody help me! anybody white!"

"Mr. Moultry, suhi" Mr. Lightfoot waited for the other man's lungs to give out. "That there bumb might not care for such a' noise."

Mr. Moultry, his face the color of ketchup and the sweat standing up in beads, began fighting his condition. He thrashed and clawed at the pile of debris; he grasped at his own shirt in a fit of rage and ripped the rest of it away; he gripped at the very air but found no handholds there. and then the pain crashed over him like one wrestler bodyslamming another and Mr. Moultry was left gasping and breathless but still with two broken legs and a bomb ticking next to his head.

"I believe," Mr. Lightfoot said, and he yawned at the lateness of the hour, "I'd best come on down."

It might have been New Year's Eve before Mr. Lightfoot reached the bottom of the stepladder, the tools in his belt jingling together. He grasped his toolbox and started toward Mr. Moultry, but the poster of the bug-eyed minstrel on the wall caught his attention. He stared at it as the seconds and the bomb ticked.

"Heh-heh," Mr. Lightfoot said, and shook his head. "Heh heh."

"What're you laughin' at, you crazy jigabooi"

"Thass a white man," he said. "all painted up and lookin' the fool."

at last Mr. Lightfoot pulled himself away from the picture of al Jolson and went to the bomb. He cleared away some nail-studded timbers and roof shingles and sat down on the red dirt, a process that was like watching a snail cross a football field. He drew the toolbox close to his side, like a trusted companion. Then he took a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles from the breast pocket of his shirt, blew on the lenses, and wiped them on his sleeve, all at excruciating slowness.

"What have I done to deserve thisi" Mr. Moultry croaked.

Mr. Lightfoot got his spectacles on. "Now," he said. "I can." He leaned closer to the bomb, and as he frowned the small lines deepened between his eyes. "See what's what."

He took a hammer with a miniature head from his belt. He licked his thumb and-slowly, slowly-marked the hammer's head with his spit. Then he tapped the bomb's side so lightly it hardly made a noise.

"Don't hit it! Oh Jeeeeesus! You'll blow us both to hell!"

"ain't," Mr. Lightfoot replied as he made small tappings up and down the bomb's side, "plannin' on it." He pressed his ear against the bomb's iron skin. "Uh-huh," he said. "I hears you talkin'." as Mr. Moultry agonized in terrified silence, Mr. Lightfoot's fingers were at work, moving across the bomb as one might stroke a small dog. "Uh-huh." His fingers stopped on a thin seam. "Thass the way ta your heart, ain't iti" He located four screws just below the tail fins, and he lifted the proper screwdriver from its place on his belt like a glacier melting.

"You came here to kill me, didn't youi" Mr. Moultry groaned. He received a punch of insight. "She sent you, didn't shei She sent you to kill me!"

"Got," Mr. Lightfoot said as he made the first turn of the first screw, "half that right."

Eons later, the final screw fell into Mr. Lightfoot's palm. Mr. Lightfoot had started humming "Frosty, the Snowman," in his somnolent way. Sometime between the removal of the second and third screws, the sound of the detonation mechanism had changed from a tick to a rasp. Mr. Moultry, lying in a stew of sweat, his eyes glassy and his head thrashing back and forth with dementia, had lost five pounds.

Mr. Lightfoot took from his toolbox a small blue jar. He opened it and with the tip of his index finger withdrew some greasy gunk the color of eel's skin. He spat into it, and smeared the gunk onto the seam that circled the bomb. Then he took hold of the tail fins and tried to give them a counterclockwise turn. They resisted. He tried it in the clockwise direction, but that, too, was fruitless.

"Listen here!" Mr. Lightfoot's voice was stern, his brow furrowed with disapproval. "Don't you gimme no sass!" With the miniature hammer he clunked the screw holes, and Mr. Moultry lost another few ounces as his pants suddenly got wet. Then Mr. Lightfoot gripped the tail fins with both hands and pulled.

Slowly, with a thin high skrreeeeek of resistance, the bomb's tail section began to slide out. It was hard work, and Mr. Lightfoot had to pause to stretch his cramping fingers. Then he went back to it, with the determination of a sloth gripping a tree branch. at last the tail section came free, and exposed were electronic circuits, a jungle of different-colored wires, and shiny black plastic cylinders that resembled the backs of roaches.

"Hoooowheeee!" Mr. Lightfoot breathed, enchanted. "ain't it prettyi"

"Killin' me..." Mr. Moultry moaned. "Killin' me dead..."

The rasping was louder. Mr. Lightfoot used a metal probe to touch a small red box from which the noise emanated. Then he used his finger, and he whistled as he drew the finger back. "Oh-oh," he said. "Gettin' kinda warm."

Mr. Moultry began to blubber, his nose running and the tears trickling from his swollen eyes.

Mr. Lightfoot's fingers were at work again, tracing the wires to their points of origin. The smell of heat rose into the air, which shimmered over the red box. Mr. Lightfoot scratched his chin. "Y'know," he said, "I believe we gots us a problem here."

Mr. Moultry trembled on the edge of coma.

"See, I"-Mr. Lightfoot tapped his chin, his eyes narrowed with concentration-"fix things. I don't break 'em." He drew in a long breath and slowly released it. "Gone have ta do a little breakin', seems ta me." He nodded. "Yessuh. Sure do hate ta break somethin' so pretty." He chose another, larger hammer. "Gone have ta do it." He cracked the hammer down on the red box. Its plastic skin split from one end to the other. Mr. Moultry's teeth gripped his tongue. Mr. Lightfoot removed the two plastic sections and regarded the smaller workings and wires within. "Jus' mysteries in mysteries," he said. He put his hand down into the toolbox and it came out holding a little wire cutter that still had its ninety-nine-cent price sticker on it. "Now, listen good," he told the bomb, "don't you burp in my face, heari"

"Ohhhhh God, oh Jeeeesus above, oh I'm comin' to heaven, I'm comin'," Mr. Moultry gasped.

"You get there," Mr. Lightfoot said with a faint smile, "you tell St. Peter he's got a fix-it-man on the way." He reached the cutter toward two wires-one black, the other white-that crisscrossed at the heart of the machine.

"Wait," Mr. Moultry whispered. "Wait..."

Mr. Lightfoot paused.

"Gotta get it off my soul," Mr. Moultry said, his eyes as bugged as the minstrel's. "Gotta get light, so I can fly to heaven. Listen to me..."

"Listenin'," Mr. Lightfoot told him as the bomb spoke on.

"Gerald and me... we... it was Gerald did the most of it, really... I didn't wanna have nothin' to do with it... but... it's set to go off at... ten in the mornin'... day after Christmas. Hear mei Ten in the mornin'. It's a box... full of dynamite... and an alarm clock timer. We paid Biggun Blaylock, and he... he got it for us." Mr. Moultry swallowed, perhaps feeling hell's fire under his buns. "It's set to blow up that civil rights museum. We... it was all Gerald's idea, really... decided to do it when we first heard the Lady was plannin' on buildin' it. Listen to me, Lightfoot!"

"Listenin'," he said slowly and calmly.

"Gerald planted it, somewhere around that museum. Could be in the recreation center. I don't know where it is, I swear to God... but it's over there right now, and it's gonna go off at ten in the mornin', day after Christmas."

"That righti" Mr. Lightfoot asked.

"Yes! It's the truth, and God take me to heaven 'cause I've freed my soul!"

"Uh-huh." Mr. Lightfoot reached out. He gripped the black wire with the cutter and snip, the black wire was parted. The bomb, however, would not be silenced so easily.

"Do you hear me, Lightfooti That box of dynamite is over there right this minute!"

Mr. Lightfoot eased the cutter's blades around the white wire. a muscle clenched in his jaw, and sweat sparkled on his cheeks like diamond dust. He said, "No, it ain't."

"ain't whati"

"Over there. Not no more. Done found it. Gone cut this wire now." His hand trembled. "Might blow if I've cut the wrong wire first."

"God have mercy," Mr. Moultry whined. "Oh Jesus I swear I'll be a good boy every day of my life if you just let me live!"

"I'm cuttin'," Mr. Lightfoot said.

Mr. Moultry squeezed his eyes shut. The cutter went snip.


In that tremendous roar of destruction and fire, Mr. Moultry screamed.

When his screaming wound down, he heard not the harps of the angels nor the devils singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." He heard: "Heh heh heh heh."

Mr. Moultry's eyes flew open.

Mr. Lightfoot was grinning. He blew a little flicker of blue flame from the snipped end of the white wire. The bomb was tamed and mute. Mr. Lightfoot spoke in a voice made hoarse by the tremendous yell he'd just yelled into Mr. Moultry's ear. "Beggin' your pardon, suh," he said. "Jus' couldn't pass it up."

Mr. Moultry seemed to deflate, as if he'd been punctured. With a slow hissing sound, he fainted dead away.

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