A Long and Happy Life A Novel, by Price, Reynolds
- ISBN: 9781439109342 | 1439109346
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 5/5/2009
Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody's face was Wesley Beavers, and laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him was Rosacoke Mustian who was maybe his girl and who had given up looking into the wind and trying to nod at every sad car in the line, and when he even speeded up and passed the truck (lent for the afternoon by Mr. Isaac Alston and driven by Sammy his man, hauling one pine box and one black boy dressed in all he could borrow, set up in a ladder-back chair with flowers banked round him and a foot on the box to steady it) -- when he even passed that, Rosacoke said once into his back "Don't" and rested in humiliation, not thinking but with her hands on his hips for dear life and her white blouse blown out behind her like a banner in defeat.
It was because Wesley was a motorcycle man since his discharge (or would be, come Monday) and wouldn't have brought her in a car if fire had fallen in balls on every side. He had intended taking her to the picnic that way, and when Mildred Sutton died having her baby without a husband and Rosacoke felt compelled to go to the funeral first and asked Wesley please to take her, he said he would, but he saw no reason to change to a car for a Negro funeral. Rosacoke had to get there and couldn't walk three miles in dust and couldn't risk him going on ahead so she didn't argue but pulled her skirt up over her knees for all to see and put her hat in the saddlebag and climbed on.
Riding like that she didn't see the land they passed through -- nothing new or strange but what she had passed every day of her life almost, except for the very beginning and some summer clays when she had left for 4-H camp at White Lake or to stay with Aunt Oma in Newport News or to set with somebody in the hospital, like Papa before he died. But the land was there, waiting.
The road passed a little way from the Mustians' porch, and if you came up their driveway and turned left, you would be at the Afton store and the paving soon, and that took you on to Warrenton where she worked. But they turned right today and the road narrowed as it went till it was only wide enough for one thing going one way -- a car or a truck or a mule and wagon -- and it being July, whatever passed, even the smallest foot, ground more dirt to dust that rose several times every hour of the day and occasionally -- invisibly -- at night and lingered awhile and at sunset hung like fog and if there was no breeze, settled back on whatever was there to receive it -- Rosacoke and Mama and Rato and Milo walking to church, if it had been a first Sunday and ten years ago before Milo got his driving license -- but settling mostly on Negro children aiming home in a slow line, carrying blackberries they had picked to eat (and if you stopped and said, "How much you asking for your berries?" they would be so surprised and shy and forget the price their mother told them to say if anybody stopped, and hand them over, bucket and all, for whatever you wanted to give, and all the dust you raised would be on those berries when you got home). It settled on leaves too -- on dogwood and hickory and thin pine and holly and now and then a sycamore and on Mr. Isaac Alston's cherry trees that huddled around the pond he had made for the hot air to pass over, choked and tan till there would come a rain -- trees he had set out as switches twelve years ago on his seventieth birthday and poured fish in the water smaller than the eye could see and claimed he would live to sit in that cool cherry shade and pull out the dim descendants of those first minnows. And he might, as the Alstons didn't die under ninety.
What Alstons had died were the things they came to, after trees -- the recent ones, overflowed from the family graves and laid out on this side of Delight Baptist Church, looking shorter than anybody would have guessed, with people around them that never had family graves to begin with -- Rosacoke's Papa (who was her grandfather and who by the time he died had completely forgotten Miss Pauline his wife and asked to be buried beside his mother and then forgot to tell them where his mother was) and Miss Pauline, the size of a dressed rabbit, and Rosacoke's own father who was no Baptist (who wasn't much of anything) and whose grave had sunk into the ground. The graves went towards the church, taking grass with them, and then the white sand began that had been hauled in from a creek bed. The church stood in the sand under two oak trees, wooden and bleached and square as a gun-shell box, daring people not to come. The Mustians went and even Wesley Beavers, with his name.
But it wasn't where they were going now so they passed by, and the graves and Delight Church and the sand and the two long picnic tables turned to the woods that Milo and Rosacoke and Rato had run in as children with Mildred Sutton and any other Negroes she brought along (that had scattered now, to Baltimore mostly). The woods began by the road and went back farther than Rosacoke or even the boys had ever gone, not because they were scared but because they got tired -- the woods went on that long, and every leaf of them belonged to Mr. Isaac Alston. Once Rosacoke and Mildred packed them a dinner and said to themselves, "We will walk till we come to an open field where somebody is growing something." So they walked on slowly in a straight line through the cool damp air under trees where sun never came but only this green light the mushrooms grew by. When they had walked an hour, they were breathing in air that nothing but possums and owls had breathed before, and snakes if snakes breathed. Mildred didn't like the idea but Rosacoke kept going, and Mildred came on behind, looking mostly up, checking on the sky to still be there and to see what snakes were studying down on them. Then they came to an open field the size of a circus ring where there were no trees but only bitter old briars and broomstraw the color of Milo's beard that was just then arriving. They sat on the edge of that to eat their biscuits and syrup and for Mildred to rest her feet, but Rosacoke thought and decided they couldn't stop here as it wasn't a field where anybody had meant to grow anything. (Nothing ate broomstraw but mules and mules only ate it if they thought it was something you valued.) So they stood up to go, and Mildred's mouth fell open and said "Great God A-mighty" because there was one deer behind them in the trees for quicker than it took to say if it had horns. But its eyes were black and it had looked at them. When its last sound had gone, Rosacoke said, "Don't let's go no farther" and Mildred said "All right." They were not afraid of any deer, but if those woods offered things like that, that would take the time to look at you, when you had only walked an hour, where would they end, and what would be growing in any field they found on the other side, and who would be tending it there? So they came out, taking their time, proving they hadn't given up for fear, and when they got to the road, Mildred spoke for the first time since calling on God to see that deer -- "Rosacoke, it's time for me some supper" -- and they parted. It was no more time for supper than it was for snow, but Mildred meant to get home quick and unload that deer on somebody -- his streak he made through the trees and the sound of his horn feet in the old leaves and his eyes staring on through all those biscuits at what they did, and waiting.
If Rosacoke had looked up from Wesley's back at the woods, she might have remembered that day and how it was only nine years ago and here she was headed to bury that same Mildred, and was that black-eyed deer still waiting, and did he belong to Mr. Isaac? -- that deer? But she didn't look up and she didn't remember. If you were with Wesley Beavers, what good was remembering? You couldn't tell him what you remembered. He said he lived in the present, and that meant that maybe when he went a hundred and thirty miles from home to spend three years in the U.S. Navy, lounging around in a tight uniform fixing radios and not moving a step out of Norfolk, Virginia (or so he said) except to come home a few weekends, maybe he seldom thought of her. Not the way she thought of him anyhow -- wondering every night if she was his, hoping she was, even when he didn't write for weeks and then sent sassy post cards. But he had been home a civilian three days now, and tomorrow he was headed back to Norfolk to sell motorcycles with a friend of his, and she didn't know a thing she hadn't known for years -- which was that he still came to get her Saturday night and took her to a place called Danceland and danced with every woman there in succession so fast he seemed to be ten Wesleys or a dozen, swarming, and then rode her home and kissed her good night for an hour, without a question or a word.
She thought that through once. It was the deepest thinking she could manage on a motorcycle with dust running up her legs, and she was just changing to something new -- that at last Wesley had found the vehicle he was meant for (being with Wesley had always been like being on a motorcycle) -- when she felt the shift of his shoulders under her cheek and his hips under her hands. The way he moved she slackened her grip for a second. It was too much like holding your eye through the lid while it turns, smooth in the socket but easy to ruin.
She looked up and they were at Mount Moriah Church where they meant to be, and Wesley was turning in, not slowing up at all but gouging a great rut in the dusty yard. He stuck out a leg and his black ankle boots plowed a little way, and that halted them under the one low tree. The coon tails relaxed but Wesley kept the motor going, racing it with twitches of his hand, listening as if he expected it to speak, till Rosa-coke said in his ear, "Hush your noise, Wesley."
"Don't it sound funny to you?"
"No," she said. So he let the motor die, and in the astonished quiet where every bird had surrendered to Wesley's roar, the only sound was that truck and the cars coming on behind, rambling like distant buffaloes, with Mildred. "Get down, Wesley. They'll all be here in a minute." Wesley swung off the seat and watched while Rosacoke got herself down. Now they were still, the heat settled back on them, and they both shook their heads under the burden. But they didn't speak. They had given up talking about it long ago. Rosacoke took out her handkerchief and wiped her face before the sweat could streak the dust. She looked in the round mirror on the handlebars and combed out her hair that had the wind in it still after the ride. With the black tree behind her, you could see the dust fly up around her head from out of her hair, and in the round mirror it outlined her with a sudden halo. Even Wesley noticed that. Then she put on her hat and said, "We didn't need to come that quick" and took off towards the church, sinking through the thin crust of ground with her high heels. When she had walked ten yards alone and her white shoes were tan, she turned and said, "Come on, Wesley. Let's don't be standing around staring when they get here."
"Well, I'm going to work on this motor awhile to make sure we can get out when we want to. I'll be in there in a little bit. You just save me a seat by the window."
She only blushed -- all she ever did now when Wesley let her down (which pretty nearly kept her blushing non-stop) -- and said, "Don't go playing that harp" (the harmonica was another thing he had taken up in the Navy) and climbed the steps. She stopped at the top and looked back towards the road. That way, Wesley saw her and thought how far she had come in three years to being this -- tall almost as he was, maybe five foot-nine, and her skin pale as candles laid close on her long bones, and what wind there was, twitching at her hair pulled to the back of her neck, falling down long and dry and the color of straw from under her level hat, stopping below her shoulders where your hand would have been if you had been holding her and dancing with her, close (the only way Wesley danced since his discharge). Then his eyes moved on. And every time he passed below her swinging hair -- looking -- he got onto women he knew in Norfolk or at the beach and how they smelled, twisting in the dark, and how their smell stayed on him now he didn't recollect their names or how they looked though he had labored in them whole nights of his life and the feel of them was on his fingers like oil, real as if they were by him now under that tree, calling him Junior with their hands working and him starting and them crying "Sweet Jesus? to him in the night.
But suddenly a bird sang in the tree over Wesley's head, holding up its one clear voice like a deed in the scorching day, and Rosacoke looked at Wesley as if he might have done it -- that song -- looking clear through him and all he thought, it seemed, shaking her head at what she saw. But Wesley was twenty-two years old his last birthday, and what was so wrong, he wanted to know, with thinking all those things? -- except maybe they didn't fit Rosacoke, not the way she was now, new and changed since the times three years ago when they went in to shows in Warrenton and drove nearly home and stopped and spent an hour or longer telling each other good night with the windows misted up, sitting under a tree with pecans falling on the car to make them laugh. Those other women, he had touched and claimed whenever he needed to, but how much of Rosacoke had he touched? Knowing her all that time, how much of her could he see whenever his eyes were dosed? How much of her could he claim? -- her standing on church steps in Sunday white, straining to see where Mildred was -- how much of that could he just walk up and ask for and get?
He might have tried to find out if she hadn't turned and vanished in the dark church, not meaning to roll her hips but letting loose all the power she had there (which was enough to grind rocks) and showing, last thing, her white ankles flexing firm on her heels, and Jesus, he was back in Norfolk sure as the sun poured down. And it did -- all over Wesley Beavers from head to foot which was half the trouble. So to change the subject he took out his cycle tools and tightened screws that were tighter already than God ever meant them to be.
Rosacoke remembered in the vestibule that she hadn't been here since the day she slipped off with Mildred and came to the meeting where Aunt Mannie Mayfield stood at age eighty and named the fathers of all her children, far as she could recall. Rosacoke looked round now and the same three things to notice were there -- a bell rope hanging from the steeple for anybody to pull, and a gray paper hornets' nest (built in the window by mistake during the war but deserted now far as the eye could see though nobody would tear it down for fear one hornet might be there still, getting older and meaner), and by the open door to the auditorium, a paper bag nailed to the wall with a note saying, Kindly Leave Gum Here. She took one deep breath -- as if it was the last she would get all afternoon -- and went in, and the hot air came out to meet her like a member.
It looked empty -- just a choir at the back around a piano and a pulpit in front of that and on the side a stove and then hard seats enough for a hundred people though it would hold half again that many for anything special like a funeral, but it gave no signs of a funeral today. There was not a flower in sight -- they were coming with Mildred in the truck -- and nobody had thought to come ahead and open the windows. There were six long windows and Rosacoke picked the back one on the left to open and sit by. She went towards it up the bare aisle, and when she got to the pew, the church wasn't empty at all -- there was Landon Allgood laid out asleep, the size of a dry cornstalk, breathing heavy, one arm hanging off the bench to the floor and his shirt buttoned right to the neck. He lived alone in a one-room house a little beyond the church and dug graves for white folks, and his trouble was, he took paregoric when he could get it which was mostly on Saturday and then seldom made it home. You were liable to find him anywhere Sunday morning, asleep. One Christmas before Rosacoke was born, he fell down in the public road, and whoever found him next morning had to carry him to Rocky Mount Hospital and have all his toes cut off that had frozen solid in his shoes. That was why, to this day, his shoes turned up at the ends. Rosacoke didn't know how long he had been there or whether he was ready to leave, but she knew he ought to go before the others came as he wasn't dressed for a funeral so she said "Landon." (She wasn't scared of Landon. She had gone in the store herself and bought him bottles of paregoric with his quarters when she was little and nobody would sell him another drop.) She said "Landon, wake up." But he slept on. "Landon, this is Miss Rosacoke. You get up from there."
He was ready. He opened his eyes and said, "Good morning, Miss Rosacoke" just as if he had met her in the road on the way to work.
"It's afternoon, Landon, and will you please get up and go home?"
"Yes'm," he said, sitting up, noticing he was in church and smiling, "Here I am again." Then "What you doing here, Miss Rosacoke?"
"They are burying Mildred."
"What's wrong with Mildred?"
"Well, I do say." He got to his feet and put on his cap and tipped it to her and headed as best he could for the door by the choir that led out back. Rosacoke went on into the pew and raised the window. When Landon got to the door -- he even had his hand on the knob -- he turned and said, "I'm some kin to Mildred, ain't I?"
"Her uncle I guess."
"Yes'm, that's it." Then he could leave.
The church sat sideways to Wesley's tree and the road, and Rosacoke could stay by her window and see what happened in the yard. Landon wasn't ten feet out the back when the truck turned in, having a little trouble with the ruts Wesley made and bringing twelve ears behind it, each one paler with dust than the one before and all packed full. The ears unloaded in order and the first two women were Mildred's mother Mary and Mildred's sister Estelle who had stayed at home when all the others scattered because of her health which was poor from the night Manson Hargrove shot her at a dance, both barrels in the chest. (She lived though -- shooting Estelle's bosom was like shooting a feather bed.) Then came the little boys that belonged to most anybody. They were brought to help carry the flowers, but when they swarmed out and saw Wesley, they took off towards him and stood in a tight dark ring, staring out at his cycle like the Chariot of God that could fly. But Wesley had stopped his tinkering when Mildred arrived. He answered one or two questions the boys asked -- "What do it burn?" and he told them "Coal" -- and then nodded good afternoon to Mary and shut up and leaned against the tree. Somebody called out, "You boys come get these flowers." They went over and took up the wreaths and brought them towards the church, and the one in front wore roses around his neck like a horse that has won and can smile.
Mary and Estelle stood by the truck, looking, and that boy kept his eyes and his foot flat on the box as if it was his and nobody was getting it. Then the other women came up, silent. One of them -- Aunt Mannie Mayfield who had walked four miles to get there and was so old she didn't remember a soul now she was there -- hugged Mary and said what seemed to be a signal, and they climbed the steps -- two girls nearly lifting Aunt Mannie who could walk any distance but up and who would be next. But the men stayed by the truck, and when the flowers had gone, that boy leaned over and shoved the box to the end, and Sammy and three others took it (to say they had, any two could have carried it alone). They stood a minute with it on their shoulders, taking their bearings. Somebody laughed high and clear. The preacher turned to the church and all the men followed.
Rosacoke saw that and thought every minute Wesley would break loose and take his seat beside her. But he didn't, not even when the yard was empty, and when she heard Mary and Estelle leading the others in, she had to take her eyes off him and stand and nod to the people as they passed and call them by name -- the family taking the front pew and sitting as if something pressed them and the others filling in behind, leaving Rosacoke her empty pew at the back, and all standing up -- except the ones with babies -- till the box was laid on two sawhorses in front of the pulpit, and a boy laid flowers on the lid over what he reckoned was Mildred's face -- one design, the Bleeding Heart that Rosacoke sent at Mary's request (white carnations with roses for blood at the center, which would take some time to pay for). When that was done five women stood in various pews and walked to the choir. The piano started and stopped and for a second there was just Bessie Williams' voice slicing through the heat with six high words, calling the others to follow. It was "Precious Name, Show Me Your Face," and it was Jesus they were singing to -- meaning it, looking up at the roof to hornets' nests and spiders as if it might all roll away and show them what they asked to see. But the song ended and Rev. Mingle thanked the ladies and said Mrs. Ransom had composed the obituary and would read it. now. Mrs. Ransom stood where she was, smiling, and turned to face Mary and Estelle and read off the paper she held, "Miss Mildred Sutton was born in 1936 in the bed where she died. Her mother is Mary Sutton of this community, and her father was Wallace Sutton, whereabouts unknown, but who worked some years for the Highway and before that, said he fought in France and got gassed and buried alive and was never the same again. She had a brother and three sisters, and they are living in Baltimore and Philadelphia -- except Estelle who is with us here -- and are unable to come but have sent telegrams of their grief which will be read later. She grew up all around here and worked in cotton for Mr. Isaac Alston and went to school off and on till she started cooking for the Drakes and tending to their children that she loved like they were hers. She worked for them nearly two years, and they would surely be here today if they were not vacationing up at Willoughby Beach. Mildred aimed to go with them right to the last and then wasn't able. She stayed here and died not far from her twenty-first birthday. Her favorite tune was 'Annie Laurie' which she learned from Miss Rosacoke Mustian who is with us today, representing the white friends, and I will sing it now at her mother's request." And standing where she was, she sang it through alone, not to any tune Rosacoke had ever heard but making it on the air as she went, knowing Mildred would never object to that.
Then the preacher read the telegrams. They were all very much like the one from Alee her brother -- "Thinking today of little sister and sorry the car is broke." That seemed sufficient reason. Everybody nodded their heads and one or two said "Amen."
Rosacoke sat through that, trying to see past flapping fans to the box. Every once in awhile somebody would turn to see was she there and, seeing her, smile as though the whole afternoon would fold under if she didn't watch it with her familiar face (the way a boy three rows ahead watched her, holding her in his gaze like some new thing, untried, that might go up in smoke any minute). It was that hot inside and her mind worked slowly back through spring water and shade till she was almost in the night with Wesley, but the voice came at her faintly where she was -- "Miss Rosacoke, will you kindly view the body?" It was the preacher standing by her, and she turned from the window -- "Now?"
"Yes'm, she is ready." They had uncovered Mildred and they wanted Rosacoke to see her first. Mama had warned her this would happen, but there didn't seem to be a way out. She stood up, hoping the preacher would walk with her (and he did, a few feet behind), and went to the box, setting her eyes on the pulpit behind it so she wouldn't see Mildred the whole way.
They had laid Mildred in a pink nightgown that tied at the throat and had belonged to the lady she cooked for, but she had shrunk to nothing this last week as if her life was so much weight, and the gown was half empty. She never had much bosom -- Estelle got most of that and when they were twelve, Rosacoke told her, "Mildred, why don't you buy some stuffing? Your bosoms look like fried eggs" -- and the ones she had, swollen uselessly now, were settled on her arms that lay straight down her sides and left her hands out of sight that were her good feature. Sometime during the ride her body had twisted to the left, and her profile crushed bitterly into the pillow. Whoever took off the lid had left her alone. Rosacoke wondered if she should move her back for all to see. She looked at the preacher and nearly asked if that was what he meant her to do. But she thought and turned and walked to her seat down the middle aisle with her eyes to the ground, passing through everybody waiting to look, feeling stronger with her part done and Mildred turned to the wall where nobody would see.
And so was Wesley turned away. He was squatting on the ground, and his shoes were sunk in the dust, but he was polishing every spoke in the wheels of that machine as if he never again intended driving it over anything but velvet rugs. The congregation lined up to view Mildred, and Rosacoke had time to think, "Tomorrow he will ride it to Norfolk and take his new job and sell motorcycles for maybe the rest of his life, but he can't leave it alone for one hour and sit by me through this service."
And he polished on with his arms moving slow as if they moved through clear thick oil. At times he would rock back on his heels to study what he had done, and his sides would move above his belt to show he was breathing deep -- the only way he gave in to the heat. When he was satisfied he stood and cleaned his hands on a rag and his arms to where his sleeves were rolIed. But it was grease he was wiping, not sweat. He was somebody who could shine a whole motorcycle in the month of July and not sweat, and his dark hair (still cut for the Navy, stopping high on his neck) was dry. It didn't seem natural and when he leaned against his tree and stared at the ground, he looked to Rosacoke as cool as one November day six years ago, and she thought about that day, so clear and cool -- the first she saw of Wesley. He lived three miles from her, and all her life she heard about the Beavers but never saw one till that day -- a Saturday -- when she went out in Mr. Isaac's woods to pick up pecans off the ground. It was too early for that though -- the leaves were gone but the nuts hung on, waiting for a wind, and there was no wind this day -- so she was heading home with mighty little in her bucket, going slow, just calling it a walk now, when she looked ahead, and in one tall tree that the path bent round was a boy, spreading his arms between the branches and bracing his feet like he was the eagle on money. It was a pecan tree and she walked straight up under it and said, "Boy, shake me down some nuts." Not saying a word he gripped the branches tighter and rocked the fork he stood in, and nuts fell on her like hail by the hundred till she yelled out to stop or else her skull would crack. He stopped and she picked up all the pecans she could carry, thinking the whole time he would climb down and help her, but he stayed up there and when she looked at him once or twice, he wasn't even watching her -- just braced on his long legs that rose in blue overalls to his low waist and his narrow chest and bare white neck and his hair that was brown and still cut for the summer, high above his ears by somebody at home, and his eyes that stared straight out at sights nobody else in Warren County was seeing unless they were up a pecan tree.
"What are you looking at?" she asked him.
She looked but the sky looked clear to her. "Don't you want to share out these pecans?" -- as if bushels of them weren't lying all around her.
"I don't much like them."
"Well, what are you doing up that tree then?"
"Waiting, I guess."
"Who are you?"
"Wesley" -- as if he was the only Wesley ever made.
"Don't you want to know who I am?"
"Who are you?"
"Rosacoke Mustian -- how old are you?"
"Going on sixteen."
"That's old enough to get your driving license. My brother Milo and me slept in the same bed till he got his driving license, and then Mama said he would have to move."
He smiled at that and she saw the smile was as close to victory as she was coming that day so she said, "Thank you for shaking the tree" and went on home and didn't see him again for nearly a year, but she thought of him in the evenings long as those nuts lasted -- him caring for nothing but the smoke she couldn't see, wondering if there was fire somewhere, waiting.
Through that the line went on past Mildred. Some of them -- the young ones mostly -- skipped by her fast as they could and took a little look and jerked away, and Jimmy Jenkins fell out in the aisle on his way to sit down because he held his eyes shut till he was past Mildred (to keep from having her to remember). A good many took their time though and were sorry her head had turned, but nobody reached in to set her straight, and when Minnie Foot held her baby up to see and he dropped his pacifier in the box, they considered that pacifier gone for good -- except the baby who commenced to moan and would have cried if Minnie hadn't sat down in time and unbuttoned and nursed him off to sleep so deep he didn't hear Sarah Fitts when she saw Mildred and wailed "Sweet Jesus" at the sight, but the name went out to Wesley wherever he was (out the window and facing the church but not seeing it, not studying the funeral), and he looked up quick and smiled -- maybe at Rosacoke, maybe at the whole hot church -- and still stuffing, straddled his cycle in a long high leap like a deer and plunged downward on the starter like that same deer striking the earth and turned loose a roar that tore through the grove and the whole afternoon like dry cloth ripped without warning and Wesley was gone.
Rosacoke saw it that way, that slowly. After her remembering she had turned from the window to watch the last ones pass Mildred and to get ready for the testimonials that would be next, but when Sarah released her "Jesus," Rosacoke looked out to Wesley again to see what he would do about that, saying to herself, "That is one something he has got to notice." So she saw it from the beginning -- his leap -- seeing the deer in him as he started and with him still smiling, something even stronger when he reared on his black boots with the calf of his leg thrusting backwards through his trousers to turn loose the noise. She could see that and not think once what he had done or wonder would he come back. She could even turn and watch Mary and Estelle being led to take their last look and breaking down and taking everybody in the church with them into tears except Rosacoke who had as much fight as anybody, knowing Mildred so long. But she didn't cry because suddenly the sound of Wesley's cycle stopped -- he had taken it up the road a quarter of a mile beyond the church and now surely he would be circling round and coming back to wait. And sure enough he began again and bore down on the church like an arrow for their hearts till every face turned to Rosacoke, wondering couldn't she stop his fuss, but she looked straight ahead, not seeing him when the noise got louder and loudest of all and fell away quick as it had come. That little staring boy three rows ahead slapped his leg and said out loud "Mama, he gone." Wesley had passed her by. He was headed for the concrete road, she guessed, and the twenty miles to Mason's Lake and the picnic and everybody there.
"Supposing he is gone for good," she said to herself. "Supposing I never lay eyes on him again," and that made her wonder what she would have left, what there would be that she could take out and hold or pass around and say, "This is what I got from knowing somebody named Wesley Beavers."
There were these many things -- a handful of paper in a drawer at home that was the letters and postal cards he had sent her. (He didn't write much and when he did, it was like getting a court order, so distant and confusing that you wondered for days what he meant by some sentence he meant nothing by and wound up wishing he hadn't written at all or wanting to call him up, long distance, wherever he was and say, "Wesley, I would like to read you this one sentence you wrote" and then read him his own words, "We went to Ocean View last Saturday and met some folks at a eating stand, and they asked us why we didn't come on and go skinny-dipping by moonlight so we did and had a pretty good time and stayed there till Monday morning early," and afterwards ask him, "Wesley, will you tell me what sort of folks you would meet at a hotdog stand, and what is skinny-dipping please?" But how could you just pick up the phone and pay good money to say that when all he would answer was, "What are you worried about?") Besides the letters there was one picture of him -- a grinning one in uniform -- and a poem she wrote for a What I Am Seeking in an Ideal Mate Contest (but never sent in as it got out of hand) and a sailor cap he gave her at her request. (She could have bought it for a dollar at any Army-Navy store. She wore it once when he came home, hoping he would take a few photos of her but of course he didn't, and finally she gave him the only likeness he had of her, all but forced it on him as a birthday present -- Rosacoke Mustian from the neck up, tinted, and looking less like herself than anybody you could imagine.)
That much, then, but wasn't that much left of everybody she ever knew who was gone for good? -- the rusty snuff cans that kept turning up around the yard as signs of her Papa, and even the collars of every clog she ever had, and a 1937 New Jersey license plate that hung on the back porch to this day -- the one thing she knew that was left of her own blood father who found it the evening she was born, lost on the highway, and brought it home drunk as a monkey and nailed it up over the waterbucket and said, "Will everybody please recall this is the year my daughter was born" -- that one thing and nothing else, not a picture, not a thread, no more than if he had been swept away by the Holy Ghost, bag and baggage, in a pillar of fire instead of drunk and taken at dusk by a pickup truck he never saw but walked straight into as if it was a place to rest.
So would there be more than that of Wesley? -- anything besides that first November day and a lot of Saturday nights and this last afternoon with him vanishing in a roar and dust? It came to her -- what he had said the night before when he was quiet and she asked him if, when he was in the Navy, he looked much at her picture. "Sometimes," he said. "Why?" she said and he said, "Because I would forget what you looked like" and then laughed. Thinking about it though, she reckoned he meant it, laugh and all. He had known her seven years nearly, and when he went that far from home, sometimes he forgot her face. But what was so bad about that? Rosacoke herself when she went to 4-H camp in the summers (and that was for only eight days) would lie on her cot at night, thinking, and suddenly one of them -- Mama or Rato or Milo or Papa -- would be walking around in her thoughts with no more face than a cheese has got. She would strain to recollect the features and even try to draw out a face in the air with her finger, but sometimes it wouldn't come till she got back home and looked. Funny how when you could remember every mole on President Roosevelt's face and see Andy Gump clear as if he had ever breathed, still you couldn't call up a face you had spent your whole life with. But it never was Wesley she forgot even when he was no more to her than the farthest Arab on burning sands.
There would be the way he looked. And wouldn't that be with her always? -- whoever she would meet, wherever she would go even in her sleep -- the sight of his face up a tree amongst pecans or down from the tree six years and turned to what he was this afternoon but holding in him all the time that younger Wesley, unchanged and hard at the core, untouched and maybe untouchable but enough like an unlabeled seed, dry and rattling in her hand, to keep her wondering from now on if he might not have gone on growing -- that first Wesley -- and learned a way to look at people that didn't make them feel ten thousand miles away and to think about something but the U.S. Navy and motorcycles and to talk to people when they talked to him and say whatever he meant and stand still -- supposing he had learned all that before it was too late, wouldn't he have made a lovely sight, and then if someday he had ever had to go, couldn't he have left something suitable behind him such as a child that would bear his funny name but have his face and be half hers and answer when she called?
It was the one thing left of Mildred (once they lidded that box again) -- her child that had lived God only knew how, dark and hard in the orange crate they lined with white and laid him in, his back curved inwards and his spidery arms and legs twisting inwards to his navel as if something was winding him up with a key or as if he didn't know he was already born and had killed his mother and that there was nothing to call him but Doctor Sledge as no father came forward to tell what his real name was -- hard dry little fellow with nothing to go on but half his mother's blood and maybe her looks and the way she used to talk held inside him in case he lived, waiting.
The preacher was waiting too now they had got Mary and Estelle away from Mildred and set them down again. He had intended to have the testifying next, but he could see Rosacoke was studying something besides the funeral so he went ahead and gave his remarks that were supposed to be the last thing before they shut the box -- about all of us being raised from the grave including Mildred, but not a word about that live baby no more than if Mildred had died of sore throat. He watched Rosacoke the whole time to see when she would look round and be ready, but she looked on out the window through every word, even the prayer, and when he came to the end of all he could do, he had to say quietly to the back row, "Miss Rosacoke, we all know Mildred thought a heap of you, and it seem like you thought a heap of her" -- a lot of people said "Amen" -- "and I wonder is there any testifying you could do for her now?" His voice carried and Rosacoke looked round slow and blank as if he had called her from the edge of sleep. To help her out he went on, "If you can find anything in your heart to say, we would be mighty glad." Everybody was watching her. She nodded her head. She had meant to think out in advance what was best to say, but nothing about this afternoon had gone as she intended. She bit at her upper lip because of the heat and stood up and said, "I hadn't seen much of Mildred lately, but we always observed each other's birthday, her and me, and the other evening I thought to myself, 'It is nearly Mildred's twenty-first birthday' so I walked down to her place after supper, and nobody was there except the turkey. I didn't know till the next afternoon they had carried her away. There I was just wanting to give her a pair of stockings and wish her a long and happy life and she was already gone."
That was what she could find in her heart. She wondered if there ought not to be more, but if there was, it was covered now by other things. She sat down and before anybody could thank her, she thought what seemed to be the truth right then -- "Everybody I know is gone." In the stifling air she went as cold all over as a pane of glass and took up her pocketbook and pressed her hat safe on her head and walked straight out of church -- not from grief, not shedding a tear -- but stopping the funeral dead while everybody watched her out of sight and Mrs. Ransom said "She is overcome" and punched Sammy her son at the end of her row and told him, "Sammy, go see what ails that child."
Sammy went and there was Rosacoke on the middle step, hanging onto her hat as if a storm was due, the sun laying her shadow backwards to the door and her just staring down the road. Not wanting to scare her by speaking, Sammy struck a match on his shoe and lit a cigarette. She looked around -- just her dry eyes -- and said, "Sammy, aren't you burning up in all that wool?" (He was in dark blue -- the one man she had seen all day dressed like he knew what a funeral was.)
"If you needing to go somewhere, Miss Rosacoke, Sammy can take you." He said it as gentle as if it was the hospital she might need.
She hesitated as if she was thinking of a map and was on the verge of saying something distant such as -- "Buffalo." "I don't reckon so, Sammy. I may have to go home and I can walk that."
"In this heat?"
"I have played baseball in worse than this and so have you," she said. Then thinking what she had done by walking out on the testifying, she said, "I don't intend to ruin Mildred's funeral any further by taking you away. Go on back in and tell Mary I'm sorry I can't stay, but I got to locate Wesley."
"No telling where he, Miss Rosacoke, with that machine between his legs."
"No. But I'll be saying goodbye to you, Sammy."
"Yes'm." And she walked into the yard and towards the road in her high heels that were not meant for standing in, much less walking. Sammy finished his cigarette and saw her vanish at the first turn. He was the age of her oldest brother Milo, and this was the first day he had ever called her Miss Rosacoke -- nothing else to call her, the way she looked, though they played many games of baseball together before Mr. Isaac hired him -- her and Milo and Rato (and Mildred and Mildred's sister Baby Lou at shortstop). He had driven the truck today and carried a fourth of the box, and it was generally guessed he was the one might tell the world what the rightful name of Mildred's baby was so he went back to where they had given up waiting. Bessie Williams was singing "Come Thee Disconsolate" which by now Rosacoke couldn't hear.
She walked in the middle of the road, looking down. Wherever the dust was thick there would be the track of Wesley's cycle printed like a message to her. Seeing that, she would speed up a little and sad as she felt, smile and think, "What do I think I am -- an Indian nosing out a deer?" But she would come to long stretches where the dust had blown away, and there would be nothing but the baked red ground that took no more sign of Wesley than if he had flown every now and then. The smile would fade and she would walk even faster to get to the next deep dust till her legs, from the knee clown nearly, were streaked with the red and her shoes were fit for nothing but burning. She could see that but she said right out to the trees around her, "I will see him if I have to walk to Norfolk." That thought dogged through her chest and mouth till she gasped for every breath she got, and everything else was choked -- Mildred, the heat, her shoes -- leaving nothing but Wesley hanging up in her, not speaking a word, and her at the worst she had ever been. She couldn't cry. She couldn't speak. But she thought, "I have spent six years thinking of Wesley Beavers day and night, giving him things he didn't want, writing him letters he barely answered, and now I am trailing him like a dog and him at Mason's Lake, I know, cooling off. I will stop walking when I get home and rest in the swing, and I hope he sells motorcycles till he drops."
She was coming to Mr. Isaac's woods where the deer had been so long ago for her and Mildred, and Wesley's tracks that hadn't showed for awhile showed again -- not straight but twisting over the road from ditch to ditch. She said, "If that is his idea of fun, I'm glad I'm walking," and she looked up at the woods and decided to step in and take their shade till she was cool again.
Between the road and the woods was a narrow gully from the last rain. She took off her shoes and held her hat and jumped it and landed right away in deep moss that was cool with damp from God-knew-where. She took a look in both empty directions and decided to go on barefooted so she struck inwards a little from the road, and when it was nearly out of sight, she turned and walked on parallel to the narrow dust she could see through the trees. She was still in hollering distance if anybody was to pass that needed hollering at. Working indoors all summer the way she had, her feet were tender, and she yielded to them with pouts and little hunches of her shoulders when a stick cracked under her or a rock pressed up from the ground, and the sight of an old blacksnake stopped her dead till he raised up as if to speak and she beat him to it -- "Well, old brother, which way are you headed?" and he went looping off slow over a log and on deeper in the trees. That kept her looking at the ground from then on, but once when she stopped to breathe, there was a red cardinal staring at her from the same bent tree she and Mildred had called a horse and ridden a thousand miles. She couldn't think how a cardinal sang, but any bird will answer you once, however you sound, so she whistled three notes, and he answered just to show her the right way. She told him "Thank you" and tried it his way, but he had given all he meant to give and sat there and swelled up. "What are you looking so biggity about?" she asked him. "You look like every cardinal I ever saw." He headed on too for the heart of the woods -- north -- and if he wanted, he could make Virginia by dark. She called after him, "You better stay in North Carolina, boy. You are the official bird here." Then she wondered, "Why don't I follow him and see where he leaves me?" But what reason was there to take off barefooted after a bird? -- unless he was aiming for the spring. The spring would be reason enough. She looked back to the road but the dust lay still. Nobody was going anywhere or coming back so she struck deeper for the spring with that bird singing before her as if his heart would burst.
The only path to the spring was two tracks the width apart of Mr. Isaac's truck wheels, left from the days when nobody but he and a few wild children knew it was there. She followed on, picking her way through glossy poison oak, and when she came to the spring (the bird wasn't there, he was halfway to Virginia), it was only a wet circle in the leaves, choked with whatever had fallen from the trees since Mr. Isaac's last stroke. (It had been his private spring that he kept clean long as he could, not for drinking purposes but to cool his feet.) Rosacoke laid down her shoes and hat and bent over and put her hands in where the leaves were wettest -- slowly, hoping there wasn't a lizard around -- and lifted them out till there was a basin of brown water the size of the evening sun and cold as winter ever got. Looking in it, trying to see her face, she thought of the evening they found this spring -- her and her brothers and maybe five Negroes. They had chased all the way from home, hollering some game back and forth till Milo who was leading stopped and raised up his hand like an Indian brave. They halted in a ragged line behind him, and before they could speak, they saw what he had seen -- Mr. Isaac there through the darkening leaves, his trousers rolled high and pure cold water ringing round his little bird ankles and him not noticing the children at all or where the sun had got to but staring ahead, thinking. He looked up once in their direction -- maybe he couldn't see -- but he never spoke a word, not to say "Go on" or "Gome here," and directly they all whirled round and started home, circling him wide, leaving him to whatever it was made him look like that. Afterwards, some scorching days they would come and look at the spring and think how cool it was, but seeing Mr. Isaac that once was all they needed. Not a one of them would have waded in if they had been blazing bright from the waist down. Rosacoke had drunk from it though on the day they saw the deer (she had remembered the deer), checking first to see had Mr. Isaac waded lately, then bending over and touching the water with nothing but her lips. She had told Mildred, "Come on. He ain't been here today and it's run clean," but Mildred said, "I don't care if he ain't been here in a month. I can wait. That ain't mouth water no more."
It would be mouth water now -- rising up clean for nobody but Rosacoke. Everybody else had forgotten or was long past needing cool feet and drinks of water. She took her seat in the shade on ground that sun hadn't touched since the trees were bare, and she thought of washing her dusty feet. The broiling day was above her, but her feet were deep in moss, and damp was creeping through her dress. "Let the spring run clean," she thought. "I am cool enough the way I am. It will take time but time is the one thing left of this day, and when it is clean I can drink. Maybe some water is all I need."
And maybe while the spring ran dean, she could find the broomstraw field. Surely the deer was there and even if she failed to see him, wouldn't he still see her? -- peeping through the cluttered woods with his black eyes, watching every step she took, twitching his tail in fright, and not remembering that other summer day, not connecting this changed tall girl with the other one he had seen, not wondering where the black girl was, not caring, not needing -- only water, grass, the moss to lie in and the strength of his four legs to save his life. But wasn't it far to walk? Hadn't it taken them an hour to get there, and even if the deer was to kneel and eat from her hand, who would there be to cry "Great God A-mighty" the way Mildred had? -- to show it was the one wonderful thing she ever saw, the one surprise. Her baby was no surprise. Rosacoke had met her in the frozen road last February when they were both working and hadn't met for some time. They agreed on how cold it was and wouldn't they be glad to see summer. That seemed all they had to say till Mildred moved to go, and her old black coat swung open -- there was her chest flat under a shrunk-up pink sweater that hugged tight to the hard new belly stuck in her skirt like a coconut shell. Rosacoke asked her, "Mildred, what in the world is that?"
"Nothing but a baby," she said and smiled and shut her coat.
"Well, several have asked me not to say."
"Is it somebody from around here?"
"Bound to be."
"And you haven't tried to throw it?"
"What I want to throw him for, Rosacoke?"
"Won't nobody marry you?"
"Some of them say they studying about it. Ain't no hurry. Just so he come with a name."
"Why on earth did you do it, Mildred?"
"I don't hardly know."
"Well, are you glad?"
"Don't look like glad got nothing to do with it. He coming whether I glad or not" -- and said goodbye and walked away home. Rosacoke had stood in the road, shivering, to watch her out of sight. She went with her thin wrists held to her sides, not swinging, and her fine hands clenched, and when she was gone round the first bend (not looking back once), she was gone for good. Rosacoke never saw her again -- not alive, not her face. Mama had said, "I don't want you going to Mildred's another time till they get a Daddy for that baby. The way she's been messing around, they're going to have trouble finding one, and there's liable to be some cutting before they do." Rosacoke had stayed away, not because of what Mama said but because that one cold afternoon was the end of whatever Mildred she had known before. Now Mildred knew things Rosacoke didn't know, things she had learned just lying still in the dark, taking her child from somebody she couldn't see, and what could you say to that new Mildred, her load growing in her every second without a name, sucking blind at her life till his time came and he tore out and killed her and left himself with nothing on earth but a black mouth to feed and the hot air to howl in?
"And here I have walked out on her burying because of Wesley Beavers and his popping machine," she said and stood up at the sound of his name. It was her first thought of Wesley since seeing that bird and it startled her. She said it again -- just the name -- to test herself. But the name came easy now, not with so much rising in her chest. This was the way she worked -- let Wesley pull one of his tricks or go back to Norfolk from a leave and she would nearly die with grief or anger till she could think of something big enough to take her mind off how he looked, not smiling, not answering when she called. Not everything was big enough, only things that had no connection with Wesley such as people telling sad stories or going to walk where Wesley had never been. Sometimes nothing big enough would come, and then there was nothing to do but hope each night the next day would be better, and usually it would (though she had to keep her eyes off pecan trees and not hear rain frogs beyond the creek at night or harmonica music). She would go on that way and finally be all right and free and bothered by nothing but, sometimes, the thought, "How can I say I love somebody who can leave and not worry me no more than this?" -- till he came home again, bringing his face like a chain to loop around her neck.
Now with Mildred on her mind, she was free, and from sitting awhile she was cooler. She looked into the spring. It was working but it wouldn't be clear before night. "I will just rinse off my feet," she thought, "and go home and stir up some Kool-Ade and set in the swing and think of what to do for that baby to make up for how I acted today."
She pulled her dress high above her knees and sat again by the edge of the spring and not being able to see the bottom, stuck in her red feet slowly, saying, "If there's water moccasins down there, they are welcome to these feet." But her feet sank into cold mud, and brown clouds wreathed the shank of each white leg. She pulled her dress even higher and showed -- to herself, to any passing bird -- the tender blue inside her thighs that had barely seen the light all summer. Seemed a pity -- even to her -- having that firmness and keeping it hid (unless she went to Ocean View and showed it to every sailor on the sand). "Well, you're saving it, honey, till the right time comes," she said, breaking the silence above her where the birds had quieted -- she wondered when, not noticing them so long. Then she saw the mess she was making of the spring and thought, "I'd be ashamed if I didn't know it would purify a thousand times before anybody needs it again."
But she was wrong. A dim rustling broke the quiet between her and the road, and gradually it turned to somebody's footsteps bearing down on the cracking sticks towards her. "Everybody I know is picnicking or burying," she thought, "and no stranger is catching me like this." She grabbed up her shoes and ran twenty yards to hide behind a cedar. The steps came on and she peeped out. Whoever it was hadn't appeared but there lay her hat by the spring big as a road sign and no hope of getting it now because it was a man that was coming -- his shape moved on through the leaves but not his face, not yet.
It was Wesley who broke into sight, stroking through the branches like a swimmer with his head held down and his ankle boots turning in the soft ground till he was beside the spring and shaking his head to see how muddy it was. Rosacoke strained to see on him some sign of where he had been and why he was here, but all she could tell was that, wherever he had gone, he had combed his hair -- a fresh part marched across his head like a chalk line -- and that he was almost standing on her hat, and what would he do when he saw it? But he looked down for a long time, working his tongue in his mouth as if the next thing to do was spit in the spring and complete the mess, and Rosacoke's hat might as well have been air.
When he moved it was a step backward to leave, and Rosacoke hoped he would step on her hat -- then she could speak -- but he missed the hat and turned to the road. She took the last chance and stepped out and said, "Wesley, what do you know about this spring?"
He reached with both hands for his black belt as if guns were hanging there for such emergencies and hitched up his trousers -- "I know somebody has stirred Hell out of it."
"That was me," she said. "I was just rinsing off my feet when I heard you coming -- except I didn't know it was you. I figured you was picnicking by now."
He smiled and took another look at the spring and frowned. She walked towards him, holding her shoes. "I don't stir it up every day, Wesley. I don't strike out home in the dust every day either." She bent down for her hat -- he never moved his foot an inch. "I was watching you from behind that cedar, wondering when you would notice my hat."
"I didn't know it was yours," he said.
"Good thing it wasn't a rabbit trap or you'd have lost a leg." She set it on her tangled hair. "I'll have my name painted on it real big so you won't fail to know me next time." Then she dried her feet with the palm of her hand and put on her shoes.
"You ready for this picnic?" he said.
She looked to see where the sun had got to. It was well past three o'clock. "I had given up on the picnic, Wesley. Anyhow, by the time we got there everybody would be gone."
"Suits me," he said. "There'll just be that much more water to swim in. But Milo will be there, you know, and your Mama said she would save me some chicken."
"Well, I can't go looking like the Tarbaby. You will have to stop at home and let me change my clothes."
"No need," he said. "Everybody will look like Tarbabies by the time we get there," and he took her hand and started for the road. They were nearly at the cycle, and Rosacoke had stood it long as she could -- "You haven't said a word about where you tore off to or what I was doing at the spring."
"I went home to get something I forgot, and you said you was cooling off."
"I don't normally walk a mile on a July day to soak my feet."
"If you will hush up, we can ride twenty miles, and you can soak everything you've got."
"I have soaked sufficient, thank you. I have also changed clothes three times today -- going on four -- and I wouldn't peel off again to bathe in the River Jordan."
"Well, it's nothing but Mason's Lake we're going to, and you can sit on the bank and watch me execute a few Navy dives."
He was already on the cycle and waiting for her, but there was one more thing to ask. "Wesley, how did you know about Mr. Isaac's spring?"
"Somebody showed it to me a long time ago."
"One of my old girl friends." He laughed as if it wasn't so but it was -- and laughed on in Rosacoke's head above the roar while she climbed on and laughed still when she laid against his back like sleep, wondering only who that old girl was till they were halfway to the lake and she changed to remembering Mildred. "They are burying Mildred Sutton now. If I had not forgot, I would be there where my duty lies -- not here anyhow, hanging onto somebody I don't know, streaking off towards a good time, straddling all the horsepower Wesley Beavers owns."
Milo sighted them first of anybody from where he stood at the top of the tin sliding board, slicking back his hair and detaining behind him a whole line of children while he decided whether he would try it headfirst (and risk rupturing a thing or two) or just his normal way. From the top he could see where the highway bent by the lake, and when Wesley and Rosacoke made the turn and were near enough to notice him, his problem was solved -- he flipped belly-down on the wet slide and hollered "Here come Rosa" and waved with one hand and held his nose with the other and shot head to toe out of sight in the muddy lake. A cannon sound rose up behind him. (He was twenty-four years old, and Sissie his wife was as pregnant as women ever got.)
Wesley had seen Milo and stopped by the water. He laughed again with his goggles turned to the spot where Milo sank and said, "I bet there ain't a scrap of skin left on either side of Milo," but behind the goggles he was skimming the whole lake to see who was floating, even while he helped Rosacoke down. She was looking too. They were looking for the same floater, and Willie Duke Aycock was nowhere in sight.
Milo surfaced and stood up in the shallow end near them, every hair on him (the color of broom-straw) curling downward to the lake like streams. He grabbed his groin and moaned, laughing, "Good thing Sissie is already served. I'm finished." Then he rearranged everything inside his trunks and said, "Wesley. son, I don't advise you to try no belly-sliding, else you might deprive Rosa of a lovely future."
Rosacoke said "Milo behave!" But she smiled and Baby Sister came out to meet them, trailing a string of little wet girls -- mostly Guptons.
"You just missed the baptizing," Baby Sister said. "I have baptized every one of these children today -- some of them more than once."
"I'm glad you got them before they passed on," Wesley said, walking already towards the bathhouse, taking off his shirt as he went. "They look like cholera chickens right now." The Guptons just eyed him, not understanding -- yellow and nosy and slick as peeled squirrels with hard round stomachs poking through their bathing suits and tan hair roping round their eyes raw and wide from so much dipping.
"You two don't look so good yourselves," Baby Sister said and huffed off towards what was left of the Pepsi-Colas, leaving the Guptons hanging in blistering sun.
Rosacoke called after her "Where is Mama?"
"Nursing Sissie over yonder in the shade."
The shade was behind the bathhouse under a close knot of pines that was all Mr. Mason had left, bulldozing his lake, and the remainder of Delight Church's picnic was mostly spread out there -- on Rosacoke's right nearest the water, Mr. Isaac Alston in the black leather chair he went everywhere in (that he had barely left since his last stroke), staring at the swimmers and waiting for Sammy to come back with the truck. His collar was undone and there was that line drawn straight through the middle of him -- one side moving and one side still -- and beyond him was Rosacoke's Mama on a wool blanket, fanning Milo's Sissie who was leaning back, white as fat meat, on a pine with her eyes shut and her hands folded on her belly, not expecting to live, and a little way out of the trees in a pack of their own, a number of Guptons in chalk blue, all exactly alike, set up in the sand straight from the waist as hinges, shoving gnats off their bony legs and lean as if they had never eaten all they could hold (though they had just eaten half a picnic).
Rosacoke was not swimming and Mama had already seen her so she knew there was nothing to do but head for the shade and on her way, speak greetings to Mr. Isaac. That was her duty, as he had been good to them. But bad as she felt, she couldn't face telling him who she was -- whose daughter (he never knew lately until you explained and then seldom showed any thanks for your effort). She lowered her head not to see him and bore to the left and circled towards Mama, dusty as she was and blown (with the feel of wind from the ride still working in the roots of her hair), but Mama called to her from ten yards away, "How was the funeral?" so she detoured a little to speak to Marise Gupton who was Willie Duke Aycock's sister and had been in grammar school with her but looked a hundred years older from giving Macey Gupton the children Baby Sister had dipped. When she got to Marise, Marise looked up with no more pleasure or recognition than Mr. Isaac would have showed and let her begin the talking. All she could think to say was, "Marise, have you been swimming yet?"
"I ain't swam once since my first baby," she said, and her fourth baby who was her first boy and three months old, named Frederick, cried from a wad of blankets on the ground behind her. (Macey her husband was sleeping beside him. He was Milo's age and he couldn't swim.) Marise frowned up to Rosacoke at the noise, but she reached back and took him and laid him on one shoulder. He was hid in a heavy knit suit and a cap that covered his ears (all blue to match his family), and crying so hard, he looked like a fired cook-stove.
Rosacoke said, "Don't you reckon he's frying, Marise?"
Marise said "No" and that seemed the end of what they could say as Marise was opening her dress with her left hand. Before she was open completely, Frederick rolled down his head and his jaws commenced working. His wet mouth was seeking her breast through blue cotton cloth. "Just wait," she said, a little harsh -- to him, not Rosacoke. But Rosacoke waited too, not speaking, and Frederick found what he needed. Marise didn't talk either but watched her baby -- number four -- pulling hard at her life. In a little, still sucking with his eyes shut tight, he halfway smiled, and Marise gave him a quick little smile in return -- her first of the day. Rosacoke might just as well have been in Egypt (and very nearly felt she was) so she looked on ahead and went towards Mama.
Mama said, "How come you didn't speak to Mr. Isaac?" and before she could answer, "You look like you rode in on a circular saw" and kept on fanning Sissie.
Rosacoke said, "If that's what you call a motorcycle, I did."
Sissie barely opened her eyes and said, "I wish somebody had took me motorcycle riding on a rocky road five months ago, and I wouldn't be this sick today."
"What's wrong with Sissie?"
"Not a thing," Mama said, "except she had already eat her Brunswick stew when Milo announced about old Mr. Gupton losing his teeth. But there was no way on earth to have told her any sooner. Mr. Gupton was the last man to stir the stew before they served it up, and he had been carrying his teeth in his shirt pocket to rest his gums. Well, everybody had commenced eating their portion except Mr. Gupton, and Milo noticed him frowning hard and feeling his pockets and looking on the ground all round the pot so Milo went over and asked him was anything wrong, and he said, 'I have mislaid my teeth.' Mislaid! There he had been leaning over twenty gallons of delicious stew for a solid hour, and where were his teeth bound to be? Well, not in the stew it turned out, but nobody knew that till some time later when one of the children found them, unbroken, over by the woodpile where he had dropped them, picking up wood. But as I say, Sissie had eat hers and collapsed at the false news long before the teeth appeared, and here she's laid ever since, me fanning her like a fool." Then Mama thought again of what she had waited all afternoon to hear -- "How was the funeral?"
"Mama, it wasn't a picture show."
"I know that. I just thought somebody might have shouted."
"Maybe they did. I didn't stay to the end."
"Why not?" But Mama broke off -- "Look at Wesley."
Wesley had run from the bathhouse and taken the high-dive steps three at a time and up-ended down through the air like a mistake at first, rowing with his legs and calling "Milo" as he went (for Milo to laugh), but then his legs rose back in a pause and his arms cut down before him till he was a bare white tree (the air was that clear) long enough for Rosacoke to draw one breath while he went under slow -- not a sound, not a drop and what began as a joke for Milo's sake didn't end as a joke.
"He can dive all right," Mama said. "Reckon he has touched bottom by now," and at that Wesley shot up, holding a handful of bottom overhead as proof, the black mud streaming down his arm.
"If he's been on the bottom, he's eat-up with leeches," Sissie said. "I told Milo if he got a leech on him, he wasn't coming near me."
"Wesley is too speedy for any leech to take hold of," Mama said.
Rosacoke said "Amen" to that.
"I can't speak for the leeches," Sissie said, "but Willie Duke Aycock has took hold already." (Willie Duke had had her eyes on Wesley since the seventh grade when she grew up overnight several months before anybody else, and there she was paddling out to him and Milo now, moving into the deepest part with no more swimming ability than a window weight, so low in the water nobody could tell if she had on a stitch of clothes and churning hard to stay on top.)
"She can't keep it up long," Rosacoke said.
"Honey, she's got God's own water wings inside her brassiere," Sissie said. (And Sissie was right. Willie Duke had won a Dairy Queen Contest the summer before, and the public remarks on her victory were embarrassing to all.)
"Well, I don't notice Milo swimming away from her," Rosacoke said, at which Milo and Wesley grabbed Willie Duke and sank without a trace.
People in the lake began circling the spot where the three went down, and Rosacoke stood up where she was, shading her eyes in hopes of a sign. Mama said, "They have been under long enough," and Baby Sister was running for the lifeguard when they appeared at the shallow end, carrying Willie Duke like a sack of meal to dry land and laying her down. Then they charged back and swam the whole lake twice, length and breadth -- Milo thrashing like a hay baler -- before they raced up to the shade and shook water on everybody's clothes and lit the two cigars Milo had in Sissie's bag.
There was a leech, yellow and slick, sucked to Wesley's leg. Nobody saw it till Sissie yelled. It was the last blow of the day for Sissie. She just folded up like a flower and lay back, swallowing loud. Mama stopped her fanning to look, and Milo of course made the first comment -- "That leech is having him a picnic now" -- and Wesley showed he wasn't too happy by stamping his foot. But Rosacoke sat up on her knees, and the leech, being almost on Wesley's hip, was level with her eyes, about the size of her little finger, holding on with both its ends and pulling hard at Wesley's life. She touched the end that was the mouth and it crouched deeper inward.
Mama said, "Don't pull it off, Rosa, or Wesley will bleed to death."
And Milo said, "If we just leave him alone, he can get enough to last till the next church outing, and Wesley will never miss it."
Wesley said, "Milo, if you are so interested in feeding animals, I'll turn him over to you just as soon as I get him off," and he took the cigar and tried to bum the leech's head, but his hand shook and he burnt his leg. "Rosa, you do it," he said and handed the cigar to her. She blew off the ashes and touched the mouth. It flapped loose and dangled a second before the tail let go, and when it hit the sand, it hunched off, not waiting, in three measuring steps towards the water before Mama got it with her shoe and buried it deep till there was no sign left but Wesley's blood still streaming. Rosacoke gave him a handkerchief to hold on the bite, and he wore it round his leg like a garter.
Then everybody could calm back down, talking a little about nothing till the talking died and Baby Sister wandered back and said she was tired and flopped in the sand and sang the Doxology (her favorite song), and when they felt the low late sun pressing so heavy through the pines, sleep seemed the next natural thing. Milo and Wesley stretched out in their bathing suits -- hair and all laid right in the sand -- and Rosacoke propped against the other side of Sissie's tree, and they slept off and on (except Mama who could never bat an eye till the sun went down) until Macey Gupton yelled his three girls in, and the yell woke up Baby Sister who was hungry and said so (who was also twelve years old, with every crumb she ate turning to arms and legs). Mama tried to hush her but she woke up Wesley who was hungry too and who shook Milo's foot and said, "Milo, why don't you ask that question you was talking about in the lake?"
Milo came to and asked it. "Mama, what have you got in the way of something to eat?"
"Enough for us six," she said, "and we'll eat it when the five thousand leave." (She meant the Guptons. She couldn't fill them up.)
But it was already past five. The lake had emptied of everything but one old man (not on the picnic) asleep in his inner tube, rocking with the water while it slowed down and woke him up, and the only clue to this being a pleasure lake was the high dive quivering and the temporary-looking slide, and up in the shade the picnic was drifting away. The signal for leaving was when Mr. Isaac's Sammy came back from the funeral with his blue suit still on and drove the truck right to Mr. Isaac's feet and buttoned his collar and lifted him in and loaded on the chair and nodded his head towards Rosacoke. She nodded back and Sammy drove off, and Milo said, "That is the nigger killed Mildred Sutton."
Rosacoke said, "You can't prove that."
Milo said, "No'm, and your friend Mildred couldn't neither. If you back up into a circular saw, you can't name what tooth cuts you first."
Rosacoke swallowed hard but she didn't answer that. Nobody did. They looked off towards the Guptons for relief. The Guptons were all lying down except Marise, but they swatted gnats to show they were not asleep. What they were really doing was lingering to find out the Mustians' plans -- every few minutes a head would rise up and peep around in case an invitation was on the way. That got Milo's goat and when Frederick cried again, Milo said loud enough for Marise to hear, "What that baby needs is a bust in the mouth!"
Wesley said, "That's what they all need."
Mama said "Hush!"
And Sissie said, "He's had it twice already since noon. Don't make her pull it out again."
So finally with nobody saying a word about free supper, the Guptons had to leave. Macey stood and said "Let's go eat" and waved silly to Milo and led off towards the truck. The others straggled on and when they were loaded in, Baby Sister said "O. K. Mama." Mama looked round. The Gupton truck hadn't moved but she guessed it was safe, and she pulled out the stew and chicken and a whole box of eggs (deviled before breakfast) that nobody but Milo would touch.
The Guptons still didn't move -- maybe their engine was flooded -- but the Mustians were deep in eating (even Sissie) when Mama looked up and said "Oh Lord." Willie Duke Aycock had appeared from the bathhouse door and was heading their way. (The Guptons of course were riding her home. Her family hadn't come.) She stopped at a little distance and spoke nice to Mama and called Rosacoke's name like an item in a sick list and asked if she could speak to Wesley a minute.
Milo said, "Go get her, son," and Wesley went out to meet her with a silly grin that Willie Duke matched as if it was their secret. And she stood right there facing the whole group and whispered to him with her tiny mouth. Her wet hair was plaited so tight it stretched her eyebrows up in surprise, and her high nose bone came beaking white through the red skin, and she had on the kind of doll-baby dress she would wear to a funeral (if it was hot enough) -- the short sleeves puffing high on her strong arms and the hem striking her just above the wrinkled knees.
Rosacoke didn't speak a word. She swallowed once or twice more and then set down her supper, not wanting another bite. All she had eaten hung in her stomach like a fist. Milo said "Sick her, Rosa!"
"Shut up," she said and he did.
When Willie Duke stopped whispering and went to the truck and Wesley came grinning back to take up his eating, Rosacoke couldn't look at him, but she frowned to silence Milo who was swelling with curiosity before her eyes. Wesley ate on, not alluding once to Willie Duke's brazen visit, and everybody else was looking at the ground, picking at little roots and straws. Finally Milo had to speak -- "How many more you got, Wesley?"
"More what?" Wesley said, knowing very well what.
"Women trailing you? I bet they're strung up the road from here to Norfolk right now, waiting for you to pass."
Sissie said, "Milo just wishes he had a few, Wesley," but Wesley didn't say "Yes" or "No." And Rosacoke didn't make a sound. The trouble with Wesley was, he never denied anything.
Milo said, "How do you know I ain't got a whole stable full?"
"Well, if you have, Sissie's got the key to the stable now, big boy," Sissie said and patted her belly that was the key.
Mama said they all ought to be struck dumb, talking that way around Baby Sister -- around anybody.
"We are just joking, Mama, and nobody asked you to tune in," Milo said.
"I'm not tuned in, thank you, sir. I was thinking about your brother and how he would have enjoyed this day." It was the first thought of Rato anybody had had for several weeks and they paused for it.
Milo said, "He's happy as a baby right where he is and getting all he can eat." (Rato had been in the Army four months, as a messenger boy. He had got tired of working for Milo -- taking his orders in the field -- so early in April he hitched down to Raleigh and found the place and said he had come to join. They asked him what branch did he want to be in and he said "Calvary." They said there hadn't been any cavalry for ten years and how about the Infantry? He asked if that was a walking-soldier, and they said "Yes" but if he didn't mind carrying messages, he could so he said "All right.")
"I wasn't worried about him eating," Mama said. "I was just regretting he missed the funeral -- off there in Oklahoma carrying messages on a Sunday hot as this. Rato knew Mildred good as you all did, and I reckon her funeral was big as any he will ever get the chance to see."
"Why didn't you go then and write him a description?" Rosacoke said, seeing only that Mama was hoping to hear about the funeral now, not seeing that Mama was thinking of Rato too.
"Because my duty was with my own."
"Deviling eggs for Milo to choke over? Is that what you call your own? And fanning the flies off Sissie Abbott's belly? And keeping Baby Sister out of deep water? I'm glad you are sure of what's yours and what ain't." That came out of Rosacoke in a high, breaking voice she seldom used -- that always scared her when it came. The skin of her face stretched back towards her ears and all the color left. And Milo winked at Wesley.
Mama said the natural thing. "I don't know what you are acting so grand about. You said yourself you didn't stay to the end."
"No, I did not and do you want to know why? Because Wesley wouldn't sit with me but stayed outside polishing his machine and in the midst of everything, cranked up and went for a ride. I thought he had left me for good and I ran out."
Milo said, "Rosa, you can't get upset everytime Wesley leaves for a minute. All us tomcats got to make our rounds."
Wesley smiled a little but Rosacoke said, "Milo, you have turned out to be one of the sorriest people I know."
"Thank you, ma'm. What about your friend Wesley here?"
"I don't know about my friend Wesley. I don't know what he is planning from one minute to the next. I don't even know my place in that line of women you say is strung from here to Norfolk."
Milo turned to Wesley -- Wesley was lying on his back looking at the tree -- "Wesley, what is Rosacoke's place in your string of ladies? As I am her oldest brother, I have the right to ask." Wesley lay on as if he hadn't heard. Then he rolled over suddenly, flinging sand from the back of his head, and looked hard at Rosacoke's chest, not smiling but as if there was a number on her somewhere that would tell her place in line. It took him awhile, looking at all of her except her eyes, and when he opened his mouth to speak, Rosacoke jumped up and ran for the lake in her bare feet.
Mama said, "What have you done to her, Wesley?"
"Not a thing, Mrs. Mustian. I ain't said a word. She's been acting funny all day."
"It's her battery," Milo said. "Her battery needs charging. You know how to charge up an old battery, don't you, Wesley?"
Mama ignored him and said, "That child has had a sadder day than any of you know."
"Sad over what?" Milo said.
Sissie said she hadn't noticed Mama pouring soothing oil on anybody, and Milo said, "No use being sad about that funeral. I knew Mildred just as long as Rosa, and she didn't get nothing but what she asked for, messing around. Nothing happens to people that they don't ask for."
Mama said, "Well, I am asking you to take me home -- that is the sorriest thing you have said all day, and the sun is going down. That child won't but twenty years old and she died suffering." She took the box of supper right out of Milo's lap and shut it and said, "Baby Sister, help me fold up this blanket." There was nothing for Sissie and Milo and Wesley to do but get off the blanket and think of heading home.
Rosacoke had taken her seat on a bench by the bathhouse with her back turned, and Wesley went down that way, not saying if he meant to speak to Rosa -- maybe just to change his clothes. When he had gone a little way, Mama called to him, "Wesley, are you going to ease that child?"
"Yes'm," he said. "I'll try."
"Will you bring her home then and not go scaring her with your machine?"
"Yes'm," he said. "I will." And Mama and them left without Milo even putting his trousers on -- Sissie carried them over her arm -- and whatever last words he wanted to yell at Wesley got stopped by the look in Mama's eye.
All Rosacoke was seeing from the bench was pine trees across the lake on a low hill and two mules eating through clover with short slow steps towards each other. Somewhere on top of the hurting, she thought up a rule. "Give two mules a hill to stand on and time to rest and like as not by dark they will end up side by side, maybe eight inches apart from head to tail, facing different ways." It wasn't always true but thinking it filled the time till Wesley came from the shade and stood behind her and put one thick hand over her eyes and thinking he had come like a panther, asked her who it was.
"You are Wesley," she said, "but that don't tell me why you act the way you do."
"Because I am Wesley," he said and sat beside her, still in his bathing suit.
The sun was behind the pines and the mules now, shining through their trunks and legs to lay the last red light fiat on the empty lake. The light would last another hour, but the heat was lifting already, and Rosacoke saw a breeze beginning in the tails of those two mules. "Here comes a breeze," she said and they both watched it. It worked across the lake -- too feeble to mark the water -- and played out by ruffling the hem of her dress and parting the curled hair of Wesley's legs. They were the only people left at the lake except Mr. Mason who owned it. He was on guard in the cool-drink stand as hard as if it was noon and the lake was thick with screaming people.
Wesley laid his hand above her knee. "Let's go swimming before it's night."
"What am I going to swim in? -- my skin? This dirty dress is all I've got."
"You could rent one over there at the drink stand."
"I wouldn't put on a public bathing suit if I never touched water again. Anyway, why are you so anxious about me swimming? I thought you got a bellyful of underwater sports with Willie Duke."
"No I didn't," he said and laughed.
"Didn't get a bellyful."
That made her thigh tighten under his hand, and she looked away to keep from answering. So Wesley stood up and waded out to where the water was deep enough to lie down and then swam backwards to the diving board with his head out just enough to keep his eyes on her. It was his finest stroke and she wasn't seeing a bit of it, but when he twisted round and rose and grabbed the ladder to the board -- she saw that, him rising up by the strength of his right hand, not using his feet at all and hitching his red trunks that the water pulled at. (Even the skin below his waist was brown.)
Then he dived one lovely dive after another -- not joking now for Milo's sake but serious and careful as if there was a prize to win at sunset -- and she watched him (not knowing if that was what he wanted, not being able to help herself). Once she narrowed her eyes to see only him, and once while he rested a minute, she focused on the hill beyond and those two mules that only had a short green space between them now. Then Wesley split down through the green with his red suit, blurred and silent and too quick to catch.
Before he surfaced, somebody spoke to Rosacoke. "Young lady, what kin is that boy to you?" It was Mr. Mason who owned the lake. He had shut up the cool-drink stand and was there by the bench with his felt hat on, hot as it was.
"No kin," Rosacoke said. "I just came with him. We are the left-overs of Delight Church picnic." She looked back to Wesley who was pretending not to notice Mr. Mason. "He has just got out of the Navy -- that boy -- and looks like he's trying to recall every dive he ever learned."
"Yes ma'm, it do," Mr. Mason said, "but I wish he won't doing it on my time. I mean, I'm a preacher and I got to go home, and the law says he can't be diving when I ain't watching. He can swim a heap better than me I know -- I ain't been under since I was baptized -- but you all's church has paid me to lifeguard every one of you, and long as he dives, I got to guard. And I didn't charge but nineteen cents a head for all you Delight folks."
Maybe Wesley was hearing every word -- he wasn't that far away -- but just then he strolled off the end of the board and cut a string of flips in the air as if to show Mr. Mason one somebody was getting his nineteen cents' worth. That time he stayed under extra long, and when he came up way over on the mule side, Rosacoke said, "Wesley, Mr. Mason has got to go home." Wesley pinched his nostrils and waved Mr. Mason goodbye.
That seemed to please Mr. Mason. He laughed and told Rosacoke, "Lady, I'm going to leave him alone and deputize you a lifeguard. He is your personal responsibility from now on." He took off his hat and took out his watch and said, "It is six-thirty and I am preaching in a hour. What must I preach on, lady?"
"Well, if you don't know by now," she said, "I'm glad I haven't got to listen." But she smiled a little.
And he wasn't offended -- "What I mean to say is, you give me your favorite text, and that's what I'll preach on."
Rosacoke said, "'Then Jesus asked him what is thy name and he said Legion.'"
"Yes ma'm," he said, "that is a humdinger" (which wasn't the same as committing himself to use it). Then he said he felt sure they had enjoyed their day and to come back any time it was hot and he left.
So Rosacoke and Wesley were there alone with nothing else breathing even but those two mules and what few birds were hidden on the hill that sang again in the cool and whatever it was that sent up those few bubbles from the deepest bottom of the lake. There was an acre or more of water between them (Wesley was still on the mule side, up to his waist), but they saw each other clear. They had had little separate seeings all day -- his sight of her at the church that threw his mind to all those Norfolk women and her seeing him out the window, rubbing his machine or stroking through bushes to the spring or vanishing under the lake with Willie Duke Aycock in his hands -- but this was the first time they had both looked, together. Wesley had his own reasons and she had hers and both of them wondered was there a reason to move on now past looking, to something else.
Wesley found a reason first. "Rosa," he called and the name spread fiat on the lake and came to her loud, "have you got anything I can drink?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I am thirsty."
"Well, you are standing in several thousand gallons of spring water."
He took that as a joke and lay down and swam straight towards her over the lake that had been brown in the sun but was green with the sun gone down -- the water fiat green and pieces of bright plant the swimmers stirred up ragged on the surface and Wesley's arms pale green when they cut the water and his whole body for a moment green when he walked up the narrow sand and stood by the bench and looked again. She smiled, not knowing why, and turned away. Her hair had darkened like the water, and turning, it fell across her shoulder in slow water curves down the skin of her white neck to the groove along her back that was damp. He saw that. She said, "The drink stand is closed." He nodded and walked off to the bathhouse, and she figured they were going home now so she walked back to the pine shade and got her shoes that Mama had brushed and left there and went down to the motorcycle and stood. Wesley came out with nothing on but his shirt over his red trunks and no sign of trousers anywhere.
"Who stole your trousers?" she said.
He didn't answer that. He just said "Come here" and waved her to him. There was nothing to do but go, and when she got there he took her hand and started off round the lake away from the motorcycle.
"Aren't we going home?" she said. "I mean, Mr. Mason has shut it up and all -- maybe we ought to go."
"Maybe I can find some drinking water up in them trees," he said.
"Wesley, there is plenty of drinking water at every service station between here and home. Why have we got to go tearing through some strange somebody's bushes? I have had a plenty of that already today."
"Hush up, Rosa," he said. She hushed and he held up the barbed wire, and she crawled under onto the hill with the mules. One yellow hair of hers caught in the wire, and Wesley took it and wrapped it round and round his finger.
"Is that mine?" she asked, stroking her head.
"It's mine now."
"Well, you can have it. The sun has bleached me out till I look like a hussy."
"What do you know about a hussy?"
"I know you don't have to go to Norfolk, Virginia to find one."
"What do you mean?"
"You know who I mean."
"If it's Willie Duke Aycock you mean -- she will be in Norfolk tomorrow along with them other hussies you mentioned."
That was like a glass of ice water thrown on her, but she held back and only said, "What is she going up there for?" -- thinking it was just a shopping trip to buy some of those clothes nobody but Willie Duke wore.
"She's got a job."
"What does she know about cuffing hair with that mess she's got?"
"I don't know but she's moving up, bag and baggage."
"What was she asking you about then?"
"She wanted to know would I ride her up."
Rosacoke took her hand out of his. "On that motorcycle?"
"Then she is crazier than I thought she was" -- they were climbing the hill all this time, looking ahead to where the trees began -- "Are you taking her?"
"I don't know yet."
"When will you know?"
"By the time I'm home tonight." He took her hand again to show that was all he was saying about Willie Duke and to lead her into the trees.
They walked through briars and switches of trees and poison oak (and Wesley bare to every danger from the hip down) with their eyes to the ground as if a deep well of water might open at their feet any minute. But when the trees were thick enough to make it dark and when, looking back, she couldn't see the mules, Rosacoke said, "Wesley, you and me both are going to catch poison oak which Milo would never stop laughing at, and you aren't going to find any water before night."
"Maybe it ain't water I'm looking for," he said.
"I don't notice any gold dust lying around -- what are you hunting?"
There was an oak tree on Wesley's right that was bare around the roots. He took her there and sat in a little low grass. She clung to his hand but stayed on her feet and said, "Night will come and catch us here, and we will get scratched to pieces stumbling out." But the light that filtered through the trees fell on Wesley's face, and when she studied him again -- him looking up at her serious as if he was George Washington and had never smiled -- and when he pulled once more on her hand, she sat down with him. A piece of her white dress settled over his brown legs and covered the pouting little mouth where the leech had been, and she asked him something she had wondered all afternoon -- "How come you are so brown even under the belt of your bathing suit?"
He folded his suit back to the danger point and said "From skinny-dipping."
"You never told me what that is."
"It's swimming naked."
"Anywhere you can find a private beach and somebody to swim with you."
"Who do you find?"
"People ain't hard to find."
"Women you mean?"
"Ain't you asked your share of questions?" he said and lifted her hair and hid under it long enough to kiss her neck.
She drew back a little, finally sick from all the afternoon, and said, "Wesley, I am sorry and I know it maybe isn't none of my business, but I have sat in Afton on my behind for the best part of three years making up questions I needed to hear you answer, and here you are answering me like I was a doll baby that didn't need nothing but a nipple in her mouth."
He didn't speak and when she turned to him, he was just looking at his feet that were almost gone in the dark. For awhile the only noise was a whippoorwill starting up for the night, but Rosacoke watched Wesley through that silence, thinking if he looked up, she would know all she needed, but he didn't look up and she said something she had practiced over and over for a time like this -- "There are some people that look you in the eyes every second they are with you like you were in a building with some windows dark and some windows lit, and they had to look in every window hard to find out where you were. Wesley, I have got more from hitchhikers than I have from you -- just old men with cardboard suitcases and cold tough wrists showing at the end of their sleeves, flagging down rides in the dust, shy like they didn't have the right to ask you for air to breathe, much less a ride, and I would pass them in a bus maybe, and they would look up and maybe it wasn't me they were looking at, but I'd think it was and I'd get more from them in three seconds than you have given me in three whole years."
He didn't even answer that. He hadn't seen that every question she asked was aimed for the one she couldn't ask, which was did he love her or didn't he, and if he did, what about those women Milo mentioned and he didn't deny, and if he didn't, why had he kept her going this many years and why was he riding her up and down on a brand-new motorcycle and why did he have her under this tree, maybe miles from drinking water and the night coming down?
He didn't answer but when she was quiet he commenced to show her why. For awhile he did what he generally did around her face and lips and her white neck. And she let him go till he took heart and moved to what was underneath, trying for what he had never tried before. Then with her hand she held him back and said, "Is that all you want out of me?"
"That's right much," he said. And if he had let her think a minute and look, he might have won, but he said one more thing. "If you are thinking about Mildred's trouble, you ain't got that to worry about. You'll be all right. That's why I left the funeral -- to go home and get what will make it all right for me and you."
"No, Wesley," she said. Then she said, "It is nearly dark" and stood up and asked him to take her home.
"Rosa," he said, "you know I am going to Norfolk again. You know that don't you?"
"I know that," she said. She took a step to leave.
"-- And that maybe I'm riding Willie Duke up there?"
"Wesley, you can ride Willie Duke to Africa and back if she's what you're looking for. Just make sure she don't have Mildred's trouble." So Wesley gave up and followed her out of the woods -- her leading because she had on shoes and could cut the path -- and when they got to the hill, it was almost night. All they could see was the mules outlined against the lake below, resting now and as close as Rosacoke guessed they would be. Wesley saw them and said "Congratulations, mules."
At the bathhouse Rosacoke kept going to the cycle, and Wesley turned in to put on his pants. But there were no lights in there, and Rosacoke could see up at the eaves the glow he made with a match or two before he stamped his foot and came towards the cycle with his pants and boots in his arms. She said, "Do you mean to ride home naked?"
"Hell no," he said, "but I ain't hopping around another minute in yonder where it's dark and snaky." He switched on the headlight and stood in its narrow beam and stepped out of that red suit into his trousers with nothing but a flapping shirt tail to hide him, and Rosacoke turned her face though he didn't ask her to.
Then not stopping once he took her home round twenty miles of deadly curves hard as he could, and she held him tight to save her life. When they were almost there she squeezed for him to slow down and said to stop on the road and not turn in as Mama might be in bed. He did that much -- stopped where she said by a sycamore tree and turned off the noise and raised his goggles and waited for her to do the talking or the moving. She got down and took what was hers in the saddlebags, and seeing the house was all dark but one door light the moths beat on, she asked him to shine his light to the door so she could see her way. He did that too and she walked down the beam a yard or so before she turned and tried to say what needed saying. "Wesley --"
"What?" he said -- but from behind the light where she couldn't see.
And what she couldn't see, she wasn't speaking to -- "Have a good trip."
"All right," he said and she walked on to the house and at the porch, stood under the light and waved with her hat to show she was safe. For a minute there was no noise but rain frogs singing out behind the creek. Then the cycle roared and the light turned back to the road and he was gone.
Rosacoke wondered would she ever sleep.
When he was gone three weeks and no word came, she sent this letter to him.
How are the motorcycles? Cool I hope. And how are you? Sleeping better than us I hope. All the ponds around here have dried up and nobody in the house but Baby Sister has shut an eye for three nights now. We are treating each other like razor blades. If there doesn't come a storm soon or a breeze, I will be compelled to take a bus to some cooler spot. Such as Canada. (Is that cool?) My bedroom of course is in the eaves of the house under that black tin roof that soaks up the sun all day and turns it loose at night like this was winter and it was doing me a favor. My bed feels like a steam pressing machine by the time I crawl in. Last night by 1 a.m. I was worn out from rolling around so I went downstairs and stretched out on the floor -- under the kitchen table so Milo wouldn't step on me in the dark, going for his drinks of water. The floor wasn't any cooling board but I had managed to snooze off for a good half hour when here comes Sissie tripping down in the pitch black to get her a dish of Jello (which is what she craves). I heard her coming (I reckon they heard her for miles) and knowing how scare), she is and not wanting her to have the baby fight there, I stood up to announce my presence but before I could say a word, she had the light on and her head in the ice box, spooning out Jello. Well what could I do then? I figured speaking would be the worst thing so I kept standing there by the stove, big as a road machine but trying to shrink, and Sissie was on her second dish before she turned around and saw me. That was it. She held onto the baby -- don't ask me how. Cherry Jello went everywhere. Mama was there in a flash and Milo with the gun, thinking there had been an attack. Sissie calmed down right easy -- for her -- but not before it was sunup and the chickens who had heard the noise were clucking around the back-porch in case anybody felt like feeding them. So what point was there in going to bed? None. Mama just cooked breakfast and we sat there and stared at each other like enemies. Before we had even washed dishes, the sun was hot enough to blister paint and I had to go to Warrenton and spend the day putting through telephone calls between people who talked about how hot it was. Guess what a lovely day I had. I would never have got through it if I hadn't plugged in by mistake to some Purvis man telling his fancy woman it was all off and her saying, "That's what you think!"
But the heat doesn't bother you, does it? I wonder why. Low blood, I guess. Have you ever had it tested? Being in the Navy, you must have.
I will stop now as Milo said he would walk with me to Mary Sutton's to take some clothes for Mildred's baby -- not much I'm afraid, with Sissie laying claim on everything here. The baby is living. I don't know why but maybe he does. The baby, I mean. All I have talked about is me and my foolishness but nobody here has done a thing except sweat since you left. I say left -- looks like you left three years ago and aren't coming back.
Goodnight Wesley. It has just now thundered in the west. Maybe it is going to rain.
Love to you from,
For that, in two weeks' time, he sent her a giant post card of a baby with a sailor hat on in a baby carriage, hugging a strip-naked celluloid doll and sucking on a rubber pacifier. The caption said, I Am A Sucker For Entertainment, and Wesley said,
Hello Rosa, I hope you have cooled off a little bit by now. From the heat I mean. Yes we are having it hot here too but it don't keep me from sleeping when I get in the bed. That doesn't happen regular as summer is the big season on motorcycles and when I am not closing a sale I am generally out at Ocean View where I have friends and can take me a relaxing dip. That is where I am writing you this card from. I would write you a letter but I am no author. I know Milo is having a hard time waiting out Sissie's baby. Tell him Wesley said Ocean View is the place for Tired Rabbits.
-- And it stopped there. He had crowded it exactly full of his big writing, and there was no room left to sign his name or say "Yours truly" or any other word that gives you away.
Rosacoke waited awhile, wondering if she had the right, and then said,
September 1 5
It doesn't seem like a fair exchange -- me writing letters and you writing cards -- but here I am anyhow because it is Sunday and I can't think of anything else to do. I can't think of anything else but you. (You are no author but I am a poet.) Seriously Wesley, there are alot of questions playing on my mind. They have been playing there six years nearly and tonight I feel like asking them.
Wesley, I want to know are we in love? And if we are, how come you to act the way you do -- tearing off to Norfolk after a motorcycle job when you could have stayed back here with your own folks, including me? And not even trying to answer me when I write but telling me about relaxing with your friends at Ocean View and not saying who -- just leaving me to wonder if it's Willie Duke Aycock you're riding around or some other body I've never seen. Wesley, that is no way to treat even a dog -- well it's one way but it don't make the dog too happy.
I think I have held up my end pretty well and I am wondering if it isn't time you took up your share of the load or else told me to lay mine down and get on home to Mama. So I am asking you what do you want me to do? All I am asking you to do is say. What have I ever refused you but that one thing you asked me to do last time you were here -- when I was nearly wild with thinking about poor Mildred and the way I ran out on her funeral to hunt you down -- and what right did you have to ask for that when you never moved your mouth one time to say "I love you" or make the smallest promise?
I know this isn't no letter for a girl to write but when you have sat in silence six whole years waiting for somebody you love to speak -- and you don't know why you love them or even what you want them to say, just so it's soothing -- then it comes a time when you have to speak yourself to prove you are there. I just spoke. And I'm right here.
Goodnight to you Wesley,
His answer to that was,
You are getting out of my depth now. We can talk about it when I come home. I hope that will be real soon as the rush season here is petering out.
I haven't got any news fit to tell.
Good luck until I see you again,
So she waited, not writing to Wesley again (not putting thoughts to paper anyhow) and not having word from him -- but working her way through six days every week and staying home evenings to watch Milo's Sissie swell tighter and to hear Mama read out Rato's cards from Oklahoma (saying he had visited one more Indian village and had his picture made with another full-dressed Chief) and sitting through church on the first Sunday morning and not telling anybody what she was waiting for. (Nobody asked. Everybody knew.) And along with the motorcycle season, the hot days petered out, and the nights came sooner like threats and struck colder and lasted longer till soon she was rising up for work in half-dark nearly (and stepping to the window in her shimmy for one long look through the yard, thinking some new sight might have sprung up in her sleep to cheer her through the day, but all that was ever there was a little broomstraw and the empty road and dogwood trees that were giving up summer day by day, crouched in the dawn with leaves already black and red like fires that were smothering slow). And the first Saturday evening in November when she was rocking easy in the front-porch swing, Milo came home and said to her, "Rosacoke, all your cares are ended. Willie Duke Aycock has got a rich boy friend, and she don't know who Wesley Beavers is."
Rosacoke kept rocking but she said, "What do you mean?"
"I mean it ain't been an hour since Willie Duke landed unexpected in her Daddy's pasture in a private airplane owned and piloted by a Norfolk fellow who's compelled to be in love -- nothing but love could make a airplane land in Aycock's pasture!"
Rosacoke laughed. "How long did it take to dream that up?"
"Honest to God, Rosa, it's so. I won't a witness but I just seen her Mama at the store buying canned oysters for a big fry, and she said the family ain't calmed down yet, much less the cow. She said when that plane touched ground, every tit on the cow stood out like pot legs and gave."
But once Rosacoke believed him she didn't smile the way he hoped. She stood up and said, "I better go set the table" and walked towards the house.
Milo stopped her. "What ails you, Rosa? You got the world's most worried-looking mind. Willie ain't dropped no atom bombs. You ought to be grinning wide."
"Don't this mean Wesley is your private property now?"
"Ask Wesley that."
"You ask him. Wesley come home in that little airplane too." He beamed to be telling her that at last.
She turned full to the house and said, "Is that the truth?"
"It's what Mrs. Aycock said."
She didn't look at him again. She went in and set the table but didn't sit down to supper, saying she wasn't hungry but meaning she didn't want to hear them laugh at Willie Duke's flight and tell her to dress up quick before Wesley came. She did change clothes -- but nothing fancy, nothing but the pale blue dress and the sweater she wore any evening when she had worked all day -- and she sat back out in the swing and rocked a little with both heels dug in the white ground to keep her rocking so slow she could always see the road. What light there was came slant and low in the rising cool and touched a power line of new copper wire in separate places, making it seem to float between the poles towards both ends of the road. A dead maple leaf curled down to her lap. She ground it in her hand and wondered where it fell from (the tree she swung in being oak), and a spider lowered to her by one strand of silk, trying again to fill the air with unbroken thread, and beyond the road two crows called out unseen from the white sycamore that was bare already and straight as Wesley's diving. A distant rifle cracked and the crows shut up. "Mighty late to be hunting," she thought and counted to twelve, and one crow signaled to start again. Then the dark came in. A light went on in the house, and there was Mama at the dining-room window, ironing. (She would stand there till bedtime. Then Milo would tell her, "All right, pack up or you'll have the Ku Klux on me for working my Mama so late.") But the road stayed black and nothing came or went, not even lightning bugs. (Every lightning bug was dead. There had been the first real frost the night before.)
And it frosted Saturday night. Rosacoke knew because she didn't sleep but stared out her window every hour or so to the road till finally by the moon she could see frost creeping towards her -- gathering first on weeds low clown near the road, locking them white till morning and pausing awhile but starting again and pulling on slow up the yard like hands, gripping its way from one patch of grass to the next and (nearer the house, when the grass gave out) from rocks to dead roots to the roof of Milo's car. Then it silvered that and reached for the house, and Rosacoke fell back and slept.
Copyright © 1960, 1961, and renewed 1988,1989, by Reynolds Price.