The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
The train ground to a halt, wheels screeching on the blue tracks, mad squeal of metal moving against metal, track stubborn, wheels locked. The slide terminated after a buck, in a stall, a hiss, an utter calm. Cinders fell, heavy hot pellets, into the fields. Smoke puddled the air. The cabooseman clung to his handle bar. Passengers peered out windows, hoping to see what was causing the delay. The seasons of Bonus Marchers, striking farmers who had laid threshing-machine cables and spiked logs across trestles to derail trains, were long gone. Pickets winking in dust-bowl wind, the chants, the echo of gunfire and of men yelling angrily—all that was over now. Enough milk had been dumped from cans into ditches here in this part of the country that some people claimed its rancid odor could still be smelled as far east as Cleveland on hot days when the wind blew hard enough. The plains were a peaceful place now; plains wars were over and, as Nicky said, all the wars were moved to the city. Since 1874 barbed-wire fences crisscrossed it. That settled people down, kept their cows separated. The Indians had been dispersed to reservations, and buffalo had been eliminated from the frontier: the vanquished pair were minted into limited immortality on either side of a nickel, the nickel Hannah rubbed anxiously with her thumb as she looked out the window with the others on the train. She studied the coin. This was what you bought stuff with in America. It was sort of pretty. You could buy land with it, a home, or a train—you could live in a train if you wanted, see lots of places. The word Liberty was stamped on the coin over the forehead and nose of a profiled warrior. His eyes were shut, she noticed, and over his face was a mask of grief. It made her feel sorry for him, poor early-man with his braid. On his shoulder the number 1936 was stamped, like the number on the back of a prisoner’s pajamas. On the nickel tail was the buffalo with The United States of America emblazoned, a silver rainbow over its silver body. Its tail swished, but its head had to be bowed for it to fit on the round form of the coin. Well, things fit or they don’t and if they don’t somebody makes them fit. On the buffalo’s head George Washington’s periwig sat, a helmet. The buffalo also wore a beard on its chin. Hannah knew this was Abraham Lincoln’s beard. She killed time by flipping the coin up, catching it and guessing heads or tails.
Alarmed by the silence, a baby started crying. The crying carried down the corridor from the car ahead. Gratitude for a break in the monotony was now expressed by a stream of confident complaints the travelers offered one another. She looked to mama Opal, “I thought there were supposed to be mountains here.”
“You’ve got to go hundreds of miles west for those.”
“Mountains, with snow on them.”
“One of these days we’ll take you to the mountains.”
“I don’t think so, but sometime, soon.”
“Cross your heart.”
“Hannah, did I tell you that all this used to be under the ocean?” and mama Opal began to explain to her the inland ocean, fossils, the waves lapping the mountains’ edge, and her daughter listened and imagined it all, and heard behind her, “I didn’t pay 23 dollars to sit here in the tracks,” and another, saying, “Time will pass, may I introduce myself name is Grant.”
Sun-glint snapped off someone’s belt buckle.
“You ever hear the one about Dr. Coffin and Nurse Graves?” Hannah had no idea what all the laughter was about. She turned around and saw that it came from the man who was in retail. Retail was a kind of thing her father Nicky said crawled with the scum of the earth. Retail, he would say, and spit.
Given words say it was me speaking now I’d say mama Opal and I looked out the window, streaked with the dust of a dozen states. A bitty wind made the fields, so thick with what the picture books at school had taught me was wheat, rise and fall like waves in a dry gold sea. Such clear air crawled over the crops in streams making the blue out at the fences wiggle. We were near Babylon, a man with a black hat like a pancake said. It was probably cows blocking the tracks up ahead, his woman said. I watched mama’s eyes move nervously. I had put my buffalo head nickel back in my pocket.
A bell rang way off in the distance. I knew that mama Opal wasn’t nervous over the train stopping in its tracks. She was tired from the long trip that began it seemed like years ago, in a drizzle that splashed over the big house with all the walkups and windows were all the women could look out into the streets to see us children. It seemed we were locked in the train forever. So many towns and trees had ran one into the other that any church or courthouse, lumberyard, river, borough hall, or garden, any arch, stone-walled prison or museum, had melted for us into one great blur of prettiness.
It was our country. It was our land. I had never hoped to see such a thing in my life but there it was. And time during the trip had been swept away into a flatness. Something we could not count on. I would wake up in the middle of the night and think it was noon. I was able to mistake towns for stars and stars for lantern bugs.
The bell rang again.
So slow you couldn’t feel the difference, the train started forward again and picked up speed a bit at a time. I looked out the window to see the cattle that blocked the tracks but didn’t see them. All I saw were the soft fields that stretched away to the place where the clouds came down to touch the land.
As we came up to uncle’s town, there were more fences we could see that marked off squares and other shapes. I said something to mama Opal and she said to me, What a smart young lady you are.
She was proud of me when I said things like this. I loved to make her happy and to make her proud of me. I was always on the lookout for smart things to say to her, to show her I was her young lady. That’s what she called me when she was proud—her young lady.
Today was Saturday. Come Sunday, she said, everything would be glorious. Home someday? I asked, I’d have my own room? Maybe I’d be able to see the mountains out the window. I must have heard her wrong. She said, Come Sunday.
Tying up land with poles and lengths of wire or slats and drawing lines with sticks or surveying instruments, plumb bobs is what they’re called and tripod-mounted scopes and demarcations, and settings-off, making some sense of the wild by all these things that were called ownership. This is what our job was on the green earth, divvying up being the birthright of every pioneer, that’s what uncle LeRoy would come to say. It reminded me of sidewalks in the city, chalked up for hopscotch. Crosswalks, the boys’ baseball diamond, stripes on the blue of the policeman’s uniform, lines on the bum’s socks, wrought-iron fences out in front of brick houses marking off the front yards with the gingko trees between stoops. Marks that all by themselves made up the silhouette like the kind you can buy in summer from the artist on the sidewalk, a silhouette (I’ve got one of me) from childhood on through life toward when you give up your ghost and they stick you right in the ground, that too marked by sunken grass and a gravestone. I know. I’ve been to a cemetery before. That was when mama Opal’s own mother passed. It was bad that uncle LeRoy didn’t come. Everybody must go to the graveyard when their mama dies.
* * *
Say it was me speaking, I’d say the town appeared on both sides of the train. We were here. The noisy talk of the passengers, our temporary family, filled up the car. Babylon, Nebraska, pop 134. Now, 136.
We were the only passengers getting off the train at this stop, though you’d never know it from all the loud talking and moving going on. Wind through wheat’d make for sounds more understandable than all the talk these people built up. People talk most when they’ve got nothing in their head, or too much in their head. It’s a natural thing. I’ve noticed it. I’d be quiet myself except that right now I’ve got too much in my head.
So this was Babylon? Why would so much lumber, mortar, brick, glass, stone be dragged here, just to this spot, to be lifted, hammered and pulled together to make a town? The towns we had passed through seemed to have at least a river, or a bluff of hills ranged about with cottonwood trees or maples, a rise, a ring of sand around a lake’s shore—something that called to mind a reason for settlers to build a first home and for others to want to follow. Yet so far as I could tell (and after months of wandering around Babylon and environs I would come to realize my question was fair) this town was not nestled beside a low-flowing, majestic river, not even a gulch. No plateau edged it, no hill crested beside it, no valley of luscious vineyards stretched away at its feet. Its character seemed defined by no character at all.
Months later, I learned that Babylon lay outside the known alleys of the tornadoes that spin their way across every other quarter of the state—it was for this the land was homesteaded. Babylon had a reputation of being a hex on twisters. Even the Indians held that its grounds were possessed of fortunate powers that kept the winds at bay. Ever since, it spread out its streets and structures, unprotected from the winds’ forces by either land or trees, it was as if the town and all its inhabitants stood out on the high plains in defiance of the angry, twirling wind.
Two men stood on the platform. One was smoking a pipe. The purple of the smoke was funny against the red paint on the side of the station house and all the yellow everywhere else. The man with the pipe was my uncle. He didn’t look very happy, did he.
* * *
There was so much to learn.
Hens lay eggs. Lambkins are born with long tails that must be docked isn’t that crazy. This is a bloody process has a smell to it. There are different kinds of earth. Some kinds of earth you can walk on, some earth gives birth to plants. These can grow. It is hard to believe. Words stick to each different thing. Knee-high by the fourth of July besides sounding pretty has its meaning. What grows out of the earth. Corn does. So does wheat and weeds do, too. Rice, it grows out of the earth but requires more water. Apple trees come up out of the soil, they make flowers and afterwards apples. Green and red. You can climb up an apple tree more easily than up a willow tree. Up in the branches of an apple tree you can eat raw apples. They are tart on the tongue and the meat is crisp against the teeth. Too many of them and your belly will ache all night. At night there are stars in the sky, in the day there are birds. Both birds and stars have names because there are many different kinds of the one and many different positions for the other. Bats like the sky, too, but in between night and day. The sun is a star. It’s so big and warm because it’s closer to us than any star. Some of the planets are there, also, they look a lot like stars you have to be careful. The moon seems to get confused once in a while. It drifts like a sliver of nail in the daytime sky, milk white up in all that blue. I couldn’t tell you why the sky is blue and I don’t know why uncle keeps saying once in a blue moon. I think the sky might be a reflection of the oceans but this is what mama Opal would call an educated guess and my uncle would call cockshit. The world is mostly oceans. That is where the fish go. People live down there probably. They have gills. They lay eggs just like birds do. Fish lay eggs I mean. The underwater people I don’t know what they do. They probably lay eggs, too, otherwise water would get on the babies too soon and they would drown. If you shoot something with a gun it stops moving. That’s because it is dead. We die all of us, even apple trees, wheat. Stars, bats, corn, planets die in time too. I saw a banty rooster die. I held it in my lap. I knew just when its ghost inside flew away, I could almost see it. Time’s something that moves but not in such a way you can see it going. It moves inside people and things. The earth is round. This roundness can be seen along the edge of the horizon from up in an apple tree, or on the roof of the house. It’s not easy to see but once you’ve seen it once it is always easy to see after that and also it is easy to close your eyes and imagine the curved line of the horizon sweeping away in both directions downwards. Then you get a sense of how very grand the earth is. It may be shaped like an egg or a marble I don’t know. Some people are born with mean temperaments just like other people are born with bumpy noses or flaps on their lips that make them lisp. There are words, names for these folks. Unkind, unhappy, cruel. They hurt other people. If there weren’t other people to hurt they would have to hurt themselves I suppose. It’s their nature. Some probably run out of people they know to hurt and then they have no choice but to hurt themselves. They’re crying inside, these people. They’re crying in the same place where time lives. You can’t see it. No one can. There are other people whose souls are sweet. Sweeter than the stem of the honeysuckle you can draw out of the flower and suck. They cry too, these people. But their lives are made up of atoms sparked and borrowed from the spirit of a blessed one who alone knows the nature of all these things. I will tell you a secret. I have seen this spirit once. Like a dull gold, it walked out under the great elm beyond the porch. I never told before. It was majesty.
“What brand hawk is that?” queried Mr. Johnson, index finger pointed straight up at a big black turkey vulture.
“That’s no hawk,” I contended.
“Sure, it is, Hannah. Look at the wingspan.”
“Not a hawk, not close. It’s a eagle.”
I thought, It’s a big black turkey vulture and it’s up there just circling circling waiting for you to drop and then watch her corkscrew down pretty as you please
“An eagle!” Mr. Johnson had caught on. Hannah was joking. “Ho, ho.” perch and start up pecking your eyeballs out
“A eagle, or a redtail.”
Mr. Johnson smiled, self-congratulatory. “Your mama’s right to be proud over you. I grew up in the city, too. Bloomington’s not New York City, granted. But my, you do pick things up fast.”
first that one then the other
We had strolled so far away into the mild-rolling fields that the house, the barn, and uncle’s collection of dilapidated tractors and rusted-out cars, tireless, perched on the half-sunk reddish rims of their wheels, engines hoisted away long since for replacement parts, were no longer visible. A flock of savannah sparrows trilled and chipped yards off to the south, invisible in the short grass that runs along the dry, eroded ravine.
A late April afternoon. The sky a pallid dome high overhead. Cloudless except for the whitish puff that formed itself into some recognizable shape, like an ocarina or a jawbone, before it disappeared again. Warm still from the noon heat out in the fields where the crumbly soil had gathered sun-heat and was only now giving up its storage of warmth back into the air. It was a warmth so exquisitely subtle you could sense it spread upward from the shallow ground into the soles of your boots. It was good to be outdoors. The winter had been so long. I had done my best to stay out of uncle’s way, but when the snows came one after the other, piling in layers gray on top of gray, this was hard to do. He seemed to be angry with me all the time. It had to do with his brother, the one he killed by accident, the gun accident, the one that made mama Opal go away with her mother. The one where if it didn’t happen they wouldn’t have gone away, right, and Nicky’d never have come around and there wouldn’t have been a Hannah. Mama Opal and he talked about it. I know because I listened to them through a door. His temper seemed like a disease.
“Hear that?” I said, pulling the field glasses up by the tired leather strap.
“No,” Mr. Johnson squinted.
someday this strap’s gonna break and I pray it wont be me that’s carrying the glasses when it happens
I scanned a stand of bushes but could not see it. We walked along. Mr. Johnson was talking, mostly about mama Opal. I watched his face. Crows-feet spread at the corner of his eye like a delta in a geology primer. His squint exaggerated these wrinkles so they furrowed deep into his skin; the bottom wrinkles of the crows-feet reached down in a curve until they looped back forward and joined the creases that trailed from his large mouth. His nose, creased too, was blotched as the back of a brown trout. Or the egg of a turkey vulture. It seemed to me by its shape that it had been broken once or twice. Those cobalt-blue eyes. I’ll bet they had as much to do with his success in life as anything else. So much can happen by fate, by a thing not to be fought, because it is not there to be fought—there before you are given fists to fight with.
Uncle thinks this Johnson owns more than just the theater and slaughter-house. He says that he secretly owns most of the businesses in town and half its citizens, too. Uncle …
Mr. Johnson is pointing out the direction where the sparrow song came from again. His brown hair jostled.
“Out over there.”
“Prairie dog town.”
“No, there, over there.”
I handed Mr. Johnson uncle’s field glasses.
when this strap breaks the lenses of the binoculars will shatter and it better not be me carrying them
The sun was lowering in the sky; it always, I noticed, seemed to move faster when it was setting, or rising. You can see it rise by degrees, swelling from a flat sliver until its entire orange body is squatting like a fat old lady on the horizon. It slows down as it climbs higher in the sky, then speeds up when it wants to set. I’ve watched this happen. I have a theory about it, too. I think it is an illusion and that it seems to move faster because you can see its movement relative to things on the earth, trees, a hillside. I told mama Opal about this. She said it was a sign of growing up I’d figure things like that out. For example, the song of the vesper sparrow? It is almost the same as that of the song sparrow. It’s much easier to distinguish them from their markings. The vesper sparrow? She’s got a set of white feathers along the outside of her notched tail. No other brown sparrow’s got that. Some things in life are easy.
Mr. Johnson trained the glasses on the bird. “There’t is. Song sparrow. To be young and have such good eyes.”
It was a vesper sparrow.
Mr. Johnson was very kind to me; tonight was the first time he and his wife had ever come out to uncle’s place for a visit. Uncle had said it was not proper for mama Opal to invite her boss and his wife for supper, but here they were. We left mama Opal and Mrs. Johnson back at the house. Mr. Johnson suggested he and I take a walk in the fields before dinner; he wanted to see the land. Uncle LeRoy was at his Utopian Club meeting in town.
“You like it at your uncle’s?” he asked.
“It’s all right.”
“Don’t sound so enthusiastic.”
As he spoke he ran the binoculars over a treeless ridge behind which lay the county-line road that chased out into the great plains straight as an arrow until it reached its vanishing point. Killy killy killy, came the brisk call of the hawk overhead. It bickered with the vulture, chased it away. Then it hovered low, picked out a fencepost where it landed, raising its broad wings before bringing them in to its side. That was unusual, hawks don’t act like that. Its back was rust, same color exactly as uncle’s old harrow; I could see its dull yellow claws grip at the pole and its two-whiskered neck ruffle above that white throat. Mr. Johnson let me look at it through the glasses.
“What do you do out here in the days? I mean besides chores. What do you do?”
“I don’t know, lots.”
“I see,” he said. “Hannah, I have a proposition t’make you. I haven’t talked about this with your mother, or your uncle yet. Before I did, I wanted to see whether it would interest you. You know I run the Bluebird in town. Well, I need somebody to work weekends, ticket taking, this sort of thing. Of course, you’ll get paid, start a little savings of your own that way, maybe even start your own account at the bank. That’d be fun, wouldn’t it? Maybe you’ll meet some kids your age plus you’ll get to see all the movies you want, for free.”
uncle’ll never let me
“Shall I put the proposition before the powers-that-be?”
what’s he want? he wants something from me
I shrugged, and said: “If you want.”
Mr. Johnson frowned. “But what do you want, Hannah?”
folks own folks that was something Nicky always said
“I doubt uncle’s going to let me.”
“But you, would you like to? You’d meet some of the kids in town and so forth, have you ever seen the movies even?”
“No,” I admitted.
“You leave it up to me. We’ll see what we can do.”
tell him no right now.
We had reached the top of the rise and the lights were already burning in the windows of the farmhouse. A red-winged blackbird now called, kong-koree, and flew up over our heads, with three-four others, out toward the night part of the sky.
Sun was easing down. Mr. Johnson, for all his movie houses, didn’t know that the sun was a god and was putting his horses in for the night. Four immortal restless winged horses whose breaths were flames. And the sun himself, his rays still working their clear and golden streams out over the plains, reddened a bit in the evening dust, he too was tired, and would go now into his princely palace built high on burnished pillars.
I let Mr. Johnson in on this but I don’t think he believed me. When I looked up into his eyes I could see he was waiting for me to say something further about his offer, but I thought, Let him do the talking.
“I don’t mean to be pushing or prying, Hannah. You know, your mama she worries about you, worries for your happiness. And, of course, if it worries her it naturally concerns me, being that she works side by side with me every day at the plant.”
I could picture mama as she worked in the small office next to Mr. Johnson’s, deciphering bills of lading, or making out payroll. Her fine, good, wide-set eyes going through the figures.
“Did she ask you to talk to me?”
I hadn’t meant to sound suspicious.
“No,” he answered. Mr. Johnson was rolling a cigarette as we walked. “I like you, Hannah. And I like your mama. I want you to be happy in your new surroundings, that’s all. No crime in that, right?”
“Guesses not, right. Well, so. Appears your uncle’s home.”
“I’m hungry,” I said.
Uncle was drunk. (Mama Opal would say it like this: “Uncle was drunk drunk drunk.”) We walked in the door he came right up, face flushed, and took Mr. Johnson’s hand: “Hallo there, Johnson.”
“Evening, Roy, your niece here and I have had a nice walk down into the fields. Beautiful site, good land, and a wonderful girl too, you’re lucky to have her around to help.”
Uncle looked the other way. Mr. Johnson winked at me. I winked at him. He must not have thought I ought to have winked at him, because he frowned. Uncle pushed forward into the breakfront and backed away. Then he seemed to get undrunk, just like that.
In the dining room was the steamy smell of sauerkraut and caraway. Mama Opal told me to wash up. Uncle was already at the head of the table honing a carving knife over his long whetstone. We congregated around the table and sat where mama Opal told us to, uncle at the head, facing Mrs. Johnson at the other end, Mr. Johnson between them on the far side, because he said he needed elbow room to eat good food, me between uncle and mama across from him. Uncle said grace. The bowl of mashed potatoes, the kraut and peas, and the gravy boat filled with brown gravy from the drippings were all passed around. Uncle speared slices of roast beef, put them on the plates that were handed him.
“The snakes’s quite a problem last year,” announced uncle.
“This cabbage is just marvelous,” Mrs. Johnson told mama Opal.
“Quite a problem yes. You have any trouble with rattlers down at the slaughterhouse, Johnson?” he continued; he was chewing with his mouth open, and I was dying to say something but I saw mama Opal send me a look.
“Give me some pepper.”
salt your tail, birdie
“Not with snakes, no.”
“Come haying time the snake’s so damn—”
“Roy,” she sent him a look.
It was comical but it was not meant to be comical it was meant to be
“So prevalent the prairie’s literally crawling with snakes.”
“Crawling snake, that is correct, crawling snake, diamondhead snakes you can take it put it in the bank and draw interest on it. I used to hire what, six, seven boys for mowing, sent ‘em out, and by noon three of them’d be bitten.”
“Three, at least, sometimes more.”
“Hannah, chew 50 times,” mama Opal said to me.
“Heavens,” exclaimed Mrs. Johnson.
fifty? usually she says a hundred
“It’s true,” uncle reiterated. “I had me a pair of boots made of bull’s hide double-thick like, still have ‘em I believe, don’t I, Opal?”
Mama didn’t know.
“That’s right. I believe I do. Want to see them?”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Roy,” said Mr. Johnson.
“I heard a snake the other day,” I began. No one listened, heard a snake the size of a train
“Well, fine. But as I was relating I had these good boots and I put them on that same afternoon that these three boys come in snake-bit, and I took a scythe out into the meadow and started up mowing along the fenceline, which we still have to do by hand see, and these here snakes come at me a dozen at a whack, coming and coming. But whenever they’d strike see, why then their fangs’d get caught up in that tough leather of the boots, and it held ‘em, hanging. I didn’t pay no attention to ‘em at all until the weight of the animals, and there must have been dozens hanging on, started up to bothering me, so I’d stop mowing and cut them off with my scythe. Pass me the spuds, would you, sis.”
I noticed how often Mr. Johnson would glance at mama Opal across the table, and smile. It was a closed-mouth kind of smile. It was not good. I drank down the water in my glass.
“Uh-uhm. I had to stop at least once every hour after that to cut them rattlers off my boots, and when I was done and come up to home for supper the boys picked off enough heads to fill a peck measure brimming full. After about a week of that, I can tell you that them rattlers become quite a scarce commodity down there in that hay field.”
After the table was cleared and coffee brewed, the custard pies were brought out from the kitchen. Having concluded his story about the snakes, uncle had eaten his meal in silence. But with the arrival of the pies, he began singing to himself:
“Come all young men
and my warning take,
Don’t ye never get bit
by no pizenous snake.
You know that song, Johnson?”
“Well, can’t say as I do.”
“Roy,” said mama Opal. “You don’t look too good.”
Carse a pizenous snake
is a … horrible beast,
Twas poor Adam’s … fall
and twas … Eden’s decease—”
“You do look a little peaked, Roy,” just as uncle collapsed face forward into his slice of pie.
Mrs. Johnson shrieked. Mr. Johnson leapt up and held him steady in his chair by locking his hands under uncle’s arms. Mama Opal cleaned the custard off his face with her napkin. His head slumped, rolled in an arc above his chest, humming, groaning. He pushed Mr. Johnson away, jumped up, walked a few steps to the front room, crumpled straight down in a heap, beneath the carved crossbeam of the alcove.
“Help me get him upstairs,” said mama Opal. “Hannah, keep Mrs. Johnson company. I apologize, Mrs. Johnson. This isn’t like Roy at all.”
“Here we go, now,” Mr. Johnson urged.
Mr. Johnson and mama Opal got uncle upstairs.
“Isn’t that a shame,” Mrs. Johnson offered.
A racket upstairs preceded silence. Mrs. Johnson didn’t listen to me; she was staring at the ceiling.
“Do you think he’s going to be all right?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
maybe he’ll crack his head open and out would run black gunk
We sat in quiet for a bit. “I’ll go up and check,” I said, finally, not waiting for her to say yes or no.
“Why don’t you, Hannah.”
The house had narrowed into a density of noiselessness, like when a person is swimming in a pond underwater. Wheeling around the glass-smooth banister at the head of the stairs I walked down the corridor. The door of uncle’s bedroom was ajar and a yellow gathered in a narrow strip on the opposite wall. For a moment I stood, listening.
A man was mumbling. It was Mr. Johnson. Through the crack along the doorsill I could see uncle LeRoy on his bed passed out. I saw mama Opal, in profile, standing with her face looking down at the Navajo blanket. Mr. Johnson stood close behind, his chin rested on mama Opal’s shoulder, arms twined around her, gathering in his palms her breasts which were nearly as ungrown as mine. Neither of them saw me in the blackness of the hallway. Mama Opal closed her eyes as he ran his hand down the front of her belly and let it come to her hip. He pressed his fingers into the folds of her dress. Their skins were yellow in the yellow light. There were pinpricks in between my legs as I saw this but they made me mad at myself. Suddenly, Mr. Johnson dropped his head back, eyes closed, the front of his hips pressed firmly into mama Opal. His face was strained, as if he were in pain. His jaw gnawed like a goat nibbling sorghum or at a tin can, and the crow’s-feet fought like an accordion against his cheek. I almost burst out laughing he looked so silly.
I could’ve screamed.
Then mama told him something in a voice so soft I couldn’t make out what she said.
A sound, below. The scrape of a chair against the floorboards. Mr. Johnson let her go. He whispered. Mama Opal kept on looking at the rug. Quickly I moved, and quietly, back along the hall and downstairs. Mrs. Johnson was sitting at the table.
“Is he going to be okay?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
We ate our pieces of custard pie.
snake the size of a train.
Hannah’s a-dreaming. Up in the hayloft. She is conducting a symphony.
These things, not ripe, and hidden still to others, are read by me. Vesper star, emerald star, shepherd’s star, hardly before the sun has set you twinkle, and all of us that ever lived in the wonder-working earth have watched you in your progress from ships, mountains, plains and islands. You are a goddess, too, morning star, star of generations that make other generations. Who wards away all the winds. Who the vesper sparrow and sparrow hawk and all the birds of the plains discuss every day from morning to night and without ever getting tired of saying your name and talking all about the many things you have done and can do. And you who are the one all the cattle low for, and horses neigh and jenny and jack bray for, whose light can be seen through any telescope even at noon. All these things of nature copy you they like to pretend they are you just like I like to pretend you’re my sister. You, the one the mystery words were named for: quo magis aeternum da dictis, diva, leporem.
A ripe black fly buzzed slow and fat in the rafters, creating the only sound in the loft except the regular rustle of paper as she turned the pages of uncle Gerald’s volume of Lucretius. She worked systematically, her imagination burning, reading first the translation, then whispering the Latin with a mystic reverence, and with no idea of whether her pronunciation was correct. It did not matter. Only the resonances of their possibilities mattered. And the process of pronouncing the words. It was all a mysterious incantation. Beautiful things now and then revealed themselves to her: magis aeternum, magic eternity; diva leporem, diving leopard. These conjoined with grant to my speech everlasting charm to lift the charm into real magic, picture-music, the groundworks above which her leaping mind might leap even more—
For you the dogwood, bunchberry, pipsissewa, creeping buttercup, crocus, ponderosa, milkweed, cattail, cottonwood, sumac. For you the witch hazel that pops like a little bomb, the climbing boneset in the margins of swamps, the sheep laurel of hummocks and knolls, for you the tumble weed that rolls across the plains windy as the preacher on Sunday mornings, huffing and puffing. For you the blue sparks of the morning glory!
Hannah read with horror about the ritual slaying in Aulis of the maiden Iphianassa. The killing knife was wielded by her father as weeping worshipers solemnly looked on, and the spiritual leaders of the town Danai shook their heads yes and spilled their tears on the soil; tantum religion potuit suadere malorum. Hannah could see the smirking acolytes in their schoolboy excitement fondling the sacrificial knives under the folds of their robes, leaning each against the other like young wolves, anxious for the terrible fun to begin. She was reminded, too, of Abraham in the wisdom of his hundred-some years, at Jehovah-Jireh, his sword at Isaac’s throat, the glint of his madman’s eyes, his son dumb with fright, his face pulled into a great frown. Blood always, always the blood stuff. Blood of the lamb, blood of the cross, blood about which uncle spoke with his own book, the black one he read every night by the fire. Hannah’d tried it, but—blood blood blood. Her own book was best. Those other people were crazy and all they cared about was killing.
For you the rooster’s cockadoodledoo, the piebald mutt’s yipyap, the wasp buzz under the eave.
Nothing comes of nothing. Otherwise what would happen? Apples would bloom in the lilac bush, roses emerge from the butter churn, a mosquito’d be born out of snowflakes, a man from empty air. Neither can things that exist be reduced into nothing, but are changed in time. So that raindrops tumble in the ground and planted crops grow to bear their vegetables, so the trees are heavy with fruit. In this way nature restores itself. Not all bodies are visible. The wind that can carry houses and people sitting at dinner in them and whole towns at a sweep away into its funnel: you can’t see that. You can’t see the racket raised by rain on the tin roof of the stall in the pigsty. Banjo’s thrum, scorching heat, supper smell, river chill, whistle of the dove wing, toothache. You can’t see those. Also unseen is the emptiness where masses move, called the void. The pages of this book wouldn’t turn without the void to turn them in.
Somebody says that sheep are made up of countless perfect little sheep. And a sheepbone is made of sheepbone seeds. Sheepbone seeds are not visible to our eyes. But they’re there just as sure as “Blue-Tail Fly” frailed fast on Mr. Johnson’s banjo. There as the hornet in your eyes and nose, there as the skeeter bites you through your clothes, there as the gallinipper flies up high, but wusser there yet? well, what? the blue-tail blank, silly.
The night sky is infinite since it has no boundary. The sky has no boundary since there would have to be something beyond to bind it. But since there is nothing greater than the sum of all things, and since the sum of all things is what is outside the sky, the sky goes out and out forever. And has no boundary. No barbed wire, no post-and-rail.
For you the slapping waterfall and the sleepy Platte. The sun pillared behind the cloud, and moon’s halo before the frost.
There is no middle in a universe, no center. Except the point from which we see it.
There are many middles, and so there is none.
Hannah held her breath, and concentrated on watching the motes float across the beams of sunlight that fluttered across the air in the loft. Someone was downstairs in the barn.
It was her mother’s voice calling her.
There was the sound of someone climbing up the ladder. After a few steps had been mounted, this sound stopped. Then, a hollow thud resonated quietly—jumped back to the ground. A door opened, closed. Outside Hannah could hear her name called. Her mother was looking for her; she would soon have to hide her book and sneak back down.
For you the green ash and red cedar which resist the drought, green for Venus and red for Mars. For you sandbur and cocklebur. The sunflower that tips its yellow head, tall’s a man.
For you the cirrus that look like mares’ tails, the bigger-than-20 moons cumulus in banks over the shadowed peat. For you the dust devil.
All things are moving. All that moving is what makes things so as you can touch them. The secret war that rages within an apple core. The hurricane that storms inside a single shaft of buffalo grass, tempest in the honey locust, apocalypse in the mulberry bush. Restlessness of a hand its flesh and its blood and its bones. Falls like the cards of a cardhouse, drops like the row of dominoes from uncle’s dominoes box. First beginnings. A setting into motion by the blow of an atom set into motion by the blow of an atom set into motion by the blow of an atom.
I decided on my 14th birthday that I would go to work at Mr. Johnson’s movie theater. This is what mama Opal would have done if she were in my place. She was gone, she never was coming home again, I knew that now, I’d cried and cried, knew the whole time that that wasn’t what she’d want me to do, cry. I telephoned him and told him I wanted to take him up on his old offer. When the words came out of my mouth I could almost hear them as if they were words spoken by mama Opal. They had adultness to them. He asked me whether uncle would consent to allow me to work there, and I told him yes. But I hadn’t asked uncle LeRoy. I was too old for that kind of malarkey. And if uncle LeRoy knew what my purpose was in wanting to save up money he might have just given me the money and told me to go. I don’t know. Maybe not. But it had to be my money to go away with, and not his.
On the first Saturday I was going to go into town to work I told uncle what I had done. Just so there would be no questions that might come up later in Mr. Johnson’s mind, I even told him that Mr. Johnson understood that I had taken the job with uncle’s approval. I knew he wouldn’t argue with me. We seldom argued any more. What point was there to it? he complained. He was right, there wasn’t any point to it. He wasn’t my mother. I could hear his elephant-slow boots mount the stairs and he called down, telling me never to mention Mr. Johnson’s name in the house. I know that uncle cherished his solitude, and this is part of the reason he allowed me to work at the Bluebird. But this was a giant step, and if he had argued, we both knew he would not have won.
Our relationship had entered into a new phase, had arrived at a new kind of silence, as if there was nothing more to discuss and our arguments—and they had become arguments over the time which followed mama Opal’s going away, because I would talk back, would “lip”—were waged with eyes.
Whenever he came near me I had a way of looking at him. I could almost feel my eyes become electric, and I could square my shoulders too. Who knows if he even noticed this thing I did or, if he did, if it made him scared of me like it was supposed to? But when I gave him “lip” these past three years I did it knowing, more and more, that I had an invisible glass around my skin, unbreakable by him or anybody else. I was my own father and mother and there was nothing he could say to change it.
Mr. Johnson was tolerable—a little, as James Riding would put it, lightweight. I didn’t blame him for what had happened. Maybe he loved my mother. Maybe he was of two minds. Maybe she was pregnant and she went away to have the baby. All fantasizing, but it’s okay. He took it upon himself, even when she was still alive (dead, you see, it canbe written, so—even before she died he took it on himself) to look after me. He thought of me as a tomboy with my hair cut so short (I cut it myself with scissors and a bowl)—but he said, “Hannah, there’s a whole world to fill with people, and somebody out there’s got to be a tomboy.”
I stopped wearing dresses. Not that I had so many in the closet. Uncle LeRoy’s sister-in-law commented I had filled out enough that I could wear mama Opal’s dresses, her silk organza with the stripes like a tiger, or her white organdy that went so well with the navy bonnet. But I was cool to the idea, I don’t know quite why.
At the movie theater there was a projectionist—James Riding whom I mentioned—who wore cowboy boots, blue jean shirt and pants, and a Navajo buckle he had bought during his travels to the pueblos in Arizona. Except for his sharp, red-black beard spotty as lichen along his cheek, he was tolerable looking, and told stories of his travels to places as far away as Buenos Aires and Lima and the Panama Canal. James Riding had a low opinion of Mr. Johnson and of just about everybody else in the county, but he had great respect for me. He said I reminded him of himself, my independence was pronounced, how I had my gaze trained toward great adventures.
James Riding was learned for a man of 21. He said when the time had come some years ago for him to work he went to work—like all the boys in Babylon eventually did—in the Johnson plant. This was the only place where a young man could come in to build a career on something substantial. He lasted only a week. There were three jobs. They were horrible.
One, slaughterhouse. Two, the processing plant. Three, the butcher shop.
One, it was the stun-hammer, getting them up on the hooks and the stun-hammer he couldn’t stand. Through the humanitarian offices of the stun-hammer as applied to that space there between horn and horn they’re made ready. Their poll is plumbed by the steel and to see the dewlap swinging in the dankest stench and muzzle moist and naked, the quick shaft of the stunpin smashing there a bony flatness. Death dolled up in whites for the beasts. False bottom door pops wide open and descent into Hell in a hurry: age old, no sweat. No thanks.
Two, quarter-ton semifrozen slabs of bone and muscle hung from hooks along the sliding ceiling racks, stained aprons, special bandsaws, cleavers, the meat now still and without stench. Nope.
Three, the sissification of a once-live beast, trudging to and fro in damp sawdust spread on a cold marble floor behind the showcase, summer’s humidity attracting fat black bugs, paper doilies and a cuts chart, promote and push the tripe and mention menudo as a curative for hangover, brains tart and tasty with black butter, the heart of a calf stuffed with prunes may win a man’s compliment, hocks and a chuck swell, epigrams of sweetbreads, calf’s head à la terrapin, fort lincoln and frizzled beef, the exchange of smiles with unimaginable vulgarians. How do you like your lamb? Redemptive.
Impossible and impossible, said James Riding.
Other things James Riding did not like: preachers and Jesus, war, politicians, the rat race, the race to space, race discrimination, lime rickey and root beer.
He liked my ears, liked kissing them with his tongue. He did this up in the projection room while the movie ran for its hundredth showing. I liked the feel of our bluejeaned legs all wrapped around each other up there on the narrow couch, and how I would get so wet it soaked straight through my panties. There was a lock on the door, but I was the one who always locked it. Otherwise, Mr. Johnson might have walked in on us. James Riding didn’t care if the door was locked or not. Let him come on in, he said.
The first time James Riding went all the way with me he hurt me, but I believe he hadn’t meant to. I was so slick between my thighs when he pulled off my jeans and he ran his palm up along my leg there that he thought I was more ready than I guess I was. He was too big for me. I couldn’t believe how big he felt. I wanted to look at it, but I didn’t dare. I gritted my teeth because I wasn’t going to let him know how much it hurt. But fortunately it didn’t take him very long to finish. Afterward he seemed very grateful to me for letting him do it. I told James Riding I loved him more than any man, and that was why I let him.
He started talking about what we had ahead of us and it was always so exciting to hear him talk. We were going to run off to the Baja Peninsula where we would have our own little ranch and take good care of the animals. There would be, say, 15 or 18 children, at least, by my count.
I don’t know what happened to all these plans. They sounded so great. Poor James couldn’t hang around waiting for me. He had to keep moving on. You can’t spend your life running movies without going batty. I forgive you, James Riding. The children would have been happy, though, all of them at the table speaking in Spanish.
© 1987 by Bradford Morrow
Bradford Morrow’s first novel Come Sunday will be published in April by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York. He edits the literary journal Conjunctions and has edited many books, most recently World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions).
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.