Mark - Lonnie Coleman - E-Book

Mark E-Book

Lonnie Coleman

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The work of a superbly gifted writer at the height of his powers, Lonnie Coleman’s Mark is destined to become a classic—the wonderfully moving story of a young man growing up in a small southern town. It is a novel about the lives of ordinary people, the exploration of feelings, the capacity to love, the discovery of sexual choice.
Set in Montgomery, Alabama, and Savannah, Georgia, in the twenties and thirties, Mark is the story of a young boy, orphaned by death of both parents and raised by his aunt and uncle, from adolescence to adulthood, and ending with the outbreak of World War II. The novel is filled with abudant life, with characters so totally perceived that we feel we have known them for years: Marshall, who dazzles and entertains Mark with wild theatricality; Alice, a schoolgirl Katharine Hepburn, who enchants him with her aloofness; Margaret Torrence, his teacher, ally and mentor, intolerant of pretense and dishonesty, who encourages his budding talent as a writer; Carl, who answers the need Mark has always felt, but never quite understood, by teaching him to trust and to love.
Lonnie Coleman has written a novel of one man’s life that is also a novel about human beings, families, friends, teachers—good and bad—small-town America, the Depression, strength, courage, success and failure. The author knows the lives of people in small southern towns intimately. He writes of them sensitively, yet is never sentimental; with dialogue that is often devastatingly funny, sometimes poignant, yet always true; with characters that are flawed and lovable in their humanity, yet never stereotyped.
A writer of great integrity and insight, who perceives emotional states in all their subtlety, Lonnie Coleman has created in Mark the sense of real characters, of life truly lived, of the inward transformation of a human being from childhood into maturity.

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Lonnie Coleman

MARK

Dedication

To Gloria and Bernard Beckerman

1

Aunt Belle was talking to Uncle Grady in the kitchen the night Mama died. My own life hung in the balance and I knew it, so I listened hard.

“We’ve got to let Mark come back with us,” she said.

“You mean keep him?” Uncle Grady sounded grim but unsurprised.

“It’s not a matter of big-heart but have-to. Where else can he go?”

“They have homes.”

Orphan-fear was common in 1933, when the Depression had taken such a grip nobody thought good times would come again, no matter what President Roosevelt said on the radio. “Homes” were places to put the young and the old, and crazy people.

Aunt Belle said, “He doesn’t eat much.”

“Only because he’s distracted. He’s thirteen, and he’ll eat like thirteen armies when we get back to Montgomery. It’s not that I grudge victuals—after all, I’m in the business. But if we take him, we won’t get rid of him till he’s grown. Thought of that?”

“One more won’t make a lot of difference.”

“Roland’s nearly eighteen, Beatrice sixteen. In a couple more years—” He paused a long time. “Shit.”

Aunt Belle laughed.

I didn’t blame Uncle Grady. Why should he want me? They hardly knew me, for one thing. The only time families at any distance got together was weddings and funerals, and nobody acts himself at those. For another thing, my father hadn’t wanted me. When I was ten, I heard him tell my mother he wished I hadn’t been born.

Aunt Belle and Uncle Grady Benedict had come in their car yesterday from Montgomery to Savannah. They brought Roland and Beatrice because they knew they were coming to a funeral, and whole families came to funerals then. The doctor had told me to send for them by telegram, explaining that Mama had developed pneumonia on top of the cancer she’d had for two years. She died the day after they got there, without knowing them.

“All right?” Aunt Belle asked.

Sigh changed to groan. “Well, she was your only sister.”

Having his consent, she allowed, “Of course, it’s for you to say.”

“All right, Belle. Shit.” She laughed again.

Savannah, Georgia, was my birthplace and the only home I knew, but I wasn’t sorry to be leaving it, because I’d seen hard times there. My father, Fred Bowman, was a flagman on the railroad until he was killed in an accident. Soon after, my mother got sick. Nobody said what it was, and I didn’t think about it much. I’d find her lying down when I came home from school, but I put that to low spirits because we had less to live on. The railroad paid her less than a hundred dollars a month. Later, she went to the hospital for a week, and when she came home the doctor told me and my brother, Tom, she had cancer. Tom was almost four years older than I, and he was actually the one who told me. Everyone else seemed to know it already, the way they do.

Nothing changed much in the old house on Gwinnett Street.

We paid twenty-five dollars a month for the ground floor and rented out three rooms to a Mrs. Harrison, who worked for the city, and her daughter Beryl. They gave Mama eighteen dollars a month, but we paid for lights and gas and water. Tom and I stayed in school. Tom never had a job; said he couldn’t find one; but I worked two afternoons a week and all-day Saturday for a butcher named Mr. Cramer. He was a big fat man and always wore a dirty, bloody apron and carried an unlit cigar in the left side of his mouth. I never saw him smoke it; he used it like chewing tobacco.

On Thursday afternoon I’d slice bacon for the weekend trade and Friday kill and dress his chickens. Saturday I waited on customers for things out of the case and carried sides or quarters of meat in and out of the cooler for Mr. Cramer to cut into steak and chops and roasts for those more particular. It was heavy work, but Mr. Cramer said it would make a man of me, winking as he said it.

Savannah was old and beautiful, with squares to walk through instead of around, full of flowers and live oaks and magnolia trees. I loved watching the squirrels. How many hundreds of generations of them had come and gone in those old moss-hung squares? They seemed to own them as they went about their business, seeking and hiding. They’d run quick along the ground and make a sudden Tarzan leap onto a tree trunk, then climb like lightning, stopping high up to look down as if they had all the time in the world.

The birds sang in early morning and early evening and during the day when it had rained and stopped. There was one, though, near our house I hated to hear. He must have lost his mate, for he made an urgent, begging call as he flew back and forth, seeming to say, “Here I am! Where are you?” I could have cried, I felt so sorry for him.

After she came out of the hospital, Mama had a Christian Science practitioner to visit twice a week; but when she grew weaker and thinner, the practitioner turned cranky, hardly speaking as she came and went. Finally she stopped coming; maybe Mama told her to. Her name was Mrs. Klein, and she was the only Christian Scientist I ever saw who didn’t smile.

One afternoon the spring before, when I came home from school, I was surprised to find Tom. He wasn’t going to school anymore; he’d been expelled for shooting craps in the toilet with some other boys; but Mama didn’t know it. We decided not to tell her, for Tom was her whole heart; and he usually timed his day so she’d think he was at school as usual.

They were eating Jello. I didn’t care, but seeing them close together made me say, “I made that lime Jello this morning for our supper!”

“I was hungry,” Tom said. “‘Jello, everybody, this is Jack Benny.’ You made four. Still two left. One for you and one for Mother, because I won’t be here for supper.”

“Where’ll you be?” she asked.

“I promised a girl. Have you got a dollar that’s spoiling? Two would make her think I’m the Prince of Wales.”

Mama said, “Marcus, bring me my pocketbook.” She seldom left her wheelchair, except to go to bed.

“I know where it is.” Tom went to the bureau where she kept it in the top left drawer with hairnets and bobby pins and a box of Coty face powder she seldom used.

She opened it and put her hand in, then held it to her and smiled at him. “Who’s this girl you like better than me?” Taking both arms of the wheelchair, he kissed her on the lips and then all around her neck till he got her laughing. “Give me some sugar! Give me some sugar! Angel, there’s none I’ll ever like as much as you, but they run after me, and I have to promise one to get rid of the rest.”

“You’re always promising!” She gave him two one-dollar bills and snapped the pocketbook shut.

“One day I’ll be rich, and you’ll sit on a golden throne!” He twirled the wheelchair around like a kiddy car.

She giggled even as she demanded that he stop, until he let go the chair and kissed her again. “There, I leave you beautiful and smiling, the way I always think of you.”

When Tom left, there was always a blank. I began to tuck in the edge of the afghan that had come loose in their playing.

“Do leave me alone.”

“Sometimes you’re cold.”

“I’ve had the windows open all day. It’s spring outside—”

“The doctor says your circulation is slow and you might feel cold when other people don’t.”

“Aren’t you due at the store?”

“Do you have something to read?”

“I’ve a jigsaw puzzle Tom bought me.”

“Is there anything I can do, or get you?”

She shook her head and wheeled herself to a table where the puzzle pieces had been dumped out. “Go along, Marcus.”

“What do you want me to bring for supper?”

“Anything. It doesn’t matter with Tom not here.”

When I left, Beryl was on the front porch, slouched low in a rocking chair and looking broody as she turned pages in a Photoplay magazine.

I said, “Hey,” and she said, “Hey, yourself. How do you like the new way I’ve fixed my hair? Tom didn’t notice.” Neither had I, but I said it sure looked nice.

She studied me as if to test the truth of the statement. “Mark, you’re not a bit like Tom.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“I like you, though.”

“I like you too.”

“You never say funny things, and you never try to flirt with me. How come?”

“You’re two years older than I am.”

She laughed. “I take it back—you do say funny things. I’ve been reading about Joan Crawford. We think movie stars never have any trouble, but they do. She’s had a terrible time lately; I can tell you.”

“I thought all she had to do was use Lux soap and kiss Clark Gable.”

“I don’t think you care—go on to the store and slice bacon.”

I did.

Beryl always looked sloppy because she did only one thing at a time to herself. If she took a bath, her hair was messy or her dress had a rip. If her dress was all right, she looked oily-faced and sweaty. She wasn’t pretty, but she was good-hearted and I liked her. Along with everybody else, she was in love with Tom, or thought she was, which is the same thing for all practical purposes. I don’t think he cared much about her, but she was there in the house just a wall away, so sometimes when her mother was off at work he took her down to the basement and fucked her. I’d walked in on them that winter when I went to get a scuttle of coal for Mama’s grate, and neither one had been embarrassed, just laughed at me because I was.

Without trying, Tom charmed the world and everybody in it. It never rained on Tom, and he never wanted anything he didn’t get. He could even charm me, though I was the younger brother and jealous, and knew every trick. He didn’t think of them as tricks, just as how to get his way. He certainly wasn’t mean; he’d share what he had with anybody, and nobody minded that he hadn’t paid for it himself. He’d given me a quarter one day when he had good luck with the dice, because he remembered there was a picture with Katharine Hepburn I wanted to see and it was on for the last day. He didn’t like her, but that didn’t matter; he knew I did. Some people have charm and some don’t. I don’t, but at least I know it.

2

When I came home from the butcher shop and found Mrs. Harrison fussing with Mama, it didn’t occur to me to excuse myself, and they paid no attention to me. Mrs. Harrison was saying, “You don’t answer me by wheeling away. I’m not one of those nigger servants at that big country house you say you were born in.”

Mama’s voice was cold, and anger made it strong. “I was born in town, Mrs. Harrison. We owned several country properties but never lived on them.”

“Well, now you live in a twenty-five-dollar-a-month ground floor of an old house on Gwinnett Street, a small part of which you rent to me for eighteen dollars a month, so don’t give yourself airs like a fine lady—”

“You are not forced to live here. I assure you I am not becoming rich on your exorbitant rent. You might remember I had to pay the plumber last month when the drain was stopped, evidently by your daughter’s carelessness, throwing things down it she shouldn’t. The plumber was a Negro, and I was embarrassed when he showed me what had caused the mess.”

“That isn’t what I’m here to talk about. I want you to promise to speak to Tom. He is to let my daughter alone.”

“Mrs. Harrison, my son is amiable to everyone. If your daughter is so silly as to think it means anything if he smiles at her—he smiles at the kettle and the door, tell her.”

“She’s a good girl, but she’s young, and I have to leave her to work. It’s a bad situation.”

“You should have considered it before you moved here.”

“Two years ago she was a child.”

“Children grow.”

“Tom’s grown too quick; he knows too much. He couldn’t smile at a saint without the devil showing in his eyes. He even looks at me.”

“You disgust me.”

“I’m only asking you to help me. I know Beryl appears free and easy, but she doesn’t mean it. She just gets it out of those movie magazines.”

Mrs. Harrison stared at me, seeming to see me for the first time. Tears popped into her eyes, and she turned and left without another word, slamming the door.

Mama made no reference to her. “What have you got?”

“Pork chops for supper. Mr. Cramer says they’re all right but they’d have gone slick by tomorrow. He gave them to me.”

“I suppose you hinted. I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

I held the meat package behind me and handed her the other package I carried. It was a pound box of chocolate-covered cherries; they had been on sale at the store for thirty-nine cents. I placed them on her lap when she didn’t take them. She looked at them without picking them up.

“They’re so sweet,” she said, frowning. “Thank you, Marcus, but you mustn’t throw your money away. I don’t care much for sweet things anymore.”

I took the pork chops to the kitchen and came back. I know why I did the next thing, but I don’t know why I did it then, perhaps to make her forget Mrs. Harrison and Beryl, but more likely because Tom wasn’t there and I wanted to say: Think of me, see what I’ve done. I went to the small bedroom I shared with Tom, found the loose-leaf notebook, and took it to Mama. She had set the candy box aside without opening it and held two pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in her hands.

“What is it?” She opened the cover and read the title page. “‘Poems by Mark Bowman.’ I wish you’d remember to use your full name. Marcus was my father’s, Marcus Stafford. Mark is common. What are they about?”

My heart was pounding so hard it seemed to fill my body. “They’re not very good, but Miss Perry says for me to keep on.”

“She’s your English teacher.”

I nodded.

“I’m surely not the judge of poetry Miss Perry is. You must take her word.”

“If there are any you like, I wish you’d tell me which ones.”

She didn’t look at me but put the notebook aside and returned to the puzzle. My voice must have sounded as begging as the bird’s I tried not to hear.

Next night when I came home from the butcher shop smelling of singed feathers and chicken blood, I found Tom and Mama together. I’d come in by the kitchen door to put down the hamburger we were going to have for supper when I heard Tom saying in the next room, “This one’s called ‘Coffee Can Flowers.’ What does he mean by that?”

“Oh,” she answered, “you must have been through the colored quarters and seen them on their porches. They punch holes in the bottom of coffee cans so they’ll drain, then fill them with dirt and stick in a geranium cutting hoping it will take root and grow.”

“Give me another piece of candy; I need it.” Tom began to read in a sissy-poetic voice:

Coffee can flowers, all in a row,

Coffee can flowers, why do you grow?

He was reading with his mouth full and almost choked when he laughed. I went in and grabbed the notebook out of his hands and said to Mama, “I gave them to you to read!”

Still laughing, Tom clapped me on the shoulder. “Ah, Marcus, don’t carry on like a girl. I’m just cutting the fool to make Mother enjoy herself. Isn’t it good to hear her laugh?”

I took the candy box from him. “I bought them for you, not Tom!”

As coolly as she’d spoken to Mrs. Harrison she said, “When a thing is given to me, it is mine to share as I choose.”

“No!” I declared. “When I give you something, it’s my present and you’re to think of me when you eat them, not Tom!”

“You’d better keep the chocolates and eat them yourself.”

“I will!”

Tom came into the kitchen when I was cooking the hamburgers and tried to make up in his honey-teasing way. He was surprised I was still mad. When he told me I was another William Shakespeare I took the sharp-pointed cooking fork and told him to get out of the kitchen or I’d kill him. He looked more surprised but shrugged and smiled and went out the back door. “I’ll go find Beryl. She appreciates me.”

I cried with misery for what I’d done, but I couldn’t stop feeling stubborn and mad.

Saturdays were long, hard days at Mr. Cramer’s. I’d get there at six in the morning to grind hamburger meat and sausage, and we’d fill the cases up with other cut meat such as liver and spareribs and stewing beef by seven when customers started coming. We didn’t go out to eat but made bologna sandwiches and ate them with a pint of milk at noon and around eight o’clock at night when the business was over.

There’d still be work to do. I had to wash out the meat cases, then clean the glass inside and out with ammonia. Then I’d scrape the two butcher blocks with wire brushes until I was wet with sweat and there wasn’t a speck of blood or a stain on them, the wood coming up clean and fresh smelling. Last thing I did was rake the sawdust that covered the floor to free it of discarded scraps and bits of bone dropped during the day. If I didn’t do that, it would stink by Monday morning. Sometimes I took all the sawdust up and put down fresh. After I’d hung up the rake on the back wall, tines up and out, Mr. Cramer would pay me and I was free to go. By then it was usually between ten-thirty and eleven o’clock. He’d have chewed his cigar down to the last smidgen, and I’d be aching tired. Mr. Cramer always paid me the same way, with two one-dollar bills and two fifty-cent pieces, to make it clear to both of us he was giving me fifty cents for Thursday afternoon when I sliced the bacon, fifty cents for Friday afternoon when I dressed the chickens, and two dollars for all day Saturday. He didn’t charge me for the milk and sandwiches, and sometimes he’d tell me to wrap up a piece of leftover meat and take it home.

No matter how tired I was or how late it was when I got home, I’d heat water and take a bath. That night Mama was asleep, or making out to be, and Tom hadn’t come in. I took a bath and then remembered the box of chocolates. I got it out of my bureau drawer and ate every piece. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I didn’t throw up either.

3

It wasn’t all trouble and work. I had school and popular songs and a movie once a week. I could go to a second run for twenty cents, and I reckon to have seen at least fifty movies a year; and those were the times we had Jean Harlow and George O’Brien, the Marx Brothers, Boris Karloff, Marie Dressier, and Mae West. There was no one like any of them, and there hasn’t been since. People kept their windows open and radios on, and songs were in the air, wonderful songs from Broadway shows and those Hollywood pictures that were coming out with Alice Faye and Ruby Keeler. Everyone knew them. There were sheets that sold for a nickel with words of popular songs, and I used to buy them. Many did, because the words were good and we wanted to know exactly how they went, not just fill in or think the wrong words as a tune went through our heads. I can remember all the words to some of those songs.

Mr. Cramer was a jokey kind of man in a simple way. If he wasn’t busy when he saw a woman in the store he thought was sexy, he’d paw the sawdust like a bull and make bull noises so that sometimes the men working over on the grocery side had to laugh. Sometimes he did it when a woman was ugly; that made them laugh more. It didn’t hurt the women, because they didn’t know what was going on, and sometimes they even thought somebody had said something funny they hadn’t caught and laughed too.

There was one young fellow fresh from the country, couldn’t have been more than sixteen, and for a long time they teased him about getting him bred, as they called it. He said he couldn’t afford to take out a girl, and anyway, what if she wouldn’t? So the older ones, including Mr. Cramer, chipped in and took him to a whore they knew, paying for him and watching him do it (the whore was in on the joke) so they could tease him afterward at the store. He took it well, just going about his work stocking the shelves or trimming vegetables, looking sheepish but proud, while they carried on. Mr. Cramer held a big bologna sausage down in front of his fly and waved it around. I was too backward to take part in their fun, but I enjoyed it. They said I’d be next, just to wait a couple of years and get a little more growth on me.

At school I had friends, boys and girls, but no “friend,” unless I count Leroy. Slam books were popular that year. They were ordinary composition books with a name heading each page, and they were passed around for others to write comments, what he thought of the person. Teachers warred against the books, watching for them and confiscating them when they saw them slipped from desk to desk during a class period. There was a lot of repetition, like “stuck-up” and “pimples” and “good pupil” and “cute but knows it.” None of the things written under my name seemed to have anything to do with me, showing we never know how we strike people. Once I tore out a page because I was ashamed to have anybody else see what someone had written: “Wears stick-on half soles from the dime store.” For a day or two I tried to walk different to hide the bottoms of my shoes, but somebody asked me if I was practicing to be an English soldier like we saw in the movies.

All grades changed classes every hour, going from one room to another to be instructed by different teachers. The halls during the five minutes of changing were bedlam. Teachers stationed themselves at the doors of their classrooms, and their presence was supposed to show authority. Also, there were student monitors with armbands to help keep order. They were to see that no one smoked in the rest rooms, no one ran in the halls, and no one made unnecessary noise. Nevertheless, there was smoking and some gambling in the rest rooms, and dirty jokes and drawings on the rest room walls.

I was a monitor, and it was during these breaks between classes that I became aware of Leroy that last spring in Savannah. After seeing him several times at the same place and same time, I found myself watching for him, without knowing why. He was a tall, clean, good-looking boy, about fifteen, easy and graceful in his movements the way few are at that age. There were only good things under his name in the slam books.

I remember the day he became aware of me. He frowned, not in displeasure, but showing he realized he’d seen me before. He certainly had. I’d learned his name and his class schedule and knew where he’d be all day, and I wasn’t shy about following him or hanging around. He was always with a friend or two, laughing and talking or talking and serious. They were boys his age, and they resented me when he began speaking to me.

Leroy was not a leader exactly, but he was good-natured and sure of himself and popular. From his first awareness of me, he accepted me, making nothing special of my attention, but nothing strange either. Sometimes he’d ignore the calls of his other friends to join them. How privileged and honored I felt every second he lingered!

I began to give him things—a candy bar, a tie clip bought at Woolworth’s, a new blotter with a funny cartoon on one side. He showed pleasure in my gifts but would either share them with me or return them after a day or two, as if I had only meant to lend them. He might so easily have been bored or embarrassed, but always had a look of sympathy and liking, a smile of welcome when I approached him. It was the most innocent of loves. I wanted only to see him and be near him, and the most daring of my thoughts was to wish he were my brother. I had learned where he lived and what time he left for school in the morning. I happened by with other friends of his, behaving in such a way that one might think another had suggested my doing so. When, after school, he joined in games, if it wasn’t a Thursday or Friday, I was there to watch and wait to the end so I could walk him home.

There was a girl he loved. He spoke of her earnestly to his friends, and I remember praying that she would recognize his worth and reward his devotion. Far from being jealous, I revered her because he did. By the end of May the school year was over and done. The last day I didn’t see him, because nothing was scheduled. Everybody was busy getting report cards, clearing out lockers, running and screaming and boasting about what they’d be doing that summer. One boy I knew was going to the Chicago World’s Fair, and another was going with his family in their car all the way to Canada and back! I couldn’t find Leroy.

The next day I walked by his house, but with school out, I was too shy to ring the bell and ask for him; and although I hung around until it started to rain, he never came out. Mama had a weaker spell about then, and with my working more afternoons at Mr. Cramer’s, I didn’t go by Leroy’s house for two weeks. The porch was bare of furniture, the windows had no shades. Clearly, the family had moved.

4

The way we lived, privacy was not possible, and nothing was secret unless it was whispered in bed. There was never a sneaky side to Tom, so when Mrs. Harrison came to Mama and said Beryl was going to have a baby, Tom admitted everything. Mama didn’t cry or get mad, but later I acknowledged that as the hour she made up her mind to die. Mrs. Harrison was carrying on about Tom’s having to marry Beryl, but Mama appeared not even to hear her. She looked at Tom and looked at Tom. It was Tom who began to cry, and then Mama asked Mrs. Harrison to leave and told me to go to the kitchen and get supper ready. I went, but I heard what passed between them.

She didn't blame him. “Are you sure, Tom? Although you may have been seeing her, it’s possible she’s been with others.”

Tom said, “I was the first, I know; and I bet I was the only. She thinks she loves me.”

“She’s such a common girl.”

“I’m a common boy,” Tom said. “You rate me too high, Mother, but I’m just as common.”

“You are not. I was a Stafford, and you’re as much Stafford as Bowman. More, because you’re like me.”

“Well, Mother, with me maybe the Stafford blood has thinned out. There’s nothing to do but marry, like Mrs. Harrison says. They’re Catholic.”

“You will not marry her. I won’t let you throw yourself away on that tacky creature.”

“Beryl’s all right.” He tried to make his voice comical. “Maybe she’s what the Stafford blood needs to thicken up again.”

“You’d have to take some low job, and soon there’d be a houseful of her children!”

“If they are hers, I promise you they’ll be mine too,” he bragged.

“Hush and let me think.”

It didn’t take her long to decide and plan. He was to get a bus that very night out of Savannah; it didn’t matter where, just to be gone. Then tomorrow he was to get another bus to Montgomery. She’d write a letter for him to take to Aunt Belle. He was to stay at Aunt Belle’s until she closed her savings account at the bank on Bull Street and sent him money. Yes, she had, she assured him when he interrupted; it wasn’t a lot, but it was enough. Then he was to go by train or bus far away, as far as the money would take him with something left over to live on until he found a job or made his way.

“To California?” he suggested, accepting the plan, even beginning to get excited. “Is there enough for that far? I always wanted to see San Francisco. The Golden Gate.”

When I had supper ready, I went to the door and said so. Mama told me she wasn’t hungry and Tom would come eat when he was done with her. I filled a plate for Tom and put it in the oven. It was only meat loaf and canned peas and store rolls. Then I sat down to eat.

At one point I heard Tom say, as if it’d just hit him, “Angel, I can’t leave you!”

“You can and will. If you stay, you’ll have to marry her. There’s no other way. And you must stay gone, you hear? Whatever happens, under no circumstances are you to come back.”

“I won’t leave you,” he declared, both knowing what they were not saying.

“It’s what I want, so you’ll do it if you love me.” Then she said it. “I’ll soon be dead, but I’ll end my days knowing you are free. You’re the only thing I care about.”

There was more, but that was it.

And, oh, didn’t Mrs. Harrison rant and rave when she found out! After she’d blessed Mama out, she blessed me out too, and then went back to her side of the house and blessed Beryl out. Beryl must have got tired of it, because she stopped Mrs. Harrison finally and told her she knew Tom had run away, because she’d heard him after midnight and gone to the window and watched him go with nothing but one suitcase, walking fast. There was the sound of several slaps and Beryl’s crying through the wall and begging her mama for them to move; but Mrs. Harrison said it was too late now and they might as well stay and save the expense. She said again they would not leave the house that had brought them shame. Then she raised her voice so she’d be certain we heard and defied anybody to try to move her.

Mrs. Harrison never spoke to Mama again, and she wouldn’t speak to me for a week. But Beryl never stopped being friendly, although Mama told her never to enter our part of the house. Beryl was surprisingly cheerful after the big fuss. She even laughed when she said to me, “Wasn’t it just like Tom to run off and not face things?”

I had to know. “Are you—sorry, Beryl?”

“You mean ashamed of myself?” She saw that was just what I’d meant and slapped my arm. “When I love somebody, I love them. I bet you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“In a different way I do. What are your plans?”

“It looks like I’d better plan to have a baby,” she said gaily.

“What I mean—can’t you see somebody?” She looked at me blankly. “I’ve heard there are certain doctors—”

“Mark Bowman, I’m surprised at you. You know Mama and I are Catholics. I don’t walk past the church without crossing myself. How dare you suggest such a thing!”

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “I just thought it would be better for you.”

“Catholics don’t flush their love down the toilet. It was a dumb question, Mark, and you ought to know better. Did you see that new Barbara Stanwyck movie last week? Why, there wouldn’t have been a story if she’d done such a thing, and anyway she wouldn’t.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I won’t be going back to school, that’s sure. They wouldn’t let me, and I’m glad anyway because I hate school. I don’t see how you can like it.”

“It’s just a way to get away from Mr. Cramer’s,” I said.

She giggled. “Well, it’s purgatory for girls like me that hate it, I can tell you. I’ve got a girl friend Sue Ann that works at the dime store, not one of the good ones, but where all the Nigras go to buy, and she thinks she can get me on. I won’t tell them and I’ll work till it shows, to save money for my baby. Remember the song that goes, ‘I found a million-dollar baby in the five and ten cent store’? Well, that’ll be me. I’m going to have it and I’m not going to give it away either, though that’s what Mama’s trying to talk me into. Anyway, the orphans’ homes are full, nobody wants them, although Mama said we could tell them it’s got Stafford blood. My Mama can sound real mean sometimes.” She looked thoughtful and took a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of her dress pocket. “There’s two. Smoke with me.”

“I wouldn’t want to take your last.” I’d tried smoking; all boys did, and most girls. Tom had been smoking three years, though he’d never done it at home. I didn’t like smoking or not, but I knew how to do it.

She insisted that I take one and lit them for us. “That’s the last pack I’m going to buy,” she said. “They cost fifteen cents now, and I can save that money for my baby. See what a good mother I’m going to be? Goodbye, dear old nicotine!”

“Did you really smoke a lot?” I asked her.

“Yes.” She sounded as worldly as Kay Francis. “Five or six a day sometimes.”

5

I wish I could say that after Tom left, the void between us was bridged, that understanding, if not love, eased the summer of waiting. With Tom gone I thought (hoped, prayed) that Mama would turn to me and use me, but she did not except in the ordinary ways she had long done. Her need of me was only common dependence. I was shameless in the ways I courted her. There was no one to tell me that availability is always a little despised, and if there had been, I should not have heeded him. Love never accepts rejection. The heart never believes its cry will get no answer.

“Stop trying to be Tom,” she said. “You’re not Tom.”

“I know I’m not. I was only trying to entertain you.”

“You don’t have a talent for entertaining.”

“We have to live together, Mother.”

She ignored my using Tom’s word for her. “We don’t have to play games. I’m not good at pretending. I’ve finished with it.”

“You haven’t finished with me,” I said.

“You’re bold, now Tom has gone.”

I wasn’t to be stopped, “Why don’t you love me the way you love him?”

“I always treated you the same.”

“No, ma’am.”

“You’re thinking about your poems and candy and trying to punish me. Well, you can’t. No one can.”

“I wanted you to love me. I love you.”

She gripped the wheels of her chair, but there was nowhere for her to go. She couldn’t even go to the bathroom without my helping her.

“I’m sorry, Mama.”

“I should think so,” she said faintly.

“Is Tom still in San Francisco?” He’d been gone a month, and I knew she’d had letters, because I’d handed them to her; but she had never shown them to me.

She hesitated. “I thought it best that you not know where he is. You’ve remained friendly with that girl, and she’d get you to tell her.”

“She knows where he is,” I said. “All she had to do was look in our mailbox and see the postmark.”

She sighed. “I hadn’t thought of her spying, since they have their own mailbox. It takes a vulgar mind to understand vulgar people.”

“I don’t think you understand me, Mama.”

“Children always fancy themselves misunderstood. I’m sorry if I have offended you, Marcus. That was not my intention.”

“Offended me?” I said carefully.

She answered sharply. “Now don’t go on. I’m tired. I want to go to the bathroom and then to bed. Go into the hall and see if either of them is using it.”

“Please talk to me.”

She sat still for so long I was afraid to move. Finally she said, “I’ll tell you something, Marcus, and that will be the end of it. When you’re young, you think everything is possible. You want everything—love and the world. As you live, you begin to subtract, saying: I can live without this and that and so and so and so. The subtractions go on, and when you’ve endured every humiliation of compromise and denial, you stop feeling, and you are allowed to die. That’s where I am, so don’t bother me again.”

The end of July, she developed pneumonia. There was no money for a nurse and nothing a nurse could have done I couldn’t do; so I sat up all night alone with her after I’d sent the telegram to Aunt Belle.

Beryl and Mrs. Harrison didn’t come to the funeral, and Beryl told me why. They didn’t think Mama would have liked it. Aunt Belle was friendly with Mrs. Harrison, and they settled household matters between them, while Uncle Grady took care of other arrangements. I went to the school board to get a set of my records to carry with me to Montgomery, and then told Mr. Cramer I thanked him for giving me work, and goodbye.

Beryl still had a job at the dime store. “I figure to make it through September, maybe October. You couldn’t tell if you didn’t know, could you?”

I shook my head.

“I think it’s a joke our moving over to your side. But we do need more space with my baby coming, and it saves really moving. Mama will have your mama’s old room; she doesn’t care. And I’ll have yours and Tom’s, which will make me feel funny at first, won’t it? We’re going to rent out rooms just like you did to us and charge them eighteen dollars a month. You remember how Mama used to resent that? Now she says: ‘We have the responsibility.’ Oh, Mark!” We laughed together. “You know, I’m going to miss you. I won’t ask you to write, because I’m not a very good letter writer, but don’t forget me.”

I said I wouldn’t.

Uncle Grady was in a hurry to leave, and I was glad. I didn’t have a suitcase, because I’d never been anywhere and Tom had taken the only one we owned. All my things went into a couple of cardboard boxes I picked up at the store. One had held pork and beans and the other toilet paper, and Mr. Cramer made a joke about that. Following what Mama had made me promise when Tom left, I wrote him only after the funeral, taking the address from his last letter. He answered about a month later, a wild and grieving letter sent to Aunt Belle’s house in Montgomery, but never wrote again.

Suddenly we were ready. Mama had died on Friday night and been buried Sunday. There was no reason to wait, and Uncle Grady wanted to get back to his business, which was the wholesale food trade. You had to keep your eye on things and move fast, he said, because of spoilage. Everything went easily into the trunk of the car. They hadn’t brought much, coming in a hurry, and my boxes weren’t crowded. Uncle Grady and Roland were to take turns and drive all night, or until we got there. We started out with Uncle Grady and Aunt Belle in the front seat and Roland, Beatrice, and me in the back.

Beryl waited on the porch to wave when we pulled off. It was just starting to get dark as we rode through the shady, hot streets and around the old squares. I said to myself: Goodbye, Beryl; goodbye, Mr. Cramer; goodbye, Leroy; goodbye, Savannah. I didn’t say goodbye to Mama, because even then I knew it would never be over between us. Then I looked at the other four in the car and it came to me that we were strangers.

6

The trip was nothing to remember. Uncle Grady and Roland took turns driving, and no one talked much, even when we paused to verify directions and use the toilet and consume fried egg sandwiches and Coca-Colas and peanuts. I’d go to sleep sitting straight up, and wake slumped onto Roland or Uncle Grady or Beatrice, as they shifted around. Aunt Belle did not shift.

Roland was the first one I got to know a little, after the house.

The house was on Morgan Avenue in the Five Points area of Montgomery. It was a short avenue, as avenues go, built long ago, its houses ranging from modest to once grand, its inhabitants all the degrees of middle class. Our house, as I thought of it right away, the young being ever eager to own and to belong, was a bungalow with a small yard between its porch and a sidewalk that tilted and cracked to accommodate the roots of an oak tree that had been there considerably longer than the sidewalk. There was a bigger yard in back. On the front porch were flower boxes and pots of fern, assorted chairs, and a swing that was lower at one end than the other. “Roland’s going to take a link out of the chain,” Aunt Belle said with a wave of a hand, “one day.”

The front door opened directly into the living room, which had sliding doors to the dining room, which had a passage to the kitchen with no door. The living room also opened into a narrow hallway running the length of the house with three bedrooms and a bath off it. The hall was too narrow for any furnishings except a few pictures, and too dim to see them. The front bedroom was Beatrice’s, the middle and biggest Aunt Belle and Uncle Grady’s, the back one Roland’s, which I was to share. The one bathroom was at the back of the hall and house. There was a garage in the backyard and three chinaberry trees but no grass or flowers.

Beatrice’s room was dainty with bows and ruffles on the skirt of the vanity table and bench, which she herself had sewed, and a fringed counterpane on the bed, neatly shaped over pillows upon which sat two dolls made of cloth scraps and crepe paper, also by Beatrice. Beatrice, Aunt Belle said, had to have everything “just so.” She said it uncritically, and it soon became clear that Beatrice, although only sixteen, ran the house.

“She’s domestic,” Aunt Belle explained, “which I am not. Lord knows what we’ll do when she decides to get married.”

“Mama!” Beatrice protested. Roland snickered, and Uncle Grady cleared his throat and looked at everyone except Beatrice, as if he might have to protect her.

“Well, what’s the cedar chest in your room for, I’d like to know?”

“Every girl has a hope chest,” Beatrice said primly. “I’ve had mine since I was eleven.”

“Tell you one thing,” Aunt Belle continued, addressing me as the only one not knowing her sentiments, “I’d rather have her for a daughter than a mama or wife. Oh, she’s going to make husband and children jump and toe the line one day. You wait.”

Beatrice’s blush was fading; she looked thoughtful, as if contemplating her soul. She was, I subsequently discovered, industrious, generally accommodating and mild of manner unless something interfered with the way she thought things ought to be. Do things her way, and she was an angel. She could be prissy and precise, but her heart was as open as her mind was closed. If she appeared a little bossy, it was to get things done. Her only touchiness was in correcting anyone who called her Be-at-rice; so with the southern pronunciation she usually found herself called Bee-trice. She was never called Bea. “It took me a long while to become reconciled to my name,” she confided to me later. “Mama meant it as a joke. Beatrice Benedict, you see?”

Aunt Belle wasn’t in the least lazy, although she’d given over the housekeeping to her daughter. She was always doing or saying something, usually the latter, and when a coffee cup wasn’t in her hand, it was nearby. “It’s my weakness,” she proclaimed, “and what keeps me going. I’d die without it. Summer, winter, night and day. I don’t sleep a lot—I’m the restless kind. If you wake in the middle of the night and smell coffee, it’ll be me. And why not?” She looked around challengingly, although no one opposed her. “Some people drink iced tea all day long. I’m not one of those.” The neighbors loved her, for she was always ready to take an interest in what they were doing and thinking; she always had time. Nor would she take offense when they got up to go, saying, “Well, I must get up from here and go do my housework. Wish I had a daughter smart as Beatrice.”

Uncle Grady was a quiet man, his own man. Looking at him, I often thought his mind was far away from us all. Sometimes I’d catch Aunt Belle’s eyes on him, helpless and bewildered. I never heard them quarrel, and I never saw them touch each other.

Roland was the only thin one in the family. His mother and father were solidly built without running to fat, and Beatrice for all her energy had plump cheeks and arms. But Roland, although he ate more than anyone else, remained lean, with corded muscles in his hands and feet and jaws. His hair was blond and coarse and would never stay combed no matter what he put on it, and he tried everything he knew. His nose was aggressively arched and quick to redden from cold or heat or emotion. His eyes were small and dark, wide apart, and so deep-set they seemed to burn both in and out. I have never seen a more intense and watchful look than his.

For as long as I could remember, I’d slept with my brother Tom, and so I felt nothing about sharing; but on the first night, Roland made it clear he resented having to.

“You stay on your side, you hear? If you toss and turn, you can just get out and sleep on the floor. I’m nearly eighteen, and I ought not to have to share with a young’un. You don’t wet the bed, I hope?”

“Of course not!”

“Some young’uns do.”

“I’m not a young’un.”

“You’re thirteen and I’m eighteen, almost. You remember that. You have to stay clean too, like me, a bath every afternoon after work, or at least before you get into my bed at night. I won’t have you smelling.”

I told him I liked a bath every day.

He was unconvinced. “Little boys always manage to smell like dogs.”

“How do dogs smell? Like boys?”

“You trying to be smart?”

“I’ll do my best not to smell bad,” I promised.

“That also means no pooting in bed. Don’t think if I don’t hear it I won’t know it; I will. If you think you may have to go to the bathroom during the night, go now. I don’t want you waking me up an hour after I get to sleep. I need my full sleep. I’m near a grown man, and a lot of things are going on in my body.”

I went to the bathroom and when I came back found him undressing. “I’m used to the left side,” he said. “You take the right.”

I undressed to my B.V.D.’s and got under the sheet.

“I see you don’t kneel and pray. Don’t you believe in God?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but I don’t kneel and say prayers.”

“I believe in Huey Long,” he said. “If there’s a revolution, I’m going to join it.”

“You are?”

He sat on a straight chair to take off his socks, shaking them out and blowing into them before hanging them on the back of the chair. “I believe in Technocracy too.”

“What’s that?”

“Too complicated to explain to a child. I’ll tell you when you’re older maybe.”

In his B.V.D.’s he sat on his side of the bed, his skinny back to me, shoulder blades sharp as fins. “Is it the truth your brother was getting it from that girl next door?”

“Yes,” I said, surprised.

He struck his left palm with his right fist. “And her a poor girl, too!”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“He’d have respected her too much if she’d been rich—that’s what it’s got to do with it.”

“Maybe,” I allowed, “but Beryl’s a nice girl.”

Roland shook his head. “No one will have her now.”

“She’ll be all right.”

“That’s easy for you and your brother to say after she’s left to be reviled.”

“I don’t think anybody’s going to revile Beryl,” I objected temperately. “I guess they’ll talk about her some, but they’ll get used to it and go on to something else.”

Roland snorted. “Easy conscience.”

“Who is Huey Long?” I asked.

“That shows how ignorant you are. I didn’t like your brother when he came here to stay with us. You might as well know that now.”

“Well, you’re about the only one,” I said. “Everybody likes Tom.”

“I don’t. He thinks he’s good-looking.”

“Well, he is.”

“If he’d looked at my sister, I’d have given him a black eye.”

“They’re cousins!”

“You don’t know much. I suppose it’s easy for boys like him.”

“What is?”

“Girls.”

He pulled the chain of the light on the headrail of the bed, and we were in the dark. I turned on my side, but I couldn’t go to sleep. It was hot, and I was afraid to move for fear of disturbing Roland. But I was finally beginning to doze when I heard him whisper, “Mark?” I sighed as if asleep. A few minutes later I felt the bed shake as he began to masturbate.

7

Uncle Grady’s brokerage business was downtown on North Court Street in the warehouse district. Empty, the place was a big echoing shell with one corner cordoned off as office space, containing two desks, telephone, filing cabinets, a typewriter, and two electric fans with gummy-looking blades. There was no toilet, but there was a filling station nearby whose owner didn’t mind our using his “rest rooms.” Uncle Grady gave him some produce now and then. There were wire baskets in the office for orders and inventories, but they were never used for their purpose. Instead, all papers were stuck on what appeared to be inverted ice picks mounted on wooden blocks, one for in-coming, the other for out-going goods.

Mrs. Bush, a childless widow of thirty-five or so who appeared older, presided over the office and telephone. It took me about a week to understand that she was almost totally incapable, unknowledgeable, and unreliable. Her neatness and sourness of expression inclined one to trust her, and perhaps that sufficed, for it was not an office in which great efficiency was required. Mrs. Bush was not deaf, but the telephone seemed to make her so. She shouted into it and made all callers repeat themselves. She had no gift for transcribing the sounds her ears received into names and numbers on a pad of paper or an order book. Her typing was labored and inaccurate, her handwriting illegible to all who had not learned its eccentricities. The drawers of her desk, which she had a way of inching open as if she expected snakes to strike from their depths, never yielded a stamp that would adhere to an envelope, an envelope the right size, a rubber band that did not snap when stretched, or a paper clip that did not draw blood with its crooked, rusty prongs.

Yet Uncle Grady and Roland too were always patient with her and even deferential; and Aunt Belle, when I asked how Mrs. Bush had come to work there, only answered, “Poor soul. She was the only applicant when your uncle ran his ad in the paper. How lucky he was to get her! You see, not many ladies like working in that part of town.”

Used to a job and not wanting to appear slack, I asked if I could work with Roland in the warehouse. He was in charge of it for the summer, Uncle Grady having “lost” the Negro man whose job it had been back in May. Roland would attend to things until he returned to high school for his last year in September, and even then he would continue to work afternoons and Saturdays.

It was a simple business in that there was no system at all. Uncle Grady boasted that he could and would supply anything needed by small, independent grocers all over town, delivering within a couple of hours. The larger chains—A&P, Piggly Wiggly, and Hill’s—had their own suppliers. Uncle Grady dealt in quick-turnover goods such as crates of oranges, apples, and cabbages, great sacks of potatoes and small sacks of onions, as well as the less perishable sugar and rice, canned goods, snuff and cigarettes and chewing tobacco, pepper and salt. He even bought coffee from the chain stores in small lots to resell at a penny profit on a pound to independent stores whose customers wanted the familiar brands. The small stores, unlike the chains, dealt largely with credit customers who were used to paying more for the privilege of credit. Most of them never paid a bill entirely but would put something on account each payday.

There were times the warehouse was full to the doors and rafters and we had to hire extra help from the street to help us move goods. Other times it was empty except for floor grime and a floating of onion skins and paper fruit wrappers with their old-fashioned pictures of smiling children. Watermelons were a quick-turnover item in the summer. A farmer might come to town with a truck or wagon load, and Uncle Grady would buy them, having the farmer wait while he sold them by telephone. Roland and I would then take the load directly to the store that had agreed to buy them and unload the truck, the whole transaction having netted no more than a few dollars. But business was business; whatever came to hand was bought and sold, and any profit was a profit, part of the day’s work. In those hard times people rarely paused to ponder the smallness of a profit; that there was any at all was enough reason for work to proceed.

Once satisfied that my willingness to work was not mere show-off humility or a way to ingratiate myself with Uncle Grady, Roland treated me well enough, and I did not resent him. He didn’t stand and watch me sweat; he sweated too. I was used to shifting and carrying weights from doing the bidding of Mr. Cramer in Savannah, so for me it was only more of the same and even an improvement. I did not have the monotony of slicing and weighing pound after pound of bacon, the steeling of nerve that had always been necessary for me to kill chickens nor the hand-filth of plucking and dressing them. I did not have to smile and parry the jokes of customers about my age and size and ambitions. And I did not have the cleanup of Saturday nights at the butcher shop with the scraping of blocks, raking sawdust of its disgusting debris, and blinding myself with ammonia to clear and shine the glass cases.