XXIX - Sixteen Drops of Blood
The time bomb box full of dynamite-with an extra stick thrown in from the gracious hand of Biggun Blaylock-had indeed been found, not long after I had informed the Lady who my dream visitors were. I must've remembered that picture and kept it in the back of my head, and then after the cross-burning and my witnessing Mr. Hargison and Mr. Moultry buy the box from Biggun Blaylock, I must've known subconsciously what the box was. That's why I'd taken to knocking my alarm clock off my bedside table. The only hitch in this theory is that I'd never seen pictures of the girls who'd died at the 16th Street Baptist Church until at the museum. I don't think. Maybe they were in the Life magazine. Mom had thrown it out, though, so I can't say for sure.
The Lady put it together as soon as I'd told her. She organized everyone at the reception to start looking for a wooden box either in the recreation center, the civil rights museum, or in the vicinity outside. Nobody could find it, and we tore that place up searching. Then the Lady recalled that Mr. Hargison was a postman. Right outside the center, on the corner of Buckhart Street, was a mailbox. Charles Damaronde held Gavin by his heels as he slid into the mailbox, and we heard his muffled voice say, "Here it is!" He couldn't bring it up, though, because it was too heavy. Sheriff Marchette was called, and he came with Zephyr's postmaster, Mr. Conrad Oatman, who brought the mailbox key. In that box was enough dynamite to blow up the recreation center, the civil rights museum, and two or three houses across the street. Evidently, four hundred dollars was enough to buy a mighty big bang.
Mr. Hargison, knowing what times the mail was picked up and that the mailbox would not be opened again until sometime on the afternoon of December 26th, had set the alarm clock timer for ten on the dot. Sheriff Marchette said the bomb had been constructed by a professional, because you could adjust the timer to either twelve, twenty-four, or forty-eight hours. He told the Lady that he didn't want Mr. Hargison or Mr. Moultry to know the bomb had been found yet, not until the innards were dusted for fingerprints. Mom and I had told Dad when we'd gotten home from the recreation center, and I have to say that both he and Sheriff Marchette did a good job of not spilling the beans when they were at Dick Moultry's house and Mr. Hargison walked in. Mr. Moultry's confession turned out to be the icing on the cake, since the time bomb yielded five prints that perfectly matched Mr. Hargison's. So those two were taken off pretty soon to visit the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Birmingham, and needless to say their names were ticked off the roster of the residents of my hometown.
The civil rights museum had its grand opening. I had no more dreams of the four black girls. But if I ever wanted to see them again, I knew where to go.
The falling of the bomb from a jet plane and the finding of a Ku Klux Klan bomb in a mailbox outside the civil rights museum kept Zephyr buzzing in the days following Christmas. Ben, Johnny, and I debated whether Mr. Lightfoot had ever been really afraid of the bomb or not. Ben said he had been, while Johnny and I took the position that Mr. Lightfoot was like Nemo Curliss; instead of baseball, though, Mr. Lightfoot's natural affinity was to anything mechanical, even a bomb, so when he stared those wires down he knew exactly what he was doing every second. Ben, incidentally, had had an interesting experience in Birmingham. He and his mom and dad had stayed with Ben's uncle Miles, who worked at a downtown bank. Miles had given Ben a tour of the vault, and all Ben could talk about was the smell of money, how green it was and how pretty. He said Miles had actually let him hold a pack of fifty one-hundred-dollar bills, and Ben's fingers were still tingling. Ben announced that he didn't know what he was going to do in this life, but as far as possible it was going to involve lots and lots of money. Johnny and I just laughed at him. We missed Davy Ray, because we knew what his comment would've been.
Johnny had asked for and received two Christmas presents. One was a policeman's kit, complete with honorary badge, fingerprint powder, handcuffs, burglar dust that got on the shoes of burglars and only showed up under ultraviolet light, and a policeman's handbook. The other was a wooden display case with little shelves in it, to show his arrowhead collection. He filled it up except for one shelf, which was reserved for a certain smooth black arrowhead if Chief Five Thunders ever decided to give it up again.
a question remained about Mr. Lightfoot and the bomb. Mom voiced it two nights after Christmas, as a cold rain fell on Zephyr.
"Tomi" she said. We were all sitting in the front room, with the fireplace blazing. You couldn't have pried The Golden apples of the Sun out of my hands with a crowbar. "What made Mr. Lightfoot go to Dick Moultry's house, anywayi I wouldn't have thought that was somethin' he might've volunteered to do."
Dad didn't answer.
Just as parents have sixth senses about their children, so, too, do children about their parents. I lowered my book. Dad continued to read the newspaper.
"Tomi Do you know what made Mr. Lightfoot do iti"
He cleared his throat. "Kind of," he said quietly.
"Well, what was iti"
"I guess... I had somethin' to do with it."
"You didi Howi"
He lowered the paper, realizing there was no way out but the truth. "I... asked the Lady for help."
Mom sat in stunned silence. Rain struck the windows and the fireplace log popped, and still she didn't budge.
"I figured she was the only chance Dick had. after what she did with Biggun Blaylock's ammo bag... I thought she could help him. and I was right, it appears. She called Marcus Lightfoot while I was there at her house."
"Her housei I can't believe this! You went to the Lady's housei"
"Not just to it. Inside it. I sat down in her chair. I drank a cup of her coffee." He shrugged. "I suppose I was expectin' shrunken heads on the walls and black widow spiders in every corner. I didn't know she was religious."
"To the Lady's house," Mom said. "I just can't believe it! and after all this time when you were so afraid of her!"
"I wasn't afraid of her," Dad corrected Mom. "I was just... a little skittish, that's all."
"and she said she'd help Dick Moultryi Even when she knew he'd had a hand in settin' that time bombi"
"Well... it wasn't quite that simple," my father admitted.
"Ohi" Mom waited. When Dad offered no more information, Mom said, "I'd like to hear it."
"She made me promise to come back. She said she could look at me and tell I was bein' eaten up alive. She said it showed in your face and in Cory's, too. She said we were all livin' under the strain of that dead man at the bottom of Saxon's Lake." Dad put the newspaper down and watched the fire. "and you know whati She's right. I promised to go back to see her tomorrow evenin' at seven o'clock. I was gonna tell you, eventually. Or maybe I wasn't, I don't know."
"Pride, pride," Mom scolded him. "You mean to tell me you did for Dick Moultry what you wouldn't do for mei"
"No. It's just that I wasn't ready. Dick needed help. I found it for him. and now I'm ready to find it for myself and both of you, too."
Mom got up from her chair. She stood behind my father, and she put her hands on his shoulders and leaned her chin against his head. I watched their shadows merge. He reached up and put his arm around her neck. They stayed that way for a moment, heart-close, as the fire cracked and sizzled.
It was time to go see the Lady.
When we arrived at her house at ten minutes before seven o'clock, Mr. Damaronde answered the door. Dad had no qualms about crossing the threshold; his fear of the Lady was gone. The Moon Man came out, clad in his robe and slippers, and offered us some pretzels. Mrs. Damaronde put on a pot of coffee-the New Orleans kind with chicory, she said-and we waited in the front room until the Lady was ready to see us.
I was keeping my suspicions about Dr. Lezander to myself. I still couldn't let my heart believe that Dr. Lezander, who had always been so kind and gentle to Rebel, might be a murderer. I had the connection of the two parrots, but there was nothing to connect Dr. Lezander with the dead man except a green feather, and that was just my theory. So he didn't like milk and he was a night owl; did that make him a killeri Before I told my parents, I would need something more solid to go on.
We didn't have to wait very long. Mr. Damaronde asked us to come back with him, and he led us not to the Lady's bedroom but to another room across the hallway. In it, the Lady was sitting in a high-backed chair behind a folding card table. She wore not a voodoo robe or a wizard's cap, but just a plain dark gray dress with a lapel pin in the shape of a dancing harlequin. On the floor of what was obviously her consultation room was a rug of woven reeds, and a crooked tree grew from a big clay pot in the corner. The walls were painted beige and unadorned. Mr. Damaronde closed the door and the Lady said, "Sit down, Tom."
Dad obeyed. I could tell he was nervous, because I could hear his throat click when he swallowed. He flinched a little when the Lady reached down beside her chair and brought up a doctor's bag. She placed it on the table and unzipped it.
"Is this gonna hurti" Dad asked.
"It might. Depends."
"How deep we have to cut to get at the truth," she answered. She reached into the bag and brought out something wrapped up in blue cloth. Then a silver filigreed box came out, followed by a deck of cards. She brought out a sheet of typing paper. In the overhead light I saw the Nifty watermark; it was the same brand of paper I used. Last out of the bag was a pill bottle containing three polished river pebbles: one ebony, one reddish-brown, one white with gray bands. She said, "Open your right hand," and when Dad did she unscrewed the pill bottle's cap and shook the river pebbles into his palm. "Work those in your hand awhile," she directed.
Dad gave a nervous smile as he did as she asked. "Did these come from Old Moses's stomach or somethin'i"
"No. They're just old pebbles I found. Keep workin' 'em, they'll calm you down."
"Oh," Dad said, rolling the worry-pebbles around and around in his palm.
Mom and I stood to one side, to give the Lady plenty of room to do what she was going to do. Whatever that might be. I don't know what I expected. Maybe one of those torchlit ceremonies with people dancing around in circles and hollering. But it wasn't like that at all. The Lady began to shuffle the cards, and the way she did it I suspected she might have given lessons to Maverick. "Tell me about your dreams, Tom," she said as the cards made a rhythmic whirring noise between her supple fingers.
Dad glanced uneasily at us. "Do you want them to goi" the Lady asked, but he shook his head. "I dream," he began, "about watchin' the car go into Saxon's Lake. Then I'm in the water with it, and I'm lookin' through the window at the dead man. His face... all smashed up. The handcuff on his wrist. The piano wire around his throat. and as the car's goin' down and the water starts floodin' in he-" Dad had to pause a minute. The pebbles clicked together in his palm. "He looks at me and he grins. That awful, smashed face grins. and when he speaks it's like... mud gurglin'."
"What does he sayi"
"He says... 'Come with me, down in the dark.'" Dad's face was a study in pain, and it hurt me to look at it. "That's what he says. 'Come with me, down in the dark.' and he reaches for me, with his hand that isn't shackled. He reaches for me, and I pull back because I'm terrified he's gonna touch me. Then it ends."
"You have other recurrin' dreamsi"
"a few. Not as strong as that one, though. Sometimes I think I hear piano music. Sometimes I think I hear somebody hollerin', but it sounds like gibberish. Occasionally I see a pair of hands holdin' that wire, and what looks like a thick wooden baton wrapped up with black tape. There are faces in there that are all blurred up, as if I'm lookin' at 'em through blood or my eyes can hardly hold a focus. But I don't have those nearly as much as the one about the man in the car."
"Did Rebecca tell you that I'm pickin' up some of those snippets, tooi" She continued to shuffle the cards. It was a hypnotic, soothing sound. "I hear bits of piano music, the hollerin', and I see the wire and the crackerknocker. I've seen the tattoo, but not the rest of him." She smiled faintly. "You and me are plugged into the same socket, Tom, but you're gettin' more juice than I am. Can you beat thati"
"I thought you were supposed to be the mystic," Dad said.
"I am. Supposed to be. But everybody's got the dream-eyes, Tom. Everybody sees snippets of some quilt or another. You're real close to this one. Closer than I am. That's why."
Dad worked the river pebbles. The Lady shuffled her cards and waited.
"at first," he said, "I was havin' those dreams right when I went to bed. Then later on... they started comin' on me when I wasn't even asleep. Durin' the day. I just have a flash of that car, and that man's face, and I hear him callin'. He says the same thing, over and over: 'Come with me, down in the dark.' I hear that mud-gurglin' voice, and I've... I've come close to goin' to pieces over it, because I can't shake it. I can't get any rest. It's like I'm up all night, too scared to let myself sleep for fear of..." He trailed off.
"Yesi" the Lady prodded.
"For fear of... listenin' to that dead man, and doin' what he wants me to do."
"and what might that be, Tomi"
"I think he wants me to kill myself," Dad said.
The card shuffling ceased. Mom's hand found mine and clenched it hard.
"I think he... wants me to come to that lake and drown myself in it. I think he wants me to come with him, down in the dark."
The Lady watched him intently, her emerald eyes gathering light. "Why would he want you to do that, Tomi"
"I don't know. Maybe he wants company." He tried for a smile, but his mouth wouldn't work.
"I want you to think very, very carefully. are those the exact wordsi"
"Yeah. 'Come with me, down in the dark.' He says it kinda gurgly, because I guess his jaw's busted or there's blood or water or mud in his mouth, but... yeah, that's it."
"Nothin' elsei Does he call you by namei"
"No. That's all."
"You know, that's funny, don't you thinki" the Lady asked.
Dad grunted. "I wish I knew what was so funny about it!"
"This: If the dead man has a chance to speak to you-to give you a message-then why does he waste it on askin' you to commit suicidei Why doesn't he tell you who killed himi"
Dad blinked. Now the clickings of the pebbles stopped. "I... never thought about that."
"Think about it, then. The dead man has a voice, however torn up it is. Why doesn't he tell you the name of his killeri"
"I can't say. Seems he would if he could."
"He could." The Lady nodded. "If he was speakin' to you, that is."
"I'm not followin' you."
"Maybe," she said, "there are three plugs in that socket."
Realization crawled over Dad's face. Over mine and Mom's, too.
"The dead man isn't speakin' to you, Tom," the Lady said. "He's speakin' to his killer."
"You... mean I'm..."
"Pickin' up the killer's dreams, like I'm pickin' up yours. Oh, mercy! You've got some strong dream-eyes, Tom!"
"He doesn't... want me to... kill myself because I couldn't get him outi"
"No," the Lady said. "Of that I'm sure."
Dad pressed his free hand to his mouth. Tears blurred his eyes, and I heard Mom sob beside me at the sight. He leaned his head forward. a single tear dropped to the table.
"Cuttin' deep," the Lady said, and she put a hand on his forearm. "It's a good hurt, though, isn't iti Like cuttin' away a cancer."
"Yes." His voice cracked. "Yes."
"You want to go outside and walk around a bit, you go right ahead."
Dad's shoulders trembled. But the burden was leaving him, ton by ton. He drew a deep, gasping breath, like the breath of someone whose head has just broken the surface of dark water. "I'm all right," he said, but he didn't lift his face up just yet. "Give me a minute."
"all the minutes you need, take 'em."
at last he looked up. He was still the man he'd been a moment before; his face was still lined, his chin a little saggy. But in his eyes he was a boy again, and he was free.
"You interested in tryin' to find out who that killer might bei" the Lady asked.
"I've got my own host of friends across the river. You get to be my age, you've got more of 'em on that side than this. They see things, and sometimes they tell me. But they like to play games with me. They like to throw me a riddle or two. So they never come right out and answer any question directly; it's always a sly answer, but it's always the truth. You want to involve them in this matteri" It sounded like a question she was used to asking.
"I guess I do."
"Either do or not, no damn guessin' about it."
after the least bit of hesitation, my father said, "I do."
The Lady opened the silver filigreed box and shook six small bones out on the table. "Put down the pebbles," she said. "Pick up those in your right hand."
Dad looked distastefully at what lay before him. "Do I have toi"
The Lady paused. Then she sighed and said, "Naw. It's a mood-setter, is all." She used the edge of her hand to sweep the bones back into the silver box. She closed it and set it aside. Then she reached into the doctor's bag again. This time her hand came out with a small bottle of clear liquid and a plastic bag full of cotton swabs. She set these between them and opened the bottle. "You'll have to put the pebbles down, though. Hold out your index finger."
"Because I said so."
He did it. The Lady opened the bottle and upturned it over one of the cotton swabs. Then she dabbed the tip of Dad's index finger. "alcohol," she explained. "Get it from Dr. Parrish." She spread the Nifty typing paper down on the table. Then she unwrapped the object in the blue cloth. It was a stick with two needles driven through one end. "Keep your finger still," she told him as she picked up the needled stick.
"What're you gonna doi You're not gonna jab me with those, are-"
The needles came down fast and rather roughly into the tip of Dad's finger. "Ouch!" he said. I, too, had winced, my index finger stinging with phantom pain. Instantly blood began to well up from the needle holes. "Keep your blood off that paper," the Lady told him. Working quickly, she dabbed alcohol on the index finger of her own right hand and with her left she whacked the needles down. Here blood was drawn, too. She said, "ask your question. Not aloud, but in your mind. ask it clearly. ask it like you expect an answer. Go ahead."
"all right," Dad said after a few seconds. "What nowi"
"What was the date that car went into Saxon's Lakei"
"Squeeze eight drops of blood on the center of the paper. Don't be stingy. Eight drops. Not one more and not one less."
Dad squeezed his finger, and the blood began dripping. The Lady added eight drops of her own red blood to the white paper. Dad said, "Good thing it didn't happen on the thirty-first."
"Take the paper in your left hand and crumple it up with the blood inside it," the Lady instructed him, ignoring his witticism. Dad did as she said. "Hold it and repeat the question aloud."
"Who killed that man at the bottom of Saxon's Lakei"
"Hold it tight," the Lady told him, and she pressed another cotton swab to her bleeding finger.
"are your friends here right this minutei" Dad asked, his left fist around the crumpled-up paper.
"We'll soon find out, won't wei" She held out her left palm. "Give it to me." When it was lodged there, she said sternly to the air, "Don't ya'll show me up to be a fool, now. This is an important question, and it deserves an answer. Not no riddle, neither. an answer we can figure out. Ya'll gone help us, or noti" She waited perhaps fifteen more seconds. Then she placed the crumpled paper in the middle of the table. "Open it," she said.
Dad took it. as he began to uncrumple it, my heart was slamming. If Dr. Lezander was scrawled there in blood, I was going to split my skin.
When the paper was open, Mom and I peered over his shoulder. There was a great big blotch of blood in the middle of the paper and other blotches all around it. I couldn't see a name in that mess to save my life. Then the Lady took a pencil from her bag and studied the paper for a moment, after which she began to play connect-the-blotches.
"I don't see a thing," Dad said.
"Have faith," she told him. I watched the pencil's tip at work, moving between the blood. I watched a long, curvy line swing out and in.
and suddenly I realized I was looking at a 3.
The pencil's tip kept moving. Curving again. Out and in, out and in.
a second 3. and then the pencil's tip ran out of blood blotches to connect.
"That's it," the Lady said. She frowned. "Two threes."
"That's sure not a name, is iti" Dad asked.
"They've riddled me again, is what they've done. I swear, I wish they'd make somethin' easy every once in a while!" She thunked the pencil down in disgust. "Well, that's all there's gonna be."
"That's iti" Dad sucked at his wounded finger. "You're sure you did this righti"
Words cannot describe the look she gave him. "Two threes," she said. "That's the answer. Three three. Maybe thirty-three. If we can figure out what that means, we'll have the killer's name."
"I can't think of anybody who has three letters in their first and last name. Or maybe it's an addressi"
"I don't know. all I know is what I'm lookin' at: three three." She slid the paper toward him; it was his to keep for his pain and trouble. "That's all I can do for you. Sorry there's nothin' more."
"I am, too," Dad said, and he took the paper and stood up.
Then the Lady removed her professional face and became sociable. She said she smelled the fresh coffee, and that there was chocolate roulage made by Mrs. Pearl from the Bake Shoppe. Dad, who had been eating like a bird before we came to the Lady's, ate two whopping pieces of roulage and washed them down with two cups of hot black chicory coffee. He and the Moon Man talked about that day the Blaylocks had been routed at the Trailways bus stop, and Dad laughed at the memory of Biggun running from a bag full of garden snakes.
My father was well and truly returned. Maybe even better than he was before.
"Thank you," Dad said to the Lady as we stood at the door ready to leave. Mom took her hand and kissed her ebony cheek. The Lady regarded me with her shining emerald eyes. "You still gone be a writeri" she asked me.
"I don't know," I said.
"Seems to me a writer gets to hold a lot of keys," she said. "Gets to visit a lot of worlds and live in a lot of skins. Seems to me a writer has a chance to live forever, if he's good and if he's lucky. Would you like that, Coryi Would you like to live foreveri"
I thought about it. Forever, like heaven, was an awfully long time. "No ma'am," I decided. "I think I might get tired."
"Well," she said, and she placed a hand on my shoulder, "it seems to me a writer's voice is a forever thing. Even if a boy and a man are not." She leaned her face closer to mine. I could feel the heat of her life, like the sun glowing from her bones. "You're gonna be kissed by a lot of girls," she said. "Gonna kiss a lot of girls, too. But remember this." She kissed me, very lightly, on the forehead. "Remember when you do all that kissin' of girls and women in all the summers left ahead of you that you were first kissed"-her ancient, beautiful face smiled-"by a lady."
When we got home, Dad sat down with the telephone book and scanned the names, looking for the address "thirty-three." There were two residents and a business: Phillip Caldwell at 33 Ridgeton Street, J. E. Grayson at 33 Deerman Street, and the Crafts Barn at 33 Merchants Street. Dad said Mr. Grayson went to our church, and that he was nearing ninety. He believed Phillip Caldwell was a salesman at the Western auto in Union Town. The Crafts Barn, Mom knew, was run by a blue-haired woman named Edna Hathaway. She seriously doubted if Mrs. Hathaway, who went around supported by a walker, had had anything to do with the incident at Saxon's Lake. Dad decided Mr. Caldwell's house was worth a visit, and he planned to go early in the morning before Mr. Caldwell left for work.
a mystery could always get me out of bed. I was up bright-eyed by the time the clock showed seven, and Dad said I could go with him but I wasn't to say a word while he was talking to Mr. Caldwell.
On the drive over, Dad said he hoped I understood he might have to tell Mr. Caldwell a white lie. I feigned shock and dismay at this, but my own count of white lies had been on the heavy side lately so I couldn't really be disappointed in him. anyway, it was for the right cause.
Mr. Caldwell's red brick house, four blocks past the gas station, was small and unremarkable. We left the pickup truck at the curb and I followed Dad to the front door. He pressed the buzzer and we waited. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman with jowly cheeks and sleepy eyes. She was still wearing her quilted pink robe. "Is Mr. Caldwell at home, pleasei" Dad asked.
"Phillip!" she called into the house. "Philllleeeeup!" She had a voice like a buzz saw at high pitch.
In another moment a gray-haired man wearing a bow tie, brown slacks, and a rust-colored sweater came to the door. "Yesi"
"Hi, I'm Tom Mackenson." Dad offered his hand. Mr. Caldwell shook it. "aren't you the fella who works at the Western auto in Union Towni Rick Spanner's brother-in-lawi"
"That's right. Do you know Ricki"
"Used to work with him at Green Meadows. How's he doin'i"
"Better, now that he found a job. Had to move to Birmingham, though. I pity him, I wouldn't care for the big city myself."
"Me neither. Well, the reason I dropped by so early and all is... I lost my job at the dairy, too." Dad smiled tightly. "I'm workin' at Big Paul's Pantry now."
"Been there. Big ol' place."
"Yes, it is. a little too big for me. I was just wonderin'... uh... if... uh..." Even a white lie stuck in his craw. "If there were any jobs to be had at the Western auto."
"No, not that I know of. We hired a new fella last month." He frowned. "How come you just didn't go by there and aski"
Dad shrugged. "Thought I might save myself the gas, I suppose."
"You ought to go by and fill out an application. You never know what'll come up. The manager's name is Mr. addison."
"Thank you, I might do that."
Mr. Caldwell nodded. Dad didn't retreat from the door. "anythin' else I can do for youi"
Dad's eyes were searching the man's face. Mr. Caldwell lifted his eyebrows, waiting. "No," Dad said, and I heard in his voice that his answer had not been found. "I don't think so. Thanks anyway."
"all right. You come on by and fill out an application, Mr. addison'll keep it on file."
"Okay, I'll remember that."
Back in the truck, Dad started the engine and said, "I believe that was a strikeout, don't youi"
"Yes sir." I had been trying to figure out what the numbers 3 and 3 might have to do with Dr. Lezander, but I, too, was coming up empty.
So was the truck. "Uh-oh!" Dad glanced at the gas gauge. "I'd better stop in and filllleeeeeup! Don't you thinki" He smiled, and I returned it.
at the station, Mr. Hiram White shambled out of his cathedral of engine belts and radiators and started pumping the gas in. "Pretty day," Mr. White commented, looking up at the blue sky. It had gotten cold again, though; January was champing at its bit like an eager horse.
"Yes, it is," Dad agreed, leaning against the truck.
"ain't gone be no gunplay today, is therei"
"I don't think so."
Mr. White grinned. "I swear, that was more excitin' than television!"
"I'm just thankful nobody got killed."
"Good thing the bus didn't come in while all that shootin' was goin' on, there would've been some dead bodies to sweep up."
"Right as rain."
"You heard about the bus gettin' hit by that monster out on Route Ten, didn't youi"
"Sure did." Dad checked his watch.
"'Bout knocked it off its wheels. You know Cornelius McGraw, been drivin' ol' thirty-three for eight yearsi"
"I don't know him personally."
"Well, he told me that monster was as big as a bulldozer. Said it ran like a deer, too. Said he tried to swerve, but it hit 'em broadside and he said the whole bus 'bout shook itself to pieces. Had to retire the bus is what they had to do."
"Is that righti"
"Sure is." Mr. White finished the job and pulled the nozzle from the truck's gas port. He wiped the end with a cloth so no drop of gas would mar the pickup's paint. "New bus has the route, but Corny's still drivin' it. Still number thirty-three, too, so things don't change so much, do theyi"
"I don't know about that," Dad said, and paid him.
"Ya'll take care, now!" Mr. White told us as we drove away.
We were halfway home when Dad said, "I guess I'd better check the phone book again. Maybe I missed somethin'." He glanced at me, then back to the unwinding street. "I was wrong about the Lady, Cory. She's not evil, is shei"
"I'm glad I went. I feel lighter now, knowin' that man isn't callin' for me. I feel sorry for whoever he is callin', though. Poor devil must have a hell of a time sleepin', if he sleeps at all."
He's a night owl, I thought. It was time. "Dadi" I said. "I think I know who-"
"God have mercy!" Dad suddenly shouted, and he hit the brake so hard the pickup slewed around and went up onto somebody's lawn. The engine shuddered and died. "Did you hear what Mr. White saidi" Dad's voice quavered with excitement. "Thirty-three! Ol' thirty-three, he said!"
"The Trailways bus, Cory! It's number thirty-three! I was standin' right there listenin' to him, and I hardly heard it! You think that could be what those numbers meani"
I was honored that he was asking my opinion, but I had to say, "I don't know."
"Well, the killer couldn't be Cornelius McGraw. He doesn't even live around here. But what would the bus have to do with whoever killed that man in Saxon's Lakei" He started puzzling it over, his hands clenched hard around the steering wheel. Then a woman holding a broom came out on her porch and started hollering at us to move the truck before she called the sheriff, so we had to go.
We returned to the gas station. Mr. White emerged again. "Sure went through that tank in a hurry, didn't yai" he asked. Dad wasn't interested in filling up anything but his curiosity, though. When was number thirty-three due back in againi he asked Mr. White, and Mr. White said the next day around noon.
Dad said he'd be there.
Maybe he was wrong, he told Mom that night at dinner, but he was going to be at that gas station waiting for the bus at noon. It wasn't Cornelius McGraw he would be there to see, but he would be watching to find out who the bus brought to Zephyr or who it took away.
I was there with him as noon approached. Mr. White was driving us crazy talking about how hard it was to find good GoJo to clean the grease off your hands anymore. Then Dad said, "Here it comes, Cory," and he walked from cold shadow into crisp sunlight to meet it.
The Trailways bus, with number 33 on the plate above its windshield, swept on past without even slowing, though Mr. McGraw honked the horn and Mr. White waved.
Dad watched it go. But he turned to Mr. White again, and I saw by the set of his jaw that now my father was a man with a mission. "Bus come back through day after tomorrow, Hirami"
"Sure does. Twelve noon, same as always."
Dad lifted a finger and tapped it against his lips, his eyes narrowed. I knew what he was thinking. How was he going to meet the bus on the days he had to work at Big Paul's Pantryi
"Hiram," he said at last, "you need any help around herei"
"Well... I don't know if I-"
"I'll take a dollar an hour," Dad said. "I'll pump the gas, I'll clean the garage, I'll do whatever you ask me to do. You want me to work overtime, that's fine. a dollar an hour. How about iti"
Mr. White grunted and stared at the cluttered garage. "I reckon I do need some stuff inventoried. Brake shoes, gaskets, radiator hoses, and such. and I could use another strong back." This from Quasimodo of the Belts. He stuck out his hand. "Got a job, if you want it. Startin' six in the mornin', if that's all righti"
"I'll be here," Dad said, grasping Mr. White's hand.
My father was nothing if not resourceful.
The bus passed through once more without even a hiss of brakes. But it was due again, twelve noon, same as always, and my dad would be there.
New Year's Eve came, and we watched on television the festivities in Times Square. at the stroke of midnight, someone shot off fireworks over Zephyr, the church bells rang, and horns honked. It had become 1965. On New Year's Day we ate black-eyed peas to bring us silver, and collard greens to bring us gold, and we watched football games until our south ends were sore. Dad sat in his chair with a notepad on his lap, and though he hollered for his teams he was scribbling 33... 33... 33 into an interlocking mosaic of numbers with his ball-point pen. Mom chided him to put down that pen and relax, and he did for a little while but soon his fingers found it again. I could tell by the way she looked at him that she was getting worried about him once more; ol' number thirty-three was becoming as much an obsession as the bad dream had ever been. He was still having that dream, of course, but he knew the dead man was not calling him and that made a big difference. I suppose, though, that in my father's case it took one obsession to break another.
Ben, Johnny, and I and the rest of the childish generation returned to school. In my class, I discovered we had a new teacher. Her name was Miss Fontaine, and she was as young and pretty as spring. Beyond the windows, though, winter was starting to rage.
Every other day, near noon, my father would step outside the gas station's office into chilly wind or blowing sleet or cold pale sun. He would watch the Trailways bus-ol' number thirty-three with Cornelius McGraw at the wheel-as it approached, his heart beginning to pound.
But it didn't stop. Not once. It always kept going, bound for somewhere else.
Then Dad would return to the office, where he was likely to be playing dominoes with Mr. White, and he would sit down in a creaky chair and wait for the next move.
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