Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Begin with … rock.
End with water.
Through a window fogged with his breath, Hatch could see the first and last cars at once as the train curled slowly around the mountain, a giant horseshoe, the other cars—he counted them—like a string of scattered islands, archipelagoes. In the green valley below grass ducked under bladed wind and trees were naked for all to see, their skinny arms pointing jumbled directions. The mountain curved up from the valley in a range of stony ridges like knuckles and joints, a peach fuzz of morning light growing from them. Up ahead, the engine disappeared into a tunnel followed by one car then another. A steady rush of squeezing darkness.
Boy, take this here jar of applesauce to Mr. John Brown. Blunt held out a mason jar, in conventional use a container for storing fruit but in Hatch’s hands a glass terrarium for displaying fireflies, breath holes punched in the lid, metal gills.
Yes’m. His grandmother often trusted him with such errands.
Free of her, he unscrewed the lid and dipped his finger in for a taste. Moist apples fresh from Blunt’s yard. He walked past John Brown’s old red pickup truck parked on the gravel road, as still as his gray metal mailbox with its little red metal flag. He unlatched the chain-link gate and entered the tree-shadowed yard. He sensed a tingling animal smell.
John Brown’s house was like Blunt’s—hers green and white, his blue and white—a long and wide cereal box knocked flat. Hatch banged on the door with practical knowledge. John Brown was hard of hearing. Almost immediately, the door wedged open, an inner light spilling out, as if John Brown had been awaiting him in his heavy black shoes, dark brown slacks with sharp creases like raised tents, and crisp white shirt ringed with sweat under the armpits. John Brown poked his head out. A long narrow wasp face. Hair cropped close, watermelon meat chewed down to the rind. Oil glistening on the scalp. Walnut-colored skin that brightened like a lightning bug in the sun. Hardly a trace of eyebrow, two dirty smudges. Toothless mouth, puckered, drawstring-tight. Razor-slit eyes. Expectant shine.
Blunt send you some applesauce. He screamed the words. She needed to send two or three more jars. John Brown was starvation skinny, on the verge of disappearing.
He took the mason jar. Boy, tell Miss Pulliam I thank her kindly.
Yes, suh—. But John Brown had already slammed the door shut, bringing a shower of dust down from the porch roof.
Miss Bee pulled a lump of snuff from her mouth and patted it on his cheek. He closed his eyes at the pain.
Hold it in place.
Hold it in place.
He did as instructed, felt his cheek swell under his fingers like an overstuffed nest.
Keep it on there two hours.
If it’s not better in the morning, I guess we’ll have to amputate.
His mouth went tight with concentration.
And keep away from them hedges.
Bent forward in his padded adult-sized seat, he felt light move up and down his back like hands, his face hot with friction against the window’s baked vibrating glass. For as far as he could see, sun covered the world, thick as honey, a warm buttery yellow over candy-colored houses. Midgets sloshed through the valley in rhythmic black duck boots. He was certain that they were singing. A hunting song. They aimed their rifles at the sky—a bright shimmering pink—hammers cocked.
Light splintered against the glass and brought a sense of space in the cramped coach. He studied a line of mountains, and beyond the mountains, pure distance, until a stiff breeze pushed against the window and broke his concentration. It continued, a violent rhythm pounding for entry.
Topped with off-white shades and hanging fringes, antique lamps each cast a dim triangular glow, fine radiance suspended like spider webs in the corners. Miss Bee’s store was so dim you had to carry light in from outside, massage it into your eyes. The store proper was pushed back to the farthest room of the house, money hidden in a drawer. A cigar box and a pad and pencil served as Miss Bee’s cash register; an old display case her counter. Rolls of belly fat pushed her inches from its edge. This woman akin to no other. Hampster-fat cheeks stuffed with snuff under the constant violence of big greedy horse teeth. She watches you with big round-lidded frog eyes, her face framed by two long skinny snakelike braids. The smell inside the house-store the same outside: chicken shit and the stinking ghosts of unborn chicks. Miss Bee had a rooster to crow for day and plenty of noisy chickens running about her yard, pecking secret codes into the dirt. Every now and then, some lone fowl would escape and wander out onto the gravel road and you would chase it down.
Thank you, boy. Now, pick you out a sucka.
Thank you, ma’am. That one there.
You a good boy, ain’t you?
Miss Bee released a space-filling laugh.
She would come to his grandmother’s house smelling like chicken and bearing gifts of food: turdlike yams, runny mashed potatoes, gummy pound cake, warmed over greens, or a green egg—tree growing inside—from the green womb of one of her hens.
He cracked the eggs and poured the yolks into a big bowl of milk. Blunt forked bread into the mixture, then fried the slices in a popping skillet. He ate six slices of green French toast and six strips of bacon in a puddle of thick syrup. Chewed slowly, seeking words in the yeast and meat.
A rattle of rain, hard, slamming, glancing with wind, big crystal-like drops shattering against the window. Then bright light spoking through the clouds. A rainbow formed, a pot of gold at either end to weigh it down, keep it earthbound. Leprechauns leaped at the colored bands with open hands.
Seated inside the deep tub, he extended his arms like wings, grabbed the hard enamel sides and tried to pilot the vessel forward. The claw feet dug porcelain talons into the bathroom tiles.
Boy, soap yo rag real good. Blunt stood near the sink, a big washcloth folded over her palm and hanging down to her forearm like loose pizza dough.
And soap that rag good over yo whole body.
And be sure to wash yo elephant snout.
He set three quarters ringing on the counter. Miss Bee’s eyes wandered round in her head. Should he slap them still? He wanted to.
Blunt want some bread.
Miss Bee fetched the bread.
He slapped a nickel on the counter.
And give me one of them suckas. Strawberry.
Miss Bee looked him full in the face. Boy, where yo manners?
Ma’am? Give me. Sorry, ma’am. May I have a sucka? Please.
Miss Bee dug inside her nose and with the same booger-finger shoveled a plastic- wrapped sucker out of the box.
Broccoli-like clumps of squat tightly leafed trees and lanky palm trees—or so he figures; flora not native to this part of the country, the world—prodigious fronds spilling down like dreadlocks, floppy dog ears. Then black ink-lined trees traced on a thin gray and pink cloud sky. Other trees in the valley, heavy with birds—he discovers three or four rare finds, new species never before recorded by man—photo-still cows, and white houses hemmed in by blue sky, shining, naked bulbs. A big sleek silver bird with streamlined feathers and sparkling talons lifts off to sky against the wind’s resistant slap, light forming a sparkling badge of achievement on its breast. Earth cannot restrain it. It flies off to somewhere behind the sun.
A farmer leads a lone cow off into a clump of bushes and shrubs while the other cows stand and look on. Hatch sings,
My dog resembles a badger My dog resembles a fox
My dog resembles a bear
But my dog most resembles a dog
He turns his eyes away from the sight. Sealed in, coach sounds.
And get out that road. Blunt snapped her umbrella open to ward off the sun. He moved under its shade and watched Blunt, her false teeth bright as cell bars, dead person’s hair concealing gray wire springs poking from her bald scalp. Not in use, the fake hair covered a white faceless squeaking Styrofoam head, a bird perched in a tree, waiting to lift up its hairy wings and flap away. Mouth-free, the teeth slept at the bottom of a mason jar like some strange fish.
Just up the road, John Brown sat on his porch, a look of worry creasing his face. It was a rare sight to see him unguarded in the open. His house was a fort with squat flowerpots under every window—booby-trapped sentinels—and padded curtains. Even the sun was not welcome. A rare sight indeed. You might spy him in his yard, mowing down millions of green aliens with his ancient cutting machine. Blunt greeted him gladly in the hot afternoon. How you douce?
Alright. Boy, where yo manners?
How you, John Brown? Hatch leaned out from the umbrella into the sun.
Fine, boy. Jus fine.
Hatch pepped up his step, the sun circling overhead, heat rising from the ground through his sneakers. Trucks and cars went speeding past—the drivers finding time to wave—rippling the heavy blanket of heat, but the air that circulated was no cooler. Blunt hard-breathed behind him.
Boy, slow down. You catch heatstroke.
And get back in this shade.
Feet raised and her head arched back—chair and body, a curve of wave—Mamma slept beside him, lips quivering with the drive of her snoring, breath regulating itself, deep and slow, lines bunched on her forehead. Windows threw even shadows on her face, moving, a tiny black train. Her mouth made a swampy sound.
He built a nest around her. Piled high all the reasons she should stay.
I wanna shake.
Miss Bee make you a shake.
Nawl. I wanna go to Chinaman’s.
Go on to Miss Bee.
I don’t want no Miss Bee shake.
Boy, why you so hardheaded?
Hatch watched his feet. He could kick her.
Spoiled. Just spoiled.
Hatch’s line of sight traveled the floor to her sandaled toes, the corns like tiny missiles.
Here. Blunt put the dollar in his palm. You get yo shake but you go to Miss Bee and buy some dranks.
I don’t want no pop. Want some tea.
Don’t be so hardheaded.
Suitcases in hand, they moved slowly through the station, their heels clicking on the tiled floor. He stepped over a puddle of saliva.
How come Blunt baptize her teeth?
How come she wear dead hair?
He watched the tight purse of Mamma’s lips.
Sometimes you think of the silliest things.
They moved through the station, the air heavy and white, coating the tongue and lips like milk, light sifting through the cloth-shaded windows like flour. Mammas head bobbed up and down from fatigue.
You need a break, he said. You need rest.
She did not answer.
Blunt smiled as they stepped out the station, an ancient woman by Hatch’s most recent calculations, a bundle of dried sticks brittle to the touch.
The next morning, Mamma woke with a nosebleed from the heat.
Will you stay? he asked.
You know I can’t.
I have to—
You never stay.
She watched him, her chin tucked into her chest, like a boxer.
He quit the house and ran over the dew-filled grass, diamond wetness that vanished in his fingers. Bush and weed reached greedily after him. Gnats bunched into black fists. He mounted his bike, Blunt screaming after him, her words bouncing off his blind back: Boy, slow down. You catch heatstroke. And there was John Brown, standing in his yard, face pointed up at a green canopy of tree. Drawn by the bike’s motion, he aimed his face at Hatch, his chin hard and straight, his eyes sparkling for a moment as if struggling for recognition. Come here, boy. Hatch felt a stirring in the air, a sense of his weightlessness, a low rising on winged feet. He pumped his legs with all he had and made off. Time and speech flew fast, for he traveled as far as his two legs and two wheels could carry him, the outskirts of the green and brown world, where he saw, felt and studied objects and events he believed no other had. (He would speak his finds on one condition: convincing pay.) He returned to his outpost in the dead hours of heat, tired, hunger chewing up his belly, and saw Miss Bee’s familiar slow steps on the road, gravel crunching underfoot. She would be slower still after a full evening of conversation with Blunt. Hey there, boy. Fingers probing his hair, cold snakes. Together, they walked the two splintery planks—swoll up from the heat like two punch-drunk eyes but bridge-sturdy bridge-steady—leading to Blunt’s front yard, Hatch guiding Miss Bee by the angle of her elbow, and Miss Bee singing,
Got on the train
Didn’t have no fare
But I rode some
I rode some
Conductor asked me
What I’m doing there
But I rode some
I rode some
How yall? The words floated down on them from John Brown’s porch.
Fine, Miss Bee said.
Sho is hot.
Ain’t it the truth.
Hatch led Miss Bee through Blunt’s screened front door. She was slow and a sampling of bugs entered with her.
How you douce?
Blunt and Miss Bee hugged.
The two women spent hours on the couch, shifting their weight from time to time—their thighs sticking to the plastic covers—and spinning talk from the loom of their wrinkled faces, thin laughter trailing across the room to the deep chair where Hatch sat, waiting, reeling in the clear flow of words, sneakers two feet above the floor, jerking, wiggling and throbbing like hooked fish. The women used tall glasses of clinking iced tea to quench their fiery tongues, cool them to momentary rest. Then they started again. Miss Bee’s armpits raised a staying odor, a thick hot pressure that filled Hatch’s chest.
Why she smell like that?
She can’t help it.
She got plenty of deodorant right there in her store.
She can’t help it. She sick.
On the sly, he pinched the wings of his nose. Why don’t she pack up her tongue and go home? Boy, help me to the gate, she would say, rubbing her peach seed-hard fingers on his head, her heavy bowling pin legs made light by two wings of sweat spread across the back of her dark blue housedress.
You see all them sacks in the backa his truck?
Hatch too recalled seeing a high stack of grocery bags in the back of John Brown’s red pickup, wheels flat with the weight.
Must have a tapeworm in his belly.
And still ain’t got no meat on his bones.
And don’t he know better than to leave food out like that.
Maybe he like it that way. Rotten.
Wouldn surprise me one bit. Not one.
Hatch sank deeper in the chair.
He got fever in his feathers for sho.
Hatch pictured a chicken, feathers aflame.
Hatch pictured a shelled green bean and a green shock of corn.
They shoulda put him away a long time ago.
Um huh. If you got a broken leg, walk it off.
But you can’t walk off yo head.
But for the grace of God.
Yes. Grace. Miss Bee made signs in the air above her head.
John Brown peeked through the triple-chained crack in the door.
Hatch inched backwards. Blunt wanna know if you carry her to town?
Boy, tell Miss Pulliam I carry her. John Brown shut the door.
Hatch ran so fast that his feet twisted against the porch steps. He liked John Brown’s truck, riding up front in the high cab. So he served Blunt the reply, then darted back to the road and waited for John Brown in the truck’s thick shadow. No sooner had he positioned himself against the sun-heated metal did John Brown appear in his doorway, appear on his ancient porch, rotating the brim of his hat in the circle of his fingers. He set his shoulders broad and moved slow over the cement walk to the gravel road, shirt buttons glowing like bulbs.
Blunt reached the road with her most youthful gait. John Brown quickened his pace, his shoes light, stepping on the very toes, long black knives. He opened the car door for Blunt and Hatch—Thank you, John Brown—and shut it with the clang of a lock after they got in, then he got in himself, the three of them in the front seat—the only seat—of the truck, Hatch sandwiched between John Brown and Blunt, rigid, perfectly straight. John Brown gave off a fresh rain scent that had soaked deep in his skin. The cab smelled of electrical wires, flaking leather, old rubber, and rust. Hatch’s skin felt tight, the whole world squeezing in. For the first time he hungered for the truck’s square open space out back. John Brown worked his fingers near the dashboard and the engine sputtered, the groan of ignition, air from a balloon. Gears screeched for traction, then they set off over the gravel, John Brown’s big black shoes on the accelerator and brake, his long narrow eyes (like string beans)—Nigger Chinese, Blunt called them—fixed on the road, steady as headlights, unblinking. He kept the truck at a crawl, both hands on the huge steering wheel, big thunderous tires roaring through the glassy heat of the streets, the truck shivering like a wet dog. The anchors of John Brown’s heavy-shoed feet kept it squarely on the road.
Ain’t seen brogans like that since Moses.
Dust sifted off the rusted metal in a fine light brown cloud.
Sure is hot, Miss Pulliam.
Yes, suh, Blunt said. You got that right.
Must be firing up the ovens in hell.
Like to catch heatstroke. Blunt smiled.
Steamcleaning the pitchforks.
Hot day like this, no way that monkey come down from that tree.
Blunt’s elastic smile snapped and broke.
Miss Pulliam, you know anything bout getting a monkey outa a tree?
Why, no, suh.
Well, I might chunk a rock.
Try one of yo big ass shoes.
Now, there’s a thought.
Can that monkey drive? Hatch said, subdued.
Blunt’s head spun on her neck like an oiled machine. She gave him an unflinching, icy look.
Boy, John Brown said, you old enough to know that no monkey don’t know nothing bout no driving.
Maybe he got his own car. A monkey-mobile.
How long you had this truck? Hatch said.
This truck old as me and I ain’t no spring chicken. Mo like a lazy winter dog.
How old is that?
Blunt’s eyes swelled at him, red, heavy, ripe, apples.
These kids fulla questions. If God wanted young folks to be smart, he woulda made em grown.
They passed a junkyard, overturned cars like playful dogs, paws up.
Now I got a question for you.
You know what a horse is?
Hatch said nothing for a moment. You mean that animal?
Yes. Now, what a horse is?
That’s a pig that don’t fly straight.
John Brown’s laughter crashed against the windshield, then thinned out to a few snorts and grunts.
Cold light barely warmed him through the glass. He sneezed. Fog began to curl around the valley. Night coming on hard, the sun dropping low and red through the mountains. The sky grew from pink to purple. Trees arrowed off into dark heaven.
And there was more to see. Stars, sparkling teeth. The moon, a fierce white pendulum. Red buzzing traffic and squat houses with fat black iron bars on the doors and windows. City lights on the horizon, earthbound stars. The coach glowing, shadows springing to life.
He applied the wool blanket to his body like a fuzzy second skin. Then the moon swung at him, a bright slice of it cutting cleanly through the window. He felt his head for wetness, for blood.
Boy, come here.
Hatch did not move.
You gon run off? Well gon if you want.
Blood went thick behind his eyes. John Brown awaited him in the tree’s shade. His lined wrinkled body seemed to be cracking, fragmenting into puzzle pieces of shadow. Hatch was not afraid. He needed to see, he wanted to see. He got down from his bike, slow and deliberate. His feet moved even more slowly over the gravel, silent as house slippers. He opened the metal latch to John Brown’s gate, entered the yard, and let the latch close behind him, a clanging sound like a crowbar against a radiator.
See the monkey?
The day calm and vacant. Full afternoon heat. A few fluffy white buffalo clouds. John Brown’s face and chin jutted up at the tree, his eyes closed. He put movement in his body. Slow, a riverboat—plodding along blindly to some hidden rhythm, bent forward against the still and heavy heat, face blank and empty.
Hatch inched backwards.
John Brown stepped from the tree’s shade into bright light, ragged breathing as if he had just completed a cross-Atlantic swim. He opened his eyes, sun in the pupils, two horizons, and thrust his face close. To see Hatch better? Photograph his thoughts?
Boy, I ask you a question.
Flying spit peppered Hatch’s cheeks. Words hovered, rising steamlike from John Brown’s bright face. An ancient face criss-crossed with stiff wrinkles, rusty rails. The old man’s long rigid finger pointed up into thick foliage where a wide blade of light slashed through the leaves. Hatch looked in wonder. Squinted into the flaming green.
The sky relaxed. Then he saw it, the monkey. Tiny eyes looking off into the clouds. Shoulders hunched up to its ears. Tail hooked over a branch. A hanging ornament.
The monkey shuddered, stirred.
My god! John Brown said. All gravity lifted from his face. His mouth fell open, unhinged.
The monkey took a deep breath, then extended his wings in the sun, which lit them like a screen, put them on display. Hatch could see every tracing of vein—miniature roads—every bumpy muscle, and the delicate framework of bone under the skin. The wings were thin, almost transparent.
With effortless arrogance, the monkey began moving his wings backward and forward, all comfort and ease, the wings light and flexible, a timed and measured fanning that gradually built up to a quick and constant haze, causing the air around Hatch to quiver, his heart to beat without mercy.
Born and raised in Chicago, Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of the novel Rails Under My Back, which won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction in 2000. He is also the author of a collection of poems, Harbors and Spirits. He has three forthcoming books, RADAR Country and The Green Apocalypse, both short story collections, and Stellar Places, a second collection of poems. Mr. Allen is a professor in the English Department at Queens College of the City University of New York and an instructor in the graduate writing program at The New School.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.